Monthly Archives: June 2016

Vietnam War protest violence leads to child abduction over 40 years later

Someone Must Die, by Sharon Potts. Thomas & Mercer. 380 pages. Trade paperback $15.95. Kindle Ebook $3.99.

A bone-chilling thriller with a strong sense of how history shapes people’s lives, this book also probes deeply into the workings of family dynamics. The main character, Aubrey Lynd is a PhD candidate in social psychology. We meet her at home in Rhode Island where she is dealing with the harsh ending of a six-year relationship. Her boyfriend, she has just discovered, has been a serial cheater. Potts-SomeoneMustDie,cover3-16-16

Her confidence shaken not only by his behavior but also by her blindness to it, Aubrey soon receives more bad news. Her six-year-old nephew Ethan has been abducted. This is not the kind of return home to Miami that Aubrey needs, but she must comfort her mother, Diana, who had taken her grandson to the carnival where the abduction took place. Diana had only recently been reunited with her son Kevin’s family, and this apparent show of irresponsibility only turns him against her and back into the embrace of his wife’s parents.

Diana is heartbroken. After the combined police and FBI investigation begins that we learn the motive for the abduction. Someone leaves a note for Diana saying that Ethan will be returned if she will kill Jonathan Woodward. Jonathan, who is being considered for a Supreme Court vacancy, is Diana’s significant other.

Sharon Potts

Sharon Potts

Diana is given a deadline by which she must provide proof of Jonathan’s death. If she contacts the authorities or misses the deadline, Ethan will die. In other words, she is put in a trap: someone must die – Ethan or Jonathan. The fact that a child had died under Diane’s care (she had been a practicing physician) only complicates her emotional situation. At first, she keeps the note a secret, but it doesn’t stay secret.

Aubrey plays an important role in the investigation, using her own training to influence the actions and perceptions of FBI Special Agent Smolleck and Detective Gonzalez of the Miami-Dade police. . . .

To read the full review, as it appears in the June 29, 2016 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the June 30 Naples, Bonita Springs, and Punta Gorda / Port Charlotte editions, click here: Florida Weekly – Someone Must Die

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A stunning immigrant tale of identity, inheritance, and transformation

Don’t Let My Baby Do Rodeo, by Boris Fishman. Harper. 336 pages. Hardcover $26.99.

This novel ties together an exploration of the immigrant experience, the roots of personal identity, and the possible shapes of families. It is an episodic quest narrative that attempts to answer the question: “What makes eight year old Max Rubin so strange?” This is the question that has been growing larger and larger in the mind of Maya Shulman Rubin, the woman who with her husband Alex adopted the infant Max. The quest is a journey to the Montana home of Max’s birth parents, where Maya feels the answer must lie.  Dontletmybabydorodeohcc

For Alex, Max doesn’t seem quite so strange; his reluctant agreement to take the journey grows out of his need to sooth a range of stresses in the marriage. That is, he wishes to satisfy his wife – somehow.

Alex and Maya live in suburban New Jersey. The son of Russian immigrants, Alex met Maya when she came to the U. S. from the Ukraine as an exchange student. They are both children of Jewish parents whose sense of Jewish identity, while strong, does not include active involvement in Jewish ritual or community life. Alex, who had struggled for a defining career, has ended up working for his father’s import business. Maya’s dreams of becoming a chef gave way to a job as a medical technician. Seemingly infertile (we learn late in the novel that their childlessness had to do with Alex, not Maya), she ironically meets breasts daily while taking mammography images.

Maya’s insistent need to be a mother leads them, in their mid-thirties, to adopt. Their steps in taking this action seem flawed – or at least naïve. The Montana couple, not yet out of their teens, needs to meet the adopters, and they deliver the child to the Rubins rather than use professional intermediaries. They give up all rights. It is the birth mother, Laurel, who utters the title phrase: “Don’t let my baby do rodeo.” She has seen how rodeo has torn up her husband.

The point of attack is eight years later. Maya is approaching her forty-third birthday. The Rubins’ situation as a family is not what they hoped it would be. Moreover, there is some kind of wildness in Max. He enjoys sleeping in a tent behind the house, collecting and perhaps consuming grass samples, and communing with animals. He doesn’t fit in at school. He doesn’t make friends. One day, when he is supposed to board the school bus for his return home, he gets on a public bus and disappears.



After he is discovered and brought home, and after professional help toward understanding Max’s behavior proves ineffective, the family begins the journey to Montana.

The 2,000 mile journey is a new beginning (perhaps actually the first beginning) of their American lives, which until now have been highly restricted. This is especially true for Maya, who came to the U.S. when she was many years older than Alex was upon his arrival and thus is not as fully acclimated. Still, they have been living inside of the older Rubins’ immigrant family patterns and still seem like they have not yet grown up.

The journey is an informal education in American openness, as well as other qualities symbolized by the immensity and variety of the landscapes they move through. Once again, it’s like they have moved to a foreign country – but this time they are much faster learners. They are tested over and over again, with mixed success, but always with personal growth. Again, Maya is more dynamic than Alex in these travel chapters, just as she is throughout the novel. Thus her eyes are opened more widely and she learns much more about herself.

An affair assists her education, as does a comment made when she finally engages Max’s birth mother again. (This scene has a dreamlike quality and might be taken as a dream or reverie.) Laurel suggests that Max’s wildness is not some eruption of genetic traits but rather the restless vibes he has picked up from Maya – the true, if repressed, wild one. Though they come from different color palettes, Maya and Max have become profoundly related.

Though the Rubins, returning to New Jersey, are not fully transformed, they seem far more capable of transformation. They seem capable of self-creation – of forging (such a double-edged word) identities more vital than the immigrant cloaks they have been wearing. As middle age approaches, they are finally growing up.

I came to love this book more and more as I stayed in it. The expository matter that prefaces the trip to Montana can drag a bit, though it is necessary. Fishman’s wit is not so fully on display here as in A Replacement Life, but you’ve got to like a guy who knows that the perfect car model name for this quest is the Ford Escape.

This review appears in the July-August 2016 issue of Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Collier County) and the July 2016 issues of L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte Counties) and The Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota-Manatee).

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The rush of roulette animates high stakes novel

Bad Action, by James Swain. Thomas & Mercer. 386 pages. Trade paperback $15.95, Kindle e-book $5.99.

This, the second title in Mr. Swain’s Billy Cunningham Series, continues to explore the exciting and often disgusting world of Las Vegas casinos. Billy knows how the resort casinos fleece their customers. The casino owners control the odds and seem to have the gaming commission in their pockets. Still a young man, Billy has already had great successes walking away from the casinos with huge piles of money. The casinos would be better off if Billy was found dead, and threats to his existence should shake his confidence. Swain-BadAction-21923-CV-FT

However, he doesn’t know a way of life that would thrill him more. He and the members of his carefully selected and proven team operate like a family; they all play by the rules of the cheater’s code.

Now, after a year in the planning, Billy’s biggest score is in sight. Each team member knows his or her part, and there has been no shortage of rehearsals. Yes, essentially they put on a play that has been carefully scripted by Billy. Billy’s part is to play “the whale,” the extremely wealthy and seemingly addicted gambler who will drop a huge bundle at the Carnivale Casino. Though he and his team are booked at the Rio, Billy is sure a Carnevale VIP host will lure them away from the Rio by offering huge incentives. Billy’s convincing role-play will set the invitation and the benefit package in motion.



Billy isn’t ready yet to share his secrets with the full team, though one of them knows about the mechanics of the scam that will lessen the house odds at the roulette wheel and insure that someone at the table wins when betting his “lucky numbers.” The secret only Billy knows is how they will get the casino to pay off. After all, an improbable lucky streak is a red flag to casino operators.

Mr. Swain invents roadblocks to Billy’s success during the countdown to the roulette action at the Carnivale. Mobsters are after him, gaming commission authorities are in his way, and he manages to get arrested after he kills someone in a confrontation. The author’s sure sense of how the gaming industry works allows him to build a sequence of vivid, suspenseful action scenes with authority. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the June 22, 2016 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the June 23 Naples, Bonita Springs, Punta Gorda/Port Charlotte, Palm Beach Gardens/Jupiter, and Palm Beach/West Palm Beach editions, click here:  Florida Weekly – Bad Action

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“Brighton: A Novel,” by Michael Harvey

Ecco. 368 pp.  Hardback $27.99.

This taut thriller tackles the perils of going home again.

A superb crime thriller with all the hallmarks of high-end literary fiction, Michael Harvey’s Brightonemploys — and brilliantly handles — the two-timeline structure. What happened in 1975, and seemed to have been buried there, bubbles up to the surface 27 years later in frightening and grotesque ways. The exposure of secrets, even the threat of exposure, can change lives — mostly for the worse. What happens in Brighton may not stay in Brighton. And yet it doesn’t leave, either.

Michael Harvey

Michael Harvey

The Boston neighborhood of Brighton that Harvey paints is rich in physical detail and cultural character. It might as well be called Blighton for the moral blight that reflects and nourishes the socio-economic blight. The economy of drugs, gambling, extortion, and other criminal occupations is pretty much above-ground — and yet there are secrets.

It’s a place where survival of the fittest is not merely a theory. Brighton is its testing ground.

The novel focuses on the man who got away: Kevin Pearce. Kevin was a high-school hero. Baseball star, outstanding student, pretty much liked by all, he was the pride of Brighton when he suddenly disappeared at the age of 15. The violence he got into with his best friend and mentor, Bobby Scales, would have doomed his great promise. Aided by Bobby, he vanishes and slowly builds a reputable life. Bobby stays behind to sacrifice his future, shielding Kevin’s name.


Bobby’s advice to his friend is never to return.

Brighton’s newspaper readers could have followed Kevin’s success as an investigative reporter who, as the 2002 timeline reveals, has just won a Pulitzer Prize. Unfortunately, the story has connections to Brighton. Loose ends and suspicions bring Kevin back to visit his old neighborhood, where his presence is met with mixed reactions. . . .

To read the entire review, click here: Brighton: A Novel | Washington Independent Review of Books


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Echoes of WWII resound in contemporary crime thriller

The Second Target, by Howard P. Giordano. BluewaterPress LLC. 252 pages. Trade paperback $22.95. Kindle e-book $4.99.

Set in 2000, Mr. Giordano’s new mystery thriller features Luke Rizzo, a New York Police Department retiree now working as a private investigator. He is hired to find a crazed serial killer, Werner Schmitt, who is out for twisted revenge. The woman who hires Rizzo, the beautiful Amy Chatsworth, is married to a British House of Lords member. She is also the daughter of a man Schmitt feels compelled to assassinate. Amy has been trying to find her long lost father, and the connection makes her an additional target for Schmitt. But when Schmitt has his chance, his pistol shot misses its mark. BookCoveridea6(2)

What’s Werner Schmitt’s problem? Well, it goes back a generation. His father Walter was one of eight Germans who made up a band of saboteurs working against the United States. When the group was captured by the FBI in 1942, two of the eight cooperated and brought evidence against the other six. The two “turncoats” were put in witness protection. The other six, including Walter Schmitt, were executed. One of the two betrayers was Amy’s grandfather.

Werner, a former East Germany Stasi agent, also knows that the sabotage project involved a huge cash backing, some 2.5 million dollars that the Nazi’s committed to it. It’s been missing all these decades, and he’d like to get his hands on it.

The action begins in London and take us to parts of Pennsylvania and New York. Rizzo’s job is to help find Amy’s grandfather and the other man who had been placed in witness protection. Soon enough, it is clear that while her grandfather is no longer alive, her father is – or might be. This part of the narrative is a bit obscure, but in any case Rizzo needs to protect her and thwart Werner’s plans. Unfortunately, anyone getting in Werner’s way will also become a target.



Pursuing an investigation with Amy leads Rizzo to a hot romance (with her) and to confrontations with FBI agents and local police in the various places to which Rizzo’s investigation leads him. Amy is an able partner in more than one way.

Werner Schmitt is a shrewd adversary. Knowing that Rizzo and Amy are likely doing his work for him, finding the individuals he wishes to assassinate in order to protect them, he simply tracks the sleuthing lovers. He’s good at it. Will they catch on? . . .

To read the full review, as it appears in the June 15, 2016 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the June 16 Naples, Bonita Springs, and Punta Gorda/Port Charlotte editions, click here: Florida Weekly – Second Target

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Satisfied vengeance casts a pitch-black glow

Black Hammock, by Michael Wiley. Severn House. 192 pages. Hardcover $28.95.

With his newest and noirist thriller, Michael Wiley pretty much forsakes traditional detective story plotting and follows a protagonist on his personal vendetta. The protagonist, Oren, has gathered up a small group of his well-armed friends with the goal of murdering his mother Kay and her husband Walter. He wants it to be a slow, painful death. He is sure that the couple, who have a home on isolated Black Hammock Island in northeastern Florida near the Georgia border, had killed his father, Amon Jakobson, eighteen years ago, effectively abandoning Oren to an uncertain fate when he was only eight. BlackHammockCover

A local Sheriff’s Office detective, Daniel Turner (for whom Mr. Wiley’s mystery series takes its name), has had a continuing interest in the unsolved disappearance of Amon that is stirred up by the arrival of Oren and his vigilante crew. Because Turner is identified with Jacksonville in Wiley’s earlier Turner novels, Black Hammock is no doubt to be imagined as part of the Jacksonville/Duval County united government. How Oren executes his plan and how his actions affect others are the novel’s principle centers of interest. Bringing to life a rural, off the grid culture is another. Revealing the hard life of Amon is a third.



Mr. Wiley handles his exposition by alternating two narrators. One is Oren, telling his own story (and his father’s) in his own way, at once humorous and threatening. The other is Lexi, the eighteen-year-old bookish daughter of Kay and Walter, who is looking for her chance to get away from the tawdry life at Black Hammock. Lexi’s concern about the future of her mentally disabled younger brother, Cristofer, has probably kept her from leaving the island.

In having Lexi tell her side of the story that begins with Oren’s arrival (he keeps his identity a secret through most of the story), Mr. Wiley allows her to stand in for the reader. Her questions and suspicions about what this strange, intelligent, erratic fellow is doing by invading her home directs the reader’s interest, sympathy, and judgement.

For each narrator, and for the other important characters, Mr. Wiley has developed a distinctive voice. In fact, the book’s impact in large part comes from its frequently over-the-top dialogue. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the June 8, 2015 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the June 9 Naples, Bonita Springs, Punta Gorda/Port Charlotte and Palm Beach Gardens / Jupiter editions, click here: Florida Weekly – Black Hammock.

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Brooding spirits, lost voices of The Hollows make their claim, again

Ink and Bone, by Lisa Unger. Touchstone. 352 pages. Hardcover $24.99.

If you’ve never been to The Hollows before, that upstate New York community that passes for normal while hiding its truly haunted nature, then you’re in for a big surprise. Restless spirits fester in The Hollows. They cry out for recognition. They have stories to share.  In time of trouble, residents and visitors may sense that there is something strange going on – some kind of invisible force. There seem to be voices, sometimes cries, in the wind.  InkandBone

There are people who are sensitive to the spirit world, whether they wish to be or not. These are the same people who have psychic powers which grant them glimpses of the future, or of the hidden past. They are called upon by the spirits. Eloise Montgomery has lived among the haunted, and among the rest of us, for her whole life: “Eloise told her [granddaughter Finley] long ago that a haunting was a relationship, that the dead clung to the living only as much as the living clung to the dead.”

Finley Montgomery, a twenty-year-old student at the local Sacred Heart College, also has this power, and sometimes the spirit voices and her strange dreams overwhelm her. Only Eloise is able to help her. And she will need all the help she can get to avoid being pulled under by what she must confront.

There is a long history of children who have gone missing in The Hollow. For almost a year, Merri Gleason has tried to find her daughter, Abbey. She feels that if Abbey is not already dead, she soon will be if she’s not found. She contacts Jones Cooper, a former police officer now working as a private detective. Though Jones is a down-to-earth guy, a man of facts, he is open to the paranormal. On the right kind of case he will consult with Eloise. Finding Abbey is one such case.

Lisa Unger credit Jeff Unger

Lisa Unger credit Jeff Unger

It’s a case that can’t help but suck fiercely tattooed Finley into it, much to her peril.

Ms. Unger orchestrates her gripping, eerie novel so that readers alternate among several plot strands, trying to guess if and how they will come together. Tracking down Abbey is one strand. Witnessing the imprisonment and attempted escapes of a young girl called Penny is another. Readers are teased with the idea that Penny is not this girl’s actual name by the introduction of another girl referred to as Real Penny. Perhaps the one we meet is a replacement for one who fled or died. And perhaps there have been others who have been called Penny. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the June 1, 2016 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the June 2 Naples, Bonita Springs, Punta Gorda /Port Charlotte, and Palm Beach Gardens / Jupiter editions, click here: Florida Weekly – Ink and Bone

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