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Mystery of Lord Byron’s daughter drives fascinating historical novel

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marty Ambrose

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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An unlikely hero makes the best of his shortcomings

Trouble in Mind, by Michael Wiley. Severn House. 224 pages. Hardcover $28.99.

Mr. Wiley has returned to the Chicago setting to launch the Sam Kelson Mystery Series. His recent books have been set in Jacksonville, where he teaches at the University of North Florida. His Shamus Award-winning Joe Kozmarsky Series was also set in Chicago. The author’s new main character is an unlikely hero battling with handicaps that make his exploits particularly intriguing and sometimes comical. 

Sam’s last assignment on the Chicago Police Force involved a young and highly successful drug peddler nicknamed Bicho (Spanish for Bug). Attempting to lead an undercover narcotics team to make an arrest, Sam exchanged gunfire with Bicho and killed him. Cop and crook had fired at the same time, and the bullet that entered Sam’s brain changed his life.

When Sam is rushed to the hospital, his police buddy, Toselli, breaths enough oxygen into him to save his life.

Two years later, Sam is running a low-end private eye business. He admits to his clients that among his shortcomings is his inability to keep a secret. This is one outcome of the bullet that went into his left frontal lobe. He also is compelled to answer unasked questions and to laugh for no obvious reason. He has trouble navigating doorways. These and other results of his near-fatal wounding are on display throughout the story, provoking sympathy and smirks. His ability to function well enough and his desire to help people makes him a one-of-a-kind hero.

Wiley

When Trina Felbanks become Sam’s client, his situation quickly takes a turn for the worse. Trina asks him to find out if her brother, a pharmacist, had been dealing drugs. When Sam shows up at Christian Felbanks’ home, he at first doesn’t find any sign of it being a place where drugs are being hidden, manufactured, or sold. However, he does make a shocking discovery: someone has put a bullet hole in Mr. Felbanks’ head. Just as Sam makes this discovery, a SWAT team rushes in and arrests Sam for the murder. Clearly, he has been set up, and his client must have played a role in this charade. Arrested on suspicion of murder, he makes an even more startling discovery concerning his client’s identity.

Who is the murderer and why has Sam been chosen as the fall guy? . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the March 25, 2020 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the March 26 Naples, Bonita Springs, Charlotte County, and Venice editions, click here:  Trouble in Mind

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“BELLS FOR ELI,” by Susan Beckham Zurenda

BELLS FOR ELI, by Susan Beckham Zurenda. Mercer University Press. 280 pages. Hardcover $25.00

Review by Philip K. Jason

Coming of age narratives, particularly about young women, have long been a staple in the literature of the American South. Zurenda’s marvelous book is a major achievement in this genre. It is deeply moving, troubling, and gloriously poetic. It brings to life small town South Carolina during the 1960s and 70s in a gorgeous and profound tale of the heart’s competing destinies.

Eli Winfield and Delia Green are first cousins, almost identical in age, growing up in and sharing the often-conflicting values of Green Branch, a small town with a long history.

The core drama of the novel begins with a serious accident. Eli swallows some lye, and the consequences are a severe physical and psychological handicap. The lye burns everything in its internal path through his body, and Eli only partly emerges from a trauma that follows him through his life. He endures a tracheotomy and is hospitalized for six months. He requires and tube in his throat.

Among the other children, he is a freak – a misfit. He needs special accommodations in order to make his young way in the world. His breathing and speech are strange. His accident has raised being different to a higher power.

Photo by Anna Beckham

Cousin Delia remains close and supportive to him, but Eli, with a mixture of resentment and bravado, remains a boy apart.

The author’s skill at bring readers into Eli’s changed world, and Delia’s part in his steps toward various stages of recovery, is remarkable. We get to know the cousins (and the larger extended family) extremely well.

As they mature socially, physically, and intellectually, the cousins’ abiding love for one another undergoes many tests and modifications. Eli strives to assert his likeness to the other kids, but for years he remains a freak, and he overcompensates to assert his worth and dignity. He is remarkable in what is essentially a losing fight. He’s been judged, taken advantage of, belittled, and humiliated. You know how kids can be. Well, the worst of rotten kid behavior is thrown in Eli’s path.

As the narrative builds, the attraction and love between the first cousins raises the issue of how, given religious strictures important to Delia, they cannot consider marriage. . . .

To read the full review, as first published in the Southern Literary Review, click here: 

 

 

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Fierce tornadoes complicate the work of well-trained rescue dogs

Review by Phil Jason

Desperate Creed, by Alex Kava. Prairie Wind Publishing. 320 pages. Hardcover $27.99.

The fifth title in the Ryder Creed Series has a bit of everything, including deadly politics, lost and found souls, broken and repaired families, and the uncanny efficiency of well-trained search and rescue dogs. The latter interest is the vital center of the whole series, with the magical coupling of trainer and K-9 presented once again in a moving, dynamic fashion.

The added complication in this installment is the overwhelming power of fierce tornadoes that shows no respect for man, beast, roads, buildings, or anything else in its way. Ms. Kava’s description of this deadly series of tornadoes in Alabama, the damage done, and the human responses is truly magnificent. She scribes a poetry of natural disaster.

Frankie Russo works for a big Chicago advertising firm where she is paired with a young hotshot named Tyler. He and his friend Deacon Kaye plan to do an analysis of cereal and breakfast bars from Carson Foods. Tyler suspects that the glyphosate used in their products is toxic. Tyler has been hacking the company’s emails, discovering problems including the involvement of a U.S. Senator in plans to send Carson’s products worldwide. Having snuck in, electronically, to the corridors of power, Tyler has made himself a possible target, and possibly Frankie as well. Smart phone email exchanges between Frankie and Tyler have made them easy to locate. Two men have tracked Tylor down, and his phone connection to Frankie makes her vulnerable. They know too much. Plot line one is now rolling.

At his Florida Panhandle K-9 training facility, Ryder Creed is keeping an eye on his sister Brodie, recently saved from long term, mind-altering incarceration. Learning to work with Ryder’s dogs is an important part of her therapy, as is a reunification with her real mother, not the woman who had terrorized her for decades. Plot line two: will this work out? What else does Brodie need? . . .

To read the full review, as it appears in the March 11, 2020 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the March 12 Naples, Bonita Springs, Charlotte County, Palm Beach, and Venice editions,  click here: Desperate Creed

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Disease, exhaustion, and starvation threaten family in wartime Burma

No Long Goodbyes, by Pauline Hayton. PH Publishing. 311 pages. Trade paperback $14.99.

If ever a book gave inspiring testimony to courage, the spirit of adventure, and basic human kindness, Pauline Hayton’s new historical novel is such a book. Her story follows a group of people caught up in the nightmare consequences of Japan’s invasion of Burma, at this time a British colony, in 1942.

This little-known but horrific slice of WWII reveals how armed nationalistic endeavor can conspire with natural forces and hazardous terrain to push those caught in such a maelstrom to – and beyond – their limits.

Pauline Hayton

Ms. Hayton’s story, however, is not rooted in wartime alliances, strategies, or rationales, but in how people, unexpectedly trapped by circumstances beyond control, can find strength, resilience, and an angelic sense of purpose in helping one another. Though it is necessary for them to band together, there is something spiritual going on in their commitment to sacrifice for the common good.

This book, then, is a love story on many levels. It explores broken, repaired, and redesigned families. It shows how people of different backgrounds, races, and cultures can become attached to one another through the strength of their common humanity. It demonstrates that a family does not have to be a bonded by blood. It assures us that second chances can be realized and that the pains of loss and feared loss can be overcome.

The central figure is Kate Cavanagh, a British woman in her late twenties recovering from the death of her late husband who committed suicide after murdering their child – in part because the child was not biologically his.

Deciding to restart her life in Burma, Kate does well socially. She encounters and falls in love with Jack Bellamy, a recent widower with two small children. Jack is the head of a tea plantation. The two marry, but soon find themselves attempting to flee the Japanese forces, the natural forces of endless rain and cold, the scarcity of nourishment and clean water, the extremely dangerous mountain ranges, the threat of hungry wildlife, and the omnipresent risk of deadly disease.

The destination for safety is India, and the newly formed family, along with their Indian nursemaid, could never have imagined what lay ahead. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the February 27, 2020 Naples, Bonita Springs, and Palm Beach editions of Florida Weekly, the March 4 Fort Myers and March 5 Charlotte County editions, click here: No Long Goodbyes

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Superb thriller explores the lasting effects of trauma

The Stranger Inside, by Lisa Unger. Park Row Books. 384 pages. Hardcover $26.99.

Ms. Unger had done it again. She’s taken her readers to places that no one should have to enter, and she’s made it extremely difficult for them to escape from the spell cast by her soaring skill and fright-filled imagination.

A major question that the book explores is to what degree trauma can shape, perhaps misshape, identity and functionality. The premise involves three friends knocking on the door of their teen years who are engaged by a demonic lost soul (himself a trauma victim) who had been following one of them around. The central character is Rain Winter (who has other names). Her friends are Tess and Hank – who is also her admirer and rescuer.

Tess loses her life in the madman’s attack. Rain and Hank survive, the trauma having reshaped their lives in somewhat different ways. Each must deal with “the stranger within,” a haunted, stunted self that cannot quite be covered over by the more normal self – the self that has built a constructive life but is never completely free.

The abductor-murderer, considered a victim himself, served jail time for his crimes. But he, like several other madmen whose crimes had reached the media, had met a violent death. It seems like vigilante justice is getting these perverts off the streets. Are serial vigilante killers the good guys or just more bad guys?

Lisa Unger

When readers meet Rain, she is on hiatus from her work as a journalist to take care of her young daughter. But the news about possible vigilante justice keeps pulling her back to the memories imbedded in and surrounded by her traumatic experience. She needs to tell that story.

Rain is literally haunted by Hank, whose demons seem more out of control and who has a neediness that only Rain seems likely to understand and alleviate. Though he has established himself as a therapist and does important work, especially with children, he has not yet been able to fully heal himself.

Ms. Unger’s art is amazing in how she handles the special community of the three schoolmates who were attacked so long ago. Chapters begin with the voice or thought stream of one of the three. Readers cannot always be sure which one it is until the scene’s momentum develops. Each seems to need a psychic rendezvous with the others. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the February 12, 2020 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the February 13 Naples, Bonita Springs, Palm Beach, Charlotte County, and Venice editions, click here:  The Stranger Inside

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“Bashert: A Granddaughter’s Holocaust Quest,” by Andrea Simon

Vallentine Mitchell. 300 pages. Trade paperback $24.95

Bearing Witness: Andrea Simon’s Bashert marks an important addition to the Holocaust canon

Samuel D. Kassow’s highly applauded Who Will Write Our History came out in 2007, following a long silence in the publication of Holocaust history. It tells the story of how the Polish historian Emanuel Ringelblum created the Oyneg Shabes scholarly group to capture and preserve the experiences of those trapped in the Warsaw Ghetto. The project, which began in 1940, is sometimes known as “the archives hidden in milk cans.”

The answer to Kassow’s provocative title question has emerged. Over 20 years later, it has led to a blossoming of Holocaust narratives. These include Judy Stone’s Resilience: One Family’s Story of Hope and Triumph over Evil; D.Z. Stone’s No Past Tense: Love and Survival in the Shadow of the Holocaust; Debbie Cenziper’s Citizen 865: The Hunt for Hitler’s Hidden Soldiers in America (reviewed here); and Heather Dune Macadam’s 999:The Extraordinary Young Women of the First Official Jewish Transport to Auschwitz (reviewed here).

Recent historical fiction about the Holocaust includes Andrew Gross’ disturbing The Fifth Column and Tara Lynn Masih’s unforgettable My Real Name Is Hanna.

Andrea Simon

Several of the narratives above were written by children or grandchildren of survivors. And the survivors themselves were able to contribute stories of their relatives and friends murdered by Hitler’s minions — in too many cases, aided by the neighbors of those victims.

Andrea Simon’s astonishing Bashert: A Granddaughter’s Holocaust Quest, first published in 2002 and recently re-released, tells not only the stories of what her research and interviews uncovered, but also — and perhaps more importantly — the story of her determined, compulsive journey to discover the truth about her extended family’s past. Both those who perished and those who survived.

What drove the author? What were her victories and what were her defeats? What kept her going? The memoir dimension of this brave and uplifting book answers these questions and serves as a model for similar projects.

Perhaps all of these confrontations and breakthroughs were fated; that is, meant to be. Such terms are the usual translations of the Yiddish word bashert that titles Simon’s book. Bashert, as well, were dozens of unexpected outcomes of adventures (and misadventures) that wind through the book.

Paramount is the independence and improvisation handed down to the author by her grandmother Masha, whose life seems to be a series of unexpected outcomes. Masha’s journey was a long one: from Volchin — the largely Jewish village of her birth in present-day Belarus — to escaping the death marches, moving to the U.S., then on to Israel and Berlin. Andrea follows her grandmother vicariously and, in her travels, chronicles the trails and trials of her family’s large, segmented odyssey.

Her research shifts the balance within the world of Holocaust history. It is no longer haunted solely by the sorrows and annihilations of Jews from Poland, Austria, Hungary, and Germany itself. The material and cultural landscape is pulled in another direction, taking us to Czarist and Communist Russia and their satellites.

For the Jews who found their way to these places only to run into the Germans’ often successful attempts to absorb them, Bashert is a story not so much of concentration camps and death in the gas chambers, but rather of pogroms and mass shootings at Volchin, Brest, the Brona Gora forest, and elsewhere. Simon discovers, over and over, that there are few innocent bystanders.

Her chapters are numbered, but more crucially, they are given one-word titles that trace the movement from concept to concept: protest, connection, longing, collaboration, isolation, annihilation, response, and survival. These are the steppingstones along a meaningful path that was clearly meant to be.

This essay first appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books

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A must-read techno-thriller as fear-filled as the news

Review by Phil Jason

Assassin’s Revenge, by Ward Larsen. Forge Books. 392 pages. Hardcover $29.99.

All techno thriller fans will delight in this 6th installment in the David Slaton series.

David Slaton, a former Mossad agent specializing in assassinations and now a person who is happy to be thought of as deceased, has been admiring the piloting by Dan Rhea. Slaton admires the intricacies of the F/A – 18F Super Hornet, but why are they flying over North Korea? And to what end? Reader, time will tell. But in the short run, meet some North Korean government power brokers who may or may not have the confidence of their supreme leader, Chairman Kwon, who is chasing after a technological threat way beyond his mobile ballistic missiles fitted with nuclear warheads.

Suddenly, the scene shifts back in time to Gibraltar. Slaton has returned to the dock where he had left his wife and son on their sailboat, but they are missing. In order to have any chance of bringing them to safety, Slaton must assassinate a scientist he briefly knew in his Mossad days, a man who is now working at the International Atomic Energy Agency. When they meet up, however, the focus is on the horror of HEU – highly enriched uranium – getting into the wrong hands.

Ward Larsen

Where is their sailboat, the Sirius? How would his wife Christine be reacting to the high-threat situation that includes the safety of their small son Davy? Slaton’s path must now take him to Vienna, the home of the IAEA.

While Slaton explores the situation in Vienna, Mr. Larsen has readers explore the world of Kasim Boutrous, an Iraqi commanding a very special mission. Boutrous heads a small band of suicidal ISIS operatives dedicated to enhancing the reputation and influence of the subdued caliphate. They are planning a tremendous blow to the United States with a scheme that will make 9/11 look like the work of novices. His destination is North Korea. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the January 22, 2020 Fort Myers Florida Weekly,the January 23 Palm Beach, Venice, and Bonita Springs editions, and the January 30 Naples edition, click here: Assassin’s Revenge

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Abduction, murder, and the bear parts trade spark exposé of television news business.

by Phil Jason

Fatal Ambition, by Don Farmer with Chris Curle. Publisher Page / Headline Books. 315 pages. Trade Paperback $19.95.

This is a novel in which most of the characters have few, if any, redeeming qualities. It has on display the cutthroat competition in the news business; the shallowness of the hangers-on who have no real reason to expect honest success, the extremes to which dishonesty can go, and the vulnerability of women whose low self-esteem makes them easy prey. Well, there are some women waiting to take revenge.

What’s to like? The sense of insider authenticity; the ever-tightening, hypnotic suspense; and the dark humor that keeps readers laughing at screwball situations and characters.

Set in major metropolis Atlanta and boutique, upscale Naples, Florida, the plot keeps the major characters running back and forth while also touching bases through endless communication. Some are trying to pull off a big scam, and others are trying to expose it. Do you think that “tree-hugger,” the disparaging term for naive environmentalists, has had its day? Maybe so, but what about fake tree-huggers – people who raise money ostensibly to protect a threatened species or otherwise cleanse and improve the environment? What if the money just lines the pockets of corrupt, smiling event-planners for whom taking bows at a televised campaign is a way of life?

Nikki Zachos is an attention-grabbing television anchorwoman whose ambition is to be number one in her market. She seems to have a weakness for clothing made from the skins and furs of slain animals.

An enterprising but suspect do-gooder decides to exploit Nikki’s celebrity by kidnapping her and making her the arch-enemy of animal rights activists. The ransom for Nikki might help the cause, or it might just get certain reporters and station managers great airtime to boost their ratings and salaries. Also, the money that comes in might help Rudy Decker cover his addiction to booze and gambling.

Or will his money come from feeding the black marketplace for black bear body parts, a lucrative commodity?

To enjoy the full article/review as it appears titled “News That’s Fit to Fake” in the January-February issue of Ft.MyersMagazine along with bio,  interview, and images. click on the following link: Fatal Ambition 

https://www.ftmyersmagazine.com/FtM-edit.FatalAmbition.html

You might also enjoy this review of their earlier novel. To see Headlines, Deadlines, and Death, click here: Headlines

Note: the link to the Florida Weekly page for this review is no longer operable. 

 

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“999: The Extraordinary Young Women of the First Official Jewish Transport to Auschwitz,” by Heather Dune Macadam

Citadel, 480 pages. Hardcover $28.00. 

Aided by solid research, the author bears compassionate witness to unspeakable horror.

In recent years, an astonishing number of new books have provided insights about the utter darkness of the Holocaust, as well as the suffering and courage of its victims and survivors. Heather Dune Macadam’s 999: The Extraordinary Young Women of the First Official Jewish Transport to Auschwitzdeserves a prominent place in this flowering of books that reshape our understanding through revelations and heartbreaking vignettes.

The author’s narrative, set in Slovakia and other crushed European countries, focuses on a program designed to destroy Jewish womanhood. The action begins in late March of 1942, when a roundup of Jewish females, announced in advance, gets underway. These women — mostly teenagers and young adults — were summoned to report to authorities and board an overcrowded train in the town of Poprad.

The screws had already begun tightening when the Slovak government implemented the Jewish Codex, a series of laws and regulations designed to cripple the country’s Jewish population. Their former rights quickly vanished.

Though pre-roundup escape plans were dangled before some, most of these tempting arrangements were hoaxes that did not pan out. Families were persuaded that the women would participate in a kind of government service for the Reich. They would work in factories and have an opportunity to be true patriots!

Macadam

Many of these female “draftees” came from the towns of Humenné and Prešov, both of which had sizable Jewish populations. And just in case they behaved irresponsibly while being shipped off, they would be policed by the Fascist Hlinka Guard, who would also beat up any interfering brothers and fathers, if required.

The women’s lives at Auschwitz do not turn out as expected. . . .

To see the entire review, as it appears in the Washington Independent Review of Books, click here:  999: The Extraordinary Young Women

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