Friday, January 20, 2017

Gripping, Mysterious Thriller



Reviewed by Alison Jack.

VALLEY OF THRACIANS begins with grandfather Simon Matthews travelling from Chicago to Bulgaria in order to search for his grandson, Scott. Scott had gone missing while working for the Peace Corps three years previously, during which time the Bulgarian police, the American embassy and even Scott’s father Daniel have all given up, presuming Scott to be dead. Despite this, Simon insists on continuing the search, especially when he receives mysterious hints that Scott is actually still alive.

Along the way, Simon encounters the good, the not so good and the truly evil. He is joined in his quest by ‘Sophia from Sofia’, an expert in Thracian (ancient Bulgarian) history, whose help proves invaluable, but whose motives for putting herself out to aid a stranger come increasingly into question. Is Sophia really the loyal friend she seems?

valley of thracians
From the very beginning VALLEY OF THRACIANS held me spellbound. This is a beautifully written thriller; every part of the story is completely absorbing, and it never feels as if the story is being dragged out unnecessarily. Such is Ellis Shuman’s skill with words that the reader feels part of the story. We share Simon’s unease as the mystery surrounding his grandson’s disappearance deepens. We share his fear when confronted by some wholly unsavory characters in an unfamiliar country.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Review of The Mountain Shadow by Gregory David Roberts



Many readers – male readers that is – say that Shantaram is their favorite book ever. Who would not be captivated by the epic adventures of an Australian bank robber and heroin addict who escapes from prison and travels to India and the tumultuous struggles of life in the Bombay slums? Reading the saga of the swashbuckling protagonist - renamed Shantaram in the opening chapters - as he experiences the local culture and customs of India for over 900 pages, is almost a rite of passage. Although the book is a novel, it is somewhat an autobiography of its colorful author, Gregory David Roberts.

Like many, I waited for the book’s sequel with bated breath for twelve years. Once again, a weighty tome nearly 900 pages long. Yet, my waiting was not rewarded. The Mountain Shadow (Little, Brown Book Group, October 2015), fails to rekindle the excitement that gripped me when first meeting Shantaram.

What happens in the sequel? Shantaram gets on his motorcycle, gets into a fight, smokes a joint, pines for his soulmate, gets into another fight, gets on his motorcycle again, smokes another joint, pines some more for his soulmate. The plot meanders, if there is a plot at all. It all gets quite repetitious, and what’s more, none of it is particularly exciting.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Recent Reads December 2016 Edition




The train pulls away from the station and I pick up my book. This is how I start each day, well, this is how I start the productive part of each day. I read for nearly 40 minutes while traveling to work in the morning. I read for nearly 40 minutes traveling home at the end of the day. And sometimes I read a bit before going to sleep at night. All in all, I do quite a bit of reading.

Included below are short reviews of recent reads. There are a few books that stand out in my memory long after I’ve finished them. Long after I read them on the train. Long after the train pulls into the station and I head home after another productive day. I hope you read and enjoy!

Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult (Ballantine Books, October 2016). Picoult has an undisputed talent for telling stories. What makes her novels special, though, is her focus on today’s most pressing social issues. She does this in ways that keep us thinking long after finishing her books.

Her latest novel deals with racial prejudice in America at a time when racial tensions are a hot issue, having played part of a disputed political process. In her words and through her characters, readers really sense what it’s like growing up Black. How you are treated in the court system. How you are confronted by shopkeepers who immediately suspect you of shoplifting just because of the color of your skin. Picoult’s novels are marked by multiple points of view and, like one of the three that tell this story, you will realize that prejudice also exists among those who believe themselves to be the most liberal advocates of social justice and equality. Thanks to this book, our eyes have opened up a little bit more to this timely issue.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Book review: Judas by Amos Oz



The very first line of Judas, the most recent novel by acclaimed Israeli author Amos Oz, sets the mood for the entire book. “Here is a story from the winter days of the end of 1959 and the beginning of 1960. It is a story of error and desire, of unrequited love, and of a religious question that remains unresolved.”

This is the tale of Shmuel Ash, a young student who has abandoned his academic studies in the wake of a broken relationship. Shmuel shutters himself up in servitude to Gershom Wald, a crippled scholar with a sharp mind and a passion for argument. Settling into a routine of serving tea and companionship, of eating hot, spicy goulash for lunch and dusting his thick beard with fragrant talcum powder, Shmuel finds himself attracted to the other resident of his temporary Jerusalem home, an embittered war widow by the name of Atalia.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Prayer of the Mothers




Hundreds of women – Israeli and Palestinian, secular and religious, young and old – all marching in white. They marched from Metula on Israel's Lebanese border, from the Arab town of Umm al-Fahm, from Tel Aviv and from Eilat. They marched through the streets of Jerusalem; they marched to the banks of the Jordan River near the Dead Sea.

They marched for peace.

Friday, November 25, 2016

When a Wildfire Endangers Your Home



At ten o’clock Wednesday night, we feared that we would shortly be evacuated from our home. We could see the flames in the forest below Moshav Neve Ilan, the small community to the west of Jerusalem where we live. We also saw fire racing up a distant hill across the valley. Along with other residents of Neve Ilan, my wife Jodie and I stood watching the flames, worried that danger was quickly approaching.


But there was something strange, and this was what saved us. We couldn’t smell smoke. The fire was barely 2 kilometers away but with a strong wind behind us, the wildfire was spreading to the west. Down the valley and towards Highway 1, the main highway leading into Jerusalem.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Hike These Mountains to Discover How Beautiful Bulgaria Really Is



You can visit Sofia for its culture, Plovdiv for the colorful architecture of its Old Town, or Varna for its beaches, but you’d be wise to make your way into the mountains to discover the true beauty of Bulgaria.


We’ll leave the prospect of overnight mountain-top accommodations in rustic alpine huts to more adventurous trekkers. Casual hikers and tourists will find plenty of wonders on a one-day hike into the Rila Mountains.


Sunday, October 30, 2016

The Poker Writer Who Never Plays Poker



2005 World Series of Poker
Poker writer? Well, not exactly. Never play poker? Well, sometimes. Let me explain.

For eleven years I was more a poker promoter than a poker writer, although I frequently used my writing to promote the game. I was employed by an online gaming company and served as head of a marketing team encouraging players, veterans and novices alike, to play poker. We made our money collecting rake and tournament fees.