Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Review: Who By Fire by Diana Spechler

Maybe I’m overstepping my boundaries, maybe I’m supposed to let my kids make their own mistakes—that’s what the self-proclaimed experts say—but I know about mistakes, about how indelible they can be. [pg 45]

Who By Fire by Diana Spechler
Harper Perennial, 2008
Fiction; 343 pgs

Reason for Reading: I was contacted by the author who wanted to know if I would be interested in reading and reviewing her book. After doing a little research, I knew this was a book I couldn’t pass up.

Challenge Commitment Fulfilled: ARC Challenge, New Authors Challenge, TBR Challenge

Comments: It is rare I read a book longing for more when I reach the end. It was that way with Who By Fire, however. I wanted the story to go on, to know what would happen to the characters next. I was not ready to close this chapter on their lives. Not just yet. I am not talking about those types of endings that leave you in the lurch or where you aren't satisfied. Rather, I am talking about a book that has you so invested in the characters’ lives that you aren't ready to let go.

Alena was only six years old when she was kidnapped from right outside her home. She was the youngest of three and the favorite of her parents. Her disappearance was the breaking point of the Kellerman family. Alena's father abandoned his family, leaving behind a broken wife and two children, all of whom would bear the scars for a lifetime.

Bits, the oldest of the Kellerman children, lives her life recklessly. She began turning to sex at an early age, hoping to fill a void deep within her. She feels empty and lost and seems to feed off of the chaos in her life. She does not let anyone get close to her and instead uses people without much regard for their feelings or thoughts.

Like Bits, Alena's brother Ash feels alone in the world. He blames himself for his sister's disappearance, holding close a secret which burns him from the inside. He is angry at himself, lashing out at others. Unlike his sister who runs away from all that might tie her down, he turns to religion, something controlled and focused to quell the pain inside of him. He thinks that by breaking away from his past and dedicating himself completely to religion, he will find the peace and happiness he seeks.

Ellie Kellerman, their mother, wants nothing more than to have her family back. She lost her youngest child and her husband and is desperately afraid she will lose her remaining children as well. In her mind, her children are both disappearing from her, in particular her son, who she believes has joined a cult. She is willing to go to any length to reel him in.

When Bits learns from her mother that her sister's remains have been discovered, she decides it is up to her to bring him home. She travels to Israel where her brother is now living and learning among the Orthodox Jews at a yeshiva. She blames herself for her brother's self-exile from the family, for his turning to what she thinks is extremism in his faith, and believes that it is up to her to save her family.

The story is told from the points of view of Bits, Ash and Ellie. Diana Spechler takes a chance writing each part in first person, but it proves quite effective. The reader gets a deeper understanding of the characters, their motivations and their pain. There are also other characters who stand out in the novel for their own reason, including Monica, a girl on a mission who at first seems confident in herself and in her beliefs, but who really is a lost soul herself, and Todd, Ash's roommate at the yeshiva who is still searching for his niche in the world. He was perhaps my favorite of all the characters.

Yet it was Ash's story which most moved me. I could identify with his reasons for turning toward faith for direction, more than I could Bits' life choices. Like him, I find comfort in order and self-control rather than in chaos and recklessness. Ash turned to religion for the wrong reasons, out of guilt and self-loathing. He hoped for a cure, to be rid of his past. He clung to it like a drug. The religion itself is not the problem, although to some, the practices and beliefs of Orthodox Judaism may seem extreme and overzealous.

Who By Fire is not just about Ash, however, despite his family’s focus on him. It is about all three of the main characters and their relationship with one another. They each are suffering in their own ways and have made choices, sometimes bad ones, in an effort to cope with a terrible tragedy from their past. This is a story about grief, loss, guilt and blame. It is also a story of hope. Despite the direction their lives have gone and in spite of the past, Ash, Ellie and Bits are all searching for something more, something better in life, and for each other, even Ash, who may not realize it.

I loved this book on many levels. I am drawn to books that touch on religious themes as this one did. Not as a way of preaching or teaching about a religion, per say, but about a character's self-journey. Judaism and its many facets is one religion that I have always been interested in. Also, I appreciated how well Diana Spechler crafted her characters. They were terribly flawed and not always the most likable and yet I really came to care for them. In addition, the setting seemed very appropriate. Set partly in Israel, the turmoil there seemed to mirror the turmoil of the family, as well as highlighted some of the good, including Israel's diversity. Overall Who By Fire was a compelling and moving novel that will stay with me for awhile to come.

Rating: * (Very Good +)

For more information about the author and her books, please visit the author's website. Be sure and stop by yesterday's interview with the author if you haven't done so already!

Many thanks to both the author, Diana Spechler, and her publicist, Audrey Harris, for providing me with a copy of Who by Fire.


  1. Wendy, you did Ms. Spechler justice. It really is an excellent one-two punch to introduce us to the author, let us get to know her, then review her book. The book sounds amazing...I can count on one hand how many books I read last year where I was left wanting more. It is a talent for an author to reach out and emotionally connect with the reader in such a way. Thanks for your hard work on this one!

  2. I can't wait to read this book. I love it when you're so drawn into the story and at the end you sit there and wonder to yourself what happened to them. I enjoy reading about people's journeys through faith too. This sounds like a fascinating story and your review was once again, top notch. I really liked the way you introduced us to the author and then reviewed the book the next day. Excellent job!!

  3. Sounds like an excellent book. Great review!

  4. Wow! Sounds like a must read. Thanks.

  5. After reading your review, I'm so glad this in in my TBR pile. I can't wait to read it and hope to get to it soon.

  6. Wow. This sounds like an absolutely wonderful book, and one I can't wait to dig in to!

  7. I've got this one coming up soon on my list. I'll be back for your full review after that. I'm glad you liked the book and I'm even more anxious to get to it.

  8. Great review, Wendy! Even though I read this pretty recently myself, you've made me want to go back and read it again, to see what might strike me differently.

    I'll be posting about Who by Fire again next Monday as part of an online book club discussion - I hope you won't mind if I make reference to some of your insights :-).

  9. I'm glad you so greatly enjoyed this book! Does it seem like there have been a large number of books published recently about missing children?

  10. I'm looking forward to this read. So glad to see another positive review. :)

  11. It does sound like a very compelling read Wendy! I remember reading something sort of similar a couple of years ago. Great review!!!

  12. This definitely sounds like something I'd love to read. I like the character development and how they still speak to readers after finishing. Thanks for the wonderful review, Wendy!

  13. I really love a book that leaves me wanting a little more at the end. I guess that sounds a little weird, but I've always seen it as the author doing a great job of making me really invested in the characters and their lives. Glad to hear this one touched you on so many different levels, Wendy.

  14. This sounds like an amazing read. I will definitely be checking this one out and great review!!!

  15. Wonderful review Wendy! This one is on my TBR.

    I added the link to the ARC Challenge Post.

  16. Your reviews are wonderfully in-depth - you have a knack for saying what a book is about without giving too much away. This book sounds like a great read.

  17. Sandy - Thank you! I debated whether to put the review first or the interview, finally settling on the interview first upon my husband's advice. I am glad I chose right. :-)

    This book really left an impression on me and I'm glad it came out in my review.

    Staci - Thanks! I was just glad Diana was willing to be a guest on my blog. :-)

    I had a feeling I would like this one when I first heard about it; I just didn't anticipate how much I would like it.

    Hopefully you will enjoy it when you read it too.

    Yvonne - Thank you!

    Kelly - I really enjoyed it.

    Beth - I think this was a case of a book and I meeting at just the right time in my life. :-)

    Kathy - I look forward to reading what you think of it when you get to it!

    Chelsea - I hope you like it if you do read it.

    Dar - Probably better to wait until after you read it, I agree. I don't like to read full reviews right before I read a book either.

    Florinda - Thank you! I do understand though what you meant when you mentioned in your own review of the book that you wish there had been more development in the characters, at least on some level. I didn't mention it in my review because I'm still not sure how to put it into words. I wish the author had gone a little farther with Bits, between the end of the middle and the end. If that makes sense.

    I look forward to reading your post about the online book club discussion next week! I don't mind if you share some of my thoughts at all. :-)

    Laura - Yes, it does seem like missing children in books are current trend. I hadn't really thought about it before, but now that you've mentioned it . . .

    Joy - I hope you enjoy it when you read it!

    Jen - Thanks! I really enjoy books like this. I'm glad I had the opportunity to read it.

    Alice - Thank you! Character development is such an important component in novels, I think.

    Trish - I don't think that's weird at all. I know exactly what you mean. :-)

    Samantha - Thanks! I hope you do get a chance to read it.

    Teddy - Thank you! I hope you enjoy it! And thanks for adding the link to the challenge post. :-)

    Myckyee - Thank you so much! I admit that with this one, I just kind of started writing and then couldn't stop. LOL And I really try not to give too much away when summarizing a book.

  18. This sounds great! I can't wait to read it!

  19. Great review Wendy. I agree, sometimes the characters really got on your nerves but you still wanted everything to turn out well for them in the end. I thought Diana did a really great job with them. And, I loved the ending... Wasn't expecting some of the things that happened and that was a nice surprise.

  20. This book sounds really good! I can't wait to get my hands on it :D

  21. Amy - It is a great book.

    Iliana - Thank you! I wasn't expecting everything that happened at the end either, but was happy it turned out the way it did.

    Robin - I hope you like it if you do give it a try!

  22. Wendy, Diane contacted me too and offered to send me the book, but then it turned out she couldn't because I live in Canada (bummer!). I know I'll have to buy it at some point! Great review!

  23. Avis - I hate it when that happens. Those darn publishing right rules. :-( Hopefully you can get your hands on a copy so you will be able to read it.

  24. I've heard so many great things about this book. I can't wait to read this one. Thanks for another great review.

  25. Serena - I do hope you get a chance to read it!

  26. I read this book last year for the Book Club Girl show and really enjoyed it. I'm glad you did, too. The author created very intriguing characters, and like you, I enjoyed Ash's scenes the most. Great review!

    Diary of an Eccentric

  27. Anna - Thank you! Yes, Ash definitely was my favorite character.

  28. Wendy,
    I read this book in June, and I loved it. It was one that just jumped at me in the bookstore. Your review is excellent.

  29. Christine - I am so glad you enjoyed this! And thank you for your kind words. :-)


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