Review: Deborah Calling by Avraham Azrieli

Review: Deborah Calling by Avraham AzrieliDeborah Calling: A Novel Inspired by the Bible by Avraham Azrieli
Format: ebook
Source: publisher
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: historical fiction
Pages: 432
Published by HarperLegend on January 2nd 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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The author of the bestselling Deborah Rising continues the fascinating story of the biblical prophetess Deborah in this entrancing work of visionary fiction—a tale of danger, mysticism, intrigue, and daring.

Deborah’s father dreamed that, one day, she would become a prophet—a seemingly impossible dream for a woman in a patriarchal society. To see this wish come true, Deborah made the cunning decision to become a man by seeking out a mysterious elixirist who could turn women into men.

Under the elixirist Kassite’s tutelage and training, Deborah learns the essential traits of masculinity and steadily grows stronger, building muscle and willpower. But Kassite requests something in return: he needs Deborah’s help to escape enslavement and return to his homeland. It is the beginning of another thrilling adventure through the desert—a cat-and-mouse chase between Deborah and her violent fiancé who still hunts her, a chance meeting with an ancient healer who has a prophetic message, and a revelatory spiritual experience in an abandoned cave.

As she continues on the path God has laid before her, Deborah witnesses the darkness that can take hold in the hearts and souls of men—evil that causes her to reflect on the wisdom, insight, and inspiration she has gained from the women in her life. Will becoming a man truly help her become a prophetess, or might there be another path? Visionary dreams, a mysterious eagle, and an extraordinary band of ex-slaves will help Deborah find the answer . . . and ultimately her calling.

A riveting adventure tale derived from traditional biblical fiction, Deborah Calling imagines the life of one of the most famous figures from the Old Testament as she continues on her path to becoming a prophetess.

My Review:

Deborah Calling picks up right where Deborah Rising left off. But for readers who haven’t read the stories back to back, or who don’t feel like reading Deborah Rising but want to jump into a book where the protagonist gets to be proactive instead of always reactive, Deborah Calling does an excellent job of bringing readers up to speed.

Deborah in the Bible was a Judge and a prophet. In this story, although she is still very young she is already having prophetic dreams. The clever way that the author brings readers up to date is for Deborah to have a remembering dream where she dreams the events of her life to the point where this story begins.

As this story begins, Deborah is well on her way to fulfilling her quest to become a man. She is one third of the way through the transformation process dictated by the Elixirist, a great potion maker from the neighboring kingdom of Moab. He is famous for turning 3,000 Moabite women into men in order to stave off an Egyptian invasion of his homeland. Or so the story goes.

Deborah wants to become a man because being a woman has brought her nothing but pain and injustice. As a woman, she cannot inherit her father’s land. She can’t testify in court against the man who killed her sister. She can’t even testify in court against the man who attempted to kill her. And as he is also her husband, as the man responsible for her only he can testify on her behalf. We can all guess how well that goes.

Murdering her isn’t even a crime, because she is female. Being a man may not be easy, but it has to be better than the treatment she’s received as a woman. And as only men can inherit, it is only by returning to her homeland as a man that she can take back the land that was stolen from her family.

As portrayed in this story, the land of Israel was hardly a “land of milk and honey”. Judges could be capricious and cruel, and for women especially, life could be very gruesome, as Deborah’s story reveals.

But the road to becoming a man is difficult. It has led her from being a chattel in the Judge’s household to being a slave in a tannery far away. But a slave who is disguised as a boy, the first part of her transformation.

She has two quests. One is to become a man, return to her homeland, and become the Judge and prophet that her father dreamed she would be. But to get there she has to fulfill a different quest first. To find and free two Moabite slaves from two different masters so that they can return to their own homeland before they die. One of those old slaves is the famous Elixirist who will provide the means for her transformation.

And they are both lying to her through whatever teeth they have left. Which does not stop Deborah from becoming, if not a man, at least from becoming the proactive, even-tempered, adventurous and logical person she was meant to be – male or female

Escape Rating B: The Deborah in Deborah Calling has considerably more agency than she did in Deborah Rising. In the first book, she was a person that things mostly happened TO, and then she reacted to what happened to her. Until something even worse happened, and then she reacted to that – if any reactions were open to her other than to take the whipping or whatever other terrible thing was about to be visited upon her. Not that she didn’t have an admittedly cockeyed plan, but most of the time, she was passive or defensive or on the run or all of the above.

The difference in Deborah Calling is that she becomes the lead actor in her own life. While bad things still continue to happen to her, she definitely spends more of the story acting before she is acted upon, and planning for future events (even bad ones) than she did in the previous book. She goes from being a follower, and sometimes a seemingly hapless one, to being a leader.

It may be obvious to the reader (it certainly was to this reader) that Sallan and Kassite are using Deborah for their own ends, not that fulfilling their purpose does not also help her. And it was equally obvious to this reader which of the two of them was actually the Elixirist. But it does make sense that Deborah herself could not figure it out – as Deborah Calling ends she is just barely 15, not nearly experienced enough to have the cynicism required to figure their particular charade out.

There is still a villain in this piece, throughout the story, Deborah is pursued by the thoroughly evil Seesya, who is also her husband. Again, this is one of the many reasons why Deborah wants to become male. As a woman, she had no right to refuse to marry Seesya – even though he had just had her sister stoned to death for a crime she did not commit.

But over the course of the two books, Seesya continues to read more like a bogeyman, like a caricature of evil or even an embodiment of an evil being than he does like a villainous but human man. His personality is so completely warped that there is nothing there but malice, and it makes him seem almost supernatural, certainly to Deborah but sometimes even to the reader. He has also survived so many near-death experiences that one does start to wonder.

Speaking of wondering, Deborah’s story is not over. As Deborah Calling ends she has decided to return to her homeland as she is, but the story of how she gets back and what happens to change her into the Judge and prophet that we know she becomes from the Bible, is in a book yet to be written.

As a reader who was expecting the story to conclude at the end of Deborah Calling, this was a disappointment. I hope that the next book, and the conclusion of Deborah’s story, comes soon! I still want to see Seesya get what’s coming to him.

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Review: Deborah Rising by Avraham Azrieli

Review: Deborah Rising by Avraham AzrieliDeborah Rising by Avraham Azrieli
Format: ebook
Source: publisher
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: historical fiction
Pages: 224
Published by HarperLegend on November 29th 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
Goodreads

In the tradition of The Red Tent, The Fifth Mountain, and The Mists of Avalon comes this absorbing historical novel that reimagines the life of one of the Bible's most revered women, the prophetess Deborah, and her epic journey to fulfill her destiny.

Deborah's father dreamed that his daughter would one day become a prophet of the God of the Israelites. But the social and religious mores of her time dictated that a woman must marry—even against her will—and obey her husband. When Deborah is forced into an engagement with the violent son of her local judge, the young Hebrew woman rebels, determined to forge a new path.

Captivated by the notion of transforming herself into a man to escape the arranged marriage and fulfill her father's dream, Deborah embarks upon an epic journey across the desert to find a mysterious elixirist rumored to be blessed with the gift of turning women into men. It is a journey that proves increasingly perilous—filled with wild beasts, lustful men, unscrupulous priests, and warring tribesmen. Yet Deborah discovers that she is not alone; an unlikely coterie of lepers, slaves, Moabite traders, and even a dead tiger come to her aid and defense along the way.

Part traditional biblical fiction, part adventure, Deborah Rising is a captivating tale about the early life of one of the most famous figures from the Old Testament—a woman of courage and spirit whose battle to overcome discrimination, sexism, and paternalism speaks to women's lives today.

My Review:

The story in Deborah Rising is the very (possibly very, very) fictionalized account of the early life of the Biblical Prophet Deborah. Deborah was the only female judge mentioned in the Bible, and one of very few female prophets.

Based on this story, one also gets the feeling that Deborah lives up to a saying from The Notebooks of Lazarus Long, the one that goes, “A fake fortune teller can be tolerated. But an authentic soothsayer should be shot on sight. Cassandra did not get half the kicking around she deserved.” In this story of her early life, Deborah certainly suffers from all the kicking around that Long would have wished – and she hasn’t even started to prophesy yet.

Then again, when the story ends she’s only 14. She has time yet. And another whole book (Deborah Calling) in which to start speaking truth to power. And speaking with the power of truth.

But for the course of this book, she is also an unfortunate example of “when bad things happen to good people” and just how those good people react. Not that Deborah’s life wasn’t good for most of her childhood, because it was. But a year before the opening of the story, disaster struck.

Her parents were murdered, supposedly by raiders from another tribe. She and her sister were taken in by the local Judge (read ruler) of their town. Not out of the goodness of his heart, because I don’t think he has any. Rather, because the land their parents owned included a cistern – not merely a well but an underground protected water source. Water is worth more than gold in the dry land of Canaan.

Deborah and Tamar have no brothers. They each inherit a half share in the land, but can’t really inherit it. Their half-shares pass to their husbands when they marry. The Judge has a 20 year old son, and the Judge expects that he will obtain the land by marrying first one sister, then the other – whether they want to marry him or not.

The Judge’s son, Seesya, will let absolutely nothing stand in his way. Not poor Tamar, not Deborah, not the law and not the commandments. He takes what he wants, when he wants and how he wants, with as much cruelty as he desires. And he seems to desire endless amounts of it.

All Deborah wants is to escape. She will do anything to escape. Even, if she can, become a man.

Escape Rating B: In the end, this turned out to be a wow! I felt compelled to keep reading, and could not stop until the end.

But as much as I was riveted to the pages, there were some things that bothered me, often quite a lot.

The comparison is being made between Deborah Rising and The Red Tent. I read The Red Tent many years ago, and enjoyed it, but I do not remember it being quite this grim. Every circumstance is against Deborah all the time. The circumstance that she is female means that she has no power of any kind, and is only supposed to endure every terrible thing that happens to her. While that may have been true, we see nothing but terrible things happen to her. At times it makes for hard reading.

The story of Deborah the Judge may end in triumph, but we do not see any of that here, only one catastrophe after another. For every step forward she makes, she seems to take three steps back, and all of those steps over a bed of nails.

Part of what motivates Deborah in her quest is the Judge’s son Seesya. He makes perversely good motivation, because he seems to be evil for evil’s sake. To survive, Deborah must evade him at every turn, because if he catches up to her she will die.

That Seesya and his father want the land makes sense. That cistern represents untold wealth in the right hands – hands like the Judge’s, that will exploit the precious resource in every possible way.

But Seesya’s pursuit of Deborah isn’t just about the land. It’s personal. He hated her sister, he hates her, and he wants to kill every single person with whom she has contact. As a character, he is so sick and twisted that we can only see the twistedness – we don’t understand why. He’d be scarier if we knew what was motivating him.

One of the interesting twists in the story is Deborah’s quest to become a man. It is not about gender identity as we understand it today. Instead, it is a response to her circumstances. If she had been born male, she could have inherited the land from her parents and protected her sister from marriage to Seesya. She could learn to read and write. She could become the prophet that her parents hoped that she would become. Life as a man, in her time and place, would give her at least power over her own body and her own life. She could testify in court, and she has plenty to say. She could fight back.

Her desire to become male makes sense under her circumstances. However, it feels as if every single person involved in her quest is lying to her in some way, quite possibly for what they believe is her own good, but lying nonetheless. And she is too naive to realize it, or at least to realize it yet.

The story in Deborah Rising does not feel complete – only because it isn’t. As this book ends, Deborah’s quest has just barely begun, and there is no certainty within the story that she will succeed. Also, it doesn’t really feel like it ended at a natural point in the story, which continues in Deborah Calling.

I’m looking forward to seeing the rest of how the author fleshed out this Biblical story. And I want to see Seesya get his just desserts. Or even just see him dead in the desert.

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Review: Amid the Winter Snow by Grace Draven, Thea Harrison, Elizabeth Hunter, Jeffe Kennedy

Review: Amid the Winter Snow by Grace Draven, Thea Harrison, Elizabeth Hunter, Jeffe KennedyAmid the Winter Snow by Grace Draven, Thea Harrison, Jeffe Kennedy, Elizabeth Hunter
Format: eARC
Source: publisher
Formats available: ebook
Genres: fantasy romance
Series: Twelve Kingdoms, Elder Races
Pages: 454
Published by Brightlynx Publishing on December 12th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
Goodreads

As the snows fall and hearths burn, four stories of Midwinter beginnings prove that love can fight its way through the chillest night...

THE DARKEST MIDNIGHT, by Grace DravenThe mark Jahna Ulfrida was born with has made her a target of the cruel and idle all her life. During the long, crowded festivities of Deyalda, there’s nowhere to escape. Until a handsome stranger promises to teach her to save herself…

THE CHOSEN, by Thea HarrisonIn her visions, Lily sees two men fighting for her tiny country’s allegiance: the wolf and the tiger, each deadly, each cunning. One will bring Ys chaos and death, one a gentler path—but she’s destined to love whichever she chooses. The midwinter Masque is upon them, and the wolf is at her door…

THE STORM, by Elizabeth HunterWhen her soul mate died in a massacre of the half-angelic Irin people, Renata thought she’d never feel happiness again. She’s retreated to the snowy Dolomites to remember her hurts—until determined, irrepressible Maxim arrives to insist on joy, too. And before she can throw him out, they discover a secret the Irin have to know…

THE SNOWS OF WINDROVEN, by Jeffe KennedyAs a blizzard threatens their mountain keep, the new Queen Amelia of the Twelve Kingdoms and her unofficial consort Ash face their own storm. Ash knows a scarred, jumpy ex-convict isn’t the companion his queen needs. But when a surprise attack confines them together in their isolated sanctuary, the feast of midwinter might tempt even Ash into childlike hope…

My Review:

Be sure to wrap up warmly before you start this one. And have a cozy blanket and a hot cup of tea or cocoa – along with a cat or dog to keep your feet warm. All of these stories do an excellent of job of making the reader really feel Jack Frost nipping at their nose – and everywhere else!

I came to visit the Twelve Kingdoms, and ended up making the whirlwind fantasy romance tour. And I’m glad that I did – even if my toes are still frostbitten.

The Snows of Windroven by Jeffe Kennedy

I read The Snows of Windroven first. While I have enjoyed all of the Twelve Kingdoms books, I’ll admit that Amelia, the heroine of The Tears of the Rose, was my least favorite heroine of the entire series. She begins that story as a spoiled brat. It’s only when everything and everyone who has spoiled her is taken away that finally grows into the woman she was meant to be.

And that woman is the heroine of The Snows of Windroven, not that we don’t occasionally see flashes of the spoiled princess that Ami used to be. But this time, she’s mostly right.

None of the daughters of High King Uorsin have ended up in traditional-seeming relationships. Andi is now the Queen of the Tala, but her husband had to kidnap her in order to get her on her throne. He’s not king, only Prince Consort. Even then, their relationship is more traditional than that of the new High Queen Ursula, who cannot marry her consort due to political tensions in his home country. But she will not marry another.

Ami’s fairy tale husband died in The Tears of the Rose. Her paramour is Ash, a Tala half-breed ex-convict with just a touch of healing magic. While Ash is the person who helped Ami grow into who she was meant to be, using a whole lot of very necessary tough love, he’s also certain that she will outgrow him. That he’s not good enough for her, and that she will eventually bow down to the pressure that surrounds her to marry someone of the nobility, someone who can be king to her queen.

So a lot of The Snows of Windroven is about Ash sticking his head in his ass and refusing to take it out. He loves Ami, she loves him, her children love him, but he is determined to set her free. And she is equally determined to keep him. But Ami has a goddess on her side, and poor Ash doesn’t stand a chance. Not that he really wants one.

Escape Rating B+: I have to admit that I still don’t like Ami all THAT much. She has definitely grown up, but there’s still an element of “I’m queen so I can change the rules to get what I want” in her. I’ll also confess that the “I’m too good for her so I have to give her up” trope is not one of my favorites, because it always comes with a heaping helping of misunderstandammit.

That being said, the strength of this story is that it is written entirely from the perspective of the normally taciturn Ash. Being inside his head, seeing his reactions to Ami from his perspective, was marvelous. I liked his “voice” and would be interested in seeing more of their adventures from his point of view – especially now that he’s managed to mostly extract his head from his fundament.

The Darkest Midnight by Grace Draven

Every time I pick up one of Grace Draven’s novellas (For Crown and Kingdom and Teeth Long and Sharp) I’m reminded again that I really need to grab a round tuit and read Master of Crows. Based on her short work, that one must be awesome.

I will say that I very much enjoyed her entry in this volume, titled The Darkest Midnight. But as I read it, I found the story a bit too familiar, to the point where it was driving me a bit batty. The central theme of The Darkest Midnight is quite similar to the central point in the recent (and terrific) historical romance Someone to Wed by Mary Balogh, to the point where they blend together a bit.

As I loved them both, that’s not really such a terrible problem to have!

Escape Rating B+

The Storm by Elizabeth Hunter

If I’ve read other work by Elizabeth Hunter, I don’t remember doing so. And after reading The Storm, I’m not sure that I’ll seek her out. This was the weakest story in the collection for me. I think it has to do with the whole “fallen angels” thing. I’ve read several different stories that use the whole “Grigori are half-breed fallen angels” premise, and it just doesn’t work for me. I actually liked the romance between Maxim and Renata, but the background just didn’t do it for me.

Escape Rating C+

The Chosen by Thea Harrison

And finally, last but definitely not least, The Chosen by Thea Harrison. I have not read Harrison’s Elder Races series, but now that I’ve dipped my toe into this series, I can’t wait to go back and start from the very beginning. This novella is a kind of historical fantasy romance. By that I mean that the setting feels a bit historical, but that it is definitely fantasy. It’s a kind of story I’ve read before, but in this case it’s done particularly well. The seeress Lily knows that she will be forced to chose between two alliances for her country, represented by two men who visit her in her prophetic (and sexy!) dreams. Her tiny country, no matter how much magic it contains, is no match for either of the two predators who are bearing down on her. She knows that one alliance leads to not merely survival but actually increased prosperity, and the other leads to ruin and death. But she has little to judge between them, until one of the predators arrives at her doorstep.

It is only then that she has enough information with which to make a choice. She can pick the distant kingdom, and the man who goes with it, who sends polite and thoughtful missives but she has never met, or the wolf at her door, a man who brings his army, his gifts, and most of all, his overwhelming self. Lily is caught between terrible choices, and is not certain whether the wishes of her own heart represent the best decision for her people, or the worst.

Escape Rating A-: This one is just too short. I wanted more of the this world, more of the conflict that sets this story in motion, more of Lily’s life as the Chosen of Camael, and more of the developing relationship between Lily and Wulf. I loved that they are both the reluctant leaders of their people, and that Wulf is willing to help LIly understand how hard that kind of position is without ever attempting to take it from her. They have a terrific “court and spark” romance that just sizzles on the page. This is a series that i can’t wait to go back to.

One of the reviewers on Goodreads said that she came for the Elder Races and got sucked into the rest. I came for the Twelve Kingdoms and got sucked into the Elder Races. This a series to be added to the towering TBR pile and binged on as soon as manageable. One of the marvelous features of collections like this one is that readers get introduced to writers and series that they have not heard of, or in my case with the Elder Races, skipped because by the time I heard about it the series was already several books in. I’m happy for this introduction, even if I can hear the towering TBR pile groaning in the background.

Review: Big Sky, Loyal Heart by M. L. Buchman

Review: Big Sky, Loyal Heart by M. L. BuchmanBig Sky, Loyal Heart (Henderson's Ranch, #5) Format: eARC
Source: publisher
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: contemporary romance
Series: Henderson's Ranch #5
Pages: 256
Published by Buchman Bookworks on November 30th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

-a Henderson Ranch Big Sky romance-

Major Emily Beale struggles to excel in her new role as both mother and wife.

Colonel Michael Gibson’s career reaches a crisis, not that he’s talking about it.

Trainee military war dog Rip naps—he was named for Rip van Winkle, after all—while awaiting inspiration.

Film student turned cowboy Patrick Gallagher just keeps riding through life...until the woman of his dreams threatens to ride off into the sunset without him.

Recently retired war dog handler for Delta Force, Lauren Foster sets herself a simple mission: forget about the Army, get back to New York City, and try to be a civilian.

But first, Lauren must escape Montana before she gets caught by the Big Sky and a loyal heart.

My Review:

Big Sky, Loyal Heart may be the fifth book in the author’s Henderson’s Ranch series, but it calls all the way back to the first book of this author’s that I ever read, The Night is Mine, all the way back in 2012.

Not that one has to have read the entire oeuvre, or even all of the Henderson’s Ranch series to really fall in love with this one, but a little background might help.

As the long, overarching story stands in 2017, Mark Henderson and Emily Beale, the hero and heroine of the military suspense romance The Night is Mine, have moved on, not merely to the second chapter in their lives, but actually the third. In their second chapter, they flew firefighting hotshot crews to wherever the fires were hottest (and conducted a few secret quasi-military operations on the side) in the Firehawks series.

After that chapter, they have moved back to Mark’s family ranch in Montana, where they provide cabins, horses, and guides for guests, as well as jobs for some of their fellow special operations veterans.

Big Sky, Loyal Heart is all about one of those veterans, and the cowboy she falls for. Right after he falls into a mud puddle.

Lauren Foster has mustered out of Delta after 15 years. She left with a dog-sized hole in her heart that she doesn’t know if she can ever fill, a humvee-sized load of guilt and whole lot of confusion.

Jupiter was killed by enemy action. But it was action that he should never have been in. The order was wrong. Lauren knew it. Even the dog knew it. But Lauren followed orders, and Jupiter followed orders and now he’s dead. And Lauren has had enough.

But as she stands on the tarmac at Ft. Bragg with no clear direction for her return to civilian status, Colonel Michael Gibson swoops her up and tells her to follow him. He was her commanding officer in Delta, so she follows in his wake, all the way to Montana and Henderson’s Ranch.

She has no idea why she’s there. She has no idea why Gibson is there. And less than no idea why he brought her with him.

Lauren Foster expects to go home to New York City and surf her brother’s couch until she figures out what her civilian life is supposed to be.

It turns out that she’s already found it. She just doesn’t know it yet.

Escape Rating A-: This is just a terrific romance. I loved every minute of it, as I have pretty much everything I’ve ever read by this author, starting with The Night is Mine all those years ago.

This story rides on the backs of its two leads, Lauren Foster and her film student turned cowboy, Patrick Gallagher. While they both hail from New York City, they have found their respective ways to Montana by completely different roads.

Lauren is fascinating because she is one of this author’s trademark military women. She’s tough and strong and has spent years not showing weakness, trying to make everyone around her lose as much sight as possible of the fact that she’s female. She’s had to be “one of the boys” to earn the respect she’s needed to do her job, and it’s never been easy.

And yet she’s never a caricature or the stock character of the”strong heroine” that so often appears these days. She has her weaknesses and her flaws, she’s just used to hiding them. And she’s properly confused about why she’s at the Ranch and what she’s supposed to do with her suddenly open future.

Patrick is, in many ways, her opposite. He’s certainly her perfect foil. Where Lauren has been forced to tamp down all of her emotions, Patrick is charming and wears his heart on his sleeve for all to see. He also has a strong whimsical side. His background in film makes him see life, even his own life, as a movie, and he’s usually been cast as the comic sidekick in his own life. When Lauren drops into Montana, the ranch, and his heart, he has the chance to play the romantic hero, if he can just find a way to make the role fit for him.

Part of what makes this story, and so many of this author’s romances, work so well is that while Patrick is not anything like a ‘beta-hero’ he recognizes that Lauren is going to be the ‘alpha’ in their relationship – and he’s fine with that. There aren’t nearly enough heroines like Lauren, nor are there nearly enough heroes like Patrick. A romance where a strong woman finds a man who loves and respects her exactly as she is always appeals to this reader.

Although I have not read any of the previous books in the Henderson’s Ranch series, I have read most of the Night Stalkers and Firehawks books that came before it. It is marvelous to continue following Mark and Emily through their lives as they transition (more or less) from being elite soldiers to a still very active, but different, civilian life. And it was interesting to see Colonel Gibson, a background character throughout the Night Stalkers series and the hero of Bring on the Dusk, start changing directions in his life.

It’s always good to visit old friends.

Even if you haven’t dipped into the previous series (but do, they are all awesome) Big Sky, Loyal Heart is a lovely contemporary romance all on its own, and is complete in itself. But it will give you a yen to read the backgrounds of the marvelous crew that you will meet within its pages.

For those of us who have followed Mark and Emily through multiple series, there’s a hint at the end of Big Sky, Loyal Heart that their saga not only continues but moves into a new phase. I can hardly wait!

Review: Apollo 8 by Jeffrey Kluger

Review: Apollo 8 by Jeffrey KlugerApollo 8 by Jeffrey Kluger
Format: audiobook, eARC, hardcover
Source: publisher, publisher via Edelweiss, purchased from Audible
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: nonfiction, science history
Pages: 320
Published by Henry Holt on May 16th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The untold story of the historic voyage to the moon that closed out one of our darkest years with a nearly unimaginable triumph

In August 1968, NASA made a bold decision: in just sixteen weeks, the United States would launch humankind’s first flight to the moon. Only the year before, three astronauts had burned to death in their spacecraft, and since then the Apollo program had suffered one setback after another. Meanwhile, the Russians were winning the space race, the Cold War was getting hotter by the month, and President Kennedy’s promise to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade seemed sure to be broken. But when Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders were summoned to a secret meeting and told of the dangerous mission, they instantly signed on.

Written with all the color and verve of the best narrative non-fiction, Apollo 8 takes us from Mission Control to the astronaut’s homes, from the test labs to the launch pad. The race to prepare an untested rocket for an unprecedented journey paves the way for the hair-raising trip to the moon. Then, on Christmas Eve, a nation that has suffered a horrendous year of assassinations and war is heartened by an inspiring message from the trio of astronauts in lunar orbit. And when the mission is over—after the first view of the far side of the moon, the first earth-rise, and the first re-entry through the earth’s atmosphere following a flight to deep space—the impossible dream of walking on the moon suddenly seems within reach.

My Review:

Anyone who has lived in Chicagoland knows that while expressways may be designated official numbers from the DOT, no one ever calls them by those numbers. Highways in Chicagoland have names; the Ryan, the Kennedy, the Ike. And if you travel through Northwest Indiana, the Borman.

The Borman is named for Frank Borman, the native Hoosier who was one of the first three people to see the far side of the moon with his own eyes, up close and personal. Frank Borman was the commander of Apollo 8, the first mission by any country to send humans around the far side of the moon.

They may not have landed there, that honor was bestowed on Apollo 11, but they were the first humans to leave not merely the Earth, but to entirely leave Earth’s gravitational field and become temporary residents of a different celestial body, in orbit around the Earth’s moon.

Apollo 8 is the story of not just that one mission, but of as much as possible of everything that came before it. Frank Borman was not one of the original Gemini astronauts. He just missed inclusion in that celebrated group with the “right stuff”. He was, however, part of the second class of astronauts, merely referred to as the “next eight”.

It’s always the ones who get there first who get all the good names.

So this is the story of not just the crew of Apollo 8, Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders, and of their lives and careers in NASA up to that point, but it is also the story of NASA itself. Now that’s a story of “big science”, where there are many, many people who give significant portions of their lives to work together for what they hope (and in this case they were right) is a cause greater than themselves.

There are heroes here, too. Names we’re familiar with like Gene Krantz and Deke Slayton. (Krantz was the Mission Controller who helped bring Apollo 13 back from the brink.) But there are plenty of both sung and unsung heroes among this early corps of NASA movers, shakers and believers, and the author does a skillful job of weaving the parts that they play into the narrative of this one, singular mission.

It is also the story of America in the 1960s. While this book does not attempt to portray the entirety of that tumultuous decade – nor should it – within its narrow scope it does set the missions of NASA in general and Apollo 8 in particular into their historic context. Not just the story of what was done, but why it was done and how it felt to be a part of or even watch as it was done.

And to show why the space program was so important. What it did, and what it celebrated. And just how much was accomplished and how many people around the world celebrated with it.

Reality Rating A: I have a very soft spot in my heart for anything to do with NASA and the space program. I was a child during the 1960s, and the space program, its successes and its tragic failures, formed part of the backdrop of my earliest years.

We accomplished so much. We went so far, and we showed such promise. And now it seems to be gone. Not just the adventure itself, but the promise of the future it provided and the surprising amount of unity it engendered.

(Readers interested in a bigger picture of exactly what it means that we don’t go into space much anymore should read Leaving Orbit by Margaret Lazarus Dean)

Apollo 8, the book, does a terrific job at showing the importance, the risks and the rewards of Apollo 8, the mission. By focusing on the smaller perspective of the three astronauts, and particularly Borman, it allows the author to paint the broader picture in a way that allows readers to empathize with the people and to grasp the size and scope of NASA’s operation and how it worked – and how it occasionally didn’t with disastrous results.

So while the focus is on Borman, Lovell and Anders, this is also very much a book about “big science”. And like The Interstellar Age by Jim Bell, it does a good job of making that “big science” comprehensible. And makes the reader wish they could have been there.

I found Apollo 8 to be compelling reading, to the point where I began by listening on audio and then switched to print to see what happened faster, even though I already knew what happened. I was absorbed in the details and the perspectives. As glad as I was to have the crew get back safely, theirs was a journey that I never wanted to see end.

But it did. As did our journey with them.

I leave you with this iconic photograph taken from Apollo 8. Earthrise.

Review: Embrace the Romance: Pets in Space 2

Review: Embrace the Romance: Pets in Space 2Embrace the Romance: Pets in Space 2 by S.E. Smith, Carol Van Natta, Jessica E. Subject, Alexis Glynn Latner, M.K. Eidem, Susan Grant, Michelle Howard, Cara Bristol, Veronica Scott, Pauline Baird Jones, Laurie A. Green, Sabine Priestley
Format: eARC
Source: publisher
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: science fiction romance
Pages: 826
on October 10th 2017
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The pets are back! Embrace the Romance: Pets in Space 2, featuring twelve of today’s leading Science Fiction Romance authors brings you a dozen original stories written just for you! Join in the fun, from the Dragon Lords of Valdier to a trip aboard award-winning author, Veronica Scott’s Nebula Zephyr to journeying back to Luda where Grim is King, for stories that will take you out of this world! Join New York Times, USA TODAY, and Award-winning authors S.E. Smith, M.K. Eidem, Susan Grant, Michelle Howard, Cara Bristol, Veronica Scott, Pauline Baird Jones, Laurie A. Green, Sabine Priestley, Jessica E. Subject, Carol Van Natta, and Alexis Glynn Latner as they share stories and help out Hero-Dogs.org, a charity that supports our veterans!

10% of the first month’s profits go to Hero-Dogs.org. Hero Dogs raises and trains service dogs and places them free of charge with US Veterans to improve quality of life and restore independence.

My Review:

I loved the first Pets in Space collection, as well as all the pets collected therein, so I was happy to sign up for Pets in Space 2. And I’m glad I did.

This is a collection to savor, and possibly also one to plan on reading over a long trip. This book is huge. Why? Because this is not a collection of short stories, it’s a collection of novellas. Novellas are longer, meatier and just have room for more story all the way around. So if you like SFR in general or stories where animals help the humans get their romantic act together, this one is a winner from beginning to end.

I have to confess that I haven’t read them all, yet. I want to have time to get into each story, and possibly see how many books in each author’s series I need to add to my towering TBR pile.

That being said, I really enjoyed the stories I did read. But because this is my “best beloved” genre, SFR, I have a few quibbles.

I read the first two stories, Pearl’s Dragon by SE Smith and A Grim Pet by MK Eidem straight out of the gate, before I realized I had to pace myself a bit. I liked both of them, but Pearl’s Dragon spoke to me a bit more. It was fantastic to see a “woman of a certain age” as the romantic lead. That doesn’t happen nearly often enough, even though in science fiction it is easy to posit more than enough medical advances to make it not merely plausible, but very, very possible. And it’s fun to see someone I can really identify with as the heroine!

But both of these stories are in worlds that I am not familiar with, and that are several stories into their worldbuilding. As much as I enjoyed them, I always had the feeling that there was a whole bunch that I was missing because I hadn’t read the previous stories. Which look like a treat. As soon as I get a round tuit, I’ll be back to visit these worlds again.

I went hunting for a cat story, because, cats. I love cat stories, and cat’s stories, and that’s why I have two of my own. And I loved Rescued by the Cyborg by Cara Bristol, even though I have not read the series that it comes from, either. Little Mittzi added just the right touch of comfort and whimsy to a story that definitely had its dark and gritty moments. And Mittzi even saved the day!

Then I went looking for the stories in universes that was already familiar with, and explored two of those, Veronica Scott’s Star Cruise: Songbird and Pauline Baird Jones’ Time Trap.

Time Trap was a bit shorter than the rest, and just didn’t have quite enough time to deal with what feels like some very complex worldbuilding under the surface. And that’s ironic considering that this is a time travel story. I liked Briggs and Madison, but because I didn’t have a lot of background for them I found myself short-cutting what I did have and grafting it into universes I’m more familiar with. Something kept saying Stargate to me, but I’m not sure if that mental leap was remotely correct. Still, great characters, but the worldbuilding had clearly happened elsewhere. Sir Rupert, on my third hand, was an absolute hoot. Pun completely intended.

Of the stories that I read, I think that Star Cruise: Songbird was the best of the marvelous bunch. It probably helped that I have read several books in the Star Cruise series, and was relatively familiar with the worldbuilding. This story felt the most complete, in the sense that we had a chance to really see the relationship develop from its shaky start to its life-altering conclusion. The bond between Grant and his raptor was nicely done, and Karissa’s problems, while they were difficult, showed that she was dealing with her life and just needed a bit of help – not that Grant needed to rescue her at every turn. I also loved that they found a way to be together that melded both their worlds. A great story with a well deserved and interesting HEA.

Escape Rating A-: There are mostly hits in this collection, and plenty of temptation not just to immerse yourself in this book, but to go back and do a deep dive into every one of these authors’ worlds. I loved the first book, and this is a fitting continuation. I hope that there will be a Pets in Space 3 to look forward to next year, because this collection has become an annual treat.

Guest Review: Kith and Kin by Kris Ripper

Guest Review: Kith and Kin by Kris RipperKith and Kin by Kris Ripper
Format: eARC
Source: publisher
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: family saga, M/M romance
Pages: 438
Published by Brain Mill Press on June 20th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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What does it mean to have a family?
Singer and Lisa Thurman did everything right for their entire childhood. Their mother wanted a perfect life, and they knew how to fit that vision. Then they grew up. Singer came out of the closet and Lisa joined a cult. Singer and his partner are adopting a son. Unfortunately, all that practice being the perfect child didn't prepare Singer to be a merely adequate father. Lisa's just trying to get through the day. After three years in a cult, it’s almost impossible to leave her bedroom, so redemption is going to have to wait.
What does it mean to be a family?
When their mother shows up and attempts to reclaim the illusion of her perfect family,  old lives clash with new ones. Recovering from perfection is messy, complicated, and fraught, but the riotous clan that rises from the ashes is full of joy—and the best kind of trouble. A groundbreaking, honest, and provocative novel, Kith and Kin is contemporary family drama that grafts an entirely new species of family tree.
Family is what you make of it.

Guest review by Amy:

Singer Thurman and his long-time partner, Jake Derrie, have been looking to adopt a child for a while. This isn’t as easy for a gay couple, even in California, where they live, as it is for straight couples, but they’re making progress. Singer, who grew up in a very ordinary, mom-and-dad-and-two-kids family, is still adjusting to life with the Derrie clan, a boisterous and diverse bunch. Our tale opens with a knock on the door: Singer’s sister, Lisa. Having recently left a cult, Lisa is not in any kind of normal head space, and Singer immediately offers her the guest bedroom, for as long as she needs it.

Then Social Services calls; they have a foster placement that could easily become permanent.

Then Singer’s too-helpful, too-obtrusive mother shows up.

Escape Rating: A+. I want to be able to wax poetic about how this couple overcomes great hardship in some fashion to be able to adopt a child and forge a family out of the crucible of great tribulations. I’d love to be able to say how cool it is that we’ve got this book with so much diversity baked into it–an asexual heteroromantic, a gay white couple who adopt an African-American child and start going to a church with the baby’s grandmother, an older empty-nest couple rediscovering themselves and starting over. I’d be thrilled to tell you about the inspiring, uplifting moments in this book, the moments that show love winning over all adversity in the end. And Kith and Kin has all that, or I wouldn’t mention it. That kind of writing makes for exciting reviews, and makes everyone feel good.

The thing is, when I read this story, all of the people that author Kris Ripper shows us are…normal. Ordinary humans, with fears and wants and loves and desires just like the rest of us. Yeah, there’s a boisterous asexual woman who splutters around when she comes out to her friends, and our story focuses on a gay couple, but this doesn’t feel like “LGBTQ+ fiction” to me, at all. This is a story of a diverse group of family and friends, (some of whom are in the LGBTQ+ space) who are dealing with the struggles in their lives, and trying to make things better.

Jake and Singer struggle with their relationship dynamic when a new baby comes into the family, they fret about how to help Lisa, they’re exasperated by Mrs. Thurman’s self-centered antics, everything you’d expect. From cover to cover, once you figure out the big framework, this is a “slice-of-life” story, utterly predictable to the very end. Is that a bad thing? Quite the opposite.

In its ordinary-ness lies the great strength of Kith and Kin; it’s a tale we can “belong” in, a story that could just as easily be mine, or yours, or Marlene’s, or anyone else’s. This is a story about the struggles of real people. Watching Singer, who has always been so confident in so many ways, falling apart with all the stressors he suddenly faces, is such a familiar thing for me that I cried with him. When I watched him struggle to try to make sense of things, I struggled with him. When I saw Frankie trying to sort out her own asexuality, I blustered with her as she tried to explain it to friends and family. When Emery was trying to explain his kinkiness to Lisa, and trying not to scare her away from a relationship with him, I could feel his tension about it. The ending, of course, sees them all making progress, and solving things, just like you and I do, and the tale ends on a strong up-note. What makes this story great is that, almost certainly, you’ll find something in these pages that you identify with, even in the smallest way, and suddenly you become a fly-on-the-wall of a life that could just as easily be your own.

Here’s an example. Singer’s friend Kara (who has adopted multiple children with her husband, Vic) gives him a snippet of advice not too unlike the speech that my own mother gave me when my oldest daughter was small, and I felt overwhelmed and under-qualified:

But then I realized we’re all the same. All of us. The parents who have no problems conceiving, the parents who have their kids taken away, the parents who voluntarily surrender, the parents who are grandparents and aunts and uncles, and the parents who adopt. We’re all equally unqualified, and our kids need us anyway. Do the job. There’s no glory in it, most of the time, but I wouldn’t give up this family for any family I could have had in a different way, Singer, no matter how hard it was, how many tears I cried, how many times I hated myself, or hated Vic, or god help me, hated my kids…That’s the speech I wish someone had given me, in the black moments, when I felt like we were at a dead end.

See what I mean? Kith and Kin is overflowing with such moments; people talking to each other–or themselves–and working through the normal chaos of being an adult human, with the help of their loved ones. There are no amazing heroes here, no evil villains, no grand adventure, no impressive magic, no geeky science, no great mystery to solve. Just…people. People who could be any of us. For that reason, I give this book the strongest possible recommendation.

Review: Mitla Pass by Leon Uris + Excerpt + Giveaway

Review: Mitla Pass by Leon Uris + Excerpt + GiveawayMitla Pass by Leon Uris
Format: ebook
Source: publisher
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook,
Genres: historical fiction
Pages: 496
Published by Estate of Leon Uris on December 13th 2016 (first published July 1st 1988)
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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A “riveting” New York Times bestseller by the author of Exodus about an American in Israel drawn into the danger of the Suez Crisis (Library Journal). How did Gideon Zadok, an American novelist and screenwriter, end up pinned by artillery shells in Mitla Pass? It was never his plan to fight someone else’s war. He came to Israel to research a book, but also to escape a crumbling marriage, a dysfunctional family, and the pressures of newfound success in the States. But in fleeing from personal troubles he charged headfirst into one of the great global crises of the twentieth century. Perhaps Leon Uris’s most introspective work, Mitla Pass portrays a man caught between his own demons and the epic sweep of Middle Eastern history.

I still remember when I first picked up one of Leon Uris’ books. It was in the early 1970s, and I was at my grandparents’ apartment after Sunday School. As usual, my dad was arguing politics with my grandfather (his father) and also as usual, it looked like it was going to take forever. As usual. I discovered a beat-up copy of Exodus lying around, and started reading. I could always get lost in a good book, and I certainly got lost in this one. After devouring Exodus, I went back and read some of the author’s earlier books, like Battle Cry, and then picked up subsequent volumes as they came out, always certain of being swept away by a great story. QBVII turned out to be my favorite. I loved the ending.

So when the Estate of Leon Uris contacted me about featuring one of his books, it provided me with the opportunity to become re-acquainted with an author I had fond memories of. It was also a bit of struggle to find one of his books that I had not read. In the end, we settled on Mitla Pass (the only other possibility was The Haj. I had read everything else way back when).

Today seemed like the perfect day for this review. Yesterday, April 23, was annual Holocaust Remembrance Day at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, and Mitla Pass, like so many of the author’s books after Battle Cry, reflects both on the author’s Jewish heritage and on the scars left behind by the Holocaust, not just on the survivors but on the world that finally admitted the truth of the atrocities. In so many ways, the vast swath of death and destruction of the Jewish communities in Europe under the bootheel of the Nazis led directly to the formation of the State of Israel. And, in due historical course, to the story told in Mitla Pass.

My Review:

The story in Mitla Pass is told both in its present, late October 1956, and in its past, the past of all of the characters in the novel that led them to be part of that particular moment.

The main focus of the story is writer Gideon Zadok, who has come to Israel to write a book about the birth of the modern State out of the fires of Zionism and the ashes of the gas chambers. Gideon is an American who made his reputation as a writer on the strength of his best-selling book about his experiences as a Marine in the Pacific Campaign of World War II. (Any and all resemblances to the author of the book are probably intended).

After months of research, Gideon finds himself and Israel in the middle of a crossroads. He doesn’t think that he has quite captured the soul of the people. Of his people. And Israel is being squeezed on all sides by its Arab neighbors. The proximate causes of the 1956 Suez Crisis were Egypt’s embargo of Israeli shipping through the Suez Canal, and the English and French desire to take the Canal back from Egyptian control. The alliance between the Israelis and the English and French was very shaky, with everyone looking over their shoulders at probably interference from the Americans, the Russians, or both at any moment.

So Gideon, now somewhat trusted by the Israelis, gets himself attached to a paratroop drop into the western edge of the Sinai Peninsula. But the story really isn’t about that completely FUBAR’ed drop. It’s about everything that came before.

And it’s a marvelous story.

Escape Rating B: It is a marvelous story, and I was caught up in it until the wee hours of the morning. That’s part of what I remember about the author’s work – once you got sucked in, you stayed sucked until the end.

But the world has changed a bit since this story was written in 1988, and even more so since the period it covers, 1956 and the years that came before. And I’ve changed since the 1970s and 1980s, so there are things that bother me now that didn’t raise an eyebrow then.

Gideon’s own story is the one that carries the book, and he’s an absolutely captivating character. A charmer and a storyteller almost from the moment that he first draws breath. Also a cocky, egotistical, selfish, self-absorbed son-of-a-bitch. His thoughts about women in general, and his treatment of his wife and his mistress made me gnash my teeth on more than one occasion.

But what fascinated and disturbed me most, often in equal measure, is that Gideon is so clearly a fictionalized version of the author himself. Both were Marines in World War II, and fought the same battles and were injured in the same places and the same way. Both turned their experiences into best-selling books and later successful screenplays. Both were in Israel in 1956 researching books about the formation of Israel. At the ending of Mitla Pass, Gideon envisions his upcoming book and its first scenes extremely close to where Exodus begins and how Exodus opens.

It’s a little eerie. So eerie that I’m left wondering how much of the earlier history of the character mirrors the author’s own. And because of that I’m left pondering some of Gideon’s background. In particular, the book for the most part clips along at a very rapid and intensely readable pace, with one exception. The parts of the story that dive deep into Gideon’s family background, particularly the experiences of Gideon’s father Nathan, stop cold because Nathan is such a completely unlikable and unfortunately completely predictable character. Also incredibly annoying to read about. It makes me wonder if the author was describing his own father, possibly as a way of exorcising a few ghosts. And if that was so, based on the description, it’s hard to blame him.

Teeth-gnashing aside, I had a good time with Mitla Pass, obviously better than the characters stuck in that seemingly pointless battle. The vast historical background, from the shtetls of the 19th century Pale of Jewish settlement in Russia to the early 20th century Jewish community in Baltimore to the beginnings of Zionism to the brief flourishing of the Communist Party in America are fascinating. The cross-section of people, places and events keep the pages turning. It makes a very tasty goulash.

I’m glad I had this opportunity to revisit an author who I remember reading quite fondly, and my reading of his books in a time and place that exists now only in my memories.

~~~~~~ GIVEAWAY ~~~~~~

5 digital copies of MITLA PASS will be distributed to giveaway winners via Trident’s Digital Downloads page. Each giveaway winner will be given a separate download code that expires within 24 hours of use. Winners may download ebook files to the device of their choice; however, please note that these copies are not protected by DRM.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

To get a taste for Mitla Pass, read the opening excerpt, below the fold.

TEL AVIV
October 20, 1956
D DAY MINUS NINE

THE PRIME MINISTER’S COTTAGE, a remnant of the former German colony, sat unobtrusively in the midst of the outsized defense complex on the northern end of Tel Aviv. Midnight had come and gone. The stream of callers faded to a trickle, then halted.

For the moment David Ben-Gurion sat alone, his first opportunity all day for solitary contemplation. He was behind a desk that looked down a long conference table which was covered with green felt. Dead cigarette butts spilled over their ashtrays. The fruit baskets held spoiling apple and pear cores, grape seeds, banana skins, and peach pits, their fruit devoured. Half-empty soda bottles had lost their fizz and others, tipped over in disarray, appeared like a platoon of soldiers caught in a cross fire.

The cleanup crew of soldiers, two young men and two young women wearing top-security clearance badges, tiptoed in and attacked the mess.

“Can I get you anything—some tea?” one of the girls asked.

Ben-Gurion shook his head. It was a great head that seemed even greater perched on his short dumpling body. It was bald on top with an angry white mane flaring out in every which direction. The cherub face remained deceptively peaceful.

“Where are you from?” he asked.

“Morocco,” one of the girls said.

“Romania. I live at Moshav Mikhmoret.”

“South Africa. My family is in Haifa,” the second girl said.

“I am a sabra, Kibbutz Ginnosar.”

“Yigal Allon’s kibbutz,” Ben-Gurion said.

“Yes,” the soldier boy answered proudly.

Ben-Gurion’s head tilted and his eyes blinked. He was a past master at grabbing forty winks, a skill honed at a hundred Zionist conferences. When the crew departed it was nearly two o’clock in the morning.

The Old Man’s eyes fluttered open and became fixed on a single paged document awaiting his signature, the approval of a plan, Operation Kadesh, that would commit his young nation to war. Only eight years earlier he had signed another document, a proud document that declared statehood. Would there even be a ninth birthday, or would it all end in horror like a biblical siege with a final ghastly scene of a national massacre?

The past three weeks had been nightmarish in the speed and intensity of events: the secret meetings in Paris with the French and later the British and the clandestine agreement to go to war together … the return of Israeli officers who had been training in military academies and army specialty schools around the world … the call-up of reserves … the near-disastrous raid on Kalkilia to make the world believe that Jordan, not Egypt, was the enemy of record … French equipment arriving without spare parts … pressure from Eisenhower and the Americans mounting daily … dire threats from the Russians …

Operation Kadesh. How esoteric, Ben-Gurion thought. The biblical site in the Sinai where the Jews dwelled for a time during their wanderings with Moses.

Operation Kadesh needed a series of miracles to succeed. Every assessment was frightfully the same: Israel must win the war in the first four days. A prolonged conflict in which every Arab nation would join would be disastrous.

No small country goes to war without the support of a major power, yet David Ben-Gurion felt, in the depths of his being, that Israel’s partners, England and France, would falter, leaving her alone, outmanned and outgunned.

Israel must win the war in the first four days!

All sorts of things were going wrong as D day approached. The ordinance reports all but crushed the spirit: no spare steel matting to roll vehicles over the sucking sands of the desert … aged tanks being cannibalized, further reducing their already inferior armored force … rifles from Belgium not up to spec … no filters for the tracked vehicles to keep them from choking in the desert … a shortage of tank tracks, chains, pulleys, winches, flatbeds, four-wheel-drive trucks, repair stations, batteries, belts … an obsolete air force of World War II piston planes to face double the number of the latest MiGs owned by the Egyptians … no aircraft batteries to defend the cities against Egyptian bombers flown by “volunteers” from Poland and Czechoslovakia.

The orders to the brigade commanders were desperately simple. They said, in effect, “You have an objective. You must reach the Suez Canal in three days despite the resistance. You will not ask for reinforcements or further supplies for there are none available.”

Worse was the constant gnawing conviction that the British and French would quit. This would release divisions of fresh Egyptian troops to reinforce the Sinai. If France and England failed to bomb out the Egyptian airfields, Nasser could put his Russian-made bombers to work on Israel’s cities.

We must win the war in four days!

Two of the brigades must traverse over a hundred miles of semi-charted wilderness …

… and the 7th Battalion, the Lion’s Battalion, must be dropped deep into the Sinai behind enemy lines, exposed to a disaster, a sacrificial force. The Old Man had argued for hours with the Defense Chief of Staff, Moshe Dayan, to try to dissuade him from parachuting the Lion’s Battalion near Mitla Pass. Dayan was adamant. It was the linchpin of the entire operation, a maneuver to initially confuse the enemy, then stop Egyptian reinforcements. When the brigade linked up with the battalion, the combined force would wheel south to free the blockaded passage to the Red Sea. Yes, there was great risk—but try to engage in a war without risk.

Jacob Herzog, B.G.’s confidant and closest adviser on the campaign, entered the room with Natasha Solomon. Herzog was pale, in a scholarly way; an Irish Jew, the son of the chief Ashkenazi rabbi, with a magnificent religious and legal mind. He put all the late communications and a day’s summary before the Old Man.

Natasha Solomon set a batch of papers on the desk, translations of messages from the French. Even at this hour Natasha was a warming sight. She was one of those women who gained an extra dimension of beauty through weariness, a certain sensuality in the black rings of fatigue forming beneath her eyes, as if from exhaustion at the end of a day of lovemaking. She was softness itself, different from many of the roughhewn sabra and kibbutz women, groomed in a Middle European way that made the silk of her blouse float over her terrain and shout “female!” even at two in the morning. An all but forgotten memory flitted through the Old Man’s mind … a girl, long ago. Such a thing to remember at a time like this.

Ben-Gurion picked up the summary but his eyes were fatigued. He handed the papers to Natasha and waved her into a seat, then took up a pad and pen to jot notes as she read.

The British were being very cautious, very cagey, deepening B.G.’s distrust. Herzog tried to tidy up the day’s events, but new events were already overtaking them.

Both the Soviet Union and America were bogged down in their own problems. An American presidential election was to take place in a few days, and traditionally it was a good time to catch Washington off guard.

Revolts against the Russians were brewing in Poland and Hungary. The students in Budapest had rioted and the unrest was growing. Israeli intelligence estimated a Russian tank force would enter Budapest in a matter of days.

Herzog reckoned these events could give Israel a slight advantage. Russia and America might be slow to react to the Israeli attack on Egypt. If Israel could stall diplomatically for three days, her forces might reach the Canal and Israel’s part of the war would be over.

But America was certain to be outraged that her two closest allies, England and France, would initiate military action without advising them. As for the Soviets, they had to put on a barking show for their Egyptian clients.

“Is there anything at all we haven’t covered, Yakov? Anything … anything …”

Herzog pointed to the document setting Operation Kadesh into motion.

“Your signature,” he said.

Ben-Gurion would not quit, gleaning for the stray, minute detail that might have been overlooked. It all boiled down to the same thing. Gamal Abdel Nasser, the Egyptian president, was on a heady binge. He had seized the Suez Canal and evicted the British and French. He had closed the Strait of Tiran, at the tip of the Sinai Peninsula, to Israeli shipping. He had turned the Gaza Strip into one enormous terrorist base which violated the Israeli border hourly. He had massed a huge army in the Sinai armed with a larder filled with Russian weapons. The bottom line was that Israel had no choice other than military action—with or without the British and French.

He scribbled his name on the paper. His nation was at war!

Review: On the Sickle’s Edge by Neville Frankel

Review: On the Sickle’s Edge by Neville FrankelOn the Sickle's Edge by Neville Frankel
Format: paperback
Source: publisher
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: historical fiction
Pages: 474
Published by Dialogos on December 31st 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBook Depository
Goodreads

What we cannot keep. What we cannot lose.
A sweeping masterwork of love and loss, secrets and survival, On the Sickle's Edge is told through the voices of three characters who lay bare their family's saga: the endearing, scrappy South-African born Lena, transported to Latvia and later trapped in the USSR; her granddaughter Darya, a true Communist whose growing disillusionment with Soviet ideology places her family at mortal risk; and Steven, a painter from Boston who inadvertently stumbles into the tangled web of his family's past. Against the roiling backdrop of twentieth-century Russia and Eastern Europe, the novel delivers equal parts historical drama, political thriller and poignant love story.
On the Sickle's Edge takes the reader on a roller-coaster ride through some of the most tumultuous events of the 20th century. Instantly immersed in seven generations of the Shtein family, we witness their exhilarating celebrations and provocative controversies, and gain an intimate understanding of the pivotal events in South Africa, Latvia and the Soviet Union. Neville Frankel's ability to combine historical insight and human passion is spellbinding. I couldn't put it down. --Pamela Katz, The Partnership: Brecht, Weill, Three Women, and Germany on the Brink
In the hands of a masterful storyteller, On the Sickle's Edge pits the weight of an oppressive regime against individual tenacity and profound personal courage. Inspired by Frankel's own family history, this multi-generational epic holds up a mirror to a universal truth: all immigrants face the powerful tension between assimilation and cultural identity. We have--all of us--lived life on the edge of the sickle. --Rabbi Andrew Baker, Director of International Jewish Affairs, American Jewish Committee

My Review:

This book is many things, and all of them awesome.

At its heart, if feels like a fictional history of the Soviet Union, but not as is usually done in historical fiction, from the perspective of the movers and shakers. Instead, this feels like a story set among the “groundlings”, as they were called in Shakespeare’s day. Or a “lower-decks” story set on a ship, whether historical or science fictional.

In other words, this is view of life in the Soviet Union from the Revolution to Glasnost, as seen through the eyes of the people it was supposed to benefit, and so obviously in this case, didn’t. It’s not a pretty story, but it is a powerful one.

And as people say about life during the Depression, the average person didn’t really see themselves as deprived. They knew things were awful, that was kind of hard to miss. And everyone was afraid all the time, afraid of being watched, afraid of their neighbors, afraid of their thoughts, afraid of the “Organs” of state.

But it was all they knew, and it was all they were allowed to know.

The story in On the Sickle’s Edge has another side to it. In the case of Lena and her family, in addition to all of the things that everyday Russians were afraid of, they were afraid of the exposure of their big secret.

When the family entered Moscow during the chaos of the Revolution, they entered under forged papers. Those papers stated that the family were Russian peasants, displaced from their farm by the Revolution, but that was a lie. A big one. Instead, they were displaced Jews expelled from Latvia. In an act of intelligence and courage, mixed with a bit of perhaps cowardice, but mostly pragmatism, Lena’s stepmother Esther decreed that because everything terrible that had happened to them, and it was terrible, had happened because they were Jews, they would take this equally terrible opportunity to reinvent themselves as non-Jews.

In an act of self-effacement and self-abnegation, they did. Conditions in post-Revolutionary Moscow were bad for everyone, but worse for the Jews. If things are bad in general, they are always worse for the Jews in particular. Esther’s act saved her family, especially her children and step-children, at least for a while.

So Lena keeps the secret. Along the way, she loses her husband and her half-sister to the insanity of Stalin’s purges, and late in life finds herself raising her daughter’s child, Darya. And she survives. Lena always survives.

Escape Rating A: I finished this at 3 am. It started out well, but somewhere around the 20% mark it completely grabbed me and didn’t let go until the end. Possibly after the end. I’m still thinking about this one. And probably will for a while.

Although Lena is not the only narrator, it was her story that sucked me in. And that is fitting, as the story is told at least in part as her memoir. A clue to her ultimate survival that the reader completely loses track of in the midst of events. I wanted her to make it out, but there were points where I feared it would not be so, even knowing that it was.

Her story, from a briefly happy childhood in South Africa to the family’s return to Latvia, to being trapped inside Russia as the walls closed down paints a compelling picture. We are there with her through all the long years as conditions go from bad to worse to unsustainable, and yet we also see what sustains her, and how she survives those long years.

Some of the story is her granddaughter Darya’s, as Darya learns the secret yet continues to wear the mask of the Communist Party poster girl, complete with marriage to a party official. Like so many young women who think they are in love, Darya doesn’t listen to her grandmother’s instincts that her husband is a monster. But he is.

(Something in the description of Darya’s husband reminded me of Vladimir Putin. I don’t know whether that was intentional or not, but it certainly added to the chill factor)

This was a wonderfully absorbing story, and there is so much more to it that I’m tempted to get into, but will reach much too far into spoiler territory. For me, On the Sickle’s Edge also contained an element of “there but for the grace of G-d”. My mother’s parents emigrated to the U.S. from Western Russia probably around the time that Lena was born. They got out just in time. But this story could have been theirs, with all the calamities that followed.

And the echoes to current events absolutely chill me to the bone.

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Review: Leonard by William Shatner with David Fisher

Review: Leonard by William Shatner with David FisherLeonard: My Fifty-Year Friendship with a Remarkable Man by William Shatner, David Fisher
Format: audiobook, ebook, hardcover
Source: publisher, purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: autobiography, biography
Pages: 278
Published by Thomas Dunne Books on February 16th 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner first crossed paths as actors on the set of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Little did they know that their next roles, in a new science-fiction television series, would shape their lives in ways no one could have anticipated. In seventy-nine television episodes and six feature films, they grew to know each other more than most friends could ever imagine.
Over the course of half a century, Shatner and Nimoy saw each other through personal and professional highs and lows. In this powerfully emotional book, Shatner tells the story of a man who was his friend for five decades, recounting anecdotes and untold stories of their lives on and off set, as well as gathering stories from others who knew Nimoy well, to present a full picture of a rich life.
As much a biography of Nimoy as a story of their friendship, Leonard is a uniquely heartfelt book written by one legendary actor in celebration of another.

My Review:

Yesterday was NASA’s Day of Remembrance, in honor of all those who lost their lives in the quest for space, particularly the tragic losses of Apollo I and the Space Shuttles Challenger and Columbia.

Because so many people have entered the space program and the aerospace industry because they fell in love with the idea of space travel while watching Star Trek, William Shatner’s semi-biographical, semi-autobiographical book about his friendship with the late and very much lamented Leonard Nimoy seemed like an appropriate book for this week.

shatner nimoy youngTo this reader, it felt as if the book, while purporting to tell the story of Leonard Nimoy’s life, ends up combining autobiography with biography. These two men knew each other very well for a very long time, came from somewhat similar backgrounds, and found themselves yoked together, whether they liked it or not (and sometimes they did and sometimes they didn’t) by their performances in what everyone expected would be a short-lived TV program.

Instead, Star Trek became a phenomenon and none of the lives that it touched were ever the same. Particularly theirs.

Because Star Trek altered the trajectory of both their lives in ways that were both bizarre and profound, this book also serves as a personal recollection of the production of the original series. While many of these stories have been told before, it is still interesting to hear them again from someone who lived through those events.

A group which gets smaller and smaller every year. Dammit.

The other story that is told here is that of the life and occasionally hard times of a working actor in what is now considered the “Golden Age” of television. There is never a good time to be an actor. It’s a lot of tiny parts, short run work, and cab driving (in Nimoy’s case) or waiting tables or some other job that can be dropped and picked up on the whim of a casting director.

And even though these stories are now more than 50 years in the past, that struggle still resonates. The reader can see how those years formed the characters of the men who performed those iconic characters, and how much those characters both represented pieces of their core selves, and how much those characters influenced who they became.

For a fan, this is a fascinating story, all the more so because it rings so true in the author’s voice.

Escape Rating B+: Sometimes I talk about what I think about a book, sometimes I talk about what I feel. Fair warning, this is one of those “feelie” reviews.

I’ve been a Star Trek fan since the end of the original series. I watched some of those early episodes with my dad, so there are a lot of memories tied up in this for me. Also, the stories that Shatner tells at the very beginning of the book, about his and Nimoy’s shared background as first-generation Americans (or Canadians) in Jewish immigrant families is also the story of my parents’ generation. With very little alteration, my mother could tell similar stories.

As a fan, I read a lot of the “making of Star Trek” books that came out in the 1960s and 1970s. Many of the stories that Shatner relates were also a part of those books, but they are told slightly differently from one participant’s perspective than they were in those more “reporting style” books. Different both in the sense that we all remember things differently, and that it seems as if Shatner glosses over some of his behavior that drove his colleagues crazy at the time, and for years later. Some of the more contentious incidents seem to have faded from memory a bit.

We are all the stars of our own stories, possibly in this case more literally than for the rest of us.

This was a book where I both read the book in ebook, looked at the pictures in the hardcover, and listened to the audio. I would have the audio on in the car, and then pick up with the book at lunch and after I got home. One of the things that comes through on the audio is that the author often sounds tired. He frequently ran out of breath on the longer sentences. I kept wanting to tell him to take a breath in the middle, or grab a glass of water. I wanted to be there as he told his story.

shatner nimoy laughing lateIn the end, this is a book for the fans.It is way more about the history of Star Trek than any other single topic. As a fan, I found the story interesting and often charming. Perhaps I should say “fascinating” as Spock often did.

For readers who are not fans, or for later readers who are looking to find out what all the fuss was about, this is not a book that analyzes the influence of Star Trek or its characters on pop culture and the explosion of science fiction into movies, TV and mainstream literature. That’s a book for someone else at some other time.

But for those of us who loved those men and the show that they created, and which created them, this book is a marvelous way to remember them both.

As his most famous saying goes, Leonard Nimoy lived long and prospered. And he is missed.