Saturday, June 20, 2015

A Well Traveled Reunion Project

Frank Derrick's Holiday of a Lifetime by J.B. Morrison

When Beth calls her father to tell him that, not only has her husband Jimmy left her, but also that the doctors found a lump, Frank is understandably worried. At age 82, living on a fixed income, he can't just pick up and leave the UK to be with her in California. That is, until his landlord offers to give him £5,000 to move out of his apartment. With his granddaughter Laura about to turn 21, what could be more serendipitous? Furthermore, Frank's visit can only help Laura carry with her plans to get Jimmy and Beth back together.

Excuse me if I'm prejudiced towards this novel, but I so loved Morrison's first Frank Derrick book, that I just had to read this one. Of course, when reading a sequel of a beloved book, there's always the chance that it won't live up to the delight you found in the first one. In this case, I was just a tad bit disappointed. While I found Frank to be as delightful and funny as he was in the first book, I think the premise behind this novel let Morrison down, but only slightly. By this, I mean that there isn't enough buildup of Laura's "reunion project" to bring about a truly rousing climax. Yes, there is a climax, but it is an accidental one, which just happens to add another element to Laura's plan. My thinking is, had Frank been more involved in the plan, the conclusion of the book would have been just a bit more poignant.

Despite this, the climatic incident is still quite funny, and that it ends up as bit of serendipity for promoting Laura's plan, is a nice little plot twist. The other plot twist was one I had wished wouldn't happen, but knew it would all along. When Frank gets that £5,000 offer, he is fully aware that taking it will make him homeless not long after his return. Because Beth has enough to deal with, he decides to lie to her about where he got the money to finance his trip. Inevitably, truth will out, but I was hoping that solving that problem would end in a different result, despite realizing how unrealistic that wish was, overall. (If this sounds vague, I apologize. I'm simply trying not to include any spoilers here.)

This isn't to say that I didn't like this book, because I certainly did. Once again, Morrison gives us a protagonist who, despite his mostly negative view of the world, suddenly has an opportunity to smile and be positive. Yes, Frank still is cynical and reclusive, but he adores movies and film-making almost as much as he does his daughter and granddaughter. With this trip, Frank is getting two for the price of one. To top that off, he also gets the balmy warmth of California with its clear skies and an ocean bluer than he ever imagined. What a change of pace from his gray and cold England. All of this delight just sings off the page, making it a very fast read where you'll find yourself giggling and guffawing, if not laughing aloud at practically every turn. It was especially fun that Morrison included many US vs. UK comparisons, like the difference between Milky Way bars and Mars Bars in the two countries. Not to mention how Frank surprises his granddaughter with how clued in he is regarding pop culture, despite his cluelessness in so many other areas.

In short, Frank Derrick is an enigma, but one whose very contrariness is a joy to behold, and we revel in his being such a delightful person to puzzle over. If you didn't read Morrison's first Frank Derrick novel, don't worry - there's just enough background information here to keep readers from feeling they missed something, and more than enough to encourage them to read it as well. I just flew through this novel (which is a feat for me, because of my mild dyslexia) just because I was having so much fun. For this, I will wholeheartedly recommend this book, but I'm afraid that I'm giving it only four and a half stars out of five, as I think I liked the first book just a tad better.

"Frank Derrick's Holiday of a Lifetime" by J.B. Morrison, published by Pan Macmillan, released June 4, 2015, is available from Amazon, Kobo Books (for other eReader formats), iTunes, The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), as well as new or used from Alibris. I would like to sincerely thank the author for getting his publisher to send me a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Two World Wars, Two Women, Thousands of Letters

Letters from Skye by Jessica Brockmole

In March 1912, David Graham is a University student in Urbana, Illinois. He's just read a book of poetry by Elspeth Dunn, who lives on Scotland's Isle of Skye. Impressed, he decides to write to her, and thereby begins a correspondence that will change both their lives. Just over 28 years later, Margaret's best friend is about to join the war as a RAF fighter pilot, when she realizes she's in love with him, as much as he is in love with her. When a bomb rips through the wall of her mother's Edinburgh house, out spills piles of letters her mother has been keeping since before the Great War. The next morning, her mother and the letters are gone - except for the single, yellowed page Margaret picked up. The contents of that letter are so mysterious, it leads her to a quest to discover the secrets her mother has kept all her life, which might also answer her own questions of who she is. 

If you think epistolary novels are a hackneyed way to tell a story, you must have read the wrong ones. Personally, this method always fascinated me, despite how voyeuristic that may seem. Using this literary mechanic allows the author to write in first person using more than one point of view, and is a more personal approach than third-person narratives. It also spares the reader from long descriptive passages that detail the characters' backgrounds. This works particularly well when the exchanges are between two strangers. The difficulty, however, is keeping the "voices" of the different writers clearly distinguishable. This becomes trickier if the letters are from different gendered characters, or if setting is an historical one. Brockmole not only has both these obstacles, but she doubles it by having sets of correspondence from two different eras.

The question then is, does Brockmole deliver? The short answer to this is 'yes.' The more detailed answer reveals this 'yes' grows from a tentative one into a resounding one. As I began reading this book, the two characters, David and Elspeth, immediately captured me. Initially, however, the language of these two early 20th century correspondents seemed just a bit on the overly modern side. Thankfully, this tiny niggle totally dissipated within a handful of pages. As the two get to know each other better, the familiarity between them builds. At the same time, their letters become increasingly lyrical. David's vivaciously mischievous nature plays on Elspeth's secluded shyness, and drawing her out of herself, despite herself.

Brockmole brings us increasingly into these lives and relationship like a slow zoom-in until we reach the close-up of their actual physical meeting. From there, the camera once again widens its angle and takes the two of them in as the Great War unfolds and affects them. Carefully interjected into this is Margaret's investigation into her mother's (and her own) past on the background of WW2. After the bombing incident and her mother's subsequent disappearance, she writes to her fiancé Paul, the RAF pilot in the war. He encourages her with her quest. She also contacts her mother's estranged brother and even winds up on Skye to meet her grandparents for the first time, hoping they and her mother's other brother can help put the puzzle together for her. Both these sets of letters wind together like a carefully choreographed dance, interspersed with Elspeth's new search to find out what happened to David after the previous war.

Margaret's voice in her letters is understandably, strikingly similar to Elspeth's. They are, after all, mother and daughter. On the surface, the two of them seem to be very different. However, as we get to know them both better, we realize how similar they both are, including the parallels of women who fall in love during war. Margaret pieces together the parts of her mother's life, while we watch them unfold in Elspeth's letters with David. Through this, we become even more emotionally involved with all of these characters. Yes, there are bits of the story we can guess, but that doesn't lessen this in the least.

Through the combination of a mystery and decades of a relationship that blooms on the page, Brockmole gives us a perfectly painted portrait of the joys of love and pains of deception that are heightened by the wars that wage around them. Together with this, we are also witness to the stark beauty of Scotland's wild and remote Isle of Skye, and the blatant horrors of the battlefields of France. I can promise you, that by the time you've gotten about a third into this book, you'll find it almost impossible to put it down. Furthermore, when Brockmole brings us to the ultimate climax, I simply dare you not to shed more than a just few tears. For all this, I highly recommend this novel and give it a full five stars out of five. 

"Letters from Skye" by Jessica Brockmole, published July 9, 2013 by Random House Publishing Group - Ballantine is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (for other eReader formats), iTunes (iBook or audiobook), the Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris, Better World Books or find it at an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for providing me with a copy of this book via NetGalley. This is a revised review of the one published on Curious Book Fans and Dooyoo (under my username TheChocolateLady), which also appeared on {the now defunct} Yahoo! Contributor Network.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

A Literal Fly on the Wall

Jacob's Folly by Rebecca Miller

Jacob Cerf was an impoverished, religious Jewish peddler in 18th Century Paris. Circumstance led him away from his family and faith and into a world of impious debauchery. 300 years later, he's back, but now he's a fly in 21st Century New York and involved in the lives of two people. One is Masha - an innocent girl, sheltered from the world by her orthodox Jewish family. The other is the model citizen, husband and father, Leslie Senzatimore. As Jacob curses his new fate, he decides to repay his maker by bringing these two together putting their goodness to test.

Obviously, Rebecca Miller has taken the literary "a fly on the wall" point of view to a new level, by literally making her fly the narrator of the story. Initially this is why I had some doubts about this novel. Whenever I come across this type of mechanic in a book, I question its use. We aren't flies, so giving an insect a voice seems an absurd idea, if not a gimmick. Authors using such stunts in their writing, usually sound like they're trying to be clever. However, the more I read, the more I came to accept this affectation as almost natural. What's more, however ridiculous this may sound, in spite of everything, this conceit actually works; but not exactly as you might expect.

The point is, if we are to suspend disbelief, it must be for a good reason, and artfully done. In both of these, Miller succeeds. Regarding the reason, having a 300-year-old Jacob living in this world as a fly allows Miller to recount his human life through his flashbacks. Juxtaposing this with Masha and Leslie also draws parallels and highlights the differences between these three people. Jacob started out as a virtuous and devout man, and at the outset, both Masha and Leslie are righteous people. Remembering the misfortune and temptation that led to his downfall, and despising his present state, Jacob decides to lure them away from morality and faith. In fact, boiled down to the common denominator, Miller is dealing with the subjects of God vs. Satan, virtue vs. vise and devotion vs. desecration.

This may sound heavy, but Miller actually uses quite a light touch here, with language that hovers somewhere between the lyrical and the ordinary. By flitting between Jacob's past life 300 years ago, and the 21st century lives of Masha and Leslie, we realize that each of these two story lines would be fascinating on their own. However, Jacob (as a fly) unites these tales, and that brings in yet another dimension to the story, that of reward and punishment. To point this up, Miller uses the concept of reincarnation, or more specifically, the Jewish Kabbalistic concept of "gilgul neshamot" - the transmigration of souls.

It is important to note that it is often problematic when Judaism comes up in books written by non-Jewish authors. This can be especially true when it comes to something as esoteric as the Kabbalah. Miller, however, overcame this hurdle with immense aplomb, and I could find absolutely no fault with even the tiniest of Jewish aspects. Moreover, nothing included is the least bit overt or gratuitous, lending even more to the flow of the prose. While I'm sure most of the kudos for this goes to her researchers, Miller also deserves no small amount of praise for just attempting this feat.

Even more amazing is how both Jacob and Masha are such vivid characters. The richness of their Jewish lives contrasts beautifully with their trapped feelings. The guilt they experience when they breaking a Jewish law counterbalances with the adrenalin rush of doing something forbidden. Both have the inner struggle of wanting to remain within that sheltered, comfortable world while desiring the fearful freedom outside its protection. Miller also gives Leslie this same philosophical grappling when delving into the motivations behind heroism. With him, she asks the question, are those who risk their own lives to save an unknown someone actually altruistic? Also, is there something selfish hidden beneath their actions? While this is absorbing, in general, Leslie doesn't feel as realistic as Jacob and Masha. The parts of the story where we get to know Leslie and how he meets Masha, felt mechanical and sketchy compared to the rest of the book. Because of this, the whole of this book is greater than the sum of its parts.

Despite whatever reservations one might have regarding a fly as both narrator and antagonist of a story - especially one with a human past - this really is a beguiling novel. Miller weaves these stories together like a fine tapestry. The accuracy regarding Jewish orthodoxy and its history enhances the action, and adds an exotic element that carefully contributes to the characters and their development like just the right amount of spice in a gourmet dish. All told, I think this novel deserves a solid four stars out of five and gets my recommendation.

"Jacob's Folly" by Rebecca Miller is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (for other eReader formats), iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris, Better World Books or from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank Cannongate for sending me the review copy of this novel via Curious Book Fans. This is a revised version of my review on Curious Book Fans, that also appears on Dooyoo (under my username TheChocolateLady) as well as {the now defunct} Yahoo! Contributor Network.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Dangerous Reunions

Run you Down by Julia Dahl

The sudden death of Pessie Goldin never received any publicity, despite her being a young mother. That's mostly because she's a member of the ultra-orthodox (Haredi) community of Roseville, and they officially declared it an accident. However, her husband Levi is suspicious about the circumstances, and refuses to believe this or the suicide rumors. Since the Haredi burial society won't allow the police to carry out autopsies, the only way to look for the truth is to get the press involved. After Rebekah Roberts covered the Rivka Mendelssohn story so successfully, despite it almost getting her killed, she is Levi's only possibility. For Rebekah, this is story she can't resist, particularly because her mother Aviva is now living in Roseville, and it finally seems they both are ready to meet.

Dahl's second Rebekah Roberts mystery picks up only weeks after Invisible City ends. Rebekah is still recovering from almost being killed covering the Rivka Mendelssohn story, and the Trib has her on desk duty. However, that's no place for an aspiring investigative journalist like Rebekah, so the opportunity to get back into the field is both exciting, and daunting (if not haunting), especially now that she's made a name for herself with the "Haredi beat." While one story doesn't usually make such a splash, the danger to Rebekah while reporting it, combined with her ability to get inside such an insular community and do her job both objectively and with unusual sensitivity, certainly would. With it, she gained the trust of the community, which is invaluable.

This dichotomy of objectivity vs. attachment is one of the central themes in this book. While trying to be non-judgmental, it is very human to react adversely to the strange and unfamiliar. More importantly, it is difficult to try to be understanding of things that disturb your sensibilities. Rebekah is still an outsider in the Haredi world, despite her mother's origins. Aviva left that world, but was unable to live outside its confines. To return to that meant abandoning her daughter, but the damage she caused by leaving also made returning impossible. Dahl plays up this point-counterpoint idea by giving Aviva the opportunity to tell her side of the story, in chapters that alternate with Rebekah's delving into this new story.

At first, I wasn't convinced that I liked this approach. There was something inserting Aviva's story into Rebekah's that felt like it disrupted the flow of the story. However, the more I read, the more it became obvious that this was an excellent way of adding this information, without lobbing it at us after the climax, which would have ruined the impact. More importantly, these sections contained vital clues to the investigation at hand. They also contain the type of background information that gives us more insights into Rebekah's character, which were missing from the first book. Since I don't usually read series, I'm guessing that this is one method for tying previous books to the newer ones.

I also have to admit that these chapters gave Run You Down a different feel from what we got with Invisible City. Rebekah seems less hard-boiled in this book, but the fact that she almost died investigating the Mendelssohn story, and hasn't yet fully recovered from her injuries, partially explains this. Furthermore, the fact that Rebekah is now willing to meet her mother, also contributes to the softening of her character. Most interesting is how Dahl writes the chapters in Aviva's voice with such a gentle touch, especially compared to those in Rebekah's voice. These somehow seem to temper Rebekah's roughness as the story progresses. This doesn't mean that this story is any less exciting than the previous one, and in fact, once again Dahl masterfully builds the energy towards the climax. Strangely enough, the perpetrator of the murder isn't so much of a surprise, but rather in how their captured, and the people involved.

It should be obvious from the above review that I enjoyed this novel as much as I did the first Rebekah Roberts book. With it, Dahl has firmly established herself as a first-rate crime fiction writer, with a refreshingly unique twist to her stories. Dahl gives us not only a protagonist who is both professional and endearing, but also a crime beat that is deliciously shadowy to both Jews and non-Jews. I must point out that this is not a stand-alone novel, so if this review has piqued your interest, I suggest you read Invisible City first, and then read this book, both of which I highly recommend with four and a half stars out of five. 

"Run you Down" by Julia Dahl expected release date June 30, 2015 from St. Martin's Press - Minotaur Books), is available for pre-order from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (for other eReader formats), iTunes, The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery) or from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the author for requesting the publisher send me an advance reader copy of this book for review via NetGalley. This review also appears on my Times of Israel blog.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

In his own space

The Room by Jonas Karlsson

Björn's recent promotion must mean he's on his way, headed straight for the top. Of course, new surroundings can be stressful, particularly learning to get along with your new colleagues. As talented and intelligent as Björn is, he doesn't make friends easily; he'd rather just put his head down and do his job. Not long after Björn moves to his new office, he finds a room between the elevators and the toilets. It is the perfect office - clean, well lit, perfectly decorated, and more importantly, no one seems to be using it. Since Björn feels so good while he's in there, why not take advantage.

It isn't easy writing a review of this book, mostly because this is a very unusual novel (or rather novella, due to its brevity). What Karlsson has done here is give us a very simple story, about something that is actually very complex. Karlsson seems to be making a statement about conformity vs. individuality. On the one hand, Björn is a conformist to the utmost; he's making his way up the chain of command, certain that he has all the qualities and abilities necessary to make it to the top. He even is calculating with whom it would be worth building some sort of lukewarm relationship, to make sure he's in on just enough of the office gossip loop. He certainly believes he's better than everyone else is; either he's just a pain or he could possibly have mild Asperger's syndrome. One way or the other, while he seemingly is trying to fit in, that only sets him apart.

That would mean that despite his desire to conform, Björn is ultimately, extremely discordant. We soon realize that no one sees that room except Björn. All his coworkers see is Björn standing in front of a wall, oblivious to everything and everyone. Of course, Björn thinks they're playing an elaborate prank on him, while everyone thinks he's crazy. This whole situation is surreal, to say the least, but told with such simplicity of language that one might think Björn isn't as smart as he thinks. Furthermore, since Karlsson writes this in first-person, all we get are Björn's thoughts and his reactions to his surroundings. In this way, it is almost as if Karlsson wants us to observe Björn, while allowing us to judge him at the same time.
All this raises the question, how can we remain true to ourselves, while trying to be part of a whole. At the same time, this book makes us wonder if we really need to fit in, and if not, will this affect how we conduct ourselves when we are among others.

I have to say that this combination was actually very witty and amusing. I found myself smiling throughout reading this book, even when Björn was feeling uncomfortable in certain situations. This is probably works because the conceit here is that we know the truth, we know people like Björn, and while they can make us feel uneasy, they make us laugh as well, even when we're feeling sorry for them. This makes for a unique (and quick) read, which instead of being overly obscure or heavy in its somewhat Kafkaesque atmosphere is a lovely and lively gem of a story. For all this (and in full knowledge that many readers will despise this book), I warmly recommend it and will even go so far as to give it a full five stars.

"The Room" by Jonas Karlsson published by Crown Publishing, Hogarth, released February 15, 2015 is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (for other eReader formats), iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris or from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for giving me an advance reader copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

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