Monthly Archives: June 2012

Dysfunction and danger drive Lisa Unger’s latest thriller

“Heartbroken,” by Lisa Unger. Crown/Random House. 384 pages. $24.00.

By now, readers of my columns know that I view Lisa Unger as one of our foremost younger novelists writing today. She works with, not merely within, the conventions of genre in amazing ways. She probes the psychological dimensions of her characters with tremendous empathy and acumen. Her plotting reminds me of fine architecture, at once functional and esthetically dazzling. On top of all this, she is a superb stylist. 

The richness of “Heartbroken” comes from many sources. One of these is the novel’s insights into troubled family dynamics. Another is Ms. Unger’s ability to etch vivid, fully-realized characters across the spectrum of age and experience. Yet another is her uncanny skill at mood-building, in this case the several moods of Heart Island, the rampant moodiness of teenagers, the alternating moods – internal and external – of sunlight and storm.

Fortyish Kate, gifted by her late Aunt Caroline with not only Caroline’s private journals but also those of Lana, Caroline’s mother, has come through on the other side of her “only-a-mom” existence. She has fashioned a novel rooted in those journals, which hold family secrets. It is about to be published. Reluctantly, Kate is bringing her family for one of the annual trips to the family’s summer home – a private island on a lake in upstate New York. Kate will try once again to establish a healthy relationship with her harshly judgmental mother, Birdie Burke, who is the human embodiment of the rocky retreat.

Kate’s teenage daughter Chelsea, persuaded that she’ll have fun because she can bring along her promiscuous best friend Lulu, subdues her reluctance. Chelsea’s younger half-brother Brendan has an accident and will come up later with Sean, Brendan’s father. Sean, after a bad year in real estate, has a fantastic new listing to put on the market that will delay his arrival on Heart Island for a day or two. He really doesn’t want to go at all. He and everyone else fear the encounter with the rigid, endlessly disapproving Birdie. 

Lisa Unger

On a separate plot track, readers meet twentyish Emily, a college dropout waitressing in a restaurant and becoming fearful about her relationship with Dean, a no-account slacker who flatters and frightens her into doing his bidding. Disaster strikes when Dean and his friend Brad connive to have Emily assist them in robbing the restaurant where she works. Now they are on the lam, having seriously injured Carol, the owner, and killed another employee. Emily had told Dean about a remote lake island where they can hide out. She remembers having had some good times there as a young child.

Kate and Emily, then, are headed to the same place. For Kate, the journey carries the heavy weight of obligation; for Emily, it carries a fragile hope of escape and, somewhat irrationally, of redemption. Readers will have to find out why Emily’s last name is Burke. . . .

To read this review in its entirety, as it appears in the June 27, 2012 Fort Myers Florida Weekly, in the June 28 Naples and Spacecoast editions, and in the July 5 Bonita Springs edition, click here: Florida Weekly – Heartbroken pdf

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“The Neruda Case,” by Roberto Ampuero

Mix ever-tightening suspense, South American history, the fictional treatment of a major world poet, revolutionary turmoil and a reluctant sleuth and you’ve got a novel that is hard to put down and easy to remember. In The Neruda Case, Roberto Ampuero’s first novel to appear in English (though he has otherwise long been published worldwide), the author’s new readers step into the Chilean crisis of 1973. Allende’s socialist-leaning coalition government is under siege and tottering. A military junta is about to put General Pinochet into power.

The aging and severely ailing Pablo Neruda, an Allende partisan, has something nagging at his soul. A young man named Cayetano Brulé, a Cuban by way of Miami now living with his activist wife in Valparaíso (Chile’s second city), meets Neruda at a social gathering. After some brief conversation, the great poet asks Cayetano to a private meeting during which he convinces him to track down, with utmost discretion, a Dr. Bracamonte, whom Neruda had known three decades earlier during a diplomatic post in Mexico City. Neruda seems desperate to discover the doctor’s whereabouts.

Hypnotized by Neruda’s gift of gab, flattery and transcendent personality, Cayetano agrees. It’s clear that the money will be good. However, he is hesitant; after all, he has no experience or skills in sleuthing. Outrageously, Neruda presents him with an armful of Georges Simenon’s Inspector Maigret novels and suggests that he start reading.

In this manner, Ampuero launches his theme of life and art in two ways: in Neruda’s suggesting the novelist’s fiction will suffice for the real-life investigator’s training, and in having the poet conjure up a detective, Cayetano in a new role, who had never before existed. Neruda observes that he has played many parts in his life, inventing himself over and over again. Why can’t Cayetano give it a try? Ampuero cleverly complicates this theme throughout the novel.

This is a game for academics and other literati. What’s going to hold the general reader? Well, of course, it’s the mystery itself. Why is it important to find Bracamonte? How well will Cayetano serve as a detective? What happens after the doctor is found — or if he isn’t found? Time is running out on various levels: It’s running out for Chile, for Neruda and for the young detective manqué. . . .

There is much more to this review. To read it in its entirety, as it appears in the Washington Independent Review of Books, click here: Washington Independent Review of Books » The Neruda Case

I hope this the first of many appearances in this fine online publication.

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Deborah Feldman’s memoir – a triumph of the spirit

Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots, by Deborah Feldman. Simon & Schuster. 272 pages. $23.00.

It’s no surprise that Unorthodox has raised a good deal of controversy. There isn’t much middle ground in published reactions. Some find the writing effective and moving, some find it amateurish – barely passable. Are all these people reading the same book? For me, the writing is just fine in doing the job that the author sets out to do: tell her story as she sees it. It’s particularly strong in registering emotional truths and differentiating among the various levels of insight and maturity that the author attains in her journey. Deborah Feldman’s subjectivity is an asset, not a liability. This is a memoir, not a scholarly tome. 

Ms. Feldman’s tale of growing up in Brooklyn’s Satmar community, a particularly repressive and conformist Hasidic group, plausibly expresses the tension between wanting all of the psychic nourishment of belonging and approval – and needing to be true to herself. Her identity has already been threatened by the disgrace of having a mentally disabled father and a mother who abandoned Deborah and the community. Raised by her rapidly aging grandparents, people less equipped to deal with this responsibility as time goes by, Deborah reaches her teen years in crisis.

The author’s portraits of her neighborhood, her grandparents’ home, the array of relatives, the texture of daily life with its strict rules and narrow expectations, her education, and her own identity conflicts are vivid and totally engaging. Unorthodox is a very special kind of coming-of-age story in which the consequences of rebellion of any sort are a lot more severe than in less isolated and less guarded communities. From a very young age, Deborah is a misfit. She knows it, but because she is not equipped to thrive in any other environment, she is powerless to do anything about it.

Hiding classic English language novels like Jane Eyre and Little Women under the mattress, Deborah pursues a lonely journey to find answers to questions she’s not allowed to ask – or even think.

Deborah Feldman

Deborah Feldman develops revealing scenes throughout the book. One of the most memorable is her description of the claustrophobic frenzy at a Simchat Torah celebration in the Satmar synagogue. Ms. Feldman conjures up the enormous crowds, the dangerous pushing and shoving in the overloaded women’s balcony as its denizens search for positions that allow a glimpse of the Satmar Rabbi dancing with the Torah. And then the rush to get out, the collapse into silence after the noisy ecstasy, and the writer’s own sense of separation from all she has tried so hard to enjoy.

Though this young woman received some mentoring with respect to her own biological processes and some guidance in preparing for marriage, these were insufficient to allow for healthy transitions. She lived in a word in which the potential for some kind of shameful exposure was always at hand, where gossip and rumor were rampant, and where privacy was almost non-existent.

At seventeen, just out of the 11th grade, she was married off to a stranger. Attempts at sexual intimacy were a disaster, and it seemed as if everyone knew about their problem and had something to say about it. Such busy-body intrusion did not help matters; however, treatment from a wise and sensitive physician eventually made sexual intercourse possible. This section of the narrative is harrowing.

Soon after that treatment, Deborah Feldman was pregnant.

The marriage was doomed early on. The husband regularly sought his own sexual release, but never had a clue about romancing or pleasuring his wife. Her role, perhaps, was never to be more than a provider for her husband’s pleasure and the vessel for birthing his offspring. It was a subset of her communal role.

Although the couple’s relocation to a suburban community filled with other Orthodox and Hasidic couples gave her some relief from the prying eyes and interference of acquaintances and relatives in Williamsburg, Deborah Feldman already knew she had to find a way out both for herself and her young son.

Exactly how this escape took place I’ll leave for the curious reader’s enlightenment.

Unorthodox is a courageous and valuable piece of story-telling. It conveys both the innocence and wisdom of youth, and it is good medicine for disenfranchised souls.

This review appears in the July-August 2012 Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Collier County) and the July 2012 issues of L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte Counties) and the Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota/Manatee).


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Staten Island comes alive in new thriller

“Madman’s Thirst,” by Lawrence De Maria. St. Austin’s Press. $4.99 e-book.

“Madman’s Thirst” is the second “Jake Scarnes” novel, following “Sound of Blood.” The author has also launched a second series with “Capriati’s Blood” featuring Alton Rhode. While the first Scarnes novel is available as a trade paperback, the other two thrillers by Mr. De Maria are so far offered only in e-book format. Regarding trends in book publication, the future is now.

Who would want a sweet high school beauty like Elizabeth Pearsall murdered? The two contract killers who tail her home from school could care less. It’s a payday. They plan to make the murder look like a botched robbery, but one member of the team, Lucas Gallo, gets carried away and rapes her. His partner in the caper, a cancer-ridden old pro named Banaszak, is disgusted. In the world of Jake Scarnes, any lowlife can have a bit of conscience. Banaszak kills Gallo and manages things so that there is no corpse to discover.

What’s likely is that Elizabeth’s father, the prizewinning newspaper editor of the “Richmond Register” (Staten Island, NY), is being sent a message. He leaves town in a hurry. What has he been poking into? Well, someone with a shoddy reputation, a former plastic surgeon named Nathan Bimm, has been adding to his real estate investments, buying up land on opposite ends of Staten Island. There is some talk of a NASCAR race track on one of the sites. Influence-peddling is rampant. A major crime family is involved, perhaps even the borough president. Two of Robert Pearsall’s best reporters have been digging into Bimm’s activities. Now Pearsall’s daughter is raped and slaughtered. The botched robbery ploy doesn’t hold up for long. 

A guy named Dudley Mack, an Irish gangster and funeral parlor tycoon, has a moral code of sorts. When he hears about a mysterious confession to a priest, perhaps by Banaszak, Mack gets his old buddy, private detective Jake Scarnes, involved.

From here on in, readers can enjoy Jake’s mix of cerebral and bull-headed detection. Strange thing, though, every lead he gets leads to someone who’s just been killed. Who is snuffing out all those who know about what lies behind the crime before Jake can extract new information? And just what does lie behind the race to buy up all that real estate?

Lawrence De Maria

Interesting characters abound. There is gorgeous and brainy Emerald (“Emma”) Shields, rising star in the Shields family’s media empire, Jake is strongly attracted to her, but she seems interested in a Donald Trump wannabe named Aristotle Arachne. What’s going on? Arachne is clearly among those involved in whatever Dr. Bimm has been up to. There is Jake’s secretary, Evelyn Warr, a great sounding board for the private eye and capable in every way. There is Beldon Popp, managing editor at the “Richmond Register,” whom Jake thinks is spending way too much time in the company of the rich and famous.

The real hero of the book may well be Staten Island itself. For all his attention to character and plot, Mr. De Maria does nothing better than evoking the feel of this forlorn piece of New York City. He lovingly paints its neighborhoods, restaurants, and saloons; its government buildings; its poorly maintained streets and facades; its history, sounds, and smells. . . .

To read this review in its entirety, as it appears in the June 21, 2012 issues of the Naples Florida Weekly and the Port Charlotte/Punta Gorda edition, click here: Florida Weekly – De Maria pdf

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Three Thrillers

Over the last few months, I have published reviews of several new books on, the online accumulation of what goes into the San Francisco Book Review and the Sacramento Book Review. Here are the links to three of them, all thrillers:

From Don Bruns: Too Much Stuff | City Book Review 

Miles Corwin

From Philip Margolin:  Capitol Murder: A Novel of Suspense | City Book Review

From Miles Corwin: Midnight Alley | City Book Review 

 My review of David Baldacci’s The Innocent should be up there in a month or so.

To enjoy all of my contributions to this publication, use this link: Phil Jason | City Book Review

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A bridge between two deaths

“Bridge to Oblivion,” by Henry Hoffman. Ivy House/Martin Sisters Publishing. 220 pages. $15.95 trade paperback.

Henry Hoffman’s fourth novel is a taut mystery-thriller that employs the setting of Tampa Bay’s majestic Sunshine Skyway Bridge. The real-life tragedy of a bridge disaster in the Spring of 1980 inspires the novel’s premise: a young woman riding a bus across the bridge during a storm plunges, with others, to her death when a runaway freighter smashes into the bridge, causing a collapse. Where was she going? Why was she traveling without her husband? Was the catastrophe really accidental? 

And what led her younger sister, seven years later, to commit suicide by leaping from that same bridge? Was it really a suicide?

There is a witness to the 1987 Charlene Gibbs suicide, a young man named Adam Fraley. When Adam sees Charlene contemplating her leap, he attempts, unsuccessfully, to talk her out of it. Unsatisfied with the police work and media reporting, Adam launches his own investigation. One thing bothering Adam is that no one mentions the fact that Charlene’s sister, Carlene, has died in the bridge collapse seven years earlier. “No one” includes Carlene’s widower, Monte Wheeler, who was city editor of a major Tampa area newspaper when his wife perished and is now its executive editor. Why doesn’t he want anyone to make the connection? Clearly Charlene was drawn to this spot because of what had happened to her sister.

Adam had served several years in the Air Force before deciding, in his mid-twenties, to get a college education.  He is now attending classes at a local community college while working for a small private detective agency. He’s learning the trade, but mostly doing paperwork. His boss and mentor, Pete Peterson, somewhat reluctantly allows Adam to attempt an independent investigation – but on his own time. Before long, Adam is stirring up trouble and enraging the local power elite. Is there a cover-up of some kind? What? Why?

Henry Hoffman

Author Hoffman skillfully develops Adam’s methodical investigatory style and his commitment to finding the truth. While Adam learns by doing, the reader learns by following him around. Instrumental to Adam’s education in interviewing and fact-finding is another professional, his gorgeous journalism professor who, ironically, once sought the position that Monte Wheeler holds. Though Professor Nancy Egan, who also works at the managing editor of a rival paper, strives to keep her distance, it’s clear that Adam is smitten.

Adam visits the Gibbs sisters’ home town, scours police records, and discovers that he is being followed. Along the way, he also learns that Charlene Gibbs had a child soon after her sister died – the father’s name unrecorded. . . .

To read this review in its entirety, as it appears in the June 13, 2012 edition of the Fort Myers Florida Weekly, the June 14 Naples and Port Charlotte/Punta Gorda editions, and the June 28 Palm Beach Gardens/Jupiter edition, click here: Florida Weekly – Hoffman pdf 1  and here: Florida Weekly – Hoffman pdf 2

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Fact-based fiction reveals enormous security threat

“Castle Bravo,” by Karna Small Bodman. Publisher Page / Headline Books. 320 pages. $24.95 hardcover, $19.95 trade paperback.

In her latest thriller, Karna Small Bodman raises the possibility that a characteristic of nuclear explosions called EMP (electromagnetic pulse) can bring sections of the developed world to a standstill by rendering useless all devices using modern electronics. Everything from computers to microwaves, from transportation systems to financial systems, would collapse. Cities would be paralyzed. Targeted populations would be seriously threatened as food cannot be delivered, hospitals will shut down, and ATMs won’t function. 

It’s back to the technologies of a half-century ago and more, before everything depended on computer chips and circuit boards.

And this is no mere speculation.  EMP has a real history, and the basic science behind it, as well as discussions of major incidents, can easily be found.

Ms. Bodman’s protagonist, Samantha Reid, newly installed as Assistant to the President for Homeland Security, in convinced that the U.S. must develop ways of deterring EMP attacks. Unfortunately, given military cutbacks and front-burner priority for other projects, no one is listening. To some of the higher-ups, she sounds a bit wacky and more than a bit pushy. The president’s Assistant for Political Affairs doesn’t want any news about such threats alarming the public during an election cycle.

Meanwhile, across the country, two UCLA students are concerned about the lack of programs and funding to assist nuclear test victims. Pete is the grandson of a woman who lived on Rongelap in the Marshall Islands and was poisoned, along with many others, by the residue of the 1954 Bikini Atoll nuclear test. He’s become a political activist. Nurlan is an exchange student from Kasakhstan. He has a similar story to tell about Soviet nuclear tests in his country. He, too, is dedicated to fighting against the lack of concern about such unintended consequences.

Karna Small Bodman

Nurlan arranges for Pete to join him in Kasakhstan for the summer, where Nurlan, a computer geek, has a job at a nuclear facility. Nurlan’s beautiful sister, Zhanar, finds a job for Pete. Hoping to minimize its negative consequences, Nurlan modifies the program for a nuclear test so that the bomb is exploded at high altitude. The result? An EMP. A large swath of the country is crippled. Nurlan, his Zhanar, and Pete barely survive. . . .

To read this review in its entirety, as it appears in the June 6, 2012 issue of Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the June 7 Naples and Space Coast editions, click here:   Florida Weekly – Karna Bodman 1pdf and here: Florida Weekly – Karna Bodman 2pdf

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Sanibel Island Writers Conference

I’m happy to send along this message from Tom DeMarchi, Director of this fine conference. As usual, he has put together a first-rate group of presenters. Susan Orlean, pictured below, is the keynote speaker.

Hi there,

Registration for this year’s Sanibel Island Writers Conference is now open!

To see the program, click on:

Take advantage of the early bird special.

Note the new small group manuscript workshop option.

If you’re presenting, please be sure to list Sanibel as one of your
upcoming appearances on your website.

If you’re attending (or just want to help spread the word), include us
in your latest blog update.

You can also tell your friends & enemies, your students & families,
your writing groups & workout partners.  Post it on your Facebook and
Twitter and Tumblr accounts.  I won’t mind at all if you namedrop the
conference in interviews or casual conversation.


Tom DeMarchi

PS:  You’re receiving this message for one of the following reasons:

1)  You’re a presenter at this year’s Sanibel Island Writers Conference.

2)  You’ve attended the conference in the past.

3)  You’ve asked to be added to our mailing list.

Tell me if I should remove your name from this mailing list.

Tom DeMarchi
Director–Sanibel Island Writers Conference
Department of Language & Literature
Florida Gulf Coast University

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