Monthly Archives: May 2015

A fine debut novel exposes an American South often overlooked

A Tree Born Crooked, by Steph Post. Pandamoon Publications. 234 pages. Trade paperback $15.99.

I almost missed this one, which is among the most original and striking Florida novels I’ve encountered in my almost nine years of walking this beat. No gorgeously hued Sunshine State here. This is the Florida of grit and grime state: the North Florida that is really Southern, rather than the South Florida that is mostly Northern. Atreeborncrookedfrontcoveronlyat300dpi

If you can hold your liquor, or even if you can’t, jump into the beat-up pickup and come along for the ride. You’ll need plenty of antacid, bandages, and your weapon of choice.

The plot focuses on the reluctant homecoming of James Hart. James has survived a youth of petty crime and various kinds of self-destructive behavior. Estranged from his family, he has for a time now abandoned his reckless former life and become a responsible, if lonely, citizen. James returns to Crystal Springs, Florida after receiving a rather impersonal announcement about his father’s funeral. He comes home too late, and it’s unclear if he is really welcome.

James is viewed as someone who betrayed his family, rather than as someone who escaped a debilitating environment. For most who stay, Crystal Springs is a dead end: run down businesses, too much drinking and drugs, and no sense of a future. Success means pulling off a robbery and getting away with it.

In fact, such is the sordid dream that has backfired on James’s younger brother, Rabbit, who is caught up in a dangerous caper as well as a drug habit. Suddenly, it is James’s duty – should he choose to accept – to help Rabbit survive his bad decisions. Reluctantly, James gets involved in extricating Rabbit from a situation in which Rabbit is accused of stealing money from a local money laundering scheme.  Rabbit had learned that a pile of cash would be temporary stashed at a local strip club. The Alligator Mafia, a small-time mob connected to larger ones – is breathing down his neck.



Rabbit and his cohorts are biting the criminal hand that already feeds them, and they will pay for this big time. The heist does not succeed as planned, and the strip club owner’s men are looking to get that money back and send a message.

James travels with Rabbit, their cousin Delmore, and the beautiful but haunted Marlena Bell (who “could switch from a pistol to a pillow” with ease) on a rather half-baked plan to save Rabbit. It involves chasing down Marlena’s father, Waylon, who has played a part in the theft. Their scheme makes sense while you’re reading the book, but the logic starts to unravel when you try to remember it.

However, is does get us on the road from North Central Florida across the Panhandle to and through Tallahassee and back again. What is important on this journey, and throughout the novel, is Steph Post’s perfect pitch representation of her characters’ dialogue, desperation, and determination along a stretch of nonstop action.

To read the entire review, as it appears in the May 27, 2015 Fort Myers Florida Weekly, the May 28 Naples and Bonita Springs editions, and the June 4 Punta Gorda/Port Charlotte edition, click here Florida Weekly – Steph Post 1 and here Florida Weekly – Steph Post 2.


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A soaring cry, a classic expression of the Jewish American experience

Prayers for the Living, by Alan Cheuse. Foreword by Tova Mirvis. Fig Tree Books. 380 pages. Trade paperback $15.95.

A major literary achievement, Alan Cheuse’s magnificent novel takes us through three generations of a Jewish American family, revealing an odd mix of dysfunction and accomplishment, belonging and estrangement, sacrifice and betrayal. Minnie Bloch’s story, told from the perspective of her identities as immigrant and grandmother, reaches us through intermediary listeners, visitors whose near silence tempts us to ask questions. However, if we – the ghostly eavesdroppers – can be patient, they will all be answered. Though she protests otherwise, Minnie has all the answers. Though her eyesight is failing, her insight rarely falters. PrayersForTheLiving-forWebNov14

The impact of the novel comes from two centers of interest: Minnie’s arcing, arching voice and her son Manny’s careers. The voice, like the spirited personality behind it, is inexhaustible. In her stream of revelations showered upon Mrs. Pinsker and a few other visitors, she elaborates what others would most likely keep secret about unfortunate familial matters. There is a great need in Minnie to reveal all: the successes of course, but why the frailties and failures?

There is no stopping her soaring cry. When Mrs. Pinsker remarks that she too has a life story to tell, Minnie replies: “I’d love to hear, Mrs. Pinsker, but not now. Now I’m remembering my own. Oi, I remember so hard.” And indeed, she does.

The texture of Minnie’s life and that of her family is built up in arcs of repetition. Crucial memories and images, key words and phrases, are repeated over and over again, gaining significance and force. Layer upon layer, Minnie’s memories grow and expand; themes and variations compound and resound. The voice becomes hypnotic and embracing, releasing as it unfolds the voices of her late husband Jacob, of Manny and his wife Maby, of Maby’s abusive brother Mord, of the rebellious granddaughter who has renamed herself Sadie, and of many others in the sweep of her long life.

All is hung on the identical trademark black suits of Manny, all is illuminated by Manny’s white mane, which bursts upon his head when he is very young, in the aftermath of Jacob’s accidental death. If Jacob is the father, an echo of his namesake who sired the Israelite clan, then Manny – Emanuel – is the assurance that, at least for the rabbinic part of Manny’s adult life, God is with us.

Young Manny studies at the Reform seminary in Cincinnati and becomes a successful pulpit rabbi in New York. His is a master of the ordinary things expected of him – the routines of educating, inspiring, influencing committee meetings, and fundraising. His most successful religious service is one in which he needs to present a sermon on the concentration camps. After much agonizing and writer’s block, he offers as his sermon twenty minutes of absolute silence. It’s the high point of his pulpit career. His congregants love it. There are low points too, including one in which he takes a literal and figurative fall.

Gradually, another calling overtakes Manny. That of entrepreneur, investor, and man of business. One business is added to another, and then another: shipping, warehousing, and ultimately major agricultural interests in Central America. Once he redefines himself as a businessman and former rabbi, Manny readily discards the life of the synagogue and traditional observance. How does he make this transition so effortlessly? How deep did it ever run?

The story of Manny enfolded in Minnie’s linked narratives is also the story of his ill-fated marriage to Maby (a family nickname), a beautiful woman overwhelmed by insecurity and alcoholism. She spends way too much of her life in a comfortable rehab center, but when she ventures out in the world – at one point attempting to become a writer – she makes poor choices that lead to new bouts of depression.

Alan Cheuse

Alan Cheuse

Along the way, Manny is drawn to another woman, Florette, a Holocaust survivor.

Both Maby and Manny are weak parents whose emotional absence predicts Sadie’s rebellious behavior. Is she a victim by nature or nurture? Sadie’s traumatic gang rape by college boys is an almost incredible echo of Maby’s rape by her older brother Mord (who later ends up being Manny’s business partner).  Maby’s idealization of a self-seeking writing guru almost predicts Sadie’s infatuation with her super-liberated and exploitative female art teacher.

Looking for encouraging authority figures, mother and daughter succumb to false gods.

We must remember, of course, that these stories and the repeated patterns and voices they contain all go back to Minnie’s memory and her conscious or unconscious mission. These coincidences are no more unlikely than the repeated narrative patterns in the Jewish Bible: older brothers being replaced by younger, parental favoritism warping sibling relationships, and former slaves repeatedly longing for the comfort of their predictable slave lives.

What hath Cheuse wrought? A one-woman show with one character playing many parts? A prose epic of the American Dream corrupted by some kind of insidious moral disease? A portrait of the archetypal Jewish grandmother?  Prayers for the Living reminds me of Frank Norris’s McTeague, Abraham Cahan’s The Rise of David Levinsky (especially the portrait of the hero’s mother and the irony of the title), Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, Allan Ginsberg’s “Kaddish” (don’t ask me why), and Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep.

It also reminds me of Molly Goldberg, Gertrude Berg’s iconic character who embodied the Jewish-American quest for and realization of upward mobility. Not only the “yoo-hoo,” but also the worship of family.

I expect a long life for this book, though not necessarily an explosion to the top of the best seller lists. It is made of sturdy stuff, esthetically and imaginatively. It requires a patient reader, and it pours abundant riches on such a reader. It may very well take its place among the classic novels of the Jewish American experience.

This review appears in the June 2015 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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Another round-tripper by Naples author Kate Angell

No One Like You, by Kate Angell. Kensington. 304 pages. Trade paperback $9.95.

Lovers of contemporary romance will find many satisfactions in Ms. Angell’s latest addition to her Barefoot William series. The name is not that of a mythological beach bum, but a Gulf Coast Florida beach town pretty much owned by the Cates family. It’s time for spring training, and the Richmond Rogues major league baseball team has made its new home in Barefoot William, much to the pleasure of team captain Rylan Cates, a hometown hero.  NoOneLikeYouCover

Because Ryland has many leadership responsibilities during the eight week spring training season, he advertises for a personal assistant. Beth Avery, a newcomer fighting a losing streak in her personal life, wins the job – and much more.

Beth’s job is includes keeping Rylan on schedule, taking care of the house, preparing some meals, and – most importantly – taking care of his four dogs. Atlas, the huge Great Dane, is way more than a handful. The author builds this stubborn but loving creature into a complex personality. Strange as it may seem, Atlas is the third most important character in the book. His tail-wagging cohorts are also memorable creations.

Who are the other important characters? Clearly enough, the members of his two extended families: Rylan’s many tightly knit and mutually supportive Barefoot William relatives and his fellow Richmond Rogues. Ms. Angell’s readers have met many of them before.

This time out, comic relief is provided by the nuisance behavior of Halo Todd and his sidekick Landon Kane, two of the team’s star players. They hang around Rylan’s home uninvited, drop in for meals, and generally impose upon Rylan’s good nature. Beth’s patience is strained by the goofy presumption of this duo. However, she does manage to involve them in preparing for a big party, even while risking the payback they’ll expect. Halo and Land are immaturity raised to a higher power.

The heart of the story, of course, is the unwanted romance brewing and bubbling between Rylan and Beth. Their attraction to one another is powerful, yet neither is looking for intimacy or commitment. The timing just doesn’t seem right. Ryland has to concentrate on his extensive responsibilities as team captain; Beth needs to get her feet on the ground in her new surroundings and find the strength to overcome recent disappointments.

Living in the same house and working together so often, they become aware of each other’s strengths and virtues. Mutual respect and blazing sexual attraction are a powerful combination, yet each remains somewhat guarded as the fire builds. Where is this relationship going, besides the bedroom? A big question for both of them – and for the reader. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the May 20, 2015 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the May 21 Naples, Bonita Springs, Punta Gorda/Port Charlotte, and Palm Beach Gardens/Jupiter editions. 

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All is not shipshape in this seaborne mystery


A Current Deception, by Arleen Alleman. Xlibris. 340 pages. Hardcover $29.99.

The fifth in Ms. Alleman’s series of cruise adventure novels mixes the excitement of new vistas, in this case Australia, with murder mystery suspense. Freelance journalist Darcy Farthing is the central character, and her point of view prevails, though there are some risky point of view shifts that are sometimes unsettling. One thing is for sure, this series will not make the author any friends in the cruise industry. However, it may make her many new fans among readers.

Darcy is traveling with a group of family and friends, including her second husband (Mick), her former husband (Brooks), her best friend (Sid), who is about to be married onboard to Brooks. Also in the crowd is Darcy’s daughter Rachael and Rachael’s baby daughter Anna. Wait, there’s more: Don and Charlie, a gay couple (also Darcy’s good friends) traveling with their precocious, temperamental adopted daughter, and several other fellow cruisers who all went to high school together and are having a floating reunion. Brooks, head of a large travel agency, had put this special group together.

There is trouble all around. Daughter Rachael, a woman in her early twenties from whom until recently Darcy had been long separated, is having trouble with motherhood and with her decision about whether her future will include young Anna’s father. Sid, thinking of this voyage as her honeymoon trip, feels that Brooks is way too busy with his clients.



Then things get much worse. Yellow crazy ants (I’m not kidding) turn up and leave their acid burns on some of the shipboard guests in Brooks’s group. Is this infestation the result of negligence or is someone using the ants as a weapon? Attempted murders onboard and a murder on the streets of Adelaide put the group in a panic, especially as the chief of security seems indifferent, incompetent, or both.

Darcy is outsleuthing the professionals, but she’s having a hard time selling her insights. Curiously, items are found in Brooks’s stateroom that point to him as the criminal. It’s clear to Darcy and to us that the criminal (if there is only one) is extremely clever; however, she knows that Brooks can’t possibly be guilty.

Remember those Columbo episodes with Peter Faulk? We see the crime, know who the culprit is, and wonder if the faux discombobulated detective will figure things out? “A Current Deception” has a bit of that as readers are given many scenes presented from the whacko’s point of view. We can’t put it all together until Darcy does, but it is fun to try. Ms. Alleman has a sure sense of knowing just how much to reveal at each stage of the investigation, ratcheting up the suspense. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the May 13, 2015 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the May 14 Naples and Bonita Springs editions, click here:  Florida Weekly – Alleman

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“The Book of Stone” by Jonathan Papernick

Fig Tree Books  2015
400 Pages    $15.95

Review by Philip K. Jason

In a Brooklyn warehouse, part gun range and part synagogue, trouble is brewing.

Who is susceptible to the morbid attractions of terrorism? Our popular media have made clichés out of half a dozen answers. Jonathan Papernick has created a terrifying novel that illuminates the dark corners of those souls who will give their lives for a cause without regard for their own suffering or that of others.

Though this beautifully written book teems with fully realized supporting characters, most of the insights derive from the portrait of the central character—Matthew Stone. This portrait is so magnificently painted, Matthew is so brilliantly and precisely individualized, that the stock responses to the important question are overwhelmed and transformed. No more glib talk. Real life.

We meet Matthew, a twenty-five year old loser with no job, no accomplishments, and no self-worth, as he shakily responds to his father’s death. Judge Walter Stone is a version of “the great man.” A giant in his profession, disgraced by his own drives, he had given Matthew the toughest kind of love—absence and denigration. Yet he remained a giant among militant Zionists.



The judge’s father, also a Zionist hero and a similar kind of disapproving parent,was a feared gangster.

Through his father’s horde of books, books annotated with what seem like clues for Matthew’s destined role in life, and through the approaches of Jewish terrorist leaders planning a major offensive, Matthew finds his cause. Or is he carefully manipulated into it? Or is it his genetic patrimony?

Those handling his indoctrination understand his needs and play upon his fears and insecurities. . . .

To read the entire review as posted on the Jewish Book Council web site, click here: The Book of Stone by Jonathan Papernick | Jewish Book Council

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The Atlanta Child Murders reimagined in brilliant crime novel

Innocent Blood, by Michael Lister. Pulpwood Press. 264 pages. Hardcover $26.99.

Mr. Lister’s seventh John Jordan Mystery takes an unusual step. Instead of moving readers forward on the path of John’s life, it takes them back to his very first case. In fact, this tale takes readers back in time twice. First, to 1980 when the Jordan family went on a vacation to Atlanta. John, twelve at the time, was fated to encounter the man who was later convicted of two murders, though not the murders or abduction of the many black boys who were thought to be his victims.  perf5.500x8.500.indd

However, though John had seen and interacted with Wayne Williams, he didn’t make the connection until many months later when the print and television news was filled with the story of his arrest. The man he met was hawking opportunities for gullible youngsters to become professional entertainers.  Of course, this was not at all the goal of the menacing Mr. Williams.

The Atlanta Child Murders continued to occupy Atlanta police, and they continued to occupy space in young John’s imagination.

Six years later, soon after graduation from high school, John Jordan returns to Atlanta. Having been torn between pursuing a career in law enforcement or one in the ministry, he had opted to enroll in a new ministerial program. This decision was a difficult one, severing John’s relationship with his police chief father who thought John was making a foolish mistake.

While working for the college and its parent church, John manages to attach himself to policemen who had worked on the Atlanta Child Murders, including the man in charge of the investigation. John’s obsessive interest and his obvious analytical skills lead them to allow him a role in the continuing investigation, which has been reignited by similar crimes. This is exactly what John has hoped for. There are just too many unclosed cases with similar details, and yet it seems unlikely that Wayne Williams could have been responsible for all of them.

Michael Lister

Michael Lister

The community John has entered includes Safe Haven, a daycare and aftercare center run by Ida Williams (no relation to Wayne) located near the church. Ida’s young son, LaMarcus, was murdered but never put on the list headed Atlanta Child Murders though his death occurred during that time period. Like John at that time, LaMarcus was twelve years old.

John now meets the beautiful Jordan Williams, Ida’s daughter, who becomes the new love of his life, but she is stuck in a bad marriage. Regularly beaten by her husband, a local policeman, she has her eyes on John, and she appreciates his tentative attentions.

After establishing the key players, Michael Lister focuses on John’s exhausting attempt to balance his college studies, his work commitments that are in lieu of tuition, and his unswerving pursuit of the unsolved murders. Still only a kid himself, John impresses people with his maturity, compassion, and insight. He seems to know what questions need to be pursued. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the  May 6, 2015 issue of the Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the May 7 Naples, Bonita Springs, and Punta Gorda/Port Charlotte editions, click here: Florida Weekly – Innocent Blood

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