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by Ilene Schneider
Swimming Kangaroo Books, April 2007
324 pages
ISBN: 1934041319

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

I recently received two books to review for RTE. One was from an author whose first book I had liked, had found quirky but charming. The other was brand new and more of a risk, I thought. First books from small publishers I've never even heard of are risky.

So imagine my surprirse when that other book didn't work for me and this one did. The quick lazy explanation would be because I have things in common with Rabbi Aviva Cohen. Aviva, meaning "spring", is my Hebrew name, though one I never use. We're the same age, have advanced degrees and are from somewhat similar backgrounds. But frankly, that ain't it. That's not even close to a good argument since the books I tend to like the most feature characters wholly unlike me.

CHANUKAH GUILT does suffer from a number of relatively minor first mystery problems. Let's get them out of the way, shall we? Aviva's motive for investigating isn't very convincing. She does what would probably land her in jail in most cities. She does things that might otherwise destroy a case because of what we avid readers have come to know is the chain of evidence. There's even a fairly glaring wrong assumption which irks me. This sort of error often happens with new mysteries because authors simply cannot find any other way for their amateur sleuth to find things out. But the positives outweigh these negatives and after groaning "oy" a few times over these clumsy issues, I read on. I still liked the book.

Author Ilene Schneider (herself a rabbi who lives in New Jersey) has a lot of talent. She manages to incorporate a lot of information about Judaism without the awkwardness of the expository lump (a major "first mystery error" that she avoids. Yay!). Aviva, at least, avoids meeting anyone without saying where she's going. There's no going downstairs at night when she hears a noise. In fact, when she hears a noise, or sees a prowler, smart woman that she is, she locks the door and calls 911. At last! A normal person behaving in a smart way!

She has a relatively normal life and it shows. Rabbi Cohen has friends and co-workers. In many ways, she's an average woman and that is such a plus because she's believable. She's likable, friendly and caring in a way I hope religious folks are. There's no zaniness, no attempt to jazz things up with some super annoying character. Sure there are personalities but it's refreshing to encounter a book that might be gimmicky and isn't.

Aviva's not too impressed with herself, nor does she act superior and that's very welcome. She's divorced, she's modern, she's aware of her weaknesses and strengths and quite simply, she sounds like she'd be good dinner company and fun to wander around with.

The plot's pretty good just accept the usual amateur involved in crime solving and get into the story. It's December in South Jersey, Chanukah has started, and Schneider presents a plausible community, a very recognizable place and mixes in everyday life and religion so that you truly get what it's like to be a rabbi, or more broadly, Jewish.

The rabbi starts off by telling you that she hates funerals but is stuck officiating at one for someone she didn't know and didn't But he had made a list of everyone who was not going to do the job and Rabbi Cohen was the only rabbi around who was not on the list. After the funeral, where people keep coming up to her and informing her it was murder, there's another death in the family. Is it suicide? And what caused it?

Schneider's light touch with the exposition, where you learn about customs and religious practice, helped a lot. She writes realistic, plausible dialogue (a big concern with many first mysteries for me) and shows you around her home, her town and her life, without a lot of dull exposition. I knew a lot but still welcomed the refresher course. I think this character could show up in several more books and I'd be glad to see her.

Reviewed by Andi Shechter, July 2007

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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