Monthly Archives: August 2012

Randy Wayne White launches new series with a stunner

“Gone,” by Randy Wayne White. Putman.  336 pages.  $25.95.

In his latest novel, Randy Wayne White has taken a big chance, and it has a huge payoff.  After nineteen reliably exciting Doc Ford thrillers, he has begun a new series featuring Hannah Smith. Hannah is a fishing guide in Mr. White’s familiar territory – coastal Southwest Florida and is adjacent islands. She took over the business from her late Uncle Jake, and with it a rather moribund private detective agency. In her early thirties, Hannah is a tall, unconventionally attractive woman who does not usually think highly of herself. However, she has begun to find some late-bloomer confidence. And she’ll need all she can muster. 

A wealthy and somewhat eccentric fishing client, Lawrence Seasons, observing Hannah’s resourcefulness on a troubled fishing trip, determines that she is the one to find out what has happened to his missing niece, Olivia. The vanished young woman has a mind-boggling inheritance awaiting signature on a legal document. Since Olivia is not an adventurous person, Lawrence is worried about her having dropped out of sight. Once Lawrence’s choice is seconded by his good friend and lawyer, Martha Caulder-Shaun, Hannah swings into action.

From conversations with her wide range of local acquaintances, Hannah determines that Olivia may have fallen under the influence, perhaps the control, of Texas bad-boy Ricky Meeks. Meeks is a monster, one of the very best among the many that Mr. White has created over the years. His obsessive need to dominate and inflict pain is matched by his uncanny ability to foster dependency in the women whom he makes his prey. Hannah finds out about one such victim, Elka Whitney. Slowly, Hannah pulls out of her an understanding of the mesmerizing sick artistry of Meeks through which his sadly abused victims end up being jealous of his next victims.

How can a reserved young woman like Olivia Seasons survive the physical and psychological damage that Meeks lives to mete out? How can she be found, separated from Meeks, and set on the path to restored self respect? What will Hannah have to risk to secure Olivia’s rescue? . . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the August 30, 2012 issue of the Naples Florida Weekly, the September 5 Fort Myers edition, and the September 6 Bonita Springs edition, click here: Florida Weekly – RWW’s “Gone” 1 and here: Florida Weekly – RWW’s “Gone” 2.

For my comments on other RWW books, click here:

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The Riddle of the Aleppo Codex

The Aleppo Codex, by Matti Friedman. Algonquin.  320 pages. $24.95.

This brilliant piece of investigative reporting traces the origins, travels, and controversies surrounding a bound, parchment manuscript know as the Aleppo Codex (or the Aleppo Crown). This manuscript is valued as the most authoritative text of the Hebrew Bible. It was written to be the standard against which later versions of these scriptures were tested. Created about 930 C.E. in Tiberias, it was meant to insure that the Jewish communities of the Diaspora were studying the same text – the same stories, chronicles, prophecies, and laws – word by word and letter by letter. 

Compiled by the scholar Aaron Ben-Asher and scribed by Shlomo Ben Buya’a, the Crown was, perhaps still is, the ultimate book of the People of the Book.

It got around.

First safeguarded in a Jerusalem synagogue, the Crown was taken by Frankish Crusaders during the Sack of Jerusalem in 1099. Through an exciting series of events that Friedman traces with skill and grace, it ended up in Fustat (now part of Cairo) where it was safeguarded by the sizeable Jewish community there. Next, it came under the purview of the great Jewish philosopher Maimonides, who drew upon it in the writing of his magnum opus the Mishneh Torah. Spanish by birth, Maimonides became an influential courtier and physician in Cairo. After Maimonides’ death in 1204, the Crown remained with his descendants until his great-great-great grandson brought it (and other important books) to Aleppo, Syria in the late 14th century.

There is remained “for six hundred years, until the Jews in the land of Islam – the world of Maimonides – disappeared.”

I should make clear that one of the strengths of Friedman’s book is that he avoids organizing by the strict chronology that I’ve been employing.  Rather he moves back and forth, juxtaposing ancient pieces of the story with modern and even contemporary ones, allowing them to interact with one another. He really has two major stories to tell: one is the history and importance of the Codex, the other is the story of his investigation, which peels back layers of ignorance, obfuscation, and raw deceit. One story covers a millennium, the other covers a few years. It’s hard to tell, sometimes, which story is wrapped around which. We are offered an intricate, satisfying weave.

The fulcrum on the broad timeline is 1947, when the deceits that Friedman exposes begin and when the Crown is moved from Aleppo back to Jerusalem.


Friedman meticulously lays out how the Crown survives the Muslim-Arab attacks on Aleppo’s synagogue after the United Nation’s vote to usher modern Israel into being. He then traces the hands through it passed through, its interval in Turkey, and its delivery to the authorities in Jerusalem. Clearly enough, for the nascent Israeli government, the Crown represents part of the nation-building enterprise. Its connection to Jerusalem and Tiberias are, symbolically at least, part of the Jewish claim to the land.

However, once in the hands of the Ben-Tzvi Institute, it seems as though this treasure is sometimes neglected, and at other times purposely made inaccessible. Questions about its condition arise that do not receive convincing answers. Huge sections (including most of the Five Books of Moses) are found to be missing, but just when did these leaves disappear? During the attacks on the synagogue before the Crown left Aleppo? While in Turkey?

In exploring this dilemma, Friedman encounters a conspiracy of silence. Useful facts are few, though there is some finger-pointing. Slowly, patiently, Matti Friedman presses his investigation forward. Eventually, he comes to a conclusion that is consistent with all the evidence he has gathered, including the personalities and opportunities of the principal players.

Friedman’s book is subtitled “A True Story of Obsession, Faith, and the Pursuit of an Ancient Bible.” It delivers on all those ingredients and more as the author orchestrates his materials into a fine, suspenseful symphony of detection and revelation.

This review (under a different title) appears in the September 2012 issues of the Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Collier County), L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte Counties), and the Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota and Manatee Counties).

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Jane Eyre resurrected as amateur sleuth

“Death of a Schoolgirl,” by Joanna Campbell Slan. Berkley Prime Crime. 352 pages. $15.00.

Like many novels of its time, Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre was presented in the guise of autobiography, though nonetheless with attribution to one Currer Bell, Charlotte’s pen name. Joanna Campbell Slan’s bright idea is to extend the Jane Eyre autobiography, picking up Jane’s life at the point Brontë left off, soon after Jane’s marriage to Edward Rochester and the birth of their son. Death of a Schoolgirl, then, is positioned as the first in a series of mystery novels, “The Jane Eyre Chronicles,” a promising competitor in the popular field of historical mysteries. 

Though Death of a Schoolgirl moves a bit slowly at the beginning, when the author is backgrounding her characters and situation, it soon gains direction and momentum.

Choosing 1820 as the year of Jane’s first adventure, Ms. Slan launches an intriguing premise: Adèle Varens, a ten year old French girl who is Rochester’s ward, writes from her expensive boarding school that she is very unhappy and feels threatened. Jane and Rochester, who is striving to recovery from a severe vision handicap, decide that Jane should leave for London prepared to investigate the child’s situation.  Along the way, she is attacked and robbed of precious gems, and when she arrives at the school she is at first mistaken for the expected new German teacher.

The students and staff are extremely agitated because one of the girls is most likely the victim of murder. Jane decides to stay on – if she can – in part to protect Adèle, but more and more to investigate the death of Selina, Adèle’s classmate. She is now Jane Eyre, amateur sleuth.

Joanna Campbell Slan

Unexpectedly, Jane encounters an old friend, Nan Miller, who is teaching at the school. Though Nan learns that Jane is now Mrs. Rochester, she helps Jane keep this a secret. The school would not hire a married woman to be on its teaching staff, and Edward Rochester’s horrible reputation has prejudiced the school’s director against his ward. When director Thurston discovers that Jane is not the expected German teacher, Nan helps smooth things over, vouching for Jane’s character and credentials in a way that leads Thurston to give Jane a temporary position.

From here on, the plot introduces frightening events and revelations, as well as a large cast of intriguing characters. Several of the girls have wounds on their backs from severe canings. Laudanum is being overused to control behavior and perhaps worse.  Selina had treated the other students so horribly that they could be considered suspects. Thurston allowed her to get away with vile behavior, and the teachers were not permitted to reprimand her. This factor becomes a mystery within the mystery. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the August 23, 2012 Naples Florida Weekly, and also the August 30 Spacecoast edition and the Septermber 6 Palm Beach Gardens edition , click here: Florida Weekly – Joanna Campbell Slan


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Presented and produced by The Center @ MDC Nov. 11 – 18, 2012


The 29th edition of the nation’s finest and largest literary gathering, Miami Book Fair International, presented by The Center for Literature and Theatre @ Miami Dade College (MDC), will take place November 11 – 18, 2012, at Miami Dade MDC’s Wolfson Campus, 300 NE Second Ave., in downtown Miami. The always-popular Street Fair runs Friday through Sunday, November 16 – 18, with more than 200 exhibitors from around the country selling books in a festive atmosphere.

The Fair, MDC’s flagship cultural event, will treat book lovers to eight days of cultural and educational activities, including the beloved Evenings With… series, the IberoAmerican Authors program, myriad learning activities for children, and programs for food enthusiasts in partnership with the college’s Miami Culinary Institute.

Back again this year is the fall edition of The Miami Writers Institute, with workshops taught by novelist Margot Livesey, literary agent Kimberly Witherspoon, and award-winning author Teresa Dovalpage with a workshop in Spanish, among others.

This year, the Fair continues to expand its children’s programming, extending the Street Fair to add an additional day of author readings for students on field trips, and a fourth day of readings, storytelling and entertainment on the two children’s stages.

The Fair also continues special programming for educators with the day-long School of Comics and Graphic Novels — a series of workshops on how to use comics in the classroom–and adds workshops on how to teach creative writing to K-12 students.


The Fair continues to raise the bar of excellence by offering a fine roster of writers from the U.S. and abroad, and this year will be no exception. Confirmed authors include journalist Robert Caro, essayist and commentator Adam Gopnik, novelist Sandra Cisneros, novelist and essayist Joan Didion and novelist and journalist Tom Wolfe, to name a few.   

The IberoAmerican program will present an array of Spanish-speaking literary voices from around the world, including Homero Aridjis (Mexico), Mayra Santos Febres (Puerto Rico), Abilio Estévez (Cuba-Spain), Santiago Roncagliolo (Perú) and more.    

Miami Book Fair International 2012 promises to be another exceptional literary event!  For regular updates on the Miami Book Fair, please visit, call 305-237-3528 or email


Miami Book Fair International is the largest and is regarded as the finest literary gathering in America. It is the premier event of The Center for literature and theatre at Miami Dade College. The Center promotes reading and writing throughout the year by consistently presenting quality literary activities open to all in South Florida. Literacy projects target children of all ages—from kindergarten to high school—as well as college students and adults. Established and emerging writers from South Florida and all over the U.S. read, lecture, and teach workshops. They work with K-12, MDC students, and diverse members of the community, helping to deepen their understanding of literature, and encouraging their work of writers at all stages of development. The Center envisions South Florida as a nexus of literary activity in the Americas and beyond, and will continue to champion its mission of promoting the advancement and appreciation of the literary arts in all forms.

Miami Book Fair International is made possible through the generous support of the State of Florida and the National Endowment for the Arts; the City of Miami; Miami-Dade County Department of Cultural Affairs and the Cultural Affairs Council, the Miami-Dade County Mayor and Board of County Commissioners; Miami-Dade County Public Schools; the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau; the Miami Downtown Development; and the Friends of the Fair; as well as many corporate partners.


Miami Dade College has a long and rich history of involvement in the cultural arts, providing South Florida with a vast array of artistic and literary offerings including The Miami Book Fair International, The Florida Center for the Literary Arts, The Miami International Film Festival, the MDC Live! performing arts series, The MDC Tower Theater Cinema Series, the Miami Leadership Roundtable speakers’ series, the National Historic Landmark Freedom Tower, numerous renowned campus art galleries and theaters, and the nationally recognized School of Entertainment and Design Technology. With an enrollment of more than 174,000 students, MDC is the largest institution of higher education in the country and is a national model for many of its programs. The college’s eight campuses and outreach centers offer more than 300 distinct degree programs including baccalaureate, Associate in Arts and Science degrees and numerous career training certificates leading to in-demand jobs. MDC has served nearly 2,000,000 students since it opened its doors in 1960.

 For regular updates on the Miami Book Fair, please visit, call 305-237-3528 or email

Media-only contacts:
Juan Mendieta, 305-237-7611,, MDC communications director
Tere Estorino, 305-237-3949,, MDC media relations director
Sue Arrowsmith, 305-237-3710,, media specialist
Alejandro Rios, 305-237-7482,

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Debut novel explores coping skills of abused child

“Cosette’s Tribe,” by Leah Griffith. Nonpareil Press. 298 pages. $24.99 clothbound, $14.99 paper.

This remarkable first novel deals with the sexual abuse of a young girl in a manner that is at once chilling and uplifting. What’s chilling is that the girl, Cosette, seems to have no way to escape from her stepfather’s perverse needs.  What’s uplifting is how Cosette doesn’t allow this tragic predicament to totally define or overwhelm her. Yes, she is a victim. However, she is much more than that.

Cosette, nine years old when we meet her, lives with her mother and two older sisters on the poor side of an unnamed New England town. She can’t remember her father, and she senses her mother’s loneliness. It’s Cosette’s idea to introduce her to a single man who is the uncle of a neighborhood child. Before long, Ken is taking over the household and sexually handling Cosette. He’s somewhat of a bully, and yet Cosette sees her mother becoming more and more attached to Ken – giving in to his demands.

Leah Griffith, who narrates the book in the first person from Cosette’s point of view, lets us surmise how to understand the mother’s behavior. She is a once needy for companionship and financial assistance, and at the same time fearful of Ken’s explosive temper and autocratic nature. She is one of those people who hopes for the best without having a rational basis for that hope. Cosette loves her mother and fears making trouble for her by letting her know what Ken is doing. Cosette’s worst fears are realized when her mother marries Ken.

We follow Cosette’s plight as she turns ten, eleven, and twelve. Ms. Griffith is amazing in portraying her character’s steps toward physical, intellectual, and emotional maturation. Cosette plans her days around dodging Ken’s attempts to catch her alone. But over and over again she is trapped. She has found a way to tolerate the inevitable without allowing herself to be crushed by it. Somehow, she is psychologically resilient.

Leah Griffith

Part of this resilience comes from her imaginative nature. Part of it comes from her relationships with her sisters, with young her friends, and with the two other men in her life. (The priest she visits to confess her sins is no help at all.)

To read this review in its entirety, as if appears in the August 2, 2012 Charlotte County Florida Weekly and the August 9 Naples edition, click here: Florida Weekly – Leah Griffith

Readers can find out more about the book and its author at

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Tel-Aviv, the First Century

A splendid critical celebration of Tel-Aviv’s first hundred years, this collection of essays reads like a spirited conversation across academic disciplines and across ideologies. While the primary focus is on the shaping of Tel-Aviv up until the founding of modern Israel in 1948, there is also a satisfying amount of  attention paid to the changed conditions after 1967 and even into the twenty-first century. Most people are not aware of the fact that an independent municipality of Tel-Aviv existed during the British Mandate period. Like so much else in the Yishuv years, the Zionist enterprise was in the business of institution-building long before the declaration of statehood. The planning and nurturing of the first new Hebrew-speaking city was an important part of that agenda. . . .

Okay, you’ve read the teaser. Now for the entire review as it will appear in Jewish Book World, click here: Tel-Aviv, the First Century. Visions, Designs, Actualities

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David Baldacci and Dorothea Benton Frank reviews at

My latest reviews for include a totally satisfying mainstream contemporary by bestselling belle of Southern writers Dorothea Benton Frank: 

“By alternating narrators in a rich mother/daughter counterpoint of attitude and need, Ms. Frank provides a novel of pride, passion, and purpose. Annie Britt’s husband, Buster, had walked out on her eleven years ago, crushed by her overbearing domestic management. Their home was her castle, but not his. Never divorced, they have had little communication over the years. Approaching sixty, Annie is lonely. Her stubborn need to be needed is raging. 

Her daughter, Jackie McMullen, has just tragically lost her firefighter husband. She and her ten year old son, Charlie, are struggling through a very rocky period of mourning. Mid-thirtyish Jackie, who has had three tours of duty in Afghanistan as an Army nurse, cannot begin to imagine her future. . . . ”

To see the full review, click here: Porch Lights | City Book Review

. . . and a gripping thriller my master suspense-builder David Baldacci:

“This latest thriller by a king of the genre is as gripping and fast-paced as they come. The action, including several abrupt changes of direction, is furiously fast. The characterizations are vivid and intriguing. In Will Robie, a stone-cold government assassin, David Baldacci fashions a protagonist who leaves readers hungry for more.

When Robie , a master of his trade, is unwilling to fulfill a suspicious assignment, he realizes that he is being targeted and manipulated by people who should be on his side. . . .”

For the rest of this review, click here: The Innocent | City Book Review

For links to all of my reviews at City Book Review, click here: Phil Jason | City Book Review

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The hero is the bait in high-tension military thriller

The Lazarus Connection, by Frederick F. Meyers, Jr. Brighton Publishing. 279 pages. $12.95, e-book $5.99.

Although it contains enough back-exposition to be read as a stand-alone novel, The Lazarus Connection is probably best enjoyed as the final segment of a trilogy. It follows from the author’s The Jericho Gambit and Cry Judas, his two previous political-military thrillers featuring Matt Gannon. Each of the books features the conflict between the American Army colonel turned CIA agent Gannon and his arch-enemy Salal, a true believer Islamic terrorist leader. While the appeal of the books is rooted primarily in action, Mr. Meyers’ handling of the mindset of his primary characters gives these novels special heft. 

Moreover, Mr. Meyers’ experience as a military/security insider allows him to flesh out his plot lines with authoritative detail.

“The Lazarus Connection” plot springs from its immediate post 9/11 setting and its contextualizing of the 9/11 tragedy as only a step among many in extremist Islam’s war against the United States and its allies. As a mastermind planner and executer of terrorist action, Salal has twice been foiled by Gannon (these contests anchor the first two novels) but has lived to design a malignant vengeance on his nemesis while at the same time launching more attacks on the Western empire of infidels that he is determined to destroy.

The novel’s focus becomes narrowed to a vendetta operation when the American strategists decide to dangle Matt Gannon as bait to bring down Salal, his accomplices, and his subordinates. But mostly Salal. The initial operation, run out of the U. S. embassy in Pakistan, first involves Matt in a mission to capture terrorist leaders at their hideout in remote corner of Afghanistan.  This operation seems bungled, and Matt is captured and – for a while – thought to be dead.


However, like the title reference “Lazarus,” he makes a shadowy return. Salal, determined to make Gannon suffer before exterminating him, designs a plot against Gannon’s family, assuring himself that his will draw Gannon out into the open to protect and/or avenge them. Of course, this is a twisted version of what Gannon and others anticipate. Now, however, not only is Gannon the bait, but now, unexpectedly, his wife and parents are as well.

Mr. Meyers’ handling of the ins and outs of his intricate plot, his descriptions of place, and his probing of the psyches of principal and supporting players, is on the mark. Whether dealing with U.S. agents and officials or terrorist support staff or greedy freelancers, the author provides strong individualizing traits. . . .

To read this review in its entirety, as it appears in the August 1, 2012 Fort Myers Florida Weekly, the August 2 Bonita Springs and Naples editions, and the August 9 Spacecoast edition, click here: Florida Weekly – Frederick Meyers, Jr.

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“15 Seconds” by Andrew Gross

 As we meet Dr. Henry Steadman, a successful Boca Raton plastic surgeon and owner of several pain management clinics, he is trying to find the Jacksonville hotel where he will be the featured speaker at a medical conference. Sheriff’s deputies stop him for a minor infraction, then bully and threaten him as if he were a major criminal and security risk. Soon he hears gunfire and sees a dead police officer. Worse, people are shooting at him. Fleeing to save his life, Steadman is totally disoriented. He can’t believe this is happening. Or why. 

Suddenly, he is a wanted man. A policeman is dead, and the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office has already, it seems, tried and convicted Steadman. The police ignore his explanations and ignore evidence pointing to his innocence.

Meet Amanda Hofer. Sometime before Steadman’s ordeal begins, she has the worst day of her life. Late for work and strung out on pills, she loses control of her car and ends the lives of a young mother and child. Belligerent when coherent, she is locked up and before long finds herself sentenced to 20 years. Her father Vance, a former policeman turned chronic loser, sees Amanda as a victim. Her life, like his own, is a case history in how the haves exploit and undermine the have-nots. And he’s going to hold someone accountable.

Vance Hofer has made Steadman, whose clinics prescribe the kind of drugs Amanda is addicted to, the target of his vengeance. He vows to make Steadman suffer as he has suffered. Steadman must lose a daughter as he has lost a daughter. Hofer kidnaps and tortures Steadman’s daughter, who is nearly the same age as Amanda, and controls the doctor’s behavior through this leverage. He won’t let Steadman turn himself in. If Hofer hears that the police are involved in the case or have any knowledge of Steadman’s daughter’s disappearance, she will be tortured to death.

Andrew Gross

Henry Steadman is a desperate man. He struggles to find a way to rescue his daughter, and he is nearing a complete breakdown. Enter Carrie Holmes, a valiant woman dealing with her own life-altering tragedies. She has returned from a leave of absence from her Community Relations job with the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office following the death of her husband and a life-threatening injury to her son. Unlike her colleagues, she hears the logic in Steadman’s explanation and questions, and she feels the desperation in his voice. Holmes begins to believe Steadman was set up in the police shooting — that the whole scene near the Jacksonville hotel was staged.

But how? By whom? Why? …

There is much more to this review. To read the review in its entirety, as it appears in the Washington Independent Review of Books, click here: Washington Independent Review of Books » 15 Seconds

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