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January 29, 2023

The Border Crosser (Split, #2)The Border Crosser by Cindy Rizzo
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I liked book 1 The Papercutter better than its sequel The Border Crosser. Typical for the second book of a trilogy, problems worsen for the characters and their community, which we can be hopeful and anticipate their ultimate overcoming in book 3. Although considering the parallel to the German Jews' increasing deprecation in the run-up to WW2, I suspect book 3 will see the community flee to a safety rather than defeat the evil regime, with the young leading the way. Also typical for a second book, an author has to walk a fine line between too much rehashing the first for those who read it, and not enough for those readers who haven't. Unfortunately, I'm not only in the first category, but I think there were some things from book 1, like a character's ability to judge others' souls by looking that them, that could have benefited from more explanation. But there's much to appreciate. The diverse group of characters are well drawn with unique skills to address the new difficulties. Now there's a set of Asian twins, one gay, in addition to a STEM genius in a wheelchair, plus one who grapples with "their" gender identity. Lots of normal teenage angst as well. I eagerly look forward to Book 3.

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January 25, 2023

Wings of the Wind (Out From Egypt, #3)Wings of the Wind by Connilyn Cossette
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I liked Wings of the Wind much better than book 2 in the series. Now the Hebrew characters have biblical names (i.e. Tobiah), not modern ones (i.e. Ari, Dov) and the ratio of romance to history, although high, does not neglect the biblical events as much. I particularly appreciated two aspects of the plot. 1] Using the directive in Deut 21 on how a Hebrew warrior must treat a beautiful woman whom he takes captive to set up the romance between our hero and heroine, and 2] how the story puts our heroine in Jericho at Rahab's inn, so she's there when the spies arrive and thus is rescued later. Typical of a Xian biblical romance, our heroine's virtue is threatened but not violated. I disliked how, as in book 2, the heroine is treated badly by jealous Hebrew women. Of course all are reconciled at the end.
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January 20, 2023

Shadow of the Storm (Out From Egypt, #2)Shadow of the Storm by Connilyn Cossette
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

It is difficult to choose between 2 or 3 stars for Shadow of the Storm. Along with other Jews, I have just started reading, again for the umpteenth time, the second book of Torah, Exodus [in Hebrew, Shemot]. This is the biblical record on which the movies "Prince of Egypt" and "The Ten Commandments" are based, although they pretty much only deal with the first twenty chapters of Exodus. This year I looked for some historical fiction that rewrites the Hebrews' journey from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land, although some would say that the Torah itself is historical fiction. To my surprise, almost all the authors of these novelizations were non-Jews, and evangelical Christians in particular. Indeed, there is a thriving business in Christian biblical fiction: see 222 such novels listed in biblical order. However only one, The Red Tent, was written by a Jew.

I chose to start with the second book of trilogy written by Connilyn Cossette, because the first book focused on the Hebrew slaves before they left Egypt. This novel is, unsurprisingly, a romance that takes place against the background of the year the Hebrews spent at the base of Mt. Sinai. In other words, the year after the movies above end. The author does a nice job of describing life in the desert, eating manna, dyeing wool and weaving it to make the Tabernacle walls. But her description of the Golden Calf debacle was written from the POV of our heroine, who merely hears the cries of the punished participants. I was frustrated that other/later rebellions again Moses are missing altogether, and there was no mention of Moses' wife Zippora, his sons and father-in-law Jethro making a short visit and then leaving, never to be heard of again. Something that bothered me more were all the characters who had modern Hebrew names. Surely the author could have consulted Chronicles, which is full of biblical names. Even so, just out of curiosity, I intend to read the third volume of the trilogy.
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January 18, 2023

How Jewish Women Launched the now Ubiquitous OU Symbol 100 Years Ago

Part of my research for The Choice: A Novel of Love, Faith and the Talmud involved learning how East Coast Jewish women lived between 1910 and 1960 so I could write accurate backstories for my characters. In 1910, these women didn’t need hechshers to indicate food was kosher. They bought meat from a kosher butcher, baked goods from a kosher bakery, and fruits and vegetables from a greengrocer. A milkman delivered dairy products and eggs to their homes. (Even in the early 1950s, when I was a child, a milkman came to our house.) But by the 1920s, as prepackaged foods became available, it wasn’t as obvious which were kosher. She couldn’t assume that plain canned peas, for example, were kosher; maybe pork-and-beans had been on the assembly line first. But her children kept pestering her: “Why can’t I have this ice cream, these crackers and cookies, that sodapop? It was especially problematic for Conservative and Orthodox women.”

Astonishingly, some chutzpadik members of the New York Women’s Branch (i.e. Sisterhood) of the Orthodox Union took matters into their own hands. They approached major manufacturers of canned and packaged foods to allow rabbinic supervision, convincing them of the financial benefits likely to accrue from the kosher market. They suggested a discreet seal, a U inside an O, barely noticeable on the label. It appeared to have no connection with Judaism, and if anything, it resembled the C within a circle that indicated copyright approval. Within a few years, Carvel ice cream, Sunshine cookies and crackers, Heinz canned goods, Crisco shortening, and even Coca-Cola carried the OU hechsher. By the late thirties, kosher consumers had a wide variety of items to choose from: breads, cereals, desserts, candies, soups, noodles, mayonnaise, mustard, oils and shortenings. Even dairy products came with the OU symbol.

Today, not only is the OU symbol is ubiquitous, there are hundreds of different kosher hechshers in America. Even non-Jews look for it, either because they’re vegetarian or because they believe OU certified products are better. In any case, we can thank that group of Jewish women who, a hundred years ago, had the audacity to get OU-certified food into our markets. Yet as much as I searched, I could not discover any of their names; unfortunately, this is a common problem for those researching historical women. A silver lining is that I could have one of my characters be a leader in originating the OU symbol. After all, I was writing historical fiction.

January 15, 2023

P is for Peril (Kinsey Millhone, #16)P is for Peril by Sue Grafton
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I agree that P is for Peril is a clever combination of two unrelated murders, one of which (the secondary plot line) leaves Kinsey outsmarted and almost killed herself. The primary case, that of a missing doctor who may have skipped town to escape a mess of both financial and personal problems, or may have died. And if the latter, was it an accident, suicide or murder? And if it was murder, who done it and why?

According to many frustrated readers, the book ends by not answering the last question. Unlike Sue Grafton's other alphabet mysteries, this one lacks her usual short epilogue where Kinsey sums up what happened. The last three pages are blank.

Interestingly, the copy I got from my local library had an epilogue pasted in. Based on including this final page, I give the novel 5 stars. For curious readers, I’ve included it here, although I recommend reading the entire novel first. (view spoiler)

January 12, 2023

The Saturday Morning Murder (Michael Ohayon, #1)The Saturday Morning Murder by Batya Gur
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Goodreads Jewish Book Club wanted to read an Israeli mystery novel in Feb, so I took a chance and started The Saturday Morning Murder, the first book of the Michael Ohayon series. I liked that it was written by a woman, Batya Gur. I actually gave it 3.5 stars, rounded up to 4 because it was the author's first. Despite getting off to a good start with the dead body being found in Chapter One, the novel spent/wasted a lot of time explaining about the Psychiatric Institute: its formation, its members and how they're selected and trained. This book really needed a cast of characters at the beginning. There were a few red herrings and dead ends until the mystery was solved, but that seemed more realistic for a detective's life. So I'll probably read Book #2 in the series, but not until I've finished The Missing File.

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January 07, 2023

Cat's Eyewitness (Mrs. Murphy, #13)Cat's Eyewitness by Rita Mae Brown
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

After my disappointment with the audio version of Sour Puss two months ago, I decided to read the intervening volumes and then give up on Mrs. Murphy mysteries. So I'm pleased I could give Cat's Eyewitness 4 stars, since it's the last one I'll be reading. I liked: the statue of Virgin Mary's mysterious bloody tears were a good start, although it seemed obvious that the deaths at the monastery had to be connected to the "miracle." Also that there were a couple of nice romance/love subplots that concluded happily. Again the biggest clue was provided by the animals, in this case a cardinal that witnessed the murder, but how would the humans find out what happened? The ending/denouement was satisfying and made sense.
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January 06, 2023

I subscribe to “My Jewish Learning,” although I don’t necessarily click on every article they send to my inbox. However, I couldn’t pass up an article describing the purpose of Talmud study for today's Jews. The more I read the more impressed I became. I was almost at the end when I thought—this sounds like something Rabbi Benay Lappe would say. And indeed, when I scrolled up to see the article's author, it was indeed Benay Lappe, whom I started studying with twenty years ago. She was strict in making us do our own Talmud translations rather than relying on what some undoubtedly Orthodox scholars thought it meant. But I learned so much more that way. I hoped she’d stay in Los Angeles, but she returned to her home town in the Chicago area to start her own yeshiva, Svara. I went on to write Rashi’s Daughters, as each of us began teaching Talmud in our own way.

December 31, 2022

Whisker of Evil (Mrs. Murphy, #12)Whisker of Evil by Rita Mae Brown
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There are several reasons I liked Whisker of Evil better than The Tail of the Tip-Off. 1] A body is discovered almost immediately in chapter one, rather than having to read all sorts of backstory about the characters before the first murder occurs. 2] When we finally learn who did it, the motive and method are both clear and understandable. 3] This may be particular to me, but after working in genetic testing for decades, I appreciated how our sleuths used genetics to determine that one horse had been substituted for another, critical to the plot. 4] Last but not least, the two potential romances that haven't been making much progress over recent books finally make big jumps towards conclusion. I'm now looking forward to reading the next book in the Mrs. Murphy mystery series, "Cat's Eyewitness."

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December 25, 2022

The Tail of the Tip-Off  (Mrs. Murphy, #11)The Tail of the Tip-Off by Rita Mae Brown
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I liked the characters, especially the felines, but the mystery wasn't that interesting and the story dragged. At least there wasn't too much politics. I confess that I accidentally saw one of the final pages so I knew who the murderer was, but even then I never could see why he did it. I like police procedurals where the reader knows who done it, yet enjoys watching the detective figure it out. However, I wasn't intrigued or drawn in to see how that happened in this case. Disappointing.

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December 16, 2022

Catch as Cat Can  (Mrs. Murphy, #10)Catch as Cat Can by Rita Mae Brown
My rating:
4 of 5 stars

This time I read the print book version of this Mrs. Murphy mystery instead of listening to the audiobook, which vindicated my decision. The two-page cast of characters at the beginning is invaluable, and I referred to it many times. In addition, once I'd finished the novel I went back to check out the clues and critical information that I'd missed. Everything held together and I appreciated how the plot explored a new type of criminal enterprise that I wasn't familiar with. All the scenes in the salvage yard, and especially the formal gala there, were a pleasure to imagine after reading the book's descriptions. The animals were as clever and engaging as usual, but I miss seeing Bain among the recurring human characters.

December 11, 2022

4.5-star review of The Matchmaker’s Gift by Lynda Cohen Loigman. I enjoyed this novel so much that I read it in 36 hours and gave it 5 stars on Goodreads and Amazon. The dual POVs of matchmaker grandmother Sara and divorce attorney granddaughter Abby, past and present, one per chapter, were done very well. I had no trouble believing that these women actually existed. The plot was unique in that the subject was love and romance, yet we never see how either protagonist finds a match of her own (one reason why I only rated it 4.5 stars, not a full 5). I admit I liked Sara’s story better. Her scenes, mostly set between 1910-1921, brought the world of New York Jewish women to life. The magical realism of Sara’s gift for discerning who was destined to love whom was wonderfully creative. Abby’s scenes, especially with her hard-nosed boss, came across more stereotyped than real. Maybe I just found the divorce and prenup discussions too crass and soap opera like. Abby had become a divorce lawyer in order to protect wives from being taken advantage of by their deceiving soon-to-be ex-husbands, but she had somehow gotten off track. I would have liked to see at least one scene where we see Abby doing what she’d set out to do. But overall, this novel is a sweet and fast read.

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Maggie Anton

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