Monthly Archives: August 2015

“Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning,” by Timothy Snyder

“Indispensable” is an overused term in book reviews, but Timothy Snyder’s analysis of the political, social, intellectual, and historical circumstances that gave rise to and even nourished Hitler’s brilliant madness is truly that. The parallels he draws between conditions in Europe in the 1930s and 1940s and those found today in many parts of the world—most notably in Africa—cannot be observed without the recognition that the breeding grounds for rationalized mass murder are still present in our world today.  Black-Earth

Snyder’s observations are based on the premise that statelessness is the prologue and necessary condition for genocide. Not only are stateless people the most vulnerable, but the territories they inhabit fall subject to structures in which established legal and political institutions no longer exist to protect its citizens—especially its minorities—and citizenship is no longer a stable reality.

Hitler, with his conception of a “natural” order based on racial might and tested by warfare, used his military and political power to undermine surrounding states before herding Jews into those shadowy places. . . .

To read the full review as it appears on the Jewish Book Council site and will appear in a forthcoming issue of Jewish Book World, click here: Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning by Timothy Snyder | Jewish B

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Two murder cases vie for attention in new “Matt Royal” mystery

Chasing Justice, by H. Terrell Griffin. Oceanview Publishing. 400 pages. Hardcover $27.95.

Call it Phil’s law. Whenever you have a mystery novel with two separate murder cases, the chances are that they will become linked in some way. Such is the situation in Mr. Griffin’s latest. A couple of murders are occupying their time and energy, though Longboat Key Police Detective J. D. (Jennifer Diane) Duncan and usually retired lawyer Matt Royal find plenty of energy for each other. ChasingJusticehigh-res

In J. D.’s professional lap is the question of why a nude, beautiful, surgically-enhanced blond named Linda Favereaux had been found with her skull crushed in her enormous, luxurious beach home. Her husband, two plus decades her senior, is nowhere to be found.

Matt has agreed to come out of retirement to defend his good friend Abby Lester, wife of the J. D’s police chief boss. She’s been accused of murdering a shady local businessman named Nate Bannister. Worse yet (though what’s worse than murder), she’s been accused of having had an affair with the man. A piece of physical evidence puts her at the scene of the crime. Abby says she had never even met Bannister.

If Abby is telling the truth, how did that evidence get there?  What’s going on?

Why is the case moving so quickly? What does it mean that the prosecuting attorney is borrowed from another jurisdiction within the state? Why has the investigation been given over to a state law enforcement agency? Why does the agent in charge seem to be so eager for this assignment?

Back to J. D.’s case: while the Favereaux couple has been living on Longboat Key for a couple of years, hardly anyone knows them. They keep to themselves. It’s obvious that they are enormously wealthy, but what is the source of that wealth?



These mysteries are like two giant piñatas with many smaller mysteries inside. J. D. has a case that leads to upper echelons of clandestine government operations. Yet it remains pretty much a straight, detective-focused murder mystery.

Matt’s story turns into a legal procedural and ultimately into a finely crafted courtroom drama. His case, too, becomes tangled up with people in high places – power players who have a lot to hide, including who really killed Nate Bannister. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the August 26, 2015 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the August 27 Naples, Bonita Springs, and Punta Gorda / Port Charlotte editions, click here: Florida Weekly – Chasing Justice




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“The Murderer’s Daughter,” by Jonathan Kellerman

  • Ballantine. 384 pages. Hardcover  $28.00

This taut new thriller features a memorable, series-worthy heroine.

When it comes to psychological thrillers, Jonathan Kellerman has been at the top of the heap for three decades. His Alex Delaware series is an institution. In this truly frightening stand-alone effort (though Delaware is briefly mentioned), Kellerman introduces a character who could conceivably head a new series.

Gorgeous Dr. Grace Blades, a brainy 34-year-old, has a private practice as a psychologist who aids victims of trauma. However, she is a victim of childhood trauma with the capacity to wreak havoc on others. Her sense of justice is very personal.

We first meet Grace at the age of 5, the neglected child of an unmarried pair of slackers, Ardis and Dodie, who hold menial restaurant jobs and barely exist in a cruddy trailer park. Grace learns to take care of herself and teaches herself how to read. She’s a prodigy in a cultural wasteland.  43626.jpg (200×226)

After this brief introduction, the author takes us almost 30 years ahead, providing several chapters on the successful Dr. Blades. They reveal her skilled and caring professionalism, her ethical business practices, and her quiet confidence.

We also discover the risk-taker part of Grace that vies with her control-freak dimension. Self-control and self-stimulation alternate like a perilous seesaw trying to reach a point of balance.

Structurally, the narration involves two alternating timelines. One focuses on a short period of present time in the life of Grace the psychotherapist and thrill-seeker. The other takes us through several stages of her development, usually marked by a change in the institution or foster home where she resides.

Eventually, of course, the timelines meet. Along the way, Kellerman provides a detailed exploration of how children in such circumstances are likely to be treated and what the consequences might be. More importantly, he builds our understanding of how Grace in her mid-30s is a product of the nurturing — or lack of it — she received during her development. She is also a product of her own willpower and self-creation.

Part of Grace’s preparation for life is watching her parents wage bloody war upon each other. Her mother, Dodie, stabs her tormenter, Ardis, her father, who dies. Then Dodie plunges the knife into herself, first instructing Grace to remember what she sees.

She will.

Grown-up Grace enjoys exercising power, particularly sexual power, over men. She lives a secret nightlife of trysts in which she is the controlling temptress. On the occasion that drives the main plot, Grace rehearses some lies, dresses to kill (pardon me), and goes to a bar expecting to entice a partner for the evening. A man calling himself Roger takes the bait. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in Washington Independent Review of Books, click here: The Murderer’s Daughter | Washington Independent Review of Books

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Hate mail challenges a complacent Jewish community

Strength to Stand, by Sheyna Galyan. Yotzeret Publishing. 306 pages. Trade paperback $14.95.

This is the second of Galyan’s Rabbi David Cohen suspense novels. Set in Minneapolis, it provides a Rabbi’s-eye view of life in a diverse North American Jewish community. Though Rabbi Cohen is central, the other major characters have truly major roles. Several of them are rabbis and spouses of rabbis.  StrengthtoStandfrontcoverHR

These characters face significant crises, at least one of which affects the entire community.

As much as Rabbi Cohen is fulfilled by his Beth Israel pulpit and community activities, he is paying a tremendous price in the accumulated stress of the demands made upon him and what he expects of himself. It is hard to put family first, though he tries. His wife, Sara, has a diminished sense of her own identity and importance as the rabbi’s attention is always compromised by his calling.

Their eight year old son, Ben, is plagued by being defined as “the rabbi’s son,” while the young twins are not yet ready to feel so burdened.

Sara’s solution, for herself and for the relationship, is to move beyond being the rabbi’s almost invisible wife. She is drawn to the idea of the quasi-official role of rebbetzin, an active “first lady” of her husband’s congregation – a spiritual counselor to and leader of the women. But she is not fully prepared for important aspects of the role, and husband David is far from enthusiastic. Her well-meant initiative is bringing more strife rather than bringing them more closely together.

While this issue creates an important plot line in the novel, the overriding one is the series of threats that have come to Rabbi Cohen’s good friend, Batya Zahav, the female Reform Rabbi of Temple Shalom. The verbal assaults, which come by letter, by phone message, and by email, are extremely frightening. As they become more and more intense, local law enforcement has a reason to investigate and protect Rabbi Zahav.

She is, as one might expect, a woman who needs to feel in control. It is not like her to request or accept protection. Yet more and more she is forced into that position. The danger is real, and she has the mixed blessing – in this situation – of being married to Israel-born police sergeant Arik Zahav.



Author Galyan skillfully balances attention to her different plot lines, along the way providing a detailed portrait of Rabbi Cohen’s daily work. A continuing issue threaded through this tapestry is an unmarried congregant’s request for some fairly significant changes to make single members more welcome and more engaged in congregational life. Like most congregations, the one led by Rabbi Cohen is family oriented, and singles almost always feel out of place.

Batya calls David about her hate mail even before she tells her husband. She is reluctant to tell Arik, or to make a “big deal” out of it, because she fears he will go overboard in attacking this problem. Soon, Batya’s problem is David’s, and he is drawn away from his routine to assist her in thinking matters through. More and more, the frightening messages paint her as someone evil who needs to be destroyed. Is it because she is a Jew? A Jewish woman? A Jewish woman rabbi? Is it simple anti-Semitism or something else?

Interfaith relations goals bring David to speak at a Lutheran church. He presents himself as a “religious Jew” surrounded, at this time of the year (Chanukah) with the gift-giving rituals of Christmas and the smiling “Merry Christmas” that he finds so upsetting. He explains, using the Chanukah story, why this is such an uneasy time for most Jews – a challenge to their identity and values. He describes the enormous pressure to distort Chanukah into a Christmas wannabe.

He makes a plea for continued dialogue so that the various neighboring religious communities can learn the “intentions, motivations, and aspirations” of the others. David’s talk goes fairly well, though he does receive some rude responses. The issue of majority insensitivity is reinforced when, as they do every year, Sara’s Christian paternal grandparents send Christmas cards.

Galyan leaves it for the reader to link (or not) David’s experience in the church and the hate mail that Batya has been receiving. Soon, she is “gifted” a dead mouse and then a doll that looks like Batya with a bullet hole in its head. Such harassment and intimidation brings more aggressive police action.

The author introduces a third rabbi. The Cohens’ friends, Rabbi Eli and his wife Bev, visit during Chanukah. Eli was David’s rabbinical school classmate and they have remained close ever since – though David’s pulpit is in Washington state. Eli joins the team effort to comfort and aid Rabbi Zahav and her husband. He also serves most usefully as confidant and exemplary counselor for David. Eli temporary fills the bill of the local “rabbi’s rabbi” that he insists David – and every rabbi – should seek.

Sara’s friend and confidant is Talia Friedman, the wife of a rabbi who teaches at several local universities. She tells Sara about the network of rebbetzins and how they help each other to develop the attitudes and skills to succeed.

Halfway through the novel, Chanukah begins. The following chapters intensify Galyan’s portrait of Jewish family and community life. We appreciate the Cohens’ hosting efforts, learn from their visitors how to be good guests and not pests, and savor the special character of a Shabbat meal. We see David interact with a potential convert, hear him give a sermon, and respect his adroit way of working with synagogue staff and occasionally troublesome lay leaders.

The police investigation of Batya’s fearful dilemma takes a surprising turn (involving yet another rabbi), and as it moves toward a resolution, so do the novel’s other concerns: Sara’s need to define herself, David’s need to find balance in his life, and the Jewish community’s needs to enhance its relationships with other religious groups.

Sheyna Galyan offers a sophisticated blend of insight and entertainment; suitably complex, flawed, and yet commendable characters; well-developed action and suspense; and an authoritative rendering of synagogue-centered Jewish life. This is a very fine book group selection and teaching text.

This review appears in the September 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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Maryland’s Eastern Shore remains fertile ground for exciting series

The Tempest, by James Lilliefors. Witness Impulse. 416 pages. Trade paperback $11.99.

This new addition to the Bowers and Hunter mystery series, properly promoted, is going to gain James Lilliefors a huge chunk more of the readers his work deserves.

Walter Kepler, in the big leagues of fine art dealers, has a plan. It involves a lot of money (millions) changing hands and a stolen Rembrandt changing hands as well. But the final stage of the transfer is a secret – a secret that will seem like a miracle when it is revealed. To accomplish his ends, he needs the help of contractor and land developer Nicholas Champlain; an assassin named Belasco; and Jacob Weber, Kepler’s lawyer and confidante. TheTempest.Jpeg

Nick Champlain and his attractive, much younger wife Susan had rented a place in Tidewater County for the summer, leading a very private life. Mostly, Susan was around by herself, not quite fitting in, but attending the Methodist church where Luke Bowers was pastor. To Luke’s wife Charlotte, Susan seemed troubled. In confidence, Susan tells Luke that her marriage has become difficult. Nick is keeping tabs on her, and making threatening statements.

They’d had a dreadful argument over a photograph Susan had taken. She also reveals that he seems to be involved in a sensitive, clandestine project, something he can’t talk about – but the implication is that the photograph could put the project at risk. Luke wishes to be helpful, but before long Susan is found dead.

Luke’s good friend, State Police Homicide Detective Amy Hunter, is only marginally involved in the investigation until enough facts turn up to label it a homicide. Then it’s her case.



Or is it? Before long, the FBI is involved, but the FBI is concerned with building a case against Walter Kepler, who has been a suspect in international art theft crimes for many years. The FBI agent who pushes his way into Amy’s investigation heads a special art theft division. He seems to have an obsessive grudge against Kepler. The county sheriff also is a thorn in Amy’s side.

Still, she holds her own, aided by a supportive boss and some inside information from her ex-boyfriend, who happens to be an FBI agent. However, her major support comes through her two competent subordinates and – of course – Parson Luke. Luke is her necessary sounding board and moral yardstick.

As Kepler pursues his miracle and Amy pursues Susan Champlain’s killer, readers get a well-drawn overview of the Middle Atlantic region. Places, people, and events in and around Philadelphia become important to the investigation. Author Lilliefors handles the multiple settings and the transit from one to another with masterful skill. . . .


To read the entire review, as it appears in the August 19, 2015 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the August 20 Naples, Bonita Springs, and Punta Gorda / Port Charlotte editions, click here:  Florida Weekly – The Tempest

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“Vixen: A Nameless Detective Novel,” by Bill Pronzini

  • Forge. 224 pages. $24.99.

Imagine “La Belle Dame sans Merci” reborn in San Francisco noir.

Bill Pronzini must have a closetful of mystery-writer awards. His “Nameless Detective” series has been acclaimed by just about every contemporary or newcomer in the field. Individual titles have also won prestigious awards. Vixen, the 44th in the series (and an expansion of his 2012 limited-edition novella, Femme), justifies all the accolades he has received since launching his career in 1971.

Pronzini has a quiet, plain, and yet infectious style. His plot is complex but easy enough to follow without leafing backward. He holds his readers with his art of penetrating character development and redolent atmospherics. Pronzini makes an easy read seem easy to write, but it can’t be when his novel is so totally satisfying and hauntingly noir.

“Nameless” (hereafter known as Bill in this review, as he is in the novel) is engaged by the stunningly beautiful, erotically charged Cory Beckett — a control freak who knows how to get what she wants. And what she wants from Bill and his detective agency is for them to find her missing younger brother, Ken. Arrested for having stolen an expensive necklace from his wealthy employer’s wife, a terrified Ken has left town rather than face trial.

Jake Runyon, who works for Bill’s agency, tracks him down. Ken is nearly out of control with fear of being tried and found guilty, but fear of his sister’s displeasure is even greater. Femme fatale Cory lies about everything to achieve her ends, but uses the promise or reality of super sex to blind her male victims (or simply make truthfulness irrelevant to them).

It’s not immediately clear if she wants to protect her brother from the theft charges or sacrifice him to spare herself from prosecution. Ken isn’t a druggie, but Cory claims he’s an addict to explain his unstable, erratic behavior, which actually results from his crippling dependence on her.

Cory lines up lovers and potential husbands only to satisfy her greed for wealth and power. As the mistress of yachtsman and political power player Andrew Vorhees, she might wait for his separation from his wife to turn into divorce — or she might make him available as a husband some other way. And she can use the spell she’s cast over packing-materials manufacturer Frank Chaleen, already “in bed” with her effort to frame Ken for the theft, and take further and faster steps to riches.

To say too much about the complications of the plot is to give too much away. Clearly, Cory is not a client for long, and the efforts of Bill and Jake turn more and more toward blocking her schemes and saving her potential victims, especially the beleaguered Ken. . . .

To read the entire review, click here for Washington Independent Review of Books posting: Vixen: A Nameless Detective Novel | Washington Independent Review of Books

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A tale told about idiots, full of sound and fury, signifying plenty

Arms and the Dudes: How Three Stoners from Miami Beach Became the Most Unlikely Gunrunners in History, by Guy Lawson. Simon & Schuster. 288 pages. Hardcover $27.95.

Yes, out of Miami Beach three barely-employable young men in their early twenties found a way to satisfy U. S. government emergency requirements for masses of military weapons to support the war in Afghanistan. Guy Lawson has done a miraculous job of digging up all the details; profiling the personalities; and finding both the horror and absurd comedy of their strange adventure. I’m already waiting for the movie and trying to cast my own version. The Warner Brothers version will star Jonah Hill and Miles Teller. Director? Todd Phillips of “The Hangover” films. ArmsandtheDudes

How do you win a $300 million Defense Department contract for arms and ammunition? Well, you’d better have made a darn low bid, especially since no one in the procurement chain has ever heard of you. With the bravado of ignorance and the lift of marijuana, Efraim Diveroli was able to learn, in a frenetic race, just how to fill out the proposal, how to find the goods, and how to get them delivered. Each step was a nightmare of complications, wrong turns, and unbelievable recoveries.

And Albania was munitions central. This corruption-riddled nation, awaiting NATO membership, was the place where the desired goods, primarily decades old Communist bloc surplus ammunition for the AK-47 rifle – ubiquitous throughout former Soviet client states – could be found. So could the layers of middlemen. The wheeling and dealing between the dudes and the private and governmental agents in Albania provide many of the high points of this suspenseful and blazingly colorful narration.

However, Diveroli and his two cohorts at AEY (the company Diveroli headed) had to somehow get around the problem that during these years there was a ban on the purchase of Chinese-made arms. Repackaging the munitions and removing traces of Chinese manufacture – plus the fact that the American military was winking at the ban anyway – made it possible for AEY to meet – or almost meet – its astounding contract.

Lawson photo by Franco Vogt

Lawson photo by Franco Vogt

Repackaging was also a means of lowering the weight to be flown to Kabul and thus lower AEY’s costs as is intermediaries, both legitimate and not, kept finding ways of taking larger slices of the potential profits.

For the sake of propping up the client armies of Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States military establishment ran a covert gunrunning operation that made deals with a wide range of illegal and ill-prepared private dealers. It is only slightly ironic that bills encouraging small business bidding on government contracts opened the door for schemers like the totally inexperienced Diveroli to get a foot in. . . .

To read the full review, as it appears in the August 12, 2015 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the August 13 Naples and Bonita Springs editions, click here:  Florida Weekly – Lawson

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“Run You Down,” by Julia Dahl

  • Minotaur Books. 304 pages. Hardcover $24.99.

This page-turner of a mystery, set in an ultra-orthodox Jewish community, brings a mother and daughter together at last.

It would be hard for author Julia Dahl to match the impact of her novel from last year, Invisible City, let alone provide a fresh experience with a story that mines a similar milieu: the mysterious death of a woman in New York’s Hasidic community. However, she has done it — in part by having left the door open for a continuation of the earlier work’s underplot: a young woman’s quest to find the mother who abandoned her as a baby.
One would suspect that Run You Down was in development even before Invisible City was published. In the later book, tabloid stringer Rebekah Roberts, a half-Jewish woman raised in Florida by her Christian father, Brian, has taken a step up the ladder at the New York Tribune. She’s doing rewrite, an indoor job, rather than chasing around the city investigating possible stories. Rebekah is also fighting a severe bout of depression in the aftermath of her first major assignment.

Her roommate, Iris, is pushing her to get help.Rebekah meets with her friend Saul, a retired policeman and the one person of her acquaintance (besides her father) who’d known Aviva, her mother. Aviva had contacted Saul about possibly getting in touch with her daughter. Saul passed on the message, but Rebekah’s nerve failed when it came to picking up the phone; too much fear and anger, too many unknowns.While wrestling with this problem, which is pulling her into a dangerous withdrawal state,

Rebekah agrees to meet Levi, a man from the Haredi (extreme orthodox) world. Levi’s young wife, Pessie, has recently died, but he suspects something has gone wrong with the investigation of her death. (Echoing the circumstances in Invisible City, Pessie was rushed to the funeral home without an autopsy being done.)Levi can’t find out how she died . . .

Read the entire review at: Run You Down | Washington Independent Review of Books

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A landslide buries secrets in new Ryder Creed K-9 thriller

Silent Creed, by Alex Kava. Putnam. 336 pages. Hardcover $26.95.

If you missed the opening title in this powerful new series, catch up by plunging right into this one. The action is nonstop, the suspense is wound tight, and the concerns of the plot, while they go back in time, are extremely timely.  JacketSILENTCREED

Ryder has come to the scene of a huge landslide in North Carolina. A search and rescue dog trainer, his task is to set his animals on the trail of any people who might be buried and to save whomever can be found alive. Ms. Kava’s ability to smoothly blend fascinating details about this rescue process into her narrative is not the least of her skills.

Time is the enemy when people are buried in the mud and cannot extricate themselves. In fact, readers are not far into the story when Ryder himself almost becomes a victim of the continuing bad weather, especially the torrential flooding and the unsure footing.  Surprisingly, Ryder just barely dominates this novel, as he is on several occasions unconscious or physically compromised. Fortunately, there are other major characters who hold our interest.

One of these is Ryders’s acquaintance, FBI agent Maggie O’Dell, who is sent to be the eyes on the spot for the civilian security establishment. The man she should report to, Logan, who served with Ryder in Afghanistan, is rarely to be found as matters get worse and worse. Sparks of attraction will fly between Ryder and Maggie, but will anything ignite?

Jason, Ryder’s assistant, is another well-crafted and highly original character. An amputee because of a war injury, Jason – like Ryder – must deal with PTSD and anger management to work effectively in society. His job with Ryder’s dog training enterprise is an opportunity to prove himself.

Alex Kava photo Deborah Groh Carlin

Alex Kava photo Deborah Groh Carlin

Nature can be hell, but as Ms. Kava makes clear, it is the human factor that is most demonic.

Guess what has been buried by the landslide. I’m counting . . . oh, you’ll never guess. It’s a secret government research facility charged with preparing to defend against chemical and biological warfare. Naturally, this means it has on hand the instruments of death for which antidotes must be developed. This facility, one of many spread around the country, does its work without clear oversight.

Rescuers discover that one of the recovered scientists died ahead of the landslide – shot. Is the landslide a literal cover-up for murder? A happy accident for people who have a lot to hide? Will more victims of murder be found entombed in mud?

To read the entire review, as it appears in the August 5, 2015 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the August 6 Naples and Bonita Springs editions, click here: Florida Weekly – Silent Creed

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