Sunday, June 17, 2018

The Flames of Florence: A Da Vince's Disciples Novel by Donna Russo Morin

The Flames of Florence: A Da Vinci’s Disciples Novel by Donna Russo Morin. Diversion Books. Copyright May 2018.; pb. 260 pp.; ISBN: 9781635763799.

The Da Vinci disciples grow and are even beginning to welcome new, younger members, just as full of talent and passion for painting Renaissance works of art beloved by all, even those who disapprove of women painting.  However, their unity and vision for the future is now about to come under virulent attack. 

Civil wars after the passing of the Medici family have calmed down.  However, in reaction to the celebrations of life through art, jewelry, real estate, architecture, dress, etc., the pendulum is now about to swing full circle to the fanatic zeal of religious reform! Friar Girolamo Savonarola begins his service to God by becoming a fine preacher who knows how to touch the minds, hearts and spirits of all Catholics and even some out of that fold!  But with the heady success of his popularity comes an inflated ego that turns into delusion and heresy that makes him believe he is the actual voice of God! The author’s depiction of this fiery preacher and would-be savior is amazing and probably never given so much attention and understanding!

Once kindled, Savonarola’s flames consume all of Florence, at first metaphorically.  The citizens are divided into those who take the monk’s words literally and those who hold him highly suspect, the Piagnoni and the Arrabbiati respectively.  Fiammetta Maffei becomes part of the Piagnoni, believing that all jewelry, furs, and anything of riches be surrendered so that these goods may be sold for the benefit of the poor.  A group of soldiers, composed mainly of hotheaded youth, pound on doors and demand the surrender of all riches.  Failure to respond results in terrible beatings and even murder!

When the order comes for all paintings be surrendered as well, the Disciples face a formidable challenge.  The remainder of the novel deals with how they respond and how this scourge on Florence results in a final challenge from both the Pope and the residents of Florence. 

The Flames of Florence… is the grand finale of his wonderful series and fully merits that description. The thoughts, jealousies, passionate love for art, self-examination, and determination to save what is precious and just as holy as prayers and offerings are revealed.  Ugliness and beauty are juxtaposed as each Disciple is called to choose what is divine and what is human wisdom gone totally awry!

Magnificent finale, Donna Russo Morin! Congratulations on this highly recommended work of Renaissance historical fiction!

A Stone's Throw: An Ellie Stone Mystery #6 by James W. Ziskin

A Stone’s Throw: An Ellie Stone Mystery #6 by James W. Ziskin. Prometheus Books. Copyright June 2018.; pb. 299 pp.; ISBN: 9781633884199.

Ellie Stone is a spunky, curious journalist who’s unafraid to explore any idea she gets in her head about a case.  Before one can flip a few pages, she notices smoke in the distance of the beautiful Saratoga Springs area of upstate New York in the 1960s.  It’s the Tempesta Stud Farm, that had once seen better days and is now burning to the ground.  For those who love the world of horse racing, this is a huge loss, even if it is no longer a flourishing business.  However, the whole situation turns grim when two bodies burned beyond recognition are found. It’s Ellie, after the fire has smoldered and gone out, who discovers a singed length of gold and black diamond patterned silk wrapped around the neck of one of the victims.

A bullet through the head of one victim clearly indicates that this is murder and perhaps arson.  Ellie refuses to let it rest there and begins exploring who the silk belonged to, believing it belonged to a jockey named Johnny Dornan.  It also turns out he hasn’t been seen in days.  No one is overly concerned since Dornan didn’t have the nicest reputation and wasn’t trusted or friendly with the ordinary crew working the racetrack scene. 

Ellie’s friend, Fadge, fills Ellie in on missing information about the races.  He’s a funny guy who spends hours and days reading racing sheets but loses as often as he wins bets at the track.  He’s rather fond of Ellie but their relationship never gets beyond fondness.  And he adds some information for readers not familiar with the betting on races process.

No spoilers here but suffice to say that several woman and gamers are involved in Johnny Dornan’s life.  There are several characters who don’t like to lose and resent anyone out of their circle asking too many questions.  But that doesn’t stop Ellie; if anything, it spurs her on, always with Fadge by her side or not far behind her.  Unfortunately, others will die before all the gaps have been filled in the mystery.

The sixth mystery of James Ziskin is as good, if not better, than his previous novels.  One knows the troubles and crimes will all sort themselves out, but one still can’t predict how that will happen, and that is the enjoyable process for the reader.  Nicely done, James Ziskin!!!

Saturday, June 16, 2018

When We Disappear: A Novel by Lise Haines

When We Disappear: A Novel by Lise Haines. Unbridled Books. Copyright June 2018.; hb. 304 pp.; ISBN: 9781609531478.

Mona and her father, Richard, are out driving when the unthinkable happens.  They are in a car accident, which we don’t discover until well into the novel, caused by Richard and a mother and child die because Richard panics and leaves the scene.  The rest of the story fleshes out the consequence of those few minutes of inaction.  In one sense, they are horrific for the victims who die.  In another sense they are tragic as Mona and her father live day after day with that event coloring their every thought, word and deed.  It’s almost beyond words to explain!

Yet this event coincides with Mona’s teenage years and Richard’s life as the economy causes him to lose his job.  His answer is to leave home, “looking for a job” and wandering from state to state.  He meets people of all kind, no spoilers here, who represent various personalities, careers, etc., including circus people, and other normal and different types.  Mona’s Mom, who is extremely talented in making sculptures that sell and show in galleries with great acclaim until the failing economy forces her to put her artistic career on hold.  Now they must sell their home, move into a small apartment and make do with whatever money they can make with occasional small amounts sent by Richard.

Mona is basically rebelling against it all.  She develops her own artistic senses as a photographer, sleeps with the man training her in her future career and other guys.  Yet there’s a sense of responsibility that endearingly holds her to monitor the well-being of her Mom and her sister Lola, as well as expressing her teenage angst with snipes of irony and more.

You will have to wait for the incredible ending of this poignant story to experience the surprising quality of closeness and separation that abide together in this unique priceless family. 

Lise Haines is a phenomenal writer.  This is not a bleak book despite its tragic circumstances.  It’s a story of loss, lies, betrayal, deep love and rehabilitation which makes every one of its characters grow into true human richness!  This is a potent, unusual and memorable read that this reviewer highly recommends!

From Nothing: A Novel of Technology, Bar Music and Redemption by Ken Goldstein

From Nothing: A Novel of Technology, Bar Music and Redemption. Ken Goldstein. Story Plant. Copyright May 2018. pb. 352 pp.; ISBN: 9781611882544.

Victor Selo’s life has bombed out and recovered twice.  After the first time when he’s at rock bottom, he turns to playing lead and support guitar in bar bands.  It’s popular music, especially “oldies but goodies” that most baby boomers loved and still love.  Now after multiple years working in the tech business in Silicon Valley, in which he and his buddies devise a way to create apps for people to buy individual song hits.  Technology develops so rapidly that he knows the company has to expand and move up several notches to stay on top of the music tech game. Rapidly he realizes that due to the narrow-minded attitudes and thinking of the “bosses,” the company is about to go bust. 

Victor Selo, however, has a great deal of anger built up inside and when his bosses are unresponsive to his suggestions and he discovers a competitor wants to buy them out just to destroy them, all hell breaks loose.  After a totally engaged, violent scene, Victor Selo is fired.  Not only is he canned but several days later he is “taught a lesson” with a brutal beating that almost kills him.  He plans to run away but instead follows his gut.

Returning to the job of guitar performer in a cover band, Vic meets several band members with sensitive and controlling ideas of how to climb the ladder to success.  The lead singer who owns the group also sings an Elvis “wedding” gig in Los Angeles and a female singer who has some very creative ideas is stifled until Vic comes alone.

The conflict continues until finally Vic, who seems destined to lead wherever he is, gets them to a critical breaking point where they must change or separate. At the same time, the opponents from his earlier techie life keep appearing making him unbelievable, flush offers of which he wants no part.  The end is sheer stunning fiction.

From Nothing… will remain in your mind long after you’re done reading.  It’s got great ideas, mind-blowing tension, and adventure in every scene.  It also contains music lyrics from an amazing playlist almost everyone up to the 21st Century can appreciate and rock along with.  Some people are born leaders and Victor Selo is a fine heroic character who never falters in leading other men and women upward and onward!  Nice job, Ken Goldstein!

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Three Shoeboxes: A Novel by Steven Manchester

Three Shoeboxes: A Novel. Steven Manchester. Fiction Studio Books. Copyright June, 2018. pb. 262 pp.; ASIN #: Bo7BN465JD.  .

Jen and Mack are celebrating their 15th wedding anniversary, and it’s clear they are still very much in love.  They love their three children as well and Mack knows how to be friend but more important mentor to their growing up.  On that special day of celebrating their relationship, they see an accident and Mack’s world spins totally out of control.  All of a sudden, he finds his chest tightening, his head aching, and feeling unable to catch a breath, along with sweats and a racing heart.  He ignores it initially but when it reoccurs several times, he goes to get help at the hospital.  There some insensitive nurses confirm behind the screen that he’s having panic attacks; they treat it like no big deal.  But it’s a very big, big deal that continues and even escalates.

Mack will eventually get help but not before his personality undergoes a dramatic change borne of fear and he winds up making his wife and children dread to be around him because they fear his drunken and sober rages.  Jen realizes she needs to protect her children and so she takes appropriate legal action.  Mack is at risk for losing his job.  So many losses but Mack finally surrenders and begins the process of healing he so desperately needs through help for his PTSD, alcoholism, and panic attacks.

No more about the plot which readers will find very intense.  What is remarkable about this brutally honest story is the expression of support and growth evident in the letters that Mack writes to his children, later to his wife, and those of his wife – all written but not sent until the perfect moment. Manchester’s ability to depict the deepest emotions realistically and poignantly is noteworthy.

One would like to hope this is a rare account but most of us know it’s not.  Whether the cause is war or a horrible event one experiences but represses, PTSD is an all too real, horrific state that can make or break a person unless one receives professional help.  Faith is easy until one enters an unbelievable state of hell and the road back or forward is wonderfully presented in this memorable, compassionate account.  Highly recommended – read it and pass it on to others.  Recognizing the symptoms is half of the healing process.  Once again, finely crafted, Steven Manchester!

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Nelly's Case: A Tug Wyler Mystery Series by Andy Siegel

Nelly’s Case: A Tug Wyler Mystery Series. Andy Siegel. CreateSpace Publishing. Copyright 2018. pb. 324 pp.; ISBN: 9781981553341.

Nelly Rivera had a horrible fear of dental treatment and so she agreed to be slightly knocked out with anesthesia for treatment of a simple cavity.  Her sister, Jessie, was there, attempting to calm Nelly’s anxiety.  All seemed well but quickly went disastrous.  Nelly was in a coma, and doctors seemed unable to issue a positive prognosis. The remaining question is why did Dr. Grad leave the dental room immediately after he started the IV of anesthesia?

Tug Wyler appears and endeavors to have Jessie start a malpractice case against Dr. Grad.  Jessie must be in shock as she’s almost unable to communicate her wishes to Tug or anyone at the hospital.  In between this case, the reader gets a fill-in of Tug’s background as personal injury attorney who receives case from Henry, a snappy, tough lawyer who knows how to wheel and deal his way through any court system, defendant or plaintiff.  There are some very funny moments in the interactions between these two attorneys which lightens the intensity just where it’s needed.

No spoilers here but enough to alert the reader that this case involves far more than a dental procedure gone awry.  Red alert: life insurance policy!  Jessie remains unavailable and only occasionally visiting her sister who is in a rehabilitation facility slowly responding to medical attempts to bring her totally out of the coma.

Tug may be under Henry’s thumb, but Tug’s not only alert to making money but engaging in any case where injustice and fraud are suspected.  Both Henry and Tug wonder why the defendant attorney knows more facts about this case than they do.  Also, where are the other members of Nelly’s family in the face of this upsetting development?

There are more guilty parties in this matter than one initially suspects but the author knows how to time out the suspenseful scenes that lead to the final discovery and delivery of justice.

Tug Wyler is definitely a true personal injury attorney who educates the reader about the lawsuit process, the documents and discovery aspects to be clarified and obtained and the collection of relevant and irrelevant evidence.  This is a fine mystery that all mystery fans will enjoy.  Nicely crafted, Andy Siegel.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

The Performance Cortex: How Neuroscience Is Redefining Athletic Genius by Zach Schonbrun

The Performance Cortex: How Neuroscience Is Redefining Athletic Genius by Zach Schonbrun. Penguin Publishing Group. Copyright April 2018.; hb., 352 pp.; ISBN: 978110986332.

Many years ago, I recall reading an article about how Tiger Woods learned to golf so well by the scientific methods taught to him by his father.  Curious, I never pursued that interesting fact, but it came to mind again with this book about the brain and athletic performance.  The brain can be trained for athletic performance up to a certain age, exemplified by the author’s reference to Michael Jordan who had an interest in baseball but couldn’t grow in the required skills and yet had what was needed for baseball. 

Dagmar Sternad has an Action Lab at Northeastern University.  Here she experimented with the game skittles, demonstrating how timing from the brain and physiology conspires to make us winners or losers and how movement or kinetic patterns and features could be retained for up to eight years.  There is also an interesting discussion of skills that are learned and involve brain activity but can not develop further because of “habit” that negates any further learning curve from progressing. This involves “action controllers, “automatization” or even “muscle memory” as an action or sequence of actions that get formed, reorganized and consolidated in our long-term memory.  And so it goes.

These are a few of the examples and explanations that tell the story of athletic and normal action in an understandable presentation, such as the reflex arc, the feed-forward loop of sensory-to-motor connections that trigger everyday actions or the position of neural swing decisions in baseball, tennis and volleyball serves.

The factor of intention is also discussed as in using a scalpel to operate or to murder.  The same applies about these motor skills applied to kinematics or movement.  All in all, “stimulus-response connections build up a nervous system of sets which function like cognitive maps.” 

The authors even describe how “virtual arms” learn to operate or are taught by science to understand the training behind using these prostheses.

Anyone interested in physical activity, sports, coaching etc. will find this book fascinating and interesting for practice or just understanding the theories and applications that apply when playing or watching sports.  Highly recommended and engaging science in a credible, readable book.  Nicely done, Zach Schonbrun!