Tag Archives: historical fiction

Local Color Illuminates an Intriguing Tale of Obstacles Faced and Overcome

Cayo Costa Cross, by John D. Mills. Pono Publishing. 217 pages. Paperback $9.99.

This is an utterly charming novel that also has grit, strong insights into human nature, and plenty of regional detail for readers who will enjoy the SW Florida setting, Mr. Mills builds upon his many years of legal experience to draw readers into the world of a marriage gone wrong and its possible resolution. He also laces the story with local history and builds part of its premise from that history.

Though set primarily in the present time, the story begins at the outset of the 20th century with a family secret. Readers learn of an anguished man, Jim McKenzie, who desperately needed money to afford a cure for his daughter’s tuberculosis. He steals a gold cross which he intends to turn into the cash that he needs. However, things don’t go well and he ends up burying the artifact on the island of Cayo Costa. He writes a detailed letter to his wife Claire that describes the location of the cross, and that letter eventually finds its way into the hands of is distant relative, Lynn Chapman. However, the cross remains hidden. 

Lynn’s greedy, conniving husband Bobby is about to face her in court if a mediation is not successful. He has convinced himself that he has the right to profit from Lynn’s potential inheritance, and he has taken some steps recover it.

The mediation does not go well, in large part because of Bobby’s nasty, self-aggrandizing personality. However, this section of the novel is fascinating in outlining how the legal system works. Readers meet several interesting characters including Lynn’s lawyer Beth Mancini; Beth’s boyfriend Frank Powers, who is a prosecutor with the State Attorney’s Office; and Michelle Barnes, the official mediator for the Chapmans’ case. Through these characters and many others in the course of the novel, legal abstractions become clear and personalized.

Bobby Chapman does have some potentially useful talents. He has the technological skills imagination that enable him to invent a way to possibly retrieve the long-hidden gold cross hidden on Cayo Costa island.

Bobby’s approach includes burning the vegetation on the island to the ground to help uncover the cross’s hiding place and, later, employing a drone and explosives to threaten his wife and her new paramour from discovering it first. Bobby is filled with hate, and the author’s portrait of his childhood and upbringing brings understanding about what makes him tick. He is shaped by an unappealing macho / good old boy culture.

John D. Mills

The man making romantic inroads on Lynn’s heart is Doug Shearer. When Lynn decides that she needs to employ a private detective to find the cross before Bobby does, Beth recommends Doug for the job. It’s a fortuitous match of personalities. Doug has a background in law enforcement. He is one of several characters through whom Mr. Mills paints a very positive and uplifting picture of people with law enforcement careers.

John Mills uses his descriptive skills to provide a wide range of characters, the flavor of the Lee County fishing and boating community, and many other touches of local color. The author offers a good introduction to the islands that dot the waterways. Readers will enjoy the growing relationship between Lynn and Doug. This reader wouldn’t mind meeting them again in another novel.

About the author:

John D. Mills is a fifth generation native of Fort Myers. He grew up fishing the waters of Pine Island Sound, and it’s still his favorite hobby. He graduated from Mercer University in Macon, Georgia with a BBA in Finance and worked for Lee County Bank in Ft. Myers for five months. He returned to Macon and graduated from Mercer’s law school in 1989. He started his legal career as a prosecutor for the State Attorney’s Office in Fort Myers. In 1990, he began his private practice concentrating in divorce and criminal defense. Cayo Costa Cross is his eighth novel. This novel, and several other recent ones, comprise the Pine Island Sound Mystery sequence. The related books include: “The Trophy Wife Divorce,” “The Hooker, the Dancer, and the Nun,” and “Pine Island Gold.”

 

Q & A Interview with John D. Mills

Q: What is your favorite part of the writing process?  A:   Crafting a surprise ending!  I’m an avid reader and I always enjoy an unexpected twist/surprise at the end of a book.  I spend a tremendous amount of time trying to do this in my books.

Q: What writing challenges give you the most trouble?  A:  When I’m trying to do a compelling back story on my characters.  I don’t like anyone to call my characters boring or predictable!

Q: Do you compose by parts or by wholes?  A:  I try to do a basic outline of the story before I begin writing.  After the outline is done, I break it into pieces – sort of like a jigsaw puzzle.  Of course, during the 2nd & 3rd drafts of the book, I add a little more information about the characters and subplots that I try to bring together at the end.

Q: What are your habits of revision?  A:   I have learned to pay all different kinds of people to help me edit different drafts of the book.  Young, old, middle-aged, book-smart educated, self-taught educated, religious, non-religious, superstitious, OCD, and people with different backgrounds than me.  I have learned that different people see things that are confusing to them, and they relate to character conflicts in unique ways.  I’m always amazed at the different responses I get from my editors.  As a follow-up, I hire different editors for the second and third drafts to try t0 create an entertaining read.

Q: Are there common skills that connect your work as a novelist with your work as a lawyer?  A:  Different people have their own “versions” of the truth and I try to have my characters promote their own “version” of the truth to create conflict between the characters.  Q: Are there any features of your experience as a fisherman that overlap with your fiction writing?  A: Patience!

Q: Who are among your favorite writers?  A:  John Grisham, John D. McDonald, and Randy Wayne White.

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“Man of My Time: A Novel,” by Dalia Sofer

     Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 384 pages. Hardcover $$27.00

A dazzling tale of a person — and a country — in despair.

The provocative title of Dalia Sofer’s absorbing new novel leads readers to ask: “Aren’t we all creatures of our time?” The answer isn’t as simple as it seems and involves an exploration into the nature of what it means to be “of” a particular time and place. 

Sofer, with great insight and urgency, depicts Iran — especially its capital city, Tehran — during a time of political and cultural transformation, which took that country’s people in multiple directions. She soaks us in the aftermath of its 1978 revolution, including what led up to it and what followed.

How does one navigate the shifting corridors of power? How can families hold together when circumstances propel members to take sides — sometimes out of sincere, principled sentiment; sometimes out of fear; and sometimes out of inertia? And to what configurations of national or religious identity should a person ally him or herself?

Dalia Sofer credit Anthony Rhoades

The main character in Man of My Time, Hamid Mozaffarian, wants to find his own path. But he seems doomed. He cannot negotiate life’s hurdles and, at bottom, doesn’t want to. He seems to enjoy his blend of numbness and pain.

He has managed to find a government sinecure as an interrogator, but it’s a job with strings attached: pleasing the higher-ups. Favors must be returned. . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the Washington Independent Review of Books, click here:  Man of My Time

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Mystery of Lord Byron’s daughter drives fascinating historical novel

A Shadowed Fate, by Marty Ambrose. Severn House. 192 pp. Hardcover $28.99.

Reviewed by Phil Jason  (review accepted by Florida Weekly, but fate  otherwise unknown). Please enjoy.

In this second book in her series, which promises to bring a large and avid readership, Ambrose has retooled a bit, changing the name of the series from The Claire Clairemont Mysteries to the Lord Byron Mystery Series. What’s in a name? Like the earlier “Claire’s Last Secret,” secrets play a large role in the plot and the motives of the character. This one could be called Edward Trelawny’s Secret, as his decade’s long subterfuge is now confessed, explained, and teeters on the edge of being forgiven. 

Claire, the main character, from whose point of view most of the book is narrated, seems to live both in the present time (July 1873) and the much earlier time of her youth and memories (1820-21).

Claire spent much of her life as young woman hanging out with the fashionable Byron-Shelley crowd of writers along with her stepsister Mary Shelley. This young British nobility of the arts lived as expatriates in Italy. Claire had little in the way of financial resources, but as part of this fashionable crowd, which also included Edward Trelawny, she made do.

Trelawny, who wrote a biography of Byron, was her would-be lover; but for Claire, Byron was the real thing. So much so that she gave him a child, Allegra, whose fate is the central question of the story.

Marty Ambrose

In the novel’s present time, Trelawny approaches the aging Claire with a confession of sorts. He breaks promises he had made to the long-deceased Byron that suggest that Allegra, thought to have perished in the near destruction of the convent in which she had been brought up, may have survived.

Byron had placed her there for her protection. A man who had many enemies through his role in the liberation of Greece and for other reasons, he wanted to protect his daughter from those enemies. Those who might be after Allegra would also be after her mother, and, indeed, there are many signs of nefarious doings, including attempts to rob Claire of her handful of papers and artifacts that could be sold for a significant price. These include originals of some of Byron’s writings and a rare drawing. This little horde was Claire’s assurance of some income as she would need it through the remaining years her life.

Along with the fact that Ambrose’s prose captures the nature of Claire and the other characters marvelously, readers are given the opportunity to get into their heads in attractive ways. A series of passages reveal Claire reading or remembering passages from Byron’s diary. Thus. we get to know Byron. In a few strategically placed passages, we are let into Allegra’s thought as the girl living a lonely, parentless life in the convent.  Her father, who she remembers, dares not visit her.

Ambrose shapes the action so that a visit to the convent is inevitable. Claire receives promises from the leader of the institution to check records with the hope of shedding light on Allegra’s fortunes. Is she still alive but hidden and protected in some other way? Did she indeed, perish in the convent catastrophe? Is there anyone else to turn to for information? There is, however all of her traveling to find the sought-for answers seem to be journeys in which she is being watched and shadowed.

Claire’s last hopes are the convent’s superior and the woman whom Byron fell in love with after ending his relationship with Claire. Teresa, equal in age to Claire, invites Claire to visit. She proves to be one of the many finely drawn minor characters that Ambrose weaves into the story. However, the meetings between the two women, pleasant duos of sympathetic hearts and minds, bring no resolution.

Other finely drawn secondary characters include Claire’s niece Paula, whom with her lover Raphael and young daughter Georgiana constitute Claire’s household. But it is Edward Trelawny, on hand through most of the novel, and determined to prove himself to Claire, who is the most fully developed after Claire herself

If you’re a fan of history, romance, and fictional biography, Marty Ambrose will keep you fully engaged with her uniquely orchestrated and poetically cast novel. Moreover, Ambrose provides a remarkable portrait of Italy during the fifty-year stretch in which her plot about Claire’s life and aspirations develops.

 

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Author of Thrilling WWII novel about a cadre of 12 young female spies speaks at Greater Naples Jewish Book Festival

Review by Philip K. Jason, Jewish Book Festival Co-Chair

The Lost Girls of Paris, by Pam Jenoff. Park Row Books. 368 pages. Trade Paperback $16.99.

A dazzling, deliciously complicated novel based on historical events and seasoned by Jenoff’s spectacular imagination, The Lost Girls of Paris is likely to be on book club reading lists for a long time. Once Jenoff discovered the startling fact that a group of female secret agents played a prominent role in aiding resistance to Nazi occupation toward the end of World War Two, she couldn’t help but meet the challenge of bringing this dangerous operation to life.

The narrative moves back and forth between the events of 1944, when the clandestine mission was set in motion, and 1946, when it began to be revealed. It also oscillates between Europe and the United States and is developed, smoothly and boldly, through the rotation of three points of view.

Readers first meet Grace Healey, a recent widow who has settled in New York. She works for Frankie, a lawyer specializing in war refugee issues. She has had a recent, unexpected dalliance with her late husband’s best friend, Mark, which is causing her uncertainty and dismay.

The novel’s action starts with Grace discovering a suitcase in Grand Central Station that contains photos of a dozen young women. She takes the photos, soon after regrets this action, and attempts to return them, but the suitcase is gone.

The scene shifts to London where the headquarters of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) is located. This special agency, headed by Director Gregory Winslow, is charged with supporting French partisans and creating chaos in the hope of dismantling Nazi plans by spreading misinformation.  The agency, while hoping that sabotage and subversion will win the day, is itself is in a state of chaos, but Eleanor Trigg, a Polish national who also happens to be Jewish, has an idea: the program needs to train a special team of women to help accomplish its ends. She lobbies the director until she is promised an opportunity to move from being a secretary to running the program she has invented: recruiting and training the women and putting a detailed plan into action.

The photos that Grace had found happen to be photos of the twelve women Eleanor had trained, now considered dead.

One of these women is Marie, mother of a five-year-old daughter, who is highly motivated to become a secret agent, worrying only about the necessary separation from her child, Tess. Marie’s language skills make her an attractive recruit. Through Marie’s perspective, Jenoff presents the severity of the training program and the relationships among the chosen dozen. Of course, Eleanor’s perspectives on the young women’s progress overlaps with Marie’s observations. The spy ring women work primarily as couriers and radio operators.

Pam Jenoff / photo by Mindy Schwartz Sorasky

In the final stages of the war, they seem to vanish simultaneously. What happened to them is one of the mysteries that gradually unfolds, in part through Grace’s determination to keep searching for missing details about the photos in the suitcase. She wished to bring what she finds to light in order to honor these women.

One theme that takes hold, dominating much of the novel, is that of possible betrayal. Too many things are going wrong, and they can’t all be attributed to the youth and inexperience of the young women agents. Jenoff teases us with the possibility that someone on the team, perhaps someone at a high level of trust and access, is a double agent.

There is some likelihood, as well, that the German’s have somehow mastered the technology and coding of the radio communication system that is crucial to the group’s task. Indeed, the complication of the system is at once an assurance and a potential detriment.

While the author’s descriptions of administrative and technological matters become an important and fascinating part of the story, her splendidly nuanced portraits of the three key “point of view” characters are what will most fully engage readers, set their imaginations soaring, and tap into their emotions. However, beyond Grace, Eleanor, and Marie, readers will find a large cast of well-drawn and sharply individualized subordinate characters, interacting with each other and with the central trio, who help define the period and places in which the novel is set. Jenoff’s descriptions of the various settings are masterful.

Like her recent New York Times best-selling The Orphan’s Tale, Jenoff’s Lost Girls is strikingly cinematic. Let’s hope her agent can get the studios bidding.

Pam Jenoff is the author of several novels of historical fiction. She holds a bachelor’s degree in international affairs from George Washington University and a master’s degree in history from Cambridge University. In addition, she received her Juris Doctor from the University of Pennsylvania. Jenoff’s novels are inspired by her experiences working in the Pentagon and also as a diplomat for the State Department handling Holocaust issues in Poland. She lives with her husband and three children near Philadelphia where, in addition to writing, she teaches law school.

Historical novel fans can hear Jenoff discuss this unusual thriller – which traces the creation and exploits of the team – at 1:00 p.m. at Temple Shalom on Wednesday, January 8. Also speaking at that event will be Melanie Benjamin, author of Mistress of the Ritz. The books will be available for sale and signing. Find details about the complete Festival series of events, along with an order form, author bios, and contact information, at http://www.jewishbookfestival.org. Need an answer fast? Send an email to fedstar18@gmail.com or call the Federation office at 239.263.4205.

 This review appears in the December 2019 Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Greater Naples)

 

 

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“The Ventriloquists: a Novel,” by E. R. Ramzipoor

  • Park Row Books. 544 pages. Hardcover $26.99

A zany crew pulls a fast one on the Third Reich in this surprising tale based on actual events.

This astonishingly original debut novel draws upon a little-known piece of WWII history and the text of a journalistic hoax. It pays homage to the human spirit that can thrive in the midst of the cruelest oppression.

“The Ventriloquist” begins with, and often returns to, the need for someone to ask and answer questions. The questioner, a woman named Eliza, has heard something about this historical event and, fascinated, has spent 12 years tracking down a witness or participant. Now she has found one, an old lady named Helen.

While author E.R. Ramzipoor often returns to the present-time conversation between Eliza and Helen, Helen’s story (or Eliza’s transcription thereof) reaches into a past in which the hoax was hatched and executed.

We are introduced to the main players: Their names, nicknames, personalities, and experiences are slowly, vividly revealed. For the most part, the narrative is set in occupied Brussels, with some scenes in the small Belgian town of Enghien. The principal character is the main instigator of the grand charade, a journalist with a comic flair named Marc Aubrion (nicknamed “The Jester”). He is an intuitive planner and improviser.

Among the other six key characters are prostitute/smuggler Lada Tarcovich; David Spiegelman, who can write in the voice and persona of others; and Gamin, a girl disguised as a boy, who sets fires, creates confusion, picks pockets, and carries out risky tasks in service to Aubrion’s scheme.

Ramzipoor author photo by Sherry Zaks

They and others form part of the resistance movement that wants to block the omnivorous Reich, as well as Russian expansion. It is late 1943, and resistance forces are stalling until the Allies arrive.

To implement their plan for replacing an edition of the Nazi-propaganda-filled Le Soir with their own send-up version, Faux Soir, the conspirators need paper, ink, typewriters, typesetting machinery, a distribution system, money, hiding places, and storage space.

They must also fool, among others, August Wolff, the regional Nazi paramilitary officer. Working under Himmler, Gruppenführer Wolff is somehow fooled by this motley crew, whose members agree to aid the Axis with their journalistic and other talents. Their skill at deceiving him is another kind of ventriloquism.

The novel explodes with released suspense every few pages as the chapters and their subdivisions shift from character to character, setting to setting, and obstacle to obstacle. Eventually, the critical needs of the Faux Soir scheme are met, but not without close calls and tragic losses. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the Washington Independent Review of Books, click here:  Ventriloquists

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“The German Midwife: A Novel,” by Mandy Robotham

  • Avon. 352 pages. Trade paperback $15.99.

This story, narrated from behind Axis lines, captures the enduring strength of women.

Originally published in the U.K. as A Woman of War, the instant bestseller The German Midwife offers astonishing portraits of several women caught up in Hitler’s nightmarish aspirations. The circumstances that threaten the lives of these women (and of countless others) make this story at once an historical novel, a thriller, and a romance.

The narrator, a young nurse and midwife named Anke Hoff, finds herself in a Nazi work camp where she is essentially a prisoner. Though the timeline of the story starts in 1944, italicized flashbacks begin two years earlier, establishing an historical, professional, and familial context for understanding Anke. These sections also illuminate the deteriorating situation for people living under the Reich, whether they be citizens, despised minorities, or resistance sympathizers.

Anke is imprisoned for having provided birthing services for Jewish women despite a Nazi policy to end Jewish reproduction. Inside the camp, she shows leadership, compassion, and disdain for her country’s moral decline.

Robotham

Nonetheless, because she is the most skilled midwife available, she is selected — actually, ordered — to protect the Fuhrer’s child incubating in the womb of Fraulein Eva Braun. Propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels and his wife, Magda, will make sure that Anke performs her duties properly, as will the staff attending to Hitler’s mountain estate and headquarters. This child, especially if a boy, will insure the future of Hitler’s genetic line and racial vision.

Anke develops a liking for Eva, whom she considers an innocent young woman slavishly enamored of the devil. She develops much more than a liking for a handsome and considerate Nazi officer, Captain Deiter Stenz, who carries out important duties at the headquarters. She is perplexed by how a man she respects can be part of the Nazi mission. Readers will be similarly puzzled.

Suspense — and there is plenty of it — in this carefully developed narrative arises primarily from the ups and downs in Eva’s high-stakes pregnancy, the risks of Anke’s romantic dalliance, and the shadowy references to the progress of the war. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the Washington Independent Review of Books, click here: German Midwife

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Racial tension threatens aircraft carrier, commander

No Salvation, by Jeffery Hess. Down & Out Books. 312 pages. Trade paperback $18.95.

The USS Salvation is a huge aircraft carrier that is part of a fleet patrolling in the South China Sea during the final months of the Vietnam War. It is a perfect microcosm setting, a floating island of tedium, outrage, hostility, pain, fear, and overworked bravado. It is 1972, and racial tension is high: perhaps nowhere higher than on a pressure-cooker at sea where the sailors are virtually imprisoned by the nature of the wartime situation. 

It’s been a long time since anyone has left the carrier.

That racial tension and its accompanying violence have become a major problem is no secret to the ship’s captain. He has decided to make his new Executive Office (XO) an up-and-coming commander named Robert Porter, who is one of the most carefully drawn major characters in the book and perhaps the one most likely to receive the reader’s sympathy, the linchpin for tamping down hostilities.

Perhaps chosen less for his illustrious record than for the fact that he is Afro-American, Porter immediately finds himself in a difficult position. His very success as an officer who has pleased his white superiors has pegged him as an “Uncle Tom,” with all the baggage that such a label conveys.

Black sailors, including those with some rank, have been sabotaging the ship’s overall effectiveness. They seem to be ready for an internal war with their white shipmates – and, indeed, they mount a most unpeaceful demonstration to demand equal treatment equal to that of the whites.

Hess

The ship has other problems. Drug use is rampant and the source of an unofficial economy among the abusers and the dealers. The ship’s cobbler runs the narcotic business and related ventures.

Mr. Hess has given himself a complex challenge, that of bringing readers close to the reality of this enormous vessel and the huge number of individuals who keep it functioning, both technically and as a complex amalgam of duties, skills, backgrounds, and personalities. He has done a marvelous job, though readers will find their memories tested by the large number of characters, their stake in the enterprise, and the astounding size of their temporary home in a physical structure that contains so many levels, so much task-specific work space, living spaces for four thousand men, and dangers. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the July 10, 2019 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the July 11 Naples, Bonita Springs, Charlotte County, Venice, and Palm Beach editions, click here: Florida Weekly – No Salvation

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“The Wartime Sisters: A Novel,” by Lynda Cohen Loigman

  • St. Martin’s Press. 304 pages. Hardcover $27.99.

Women bond — and sometimes break apart — in WWII-era New England.

The title of Lynda Cohen Loigman’s new novel, The Wartime Sisters, has two dimensions. The more obvious is the horribly strained relationship between two sisters, Ruth and Millie Kaplan. The other is the wider sisterhood of women who toiled in preparing the U.S. to enter WWII and during the war years that followed. These are women who had factory jobs or positions, clerical and otherwise, that supported the manufacture of weapons.  

The Brooklyn-born Kaplans, first Ruth and, later, Millie (the younger by three years), relocate to Springfield, Massachusetts, to rebuild their lives after shaky, if conventional, beginnings.

They seem to have been the victims of unrealistic expectations and misguided parenting. Ruth’s controlling nature, an echo of their mother’s, leaves Millie feeling demeaned and marginalized. More open and spontaneous, Millie’s attractiveness to people, especially to boys and then men, is a constant threat and humiliation to Ruth.

The narrative is structured to oscillate among three kinds of scenes: Scenes that give an overview of their early years; scenes set in Springfield that reveal the sisters as young adults making their separate ways in the world; and scenes reverting back to more detailed Brooklyn episodes that explore the seeds of conflict and unwise decision-making that continue to have consequences in their new environment.

Loigman

Loigman further complicates the bond between the sisters through the jobs they have in Springfield. Ruth does paperwork, and Millie puts triggers together on the assembly line. From Ruth’s perspective, Millie is trouble — a person who always needs looking after. Ruth had enough of that unwanted responsibility as a girl; she doesn’t want it now as a married woman raising children — especially when her husband is called away from his position at the Armory to dangerous duty in Europe.

But back in Brooklyn, Millie was rather desperate. She was alone in the wake of their parents’ death in an accident, and her ill-fated marriage left her a victim of abuse. Maybe Springfield will supply an answer, whether it be via Ruth or in some other way.

The war between the sisters is carefully orchestrated and is the central action that holds readers glued to the story. However, the portrait of the Springfield Armory community is also a major achievement. Persuasively imagined over a framework of impressive research, the sights, sounds, and patriotic flourishes of its residents during 1942 and 1943 leave readers with a sense of pride.

However, all is not well in this capital of wartime industry. Questions of social and economic justice loom. . . .

To read the entire review at it appears in the Washington Independent Review of Books, click here:  The Wartime Sisters.

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Dazzling epic about memory that integrates fiction with memoir is deeply original and ambitious

Returning, by Yael Shahar. Kasva Press. 504 pages. Hardcover $28.95; Trade paperback $19.95

Returning is an extraordinary and challenging book on many levels. It attempts to make the intangible as close to tangible as possible. It engages readers in a kind of time travel that has nothing to do with science fiction. It might remind some of paranormal romance, but the stakes are much higher.

What genre does is belong to? Author Yael Shahar once thought of calling it “fiction memoir,” but that does not capture enough of its essence.

The workings of dreams are central to the book’s technique and meaning, but what if you dream someone else’s dreams? What if someone else dreams yours and remembers yourmemories? Shahar’s artistry is to make these “what-ifs” credible and meaningful; in fact, inevitable and necessary. She imbeds these actualized possibilities in a theological — or, at least, a biblical — context.

The primary character is an older man named Alex. He is a tormented, guilt-ridden soul who has lived in Israel for many decades following his escape from slave labor at Auschwitz-Birkenau. A Greek Jew from Salonika (“Saloniki” throughout this book), Alex, whose given name is Ovadya (servant of God), was part of a sonderkommando crew, mostly Jewish, who were worked to exhaustion day after day hauling away the bones and ashes of incinerated Jews and other doomed prisoners.

All of his adult life, Alex has been trying, without much success, to resist the constant pressures of memories that take him back to his sonderkommando experience, a trauma that he’d like to forget. As an unwilling witness and assistant to the obliteration of his people, Alex is a man with a diseased soul. Part of him knows that he must face his past and accept responsibility for actions taken and not taken.

He seeks the help of Rabbi Ish-Shalom (“man of peace”), a person of remarkable learning, wisdom, and sensitivity. The rabbi becomes a spiritual coach who leads Alex on the path of self-knowledge, atonement, and redemption.

Yael Shahar credit Rahel Jaskow

But this is not a feel-good journey; it is filled with harrowing confrontations with Alex’s younger self. The rabbi insists, through a series of questions and refutations of Alex’s answers, that there are times when the giving of one’s own life may be the moral choice.

Alex’s resistance to his job of making room for the next victims to be pushed into the gas chambers would not have saved those lives, but that defense is slowly taken away during his conversations with the rabbi.

As Alex releases his memories, first by writing them down and later by speaking them aloud, he undergoes renewal and revelation that properly elevate his sense of self. He can take back his given name because he earns his right to it.

Yael Shahar as a character in her book is an intermediary between Alex and Rabbi Ish-Shalom. She brings them together. In a literal sense, with her name given as author of the book, she is telling Alex’s story — including his dialogue with the rabbi. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the Washington Independent Review of Books, click here: Returning

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“The Orchard,” by Yochi Brandes; Daniel Libenson, trans.

 Gefen Publishing House.  382 pages. Hardcover $24.95

Originally published in Hebrew as Hapardes shel Akiva in 2011, this unusual historical novel furthers biblical scholar Yochi Brandes’s refashioning of our understanding of Judaism’s roots, recently amplified in her novel The Secret Book of Kings

Can you imagine sitting down with Rabbi Elisha, Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Joshua, Rabbi Tarfon, Rabban Gamaliel, and other sages of the first centuries of the common era? Can you imagine eavesdropping on their debates, their moments of uncertainty, their jealousies, their alliances and misalliances?

Can you imagine an era during which those spiritual leaders interacted not only with the ruling Roman power but with the dawning Christian culture and its challenges?

Yochi Brandes

Can you imagine their bewilderment—a mixture of awe and suspicion—when the illiterate shepherd who married far above his station bloomed in exile from his wife, Rachel, until he took his place among them and then became their master?

Yochi Brandes imagines these scenes and many more in this astonishing novel that expands our understanding of how early modern Judaism and Christianity began. The book is centered on the powerful fable concerning Rabbi Akiva’s ascendancy and is dressed in all of the surrounding, attendant history—in particular the Bar Kokhba revolt against the Romans. . . .

The full Jewish Book Council review may be found at JBC – The Orchard

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