Review: A Small Miracle Happened by Mari Donne

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Rating: 4.5 stars out of 5

A Small Miracle Happened cover DonneA job opportunity just brought Daniel Sobel to a small Midwestern town, a move he is now regretting. The location and population of his new place has quickly made Dan feel like the only Jewish gay man in a small Midwestern town, especially with the approach of Hanukkah. Dan is feeling isolated and lonely, removed from his large Jewish family and his culture. The only welcoming sight is his new neighbor’s rainbow flag hung in the window of the condo next door, the only color in a sea of blandness.  On the first night of Hanukkah, Dan is missing the items he needs to celebrate Hanukkah, things that cannot be purchased in this small town. But with a ring of a doorbell and a misplaced package everything changes.

Christian Parsons, neighbor and owner of the rainbow flag, is standing at his door holding a package from Dan’s grandmother. Inside is a menorah, candles— a dreidel, some chocolate coins, and a tin of cookies shaped like a Star of David. Delighted and overcome with the love and warmth of family,   Dan invites Christian in and is soon explaining the meaning of the contents of the box and Hanukkah. Chris is unfamiliar with the Jewish religion and its holidays but if it means he can spend time with Dan, he happily accepts.  Soon the men are spending each night together, lighting a candle and discovering more about each other.  Flirting turns to fun and games and then something deeper.  What will happen when the eight days of Hanukkah are over?

A Small Miracle Happened by Mari Donne is a lovely, warmhearted romance set against the backdrop of the Jewish holiday, Hanukkah.  Two young men, one Christian (literally) and one Jewish, have recently moved into neighboring condos.  Dan and Chris are people out of place in this homogeneous Midwestern town, one by religion and both by their sexuality.  The author employs the much used plot device of a “misdirected package” to bring Dan and Chris together then turns that happening into a story richly textured with the story of Hanukkah and Dan’s warm and loving Jewish family.

I loved the manner in which Mari Donne relays the facts behind Hanukkah and the elements associated with the holiday, from the menorah (in all its aspects) to the making of the latkes.  Its all gently incorporated into the story with an appreciation and love for Jewish ritual and Judaism.  That’s not to say its not without its humor, because there is plenty of that to be found within A Small Miracle Happened as well.  The meaning behind the letters found on the side of a top called a dreidel are revealed during a very sexy game of “Strip dreidel.” And the nightly dinners, researched and cooked by Chris, are used to define and explore kashrut law, keeping kosher as it were.

As Dan teaches Chris, the reader unfamiliar with Hanukkah and Judaism learns as well.  It’s a wonderful technique, lovingly employed here by Donne.  It enriches the story while adding depth to the characters.  I loved both Dan and Chris, neither of which is the typical gorgeous gay single guy.  Dan is overexcitable, family oriented and comfortable in his homosexuality.  Chris is none of those things.  Chris’ family is not eager to accept his gayness and is just as happy for him not to appear at the Thanksgiving or Christmas celebrations at home.  Chris is tall, awkward, and shy.  Yet Donne makes their relationship and attraction believable and endearing.

A Small Miracle Happened is a short story at 79 pages but the author makes the most of this length to deliver a story that feels much larger in heart and scope.  It has been divided into eight chapter, one for each night of Hanukkah.  And then the author goes one step further and gives the reader a delightful epilogue that made the story even better.  I try my best to avoid the avalanche of overly saccharine stories that appear at this time of the year and I know I am not alone in that.  But A Small Miracle Happened is that marvelous seasonal read that sidesteps most of the holiday story pitfalls while retaining the charm and joy of the season.  I loved A Small Miracle Happened and think you will too.  Make it part of your holiday reading list.  I highly recommend it.

Cover art by April Martinez is simple and effective.  I thought it was perfect for the story within.

Book Details:

ebook, 79 pages
Published November 26th 2013 by Loose Id
original title: A Small Miracle Happened
ISBN13 9781623006372
edition language English

Review: Sweet and Sour by Astrid Amara

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Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Sweet and Sour coverMiles Piekus should be the happiest man around.  He has just finished a renovation of the family deli, Piekus Pickles, he bought from his parents and his shop is more successful than ever.  Miles has started a catering business and expanded the vegetarian selection in his Kosher deli.  He lives above the business in the apartment he grew up in and loves.  So what’s wrong?  Well, his Israeli boyfriend Itai, a software designer, was supposed to be his partner but can’t be bothered to help out.  And Miles thinks Itai is cheating on him again, after taking him back for a second chance.

As Thanksgiving and Hanukkah collide to form Miles’s worst nightmare with the deli to run and a party to cater and no help with either, a surprising arrival might be the answers to his problems.  Detective Dominic Delbene, a pickle enthusiast and all around foodie, has been staking out Piekus Pickles, on the lookout for a narcotics ring operating in the area.  He wants to use Piekus Pickles as his undercover spot and offers to help out behind the counter as his cover.  Turns out, Nic’s family used to own a deli and soon things are running smoothly, too smoothly as it turns out.  As romance starts to collide with business for both men, can Miles and Nic find the perfect recipe for love and a future together?

C.S. Lewis said “Eating and reading are two pleasures that combine admirably.” In Sweet and Sour, that combination is not just admirable but downright delectable!  Each holiday season I look forward to a Hannukkah story from Astrid Amara, normally one that includes the remarkable Bellskis.  This year the author introduces us to Miles Piekus and Piekus Pickles and I fell in love all over again with this author and her captivating characters and stories.

Starting from the very first, we get a clear idea of who Miles Piekus is as a person and business owner.  He’s covered in splattered pickle juice, working on orders and trying to assuage an old time customer of his parents who mistakenly picked up the wrong pickle and, of course, blames Miles for the error!  It’s a perfect scene from the imagery to the dialog which is so authentic to that age group of elderly Jewish men and women that I could swear I was sitting over at Pumpernickels at the early bird special.  We understand immediately that Miles is overworked, feeling  unappreciated by long time customers, and irritated by the attitude and absence of his IT boyfriend.  Astrid Amara gives us Miles, the gay, hardworking, family and culture loving Miles, and she did so in a nutshell as they say.  That’s wonderful characterization, made all the better by the ease in which she accomplished it.

Then enters Detective Dominic Delbene to further confuse and help the situation.  Nic Delbene is another wonderful character in a whole slew of them.  For one, he is not the typical detective in that he’s unhappy being a cop.  Furthermore, Nic is a pickle enthusiast and a foodie in his own right, having come from a delicatessen owning family himself.  Those unexpected and genuine layers add such texture to a person who could have been a stock character that I connected to Nic from the moment he walked into the store just as Miles did.  Nic loved the food Miles served up and he ate with an enthusiasm that was so contagious that my mouth actually watered.  One of the reasons this connectivity works so beautifully is because we understand Miles reaction to Nic because it is ours as well.

This book is chock full of memorable people, as different in flavor as the pickles you would find in Miles’ shop. And that includes Itai, the software designing boyfriend with ideas of a relationship at the other end of the spectrum from Miles.  Most people will dislike him deeply.  I have to admit I am not terrfibly fond of him myself. But I loved the manner in which Miles dealt with him. From the beginning to the end, Miles behaved like an adult and a loving, responsible human being.  In fact most of the people here are those who would garner your respect if you met them outside these pages.  As for the other characters?  Well, while we wouldn’t want to be more than acquaintances we would surely recognize them as the living breathing real women and men that Amara has created them to be.  From their actions to their dialog, it all works and works so smoothly that the pages just speed by along with the plot.

Layered overtop of the characters and plot is the author’s love of food and the Jewish culture.  These elements add such a richness to this story  that it almost needs its own review.  Miles keeps a Kosher kitchen and works hard to deliver kosher food that is still very “upscale”, pushing the boundaries of the expectations of those people in his community and the customers his store has served, some for years.  Astrid Amara gently imparts some of the specific about keeping Kosher to the reader without going into plot deadening detail.  We learn that Miles serves vegetarian because of the kashrut law that says meat and dairy must be kept separate.  We watch as Miles prepares his first catering job for Rabbi Kevin Fine, the  four-course Sabbath dinner for fifteen reform rabbis and their spouses at the Jewish Community Center. We get a complete menu and reactions from the dinners.  It’s a rich, funny, and ultimately heartwarming scene.  And I wanted to be there.  We are also are there as Miles spends his first Hannukkah alone, lighting the candles and saying the prayers by himself in his upstairs apartment.  We know how important tradition and his religion are to Miles because Astrid Amara has made it abundantly clear through Miles’ actions and words.  It’s moving and authentic.

And then there is the food and the recipes.  Oh my, such food!  Each chapter is labeled with the title of a recipe.  Chapter One is Warmly Spiced Cranberry Chutney. Chapter Four is Kosher Dill Half-Sours, Chapter Eight is Indian Hot Lemon Pickle right up to Beet Pickled Duck Eggs.  Each recipe sent me running to my computer and Google.  The food inside this story filled my head with aromas and flavors of such mouth-watering variety that I wanted to sample a bit of each and you will too.  I have been told that all the recipes in Sweet and Sour are real to my delight.

The holidays are upon us and Sweet and Sour is the perfect accompaniment for your holidays no matter what you celebrate. It is full of laughter and family, of traditions both old and new, of friends and lovers and our hopes for the future.  And of course, food, lots and lots of food and new recipes to try out. I asked for one from the author and here is the sufganiyot recipe.   Now I am off to bake.  You will want to as well. http://www.chow.com/recipes/30225-mexican-hot-chocolateglazed-sufganiyot-hanukkah-doughnuts-with-marshmallow-filling.

Sweet and Sour by Astrid Amara is one of ScatteredThoughtsandRogueWords highly recommended reads for 2013.  Don’t miss out!

This is how it all begins:

Chapter One

Warmly Spiced Cranberry Chutney

“It’s a disgrace, what you’ve done to this pickle!”

Mr. Frank Elder, a loyal customer of Piekus Pickles for over fifteen years, brandished a sad pickle aloft, as if its very appearance were something so appalling everyone in the establishment would gasp in horror.

As it was, Miles Piekus, owner of Piekus Pickles and the one being verbally accosted, wiped the spatters of pickling liquid from his face and affixed an apologetic smile upon his face.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Elder. Can I get you another one?”

“You try it!” Mr. Elder cried, shoving the offensive vegetable in Miles’s face.

Miles took the small green pickle and bit off the end. It tasted crunchy, garlicky, and tart, just like a pickle should taste.

“It’s very sour!” Mr. Elder complained, and Miles understood the problem.

“This is a full-sour pickle. You usually buy half-sours.”

Half sours were brined in salt and spices only. This pickle had been brined in vinegar and for a longer time. Miles wondered if the old guy had finally lost his sense of smell. “See how dark it is? Half- sours are a lighter green.”

Mr. Elder scratched his temple. “But I thought I got my usual…”

“Did you select pickles from that first barrel by the window?” Miles pointed to one of six large wood barrels lining the wall of the deli. “Because I moved the barrels around when I renovated, and I bet you selected full–sours instead of your regular.”

“Even if that was the case, your mother would have caught the mistake before ringing me up.”

That was likely true, and not the first time Miles had heard the complaint. He’d inherited his family’s store when his parents retired and moved to Arizona three months ago, and the transition embittered many of the older, traditional client base that found Miles’s youth and enthusiasm off-putting.

“I’m sorry,” Miles repeated, his smile firmly attached. “Let’s get you half a dozen half-sours on the house.”

“You don’t have to go that far—“

“I insist. You’re right. I should have caught the mistake and I’ll make sure it doesn’t happen again.” Miles gathered up a jar and used the tongs in the half-sour barrel to fish out a dozen small cukes from the brine. He sealed the lid and moved quickly to the cash register to ring up the sale. As he did so the bells over the front door jingled and two couples hurried in from the rain, talking loudly. Miles smiled at them then stole a glance back to the closed door behind him. The door opened to a narrow flight of stairs that connected to the second floor of the building, where Miles’s boyfriend currently sat, ostensibly not helping with the business. Miles sighed. He handed the jar to Mr. Elder and made a note for his Regular Clients board hidden behind the counter about the man’s tastes.

“Thank you, Miles,” Mr. Elder said in a complaining voice. “I’ll give you one more chance.”

Book Details:

ebook, 138 pages

Expected publication: November 26th 2013 by Loose Id
ISBN139781623004163
url http://www.loose-id.com/newest/coming-soon/sweet-and-sour.html

Special Note and  Recipes From the Author:

The one recipe I’ve personally made a few times before is a two parter – you need to make Pickled Beets first, and then you get to make Beet Pickled Duck eggs (thats the recipe in the book Sweet and Sour, but you can use chicken eggs instead).

Both recipes courtesy of “The Joy of Pickling” by Linda Ziedrich
Pickled Beets

– Makes 8 pints

7 lbs. beets with their rootlets and 2 inches of their tops, well scrubbed
2 4″ cinnamon sticks, broken into pieces
1T whole allspice berries
1t whole cloves
1 c granulated sugar
1 c firmly packed light brown sugar
2t pickling salt
1 quart cider vinegar
2 c water

1. Put the beets into a large pot and pour enough boiling water over them to cover them. Return the water to a boil and boil the beets for 15-35 minutes, depending on their size, until they are just tender.
2. Drain the beets and cover them with cold water. When they are cool, trim them and slip off their skins. If they are large, halve or quarter them – or if you like, slice all the beets into 1/4 inch thick rounds.
3. Tie the spices in a spice bag or a scrap of cheesecloth. Put this in a nonreactive pot with both sugars, salt, vinegar, and water. Bring the contents to a boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Reduce the heat and simmer the liquid, uncovered, for 10 minutes.
4. While the liquid simmers, pack the beets into pint or quart mason jars. Pour hot liquid over the beets, leaving 1/2 inch headspace. Close the jars with two-piece caps. Process the jars for 30 minutes in a boiling water bath.
5. Store the jars in a cool, dry, dark place for at least 3 weeks before eating the beets. After opening a jar, store it in the fridge. Save the liquid in the jar for the eggs below:

Eggs Pickled in Beet Juice

– Makes 1 quart

1c liquid from Basic Pickled Beets

1c white wine vinegar or distilled white vinegar
1t pickling salt
1/2 t whole black peppercorns, crushed
1/2 t whole allspice berries, crushed
1 Mediterranean bay leaf, crumbled
About 12 hard-cooked duck eggs (to fill a quart jar), peeled

1. In a nonreactive saucepan, bring to a boil the beet-pickling liquid, vinegar, salt, and spices. Remove the pan from the heat and let the liquid cool.
2. Put the eggs into a quart jar and pour the cooled liquid over them. Cap the jar and refrigerate it for 6-24 hours. The longer you leave the eggs in the liquid, the farther the red color will penetrate into the whites. To keep the yolk from coloring, slice and serve the eggs before a day has passed.

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A good basic bread and butter pickle recipe:

Time to give Thanks and the Week Ahead in Reviews

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thanksgiving-clip-art cornecopia

This is Thanksgiving week for those of us in the United States and for Americans abroad.  It is a holiday associated with family and friends, get togethers and dinners surrounded by those we love.  Traditionally it is also a time we give thanks for the things we have, from health and happiness to work and a place to live and call our own.   These are things that we may take for granted and others are bereft of.  Some by choice, others by force, and many more by fate and a fluctuating economy that seems to favor the wealthy while leaving the rest behind.

Here are some agencies and shelters that could use our help in these times of need.  Notice the scarcity of LGBTQ shelters, including the lack of one in the DC Metro area:

LGBT Shelters:

  • Ali Forney Center:

The mission of the Ali Forney Center “is to protect lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning (LGBTQ) youth from the harm of homelessness, and to support them in becoming safe and independent as they move from adolescence to adulthood.” To learn more about this charity or to donate directly, please visit their website: http://www.aliforneycenter.org.

  • Lost-n-Found Youth, Inc.:

Lost-n-Found is the outgrowth of Saint Lost and Found, an LGBT homeless youth fund project of the Atlanta Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence.
Founded by Rick Westbrook, Art Izzard, and Paul Swicord after each of them experienced being turned away when attempting to place queer youth into local shelters and youth aid programs, the three resolved that something needed to be done to address the immediate need.  Their website: http://lostnfoundyouth.org/

Food Banks:

Most areas have several  food banks in need of canned goods and nonperishables this year.   Here are some in the Metro DC Area:

There are so many worthy organizations out there competing for your attention and assistance.  If you aren’t sure of the organization’s viability as a charity, check with the Charity WatchDog Group with the American Institute of Philanthropy which lists the tops organizations with regard to the amount of money that goes directly to the charity involved.  Here is the link http://www.charitywatch.org/toprated.html.

If you know of other LGBT  youth shelters or organizations I have left out, please forward the information to me for future use.

I hope you all have a wonderful Thanksgiving and Hanukkah.  I have a wonderful week ahead in reviews.  This includes Astrid Amara’s wonderful story Sweet and Sour, Eden Winter’s Corruption, a great anthology, an enchanting fantasy by Alex Beecroft and a timely new release and author blog by Ally Blue that focuses around the relationship of two men who are homeless, Long The Mile:

Monday, Nov. 25:        Corruption by Eden Winter
Tuesday, Nov. 26:        Sweet and Sour by Astrid Amara
Wed., Nov. 27:              Bar None Anthology
Thurs., Nov. 28:            Too Many Fairy Princes by Alex Beecroft,  HappyThanksgiving!
Friday, Nov. 29:            Ally Blue Author Spotlight and Guest Blog for Long The Mile
Sat. Nov. 30:                  Long The Mile by Ally Blue