Monthly Archives: March 2016

Islamic terrorism looms large in thriller plot that threatens series protagonists

Mortal Dilemma, by H. Terrell Griffin. Oceanview Publishing. 400 pages. Hardcover $27.95.

The Matt Royal Mystery series keeps getting better and better. Mr. Griffin continues to develop his major characters, not merely to repeat them. They gain shading, complication, and significance. Plot complications proliferate, building intrigue, suspense, and relevance to contemporary events. This time around, readers will encounter a despondent and nearly suicidal Jock Algren, a Jihadist cell, and major threats to the life of both Matt Royal and his lover, the attractive Detective J. D. Duncan. The author renders his settings vividly and scrupulously. MortalDilemmahigh-res

Having committed one too many assassinations in the service of his country, and haunted by what has become of the young boys whose father and other relatives had died by his hand on assignment in the Middle East, special agent Jock Algren is a basket case of grief. A major aspect of the novel involves whether he will get his special brand of mojo back. Or whether he should.

Jock is already a target for both torture and assassination. Those two boys have grown up and the older one, Youssef,  is heading a radical Islamist squad whose plans to revenge themselves on Jock also includes wiping out his family – that is, his dearest friends Matt and D. J. Youssef wants Jock to witness their torture and death, just as they had witnessed him destroy their family years ago.

However, there is something else going on around Longboat Key that threatens Matt and J. D. A present case that J. D. is working on has reopened a cold case from three years back. There seems to be some kind of money connection. The dead woman’s brother is found to be on the island and their investigation heads in his direction. Perhaps he murdered her sister for inheritance and insurance gain, but he seems to have a reasonable argument against this motive. And then he turns up dead.



The fact that J. D. is on the case has put her in jeopardy. And that puts Matt in danger, too. Someone out there has something big to lose if exposed by this investigation. Guilty parties always fear that their secrets will be revealed by knowledgeable functionaries or accomplices. In this novel, it begins to look like a game of all fall down.

What, exactly, is at stake that makes so many murders necessary? How does this case connect, if it does, do the terrorists who are pursuing Jock for his actions in Aleppo, Syria? . . .

To read the entire review as it appears in the March 31, 2016 Naples Florida Weekly and the Punta Gorda/Port Charlotte edition, click here: Florida Weekly – Mortal Dilemma

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Phil’s Spring Review Schedule

Phil Jason loves books

Phil Jason loves books

Below you will find my intended schedule for the “Florida Writers” column in Florida Weekly. Two slots open in June — maybe you book will get one of them! The final decision, of course, rests with the editors of the various editions. Reviews also coming this spring in Washington Independent Review of Books, Jewish Book Council website, and Southern Literary Review. Check back often.

Stuart Woods

Stuart Woods

April 6/7 – Stuart Woods, “Family Jewels”

April 13/14 – Phil Beuth, “Limping on Water”
April 20/21 – Ian A. O’Connor, “The Wrong Road Home”

April 27/28 – Lisa Black, “That Darkness” 

Lisa Black

Lisa Black

May 4/5 – Marty Jourard, “Music Everywhere”
May 11/12 – M. A. Richards, “Choice of Enemies”
May 18/19 – Lucy Burdette, “Killer Takeout”
May 25/26 – D.J. Niko, “The Judgment”
June 1/2 – Lisa Unger, “Ink and Bone”

June 8/9 – Michael Wiley – “Black Hammock” 

Michael Wiley

Michael Wiley

June 15/16 – Howard P. Giordano – “The Second Target”
June 22/23 – TBD
June 29/30 – TBD

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“Rabbi USA” explored in ambitious, penetrating biography

Review by Philip K. Jason

Pillar of Fire: A Biography of Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, by A. James Rudin. Texas Tech University Press. 416 pages. Trade paperback $39.95.

Through the first half of the twentieth century, no one dominated the American Jewish cultural landscape like Rabbi Stephen S. Wise. Another rabbi with a distinguished career, A. James Rudin, has taken it upon himself to explain this phenomenon. He does so with abundant energy, exquisite detail, and a balanced view of his controversial subject. PillarofFirecover

Hungarian-born Wise (the family name originally spelled differently) was a rabbi’s son and something of a prodigy. His family moved to the United States when he was very young, imbued with the spirit of the European Jewish Haskalah (enlightenment movement), a spirit that informed young Stephen and sent him into the orbit of Reform Judaism in the United States. However, it was an uneasy fit. Though allied broadly with a liberal Jewish orientation, Wise attained his rabbinic ordination at a yeshiva in Vienna. He added to this a doctorate from Columbia University, where he had already earned his bachelor’s degree.

Handsome, strongminded, and with a powerful and engaging voice, as well as sterling oratorical skills, Rabbi Stephen (as Rudin frequently calls him) was soon recognized as a committed leader. His twin passions were social/political action and Zionism. Reform Judaism’s negative stance toward Zionism (which was eventually reversed) was the main factor in Wise’s need to build his own brand of liberal Judaism. For himself he sought influential pulpits and institutional roles that would allow him to make a difference in U. S social policy, in Jewish life, and in a future for the Jewish people in its own land.

Author Rudin meticulously takes us through the stepping stones of Wise’s ascent to power and influence over several decades. And he does much more than this. In fact, an alternative title for Rabbi Rudin’s book could be “Stephen S. Wise in His Time.” Just about every major episode in Wise’s life is set into the larger context of national and international events in which he played a role or had a stake.

Whether it’s the drama of Wise’s initial meeting with Theodore Herzl at the second Zionist Congress in Basel in 1898; his support for Woodrow Wilson and for the president’s call for a League of Nations; two decades later, his work as founder and senior rabbi at New York’s Free Synagogue (which stressed freedom of the pulpit); his conflicts with the Reform establishment; his founding of the American Jewish Congress and later the World Jewish Congress; his founding of the Jewish Institute of Religion (a seminary in his own image); his fierce outrage against Henry Ford’s anti-Semitism; or his energetic  support in 1928 for Al Smith for president, FDR for governor of New York, and Herbert Lehman for Lieutenant-Governor of New York, Rabbi Rudin elaborates the circumstances surrounding Wise’s role with abundant detail.

Some will say too much detail.  And that’s just to get us through the 1920s.

A. James Rudin

A. James Rudin

As Rabbi Wise’s celebrity grew (and his acquaintanceships with other celebrities), so did the demands on his time. Writes author Rudin, “During his career of fifty-six years, Stephen exhibited a zest for all things religious and political. Because he broadly defined those terms, his enthusiasm allowed him to become involved in almost every aspect of American society. He was a human version of today’s 911 emergency number: if there was a crisis, conflict, confrontation, or controversy, individuals and groups contact Rabbi Stephen Wise for help.” Rabbi Rudin illustrates Wise’s responses by quoting from a wide range of letters.

The 1930s and early to mid-1940s were extremely busy, strenuous years for Rabbi Wise: the Great Depression, World War II and The Holocaust, and the effort to create the modern Jewish State occupied his time and drained his stamina. Though he remained a major force, he was no longer a young man.

The central thread of these years was Wise’s troubled relationship with Franklin Delano Roosevelt – a man whom he praised early and often, but whose decisions and behavior Wise often found disappointing. Social activist Wise applauded the New Deal, but the president’s lack of leadership in blunting the growing horror of The Holocaust was more than merely perplexing. Rabbi Rudin’s nuanced treatment of the many interactions between these two giant figures is one of the book’s most engaging achievements.

Rabbi Rudin does not neglect to explore Stephen Wise the private citizen: the son, the husband, the father, the friend. However, in some ways the fellow who would inevitably receive any letter addressed to “Rabbi USA” remains a mystery. It’s as if his private and inner life was subsumed into his outer life.

Rabbi Rudin is aware of his subject’s faults, and doesn’t hesitate to reveal them. However, he doesn’t dwell on them. Rather, he keeps them in the perspective of Wise’s accomplishments. This biography is a splendid achievement both as a work of scholarship and as a piece of story-telling.

This review appears in the April 2016 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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A basketball wife shares her fascinating and entertaining story

Lynn Leon Loscutoff, Loscy & Me: The Artist & the Boston Celtics Legend, Jim Loscutoff, A Scrapbook/Memoir. CreateSpace. 246 pages. Oversized paperback $20.00.

This entertaining book has been out for a while, but it’s been hiding. So here’s why you should find it. Lynn Loscutoff’s memoir provides an insider look at the great Boston Celtics during their glory years. It gives the fascinating “wife’s eye view,” and in his Foreword Red Auerbach, the legendary coach of the Celtics, assures us that she portrayed the role of the athlete’s wife to perfection. It’s an enjoyable love story, and it’s also the story of an attractive, aspiring artist making her way in the world while tied to a basketball wife’s responsibilities.  Loscy-MeCover-1500px

It true is a scrapbook/memoir with dozens of fascinating photographs of the Celtics, the family, a bit of Lynn’s art, and their travels.

Written in a casual, personal style, Loscy and Me gives the feeling of being part of a group sitting around a table and hearing Lynn tell her stories.

When Jim Loscutoff, a college star at the University of Oregon, is drafted by the Boston Celtics, an adventure begins for the naïve couple. Lynn’s portrait of their new experiences – making a home in Boston and becoming part of the team culture – is vividly presented. Readers are reminded of the relative obscurity of the NBA in the early and mid-1950s. It was a league with only eight teams and a much smaller following than baseball, football, or even hockey.

The fact that Red Auerbach did not allow player’s wives to travel to away games put an immediate strain on the marriage, but it led Lynn to rely more and more on bonding with the other players’ wives. Her descriptions of their individual personalities and relationships are detailed and flavorful.

Lynn Loscuttof

Lynn Loscutoff

Jim’s role was to be extremely physical, to play hard defense, rebound, and pass to the star shooters. A good shooter himself and a scoring leader in college, Jim found the role frustrating, but that’s what the coach wanted. Soon enough, he relished in his persona as “Jungle Jim” and understood his place in the scheme. Auerbach was building a fast-break team of highly talented players, and Jim was fortunate to be part of it. He received good press and became one of the guys. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the March 23, 2016 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the March 24 Naples, Bonita Springs, Punta Gorda/Port Charlotte, and Palm Beach Garderns/Jupiter editions, click here: Florida Weekly – Loscutoff

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Doc Ford’s deadly assignment brings trouble to his island community

Deep Blue, by Randy Wayne White. Putnam. 336 pages. Hardcover $27.00.

Though we rarely see Doc Ford on one of his secret government assignments these days, one has come his way. He must, says his government handler, assassinate a madman who has reached the top of the most wanted terrorist list. A recent convert to Islam, Chicagoan David Abdel Cashmere, AKA Maximo Al-Amerikee, has been making a lot of trouble by heading people with his ruby-handled Persian knife and circulating videos of his slayings. A failed actor, he has now become a star. ISIS calls him its American Senior Operative and Video Advisor. cover_DEEPBLUE

Sound a bit over-the-top? Yes, and you’ll love it. Surreal, whacky, but darn scary and suspenseful, too.

Our hero, now in Mr. White’s 23rd Doc Ford adventure, packs up his tool kit and heads for a swanky resort near the ruins of ancient Tulum, on the Yucatan peninsula. After some preliminary surveillance and study, he meets his supposed contact, an attractive woman named KAT. Somewhat suspicious of her behavior, he sends her a message that the mission has been scrubbed and assesses her reaction.

From here on, Doc knows that there’s a game on that involves manipulating him, perhaps even substituting his assigned target for another. More than that, he discovers that his community on Sanibel Island is in jeopardy.

Two unusual occurrences threaten the Dinkin’s Bay Marina. One is the appearance of Hello Dolly, a great white shark that is at once a source of fear and a possible source of increased or collapsed tourism. The other is the appearance of two drones. Extremely well designed, they do not seem to be under the control of government agencies.

White - photo by Wendy Webb

White – photo by Wendy Webb

Other odd things happen. Some force (or someone) invades and captures Sanibel area cyberspace, taking over computers and other electronic devices in a show of power.

Soon enough, readers get to know the main villains. More about David Cashmere is revealed, and a grotesque pair – an estranged father and son of great intellect, wealth, and criminal intent – come into play. The father is Winslow Shepherd, whom Doc had seen in the company of KAT (conceivably a traitor or double agent). The son, Julian, is a madman whose derangement and genius far exceeds that of the Muslim terrorist. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the March 16, 2016 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the March 17 Naples, Bonita Springs, Punta Gorda/Port Charlotte, and Palm Beach Gardens/Jupiter editions, click here: Florida Weekly – Deep Blue

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“German Jewry and the Allure of the Sephardic,” by John M. Efron

Princeton University Press. 352 pages.  Hardcover $45.00.

Challenging, invigorating, and inspiring, Professor John M. Efron’s study opens up a swath of Jewish cultural history that is familiar to few scholars and fewer general readers. He is concerned, though he wouldn’t use such a formulation, with a special manifestation of Jewish self-hate as defined by its proposed remedy.

The setting is primarily Germany of the eighteenth and nineteenth century, the time of the European Jewish Enlightenment, a movement known as the Haskalah. Those most concerned are the Ashkenazi cultural and intellectual elite, the Maskilim. They fear association with the Poles and other Eastern European Jewish communities, considered coarse on several levels: physically, linguistically, intellectually, spiritually, and creatively.

John M. Efron

Reveling in a relatively liberal timewarp that seemed to promise acceptance into the high German mainstream, the Maskilim were at pains to capitalize on that possibility by reconstructing the image, and perhaps the reality, of Jews as individuals and as a civilization. They planned for a more dignified future by looking back to the glory days of Jewish achievement and status on the Iberian peninsula: the so-called Golden Age when Jews spoke well, looked attractive, had refined habits, and generally invited acceptance and admiration.

Efron neatly categorizes and exemplifies the concerns of these thinkers. Jews from Eastern Europe (or too many such Jews) seemed to be handicapped by ugliness in physiognomy and behavior. The Maskilim perceived an ugliness as well in the spoken languages of Yiddish and Ashkenazi Hebrew, so inferior to the crisp Sephardic soundings and rhythms. . . .

To read the full review as it appears on the Jewish Book Council website, click here:  German Jewry and the Allure of the Sephardic | Jewish Book Council

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Luxury wristwatch helps connect the dots in Connelly thriller

The Crossing, by Michael Connelly. Little, Brown. 400 pages. Hardcover $28.00.

Those who follow the Harry Bosch series know that Bosch has been forced into retirement and is fighting the way it was done. He’s bitter, at loose ends, and needs something to occupy his time and his talents. Wouldn’t you know it? His half-brother Mickey Haller, flush from the fame brought by a film based on him starring Matthew McConaughey, has a proposition for Harry. Connelly_TheCrossingAPPROVEDforcomp3.25.15

Haller believes he has a client who is innocent of the murder charge brought against him. So, what else is new? Isn’t this what defense lawyers are all about? Well, not really. This is a special case; Haller suspects that Da’Quan Foster has been set up to take the fall for the exceedingly brutal rape and murder of Lexi Parks. Parks, a well-known public official, is married to an LAPD detective. It’s a sensitive case, and Haller has no defense.

In fact, his regular investigator, who had begun working the case, was seriously injured in a driving mishap. In a preamble, Mr. Connelly reveals that two men named Ellis and Long and had forced the investigator into oncoming traffic.

Bosch is reluctant to get involved in this. To assist Haller would be to betray his decades-old place in the legal system. He’d be crossing a line, especially if his task is to help a guilty person get away with a horrible crime. However Haller, never without a forceful argument, finds the angle that gets Bosch to at least look into things.

Soon, Bosch is hooked. He goes to work for the Lincoln Lawyer (so-named in book one of the Haller series).



As is consistently the case in Mr. Connelly’s work, the step by step uncovering of information is meticulously and intriguingly presented. Bosch has sharp antennae, well-honed skills, perseverance, and clever misdirection in his arsenal. His scrutiny of the police department records of this investigation raises questions that demand answers.

Security videos in various locations around L.A. raise more questions. Bosch’s competent and cagey interviews move from questions to answers – or suspicions that need further checking. Out of the remarkable massing of details comes the rising suspense that grows in Bosch and is transmitted to the readers. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the March 9, 2016 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the March 10 Naples, Bonita Springs, Punta Gorda/Port Charlotte, and Palm Beach Gardens/Jupiter editions, click here: Florida Weekly – The Crossing

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Venice Book Fair 2016

March 18-19

Dozens of exhibitors.

Book Fair features lively Event Schedule with David Hagberg, Ward Larsen and others. Publishing advice from Oceanview Publishing.

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Malicious murder is delicious reading

Murder Most Malicious, by Alyssa Maxwell. Kensington Books. 304 pages. Hardcover $25.00.

Coral Springs resident Maxwell begins a new series with this title. Judging from what it has to offer, I predict that “Lady and Lady’s Maid Mysteries” will be as well received as the author’s “Gilded Newport Mysteries.” Readers will now find themselves in England on a grand estate shortly after the end of World War One. Though the western world has undergone significant change in the early decades of the twentieth century, the relationships between aristocrats and their servants as well as relationships among those in the dizzying hierarchy of below stairs staff, with all its petty distinctions, is changing quite slowly.  MurderMostMalicious Cover

Though rank has its privileges, true character – good or bad – peeks through the lines of social class. So it is that nineteen year old Phoebe Renshaw (Lady Phoebe) and her somewhat older maid Eva Huntford enjoy a friendship that breaks through the restrictions of class while allowing those restrictions a modicum of respect. It is a transformation in process, the women feeling their way. Another transformation is the post-war rebuilding of a nation severely damaged by war, both materially and psychologically.

It all begins on Christmas at Foxwood Hall. There are many guests staying at the imposing mansion, most of them anticipating the engagement announcement of Phoebe’s older sister, Julia, to Henry Leighton, Marquis of Allerton. Certainly his mother, Lady Allerton, expects such an announcement. Members of the Allerton clan and others are gathered for the holiday and the engagement.



Phoebe overhears an argument between Julia and Henry that clearly suggests that there will be no engagement. Each is threatening the other. Henry vanishes. Strange gifts come into the hands of several people – each accompanied by a finger from Henry’s hand. Murder? Motive? Culprit?

Not satisfied that the professionals, Inspector Perkins and Constable Brannock, are up to the task, Phoebe enlists her maid Eva in a dangerous sleuthing adventure. The pros just can’t be right in suspecting a longtime employee, footman George Vernon. . . .

To read the entire review as it appears in the March 2, 2016 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the March 3 Naples edition, click here: Florida Weekly – Murder Most Malicious

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“And Then All Hell Broke Loose: Two Decades in the Middle East,” by Richard Engel

  • Simon & Schuster. 256 pages. Hardcover $27.00.

“An unexpected, suspenseful page-turner.”

At once career memoir and analysis of recent Middle East history, Richard Engel’s new book, And Then All Hell Broke Loose, is an unexpected, suspenseful page-turner. It is the story of a young, enthusiastic journalist’s coming of age as a premier foreign (read “war”) correspondent. Fresh out of Stanford, and at first without employment, Engel plunked himself down in the major trouble spots of the Arab world, beginning in Cairo in 1993.

After a string of freelance assignments, he became NBC’s Beirut bureau chief and then the chief foreign correspondent for NBC News. As the book title promises, all hell is breaking loose around Engel, but that’s because he eagerly shows up wherever that is likely to happen. He is plying his trade.



One fascinating thread in Engel’s powerful presentation involves the tradecraft and survival skills of a foreign correspondent: where to stay, how to travel, what to bring from one place to another, how to develop contacts, how to interview effectively, and, perhaps most important, how to stay safe and out of legal trouble. Dozens of episodes dramatize the daily working life of someone seeking and developing the stories that will reach an editor and get into print or on the air.

Another thread is Engel’s take on the history he has reported. Of course, it wasn’t history yet, but the unfolding present: the downfalls of Mubarak and Morsi in Egypt; the second Intifada in Jerusalem; the wars in Lebanon, Iraq (where Engel spent several years), Libya, and Syria. For Engel, it was all close up and personal. Yet he wasn’t part of the story. Now he is.

Looking back, he can offer personal reflections on the political dimensions and consequences of U.S. actions undertaken or not undertaken during the Bush 2 and Obama presidencies. Engel understands the forces influencing their decisions, but he judges these men rather harshly and supports his judgments convincingly. . . .

For the full review, see: And Then All Hell Broke Loose | Washington Independent Review of Books

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