Monthly Archives: October 2014

The human element at the heart of America’s space program

Surrounded by Thunder, by Tom Williams. Inspire on Purpose Publishing. 432 pages. Trade paperback $17.99.

This exciting story, a blend of biography and history, has been out for a while but deserves more attention than it has received. Long time Marco Island resident Tom Williams has crafted an interview-based history of America’s space race activities through the experiences of one key figure. That person’s name is given the book’s subtitle: “The Story of Darrell Loan and the Rocketmen.” The scope, then is from the Soviet Sputnik launch in 1957 to the Aldridge-Armstrong moon landing in July 1969. ThunderCover

Darrell Loan, who worked as the chief electronic guidance designer and troubleshooter, had a unique vantage point on that tension-filled period during which enormous technological gains were made in a relatively short period of time. Mr. Loan and those he worked with seemed to have done the impossible in fulfilling the mission set by President Kennedy.

Tom Williams carefully traces Darrell Loan’s family background and education. Upon graduation from the University of Iowa, he had just the right credentials to be heavily recruited by the new and established industrial companies fighting for government contracts during the space race. Loan first worked on Long Island for Sperry. The work was challenging and important, but Loan’s wife was unhappy in the New York area. She didn’t find the other women she met friendly. And her husband spent much of his time elsewhere, as he was constantly called to the facilities where spacecraft were being tested or high-level meetings were being held.

Loan’s superior performance led to a call from Chrysler, Chrysler the principle manufacturer of the Army’s rockets. Audrey was much happier once the couple moved back to the Midwest and was befriended by the “Chrysler Wives”, but Darrell was still away from home most of the time, meeting with project directors. High- ranking military officers, and civilian bigwigs in the aerospace efforts.

In fact, Loan was regularly under the supervision of the main rocketman, Wernher von Braun, who – assisted by other German scientists hired by the U. S. government – was the primary organizer of and motivator for America’s space efforts.

Tom Williams

Tom Williams

The author’s descriptions of the interactions among members of this elite class of technical and management geniuses (both military and civilian) are unexpected treasures of this book. Readers learn about an amazing cast of characters: some, like the American astronauts, are well-known. Others, like Bill Hinkle, the Chrysler executive who lured Loan away from Sperry, should be.

Essentially, Mr. Williams focuses on the principal stages in the space race. These include getting a manned vehicle into space, then getting one and two-man vehicles into earth orbit on mission-specific flights, then managing the rendezvous and linking of two space vehicles, and finally surveying the moon and landing there. These are the building blocks of President Kennedy’s call to put a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s – and, of course, ahead of the Soviets. . . .

To read this review in its entirety, as it appears in the October 29, 2014 FortMyers Florida Weekly and the October 30 Naples, Bonita Springs, and Punta Gorda/Port Charlotte editions, click here: Florida Weekly – Tom Williams

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No Time to Die

No Time to Die, by Kira Peikoff. Pinnacle Books. 448 pp. Mass market paperback $8.99.

Posted September 29, 2014 at Washington Independent Review of Books.

A sharp biomedical thriller asks, what if old age and infirmity were not inevitable?
What if the aging process could be slowed or stopped? What if human beings could reach their optimal physical state and then just stay there, even as they continued to learn, to explore, to love, and to create? Some might say that such a scientific breakthrough would soon lead to an overcrowded globe and exhaustion of resources. Others might worry that those with the keys to this kingdom would exploit their power. Who would be the gatekeepers? These and other related questions drive Kira Peikoff’s delightfully brainy and thrillingly suspenseful novel No Time to Die, in which this “what if” becomes the reality of her fictional world.Peikoff launches her story not with airy generalizations but with attention-grabbing, violent, and mysterious actions. We enter a Washington, D.C., lab in which a proud scientist is working with chimpanzees. His company tests experimental medications on these animals in the process of bringing the drugs to market for human consumption. An intruder posing as a company board member arranges for the chimps to attack the scientist. He leaves a calling card bearing the name Galileo.At New York’s Columbia University, a researcher pushes ahead with unauthorized experiments. Forced into retirement, she is soon given a new opportunity to pursue her work. Who will she report to? A man calling himself Galileo.The focal character of the book is Zoe Kincaid. Zoe will soon be 21 years old, but she looks 12. Maturing normally in other ways, she is not what she seems. Having attempted college, Zoe floundered when seen as a freak. Hormone therapies have failed to have any effect.

Kira Peikoff

Kira Peikoff

Now, with her frail grandfather’s support, she consults with Dr. Carlyle, “a legendary diagnostician in genetic disorders” and consultant to the Undiagnosed Diseases Program at the National Institutes of Health. He would seem to be her last chance. Zoe pays the $10,000 charge for the lab and imaging fees with her parents’ credit card — but without their permission. Dr. Carlyle makes the diagnosis that Zoe stopped aging at 14.

With this information, Zoe at least has a battle to fight, even though it means separating herself from her parents, who are quite unable to face the truth about their daughter’s condition or her much-needed independence.

When Les Mahler, head of the Justice Department’s Bioethics Committee, receives a copy of a mysterious Galileo postcard to mark the disappearance of the Columbia University researcher, Helen McNair, it is the 27th such postcard to come his way. Where are all these scientists, doctors, and patients? Where is the headquarters of the Network that has, in Mahler’s view, abducted them? How does Galileo keep a step ahead of Mahler’s investigation into the Network’s doings?

Here is Galileo’s mantra, as voiced to research professor Natalie Roy: “Our mission is to give experts like you the total freedom required to pursue biomedical advances as quickly and efficiently as possible. No board-required approvals, no drug companies or bureaucrats pushing agendas, no byzantine FDA regulations.”

Mahler is also a man with a mission, as well as a cruel streak. He wishes to bring stringent oversight to the regulation of human experimentation. He feels vulnerable people are being persuaded to take great risks for the sake of researchers’ egos and corrupt motives. However, his own ego is enormously dangerous (so dangerous that he lives at the top of a 30-story Georgetown high-rise, an impossibility given D.C.’s building height restriction ordinance).

The battle soon takes shape between Mahler’s FBI-supported committee and the Network, which readers learn is not made up of abductees but rather of volunteers. The search to understand the cause of Zoe’s abnormality begins at Columbia University’s Department of Biological Sciences, with Dr. Roy as the principal researcher. It’s her theory that is being tested, with the aim of duplicating Zoe’s condition in people who are fully mature, stopping the progression of aging at the peak time of physical capacity.

All along the way, Peikoff interlaces the action with a stream of scientific information and speculation presented with excited clarity. The characters love what they are doing and feed off each other’s dedication and intellectual daring. Mahler is dedicated to tracking them down and ending their underground lawlessness. Galileo, the Network’s leader, is pushed to the limit of his astounding abilities to help such programs succeed.

Within this compelling look at individuals and groups at work in the university- and government-based research community, Peikoff offers a frightening display of ambition, competition, and careerism gone wild. . . .

To read the entire review, click on: No Time to Die | Washington Independent Review of Books

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A stunning debut novel about loyalty, honor, and identity

A Replacement Life, by Boris Fishman. HarperCollins. 336 pages. $25.99.

A generation of Jewish immigrants from former Soviet Union countries is coming into its own as a special breed of Jewish American writer. The balance of ethnic identity spans a significant range. Some of these writers seem more Eastern European than Jewish, as might be expected when growing up under a regime that had little tolerance for religious communities. Others seem to treasure their Judaism as a kind of heirloom, but still arrive in the U. S. lacking significant Jewish learning or worship experience. In fact, their American lives often make possible the process of Jewish education and acculturation (as Gary Shteyngart recalls his American Jewish day school years in his recent memoir Little Failure).

In 1979, Minsk-born Boris Fishman came to the U. S. from Belarus at the age of nine. After well-placed work as an accomplished journalist, Fishman’s first novel is putting him on the map in a big way. ReplacementLifeHCc

Slava Gelman, Fishman’s surrogate, works for a prestigious New York based magazine called Century. However, whatever his tasks, he has not yet broken through with an article bearing his by-line. He needs to break through, to prove to his skeptical grandfather – the family patriarch – that his choice of a career was neither foolish nor unmanly. Stava needs, as well, a fulfilling relationship with a woman. The pursuit of these needs springs the action of this unique and brilliant novel, along with the effect of Slava’s grandmother’s death on the family.

The Gelman family and their relatives have become part of a Russian-Jewish enclave in Brooklyn. Inside their community, they are – of course – insiders. Still, they remain outsiders in the larger community of New York City. They admire the abundance of choices that America offers, but they are not able to partake of this abundance on a large scale.

An almost totally Americanized Slava has become marginally connected to his family and his roots. To a significant extent, he is an outsider among them. He is also an outsider, for a complex of reasons, in his workplace community. What good are his writerly aspirations doing him or anyone else?

His grandfather, the ultimate schemer and scammer, has made a reputation as the guy who can get his hands on things that others cannot. His well-played false innocence leads him to hatch a devious scheme to benefit himself, his neighbors, and perhaps even his grandson. What’s wrong with lying for a good purpose?

He comes up with a plan for Slava to fabricate letters requesting war reparations from the German government. While many of the aging Jews in the Gelmans’ Brooklyn community were disadvantaged because of the Nazi regime’s actions during World War II, they had survived the Nazis to lose even more under Soviet repression in the years following the war.

First reluctant and then fascinated with the idea, Slava finds himself going along with it. He is now a creative writer, making up biographies with key incidents that qualify that alleged victims for reparations. His underground fame spreads. Money is offered for his services. His grandfather is, finally, proud of him.

Boris Fishman

Boris Fishman

All goes well until an odd, shrewd inspector corners Slava and starts asking questions.

Just as Slava is lured into one part of his destiny, he is lured into another as well. This time, there is far more upside to it. His co-worker, the quirkily independent Arianna Bock, finds something in Slava to arouse her sympathy and then her passion. She leads him into a romance and also wises him up about the ways of a writing career at Century and beyond.

Perhaps Fishman’s greatest gift is his talent for writing group scenes made out of conversations that couldn’t possibly be real but are totally convincing and revealing. There are several such scenes in A Replacement Life that could be expanded into plays. They are filled with social nuance, familiar pettiness, and (from the perspective of the participants) unintentional wit and humor.

Fishman’s narrative shines with bright metaphors and similes. Describing a woman who has been assigned by a social service agency to assist his grandfather, he writes: “Like a Soviet high-rise, each floor of Berta was stuffed beyond capacity.”

How do things work out with the family, with Arianna, with Slava’s career creating fraudulent lives on paper? Well, that’s a long story. Do yourself a favor and read it for yourself.

This review appears in the November 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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Good things come in threes

Review by Phil Jason

“D.A.S.P.O.,” by Ronald B. Fenster and Jerold A. Greenfield. Creative Products International. 360 pages. Trade paperback $14.95.

“I Know What My Cat Is Thinking,” by Dorothy Seymour Mills. Barrington Publishing. 24 pages. $12.95.

“Steve Canton’s Tributes, Memories & Observations of the Sweet Science.” SJC Boxing. 370 pages. Trade paperback $29.00.

Here are three new titles by Southwest Florida writers. One, two, or all three of them are books that may appeal to your reading pleasure or your gift-giving needs.

The first – “D.A.S.P.O.” – carries the subtitle “An Unhinged Novel of Vietnam.” While there have been plenty of those, I haven’t come across any new ones for quite a while. The initials in the title stand for Department of the Army Special Photographic Office. The primary mission of this office’s Pacific Detachment was to document U. S. Army activities in South Vietnam.  DASPO

Though there is some continuity to the story, it’s more of what’s called an “episodic novel” in which scenes and chapters are relatively self-contained. The unity comes from tone, theme, and setting. These guys live high on the hog, find ways of getting in trouble, and manage to benefit from the thriving drug trade. They are noncombatants who are constantly in combat zones, allowed to operate outside the local chain of command. Anyone who likes the whacky side of war fiction – novels like M.A.S.H. and “Catch-22” – will enjoy this hilarious send-up, which is based on Ron Fenster’s experiences.

Pet lovers often have strong relationships, even psychic connections, with their beloved animals. Dorothy Mills, whose book should not be mistaken for a kind of children’s book it physically resembles, has fun with the idea of a cat owner reading her pet’s mind. Thus, it’s the perfect book for cat lovers. It contains a series of cute cat photographs captioned by the cat’s usually disdainful thoughts. Ms. Mills knows that cats have a sense of independence and superiority that they manifest in their facial expressions and body language. She just translates that communication into words.


However, since this cat is owned by an aspiring writer, the book is simultaneously about writers’ insecurities as the cat’s thoughts somewhat cruelly undermine the owner/writer’s confidence. Essentially, the cat is an unsympathetic critic. Short and funny, the book reprises Dorothy’s relationship with feline Toto when the prolific and accomplished author was between husbands and far from established in her writing career.

Steve Canton’s book is a fascinating compendium of boxing lore that grows out of Mr. Canton’s insider experience as cut man, trainer, broadcaster, journalist, and owner of the SJC Boxing Gym in Fort Myers. It’s a treasure trove of information for the boxing aficionado and a delight for anyone who enjoys colorful sports anecdotes. Individual boxers, both well-known and less-known, are profiled. Just as often, a turning point match gets enshrined in Mr. Cantor’s sturdy, vivid prose. . . .

To read the entire review (which gives ordering information for Canton’s title), as it appears in the October 22, 2014 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the October 23 Naples, Bonita Springs, and Punta Gorda/Port Charlotte editions, click here: Florida Weekly – Good Things

Canton bookcover


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Novel blends popular genres to please wide range of readers

The Hadron Escape, by Lawrence De Maria. St. Austin’s Press. 203 pages (estimated). Kindle edition $2.99.

Billed as a “Cole Sudden CIA Thriller,” this latest offering from the indefatigable Mr. De Maria mixes a dollop of imaginary WWII history, present day secret agent intrigue, and a twist on a familiar sci-fi “what if” into an exciting and spirited entertainment. Both fun and funny, “The Hadron Escape” features sex-addicted women who are (with one grotesque exception) amazingly gorgeous and a skilled, wise-cracking operative whose cover is being a writer of thriller novels. HADRON(August2014)

In 1945, mad German scientist Erik Zyster tells SS Colonel Boltke he has discovered the corpse of a nonhuman being. Boltke’s mindset misunderstands “nonhuman” for Jew, but that is not the depraved doctor’s point. He explains, “He had no penis. No testicles no genitals at all.” While Boltke passes this off as a birth defect or sexual aberration, Zyster reveals that the internal organs are unusually sized and positioned.

Jump to 1967. Colonel Boltke has long ago transformed himself into Walter Bannion. Mr. De Maria places him in a small Vermont town near the Canadian border. He had escaped from Europe to Argentina and lived there as Walter Bruschi for many years. When the Israelis captured Adolph Eichman, Boltke planned and executed his next transformation, establishing himself as Bannion in early 1962.

Soon after a minor skiing accident, Boltke/Bannion is surprised by a visit from Dr. Zyster. Zyster tells of his escape from the laboratory he headed, his disguise as a Jewish survivor, and his life since. Then he tells “Bannion” about recent stories describing alien corpses with characteristics just like those he had shown the colonel two decades ago. He also conjectures that aliens where spying on U. S research near Roswell, New Mexico.

De Maria

After adding some speculation about nuclear physics research and space travel, the author launches his main plot. However, first he must have Mossad agent Etan Soul, who has been tracking Zyster, wonder about Zyster’s companion at the ski lodge. After Zyster kills Boltke, Soul kills Zyster, but salvages his attaché case –which he soon ships to Tel Aviv with whatever remnants of the doctor’s research it contains.

The present time: Mr. De Maria builds context about recent U. S. security agency concerns, agency rivalries, and high-tech issues. A top security official receives a mysterious intercepted message regarding the Hadron Collider, the world’s largest subatomic particle accelerator. The message was sent from Commerce, Georgia to a destination in Switzerland where the Hadron is located.  The encrypted transmission has symbols that Laurie Gibbons, the security advisor with a direct presidential pipeline, has never seen before. She learns that Hadron activity distorts electronic transmissions, posing a big problem for code breakers. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the October 14, 2014 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the October 15 Naples and Punta Gorda/Port Charlotte editions, click here: Florida Weekly – Hadron Escape

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Mothers and daughters stretch India’s social boundaries

The Jewel Daughters, by Nina Harkness. Pothi.  278 pages. Trade paperback $14.00. Kindle $2.99.

Like her debut novel A Sahib’s Daughter, this new title by Ms. Harkness is a multigenerational and multicultural exploration of life during and after India’s period as a British colony. Spanning forty-five years, it has as one area of interest the relationships between Indian natives and British tea plantation administrators, revealing the cultural and racial social structure during a period of change. JewelDaughtersFront

The central character is Cara Powell, daughter of a Welsh Presbyterian pastor in Shillong, a small city known for its beautiful rolling hills and as a regional administrative center. The pastor dies when Cara is fourteen, and her mother Beula, an orphan of mixed race, struggles to raise her on a slim pension from the church. Fearful for beautiful Cara’s future, Beula is anxious to marry her off. Rather than encourage a relationship with a local boy, Avon, she insists on a marriage to the self-centered and ill-tempered Scottish sahib, Gerard McKenzie, manager of a tea plantation near Sonari in the state of Assam.

McKenzie takes Cara to Sonari, but he never takes her in marriage.

McKenzie is both crude and cruel. Cara’s life with him provides some degree of luxury, but she is disrespected and abused. A man of little education and no tact, he eventually finds himself overwhelmed by social change, labor agitation and other changes in the tea business, and especially by the responsibilities of domestic life and fatherhood.

Cara raises three daughters. Two are her children by McKenzie. The third is the daughter of a neighboring indentured laborer named Saptamita, who has returned McKenzie’s attraction to her. However, this woman realizes that both she and the child would be better off if the girl (McKenzie’s one year old daughter) was taken into the McKenzie household and raised as Cara’s daughter.

Nina Harkness

Nina Harkness

The book’s title comes from the girl’s names, and their names come from their physical features. Saptamita’s blue-eyed child is named Sapphire; Cara’s older daughter, with her father’s flame of red hair and also his temper, is named Ruby. Her younger daughter, more diminutive and pale-eyed, is Pearl.

Cara’s relationship to each daughter is different, as are the girls’ personalities. Ms. Harkness brings us inside of Cara’s complex feelings for each. Readers share Cara’s struggles as a mother who is essentially the property of a childish, brutal man whose personal comforts are his only concern. Domestic life is a constant irritation to him, and he eventually finds his way back to Scotland, abandoning Cara and his daughters. Cara’s strength and self-sacrifice are set in sharp contrast to McKenzie’s boorish insensitivity.

With little social standing once abandoned by McKenzie, and no claims on property or income from him (beyond what he left behind) or from the British government, Cara and her three bastard daughters – like Cara herself subject to the prejudices against people of mixed race – return to Shillong. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the October 9, 2014 Naples, Bonita Springs, and Punta Gorda/Port Charlotte editions of Florida Weekly, click here: Florida Weekly – Jewel Daughters

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Pregnant sheriff finds big trouble in “Life and Death” sequel

“Life and Death on Siesta Key,” by Sheila Marie Palmer. CreateSpace. 368 pages. Trade paperback $14.99.

This sequel to “Life and Death on the Tamiami Trail” (2012) continues to explore the Sarasota of the mid-1980s in meaningful contrast to the almost vanished community as it existed some thirty years earlier. The author’s (and lead character’s) nostalgia for the kinder, simpler time hovers over the arena of corruption, greed, and violence that Sheriff Bernadette (“Bernie”) Davis contends with as the chief law enforcement officer in her county.  Native_Cover_4073197.indd

Nestled between to hi-rise condo buildings on Sarasota’s Siesta Key is a private home that has withstood the assaults of the developers. Its resident, a blonde beauty named Sally Keith, has been murdered there. A strong circumstantial case exists against her Sally’s boyfriend, Danny Dean, who happens to be not only the county administrator, but also a man whom Bernie had briefly dated before meeting her husband, DeSoto County Sheriff Buck Davis. Now Bernie, garbed in a maternity outfit, must leave the ranch house headquarters of the cattle and citrus business her husband owns and get to work. Mr. Dean will speak with no one but Bernie.

Dean was found with the murder weapon in his hand – a gun he had given Sally for protection. He swears that she was already dead when he arrived.

The investigation begins with attempts to know more about Sally and a search for witnesses. The latter brings Bernie to knocking on condo doors, visiting a nearby shopping area, and meeting up with a bunch of witches whose new moon and full moon ceremonies take place at the nearby beach. Bernie appoints Detective Ike McDuffie, a childhood friend whose career is stalled, to be her partner on this case.



Tracking down Sally’s past takes Bernie to snowbound St. Peter, Minnesota. Here Bernie discovers facts about Sally’s background, including childhood troubles, abuse, and several years in a mental hospital. Her files include a photo of Sally as a young woman who had been raped and beaten – then a similar photo of another young woman turns up. While Sally had straightened out her life and become an ER nurse in Sarasota, perhaps her tormented past had caught up with her, leading to her death.

Sheriff Bernie finds her own life threatened when she gets too close to the truth. . . .

To read this review in its entirety, as it appears in the October 1, 2014 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the October 2 Naples and Bonita Springs editions, click here: Florida Weekly – Siesta Key

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