Tag Archives: Authors and Books

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.”

Givens

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.

Patterson

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.

Born

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 work reading about. He (let’s say “he” for convenience) has his ups and downs.

Though he’s been around and 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.

Glinert

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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Serial killer pursued by a most worthy, though inexperienced, FBI adversary

Before Evil, by Alex Kava. Prairie Wind Publishing. 336 pages. Hardcover $27.00, Trade paperback $15.99.

It’s not every day in the book business that you run into a prequel for a highly regarded thriller series. However, here it is displacing A Perfect Evil as the first installment of the long-lived Maggie O’Dell Series in that it is constructed to bring readers a slightly younger and less experienced version of the series protagonist.  Maggie is already recognized as a particularly talented young FBI agent, proficient as a profiler and as a forensic wiz.

Kava

She has done much of her work fielding inquiries from other agents via computer. Now, though her somewhat reluctant supervisor provides her first field assignment – a real live crime sign. Problem is the victims are no so very live. Serial killer Albert Stucky is as crazy as he is skilled. He haunts backwoods Virginia (though he has killed elsewhere) and is brazen enough to enjoy being identified – though as a master of disguise his apparent identities are just part of a game. He is a grand manipulator. He leaves messages for the law enforcement officers who are trying to track him down and end the carnage.

He finds Maggie to be an irresistible adversary.

Chapters focused on Maggie and her co-workers are alternated with chapters that takes readers into Stucky’s brilliant but damaged mind. He’s a killer who simply loves his work. A man who has made millions of dollars, Stuckey needs bigger thrills than money can provide. He has developed a slew of well-planned hiding places, and no description of him will hold up as he readily discards and replaces signs of age, physical stature, social class, and anything else identifying that one might think of.

Stuckey is a careful and usually meticulous planner. He loves it when a plan comes together, but he also enjoys surviving risky adventures. He’s a show-off. There is nothing, however, like the thrill of the kill. His major weapon is a crossbow. He is truly a hunter – mostly of women. He often imprisons his victims before ultimately destroying them. He fancies himself a surgeon, and he leaves evidence of his skill. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the December 27, 2017 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the December 28 Naples, Bonita Springs, and Charlotte County editions, click here: Florida Weekly – Before Evil.

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Phil’s Picks 2017

The following is a list of outstanding books reviewed in these (Florida Weekly) pages during the past year. In a way, all the books reviewed are outstanding, as they were selected from a much longer list of books crying for attention and in many cases deserving such attention. However, I can only review one each week in my column.  The full reviews can be found by using the search box on the Naples edition of the Florida Weekly web site: Floridaweekly.com. So, here are an even dozen titles, nine fiction and three non-fiction, for your reading and gifting pleasure.

To encounter reviews that I’ve prepared for other publications, go to philjason.wordpress.com.

The Magdalen Girls, by V. S. Alexander. Kensington. 304 pages. Trade paperback $15.00. 

Set near Dublin in the 1960s, this unusual novel carefully constructs a powerful vision of religiosity run amok. Its focus is two teenage girls who are assigned to the Magdalen Laundries at The Sisters of the Holy Redemption Convent. Their parents have assigned their care to the convent, believing that its discipline and Spartan living conditions will bring the young women to faith, responsibility, and eventually to productive, upright lives. That’s the positive spin on the parents’ motives, which readers will find far less noble.

In fact, the institution is a prison and slave labor operation, all in the name of Jesus and his Father.

An Honorable War, by Robert N. Macomber. Pineapple Press. 392 pages. Hardcover $26.95. Trade paperback $16.95.

How does Mr. Macomber keep doing this? The thirteenth installment of his splendid Honor Series, like the earlier titles in the series, once again transforms a pile of historical fact into a colorful, well-imagined, and highly suspenseful entertainment. Captain Peter Wake, assigned to the Office of Naval Intelligence, is no desk-jockey, but a man of action – in this case leading the action plan that he designed to satisfy the ambitious and often outlandish Theodore Roosevelt, Assistant Secretary of the Navy. The author’s subtitle sets the historical scene: “The Spanish-American War Begins.”

This episode, cast as another segment of the memoirs of Peter Wake, launches a three-part trilogy within the burgeoning series.

Kenmore Square: A Novel by Carol June Stover. Champlain Avenue Books. 264 pages. Trade paperback, $13.99.  

Set in Boston during the 1950s and early 1960s, this curious coming-of-age tale involves unusual characters and several life-altering secrets.

Iris Apple’s world is rocked at the age of 10, when her mother is murdered. Iris suspects her crude and cruel father might very well be the murderer, but she has no way of acting on her suspicions.

Nick Apple, son of a well-known Boston bookie, runs the Kenmore Square rooming house where the family lives among the down and out boarders. One boarder is very special: Madame Charlemagne, a once-popular performer who has become a recluse. The aging cabaret singer and young Iris assist and console one another in various ways.

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

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

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

An Ice Age Mystery: Unearthing the Secrets of the Old Vero Site, by Rody Johnson. University Press of Florida. 224 pages.  Hardcover $24.95. 

For 100 years, the human and other remains of Vero, Florida have engaged the skills and imagination of professional and amateur archaeologists. Just what was the region like during the Ice Age? What grew there? What were the geological features? Did animals thrive? Did humans leave their marks — and their bones – somewhere in the layers of sediment washed by intruding waters? Why are these questions important?

The history of archaeological investigations of “the Old Vero site” is characterized by sporadic periods of accelerated interest and action separated by longer periods of general neglect. Rody Johnson tells the story in a highly accessible style, even making the forays into science understandable and engaging.

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 Ghost Ship of Brooklyn, by Robert P. Watson. Da Capo Press. 304 pages. Hardcover $28.00.

Lynn University Professor Robert P. Watson makes reading history a totally engaging experience. He does so by choosing unusual and challenging topics, setting them into contexts rich in detail, and presenting them in a prose style that is clear, vivid, and uncluttered by academic jargon. His latest book is a piece of fine storytelling, accessible to the general reader. Prof. Watson makes historical events shine as if they were today’s news. Readers will care about what happened on HMS Jersey, the major British prison ship during the American Revolution.

As he must, the author attaches his relatively narrow topic to a few larger concentric circles: prison ships in general; overcrowded British prisons in the colonies and insufficient buildings to repurpose; and the overall Revolutionary War. The book’s spatial focus is New York, particularly Brooklyn waterways, and New England.

Cold Water Canoe Club, by Jeffery Hess. Down & Out Books. 292 pages. Trade paperback $16.95.

I can’t think of another short story collection that I’ve read in recent years that has given me such a jolt of vicarious experience and insight. Original, fraught with every kind of pain, clearsighted and despairing, Mr. Hess’s book takes us to external and internal places that most of us have been able to avoid. And that avoidance has distanced us from people, whole swaths of society, who we have unwittingly depended on to keep us safe – and even prosperous.

Given today’s concerns about American’s conflicts and rivalries with Putin’s Russia, a group of 15 stories focused on the lives of Navy seamen during the Cold War has an added dimension of relevance. In addition, the stories are amazingly well-written, filled with an abundance of explosive imagery, and presented through unmistakably authentic first or third person voices. Well, perhaps there is a bit of literary overlay on and around these voices.

Florida Soul: From Ray Charles to KC and the Sunshine Band, by John Capouya. University Press of Florida. 374 pages. Hardcover $24.95. 

For a scholarly enterprise, this book is notable for its high energy and conversational tone. One can feel the author’s obvious excitement over the opportunity to celebrate the dazzling contributions of those in the art and business of soul music. It’s a sizeable group of talented and inventive characters who make longer or shorter appearances in this lively slice of Florida’s cultural history. Interestingly, though soul is thought of as a sturdy branch in the tree of Afro-American music, Mr. Capouya makes it clear that white performers and other white music industry professionals played major roles in the regional and national success of this musical genre.

Mr. Capouya’s chaptering system links the recording artists and other music professionals with key ciites, large and small, in the history of the genres development and significant presence. His titles add up to a map of the world we are exploring, but without an actual map. Clearly, the state has been saturated with native born or adopted Floridians who build a musical tradition.

Come Home, by Patricia Gussin. Oceanview Publishing. 368 pages. Hardcover $26.95.

Remember 2011 – the year of the Arab Spring? The turmoil in the Middle East provides a backdrop for Ms. Gussin’s fast-paced thriller. Ahmed Masud, middle son in a wealthy Egyptian family, is called back to Cairo to help prepare for his family’s future after the Mubarak regime collapses. Their wealth derives being favored by Mubarak’s son, who handed them an Egyptian cotton empire. Also, Ahmed’s parents wish to see his five-year-old son, Alex. Succumbing to their pressure, and unsettled by medical malpractice lawsuits, Ahmed steals his son away to Cairo, rashly jeopardizing his marriage and the American dream lifestyle he and his wife, also a plastic surgeon, have shared.

Readers will be puzzled by Ahmed’s sudden sense of family duty, as was his wife, Dr. Nicole Nelson, who is outraged and crushed by his behavior. She wants her son back! Nicole rallies the support of her twin sister Natalie and their accomplished, successful brothers.

The Shark Club, by Ann Kidd Taylor. Viking. 288 pages. Hardcover $26.00. 

Maeve Donnelly is the thirty-year-old protagonist of this elegantly written first novel. She is part of the shark club triumvirate, the other two being her long-time boyfriend Daniel and Daniel’s daughter, six-year-old Hazel. This informal mutual interest group was put together to help Hazel find stability in a young life that has been – and still is –filled with uncertainty.

Maeve and Daniel have decided to see if their long-severed relationship, once seen as strong and vibrant, can be restored. Hazel is the unplanned child of a woman with whom Daniel had a quick affair. That misstep cost him Maeve’s trust. Hazel’s mother died. Now the question is whether these three individuals – the only members of the shark club – can form normative family bonds. Maeve and Hazel are bonding in beautifully, but there is still something keeping some distance between Daniel and Maeve.

When They Come for You, by James W. Hall. Thomas & Mercer 288 pages. Trade Paperback $15.95.

Add James W. Hall to the list of premier mystery/thriller authors who have jumped tracks from a classic series featuring a male protagonist to a new series featuring a female character. Having raved over Michael Connelly’s Renée Ballard and Randy Wayne White’s Hannah Smith, I am now gushing over Mr. Hall’s Harper McDaniel.

We meet Harper on a pleasant February day in her Coconut Grove home. Her husband Ross, an investigative reporter, is shaving while holding their infant son Leo. Harper must snap a picture of them. That’s part of her nature as a professional photographer who is also the daughter of Deena Roberts, a photographer superstar and a suicide. A few blocks away, Spider Combs performs his electronic surveillance of the home, taking pictures and filming the movements of the gorgeous Harper. He knows a lot about this family, a family he has been contracted to destroy. Only Harper survives the fire.

That’s all, folks! See complete review as it appears in the the December 21, 2017 Naples Florida Weekly , the December 27 Fort Myers edition, and the December 28 Bonita Springs and Charlotte County editions. Link is to first page of article. Continue through the following pages.  Florida Weekly – Phil’s Picks 2017

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“The Ruined House: A Novel” by Ruby Namdar

Translated by Hillel Halkin. Harper. 528 pp. Hardcover $29.99.

This breathtaking tale of a prominent professor’s undoing is expertly woven with biblical passages.

Some books are so spectacularly original, so far beyond the boundaries of any reader’s expectations, and so challenging that they establish a new point of reference for any further discussions of literary achievement.

Ruby Namdar’s The Ruined House, set at the dawn of the 21st century, explores the givens of a cataclysmic era that may become a period of tumultuous cleansing. Though centered on the physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual disintegration of a successful, middle-aged college professor, it fully engages the new American century’s self-masking: its adulation of elites and its confusion of cultural values.

Namdar

Andrew P. Cohen, an accomplished and proud secular Jew, has tripped over the scales of hubris and found himself to be a foul beast. His aura of polite self-congratulation has become contaminated and slowly begins to smother him. His many faults, the recognition of which he has artfully hidden from himself for decades, are in the process of being revealed.

The selfishness with which he ended his marriage is exposed to him. The comfort and security he felt in his academic achievements, the physical attractiveness and health that he nurtured and in which he delighted, and his assumption of fully controlling his always upward-bound destiny are most painfully stripped away.

Namdar tells his story, almost sings it, with a lyricism that is only the richer for the hideous images that increasingly fill up Cohen’s world as he falls apart. The erotic turns into its hideous opposite. Images of grotesque tongues and penises fill his imagination.  He sees signs of what’s coming, has nightmares and incredible daydreams, and they all finally rest on how his being — if not his world — has been penetrated, irradiated, by ancient texts: sections of Old Testament with accompanying Mishnaic commentary.

This material, represented in the graphic style of the original manuscripts, focuses on the preparation of the Temple’s high priest for performing his duties during the seven days leading to Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar. These duties are largely rituals of purification, but also include various kinds of sacrifices — offerings to God.

Inner and outer cleansing of the self and the temple are described, along with a number of sacred objects like fire pans and candelabras. The strange ceremonial practice of purifying holy places by sprinkling them with blood is included. . . .

To read the full review, click here: The Ruined House

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A powerfully imagined novel explores the causes and consequences of an unjust murder conviction

Monument Road, by Michael Wiley. Severn House. 256 pages. Hardcover $28.99.

When we first meet Franky Dast, he is just out of prison. Falsely convicted of a double murder eight years ago, Franky, in is mid-twenties is entering a world he has not yet begun to figure out. Largely due to his own efforts, his has been given his freedom. He was betrayed by Higby, a demonic arresting officer who put him on death row, by his ill-equipped public defender, and by a system that had no interest in raising questions about the past. Bitter over the lost years and the taint on his name, Franky gains employment with the Justice Now Initiative, a small organization that aids people facing the same problem of having been unjustly imprisoned.  

A haunted man, Franky is not an ideal employee, but his supervisors nurture him as best they can.

In order to more fully establish his innocence, Franky feels the need to discover who was really guilty of murdering those two brothers, young teenagers, with whom Franky had an innocent encounter that doomed him.

Just as he had done much of the investigative work that set him free, Franky is back at it again, trying to to follow up on the death of those boys and to others whose lives and deaths seem to have linked circumstances and details.

With no bars hemming him in, often confused, and determined to be in charge of his own life, Franky is taking chances that might get him in trouble.

Michael Wiley

This gorgeously crafted, shudderingly dark novel blends the genres of psychological thriller and murder mystery. Many will find the author’s probing of Franky’s tormented psyche to have primary appeal. However, the young man is also an adept reasoner and a bulldog at getting close to people who may have secrets that he needs to draw out.

The version of Jacksonville that Mr. Wiley takes us through is a stretch of the urban and suburban American South blighted by corruption and contamination of all kinds. Autopsies reveal unusually high mercury levels; a powerful judge holds sway over how and whether law –  as actualized in the sheriff’s department and the courtroom – is administered; and the low-end rooming house where Franky rents a room is a sordid, grimy place (although its owner/manager seems to be a competent and caring person). . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the November 29, 2017 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the November 30 Naples, Charlotte County, and Palm Beach editions, click here: Florida Weekly – Monument Road

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“Barren Island: A Novel,” by Carol Zoref

New Issues Poetry & Prose. 408 Pages. Hardcover  $26
Review by Philip K. Jason

Can you imagine making a life in the shadow of a rendering plant, a place where the stench of rotting horse carcasses and related animal decay is ever present—a place isolated from the Brooklyn shore, though regularly visited by barges bringing an unending supply of disintegrating remains for the glue factory? Such is Barren Shoals, which, like the neighboring Barren Island, is a last resort for poor immigrant families. 

Zoref’s narrator, eighty-year-old Marta Eisenstein Lane, was born and raised in this repugnant place. Through Marta, the author traces the life of a neglected, impoverished community that is distanced in every way from the American Dream. Indeed, a critique of that dream is one level at which this exceptional and surprising novel operates.

There are many other levels. Zoref’s book is truly an historical novel, taking us through the aftermath of World War I, the brief epoch of good times for many that followed, and the crushing Depression eventually to be relieved by the dawning of World War II. She explores how people outside of the mainstream receive news and process it: news about government programs, about the unionization of labor, and about the various utopian “isms” for redistributing power and wealth.

Carol Zoref

The heart of the novel covers Marta’s life from the age of about seven through her high school graduation and her refusal to pursue an opportunity to enter Hunter College. It focuses on the Eisenstein family and other immigrant families (Greeks, Italians, etc.), revealing the hardships of their lives and the power of their passions. Its large cast of memorable characters includes Marta’s mother and brother, her best friend Sophia, and her teacher—the wise, talented, and effective Miss Finn. . . .

To read the full review, as it appears on the Jewish Book Council web site, click here: Barren Island by Carol Zoref | Jewish Book Council

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Showing kids how ordinary people can have enormous effects on our world

I Am Gandhi and I Am Sacagawea, by Brad Meltzer. Illustrated by Christopher Eliopoulos. Dial Books for Young Readers. 40 pages. Hardcover $14.99.

Meltzer

These two recent titles add scope and impact to the already substantial “Ordinary People Change the World” series. The series of picture books, which has 2 million copies in print, provides young readers (as well as their parents and grandparents), with laudable heroes. The hook is that as children they were no so exceptional. Another attraction is that Mr. Meltzer has these historical characters tell their own stories. He invents friendly voices for each of them, voices inviting to the children being addressed. 

“I Am Gandhi,” the narrator announces his inauspicious beginnings. Small of stature, the socially backward boy was a poor soccer player and a mediocre student. Early on, he became attracted to the lives of those who had helped others. He was sensitive to the fact many people were desperately poor and consistently treated as unworthy beings. Laws prevented them from improving their lives.

He reveals how his life in South Africa, where Indians were suppressed, led him to be politically active but never violent. He would break laws that were prejudicial, accept the punishment, and exercise his mind to find new paths for successful protest. His paved the way for the Indian Relief act of 1914 and set the pattern for his later activities back India through the Indian National Congress. This political force slowly broke down the shackles of British rule of India. Gandhi’ commitment to nonviolent but unshakeable protest influenced future leaders throughout the world.

“I Am Sacagawea” repeats the formula while providing insights into a very different slice of history. The young Shoshoni Indian tells about her tribe being attacked by another tribe. Captured, she was given to a French Canadian man. At that time, she received her name. She also became pregnant and had a child named Pomp.

This teenager proved her worth as a translator, as someone who understood the terrain that the Lewis and Clark expedition first encountered, and as someone capable of finding food and of rescuing supplies that had fallen off a boat. . . .

Eliopoulos

To read the entire review, as it appears in the November 22, 2017 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the November 23 Naples, Bonita Springs, Charlotte County, and Palm Beach editions, click here:  Florida Weekly – Meltzer’s books for kids

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