Code Name Verity

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This is an attempt at reviewing Code Name Verity without giving too much of the plot away.

Code Name Verity is a novel by Elizabeth Wein which was pointed out to me by Cari Hunter in the interview I posted on this blog a month ago. It has been categorised as a YA novel but I honestly believe it is a very restricting label. Code Name Verity deserves a wider and older audience and has the potential of a classic.

‘I am a coward. I wanted to be heroic and I pretended I was. I have always been good at pretending.’

These are the opening lines of the novel. The narrator is Queenie. She’s a Scottish aristocrat who was arrested when she looked the wrong way (left, in true British manner) before crossing a street in France. She is now detained by the Gestapo in a former hotel near Poitiers, and forced to write a confession detailing the British war effort.

Through her crafty and witty confession, she tells the story of her friendship with Maddie, a working class Mancunian of Jewish descent and the pilot who dropped her in France, and the saga that brought her to France.

In the second part of the novel, the point of view shifts to another character and the story takes on a totally different meaning.

Code Name Verity is not just a war story. It is primarily a book about friendship, about love, about the powerful and mutual attraction, the gut-wrenching trust and the unfailing loyalty between two young women who in normal circumstances would never have met.

If you like good and well-researched writing, clever humour and strong heroines, you will love Code Name Verity. But be warned: it is a book that will bring tears to your eyes and will still haunt you long after you have read the last page.

Quotes from Code Name Verity:

It’s like being in love, discovering your best friend.

‘We’re still alive and we make a sensational team.’

I am no longer afraid of getting old. Indeed I can’t believe I ever said anything so stupid. So childish. So offensive and arrogant. But mainly, so very, very stupid. I desperately want to grow old.

Snowbound

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Whether it is the author’s exceptional writing talent, the fact that we have had an uncommonly snowy winter, or a combination of both, but when I started reading Snowbound by Cari Hunter I was immediately drawn into the atmosphere and the plot.

Snowbound is set in the fictional English village of Birchenlow, in the Peak District during a heavy snow storm. Police Officer Sam Lucas and her partner Mac are called on the scene of a robbery. The burglary turns sour, Sam is injured and taken hostage in the middle of nowhere.

When one of the criminals calls and asks for help lest his younger brother might die, Dr. Kate Myles volunteers to go and assist him as well as Sam in the cold and isolated barn where the latter is held captive by the increasingly desperate and dangerous pair.

I do not want to spoil the story for you; suffice is to say that the two women connect in a way they had not anticipated. Sam is still bruised by her former relationship while Kate never seemed to have envisaged that there was more to life than her job and her cat.

I thoroughly enjoyed Snowbound. The novel is fast-paced and well-written. The characters feel real and true-to-life, the kind of women we might actually run into.

Interviewing a Writer – Clare Ashton

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I had never heard about Clare Ashton until I read the following review of her novel After Mrs Hamilton at C-Spot Reviews. I added the book to my Amazon wishlist and downloaded it to my iPad a few weeks later. I was hooked right from the beginning and couldn’t put it down.

Because I had really enjoyed it, I thought I’d contact Clare Ashton about an interview for my blog. She accepted immediately and emailed her answers back within a couple of days. She was also most patient with me when I asked further questions. I hope you will enjoy the interview and that it will encourage you to read her books.

Clare Ashton, can you introduce yourself in a few words?

I’m a UK writer who writes stories with suspense, romance, intrigue and humour and an awful lot of lesbians. I also add (not always intentionally) a dash of something darker that can make readers feel uncomfortable. I grew up in mid-Wales where sheep outnumber humans, so a significant countryside setting is never far away in my writing.

As a child and teenager what were the books that made an impression on you?

I read very widely as a kid from The Hobbit and Lord of Rings, Dune and other sci-fi to (later in my teens) Jane Austen classics and Anna Karenina. I think I had a higher standard of reading back then than I do now! Nothing better than curling up with a good trashy romance these days. I also stole books from my parents’ bookshelves by Tennessee Williams (The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone) and Françoise Sagan (Bonjour Tristesse) – wonderfully different tales of love that have stayed with me over the years.

Who are your favorite authors today and do you think their writings influence your own?

As an adult, I think the books that made their greatest impression were The Secret History (Donna Tartt), Fingersmith (Sarah Waters), The Blind Assassin (Margaret Atwood) and the Tales of the City series (Armistead Maupin) – all books with a great twisting story and that has definitely influenced the kind of story I like to write.

I always seem to add a surprise or two and sometimes have a little bit of an edge and darkness too. On the other hand I still re-read Jane Austen. A review of After Mrs Hamilton has some very un-Austen like elements), I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised.

Who are your favorite lesbian authors?

Sarah Waters must come top. I usually find books that revel in their descriptive passages a bore, but she just does it sublimely and her writing makes me drool. She also has real, vivid and compelling characters and my favourite novels of hers have a brilliant twisting tale too. It’s wonderful that someone of her calibre writes lesbian novels.

I’m a sucker for a good romance too. And of the books I’ve read recently Chris Paynter’s Survived by Her Longtime Companion definitely had that kick to the gut, choke-you-up element in the Eleanor and Daphne storyline. I also love Diana Simmonds’ light romances written in her expert and witty style. She makes writing look like it’s the easiest thing in the world.

Is After Mrs Hamilton your first novel?

It’s the first novel for which I completed a first draft. It’s a complex tale and that draft had several problems with it that I didn’t know how to fix back then.

I moved on to a shorter tale (Pennance) to improve my writing skills. Pennance has a much simpler plot although still with a twist and turn. It’s more dominated by the atmosphere of its wintery setting in Cornwall and it’s been described as a modern gothic romance.

After I’d published Pennance I went back to rewrite After Mrs Hamilton. I was also very lucky to work with an editor (Diana Simmonds) and that was crucial for me sorting out that early draft and making it the story that I always wanted it to be.

What inspired you to write your first book?

After Mrs Hamilton was the kind of book that I wanted to read: a page-tuner, with twists and turns, fascinating lesbian characters and a great dollop of romance and sex. All tastefully done of course!

Would you say that you write lesbian fiction or novels where lesbians are the main characters?

After Mrs Hamilton is unapologetically a lesbian book, just by the sheer number of lesbian characters in there. Pennance I think is more a mainstream book, set in a remote rural setting with a broad range of heterosexual as well as lesbian characters.

Did you know right from the start that you wanted to write this sort of novels?

No, I didn’t. It’s only been recently that someone told me that I was writing intrigue-romances. I only set out to write an interesting story.

Does it make a difference to be a British and/or a European author?

I love the fantastic differences in regional flavour that you get between continents and indeed between regions in a country. One thing I think UK writers are particularly good at is literary works which appeal to the mainstream and have lesbian main characters (novels by Sarah Waters, Jeannette Winterson, Charlotte Mendelson, etc.).

It’s a pity that there is less lesbian genre publishing in the UK though. Most lesbian writers that I know of tend to be published by US publishers, and although I love their work (Cari Hunter’s excellent and gripping – Snowbound for example), I wonder if there would be more esoteric works available if there were more lesbian publishers here. It’s great to see other indie writers doing well in the UK, such as Kiki Archer and Rachel Dax, and I hope that indie writers extend the range of work available.

(I edit the uklesfic blog with Cari Hunter and you can find a list of all current UK lesbian authors here)

How did you conceive the plot for After Mrs Hamilton?

It started with a character, Clo, who works as a highly paid and sympathetic escort for older women. She was a character who had been kicking around my head for a while, and I’m very fond of her, and I wanted to give her the greatest romance and love.

She had an interesting background, but then I weaved in her best friend Laura’s background too. Laura was adopted and doesn’t know who her parents are and she is also on the cusp of a life-changing relationship. Combining those really made the story very interesting. It evolved from there over several weeks of outlining and living through scenes in my imagination – my favourite part of writing (daydreaming I suppose!)

Did you draw your inspiration for the main characters (i.e.Clo, Fran, Susan) from real life? Or did you totally invent them?

Clo was initially based on a couple of people I know very well, but as with all characters, the more I outlined and wrote the more she changed into a distinct character with her own voice, mannerisms and personality, so much so that I hope the original inspirations do not recognise her.

Fran, a fantasy older love interest, was based on gorgeous French actresses like Catherine Deneuve and Fanny Ardant with a bit of Kristin Scott-Thomas thrown in. But again, to me, she is unrecognisable now and is just Fran

Do you have a favourite character in this novel? Which one?

One of Clo or Fran. They are both real, damaged, attractive and fascinating. I love those two and they have the most deeply romantic history and relationship (albeit a little unconventional).

How has the novel been welcomed so far?

People have really liked the twisting tale, and like me, have found the complex characters of Clo and Fran intriguing. Some loved Fran, as an attractive but real older (mid-fifties) heroine, others liked the damaged, quirky and loving Clo.

Readers have also found the tale of Laura very thought-provoking and made them react very emotionally to her and Susan. After Mrs Hamilton is a very charged tale. It’s a collision of several people who didn’t know they were previously connected and the outcome is emotionally explosive and dramatic.

Most importantly someone said it was just “a bloody good read”. So I’m pretty pleased with that!

I noticed that food is mentioned in both novels and plays an important role in the bonding process between the characters. Is this how you see food?

Yes, I do see food, its preparation and eating together as important for bonding in various social situations. In the books I meant it to reflect the low emotional state of the characters when they eat poorly and then to show the support and love that is introduced into their lives by the character preparing the more nourishing food. Clo in After Mrs Hamilton is a giving and loving character and her expertise with patisserie and other cuisine reflects this. Her ability to choose perfect food for people reflects her versatility as an escort – she satisfies people’s very basic needs in a rich way.

Are you currently working on a new book? Would you mind telling us a little about it?

When I was writing After Mrs Hamilton, I kept having ideas for short stories, which was very distracting. There are a couple of those ideas that are still demanding to be written. No doubt I’ll start having ideas for novels as soon as I try to write them!

Thank you Clare for your availability and your time.

NB: Both novels have Kindle editions

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Pesach Post 5 – Soaring from the Mundane

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I believe there are two main reasons numerous people (myself included) dread the P holiday. Ironically they both start with a ‘p’ too.

– Preparations:

Pesach cleaning is not exactly the most uplifting activity in the world. Neither is koshering utensils for the holiday.

Shopping for Pesach is quite stressful too since it involves numerous changes in the shopping list and a lot of label-reading.

– Privations:

Have you noticed how you crave for fresh bread during those eight days, even if you are not much of a bread eater? Not to mention the urge for cakes and biscuits!

As a result we might easily forget that the whole point of Pesach is not so much the preparations and the privations as the reasons why they are necessary. Here are a book and a link that might help you (re)connect to this spring festival.

Slavery, Freedom, and Everything Between: The Why, How and What of Passover is a new little book that can help you see the religious relevance of the different components of Pesach – such as the search for chametz or what it means today to see ourselves as if we were leaving Mitzrayim – through a series of short and engaging essays by various Jewish contributors. It is a perfect book for getting new insights into the holiday that can help us soar from the mundane to the spiritual.

All proceeds from the sale of this book support the work of Mazon: A Jewish response to Hunger.

New London Synagogue Pesach 5773 Guide: practical guidelines as well as spiritual insights into Pesach.

Old Book Revisited

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Don’t we all have books we like to revisit once in a while? Books that have inspired us, that we have enjoyed and read several times. They are sitting on our bookshelves ready to be picked up and enjoyed again. For me such book is How to Run a Traditional Jewish Household by Blu Greenberg. I picked it up last night for reference and realised that I had never written about it on this blog.

How to Run a Traditional Jewish Household deals with religious observance from a Modern Orthodox point of view. Blu Greenberg explores the different mitzvot and how she and her family observe them. It falls into three parts. The first one is devoted to regular observance such as Shabbat, Kashrut and prayers. The second one examines the life cycle while the last one covers the Jewish year.

Don’t be put off by the title; How to Run a Traditional Jewish Household is certainly one of the most inspiring books I have ever read. I discovered it by chance via the Internet and have read it several times. It reads like a novel and is thought-provoking at the same time. Blu Greenberg’s approach is extremely sensitive and has none of the holier-than-thou tone of more recent right-wing Orthodox writings. This is a great book which encourages people to be more observant by showing that it is possible to incorporate meaningful practice into one’s life.

Blu Greenberg is the co-founder and first president of JOFA, The Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, and an outspoken woman on the position of women in Judaism.

How to Run a Traditional Jewish Household was first published in 1985 but has not aged one bit. Obviously it has become a treasured and authoritative reference as there now exists a Kindle version of this book.

A Practical Guide to the Laws of Kashrut

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A Practical Guide to the Laws of Kashrut by Pinhas Cohen is a short and user-friendly guide which mainly deals with the technicalities of keeping kosher.

The book was written by Rabbi Pinchas Cohen, a faculty member at Yeshivat Har Etzion in Alon Shevut, Israel and is published by Koren Publishers in Jerusalem. His teachings are based on the classes he gave to foreign students at the Yeshiva.

A Practical Guide to the Laws of Kashrut is organised along clear topics:
– Meat and Milk
– Immersing Utensils
– How to Kasher a Kitchen
– Using Appliances in a Kosher Kitchen
– Insects in Food
– Gelatin
– Food of Non-Jews
– Glatt Kosher Meat
– Kashering Liver
– Kashrut of Eggs
– Separation of Challah
– Separation of Tithes

In addition there is a glossary at the end which provides definitions for most of the Hebrew terms used by the author. And footnotes are found at the bottom of each page for references and sources; a clever layout since notes at the end of a book often prove to be impractical.

The author provides guidelines that are both clear and comprehensive without ever getting wordy. When poskim differ, the author shares the various alternatives, including more lenient options when the latter are available within the boundaries of Halakhah. Moreoever he distinguishes between Sephardi and Ashkenazi minhagim when this is relevant.

The book does not deal with the very basics of kashrut but covers a range of questions that frequently arise in the home or to the modern traveller. Rabbi Pinchas Cohen also tackles more complex issues, some of which I know I’d find find useful to accommodate a more observant host.

A Practical Guide to the Laws of Kashrut by Rabbi Pinchas Cohen belongs to the Jewish bookshelf. This book is a perfect gift to the student who leaves home for the first time to go to college. It is also a very accessible guide for every day use or intelligible references.

The Red Book

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I first read about The Red Book by Deborah Copaken Kogan via a review on The FT where the plot caught my attention.

Four former female Harvard roommates – members of the class of ‘89 – are about to attend their 20th reunion. Obviously such a meeting involves some kind of life assessment which has the potential to lead to unpleasant realisations as the characters are reminded of whether and how their dreams have materialised or faded away.

When you are a Harvard alumna, a place where the bar is set so high, the tension between keeping up appearances and being true to thine own self is bound to generate some kind of frustration and unhappiness.

As the plot unfolds and shifts from one character to the next, we gradually get more insights into their lives during the past twenty years.

When Mia graduated from Harvard, she had hoped to be an actress but one child led to the next and she is now the stay-at-home mum of three poised sons and a baby daughter. She is married to Jonathan, a successful but much older Hollywood director, and they have a house in California and one on the French Riviera. Mia is active at her local chapter of Planned Parenthood and in the soup kitchen of their synagogue.

Clover has only recently got married. She used to work in the mortgage backing department of Lehman brothers until the company went bankrupt. Currently she is unemployed and living off her past earnings. She is currently struggling with fertility issues. Half-black and half-white, Clover comes from a very different kind of background. She lived with her mother on a commune with hippies and as a result was witness to all sorts of very-70s experiences and was home-schooled until entering Harvard.

Addison comes from a very privileged background; generations of people who have attended Harvard. She had planned to be an artist and had a significant relationship with a woman before deciding to marry into her own social sphere and have children. Her husband is a narcissistic writer who has only ever written one book. They live off of their trust funds though she has recently discovered that this money has been mismanaged. Parenting doesn’t come naturally to Addison and she rarely sets limits to her children who have turned out to be rather wild and unpleasant teenagers. Her marriage is in dire straits and the couple have reached a point where they can no longer stand each another.

Jane is of Vietnamese descent and still has to make sense of her fractured world.. She saw her whole family die during the Vietnam war. An American army doctor decided to adopt her and she was raised lovingly by him and his wife though he died very soon after she arrived in the US. Currently, Jane lives in France and is a foreign correspondent for the Boston Globe. Her first husband was a reporter and was killed during an assignment in Afghanistan leaving a daughter, Sophie, behind. She is now living with Bruno, her husband’s best friend. But when she learns that her deceased husband, her current lover, and her deceased mother all had affairs, she is forced to face realities she’d rather have ignored.

The title refers to the Harvard Red Book, a book which is published every five years by the Alma Mater and sent to its alumni. Each former student sends in a personal update a few months before publication which then becomes an entry in the Book.

The Red Book by Deborah Copaken Kogan is a well-written and engaging book. The characters feel true-to-life; they are people I could identify with or recognise. I think this might be the case for a lot of educated women who attended college some time ago and believed then that options were unlimited.

Living a Year of Kaddish: A Memoir

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The day after he celebrated his 50th birthday, Ari Goldman got a call from Israel announcing his father’s death. Goldman could not attend the funeral but he tore his shirt and began the Jewish bereavement process. He sat shiva for his father for only one day, since Sukkot started the following day but decided to undertake the mourning ritual of saying kaddish for his father (as required by Jewish law). He also proceeded to write the story of his year of kaddish in Living a Year of Kaddish: A Memoir.

In traditional Judaism, as part of the Jewish mourning ritual, the sons (and some argue the children) of the deceased are expected to say kaddish (a prayer praising God) every day during the morning, afternoon, and evening prayer services for 11 months, with a minyan (a group of 10 men in Orthodox Judaism).

Ari L. Goldman is a professor of journalism at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, a former New York Times journalist and the author of three books, including The Search for God at Harvard.

The book is broken into sections for each season of Goldman’s kaddish. He writes about his family, his beliefs and his thoughts about death and about being survived by his own children.

‘For me, kaddish, was as much of a chain as it was a prayer. It was a chain that in some way continued to connect me to my parents, and will some day connect me to my children.’

His relationship with his father was complex. As his parents had divorced when Goldman was a young child, they had never been very close. In addition Ari’s father had moved to Israel when he was 70 years old but because his father had been a devout jew, Goldman is aware of how much he owes him.

The divorce had had a strong impact on Goldman and he was still trying to come to terms with it even as an adult.

‘I was, for the first time in forty-years, no longer the child of divorce. Being the child of divorce had significantly shaped the person I had become (…). I clung tenaciously to Orthodox Judaism, the faith of both my parents, as one would cling to an ancestral home, because, with divorce, there is no ancestral home.’

Goldman had lost his mother four years before, and during his year of saying kaddish for his father, he compares and contrasts the grieving process for each of them; he also looks at how his mourning affects his role as a father, a brother and a husband.

Living a Year of Kaddish: A Memoir is not just about mourning a deceased father, it is about being the member of a religious community, about your responsibility in being part of a minyan so that your fellow Jews can fulfill this mitzvah too, about the other people you meet because they are also saying kaddish for a parent – including a Conservative woman.

‘Every one of the people I got to know in my year of kaddish has stayed with me. Each experience shaped me…each person and each experience helped mold my consciousness about life and death and prayer.’

Living a Year of Kaddish: A Memoir is a profound and touching personal narrative about mourning a parent. It is also book that strongly emphasises the relevance of this traditional Jewish ritual for today’s Jews.

‘To me, kaddish is more for the living than the dead.’

For more information on kaddish:
Kaddish, a Memorial Prayer in Praise of God, by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin
Women and Kaddish, by Rabbi J. Simcha Cohen
Women and Kaddish, by Barabra Gaims-Spiegel

Alix & Valerie

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I decided to read Alix & Valerie, a novel by Ingrid Diaz, after reading a review on For the roses. I was ready to enjoy this book and was not disappointed.

Alix is a twenty year old theatre and film student who has been in love with her best friend for years. The latter is about to get married and Alix is ready to feel wretched for the rest of her life until another friend takes her to a club one evening. There she meets Valerie – part time student and bartender – and her horizon suddenly widens.

Alix feels attracted to Valerie and soon realises that there is more to life than unrequited love and feeling miserable. A relationship develops but then Alix discovers that Valerie has not told her the whole truth about herself.

It dawns on Alix that things will never be the same whether with or without Valerie yet she feels cheated and confused and is not sure what she now wants from life. As for Valerie falling in love was not on the agenda but now that she has she needs to deal with conflicting plans and desires. Both women are faced with the ultimate question: is it possible to salvage a relationship that started off on false assumptions?

The novel falls into three parts. At first, the plot unfolds from Alix’s perspective. When the dark truth is revealed, the story is told from Valerie’s point of view. In the last part both viewpoints alternate. This device allows us to share both characters’ emotions as well as to understand Valerie’s motives. A third person narrative would not have achieved the trick so effectively.

The characters are endearing and realistic. It is only too easy to identify with Alix and her lack of confidence as she goes through the different stages of their relationship. Her feelings of insecurity and exhilaration make her real, believable and cute.

The dialogues are witty and cleverly crafted. At times they provide a most welcome dramatic relief.

Last, but not least, the seaside-lover in me enjoyed the role played by the sea in Alix & Valerie and found the beach scenes very evocative and powerful.

Astrid & Veronika

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Astrid & Veronika by Linda Olsson– a Swedish author who lives in New Zealand – is a wonderful story about the unlikely friendship between two different women and how they share life stories and become friends told over a few months.

Veronika is in her early thirties. She rents a house in a small remote Swedish village to complete a book and recover from her recent past. Her nearest neighbor is Astrid, an 80-year-old recluse nicknamed the village witch.

While Veronika has traveled almost her entire life, Astrid has spent most of her life under the same roof. Yet both women are lonely and step by step they become friends.

As trust develops between them, each woman slowly starts sharing her own secrets and sorrows. The narrative focuses on Veronika and Astrid alternatively, thus inviting us to share the women’s feelings and perspectives. Eventually both characters come to terms with their pains and are able to move forward in their own ways.

The rhythm of the novel is slow reflecting the author’s love of poetry but it never becomes tedious. It is also deeply rooted in Swedish folk culture with frequent evocations of the country’s landscapes, flowers, berries as well as food.

Last but not least, the book contains numerous quotes from different poets and introduced me to the powerful poetry of Karin Boye.