Category Archives: Authors and Books

Local Color Illuminates an Intriguing Tale of Obstacles Faced and Overcome

Cayo Costa Cross, by John D. Mills. Pono Publishing. 217 pages. Paperback $9.99.

This is an utterly charming novel that also has grit, strong insights into human nature, and plenty of regional detail for readers who will enjoy the SW Florida setting, Mr. Mills builds upon his many years of legal experience to draw readers into the world of a marriage gone wrong and its possible resolution. He also laces the story with local history and builds part of its premise from that history.

Though set primarily in the present time, the story begins at the outset of the 20th century with a family secret. Readers learn of an anguished man, Jim McKenzie, who desperately needed money to afford a cure for his daughter’s tuberculosis. He steals a gold cross which he intends to turn into the cash that he needs. However, things don’t go well and he ends up burying the artifact on the island of Cayo Costa. He writes a detailed letter to his wife Claire that describes the location of the cross, and that letter eventually finds its way into the hands of is distant relative, Lynn Chapman. However, the cross remains hidden. 

Lynn’s greedy, conniving husband Bobby is about to face her in court if a mediation is not successful. He has convinced himself that he has the right to profit from Lynn’s potential inheritance, and he has taken some steps recover it.

The mediation does not go well, in large part because of Bobby’s nasty, self-aggrandizing personality. However, this section of the novel is fascinating in outlining how the legal system works. Readers meet several interesting characters including Lynn’s lawyer Beth Mancini; Beth’s boyfriend Frank Powers, who is a prosecutor with the State Attorney’s Office; and Michelle Barnes, the official mediator for the Chapmans’ case. Through these characters and many others in the course of the novel, legal abstractions become clear and personalized.

Bobby Chapman does have some potentially useful talents. He has the technological skills imagination that enable him to invent a way to possibly retrieve the long-hidden gold cross hidden on Cayo Costa island.

Bobby’s approach includes burning the vegetation on the island to the ground to help uncover the cross’s hiding place and, later, employing a drone and explosives to threaten his wife and her new paramour from discovering it first. Bobby is filled with hate, and the author’s portrait of his childhood and upbringing brings understanding about what makes him tick. He is shaped by an unappealing macho / good old boy culture.

John D. Mills

The man making romantic inroads on Lynn’s heart is Doug Shearer. When Lynn decides that she needs to employ a private detective to find the cross before Bobby does, Beth recommends Doug for the job. It’s a fortuitous match of personalities. Doug has a background in law enforcement. He is one of several characters through whom Mr. Mills paints a very positive and uplifting picture of people with law enforcement careers.

John Mills uses his descriptive skills to provide a wide range of characters, the flavor of the Lee County fishing and boating community, and many other touches of local color. The author offers a good introduction to the islands that dot the waterways. Readers will enjoy the growing relationship between Lynn and Doug. This reader wouldn’t mind meeting them again in another novel.

About the author:

John D. Mills is a fifth generation native of Fort Myers. He grew up fishing the waters of Pine Island Sound, and it’s still his favorite hobby. He graduated from Mercer University in Macon, Georgia with a BBA in Finance and worked for Lee County Bank in Ft. Myers for five months. He returned to Macon and graduated from Mercer’s law school in 1989. He started his legal career as a prosecutor for the State Attorney’s Office in Fort Myers. In 1990, he began his private practice concentrating in divorce and criminal defense. Cayo Costa Cross is his eighth novel. This novel, and several other recent ones, comprise the Pine Island Sound Mystery sequence. The related books include: “The Trophy Wife Divorce,” “The Hooker, the Dancer, and the Nun,” and “Pine Island Gold.”

 

Q & A Interview with John D. Mills

Q: What is your favorite part of the writing process?  A:   Crafting a surprise ending!  I’m an avid reader and I always enjoy an unexpected twist/surprise at the end of a book.  I spend a tremendous amount of time trying to do this in my books.

Q: What writing challenges give you the most trouble?  A:  When I’m trying to do a compelling back story on my characters.  I don’t like anyone to call my characters boring or predictable!

Q: Do you compose by parts or by wholes?  A:  I try to do a basic outline of the story before I begin writing.  After the outline is done, I break it into pieces – sort of like a jigsaw puzzle.  Of course, during the 2nd & 3rd drafts of the book, I add a little more information about the characters and subplots that I try to bring together at the end.

Q: What are your habits of revision?  A:   I have learned to pay all different kinds of people to help me edit different drafts of the book.  Young, old, middle-aged, book-smart educated, self-taught educated, religious, non-religious, superstitious, OCD, and people with different backgrounds than me.  I have learned that different people see things that are confusing to them, and they relate to character conflicts in unique ways.  I’m always amazed at the different responses I get from my editors.  As a follow-up, I hire different editors for the second and third drafts to try t0 create an entertaining read.

Q: Are there common skills that connect your work as a novelist with your work as a lawyer?  A:  Different people have their own “versions” of the truth and I try to have my characters promote their own “version” of the truth to create conflict between the characters.  Q: Are there any features of your experience as a fisherman that overlap with your fiction writing?  A: Patience!

Q: Who are among your favorite writers?  A:  John Grisham, John D. McDonald, and Randy Wayne White.

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“THE RISING PLACE,” by David Armstrong

Review by Philip K. Jason

The Rising Place, by David Armstrong. The Wild Rose Press.  198 pages. Trade paperback $13.99

The premise of this highly original novel is as follows: A young lawyer has moved to Hamilton, Mississippi to begin his career. His first job is to draft a will for a seventy-five-year old spinster named Emily Hodge. Emily has spent her life in this town. She is well-known, but she is clearly pretty much a loner. In the course of doing his job, David comes across a box of letters: these are love letters written by a much younger Emily to a man named Harry, who has chosen not to reply.

There is heartbreak and hope in each of Emily’s letters, especially since she finds herself pregnant with Harry’s child. As it happens, Harry is part Negro. And in this town during the 1940s, such a relationship was frowned upon, to say the least.

However, Emily was and is colorblind. She does not understand how race should make a difference in relationships or esteem.

Lawyer David makes the letters, along with several related documents, available to us, the readers. (Note that the lawyer’s first name is the same as that of the book’s author).

The revealed letters, providing the young Emily’s point of view about what’s going on in her life and the role that racial prejudice plays in it, constitute the story.

Through the letters, we learn that Emily is a woman of great passion; that she is a disgrace to her parents; and that she offers the truest brand of friendship to the very few friends that she has, some of whom are Negro.  To most of the town, she is simply a sorry joke. Readers will find her principled, but more than a bit naïve. Her beautiful letters reveal her beautiful soul.

The temporal setting is wartime, a time when young men are called to serve their country. World War Two, in which Harry serves, brings his life to a crisis, and it also supplies an intermediary of sorts between Harry and Emily who would marry Emily if given the chance.

Though Emily is the filter for almost every detail that reaches the reader, and though she is a larger-than-life dominant figure given the book’s structure, the novel is populated with a great number of carefully drawn and highly distinctive characters. It is through Emily’s interactions with these others that our portrait of her (and of the town of Hamilton) deepens. Ultimately, we are assured that Emily really knows who she is and that she accepts her outcast destiny. Readers cannot help but be sympathetic toward her.

David Armstrong

Many, including yours truly, will question whether times have changed at all. Today’s media regularly broadcast the injustices done to Afro-American citizens. However, this awareness takes nothing away from the book’s power and grace.

A particularly striking feature of the book is the author’s the presentation of the town’s Negro community, particularly its church and many of the individual worshipers. Emily is more at home with friends she has made there than she is in her parents’ house. Her few white friends, like Emily herself, are seen my most townspeople as misfits.

Author Armstrong provides a great deal of suspense through his shrewd pacing of revelations. He also includes several surprises before and after the final resolution of the plot

The novel has the musical feel of a tone poem; the brief, passionate letters sing out and echo one another, helping to make the emotional dimension astonishingly powerful.

Prior to being published, The Rising Place was made into a film by Flatland Pictures and won sixteen film festival awards before opening in both New York and Los Angeles. The film is available on DVD.

This review first appeared in the Southern Literary Review and is reprinted with permission.

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Today’s Jewish Diaspora communities at once threatened and resilient

Exile: Portraits of the Jewish Diaspora, by Annika Hernroth-Rothstein. Edited by Tiffany Gabbay. Bombardier Books. 208 pages. Hardcover $27.00.

Sometimes a relatively compact book has a lot to offer. It’s so unusual to find a book whose author has a fascinating and necessary idea about Jewish culture, digs into the topic, and comes up with a result that is dazzling in its factual base, its interpretation of gathered evidence, and its engaging voice.

This Jewish journalist from Sweden set herself a challenging mission and the results are illuminating. The stories she tells are as once consoling and a bit frightening as well. Where is the Jewish diaspora today? It’s in places you might not expect.

Come with Annika Hernroth-Rothstein (hereafter simply “Annika” on her magical mystery tour – a tour that took two years.

After an introduction in which she described the sources of motivation for her project, the author launches her diaspora guide with a study and reminisce about the Djerba community. Djerba, an island in Tunisia, is a good starting point. She introduces her to guides and community leaders who shape her introduction to this unfamiliar place. She learns about the town of Hara Kbira, almost exclusive Jewish. It has twelve synagogues. As in other Jewish centers within Muslim countries, these people operate discretely and without calling attention to themselves. The town has a full range of Jewish institutions and outlets. They have struggled against persecution and assimilation and found a way to survive and flourish. The island is home to fifteen hundred Jews whose commitment assures, to the extent possible, a future sprung from an impenetrable core. These people know that they must “plant their feet firmly in the past.”

Modern day Uzbekistan is a place where people have lived since the “Old Stone Age.” Annika outlines is remarkable history through the shifting of empires. She reminds us that Uzbeks fought in the Red Army against Nazi Germany and “500,000 of the soldiers were Jewish. This nation gained independence in 1991. A humorous scene involves what Annika calls an “Uzbek Orthodox flirtation.” She described the conflict between the Ashkenazi and Bukharian Sephardi communities. Throughout its history, the Jewish Uzbeks have fought against assimilation, and the community has often “teetered on the brink of extinction.” Accusations of dual loyalties posed serious problems. Through all of these, Uzbekistan’s Jews have survived. The community continues to maintain its strong presence in “a peaceful, multi-religious melting pot. These Jewish citizens are at once “equal,” and yet not “truly free” under the USSR shadow that still darkens today’s Russia.

A favorite chapter for many readers is likely to be the one on Morocco. Arriving in fabled Marrakesh the day before Passover, Annika enjoys the synagogue service Lazama Synagogue build in 1492 “and now housed inside of a sixteenth century Riad Mellah (ghetto). She toys with the commonplace that in Morocco the lives of Muslims and Jews have been intertwined, but sshe also notes that this is true only in certain restricted area. Annika moves gracefully for the old, historic places of Jewish community to the more modern ones, noting that Jews had served in important diplomatic positions. Jewish life in Morocco can seem and perhaps be one of subservience to the Muslim community. It is a life adaptation that is no uncommon in the diaspora.

She reminds us that tens of thousands of Jews arrived in Israel between 1948 and 1956, shrinking Morocco’s Jewish community.

Can you imagine that such a book would contain have a healthy section on Siberia? Well it does.

Annika relates the fact that – perhaps not ironically, Siberia means “The End” in the regional dialect of Ostyak. Siberia is immense. But for many Jewish immigrants is offered a new beginning. It is a place rich in natural resources that demand a labor force to take advantage of them. Millions of people have benefitted from the the Trans-Siberian Railway, including those helped build this marvel.

Annika finds the towns she visits somehow familiar. It’s like a homecoming to this Jew of partial Russian ancestry, It is no surprise to find a Chabad-Lubavitch presence whose leaders are the “head and heart” of the Irkutsk Jewish community, which is home to at least five thousand Jews. The synagogue is jammed, assimilation seems under control, and Jewish institutions, educational and otherwise, are active. Strangely, Putin is an ally of Russian Jews, who are deeply patriotic and also open about their Zionism.

This is only one of the many chapters filled with surprises.

Aside from the four chapters skimmed to give a taste of this valuable study, there are additional chapters detailing the past and present communities of Jews in the following places: Cuba, Iran, Finland, Sweden, Palermo, Turkey, and Venezuela. Annika’s adventurous nature, her passion for Jewish culture and history, and her openness regarding her personal experiences exploring these varied communities is a treasure and a joy.

Annika Hernroth-Rothstein is a former political advisor for the conservative coalition of Sweden, and now a full-time journalist and author. She contributes to such publications as The Wall Street Journal, Israel Hayom, Commentary Magazine, National Review, Mosaic Magazine, The Washington Examiner, and The Jerusalem Post. When she is not writing, she travels the world and is a sought-after public speaker on issues of religious freedom, European politics, and the Middle East.

For even more about the author, go to https://annikahernroth.com/

 

 

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“Man of My Time: A Novel,” by Dalia Sofer

     Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 384 pages. Hardcover $$27.00

A dazzling tale of a person — and a country — in despair.

The provocative title of Dalia Sofer’s absorbing new novel leads readers to ask: “Aren’t we all creatures of our time?” The answer isn’t as simple as it seems and involves an exploration into the nature of what it means to be “of” a particular time and place. 

Sofer, with great insight and urgency, depicts Iran — especially its capital city, Tehran — during a time of political and cultural transformation, which took that country’s people in multiple directions. She soaks us in the aftermath of its 1978 revolution, including what led up to it and what followed.

How does one navigate the shifting corridors of power? How can families hold together when circumstances propel members to take sides — sometimes out of sincere, principled sentiment; sometimes out of fear; and sometimes out of inertia? And to what configurations of national or religious identity should a person ally him or herself?

Dalia Sofer credit Anthony Rhoades

The main character in Man of My Time, Hamid Mozaffarian, wants to find his own path. But he seems doomed. He cannot negotiate life’s hurdles and, at bottom, doesn’t want to. He seems to enjoy his blend of numbness and pain.

He has managed to find a government sinecure as an interrogator, but it’s a job with strings attached: pleasing the higher-ups. Favors must be returned. . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the Washington Independent Review of Books, click here:  Man of My Time

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“The Old Stories,” by David Selcer

How a seemingly ordinary individual can play an extraordinary role

Review by Philip K. Jason

The Old Stories, by David Selcer. Biblio Publishing. 234 pages. Trade paperback $12.95.

It’s hard to separate the strands of memoir, history, biography, and imagination in David Selcer’s provocative, informative, and deeply moving book. Perhaps the genre doesn’t matter that much. It’s a feast of information and revelation, past and present, satisfaction and regret.

As the Nineteen Century came to a close in the town of Kherson within the Ukrainian province of Greater Russia, a young boy – not at all a scholar – toiled with his lessons at the Great Choral Synagogue. He hated his studies, but enjoyed paging through the stories of Sholem Aleichem, the great Jewish storyteller whose Yiddish tales offered humor and profundity. At nine, Chaim Zelitzer could not absorb the great teachings of the Torah and the Talmud. He had a practical turn of mind. At a young age, his was happy enough to please his father and uncle by becoming a skilled metal worker. But he stumbled through his Bar Mitzvah preparation.

Chaim did honor the traditional goal of the Tzadik: of becoming a righteous man.

His older brother, Shmuel, was on his way to becoming a famous cantor.

Russia’s defeat in the Russo-Japanese War (1905) prompted the teenage sailor (Chaim) to “go AWOL” to Manchuria.

He made his way to the United States via Canada (where the immigration process changed the name to Selcer), and a fortunate arranged marriage provided the opportunity to raise a family, and, with his wife, run a business. His children were often embarrassed by his accent, his foreign ways, and a certain coarseness of manner.

No one expected that this man, in his middle years, would become a hero of sorts. Without explanation, soon after the close of WWII, Chaim (now long known as Hyman), became involved for about eighteen months as a worker for the entities that would soon help bring forth the State of Israel. This man, who never had a birth certificate, somehow, with his sophisticated and well-connected Ohio friend Herschel Bloom, worked for the cooperating Jewish organizations that would change the history of the Middle East.

They were part of Aliya Bet, the secret organization that created a secret Jewish fleet for the purpose of facilitating Jewish immigration to Palestine, a crucial step toward undermining the power of the British Mandate for Palestine, which favored other political outcomes for the remains of the former Ottoman empire.

This part of the story is told, long after Hyman’s death, by Bloom, who is questioned relentlessly by Hyman’s younger son, Lester. Lester had been a resentful son growing up in the shadow of his older brother Ben. Just like Chaim had grown up in the shadow of Shmuel. Lester never could please his father; never received praise, encouragement, or even useful answers to his questions. His understanding of his father is modified through hearing Bloom’s narrative of courage and commitment.

This brief stretch of time within the overall narrative includes a romantic subplot in Hyman’s relationship with an attractive woman, Leila, he meets on Kfar Giladi, a kibbutz that absorbed many newcomers to nascent Israel.

Mr. Selcer’s prose has an abundance of descriptive power. He is able to put his complexly-drawn characters into vivid, realistic settings across the decades of his fable-like tale. The author is also able to set forth the historical issues and events with clarity and precision. Moving as well is his handling of the various characters emotional ups and downs.

Is Lester, who is the novel’s primary first-person narrator, actually David Selcer in disguise? It sometimes seems that way. But no: David Selcer is the son of Lester and thus the inventor of the needed fictional answers to the narrative’s questions that would otherwise go unanswered.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

A former Ohioan, David Selcer now lives in Sarasota, Florida with his wife, where he decides employment cases for federal agencies as a Federal Agency Decision Writer. Always a buckeye, the Buckeye Barrister (lead character in Selcer’s 4-part mystery series) is an avid OSU fan. Another of his books is the historical novel Lincoln’s Hat and the Tea Movement’s Anger.

This review first appeared in the May-June 2020 issues Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Greater Naples), L’Chayim (Jewish Federation Lee and Charlotte Counties, and The Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota-Manatee).  It was also expected to run in my Florida Weekly “Florida Writers” column, but that column, if not dead, is on hiatus. 

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“Disengagement: A Novel,” by Daniella Levy

Kasva Press, 232 pp. Hardcover $21.95

An Israeli microcosm of the polarization that infects politics across the globe.

Reviewed by Philip K. Jason

This brilliant and troubling novel pursues what many Israelis consider a national disaster, and others consider a necessary accommodation to reality. In 2005, Israel forcibly removed those Israelis who had settled and lived in Gaza for the better part of a generation. 

To tell the story in Disengagement, author Daniella Levy invents a representative settlement, Neve Adva, and populates it with a large cast of characters with a range of perspectives about the disengagement and each other. These characters had various reasons for relocating to the Gaza Strip: patriotism, religious conviction, and the opportunity to shape and nurture a community in their own image.

Generally, they are presented in family groupings, and a good number of the children cannot remember another home. The characters’ motives seem like a modified version of those that fed the modern Jewish state’s founding, but the parallels are not drawn in detail.

Most historical narratives of Israelis in Gaza go something like this: On June 5, 1967, some weeks after Egypt blockaded the Straits of Tiran and cut off Israeli shipping, Israel launched an attack against Egypt, beginning the Six-Day War. After swiftly and thoroughly defeating the neighboring Arab states, Israel assumed control over the Gaza Strip and held the area by populating it. A series of border communities, the settlements served as a defensive measure against incursion into Israel by various Palestinian forces.

Israeli interaction with Palestinian “neighbors” was almost nonexistent.

Levy’s storytelling, however, is best approached without such historical trappings. Its heart is found in the settlers’ varied reactions to the Israeli government’s decision in 2005 to send its soldiers into the settlements for the purpose of destroying them. That is, destroying the lives and hopes of Israeli citizens.

Readers receive heart-wrenching descriptions of individual reactions to this disastrous upheaval in their lives. Several of these passages have the grace and resonance of prose poems. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in The Washington Independent Review of Books, click here: Disengagment

 

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The queen of the cozy mystery pens another suspense-filled delight

A “Florida Writers” Review by Phil Jason

Easter Hair Hunt, by Nancy J. Cohen. Orange Grove Press. 304 pages. Trade paperback $14.99.

Family, friends, and community – that’s what Ms. Cohen’s novels are all about, just as much as they are about crime and its detection. The blend is intoxicating. This latest addition to her Bad Hair Day mystery series is bound to please her large body of readers. Her main character, hair salon owner Marla Vail, once again finds herself running into a crime that she can’t help investigating. After all, when good friend “Blinky” Morris, last seen in an Easter bunny suit during an Easter egg hunt, is suddenly missing, and the bunny suit is found worn by a corpse, what would any self-respecting amateur sleuth do?

Though Ms. Cohen’s narrative takes us to many locations, by far the main setting is Tremayne Manor, a restored, privately owned historic mansion. Blinky, her friend and customer, had agreed to meet her there.

The owner of the mansion, Lacey Tremayne, had turned the estate into a business – a venue for special events like the Easter egg hunt for children with an accompanying fundraiser. The mansion is filled with gorgeous and tempting objets d’art collections. Marla suspects that the expense of purchasing and maintaining this showplace required that it become an income producer as well as a private residence.

There are signs that the balance sheet is on the negative side. In part, this is because the staff is rather large. However, there are signs that money is not being handled well. Could there be some crooked employees? Would any of these speculations shed light on Blinky’s disappearance or on the murder of the person found garbed in Blinky’s bunny suit?

Marla’s husband, police detective Dalton Vail, is soon on both cases: the murder and the disappearance. As ever, he is respective of Marla’s investigative skills while concerned about her safety, especially as she is now in the late stages of pregnancy with their first child.

Soon enough, there are signs of items missing as well as rare items having been replace my imitations. Marla finds her way of asking productive questions, even if they sometimes become accusatory. She thinks out loud with her friends, testing theories about means, motive, and opportunities of staff members and others who are frequently at the mansion. These include Lacey’s secretive son Daniel; Steve, the person who heads up security; the café manager; the beekeeper, those who attend to the estate’s copious plantings; Heather the head docent to oversees tours of the mansion; and many others.

That’s a lot of interviewing to do without getting people upset, but Marla holds her own when the conversation gets testy. Suspense? There is plenty of it, and the suspense thermometer heats up the investigations (both Marla’s and Dalton’s) uncover more and mores surprises.

By the way, there is a second murder.

Marla’s characteristically busy life is complicated by several other concerns beyond her pregnancy. Her mother Anita’s remarriage is pending, Marla will organize much of the Easter holiday feasting, and – don’t you know – she has a business to run. She also has become a kind of second mother to Dalton’s teenage daughter Brianna.

Marla is connected to so many people in so many ways. She is a nexus in the world of her South Florida suburban community, and through her Ms. Cohen brings that imaginary Broward County community fully to life.

In what has become a hallmark of cozy mystery writing, of which Nancy J. Cohen is the undisputed queen, readers will find a lot about preparing food, including an appendix of recipes.

Titles in Ms. Cohen’s “Bad Hair Day” series have been named Best Cozy Mystery by Suspense Magazine, won a Readers’ Favorite gold medal and a RONE Award, placed first in the Chanticleer International Book Awards and third in the Arizona Literary Awards. Nancy’s instructional guide, Writing the Cozy Mystery, was nominated for an Agatha Award, won first place in the Royal Palm Literary Awards and the TopShelf Magazine Book Awards and a gold medal in the President’s Book Awards. Active in the writing community, Nancy has served as president of Florida Romance Writers and Mystery Writers of America Florida Chapter. When not busy writing, she enjoys cooking, fine dining, cruising, and visiting Disney World.

Note: This review was accepted for publication by Florida Weekly,  in my “Florida Writers'” column, but FW has stopped using many freelancers, including yours truly. “Florida Writers” reviews, like this one, will continue to appear on this blog from time to time. 

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“The Interpreter: A Novel,” by A. J. Sidransky

  • Black Opal Books. 324 pp. Trade Paperback  $14.99

An unrepentant Nazi harbors key information about the whereabouts of a Holocaust survivor’s long-lost love.

 The Interpreter, the first installment in A.J. Sidransky’s “Justice” series, is a highly original look at the dimensions and consequences of the Holocaust that is at once emotionally devastating and technically impressive. It’s a work of fiction based on factual elements in the life of the author’s extended family.

The story of Kurt Berlin, and the Jewish Berlin family, needed to be told, and Sidransky fashions it as a testimony to the resilience of survivors and the demonic cruelty of Hitler’s regime and its brutal, sadistic culture.

The novel has two timelines. One takes readers into Vienna in 1939, focusing on Kurt as a sensitive and intelligent youngster in his teens. The other, which alternates with the first, presents an older and almost totally devastated Kurt in 1945 Brussels. While other locations come briefly into play, these two dominate.

Vienna in 1939 is reeling from the Anschluss of the year before, the annexation by Hitler of Austria into the now-expanded German nation. This forced union changed the game for Austrians, especially Austrian Jews, who had their heads in the sand. The future of a Greater Germany under Nazi rule stems from this early step.

In the Vienna chapters, the author follows the struggles of Kurt and his parents, Hertz and Berta, as they pass through the crippling of European Jewry. They accumulate resources to bribe petty officials and malleable non-Jewish neighbors; they shape and solidify Aryan identities; and they strive to arrange transport away from the hell that Europe is becoming.

The detail in these chapters is stunning. How does Hertz, who wears a Nazi armband, manage to pass himself off as the Reich’s new representative to the Dominican Republic? Largely, it’s through the simple ploy of dressing well.

Sidransky

Young Kurt has a special concern. His girlfriend, Elsa, though seemingly protected in a monastery, is still subject to great peril. Should he stay behind to be with her, or should he try to leave with his parents and other relatives?

The 1945 timeline conveys the immediate postwar situation in Brussels. Kurt is six years older than when we last encountered him in transit to a new life and U.S. citizenship. The American military is looking for ways to counter the Soviet push toward world dominance. Both the U.S. and Russia are seizing upon incarcerated Nazis with special abilities. It’s a strange competition.

Kurt, because of his superb language skills, is assigned as an interpreter for this project. Colonel McClain is the head of his task group. The selected prisoner, no doubt one of many, is Joachim von Hauptmann, an unrepentant, Jew-hating Nazi who seeks to make a deal. He has information as his bargaining chip. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appear in the Washington Independent Review of Books, click here:

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White’s Doc Ford has been called an “enduring hero.” Long may he endure

Review by Phil Jason (accepted for publication in Florida Weekly, but freelancers like me are on forced hiatus)

Salt River, by Randy Wayne White. Putman. 368 pages. Hardcover $27.00.

Several centers of interest intertwine to provide an engaging addition to the Doc Ford series. This 26th contribution to the series, coming two years after “Caribbean Rim,” shows that Mr. White has not lost his touch and is still among the elite thriller writers in the nation. 

Readers new to Randy Wayne White (hereafter RWW) need to know just a few things about his Doc Ford character. Doc is a marine biologist with an independent practice. He works, off and on, for a beyond top secret government agency. He is a skilled and avid fisherman with a love of boats and great skills of navigation and employment of shipboard gadgetry. He has an on and off romance with a female fishing guide, the beautiful and independent Hannah Smith (title character of four RWW novels). He has a middle-aged hippy-type friend named Tomlinson.  He loves his home territory of Florida’s Sanibel Island. He’s good with guns.

So what’s happening in “Salt River?” Doc has recently found himself in the possession of a horde of rare Spanish coins that he has wrestled away from disreputable treasure hunter. Shady government employees, one of them is IRS agent Leo Alomar and the other a Nassau customs agent Rayvon Darwin, “a mobster in uniform,” are looking for the leverage that will make Doc want to “share” his treasure. Doc’s skill set, we must assume, is up to the task of avoiding any traps set by these unscrupulous men.

Tomlinson has discovered that his youthful adventure “donating” to a for-profit sperm bank has created a growing family of young adults with Tomlinson DNA. These offspring have found each other and are looking for more siblings. They are planning an event at which daddy Tomlinson will get to know them. It’s not clear just what the motive of each happens to be. Tomlinson is particularly concerned about the motives of Deville, one of the young men.

Randy Wayne White Photo by Brian Tietz

One of Tomlinson’s seed, a beautiful young woman named Delia, makes a play for Doc’s attention and more. She knows how close Doc and Tomlinson have been for many years, and she has a dose of emotional instability that is dangerous to herself and to Doc. She can tease, she can attract sympathy, she is vulnerable, and she is also ashamed of her propensities.

Doc better be careful, especially as his relationship with Hannah Smith is not going as he would like. He fathered Hannah’s child and is working hard, and effectively, to prove himself a good father to their young son, who lives with Hannah. But Hannah is leary of Doc’s behavior. Too often he must fabricate stories to cover his disappearances when called to duty by that clandestine agency. Hannah knows when he’s fibbing. Delia’s presence doesn’t help matters.

RWW’s books do a fine job of mixing the familiar with the less familiar. He makes the Dinken’s Bay Marina setting in SW Florida an attractive place to live and work. The lifestyle is casual, the friendships pleasurable. Readers can watch Doc in his laboratory, housed at the marina, as he works on his scientific projects. His friend Mack runs the marina with a sure hand, keeping things dependably relaxing.

Mr. White paints this little world of fishermen and boaters with indelible hues. Sometimes danger shows up at or near the marina, but most often the danger is somewhere else and for one reason or another Doc is driven to contend with it.

RWW’s fans expect to be exposed to interesting locals in the SW Florida area and also the Caribbean islands. His secret life takes him to many places, and in this novel establishing a faux identity as Morris Berg is part of the tradecraft that keeps the plot humming.

RWW draws his familiar and new characters with confidence. He makes their individual voices and speech patterns distinctive. After a while, the alert reader will know who’s talking without the names being mentioned.

Doc remains as multi-dimensional as ever. A true friend, a man of courage and varied skills. A man with the self-knowledge that leads to an appropriate humility. His future with Hannah remains cloudy. Tomlinson’s zaniness remains outlandish and a constant text for Doc’s patience.

After the two-year wait, it’s good to have Doc back and in good form.

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Mystery of Lord Byron’s daughter drives fascinating historical novel

A Shadowed Fate, by Marty Ambrose. Severn House. 192 pp. Hardcover $28.99.

Reviewed by Phil Jason  (review accepted by Florida Weekly, but fate  otherwise unknown). Please enjoy.

In this second book in her series, which promises to bring a large and avid readership, Ambrose has retooled a bit, changing the name of the series from The Claire Clairemont Mysteries to the Lord Byron Mystery Series. What’s in a name? Like the earlier “Claire’s Last Secret,” secrets play a large role in the plot and the motives of the character. This one could be called Edward Trelawny’s Secret, as his decade’s long subterfuge is now confessed, explained, and teeters on the edge of being forgiven. 

Claire, the main character, from whose point of view most of the book is narrated, seems to live both in the present time (July 1873) and the much earlier time of her youth and memories (1820-21).

Claire spent much of her life as young woman hanging out with the fashionable Byron-Shelley crowd of writers along with her stepsister Mary Shelley. This young British nobility of the arts lived as expatriates in Italy. Claire had little in the way of financial resources, but as part of this fashionable crowd, which also included Edward Trelawny, she made do.

Trelawny, who wrote a biography of Byron, was her would-be lover; but for Claire, Byron was the real thing. So much so that she gave him a child, Allegra, whose fate is the central question of the story.

Marty Ambrose

In the novel’s present time, Trelawny approaches the aging Claire with a confession of sorts. He breaks promises he had made to the long-deceased Byron that suggest that Allegra, thought to have perished in the near destruction of the convent in which she had been brought up, may have survived.

Byron had placed her there for her protection. A man who had many enemies through his role in the liberation of Greece and for other reasons, he wanted to protect his daughter from those enemies. Those who might be after Allegra would also be after her mother, and, indeed, there are many signs of nefarious doings, including attempts to rob Claire of her handful of papers and artifacts that could be sold for a significant price. These include originals of some of Byron’s writings and a rare drawing. This little horde was Claire’s assurance of some income as she would need it through the remaining years her life.

Along with the fact that Ambrose’s prose captures the nature of Claire and the other characters marvelously, readers are given the opportunity to get into their heads in attractive ways. A series of passages reveal Claire reading or remembering passages from Byron’s diary. Thus. we get to know Byron. In a few strategically placed passages, we are let into Allegra’s thought as the girl living a lonely, parentless life in the convent.  Her father, who she remembers, dares not visit her.

Ambrose shapes the action so that a visit to the convent is inevitable. Claire receives promises from the leader of the institution to check records with the hope of shedding light on Allegra’s fortunes. Is she still alive but hidden and protected in some other way? Did she indeed, perish in the convent catastrophe? Is there anyone else to turn to for information? There is, however all of her traveling to find the sought-for answers seem to be journeys in which she is being watched and shadowed.

Claire’s last hopes are the convent’s superior and the woman whom Byron fell in love with after ending his relationship with Claire. Teresa, equal in age to Claire, invites Claire to visit. She proves to be one of the many finely drawn minor characters that Ambrose weaves into the story. However, the meetings between the two women, pleasant duos of sympathetic hearts and minds, bring no resolution.

Other finely drawn secondary characters include Claire’s niece Paula, whom with her lover Raphael and young daughter Georgiana constitute Claire’s household. But it is Edward Trelawny, on hand through most of the novel, and determined to prove himself to Claire, who is the most fully developed after Claire herself

If you’re a fan of history, romance, and fictional biography, Marty Ambrose will keep you fully engaged with her uniquely orchestrated and poetically cast novel. Moreover, Ambrose provides a remarkable portrait of Italy during the fifty-year stretch in which her plot about Claire’s life and aspirations develops.

 

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