Orlando Ortega-Medina- The Death of Baseball

Former Little League champion Kimitake “Clyde” Koba finds strength in the belief that he is the reincarnation of Marilyn Monroe as he struggles to escape the ghost of his brother and his alcoholic father. Born on Yom Kippur, teen prodigy Raphael Dweck has been told his whole life that he has a special purpose in God’s plan. The only problem is, he can’t shake off his doubts, his urges, or the trail of trouble and ruin that follow in his wake.

A decade later, Raphael and ‘Marilyn’ find each other wandering the plastic-bright streets of Hollywood and set out to make a documentary about the transmigration of souls. But when the roleplaying goes too far, they find themselves past the point of no return in their quest to prove who and what they are to their families, God, the world, and themselves…

I first encountered the work of Orlando Ortega-Medina through his brilliant, emotionally charged and meditative short story collection Jerusalem Ablaze etched into my memory as one of the trickiest reviews I have ever had to write. Now having read Ortega-Medina’s full length novel, The Death of Baseball I feel that my reviewing skills will be put to the test once again, as I try and communicate to you all how necessary, heartfelt, thought-provoking and sublimely perfect this book is. Oh yes. I did say perfect…

When I began reading this book, I somewhat intuitively avoided reading the full synopsis, as I had a vibe from the outset, that I very much just wanted to be taken wherever this book wished to take me. Aside from the sway of the beautifully retro cover, I felt from a very early stage of reading that this was a book that would consume me completely, and consequently this was one of the rare occasions where this was the only book I was reading at the time. I think this was also influenced by the fact that Ortega-Medina’s two main protagonists, Raphael, and Marilyn are so singularly deserving of the reader’s full attention, as the drama, tragedy, and human frailty plays out against a backdrop of changing decades and social mores, America and Israel, conflict and peace, and the underlying need of both to form a lasting emotional connection. I am only going to give you a silhouette of the characters and the plot, as I think this is a book that needs to be discovered in an almost neutral vacuum, to fully appreciate its emotional depth, and to open yourself up to some extremely accomplished and sublime storytelling.

To say that these characters’  lives are troubled and tempestuous would be an understatement, and as the author highlights the crisis of conscience, faith and loyalty, he weighs them down with, I can guarantee you will be held completely in their thrall. I can honestly say that I did have a sustained emotional response to this book, which is incredibly unusual, as books rarely achieve this for me.  I think the emotional heft, moments of extreme poignancy, frustration and anger that we bear witness to in the lives of these characters, is so beautifully realised and communicated that you do become completely immersed in the powerful positivity and destructing negativity, that Raphael and Marilyn seem to take it in turns to display. These conflicting traits lead on occasion to impetuous, ill-judged acts, tempered by moments of extreme tenderness and self realisation as they battle with issues of faith, identity and the instances of wretched tragedy that blight their lives. However, despite the incredibly visceral humanity of this book, I did feel that a certain sense of equanimity was achieved in the life of one character, and that their struggle for acceptance and recognition did come to fruition, which lifted the book to a more life affirming plain.

Tied up with the superlative characterisation of Raphael, Marilyn and the social, religious and familial crisis they suffer, I would also draw attention to two other strengths of the narrative of this book. One is location and period detail, firmly rooting us in the changing decades from the 60s through the 80s, and the way that Ortega-Medina subtly places us in the grip of each decade, using the recognisable markers of each decade, and certain tumultuous events both in America and Israel. The section of the book set in Israel was particularly compulsive reading, as Ortega-Medina places Raphael in a largely unfamiliar setting, under pressure with the weight of certain aspects of his family history, clinging to his faith, pushing the boundaries of his sexuality, and tentatively feeling his way to love. The threat of war with Egypt plays out in the background, and this sojourn in Israel also provides an incredibly interesting reappraisal and exploration of Raphael’s faith, and the seismic effect on his own character that events in Israel cause.

When I’ve been talking about this book to friends and colleagues, another aspect I keep drawing attention to is the sheer cleverness of the structure. Every chapter, and yes, it is every chapter, can be read in isolation to the others as a completely self contained short story, whilst not disrupting the momentum and continuity of the story in any way. Once I stumbled upon this notion and blown away by the skill of this, I actually went back through the book at random picking certain chapters to re-read, particularly those in Israel, and those set in a certain location towards to the end of the book. When I reviewed Jerusalem Ablaze, I drew attention to the fact that this author so quickly enables the reader to connect on an emotional level with his characters, and this sustained use of structuring his chapters like this, adds even more to the intensity with which he enveigles us in his character’s lives. The Death of Baseball is a glorious miasma of contradictions and conflicts, the need to love, the need for acceptance and recognition, fame, faith, abuse, identity and hope. I found it thought provoking and powerfully emotional, and I loved the way it immersed me so fully in these two lives with their unique voices. This book has such a strong message at its core, clearly illustrating how we are all the same in our desire to achieve contentment and an equilibrium in our lives, however we choose to live and with whomever we choose to love. Highly, highly recommended.

(With thanks to Cloud Lodge Books for the ARC)

#BlogTour- Dov Alfon- A Long Night In Paris

When an Israeli tech entrepreneur disappears from Charles de Gaulle airport with a woman in red, logic dictates youthful indiscretion. But Israel is on a state of high alert nonetheless. Colonel Zeev Abadi, the new head of Unit 8200’s autonomous Special Section, who just happens to be in Paris, also just happens to have arrived on the same flight. For Commissaire Léger of the Paris Police coincidences have their reasons, and most are suspect. When a second young Israeli is kidnapped soon after arriving on the same flight, this time at gunpoint from his hotel room, his suspicions are confirmed – and a diplomatic incident looms.

Back in Tel Aviv, Lieutenant Oriana Talmor, Abadi’s deputy, is his only ally, applying her sharp wits to the race to identify the victims and the reasons behind their abduction. In Paris a covert Chinese commando team listens to the investigation unfurl and watches from the rooftops. While by the hour the morgue receives more bodies from the river and the city’s arrondissements.

The clock has been set. And this could be a long night in the City of Lights.

Right, confession time. Having read and struggled to review John Le Carre’s convoluted and uber-ponderous The Little Drummer Girl (and then been bored witless by the equally uber-ponderous TV adaptation) last year, I was understandably nervous about a thriller that, on the face of it, may tread slightly similar ground. Thankfully my fears were quickly dispelled- hallelujah, I hear you cry- and this turned out to be a really rather clever, and absorbing thriller indeed, with an undeniable literary quality in its writing and execution…

Opening with the baffling kidnap of a, it has to be said, quite annoying Israeli tourist from Charles de Gaulles airport in Paris, Dov Alfon constructs a intense and absorbing thriller which brings to the fore the global problem of not only the secrecy and power games within national security agencies, but their inexplicable need to withhold and conceal information from each other. Few are better placed than Alfon, as a former Israeli Intelligence officer himself, to expose to some degree the daily frustrations and power struggles that lay behind these most secret of organisations, and through the power of fiction serve it up to us in its startling reality. I think this was the single most notable factor of this book for me, that all this, for want of a better word, childish squabbling, and some pretty damn deep-seated corruption (that could not all be entirely fictional) frustrates and confuses the investigation, and those charged to carry it out. It was fascinating to bear witness to this and with Alfon’s personal experiences undoubtedly woven into the story, it added an extra level of enjoyment to the book itself. Admittedly at first it was a little confusing to grasp which particular branch of security was which, but as the main players began to be more fully fleshed out, it was easier to decipher who was working with who, and against who for whatever nefarious reason.

I thought the characterisation was superb from the beleaguered and world weary Commissaire Leger in Paris, finding himself involved in a difficult position liaising with the secretive and highly intuitive Colonel Zeev Abadi of the Israeli Intelligence Unit 8200. Abadi is a flawed but incredibly interesting character, whose unique style of investigation and distillation of information received, frustrates not only Leger but others within the disparate branches of Israeli Intelligence. Taken in tandem with the experiences of Abadi’s deputy, the feisty, and at times, wonderfully insubordinate Lieutenant Oriana Talmor, Alfon has succeeded in not only crafting a gripping thriller, but populating this with a cast of entirely credible and absorbing characters. As all their inherent frustrations come to the surface during the course of the investigation, and the external forces that seek to thwart them tighten their grip, Alfon puts his characters under pressure to an alarming degree, but not without its entertainment for the reader. Abadi is a mesmeric character in the way that brooding, loner men always are, and thankfully Talmor has more than enough grit about her to hold her own in the misogynistic institutions that try to suppress her more instinctive methods, and use her steely determination to overcome her recent professional disappointments.

Despite my slightly disparaging comments on Le Carre’s book at the beginning I am a lover of his work, and in terms of the plot construction, Alfon weaves a similar spell, in this dark tale of subterfuge and diplomatic difficulties. Focussing not only on the world of espionage, Alfon also incorporates Israeli- Palestinian relations, embezzlement, a Chinese hit squad and more, using the backdrop of Paris both in its grandeur and grinding poverty to great effect. This is an intelligent but not too complex thriller, less high octane and more measured than some, but nonetheless a fascinating and highly enjoyable read, which kept me hooked. Recommended.

__________________________________________________________________

Buy a copy of A Long Night In Paris here  and catch up with the blog tour at these excellent sites:

 

(With thanks to Maclehose Press for the ARC)

 

#BlogTour- Orlando Ortega-Medina- Jerusalem Ablaze

image001In Jerusalem’s Old City a young priest and a dominatrix converse in the dying light; on Oregon’s windswept coast a fragile woman discovers a body washed up on the beach after a storm; and in Postwar Japan a young protege watches his master’s corpse burn, with bitter thoughts blazing in his mind. An eclectic collection of thirteen short stories…

I do love it when I am approached by publishers offering me books that take me outside of my comfort zone, as they so often provide some magical reading experiences. Jerusalem Ablaze is one such example, as I rarely read short stories of any description. So it was with a wonderfully blank mental slate that I dived into this intriguing collection…

Orlando Ortega-Medina has produced a remarkable volume of stories that are not only far reaching in terms of location, but also in the very recognisable aspects of human emotion he weaves into his character’s individual experiences. Across the stories, he addresses the themes of love, death, ageing, sexuality, family conflict and obsession with an intuitive and engaging style, that at times brings the reader up short to truly sit up, and think about what they have just read. For the purposes of this review, and so as not to mar your discovery of all the stories in this collection, I just wanted to write a few words on a couple of the stories that made me sit up and think too.

In a guest post at Reader Dad, Ortega- Medina talks about his experience of writing short stories, and makes reference to After The Storm, my particular favourite in the book, and the number of revisions he made to it, right up until the point of submission to his publisher. This story runs to about 18.5 pages, but to me encompassed the emotional breadth and detail of a book many times this length. Focussing on a woman’s chance discovery of something on a beach (no spoilers here), Ortega-Medina constructs a story that is heart-rending and thought provoking, on the breaks in communication, and loss of awareness that occurs in many personal relationships. The story is darkly strange but underscored by an innate feeling of truth and observation that takes hold of the reader, and even in the aftermath of reading reoccurs in one’s thoughts. Susan’s actions seem so totally alien and discomforting at first, but when seen through the eyes of others, are imbued with a real sense of poignancy. Also, the author’s depiction of this wild coastline where Susan and her husband dwell in their secluded lighthouse, is described with such clarity that you can sense the thrashing sea spray, the keening of the gulls, and the smell of the seaweed. Perfect compacted prose that reveals a world of emotion.

The intensity of Susan’s experience set against the broad, unending landscape of the natural world is mirrored in  Star Party, where the theme of human relationships is played out beneath a huge expanse of sky where people have gathered to star watch. I like the way that Ortega-Medina transposes the small but intense insecurities and problems of his protagonists against this broad canvas, which puts our relative importance in the universe in perspective, but never lessening the real concerns of his characters’ lives. Equally, in The Shovelist, the financial security of an old man and his wife is seen to be dependent on the coming of the snow, and his neighbour’s willingness to pay him to shovel their driveway, a fairly humdrum problem you would think, but one that in the author’s hands, explores community and the realisation of, and sympathy for,  other’s troubles.

As much as every story works in this collection as a self contained tale, the two part story of An Israel State of Mind had me wanting more. Narrating the events of a young man and his girlfriend’s trip to a kibbutz, I loved this tale of pent up emotion and unresolved love,  the exploration of difference and misunderstanding, all within the framework of a shared, and what should be a life affirming experience. I think it’s a real feat of Ortega-Medina’s writing that he so quickly enables the reader to connect on an emotional level with his characters in this story and others, when whole books can pass you by without this essential connection as a reader. I still want to know what happens to these characters beyond what is written here.

So as a non-widely read short story reader, I gained much from Jerusalem Ablaze, and it has honestly awakened an appreciation of the form for me. An alternately dark, emotional, tender, and violent contemporary collection that I enjoyed greatly. Highly recommended.

(With thanks to Cloud Ledge Books for the ARC)

Catch up with the blog tour at these excellent sites:

blog-tour-jerusalem-ablazetb

Liad Shoham- Asylum City

shoham

When social activist Michal Poleg is found dead in her Tel Aviv apartment, her body showing signs of severe violence, officer Anat Nachmias is given the lead on her first murder investigation. Eager to find answers, the talented and sensitive cop looks to the victim’s past for clues, focusing on the last days before her death. Could one of the asylum-seekers Michal worked with be behind this crime?

Then a young African man confesses to the murder, and Anat’s commanders say the case is closed. But the cop isn’t convinced. She believes that Michal, a tiny girl with a gift for irritating people, got involved in something far too big and dangerous for her to handle.

Joined by Michal’s clumsy yet charming boss, Anat is pulled deep into a perplexing shadow world where war victims and criminals, angels and demons, idealists and cynics, aid organisations and criminal syndicates intersect. But the truth may be more than Anat can manage, bringing her face to face with an evil she’s never before experienced…

By sheer coincidence, I was pitched this book about the Eritrean and Ethiopian refugee crisis in Tel Aviv, having been absolutely oblivious to this sensitive social issue. In an interesting instance of art imitating life, I encountered an in-depth newspaper feature within days of starting this book, focussing on this very issue, and the depth of feeling within Israel on this emotive and opinion-splitting aspect of contemporary Israeli society. Likewise, in the author’s acknowledgements, Shoham undertook an enormous amount of research into the social, political and economic aspects of the refugee experience, and those that work so tirelessly on their behalf, with little funding or support from the government. Hence, this proved one of the most thought-provoking and deeply poignant crime novels that I have ever read, being so rooted in reality.

The author’s depth of research comes shining through and Shoham neatly balances all sides of this multi-faceted thriller, both in terms of the contentious central social issue, and in providing an intriguing criminal investigation. Whilst Shoham does not adopt a completely dispassionate tone to the larger issues of the book, there is an incredible sense of authorial balance to the story he presents, as he encapsulates the experiences of all sides through the characters he presents. Hence, we as readers, see the unfolding events through the eyes of the refugees, those that work with them, and the police, whilst also incorporating the less than noble actions of the people smugglers and the Israeli political fraternity. Shoham interweaves all these aspects effortlessly, never resorting to mawkish sentimentality, or adopting a preachy tone as to how we should view the issues he presents. With his rounded view, the reader is encouraged to form their viewpoint, and to gain a greater sense of where their empathies lie, in relation to the characters and the problems they find themselves confronted with.

I found myself quite emotionally spent at times, particularly through certain characters in the book. I thought the characterisation of the Eritrean refugee, Gabriel, who confesses to the murder in a pay-off to ensure the safe passage of his abused sister from some ruthless Bedouin people smugglers, was incredibly emotive. With his artistic bent, and strong moral decency, his plight was incredibly affecting. Likewise, the endeavours of others to protect him, most notably the charity worker, Itai, and police detective, Anat, added a real depth to the plot. The problems that Itai faces as a NGO worker, dealing with the well-being of refugees, and Anat, as a female police officer in charage of her first big case, allows Shoham to embrace the larger issues of racism and sexism at play in their everyday working lives. Both characters are written extremely sensitively, and their faltering attempts to gain justice for Gabriel, whilst negotiating the insidious political powers that be is powerfully wrought throughout. I liked all three of these characters enormously, and admired their moral core and interactions with each other, more and more as the plot progressed.

I have a strong belief that if you want to really gain insight into the way any society functions, crime fiction is the perfect conduit for this, and books such as Asylum City only strengthen this belief for me. With its unwavering critique and observation of society in Tel Aviv and the burgeoning refugee crisis, compounded by a striking and deeply involving murder investigation, Shoham balances every facet of his narrative effortlessly. I cannot recommend this thriller highly enough if you enjoy your crime fiction with a more socially aware edge, as well as adhering to its central tenet of being a highly effective thriller, setting it apart from the more throwaway mass market crime fiction. Excellent.

(With thanks to Scribe for the ARC)

 

 

 

 

D. A. Mishani- A Possibility of Violence

damHaunted by the past and his own limitations, Israeli Detective Avraham Avraham must stop a criminal ruthless enough to target children. An explosive device is found in a suitcase near a daycare center in a quiet suburb of Tel Aviv. A few hours later, a threat is received: the suitcase was only the beginning. Inspector Avraham Avraham, back in Israel after a much-needed vacation, is assigned to the investigation. Tormented by the trauma and failure of his past case, Avraham is determined not to make the same mistakes—especially with innocent lives at stake. He may have a break when one of the suspects, a father of two, appears to have gone on the run. Is he the terrorist behind the threat? Is he trying to escape Avraham’s intense investigation? Or perhaps he’s fleeing a far more terrible crime that no one knows has been committed? No matter how much Avraham wants to atone for the past, redemption may not be possible—not when he’s entangled in a case more deceptive and abominable than any he’s ever faced.

In this evocative and gripping tale of mystery and psychological suspense A Possibility of Violence is the follow-up to The Missing File, the acclaimed first novel in D. A. Mishani’s literary crime series that was shortlisted for the CWA International Dagger Award. Having read  and enjoyed The Missing File, I was looking forward to this, having a fond remembrance of the rather bleak and spare feel of the first book, and the peculiar appeal of Mishani’s unique style.

Unlike, the first book, I made the mistake of reading the first 100 pages or so of this one in rather small chunks, and consequently, due to the seemingly emotional neutrality of Mishani’s writing, I found it slightly difficult to return to it each time. Luckily, however, I rectified this by reading the last 200 pages in a single sitting, so becoming far more embroiled in what later reveals itself as a strangely impersonal and emotionally unsettling read. If I was to really analyse what I liked about the book, where normally emotional engagement with the characters is key, I think it is the sense of disassociation that Mishani brings to his prose and the characters contained within. Although he adopts the traditional tenet of a central detective in Avraham Avraham, I didn’t really feel that I got to know him in the way that others are so defined by the foibles and eccentricities of their characters. Indeed the book opens with Avraham on a visit to his lover Marianka in Belgium, as a precursor to her moving to Israel to be with him, but their relationship has a strange coldness about it, as Avraham is a man not adept at grand gestures. As the book progresses, communication breaks down in advance of her move, and it is not until the end of the book, that the chasm between them is fully explained. Likewise, he gives little of himself away, under the threat of a report regarding his handling of the investigation in the previous book (which is often referred to and explained if you have not read the first book), and the potential implications of this in what could be a contentious current investigation. He has a workman-like doggedness to his character, revealing little of his own emotions, but like all the finest detectives has a natural intuition to what may be being witheld from him, leading him on a different course of investigation which perturbs his superiors. I rather like the stoicism and solidity he exerts throughout the book, as one can sometimes have too much of the deeply troubled or overly extrovert detective characters.

Bearing in mind that the book encompasses the themes of child abuse, and possible marital violence, again, the calm neutrality with which Mishani imbues his central character, is equally reflected in the unfolding of the plot. What could be substantial and highly emotive themes are handled in an understated way, which in a way make the violent acts perpetrated more resonant and affecting. From the initial act of a suspected bomb being placed outside of a nursery school, a violent attack on one of the employees of the nursery, and a connection with a father of two whose wife is suddenly strangely absent, Mishani balances the plot perfectly, using the conduit of Avraham to to tie them together, with the denouement of the book stepping outside the previously more unemotional feel bringing a genuinely heart-rending conclusion. So, my admiration for Mishani remains intact, despite the uniquely unsettling and almost clinical style of his writing. A strange reading experience, but one that I can recommend away from the cliches that define so much of crime writing, and in stark contrast to the all too common schmaltz- paved paths that some police protagonists find themselves on. A good read, and more importantly, something a little different.

(With thanks to Quercus for the ARC)