Tag Archives: book reviews

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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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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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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“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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Comedy superstar headlines Greater Naples Jewish Film Festival

When You Lie About Your Age, the Terrorists Win (Villard, 2009) and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Crying (Quirk, Books, 2014).

Carol Leifer

Carol Leifer’s stories bring tonic laughter and wacky wisdom.

As she does in her classic stand-up routines, Carol Leifer talks about herself as a way of talking about all of us, certainly the female spectrum of all of us. The chapters of these two books, books which are different in several ways, are either chapters in her own life or observational chapters about what goes on around her. Sometimes abrasive, sometimes sensitive, but always funny and wise.

In When You Life About Your Age, the Terrorists Win, a good deal of the focus has to do with turning forty and what follows from that time marker through another decade or so.

The perspective is feminist, Lesbian, and Jewish all braided into one brainy package. 

It is not about her career, but in a way it is very much a part of her career. You can hear her voice bringing her material to an audience – all of us.

The title of the second chapter says it well: 40 Things I Know at 50 Because 50 is the New Forty.

Enjoy family stories about growing up, mom and dad, exploring and enhancing her Jewish identity, discovering and acting on her Lesbian inclinations, and the family she creates with her partner and their adopted son. The stories explore the tension that we all share between the way we’d like things to be and the way they are: our appearance, our values, surviving our mistakes, our health, and our relationships – including relationships with pets.

Considering the need for better quality breast implants, devices she would never use, she shouts out in the safety of her thoughts: “Why am I fighting for your fake tits when you’re not bringing anything to my table?”

Carol wonders about the women she meets who are a generation or two younger than herself. She doesn’t see them carrying the torch as she and her contemporaries carried through the earlier decades of the Women’s Movement.

She wonders about her “quid pro quo” attitude toward gift-giving. Is getting even what it’s all about? Is it just a family or “Jewish” thing? And how did a classic gift, the “chafing dish,” get its name? Should it be treated with Vaseline before use?

Have we become “lazy-ass weenies,” she asks, needing “comfort grips” on our tooth brushes and pens? What’s that all about? 

Carol’s experiences in her various doctors’ offices will bring knowing smiles from her readers. But when they get to the part about a mammogram, when the radiology tech says that the doctor wants “a few more films of your left breast,” readers will know we’ve slid off the comic table for a page or two. Luckily all turned out well. What tremendous emotional resonance is in that vignette.

Ultimately, this earlier book is a celebration of aging. Carol helps us all celebrate together.

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Crying, published in a small page format, is also a memoir, and it covers some of the same thematic concerns. This time, however, Carol plunges into her career history as both a hugely successful stand-up comedian and brilliant television comedy writer. Guess what? Carol has found a way to make this self-help book applicable to almost any career that one might wish to enter. And it’s not just about breaking in, but about staying and rising to the top.

While she draws examples from her own experiences – and these are all terrifically entertaining stories – she extracts the transferable lessons in a way that make sense to anyone aspiring to get started in the world of work, to change directions, or to reach a higher level of achievement.

Carol underscores the need for constructive attitude building that leads to positive action plans. She explores the value of making and keeping useful connections. She insists that consistently treating others well will pay off, while treating them poorly is likely to come back to haunt you and block your path. She shows how you can rebound from a negative experience and often transform it into something unexpectedly positive.

It doesn’t hurt that we get to encounter models of successful professional performers whom we think we already know: Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David, Bette Midler, David Letterman Jay Leno, and Frank Sinatra are only a small handful of the many show business celebrities with whom Carol has worked and who have helped shape her own expertise about climbing the ladder of success and not falling off. Her rules for the road are in themselves quite a ride. Laughs are everywhere.

An extra added ingredient in this book is the inclusion of dozens of photographs.

Well known for her stand-up specials on TV and her award-winning contributions as a writer to such television series as Seinfeld, Saturday Night Live, and Modern Family, Carol Leifer will be joining the staff for the upcoming season of Curb Your Enthusiasm as a Writer/Producer.

Come to the Hilton Naples to laugh and learn when trailblazer Carol Leifer leads off the Greater Naples Jewish Book Festival on October 17 at 7:30 p. m.  Schedule and ordering Information is available online at http://www.jewishbookfestival.org. You can also send email to fedstar18@gmail.com or call the Federation office at 239.263.4205.

This review appears in the October 2018 Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Greater Naples) and also in the Naples Florida Weekly. See Leifer

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“On the Landing: Stories by Yenta Mash”

Ellen Cassedy, trans. Northern Illinois University Press. 192 pages. Trade Paperback $16.95.

Review by Philip K. Jason

The sixteen stories in this collection, carefully selected and translated from Yenta Mash’s life’s work in Yiddish, form a series of quiet explosions. Though they sometimes cry out, the voices are strangely subdued, recording as they do life behind the Iron Curtain in the decades of Soviet strangulation of subject peoples. Communities in Bessarabia, Moldova, and Siberia were at best unofficial prisons for aspiring souls and curious minds and at worst, official ones. For the surprisingly large, if relatively unknown, Jewish communities, the burdens included that of anti-Semitism.

For some, including Mash, immigration to Israel during and after the collapse of the Soviet Empire in the 1970s was a mixed blessing. There was so much that was unfamiliar, so much to get used to. More importantly, there was so much to remember before the memories would vanish.

In one story in this collection, Mash takes us into the lives of two young women, foresters working long hours for a bare subsistence. They cut down trees, prepare the trunks and branches for usable lumber, and carry them to be examined by their boss. The narrator is dependent on her more skillful coworker, Riva, without whom she would be lost. It’s the dead of winter, and there is no expectation of respite from the frozen misery of their lives. These intimates are the family breadwinners. From time to time, they make one another laugh. Though their relationship turns sour in later years, readers are left with their strength and indomitable spirits. What’s enchanting in this story and others is the comfortable way in which the characters carry their Jewish selves—with a mixture of knowledge and habit that sometimes seems more nourishing than any other part of their existence. . . .

To see the full review, as it appears on the Jewish Book Council site, click here: On the Landing

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Educating, entertaining fiction about seniors and assisted living

Don’t Admit You’re in Assisted Living – First Mystery: The Kiss, by Dorothy Seymour Mills. Blue Water Press LLC. 154 pages. Trade paperback $15.95.

This delightful three-part mystery series by Ms. Mills, who recently turned ninety, provides an insightful and humorous look at senior living communities. The author’s model for the setting, a place she calls Locksley Glen, is her Naples home of The Carlisle. However, she is writing fiction and she means for her exploration of such a community to be representative. Through this book, readers will journey into a world of people “who are past being active physically and whose ability to contribute to modern life is limited by physical decline and encroaching age-connected illness.” 

As the novel makes clear, these people, mostly women, are abundantly alive, curious, engaged, and brimming with experiential knowledge. They offer one another vital, shareable experience in a setting made to order for their needs.

When 80-year-old Locksley resident Clarence is spotted accepting a kiss from a young Greek waiter named Petros, the rumor mill starts grinding. Alice, the principal character and the narrator, wonders if this behavior – an elderly man showing sexual interest in a teenage employee – fits into the parameters of normality. What is the revealed relationship all about? What is the mystery behind the kiss?

Some speculation about sexual activity between senior citizens follows, but the question is left up in the air. It seems less and less important as another strange event take over the imaginations of the residents. Someone is stabbed during a Halloween party.

Dorothy Mills

Preparations for the party involve the creation of costumes. A most popular and attractive resident, Starr, borrows some paint from Alice, who is an artist about to have a significant exhibition of her paintings. Starr uses the paint to fashion a cardboard gun and knife as part of her outlaw cowboy costume. Somehow the imitation knife is replaced by a real one – a steak knife stolen from the Locksley Glen kitchen.  It ends up being used as a weapon in a real crime against Petros’s father, Tzannis Papadopoulos, who Petros had been trying to prevent from being allowed into the United States. Meanwhile, the cardboard knife is found to have real blood on it. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the September 27, 2018 Naples, Bonita Springs, and Palm Beach editions and the October 3 Fort Myers and Charlotte County editions, click here:  Assisted Living

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