Monthly Archives: January 2017

Imperiled newspaper industry sets the stage for desperation and doom

Unpunished, by Lisa Black. Kensington Books. 320 pages. Hardcover $25.00.

This is the second title in Ms. Black’s Gardiner and Renner Thriller series, following That Darkness. It is a fascinating tale of serial killings linked by their setting: a large (but shrinking) Cleveland newspaper. Like all of Ms. Black’s novels, it is loaded with engaging forensic analysis. When the copy editor of the “Cleveland Herald” is found hanging above the print area assembly line, investigator Maggie Gardener quickly concludes that what looks at first like a suicide is certainly a murder. unpunished

It is the first of four, linked for the most part by crime scene and method. Strangulation precedes the pretense of a hanging. The victims are connected to the newspaper, and the newspaper is in trouble with or without them. Is someone trying to destroy the newspaper, or destroy those responsible for its likely demise? Is the perpetrator a stranger or an insider? The murders suggest that the killer has easy access and familiarity with work routines.

Unpunished offers three centers of interest. Primary is Maggie’s pursuit of forensic evidence leading to a suspect. Next is the detailed presentation of the newspaper industry’s seemingly irreversible decline, caused by a complex, toxic mixture of cultural and technological change. And finally, we have Jack Renner – a vigilante killer who is also an officer on the Cleveland police force.

Maggie knows Jack’s hidden history, and the reader knows that Jack has assassinated a teenage psychopathic killer who knew how to beat the system. What the system can’t handle, Jack Renner will take on. Maggie has an odd respect for Jack’s sense of justice, and he has a hold on Maggie that keeps her silent about his doings.

Lisa Black

Lisa Black

Seems as if the newspaper is up for sale. Only a large influx of money can save it – or at least postpone the inevitable. Those who are in the know are frantically working to secure some benefit from the coming changes. One is doing disguised insider trading, buying stock shares like crazy, assuming the takeover will foster a spike – a profit that will ensure his survival after the inevitable crash.

Another is falsifying circulation numbers to keep the purchase price of the newspaper up and to make sure a deal goes through.

Soon, however, the new owners will insist on shrinking the staff. Which jobs are at stake? Where can one go when the whole industry is collapsing? . . .

To read the full review, as it appears in the January 25, 2017 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the January 26 Naples, Bonita Springs, Punta Gorda / Port Charlotte, and Palm Beach editions, click here: Florida Weekly – Unpunished

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An interstellar relationship that is at once eerie, humorous and romantic

Mel-Khyor: An Interstellar Affair, by Malcom J. Brenner. Eyes Open Media. 220 pages. Trade paperback $14.95.

This new novel by Punta Gorda resident Brenner is largely entertaining, though at times a bit confusing. Mainly, it follows stretches in the life of Susie Louise McGonagle, a teacher whose life is for the most part drab and dispiriting. Her first husband, Mitch, is a real loser who doesn’t treat her well at all, eventually bringing another woman into the household as a kind of charity case that he takes pity on. But charity is not his real motive.


Susie carries around a lot of anger and almost no self-esteem. She is an easy mark for an abuser, and one like Mitch can sense her vulnerability. Her relationship with Mitch launches one of the novel’s several timelines, the earliest one. Susie needs a miracle to make her life worthwhile. Though she has children, she does not seem to be in love with mothering.


Soon after readers come to understand Susie’s despair, they find her experiencing the strangest of occurrences: the visit of an egg-shaped space vehicle, black and glittery, that has been damaged and cannot get on its way home. An elongated humanoid type with pointy ears, Mel-Khyor engages wih Susie. He easily breaks through the expected language barrier and asks for her help. Somehow, he senses that she has exactly the powers that are needed to repair the craft, aided by the great powers of the Ship itself.

Mr. Brenner creates an interstellar relationship that is at once eerie, intellectually stimulating, humorous, and romantic. His eye for real and imagined detail draws us into his largely improbable scenes. Susie’s very ordinariness is the hook. It’s easy to believe in her; thus, it’s easy to believe in her experience with Mel-Khyor, including their sexual experience. Who would believe in “Gulliver’s Travels” if Jonathan Swift didn’t first get us to believe in Gulliver?

The fact that much of what she experiences becomes lost to memory allows for the possibility that she has been dreaming or is under a spell of some kind. But all of it is not lost. Later in her life, after having chosen to continue her life on earth rather than join Mel-Khyor in his far-away home, she is perplexed by bits and pieces of what comes back to her.

So is her second husband, Toby, who uses his journalistic skills to attempt a verification of Susie’s unusual fragments of memory. Mr. Brenner’s treatment of Toby’s quest is one of the book’s most successful sub-stories. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the January 18, 2017 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the January 19 Naples, Bonita Springs, Punta Gorda / Port Charlotte, and Palm Beach editions,  click here: Florida Weekly – Mel-Khyor

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Abuse in the name of redemption shapes the lives of Irish lassies

The Magdalen Girls, by V. S. Alexander. Kensington. 304 pages. Trade paperback $15.00.

Set near Dublin in the 1960s, this unusual novel carefully constructs a powerful vision of religiosity run amok. Its focus is two teenage girls who are assigned to the Magdalen Laundries at The Sisters of the Holy Redemption Convent. Their parents have assigned their care to the convent, believing that its discipline and Spartan living conditions will bring the young women to faith, responsibility, and eventually to productive, upright lives. That’s the positive spin on the parents’ motives, which readers will find far less noble. themagdalengirls

In fact, the institution is a prison and slave labor operation, all in the name of Jesus and his Father.

Both Nora Craven and Teagan Tiernan are in their mid-teens. Their home lives are disastrous: their parents strongly judgmental and unloving, their fathers done in by drinking. Both seek to escape, but as children have no standing. Their relationships to the Catholic church are unfulfilling, but it is the Catholic church, or its institutions, that will dominate their lives.

Both end up in the Magdalen Laundry at the convent, both spend time in confinement there. Both, over the course of a year, are offered poor food, strenuous labor, and only the hope that conformity to a harsh, identity-crushing routine – or escape – will bring them a viable future. The fact that they have been turned over to the authority of Sister Anne, the Mother Superior, predicts a gloomy fate, as this woman is on the edge of a psychotic breakdown.



In essence, these youngsters are abandoned by their parents. As Magdalens, they are objects of community scorn. Teagan, moreover, is betrayed by the leaders of her neighborhood church – accused and convicted of immoral behavior without any legal proceedings or any opportunity to defend herself. Priestly misconduct goes on unchallenged.

In the view of Sister Anne, the girls’ sinful natures must be beaten out of them. This woman is addicted to slicing her arms with a sharp blade. Her action is at once an act of faith, a punishment, and a deeply buried recognition that her abuses of power are worse than anything the Magdalen girls do.

It’s the Middle Ages brought to the later 20th century. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the January 11, 2017 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the January 12 Naples, Bonita Springs, Punta Gorda / Port Charlotte, and Palm Beach editions, click here: Florida Weekly – The Magdalen Girls

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An internet-inspired journey into romance, senior foibles, and American small town life

The Boy Is Back, by Meg Cabot. William Morris. 368 pages. Trade paperback $15.99.

This is the fourth book in Ms. Cabot’s “Boy” series, which began in 2002 with “The Boy Next Door.” It is a stand-alone novel. This best-selling author, best known for “The Princess Diaries,” has mastered a clever technique that will be half the fun of the book for most readers. boyisbackpb

The story is told through electronic media. The characters’ interactions and solo meditations are fashioned as emails, text messages, Facebook postings, chat room conversations, online news and reviews, e-journaling, and other such signs of the times. Graphic design distinguishes the mode; that is, what you see on the page mirrors what you’d see on your computer, tablet, or smart phone.

Ms. Cabot provides superb feats of characterization through manipulating how her characters reveal themselves and hide themes through these technological means of expression. Some will find this method engaging; others will be put off by it. I entered this world somewhat skeptical, but after 30-40 pages I found myself enjoying both the technique and what it revealed.

The story involves Reed Stewart’s return to his hometown of Bloomville, Indiana after ten years on the professional golf circuit. He had several years of great success, but his game has crumbled a bit of late. What brings him back to Bloomville is his aging parents’ peculiar and somewhat dangerous behavior as reported (via emails, of course) by Reed’s relatives and even in the town’s newspaper.

The old man tried to pay a restaurant bill with a stamp from his collection that was worth only a small fraction of the bill. Both parents have long been hoarders, overcrowding their house that has fallen in to disrepair. Judge Stewart has a huge collection of gavels and useless stacks of newspapers. His wife Connie is just as zany. They don’t seem able to take care of themselves.



Who ya gonna call? Becky Flowers. That is if Reed has has the courage to be back in the presence of the young woman he more or less abandoned after their senior prom mishap. Yes, conveniently enough for the Stewart family, Becky has established a successful senior-relocation business. It’s called Moving Up! Consulting LLC.

The plot moves along two rails: can anything save the dysfunctional Stewart family, and can Becky and Reed find their way back into each other’s arms and futures. The answer is “yes” in both cases, but the outcomes are in doubt through most of the novel. There are so many obstacles to be overcome.

Except for Reed, the Stewart children have been users who cannot thrive on their own. Older brother Marshall runs a marginal real estate business with one unpromising listing, and sister Trimble has been exploiting her father’s generosity in making her a partner in the law firm he set up after retiring from his judgeship. In fact, she’s done worse than that. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the January 4, 2017 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the January 5 Naples, Bonita Springs, and Punta Gorda / Port Charlotte editions, click here: Florida Weekly – The Boy Is Back

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