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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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Collier County Jewish Book Festival goes from strength to strength

By Phil Jason, Jewish Book Festival co-chair

This season, the third annual Collier County Jewish Book Festival will build upon the successes of its first two years, continuing this superb contribution to the cultural life of our community. A project of the Jewish Federation of Collier County in cooperation with the Jewish Book Council, the Festival will offer 11 book events at several venues, with a total of 18 authors visiting from November 2017 into April 2018.

Five of the Festival events will feature a dynamic solo presenter. Another five will feature two authors matched by a common theme. The authors sharing the bill will not co-present or share the stage, but provide back-to-back presentations. Each speaker will give a 30- to 45-minute talk followed by 15-20 minutes of Q&A plus book-signing time. There will be a short break between presentations. One event will showcase the writing talents of three debut novelists. Each author will speak for approximately 25 minutes, followed by a Q&A session with the three authors on a panel.

Dorff

On Thursday, November 16 at 7:00 p.m. at the Hilton Naples, meet Steve Dorff, author of I Wrote That One Too…a Life in Songwriting from Willie to Whitney. This witty biography includes anecdotes about stars who have recorded Steve’s songs, many of them Top 10 hits. Barbra Streisand, Celine Dion, Ray Charles and Garth Brooks are among the stellar cast. Steve will perform many of his best-known songs and share the stories behind them. Refreshments provided.

Wednesday, December 6 at 11:30 a.m. brings another solo presentation at the Hilton. Eminent actor Stephen Tobolowsky will discuss his memoir, My Adventures with God, a series of vignettes, at once humorous and profound, that review his Texas childhood, his adventures of the heart, and his struggles with matters of faith aided by encounters with the Torah and the Talmud. You’ve seen this top-drawer character actor in Mississippi Burning, Glee, Groundhog Day and Memento. Tobolowsky, who has been in more than 100 movies and over 200 television shows, has become a legendary storyteller. The event price includes a luncheon and a copy of the book.

Tobolowsku

On Sunday, December 10 at 7:00 p.m., return to the Hilton for Alexandra Silber’s After Anatevka – A Novel Inspired by “Fiddler on the Roof.” What happens to the characters invented by Sholem Aleichem and brought to the stage (and screen) after the curtain falls? It takes an actress like Alexandra Silber, who knows the play from the inside, to imagine what comes next. She does so in a sweeping historical novel. Silber has played Tzeitel in the play’s most recent Broadway revival, and Hodel in London’s West End. Alexandra will blend musical stylings with spoken words from her book in a theatre-like setting. Refreshments provided.

On Monday, January 8 at 1:00 p.m., the Naples Conference Center is the venue for history. In his Angels in the Sky, Robert Gandt relates “How a Band of Volunteer Airmen Saved the New State of Israel.” It’s a suspenseful and upbeat story tracing these courageous volunteers from their various home countries as they moved themselves and the needed equipment to the nascent Jewish state. This is popular history at its best, drawing upon first-person interviews and extensive archival research. It’s David-and-Goliath all over again. Gandt is paired with Bryan Mark Rigg, author of The Rabbi Saved by Hitler’s Soldiers. Amid the chaos and hell of the emerging Holocaust, a small group of German soldiers shepherded Rebbe Joseph Isaac Schneersohn and his Hasidic followers out of Poland on a dangerous and circuitous path to America. You will be surprised to learn about the Wehrmacht soldier who led them.

Silber

On Wednesday, January 24 at 1:00 p.m. at Temple Shalom, meet Pam Jenoff (The Orphan’s Tale) and Gavriel Savit (Anna and the Swallow Man). Both of these inventive novels touch upon the Holocaust in unique ways. Jenoff’s, based on true stories, tells of a German circus that becomes the home and refuge of two young women. Teenage Noa, disgraced by her pregnancy, is forced to give up her baby, but she rescues another – a Jewish child – from a boxcar destined for a concentration camp. Astrid, Jewish and a professional trapeze artist, is already headlining the circus, but must teach Noa the necessary skills to fit in. Their unstable relationship is magnetically portrayed. Savit imagines Krakow in 1939. Young Anna, her father taken by the Nazis, meets a mysterious, somewhat magical fellow whom she follows through the most dangerous situations. This startling novel will entrance readers of all ages – especially if they are interested in European Jewish history. 

Stop by the Hilton on Monday, January 29 at 1:00 p.m. and you are likely to go away laughing. Multi-talented sitcom writer Susan Silver will talk about Hot Pants in Hollywood: Sex, Secrets & Sitcoms. She promises that the book is funny and sexy, so let’s see if she keeps her promise. Tales of the Mary Tyler Moore Show, Newhart and Maude can’t be anything but riotous. But who can tell the tale of Joan Rivers? No one better than her biographer, Leslie Bennetts, author of Last Girl Before Freeway. The story of the trailblazing comedian’s battle to break down barriers for women is not all laughs, but there should be enough of them to balance out the darker moments in her subject’s life as ambition and insecurity collide. After all, Rivers made people laugh for 60 years.

Family-focused memoir is the theme on Wednesday, February 14 at 1:00 p.m. at Temple Shalom. Playwright and film producer Peter Gethers’ My Mother’s Kitchen tells the heartwarming story of his determination to bring his aging mother’s friends and loved ones to the table one last time for a feast featuring her favorite dishes. This desire springs from Peter’s growing closeness to his mother and his desire to hear about her colorful past and her kitchen secrets. Actress Annabelle Gurwitch’s Wherever You Go, There They Are describes the family she tried to escape and the ones she joined by accident or on purpose, including her southern ancestors, the sisterhood, and an adult summer camp for vegans. She trades one crazy family for several. Annabelle has appeared on episodes of Seinfeld, Murphy Brown and Dexter, and she formerly hosted Dinner and a Movie on TBS. 

On Monday, February 26 at 1:00 p.m. at the Naples Conference Center, three authors will discuss their new works and their careers. Meet Jane Healey (The Saturday Evening Girls Club), Sana Krasikov (The Patriots) and Ellen Umansky (The Fortunate Ones) as they make individual presentations and then interact with one another. The title of Healey’s book refers to a group of four young immigrant women who meet with others to escape hectic home lives in Boston’s North End during the early 1900s. Krasikov’s novel follows a young woman who leaves her middle-class Brooklyn Jewish family during the depression expecting a better life in Stalin’s USSR. What she discovers is not what she expects. Umansky’s book is set in 1939 Vienna, from which Rose Zimmer’s parents try to send her to safety via the Kindertransport. The search for a missing painting and the consequences of that search lead to unexpected revelations.

On Wednesday, March 7 at 1:00 p.m. at Temple Shalom there will be a love and relationships session with Marilyn Simon Rothstein’s Lift and Separate and Renee Rosen’s Windy City Blues. Rothstein creates Marcy, a Jewish mother of three grown children, whose husband of 33 years leaves her for a fitting model he met at his brassiere empire. How she rebounds from this setback will keep you reading. Rosen’s riveting story, set in 1950s and ’60s Chicago, tells of a young Jewish Polish immigrant, and a black blues guitarist who left the south to play in the burgeoning Chicago music scene, who risk threats of violence in an era in American history that frowned on mixed-race couples. Their story of forbidden romance is weaved into the history of Chess Records and the birth of the blues and rock ’n’ roll in Chicago.

Friday, March 16 at 1:00 p.m. brings five-time Emmy Award-winner Alan Zweibel to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Greater Naples. A writer for Saturday Night Live and Curb Your Enthusiasm, his novel The Other Shulman won the Thurber Prize for American Humor in 2006. He collaborated with Billy Crystal on the Tony Award-winning play 700 Sundays. His latest project is the Passover Haggadah parody For This We Left Egypt? – co-written with Dave Barry and Adam Mansbach. Light food and refreshments provided. And laughs!

The Festival closes on Monday, April 9 at 2:30 p.m. at Beth Tikvah Synagogue with Abigail Pogrebin, who will talk about My Jewish Year. As a character in her own book, Abigail is presented as a somewhat rebellious family member who feels her Jewish life has not been as rich as it might have been. So she embarks on an entire year of research, observance, and writing about every ritual, fast and festival in one Jewish year.

Zweibel

Festival sponsors include: Florida Weekly, Hilton Naples, U.S. Bank, Barnes & Noble Waterside Shops, Steinway Piano Gallery, Women’s Cultural Alliance, JFCS of SWFL, TheatreZone, John R. Wood Properties, JNF, Senior Housing Solutions, AJC West Coast, Beth Tikvah, Collier/Lee Chapter of Hadassah, Clive Daniel Home, FIDF Miami Chapter, Holocaust Museum & Education Center of SWFL, Temple Shalom Sisterhood, Dr. Barrett Ross Ginsberg and Naples Jewish Congregation.

A complete schedule of events, ticket information, venue locations, author bios and book synopses is available at http://www.jewishbookfestival.org. For more information or to order tickets by phone, call Renee’ at the Jewish Federation of Collier County at 239.263.4205.

Note: This article appeared in the October 26, 2017 Naples Florida Weekly.  See CCJBF 2018

 

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Professional baseball challenges female player

Where the Falcon Flies, by August Sterling. Barringer Publishing. 280 pages. Trade paperback $14.95.

This is a very sweet novel: gentle, buoyant, and inspiring. Can sweetness thrive in contemporary fiction? I’m pleased to know that books like this one are being written and published. They deserve an audience. Enough with the doom and darkness already! falconFrnt

Cassie “The Falcon” Peregrine is an attractive, sensitive young woman just finishing junior college. Baseball is her passion, the arena in which she feels fulfilled and at home. From the Chicago area suburban village of Hebron, this avid Cubs fan plays for a local team in a semi-pro league. She is well-liked, with supportive parents who respect her wishes while worrying about her future.

Her life begins to change rapidly when a savvy, respected scout sees her play. Brock Starwood, who scouts for the Cubs system, comes to check out a pitching prospect on the opposing team. However, Cassie’s all-around play and all-out style captivates him. Although no women were playing in the minor leagues, Starwood feels that Cassie has the talent to go all the way to the majors.

He knew the obstacles that stood in her way: tradition, male chauvinism, taunting, and worse. Nevertheless, Starwood made an appointment to meet Cassie and her family, and the outcome was the offer of a three-year contract to play for the Berkshire Bears, the AA league affiliate of the Chicago Cubs. Only Starwood could have persuaded the higher-ups to make such a deal; he was courageous enough to put his reputation on the line.

Once Cassie signs, she is off to her new home in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.

Sterling

Sterling

August Sterling does a fine job of characterizing Cassie both as a young woman and as “The Falcon,” a fledgling professional second baseman. He shows her in the context of family and friends as well as in the context of the ball field, the dugout, and the locker room. The tension between these two identities provides considerable interest and suspense.

As Cassie takes the long auto trip to Pittsfield, her thoughts involve this same tension, a mixture of anxiety and ambition. By the time she makes a stopover in Cooperstown, New York to pay homage to the greats memorialized the National Baseball Hall of Fame, Mr. Sterling has quite fully won his readers over. We care about Cassie: her dream and her destiny.

Once she is introduced to the team, her trials and opportunities begin. Cassie balks (clever choice?) at any hint of favoritism because she is a woman, knowing this is already suspected and will backfire anyway. And yet she must accept private living quarters and private bathroom facilities. She doesn’t so much want to be one of the boys, but one of the team members. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the February 4, 2015 Fort Myers Florida Weekly, the February 5 Naples and Bonita Springs editions, and the February 19 Palm Beach Gardens/Jupiter and Palm Beach/West Palm Beach editions, click here: Florida Weekly – Sterling 1 and here: Florida Weekly – Sterling 2.

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Phil’s 2014 Top Picks

philjason loves booksThe following titles, which I prefer to list without ranking them, are my top picks among those published in 2013-2014 that I reviewed during 2014. It would be easy to find room for another 5-6 fiction titles, but I’m staying with the top ten selected.

The first three lists (Young Adult now listed as separate category for the first time) reflect my favorites among the trade publications that I reviewed. Separately, I’ve listed four self-published titles that seem to me especially worthy of notice.

FICTION [trade]

Julia Dahl, Invisible City

Lisa Unger, In the Blood

Randy Wayne White, Haunted

Zachary Lazar, I Pity the Poor Immigrant

James Lilliefors, The Psalmist

Boris Fishman, A Replacement Life

Leonard Rosen, The Tenth Witness

Michael Lister, Rivers to Blood

Beverle Graves Myers, Whispers of Vivaldi

Michael Wiley, Blue Avenue

 

YA FICTION  [trade]

Gwendolyn Heasley, Don’t Call Me Baby

Amber Hart, Before You

Rick Yancey, The Infinite Sea

 

NONFICTION  [trade]

James Webb, I Heard My Country Calling

Artis Henderson, Unremarried Widow

Libby Garland, After They Closed the Gates

Neville Williams, Sun Power

Andrew Furman, Bitten: My Unexpected Love Affair with Florida

Natan Ophir, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach: Life, Mission, and Legacy

Gary Shteyngart, Little Failure

Joshua Muravchik, Making David into Goliath

Anais Nin, Mirages: The Unexpurgated Diary of Anais Nin, 1939-1947. Ed. Paul Herron

 

SELF-PUBLISHED

Robert J. Taylor. Hardship Post

Robert Lane, The Second Letter

Gidi Grinstein, Flexigidity

Hélène Gaillet de Neergaard, I Was a War Child

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Debut novel explores martial arts discipline in coming of age story

Taichi: The Story of a Chinese Master in America, by Marc Meyer. BookLocker. 196 pages. Trade paperback $14.95. Kindle e-book, $3.99.

Enlightening and filled with captivating characters, this novel is strong on atmosphere and setting but somewhat weak on plot. Set in the 1960s, it takes us into the bi-cultural world of a young Chinese American boy named Paulie whose adult self is the narrator of the tale. He lives in New York’s Chinatown with his younger brother, Fa, their mother, Mei, and stepfather, Harry Chen. The family has a spacious apartment over its successful dry goods store, where Paulie and Fa work after school.  taichi

Everyone’s life is drastically changed with Mei’s older brother, Uncle Kuo, comes from China to live near his sister and his nephews. Though a man of status and influence during Chiang Kai-Sheck’s reign, the Cultural Revolution that followed triggered Kuo’s departure. He entered an America going through ist own very different cultural revolution.

Kuo’s ambition, quickly and effectively realized, was to open a school of T’ai Chi Chuan, a T’ai Chi form of which he was a legendary master. He connects with an old friend, Jimmy Chow, who assists him in opening bank accounts, choosing a place to live, and finding a closed dance studio that is perfect for the school.

Naturally, Paulie and Fa become students, and other young and not-so-young aspirants sign up. At this point, the story becomes, to a large degree, an ongoing description of the philosophy and skills required to rise up the ladder of T’ai Chi mastery. Mr. Meyer is able to make this material quite fascinating through precise description and through connecting it to the endeavors and achievements of Kuo’s students, who are sharply individualized. Indeed, members of the core group are given special names: Fire, Metal, Water, Earth, Wood. Each student has a trait that connects to his or her element.

Author and pianist Marc Meyer

Author and pianist Marc Meyer

Meet Ba Ling, a seventeen year old transfer student from Beijing who had immigrated via Ellis Island. Already a stellar martial arts performer, the troubled young woman becomes a teacher in the school while she continues her own development. Alcohol and drug addiction plague her progress, and her setbacks plague the school. Paulie is overwhelmed by the slender beauty, only a few years older than he is. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the September 10, 2014 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the September 11 Naples, Bonita Springs, and Punta Gorda/Port Charlotte editions, click here Florida Weekly – Meyer 1 and here Florida Weekly – Meyer 2

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An edgy tale of self-discovery and the drug trade

Joseph Rakowski, The Delivery Cut. Black Rose Writing. 244 pages. Trade paperback $16.95.

I was sitting there, prophetically wearing my “Don’t Make Me Take Out My Red Pen” t-shirt, when suddenly I couldn’t resist. “The Delivery Cut,” filled with typos, mangled sentences, and misused words had me clicking that red pen. Could I review this novel? Through the first four chapters I was pretty sure that I would spare my readers whatever I had to say. Then the fifth chapter grabbed me, and was hooked for the rest of the ride. The need for editorial surgery never vanished, but the raw talent blasted through. There is a lot Mr. Rakowski still needs to learn about his craft, but he has a voice, a power, a vision, and something to say.  TheDeliveryCutCover

Give him a try, and you may find yourself on in the ground floor of a towering reputation.

As we meet the narrator, James, he is a 25 year old college graduate very uneasily back home living with his parents in SW Florida. He seems to have no direction except to leave home once again and escape his parents’ middle-class values, which he views with hostility. For James, busy with drinking and carousing, middle-class hypocrisy is everywhere and he hates its deadening weight. Just to get away, he has agreed to go to law school in Miami. He parents seem pleased, but James doubts that this is the life for him.

In fact, soon after entering law school, James perceives himself as having entered another realm of hypocrisy where power is abused and values are falsified. He stumbles his way into a situation that leads to a connection with an illegal narcotics operation. Iconoclast James, now renamed and symbolically reborn as Gabriel by the Frenchman who runs this operation, perversely finds a kind of purity in Claude’s enterprise. Passing tests contrived by the suave Claude and his muscular associate Hugo, “Gabriel” becomes part of the system: the delivery man. His efforts bring him “the delivery cut” from each transaction.

JosephERakowskiTheDeliveryCutHeadshot

Supercharged with cocaine, Gabriel learns Claude’s system, which involves a clean and clear separation of responsibilities and authority. Soon, the delivery man is making so much money on his Miami and Fort Lauderdale routes that he hides most of it and gives much of it away in order to ease his access to the delivery stops. He is somewhat ashamed of the money – not because of its source, but because money is not his goal. What he has found is a sense of being intensely alive. The combination of risk, a kind of independence, and a well-defined GPS-programmed routine has elevated Gabriel’s self-esteem and charged his emotional batteries. . . .

To read the entire review as it appears in the July 31, 2013 issue of the Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the August 1 Bonita Springs and Naples editions, click here: Florida Weekly – Rakowski

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Phil’s 2012 Top Picks

 

The following titles, which I prefer to list without ranking them, are my top picks among those published in 2011-2012 that I reviewed during 2012. It would be easy to find room for another 5-6 fiction titles, like James W. Hall’s Dead Last and Paul Goldstein’s legal thriller Havana Requiem, but I’m staying with the top ten selected.

Because I review fewer nonfiction titles than fiction, I’ve made this list a “top 8.”

Finally, the first two lists reflect my favorites among the trade publications that I reviewed. Separately, I’ve listed 3 self-published titles that seem to me especially worthy of notice.

FICTION [trade]

Julianna Baggot,  Pure

James Lilliefors, Viral

Lisa Unger, Heartbroken

Irvin D. Yalom, The Spinoza Problem

Moira Crone, The Not Yet

Roberto Ampuero, The Neruda Case [first English publication]

Randy Wayne White, Gone

Amy Hill Hearth, Miss Dreamsville and the Collier County Women’s Literary Society

Joanna Campbell Slan, Death of a Schoolgirl

Henning Mankell,  The Shadow Girls  [first English publication]

NONFICTION  [trade]

Kelle Hampton, Bloom

James W. Hall, Hit Lit

Les Standiford, Desperate Sons

Matti Friedman, The Aleppo Codex

Tonya Clayton, How to Read a Florida Gulf Coast Beach

Madeleine Albright, Prague Winter

Michael Grunwald, The New New Deal

Ellen Cassedy, We Are Here: Memories of the Lithuanian Holocaust

SELF-PUBLISHED

Allen Malnak, Hitler’s Silver Box

Noha Shaath Ismail, East of the Sun: A Memoir

Leah Griffith, Cosette’s Tribe

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A Manhattan garden of earthly delights

“The Common Garden,” by Martha Moffett.  Event Horizon Press. 200pp. $19.95.

More than three decades ago, while living and working in New York, Lake Worth resident Martha Moffett wrote a novel that was published by Berkley in 1977. Recently, she decided to give it a second life. “The Common Garden” holds up amazingly well in its smart portrayal of artists, intellectuals, and striving professionals during the hedonistic seventies. Here is the “Me decade” still wearing and exploiting the trappings (and perhaps the traps) of communalization that characterized the sixties. 

Without quite knowing what they’re getting into, Paul and Robin succeed in locating a summer rental to satisfy their desire to enjoy Manhattan while Paul continues building his career as a marketing professional. His wife Robin, a young woman without much experience of the world, is determined to use these few months to explore all that Manhattan has to offer: the museums and galleries, the theaters and recital halls, the distinctive neighborhoods. She is a naïf hankering after sophistication.  

The community of handsome brownstones in which they have found a temporary home is notable for its common garden, at once a protected plot for fruits and vegetables and flowers collectively grown and enjoyed, and another kind of garden – a garden of earthly delights and communally shared sexual partners. The couple has stumbled into a kind of collective farm or urban kibbutz of heightened sensuality, enhanced by hallucinogenic drugs, and safeguarded by a code of secrecy and a demand for loyalty. 

The novel’s focus is on Robin (Paul is often away on business or simply preoccupied with it), who has trouble reading the largely unarticulated code that governs behavior in this brave new world. At first hesitant – even fearful — about opening herself up to new intimate relationships, she gradually moves from the periphery toward the center of the group, enjoying along the way new and seductive knowledge of her body’s capacity for erotic pleasure.

Martha Moffett

Through Robin’s progress, Ms. Moffett suggests that there is much to be gained through casting off one’s inhibitions, through experimentation, and through increased self-knowledge. However, in the environment of the common garden, liberation paradoxically pushes up against threatening group-think. It’s a kind of yuppy, East Coast “Hotel California” that is “programmed to receive. / You can check-out any time you like, / But you can never leave!” [Pardon me, Eagles.]

When Hannah, the woman who has taken on the role of being Robin’s confidante and mentor, expresses some disillusionment with the pattern her life has taken, the reader’s antennae are raised. When Hannah is found dead, the antennae vibrate. . . .

To read the full review, along with biographical information on the author, as it appears in the December 28, 2011 issue of Fort Myers Florida Weekly, as well as other editions of the paper, click here: Florida Weekly – Moffett pdf 1 and here: Florida Weekly – Moffett pdf 2

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Religious leaders: just like the rest of us?

Chazzonos, by Lyle Rockler. iUniverse. 276 pages. $17.95.

Lyle Rockler, himself a trained cantor (or chazzan) has drawn a remarkable, engaging portrait of middle-aged cantor Hal Perlmutter as he reaches several crossroads in his professional and personal life. The novel’s time line involves six months in Cantor Hal’s life as he prepares for retirement, decides to remarry, struggles to improve his relationships with his adult son and daughter, loses old friends to death, and strives to tame the simmering rage within him that too often boils over into conflict and pain.

Extended flashbacks illuminate Hal’s upbringing in Minneapolis, his family and community life as a child, his tempestuous experience as a husband and father, and pieces of his twenty years in the job from which he wishes to retire. We hear about his parents’ constant arguing, Hal’s early fondness for Jewish liturgical singing (“chazzonos”), and the maturation of that youthful infatuation into a calling and a career. 

Both in the foreground and background of the novel is abundant information about the majestic cantors who reigned during the golden age of Chazzonos: their innovations, their individual styles, their importance to Jewish culture, and their ability to lift worshippers (as well as just plain music lovers) into a spiritual realm. Hal Perlmutter is, perhaps, among the last disciples of these giants. They represent a fading world that deserves a permanent place of honor in the collective memory.

Perhaps because of his uncomfortable home life as a child, Hal made very close friendships with two women of his parents’ generation. One such friendship developed with Molly, a neighbor in Minneapolis. Another, many years later, developed with Anna, a Holocaust survivor in his New Jersey community of Mirthgate. In the course of the novel, Hal loses both of these surrogate mothers. From Molly, Hal inherits enough money to plan a comfortable retirement. From Anna, who dies just before Hal remarries, his inheritance is less tangible. It includes such values as enhanced self-awareness, courage, and flexibility. 

It’s as if Hal is finally ready to be an adult instead of an aging child.

Connected with his delayed maturation is the influence of Mimi, the true love of his life, who has the right mix of patience and sternness, of life’s joys and life’s responsibilities. Equally important, and aided by Mimi’s influence, is his acceptance of his children’s decisions and lifestyles, which at first make him cringe.

When his gay son reluctantly shares news of his intimate relationship with a much older man, Cantor Hal is horrified and hostile. He is only relatively calmer when he meets his daughter’s boyfriend, an ultra-Orthodox young man. Slowly, he comes to see these people as individuals rather than types and realizes that their choices are not about him. . . .

To read this review in its entirely, as it appears in the Naples edition of Florida Weekly for December 1, 2011 (as well as the Fort Myers and Bonita Springs editions and the December 8 Punta Gorda/Port Charlotte edition), click here: Florida Weekly – Lyle Rockler pdf

This review is reprinted with permission in the May 2012 issues of the Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Collier County), L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte counties), and The Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota/Manatee).

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“Breaking Out”— a moving portrait of adolescent despair

Bob Brink, “Breaking Out.” iUniverse. 244 pages. Hardback $26.95, Paperback $16.95.

This is a noteworthy first novel, although it too often reads more like a case study or third-person autobiography. The reader is asked to attend to so many details, seemingly of equal importance, that control over emphasis suffers. Very minor characters are introduced as if readers had better get to know them, but this turns out not to be the case. They quickly leave the scene and the novel. Often, scenes that merit only summary presentation are elaborately dramatized.

Bob Brink

And yet “Breaking Out” is powerful and deals with important issues.  It is powerful in that Bob Brink’s writing style is clear and attractive. His sentences and paragraphs are well turned. His descriptions of persons and places are vivid and insightful. Thus, while larger structural elements are problematic, his evocative prose has polish and grace.

The important thematic issues have to do with diagnosing and treating potentially dangerous neurotic behavior and understanding the nature and consequences of parenting that is psychologically debilitating.

We first meet the main character, Britt Rutgers, when he is a high school student in the 1950s. Mr. Brink efficiently paints a telling scene about Britt’s extreme self-consciousness and sensitivity. Britt can barely bring himself to cross the crowded gymnasium of the Mayfield (Iowa) High School to take an available seat. He imagines that all of the students crowded into the bleacher seats will be staring at him, and the feeling of exposure and scrutiny is unbearable. He is almost paralyzed. 

We learn, as well, that Britt is sexually naïve and doesn’t even know the everyday language of sexuality that is constantly on the lips of his classmates.

From here, the author moves backward and forward in time, providing the causes of Britt’s painful self-awareness, innocence, and lack of confidence – as well as the later consequences of those causal factors.

The Rutgers household is a stern and emotionally cold environment. Informed by the fundamentalist Calvinist theology and discipline of the region’s strict Dutch Reformed Church, it is an environment with a strong work ethic and a strong sense of sin. Milton and Miriam Rutgers, Britt’s parents, seem incapable of healthy nurturing. Britt’s personality presents them with issues they can’t handle, but they have magnified his sense of worthlessness by offering only rejection while doing all they can to encourage and support the endeavors of their fairly ordinary oldest son, Kevin.

The parents never quite figure out that words of kindness, approval, and respect would do Britt far more good than their willingness to support psychological and psychiatric treatment, treatment that involves two periods of extended institutionalization and a regimen of shock therapy. . . .

To read this review in its entirety as it appears in the September 22, 2011 issue of the Palm Beach Gardens Florida Weekly, the September 29 isue of the Naples edition, and the October 5 issue of the Fort Myers edition, click here: Florida Weekly – Bob Brink.

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