Monthly Archives: January 2018

A trio of gruesome murders raises questions about Wall Street shenanigans

Perish, by Lisa Black. Kensington. 320 pages. Hardcover $26.00.

This is Ms. Black’s third Gardiner and Renner novel, and there are some signs that it might be the last. I hope not. These thrillers are so reliably macabre, so brimming with fascinating forensic detail, and so well-crafted that I’d hate to see this odd couple break up. This one begins with a bang and never lets up.

Cleveland forensic expert Maggie Gardiner has never seen a body so decimated. The gorgeous leader of the Sterling Financial operation has been pretty much shredded. Although blood is all around, the clever killer has left no trace of his (or her) entrance or exit. Nothing has been stolen. Nothing revealing has been left behind. The kind of forensic evidence that is Maggie’s bread and butter just isn’t there. No break-in. No furniture tossing. The most curious item is a suspicious statement, in plain view, of a $600,000,000 Panamanian account in Joanna’s name.

Lisa Black

How did this young woman put together such a fortune? Did she make enemies in the process?

Secretive Joanna Moorehouse’s lacerated throat seems a gruesome icon of the cutthroat world in which she has become a major player. Who would want her dead? Those who lost their homes by being conned into taking out unaffordable mortgages? Or who had supposed fixed-rate loans turned into adjustable ones? Perhaps. How about her business rivals? Or maybe members of the firm who might ascend to the throne? Did she dump her boy-toy?

Working with the police team of Jack Renner and Tom Riley, Maggie needs to find the answer. Sorting through the possible suspects connected with Sterling Financial means sorting through the intricacies of their work practices. To open readers to this world, which echoes the situation leading to the 2008 financial collapse, Ms. Black gives us an amazingly readable lesson in the shoddy business of bundled mortgage derivatives and related financial chicanery. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the January 25, 2018  Naples and Palm Beach editions of Florida Weekly, click here:  Florida Weekly – Perish

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Debut novel illuminates the boundaries of community, connectedness, and identity

The Other Side of Everything: A Novel, by Lauren Doyle Owens. Touchstone. 272 pages. Hardcover $25.00.

Lauren Doyle Owens, who lives in the Fort Lauderdale area and has set her first novel there, is someone to watch. She has written a stunning literary murder mystery that is at once a nailbiter and a brilliantly nuanced evocation of how communities work and don’t work. How proximity to others does not create a neighborhood, how aging in place can foster a misery of isolation as contemporaries pass away and new neighbors remain strangers. 

Ms. Owens builds her novel around three major characters whose situations and perspective rotate through the novel. Bernard White, about to turn eighty, has lived in the suburban community called Seven Springs for decades and witnessed its socio-economic changes. Since his wife’s death, he has become increasingly withdrawn. When he sees smoke rising from his neighbor’s house, he calls 911 and awaits the firemen, police, and paramedics. The fire seems to have covered a murder. But why Adel? Who really knows her, anyway?

Bernard feels helpless in the situation, somehow responsible for what happened. The tragedy wakes up the neighborhood, leading Bernard to begin a tentative re-engagement.

Lauren Doyle Owens / photo by Summer Weinstein

Amy Unger, a cancer survivor, spots the fire on her way home. Once a promising artist, she thought briefly of photographing or sketching the scene. But she is not yet ready. She is still cowed by her husband’s disdain for her avocation. The marriage has gone cold, and Pete’s business trips are far too frequent and extended.

Maddie Lowe, fifteen and suffering from her mother having abandoned the family, works in a restaurant near school and home. She attempts to take care of her brother, and she attempts friendship with a homeless man, Charlie, who comes into the restaurant regularly. Her need for respectful attention is met in part by a neighborhood college student whose advances flatter her. However, her sexual awakening has a raw edge to it. She is a child being pushed into adulthood way to fast and yet meeting her challenges with a surprising degree of effectiveness.

Murders of elderly women in the neighborhood continue. These are not random. The killer has an agenda. What’s his motive? Is he an outsider, or someone in their midst? . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the January 17, 2018 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the January 18 Naples, Bonita Springs, Charlotte County, and Palm Beach editions, click here: Florida Weekly – Owens.

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Touring America with soaring dancers as your guides

Dance Across the USA, by Jonathan Givens. Eps Pub. 306 pages. Oversized trade paperback. $39.95.

In his beautiful and inspiring book, Mr. Givens celebrates the United States, especially its dedication to maintaining parks, preserves, forests and other natural areas owned collectively by citizens; the separate states plus DC individually; and the art, excitement, and pleasure of dance.

Mr. Givens raised money to make an ambitious tour with an ambitious mission. In his modified Nissan van named Buford, he crossed over 22,000 miles of America in 90 days. The trip took him to all 50 states plus Washington, DC. Developing his route and choosing his settings carefully, he took photographs in 56 locations. While most of these locations are relatively untrammeled by buildings, he couldn’t resist urban places like New York City’s Grand Central Terminal. National Parks play an important role in this hymn to nature, but so do smaller and less known recreational areas: Lakes and streams, ocean coasts, mountains, canyons – even swamps.

Sometimes a setting includes a distinctive structure that grabs the photographer’s attention.

There are no crowd scenes in this collection, which is just as much focused on the figure in the landscape as it is on the landscape. The figure is a dancing person frozen in time. Most of these figures are girls and young women. Perhaps the average age is 14 or 15, though some are much younger and a few considerably older. There are very few male dancers. The statistical outcomes have to do with who showed up for the advertised opportunities to participate. The author-photographer aimed at inclusiveness, but he didn’t force it. 

Each dancer seems embraced by the selected setting. One can sense reverberations between the monumental, imposing stages and the smallish figures. These dancers seem illuminated in a way that strengthens the image, balances it against the magnitude of the setting. Dancers are the foreground. They seem to leap out of or above the place, defining it while being defined by it.

Indeed, a great number of the photos are of girls in flight. Not fleeing, but flying. They leap in ballet poses that enhance the sense of their physical fitness, elegance, and beauty. But mostly what comes across, in part because many of them were invited to talk about their experience as dancers, is their strong sense of self – their distinctive personalities.

Indeed, the voices of the dancers show that they themselves are inspired as well as inspirational. Listen to 13-year old Sonja Giardina at the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park:

“Before written language, before the spoken word, there existed the language of the body. A raw form of personal expression unhindered by the boundaries of conscious thought. Dance is pure movement and emotion channeled into a manifestation of one’s true self.”


At the Theodore Roosevelt National Park (North Dakota), Ieree Lundin announces: “Dance tells the stories I can’t get out of my mouth . . . I dance with joy. I dance with fear. I dance to overcome.” See the photos of Ms. Lundin and you will believe her words. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the January 10, 2018 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the January 11 Naples and Charlotte County editions, click here: Florida Weekly – Givens


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The Hapsburg Variation: A Cold War Thriller

  • By Bill Rapp. Coffeetown Press. 264 pges. Trade paperback $15.95.

A CIA agent’s mettle is tested in this tale of post-WWII intrigue.   

Vienna, indeed all of Central Europe, is a place of uncertainty in 1955. The major post-WWII forces are working hard to move beyond the uncertainties toward stability. In this powerful historical novel, that movement is centered on the State Treaty among the former Allied nations. This treaty will restore Austria’s independence and rid it of occupying forces.

As the time for the signing approaches, the nations invested in the outcome keep jockeying for position. It is not clear if all parties wish the treaty to succeed. Maintaining influence remains the goal of Great Britain, the U.S., France, Germany, and the Soviet Union.

The intelligence agencies are the key players, and CIA agent Karl Baier, stationed in Vienna, is part of the U.S. government team hoping to avoid an outcome that positions Austria as a neutral entity. Soviet motives and moves are suspect. Baier is a complex, well-developed professional who has been with the agency for eight years.

Baier finds himself involved in investigating the death of an Austrian aristocrat, a man who seems to have been trying to bring back the structure of the Hapsburg Empire. He has connections with the British and the Soviets, but the meaning of these connections is not clear.

Complicating Baier’s professional and personal life is the abduction and imprisonment of his wife.

Bill Rapp

Intrigue is everywhere, trust is hard to find, and needed information, let alone the interpretation of that information, seems hidden behind murky windows of indirection, suspicion, and fear.

Most of author Bill Rapp’s scenes are built on conversations between Baier and his colleagues or counterparts. The flavor of these exchanges is nightmarish. Representatives of supposedly cooperating agencies are busy trying to pry into each other’s heads, attempting to gain knowledge without giving away anything. It’s clear to Baier that even those in his CIA cadre hold things back. Therefore, the accumulation of information is a slow and unsteady process. All involved fear being compromised — or worse.

The conversations go around in circles and barely move Baier forward. Readers will share his frustration, and Rapp runs the huge risk of losing them even as his characters move on with their mind games.

When a narrative depends this much on dialogue, that dialogue ought to accomplish something beyond setting up smokescreens. While this technique captures a valuable verisimilitude, one is tempted to skip much of it and look for the next action sequence.

In scenes with greater action and less of the artfully phony chatter, Rapp more readily holds readers’ attention. When Baier checks to make sure he isn’t being followed, for instance, we feel his anxiety and appreciate his tradecraft. When Baier evaluates meeting places or notes the hide-and-seek of carefully orchestrated seating arrangements at clandestine gatherings, the author has his readers in thrall. . . .

For the full review, published in Washington Independent Review of Books, click here:  The Hapsburg Variation

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A speedy, short, slick, and satisfying addition to Michael Bennet detective series

Manhunt, by James Patterson with James O. Born. BookShots. 144 pages. Paperback $4.99. Kindle Ebook $3.99.

The BookShots imprint is a new line in the Little, Brown publishing domain. These are titles that are long on action, story-driven, and easy to read in an evening. Bestseller king James Patterson considers these “among his best novels of any length.” By partnering with other writers, Mr. Patterson has stepped up his productivity (which was always high).  Writing shorter books helps as well.  

These books seem aimed at readers of digital versions. As the author says, you can enjoy them “on a commute” (let’s hope this means in a vehicle you are not driving), “or even on your cell phone during breaks at work.” Indeed, there is a handy app for downloading BookShots titles to your smart phone or tablet.

This title is part of the highly successful “A Michael Bennet Story” series. Written in a partnership by two Floridians, it justifies Mr. Patterson’s recent practice of inviting a co-author to the writing party.

Its Thanksgiving Day in New York, and the action begins with Michael and almost all the members of his family are out on the street with a good view of that great institution – Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Even with the hyper vigilance of the New York City Police Department, something resembling the cliché terrorist pattern occurs. A white truck slams into a crowd of spectators, and Michael barely has the time to grab and rescue his daughter Shawna.


The driver exits his truck and shouts “Hawqala.”

Michael attempts to take control of the scene, safeguarding his family as well as others nearby. Then the driver detonates an explosive device that sends the truck’s roof thirty feet into the air, from which it crashes straight down. Pandemonium has broken loose. Oddly, there are very few patrolmen nearby. Many had been hurt, some were aiding victims, and “no one was chasing the perp.”

Michael follows the driver of the truck and is about to overtake him, but the man makes his escape.

It’s a great cityscape action sequence, ready for the movies.


Being the key witness, Michael reports what he knows and works with the sketch artist. Before long, the FBI takes over the case and expects the local police to hang back yet be supportive. Michael makes an uneasy truce with agent Dan Santos, who introduces him to the gorgeous Darya Kuznetsova, the FBI’s liaison from the Russian Embassy. She convinces Michael that she can provide a valuable perspective.

It turns out that the perpetrator is most likely a Russian speaker from Kazakhstan. That news leads Michael and Darya to Russian immigrant neighborhoods where Darya’s cultural knowledge is an asset. Michael is impressed with her for standing up to the FBI team leader. She makes it clear that Russia has many more terrorist attacks to deal with than the U.S. does. Perhaps she has more than one kind of expertise to share. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the January 3, 2018 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the January 4 Naples, Charlotte County, and Palm Beach editions, click here:  Florida Weekly – Manhunt

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Once upon a time – the Hebrew language yesterday and today

The Story of Hebrew, by Lewis Glinert. Princeton University Press. 296 pages.  Hardcover $27.95.

Lewis Glinert, Professor of Hebrew Studies at Dartmouth College, has made a complicated and challenging story line as accessible as possible without oversimplifying the facts and the issues. His goal is well-served by choosing the word “story” rather than “history” for his title. This decision creates a mild and friendly kind of personification – “Hebrew” becomes a character in a lively narrative. This character is multidimensional, like any protagonist worth reading about. He (let’s say “he” for convenience) has his ups and downs.

Though he’s been around a long time, and hasn’t always aged well, he has had spectacular periods of rejuvenation. There are times, however, when his friends can hardly recognize him.

Prof. Glinert, after a concise introduction, traces his character’s life in eight meaty chapters, usually offering subsections in each to help focus issues and underscore turning points. These subsections provide necessary breaks for that even the most ardent followers will welcome. 

Early on, the author reminds us of the unique situation of Hebrew: for much of Jewish history, “Hebrew was not a mother tongue to be spoken naturally. Rather, Jews kept it alive by raising their young men to study and ponder Hebrew texts.” How could it survive without being part of an everyday exchange among members of a civilization?

Among the many partial answers to that question is the recognition that the Jewish Bible had literary flexibility and richness. It contained law, stories, poetry, and wisdom: tools for life and for living together. While its status as a divine gift urged attention and dependence, the text was rewarding for simply providing stimulation and pleasure. And it wasn’t all in Hebrew!

Prof. Gilbert traces the ways in which Hebrew worked, or sometimes didn’t work, to maintain and sustain a population scattered and scorned. He regularly provides insights into key characteristics of the language, both its unique and shared features. These examples enliven the story, but they are subordinate to the grand discovery and appreciation of Hebrew’s journey through time.

Each reader will make a personal decision about which parts of the story are most intriguing. On of these is certain to be “Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome,” notable for its vivid presentation of a long developing clash of civilizations that birthed unending consequences. Within this chapter is a sketch of Ezra, perhaps the most indispensable figure in the story of the Jewish people. It was he who “led a new wave of Jewish returnees from Babylonia” and helped to re-establish a vibrant Jewish life in Hebrew’s home territory. This “charismatic scholar-priest . . . orchestrated a religious revival and strove to bring the Torah to the masses.”

This same chapter stresses the centrality of the Mishnah in organizing Jewish life and the planting of seeds that would, over time, grow into the standard Hebrew prayer book.


The dazzling middle chapters of The Story of Hebrew balance an exploration of “The Sephardic Classical Age” against “Medieval Ashkenaz and Italy.” The first epoch, beginning around 900 and continuing for 600 years (until the Spanish Inquisition), was a period of the highest cultural achievement. This process included “a renewal of a biblical Hebrew aesthetic and a reigning in the rabbinic mode.” The region of Andalusia fostered a “golden age of Hebrew poetry and linguistics.” Great minds were at work contesting the question of Hebrew language purity. What was required for the conveyance knowledge, whether new or old? For Jonah ibn Janah, the mastery of grammatical understanding was indispensable.

What version or refinement of Hebrew will best serve the Jewish imagination?

The chapter on “Hebrew in the Christian Imagination” opens a world that most Jewish individuals, even the most culturally and linguistically sophisticated, rarely if even enter. Prof. Glinert traces the fate of Hebrew in the early stages of the Christian theological revolution and in later periods as well. He examines Christian churchmen’s need to engage Hebrew as the best way to find authority for Christian dogma. Such a mastery could also be a powerful conversion tool. The Renaissance and Enlightenment periods in Christian Europe featured a dynamic interest in Hebrew among Christians, an interest that had waned by the early nineteenth century.

By the later nineteenth century, the Zionist enterprise was in full swing, and Prof. Glinert gives the movement’s effect on Hebrew detailed, engaging attention. Similar is given to the Hasidic enterprise

The author’s treatment of the more recent periods, most importantly the connection between the founding of the modern state of Israel and the state’s commitment to Hebrew as a (essentially “the”) national language, is likely to be the chapter that will attract reading, re-reading, and discussion in contemporary Jewish circles. This discussion is full of excite and wonder about the melding of a people, a language, and a homeland.

Prof. Glinert provides generous chapter notes, suggestions for further reading, and a highly useful index.

This book is a masterpiece that is likely to hold sway over the important and fascinating issues it discusses for many years to come.  Jewish readers who enter this challenging space will find their understanding of Jewish identity mightily expanded.

The essay appears in the January 2018 issues of the Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Greater Naples), L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte Counties), and The Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota / Manatee).


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