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The Last Storyteller by Frank Delaney
The Last Storyteller

Sarena, February 8, 2012

There is nothing I like better than settling down with a good book. You know, the kind that not only has a great plot, but likable characters and good prose; one that will sweep you away to far off lands or time gone by. If you like this type of book then I highly suggest you read Frank Delaney’s The Last Storyteller.

The book is the last of his Irish historical fiction and in my mind the best. Delaney interweaves Irish mythology into a story set in the turbulent 1950’s Ireland. He goes back and forth, as all good storytellers do, taking his readers with him.

The book jacket suggests the book is about Ben, a collector of stories who finds himself caught up with rebellious gunrunners all the while trying to find his former wife and love his life the actress Venetia Kelly. If this name sounds familiar it is because she is the subject of Delaney’s previous book Venetia Kelly’s Traveling Show. Yet the book is much more than this, it is a wonderful collection of mythology that Delaney says he either collected or made up himself. You cannot tell which is which.

How to describe Delaney’s use of prose? This always eludes me when I am trying to convince someone to read one of his books. He is an author who can, in a few short words, describe a scene that would take others paragraphs. One of my favorite quotes from the book is from Ben as he sits in an Irish pub, “Using no energy, I eavesdropped on the silence around me, punctuated by snatches of idle conversation”. This is the type of style Delaney is famous for and why I continue to read his work.
If you ever sat at the feet of a great storyteller and were awed by his ability to hook you in and keep you, then I highly recommend The Last storyteller.
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Mornings in Jenin by Susan Abulhawa
Mornings in Jenin

Sarena, February 22, 2010

What I write pales in comparison to what you will find in the writing style and story within the pages of this book. If I could adequately describe how this book made me feel, I still would not do the book justice.
Mornings in Jenin is the story of four generations of Palestinians living through the birth of Israel and the never ending war that follows. The story centers on Amal, a women who is born in a refugee camp. Her story is one of loss, love and redemption.
I asked to review this particular book because I have always questioned the war between Israel and Palestine. I am torn between understanding the need for a permanent homeland after living through the horrors of WW2 and the way in which the country of Isreal was settled. When I was younger I would ask my elders to explain the actions of the two nations but try as they might, none could truly explain both sides. The issue of the two nations within one setting is very polarizing. I would hear about the Palestine terrorist but not the people. As a result I know little about the human story of Palestinians and thought this book may offer some insight into their world.
Abulhawa’s writing style is nothing short of amazing. Though this book is heartbreaking at every turn Abulhawa’s words sing out. Yes, they sing out and you as a reader are caught up in her song. Never mind that at times the pain becomes unbearable, the song of her words compel you the reader to stay with her. A little past half way I wanted to give up; there was too much death and heartache, but I stuck with it as the story needed to be told. As much as it hurt to hear it, this story does need to be told. We need to hear about the aftermaths of war. Not because we need to take one side or the other, but because we should pause before we pick a side. Abulhawa shows us that war scorches the lives of those who lay in the path of triumph. No one really wins in war expect death and pain as Abulhawa so vividly tells us.
After finishing the book I sat for a moment trying to collect my thoughts. A part of me disliked having to deal with the emotions and questions that washed over me while another part was so taken by the character and lives in Mornings in Jenin I was almost sad to have come to the end of the tale. For a few moments I was not sure if I could recommend this book or not as it is so full of loss but it dawned on me that one of the reasons I kept reading was because it opened my eyes to what real sadness and pain are. Sometimes we Americans get so caught up in our daily drama we tend to forget we are blessed, even when we are struggling. Mornings in Jenin will make you think, question and maybe cry. It is a testament to a people that before now had no voice. I highly recommend this book.
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Lady Macbeth by Susan Fraser King
Lady Macbeth

Sarena, December 17, 2009

How does one start a review of a book as well written and engaging as Lady Macbeth by Susan Fraser King? Should I start by telling the story of my high school senior English teacher who acted out the Shakespeare play Macbeth, thus starting my long obsession with the queen who desperately tries to wash blood from her hands or should I start by saying I am usually disappointed by historical fiction? How about a little of both.
During my senior year we were blessed with an English teacher who secretly wanted to act. When it came time to read Shakespeare Mr. Fraser (no relation to the author) taught us how to enjoy the bard’s prose by getting on his desk as he acted out the play. Watching Mr. Fraser act out a one man sword fight is a cherished memory I hope to always keep.
Lady Macbeth’s anguish over the death of King Duncan followed me through my life. I vowed I would never do something that would cause lifelong regret or sorrow. Many times in my 20s I would stop myself from doing something stupid by asking if this action would cause me to constantly want to wash it from my soul. Lady Macbeth kept me from causing myself mental scars. I never gave the person Lady Macbeth much thought, it was what she represented that stood out for me. To be honest I did not know she was a real person, I thought she and Macbeth were fictional characters or at least composites made up by Shakespeare.
As I started to seriously study Irish and English medieval history I wanted to complement my studies with historical fiction. As a lifelong reader I assumed I would fall in love with this genre, but sadly I am a critic of it. Oh I have my favorites; Peter Ellis’s Brother Cadfael, and Bernard Knight’s John Crowner, but more often than not I find issue with authors who are either so busy adding description the plot is ignored or the author feels no need to describe the times in which the book is set. King weaves a tight tapestry of both plot and character. King researched both Scotland and the Macbeths; her book shows just how well she accomplished this.
Lady Macbeth is the story of the last Celtic King and Queen of the Scots and the story of 11th century Scotland itself. Macbeth’s story is told as history, not as a tragedy; though I became so engrossed in their lives that the tragedy came because I knew there was only one ending to their story. The death of Macbeth was as upsetting to me as it was to Lady Macbeth as she talked of his last heroic effort to save Scotland from English rule.
Other reviewers have mentioned how the voice of the Scottish queen burns off the page, yet it bares repeating. King has written a character so life like, it is as if she and King spent many long hours together. If you appreciate strong female characters who are noble in the face of adversary and are strong when necessary then you will really appreciate this book.
When Macbeth kills Gruadh’s husband and takes her as his wife the book could have turned into the typical story of a man and women who dislike each other but somehow come to adore each other. King manages to write their story as it probably did happen, not how modern readers come to expect. As Gruadha rages over what has happened those around her accept it as a matter of fact. The people around her accept that Gruadha’s husband was an inept lord and that Macbeth was the better choice. Gruadha accepts her fate and the fate of her people because this was the norm. She and Macbeth slowly trust and respect each other. Though the reader is never privy to their private life, you do get the sense that these two people do love each other. As the end of the book nears it becomes harder and hard for Lady Macbeth to finish the tale as it means reliving the death of her husband.
Forget what you learned about Macbeth from Shakespeare; read this book for the characters and human drama. Read the book because it is one of those rare books that remind us readers why we spend so much time curled around our couches. I have to warn you, once finish this book finding your next good read will be a challenge.

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Entering Torah: Prefaces to the Weekly Torah Portion by Reuven Hammer
Entering Torah: Prefaces to the Weekly Torah Portion

Sarena, November 9, 2009

From the foreword” Studying the weekly Torah portion-Parashat hashavua- is an ancient Jewish practice that is in enshrined in codes of Jewish Law”. Whether you are a devote follower of the Jewish faith or someone like me who is not Jewish but wishes to learn more about the faith and the Torah Entering Torah is a truly remarkable book.
Three years ago I took a college class that was supposed to be a survey of world religion but ended up being a personal quest to learn more about Judaism. The history of the people, culture and religion appeals to me on a deeply spiritual level. I have read several books on Judaism and the Torah but this is the first book that explains what the Torah meant to those who wrote it and what it means to those who follow its laws today. Entering Torah is meant to be a study guide for the Torah and oh what a guide it is! Rabbi Hammer takes the reader on a journey through the Torah explaining in easy to understand terms the meaning behind the stories.
I had always wondered why G-d had to rest on the seventh day so imagine my delight when I read Rabbi Hammer’s explanation as to why this was written. G-d does not need to rest he explains but we do. For the workaholic this story illustrates the point that if G-d could take a day of rest so should man. I thought I understood the story of Cain and Abel as a lesson on anger and envy, yet Rabbi Hammer shows us there is much more to the story. “Every murder, says the Torah, is the murder of a brother. Every victim is an Abel, every killer a Cain. And the answer to the famous question ‘Am I brother’s keeper’? Is an emphatic yes” (Hammer, pg. 9). The book is 310 pages of lessons on the words of the Torah. The book brings the stories of the Torah to life and had me opening my copy of the Torah to re- read the stories with a better understanding and appreciation for them. This is the highest compliment I can give Rabbi Hammer, through his book I have learned to appreciate the Torah and what it teaches more than I had before I read his book.
This is a must have book for those who want to seek a better appreciation for the lessons found in the Torah. I would even encourage those Christians who understand the origins of what they call the Old Testament to read this book. I started the book one evening thinking it might take me a while to read, but found myself so lost in it that I finished it in three days. Rabbi Hammer is an excellent writer, his voice jumps from the pages. I felt as if he was sitting next to me engaged in a weekly lesson.
At the end of the book Rabbi Hammer says “Reading the Torah is a lifelong task, on that never ends. We no sooner finish the last book than on the very same day we begin the first one again, over and over”. I have to add that the same can be said of Entering Torah, I will read this book again and again finding new meaning in the Rabbi’s words.
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Persona Non Grata: A Novel of the Roman Empire by Ruth Downie
Persona Non Grata: A Novel of the Roman Empire

Sarena, August 22, 2009

Normally when I read a historical fiction novel the book is set in Medieval England, but a few months ago I found a series set in England (Britannia back then) during the Roman occupation. I read the first two in a matter of weeks but was not sure I would read the third; the second seemed a little bit of a disappointment. As fate would have it, I won a copy of the third from the publisher and just finished it this morning. I would have finished it last night had my eyes not finally given out.

Persona Non Grata is Ruth Downie’s finest installment of her Gaius Petrius Ruso series to date. Ruso is a medic (before there were proper doctors and surgeons we had medics) working with the Roman military.

Downie’s writing skills have sharpened since her first novel The Medicus. Here in Persona Non Grata we get fully fleshed out secondary characters, a great plot line and some really great scenes. My favorite scene involves Tilla leading a prayer at a secret Christos meeting. I almost laughed till I cried. We get to meet Ruso’s family including his ex-wife Claudia. The characters are all well written and often just as interesting as Ruso and Tilla. I came away understanding why Ruso would travel to the barbaric world of Britannia; with his family I would have too!
This time the mystery hits very close to home and so it made perfect sense as to why Ruso would investigate it. I applaud Downie for having written evil characters that mirror some of our own Wall Street swindlers (though I admit I do not know of any wall street swindlers that have committed murder…yet). I get sick of bad guys who are so far gone that they do not seem in any way plausible. Many authors forget that even the bad guys have to connect with the reader on some level. Here though the characters are mere shadows and not fully fleshed out they are understandable. Greed turns many men bad.

The only complaint I have with this series is the relationship between Ruso and Tilla his slave/girlfriend. I have written about this before but it bares repeating. The relationship just does not work for me. Downie does not work on the chemistry between the two. I know Ruso is really attracted to Tilla for her beauty but other than that I see no reason why these two are together. Fans of the series will be happy with the outcome of this book but it left me wondering why Downie did not spend a little more time developing chemistry between the two. Without giving too much away, I would have liked to have seen at least one sappy moment between the two or at least a scene in which Ruso finally figures out that he loves Tilla and tells her so. This would have made the ending all that much more satisfying and leaving this reader wanting more.

I hope Downie continues to write as I look forward to watching her evolve as a writer. If you have not yet read this series you are missing out. I highly recommend it to everyone who likes historical fiction.
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