Monthly Archives: April 2017

Characters bedeviled by trauma and loss explored in bestselling author’s latest effort

The Red Hunter, by Lisa Unger. Touchstone. 368 pages. Hardcover $25.99.

This delicately constructed thriller explores the distance and proximity between two women whose paths cross in strikingly unusual ways. The younger of the two, Zoey Drake, has lived through a lengthy and ongoing recovery from a devastating childhood trauma. Her parents were murdered before eyes in their rural home outside of New York City. Zoey, who barely survived, has lived with a rage she must control to function effectively. Rigorous martial arts training has been her coping mechanism and her security against being victimized in her adulthood as she was in her childhood. 

She has been reared and put through college by the man she calls Uncle Paul, and she assists him as he struggles with poor health. She supports herself through cat-sitting jobs and by helping her martial arts mentor teach self-defense to young girls. Nightmares haunt her, but she has gained a healthy self-confidence.

The place she was raised in is now occupied by a mother and teenage daughter. For Claudia Bishop, renovating this home is part of an extended recovery from a horrible assault and rape that occurred many years ago. Seventeen year old Raven, herself a troubled young woman, feels the need to follow up on the possibility that she is not the child of the loving man from who Claudia has been long divorced. Perhaps she is the daughter of the rapist. Her quest regarding her identity is one plot driver in this brilliant, complex novel.

Lisa Unger – photo by Jay Nolan

Signs of intruders lead to the revelation that somewhere between the house and the barn might be the buried fruits of a robbery gone haywire. There’s a possibility that individuals connected with the robbery are committed to recovering a million dollars. The theft involved corrupt police. It looks like the handyman Claudia has hired for the renovation was somehow involved, as was his brother – a desperate, soulless character recently released from prison.

Through shifting narrators and points of view, Ms. Unger orchestrates the series of revelations that lead to the final outcome. The suspense is almost unbearable in this fast-paced psychological thriller.

I don’t know of another writer working today who brings us characters with such precisely rendered emotional complications. Of course, they are put in situations – or can’t stop remembering situations – that give them a lot to process. Sometimes they are presented from a third person perspective, and sometimes they are briefly narrators. It’s not easy to make such (unrecommended) shifts work, but Lisa Unger makes it a compelling feature of her art. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the April 26, 2017 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and in the April 27 Naples, Palm Beach, and Punta Gorda / Port Charlotte editions, click here: Florida Weekly – The Red Hunter

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Once dead man finds himself spiritually adrift with no navel to guide him

An Unexpected Afterlife, by Dan Sofer. Privately published. 284 pages. Trade paperback $14.95.

Dan Sofer’s book is an unexpected mind-opener. It asks a fundamental question about the possibility of life after death. The perspective is Jewish, and the subsequent questions are manifold. If one’s afterlife identity mirrors that of one’s original span of years, and if the new being (or reactivated being) returns to the world he or she left, how will those who knew this person react? 

Suppose this happens to you. Will those who believe that you had died now think you had deceived them for some nefarious reason? Or will they suspect that your reappearance is a fraud? What is your place in this world – or the next?

Sofer makes the theoreticals concrete. Moshe Karlin, a man who ran a successful business dispatching taxies in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, awakens one morning on the stony grounds of the Mount of Olives Cemetery. He is not only without clothes, but he is also without a navel; thus, he is no longer “born of woman.” He quickly finds out that two years have passed since his demise and that his wife is soon to marry his former best friend, a man who has poisoned the vulnerable woman against him. Though only recently undead, Moshe is determined to win her back.

Trying to reestablish his former life, Moshe discovers that his positive view of himself was not shared by others. He was not a great husband or father. Has he been given a second chance?

Sofer soon populates the novel with a series of similar resurrections, individuals who accompany Moshe on this eerie journey toward reaffirmation and vision. Is this collection of returnees the early sign of ancient prophesies being realized?

Moshe and his growing entourage are protected and counseled by a kind, though perplexed, neighborhood rabbi. Soon, an important council of rabbis is convened to pass judgment on these strange happenings. Readers will be surprised by the council’s conclusion.

Rabbi Yosef is a finely drawn character whose dedication to helping this oddball collection threatens his status and the well-being of his own family. These returnees are, paradoxically, familiar strangers. To Rabbi Yosef, they are still God’s creatures and deserving of compassion and justice. Let the renowned rabbis argue over whether these theological misfits are angelic or demonic, Rabbi Yosef will feed them, clothe them, shelter them, and in all the ways that he can – comfort them.

Dan Sofer

Then there is Eli Katz. Yes, a present-day Elijah the Prophet. Or a time-traveling Elijah. Or a man whose recent injuries and near-death experiences have triggered a hallucinated identity. His mission is to prepare the world for the Resurrection. Dan Sofer employs this madcap character to pay homage to and yet question the efficacy of prophetic tradition. This strand of the novel is a magnificent tour de force.

How does Sofer give a sense of reality to his fantasy materials? Well, for one thing he gets into his characters’ heads so fully that we believe in their observations and see and feel the way they do. Moreover, he sets them into the very real neighborhoods of present-day Jerusalem with a degree of detail that has authenticity. By firmly rooting us in that reality, Sofer opens the door that allows us to walk into and accept the “what if” world of his imagination.

Another “unexpected” characteristic of this book is that Sofer has a light-hearted touch, a leavening that keeps hardships and serious theological concerns from pushing readers into depression. The book also offers more than a little teaching, a surprising amount of wit, and a good-sized cast of strong supporting characters. This highly original novel is likely to be controversial in the best of ways: provoking thought and discussion.

About Daniel Sofer

Dan was born under the sunny blue skies of South Africa in 1976. A traditional Jewish upbringing and warm community moved Dan to study and volunteer in Israel as an adult. In 2001, Dan made Jerusalem his home, and the city’s sights, sounds, legends, and spirit of adventure fill his stories. When not writing tales of romantic misadventure, he creates software for large corporations. “Dan Sofer” is a pen name of Daniel J. Miller.

Dan writes tales of romantic misadventure, many of which take place in Jerusalem. His earlier novel, A Love and Beyond, won the 2016 Best Books Award for Religious Fiction. An Unexpected Afterlife is presented as Book I of The Dry Bones Society series. The next book in the series, An Accidental Messiah, is coming later this year.

Dan Sofer’s books are readily available in print and ebook editions via the major internet bookstores. Or find him at http://dansofer.com

This review appears in the May 2017 issues of Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Collier County), L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Collier and Lee Counties), and The Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota-Manatee)

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Putting one’s life on the line . . . of ruled paper

Look Beyond the Mirror: A Creative and Simple Approach to Discover and Write the Story of Your Life, by Penny Lauer. Privately published via the CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform . 156 pages. Trade paperback $15.00.

The seeds for this highly effective guide to memoir writing, at once practical and motivational, is a course the author gave at the Renaissance Academy (continuing education division) of Florida Gulf Coast University. She approaches the project as first of all an exercise in self-discovery, a process without which the finished product would be of little use to readers – even if they are primarily family and friends. 

Ms. Lauer breaks the seemingly overwhelming task into a series of manageable steps, explaining the necessity of each step and offering, with examples, a preferred way of managing that step. Anticipating the inexperience and insecurity of her reader-students, she reaches out in a sympathetic, supportive voice.

The author provides detailed advice on how to develop a flow of memories unblocked by self-censorship. Memoir writers have to seek the emotional truths in the experiences they recall, then explore and fashion those experiences for their readers. Penny Lauer insists on the necessity of pushing ahead, generating as much material as possible, before grouping the material and editing.

Lauer

The steps in the book organize the novice writer’s working life. Ms. Lauer insists on handwritten manuscripts (pardon the redundancy) on ruled paper in notebooks from which the pages can be removed and rearranged. And she explains how and why this method works. She also explains the need for a protected place for the writing to get done.

I agree that her system can work and produce exceptional results. I also feel that as people mature as writers, they need to explore a variety of processes. Changing your habits is a good way of waking up your perceptions and your writing. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the April 19, 2017 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the April 20 Naples, Bonita Springs, Punta Gorda / Port Charlotte, and Palm Beach editions, click here: Florida Weekly – Look Beyond the Mirror

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“The Weapon Wizards” by Yaakov Katz and Amir Bohbot

 The Weapon Wizards: How Israel Became a High-Tech Superpower, by Yaakov Katz and Amir Bohbot. St. Martin’s Press, 304 pages. Hardcover $17.99

 Review by Philip K. Jason  

A dazzling “feel-good” book in the tradition of Start-Up Nation and Let There Be Water, Yaakov Katz and Amir Bohbot’s analysis of Israel’s rise to prominence as major inventor and manufacturer of sophisticated weapons and weapon systems has a dark side. It is one thing to protect your own nation, another to be fully invested exporter in the arms business. Yet the billions of dollars in income from arms deals are a protective shield for this tiny nation, and mass production lowers the costs of the weapons for Israel’s own arsenals.

The authors’ exciting and surprising narrative is loosely chronological, following the path of Israel’s advances in technology while bringing into play the political and military crises that provoked accelerated research, invention, and even improvisation. One constant theme is that Israelis cannot relax: they always need to be pushing to gain the upper hand, creating a safe distance between themselves and those that threaten them.

Katz

From early on the mantra has been that quality would prevail over quantity. The best planning, the best minds, the best manufacturing, the best training, and the highest level of civilian and military cooperation would prevail over greater numbers of weapons and enemy combatants.

Bohbot

The chapters focus on specific weapons, detailing both offensive and defensive technologies: drones, armor, satellites, rockets and missiles, “intelligent machines,” and cyber viruses. However, while the history of Israel’s military ascent is largely technical, the methods of reaching and moving readers are quite varied. . . .

To read the entire Jewish Book Council review, click here:  The Weapon Wizards: JBC

 

And here is the long-awaited interview with Yaakov Katz:  Interview with Yaakov Katz, Editor-in-Chief of The Jerusalem Post

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Applauding the discovered truths of successful people from many walks of life

Show Me, by Randall Kenneth Jones. Smart Business Books. 376 pages. Hardcover $24.95.

This thoroughly entertaining and highly unusual self-help book is not embarrassed to carry the subtitle “Celebrities, Business Tycoons, Rock Stars, Journalists, Humanitarians, Attack Bunnies & More!” That’s truth in packaging from a marketing and public relations guru turned business practices columnist. SW Florida readers will know him from his “Business Class” column in the Naples Daily News and from his local stage appearances. The profiles and life lessons (business and otherwise) in this book grow out of that column – or, more accurately – the relationships built with the people Mr. Jones interviewed.  

Be prepared. A manic joy is in the air.

With so much material from which to choose, Randy Jones has organized his chapters by putting together delightful commentary on people whose natures or accomplishments just seem to make them good company. Some groupings are obvious – sports figures, professional communicators, and entertainers. Others are more intuitive: people with shared or overlapping visions of how to conduct one’s self effectively, honestly, and ethically in a complex world.  The many resting places the plan provides are welcome, as there is abundant wisdom in each vignette that needs to be absorbed.

The author simplifies the task in two ways. He begins each major section with material from his own life, especially the lessons of his early years in the Show-Me State. These memories thrum like a tuning fork, its vibrations setting in motion the mini-profiles of his admired interviewees.

 

Jones

The second way Mr. Jones focuses a theme is by offering quotations from his subjects that underscore that theme. Some are indeed pithy. From columnist Heloise we learn that “Housework is genderless,” a bit of wisdom with powerful social implications. From Hall of Fame quarterback Sonny Jurgensen we learn to “Make sure everyone on your team is given the chance to play to their strengths.” The sports metaphor rings true in life’s many arenas. Carly Fiorina asserts that “one woman can change the world because one woman changes the lives of everyone around her.”

Throughout the book, Randy Jones treats serious issues like a man on a tightrope hovering between extreme delicacy and laugh-out-loud astonishment. He positions himself as a fellow who can’t quite believe he has managed to find himself in the company – and with the friendship – of the many leaders whose contributions to the “can do” part of our culture he celebrates. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the April 12, 2017 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the April 13 Naples, Palm Beach, and Punta Gorda / Port Charlotte editions, click here: Florida Weekly – Show Me

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“The Orphan’s Tale,” by Pam Jenoff

Jenoff

Can you imagine a Holocaust-related story that features circus performers? Can you imagine the Nazi regime, as it spreads across Europe, tolerating these vagabond entertainers? Historical facts support Jenoff’s imaginative story of hidden Jews, vulnerable women, younger and older lovers, twisting loyalties, and valiant spirits in The Orphan’s Tale, a colorful and moving dual narrative.

 

Jenoff tells her tale through two alternating characters whose similarities and differences bring out the best and the worst in each. Noa is a troubled teenager whose pregnancy leads to her parents casting her out. She seeks a means to support herself, and longs for the child she is forced to give up. Noa looks the perfect Aryan, but her baby does not. Her journey leads to the discovery of a boxcar filled with infants. One of the babies seems familiar to her. She takes him in her arms and can’t let go of it. After she discovers that the tiny boy is circumcised, Noa finds a hiding place in a milk delivery truck and takes the baby with her. . . .

To read the entire Jewish Book Council Review, click here: The Orphan’s Tale by Pam Jenoff | Jewish Book Council

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Touring with young Elvis: the making of a phenom

Elvis Ignited: The Rise of an Icon in Florida, by Bob Kealing. University Press of Florida.  280 pages. Hardcover $28.00.

Bob Kealing makes the case that the best Elvis is the earliest Elvis and that the managerial strategies of Tom Parker kept a great American original from reaching his full potential. By focusing on the emergence of Elvis during his Florida tours in 1955 and 1956, Mr. Kealing can handle in lavish detail the months of a young, unschooled performer’s leap from total unknown in May of 1955 to – by August of 1956 – a celebrated icon of a burgeoning culture without a name. A hillbilly rocker with a sexy performance style, Elvis had the girls swooning, their parents fuming, and the music industry paying close attention. 

Tom Parker helped shape the Elvis who caught fire, but his dominating and generally conservative decisions about girlfriends, songs, and – only too soon – insipid movie rolls, repressed rather than released Elvis’s unique talents. Parker shielded Elvis from other influences and demanded total loyalty.

Packaged in road tours to Daytona Beach, Tampa, Fort Myers, Ocala, Orlando, Jacksonville, and elsewhere, Elvis and the two musicians who accompanied him nurtured a distinctive sound blending various musical and cultural traditions. They learned by doing. They didn’t begin as headliners, but in a remarkably short time ascended to top billing. They moved from smaller venues to more prestigious ones and attracted both critical and supportive journalists who helped shape expectations.

Bob Kealing has the details. Ransacking print coverage of the young troubadour, interviewing scores of people who met him along the way, following the one-lane paths of those early tours, the author captures the spirit of time and place as a new kind of music made its way up of the charts. Mr. Kealing must have tracked down almost every young woman still alive with whom Elvis flirted in about a year and a half of performances. No longer young, they have great memories to share.

Kealing

 

As have other biographers and music historians, Mr. Kealing pays attention to the nurturing of Elvis by the genial owner of Sun Records in Memphis. When Parker pushed for the big time by switching Elvis over to the giant, less edgy RCA, something was already lost.

West Palm Beach, Sarasota, Pensacola, Miami, Lakeland, (Waycross Georgia), St. Petersburg – and then on to the greater stages of big cities, television, and movies. It’s as if once out of the Florida orbit, Elvis lost his essential self, smothered under packaging that distorted his true nature and gift. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the April 5, 2017 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the April 6 Naples, Bonita Springs, Punta Gorda / Port Charlotte, and Palm Beach editons, click here: Florida Weekly – Elvis Ignited

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