Sunday, June 25, 2017

A Decent Woman: A Novel by Eleanor Parker Sapia

A Decent Woman: A Novel. Eleanor Parker Sapia. Libertary Co. February 2015. 270 pp.  ISBN #: 9781620154007. 

Ana Belen Opaku is a midwife in turn of the 20th century Ponce, Puerto Rico (the author uses the old spelling of Porto Rico).  She’s working without a midwife certificate which could make a great deal of trouble.  She’s also illiterate which makes matters worse!  But Ana is a truly remarkable, perceptive, sensitive, skilled and compassionate woman! She delivers children for Serafina and becomes a good friend over time. 

The beauty of this story lies in Ana’s description of her fears and strength during fierce storms and hurricanes; her following African Yoruba spiritual practices and Western religious rites, combined with her skilled application of medicinal plants to facilitate easy births and protect the newborn lives she cherishes.  Folklore from Africa and Cuba make this a multi-layered tale that truly evokes understanding of Puerto Rico’s culture and society.

One of Serafina’s children is born stillborn and because her last child died shortly after birth, she must defend herself against criminal charges.  Ana provides the testimony Serafina needs to be judged innocent and that cements their close relationship forever.

Ana now must deal with the opposition of a local parish priest, Padre Vicente, and a local physician, Dr. Hector Rivera.  Their action pushes Ana to learn to read and obtain her certificate.  Serafina’s husband dies and she later marries a rich man. Ana follows her and their friendship grows even more as Ana’s life dramatically changes.

A Decent Woman... has no huge plot but instead gives the reader a gracefully evolving story of the struggle for women to survive independently in a male-dominated culture, the dignity of women who are treated as possessions meant to serve men, the need for women to share dangerous secrets which may bring trust or betrayal, and most of all the sharing of the beauty of the cycles of life and death.

A remarkable account that is obviously well-researched, understood and conveyed with grace and passion!  Highly recommended!

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Knoll: The Last JFK Conspiracist by Stephen Hillard

Knoll: The Last JFK Conspiracist. Stephen Hillard. SelectBooks. June 2017. 256 pp. ISBN #: 9781590794214.  

Conspiracy theories abound about who was responsible for the assassination of JFK in November 1963 but no definitive answer has ever been publicly acknowledged other than that of Oswald, the supposed assassin.  Stephen Hillard’s novel, however, asserts that the truth is known by many people.  The problem is that each one of these known witnesses or collaborators winds up meeting a deadly end in horrific accidents or by being murdered. 

Now a House of Representative member from Texas vows to discover and expose the truth that will hopefully erase the stained reputation held forever in Dallas, Texas.  Columbus (“Bus”) McIntyre, a prosecutor now must change his plans of running for office when a scandal derails him from his dream.  Remarkably, he’s not that upset about the change in plans.  In fact, he is now about to change his focus dramatically.  One of the great moments of grief in his life concerns the murder of his father, a cop, in 1970. Now he is given a journal written by his father in which his Dad writes, “For what I did in Dallas, they will find me.”  From this moment on, the reader avidly reads every entry of that journal as Bus thinks about each entry and begins to assemble clues, acts that could just as well get him in trouble in which he would follow his father’s footsteps.

Woven into these steps of Bus’s discovery process are chapter in which we learn that NSA not only has all the facts about the assassination but has a woman design a program that combines facts and algorithms to know who is searching for the truth so that they can be eliminated.  It didn’t start out that way but is now a set program that brooks no interference.

Finally, something about the quashing of people associated with the JFK disaster concerns a Mafia leader, now dead for over twenty years, but whose legacy is still continuing the elimination process.  This then is the essence of the story and Bus’s investigative journey. 

There’s quite a bit of steam that entices the reader but the ending is somewhat anticlimactic.   Still, it will get readers of a certain age thinking anew of their memories of this horrific event and hungry to understand precisely what is meant by Carlos Marcello’s dictum, “Omerta is forever.”

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

The Space Between the Stars by Anne Corlett

The Space Between the Stars. Anne Corlett. Penguin Publishing Group. June 13, 2017. 368 pp. ISBN #: 9780399585111.

99% of the world is dead!  A terrible plague has decimated innumerable planets where human live and all that is left are piles of dust.  Before the plague, Jamie Allenby moved to a quiet planet with that huge space that she so desired after leaving a suffocating, congested Earth.  The reader immediately thinks, “What would I do if I found myself in such a circumstance?”  Jamie initially thinks she’s the only survivor but after a week manages to pick up a signal from out of her planet.  This then is the story of the survivors who find each other, their complex personalities, and their desire to form a new society.  The only problem or problems involve different ideas of what should happen next.

We meet some who are curious about transporting survivors to where they want to go, allowing others to make choices, to be free.  However, we meet a group who believe they, the “upper echelon” of society, should form a new society under their control because they are better in so many ways.  We meet a religious woman who has a horrible secret from the past and is now finding her own survival totally dependent on “God’s will.” 

Jamie’s past lover is one of the leaders who is unable to accept that Jamie no longer loves him and tries to block her escape from this new world order that borders on a “1984” novel scenario.  Violence and blocking anyone from leaving become the norm which some characters manage to elude. 

All the characters have lost other human beings and each reacts differently, yet somehow the focus seems to remain on the present and future.  It takes quite a while before these people realize they must face these losses and what their present and future lives could be in order to truly create a new society.

Another perspective on those in this story is how strongly human desires haven’t changed at all, even considering the disaster all have experienced.

The plot is simple herein, but what holds the reader’s focus is on the static or dynamic evolution that dramatically changes Jaime and a friend she begins to draw closer to, the opportunity to become freer now they cannot take life for granted.
Interesting, recommended post-apocalyptic sci-fi read, indeed!

Monday, June 5, 2017

Cast the First Stone: An Ellie Stone Mystery by James W. Ziskin

Cast the First Stone: An Ellie Stone Mystery #5.  James W. Ziskin. Prometheus Books. June 2017. 290 pp. ISBN #: 9781633882812.

Ellie Stone, a newspaper journalist from the unknown town of New Holland, gets the chance to travel to Hollywood, California to interview Tony Eberle, formerly also of New Holland, who is about to star in his first movie.  Anyone who has met Tony admits he is definite “eye candy” who, if he has the goods on acting, is about to become a big Hollywood star. The problem is – he never showed up the first day of rehearsals.  The fury of both actors and staff is chaotic and Ellie Stone wonders if she’s got a bigger story here than she first thought. 

Ellie is definitely a tireless reporter as she sets about finding the MIA actor, only to find that his producer is also missing and a few days later is found dead.  No spoilers here!  The remainder of the novel focuses on the people who knew Tony and his producer.  At first they’re not willing to help Ellie one iota until she lies and says she knows where he is.  Then they’re all over her to cooperate and Ellie plays this little lie for all it’s worth.

The bottom line is that Hollywood is full of panderers in the 1960s, willing to do anything for a “moment in the sun” of stardom, be it top actor or extra.  There are rare people in this novel who do have good intentions and act with integrity, but they are the exception and not the norm.  The characters of the norm are too busy having a good, no – great time drinking, drugging and having sex with adults and – Oh No!
Ellie makes a clever sleuth and she’s got a wacky, always entertaining sense of humor that at times saves this story from its repetitive cycles of discovery, where Ellie often as to repeat former trips and conversations to get ahead one step at a time.

As an aside, film buffs will love the references and recommendations of actors, actresses, and films from the 1950s and 1960s.

The outcome is not what you expect but does differ from the normal Hollywood story ending!  Nicely crafted mystery, James W. Ziskin!

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Washington Power Play: A Political Thriller by Allan Topol

Washington Power Play: A Political Thriller. Allan Topol. SelectBooks, Inc.. May 2017. 320 pp. ISBN #: 9781590794258.

China is planning a New World Order! A new name for a new attempt to take over both Asia and the United States.  Kelly Cameron, an FBI agent, has just completed a mission that is taken by her superiors to be both a success and a failure, a success in that she was able to stop a terrorist from committing mayhem and murder and a failure in that her killing the terrorist prevented her superiors from interviewing him to discover valuable information.  So is her sudden promotion to join a task force to find a government mole a true reward or something worse?

Kelly’s first task is to get up to speed on China, especially after a sudden attack on Japanese planes by Chinese jets.  Her first connection is with a powerful American lawyer, Andrew Martin, a man who, unknown to Kelly, has questionable ties with China as a delivery boy for secret messages to a Chinese diplomat.  Then there’s Xiang Shen, a former lover, who appears and supposedly wants to reignite their powerful connection.  Kelly’s not buying!  And Xiang has no choice but continue to pursue in order to guarantee his family’s safety back in China. A dilemma indeed!

And what about the head of the task force, General Darrell Cartwright, who desperately wants to run for President of the United States?  He’s not happy with several members of the task force and these snippy debates between the parties which are stopped one step away from being outright combat.  This seems a bit out of proportion to their task which is a clue that indeed something is rotten in Denmark.

Allan Topol knows how to ramp up the tension from the very first page. Although the reader thinks he or she knows where this is going, that’s not quite the obvious plot!  Kelly will risk death, be faced with action to save her kidnapped daughter, and discover there are more disloyal characters than one mole than she ever imagined.

Washington Power Play… is a fine political thriller with plenty of passion, debate, threats of violence and actual physical combat to keep the reader flipping the pages of this fast-paced, international power play plot!  Nicely done, Allan Topol, and definitely recommended reading!

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Strange Times: Richard III in the 21st Century Book 3 by Joan Szechtman

·         Strange Times: Richard III in the 21st Century Book 3. Joan Szechtman. Amazon Digital Services LLC. May 2017. 169 pp.  ASIN: B071NMQBJS.  
Some background history is vital to understanding this account: A famous quote from William Colyngbourne refers to a rat, a cat and a dog who served under a hog.  The rat and the cat, Richard Ratcliffe and William Catesby respectively, are dead. The dog refers to the only survivor, Francis Lovell, who survived. This all occurred in the 1480s, and obviously, the hog, Richard III, who supposedly died when defeated by Henry Tudor, has borne a terrible reputation through the centuries.  He is labeled a tyrant and a murderer of the Princes of the previous King.  However, in the 21st Century, his reputation has undergone a complete revision and now the real Richard III is living in America.  In the previous two books in this series, he participated in clearing his name, although there are still descendants who want him captured and killed! Richard now longs to tie up one loose end.  Lovell, the dog who was truly a loyal servant to Richard, fought against Henry VII at the famous Battle of Stoke Field.  When we meet him, he’s hiding in a basement vault, fearful of capture and death.  Richard’s obsession in finding Lovell is understandable and serves as the beginning of this intriguing story.

Richard is running for a political office in Oregon but unforeseen circumstances block any further progress in that venture.  He and his wife, Sarah, are involved with a company that has built a time machine.  This is the story of two figures who accidentally get exchanged in the 15th and 21st Century.  Adrian Strange is a colleague who appears to monitor the progress on the time machine; he seems overbearing and suspicious about everything.  Because of this machine, he will be transformed in more ways than one although Richard and Sarah will have no idea what Strange is experiencing after he accidentally steps into the active time machine.   In trying to get him back, Richard and Sarah wind up bringing Francis Lovell into this future time.  What a disaster!

Obviously, Richard realizes things must return to the way they were but that plan is not so easily accomplished.  The important issue throughout this entire novel concerns what happens when individuals are transported to the past? How much of history can be changed, and should it be changed?  Would Francis Lovell have survived?  Were the Princes truly killed or did they survive and their descendants as well?  How will the past change Adrian Strange if he returns to the present?

Joan Szechtman has crafted a story with several mysteries running through the overall plot which keep the reader riveted to the story.  Most knowledgeable readers are rooting for Richard in whatever he plans and does but even the best laid plans go awry.  This author clearly knows her topic, with all its twists and turns, and carries the reader through all of them with thrilling skill!  Highly recommended historical fiction!

Monday, April 17, 2017

Flight Patterns - Reprint by Karen White

Flight Patterns. Karen White. Berkley Reprint. March 2017. 432 pp.  ISBN#: 9780451470923. 

Georgia Chambers has found pleasure in developing her antiques business, keeping busy in order to keep some very bad memories out of the forefront of her consciousness.  That’s all about to change as James Graf hires her to find a certain tea cup painted with bees to complete a set missing this piece.  Although Georgia is an expert on Limoges china, she also is quite knowledgeable about other fine china, particularly those unique handcrafted types that are extremely valuable.  The piece James describes to her brings back such a powerful memory that she pales and feels like she’s suffocating.  For she knows she must now return to her hometown in Florida to seek this china teacup, and she’s coerced into allowing James to accompany her. 

The time spent in Apalachicola, Florida will be life-changing for the sisters, Georgia and Maisy, their grandmother Birdie, Maisy’s daughter Becky, Grandpa, James and his sister Caroline and other characters from Europe who are part of this intriguing family history.  The story is complex and intense but evolves to the point where the family secrets of each character are revealed, real and imagined wrongdoings are faced and somewhat and then completely forgiven, silence and oblivion are removed once truth is embraced, the finding of journals as well as post cards and honey forces questions to be answered and so much more that is perfectly woven together at just the right pace. 

Every chapter begins with a quote about the life of bees, specifically describing how they interact and their functions at different times of their lives.  These additional lines literally and figuratively foreshadow what follows in each chapter – a charming extra touch!

Karen White is a highly skilled writer whose fiction just keeps getting better and better! If this is your first novel by her, you’re in for a treat!  You’ll probably want to read her other works as well.  For the threads of secrets and memories keep the characters from being stereotypical, the plot is both simple and complex, and the tension is relieved by warm and tender moments in all the right places. 

Wonderful, light (somewhat) fiction that this reviewer highly recommends as a great read at any time of year!  Thanks to the publisher, Berkely, who provided this novel in return for an honest review!

The Night The Lights Went Out by Karen White

The Night The Lights Went Out.  Karen White. Penguin Publishing Group. April 2017. 416 pp. ISBN #: 9780451488381.

Merilee Talbot Dunlap and her two children are moving to Sweet Apple, Georgia not far from Atlanta.  Merilee is recently divorced and not sure where she wants to settle.  So, she rents a small house behind the home of her landlady, Sugar.  It’s a time of adjustment for all.  Sugar appears to be a tough elderly lady but as the story progresses we find that she has a heart of gold, submerged beneath sarcastic retorts and much grumbling.  For one thing, she’s rough on Merilee’s lack of Southern cooking skills, including how to make real “sweet tea” and make vegetables palatable for children.  Merilee has done fine with her son and daughter and they like Sugar who makes amazing cookies and has a collection of bird books that are an instant hit. 

Now comes the interesting part as soon after Merilee and her children settle into a job and school, respectively, it seems there’s an Internet blogger who knows all about Merilee’s divorce.  That’s a very different blogger from the other blog that points out the humorous side of “Southern” living, and funny it is!

Other characters include a handyman friend of Sugar who volunteers to do all kinds of renovations and house fixing for Merilee and more if she’s willing.  Then there’s Heather, a socialite who controls the charity benefits and school events and artfully takes over every mother’s life, including Merilee.  There’s also Heather’s husband who seems like a regular guy living a very unhappy existence.

No, this isn’t just a snarky Southern satire, although it certainly seems so!  The story progresses as Sugar and Merilee get closer and share the tragedies of their lives.  Just as the bond grows into a beautiful friendship, chaos looms large!  The very end of the novel jumps into a murder, an attempted murder and a mystery revealed that one could never have imagined when first starting this story!

Karen White continues to defy attempts to stereotype her writing.  That’s the beauty of her skills.  Something to appeal to mystery, romance, comedy, and adventure fill each of her novels, something to draw old and new readers alike for a pleasurable experience.

Monday, April 10, 2017

By Any Name by Cynthia Voigt

By Any Name. Cynthia Voigt. Diversion Publishing. April 2017. 296 pp. ISBN #: 9781682303092.

Rida is an orphan who meets Spencer while she is serving in the USO during WWII and he is serving as a naval officer.  They meet at an Officer’s Club Dance.  Rida loves to dance and have a good time.  She is an orphan from California and has no idea of her origins but doesn’t really care. Actually she considers her unknown status as a mandate to speak her mind at all times and to defy what other see as necessary conventions of behavior.  Spencer has one thing on his mind, to divert his constant worry about being killed in this nasty, crazy war.  Rida totally diverts his paranoia and rivets his attention on her startling nature.  This works well and promises for some audacious moments, especially when she informs him she is engaged to four other men.  She admits they all know about each other and don’t mind at all.  Spencer thinks, as a young man of the gentle, upper class Boston aristocracy, that he must make Rida realize the error and danger of her ways.  Of course, he fails miserably and decides the only way to protect her is to marry her.  Theirs is a love affair that truly understands and accepts each other’s nature, his of academic propensities and hers of practical truth and planning for the future.

This then is a unique novel of two characters who complement each other perfectly but who are hardly understood by his Hargrove relatives.  The story is told from the narrative voice of Rida or Mumma (as she is called by all) who supports her husband through his obtaining a Ph.D. in classics and starts her own realty business.  But the gripping essence of Mumma’s story is the way she shocks Spencer’s family and the acquaintances of her daughters with her refreshing truthfulness and unwillingness to conform to dress and social conversation. 

Numerous funny scenes fill these pages in which Mumma shocks all and yet also can perfectly read people’s false veneer to who they are truly are.  In one particular scene, she intuits that a certain teacher is taking advantage of her daughter and sets about eliminating that person before damage can be done. 

Even the end of the novel is mesmerizing as we see how Mumma handles her husband’s life and death and then plans the immediate days after her own death.  The reader knows that her personality will be the subject of days and days of thoughts and conversations among her daughters as they try to figure out just who she was and remain just as befuddled and mournful of her dynamic, astonishing presence!

Cynthia Voigt’s foray into contemporary adult fiction is delightfully well-crafted.  The plot is simple but the characterization is the central focus that defies any stereotypical pattern.  Nicely done, indeed, Cynthia Voigt!!!

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

My Last Lament: A Novel by James William Brown

My Last Lament: A Novel.  James William Brown. Penguin Publishing Group. April 2017. 352 pp. ISBN #: 9780399583414.

Aliki is a young girl when she sees her father shot during WWII; because of this tragedy she is unable to speak for years.  The only noise she can make is that of a Greek lamenter.  This art is more than just wailing and involves putting on the shoes of the dead person and uttering the dirge poems that rise from that person’s ghostly presence.  It might seem to be a bit of far-fetched nonsense but in this story it’s a vibrant part of Greek culture.   Thereafter, Aliki is taken in by a neighbor, Chrysoula and her son Takis, who become main characters in this tale.

Takis is what we now called mentally challenged.  He becomes irate when anyone pays too much attention to Aliki and then commits horrific acts.  As the war continues, German soldiers come into their Greek town and take over homes, food, and everything Greek.  Chrysoula takes a great risk by hiding two Jews, Sophia and Stelios.  Stelios is a character possessing great culture.  He claims that The Iliad is the only novel one might read as it possesses everything one needs in life.  Aliki and Stelios fall in love. There is a wonderful segment in the story where Stelios teaches his protectors everything there is to know about the art of shadow puppetry.  Stelios teaches them how to write these plays, create the appropriate puppets for each story and then teaches them to act out each drama.  This fills many hours that otherwise would have been dwelt on hunger and fear of exposure. However, their town is about to suffer a terrible blow when the Germans discover Stelios hiding. 

The family escapes and the remainder of the story is about their journey to Crete and the establishment of shadow puppetry performances.  Takis is accused of exposing the family and causing much destruction.  However, Aliki is bound to him and feels responsible for protecting him as his family once took her in.  The truth about each horrific event they experience eventually will come out, shocking the reader and making this an unforgettable story.  Despite the repetitive and disorganized quality of some pages, this is a novel reflecting what average, ordinary Greek and Cretan citizens suffered during and after the terror of the Second World War!  Interesting addition to war and historical fiction!

Where the Dead Lie: A Sebastian St. Cyr Novel #12 by C. S. Harris

Where The Dead Lie: A Sebastian St. Cyr Novel #12. C. S. Harris. Penguin Publishing Group. April 2017. 352 pp. ISBN #: 9780451471192.

It’s 1813 and the tastes of some of the upper class in London, England tend to the propensities of the depraved.  When a young, 15-year-old boy is found dead, a rudimentary investigation finds he has been beaten, tortured, raped and then strangled by his killer.  It also turns out that his younger sister is missing, and Viscount Devlin, or Sebastian St. Cyr, is absolutely horrified.  Viscount Devlin is newly married to Honor and they have a child who is going through a stormy teething period.  However, the deep love and contentment Sebastian feels for them make him even more horrified about the fact that so many children, including this latest murder of Benji Thatcher, have been disappearing.  Sebastian knows that this is so because they are poor and of no concern to any of the middle or upper class.  However, Sebastian also knows he and others like him are determined to stop this child trafficking depleting London of its youth.

As Sebastian begins to investigate, he finds one of his relatives engaged to marry someone of a dubious reputation regarding children or teens. The story is horrifying but because the perpetrators are upper class and the victims are poorer than poor their outcome is ignored. 

An interesting subplot provides more fuel for riveting interest, that which concerns Sebastian’s true origins.  The reader feels compelled to pay attention to details about Sebastian’s background, but the truth of the matter defies one’s best efforts at exploring and predicting the truth.

Another interesting side line involves the high trade of pornographic works of literature, the most famous being by the Marquis de Sade of ill repute.  These books are bound in beautiful cover and considered works of art, while the producers of such works ignore the sordid application that such education leads to eventually.

The investigation behind this mystery goes forward in spite of the denial of many characters and eventually threatens the life of  many prime characters!

All in all, this is a sordid story that enables the lives of many poor children to be saved.   Sebastian is clever, practical and yet also idealistic, believing he can and does make a difference in this old mystery!  Nicely crafted, C. S. Harris!

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Sub Rosa: The O.S.S and American Espionage by Stewart Alsop and Thomas Braden

Sub Rosa: The O.S.S. and American Espionage. Stewart Alsop and Thomas Braden. Open Road Media. June 2016. 237 pp. ISBN #: 9781480446014.

The O.S.S. was the spy agency that enabled many of the victories in WWII in Europe and the Far East.  This is the story of how the institution began, its creation by William J. Donovan, its policies and practices.  Learning from the British, Donovan realized what was needed and set about picking prime candidates to supervise the practices of resistance, find and communicate information about planned attacks, and spread propaganda to frequently spread false information that would cause the Germans and Japanese to change their plans of attack.  

A lively account of a certain spy, “Billy,” provides the reader with the mystery behind each mission.  Every spy had certain reasons for his or her total dedication to the cause and Billy was no different.  Without giving away the entire story, suffice to say that at certain times, leaders were uncertain as to whether Billy spied on the right side or even was a double agent.  Communication often faltered or was delayed because of unforeseen circumstances and this was the case with Billy who manages to complete his job and return unscathed and confident, leaving his superiors with an increased understanding about all the obstacles that could and did arise in each delicate circumstance. 

We read about how many of these men and women lost their lives and the realization is stark in learning about the relentless and formidable dangers ever-present for those who succeeded and failed.  The latter are honored as much as those who succeeded.

Many more Operations are described and the OSS was placed under the Army but the records of these notable operations was kept and has provided much material for those carry out similar roles in different conflicts and wars.  More notes are added such as the fact that the information from OSS – 60 per cent to be precise – enabled the eventual invasion of Southern France that led to the end of the war.  The reality is that OSS members were deeply tied to the military events that changed the course of what might have been a German and Japanese takeover of the world.  This weapon of warfare, OSS, is still being evaluated and appreciated in diverse ways. 

Stewart Alsop and Thomas Baden have described a wartime group that was more than worth the money spent, recounted actions that were worthy of decoration but more often were silently allowed to pass into the annals of history but are now being noted for their intelligence in both peace and war.  Nicely done and recommended reading!

Sunday, March 26, 2017

A Dozen Truths: 12 Works of Fiction by Editors Lou Aronica and Aaron Brown

A Dozen Truths: 12 Works of Fiction. Lou Aronica (editor) and Aaron Brown (editor). The Story Plant. March 2017. 230 pp. ISBN #: 9781611882513.

Truth is redeeming but may not always lead a person where he or she imagined.  The short stories within these pages, three of which won first short story awards, deal with perceptions of reality that startle the reader.  The collection begins with “Join” by Eric Andersson in which a young man’s grief over his pet which becomes obsessive voices in his head that haunt his days and nights, increasing on an evening that should have been a break from his seclusion to join his long-neglected friends.  The end of the story has a shockingly eerie, Ray Bradbury quality that is unforgettable.  In Marcia Gloster’s “Losing Will,” a young woman knows her boss is a “lady’s man” who hits on every woman who works for him only this is not just a love ‘em and lose ‘em scenario; payback is probable and darn uncomfortable (tongue in cheek). 

“Howard and Pablo” by Earl Javorsky pulls two of the most incomparable characters together – Howard Hughes and Pablo Casals.  Hughes is rich enough to get whatever he wants and he wants the passionate music of Casals, but neither is ready for what emerges from the initial demand.  In “Ollie” by Carmen Siegers, what gives that a child is more upset about the cat who has disappeared than the fact that the parents announce they are getting divorced?

My favorite story, “Lost” by Steven Manchester, is from the novel Ashes about two estranged brothers who travel together on a long trip and truly get to know each other in ways they never knew.  It’s funny, poignant and life-changing!

Many of these stories seem to be about “loss,” losing which is part of every life, but often being of our own making rather than arbitrary events.  It’s about affecting events rather than only being a victim of events.  This reviewer can truly say that all of these writers have great skill.  The reader is also provided with introductory sections to each story where one reads the biography, related works and thoughts about the thoughts behind each story.

Great contemporary fiction that this reviewer highly recommends! 

Friday, March 17, 2017

A Bridge Across the Ocean: A Novel by Susan Meissner

A Bridge Across the Ocean: A Novel.  Susan Meissner. Penguin Publishing Group. March 2017. 384 pp. ISBN #: 9780451476005.

Brette has a gift she fears greatly.  She sees ghosts.  It’s a skill that passes randomly through generations and she worries she could pass it on to her own daughter.  She has learned that if she looks away, she doesn’t have to communicate with each appearance.  But she’s also been warned that there are evil spirits as well as benevolent ones, therefore she should avoid getting involved in any way because it might turn disastrous.  Easier said than done!  She winds up communicating with one, finding out about a 70 year-old tragedy on the Queen Mary and deciding to investigate.  This makes for a wild adventure where she also meets other women who have the same skill or curse, depending on one’s point of view.

Simone Deveraux sees her father and brother murdered during WWII and escapes only to suffer a grievous wrong.  She escapes anew and winds up free and falling in love with a very unlikely man. 

Annaliese Lange marries a brutal Nazi soldier. She however escapes to live with a childhood friend, Katrine.  They suffer a terrible wartime event and Annaliese escapes, taking the name of Katrine who had married an American soldier.  Annaliese wonders how much she will have to pay for the false act she has committed.

These three women are now on the Queen Mary, a ship used both for wartime troops and the brides of American soldiers traveling to America while their spouses are away fighting the war.  Their stories now converge as Brette leads the investigation of the mystery she promised to explore. 

WWII in the 1930s was a period time fraught with disaster and love affairs, mostly the former. It brought out all that is good and all that is ugly in millions of characters.  A Bridge Across the Ocean unites these three women who are decent at heart but have learned about the motives of those who in a flash of a moment act with and without any integrity. 

Sue Meissner writes a fine mystery full of adventure and dynamic characters.  The ghosts are sometimes benign, sometimes horrifyingly malicious!  Enjoy the read!  Nicely done, Ms. Meissner!

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Attending: Medicine, Mindfulness and Humanity by Ronald Epstein, M.D.

Attending: Medicine, Mindfulness and Humanity.  Ronald Epstein, M.D. Scribner. January 2017. 304 pp. ISBN #: 9781501121715.

What is medical practice like when a physician takes the time to tune into the patient, to find out what is going on in mind, body and spirit?  Does a different diagnosis emerge from such sensitivity?  Does the physician experience less stress in a system that is fraught with demands for quality performance at the least possible cost?  Is this type of change necessary when physicians are so trained to churn out diagnoses from lists of diagnostic symptoms and formulas for treatment?

Dr. Ronald Epstein attempts to answer these and other questions.  His central thesis is that doctors who practice mindfulness as part of their practice are less stressed, more effective and more human, like their patients. 

Dr. Epstein describes his experience as a third-year Harvard Medical School student as he watched a surgeon operating on one kidney totally ignore that the other kidney was turning purple and looking engorged with blood.  While that other kidney was within the surgeon’s field of vision, it had no primary concern or focus.  The field was narrow but the surgeon’s focus was narrower.  It may not seem like a big deal but it could have had fatal consequences. 

Perhaps you’ve heard a patient cite symptoms, feelings and questions in one long speech upon first entering a doctor’s office.  How does the doctor handle that barrage and how many items can the physician handle?  What can be ignored out of that list and should it be ignored?  Dr. Epstein handles this answer without condemning doctor or patient and instead focusing on techniques of mindfulness that mean a doctor is more sensitive to everything coming into his medical surround. 
Mindfulness is enhanced with compassion and a state of constant curiosity on the part of the physician.  Numerous medical anecdotes fill the pages as we learn about some of the components of mindfulness.  The stories keep it all interesting as there is a bit much of repetition – perhaps a necessary mode as some may be tempted to pass over these elements of “how” to learn mindfulness and practice the same with patients.

All in all, this is an interesting text for those who are teachers, students, practitioners, or administrators in medicine.  Certainly, Dr. Epstein presents a model of medicine that will fascinate both practitioners and patients.  Nicely done, Dr. Ronald Epstein!

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

The Confessions of Young Nero - A Novel by Margaret George.

The Confessions of Young Nero: A Novel.  Margaret George. Penguin Publishing Group. March 2017. 528 pp. ISBN #: 9780451473387.

Nero is a well-known, infamous character to most readers the mad ruler of Rome!  Margaret George, the renowned historical novelist, has Nero tell the story of his younger years in a way that changes the reader’s perception about how Nero’s personality developed.  The picture isn’t pretty but is certainly amazing at how he managed to survive the traumatic events of his youth!

Nero’s mother, Agrippina, is a manipulative, intriguing woman who thinks nothing of having her enemies (real or imagined) poisoned or assassinated.  As a young boy, Caligula, the earlier emperor, tries to drown Nero by throwing him in a river but he is saved by a Roman soldier.  Nero is adopted by Claudius thanks again to the influence of Agrippina but is aware that his life is in a precarious position as Claudius’s natural son could also become the next emperor. 

Nero has two memorable tutors, one who introduces him to the glorious art and music of Greece and the other, Seneca, who introduces Nero to the philosophers and great moral teachers in Roman history, as well as the great Roman gods, goddesses, and leaders who will hopefully shape Nero into a moral, intelligent and capable leader.  Nero actually does become a leader who manifests the best of both teachers although it is his infamy that becomes prominent in the historical records of Roman history.

Due to a drug-induced dream (or reality?), Nero dreams of his mother, a haunting scene that leads Nero to forever wonder about his mother’s intentions and whether he possesses her evil nature.  At the same time, Nero is married to a woman he ignores and falls in love with a former slave, now a freed woman.  After Claudius dies, a stunning event as well, Nero becomes Emperor and becomes an intelligent ruler who makes decisions clearly beneficial for his empire.  But Agrippina is now fearful of her son as he trumps her malicious planning, a constant threat which will eventually lead to her own demise.

The Confessions of Young Nero is superb historical fiction.  There are notes in the afterword of this novel that lead the reader to expect a sequel, one which this reviewer avidly awaits!  Read this novel, a wonderful, astute, and fascinating account of an enigmatic, troubled, and haunted ruler shaped by the best and worst Roman influences!

Police At The Station And They Don't Look Friendly (Detective Sean Duffy Series #6) by Adrian McKinty

Police at the Station And They Don’t Look Friendly (Sean Duffy Series #6).  Adrian McKinty. Prometheus Books. March 2017. 319 pp. ISBN #: 9781633882591.

Belfast 1988 – Ireland is a volatile place where IRA, Irish and British conflict constantly erupts. The novel opens with Duffy being into a hidden area where he will be forced to dig his own grave and then die. The scene shifts, however, to a murder scene. Two murders, both committed by crossbows, have been committed and Duffy is called to investigate the second death of a known drug dealer.  Obviously, this is an odd choice of weapons but effective because of the difficulty of tracing the owner or owners.  All he knows is the victim’s wife is a violent mourner, giving grief to anyone and everyone. Add to the mess that it’s hard for Duffy to get cooperation in the Carrickfergus station.  However, he has a job to do and he sets about it with determination, even when it seems he is being blocked at every turn.

Duffy is also in danger of losing his girlfriend Beth and daughter Emma, as Beth hates being in the middle of a violent neighborhood.  There’s a subplot here as she tries to get him to think about moving to a house in the country.  At first he refuses but realizes he will lose her if he doesn’t come around.  Trying to explain to Beth that he is attempting to prove himself at the station, being distrusted as a fenian “peeler” or detective (Irish independence supporter and detective), and is slowly gaining ground in that effort.  Beth doesn’t see that as the essence of a steady, peaceful existence for a family, even though she won’t hear of marriage as a viable option.

The story continues and holds the reader’s avid interest as Duffy and an associate are kidnapped, almost murdered and endures other life-threatening moments and obstacles.  Adam McKinty crafts an excellent crime or detective novel that is challenging, mysterious, and altogether a wild ride with some poignant times in between the task of finding the guilty and bypassing the innocent.  Nicely plotted Adam McKinty!

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Windy City Blues: A Novel by Renee Rosen

Windy City Blues: A Novel by Renee Rosen; Penguin Publishing Group. Copyright 2017. pb, 480 pp. ISBN: 9781101991121.  

Leeba Groski, daughter of immigrant Polish Jews, becomes a filer and receptionist for a new record company in Chicago, Illinois, in the post-WWII years.  She’s working for Leonard and Evelyn, mismatched partners who are spotlighting new talent in music specifically catering to colored (word used appropriately for that time) folks.  

The business collapses and a fluke accident enables Leonard and his brother to open a new music production company (the Chess brothers).  Leeba or Leah as she renames herself very slowly evolves into a fine writer for blues musicians.  Red Dupree (Jimmy Rogers in real life), a young black man, has come to Chicago to make his mark as an electric guitarist initially and then to write and have his music produced.   Acknowledged as a superb guitarist, he fails to get a contract for his own compositions.  However, after tremendous struggles, he gets hired as a band member for the notable “Muddy Waters,” and their music takes off.  Leah, Leonard and Phil make new friends and business contacts whom they will sign on as future “blues” stars.  

However, the equally dominant story behind the music concerns the virulent storm created by the fiery love, romance and marriage of Red Dupree and Leah.  They become part of the Freedom Riders movement and ultimately the Civil Rights Movement created by Dr. Martin Luther King.  

The majority of this fine novel contains a constant tension lowered at just the right moments with the magic of creating and playing music, as well as the passionate love and troubles of Red and Leah. 

Out of the suffering of racial prejudice arises a vibrant “sound” that changed the course of American history! Finely crafted historical fiction, Renee Rosen!

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Everything Belongs to Us: A Novel by Yoojin Grace Wuertz

Everything Belongs to Us: A Novel.  Yoojin Grace Wuertz. Random House Publishing Group. February 2017. 368 pp. ISBN #: 9780812998542.

Two girls and two boys experience personal and national change in 1978 Seoul, South Korea.  Jisun and Namin couldn’t possibly be more different.  Jisun comes from an important family in business and she has easy access to money and all the privilege that comes with her father’s power.  Namin comes from a poor family, is studying to become a doctor so that her family will eventually be free from poverty.  The country is now in a campaign to work hard and make the country prosper economically.  That means all must conform to the long hours of work for meager wages; the novel opens with a group of women protesting these conditions.  However, in a random moment of rebellious action, they strip themselves of blouses and bras, not realizing their act removes them from the role of honest protest and instead earns them a scandalous repetition.  Jisun’s father attempts to have guards watch her every moment but that attempt fails to stop her doing what she wants.  What she’s not prepared for is how other protestors now scorn her for her privileged status after she was removed from jail while others had to undergo penalties and social ostracism.  Namin at first is delighted to become a friend of Jisun but their relationship evolves with Namin’s realization about status and the personal cost of privilege.

Jisun and Namin then meet Samin and his mentor, Juno.  We first meet Samin being forced to carry out ridiculous actions for Juno who has a sadistic streak.  Juno knows everyone who is important in the elite group called The Club and initially Samin would do anything to gain entry to this esteemed circle.  However, Samin gradually also evolves, through his encounters with Namin, to an independent thinker. 

The plot is simple but the way Wuertz depicts the emerging personalities of these four characters is exquisite and mesmerizing.  Their lives clearly parallel the changes South Korea is experiencing as it moves from a dictatorship to a form of social democracy.  These characters experience questions about personal desires and independence that must find a place within a society that clearly prizes working together for the common good.  At the same time, wealth is not a guarantee of security and these characters as well must find a vision and place within that same society to live a meaningful life per the new standards and vision.

Everything Belongs to Us… is compelling historical fiction that this reviewer highly recommends!

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Gunmetal Gray - A Gray Man Novel by Mark Greaney

Gunmetal Gray: Gray Man Series #6.  Mark Greaney. Penguin Publishing Group. February 2017. 512pp.  ISBN#: 9780425282854.

The Gray Man is not an agent to be trifled with, for sure!  He’s been out of action for a while but now has been called on a very, very dangerous mission.  A visit to Hong Kong and connections by some Chinese agents immediately alerts him to the fact that the Communists are very much interested in and desiring to control his new assignment.  He finds his friend, Donald Fitzroy, being held in captivity after failing to capture Fan Jiang, a master computer hacker.  The job is now Court Gentry’s mission. 

Fan Jiang is not just any hacker.  He is a computer genius able to break into government programs and go even deeper, to figure out how hackers get in and figure out to hack the hackers’ program.  The rest of the novel plays out the chase to capture Fan Jiang and includes Court Gentry’s relationship with the head of a Russian spy mission bent on the same goal of capturing Fan Jiang.
Court Gentry is a brilliant tactician and warrior who can destroy any number of the enemy threatening his life and limbs.  Thus fierce, brutal, decimating battles follow, causing the reader to feel the intense stress despite innately knowing the outcome.  There is a growing romance and growing costs in each step of the war for this is an outcome that will affect the governments of America, China, Vietnam, and Russia.

All in all, for those who love the international spy thriller, this is adventure and mystery at its best!  Nicely crafted, Mark Greaney, with some twists and turns that even the most knowledgeable fans won’t predict!

Ashes by Steven Manchester

Ashes. Steven Manchester. The Story Plant. February 2017. 272 pp. ISBN#: 9781611882421.  

Two brothers, Jake and Tom Prendergast, who couldn’t possibly be more different, are about to take a life-transforming journey!  But first we meet them individually.  When we first meet Jake, he’s giving a “scared straight” speech to a bunch of juvenile delinquents.  The reader wants to think it’s all a bit of a stretch, but it doesn’t take long before we know he’s speaking about what he’s seen as a security officer in an adult prison.  No, it’s definitely not pretty!

Tom is a college professor who is annoyed to find out his father has died. The reader wonders immediately about what has elicited such disdain! 

Both brothers are called to their father’s lawyer’s office, only to hear the father is leaving them an envelope they may not open until they travel cross-country to spread his ashes.  If they refuse, they get nothing.  But then nothing is what their father always gave them, nothing but grief that is.

The journey is bittersweet indeed as Jake and Tom insult each other through half of the journey while they reminisce about their brutal father who wasn’t just happy at beating them but had to see blood to make him happy. Sadist extraordinaire!  But then the continuous clashes start to slightly alter as they find themselves reminiscing about their childhood and then later about their experiences as husbands and fathers. 

These interspersed tender moments begin to open the brothers toward each other, along with some very funny scenes as Tom gawks at his brother’s humongous appetite and Jake gapes at Tom’s snooty tastes in food and wine. There’s a lovely ending which the reader must experience without a spoiler and which almost makes one want to read it all over again!

Steven Manchester is great at presenting a simple plot but his real gift is on depicting the variations of temperament in characters in such a wonderfully moving manner.  One gets to know and love his characters no matter what the ups and downs of the conflict between them.

Finely crafted contemporary fiction once again, Steven Manchester – a MUST read that deserves the widest possible audience!