Monthly Archives: March 2014

Colorful political and romantic thriller captures wartime Cairo

City of the Sun, by Juliana Maio. Greenleaf Book Group Press. 380 pages. Hardcover $24.95, trade paperback $15.95.

When Mickey Connolly, a young American journalist comes to the Middle East to report on the desert war, he is astonished to discover Libyans praising Hitler’s Third Reich and seeing their future as Nazi Germany’s allies. In Cairo, his “home” base, he encounters much of the same attitude, though it’s essentially more anti-English than pro-German. Egyptians had lived under British martial law since 1939, compromising the independence gained in 1936. With Rommel furiously approaching the Egyptian border, Connolly wants to wake up American readers to the facts and significance of this desert war theater. For much of the 1941-2 the time of the novel, the Germans seem unstoppable.  MaioCover

So why are Jewish refugees from Germany and elsewhere coming to Egypt in their flight from persecution? There is a sizeable, well-established Jewish community there with mature institutions. There are Jewish individuals in positions of influence and power. However, the stability of Jewish life in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East is threatened by the dramatic rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and its growing partnership with Nazi Germany.

Meet Heinrich Kesner. He works for the Abwehr, the German military intelligence operation reporting on doings in Cairo, allied military strength, and whatever will prepare for Rommel’s victory in Egypt. He has cultivated a wide range of informants and is now being noticed by the SS as a useful functionary.

He has the particular assignment of tracking a Jewish refugee who is has arrived via Istanbul. That refugee is Erik Blumenthal, who with his father Viktor and his sister Maya is stay with the Levin family, cousins who will shelter them until their final papers allow for transit to Palestine. They have just barely escaped from Germany.




The host family is headed by Joe and Allegra. Their oldest child, Lili, who is in her late teens, befriends Maya, who is somewhat older, and after a while the two are sister-like confidants. Both young women are knockouts. We find out later that Allegra’s brother is a prominent lawyer who is assisting Zionist efforts.

Mickey Connolly has been gaining access to personnel at the British and U. S. embassies, visiting Jewish leaders and institutions, and reshaping his reportorial focus, narrowing it down to the situation of the Jewish community in Egypt and the Arab Middle East. Mickey proves a good sleuth, and he is recruited by the U. S. embassy to secretly hunt down the very same Erik Blumenthal who is Kesner’s target.

Erik is important because of his stature as a young nuclear scientist who has the kind of expertise that can benefit either the Allied or Axis powers.

When Mickey encounters and falls for the reserved, intelligent, and extremely attractive Maya, he has no idea that she is the sister of the man he seeks. Maya – properly fearful, guarded, and yet enchanted to be in “Paris on the Nile” – hides her true identity and whereabouts. Intermediaries help them communicate, and soon enough their torrid love affair begins to overwhelm the political thriller plot, though the two stories are of course interwoven. Each lover has secrets, creating a clash between trust and passion.

Juliana Maio winds her story-telling through alternating points of view, weaving a pattern in which readers stand behind Connolly, Kesner, Maya, and others. The device of Interrupting one character’s thread with another leaves readers hanging, especially as events draw the characters closer and closer together. A sizeable cast of well-etched minor characters populates a fascinating landscape at a fascinating time in history.

Egyptian born Maio’s lavishly painted setting is one of her novel’s many charms. She takes us to a Cairo still intoxicated by the long cultural aftermath of Napoleon’s conquest and occupation at the turn of the nineteenth century. Pockets of Cairo, including the suburb of Heliopolis (City of the Sun), became effectively Europeanized, and French language, arts, and manners became part of the city’s look and social tone up to and well beyond the onset of World War II.

Knowing that the Nazis did not conquer Egypt, we are left to anticipate the fates of Erik, Mickey, and Maya. My lips are sealed.

This review appears in the April 2014 issues of Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Collier County), L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte Counties), and The Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota / Manatee).


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Jamaican-born Lily strives to find her place in “roaring twenties” New York

Lily: Riding the Color Line, by Naomi Pringle. Book-broker Publishers. 307 pages. $20 trade paperback.

It is the middle of the Roaring Twenties when we pick up the story of the Buckley family first presented in Ms. Pringle’s “Ginga’ Root Tea: An American Journey.” Lily, the oldest of the five sisters still living at home, dreams of independence from her parents’ strictures as she navigates the close of her high school years. She also dreams of escape from the poverty that has been grinding the family down. lilycover

Her father Walter, a successful, confident businessman in his native Jamaica, has not been able to transfer his skills and experience to New York City. The move he made in the hopes of giving his children good educations and exciting prospects has not worked out. They live in an overcrowded basement apartment, Walter toiling as a janitor and working a second job to keep them, barely, afloat.

The mixed hues of the Buckley family leave them suspended between the more settled community identities of blacks and whites. Walter is light-skinned, and Lily – who can pass for white – is dancing on the color line – she can pass for white.

The novel opens with Lily getting a fashionable “bob” hairstyle. She knows this decision carries risk, but she is interested in being true to her rapidly emerging sense of self, which includes being fashionable.

Entranced by jazz music and costumed showgirls, Lily becomes a secret frequenter of the Vision Magique. Betty Morrison, mother of Lily’s best friend Carmen, sews costumes for this nightclub. Betty  warns Lily about the dangers of crossing the color line, but circumstances and her own personality lead Lily to drift in that direction.  She is befriended by Gina, the most popular of the showgirls, who acts as a mentor.

When she walks along the mirrored hallway that leads to Gina’s dressing room, Lily automatically takes on a new manner, gliding like the showgirls: “back straight, breasts high, buttocks tight as drum skins.”

The narrative reveals Lily’s gradual loss of innocence and the accelerating allure of Prohibition-era nightlife and entertainment. Seeing no future in the basement apartment, Lily seeks to escape from parental supervision as soon as she can.


Meanwhile, the family’s misfortunes deepen. Payments from investments back in Jamaica are shrinking, and Walter suspects thievery. He must return to look into the matter.  Isabel, whose New York experience has been a prolonged plunge into icy despair, needs to revisit the scene of her social prominence as mistress of 21 Rousseau Road. The trip, for better or worse, will leave Lily in charge of the two younger teenage daughters, while the youngest girls will travel with their parents. . . .

To read this review in its entirety, as it appears in the Fort Myers Florida Weekly for March 26, 2014 and the March 27 Bonita Springs, Naples, and Charlotte County editions, click here: Florida Weekly – Pringle’s Lily

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A semi-private war against terrorism continues in a fast-paced thriller

Unit 400: The Assassins, by T. L. Williams. First Coast Publishers. 298 pages. Trade paper $14.50.

Former Navy SEAL Logan Alexander’s semi-private war against Islamic terrorism continues in this high energy novel that grows smoothly out of its predecessor, “Cooper’s Revenge” (2012). Now running a maritime consulting business in Boston, Logan is soon involved in payback for payback. A year earlier, he had put together a special forces’ team, funded by a wealthy Kuwaiti businessman, that had destroyed an Iranian IED facility. The businessman’s son, Hamid, who had saved Logan’s life during the raid, has come to Boston to pursue a graduate degree. As he and Logan are about to meet for lunch, Logan is witness to Hamid’s murder in front of the restaurant. Unit400Cover

This killing is not a spontaneous event, but a carefully planned execution that is payback for the episode back in Iran. Iran’s Qods Force had compromised Kuwaiti intelligence and gained detailed information about the IED raid. This means that the participants, including Logan, are known and in danger. Iranian leadership wants to make it clear that it will brook no interference with its jihadist intentions. In fact, it has created a special cadre known as Unit 400 to carry out actions such as assassinating Hamid.

Logan had a glimpse of the assassin, a Middle Eastern man whom he described to the police. The killer’s weapon? It’s Logan’s own knife that he had plunged into an enemy leader during the raid.

While meeting with the Boston police detective assigned to the case in the police station, Logan sees a picture of the very man who killed Hamid. He is part of the police academy’s recent graduating class! Armeen Khorasani is quickly identified, but he has an ironclad alibi. He also has a twin brother, Nouri, who had left the family home in Massachusetts five years ago and was last reported to be living in Tehran.

Soon, Mr. Williams widens the lens of his novel by introducing the assassin and writing chapters and subsections from Nouri’s perspective. We learn about his motives, his training, his strengths, and his weaknesses. Through Nouri, readers come to know more about the mission and strategy of Unit 400. He is a credible, dedicated, cold-blooded monster.

T. L. Williams

T. L. Williams

Unit 400 plans take Nouri from Spain to Venezuela, then to Mexico and back to Boston. T. L. Williams does a spectacular job of describing Nouri’s precautions, in particular how he manages to avoid being followed and finds ways of moving from place to place so that he can confidently determined that he is not being followed. Readers learn, as well, about his ability – through specialists who assist his Unit 400 mission – to shift identities and deflect suspicion.

Nouri’s travels posit an Iran-Venezuela axis of rogue nations. Soon, his handlers get him back onto the completion of his mission to revenge the IED raid, which means having him return to Boston. What transpires there and what lies ahead for Logan Alexander must await your own reading of this most exciting story. . . .

To read this review in its entirety, as it appears in the March 19, 2014 For Myers Florida Weekly and the March 20 Bonita Springs, Charlotte County, and Naples editions, click here Florida Weekly – Unit 400 1 and here Florida Weekly – Unit 400 2.

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New White thriller uncovers Florida’s past and its coveted, buried riches

Bone Deep, by Randy Wayne White. Putnam. 384 pages. $26.95.

Readers are lucky that in the imaginary world in which Mr. White’s Doc Ford lives, trouble will seek Doc out. Sometimes it’s as simple and predictable as having his old buddy, Tomlinson, ask a favor for a friend. Hey, can you help my friend get back some antiquarian carvings that help define his family’s Native American heritage?

Sure, why not?

And before long we are in the word of phosphate mining, possible water pollution, a Central Florida elephant preserve, a lunatic biker improbably named Quirk who has a metal tool kit in place of a hand, and an underworld of nutty grifters hooked on fossils and lost (or hidden) treasures from centuries gone by. Bone_Deeplarge

Some are seeking art, artifacts, and history; others are only seeking the money that rarities can bring. Some try to feed their greed within the law; others just don’t want to get caught. And still others will murder. All these seekers are gamblers, addicted to risk and, in some cases, vulnerable to the whims of their creditors.

What is quite astounding in this tension-packed novel is how much scientific and cultural information the author transmits without getting bogged down in stiff, pedantic exposition.

Natural history is the broad background of knowledge, particularly the natural history of the Florida peninsula and the layers of its geography and geology. Readers get to tour fossil and bone fields, explore the shifting balance  of water and terra firma over the eons, and the shifting fortunes of  indigenous tribes and colonial entrepreneurs who lived, died and left their secrets behind to be the fools’ gold of the future.

“Bone Deep” has a large cast of compelling and repulsive characters, their destinies interwoven in the compact present of a sharply drawn plot. These include the Tomlinson friend, Duncan “Dunk” Fallsdown, the Crow from Montana on the trail of artifacts stolen from tribal lands. Part shaman and part sham, Dunk is at once irritating and ingratiating.  Like Tomlinson, he is a test of Doc Ford’s patience – only as honest as he needs to be.


Then there is Leland Albright, present day head of a declining phosphate-based business empire who offers Doc a job analyzing the water quality of three lakes in the family’s fossil-filled quarries. Mr. White sets his portrait of tall, gangly, withdrawn Leland into a generational history that becomes a prototype for the rise and fall of family fortunes. Mammoth Ridge Mines was started and built up by Leland’s grandfather and mismanaged by the next generation. On Leland’s watch it will either recover or be forever lost.  And things aren’t going well. . . .

To read this review in its entirety, as it appears in the March 12, 2014 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the March 13 Bonita Springs, Naples, and Charlotte County editions, click here: Florida Weekly – Bone Deep

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Adventure, accomplishment adorn memoir of American family in Pakistan

Hardship Post, by Robert J. Taylor. Outskirts Press. 306 pages. Trade paperback $16.95.

Robert J. Taylor has written a memoir of Americans abroad that is suspenseful, informative, and colorful. He and his wife Sue led a life of privilege in Karachi, Pakistan. And yet, the title of “Hardship Post” is not merely ironical; it carries certain fundamental truths. The walls around their upper-class residence in an elite Karachi neighborhood provided privacy and security, but these barriers are also emblems of confinement and isolation.  HardshipCover

When Bob Taylor, an experienced hospital administrator, gets a plumb position helping to plan and develop the Aga Khan University Hospital, he gains not only a life-changing opportunity, but entrance into a land filled with growing instability and threat.

Mr. Taylor’s achievement is to keep readers in a place of tension between privilege and danger over this four-year sojourn in the mid-1980s. During this period, he and Sue rekindle their marriage through a shared adventure, allow their children to become citizens of the world, see a radically different culture close up, and work at tasks that make a difference – bringing unparalleled health services to many thousands of people within a larger enterprise that helps millions.

In writing this narrative, the author looked back from a perspective of thirty years. The lessons he learned along the way and in the decades since could have very easily burdened the story-telling with hindsight understandings and conclusions. However, Mr. Taylor is able to keep things fresh, capturing the “innocents abroad” feeling of new beginnings and idealistic expectations.

To have servants on hand to operate your residence and relieve family members of domestic chores is clearly not a hardship. However, if you are not used to it, the presence of others – this new kind of extended family or household – is not necessarily pleasant. Nor is the sense of social obligation to employ a servant contingent.



What might be a hardship? Finding an appropriate residence; getting repairs done in a timely fashion; getting even unreliable telephone service; worrying about the shortage of safe water for bathing, drinking, and cleaning. Simply being out of your element – in a situation with different social and workplace manners and expectations – can be difficult. Fear of political instability and consequent danger. Mr. Taylor provides abundant particulars about all of these concerns. . . .

To read this review in its entirety, as it appears in the March 5, 2014 issue of the Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the March 6 Naples, Bonita Springs, and Charlotte County editions click here  Florida Weekly – Taylor 1 and here Florida Weekly – Taylor 2

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Shteyngart memoir aches with longing, sparkles with buoyant wit

Little Failure: A Memoir, by Gary Shteyngart. Random House.  368 pages. Hardcover $27.00.

When President Carter traded grain for the freedom of Soviet Jews in the late 1970s, young Igor Shteyngart, along with his parents and other family members, was transplanted to the Borough of Queens in New York City. A dreamer and a loner, Igor – now Gary – continues to contend with the clumsy way his parents have of showing love. The books’ title phrase is a painful parental term of endearment. “Snotty” is another unsettling nickname for their asthmatic child. His mother alternates between smothering him and not talking to him at all; his father is way too quick to smack him.  LittleFailureCover

In 1979, soon after arriving in Queens, the seven year old is enrolled in a Solomon Schechter Jewish Day School, where he feels doubly or triply misplaced. The comforts of habit and the strong Soviet identity developed in his early years in Leningrad are gone. He arrives without the crucial tool for early success – the survival level of English that immigrants need to begin their ascent. Soon, he is dropped a grade below the level at which his age and Soviet education would otherwise place him. It’s really tough learning Hebrew from scratch when the teaching language is also one you don’t know.

Beyond that, Gary was one of those kids who draw attention in the worst way. His personal mannerisms were easy to make fun of. Once he became a target, it was hard to build a positive identity. Fortunately, the oversized head that tottered on Gary’s flimsy shoulders was filled with brains. He was able to get through, occasionally excel, without ever become a very conscientious student. Few recognized his promise, and his parents were not among this few, though they harbored great expectations.

Maybe labeling him “Little Failure” was his parents’ idea of a challenge.

After finishing the eighth grade at the Schechter School, Gary attended selective, demanding Stuyvesant High.  His despair about not fitting in, perhaps not deserving to fit in, increased. His dreams of having some appeal to the young women he met there were frustrated. Slowly, the idea that he might become a writer infiltrated his shaky identity. Getting accepted to Oberlin was another sign of failure to his parents, who held nonsensical Ivy League aspirations for him, but for Gary it ended up being a great blessing in spite of Gary’s extreme addictions to alcohol and narcotics.


Perhaps it’s not important to tell more of the story, the story of making friends, finding his first true love, having his talent recognized, continuing a complex relationship to his Jewish identity, dedicating himself to his writing, adjusting to his parents’ endlessly unproductive means of having a fulfilling relationship with their only child. Eventually, the award-winning novels.

The story, magnificent as it is, remains only one dimension of this memoir’s uniqueness and power. The writing itself is everything else, including the structure.

From the acknowledgments, it is clear that many of the chapters were first published separately in periodicals. Though relatively self-contained vignettes, they certainly interact with one another beautifully, many of them moving back and forth (and sometimes back again) in time. Shteyngart is concerned with the presence and power of the past, and he structures his individual units and the entire work to juxtapose various stages of his own and his family’s journey.

Among the book’s many important themes, one resonates quite strongly: Jewish dread. When Gary asks his mother why he is so often afraid, she attributes his experience to something almost genetic, Jewish fear. This suggests a timeless condition of Jewish experience amplified in the diaspora and especially in the modern European era of Jewish history, the age of pogroms and genocide.

Jewish dread is passed on from parents to children, much like a predisposition to a disease. It crosses borders. Shteyngart’s power as a wordsmith includes his ability to make readers feel this emotional truth, this constant shadow that darkens success, circumscribes happiness, and feeds like a vulture at the heart of relationships. It’s personal, but not only personal.

The brooding tone of Little Failure is constantly punctuated by wit and hope. It is a remarkable accomplishment: self-absorbed and generous, petty and cosmic. With half a life to go, Gary Shteyngart stands on a sturdy plateau of achievement. The cures he has taken for his particular version of Jewish dread seem to be working, moving him far beyond paralysis.

Baruch Hashem.

 This review appears in the March 2014 issue of Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Collier County), L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte Counties), and The Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota/Manatee).


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