Monthly Archives: December 2015

Terrorist plot to revive mothballed nuclear missile drives high-powered thriller

Sanibel author applies a fresh premise to the old race-against-time plot

Pursuit of the Weapon from Hell, by William Hallstead. BluewaterPress LLC. 214 pages. Trade paperback $17.95.

Set in the 1990s, some years after the First Gulf War, Mr. Hallstead’s Doomsday techno-thriller is a real nail-biter. Based on abandoned U. S. nuclear weapon plans from the 1950s, his novel imagines a cadre of Islamic terrorists discovering the location of the relic hardware and transporting it to an Air Force base in Tucson Arizona – then relocating it to a site in nearby Mexico where a launch base is constructed (disguised as an oil-drilling operation) and the warheads are installed.  PURSUIT_cover

One of Mr. Hallstead’s many achievements is his presentation of the technology, making it convincing and accessible. We learn, as well, why the U. S. had abandoned this program – called Project Pluto – for a reason that is irrelevant to those who have now stolen it and intend to aim it toward Los Angeles.

Mr. Hallstead employs the tried and true technique of alternating perspectives to build his suspenseful plot. This alternation, by and large, consists of bad guy scenes (the terrorists) and good guy scenes (the U. S. military personnel who attempt to thwart the terrorist scheme). It’s the old race-against-time plot applied to a fresh premise.

Chief among the villains is “the man from Khash,” Sayyid Zul-Junnah. He is a hulking fellow and a true Jihad believer who commands stridently and micromanages desperately. Zul-Junnah’s hate for the Great Satan stems from U. S. support of the Pahlavi regime in Iran. This proud militant is in regular conflict with his mission’s construction chief, Nasr Ilahi.



Chief among the protagonists is Steve Gammon, a reserve Air Force captain promoted, for this mission, to lieutenant colonel. He is at the bottom of a chain of command headed by Brigadier General Oliver Madden, who has charged Major Pete Pappas with discovering who stole the Project Pluto remains, why, and for what reason. Pappas recommends Gammon as the agent of action.

The author builds Gammon into a courageous, skilled, and fully sympathetic character who pursues his responsibility with cleverness and fortitude. He is assigned a partner, the attractive Air Force Captain Laura Gorcy, whose intelligence skills exceed his own. The two pose as a married couple on a Mexican vacation in the Hermosillo area. The tension between them, as well as the attraction, is palpable.

Just how and when will the adversaries collide?

To read the entire review, as it appears in the December 30, 2015 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the December 31 Naples, Bonita Springs, Punta Gorda/Port Charlotte, and Palm Beach Gardens/Jupiter editions, click here: Florida Weekly – Hallstead

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“The Undoing,” by Averil Dean

MIRA. 288 pages. Trade paperback $11.99.

A close-knit trio of friends comes undone in this dark, suspenseful tale set on Colorado’s slopes.

What am I doing reviewing a book from an imprint that bills itself as having “the brightest stars in women’s fiction”? Hey, if Lee Child could offer such strong praise for a novelist’s work, I had to give it a chance. I’m glad I did. Dean’s new offering, The Undoing — which follows Alice Close Your Eyes in 2013 — is a dazzler.

To my mind, it’s not “chick lit” at all. Though certainly the work of an extremely talented woman writing primarily for women, this psychological thriller crosses the line into literary fiction. Stylistically and structurally, it is a mind-bending and mind-opening experience. There is little “feel-good” here, rather a mountainside filled with pain and understanding.


Structurally, Dean puts together a backward walk from disaster to its genesis. In the tiny town of Jawbone Ridge, Colorado — near fabled Telluride — a trio of young adults has been murdered. Essentially, they have turned on each other after a short lifetime of living together intimately in almost every way one can imagine.

No, we do not enter at the time or the scene of the murders, but years later, we look over the shoulder of Julian Moss, a once-renowned skier who had been inside the same circle as the core trio. He has been drawn back to the Blackbird Hotel, which was the enterprise and home of the people who died there. From this scene, set in 2014, Julian leaps to his death after re-reading a note that has haunted him for years: “Julian — I know what you did.”

Averil Dean

Averil Dean

The note is from Celia, the central and most elusive figure in the novel. Raised with her action-oriented stepbrother, Rory, she formed an eerie symbiosis with him from childhood that turned stressful and dangerous in their teen and young adult years. The relationship was complicated by the third partner, Rory’s best friend, Eric. Eric, more an intellectual type, loved both Celia and Rory in complex ways.

These friends, a holy trinity of some sort — and ultimately an unholy one — were also competitors, vying for dominance through need and manipulation. The young men were lured to participate in Celia’s vision of owning and operating the Blackbird Hotel. Celia’s esthetic stamp is on the furnishings and decoration. Eric’s money allows her vision to be realized. Rory supplies the construction skills needed for repairs and improvements.

The three, for a while, live Celia’s dream. In 2009, the fulcrum year of The Undoing, disaster befalls their relationship.

As the note suggests, Julian had upset their equilibrium. His negative momentum took the small chinks in the ties between the three mutual lovers and widened them. They had something he needed to be part of, but couldn’t.

After introducing the fatal year of 2009, the author takes us several steps backward in time. Scenes set in 2008 help us understand 2009. A late 2007 scene presents the beginning of a relationship between Celia and Julian, who is considerably older than the other three. July 2007 includes Eric’s purchase of the Blackbird Hotel on behalf of himself, Celia, and Rory.

Then the narrative plummets backward to 2003.

You get the idea.

All along the way, Dean examines the ineffectual parenting and the destructive blood relationships in which the members of the trio were raised. These configurations are central to a dizzying interplay of causes and effects: tendencies, blocking forces, and outcomes. . . .

To read the entire review, click here: The Undoing | Washington Independent Review of Books

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Hospice movement finds its champion in Shawn McKelvie

Bed 39, by Shawn Maureen McKelvie. CreateSpace. 220 pages. Trade paperback $15.00. Available online from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Mix features of paranormal fiction with medical history and you get “Bed 39,” where the spirits of the deceased hang out and the story of the hospice movement is revealed. It’s a strange combination, perhaps “unique” is a better descriptor. Somehow it works. At once romantic, upbeat, and weird, Ms. McKelvie’s novel has spiritual grace and a gritty cast of mostly believable characters.



The bed itself, housed when we first enter the author’s world in a decaying St. Louis hospital, is a kind of way-station for the terminally ill. It’s a place with special powers.

Our main narrating character is Tomas Kaminski, a young man whose boyhood in St. Louis (Dogtown neighborhood) is quickly sketched before we find out about the terminal cancer that brings him, as a young man, to Bed 39. He is its first inhabitant. It is a special bed donated by the hospice campaigner Dr. Cicely Saunders, a courageous British woman about whom readers learn much more.

Bed 39 has special properties. It’s a place where spirits hover and may be heard and seen by those recent Bed 39 residents transitioning to the hereafter. Tomas has such a visitor, the spirit of a man named David Tasma who tells him about Cicely Saunders, the woman whose outrage about the suffering and mistreatment of terminal patients led her to do something about it. The first thing she does is obtain the education and credentials she needs to energize the hospice movement.

While there is a good deal of solemnity and sadness in the narrative, there is also much joy and instances of deep, unconditional love.

The stories of those who have passed through the Bed 39 experience are often heart-warming stories of strong family bonds. Tomas’s Polish-Irish family history is delightfully presented, as is his late near-romance with a woman named Mia who becomes a nurse at the hospital. Their corporeal relationship is cut short by Tomas’ death, but their ethereal, eternal togetherness is assured.


Weaving in and out of those tales is information about the development of the compassionate care concept and the hospice movement. Readers learn about the special people who were founders or major promotors of this movement. Ms. McKelvie’s authorial mission, in part, is to advocate support for further enhancement of hospice care, even to the point of creating hospices for pets. The author understands that caring for the terminally ill is a true specialty that calls for well-trained medical professionals who can help patients and their families cope with death’s inevitability and ease the journey.

My favorite character in the book is Nurse Libby, whose career of three decades gets detailed attention. Though there are some rough edges in her manner, she is still an exemplary figure whose dedication knows no bounds. She is a problem solver, an astute manager of her subordinates, and a woman whose sometimes brusque manner reveals a heart of gold. She leads by example. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the December 24, 2015 Naples Florida Weekly, click here: Florida Weekly – McKelvie 1  and here: Florida Weekly – McKelvie 2

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Fledgling capitalism breeds violent crime in post-communist Russia

Hotel Moscow, by Talia Carner. William Morrow. 464 pages. Trade paperback $14.99.

The great Russian playwright Anton Chekhov was the master of “arrival and departure” dramatic structure, used most effectively in “The Cherry Orchard.”. This design, which puts a frame around the action, is used to good advantage by Ms. Carner in her probing and penetrating novel set in the bewildering post-Soviet era. Seven days in the early fall of 1993 are all we get, but it’s amazing how much insight, compassion, and high-stakes action is crammed into that week between the main character’s arrival and departure. HotelMoscow_PB_C

The old habits of Communist rule are very much alive, and there is no viable political or legal structure in place yet to contain and direct the nascent capitalist strivings and the wished-for individual freedoms that are the glory of western democracies. There is still heavy-handed, repressive rule — now too often going hand in hand with aggressive Mafioso entrepreneurs. Brute force and extortion trump bright ideas and advanced, fair models of doing business. Fear and instability thrive.

Brooke Fielding, an attractive thirty-eight year old American executive, is with a team of similarly successful women on a mission to bring their know-how to the aspiring businesswomen of a bumbling and stumbling Russia. The child of Holocaust survivors, Brooke has spent a lifetime trying to rid herself of their habits and conditioned emotions of mistrust, paranoia, secretiveness, and smoldering rage. She refuses to make her life’s mission one of justifying their suffering through her success and her personal decisions.

When she realizes that she has entered a literal war zone, as President Yeltsin and the Russian parliament vie for power, and when she sees the stricken faces of the vulnerable women she hopes to help, Brooke begins to understand her parents’ lives of never-ending anxiety. In the process of truly identifying with the courage of the down-trodden, Brooke reshapes and strengthens her Jewish identity.



In the Hotel Moscow, everything is drab and out of date. Everyone who works there is on the take. An ordinary request requires a bribe. There is no real hospitality culture. Yet most of the women who came to Moscow with Brooke try to make the best of it, even though their mission seems to have been sabotaged in advance. Indeed, even though one of the women whose business is on their agenda has had that business devastated by hooligans in league with corrupt government officials.

If you don’t pay, you can’t play – and the inchoate power structure can take it away. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the December 16, 2015 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the December 17 Naples, Bonita Springs, and Punta Gorda / Port Charlotte editions, click here: Florida Weekly – Hotel Moscow

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“Hidden Inheritance: Family Secrets, Memories, and Faith,” by Heidi B. Neumark

Abingdon Press. 240 Pages. Trade paperback $19.99.

Heidi B. Neumark is a Lutheran pastor, community activist, and author who has served congregations in the Bronx and in Manhattan. She is also, as she discovered by chance, the grandchild of Jewish grandparents and the child of a father who never spoke to her or anyone else about their family’s Jewish roots.

Heidi B. Neumark

Heidi B. Neumark

Pastor Neumark, with her spiritual and intellectual propensities, might be Rabbi Neumark today if not for her grandparents’ decision, a decision no doubt made to insure their own and their children’s survival along with countless other Jews who felt forced to deny their Jewish identity, converted to one or another Christian faith, and cut off lines of Jewish descendants for all time. Yet in spite of this attempt, many Neumarks were Holocaust victims. When Neumark’s twenty-two-year-old daughter called with news that her search for Neumark family history turned up information on the influential Jewish Neumarks of Lübeck, Germany, Heidi Neumark’s world changed. . . .

To read the entire review, as found on the Jewish Book Council web site, click here: Hidden Inheritance: Family Secrets Memories and Faith by Heidi B. Neumark | Je

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A coffee-table tome covers the cottages and castles of Naples

Naples Beach Homes: Cottages, Castles, and the Families That Built Them, by Robert and Carole Leher. Cuddy Cove Press. 252 pages. Oversized hardcover $65.00.

This nearly five pound book is many things at once. It is a glorious homage to the spirit of Naples and the enterprise and good taste of its residents. It is a well-scribed, delightful history of the once-sleepy little Gulf Coast town. It is a huge and astounding color gallery of vintage and recent photographs and – more amazingly – paintings by Paul Arsenault, the man who could be called the painter laureate of Naples.  distiller_6

It is also a fundraiser, as the Lehers have determined to donate all net proceeds from the book to the Naples Historical Society.

It will be a collector’s item and, I’m sure, a popular holiday gift.

While I’m enjoying a copy from the second printing, a confident run of 2,000, I understand that a third printing has already been ordered for January delivery.

The book, which focuses on residences in two adjacent communities – Port Royal and the Gulf Shore Boulevard environs – tells and shows a story of families and generations. It’s fascinating to discover how an address has been attached to several residences, passed from one owner to another. Sometimes the successive owners have honored the original design; on other occasions they have begun anew. Changes in style and size mark the comings and goings of original builders, relative newcomers, and returnees who had left Naples but just had to come back. Or perhaps their children or grandchildren made the return.

The Lehers

The Lehers

Often, though I won’t namedrop here, we discover the prestigious accomplishments of neighborhood residents, both before and during their Naples sojourns. It’s a who’s who, to be sure. The authors do a fine job of describing distinctive, colorful personalities; capturing in words the special architectural details of note; and giving a sense not only of individual homes and families but also the larger picture of community evolution.

In fact, it’s clear that they envisioned this project as a safeguard against the disappearance of what has made these neighborhoods special. What’s special is lovingly preserved in this handsome book.

Nostalgia is mixed with an upbeat, even whimsical tone that is captured well in many of the chapter titles: “From Coconuts to Easter Eggs,” “The Friends That Made Milwaukee Famous,” “Off to the Mad House,” “Once Just a Fish Camp,” and “A Contract on a Cocktail Napkin” are invitations to charming tales packed with information. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the December 9, 2015 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the December 10 Naples, Bonita Springs, and Palm Beach Gardens / Jupiter editions, click here: Florida Weekly – Naples Beach Homes

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“Hannah Arendt: A Life in Dark Times,” by Anne C. Heller

At once concise and thorough, Anne C. Heller’s achievement in this carefully focused biography and appraisal makes the case for the good short book. The skillful compression of facts, contexts, and impact allows for a great feeling of kinetic energy. It is a book that, like its subject, feels ready to explode.  A_Life_in_Dark_Times

Heller’s point of attack is the publication and immediate aftermath of Arendt’s most notorious book, Eichmann in Jerusalem—a wise and dramatically effective choice. Demystifying the arch-villain into an unimaginative functionary, Arendt formulated the term “the banality of evil” to suggest that the monster within people like Eichmann is marked by an astounding ordinariness. The publication outraged Arendt’s admirers, including a large swath of the intellectual Jewish community, and sent this major woman thinker—who always felt herself an outcast—into a degree of social and occupational exile that was painful and perplexing.

This outsider perspective was in part the product of Arendt’s Jewish identity, a facet of her being that underwent several transformations, each treated by Heller with good sense and sensitivity. . . .

To read the full review, click hereHannah Arendt: A Life in Dark Times by Anne C. Heller | Jewish Book Council

See also my interview with biographer Anne C. Heller: Interview with Anne C. Heller, Author of ‘Hannah Arendt: A Life in Dark Times’

Also see: Remaking the image of Adolph Eichmann’s Jerusalem trial | Phil Jason Reviews B

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Phil’s Top Picks 2015

philjason loves booksThe following titles, which I prefer to list without ranking them, are my top picks among those published in 2014-2015 that I reviewed during 2015. It would be easy to find room for another 5-6 fiction titles, but I’m staying with the top 12 selected.

Some years back, the nonfiction list was limited to a “top 8” because I reviewed far fewer nonfiction titles than fiction. That circumstance changed somewhat a few years ago when it became a top 10 list, and this year’s list for nonfiction is a “top 12,” matching an expanded fiction list.

The first two lists reflect my favorites among the trade publications that I reviewed. Separately, I’ve listed 4 self-published titles that seem to me especially worthy of notice.

The order in which the titles are listed has absolutely no significance.

FICTION [trade]

Alan Cheuse, Prayers for the Living

Michael Wiley, Second Skin

Ben Nadler, The Sea Beach Line

Jonathan Papernick, The Book of Stone

Robert N. Macomber, Assassin’s Honor

Alex Kava, Silent Creed

Joseph Kanon, Leaving Berlin

Steph Post, A Tree Born Crooked

James W. Hall, The Big Finish

Lisa Unger, Crazy Love You

Robert Levy, The Glittering World

Kim Michele Richardson, Liar’s Bench


Lyn Millner, The Allure of Immortality

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

Jonathan D. Sarna and Benjamin Shapel, Lincoln and the Jews: A History

Patrick McGilligan, Young Orson: The Years of Luck and Genius on the Path to Citizen Kane

Joseph Telushkin, Rebbe: The Life and Teachings of Menachem M. Schneerson, the Most Influential Rabbi in Modern History

Les Standiford, Water to the Angels: William Mulholland, His Monumental Aqueduct, and the Rise of Los Angeles

Patrick Bishop, The Reckoning: Death and Intrigue in the Promised Land

Peter Longerich, Goebbels: A Biography

Guy Lawson, Arms and the Dudes: How Three Stoners from Miami Beach Became the Most Unlikely Gunrunners in History

Norman J. W. Goda, Barbara McDonald Stewart, Severin Hochberg and Richard Breitman, eds., To the Gates of Jerusalem: The Diaries of James G. McDonald, 1945-1947

Anne C. Heller, Hannah Arendt: A Life in Dark Times

Heidi B. Neumark, Hidden Inheritance: Family Secrets, Memory, and Faith


Robert Lane, The Cardinal’s Sin

Kay Taylor Burnett, Ginger Quill

Mike Hirsh, Fly Unzipped

Barbara Marangon, Detour on an Elephant: A Year Dancing with the Greatest Show on


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Latest Stone Barrington novel purrs like a well-tuned dream machine

Foreign Affairs, by Stuart Woods. Putnam. 320 pages. Hardcover $27.95.

One reason you will turn these pages quickly is because of the high excitement level. Another is because the chapters are short and the spacing between lines is large. It’s easy on the eyes, just like the female characters that Mr. Wood conjures up. The 35th title in his Stone Barrington series, this outing shows the comfortable craft and audience knowledge of a pro who has published over 60 novels. ForeignAffairs_high-res

Unexpectedly, Stone is called to meet his business partners in Rome. While boarding the flight, he finds a beautiful young traveling companion who before long is a serious flirtation. Hedy Kiesler turns out to be the stepdaughter of a wealthy man with whom Stone does business. The flirtation continues until Hedy is kidnapped either for ransom or for leverage against Stone and his associates.

Italian mafia types do not want Stone’s people to put up a new luxury hotel without paying and paying and paying. Planned accidents and other threats and mishaps meant to interfere with the hotel construction lead to a nasty battle of wits and weapons. The major interference is a fire that practically destroys the building that Stone and his associates mean to remodel into the luxury hotel.

The plot is fashioned to exploit how and where the wealthy and fashionable travel and have fun. With and without Hedy, Stone’s situation takes him to Paris and to the Amalfi coast area. Lavish estates, gorgeous hotels, desirable automobiles, and sumptuous meals are normal in the circles in which Stone moves. He even has an exquisite private jet that he pilots himself. That sure helps out when you’re in a hurry.

What also helps, when things get sticky, is to be part owner of a premier security firm. Amazing how armed manpower and high tech gadgetry can open doors, assure safety, and get things done for you.



Mr. Woods creates a world in which such things are the Stone Barrington norm, though it’s hard for readers to be envious when they are taken on such an attractive trip. How does this work? By making Stone seem like a regular guy – which in many ways he is.

And yet, who else can travel and vacation with New York City’s police commissioner? Who else has buddies in the highest ranks of government? Even a president who will do him personal favors? Who else would or could encounter a Catholic Cardinal who wholeheartedly and with great force joins his fight against the highest echelons of Italian mobsters?

Who else would be able to get the meaningful cooperation of Italian law enforcement, so often susceptible to being bought out by the criminal overlords? . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the December 2, 2015 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the December 3 Naples, Fort Myers, Punta Gorda/Port Charlotte, and Palm Beach/West Palm Beach editions, click here: Florida Weekly – Woods

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“Young Orson: The Years of Luck and Genius on the Path to Citizen Kane,” by Patrick McGilligan

  • Harper, 832 pp.  Hardcover $40.00.

A delightfully readable, masterfully researched biography about one of film’s most notable names.

In his giant book about a cultural giant, Young Orson, author Patrick McGilligan provides an abundantly detailed examination into how a precocious youngster from Kenosha, Wisconsin, reached an improbable pinnacle of fame by the age of 25.

To understand the spectacular rise of young Orson Welles, McGilligan embeds his subject in concentric rings of several environments: his family, his town, his schooling, and even his country as it moved from the heights of prosperity, plummeted into the Depression, and then, eventually, rebounded.

He reveals the boy’s special opportunities and his readiness to seize them. Welles was a theatrical being from the beginning, a fellow whose voice, articulation, height, appearance, and quickness to learn what he needed to learn made him a large figure in the initially small arenas of his life — and he remained large as the arenas became more and more significant and filled with greater challenges. Welles always admired magicians, and in his own way he was one: an illusionist and escape artist. He could project himself greatly, take big risks, and usually get out of trouble.

His luck involved being educated at the Todd School for Boys in Woodstock, Illinois, where his genius was quickly recognized — just as it had been previously in Kenosha and Chicago. He arrived at Todd in 1926, and it was his principal home for five years, through 10th grade graduation. Under the forbearing tutelage of headmaster Roger Hill (one of Orson’s several surrogate fathers and later an important friend), he became an adept all-purpose “man of the theatre.” The busy theater schedule at Todd was astounding, and Orson was the heart and soul of it. He also edited and wrote for school publications.

Finishing high school? Going to college? Considered, of course, but a genius had better follow his genius, and his luck. Orson’s schooling including summer travels abroad — most importantly a sojourn in Ireland during 1931-1932 during which he painted (what couldn’t he do?) and hooked on with the Gate Theatre in Dublin. For teenager Welles, this was his college and perhaps also his graduate school. He became a professional.

McGilligan’s treatment of these stages in Orson’s development offers not mere chronologies, but carefully crafted explorations of places and times, replete with detailed character studies, what’s going on around the fast-developing tyro, and evocations of cultural ambiance.

When Welles returned to the U.S., he was quickly reunited with Roger Hill and given a job as drama coach for Todd School productions. However, as was so often the case throughout his meteoric career, he was also the designer of costumes and settings, the player of many parts, and the script editor. Seventeen-year-old Orson’s efforts led to a prestigious regional drama award for the Todd Troupers.

By now, the Great Depression was devastating the economy, particularly the always economically challenged fine and performing arts. For Welles, it was time to move to New York and join Actors’ Equity. He even tried to sell a dramatic script. Orson struggled, now more than ever dependent on the generosity of his other surrogate father (and guardian after Orson’s father died), Dr. Maurice Bernstein. As was always the case, the impressive young man managed to meet influential people at just the right time, make his impression, and demonstrate — like the Houdini he admired — his magic blend of genius and luck. . . .

To read the full review, posted November 26, 2015, click on: Young Orson | Washington Independent Review of Books

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