Monthly Archives: June 2015

Music-themed thriller hits all the right notes

The Lost Concerto, by Helaine Mario. Oceanview Publishing. 348 pages. Hardcover $27.95.

Picturesque, passionate, and pulse-pounding, Ms. Mario’s second novel is a gem of a thriller that has the taste and aroma of a perfectly blended wine. The author has given us entrances into classical music, art theft, terrorism, clandestine government operations, and romance.  LostConcertohi-res

Magdalena “Maggie” O’Shea is a concert pianist who has recently lost her husband Johnny, an investigative journalist. Though still wrestling with grief and loss, Maggie agrees to aid a government operative who feels that finding Maggie’s godson is the key to bringing down a terrorist operation. The boy’s murdered mother, Sofia Orsini, had been Maggie’s best friend. Sofia’s husband, Victor, might be the murderer.

Do Victor’s rare art and music manuscript holdings bankroll terrorist enterprises? Are his riches dependent on the stolen art his father had collected? Is he a rogue CIA operative? Or is he used by the CIA and other agencies to accomplish their devious ends? Johnny O’Shea was getting close to figuring this out. Johnny’s journal is Maggie’s guide to find out what happened to Sofia and Johnny, and also to finding Tommy – who she had sworn to protect.

Swinging into action begins to bring this emotionally lost woman back from her overwhelming despair. To the espionage agents, her code name is Concerto, thus book’s title has resonance as a tag for its protagonist as well as for a particular composition.

Helaine Mario

Helaine Mario

Long before Johnny had entered her world, Zachary Law had been the love of Maggie’s life. Their romance was mysteriously aborted, though Maggie gave birth to their son – now a thirty year old concert artist. Zachary enters the novel at a strategic moment, but I cannot go any further than whetting your appetite for this complication.

Special agent Simon Sugarman and Colonel Michael Beckett become Maggie’s handlers, though she is less concerned with their mission than her own – that of finding Tommy and, if necessary, rescuing him. Mike Beckett shadows Maggie’s movements and tries to keep the headstrong woman on a leash for her own safety. Slowly, inevitably, he falls in love with her. But a romantic relationship is not what a man in his profession can risk.

Knowing that Maggie has positioned as bait to draw out Victor Orsini and others, Mike does all he can to protect her. He is a truly original character, at once rugged and tender, with an unexpected sophistication for an outdoorsman. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the June 24, 2015 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the June 25 Naples, Bonita Springs, and Punta Gorda / Port Charlotte editions, click here: Florida Weekly – Helaine Mario. Follow me on Twitter @phil_reviews and also see the terrific trailer for the book:


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New studies illuminate the years leading up to Israel’s rebirth

To the Gates of Jerusalem, James G. McDonald; Norman J. W. Goda, Barbara McDonald Stewart, Severin Hochberg, and Richard Breitman, eds. Indiana University Press. 320 pages. Hardcover $30.00.

 The Reckoning: Death and Intrigue in the Promised Land, by Patrick Bishop. Harper, 320 pages. Hardcover $26.99.

Perhaps no one had a better ringside and inside seat at the deliberations that eventually led to the United Nation’s actions paving the way to Israel’s 1948 declaration of statehood than James G. McDonald. His dogged and dexterous work as a key member of the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry was positioned between two more notable posts: the League of Nation’s High Commissioner for Refugees in the 1930s and the first U. S. Ambassador to Israel from 1949-1951.   
Gates of Jerusalem

The Committee had the double charge of proposing solutions to the enormous problem of Jewish refugees at the close of WWII and to the academically separate but finally inseparable issue of the British Mandate for Palestine’s eventual resolution. McDonald’s diary entries throughout the entire work of the Committee constitute a unique primary source of information about the progress of the Committee on its way to its ultimate recommendations.

The hearings, the partisan bickering and bargaining, the drafting and redrafting, the mixture of tedium and emotionally supercharged moments are captured in a sturdy, often eloquent style filled with colorful descriptions and sharp judgments. McDonald’s comments about his fellow committee members are fully engaging, as are his descriptions of travels, accommodations, and recreations that were very much part of the experience.

McDonald’s record of abominable refugee camp conditions crosses paths with notes on concerts, museum visits, glorious sightseeing, and grand dinners without any apparent irony in the juxtapositions.

The cast of characters with whom McDonald was in touch goes far beyond the Committee members to major government officials and leaders of international associations, all of them vying for influence – especially with regard to the partition and immigration issues. Indeed, it becomes clear that Truman’s final position on a Jewish State was largely shaped by McDonald’s shrewd management of the frustrated, suspicious president.

Surrounding the diary excerpts, the editors provide – as if with a single voice – expansive contextualizing commentary, biographies of key players, and a constant stream of useful, well-turned footnotes. Unusually engaging and suspenseful for a scholarly enterprise, To the Gates of Jerusalem is a must for all university libraries and all collections focused on the history of the Middle East in the twentieth century.

This volume, published in association with The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, is the third in a four-volume series of McDonald’s papers.


Most literature about the steps that took Mandate Palestine to its demise and Israel to its rise focuses on Zionist enterprise in Europe, the U.S., and Palestine. In such explorations, little attention is paid to the purpose and effectiveness of the Palestine Police Force as a primary agent of British rule. What’s fresh about Patrick Bishop’s The Reckoning is his decision to focus on the PPF. In the book, we see less of the usual gallery of Jewish heroes and more of the upper-level British governing establishment in Palestine.

Ultimately, it is an archetypal David and Goliath story. David, in this case, is the Jewish terrorist cop-killer (freedom fighter?) Avraham Stern. Goliath is Geoffrey Morton, assistant superintendent of the Palestine Police Force. Morton is a rigid law-and-order man — a purist. In his own way, Stern is also a purist, his fanaticism more obvious and much closer to madness. Recokeninghcc

Bishop judiciously takes advantage of previously published writings while introducing newly discovered sources to sharpen his portraits of the times and the personalities battling over Israel. He creates complex depictions of his combatants, taking them back to their roots and up to the moment of ultimate confrontation.

For this reader, for all of their differences, both men shared the capacity for imagining a perfected self, role-playing that self, and becoming the part they played. Zionist Stern was far more flamboyant in dress and manner, but Morton had an edge to his conventionality. Neither respected shades of grey.

Spinning around these central figures are well-managed contextualizing treatments of the overall British mandate administration and its quagmire in which the promise of the Balfour Declaration kept butting heads with the need for Arab oil. The obvious Arab alliance with Nazi Germany was something Britain allowed to be colored by its nostalgia for its disappearing colonial heritage and its long relationship with Arab populations.

Bishop is also able to give an impactful sense of the Yishuv, the organizing Jewish community in Palestine, and its love-hate relationship with Stern. Major Jewish political forces in Palestine did not buy Stern’s assertion that the British were the real enemy of Zionism. Stern saw the policy of restraint following Arab attacks — in an attempt to win sympathy and favor in British and world opinion — as foolish.

Whether called the Stern Gang or the Stern Group, the Zionist leader’s insistence on terrorist tactics made him public enemy number one; wanted posters were everywhere. It was Morton’s job to maintain law and order, to put an end to the bombings and shootings of PPF personnel for which Stern was happy to take credit.

In this tale, of which we know the outcome — Stern dies at the hands (bullets) of Morton — it is still possible to build suspense.

Bishop manages this, in part, by creating a sense of the events happening now. He provides a wealth of precise, vivid detail that bridges the distance between the 1940s and today. He emphasizes what’s at stake for each man. He alternates points of view so that the emotional story of each contestant is interrupted by that of his counterpart, allowing a suspense-building delay before returning to the other perspective.

Like any good journalist, Bishop has occasion to weigh contradictory evidence. Sometimes, this is a matter of evaluating written or recorded testimony. How do you measure a statement from many decades back against a more recent one? What does “consider the source” really mean?

Case in point: Just what did happen in the final minutes of Stern’s life? Did Morton shoot him in cold blood? Did he shoot him to prevent Stern from escaping? Did Stern resist arrest in order to die a martyr?

Witness memories and testimonies vary. With Bishop’s guidance, we test the logic of the statements in terms of other things we know about the conditions and the actors. We wonder about motives for a suspect action detail and about information withheld. Sifting through such variations and lacunae has its own strong attraction and suspense.

Morton had a much longer life than did the man he shot. In following Morton’s diminished career and considering his way of dealing with his shrinking importance, Bishop suggests a kind of posthumous victory for Stern. In fact, it did not take long for Stern’s position to gain strength after his death, leading to the Mandate’s end in 1948. In 1978, an Israeli postage stamp was issued in Stern’s honor. Three years later, a town was named after him.

Patrick Bishop has given us a sturdy, lucid, and highly colorful look at the no-win situation of British governance during the closing years of the Palestine Mandate. His book reads like a thriller, with the added attraction of providing a compelling account of how history unfolds and memory is shaped.

These reviews were first published separately in (respectively) Jewish Book World Summer 2015, Vol. 33 no. 2 and Washington Independent Review of Books (posted January 29, 2015). Reprinted by permission. First published together in the July-August 2015 issue of the Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Collier County) and the July 2015 issues of L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte Counties) and the Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota Manatee).


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Books for Father’s Day

Happy Father’s Day

Chasing Justice by H. Terrell Griffin

Arms and the Dudes by Guy Lawson

Cuba Straits by Randy Wayne White

anything by Michael Lister

Leaving Berlin by Joseph Kanon perf5.500x8.500.indd

The Big Finish by James W. Hall

Don’t Lose Her by Jonathon King

Bum Rap by Paul Levine

An Anecdotal Death by Kinley Roby

Losing Faith by Adam Mitzner

Scent of Murder by James O. Born

Water to the Angels, by Les Standiford

I Heard My Country Calling, by James Webb


All reviewed (or to be reviewed) on this site.

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Pregnant judge the tool of kidnappers in top-notch thriller

Don’t Lose Her, by Jonathon King. Open Road. 262 pages. Trade paperback $14.99.

Mr. King’s Max Freeman Mystery series is one of my favorites. A well-developed lead character, fascinating plot ideas, authoritative details on police work and the court system, and an authentic representation of two Floridas: the Palm Beach area and the Everglades. Max’s seventh outing met my high expectations, along the way providing deep insights into stressed characters dealing with critical situations.  Don'tLoseHer

Diane Manchester, forty-three, is a U. S. district judge is in charge of the extradition hearing of a big time criminal, a Colombian drug lord named Juan Manuel Escalante. As a weary Diane, eight months pregnant, announces a break for lunch, Escalante speaks out to her. His seemingly sarcastic concern for her condition could easily be taken as a threat.

Soon after she leaves the courthouse, Diane is abducted.

Judge Manchester is he wife of Billy Manchester, super-lawyer and highly successful financial guru. Billy’s go-to guy for investigations is Max Freeman, who is also Billy’s best friend. Billy’s clout allows him access to all kinds of information sources, and he quickly takes advantage of his connections to begin the hunt for Diane’s captors and to seek out their possible motives.  The usual motive, a fat ransom, does not seem to be in play.

Mr. King builds his narrative through several points of view. Max’s viewpoint is paramount; readers will gratefully follow him as he follows and interprets the accumulating clues.

Many chapters explore the thoughts and emotions of Diane as she processes her situation and worries about the outcome of her pregnancy. She is treated rather roughly by those who have taken her. Her hands are bound behind her, and her head is covered so that she cannot see. Her breathing is somewhat restricted.


For a long time, no one speaks to her. The space in which is confined is a place of silence. Diane forces herself to be alert to motion, to environment, to the needs of her unborn child. She works hard to stay as calm as possible. A woman who is used to controlling her destiny, she strives to balance realism and hope in a situation she cannot understand.

The author is in full command of this character, electrifying readers who are brought so close to what Diane is going through.

The team that is holding Diane is headed by a huge Native American, a man of enormous strength and no compassion. He is known as Geronimo, and his underlings live in fear of him. . . .

To read this review in full, as it appears in the June 17, 2015 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the June 18 Naples, Bonita Springs, Punta Gordo/Port Charlotte and Palm Beach Gardens/Jupiter editions, click here: Florida Weekly – Don’t Lose Her


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ESCAPE IN TIME: a Holocaust story for young people


Ronit Lowenstein-Malz; Leora Frankel, trans.; Laurie McGaw, illus.

MB Publishing, 2015. 176 pp. $9.99 (pbk)

This intriguing fact-based novel presents a dual narration. An Israeli girl, Nessya, reacts to her grandmother’s experiences in war-torn Hungary by reading a narrative prepared by the grandmother based partly on family letters never sent for fear of the contents falling into Nazi hands.  EscapeInTimeCover

These letters are also read by Nessya.

In 1944, the young Miri Eneman, along with her parents and three older sisters, attempts to flee the persecution of her community’s Jews, already confined to a ghetto. The father, Naftuli, is the story’s hero. His exceptional foresight allows him to see that doing nothing, the stance of his Jewish neighbors, is to end up dead. Carefully and stealthily, he arranges for false documents as well as well-compensated assistance from friendly gentiles.

The family members escape the ghetto and make their way to Budapest, where it seems that they can find greater safety until the Russian forces defeat the Nazis. Naftuli’s schemes are successful, though there are many close calls and much suffering along the way.

Ronit Lowenstein-Malz

Ronit Lowenstein-Malz

Upon Nessya’s questioning, Miri’s youthful perspective, enhanced by the knowledge gained through her adult years, is now tapped.  She releases a lifetime of repressed memories, allowing her granddaughter Nessya to gain a moving and meaningful understanding of the Holocaust without confronting the horrid realities of the death camps.

The characters are crisply differentiated, superb illustrations help us relate to them, and suspense runs high.

First published in Hebrew in 2006, this book is perfect for youngsters twelve and older.

This review appears in the Summer 2015 issue of Jewish Book World (Vol. 33 No. 2) and is reprinted with permission. To see the “original” online edition, click here: Escape in Time: Miri’s Riveting Tale of Her Family’s Survival During World War

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Detour through 24 cities, 650 shows, and a million spectators

Detour on an Elephant: A Year Dancing with the Greatest Show on Earth, by Barbara File Marangon. Ogham Books International. 200 pages. Trade paperback $15.95.

Port Charlotte author Barbara Marangon has written a delightful, lively memoir that traces her experience as a showgirl/dancer/elephant rider with the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus “Blue Unit.” A ballet dancer who had performed with groups in New York and several European cities, in 1977 Barbara was in need of a change. In her mid-twenties, she decided that the circus could provide that change. DetourOnAnEleFrntCvr-WEB

In April of 1977, having recently returned from dancing in Austria, she made her way to Madison Square Gardens to audition for the circus. After being accepted, she spent six weeks at the end of the year training at the Venice, Florida winter headquarters. During that period, Barbara began to understand and become part of the circus culture, one quite different from anything she had known before.

Assigned and trained to ride an elephant, Barbara would be provided with a very special view of the circus environment. She would also form a deep, if temporary, friendship with her partner, a huge-headed elephant named Peggy.

Once the tour began in early 1978, the circus train was Barbara’s home.  It was a world unto itself. The Blue Unit traveled from east to west, stopping in both large and smaller cities. The train ran on freight tracks, and it often stopped in rather seedy neighborhoods. Throughout her travelogue, Barbara takes time out to describe the various arenas – their history and capacity, and also the major performers who had played at each one. Each stop is memorable for one reason or another.

Living with clowns, bareback riders, trapeze artists, animal trainers and daredevils is likely to provide one with a new view of the human species: a new view of what’s normal. Barbara’s insights into the circus way of life, its mixture of community and specialty loyalties, are penetrating and gripping.


The author interlaces her circus memories with two other strands of story-telling. One is circus history. From conversation and from research, Barbara Marangon pieces together many of the highlights of this venerable business, entertainment, and lifestyle. The other is her earlier professional life, first as a ballet student and later as a performer. Flashbacks, spurred by incidents in her circus life, take readers to Munich for auditions and then performance in a film of Othello; to the Stadttheatre in Klagenfurt, Austria where Barbara was part of the dance company for a season; and to various dance experiences in New York City. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the June 11, 2015 Naples Florida Weekly and also the Punta Gorda/Port Charlotte edition, click here: Florida Weekly – Marangon

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“Losing Faith” by Adam Mitzner

  • Gallery Books 384 pp.

This smart courtroom thriller manages to humanize the law.

Like many a top-drawer legal thriller, the fast-pacedLosing Faith is also a psychological thriller. Charged with the murder of a judge with whom he was having an affair, Aaron Littman is the only one who seems to know that he is innocent.Even though the legal details of the case, the portrayal of the give-and-take in the courtroom, and the inside look at how a major law firm operates are all handled with authority and vivid detail, it is Aaron’s emotional ride that gives the book its strongest hook and its high-powered suspense.

When the liberal judge originally assigned to the Nicolai Garkov case is found no longer competent because of advancing Alzheimer’s, Judge Faith Nichols takes over. The indictment against Russian Mafia player Garkov covers a wide range of criminal activities, most notably laundering money for a hedge fund that finances terrorists.

Garkov manipulates the hiring of Aaron as his defense attorney to fight the government charges. Why? Well, he knows that the judge whose ruling determines his fate is Aaron’s lover. Neither Aaron nor Faith would want that secret exposed, as it could be both marriage and career ending. That’s a lot of pressure. adam-mitzner

But if Faith succumbs to blackmail and acquits Garkov, she will not get the Supreme Court appointment that is otherwise a sure thing. That, too, is a lot of pressure.

Before matters unfold much further, Faith is found murdered — beaten to death. The growing body of evidence points toward Aaron, whose colleagues were not happy when he besmirched the Cromwell Alton firm’s prestigious name by linking it to Garkov.

Aaron’s colleague, mentor, and good friend, Sam Rosenthal, chooses to defend Aaron against the murder charge. Before everything explodes in Aaron’s face, he decides he’d better admit his infidelity to his lawyer and to his wife.

The emotional heart of the book involves Aaron’s attempt to redeem himself. More and more, he is forced to admit that the case against him would impress a jury. And, given his indiscretion, he is not a sympathetic character. Having his wife, Cynthia, stand by him would go a long way toward countering his negative image.

Beyond the problem of appearances, Aaron is truly contrite. He has come to value what he’d nearly thrown away. After her initial outrage, Cynthia decides to give Aaron a second chance. Mitzner’s portrayal of the ebbs and flows of this rebuilding process, which also involves their two daughters, is delicately and movingly drawn.

Waiting in the wings in case the Littman marriage fails is Aaron’s junior partner, Rachel London. She is deeply in love with him, and, though Aaron has aided her career in the firm, he has backed away from her too-obvious longings. Of course, she is a brainy babe. So was the judge. Cynthia is a looker, too.

The government’s case, presented forcefully by Victoria Donnelly, is largely circumstantial, but still compelling. Once the adversarial force has mounted its attack, the art and science of legal gamesmanship becomes a fascinating center of interest. The defense tramples on the concept of timely discovery and disclosure, but mostly gets away with it. Mitzner carefully draws the conduct and personalities of the lead attorneys, Rosenthal and Donnelly. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the Washington Independent Review of Books, click here: Losing Faith | Washington Independent Review of Books.

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“Made in Detroit: Poems” by Marge Piercy

Alfred A. Knopf  2015
192 Pages    $27.95

 Review by Philip K. Jason

Marge Piercy’s nineteenth collection of poetry—to go along with her seventeen novels—celebrates the working-class roots of a fierce American writer who became a voice at once strident and sensitive for social justice, the value of work, and humanity’s place in the embracing, injured natural world.

Her poems are often lean and tough, with sharp juxtapositions of words and images challenging the reader’s imagination and confronting complacency. marge-piercy

The book is divided into six sections, and in the first three Piercy’s references to her Jewish identity are sparse and defensive. In “City bleeding” she talks about learning to survive on Detroit’s “ashgrey burning streets / when as a Jew I was not white yet . . . .” Judaism seems a troubled reminder, in “What my mother gave me,” as the writer remembers “how cats would circle / your feet purring your Hebrew name.” In a prose poem, she remembers “feeling very alien, feeling very Jewish and judged.” She remembers her mother telling her not to putJew on a job application in “My time in better dresses”—Jewishness as a burden.

How surprising and uplifting, then, to find the entirety of Made in Detroit’s fourth part a full-throated acceptance and affirmation of Jewish identity. This section, mostly a meditation on the Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashanah), soars. These poems, at once personal and public, reveal an engaged Jewish consciousness, a woman who tells us, “I like Rosh Hashanah late, / when leaves are half burnt / umber and scarlet” and when “migrating birds perch / on the wires davening.”

To read the entire review, as it appears on the Jewish Book Council blog and will appear in a forthcoming Jewish Book World, click here: Made in Detroit by Marge Piercy | Jewish Book Council


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Naples newcomer turns out a highly original second novel

Ginger Quill, by Kay Taylor Burnett. iUniverse. 170 pages. Trade paperback $13.95.

The author, a recent transplant to Naples, is a retired Texas newspaper publisher and magazine editor currently working on her third novel, set in Florida. Before publishing Ginger Quill last year, she had published her first novel – No Odes to Widows in 2009. 9781491733653_COVER.indd

Set in scenic stretches of New Mexico and Colorado, Ginger Quill focuses on the anxieties of Mae Maguire, recently divorced and concerned about being followed and possibly harmed by her imbalanced ex-husband. As readers learn, she has every right to be worried. Michael Montrose is stalking her, convinced that their mutual friend Joel has betrayed him.

In fact, Joel has offered Mae the safety of his home and continued friendship while she prepares for her future; she hopes to make a living as an artist.  Joel’s serene fishing cabin in Colorado, along the northern Rio Grande, is just the place of Mae’s emotional healing. This gorgeous natural setting inspires her art, though she remains unsettled about Michael being out there scheming revenge over the divorce.

Joel Zyvoloski works as a geothermal engineer for the Los Alamos National Laboratory, a U. S. government operation. His Colorado neighbor, Johannes Ackerman, is a hydrologist connected with the prestigious Santa Fe Institute. Johannes is concerned about water purity, and his concerns may have something to do with the book’s subplot – the illegal extracting and sale of uranium from ostensibly closed Colorado mines.



Johannes, U.S. born of German parents, has interesting stories to tell about German prisoners of war at the end of WWII who were impressed into labor in the United States. While his own background and the “story within a story” are fascinating, it is hard to connect them to the main plot. They do add some dark local color.

The complication arises when a woman named Katja Richter becomes a co-worker with Joel at the Los Alamos Laboratory. She turns pale when Mae and Joel mention the name of Johannes Ackerman. Something is wrong here.

Mae realizes that Katja has performed a speedy seduction of her old friend, and that Katja’s interest in Joel is probably not truly a romantic one. Katja’s background as someone raised in East Germany but escaped to the west before the wall came down excites Joel, but it adds to Mae’s nervousness about her.

Not much later, Mae discovers that Katja also has a work and possibly a romantic relationship with Johannes. What’s going on here? . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the June 3, 2015 Fort Myers Florida Weekly, the June 4 Bonita Springs and Naples editions, and the June 11 Palm Beach Gardens/Jupiter edition, click here: Florida Weekly – Ginger Quill

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Phil’s Summer Reading 2015

Here is my first annual Summer Reading List. Reviews of the first twelve titles have already appeared on Phil Jason Reviews Books (and elsewhere before that posting). For the other seven, the reviews are written, but not yet published because (in several cases) the books are not yet available. Come back later (and often) to find those reviews. You can put key words in the search box to bring of titles that don’t appear on the menu bar.

Randy Wayne White, Cuba Straits

Tami Hoag, Cold Cold Heart

Patricia Gussin, After the Fall

Michael Lister, Innocent Blood

Kim Michele Richardson, Liar’s Bench

Robert Levy, The Glittering World

Kinley Roby, An Anecdotal Death

Joseph Kanon, Leaving Berlin

Jonathan Papernick, The Book of Stone

Adam Mitzner, Losing Faith

Arleen Alleman, A Current Deception

Kate Angell, No One Like You


*Jonathon King, Don’t Lose Her  [book out, review forthcoming]

*Mike Hirsh, Fly Unzipped  [book out, review forthcoming]

*Helaine Mario, The Lost Concerto [book and review forthcoming]

*Paul Levine, Bum Rap [book and review forthcoming]

*Alex Kava, Silent Creed [book and review forthcoming]

*Lucy Burdette, Fatal Reservations [book and review forthcoming]

*Amy Hill Hearth, Miss Dreamsville and the Lost Heiress of Collier County [book and review forthcoming]


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