Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Recent Reads - December 2016 Edition

The train pulls away from the station and I pick up my book. This is how I start each day, well, this is how I start the productive part of each day. I read for nearly 40 minutes while traveling to work in the morning. I read for nearly 40 minutes traveling home at the end of the day. And sometimes I read a bit before going to sleep at night. All in all, I do quite a bit of reading.

Included below are short reviews of recent reads. There are a few books that stand out in my memory long after I’ve finished them. Long after I read them on the train. Long after the train pulls into the station and I head home after another productive day. I hope you read and enjoy!

Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult (Ballantine Books, October 2016). Picoult has an undisputed talent for telling stories. What makes her novels special, though, is her focus on today’s most pressing social issues. She does this in ways that keep us thinking long after finishing her books.

Her latest novel deals with racial prejudice in America at a time when racial tensions are a hot issue, having played part of a disputed political process. In her words and through her characters, readers really sense what it’s like growing up Black. How you are treated in the court system. How you are confronted by shopkeepers who immediately suspect you of shoplifting just because of the color of your skin. Picoult’s novels are marked by multiple points of view and, like one of the three that tell this story, you will realize that prejudice also exists among those who believe themselves to be the most liberal advocates of social justice and equality. Thanks to this book, our eyes have opened up a little bit more to this timely issue.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Book review: Judas by Amos Oz

The very first line of Judas, the most recent novel by acclaimed Israeli author Amos Oz, sets the mood for the entire book. “Here is a story from the winter days of the end of 1959 and the beginning of 1960. It is a story of error and desire, of unrequited love, and of a religious question that remains unresolved.”

This is the tale of Shmuel Ash, a young student who has abandoned his academic studies in the wake of a broken relationship. Shmuel shutters himself up in servitude to Gershom Wald, a crippled scholar with a sharp mind and a passion for argument. Settling into a routine of serving tea and companionship, of eating hot, spicy goulash for lunch and dusting his thick beard with fragrant talcum powder, Shmuel finds himself attracted to the other resident of his temporary Jerusalem home, an embittered war widow by the name of Atalia.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Prayer of the Mothers

Hundreds of women – Israeli and Palestinian, secular and religious, young and old – all marching in white. They marched from Metula on Israel's Lebanese border, from the Arab town of Umm al-Fahm, from Tel Aviv and from Eilat. They marched through the streets of Jerusalem; they marched to the banks of the Jordan River near the Dead Sea.

They marched for peace.

Friday, November 25, 2016

When a Wildfire Endangers Your Home

At ten o’clock Wednesday night, we feared that we would shortly be evacuated from our home. We could see the flames in the forest below Moshav Neve Ilan, the small community to the west of Jerusalem where we live. We also saw fire racing up a distant hill across the valley. Along with other residents of Neve Ilan, my wife Jodie and I stood watching the flames, worried that danger was quickly approaching.

But there was something strange, and this was what saved us. We couldn’t smell smoke. The fire was barely 2 kilometers away but with a strong wind behind us, the wildfire was spreading to the west. Down the valley and towards Highway 1, the main highway leading into Jerusalem.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Hike These Mountains to Discover How Beautiful Bulgaria Really Is

You can visit Sofia for its culture, Plovdiv for the colorful architecture of its Old Town, or Varna for its beaches, but you’d be wise to make your way into the mountains to discover the true beauty of Bulgaria.

We’ll leave the prospect of overnight mountain-top accommodations in rustic alpine huts to more adventurous trekkers. Casual hikers and tourists will find plenty of wonders on a one-day hike into the Rila Mountains.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

The Poker Writer Who Never Plays Poker

2005 World Series of Poker
Poker writer? Well, not exactly. Never play poker? Well, sometimes. Let me explain.

For eleven years I was more a poker promoter than a poker writer, although I frequently used my writing to promote the game. I was employed by an online gaming company and served as head of a marketing team encouraging players, veterans and novices alike, to play poker. We made our money collecting rake and tournament fees.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

The Book that Led Me to Bosnia

Well, actually two books. The first - an illuminated Hebrew manuscript from the 15th century. The other - a novel by prize-winning Australian-born author Geraldine Brooks. The two books converged in Sarajevo and I was compelled to visit.

The manuscript is the famed Sarajevo Haggadah, the most prized treasure in all of Bosnia and Herzegovina. A Haggadah is a narrative of the Exodus read at the Passover Seder service. Sarajevo's 109-page text is unique because it is handwritten on bleached calfskin, and illuminated in copper and gold, with colorful depictions of Biblical scenes.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Promoting My Novel on Bulgarian Television

My novel THE BURGAS AFFAIR made its world premiere in the Bulgarian language in May, when it was published by Ciela, the leading Bulgarian publishing house. The novel has yet to be published in its original English edition.

I traveled to Bulgaria in June to promote the novel - Бургаската афера. I was interviewed by a number of local newspapers and appeared on two television programs. And I attended the official launch of the novel at the main Ciela bookstore in Sofia.

Monday, October 10, 2016

In Search of Utopia in Israel

In 1988 at the age of 20, David Leach dropped out of university and went to Israel to volunteer on a kibbutz. Leach wasn’t Jewish; he didn’t know the first thing about farming. All he had heard was that a kibbutz was “a cooperative farming village where backpackers could swap manual labor in fields or factories for room and board.” The idea of living in a Biblical, exotic land filled with history and adventure appealed to him, as did the thought of living, at least for a short time, like a true utopian.

Fast forward twenty-five years. Leach, by then an acclaimed journalist and author of literary nonfiction, returned to Israel in search of the freewheeling days of his youth. The kibbutz movement, based on the principle of “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need,” was celebrating its centennial. Leach wondered if the kibbutz and its “bold utopian spirit had taken flight and if that original willingness to experiment with new ways of living still existed.”

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

I Wrote the Content for a Binary Options Website

And I’m not proud of it.

I have to rephrase that title. I did not actually write the content for a binary options website. I just supervised the content, written by a freelance writer, for a new website. I supervised and I edited.

In hindsight, I am not proud of this particular task, one of many during my ongoing career (12 years and counting) in the online gaming industry, an industry with deep roots in Israel. In fact, I am very proud of what I have accomplished during these years. I have developed my professional career, successfully taking on managerial positions and more importantly, gaining invaluable skills as a writer and an editor which still propel my career today.

But, of everything I did, I have no plans to list the binary options project on my resume.

Friday, September 16, 2016

A Short Trip to Malta

I never considered taking a vacation in Malta but when I was informed that I would join a four-day company trip to the Mediterranean island I was quite excited. I knew nothing at all about my destination.

Without going into too many details, because I really don't know that much, Malta is actually a number of small islands some 80 kilometers (50 miles) south of Italy. The country is small in size and only 450,000 people live there (making it one of the world's most densely populated countries). The capital of Malta is Valleta.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Recent Reads - Summer Edition

Summer has come to an end. Due to a prolonged, unexpected vacation, I had the opportunity to read quite a bit over the past few months. Now as I get back to my regular work routine, I have a chance to reflect on the many books I read. Some were very good; others don't deserve mentioning. Listed below are short reviews of a few of my summertime reads. I hope I have guided you in some way. Enjoy!

I Let You Go by Clare Mackintosh (Sphere, November 2014). There is a killer twist in this psychological thriller, one that you won’t expect at all. The book opens with tragedy: A child lets go of his mother’s hand to run into a Bristol street on a rainy evening and is struck by a car in a hit-and-run accident. Jenna Gray moves to a ramshackle cottage on the Welsh coast to escape her memories of the accident, to try to start her life anew. Meanwhile, Bristol Police continue to investigate, the hit-and-run still high on their priority list many months later even though there are no leads as to who caused the accident. The twist mentioned here comes half way through the book, but there is a strong, surprise ending that makes one conclude that nothing in this novel is as it seems. Highly recommended!

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

My 100,000th Tweet. What’s It Worth?

One of the first pieces of advice I received when I was first aspiring to become a published author was to build a platform. The next thing I heard was the importance of building my platform on Twitter. So, I signed up for Twitter. And then, I tweeted for the first time, expressing myself in 140 characters or less.

Truthfully, I had already established a platform. I have been blogging a lot longer than I have been tweeting. I blog for The Times of Israel, The Huffington Post, and for my personal blog. I blog about travel; I write book reviews; and I even share the occasional story about the writing career I am trying to build.

Using Twitter has been, for me, a way to promote my writing. When I post a blog article, I tweet about it to attract eyeballs, to get as many readers as possible. To make a name for myself.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

How to Make Pita

Image credit:, used with permission.

Reprinted with permission from

For my recipe today, I could have picked its origin from several countries including Iraq, Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, Iran or even North Africa, to name a few but I feel a deep attachment to the Promised Land. This is my haven.

There is not really an Israeli cuisine. Israel is a country of minorities founded by immigrants from a multitude of ethnicities from many countries.

The gastronomic heritage of Israel is extremely varied and in this country of immigrants, people praise as much shakshuka, hummus, falafel, or schnitzel (breaded chicken cutlets) as the national dish. But if there is one staple that is omnipresent on any authentic Israeli table, it would be pita bread aka pita (plural pitotes), and this is the recipe I chose to prepare today.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Northern Soul Music from Tel Aviv

Do Israelis appreciate soul music? Do they miss the mod-inspired “northern soul” scene of the 60s and 70s? Can a brass-powered beat and English language lyrics be considered Israeli music?

Ask Men of North Country, an Israeli soul band hailing from Tel Aviv also known as MONC. “The sound is not really Israeli,” admitted lead singer Yashiv Cohen in a 2012 interview with the Jewish Chronicle Online. “Israeli ears don’t understand it. We tried sending songs to the radio here. They don’t really get it. If we send music to the UK stations, they know exactly what it is.”

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Jerusalem, a City of Secrets

Pre-State Jerusalem is the setting for this short novel about the members of a Haganah cell staging evermore daring raids against British Mandate forces. Protagonist Brand is a Latvian Jew who survived the death camps in Europe but not the nightmares that followed. Having arrived on the shores of Palestine on a Maltese freighter, Brand now works in Jerusalem as a taxi driver with papers provided by the Jewish underground.

In City of Secrets by Stewart O'Nan (Viking, April 2016), Jerusalem is colorfully described as a “puzzle box built of symbols, a confusion of old and new, armored cars and donkeys in the streets, Bedouins and bankers.” In the rainy season, the city’s “walls were gray instead of golden, the souks teeming with rats.” The winter “rain fell on the domes and bell towers and minarets, filling the ancient cisterns beneath the Old City, fell on Mount Scopus and the Mount of Olives and the desert beyond, thunder cracking over the Dead Sea.”

Thursday, July 28, 2016

The Colors of Tel Aviv’s Carmel Market

Tel Aviv is truly a city that never stops. With 14 kilometers of Mediterranean beachfront, promenades, sandy beaches, numerous cafes and restaurants, fancy hotels, trendy nightclubs, and endless blue horizons, Tel Aviv is a must-see destination on any visitor’s Israel itinerary.

The city has been recognized by travel magazine Conde Nast Traveler as one of the best food cities in the world as well as offering a cuisine suitable for the most discerning vegetarians. Tel Aviv has frequently been mentioned as one of the most gay-friendly travel destinations with its gay beach and huge annual Pride Parade. But the city’s best kept secret is its colorful open air market.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Let the Writer Speak

Earlier this year I was interviewed by Atina Dimtrova, a young Bulgarian author who is currently studying Journalism at City University in London. Here is part of the article that appeared on her website:

Ellis bears no resemblance to any other author. Coming from America, spending his life in Israel, he popularizes Bulgarians’ values. He longed to promote foreign culture, thanks to writing a new book, which speaks volumes about his magnanimity as a human being. The love for writing was revived one more time – with Shuman’s second novel – “The Burgas Affair”. This book was based on Ellis’ research about the link between Israel and Bulgaria. 

“Unfortunately, one of the things that connected us was the terrible terrorist attack in Burgas airport in 2012,” he said. “There was no resolution who actually committed this tremendous crime and I decided to put this question into fiction.”

Read the rest of my interview with Atina Dimitrova on her website.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Bulgaria's Secret to Long Life

The Rhodope Mountains in southern Bulgaria are said to be home to the highest percentage of centenarians not only in Bulgaria, but worldwide. According to unofficial estimations, the rate is higher than in Japan and all Western countries. Many Rhodopi residents live to a ripe old age – what is the secret to their longevity?

It starts with yogurt. The ties between Bulgaria and yogurt date back to the days of the Thracians, a group of militant tribes that ruled the Balkans during Roman times. Legend says that these ancient warriors carried sheep’s milk in lambskin bags around their waist. As they rode into battle, their body heat helped ferment the milk into yogurt.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Book Review: The Jerusalem Creed

I must admit – anytime that Jerusalem appears in the name of a book it is bound to attract my attention. This was the case when I saw an ad for a thriller set in the Holy City and as the book was being offered for free on Kindle, I quickly downloaded it.

The Jerusalem Creed (Enclave, July, 2015) by Ernest Dempsey is the seventh book in the Sean Wyatt adventure thriller series. Wyatt, a trained killer in his former life, now works for a friend's artifact recovery agency. When Wyatt and his buddy Tommy are attacked in their homes, they realize that they have been targeted by an unknown madman who will stop at nothing to get what he wants. But first, they must figure out exactly what that madman wants.

The book opens in Biblical Jerusalem, where some very important religious relics are to be spirited out of the ancient city ahead of the Babylonian invasion. Two disciples of the high priest are instructed to take these items to the far reaches of the empire, and even beyond, to save them from falling into Nebuchadnezzar’s hands.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Scenes from a Book Launch

It is every author's dream to see his/her book published and promoted at an official book launch. My dream came true, but in a different language!

On June 16th, my novel БYPГАСКАТА АФЕРА (THE BURGAS AFFAIR) was presented at the main Ciela book store in Sofia. The book made its world premiere in the Bulgarian language, as it has not yet been published in English.

THE BURGAS AFFAIR is a fictional account of the aftermath of the terrorist attack at the airport in Burgas, Bulgaria, in July 2012. In the book, a Bulgarian policeman is teamed up with an Israeli woman from the Mossad as they work a case involving international terrorists and local criminals in both Bulgaria and Israel, while confronting the traumas of their pasts.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Bound for Bulgaria to Promote My Novel

Official invitation to the book's launch in Sofia on June 15, 2016.

My wife and I are flying to Bulgaria this afternoon to promote my novel, БYPГАСКАТА АФЕРА (THE BURGAS AFFAIR), at tomorrow evening's book launch in Sofia.

During my stay in Bulgaria I will appear on two television programs and be interviewed by a few major newspapers and websites.

In addition, Jodie and I will have a bit of free time, and despite the high temperatures forecast for the weekend, we will explore the northern Bulgarian city of Ruse on the Danube River.

For those of you who don't read Bulgarian, I hope to launch my novel in English one day soon!

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

I Celebrate Ramadan! On My Own. In My Backyard.

Let me start out by stating that I am not a Muslim. I was born and circumcised after eight days on the planet; I read the Haftarah at my Bar Mitzvah; I was married under a chuppah in Israel - my home and homeland; and I completed the circle by seeing my own son become a Jewish man.

That said, I have always shown an openness to other religions. I have eagerly explored the Catholic cathedrals of Spain; I have visited the Vatican; and here in Israel, I am fascinated, but do not understand the Bahá'ís. Last December, my wife and I spent a weekend in the Druze town Daliat al-Carmel, where the best part of the visit was eating the local hummus, the tasty tehina.

Friday, June 3, 2016

Searching for the Original Dead Sea Scroll

When we first meet Moses Wilhelm Shapira, he has been found dead in a seedy Rotterdam hotel. The year is 1884 and Shapira’s suitcase is stuffed with old manuscripts. Shapira’s business card reads: “M.W. Shapira, Book Seller and Antiquarian, Agent of the British Museum, Jerusalem.”

Shapira, once a purveyor of valuable Biblical artifacts, some of them authentic and others allegedly forged, has put an end to his life as well as to the constant charges that he is the world’s greatest con man. His latest crime, his critics claim, is an attempt to sell a recently discovered scroll of the fifth and final book of the Five Books of Moses.

In The Lost Book of Moses (Ecco, April 2016) by Chanan Tigay we fall under the spell of this original Dead Sea scroll. “It was nothing less than a contemporary copy of the book of Deuteronomy written on parchment ... handwritten more than three thousand years earlier.” Yet this copy of the ancient book was quite different from that known for generations. The “narrow strip of leather tattooed in ancient script” was “rife with passages that were different – sometimes very different – from the traditional version.” The biggest deviation of all was the fact that this manuscript contained an eleventh commandment.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

The Sofia Book Fair

My novel THE BURGAS AFFAIR - БYPГАСКАТА АФЕРА is currently on display at the Ciela stand at the Sofia Book Fair.

This is your chance to get a copy! I will be in Sofia June 14 -21 and will be glad to autograph your copy.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

The Burgas Affair - БYPГАСКАТА АФЕРА - In Bookstores!

I am proud to announce that my novel The Burgas Affair has just been published by Ciela in Bulgaria - БYPГАСКАТА АФЕРА.

The book is already available in bookstores and will be published in a digital edition next week. Special thanks to good friends Matthew and Laura Sperber now traveling in Bulgaria for their visit to a bookstore and buying a copy!

For those who read English - you'll just have to wait. The original English version of my novel will hopefully be published one day soon!

Friday, May 6, 2016

You've Got Mail, 42 Years Later

Taughannock Falls
My wife hails from Ithaca, New York. In 1971, along with her parents and sisters, she made aliyah – the family moved to Israel. Even now, over 40 years later, Jodie has fond memories of her childhood – of walking to school in the snow-covered streets, of summers spent on the shores of Cayuga Lake, of visits to Cornell University, and of enjoying the beauty of the many waterfalls around the city.

For nearly forty years, Jodie spoke of these memories and her only lament was that she couldn’t share them with me. “I want to show you where I grew up,” she told me repeatedly. In comparison to the unexciting scenery of Sioux City, Iowa, where I was born, “Ithaca is much more beautiful,” she would say. “Someday I want to take you there.”

That someday came in the summer of 2013. We traveled to the States for a family wedding and to meet up with good friends. And we took a detour with our rented car to Ithaca for the long-awaited visit to the town where Jodie had grown up.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Cover Reveal, and yes, it's in Bulgarian

I am proud to show you the cover of my novel The Burgas Affair, which will be published by Ciela, the leading Bulgarian publishing house, in May.

THE BURGAS AFFAIR. A Bulgarian policeman is teamed up with an Israeli woman from the Mossad as they work a case involving international terrorists and local criminals in both Bulgaria and Israel, while confronting the traumas of their pasts.

The publication of the book in Bulgarian will be its world premiere. Hopefully publication of the book's original English version will soon follow.

In Bulgarian, the name of the book is БYPГАСКАТА АФЕРА.

To my friends in Bulgaria - I look forward to sharing this novel with you!

I wish to thank all those who helped me during the research and writing of the novel, as well as the team at Ciela and my agent, Jessica Schmeidler of Golden Wheat Literary.

Previous story:

Announcement: I Sign a Book Deal

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Chat in the Writers’ Chateau

This interview was originally published on Lisette’s Writers’ Chateau in February 2014 and while some of my answers concerning the publication of Valley of Thracians now seem a bit outdated, other points have stood the test of time. The interview covers my writing process, my marketing efforts, and as a special bonus – my connection to the game of poker.

I would like to thank Lisette Brodey, indie author of six novels, for her kind generosity in conducting this interview for posting on her website.

What is your latest book?

I self-published my suspense novel, Valley of Thracians, and it has done remarkably well. I’ve been very pleased with readers’ responses, as the book is not your typical suspense novel. Some readers have described it as ‘travel fiction’ as well as an introduction to Bulgaria, a country that few have visited, or know much about. In my novel I strongly emphasized the setting of the story. The book deals with a Peace Corps volunteer who goes missing during his service in Bulgaria. His grandfather comes to the country to track down the missing young man and ends up learning about Bulgaria’s history and culture as he travels.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Only in Israel: Kosher for Passover Beer

I have written about the gluten free beers made by Meadan Craft Brewing in the past, especially about their beer made from hummus. Now the brewery has taken the next step - brewing the first-ever kosher for Passover beer.

Meadan's Date Ale, a beer made from date syrup, is the world's first beer made from dates. And, it's not only gluten free, but also hametz free. Hametz is any food type, especially bread, that is leavened, and therefore forbidden during the week-long holiday of Passover.

During the Passover Seder, it is custom to drink four cups of wine. Changing that tradition to drinking four bottles of beer is doubtful, but at least everyone will have Date Ale to help wash down the matza served at the table.

Read also: Beer Made from Hummus

Friday, April 15, 2016

Of Storks and Fire Dancers

On the feast day of Saint Constantine and Elena, tourists gather in the villages of southeastern Bulgaria to watch the centuries-old tradition of fire dancing. These nestinari dancers, moving in a trancelike state barefoot on smoldering embers while holding the icons believed to protect them from the fire, carry out a ritual mixing Eastern Orthodox beliefs and pagan traditions from the Strandja, a mountainous region stretching into northern Turkey.

As described in Stork Mountain (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, March 2016, £8.99) by Miroslav Penkov:

“Every year, for thirteen hundred years, the nestinari dance. Come spring, come June, come the feast of Saint Constantine, the feast of Saint Elena, they build tall fires, three cartloads of wood torched and burned to embers. And then, barefooted, they take the saint’s invisible and holy hand and plunge into the living coals. The drum beats wildly, the bagpipes screech. Sickness and worry, happy and bliss – the fire consumes them all. Here in the Strandja Mountains, where the nestinari dance, the fire leaves nothing.”

The Strandja, also spelled Strandzha, is known for more than just the fire dancing. It is a somewhat mysterious region rich in folklore, legends, and myths. It is an area marked by diverse fauna and flora. Its houses have a “ground floor with walls of neatly fitted stones, where back in the day the cattle slept. The floor above – a deck with walls of wide, oak-wood planks; a covered corridor encircling the rooms, a terrace, and in one corner, the privy.” The Strandja villages, inhabited by Christians and Muslims, Bulgarians, ethnic Turks and Greeks, are rooted in the traditions of the past, mostly keeping modernity at arm’s length.

And then there are the storks. “Each year, on their way from Africa to Europe and then back, the storks passed over the Strandja Mountains.” They flew over the Via Pontica, the ancient Roman road running along the shores of the Black Sea. “The nests in the branches were heavy with mating storks. But these storks were smaller than the others in the village. And they were black.” White storks are much more common but black storks, and one bird in particular, are constantly present in the novel whose title pays them tribute.

It is to this mystical, enchanting region that the unnamed protagonist returns from his family’s self-imposed exile in the United States. “And there on the hem, in the hills of the Strandja, written on the map in a font different from that of all other villages around it, was nestled Klisura. It was to Klisura I was now headed. It was in Klisura that my grandfather was hiding.”

The young man tells his grandfather “about [his] failed studies in America, about [his] lost scholarship and hefty student loans.” His grandfather, once exiled from the Strandja himself, resides on the family’s property. “It was this land, or at least my share of twenty acres, that now I had returned to sell,” his grandson relates.

The return to the Strandja gets off to a bad start when a hot, dry dust-laden wind called a simoom traps him in a bus station, covering everything with sand scooped up from the Sahara. There is illness in the village – some of the young girls are burning with an uncontrollable fever that possibly can only be relieved if they dance in the embers like the nestinari. There are tensions too, between the village’s Christians and Muslims, between those who want to hold onto their land and those who want to sell their houses to make way for the construction of wind turbines.

Life in Klisura is filled with the story-telling of legends and lore of a revolutionary past, with tales of the soldiers who traveled through and conquered the Strandja, and of the gods and goddesses who ruled its rolling hills. These tales fuse fact and fiction, especially during the long, heavy winters when the nights were “dark and lonely”, with the wind “polishing the snow into an icy crust.” Mysteries and secrets abound, and love as well. The folklore and wonder of this compelling novel remain in one’s mind for a long time after reaching its end.

Miroslav Penkov was born in 1982 in Gabrovo, Bulgaria. He arrived in America in 2001 and completed a bachelor's degree in Psychology, followed by an MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Arkansas. Miroslav is an Associate Professor of Creative Writing at the University of North Texas and the editor of the American Literary Review. His short story collection, East of the West, won the 2012 BBC International Short Story Award. Stork Mountain is his first novel.

Buy Stork Mountain and read it now!

Read my review of East of the West.

Originally published on The Huffington Post.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Luxury Travel in Bulgaria Is Totally Affordable

Bulgaria has something for everyone. There are sandy beaches on the shores of the Black Sea; a metropolitan lifestyle in Sofia; art shops and galleries in Plovdiv's Old Town. Historical villages dot the countryside showcasing renaissance architecture from the mid-19th century. In the winter months, the mountains are perfect for skiing; in the summer the hiking is breathtaking.

I have long been a proponent of how inexpensive it is to travel to Bulgaria but discerning western visitors don't have to compromise on their accommodations. Luxury travel in Bulgaria is totally affordable.

Although there are fancy resorts along the Black Sea, I will skip those due to their glitzy mass appeal. Instead I will focus on four high class establishments where my wife and I have stayed, all at reasonable prices.

Villa Gela - luxury accommodations in the colorful Rhodope Mountains.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

When I Was in Belgium

The recent terror attacks in Brussels and the subsequent manhunt for terrorists made me think back to the weekend my wife and I spent in the Belgian capital last September. Security considerations were the last thing on our minds, even when we spent an entire, unplanned day at Brussels Airport.

“How would you like to attend a Crosby, Stills & Nash concert?” my wife surprised me one day. “Where are they playing?” “They are staging a concert tour in Europe. Let’s go!”

We are not groupies of the band yet we had grown up on CSN music. “Our house is a very fine house,” we would sing, especially due to the fact that for many years we had “two cats in the yard.”

“Where and when are they playing?” we wondered. We checked the schedule and considered going to hear them in Rome. The dates weren’t good for us. How about Dublin? Or Copenhagen? Or anywhere? Brussels fit in perfectly. On the spur of the moment we booked tickets for the end of September between the Jewish holidays, a time when our jobs would not tie us down.

The Grand Place in Brussels

Monday, March 28, 2016

I Couldn't Believe What I Saw Out My Sarajevo Hotel Window

My wife and I arrived in Sarajevo in June, as part of our tour of Bosnia and Herzegovina. We were eager to visit a city rich in history, culture, and religious diversity.

Our trip to Sarajevo coincided with the one hundred year anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria - the shot that sparked World War I. Sarajevo hosted the Winter Olympics in 1984; the city suffered heavily while under siege during Bosnia's war for independence, 1992-1995. The Sarajevo Haggadah, an illuminated Hebrew manuscript dating to the 14th century and considered the most valuable book in the world, is housed in Bosnia's National Museum, which has been closed since late 2012 due to lack of funding. So much history!

Before we had a chance to see the city, we enjoyed a cultural experience that took us quite by surprise. Who would have imagined that the most colorful part of our visit to the Bosnian capital would be seen by looking out our hotel window?

As we were resting, we heard noises from below. Looking out the window we saw a bride and groom arrive in a horse-drawn carriage.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Recent Reads

Lately I have been reading a lot more than I have been writing. Some of the books I’ve read have been good while others did nothing more than help pass the time between writing projects. When I finish reading a book I usually write a review. As an author I know that every review is important, even if the review is not entirely favorable. A review gives an author feedback; shows that an author’s work has left an impression; and proves that the reader cares enough to react to what he/she has just read.

I would like to share with you some impressions of my recent reads. These short reviews will tell you what you can expect in each book but the best way for you to form a judgment is to read them yourself. I hope I have guided you in some way. Enjoy!

The Universe versus Alex Woods by Gavin Extence
Alex Woods is a young boy who gets struck in the head by a meteorite; as a result, he becomes a scientific celebrity with occasional bouts of epilepsy. Alex meets an aging American war veteran and the two form an unusual friendship. When Alex ends up at Dover customs with 113 grams of marijuana and an urn of ashes, his actions leave an entire nation in uproar. Actually, that is how the book begins. This novel is an amusing and enjoyable read and there is a special surprise for fans of Kurt Vonnegut.

Monday, March 21, 2016

The Faces of Israel

This video, produced by Yehuda Gelb of YG Productions, shows the many faces of Israel - religious, secular, young, old, Jewish, Arab, Israeli-born, and new immigrants.

"After watching this video how can you not be proud to be a part of Israel!" the video is subtitled, and yes, watching the video makes one forget about the troubles and struggles of living in modern day Israel.

In a blog article on The Times of Israel, Gelb acknowledges that "Israel is not perfect nor will it ever be. God knows how many flaws this country has and how much of a way it still has to go."

Every Israeli is different - "different background, family, traditions and life style yet we live together and that is our strength."

Gelb's video is a celebration of unity at a time when this is so often lacking. "Let us celebrate Israel," he says. This video is part of that celebration.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Kosher Erotica

Sex is a mitzvah between husband and wife. It is sacred, kodesh. Yet when Esther, the wife of a rabbi and mother of three small children, accidentally witnesses a young married couple having sex in an apartment across from hers, she finds herself aroused by an unfamiliar burst of sexuality.

The novella Her Neighbor’s Pleasure by Shosha Pearl describes the sexual awakening of Esther and how it affects her marriage to her husband, Sholem. Some of her newfound desire will have to wait until the end of her period of niddah, when she and her husband will again be permitted to touch each other, for that is determined by the Halacha to which they both adhere.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

The Englishman Who Sings Bulgaria

His deep, raspy voice has been compared to Don Mclean, Neil Young, and Leonard Cohen. His music can be classified as acoustic folk. When Warwick-born Jonathan Taylor starts to sing, his lyrics, consistent in theme, give voice to those without, but at the same time transport listeners to faraway places and to one place in particular. Bulgaria.

How did a ‘profound’ dyslexic who can’t read sheet music or speak the language end up living in a small village in north-central Bulgaria singing songs representative of that country?

I want rakia.
I need rakia.
I love rakia - early in the morning!

“What is rakia?” I ask Taylor.

“Americans have moonshine and we have rakia,” Taylor replies. “While a Bourbon whisky is made from wheat and distilled once, rakia is made from fruit (usually pear or grapes but anything else goes). Good rakia is distilled at least twice, but in reality, here in the villages, it will be just once. Quantity always outweighs quality! The joke is ‘The Irish wait fifteen years for their whiskey; Bulgarians can’t wait fifteen minutes.’ The fruit is mashed over time into wine and then distilled in a copper cylinder. Often it exceeds 60% proof.”

Taylor tells me that he grew up on livestock farms in South Wales and later lived in Calderdale, Yorkshire. He finished formal education at the age of 13 and was diagnosed as ‘educationally and emotionally disturbed.’ He voluntarily returned to education during his late twenties to pursue his passion for music. Despite initial failures, Taylor eventually completed his Masters level studies and today teaches English as a foreign language. He also became songwriter for the English Club online, a company that teaches English through songs.

So, how did he end up in Bulgaria?

Taylor says that after custody battles with his ex-wife he found himself “in a job I hated, an environment of nonstop abuse that made me increasingly unwell, and all this to pay a life time of debt, a mortgage on a house I didn’t want to live in.” Determining that it was cheaper to live abroad, Taylor and his partner – Nicola, a photographer – first viewed property in the Slovak Republic. “I simply did not have enough money available to fulfil the new dream.” But Bulgaria, just entering the European Union in 2007, was very affordable.

“And as many other Brits found out, at the time you could get a village house here for as little as three thousand GBP. “This is home and I would never desire to leave it.”

Although considering himself an immigrant, rather than an ex-pat, Taylor finds himself incapable of learning Bulgarian. Instead he merges the little Bulgarian he knows with his music.

Taylor’s lyrics refer repeatedly to his new homeland. Rakia, Pirin Mountains, the streets of Sofia, Baba Marta. I asked him if English listeners understand what he’s singing. More importantly, I asked, would Bulgarian listeners understand? Do they consider Taylor’s music Bulgarian?

“I think it spans all cultures,” Taylor says. “After all, English is English and as a world language has few barriers. So, for an English speaker, it is music about something perhaps they are unfamiliar with but I hope curiosity and the fact that I am the first to do this will create an interest in this wonderful place so rich in history and culture. For Bulgarians, most understand it, but they don’t get the complex story behind it or implied meanings, the nuances included.  Bulgaria is such a small market, a population of just 7 million, and the greatest interest comes from English-speaking Bulgarians now living abroad and particularly in the USA. They get it and they love it!”

Back to “The Rakia Song”, in which there is a line in the chorus repeated over and over. ‘What shall we do with the drunken sailor?’. Taylor explains to me that the line is actually ‘What shall we do with the drunken ‘celo’”, as ‘celo’ is the Bulgarian word for ‘village’.

“Whilst it’s a good fun, sing-along-song’, it is actually very political,” Taylor tells me. “It was written at a time of mass protest against rising prices, particularly the 100% increase in electricity costs. People could not feed or warm themselves and the government of the time was forced to resign. The song is about the poor living in the villages where they have no future and no hope. What else do they have? They drink rakia to excess as a means of coping with the misery of everyday life.”

Although singing in the language of his birthplace, this English immigrant sounds very much as if he has become the protest voice of his adopted Bulgaria.

Originally posted on The Huffington Post.

Visit Jonathan Taylor's website.

Download Jonathan Taylor's music.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Review of What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell

Not far from the center of Sofia is a massive conference and exhibition center known as the National Palace of Culture, abbreviated simply as NDK. It is a building I know well from the two years I lived in Bulgaria. I frequently sat on benches in the large plaza surrounding the structure enjoying the summer sun; my wife and I attended a Bob Dylan concert inside.

There is a subterranean level of NDK which I never visited, nor even knew existed. It is in the underground men’s bathrooms where the unnamed American protagonist of What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, January 2016) first meets Mitko, a young Bulgarian reeking of alcohol who shows up for illicit assignations with any man willing to pay the price. A transaction takes place after a handover of twenty lev and results in the American’s desiring “more and more privacy” with Mitko.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Sofia, let's go!

My wife and I lived in Sofia for two years. I have tried to capture the beauty of the city in my photographs, and in my writing. Sometimes, what you need to see is a video.

Sofia is the capital of Bulgaria. It is a city of nature, sports, history, culture, water and life. We have four seasons and many things to see and do. Enjoy. Filmed and edited by MaxMedia for GS1

Welcome to Sofia
Sofia is the capital of Bulgaria. It is a city of nature, sports, history, culture, water and life. We have four seasons and many things to see and do. Enjoy.Filmed and edited by MaxMedia for GS1Клип за София - град на зеленина, спорт, култура, история и живот.
Posted by MaxMedia on Monday, December 28, 2015

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

The Scrabble Challenge

Scrabble players, are you ready? Here’s a test. I was playing Scrabble with my wife a while ago and made a 6-letter word using my “Q” tile, yet I only received a total of 10 points. The “Q” itself is worth 10 points. The question to you is – how did I do this?

My wife and I have been playing recreational Scrabble for over 30 years. We follow the game rules, but in a very lenient manner. While we both know all the acceptable 2-letter words, and even the few word combinations that can be played using a “Q” but without the need for a “U”, in other situations we are not as skilled. The words “Can I just look this up?” are common to our games, resulting in a quick glance at the pages of the official Scrabble dictionary.

It wasn’t always so.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Murder at the Final Table

Professional poker player Tommy Jackson should be on top of the world. He just finished playing a grueling day of poker, outlasting more than 1,000 entrees to reach the final table at a WSOP tournament. First place is more than $800,000 and Jackson is the favorite to win the cash as well as the coveted World Series of Poker bracelet.

"Winning bracelets is a status thing for us pros," Jackson thinks. The only problem is that the WSOP Final Table is Jackson's final Final Table. The night before the conclusion of the event, Jackson is murdered.

In the novel Drawing Dead by Rick Fuller, Las Vegas homicide detective Ryan Tyler is called to the Rio convention center, where the World Series of Poker is being staged. For Tyler, major crimes in Las Vegas casinos "can be a true nightmare" and this murder is no exception. When he arrives at the scene, a colleague fills him in how the body was discovered.

Friday, January 29, 2016

The Space I Write In

I am frequently asked what the most difficult part of being a writer is. Is it conceiving the initial outline for the plot of a novel? Or the development of the characters? Perhaps editing is the most challenging part of the process? Many fellow authors argue that marketing their books takes up the majority of their time and, admittedly, marketing a book is much more difficult than writing and editing.

For me, though, the most difficult part of being a writer is finding the time to write. I commute to my office job every day, getting stuck in traffic in at least one direction. While at work I try to concentrate on my job. By the time I return home in the evening hours I am physically exhausted and my mind is drained of all creativity. Weekends, unfortunately, offer less of an opportunity to write than I would like. I prefer to spend my free time with my wife and family. Also, I like to read, travel, watch entertaining television shows, and take long walks.

So, when is there time to write? I finally found a solution.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Poker – It’s also a Woman’s Game

Kellyann Heffernan is a professional poker player who specializes in high stakes no limit heads-up action. Although she defines herself as a citizen of the world, she is UK-based and comes from Glasgow in Scotland. Kellyann’s slogan is: “Poker is not just a man’s game.” I had an opportunity to speak with Kellyann and ask her opinion about the role of women in the game of poker.

1) There are those who consider poker to be a man’s game. How do you respond to that?
There are both men and women who still classify poker as a 'man’s game’. Some people are just set in their ways and can't grasp the fact that poker, like many other things in life, has evolved through time to a place where a woman no longer looks like an alien when entering a poker room. Those that think this way used the exact same arguments about women before World War I when men thought that women couldn’t handle hard, industrial work. Then the time came when the men were sent off to fight for their country and the women stepped up to the plate and took over those jobs, which apparently they couldn’t do. Do you know what? They did them well (some might say even better than the men before them), keeping the home fires burning for over four years. So how do I react? Quite frankly I laugh, as it’s such a ridiculous opinion.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Grumpy Old Men in Scandinavia

I am not sure what attracts me to novels featuring curmudgeonly old men and their adventures in Scandinavia. I remember laughing out loud when I read The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared by Swedish author Jonas Jonasson. Two new books I have just read about adventures in the far north are far more serious.

In Norwegian by Night by Derek B. Miller we find 82-year-old Sheldon Horowitz, who has reluctantly moved to Oslo following the death of his wife. Living with his granddaughter and her Norwegian husband, Horowitz is often talking to the ghosts of his past, including his Korean War buddies and his son, who was killed in Vietnam. When Horowitz witnesses the murder of a woman in his apartment, he flees with her six-year-old son, escaping the murderers as well as the Norwegian police.

Far less violent is the novel A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman, which takes place across the border in Sweden. Once again there is a grumpy, older protagonist who just lost his wife. But instead of Ove being the foreigner, that role is played by his next door neighbors, who have a habit of backing trailers into mailboxes and falling from ladders.

Monday, January 4, 2016

The Day I Traveled to China and Got Doyle Brunson's Autograph

Known in the industry as the Godfather of Poker, Doyle Brunson is an American player, a two-time winner of the World Series of Poker Main Event, a Poker Hall of Fame member, and the author of several books on poker. I never imagined in a million years that I would travel all the way to China to meet this poker legend, and to get his autograph.

I was in Macau along with 17 avid poker players from around the world, players who had qualified through a series of satellite tournaments to represent Titan Poker at the Asian Poker Tour (APT). It was August 2008, and the event being staged offered $1,500,000 in guaranteed prizes, making it at the time the most lucrative tournament to ever take place in Asia. The Titan Poker players came from Germany, Spain, Italy, Sweden, Belgium, Australia, Malaysia, the Czech Republic, and Japan. I was there to make sure they had a good time and to cheer them on as they took to the tables.