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Monday, July 30, 2018

The Deadliest Fever (Miriam Bat Isaac #4)--Reversing My First Impression

I accepted an invitation to review The Deadliest Fever, the fourth in the Miriam Bat Isaac historical mystery series recently.  The invitation was made by Destiny Brown, a tireless promoter of indie books on Goodreads.  I read all of Destiny's promotional posts.  I figure it was inevitable that one day my interests and hers would intersect.  So I clicked on her link to Net Galley's page for The Deadliest Fever and downloaded a review copy from the indie publisher.


I purchased the first book in the Miriam Bat Isaac series, The Deadliest Lie some time ago because I'm interested in books taking place in ancient Alexandria, and historical fiction with Jewish protagonists. So I decided to read The Deadliest Lie first as background for The Deadliest Fever.  I can't recommend that other readers do the same unless your main interest in historical mysteries is the historical aspect.  There are mountainous info dumps in June Trop's first novel, and the mystery element isn't introduced into the plot until 31%  in the Kindle edition.  I am not the only one to complain about this issue on Goodreads.   Only the most patient mystery reader should attempt to apply themselves to such a narrative.

I would also like to warn those who thought you might eventually want to tackle the gladiatorial book three in the series, The Deadliest Sport.  You probably shouldn't read The Deadliest Fever beforehand.   It contains major spoilers dealing with the The Deadliest Sport's resolution.  Unless you are as tolerant of spoilers as I am, I would advise you to read book three first.

Regardless of when you decide to start The Deadliest Fever, you can expect mystery action beginning at the novel's opening.  So the plot's pacing is vastly improved over book one.

 I also complained in my Goodreads review of  The Deadliest Lie that although it was realistic for Miriam Bat Isaac to behave like an immature teenager when she was seventeen, she wasn't the sort of protagonist that I prefer.  I do read YA, but the YA novels I like best contain unusual central characters who don't behave like typical teenagers. So I was delighted to find that Miriam Bat Isaac is a thirty year old woman in The Deadliest Fever, and is therefore much more in line with my preferences.

Since I enjoy doing research about topics that interest me which are raised in the books that I read,  I often bring up searches I conducted in my reviews.   In this case, I want to discuss my research process.

In The Deadliest Fever, Miriam wants to discover who damaged the mantle which covered her synagogue's Torah.  Mantles are made of cloth covered with embroidery.  Sometimes they are encrusted with gems.

 Since I have seen that not all Torahs are covered with mantles in a contemporary Jewish context, I did a search on the subject.  I discovered that covering Torahs with mantles is an Ashkenazi practice.  Ashkenazis are the descendants of Jews from Germany and Eastern Europe. I myself am of Ashkenazi descent, but there were no Ashkenazis in ancient times.  The only Jews in ancient Alexandria would have been Mizrachis, Jews whose ancestors came from the Middle East.   The current Mizrachi practice is to cover Torahs with silver cylinders which would keep them upright at all times.

 There is a theological conflict of the Sephardis /Mizrachis vs. the Ashkenazis over whether Torahs should be upright or diagonal.  Sephardis are the community descended from the Jewish refugees expelled from Spain.  Many of them settled in the Middle East and adopted the Mizrachi outlook.  If you want to learn more about the reasons behind this disagreement, see this Q & A on the Chabad website.  Chabad is the largest Jewish outreach organization in the world.  Their orientation is Haredi (ultra-Orthodox), but they engage in outreach to Jews of all backgrounds.  After reading that Q & A , I came to the mistaken conclusion that June Trop had been inauthentic.  I believed that the Torah in The Deadliest Fever should have been covered with a wooden or silver cylinder.

Then I gave some additional thought to the matter.  The Rabbis cited in the Chabad Q & A had been medieval authorities. They weren't Talmudic Rabbis from the Roman period.  That entire geographical disagreement hadn't existed in ancient times.  I still needed to find out about ancient Torah covering practices.   I found my answer in an article from the Jewish Virtual Library which revealed that "important" Torahs in the ancient Middle East were covered in cloth.   The Torah in the Great Synagogue of Alexandria would have been regarded as important.  So June Trop had been accurate in her portrayal of that Torah after all.

I included my entire process because I wanted to remind people that asking the right question is the foundation of good research.  This is especially important in evaluating an author's accuracy. 

 The Deadliest Fever has the same great historical background that I found in the first book, but it's used more judiciously.  Plot is prioritized and the maturation of Miriam Bat Isaac has made her a much more viable protagonist.   I expect to go back and read the second book in the series, The Deadliest Hate, eventually.  June Trop has successfully reversed the negative first impression I had after reading her first novel.


Saturday, July 21, 2018

City of Ink (Li Du #3) by Elsa Hart

The publisher approved me for City of Ink on Net Galley because I had reviewed the first novel of the Li Du mystery series, Jade Dragon Mountain, here.  I praised the first book for its unusual  18th century China  setting.  When I received this third novel,  I realized that I should have gotten seven lashes with a wet Chinese noodle for neglecting to read the second book in the series, The White Mirror.  Last month I corrected that shortcoming and reviewed Li Du #2 here. I thought The White Mirror was fascinating because of it's 18th century Tibet setting.  It was the best novel that I read in the first half of 2018.  My honest review of City of Ink is below.


  In City of Ink Li Du returns to Beijing from exile.   He had been exiled for his association with Shu who had been executed for conspiring against the Emperor.  Shu had been Li Du's mentor and friend.  He couldn't believe that Shu could have been guilty of such a terrible crime.  So Li Du's main goal in returning to Beijing is to clear Shu's name.

 I believe that Li Du's effort to vindicate his dead friend could have made a compelling short story.  It was certainly the strongest aspect of City of Ink, and provided a powerful ending to the novel.

Unfortunately, a great deal of narrative space was taken up with an investigation that didn't interest me nearly as much as the drama of Li Du's personal crusade to clear Shu.  There were murders at a tile factory.  Li Du diligently followed the clues and came to a slightly unexpected conclusion.  Yet this was the sort of case that could have taken place anywhere.  It was a classic mystery with the requisite plot twist, but after the extraordinary goings on in Tibet during The White Mirror I expected more.

The Imperial exams for government positions were an event in the foreground of City of Ink.   It didn't surprise me that corruption had crept into the exam process.   It would have astonished me far more if all the examiners and applicants were completely honest.  Bureaucratic corruption adds realism, but I considered it a routine element in this novel.

Li Du's friend, the storyteller Hamza was entertaining as usual.  I continue to regard him as the most interesting character in this series.  I hope that Elsa Hart includes Hamza in Li Du's future adventures.

I admit to having been disappointed by the mystery aspect of City of Ink, but I am optimistic about the possibilities that could develop for Li Du and Hamza in upcoming novels.



Saturday, July 7, 2018

Smoke and Iron (Great Library #4)-- Saving The Great Library From Itself

I reviewed the previous novel in Rachel Caine's dystopian alternate history fantasy series back in April here and promised that I would get to Smoke and Iron relatively soon.  The time got away from me. With the best of intentions, I become over-committed.  Then I heard from the publisher wondering when I would review it.  So I shoe-horned this Net Galley into my schedule as best as I could.  Many thanks to the publisher and Net Galley for the ARC.

The central characters of this series are rebels, but they are rebels that are part of the Great Library.  They are scholars, obscurists with magical abilities and High Garda military officers who want the Great Library to be restored to its original values without the authoritarianism and corruption that had crept in.  They're something like the contemporary Americans who call themselves the Resistance except that the protagonists of this series are only a small group.  They needed to gain more support or they couldn't possibly succeed.  Smoke and Iron is the story of how they start to build a network.   This isn't a simple process.  It's difficult and dangerous.  It also couldn't be completed in one book.

There is a belief that heroes are people who accomplish great feats on their own.   This is a myth.  Heroes have mentors and allies.  Even an impressively strong character like the hijabi heroine Khalila couldn't do it all on her own.   Even the powerful obscurist Morgan needed help from within her own order.   Jess had connections from the criminal world where he originated.  They all had people that they could call on.  Some of those who responded were surprising.   The inventor Thomas provided some astonishing innovations.

By the end of Smoke and Iron what had seemed like a quixotic mission began to look possible.   This novel is the turning point.   So it's definitely essential to readers of the Great Library series.   Yet a  positive resolution isn't guaranteed.  Hold on to your metaphorical headgear.  The fifth book in the series is likely to be  hair-raising because the Archivist and his cronies won't give up their power without a tremendous struggle.


Sunday, July 1, 2018

What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia--A Rebuttal To Hillbilly Elegy

When I came across commentary about Hillbilly Elegy by J. D. Vance, I thought about what I knew of the history of the region and it didn't sit right.  So I never did read it.   I figured that I wouldn't get any fresh insight from Vance.  I read Kephart's Our Southern Highlanders many years ago.  So I'm familiar with that perspective. I was glad to come across What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia by historian Elizabeth Catte who is also native to the region.  I thought I could learn something from Catte's book.


 I already knew that Appalachians were portrayed as backwards as an excuse to seize their land. Catte tells us about Kentucky widow Ollie Combs trying to block the bulldozers that were destroying her house in 1965.  (See a page on Appalachian Women on the Appalachian Voices website.) The company made the argument that Combs owned everything above ground, but the mining company had purchased the resources underneath her property. The house stood in the way of extracting that mineral wealth.  Ollie Combs was arrested.  Catte tells us that Bill Strode, the Pulitzer Prize winning photojournalist who documented Ollie Combs' act of  resistance, was also arrested. (See the article about Bill Strode on Wikipedia.)

It wasn't just about the destruction of the environment though that was also a serious issue.  It was about taking everything these people had--their homes and the farms that were their livelihood. This is the root cause of Appalachian poverty.

Before the labor regulations of the New Deal, the mining companies didn't treat their Appalachian employees much better. You can find out more about the serious exploitation that was going on by reading the History Channel's article about the Battle of Blair Mountain in West Virginia, which was called "the largest labor uprising" in American history.  Although I was aware of the intense labor struggle between miners and mine owners in West Virginia,  I learned from Catte that the mine owners actually had a private army which was dropping bombs on the strikers from private planes.  The fight to preserve Blair Mountain as a historical site is currently ongoing. It's slated for mountaintop removal mining. (See this article on the website.)

Catte also mentions  Black Appalachians in her book. If you read Vance's book you'd think that there were no African Americans in Appalachia.

Elizabeth Catte has an extensive bibliography to bolster her arguments.   It was refreshing to see her perspective. She successfully proves that there have been  and still are Appalachian radicals, and that the population of Appalachia is more ethnically diverse than Vance portrays.