Monthly Archives: July 2017

A new, shining star in the firmament of fictional female detectives

The Late Show, by Michael Connelly. Little, Brown. 416 pages. Hardcover $28.00.

Several years ago, I fell in love with Randy Wayne White’s new Hannah Smith series. The Hannah Smith character provided a fresh focus for Mr. White’s considerable skills, while the Doc Ford series continued to satisfy his devoted following. Now we have Mr. Connelly, masterful creator of both the Harry Bosch and Mickey Haller (Lincoln Lawyer) series, launching a new venture centered on a distinctive and totally engaging female character. Detective Renée Ballard is a winner. I swooned over Hannah, and now I’ve fallen for Renée as well. 

Mr. Connelly mastery of the police procedural, honed throughout the Bosch series, is put to good use here. Ballard is a credible mixture of impulse and orderliness, and the latter trait usually allows her to follow the steps – regulations and protocols – that underpin effective police work.

The night shift, which Ballard works, is in her punishment for her run-in with a superior wishing to send her a signal. Filing a sexual harassment complaint against Lieutenant Olivas pushed her career into this dark place. Called “The Late Show,” this shift runs through the dark hours. Ballard is often the first to begin an investigation, but come daylight she must turn it over to another detective. This routine provides little satisfaction, and Ballard needs a way out.

She finds it, in part, by following up on these cases using her own time. She takes two cases to heart and can’t let go of them. One involves a prostitute almost beaten to death and the other a young woman shot in a nightclub. Her partner, Jenkins, is a rather passive individual – a competent officer who warns Ballard against pushing too hard and taking too many chances.

When a case leads to the death of Ballard’s former partner, a man she was close to and yet who hadn’t stood up for her following her abusive treatment by Olivas, Ballard is – curiously – all in, though warned away on several occasions.

Michael Connelly

On her various cases, Ballard drives herself to exhaustion. She takes every step with deliberateness and professionalism, and yet all her actions are informed by her essential nature – the interplay of step-by-step investigatory process and her seeming obligation to taking risks. Though she struggles to avoid being seen as a loser or a victim, victimhood is what her behavior often courts. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the July 26, 2017 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the July 27 Naples and Punta Gorda / Port Charlotte editions, click here: Florida Weekly – The Late Show

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Nut case serial killer keeps trying to make it to the prom

The Prom Dress Killer, by George A. Bernstein. GnD Publishing LLC. 322 pages. Trade paperback $14.95.

This stunning, hyper-suspenseful mystery thriller, the third title in Mr. Bernstein’s Detective Al Warner Suspense series, offers a psychotic serial killer and an intrepid Miami police detective. For much of the novel, there is no name pinned on the killer because he has not yet been identified. However, what he’s up to is become clearer and clearer. He is leaving behind corpses of stunning young women, in their late teens or early twenties, each of whom has beautiful red or auburn hair. He leaves then gently posed, wearing attractive prom dresses.  

These bodies are turning up in the Miami area, but it soon becomes clear that the killer has been at this work before he ever came to Miami. He has been hunting down the elusive girl of his dream, whom he calls Camille, to complete the prom date of eight years back that had been aborted. He has a careful and clever method of operation that has so far left no clues. Why does he keep doing this? Because, as he sees it, the redheads he has tortured and killed had turned out to be imposters – even though he sought them out. They were never putting on an act, but his madness construes their behavior that way. Disappointed each time at their resistance to is desires, he gets rid of each and moves on.

This pattern has to end, and it takes his capture of his next Camille, fledgling real estate agent Rochelle (“Shelly”) Weitz to turn things in a new direction.

Bernstein

The police team assigned to this case, headed by Al Warner, is frustrated by the lack of clues. Even after networking with other departments and with the FBI, even after search databases for identifying patterns, they don’t have a clue. Several young women have died because Warner and his associates have just not found the clues that could direct their pursuit of this monster.

The reader’s interest is focused alternately on Mr. X, Al, and Shelly. When the police learn of Shelly’s disappearance, of her broken real estate appointments, they decide to work on the suspicion that she might be the killer’s next victim. Finding her soon enough may put an end to this plague of murders.

Mr. Bernstein does a fine job of describing Al’s dedication and frustration. He portrays Al in part by exploring his relationship with Dr. Eva Guttenberg, a psychiatrist who is the love of his life. Al’s leadership characteristics are demonstrated in his scenes with his police associations, and his caring nature is revealed by his work with the Dade Boot Camp for Teens, a last ditch rescue effort to save troubled adolescents. Al is a rounded character indeed, but not too good to be true. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the July 19, 2017 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the July 20 Naples, Bonita Springs, and Punta Gorda / Port Charlotte editions, click here: Florida Weekly – The Prom Dress Killer

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Three kings, a mad princess, and their times reimagined in dazzling, expansive novel

The Secret Book of Kings, by Yochi Brandes. Translated by Yardenne Greenspan. St. Martin’s. 416 pages. Hardcover $26.99.

First published in Hebrew in 2008, this is a book about the power of stories. It recognizes the truth that the stories we inherit are most often the stories of those who prevailed. We must understand that this aphorism includes the stories of the Jewish Bible. In retelling and reimagining these stories – the kingships of Saul, David, and Solomon – Brandes includes many scenes in which scribes are at work – or thought to be at work – writing and rewriting history. To the victors go the spoils of war – including have the final, authoritative word. That is, until the lines of power are rearranged and new versions of what happened replace older ones. 

But the older ones remain concealed only until they are needed again. And stories may be written, and purposely be concealed, for later revelation.

“Stories are deadlier than swords. Swords can only harm those standing right in front of them, while stories determine who will live and who will die in future generations.”

An official web site for the book provides resources to foster complex reader involvement.  Readers can discover “how the Bible’s stories as told in the novel are deeply rooted in the Biblical text and also read the texts differently from the perspective of the Biblical author(s), as well as the perspectives of traditional interpreters. The resources presented here are meant to aid interested readers in learning more about traditional and modern perspectives on the Bible, as well as to guide readers in comparing the Biblical text with the book’s text.”

Two voices dominate this sprawling epic. One is the voice of Shelomoam, a conflicted young man who grows up living in fear and enveloped by secrets. His true identity is a secret, and the one he is cloaked in is a fabrication meant to protect him. The early story of Shelomoam, mainly provided in his own words, launches the novel. It is followed by one section of the story of Michal, daughter of King Saul and abandoned queen of King David. Once again, the main character is the narrator. She is soon identified as the Mad Princess, and we will discover why.

The novel continues to alternate perspectives and locations with a suspenseful building of story-telling rhythms.

The cast of character is enormous, and the names of many are both strange to English ears and yet so much like other names that it’s sometimes hard to keep all the character straight. However, the situations and the emotions they produce are always vivid and clear.

Yochi Brandes

The twists and turns of the plot spin around opposites: loyalty and betrayal, courage and cowardice, modesty and arrogance, palaces and temples, frankness and cunning, passion and coldness, tribe and nation, royal splendor and simple family life.

Though the author’s scholarly preparation, fueled by her imagination, allows her to recreate the lands, the politics, the genealogies, and the material and spiritual culture of these turbulent times with great particularity, she strives for and attains a welcome sense of universality.

Anyone who read this book with the concluding stages of the recent U. S. political campaigns in mind will find many parallels in the campaigns of the ancient candidates for kingship and their subordinates. Brandes makes a point of having her characters reflect on the stories they know, seeing parallels in their own lives to the stories about the patriarch generations, especially  the rivalries within the families. Parallels are also drawn to portions of the Moses saga.

In other words, the more things change the more they remain the same.

Yochi Brandes is to be commended for how brilliantly she brings her characters to life. Her penetration into the longings, confusions, deliberations, and joyful moments of these characters us remarkable. Many undergo changes that are convincingly motivated though not predictable. Almost all the major figures are complex individuals whom the readers come to know intimately. King David is one particularly complex character, but there are so many.

With the online supplementary material, this is a great choice for book groups.

Yochi Brandes was born in 1959 in Haifa to a family of Hassidic rabbis. Earning her BA in biblical studies and an MA in Judaic studies, Brandes taught bible and Judaism for many years. She is the author of novels and essays on biblical women-all of them best-sellers in Israel. She has been awarded the Book Publishers Association’s Platinum Book Prizes for seven of her books, including The Secret Book of Kings, and the Steimatsky Prize for Akiva’s Orchard. She lives outside of Tel Aviv.

This review appeared in the January 2017 issues of L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte Counties) and The Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota-Manatee).

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Bold young adult novel probes deeply into the psyche of troubled teen

Rosie Girl, by Julie Shepard. Putnam. 384 pages. Trade paperback $17.99.

Once again, I’m shaken by a young adult novel. It’s filled with cruelty, suffering, determination, and decisions that shouldn’t have to be made by someone just emerging from childhood. Rosie is seventeen as we meet her. She turns eighteen about the same time she graduates from high school. She seems isolated, left to fend for herself in a household in which her abusive stepmother displays no parenting skills – only an interest in hurting and manipulating Rosie. 

It’s clear that the responsibility she took on many years back – to care for Rosie – has been in the way of Lucy’s needs. Lucy doesn’t want to deal with her boyfriend Judd’s crude advances toward Rosie. When she married Rosie’s father, Lucy made a deal that would have a substantial payoff. She doesn’t want to rock the boat that is sailing to that payoff, perfectly timed for Lucy’s freedom from “parenting” Rosie.

Rosie is also fighting the humiliation of ex-boyfriend Ray’s unwillingness to respect her wishes. She is not ready to have sex with him, and this stance has sent him looking elsewhere.

Rosie leans on her best – and pretty much her only – friend: Mary. Mary is extremely supportive and understanding, perhaps because she too is striving to survive a dysfunctional family. Both girls want to get away from their dismal home situations, save up some money, get out of town, and move on with their lives. Rosie is considering studying fashion design, but how can she pay for it?

Julie Shepard

The girls have worked out a plan in which Rosie is essentially Mary’s pimp; Mary puts out for the sex-hungry schoolboys, and the money is set aside for their futures – which are just around the corner. When Rosie receives clues that her real mother is alive, the money is directed at tracking her down and visiting her. She hires a private detective who takes this as a pro bono case and turns most of the scut work over to his nephew, a straight arrow college student who pays attention to Rosie in a respectful way. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the July 12, 2017 issue of the Fort Myers Florida Weekly, and the July 13 Naples, Punta Gorda / Port Charlotte, and Palm Beach editions, click here:  Florida Weekly – Rosie Girl

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“Jumping Over Shadows: A Memoir” by Annette Gendler

  • She Writes Press. 232 pp. Trade paperback $16.95.

An exquisitely written conversion story which expounds upon personal and collective identity.  

On the website of Israeli-born New York artist Hanan Harchol, readers learn that “Harchol uses the family as a microcosm for the larger human condition, exploring the universal through the personal.” Annette Gendler’s new memoir, Jumping Over Shadows, does much the same thing, though the particularities of Gendler’s experience are deeply underscored and the universals are more subtly evoked.

Annette was born in New Jersey to an American mother and a father from Czechoslovakia. The family, including Annette and her siblings, moved to Munich, where she was educated. They practiced a sort of Catholicism-Lite. “In fact,” Annette writes, “to say I was raised Catholic is almost a misnomer.”

In her early twenties, she met Harry — a friend of a friend — who belonged to a traditional Jewish family. Their romance was guarded; each knew that a marriage between them was likely to shake their families to the core.

As Annette discovered, such a marriage had rocked the family when her German great-aunt had married a Czechoslovakian Jew in the early 1920s. Later, the Nazi takeover caused this mixed marriage to pose enormous problems for the extended family. Such was the baggage carried by these 1985 sweethearts.

Memoirist Annette alternates between scenes that trace her developing relationship with Harry and scenes that recapture the dilemmas brought about by her great-aunt Resi’s marriage. She makes the people and times of her family’s past ordeal, the taint of the family’s problems, come alive. She paints a world she never knew but learned to understand.

The question is, of course, what will Annette and Harry do and how will they negotiate the obvious problems — and the not-so-obvious ones? What will each give or give up? A major portion of this story springs from Annette’s carefully considered decision to convert to Judaism. In part, this is an intellectual process, but it is much more than that. The author recalls the steps that she took, the growth in her learning, and how her exploration of Judaism and of possibly becoming Jewish changed her.

Learning the tenets of the faith and some history is one thing; learning recipes for gefilte fish and other Jewish foods is another. Learning Hebrew is yet another. Discovering how to lead a traditional Jewish life and learning to love Israel are two more necessary strands. Annette’s education becomes an education for the general reader and a new kind of blueprint for the less observant or less committed Jewish reader. . . .

To see the entire review, click here: Jumping Over Shadows: A Memoir | Washington Independent Review of Books

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A handy, compact guide for the would-be true crimes sleuth

The New York Crimes, Volume 1: The Fifties & Sixties, by Stephanie Hughes. Stephanie Hughs/Sunshine Sally. 90 pages. Paperback $7.99.

With this title, Fort Myers resident Stephanie Hughes begins a series that will please both “true crime” addicts and more retrained followers of crimes that have become markers of our crime-riddled times. For the most part, Ms. Hughes selects crimes that had already received the attention of authors and film makers. Such endeavors have amped up the celebrity of crimes – even if the criminals or victims were not celebrities to begin with. 

Ms. Hughes offers a multipart primer to help readers remember and understand – and  possibly further explore – major New York crimes over two decades. She writes for the “armchair sleuth” who, if in New York, can of course visit the crimes scenes and other important locations just by googling the provided addresses. For the rest of us, the author provides photographs, not just of the key locations, but in the context of the immediate neighborhood. Many of these photos were taken by the author.

But you should take your own! Don’t investigate without a camera. And some mace.

Of course, photos of the victims, criminals, and others important to the case are also provided.

Aside from the visuals, Stephanie Hughes offers: an overview of the crime story; thumbnail biographies of the key players, including law enforcement officers and witnesses; and complete addresses and histories of the locations that housed or were otherwise connected with the crime.

Precise dates and times? They are provided as well.

Eleven chapters, each covering a major New York crime (or possible crime), provide a spectrum of possibilities.

Stephanie Hughes

One examines the fate of Frank Olson, a CIA scientist who became involved as a test subject in experiments with psychedelic drugs being conducted at the U. S. Army’s Fort Detrick in Maryland. In November of 1953, he suffered terrible effects and was sent by his superiors to a meeting in New York’s Hotel Statler. He crashed through a 13th floor window to his death on 7th Avenue. Suicide? Accidental fall brought on by the narcotics? Or a murder to shut him up about what the government was up to? Vicariously, you can find out for yourself.

Did best-selling author Norman Mailer get off too easily for the stabbing of his wife at a party in the couple’s Manhattan condo? Look over the information Ms. Hughes presents, and see what you think. . . .

To read the full review, as it appears in the July 5, 2017 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the July 6 Naples, Bonita Springs, Punta Gorda / Port Charlotte, and Palm Beach editions, click here: Florida Weekly — New York Crimes

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