Tag Archives: book reviews

Miami a major setting in spellbinding thriller with gruesome killings

Verses for the Dead, by Douglas Prescott and Lincoln Child. Grand Central Publishing. 352 pages. Hardcover $28.00.

Billed as “A Pendergast Novel,” this latest entry in the thriller series about a legendary, iconoclastic FBI superstar is brimming with suspense, surprise, and imagination. Fabled rulebreaker A. X. L. Pendergast, always at odds with FBI standard procedure, must take an assignment that keeps him on the payroll by agreeing to accept a partner. What a restraining humiliation! However, this premise allows the authors to build a new, unique character, Special Agent Coldmoon, whose Native American heritage brings a special flavor to the table. 

The assignment has the men prowling around every kind of Miami neighborhood to find out facts and discover the psychopath behind a series of outrageously gruesome killings. The killer skillfully excises the hearts of his victims and places them against gravestones in Miami cemeteries.

He also leaves behind strange letters filled with literary allusions and quotations. The perpetrator has taken for himself the name Mr. Brokenhearts

Want more? Each of the grave holds the remains of a woman who, years ago, committed suicide.

The perpetrator seems to be conducting a ritual of his own crazed making that is in some ways a form of expiation.

Centers of interest include the interaction between Pendergast and this somewhat resentful FBI superiors, the FBI’s interaction with local police departments, the growing relationship between Pendergast and Coldmoon, and the dogged if often irregular investigatory process.

Preston and Child

The large cast of intriguing characters provides many who are in themselves centers of interest. These include a modestly successful journalist, Roger Smithback, who makes a big, if short-lived, splash through his coverage of the case. Dr. Charlotte Fauchet, of the medical examiner’s office, puts in the beyond-the-call-of-duty hours that change the direction of the inquiry.

Another fascinating character, once discovered and confronted by the FBI duo, is the killer – a fellow who for all of his murderous deeds qualifies as someone to pity for the miserable life that had been handed to him. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the April 10, 2019 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the April 11 Bonita Springs, Charlotte County,  and Venice editions, click here: Florida Weekly – Verses for the Dead

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Balancing the thrill of adventure with level-headed caution

Ten Elephants Ten Memories, by Ellen Gordon. Mascot Books. 304 pages. Hardcover $19.95.

This is one of those books that takes the reader – even the reviewer – by surprise. At first glance, it seems too quirky to gain an audience, what with its elephant toys and statuary, the saga of the iconoclastic great aunt, and the heroine’s adventures in Australia. However, it has a addictive charm and generates a highly pleasurable experience, despite the hardships of its protagonist.

Ellen Gordon

We meet small town Ohio girl Cate Kingston when she is quite young, spending highly pleasurable time in the company of her eccentric Aunt B, whose spacious and dazzling nearby home is named Chartres. Cate grows up, in part, on her great aunt’s fabulous stories, many of them ending with an experience that is memorialized by a gift Aunt B has received – a fabricated elephant that takes its place in a lifelong collection. There is a great deal of variety in the collection, as there is in the memories that Aunt B recalls.

Cate’s story gains momentum as she grows into young womanhood. Her senior year in high school and her college years are marvelously rendered, especially Cate’s problems making friends and her very close relationship with her father, a veterinarian who also has a small farm. Cate’s identity is connected to the father and daughter riding horses together whenever they have the time. It’s a powerful bonding experience for her that ends with a powerful loss. Cate is also close to her mother, but in a very different way.

Cate’s own story takes the shape of a regularly disappointed search for the perfect mate, the disappointments perhaps predicated by her idealization of her father. One fellow seems too much like a big brother; another is too possessive. Other relationships seem to lose their passion and sense of fulfillment. Cate questions herself about these seemingly doomed relationships, but perhaps they serve to make her the complex, accomplished, and productive woman she becomes over time.

The author sets Cate into memorable historical events, notably the impact of the Vietnam War on Cate’s generation of college students and the related crisis of the Kent State shootings.

Ms. Gordon’s novel moves into a higher gear once Cate determines to shake up her frustrating life path by moving to Australia. Having credentials as a physical education teacher, she participates in a program that challenges and rewards her. However, as much as she loves many features of her new physical and cultural environment, many of her familiar habits reassert themselves. As the saying goes, “the mind is its own place,” and a person can’t get away from what’s inside of her simply by relocating. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the March 28, 2019 Naples,  Bonita Springs, and Charlotte County editions, and also in the April 3 Fort Myers and  the April 4 Palm Beach editions, click here:  Florida Weekly – Ten Elephants Ten Memories

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“The Way Back,” by Jonnie Schnytzer

Self-published. 260 pages. Trade Paperback $12.99.

Review by Philip K. Jason

This idiosyncratic novel, a splendid representation of Israel’s dark side set against its glorification by advocates, excels in characterization. Schnytzer penetrates the interior world of his principal figures, exposing their strengths, weaknesses, goals, and fears. We meet successful government leaders and aspiring candidates for the highest offices. We enter the shadowy world of Mossad operatives and the work-a-day drudgery and ambitions of an aging veteran police inspector, Moshe Biton. We meet a fascinating figure just released from prison, David Hartbacher (“tough guy”), and learn of the lineage that has contributed to his present identity as an Israeli vigilante, and his involvement with the kidnapped son of a senior Mossad agent.

We meet the disgraced and somewhat disgraceful Limor Schwartz as she tries to claw her way back to her former position as a senior Mossad operative, using all the skills and tools at her disposal. We explore a society that has a bifurcated identity, captured somewhat by the slogan “It’s time to replace Zionism with Judaism.” Under the pressures of Israel’s situation, many of the characters are at war with themselves.

Schnytzer

We encounter, along with the Israeli characters, a host of Arab people responding to the Palestinian situation. We visit Cairo, Benghazi, the Israeli capitals, and many other vividly drawn locations. We meet terrorist leaders, their underlings, and their victims. We learn how members of the enemy camps are recruited to serve a new controller and develop a new, if vulnerable, allegiance. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears on the Jewish Book Council website, click here: The Way Back

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A delightfully complex Mediterranean adventure rooted in the past.

The Malta Escape, by Chris Kuzneski. Self-published. 390 pages. Hardback $27.99, Trade paperback $14.99.

It’s hard to understand why Mr. Kuzneski, whose earlier titles rang the cash register of a major trade publisher (the Berkley imprint of Penguin), is now his own publisher. One thing is sure: he’s not alone. Many best-selling authors have in one way or another been separated from high-profile publishers while continuing to satisfy readers. The Malta Escape should make his old fans happy and attract new readers as well. 

This is book 9 in his Payne and Jones series, the continuing tale of too brilliant buddies from different backgrounds with contrasting skill sets and a unique relationship. Jonathan Payne, a successful high-tech entrepreneur, is shifting gears, he is retiring from Payne Industries, the company built by his grandfather that has made him (and will keep him) rich.

As Jon thinks about the future, he also thinks back to his days in an elite special operations military unit, MANIAC. His buddy David Jones, who was second in command, has worked for Jon, but in most essential ways they are equals. They kid a lot about how the Caucasian Payne and the Afro-American Jones compete with and complement one another, each one always trying to outdo the other.

Now they join up for the latest in a series of globe-hopping adventures. Having come to Malta for a vacation, they are soon engaged in a quest to uncover – if it really exists – an unmatchable hoard of antique treasure hidden somewhere in or under the island nation.

Chris Kuzneski

At the outset, the narrative takes us to Estonia where a Russian named Bobrinksy working on his somewhat shady business in various kinds of rarities while hoping for a new and better life in the magic capital city of Tallinn. He is preyed upon by Ivan Volkov, to whom he owes money. Eventually, Volkov’s hunger for controlling others and amassing wealth will lead to a rivalry with Payne and Jones. Though our heroes would wish to simply recover the Malta treasure trove and make it a public resource, diabolical Volkov wants to control it for his own purposes.

The search requires extensive historical research, extremely detailed and complicated. Our team needs allies, and they find them. Among the team members are Marissa, a beautiful young woman who is an expert on Maltese history, and her idiosyncratic mentor. Readers will enjoy, as well, the eccentric Finn named Jarkko who has a good nose for clues and a magnificent yacht that plays an important part in the story.

So, of course, readers will need to spend some time in Finland. The story also has scenes in Switzerland, France, and Russia. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the March 21, 2019 Naples Florida Weekly, as well that dates Bonita Springs, Charlotte County, Palm Beach, and Venice  editions and March 27 Fort Myers edition, click  Florida Weekly – The Malta Escape

 

 

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“A Spy in Exile: A Thriller,” by Jonathan de Shalit

Atria/Emily Bestler Books, 384 pages. Hardcover $27.00

Review by Philip K. Jason

A pseudonymous former senior staffer in the Israeli intelligence community has crafted an exciting, highly original espionage thriller. The premise: Israel’s intelligence operatives are getting predictable and lax. The Prime Minister, wishing to shake things up, establishes a nameless new entity under deep cover, an extremely fluid team that answers only to him.

pseudonymous!

Though recently removed from her position at the Mossad, Ya’ara Stein–beautiful, resourceful, and ruthless–is selected to head this unit. The six team members she recruits generally work in pairs to fulfill missions, developing personal as well as spy-craft relationships. They learn tradecraft on the job: training and assignment execution are compressed into one tense and explosive experience. The group must remain invisible, with no recourse to outside assistance. . . .

 

To read the full Jewish Book Council Review, click here: A Spy in Exile. 

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Follow the beat of off-beat short stories that surprise

Melanie to the Rescue and Other Unlikely Tales, by Carol June Stover. Book-broker Publishers of Florida. 121 pages. Kindle ebook $4.99.

Carol June Stover shows a miniaturist’s fine touch in this collection of intriguing, gem-like stories. The world of each story is tightly circumscribed, and most are focused on a single character. The various settings are handled with economy: just enough detail to conjure a neighborhood and a prevailing atmosphere. Additional characters have walk-on parts, but they often signal change – or the hope for change – in the central character’s life.

In the title story, readers discover that the author of the popular Melanie Marche novels, Lorraine Woodruff, is not at all like the savvy, confident, and gorgeous fashion model she has invented. Indeed, Lorraine aspires to be like Melanie, but can’t quite figure how to have the kind of success that her creation enjoys. Finally, Lorraine decides to let Melanie, who is something of a tease, be her guide. She takes tentative steps toward creating a new, edgier Lorraine.

In another tale, Dr. Shepard, a highly acclaimed physician nearing retirement, is hoping that his wife will not insist on holding the big retirement party she has been planning. A follow-up appointment from his most recent, perhaps final, patient reminds the doctor of her near-catastrophe because of a failure with the resuscitator pump. He learns that the patient had an out-of-body or near-death experience. Shepard is silently dismissive of his patient’s story. What happens on his way to meet his wife at an expensive hotel restaurant will leave readers’ heads spinning.

Stover

Many of the stories explore relationships – or the lack thereof. Several lead characters suffer from loneliness; others from a sense of unworthiness. When companionship is sought, it may or may not be achieved. One narrating character has a lazy sister. The women’s mother is always making excuses for Wanda’s seeming reluctance to help out or to interact in any normal way. When the roots of Wanda’s self-isolation and selfishness are revealed, older sister Mary Ann is in for a big surprise. . ..

To read the entire review, as it appears in the February 27, 2019 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the February 28 edition of the Naples, Bonita Springs, Charlotte County, and Palm Beach editions, click here: Florida Weekly – Melanie to the Rescue

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“A Father’s Story: My Fight for Justice Against Iranian Terror,” by Stephen M. Flatow

Review by Philip K. Jason

For many years, while waging a legal battle against Iran for sponsoring a suicide bus bombing in Israel that killed his daughter, Alisa, Stephen M. Flatow has told his story. His new book, which includes material not previously published, is less an account of the tragic event itself than it is a story about the nature of such loss in the context of a particular family’s history and values.

One thread of the story is the shortened life of Alisa: her promise, her personality, and her influence on others, as a child and then as a young woman. It was Alisa, readers learn, who from a very young age influenced the family to fully embrace Judaism and Israel. Flatow shows how much a parent can learn from a child, and how family members can work through their grief—though it never really ends.

Flatow

While the narrative generally proceeds from past to present, there are openings in the strict chronology that reveal additional background or impart new understandings and emotional resonance. These passages add to the book’s impact, providing it with heart and wisdom. . . .

To read the full Jewish Book Council review, click here: A Father’s Story

For a review of an  important related book, see The Bus on Jaffa Road

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“True Crime” writer makes exposing miscarriages of justice his mission

Justice on Fire: The Kansas City Firefighters Case and the Railroading of the Marlborough Five,”by J. Patrick O’Connor. University Press of Kansas. 352 pages. Hardcover $34.95.

Long-time Naples resident Pat O’Connor presents “true crime” addicts with a treasure trove of juicy information in this case study of the judicial system operating at its worst. What’s criminal in this story is not those who have been convicted and sentenced. Rather, what’s criminal is the systemic failure itself and those whose indifference, ineptitude, or careerist blinders corrupted the process and the outcome. 

Thirty years ago, on a construction project near Kansas City Missouri’s once promising, but then and now impoverished Marlborough neighborhood, disaster struck. A guard on the construction site reported that a pick-up truck was on fire. Then came the news of fierce explosions and more fire. When the bodies were counted, six firefighters were found dead and the charge of arson was in the smoke-filled air.

Mr. O’Connor pays a great deal of attention to the Marlborough neighborhood and the five residents who were indicted and convicted of the crime. The bad reputation of the neighborhood, in the author’s view provides a prejudicial force from the beginning of the investigation, a force that never ceases to be part of the cause and effect links to the miscarriage of justice.

O'Connor

O’Connor

The author’s sketches of those soon known at the Marlborough Five reveal backgrounds that would also prejudice juries or judges. Arrest records, often for minor crimes, are not evidence – but they can affect attitudes toward the defendants. Somehow, this quintet of characters found trouble of various kinds, and sometimes arrests for other crimes (outside of the arson charge) were used as leverage by the prosecutors.

How does it happen that that “by the time the indictments came down . . . only Richard was not in prison on other chargers?”

That’s how the testimony of jailhouse snitches comes into play, an overused weapon in a rush to judgement that ironically took way too much time. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the the February 14, 2019 Naples, Bonita Springs, and  Palm Beach editions, click here:  Florida Weekly – Justice on Fire

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“The Dark Young Man,” by Jacob Dinezon

Tina Lunson, trans; Scott Hilton Davis, ed. / Jewish Storyteller Press. 253 pages. Trade Paperback $19.95

Review by Philip K. Jason

First published in 1877, Jacob Dinezon’s Yiddish novel The Dark Young Man, with its blend of romance and realism,launched him as a major voice in the Jewish literary world. Tina Lunson’s excellent English translation (the first ever) vividly captures mid-nineteenth century Jewish life in Eastern Europe, revealing not only its particular culture but also its parallels to today’s Jewish experience.

When young Yosef leaves his parents’ home to work for a wealthy family, he is admired by the members of his new household—except Meyshe, the husband of the family’s oldest daughter. He soon sees Yosef as a threat, someone who might replace him as the person with authority over the family and its fortunes.

The Dark Young Man might make readers feel overwhelmed—as the main characters are—by the novel’s overall mood of claustrophobic despair, intermittently pierced by brief periods of hope. The only major character who doesn’t share this emotional ride is Meyshe Shneyur, the dark young man of the title. Unlike most title characters, Meyshe is far from the story’s hero. He is the villain, the destroyer of all hopes, made gleeful by his destructive accomplishments and the suffering of others—and Dinezon’s novel is a treatise on this dark soul’s power and methods.

This family drama is set against the cultural background of mid-nineteenth century Jewish life in Eastern Europe. This was the period of Haskalah, or Jewish Enlightenment, when long-observed Jewish traditions were being questioned and threatened. Those holding on to the old ways had no respect for new ideas and assimilationist tendencies, and the young moderns saw little value in traditional strictures that seemed unjustified by new secular learning. . . .

To see the entire Jewish Book Council review, click here:  The Dark Young Man

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Enchanting historical mystery features intrigues of the Byron-Shelley group

Claire’s Last Secret, by Marty Ambrose. Severn House. 192 pages. Hardcover $28.99.

Set primarily in Florence and Geneva, this highly atmospheric historical novel honors a period of European high culture with a portrait gallery of a tightly knit group. One is Mary Shelley, formerly Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, who had recently eloped with the poet. She is the author of the forever popular novel “Frankenstein” and the stepsister of Claire Clairmont. At the time the novel opens, 1816, they are both attractive, precocious women in their later teens.  

The Shelley Circle is also the Byron Circle, and Claire is carrying Lord Byron’s child, though it takes a while for her to let him know. The group is summering together in Geneva. Claire is something of a hanger-on, as she is the most financially needy.

In Claire’s mind, Polidori, Byron’s personal physician and traveling companion, seems to be antagonistic to her desire to rekindle Byron’s passion for her. She would settle for the passion, since marriage is unlikely, as long as their love-child is somehow supported.

When not practitioners, the friends are devotees of the arts. Claire’s narrative, from the perspective of 1873, offers memories of the impressive architecture of homes and public spaces that the group, or a subset thereof, visited. The actual quarters they occupied were usually modest.

Ambrose

The greatest art that they shared amongst themselves was the art of conversation, with the upbeat Percy Shelley leading the way, and the frequently morose Byron contributing dramatic verbal gestures. His life is clouded by his self-created tarnished reputation.

There is a strong attraction, in all four of these friends, for rebellion against convention social behavior. Claire expresses the wish to follow her heart unencumbered by what others will think. She and Mary are aware of the stricter judgement that women receive for what may be considered immoral behavior.

One of Professor Ambrose’s gifts is capturing the individuality of these sometimes frivolous, sometimes insightful, and always enchanting voices. They speak a brand of English that seems authentic to the time, the personalities, and the social milieu. . . .

To read the full review, as it appears in the January 30, 2019 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the January 31 Naples, Bonita Springs, Charlotte County, Venice, and  Palm Beach editions, click here:  Florida Weekly – Claire’s Last Secret

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