Off the Shelf: Romance, fantasy or a combination of the two: Part two

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

I wrote in part one of this review that I was looking for light reading after having read some very serious fiction. Once again, I found two books in this review had more serious themes than I expected, although there was a great deal of humor in the romance novel. While one of the fantasy novels offered a romantic element, the novel aimed at tweens focused on parent/child interactions and friendship. But, as I said in the first review, the fun is in the surprises and these works contained several. Even better, one ranks as one of the most affecting novels I’ve read this year.

“Aviva vs. the Dybbuk” 

Although “Aviva vs. the Dybbuk” by Mari Lowe (Levine Querido) is aimed at tween readers, it packed a powerful punch for this adult. Life has not been easy for Aviva and her mother since Aviva’s father died. The two live in an apartment over the mikvah where they moved after they could no longer afford their house. Aviva’s mother was a teacher before her husband’s death, but quit her job and now can barely function. It’s clear that her position at the mikvah was offered out of pity since most of the community uses the newer, fancier one. 

Aviva also has difficulty coping. Her best friend, Kayla, has deserted her, she finds it hard to concentrate at school and there’s a dybbuk (the ghost of someone who passed away) living in the mikvah who periodically causes havoc. Aviva feels responsible for her mother and tries to make her life easier, but doesn’t know how to cure her mother’s sadness. Things get more complicated when the principal of their school forces Aviva and Kayla to work together on a project for the school’s upcoming mother/daughter event. Then after an antisemitic incident, someone attacks the synagogue. Aviva believes it was the dybbuk who caused the damage, but how can she get anyone to believe her when she’s the only one who sees him?

The ending of “Aviva vs. the Dybbuk” surprised me and left my eyes filled with tears of joy and sorrow. Lowe is an author to watch and I look forward to reading her future work. 

“Sadie on a Plate”

The humor is clear from the start in Amanda Elliot’s “Sadie on a Plate” (A Jove Book). The novel opens with the sentence, “My life has this irritating habit of throwing its biggest changes at me while I’m completely in the nude.” That includes her invitation to appear on her favorite TV show “Chef Supreme.” 

That invitation is much needed because Sadie was dumped by her boyfriend and fired from her job on the same day. Even worse, the boyfriend and the boss were the same person: the owner of the restaurant where she worked, who also promised she would never again work as a chef in Seattle. Sadie almost forgets about being dumped during her plane trip to New York to take part in “Chef Supreme” because she’s seated next to the very sexy Luke. Their chemistry is hot, but she can’t tell him about her appearance on “Chef Supreme,” so, after a wonderful lunch together in New York, she promises to let him know when she can be in contact again. But things take an unexpected turn when it turns out.... Oh, sorry, can’t reveal that, although I guessed the plot twist. However, that didn’t take away from the fun of reading about Sadie’s time on the program, which she hopes will help her attain her dream: opening her own restaurant where she can cook a modern, hip version of traditional Jewish food.

While “Sadie on a Plate” confirmed that I never want to appear on any contest show, this one was great fun to read about, especially the diabolical challenges the contestants faced. I’m not sure I want to taste all the food they made (some of it sounded rather strange), but there were some that sounded interesting. (Sorry, no recipes were included.) The combination of humor (with some serious touches), the romantic challenges and the cooking competitions will appeal to readers who love romance. 

“A Far Wilder Magic”

My initial challenge with Allison Saft’s “A Far Wilder Magic” (Wednesday Books) was of my own making: it took me a bit to realize that its Jewish content was not going to be specifically spelled out. But it finally becomes clear from the discussions of Margaret Welty’s Yu’adir heritage that that term represents Judaism, particularly when noting the discrimination and hatred directed toward the Yu’adir. Margaret’s homeland also discriminates against immigrants, which readers learn about when they are introduced to the second main character, Weston Winters, who fights against stereotypes of a religion that seems to represent Catholicism. The novel takes place in an alternate version of our world, but at first, the time period is unclear. There are cars and phones, but no cell phones or television. At 150 pages into the novel, a date is finally mentioned, which sets the events in the early part of the 20th century. 

The two characters meet when Weston appears at the manor house belonging to Margaret’s mother, Evelyn. Weston wants to become a licensed alchemist and hopes to apprentice with Evelyn. Unfortunately for him, Evelyn has once again deserted Margaret to search for answers to alchemist mysteries. Although she can barely tolerate his company, Margaret agrees to let Weston remain until her mother returns. When the legendary hala – a non-earthly creature that destroys crops and kills humans – is found in the area, Margaret decides to take part in the Halfmoon Hunt that offers hunters a chance to kill the creature. But, because of the hala’s mysterious nature, she needs an alchemist to help her and the only one available is Weston.

The plot lines in “A Far Wilder Magic” are more complex than this short review suggests, but the familial and societal relationships discussed add the depth to the novel. The action became exciting once the hunt began, although I debated exactly how I wanted it to end. Lovers of fantasy will want to add this to their list of potential reads.