Category Archives: Authors and Books

Lost love regrets lead to uncovering the cause of a mysterious death

The Ephemeral File, by Henry Hoffman. Melange Books. 197 pages. Trade paperback $12.95.

The third installment of the Adam Fraley Mystery Series is an easy-to-like group of tales with an easy-going style and an unusual hero. What’s unusual about Adam? He’s normal: he’s not a superhero, he’s not a tough guy, and he’s not obsessed about firearms, forensics, or procedural conventions. He’s just there to help people and go where the case takes him.  

When Adam’s office manager, Tamra Fugit (pronounced how?) asks him to meet with an elderly man who’s a friend of her aunt, Adam is somewhat hesitate. Taking a case as a favor to someone is not high on his priority list. But he succumbs to Tamra’s entreaty. She’s a person he owes a favor, and she’s extremely good looking.

Roland Westwood is hoping to locate a long-lost love. Adam finds Roland’s lengthy story interesting enough to take the case, even though Roland’s relationship with the girl – Staci Carew – was a tenuous one that began and ended more than fifty years ago during WWII. At that time, Staci was finishing high school and Roland had already begun college. They met at the movie house where Staci worked.

Hoffman

Set largely in Florida’s Pasco County along the Withlacoochie River, Adam’s investigation leads him to a bridge where Staci’s fraternal twin sister, Kati, lost her life. While Mr. Hoffman’s description of this rural area is exceptionally expressive, the interest in the location remains the actions that took place upon the bridge, which soon come into focus.

With Adam, readers learn that the twins had contrasting personalities and didn’t get along well. Kati, an aspiring gymnast, was highly motivated to excel and had the discipline to keep challenging herself and improving her skills. Staci was less motivated. Kati used the bridge structure as an exercise platform.  On one occasion, it seems, things went wrong and she plummeted to her death.

From information that Roland reveals, it seems possible that Staci, jealous of her sister’s acclaim, might have taken the practice session on the bridge as an opportunity to harm her sister, who outdid her in cheerleading competitions and who ended up being favored by Staci’s boyfriend.

Such complications of the available information bring lawyers (including Staci’s husband) and police officers into the story line. The accumulation of facts eventually leads to a highly unexpected resolution in a court of law. . . .

To see the full review, as it appears in the December 12, 2018 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the December 13 Naples, Bonita Springs, and Palm Beach editions, click here: Florida Weekly – Ephemeral File

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“To Catch a Traitor,” by D. B. Shuster

Crime Bytes Media. 308 Pages . Trade Paperback $16.99

Review by Philip K. Jason

In this prequel to her Sins of a Spy series, D. B. Shuster deftly portrays Soviet Jews’ collective state of mind during the 1980s. Soviet Jews continue to face anti-Semitism; they are confined to low-paying work and are used as convenient scapegoats for others’ disappointments. Laws don’t protect them. The KGB shadows them relentlessly, especially those who, for whatever reason, are felt to be a danger to the Soviet system. These conditions are magnified by the desire of many to emigrate either to Israel or the United States. Their goal of escape makes them traitors.

Shuster

The novel centers on the Reitman family—especially on clever, curvaceous Sofia, who has dedicated her life and her talents to achieving Jewish freedom from Soviet oppression. Though KGB agents are everywhere, she has found satisfaction in risk-taking and has become a spy, trained to photograph secret Soviet documents that can be used to shape world opinion and modify Soviet policy. Her handler, Paul, is a CIA agent.

When Sofia’s husband, Mendel, is released early from his five-year prison sentence for teaching Hebrew, he is a greatly altered version of the man Sofia married. It is not clear if his early release involved a deal with his jailers. Mendel won’t talk about it, and it seems that the former intimacy between them cannot be restored. He has learned to be suspicious, even of his wife. . . .

To read the entire review, as found on the Jewish Book Council web site, click here:  To Catch a Traitor

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A Florida farm’s fall festival becomes a setting for murder

Trimmed to Death, by Nancy J. Cohen. Orange Grove Press. 288 pages. Trade paperback $14.99.

This is #15 in “The Bad Hair Day Mysteries” that have won Ms. Cohen many fans – and many imitators – over the years. The author continues to maintain her status as the queen of the cozy mystery, a genre that she not only exemplifies in her own fiction but also defines and gives advice about in the expanded second edition of her guidebook “Writing the Cozy Mystery” (Orange Grove Press, 2018). There are four essentials: the sleuth must be both female and an amateur, and readers must encounter that sleuth fitting her crime-solving into a larger, multifaceted life within a well-defined community.  

Marla Vail, who runs a hair salon in the South Florida town of Palm Haven, is all excited about participating in a fall harvest festival sponsored by Kinsdale Farms, located at the western edge of Broward County. Local business bring attention to themselves by sponsoring competitions that attract entrants who sign up months in advance. The general public just loves the goings-on, the food, and the high spirits.

Marla has entered the baking competition, hoping that her coconut fudge pie will take the prize.

Cohen

Ms. Cohen introduces a very large cast of characters who are involved in the festival in some way. One, Francine Dodger, runs a magazine, another is a chef, and another is a food critic. The festival is a time for people to re-acquaint and to network. It’s also a time for fun.

Francine has set up a Find Franny contest for the festival, a kind of scavenger hunt that involves collecting cards, getting each stamped by answering a question correctly, and being the first to report to Franny with all of them stamped.

Only problem is that when Franny is found, she is dead: murdered!  

Marla’s husband – Detective Dalton Vail – will lead the murder investigation. Yes, you guessed it. Marla will be very busy doing her share of the investigation in her own way. For Dalton, it’s just another case – one of many that will occupy him every day and often for long hours.

For Marla, it’s a task (more like an addiction) squeezed in along with running her business, mothering Dalton’s 18-year-old daughter Brianna, running the household, networking all over own, dealing with her parents, etc., etc. Meanwhile, she is concerned about her clock running out before having a child by Dalton. . . .

To read the full review, as it appears in the November 29, 2018 Naples Florida Weekly and Bonita Springs editions, and the December 5 Fort Myers edition, click here: Florida Weekly – Trimmed to Death

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Havana/Key West conference encourages fruitful discussion but meets disaster

Death on the Menu, by Lucy Burdette. Crooked Lane Books. 304 pages. Hardcover $26.99

This is the 8th installment of Ms. Burdette’s Key West Food Critic mystery series, featuring the lovable Hayley Snow. This time out, it’s under the imprint of a new publisher. When a major three-day event is planned to find common ground between the cities of Havana and Key West, Hayley’s mother gets the catering contract. The venue is the Harry Truman Little White House. As the conference approaches, conflicting political agendas seem likely to undermine this good-will opportunity. They are also undermining the aspirations of the man who manages the Little White House facility.  

Hayley and Miss Gloria (Hayley’s 80+ year old landlady and friend) are pressed into service to help with the catering chores. Meanwhile, Hayley is being pushed by her employers at “Key Zest” magazine to meet several deadlines.

Members of a Cuban-American family get caught in the tangle of cross-purposes, and there is a scandal over the disappearance of a rare piece of Hemingway memorabilia that has been loaned to the event by the Cuban visitors. It has been stolen from its display case.

Who stole it? Why? How and why was Gabriel, a member of that Cuban-American family and assisting the event, murdered?

Well, of course, Hayley can’t help pushing herself into the investigation, even while warned about going too far by her boyfriend, police Detective Nathan Bransford.

Lucy Burdette / photo credit Carol Tedesco

As with previous titles in this series, Hayley’s investigations give Mr. Burdette the opportunity to provide colorful – and flavorful – tours all around Key West. The author brings this unique town fully to life, in both its physical and cultural dimensions. The inside look at the Truman Little White House is delightfully engaging, as is the portrait of the Hemingway home and all the adjacent neighborhoods. Hayley’s connection with the conference catering, as well as her need to generate three restaurant reviews for “Key Zest,” takes readers into a series of food establishments. The focus for the conference menu and for Hayley’s column are Cuban specialties, and these vivid scenes will make readers’ mouths water.

Suspense tightens when a relative of the murdered Gabriel is at first missing and then found seriously injured. It gets even tighter when Detective Bransford allows Hayley to play a dangerous role in the investigation as part of the detective’s plan to draw out the perpetrator. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the November 21, 2018 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the November 22 Naples, Bonita Springs, Key West, and Palm Beach editions, and the November 29 Charlotte County edition, click here: Florida Weekly – Death on the Menu

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“Suitcase Charlie” by John Guzlowski

Kasva Press. 328 Pages. Trade Paperback $14.99.

Review by Philip K. Jason

John Guzlowski beautifully conjures up the seamy side of the allegedly innocent 1950s with a thrilling serial murder mystery featuring two boozehound detectives. For Detective Hank  Purcell, memories of World War II, now ten years distant, invade with regularity. Both he and his Jewish partner, Marvin Bondarowicz, have been known to break the rules. Both men are survivors of the mean streets, appealing in their humorous repartee and in their willingness to seek justice, even if insubordination is part of their means to that end. 

Guzlowski

The case Hank and Marvin are on requires an answer to this question: Who cruelly dismembered a young boy and stuffed his body into a suitcase left on the sidewalk, no doubt meant to be discovered? What is the motive for such cruelty? Hank can’t help but remember the Nazi butchery he witnessed firsthand. Has it found its way to 1956 Chicago?

Soon after the detectives undertake their investigation, several parallel incidents occur; it’s unclear if this is a crime spree by one perpetrator, or if these are independent copycat murders. What will the effects of these horrendous crimes be in the neighborhoods where the suitcases turn up? Why these neighborhoods? Why are the soles of the victims’ feet sliced in an isosceles triangle pattern? To represent, when placed together, the Star of David?

Slowly but surely, the author builds credible references to anti-Semitism and its consequences. Leads appear that Hank would like to pursue, but Marvin, who now announces himself a defender of his people – in fact, makes it clear that their persecution had been his motive for becoming a cop – turns Hank away from pursuing the anti-Semitic possibility. After all, the victims in the suitcases are not Jews. . . .

To read the full review, as it appears on the Jewish Book Council site, click here: Suitcase Charlie

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Techno-thriller finds assassin troubled by shadowy double

Assassin’s Run, by Ward Larsen. Forge. 368 pages. Hardcover $26.99.

This is the fifth of Mr. Larsen’s David Slaton Novels, and it is an amazingly ambitious addition to an ambitious series. A former Mossad operative, Slaton finds himself in a situation in which all fingers point toward him when a series of skillful, high-tech assassinations take place. Now trying to live a no-profile domestic life in order to protect his wife and young son, Slayton knows that he must track down the killer whose efforts are endangering his loved ones and his desire for a tranquil family life.  

He finds himself in the middle of a complex adjustment of the world’s strategic order.

The victims of the unknown assassin are Russian oligarchs who are killed in various settings, each slain by a single bullet that has traveled what seems to be an impossibly long distance. The scenes that reveal how Slaton discovers the exotic technology that his double has been armed with and mastered set an extremely high standard. What Slaton discovers is a large caliber guided bullet that can be programmed and adjusted in a way that parallels the technology of a guided missile.

Larsen

Slaton is approached by CIA agent Anna Sorensen who engages him in an effort to find out why – and by whom – the super-wealthy associates of Russia’s government leader, Petrov, are being threatened.

A weighty handful of additional plot strands slowly become intertwined with the initial action. One involves the private, secretive retooling of retired Russian jet fighters (MiGs) as drones. Another concerns the high-security annual assembly of the extended Saudi royal family. Yet another strand details the convergent mission of three freighters owned by a private Russian combine. We meet Russian military officials, engineers, ship’s captains, and a wide variety of functionaries necessary to populated and sustain the overall plot.

We also, standing behind the characters or the narrator and looking over their shoulders, perceive fascinating vistas. Assassin’s Run is quite a travelogue, taking us to vividly described scenes in Capri, Vieste, Sebastopol, Amalfi, and Rome. We also visit CIA headquarters in Langley, Virgina; the Kremlin in Moscow; Davos, Switzerland; Marrakesh, Morocco; and a collection of other locations. Some visits provide extended views, others a snapshot. The settings feel authoritatively written, but one yearns for a map. . . .

  • To read the entire review, as it appears in the November 7, 2018 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the November 8 Bonita Springs edition, click here:  Florida Weekly – Assassin’s Run

Soon in other local editions. 

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“Death in Shangri-La” by Yigal Zur

Oceanview Publishing. 272 pages. Hardcover $26.95.  

Review by Philip K. Jason

This high-stakes thriller—the second of three titles in the Dotan Naor Thriller series, but the first to be translated into English—takes its protagonist, a former Israeli security operative now working as a private detective, far outside of his usual terrain. It’s not Israel or Israel’s neighboring states that Naor visits on his mission, but the Far East: India, the disputed Kashmir region, and other Asian nations touched by the Himalayas.

Yigal Zur

Naor has agreed to find the missing son of an acquaintance who has made millions as a cutthroat Israeli arms merchant. Willy Mizrachi’s son, Itiel, is seeking peace at an ashram in the Himalayas, a region popular with young Israelis. In his father’s eyes, Itiel’s goals are worthless, yet Willy believes he’s redeemable, or at least persuadable. He wants him back home. . . .

To read the full review, as it appears on the Jewish Book Council site, click here: Shangri-La

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A cautionary tale unfolds in a gemlike psychological thriller

Under My Skin, by Lisa Unger. Park Row Books. 368 pages. Trade Paperback Original $16.99.

Lisa Unger’s craft is so astonishing that it makes me want to cry tears of appreciative joy. Tears are also prompted by the harrowing situation of Ms. Unger’s main character, Poppy, as she tries to rebound from the hideous murder of her husband Jack. In the aftermath of the tragedy, Poppy blanked out for several days, coming to consciousness in a state of confusion. Her identity has been oddly transformed and her confidence shaken.  

With the help of a therapist, she has made a lot of progress in the year since Jack’s death, but she is frequently tormented by strange nightmares that might be distorted memories. Are bits and pieces of the lost days pressing for recognition? There are also other patches of time that she cannot recall. Moreover, she doesn’t trust herself to sort out what’s real and what’s the product of a dream-state.

Her goals are to fill in the blanks and to bring Jack’s murderer to justice. Then to pick up the pieces of her life and move forward.

Poppy’s path to health is thwarted by her abuse of pills and alcohol. She sabotages Dr. Nash’s therapy by lying to her. In her attempts to regain control of her life, she resists the overtures of her controlling best friend, Layla. She also resists the overtures of her controlling mother. Poppy needs to be in control; she needs to set limits on well-meaning intrusions on her autonomy.

Poppy lives in a state of fear; she is pathetically vulnerable.

She believes that she is being tracked by a hooded man who might be connected to Jack’s murder. Her attempts at gaining control show courage but also recklessness. Slowly, ever so slowly, she makes progress.

Important secondary characters include Detective Grayson, the NYPD policeman working the murder case, and a Neil, a man who makes metal sculptures. Neil is a shadowy figure from Poppy’s recent past now clearly an important part of her present. Both are protective of Poppy, but in very different ways and with different motives.

Poppy’s ordeal, her attempt to recapture the idealized memories of her married life, carries the unexpected strain of doubts about the true nature of her relationship with Jack, a relationship compromised by his responses to her two miscarriages. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the October 24, 2018 Fort Myers Florida Weekly, the October 25 Naples, Bonita Springs, and Venice editions, and the November 1 Palm Beach and Charlotte County editions, click  here: Florida Weekly – Under My Skin

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Real and fake terrorists bring Israel-based TV cooking competition mayhem and edgy humor

The Two-Plate Solution: A Novel of Culinary Mayhem in the Middle East, by Jeff Oliver. Bancroft Press. 224 pages. Hardcover $25.00.

Do you like something zany? Something that risks going out of bounds? Something that mixes hilarity with an acute awareness of our addiction to so-called reality television and social media? It’s here at last in Jeff Oliver’s tongue-in-cheek fantasy. Come to the playground Israeli city of Eilat and witness the filming of Natural Dish-aster season five. How do ever-pressured producers and staff keep the ratings up? By mixing the ridiculous with the sublime.  

The cast of character is a mind-boggling mix of media-savvy chefs, production staffers at various levels of the power pyramid, Israelis connected to the production as security liaisons, Islamic terrorists, and actors pretending to be Islamic terrorists. Sure enough, the real thing takes over.

The Grand Sheba Excelsior, home of the production (and not yet open to the public), is the scene of several crimes against sobriety.

Sexual appetites are as much on display as foodies lusting for taste sensations. The competition for climbing the executive ladder of the production company is as cutthroat as any kitchen rivalry.

Perhaps only Jeff Oliver could dream up the possibility of a cooking challenge like “baking bread while running through the desert almost getting murdered by slave owners.”

As the aficionados of cooking competitions know only too well, the televised production often offsets the action with the voices of the contestants as they are interviewed before or after that action. Oliver has a lot of fun with this, interspersing his main action with slices of interviews that reveal his characters’ attitudes.

He also has a lot of fun with puns and improbabilities. One of the competitive teams, “Team Mis En Bouche,” prepares a “deconstructed Seder plate” that includes a Palestinian touch to suggest “a time of racial harmony, without walls, and Arabs were one with the Jews.” It doesn’t matter that one of the characters, Al-Asari, comments: “That interpretation of history is insane.” Or does it?

Jeff Oliver

The dialogue among these reasonably well-defined characters is catchy and fast-paced throughout, though sometimes a bit off-color. Oliver has an ear for language, both scripted and spontaneous, and it serves him and his readers well. Indeed, there are so many characters that is astonishing how sharply individualized they are. Catchy names and heavily underscored traits help the cause.

The character through whom Oliver gets the most mileage in revealing the enormous levels of stress and insecurity that haunts this industry is Genevieve Jennings, an executive whose position and future seem in jeopardy. Manic fear and ambition collide in her personality, but she finds a way of coming through. She gets the job done largely on her own terms. But why is she labeled with her last name in a female group including Sara, Ruti, Sharon, and Tanya?

While much of the author’s satiric direction is quickly understood, leaving the book’s structure to be basically a “can you top this” stream of frenzied ingenuity, there are enough refreshing surprises to keep readers turning pages.

One of these is the introduction of Ruchama – The Halva Queen of Eilat – who so impresses the production staff that she is invited to become a contest judge. Taking advantage of her respected skills and knowledge, the chefs compete for an unexpected prize by conjuring the most satisfactory and unusual halva recipe. And why not? Even the ones with savory features stand a chance.

Friendship, romance, and rivalry are the umbrellas under which the many and diverse relationships may be found. And, indeed, relationships undergo changes in this ultimately hopeful adventure.

Oliver knows that settling the Arab-Israeli conflict is no joke, but he chooses to pretend, and invite his readers to pretend, that it is. Or that the answer might be found through humorous exploration. The punning title begins the process. You’ll have to make your own journey to discover how it ends.

About the Author:

Jeff Oliver is Vice President of Current Production at Bravo and a former executive at the Food Network, where he developed the hit series Cutthroat Kitchen and worked on other such epic culinary hits as Worst Cooks in America and The Culinary Adventures of Baron Ambrosia. He is the author of the acclaimed debut novel Failure to Thrive. Jeff lives in Maplewood, New Jersey with his wife, Liz Blazer, and son.

Meet Jeff on Thursday, November 29 at 11:30 p.m. at the Hilton Naples, where be speaking at a special luncheon session of the Greater Naples Jewish Book Festival. For more info, check out www.jewishbookfestival.org

The review appears in the November 2018 Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Greater Naples). It is also found in several local editions of Florida Weekly.

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“Promised Land: A Novel of Israel,” by Martin Fletcher

Thomas Dunne Books / St. Martin’s Press. 416 pages. Hardcover $28.99.

Martin Fletcher’s Promised Land is a literary triumph of near-contemporary historical fiction that is magnetic, surprising, and should be read and enjoyed for decades to come. The scope of the book runs from 1950, shortly after Israel’s establishment as a modern nation, to 1967, a time of its most severe testing.  

Fletcher deals in wars: the wars amongst the Jewish citizenly, the wars with Israel’s neighbors, and the wars within an extended family that contains Egyptian Jews exiled (fortunately) to the Jewish state.

And there is the aftermath of war, too, expressed through the sons of Holocaust victims, the elder of whom reached freedom in the United States before settling in Israel, and the younger son — emotionally wounded — who was incarcerated, tortured, and barely escaped with his life.

For all of its impression of compactness, Promised Land is a novel of generations, reminiscent of the Old Testament’s presentation of Jewish families to whom, as the story goes, the Creator conditionally gave the original promised land. What would seem more biblical than warring brothers?

When they were still children, Peter Berg was put on a train that took him west, the initial stage of a journey that led to safety with an American family. He grew up with their children. Arie, then called Aren, was somewhat later put on a train that took him, his parents, and his sisters to the concentration camps. Aren alone survived, but at great cost to his psyche.

Martin Fletcher – Credit Chelsea Dee

Miraculously, the brothers are reunited in 1947. Peter, who had been in the U.S. Army, is already a founding agent of the young CIA. Learning of his brother’s survival, he searches for him in Palestine. Aren Berg is now named Arie ben Nesher, and Peter Berg decides to become Peter Nesher, transferring his allegiance to the cause of Jewish nationhood.

Peter becomes a leader in matters of Israeli security, and Arie becomes a prominent entrepreneur who enjoys showing off his wealth. Along the way, another family enters their lives, a family of Jewish-Egyptian refugees whose glory is their beautiful, intelligent daughter Tamara.

The time markers move along: 1950, 1952, 1953, 1954, 1956, and so on into the 1960s, with the author carefully developing his characters and his portrait of the burgeoning Israeli nation, along with reminders of the constant menace of its nearby Arab-Islamic neighbors. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the Washington Independent Review of Books, click here:  Promised Land.

Martin Fletcher appears on the January 9 program of the Greater Naples Jewish Book Festival. See GNJBF

 

 

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