Tuesday, March 22, 2005


Tamar Yellin's Genizah at the House of Shepher, which I mentioned on my blog awhile back, has gone white-hot/red-hot just prior to its April 15th release date. Not only have rave reviews come in from the library trade journals, but reviews are also forthcoming in major newspapers and general review magazines. I think it is entirely possible that this amazingly skillful first novel will turn out to be one of the unexpected large-scale success stories of 2005.

I do have to say, though, having sampled The Da Vinci Code, that the quote in the press release below is inaccurate, in that Tamar's novel was written by a masterful prose stylist and is in every way a serious literary novel even while being immensely entertaining.


The Genizah at the House of Shepher
Pub date: April 15th, 2005
Publisher: The Toby Press
ISBN: 1 59264 085 0

"IMPOSSIBLE TO PUT DOWN." - Booklist starred review





Beginning with a search for the ten lost tribes and ending in an attic, where lies an important bible which has been missing for seventy-nine years, The Genizah at the House of Shepher is Tamar Yellin's critically acclaimed debut novel.

Returning to her grandparents' home in Jerusalem after an absence of many years, Shulamit, an English biblical scholar, stumbles into the mystery of the so-called Shepher Codex, an ancient and valuable manuscript of the Bible which has been discovered in the "genizah" or attic. In uncovering the truth about the Codex she reveals the loves, hates and histories of the Shepher family itself and at the same time struggles to answer pressing questions: what is the significance of the Codex and where does it come from? Who is the stranger, Gideon, who is desperate to enlist her help? Above all, whom does the Codex belong to and what part must Shula play in its destiny?

"'The Genizah at the House of Shepher' quickly sweeps readers up in an exhaustively researched, intelligent saga about the whereabouts of the only true handwritten copy of the Bible." - Ynetnews.com

Yellin, a prize-winning Bible student herself was inspired to write the novel when a vast cache of family documents was discovered in the attic of her grandparents' home in Jerusalem, shortly before it was scheduled for demolition.

"It was an incredible sight," she says. "Even the dust on the floorboards was composed of disintegrating paper."

Among the huge array of family letters, diaries and early newspapers was found a vitally important Hebrew bible, containing notes on the text of the Aleppo Codex, regarded by scholars as the most perfect text of the Bible in existence.

The Codex had been destroyed by fire in 1947, and the notes were the only surviving evidence of what its text had been. The notes had been missing for more than seventy years. They were eventually used to reconstruct the vanished Codex.

"Even small variations in the Hebrew text of the Bible can be of tremendous significance," Yellin states. "Because every Hebrew letter is also a number, the Bible is like an enormous codebook. A change in a single letter can be of huge importance, for example, to numerologists who are seeking to calculate the date of the end of the world."

Seated amongst the remains of her family history, Yellin first conceived the idea for The Genizah at the House of Shepher.

"The novel took thirteen years to write," she says. "There was a huge amount of research to be undertaken, which took me to libraries in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Leeds and Toronto."

Once completed, it took another three years to find a publisher. It went the rounds of the London publishing houses twice, before finding a home with distinguished U.S. independent The Toby Press. "The whole business made me ill in the end," Yellin recalls. "One morning at the hospital I was given the devastating news that I may have cancer. That afternoon I received an email from Matthew Miller at The Toby Press, asking if the rights to the novel were still available."

Fortunately, the cancer scare turned out to be a false alarm, and Yellin completed a fourth and final rewrite on the novel before its publication in April, 2005.

Ynetnews, the English edition of leading Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot, has compared 'The Genizah at the House of Shepher' to Dan Brown's bestseller 'The Da Vinci Code.' "The mystery crops up like a Jewish, low-profile version of 'The Da Vinci Code.' Shulamit is like novelist Dan Brown's cryptographer Sophie Neveu, who sets out on a journey to seek the secret her great-grandfather was charged to protect.

"As in 'The Da Vinci Code,' Yellin's book challenges readers' minds with a fair measure of intrigue and scholarly adventure, albeit its biblical topic."

Award-winning novelist Jeff VanderMeer, whose 'City of Saints and Madmen' appears this month from Pan MacMillan, has drawn parallels between the novel and A. S. Byatt's Booker prize-winning 'Possession.' "Beautifully written and evoking echoes of A. S. Byatt's Possession, Yellin's novel melds the personal and the wide panorama of history into a rich, satisfying tale."

Yellin herself describes her novel as "not only an academic thriller, but an interrogation of Jewish identity, a meditation on exile and belonging, and, along the way, a love story. In constructing what I call the "mythical history" of the family Shepher, I was re-imagining and striving to come to terms with my own family narrative and with my place in it."


At 12:22 AM, Blogger Weirdmonger said...

This book is what we've all been waiting our lifetime to read.

At 11:18 AM, Anonymous Tamar said...

Des: I'm sure it just *feels* like a lifetime!

At 5:06 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm not so sure if it's something I would enjoy. It seems a lot of these *styles* of novels are coming out now (I guess you could call them mystic intrique, or occult intrigue or something along those lines), and I wonder if we really need a new genre of writing.

I mean, that's what this is turning into, when you include this book, Possesion (which is excellent), Foucult's Pendulum (probably the best thing Umberto Eco had ever written), The Rule of Four and The Da Vinci Code.

Not that its a bad thing, but is it a necassary thing?

At 6:51 AM, Blogger Hal Duncan said...

"...I wonder if we really need a new genre of writing."

Huh? Five books do not a genre make. And pigeonholing Umberto Eco and Dan Brown together into some arbitrary, imaginary "genre" box, then writing off as "unnecessary" another book (which might bear a remote resemblance to both but might well, uh, not)... man that's just so... I'm not even going to go there.

*shakes head*

I'm very much looking forward to reading this book. It sounds bloody great.

At 7:37 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Those are just five books I pulled off the top of my head. I'm sure if I had the time or inclanation I can make a much larger list. I'm not lumping authors into a genre- I'm lumping books into a genre. So far the books I have listed have as much genre tropings (ie common threads and themes) as any other genre out there.

To tell you the truth, the book does seem uninteresting to me. The fact that it's based on real life discoveries doesn't make it any less uninteresting.

At 7:47 AM, Blogger Jason Erik Lundberg said...

If you don't like this type of book, then you don't have to read it, though it would be a shame. Tamar is a wonderful writer, and you deprive yourself of beautiful fiction when you reject it out of hand because a review compares it to The Da Vinci Code.

At 8:34 AM, Blogger Paul M Jessup said...

I thought I would log in proper now. Anyway, I'm not dismissin it out of hand for that reason- I should have prehaps phrased what I was saying a bit better. On forums/comments/emails I have a nasty problem of writing without thinking. Which is a terrible approach and destroys any real communication.

Let me rephrase myself here-
1. The book doesn't seem interesting to me. This outside of the genre statements. It has nothing to do with being compared to the Da Vinci code or whatever. I just can't seem to find myself interested in the book. It's not my cup o' tea or whatever. This is in no way a reflection on the quality of the book. I'm sure I'm missing many a great novel in my repotiore simply due to the fact that some books just don't sound interesting to me.

2.There does seem to be a new genre arising. It's still in it's infancy, and wether or not this book falls into the genre was my assumption. Since I did not read it, I am pretty sure that I'm wrong. Allthough the description of the novel seems to fall into that genre. I'm just saying 5 years from now there might be an Occult Intrigue section in a bookstore, right next to Fantasy or SciFi or whatever. Or in 10 years bookstores might just have a fiction section and no genre boundries. Who knows? I'm quite sure when the first "Westerns" were being written the idea of it as a genre didn't occur to anyone. Or when Jules Verne was first published that it would start a trend.

These are just assumptions. When I was asking if we need a new genre, it was not connected to the book itself and was just my inane musings. Please disregard anything you disagree with as the ramblings of the village idiot who learned to type.

At 9:01 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh dear.

Look, this is NOT a mystic intrigue or occult intrigue novel. It is a novel that weaves a multi-generational tale about a family, and that just happens to include this missing religious book.

A press release is of course going to emphasize the Da Vinci Code thing--what publisher in their right mind wouldn't? However, it IS an inaccurate description.

I understand the impulse to say "I don't think I'll like this because it seems like a copy cat or this isn't my thing," but it's not really that useful as comments go, unless it leads to some wider discussion. I generally don't go around posting on blog entries about books that don't sound interesting to me, "This will not interest me. Thank you very much. Jeff VanderMeer."

Look, if you like mainstream literary novels, with maybe a pinch of the fantastical, this book is for you. If you don't, you won't.


At 9:06 AM, Blogger Paul M Jessup said...

Sorry, I didn't mean for anyone to take offense at what I had been saying, but really how is my comment any different than "Wow I can't wait to read this!". How is my saying that It didn't interest me any different than those that were saying it did? Neither posts were bringing any discussion to the table at all. Is mine more a nuisance because it goes against the grain? Just wondering. Now I shall disappear into the woodwork like a vanishing gnome. POOF!

At 10:37 AM, Anonymous Tamar said...

Paul, I find your comments useful because they indicate to me that it can backfire for the PR to use that comparison to The Da Vinci Code. It does give a mistaken impression of what sort of book it is. That's not to say you'd like it anyway!

At 11:27 AM, Blogger Paul M Jessup said...

This is odd. I guess I didn't really explain what I meant- I liked the Da Vinci code. Not as much as Possesion, and not anywhere near as much Foucalt's Pendulum. I mean that the plot (although interesting) doesn't really scream "read me! please read me!". I guess what I'm saying is (leaving all that confusing nonsense about genre behind) that, can someone explain to me why this is the book "they've been waiting their whole life for (paraphrase, I know)", what makes this book important. Other than the esteemed Mr VanderMeer likes it, I see no reason to buy it, let alone proclaim it's greatness to the heavens.

This isn't meant to be insulting. I just want to know what makes this story unique, since the plot description posted above seems ho-hum (to me).

At 12:12 PM, Blogger Weirdmonger said...

Hi, Paul,
I'm currently reading the Da Vinci Code - and I find it wooden and unconvincing as fiction! However, I have the colour illustrated version which make it *slightly* interesting as an art book with an audit trail.

Quite separately, Tamar's novel will be great because Tamar is a great writer and will soon be recognised as such by a wider public. I feel I know this already. That's why this will be a landmark book for me.

I think the 'Da Vinci Code' connection is a red herring.

At 12:20 PM, Blogger Paul M Jessup said...

Oh I agree- The Da Vinci code is wooden and somewhat superflous. But it is a decent book, by all means, and a good read. It won't content with Great books, but not every book should. Please don't take this wrong- even if Tem is a great writer, what makes this book great? Great writers write crappy books all the time. Besides, I've been pulled into many a "s/he's a great writer, they will be great!" only to find out contrarywise. Hell, I have a feeling a lot of people feel the very same about my writing.

Is there an excerpt somewhere I can read?

At 12:21 PM, Blogger Paul M Jessup said...

I meant Tamar, not Tem.

At 12:33 PM, Blogger Weirdmonger said...

even if Tamar is a great writer, what makes this book great?

Paul, as I implied before, I haven't read this novel yet (Tamar's first and yet not formally issued), but I have read a lot of her fiction prose. And I have chosen three of her stories over the years to appear in a magazine I run - one of these stories was submitted anonymously and I still chose it!

Her prose style, for me, is one of the most exciting I have encountered by a modern writer -- limpid yet complex, a prose that touches me to the quick: conveying the subject-matter and story in a dreamily musical, yet sharply telling fashion - and like all great things, one cannot explain it fully.

Sorry if this sounds gushing, but I can only speak as I find.

At 12:46 PM, Blogger Paul M Jessup said...

Actually, that helps a hell of a lot, and brings into mind a more clear image on why this would be an interesting read.

At 12:49 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm not real fond of just "Wow--I'll read it" comments, either, but don't want to discourage anyone from expressing enthusiasm.

Why should you read this book? Because it's got great characterization and a really wonderful sense of history. The plot's good, but it's not what makes the novel for me.

Are you saying you think I'm plugging the book because Tamar is a friend of mine? Alas, if I stopped plugging the books of friends, I'd be plug-poor...

What I hope you DON'T feel, Paul, is under attack. I appreciate the discussion.


At 1:03 PM, Blogger Paul M Jessup said...

Actually, I don't feel under attack and I enjoy this discussion as well. I was just hoping that my comments weren't wanted. I wasn't saying your were plugging your friends- I've done it tons of times in the past myself. I was just wondering what made this book so special. What set it apart.

Now I do :)

And the love of good language always brings me to a new author, no matter what world the author writes about (whether it is realism or fantasy). The description of the prose is enough to perk my interest. Is there anywhere I can read the short stories?

At 1:41 PM, Blogger Weirdmonger said...

Paul, links to some stories here:

At 4:46 PM, Blogger Paul M Jessup said...

Thanks. She does seem to have a very hypnotic prose- something that drags you in and doesn't let go. After reading 'Kafka in Brontëland' I grasp what the big deal is about.

At 3:03 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm looking foreward to reading Tamar's new novel, as I like reading intelligent literature, whether they have an aspect of magic realism or not. Writing style, the message, character development & plot are more important than whether the subject agrees with me. That being said, I really appreciate the Jewish literature that has been published recently. As much as I like the various voices out there, I gravitate towards non-Christian, non-"White" & gender minority fantasy & speculative fiction. As a minority (in ethnicity, religion and gender), I appreciate it when authors like Yellin & Oyoyemi get coverage.

I was definately NOT INTERESTED in Da Vinci Code- looked at it & the writing style seemed more like latter day Perez-Riverte (who used to be good) than a good philosophical mystery like what Ecco or Pears writes.

I fail to see the connection between these two books, but that's publicity for you.

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