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June 03, 2015

Flying Too High (Phryne Fisher, #2)Flying Too High by Kerry Greenwood

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

As usual, I leave it to other reviewers to summarize the plot; what you get here is my opinion.
While I did enjoy this book, it did not live up to the quality of the first volume, Cocaine Blues. I found the two disconnected mysteries - an adult murder and child kidnapping - confusing. Even though I read this novel in less than 2 days, I sometimes had trouble recalling who all the different characters were and which case each was involved in. The characters didn't all seem like real people so I had difficulty identifying with them. Even Phryne seemed too good to be true; doesn't she ever make mistakes or not know how to do something? I can understand why they didn't make this story into one of the TV episodes. But this is only the author's second effort; other reviewers share my concerns and urge readers to persevere because the later novels get better. I would read more of these in any case, particularly as Phyrne's world is populated with so many interesting females in professional positions, but that's good to know.

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May 30, 2015

Gittle A Girl of the SteppesGittle A Girl of the Steppes by Estelle Rubin Brager

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Just finished this self-published historical novel and was very pleasantly surprised. Actually a memoir set in Ukraine at the end of 19th century, the book is essentially a Jewish version of Laura Ingalls Wilders "Little House on the Prairie" series. Gittle was born in 1871 and Laura in 1867, so the time period covered is almost identical. Each starts with the author's childhood and ends in early adulthood, and both contain vivid scenes of sadness, danger, friendship, and family solidarity under challenging circumstances. This one had a stronger focus on the romance between Gittle and her beloved husband Yacov, which I certainly appreciated.

For many American Jewish women, this book's niche audience, Gittle could be their ancestress. Certainly she could be my gr-grandmother, or maybe one of my gr-grandparents' sister, since Gittle came to the US a generation earlier than my grandparents. I loved the "Little House" books, but knew those stories weren't my family's history. Maybe I've missed them, but I'm not aware of other shtetl novels told from a woman's POV, especially not a memoir. I definitely enjoyed, and recommend this book. The reasons I didn't give it 5 stars are that the last chapter, which details Gittle's arrest and imprisonment followed by her leaving Russia and emigrating to America, was too rushed. Since the book is barely 200 pages long, it should have, and could have, been at least 2 or 3 chapters longer. In addition, the book's self-published status is evident in its less than perfect editing.

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May 25, 2015

Cocaine Blues (Phryne Fisher, #1)Cocaine Blues by Kerry Greenwood

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I confess that I discovered this series of mysteries after becoming a fan of the Australian TV series, so my review is colored by that. After slogging through Alan Turing: The Enigma Abridged , this short, fun bit of detective fluff was just what I needed. The dialogue is perfect for the times and characters, the clothes and cars are fabulous, and there's a nice feminist slant to the story. The only reason this is not 5-star is that the mystery itself seems to get short shrift. But then you can't everything in a book of less than 200 pages.

A good difference from the TV show is that there is no lengthy subplot dealing with Phryne's sister's disappearance; the sister died young but that's all we know about her. A disappointing difference is that there appears to be no romantic chemistry between Phryne and Detective Robinson here.

All in all, I look forward to reading the series as a delightful summer diversion. Those who enjoy the TV series will want to read these.

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May 24, 2015

Alan Turing: The EnigmaAlan Turing: The Enigma by Andrew Hodges

This is another book I don't know how to rate. Turing's life story is fascinating and important, yet much of this book, perhaps the majority, consists of far too lengthy explanations of various mathematical and other scientific research Alan Turing was involved in. I studied quantum mechanics and advanced calculus in college, and thus knew what Andrew Hodges was talking about, yet I still found these sections tedious at best. I can't imagine how the average reader got through them; and with a total length of 700+ pages, this book was the very definition of TMI. Although what could one expect from a biography written by an Oxford mathematics professor and published by Princeton Univ Press?

On the other hand, chapters when Turing was actually working in Hut 8 on deciphering Enigma during WWII kept my interest throughout, as did the additional backstory of what the other British departments were doing, or not doing, to advance the war effort. I appreciated learning what the Americans were up to as well.

Unfortunately the book continued with a rambling, to me unnecessary, continuation of the various scientific endeavors Turing attempted after WWII. I almost gave up when I saw that the book continued for 100 pages more after Alan Turing's death. I'm glad I persevered, because those final pages were where the author detailed how the Communist scare of the early 1950's led to the demonization and persecution of homosexuals, especially in England. This section was certainly the book's finest hour, and definitely worth slogging through the earlier material. It almost makes me want to read his 1977 book, With Downcast Gays: Aspects of Homosexual Self-Oppression.

My recommendation: skim all the science stuff that doesn't interest you and concentrate on the rest of it.

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May 21, 2015

I’ve always been skeptical when people say things come in three’s, assuming that people don’t tend to notice occurrences in other amounts, but I must admit that there appears to be a truth in that for me recently. Early last week Book Riot put me [for my Rashi’s Daughters trilogy] in the same class as Michael Chabon, Geraldine Brooks, Chaim Potok, and Ayelet Waldman. That was followed a few days later by an article in the Jewish News of Britain that praised me as a novelist who changed the writer’s life. I couldn’t help but wonder when/if a third great piece of publicity would appear, at the same time chiding myself for being so superstitious.

Except here it is. In this week’s issue of LA's Jewish Journal, with a cover byline of "Reopening the Book," there's an interview with me that shares how I discovered Talmud and how my passion for this holy text inspired me to write two fiction series that focus on women and Talmud study. It’s not a review of my books, although it does highlight my latest, Enchantress, but rather a summation of my unexpected journey from clinical chemist at Kaiser Permanente to award-winning historical novelist.

This is how it begins: “From a glass-enclosed cabinet in her Westchester home office, historical novelist Maggie Anton removed a small clay pot. Indicating the Hebrew characters inscribed on the pot in the same Aramaic as in the Talmud, she noted the rough outline of a demonic form inside the ‘incantation bowl.’ She explained during an interview that from the fourth to sixth centuries, the same time that the Talmud was being created, the bowls, purchased in an antiquities store in Israel, were ubiquitous in Iraq — once known as Babylonia — the setting for Anton’s latest novel, Enchantress.”

To read more, here is the LA JJ link

May 17, 2015

This has been quite a week for surprise online honors that I never would have known about without Talkwalker Alerts [does what Google Alerts is supposed to do]. First came the alert about Book Riot choosing Rashi’s Daughters for their “what to read for Jewish-American Heritage Month” that I put in my previous post.

Then Friday afternoon I got a new alert that my name had appeared in the Jewish News of Britain. I clicked on the link to learn that blogger Chava Fleming of Newcastle [UK] Reform Shul put me in the same company as Elie Wiesel, Chaim Potok and the two Lawrences - Hoffman and Kushner - in her answer to the question: “If you were cast away on an island with just one Jewish text for company, which would you choose?” According to Ms. Fleming, I am one of a select group of four novelists who greatly changed her life.

Wow! I can’t help but wonder what this week will bring.

May 12, 2015

I am amazed, and honored, that Book Riot choose to put me [for my Rashi’s Daughters trilogy] in the same class as Michael Chabon, Geraldine Brooks, Chaim Potok, Philip Roth, Stephanie Feldman, and Ayelet Waldman in their “What to Read during Jewish-American Heritage Month.” However I must admit that I never knew May was Jewish-American Heritage Month.

May 10, 2015

Finally back home from the East, just in time for Mother’s Day. Scariest part was getting on the scale for the first time in 4 weeks, considering that I’ve had almost no control over my diet and minimal time to exercise while I was on book tour. Hallelujah! I somehow didn’t gain any weight and may have even lost a pound.

On the subject of book tour food, especially at Jewish venues, it’s a constant struggle to avoid fattening, high-carbohydrate, and oh so tempting fare. Every brunch serves bagels and cream cheese, along with an assortment of cookies and coffee cakes. I’m lucky to find fresh fruit too. My evening event hosts usually take me out to dinner first [we all know how fattening restaurant food can be] and my talks are followed by a dessert buffet. If I’m lucky I’m too busy selling/signing books afterwards to get to the desserts, yet sometimes my hostesses are ‘kind’ enough to fix me a plate for later.

As for exercise, at least my recent trip had nice weather for walking outdoors [as opposed to March in Boston]. I love seeing all the unique architecture in my host’s neighborhood, so different from what we have in Los Angeles. Sometimes my hosts live in communities with exercise rooms in their clubhouse that I can use. Better if I can find a local park to walk in [thank you GPS and Google maps] or if I’m lucky enough that my host also likes to walk, she’ll take me to one of her favorites.

Which is how I got to visit Central Park in Manhattan, NY Botanical Gardens in the Bronx, Saxon Woods Park in Scarsdale, Colonial Park and Six Mile Run Reservation near Franklin Tp in NJ, Caumsett State Park at Lloyd Harbor in Long Island, and walk the refurbished Long Beach Boardwalk.

May 04, 2015

My big fat NY/NJ book tour is winding down. In the last 3 weeks I’ve spoken at 28 Jewish venues, and I have 4 more to go before flying back to LA on Thursday. It has been a lot of driving and schlepping between such diverse cities as Briarcliff Manor in Westchester Co, Stony Brook in east Long Island, Penn Valley PA, plus Woodcliff Lake and Monroe Tp in NJ. But I’ve met many wonderful women and stayed with some delightful hosts, including cousins in NJ.

I’ve seen Spring unfold in the East, as trees & bushes that were barren when I arrived have slowly blossomed in an array of colors and are now turning green. I’ve enlightened [and entertained] at least a thousand people by my talks about ancient Jewish magic, how the Talmud was created, and the prominent role of Jewish sorceresses in 4th-century Babylonia. I’ve found many new fans, including a few groupies who have attended more than one of my programs.

It has been a grueling, yet ultimately successful, trip – the end of six months of promoting ENCHANTRESS where I have done 127 events in 17 states. I am so looking forward to going home to see my husband [and grandkids] again.

May 01, 2015

One of the perks of staying in people’s homes when I travel on book tour is checking out their bookshelves. Rabbi’s houses are usually my favorites, but recently I got a very pleasant surprise when I discovered a copy of Neil Patrick Harris’ Choose Your Own Autobiography in the guest room I was to occupy. Luckily I had only the one program that day, with nothing scheduled until the next evening, potentially leaving me with sufficient time to read it. I did manage to finish it, but only by sacrificing a few hours of sleep.

But it was worth it. I adored the book, but then I'm a huge Neil Patrick Harris fan and I loved reading "Choose Your Own Adventure" stories with my children in the 1980's. It is a clever, and fun, way to tell what is really just another celebrity story. NPH has both a unique voice and a unique concept. I advise readers to not miss a single page, even/especially those that don't have any pages leading to them. Thankfully I read the hardback because I cannot begin to imagine how this could work on an e-reader or as an audio version. You really need to be able to turn to specific pages and jump around between them.

April 25, 2015

Neil Patrick Harris: Choose Your Own AutobiographyNeil Patrick Harris: Choose Your Own Autobiography by Neil Patrick Harris

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I adored this book, but then I'm a huge Neil Patrick Harris fan and I loved reading "Choose Your Own Adventure" stories with my children in the 1980's. A very clever, and fun, way to tell what is really just another celebrity story. NPH has both a unique voice and a unique concept. I advise readers to not miss a single page, even/especially those that don't have any pages that lead to them.

I read the hardback and for the life of me, I can't image how this could work on an e-reader or as an audio version. You really need to be able to turn to specific pages and jump around between them.

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April 18, 2015

Played the local on this gorgeous spring day in Manhattan. Under bright blue skies, with temps heading up to nearly 80 degrees, I passed on seeing a Broadway show in favor of walking around Museum Mile and picnicking in Central Park. Started out with full breakfast of scrambled eggs, turkey bacon, Belgium waffles, and great coffee at the New Amity Restaurant, an old-time dinner on Madison Ave at 84th.

Then on to the Neue Galerie to see the Klimt exhibit. The place opened at 11 am, and when I got there at 10:30, the line of people waiting to get in was around the corner. But seeing Woman in Gold close-up was absolutely worth it, for I’d never realized how 3-dimensional the painting is, how much texture went into various squares, eyes, and other design elements on her dress.

Next to the Jewish Museum, free on Shabbat, to see their reproductions of the Dura Europos Synagogue frescoes, as well as other exhibits, followed by a picnic lunch in Central Park. Grand finale was at the New York Historical Society Museum, where I saw an excellent and informative exhibit on Lincoln and the Jews

Maggie Anton

More sites to read

Erika Dreifus

The Talmud Blog

The Forward Sisterhood

Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance

Whole Megillah