March 21, 2022

4.5 star Review of "Murder She Meowed" by Rita Mae Brown

Murder, She Meowed (Mrs. Murphy, #5)Murder, She Meowed by Rita Mae Brown
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I very much enjoyed Murder, She Meowed. I am thankful that the author put in a list of characters at the start because I consulted it a dozen times in the first 100 pages alone, and was still checking it towards the end. The animals talking to each other is great, making me wish I could hear the audio book [except then I couldn't easily consult the cast of characters]. This isn’t a spoiler alert, but because of what the animals witnessed yet couldn’t communicate to the humans early on, I thought I knew who done it, thus making the story a police procedural rather than a straight up murder mystery. But that was a red herring. Even with less than 30 pages to go, I still couldn’t decide who the murderer was, or murderers were. It seemed we weren’t much closer to knowing who done it. But at least we knew who didn't do it.
I only gave this book 4.5 stars instead of 5 because I’m not a horse racing fan and found those scenes boring. But I’m eager to read more of this series and I already have Volumes One and Two on hold at my local library.
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Posted by maggie at 01:00 PM | Comments (0)

March 17, 2022

3-star review of "Cat Crimes Vol 1"

Cat CrimesCat Crimes by Martin H. Greenberg
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

An eclectic group of short crime stories all involving cats-some more than others. Quality varies, so only a 3-star rating. I like cats and I like mysteries so of course I liked this book. The short stories are clever and quite different from each other; sometimes the cat was the criminal, sometimes the victim, sometimes taking vengeance against the criminal. A few were a little too violent though, so not all are appropriate for reading to children (or sensitive adults). And some had only a tangential relationship to cats. But I particularly liked the story told from the cat's POV. Here’s a small spoiler alert: there were stories that had felines with human names, and vice versa, so it was easy to mix up whether the author was referring to a cat or a person—and in some cases this was deliberate, which I only realized in hindsight.
Apparently “Cat Crimes” is only the first of several volumes of stories collected by Martin Greenberg. The others are: Cat Crimes 2 (June 1992), Cat Crimes 3 (Dec 1992), Cat Crimes Takes a Vacation (1995) and Cat Crimes for the Holidays (Nov 1997)
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Posted by maggie at 03:21 PM | Comments (0)

March 15, 2022

Two new articles about Magic Bowls

Recently, I was surprised to see two articles about Ancient Babylonian/Mesopotamian ‘Magic Bowls’ that were seized in Jerusalem, one in Smithsonian Magazine and the other in Times of Israel. Local police collaborated with the Israel Antiquities Authority to seize the objects from a Jerusalem home and auction house, where they had been illegally placed up for sale. I’ve known about these items for over a decade, since the most astonishing thing I learned while researching ENCHANTRESS: A Novel of Rav Hisda’s Daughter was the prevalence, even ubiquity, of sorcery among the same people who gave us Talmud and Midrash. These Babylonian Magic Bowls were unearthed under homes in what is now Iraq, the land where the Talmud was created. They consisted of common household pottery inscribed with spells to protect the inhabitants from demons and the Evil Eye, which were believed to cause illness, unsuccessful pregnancy, and other such misfortune. Undoubtedly of Jewish origin, the incantations are written with Hebrew letters, quote Torah, and call upon Jewish angels and divine names. Some quote Mishna and the rabbinic divorce formula.

But how did our Sages deal with all this Jewish sorcery going on around them? As I delved into the Talmud, I came across magic in every tractate. Rabbis cast spells or wrote amulets themselves, and some fought demons in person. How did they get around Exodus 22:18? First they maintained that what this verse teaches is that sorcery is the province of women, which why Torah uses the feminine “sorceress.” Then they further explained that not allowing a sorceress to live only applied to pagans, not to Jewish women whose magic was for healing and protection. Indeed, the Talmud declared that incantations and amulets could be used not only to cure the sick, but also to prevent illness–which meant everyone needed the magic practitioners’ services. Many of these apatropaic incantations and rituals are detailed in the Talmud, and in no case is a sorceress punished or even criticized.

So who were these women–women who were could write Aramaic in Hebrew characters [the same as the Talmud], who knew Torah and Mishna? The power their community believed they wielded over angels and demons would have made them esteemed and formidable healers, not how most modern people view them, as wretched back-alley conjurers.
Eventually I came to the conclusion that the Jewish enchantresses who inscribed those Babylonian Magic Bowls were, like Rav Hisda’s daughter, members of rabbinic families. For what other women back then would be sufficiently literate and learned? What other women would be so familiar with the language of a Jewish divorce document, a rabbinic innovation, that they would utilize it for their clients to ‘divorce’ a demon? No wonder the Talmudic rabbis never criticized sorceresses, no wonder they consulted them. These women were their mothers, their daughters, their wives.

Posted by maggie at 08:07 PM | Comments (0)

March 10, 2022

review of The Coffee Trader by David List

The Coffee TraderThe Coffee Trader by David Liss
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As soon as I began reading The Coffee Trader I realized how bashert it was; my husband and I will be on vacation in Amsterdam in a few weeks. The first chapter quickly sucked me in with its unexpected Jewish content. I liked how the third person POV tells protagonist Miguel's story, while the first person POV comes from his antagonist Alonzo's memoire. The plot thickened to where I was pretty sure our protagonist Miguel is our hero, that his competitor Priodo is a villain, but uncertain whose side Miguel’s brother Daniel was on? I also questioned the motives of non-Jewish Dutchwoman Geertruid, who introduced Miguel to coffee? One thing I did know was that coffee would soon take the world by storm.

By page 280 I was still enjoying the intrigue and history of Amsterdam's Jews, but was getting bogged down in the trivia of who hates whom, who seeks revenge against whom, and who is lying to whom--and why. When I got some of the minor characters mixed up, I began to skim pages to get to the important plot points (which is why I only gave this book 4 stars instead of 5). But I abruptly had to slow down and focus at Chapter 31, when Miguel arrives at the Exchange to put his coffee scheme into action; I confess that I read this chapter several times to make sure I fully grasped the details and the result. The final four chapters went faster, although I reread them several times just for the pleasure of seeing how everything turned out, how each chapter clarified something I hadn’t understood earlier. The last Revealing Memoire of Alonzo Alferonda was wonderful, and recollecting its concluding sentence still makes me smile.
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Posted by maggie at 03:32 PM | Comments (0)

March 08, 2022

Woman's History Month

I confess that until 2004, I was not aware of Women’s History Month. True, I was a proud and ‘out’ feminist and a longtime member of NOW. I had a BS in Chemistry from UCLA, an unusual degree for a woman in the 60’s, and both my mother and grandmother had worked outside the home. Yet Women’s History Month was completely off my radar. That changed in 2005, when the first volume of my “Rashi’s Daughters” trilogy was published and, looking for ways to promote my historical novel, I discovered that March celebrated women’s history. So whenever I did a speaking event in March about the research into the lives of medieval Jewish women that led to writing my books, I made a point of mentioning Women’s History Month, usually by joking that the other eleven months were Men’s History Months, that they didn’t call it “his-story” for nothing.

It quickly became evident that my audiences of educated Jewish women weren’t any more aware of Women’s History Month than I had been. And I doubt that has changed much. What has changed is my view of what I consider the lip-service given to women’s history. Women make up half the population; we participated in and witnessed all of humanity’s history. It is a sad commentary on the lack of women’s inclusion in the traditional study of history that we have been relegated to a mere month in the spotlight. Behind the kings and emperors were mothers, wives, and mistresses who influenced their decisions. Behind every magnate were secretaries who actually kept the business running. Behind every great, and not so great, warrior was a woman who ran his household, raised his children, and ensured there was something to return to when the battles were over. At the dawn of history, while men were theoretically off hunting, women were gathering and storing the plants that actually kept everyone from starving.

So why are my books, and the majority of historical fiction that focus on heroines instead of heroes, so popular among women? It is because women have been excluded from historical records for so long that it is only through such novels that our long-silent voices can be heard and our lives examined.

Did you know that each year Women’s History Month has a particular theme? In 2022 it is “Gender equality today for a sustainable tomorrow,” to recognize how women around the world are responding to climate change. Frankly we need to spend every day responding to climate change, not merely one month a year.

Posted by maggie at 10:45 PM | Comments (0)

March 03, 2022

4-star review of "The Black Flaming" by Dean Atta

The Black FlamingoThe Black Flamingo by Dean Atta
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Black Flamingo is not a book I ever would have found/read if my sister hadn't recommended so highly [and it was available at my local library]. But I really liked this look into a world I knew nothing about, from the first person POV of an incredibly sympathetic character. Although I was put off by the free verse style at first, I soon appreciated how well it worked. It certainly made the nearly 400 pages go swiftly.

The coming-of-age story was mostly sweet, with the protagonist having supportive friends and family. There weren't really any sex scenes, just mentions of them. The ending was wonderful.

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Posted by maggie at 11:25 AM | Comments (0)