Thursday, January 26, 2017

Old Conspiracies, New Sins

Yom Killer by Ilene Schneider (Rabbi Aviva Cohen Mystery #3)

Yes, Rabbi Aviva Cohen is back, and she is just as feisty as ever. This time, when her mother lands in the hospital in a chemically induced coma after a fall in her assisted living facility, something doesn't seem quite right. However, until her mother wakes up, she's going to have a hard time figuring out what's really going on. It doesn't help that her straight-laced sister and her ex-husband the cop need to keep her out of harm's way in the process. Worse, she has only the few days between the Jewish New Year and the holiest day in Judaism - Yom Kippur - to get it all done before she has to be back on her pulpit.

Where do I begin with reviewing this book? I could start with how I enjoy Schneider's style. It is friendly, open and she makes me smile. With this third novel in the series, Aviva is really filling out - and by that, I don't mean her weight, but rather her personality. More importantly, Schneider seems to have honed her voice much more in this book. There were times in her previous novels where I felt that she wasn't completely comfortable with the narrative. Previously, I found some awkward passages and sections that needed some paring down, if not eliminated. This time, while there were some areas that I think she could have polished or shortened a bit more, I didn't feel that there were any large superfluous sections at all. Overall, this book had a more consistent and cohesive feel to it, with far fewer blips to interrupt the flow of the story. (Mind you, admittedly sometimes my radar for these things is overly sensitive.)

The story this time is also slightly different from Schneider's earlier works. This one doesn't involve investigating one murder in particular, but rather a conspiracy, that may have included murder. More importantly, this book makes somewhat of a political statement regarding privatization of elderly care systems. Schneider seems to say that the levels of greed within such systems can lead to the type of corruption that both literally and figuratively kills its clients. Greed has always been a motive for many different kinds of criminal acts, and this makes Schneider's scenario even more plausible. As an aside, I'm hoping that this sort of thing doesn't really happen in privatized elderly care the US these days (and I hope this story isn't a harbinger for the future).

Despite this gloomy outlook, what makes me enjoy Schneider's books so much is the humor that she includes. Rabbi Aviva's self-depreciation and indulgences in food come together with her relationships creating situations you'll not be able to stop yourself from giggling about. Of course, that doesn't mean Aviva is any less aggressive and unconventional in getting things done, nor any less adorable than we've already witnessed. This of course, makes all of her characters even more endearing. However, I have to admit that I was a bit surprised at how Schneider portrayed Aviva's sister in this book, considering how she talked about her in the previous novels. I'm not sure that this portrayal was true to character, but I can understand why she decided to take the route, which aligned with the whole "asking forgiveness" theme of Yom Kippur - the Jewish day of Atonement.

In short, Schneider succeeded in bringing all of these elements together to make a real pleasure of a read. When times are tough, having something like that can be a true blessing, and I believe that Schneider did me a "Mitzvah" by letting me read this book. I hope I can return the compliment by giving it a rating of four and a half stars out of five (although to be totally honest, it really deserves just slightly less than this, but I don't have quarter stars, so I'm rounding up here)! Go on, indulge yourself and read something fun for a change!

"Yom Killer" by Ilene Schneider is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris as well as from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the author for sending me a copy of this book in exchange for a fair review. 
You can read my reviews of Schneider's other novels here:

Friday, January 6, 2017

Guest Author Post: Joanna Paterson

I don't have time to read all of the book requests I get, but I still try to help indie authors, when I can. That's why I'm pleased to present you with this guest post from Author Joanna Paterson, aka Joanna Geyer-Kordesch, Professor emerita for European Natural History and the History of Medicine, Honorary Senior Professorial Fellow, The College of Arts, University of Glasgow. In this post, Joanna talks about her short story and poetry collections. Take a look - they sound really lovely!

My two books of short stories, “The Old Turk and Other Tales” and “Through the Mirror”, examine that tricky balance between experience and the spiritual world that anyone—and the author—would encounter or like to encounter. There are realms which take us beyond ourselves—and I like to explore them. Short stories should stimulate thinking—they are always potentially true. So many of them lose themselves in the usual earthbound stories about romance and the twists and turns of people in love, but I tried to go beyond those confines to involve spiritual worlds. The short stories I wrote are phantastic in the sense that they treat the unseen as a vital encounter, but engage with it, also, if you think of it that way, as a possible extension of the Self.

The stories don’t tell you what to do. They are meetings with vibrant beings, ways of seeing. Some are fun, like the story about hats in the Old Turk collection. I also call to mind the ancient goddesses and what they represent—this in Through the Mirror. You can visualise this as about memory and about the sea and the land. I have been to these places myself—but they are transformed and show themselves in a new way.

I explore Europe and ancient places in Ohio, U.S.A., and what they represent, the unusual, the dialogue with them that can create connections, letting go the mundane, the things you are used to. I hope there is pleasure in these extensions of the mind’s adventures.

What I liked most are the stories of transformation in “Through the Mirror”. The metamorphosis does not have to be into human lives, but can be a bird such as in “Jenny Wren”. Or it can have a message as in “The Owls of Scarba”. And then there are some places that simply evoke the moon and thinking in different ways of where you are, such as in an eighteenth century tower in Dessau, Germany, or in a long forgotten village in Austria.

The Shaman Birches of Argyll” and “The Travelling Moon”, my poetry books, on the other hand, are grounded in experience and often on watching the sea while sailing on the West Coast of Scotland. They are an exploration of nature and lochs and birds, indigenous or otherwise, especially the seabirds that visit. These show closeness with nature that can only be vitally expressed in poetry. I think about the natural world and try to find it again in words. I was born in the land-locked—except for the cross European river Danube—city of Vienna. So this is an encounter with a different and exciting world.

My books of poetry probe the new countryside in the Highlands where water is everywhere—the mysterious sea, the lochs and the burns. The rising moon, the trees and ferns that grow wild on hillsides are also featured. The essence of the poetry is both myth and place. Nature has different dimensions and I want to bring them close to the reader. Poetry gives feelings and vision in versions that other genres cannot.

I do not believe that even adult books should be without images. So I have given all my books illustrations. I hope you like the way words and pictures go together!

My books are all available from Amazon as Kindle or print-on-demand editions under the name Joanna Paterson. You can contact Joanna by mail at Dundas Yews, Saltoun Hall Gardens, Pencaitland, East Lothian, EH34 5DS, Scotland.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Poetic Youth

20 by Vatsal Surti

The unnamed protagonist in this expressive novella is only 20 years old, but she seems to have quite an old soul. When she meets a man her age and falls in love with him, it seems her life is finally beginning to change, despite her unending mood swings and a shaky relationship with her father, who has just contacted her after many years of estrangement.

To tell the truth, I almost gave up on this book several times, but I'm glad I didn't. On the one hand, one of the biggest drawbacks was that there seem to be quite a few problems with the English. Thankfully, Surti's publisher recently wrote to us reviewers to assure us that they've assigned a new (English language) editor to fix these problems. (In any case, I figured that either this is a less than successful translation, or Surti's first language is certainly not English.)

Despite the language problems, Surti writes very poetically, using a "stream of consciousness" type of narrative, which feels both pensive and observant. I've often said that one of the problems with a poetic style of writing is that sometimes it can feel overly floral and repressive. Although Surti did overstep in some places in this book, for the most part Surti avoided this pitfall, and the poetry mostly enhanced rather than detracted from the text, so that was at least something.

Unfortunately, what Surti wasn't able to escape from was an almost endless rehashing of the same feelings. I understand that Surti's point here was to get us to understand the depths of emotion that this girl was going through. This included elation and expectations as well as despair and fears. It was almost as if Surti was giving us a portrait of a bi-polar girl, trying to find her place in the world without diagnosis or treatment. That Surti places her smack dab in the public eye, within the extremely stressful world of modeling and fashion, seems to aggravate her problems. However, each time Surti describes another aspect of the roller-coaster of her emotions we increasingly feel manic or depressed along with her. The latter was my main problem with this book. It isn't that I don't like sad passages in novels (as my readers know, I actually like a good cry), but I that can't happen until after the author has successfully built protagonists that I can like and care deeply about. Sadly, Surti gave us characters that were more annoying than sympathetic.

Still, Surti shows no small amount of writing talent (despite the grammar and odd usage of the English language, which I'm sure they'll fix soon). This made me think that this novella might have fared better as a short story. At that size, perhaps the angst and euphoria would have been less repetitious, allowing Surti to give us a better balance with the action to back up those feelings. All told, while this book didn't enamor me, and I can't wholeheartedly recommend it, I think Surti has potential for greatness someday (of course, with the help of a good editor). For all this, I think I'll give it three out of five stars.

"20" by Vatsal Surti is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, iTunes, and Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia). I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an ARC of this novel via NetGalley in exchange for a fair review.

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