Book Reviews: Innocence by Heda Margolius Kovaly and Trap by Robert K. Tanenbaum

innocenceInnocence Or, Murder on Steep Street
Heda Margolius Kovaly
Translated from the Czech by Alex Zucker
Soho Crime, March 2016
ISBN 978-1-6169-5645-5
Trade Paperback

This murder mystery was written to disguise a political tract describing the author’s life in Communist Czechoslovakia during which her husband, an ardent party member and an assistant minister of trade, was falsely arrested, jailed and murdered.  Both had survived Nazi concentration camps.  The form the book takes was to somehow evade the censors and it surreptitiously tells his story as part of the plot, describing one of the characters.

Essentially, the plot revolves around the murder of a detective on a street on which a movie theater is located.  There are seven women who serve as ushers, each with a secret life, complicating the investigation into the death.  The stories of their lives unfold, together with the secrets they share with each other.

The promotional material recounts the author’s fame as a translator, and especially her love of Raymond Chandler.  It is doubtful that this work measures up to his standard of writing, and has to be judged on its own merits.  On that level, the reader has to cope with various obfuscations and, of course, the obscure Czech names and places which divert attention.  The conclusion is somewhat disappointing and really is somewhat ambiguous, whether by design or inadvertence.

The author really is known for her memoir, Under A Cruel Star, in which she describes her time in Auschwitz and the early years of Communism in her native land.  For its historical importance, the present novel deserves to be read.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, July 2016

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trapTrap
A Butch Karp – Marlene Ciampi Thriller #27
Robert K. Tanenbaum
Pocket Books, April 2016
ISBN 978-1-4767-9318-4
Mass Market Paperback

The customary courtroom drama in the Butch Karp series takes up about half of this novel, but it isn’t as dramatic as most of the prior episodes.  Although the legal description is proficient, it is highly technical in nature and less dramatic than many of the previous legal battles, which are always a highlight of a Robert K. Tanenbaum story.  This tale is a mixture of a Karp family saga, hate crimes, deranged arsonist and bomber, religious beliefs combined with Nazi sympathizers and events during the Holocaust and World War II, and the conflict between the public school system, the teachers union as led by corrupt officers and charter schools.  How’s that for a mouthful?

What leads up to the courtroom scene are a series of events and even a murder or two.  The Teacher’s Federation president is attempting to head off a bill in Albany which would result in an audit that would expose him and his cohorts for stealing funds from the union’s coffers.  The author certainly knows better than this premise.  Certainly unions are subject to regular audits.  But for the plot to work, this fact has to be ignored.

So the battle between proponents of the charter school legislation, who want a mandatory audit of the Teacher’s Federation, and the corrupt union and public officials, ultimately sets the stage for the dramatic trial.  As side issues, we have a scraggly group of Nazi sympathizers who conveniently serves as a red herring in the lead-up to murder charges, and Karp’s twin sons’ wishy-washy approach to their religious beliefs and late (by several years) Bar Mitzvah.

All in all, however, this was an enjoyable read, and is recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, November 2016.

Book Review: Fox is Framed by Lachlan Smith

Fox is FramedFox is Framed
A Leo Maxwell Mystery #3
Lachlan Smith
The Mysterious Press, April 2016
ISBN 978-0-8021-2504-0
Trade Paperback

In this, the third novel in the Leo Maxwell series, Leo’s older brother, Teddy, obtains a new trial for their father, Lawrence, who has served 21 years in San Quentin for the murder of his wife, Caroline.  The basis for the retrial was prosecutorial misconduct, the withholding of evidence from the defense.  In the second trial, it is never clearly explained by either the DA or the defense attorney if disclosure originally would have made any difference.  However, the new trial allows the author, a practicing attorney, to write a detailed and interesting description of the tactics and planning for a murder trial.

In the new trial, the DA introduces evidence of a “confession” made by Lawrence to a fellow inmate while incarcerated.  Soon, however, the snitch is found dead and the specter of Lawrence being charged for the murder looms over the trial.  While a brilliant attorney defends Lawrence in court, it remains for Leo to follow up on leads, both large and small.

To give the author his due, he graphically portrays the courtroom scenes realistically, showing how the judge rules with wisdom and fairness, as well as how an attorney goes about probing a witness.  He continues the high drama surrounding the Maxwell family found in the previous novels and lays the groundwork for the next addition to the series.  A very fast read, and one which is recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, April 2016.

Book Review: The Fall by John Lescroart

The FallThe Fall
John Lescroart
Atria Books, May 2015
ISBN: 978-1-476-70921-5
Hardcover

John Lescroart has written 25 previous novels, many of them with superb courtroom drama featuring Dismas Hardy.  This novel, however, highlights the introduction of his daughter, Becky, just two years out of law school, as the lead attorney in an unusual murder trial which ordinarily would test the talents of the equivalent of an F. Lee Bailey.

The atmosphere in San Francisco where the novel takes place is charged with public and political outcry after the trials of a series of perpetrators of criminal acts against black victims do not result in convictions or, even worse, not even an arrest, much less even finding a suspect.  So, when a 17-year-old black female is murdered, the police and DA rush to find a viable suspect and bring him to trial.  A chance meeting between Becky and Greg Treadway, later charged with the murder, leads to her representing him as his attorney.

Give “the Beck” (her nickname) credit for showing a great deal of legal expertise and just plain acumen far  beyond what one would expect from a neophyte attorney in a maiden trial, one for murder no less.  But then, she’s the offspring of Dismas Hardy.  Needless to say, the trial takes on a life of its own, giving the author the opportunity to exhibit some arcane legal principles.  More important, Mr. Lescroart once again demonstrates his ability to twist and turn the tables on the reader in a most unexpected way.  Although the book is interesting as a whole, it is especially recommended just for the unusual ending.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, March 2016.

Book Review: The Last Good Girl by Allison Leotta—and a Giveaway!

The Last Good GirlThe Last Good Girl
Anna Curtis #5
Allison Leotta
Touchstone, May 2016
ISBN 978-1-4767-6111-4
Hardcover

From the publisher—

It was her word against his…until she disappeared.

Emily Shapiro has gone missing. A freshman at a Michigan university, Emily was last seen leaving a bar near Beta Psi, a prestigious and secretive fraternity. The main suspect is Dylan Highsmith, the son of one of the most powerful politicians in the state. At first, the only clue is pieced-together surveil­lance footage of Emily leaving the bar that night…and Dylan running down the street after her.

When prosecutor Anna Curtis discovers a video diary Emily kept during her first few months at college, it exposes the history Emily had with Dylan: she accused him of rape before disappearing. Anna is horrified to discover that Dylan’s frat is known on campus as the “rape factory.”

The case soon gets media attention and support from Title IX activists across the country, but Anna’s investigation hits a wall. Anna has to find something, anything she can use to discover Emily alive. But without a body or any physical evidence, she’s under threat from people who tell her to stop before she ruins the name of an innocent young man.

Inspired by real-life stories, The Last Good Girl shines a light on campus rape and the powerful emotional dynamics that affect the families of the men and women on both sides.

There are a handful of women who are former sex crimes prosecutors and have made use of their knowledge and expertise to create compelling protagonists and series featuring such crimes. Allison Leotta is one of the best and, with each book, I think she gets better. That, of course, is as it should be.

Anna Curtis is such an appealing character that she alone can draw me back; she’s intelligent, focused but not driven, compassionate towards the victims and passionate about giving them justice. Anna isn’t perfect and that makes her all the more human. When the investigation into Emily’s disappearance reveals that she had claimed that Dylan raped her, Anna is determined to do what’s right by the girl.

Campus rape has become more and more publicized in recent years and, in many cases, it’s a he said/she said situation. Ms. Leotta has crafted a storyline that brings this crime even more to the fore, largely by making her characters so vivid, so alive, that I literally felt the fear and anger that a friend of Emily would feel upon learning what had happened to her. What makes it even worse is the uncertainty that so frequently occurs when the young man involved may or may not actually be guilty and, yet, his future is in dire jeopardy. Add to that the privileged status of Dylan and so many of his counterparts in real life and you have to wonder if true justice is even possible.

In Ms. Leotta‘s hands, this tale becomes so intriguing, with twists and turns everywhere, that I was riveted, unable to put the book down until sleep deprivation forced me to. Anna is up against time and some powerful adversaries who could easily destroy her career but finding out what really happened to Emily is paramount.  That search for the girl—and the truth—kept me fully engaged until the very end and I’m already wanting Anna’s next book 😉

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, June 2016.

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To enter the drawing for a print
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by
Allison Leotta, just leave
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Book Review: The Advocate’s Daughter by Anthony Franze—and a Giveaway!

The Advocate's DaughterThe Advocate’s Daughter
Anthony Franze
Minotaur Books, March 2016
ISBN 978-1-250-07165-1
Hardcover

From the publisher—

Among Washington D.C. power players, everyone has secrets they desperately want to keep hidden, including Sean Serrat, a Supreme Court lawyer. Sean transformed his misspent youth into a model adulthood, and now has one of the most respected legal careers in the country. But just as he learns he’s on the short list to be nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court, his daughter, Abby, a talented and dedicated law student, goes missing. Abby’s lifeless body is soon found in the library of the Supreme Court, and her boyfriend, Malik Montgomery, a law clerk at the high court, is immediately arrested. The ensuing media frenzy leads to allegations that Malik’s arrest was racially motivated, sparking a national controversy.

While the Serrat family works through their grief, Sean begins to suspect the authorities arrested the wrong person. Delving into the mysteries of his daughter‘s last days, Sean stumbles over secrets within his own family as well as the lies of some of the most powerful people in the country. People who will stop at nothing to ensure that Sean never exposes the truth.

With suspense that begins to build in the beginning sentences of Chapter 1, The Advocate’s Daughter earns its place among the better thrillers on the market today. Even with the information provided in the publisher’s description (which I actually think tells much more than it should), I was still on tenterhooks, not so much because it was obvious Abby was missing but because I couldn’t help the nervous anticipation, waiting for her family to find out.

This entire story is chockful of secrets and lies and I really enjoyed the way that Sean uncovers the bits and pieces surrounding his daughter’s murder, all the time knowing he has a massive secret of his own that is almost certainly going to become public if he does get nominated to the court. What sets Sean apart from others—and perhaps shows why he should be considered for the court—is his dedication to find the truth when it would be so much easier to accept the accusations against Abby’s boyfriend. This is a man who really believes in justice even though he and the rest of his family become endangered and, yet, he isn’t obsessed to the point of being oblivious to their peril.

When the truth comes out, it’s shattering and will change Sean’s future and his past beyond anything he could have expected.

Although the author couldn’t have known this would happen, his timing couldn’t possibly be any better since we’re going through the agonies of selecting a US Supreme Court Justice right now. That doesn’t happen often so Mr. Franze’s topic is far more intriguing than it might have been in any other year and is an extra added attraction. The Advocate’s Daughter is gripping, a compelling read, and I don’t mind having missed a few hours of sleep 😉

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, April 2016.

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About the Author

Anthony FranzeANTHONY FRANZE has garnered national praise for his work as a lawyer in the Appellate and Supreme Court practice of a major Washington D.C. law firm. The New York Times, Washington Post, and other prominent news outlets have quoted or cited Franze concerning the Supreme Court, and he has been a commentator on high-court issues for The New Republic, Bloomberg, and National Law Journal. He lives in the Washington D.C. area with his family.

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Follow the tour:

4/01 – Interview @ BooksChatter
4/02 – Showcase @ Romance Under Fire
4/03 – Review @ Book Reviews from an Avid Reader
4/05 – Review @ 3 Partners in Shopping, Nana, Mommy, &, Sissy, Too!
4/07 – Guest Post @ Books Direct
4/11 – Review & Giveaway @ Buried Under Books
4/15 – Review @ Jersey Girl Book Reviews
4/18 – Showcase @ Celticladys Reviews
4/22 – Showcase @ FictionZeal. com
4/26 – Showcase @ The Book Divas Reads
4/29 – Review @ Jaquo Lifestyle magazine
5/02 – Interview, Review, & Giveaway @ Rockin’ Book Reviews

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To enter the drawing for a print
copy of The Advocate’s Daughter, leave
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Book Review: Killer, Come Hither by Louis Begley

Killer, Come HitherKiller, Come Hither
Louis Begley
Nan Talese/Doubleday, April 2015
ISBN:  978-0-385-53914-2
Hardcover

The protagonist of Louis Begley’s newest novel is Jack Dana, a former Marine Corps Infantry officer who had served in Iraq and Afghanistan before being badly wounded and returning home.  He is now, seven years later, a bestselling writer, with two books behind him and a third in its early stages.  He is a self-described warrior, as were his father and grandfather before him.  Having attended Oxford and Yale and invited to join the Society of Fellows at Harvard, there also following in his forebears’ footsteps.  The latter was a graduate of Harvard College and had been awarded the Navy Cross and Silver Star; his grandfather the Silver Star, Distinguished Service Cross and the French Croix de Guerre.

Now his only remaining relative is his father’s brother, Harry [now Jack’s surrogate father], a prominent New York attorney, who himself had graduated with honors from Harvard College and Harvard Law and was a leading partner at a prominent New York law firm.  Shockingly, en route home after a long over-due vacation in Brazil, Jack discovers that his beloved uncle is dead, having been found hanging in his Sag Harbor home in the exclusive east end of Long Island.

Jack becomes convinced that his uncle had not committed suicide, especially after he is told that Harry’s secretary was also dead, after an apparent accident that had put her in the path of an oncoming subway train, one day after Harry’s body was discovered.  He believes that both deaths had to be connected to the law firm and its largest client, a Texas oilman and right-wing multi-billionaire and activist whose political beliefs had him “somewhere to the right of the John Birch Society and Attila the Hun.”  Aided by Scott Prentice, his closest friend since their days at school, and Kerry Black, recently made partner at the firm and Jack’s lover, he pursues his own investigation.  Soon, faced with the near impossibility of finding the man who he believes caused his uncle’s death, the meaning of the title becomes clear:  Jack decides he must make the man come to him.

It was a bit disconcerting to me that, as the novel is written in the first person, nowhere in the book do quotation marks appear, and it was initially off-putting, to have to realize in the middle of a paragraph that what appears on the page is not exposition, but a conversation between two people.  But I hasten to add that when the plot, and the suspense, kicks up a notch or three, about mid-way through the novel, I didn’t even notice that, I was so busy turning pages.  A thoroughly enjoyable read, and recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, April 2015.

Book Reviews: Death Spiral by Janie Chodosh and Identity Crisis by Debbi Mack

Death SpiralDeath Spiral:
A Faith Flores Science Mystery
Janie Chodosh
The Poisoned Pencil, April 2014
ISBN 978-1929345007
Trade Paperback
ISBN 978-1929345014
Ebook

Faith Flores is a sixteen-year-old high school girl from the low side of Philadelphia. Faith wears thrift-store clothes, exists at the margins of society. She wears combat boots and she exudes attitude. Her mother is a recently dead heroin addict. Now she’s been taken in by her mother’s sister and is living in a better neighborhood and attending a different high school, where she’s having difficulty fitting in. Faith Flores is also bright, stubborn and street smart. When she gets a little distance from finding her mother’s body on the bathroom floor, she begins to realize something is off. Her mother was in a clinical trial and clean. So how is it she dies of a purported heroin overdose?

The tale begins sixteen weeks later and Faith is struggling to acclimate to her new school and new and different classmates. As she moves through the halls, attending class and negotiating all the differences of a new school and climate, her observations of her contemporaries are pointed, trenchant and often funny. You begin to realize that in spite of her background and deprived circumstances, this is a bright and determined young woman. In these early paragraphs, the author cleverly introduces most of the pivotal characters and the circumstances that force Faith into a terror-filled race to save her mother’s reputation, her very life, and bring down a powerful adversary.

I don’t hang about with teen-agers although I am certainly aware of many of their public tribal idiosyncrasies, however, the dialogue here and the expressed attitudes and opinions have the absolute ring of authenticity. With considerable skill, the author draws readers into the story and as the tension and pace continue to rise, we are tormented by the reminders that this story and Faith’s objectives are propelled by children, however bright and sophisticated they may be.

The story is written to a high level of competence and while there are occasional wandering lapses, and though there is a wondering sense of stretching credibility from time to time, here is a group of teens, led by a persistent young woman of uncommon grit and little tact whom I predict offers an enduring attention and approbation, if not outright loyalty and adoration, from fans sixteen to sixty.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, September 2014.
Author of Red Sky, Devils Island, Hard Cheese, Reunion.

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Identity CrisisIdentity Crisis
A Sam McRae Mystery
Debbi Mack
Debbi Mack/Lulu, 2009
ISBN: 978-0-557-08325-1
Trade Paperback
Renegade Press, November 2013
ISBN 978-0-9829508-7-6
Ebook

The novel rides squarely on the protagonist’s capable shoulders. She’s a bright and upright independent lawyer with her own practice. Stephanie Ann McRae can be a potty mouth at times, but her infrequent tirades are self-directed. Does she make mistakes? You bet. Does she fault herself when it happens? You bet. Does she occasionally skate a little close to the legal if not the ethical line? For her clients, sure she does. Maybe her emotions are a little close to the surface, for a lawyer, but it all works and somehow, by page 10 you’re saying, “I’m on board. I wanna see this through to the end. Go Sam!” Because “Sam” McRae has grabbed you for the full ride.

Sam is smart, but not infallible, doesn’t leap even low bushes at a single bound, so she’s easy to relate to. Early on she discovers that the FBI and her local cops are interested in her client, Melanie, because of a murder. Melanie isn’t exactly a suspect, she’s a person of interest. The problem is, Melanie has gone missing.

The next thing you know Sam, who isn’t what you’d call well-off, learns that she—or someone using her name—is applying for a substantial line of credit. Mild panic ensues and another layer is added to the mix. Is Sam’s client involved in the identity theft? And what’s that black limo doing, the one that appears to be shadowing her at times?

There are a lot of characters in this novel, most of whom are interesting, some of whom might has been more fruitfully developed. Sam’s love interest is at times almost an afterthought. Occasionally the writing meanders, but mostly the story maintains a high level of interest and forceful pace. The author has a keen eye for character and her writing is usually smooth and interesting. I enjoyed the novel all the way to its satisfying conclusion.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, April 2014.
Author of Red Sky, Devils Island, Hard Cheese, Reunion.