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"Between Heaven and Earth" by Sue Kerman

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Sue Kerman’s research into Jerusalem in the 19th Century has resulted in a fine, albeit slight, fictionalization of an intriguing character’s career in Palestine of the time. It contains a loose-fitting framework of a contemporary story bracketing a purported history of a Jewish widow who decides she will go to Jerusalem, since she doesn’t have anything too compelling to keep her in New York.

Ms. Kerman tells the story through entries in the protagonist’s journal, and travel articles for the New York Times.  The author intends a portrait of Jerusalem at a time when it was in the control of Muslims, but had significant Jewish and Christian populations, which were socially inferior at the time. At this task, she succeeds pretty well: we get insight into the issues that seem unfortunately to plague Jerusalem almost to this day – fanaticism, tension, intolerance. We get a balanced account of how families and foreigners try to cope and make ends meet, but overall, the story is slight and shallow. Jerusalem is the real center of attention here, but Ms. Kerman does add a twist at the end that partway lays the foundation for the light, oblique touch that precedes it.

If you’re interested in Jerusalem at the middle of the 19th Century, this book will provide an effective glimpse into it. Also, it’s a light, fairly entertaining read, that will divert you with its construct and inform you with its details.

"Ten Thousand Saints" by Eleanor Henderson

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Ah, parenthood. Nothing challenges or rewards a person like raising children. For some it comes easily, or at least a little more naturally. Ten Thousand Saints by Eleanor Henderson contains a story of parenthood gone bad, or pursued with less than the necessary commitment. Although it focuses on the lives of a few teens during the punk rock movement of the 1980s, this truly is a story of one generation’s attempt to set right its fumbled of responsibilities to the next.

At story’s outset, protagonist Jude turns 16, it’s New Year’s Eve, and he and his close friend Teddy have soaked a stolen pair of silk panties in turpentine so they can inhale the fumes and get a faint, short-lived high. This is the desperate pass they have come to, since they don’t have any money for their preferred drug, pot. Harriet, Jude’s adoptive mother, manages a weak and hopeless rearing of Jude, which features by turns wheedling and subservience. Teddy’s mother has simply picked up and left her 15-year-old high school sophomore. Eliza is a kind of a cousin to Jude, and she arrives for New Year’s, and the three wait around before heading to a party. The events of the party, tragic and life-altering, set the direction for the book.

The trials of these luckless teens as they face very adult issues of drug overdose, pregnancy, and surviving society’s prejudices against a teen culture out of control, form the meat of this book. Teddy’s older brother Johnny (he’s all of 18 and making it in New York as a tattoo artist and musician) guides Jude into the Straight Edge subculture of the punk rock scene, where drugs and sex are forbidden. Johnny’s motives with Jude and Eliza are pure, but there is more than meets the eye with Johnny. 

This strong story features gritty, realistic details, and hearkens us back to the mid-80s punk scene, and the random violence perpetrated by and against its adherents. There are coming-of-age elements for Jude, and hope for our principals as they mature, but the real caution is for those among us who would have and raise children: neglect your duties and peril will descend upon all. It contains elements as well of an 80s pastiche: neglectful, drug-distracted hippy parents, punk violence, Hare Krishna adherents. Its style mirrors that of punk music, too: straight-on, honest, sometimes brutal. This book aims to shed light on sweeping movements of the mid-80s in music and society, by showing their effects on a small number of young people. It succeeds at these aims admirably. The straight ahead, gruff language belies the human warmth and compassion that shows through in the sympathetic portrayals of its characters.

"The House of Silk," a Sherlock Holmes novel, by Anthony Horowitz

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I’ll confess at the outset that I’m no expert or devoté to the Sherlock Holmes canon. I read a couple of shorter Doyle pieces as a lad, and think nobody will ever equal Jeremy Brett’s portrayal of the master detective on screen (although I am enamored of the latest from the BBC, “Sherlock,” particularly of the Dr. Watson character). But that’s the extent of my consciousness as far as the world-famous consulting detective goes. That, and the relatively recent and brief Michael Chabon piece.

So I approached “The House of Silk” as a relative novice. Curiosity led me to a search of the non-Doyle Holmes stories, and the Mayfield, Mass., library has a convenient list of at least 70 (http://www.wakefieldlibrary.org/book-discussion-groups/sherlock-holmes-by-doyle-and-others/). Proving my novice status, I had no idea there were that many.

Anthony Horowitz, the prolific and best-selling British author, has produced a satisfying addition to this crowded room. Holmes’s intellectual powers impress, even as he’s arrested and held for murder. Dr. Watson’s loyalty and resourcefulness are never in doubt, and he never wavers, even though in this entry he’s married and his wife’s health is failing. Mr. Horowitz concedes a few points to make his story more authentic. Watson, as he writes, is in his final years, and Holmes hasdied. Watson puts pen to paper to record the events of the case of the House of Silk, and exacts promises from his heirs and executors not to publish the manuscript for 100 years. He does this because some of the really depraved villains are prominent in society, and a good distance in time seems like a good idea.

This book is very strong and focused.  We keep Dr. Watson’s point of view firmly throughout. The crimes that drive Holmes and us, are heinous indeed, and resonate as clearly today as ever. Mr. Horowitz inserts a few small touches which put us in mind of the series by Conan Doyle: Watson states he should have had more depth concerning Mrs. Hudson, the ever-present housekeeper. And he hopes Inspector Lestrade knows that Holmes and Watson did actually appreciate his work, even as the good inspector made great advances at Scotland Yard piggy-backing on work Holmes did.

If you’re a Holmes follower, this book will please you with Holmes’s bag of tricks and the close scrapes he gets into. If you don’t care that much about the great detective, this novel is worth your while for its atmospheric treatment of Victorian London, and the convolutions of its crime mystery plot.