Tag Archives: historical fiction

Racial tension threatens aircraft carrier, commander

No Salvation, by Jeffery Hess. Down & Out Books. 312 pages. Trade paperback $18.95.

The USS Salvation is a huge aircraft carrier that is part of a fleet patrolling in the South China Sea during the final months of the Vietnam War. It is a perfect microcosm setting, a floating island of tedium, outrage, hostility, pain, fear, and overworked bravado. It is 1972, and racial tension is high: perhaps nowhere higher than on a pressure-cooker at sea where the sailors are virtually imprisoned by the nature of the wartime situation. 

It’s been a long time since anyone has left the carrier.

That racial tension and its accompanying violence have become a major problem is no secret to the ship’s captain. He has decided to make his new Executive Office (XO) an up-and-coming commander named Robert Porter, who is one of the most carefully drawn major characters in the book and perhaps the one most likely to receive the reader’s sympathy, the linchpin for tamping down hostilities.

Perhaps chosen less for his illustrious record than for the fact that he is Afro-American, Porter immediately finds himself in a difficult position. His very success as an officer who has pleased his white superiors has pegged him as an “Uncle Tom,” with all the baggage that such a label conveys.

Black sailors, including those with some rank, have been sabotaging the ship’s overall effectiveness. They seem to be ready for an internal war with their white shipmates – and, indeed, they mount a most unpeaceful demonstration to demand equal treatment equal to that of the whites.

Hess

The ship has other problems. Drug use is rampant and the source of an unofficial economy among the abusers and the dealers. The ship’s cobbler runs the narcotic business and related ventures.

Mr. Hess has given himself a complex challenge, that of bringing readers close to the reality of this enormous vessel and the huge number of individuals who keep it functioning, both technically and as a complex amalgam of duties, skills, backgrounds, and personalities. He has done a marvelous job, though readers will find their memories tested by the large number of characters, their stake in the enterprise, and the astounding size of their temporary home in a physical structure that contains so many levels, so much task-specific work space, living spaces for four thousand men, and dangers. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the July 10, 2019 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the July 11 Naples, Bonita Springs, Charlotte County, Venice, and Palm Beach editions, click here: Florida Weekly – No Salvation

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“The Wartime Sisters: A Novel,” by Lynda Cohen Loigman

  • St. Martin’s Press. 304 pages. Hardcover $27.99.

Women bond — and sometimes break apart — in WWII-era New England.

The title of Lynda Cohen Loigman’s new novel, The Wartime Sisters, has two dimensions. The more obvious is the horribly strained relationship between two sisters, Ruth and Millie Kaplan. The other is the wider sisterhood of women who toiled in preparing the U.S. to enter WWII and during the war years that followed. These are women who had factory jobs or positions, clerical and otherwise, that supported the manufacture of weapons.  

The Brooklyn-born Kaplans, first Ruth and, later, Millie (the younger by three years), relocate to Springfield, Massachusetts, to rebuild their lives after shaky, if conventional, beginnings.

They seem to have been the victims of unrealistic expectations and misguided parenting. Ruth’s controlling nature, an echo of their mother’s, leaves Millie feeling demeaned and marginalized. More open and spontaneous, Millie’s attractiveness to people, especially to boys and then men, is a constant threat and humiliation to Ruth.

The narrative is structured to oscillate among three kinds of scenes: Scenes that give an overview of their early years; scenes set in Springfield that reveal the sisters as young adults making their separate ways in the world; and scenes reverting back to more detailed Brooklyn episodes that explore the seeds of conflict and unwise decision-making that continue to have consequences in their new environment.

Loigman

Loigman further complicates the bond between the sisters through the jobs they have in Springfield. Ruth does paperwork, and Millie puts triggers together on the assembly line. From Ruth’s perspective, Millie is trouble — a person who always needs looking after. Ruth had enough of that unwanted responsibility as a girl; she doesn’t want it now as a married woman raising children — especially when her husband is called away from his position at the Armory to dangerous duty in Europe.

But back in Brooklyn, Millie was rather desperate. She was alone in the wake of their parents’ death in an accident, and her ill-fated marriage left her a victim of abuse. Maybe Springfield will supply an answer, whether it be via Ruth or in some other way.

The war between the sisters is carefully orchestrated and is the central action that holds readers glued to the story. However, the portrait of the Springfield Armory community is also a major achievement. Persuasively imagined over a framework of impressive research, the sights, sounds, and patriotic flourishes of its residents during 1942 and 1943 leave readers with a sense of pride.

However, all is not well in this capital of wartime industry. Questions of social and economic justice loom. . . .

To read the entire review at it appears in the Washington Independent Review of Books, click here:  The Wartime Sisters.

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Dazzling epic about memory that integrates fiction with memoir is deeply original and ambitious

Returning, by Yael Shahar. Kasva Press. 504 pages. Hardcover $28.95; Trade paperback $19.95

Returning is an extraordinary and challenging book on many levels. It attempts to make the intangible as close to tangible as possible. It engages readers in a kind of time travel that has nothing to do with science fiction. It might remind some of paranormal romance, but the stakes are much higher.

What genre does is belong to? Author Yael Shahar once thought of calling it “fiction memoir,” but that does not capture enough of its essence.

The workings of dreams are central to the book’s technique and meaning, but what if you dream someone else’s dreams? What if someone else dreams yours and remembers yourmemories? Shahar’s artistry is to make these “what-ifs” credible and meaningful; in fact, inevitable and necessary. She imbeds these actualized possibilities in a theological — or, at least, a biblical — context.

The primary character is an older man named Alex. He is a tormented, guilt-ridden soul who has lived in Israel for many decades following his escape from slave labor at Auschwitz-Birkenau. A Greek Jew from Salonika (“Saloniki” throughout this book), Alex, whose given name is Ovadya (servant of God), was part of a sonderkommando crew, mostly Jewish, who were worked to exhaustion day after day hauling away the bones and ashes of incinerated Jews and other doomed prisoners.

All of his adult life, Alex has been trying, without much success, to resist the constant pressures of memories that take him back to his sonderkommando experience, a trauma that he’d like to forget. As an unwilling witness and assistant to the obliteration of his people, Alex is a man with a diseased soul. Part of him knows that he must face his past and accept responsibility for actions taken and not taken.

He seeks the help of Rabbi Ish-Shalom (“man of peace”), a person of remarkable learning, wisdom, and sensitivity. The rabbi becomes a spiritual coach who leads Alex on the path of self-knowledge, atonement, and redemption.

Yael Shahar credit Rahel Jaskow

But this is not a feel-good journey; it is filled with harrowing confrontations with Alex’s younger self. The rabbi insists, through a series of questions and refutations of Alex’s answers, that there are times when the giving of one’s own life may be the moral choice.

Alex’s resistance to his job of making room for the next victims to be pushed into the gas chambers would not have saved those lives, but that defense is slowly taken away during his conversations with the rabbi.

As Alex releases his memories, first by writing them down and later by speaking them aloud, he undergoes renewal and revelation that properly elevate his sense of self. He can take back his given name because he earns his right to it.

Yael Shahar as a character in her book is an intermediary between Alex and Rabbi Ish-Shalom. She brings them together. In a literal sense, with her name given as author of the book, she is telling Alex’s story — including his dialogue with the rabbi. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the Washington Independent Review of Books, click here: Returning

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“The Orchard,” by Yochi Brandes; Daniel Libenson, trans.

 Gefen Publishing House.  382 pages. Hardcover $24.95

Originally published in Hebrew as Hapardes shel Akiva in 2011, this unusual historical novel furthers biblical scholar Yochi Brandes’s refashioning of our understanding of Judaism’s roots, recently amplified in her novel The Secret Book of Kings

Can you imagine sitting down with Rabbi Elisha, Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Joshua, Rabbi Tarfon, Rabban Gamaliel, and other sages of the first centuries of the common era? Can you imagine eavesdropping on their debates, their moments of uncertainty, their jealousies, their alliances and misalliances?

Can you imagine an era during which those spiritual leaders interacted not only with the ruling Roman power but with the dawning Christian culture and its challenges?

Yochi Brandes

Can you imagine their bewilderment—a mixture of awe and suspicion—when the illiterate shepherd who married far above his station bloomed in exile from his wife, Rachel, until he took his place among them and then became their master?

Yochi Brandes imagines these scenes and many more in this astonishing novel that expands our understanding of how early modern Judaism and Christianity began. The book is centered on the powerful fable concerning Rabbi Akiva’s ascendancy and is dressed in all of the surrounding, attendant history—in particular the Bar Kokhba revolt against the Romans. . . .

The full Jewish Book Council review may be found at JBC – The Orchard

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“Barren Island: A Novel,” by Carol Zoref

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

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

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

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

Carol Zoref

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

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

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Three kings, a mad princess, and their times reimagined in dazzling, expansive novel

The Secret Book of Kings, by Yochi Brandes. Translated by Yardenne Greenspan. St. Martin’s. 416 pages. Hardcover $26.99.

First published in Hebrew in 2008, this is a book about the power of stories. It recognizes the truth that the stories we inherit are most often the stories of those who prevailed. We must understand that this aphorism includes the stories of the Jewish Bible. In retelling and reimagining these stories – the kingships of Saul, David, and Solomon – Brandes includes many scenes in which scribes are at work – or thought to be at work – writing and rewriting history. To the victors go the spoils of war – including have the final, authoritative word. That is, until the lines of power are rearranged and new versions of what happened replace older ones. 

But the older ones remain concealed only until they are needed again. And stories may be written, and purposely be concealed, for later revelation.

“Stories are deadlier than swords. Swords can only harm those standing right in front of them, while stories determine who will live and who will die in future generations.”

An official web site for the book provides resources to foster complex reader involvement.  Readers can discover “how the Bible’s stories as told in the novel are deeply rooted in the Biblical text and also read the texts differently from the perspective of the Biblical author(s), as well as the perspectives of traditional interpreters. The resources presented here are meant to aid interested readers in learning more about traditional and modern perspectives on the Bible, as well as to guide readers in comparing the Biblical text with the book’s text.”

Two voices dominate this sprawling epic. One is the voice of Shelomoam, a conflicted young man who grows up living in fear and enveloped by secrets. His true identity is a secret, and the one he is cloaked in is a fabrication meant to protect him. The early story of Shelomoam, mainly provided in his own words, launches the novel. It is followed by one section of the story of Michal, daughter of King Saul and abandoned queen of King David. Once again, the main character is the narrator. She is soon identified as the Mad Princess, and we will discover why.

The novel continues to alternate perspectives and locations with a suspenseful building of story-telling rhythms.

The cast of character is enormous, and the names of many are both strange to English ears and yet so much like other names that it’s sometimes hard to keep all the character straight. However, the situations and the emotions they produce are always vivid and clear.

Yochi Brandes

The twists and turns of the plot spin around opposites: loyalty and betrayal, courage and cowardice, modesty and arrogance, palaces and temples, frankness and cunning, passion and coldness, tribe and nation, royal splendor and simple family life.

Though the author’s scholarly preparation, fueled by her imagination, allows her to recreate the lands, the politics, the genealogies, and the material and spiritual culture of these turbulent times with great particularity, she strives for and attains a welcome sense of universality.

Anyone who read this book with the concluding stages of the recent U. S. political campaigns in mind will find many parallels in the campaigns of the ancient candidates for kingship and their subordinates. Brandes makes a point of having her characters reflect on the stories they know, seeing parallels in their own lives to the stories about the patriarch generations, especially  the rivalries within the families. Parallels are also drawn to portions of the Moses saga.

In other words, the more things change the more they remain the same.

Yochi Brandes is to be commended for how brilliantly she brings her characters to life. Her penetration into the longings, confusions, deliberations, and joyful moments of these characters us remarkable. Many undergo changes that are convincingly motivated though not predictable. Almost all the major figures are complex individuals whom the readers come to know intimately. King David is one particularly complex character, but there are so many.

With the online supplementary material, this is a great choice for book groups.

Yochi Brandes was born in 1959 in Haifa to a family of Hassidic rabbis. Earning her BA in biblical studies and an MA in Judaic studies, Brandes taught bible and Judaism for many years. She is the author of novels and essays on biblical women-all of them best-sellers in Israel. She has been awarded the Book Publishers Association’s Platinum Book Prizes for seven of her books, including The Secret Book of Kings, and the Steimatsky Prize for Akiva’s Orchard. She lives outside of Tel Aviv.

This review appeared in the January 2017 issues of L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte Counties) and The Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota-Manatee).

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“The Orphan’s Tale,” by Pam Jenoff

Jenoff

Can you imagine a Holocaust-related story that features circus performers? Can you imagine the Nazi regime, as it spreads across Europe, tolerating these vagabond entertainers? Historical facts support Jenoff’s imaginative story of hidden Jews, vulnerable women, younger and older lovers, twisting loyalties, and valiant spirits in The Orphan’s Tale, a colorful and moving dual narrative.

 

Jenoff tells her tale through two alternating characters whose similarities and differences bring out the best and the worst in each. Noa is a troubled teenager whose pregnancy leads to her parents casting her out. She seeks a means to support herself, and longs for the child she is forced to give up. Noa looks the perfect Aryan, but her baby does not. Her journey leads to the discovery of a boxcar filled with infants. One of the babies seems familiar to her. She takes him in her arms and can’t let go of it. After she discovers that the tiny boy is circumcised, Noa finds a hiding place in a milk delivery truck and takes the baby with her. . . .

To read the entire Jewish Book Council Review, click here: The Orphan’s Tale by Pam Jenoff | Jewish Book Council

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A panoramic novel about how America began its global ascent to power

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.”  honorablewar

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

It is immensely impressive, though it sometimes walks on the edge of too much detail and too many voices. As is so often the case in historical fiction, we must accept the awkward convention of a narrator remembering conversations verbatim. It’s a small price pay for the explosive results.

Roosevelt is a warrior wannabe who has just enough clout and cunning to engage his country in the destiny of Cuba.

The story Mr. Macomber tells so engagingly begins with the explosion of the USS Maine, one of the first U. S. battleships, in Havana Harbor. It was a deadly catastrophe that killed hundreds helped fire anti-Spanish sentiment and rally U. S. support for an independent Cuba. Indeed, the ship had been sent to protect American interests following Spain’s cruel suppression of the Cuban revolution.

rnm-new-author-photo-2013

Wake finds himself charged with two missions. The first is a to gather information about Spanish intentions and military capacities as well as the situation of Cuban rebels.  He and his longtime friend and associate Rork barely escape this clandestine operation with their lives.

The second mission, based on the information gathered in the first, involves maneuvers against Spanish forces conducted from the port of Isabela. Wake puts together a fleet of converted yachts whose agility makes them unusually effective against the larger Spanish ships. He also masterminds all kinds of tactical tricks that surprise the enemy sailors and throw them off guard. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the February 15, 2017 Fort Myers Florida Weekly, the February 16 Punta Gorda/Port Charlotte edition, and  the February 23 Naples and Bonita Springs editions, click here:  Florida Weekly – An Honorable War

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Phil’s Spring Review Schedule

Phil Jason loves books

Phil Jason loves books

Below you will find my intended schedule for the “Florida Writers” column in Florida Weekly. Two slots open in June — maybe you book will get one of them! The final decision, of course, rests with the editors of the various editions. Reviews also coming this spring in Washington Independent Review of Books, Jewish Book Council website, and Southern Literary Review. Check back often.

Stuart Woods

Stuart Woods

April 6/7 – Stuart Woods, “Family Jewels”

April 13/14 – Phil Beuth, “Limping on Water”
April 20/21 – Ian A. O’Connor, “The Wrong Road Home”

April 27/28 – Lisa Black, “That Darkness” 

Lisa Black

Lisa Black

May 4/5 – Marty Jourard, “Music Everywhere”
May 11/12 – M. A. Richards, “Choice of Enemies”
May 18/19 – Lucy Burdette, “Killer Takeout”
May 25/26 – D.J. Niko, “The Judgment”
June 1/2 – Lisa Unger, “Ink and Bone”

June 8/9 – Michael Wiley – “Black Hammock” 

Michael Wiley

Michael Wiley

June 15/16 – Howard P. Giordano – “The Second Target”
June 22/23 – TBD
June 29/30 – TBD

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Valiant artist struggles to open U. S. doors for Hitler’s prey

The Muralist, by B. A. Shapiro. Algonquin Books. 352 pages. Hardcover $26.95.

This book dazzles and excites with its penetrating look at the New York art scene during the Depression; the situation in Europe for Jews seeking to flee Nazi persecution and murder; and the present-time life of a young woman working for a major art auction house. The plot is carefully managed through two alternating time lines: one begins in 1939 and is focused on an obscure Jewish artist, Alizée Benoit; the other follows today’s Danielle Abrams, Alizée’s great niece. It becomes Danielle’s obsession to discover Alizée’s fate.  Shapiro_Muralist_Jkt_HR

Alizée is an American citizen who lived for many years in France, returning to the United States in 1937 at the age of 19 already a well-schooled artist. When readers meet her in 1939, she is part of a circle of young artists who are creating a great new American art form – Abstract Expressionism. The others include Jackson Pollack, Lee Krasner, Mark Rothko, and on occasion Dutch-born Willem de Kooning. They challenge and inspire one another while living in dire poverty.

These and other artists survive on commissions received from a special branch of the Works Progress Administration that buys paintings for display in public buildings. This Federal Art Project favored representational rather than abstract art, handicapping the chances for this group’s experimentation being accepted.

When sporadic messages from her relatives describe their deteriorating situation in France and urge her to help, Alizée, who feels a deep and constant responsibility for saving them, becomes a political activist. Her target is Breckinridge Long, the man in charge of administering immigration controls, whose personal mission was to block oppressed Europeans (and especially Jews) from getting the necessary visas. He was only too successful. Alizée tries to engage Eleanor Roosevelt to assist in this effort, an effort that includes politically-charged art that Alizée develops to raise public awareness of the Jewish plight.

Impressed by the power of Picasso’s “Guernica,” she decides to create a mural for a forthcoming exhibition. With time running out, she enlists her artist cohorts to help her with the project.

Shapiro

Shapiro

Facing many frustrations and with her physical and mental health severely declining, Alizée disappears in 1940.

The 2015 timeline follows Danielle’s curiosity about her vanished great aunt. This curiosity is spurred into action by some mysterious paintings, fragments of a larger work, that she finds hidden in envelopes pasted to the back of paintings transmitted to Christie’s, the famous and influential auction house where Danielle works.

Interviews, data-base searches, and other research slowly reveal an impression of Alizée’s life and artistic mission. Still, Danielle’s struggle to establish the “historical” Alizée and to discover if she is alive is frustrated until she makes a last-ditch effort that takes her to France. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the November 25, 2015 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the November 26 Naples, Bonita Springs, and Punta Gorda/Port Charlotte editons, click here: Florida Weekly – Shapiro

Note: there is a typo at the end of the printed article. The internet address for the Collier County Jewish Book Festival is www.jewishbookfestival.org

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