FDR and the huddled masses

Our references to history can be as selective as our use of current “facts.” Paul O’Connor takes a look at a recent book that tells the uncomfortable story of the Roosevelt administration’s dealings with Jews and other refugees before the U.S. entered World War II.

Reviewed by Paul T. O’Connor

1944: FDR And The Year That Changed History. By Jay Winik. Simon & Schuster. Hardcover. 536 pages. $35.

1944While Donald Trump has been denigrating immigrants and insulting Muslims, the political left has been countering with references to America’s supposedly accepting tradition of the world’s tired, poor and huddled masses.

But the left does not mention America’s history regarding the Holocaust, the MS St. Louis or internment camps for Japanese Americans.

Jay Winik does in his newest book.

Just before, and then during World War II, the U.S. State Department and the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt brushed aside Jews and other European refugees and refused to directly intercede to either stop or slow the Holocaust.

In his 2015 book, 1944: FDR and the Year that Changed History, Winik tells that story, but one would never guess that from either the title or book’s cover jacket.

This is part FDR mini-biography, part story of his dealings with Josef Stalin and Winston Churchill, part recap of American action in the European theater of WW II, and, biggest part, part history of American policy toward immigrants, especially Jews, during the years when the Nazis were preparing for, and then executing, the Holocaust.

FDR knew long before the outbreak of war in 1939 that Jews were being persecuted in Germany. And after the war began, he received credible reports that Jews were being removed from their homes and sent to camps. As the war ground on, Winik demonstrates indisputably, Roosevelt learned that Jews were being murdered on an industrial scale at Auschwitz.

Yet FDR did nothing.

In the years before America’s entry into the war, FDR refused to push for liberalization of immigration policy to allow Europeans of all religions to escape to America, turning away the MS St. Louis and its approximately 1,000 Jewish refugees in 1939. (They eventually returned to Germany.) And, he refused to act in subsequent years as the U.S. State Department constructed artificial barriers to keep immigration below even that permitted by law.

After the war began, FDR refused to take action when evidence smuggled out of Auschwitz clearly demonstrated industrial scale murder. And, with regard to the Japanese-American internment camps, FDR refused to intervene when it became obvious that they were unnecessary.

Winik tells us, as all historians do, that FDR was a master politician, one who knew how to play the game to get what he wanted, and what he wanted most was to defeat the Axis powers in Europe and the Pacific. He and his defenders repeatedly said that the best way to save all European civilians was to win the war quickly. They considered any diversion of resources from the immediate goal of destroying German military forces as unwise. Besides, they said, there was nothing they could do about the camps.

Winik thoroughly disproves American postwar claims that the camps and rail lines leading to them could not have been bombed. American bombers flew right over Auschwitz and several times hit the camp with errant bombs intended for nearby industrial targets. He also undermines arguments that the rescue efforts initiated late in the war, efforts that did save thousands of lives, could not have begun earlier, thus possibly saving millions more.

FDR’s policy toward the Jews doesn’t fit the record of a man who worked so hard to help the weak and the poor. What explains it?

Winik suggests that, given anti-immigrant and anti-Semitic attitudes afield in the U.S. in those years, FDR was afraid that efforts to rescue the Jews would cost him political capital at home, and, further, that that loss of capital would hurt the war effort.

The Jewish account and discussion, on their own, are good reason to read Winik’s book. But the rest of the book is neither original nor cohesive. The reader could get the idea that Winik restructured four or five ideas for short books and tied them into one big one.

Then there is the question of the misleading title. Why that title when the book is mostly about the Holocaust and refugees? Maybe the publishers decided that Americans aren’t any more interested in refugee issues today than they were during World War II.

  • Paul T. O’Connor, contributing editor, is a university lecturer who is available for freelance writing assignments. Contact him at ocolumn@gmail.com.


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Absurdity, meet reality

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

RAZOR GIRL. By Carl Hiaasen. Read by John Rubinstein. Random House Audio. 12 ½ hours; 10 CDs. $54. In hardback from Knopf: 333 pages. $27.95.

razorRazor Girl is Carl Hiaasen at his hilarious best, and that is very, very good. It’s wacky fiction that’s somehow crazily connected to reality. It’s absurd but in a way that’s a whole lot like the world we live in. It’s fact paced, yet every now and then you realize, maybe while you’re catching your breath and moving on to the next escapade, that Hiaasen has sneaked in a moment of genuine sentiment or even a bit of a message. You couldn’t make this stuff up, folks would say if it happened in “real life” – and yet, Hiaasen does.

It all starts when Lane Coolman, a Hollywood talent agent, is driving down the Florida Keys to meet Buck Nance, the reality TV star who is his biggest client. Suddenly Coolman’s rental car is rear-ended, and thus begins an improbable chain of events. The offending driver is Merry Mansfield, and, it seems, she was distracted by her last-minute grooming efforts on a normally personal and private part of her anatomy. Yes, she’s the Razor Girl of title fame.

Why, one might wonder, would Merry have targeted Coolman in her creative scam? That’s a good question, and one that quickly becomes an important part of the plot

Another key character is Martin Trebeaux, aka the sand man, owner of Sedimental Journeys, a company that until now has seemed to have a bright, even never-ending future, as it steals sand from one South Florida beach to sell it to another, only to see the new beach erode and the cycle begin anew.

Then we have Big Noogie, of New York Mafia fame. And John I and John II, the fake service dogs.

Oh, and don’t forget Buck Nance, aka Captain Cock, star of a “reality” show not unlike “Duck Dynasty” but set in the Florida panhandle and involving the raising of roosters whose tail feathers are used in high-end (pun intended, sorry) fishing flies. Without Coolman to keep him under control, Nance (who is really an accordion player from Wisconsin) gets into some serious trouble. Enter Blister, a thoroughly disgusting character who has taken the “reality” of Captain Cock and his supposed life and philosophy way further than Buck Nance ever envisioned.

Into all this mess insert Andrew Yancy, the disgraced former police detective turned food inspector (roach patrol) who first appeared in Hiaasen’s Bad Monkey three years ago. As always, Yancy is trying to discourage any building on the lot next to his house, because he doesn’t want his glorious view obstructed. The threat this time is posed by Brock Richardson, a slick lawyer from Miami who makes his fortune with TV ads pushing product-liability suits. Unfortunately, he himself has gotten hooked on the product in his latest big case, a combination deodorant and testosterone wipe with side effects that are truly horrifying.

In addition to going to considerable (and sometimes illegal) lengths to protect his view, a priceless luxury in over-developed South Florida, Yancy is always vainly campaigning to be reinstated as a detective. Tracking down Coolman, Captain Cock and Blister, who become entangled in unexpected ways, seems to him a way to prove his merit and also a task that simply needs to be done.

Did I mention that Yancy is going through a romantic crisis with his girlfriend
Rosa, who used to work as a coroner and now handles at least temporarily living patients in an emergency room? Or that Merry Mansfield keeps crashing the scene (literally)?

Incredibly, Hiaasen ties all these crazy characters and situations together in a story that makes an odd kind of sense. It’s a wild ride, but you’ll be glad you were along. Just keep your seatbelt fastened and watch how the bad guys are served up their just deserts.

If you choose to enjoy this tale as an audio book, John Rubinstein does a great job keeping a metaphorically straight face while relating madcap events. And if you listen to it, as I did, while driving, don’t be surprised if your eyes keep checking your rear-view mirror.


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Short but tasty

Bob Moyer sent this review of from Germany. How can he be read this book when so close to France and not go there? It’s a mystery to me.

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

FATAL PURSUIT. By Martin Walker. Alfred A. Knopf. 320 pages. $25.95

Stuffed neck of duck.

fatal-pursuitThat’s the solution for a minor mystery in this series, food porn disguised as murder mysteries set in the French countryside. Martin Walker lards his narrative with culinary delights of the Perigord region, while slowly adding in the ingredients of a crime plucked from the rich past of the Dordogne. In this latest adventure of Bruno, Chief of Police for St. Denis, stuffed neck of duck is the solution for a perfect cassoulet. An ongoing mystery involving Bruno is addressed with a menu for a first date in a French farmhouse. Will goose eggs, ecrevisses a la nage and vodka cook up the right atmosphere for romance?

Interestingly enough, cuisine takes a back burner to the larger mystery in a Bruno story for the first time. The plot here is driven by a Bugatti Type 57 Atlantic, lost somewhere in southern France during World War II. One of only four of its kind, it’s worth millions if found. The search for the car fuels the activities of a freelance journalist, a rally car driver, an absentee landlord and two comrades from the Resistance. As the narrative careens down the country roads around St. Denis, it leaves two bodies by the wayside and leads to international intrigue. The implication of larger crimes brings Bruno’s brightest former flame, Isabelle, back to town, complicating the romantic subplot. Bruno, with his ear tuned to nuances of conversation, his eye out for clues, and a taste for the best in food and wine, comes up with the killer just before the book gets to the finish line.  All in all, another well-paced adventure with a little less feasting than usual.

Bonne lecture.




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Prepare to be charmed

Also a big fan of Lee Smith, I reviewed this book earlier for the Greensboro News & Record: http://www.greensboro.com/go_triad/arts/books/review-dimestore-a-writer-s-life/article_f691fad4-cd46-5b96-9c54-3269b6c73c98.html

Not to be outdone, Bob Moyer has reviewed it for Briar Patch Books. Such a fine book merits a lot of attention.

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

DIMESTORE. By Lee Smith. Algonquin Books. 202 pages. $24.95.

dimetore2Charming. Lee Smith can be many things as a writer, but one characteristic carries throughout her work. Charming, like this story of a little girl whose daddy owned a dimestore in Grundy, Va.

It’s there, behind the one-way window looking down on the sales floor that she took away what might have been her first lesson as a writer — “Nobody can see me, but I can see everybody… Thus I learned the position of the omniscient narrator, who sees and records everything yet is never visible.”

She goes on to catalogue other such moments in the context of her small-town life, like the lesson she learned from the movies where “…we grimly held our dates’ hands in a kind of death grip throughout the whole show”:  “The movies taught me that place can be almost as important as personality, and that actions really do speak louder than words.” Story after story comes to her falling “…asleep on somebody’s lap … hearing those stories, told by somebody that loved me, so that my sense of a story is still very personal.” It seems an ideal education for a writer.

Including the parts that were not “charming.”  Her mother suffered from “bad nerves” and “nervous stomach’; her father was “kindly nervous,” a euphemism for bipolar. They were periodically hospitalized, and Smith spent some time and summers with family, in one case, learning to be a lady. Of course, she wanted to be a boy. Concerned for some time that she, too, might suffer such frailties, she escaped the mountains to college.

Or so she thought. It was there she bumped into writers like Eudora Welty, who showed her “Plain stories about country people and small towns—my own ‘living world.’”  That awakening led her to her métier: “…the mountains that used to imprison me have become my chosen stalking ground.”

This book abounds with moments high and low that lead to small personal epiphanies, all lessons we have experienced in her many books. Smith shares with us how her life, like the trip down the Mississippi she took with a group of college friends on a raft, “…has turned out to be wild and various, full of the unexpected, and it’s a monstrous big river out here.”  As those of us who have read many of her books know, writing for her “… is about our own real world and our own real lives and understanding what happens to us day by day; it is about playing with children and listening to old people.”

So is this concise, charming memoir.

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A wild tale, well told

The 1970s were crazy times, but enough time has elapsed to allow a good researcher and writer to make sense of the senseless. Paul O’Connor says Jeffrey Toobin has done just that.

Reviewed by Paul T. O’Connor


american-heiress-katie-augMost of us who were alive during the Patty Hearst ordeal, I suspect, stopped thinking about her a long time ago. There wasn’t much to like about the heiress to the Hearst Newspapers fortune, not much reason to wonder or care how she’s been doing since getting out of prison in1979.

Then, Jeffrey Toobin came along with American Heiress, resurrecting her in our national consciousness with a book that is so well researched, so well constructed and so cleanly written that we’ll devour his 339 pages.

Patricia, as she preferred to be known, gained national attention in 1974 at a time when the San Francisco Bay area roiled with a mixture of street crime, strained race relations and radical politics. Anarchists, socialists, nihilists, you name them, were conducting nearly daily bombings, and one obscure group, the Symbionese Liberation Army, had assassinated a popular African-American schools superintendent just months previous.

Hearst, 19, and her exceptionally bland and self-indulgent fiancé were living in a San Francisco apartment when, on the night of Feb. 20, someone knocked. After her fiancé opened the door, the two were wrestled to the floor, although the fiancé quickly escaped. Hearst was tossed into the trunk of a car and spirited into the national limelight.

It would be 19 months before she was arrested, yes arrested, and charged with bank robbery. Within two months of being kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army, she had joined their ranks, possibly finding something to be excited about – a bank robbery and a violent overturning of society — for the first time in her life.

Had it not been for its violent aspects, the Hearst/SLA story could have been easily developed into a TV sitcom. Something akin to Three’s Company: Kidnapped boring rich girl joins an “army” of eight, most of whom are spoiled middle class pseudo-intellectuals led by a delusional escaped inmate. It’s an army of generals but no soldiers, of grand aspirations and pronouncements but no chance of achieving them. There were times I couldn’t help but laugh, even though I’m sure I wasn’t supposed to.

Toobin’s research is magnificent. He takes us through the SLA’s days on the West Coast, its trip cross country, its trip back west and then through Hearst’s capture and trial.

His telling of the story is even better. The legal writer for The New Yorker magazine, Toobin writes so clearly that the reading is effortless. It’s a joy to read an entire book and not find a single cliché.

A friend recently asked if I came away from the book disliking Hearst. I can’t remember ever really liking her, I should say, and this book did nothing to change my mind. Patty Hearst has always gotten her way in life. She’s stood for nothing other than herself, her character chameleon-like in transforming to the circumstances and what was in her own best interests. She should have been tried as an accomplice to murder. Instead, she served a few months in jail.

And what has come of the boring rich girl, turned “kill the pigs” spouting 1970s radical, turned Stockholm Syndrome victim, turned prison inmate, turned author?

In 2015, her shih tzu won the toy category in the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show.

  • Paul T. O’Connor, contributing editor, is a university lecturer who is available for freelance writing assignments. Contact him at ocolumn@gmail.com.




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A writer’s own stories

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

THE PIGEON TUNNEL: STORIES FROM MY LIFE. By John LeCarre. Read by the author. Penguin Audio. 10 CDs; 11 ½ hours. $40. Also available in hardcover from Viking.

pigeonImagine that you could visit John le Carre, the highly successful author of British spy novels, who will turn 85 in a couple of months. Imagine that you could sit with him in London, or at his retreat in Cornwall, lingering over dinner and good wine, and listen to him reminisce. Always charming and courteous, he would tell you stories about an incredibly rich life, filled with adventures, fascinating people, humor, thoughtfulness and creativity.

Few of us can have that enviable experience, but le Carre offers the next best thing to anyone who wants to devote a few hours to listening. He has written The Pigeon Tunnel, a memoir of sorts – stories from his life – and he reads the audio version himself.

Le Carre, whose real name is David Cornwell, worked in British intelligence during the Cold War for a few years, serving mostly in Germany. He wrote his first spy novel in 1961, while he was still serving. In 1964, when he was in his early 30s, he left the service, and he has been supporting himself handsomely as an author for half a century now. He goes out of his way to assert that he is in no way a great spy who turned to writing, but rather a writer who spent a few years early in life as a largely inconsequential minor figure in the intelligence establishment. From his secret service, he seems to have gleaned an understanding of how things work and don’t work more than any deep, momentous secrets.

Anyone who has read some of his books should delight in listening to these stories, written with the same intelligence, sensitivity and willingness to confront moral and ethical ambiguities that distinguish his novels.

Although he has been extraordinarily successful, earning critical acclaim and commercial success from books and many movie and television adaptations, le Carre comes across as modest, self-deprecating, often bemused and sometimes amused by the turns his life has taken.

Modest or not, he has many great stories to tell, and he tells them well. Early on, he drew inspiration from his experiences, supplemented with research, to write his novels. But, he tells us, a traumatic experience when he had to make last-minute revisions to his novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy because he arrived in Hong Kong to discover, to his horror, that “somebody had built a tunnel under the sea between the island of Hong Kong and the mainland of Kowloon without my knowledge,” he traveled considerably more for research. After that, he ventured into such interesting and sometimes dangerous places as Vietnam, Cambodia, Israel, Russia, Central America and Africa, in quest of experiences. That is how, for example, he came to spend one unforgettable New Year’s Eve dancing with Yasser Arafat.

There are stories, too, about his dealings with movie stars and producers and the vagaries of Hollywood moviemaking. He became, for a time, essential to the well-being of Richard Burton during the making of the 1965 movie of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, and he has some amusing stories to tell about Burton and his then new bride, Elizabeth Taylor. He and Alec Guinness, who memorably played le Carre’s most famous character, George Smiley, became great friends. Le Carre even has an amusing section in which he recounts various movie deals that never came to fruition.

Occasionally, le Carre talks about recent political developments, and he does not mince words when he mentions, for example, the United States’ activities at Guantanamo. But this is not for the most part a political book. He is careful to suggest that in most cases, politicians and spies base their actions on what’s known or believed at the time, and it is not easy to say what he would have done in a similar situation.

Among the most moving parts of the book, and obviously one that was challenging for him to write, are le Carre’s thoughts about his parents – his mother, Olive, who deserted him and his older brother when they were young children, and especially his father, Ronnie, con man extraordinaire who had a profound impact on everyone in his orbit, including his son David, aka John le Carre, who drew on Ronnie for his novel A Perfect Spy. Le Carre writes about his father’s flaws and failings, but he also suggests that he has plenty of his own.

Perhaps best of all are le Carre’s musings about memory and imagination, and the passages where he links the stories he’s telling to characters and events that made their way into his novels. These glimpses into a writing life are fascinating.

No one could have read this book better than le Carre himself. At one point, he talks about what others have told him about his mother’s gift for imitating voices and notes that he, too, has an “ear for voices.” Often, he tells a particular story through dialogue, remembered and possibly enhanced by memory. He does a marvelous job with the voices.

What a fine gift John le Carre has given to his legions of fans. Make some time, get comfortable, and listen to stories from a master.

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Where’s the gold?

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

CURIOUS MINDS. By Janet Evanovich and Phoef Sutton. Read by Lorelei King. Random House Audio. 7 hours; 6 CDs. $47. Also available in print from Bantam Books.

knightmoonFor just plain fun, I adore Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series, and I’ve also enjoyed some of Evanovich’s forays into other series, sometimes with a co-author.

As of now, I have a new favorite for Evanovich’s No. 2 series (given that Stephanie Plum will never lose her place as No. 1 in my heart): the Knight-Moon novels.

The pair, Emerson Knight and Riley Moon, have their action-packed, hilarious debut in Curious Minds, Evanovich’s collaboration with Phoef Sutton, an Emmy-winning TV writer and author who teamed with her earlier on Wicked Charms, a Lizzy and Diesel adventure.

Riley grew up as a country girl in Texas, the daughter of a sheriff. Her ambitions, however, took her far away from home, and now equipped with degrees in business and law from Harvard, she’s settling in to her new job at the powerful banking firm of Blane-Grunwald in Washington.

Her fast track to success takes a wildly unexpected detour, however, when the bank sends her to babysit Emerson Knight, an extremely eccentric young man who, upon the death of his father, has become also extremely wealthy. Blane-Grunwald wants to continue caring for his wealth.

When she makes a personal-banker call on Emerson at his mansion on the edge of Rock Creek Park, Riley discovers that he does not want to hear her carefully rehearsed platitudes. Really, he doesn’t want to deal with her at all. But since she’s there, he orders her to take him to the bank so that he can see his gold.

Yes, gold. Part of the wealth Emerson has inherited includes gold bars, and he has become suspicious that there might be a problem with his gold – not to mention everyone else’s gold. Emerson comes to believe there’s a diabolical plot in the works that could disrupt the world’s economies and give someone way too much power.

Riley is initially assigned to keep an eye on Emerson, but she soon finds herself in the thick of whatever it is he’s doing, in fear not only for her job but also for her life. Their investigations take them from Washington to New York City and eventually to Area 51 in the Nevada desert. They run afoul of some very high-level folks.

Emerson is delightfully quirky – a good-looking (of course) nerd with unexpected talents, whose utter lack of and disregard for social skills make him all the more endearing. Despite her Harvard degrees, Riley often sounds a little gee-whiz, a lot, come to think of it, like Stephanie Plum, but that’s OK. She is, after all, not far removed from her rural Texas childhood, and, besides, who doesn’t love Stephanie Plum?

This book is light entertainment of a high order. It’s funny, fast-moving, surprising and charming. There develops, of course, a spark of attraction between Riley and Emerson as they spend more time together in life-threatening situations, but much is left for the future.

Lorelei King does her usual A-plus job of reading this romp, with just the right amount of irony in her voice.


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In a strange land

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

DODGERS. By Bill Beverly. Read by J.D. Jackson. Random House Audio. 10 ½ hours; 9 CDs. $40. Also available in print from Crown.

dodgersI’m ashamed to admit that, after having received the review copy I had requested of Bill Beverly’s unforgettable new book, I dragged my heels about listening to Dodgers. Other books, books with characters and stories with whom I could more easily identify, or books that promised to transport me to a world I’d like to inhabit for a time, were more enticing. After all, the first paragraph of the description on the back of Dodgers told me that the protagonist is a 15-year-old, seasoned gang member from South Central L.A. who is sent to Wisconsin to murder a key witness in a case against his uncle, Fin. What could I find to identify with in that story?

The answer to that question is; humanity. And the way that Beverly makes us realize that humanity, to care about this boy, is a major part of his genius as a writer. East, the 15-year-old who’s earned his stripes “standing yard” – running a crew that watches a drug house – quickly becomes a boy who would never ask for but wins our compassion. He cares about his mother, who surely seems worthless to anybody else. He is haunted by the face of a girl whose death he witnessed. He has his own ideas of right and wrong, ideas that he re-examines more often than most of us do. Despite difficult living conditions, he tries to be neat and tidy. And despite having seen and perpetrated more horrors than most of us will know in a lifetime, he’s obviously a child, however much he might be trying to be a man.

East doesn’t set out on his murderous mission alone. No, his uncle sends him with a crew: his 13-year-old half-brother, Ty, who’s violent and a lot more knowledgeable than East; Walter, an overweight boy who’s surprisingly gentle and intelligent; and Michael Wilson, who’s been to college and thinks he knows more than he does.

The four are sent out in a nondescript but reliable vehicle, with what should be sufficient cash and fake IDs. The title comes from the Dodgers T-shirts they wear by way of disguise. They are instructed to leave their cell phones and ATM cards in LA. They have instructions about how to obtain guns when they get closer to their target.

The way the story develops, it’s entirely credible that these boys might be sent to do such a serious job. Nobody knows them. They won’t arouse suspicions. The uncle has a special place in his heart for East. And they generally follow orders, at least when they come from Fin.

The journey itself is an eye-opening story, with more than a little humor. The boys’ world is LA. They know little more about the Midwest than they do about France, or Japan, orTimbuktu. They look upon the world of white people warily and curiously. And, of course, they have their disagreements. They haven’t been on the road long when Michael Wilson decides they need to have the Las Vegas experience, with nearly disastrous results.

Things go wrong. Obtaining the guns isn’t as easy as it was supposed to be. Finding phone booths is a pain. And then things go very wrong.

Before long, East finds himself alone, cold, hungry and almost without resources as the Midwestern winter is setting in. As he travels – eventually, on foot – through the alien countryside, East is able to see that even white people in America’s heartland may have difficult lives. The drug houses where he worked in LA are called “the Boxes,” and East uses old cardboard boxes to make his own place to sleep. Yet he can also see that struggling people who live in trailers or shabby houses are in boxes of their own. He’s not dealing in symbols, just making sense of what he sees.

Beverly’s subtle irony deepens when East finds a refuge working at a paintball range. When this boy who’s fired guns with real ammunition in dead seriousness first stumbles upon the big old building where grown men play games, he can’t fathom what he’s seeing.

As East settles in to life at the range, you almost think Beverly is going to deliver an improbably neat, happy ending – and, by now pulling for East against great odds, you hope he does. Life isn’t quite that easy, however, but Beverly does give East and the reader hope that, even when things are tough, people can make choices and have some say about who they are and what sort of world they live in.

Beautifully and convincingly written, this quickly becomes a riveting book. J.B. Jackson’s reading does it credit in the audio version.

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Murder – or is it? – in WWII New York

Many newspaper reporters dream of one day writing a novel. Dan Fesperman is living the dream – he just published No. 10. Paul O’Connor isn’t a big fan of mysteries, but he found this one quite entertaining.

Reviewed by Paul T. O’Connor

THE LETTER WRITER. By Dan Fesperman. Knopf. 372 pages. $26.95

letterwriter-220The last few months hadn’t been good for Woodrow Cain when he arrived in New York City in February 1942.

Some undisclosed event had precipitated his leaving a small North Carolina town, where he was a detective, and heading north, leaving his family behind. And as he steps off the train, he learns that a luxury cruise liner, in the harbor to be retrofitted for carrying troops, is on fire, quite possibly an act of sabotage by German agents.

Things aren’t much better two months later when, after passing the sergeant’s exam, he encounters hostile colleagues in his local precinct. They don’t like him because he’s Southern and the new man who just leapfrogged many of them on the promotion list. Word is that someone important pulled strings to get him the job.

When assigned to investigate a corpse washed ashore on the New York side of the Hudson River, he alienates a pair of patrol officers. But it is that corpse that leads him to Danziger, an Eastern European immigrant fluent in multiple languages who supports himself by translating, writing and reading letters for his immigrant neighbors and who appears to know much the detective will need to learn.

With the Cain-Danziger alliance, Dan Fesperman sets us up for a series of mysteries: Who killed the man in the river? Why is Cain in New York, and what happened back in North Carolina? Who is Danziger, and what is his past? Which New York cops and prosecutors are crooked, if any? How could one guy get himself into so much hot water so fast?

Full disclosure. I’ve known Dan Fesperman since the early 1980s when he and I were reporters in Raleigh, he for The Charlotte News. I had a beer with him in Baltimore a few weeks ago, and he told me he’d spent a year living in New York City researching this novel.

Here’s what he did with that research. He brought together a series of historical events from 1942, including historical characters from the time, and snaked a murder mystery between them. So, while Woodrow Cain is a fictional character, most of the others are either true historical figures or fictional characters built from a historical basis. And this particular case of homicide might be fictional, but murder was fairly common in the city at the time.

And what are those historical events? To answer that would spoil the suspense because, for the unaware, the historical events are as much a mystery here as is the identity of the murderer, if there is a murderer. I’m not saying. Fesperman’s afterword goes into detail on how he pieced it all together.

This is Fesperman’s 10th novel. We reviewed The Warlord’s Son a few years back here at Briar Patch Books and liked it. But this is better. These characters are fuller, more complex, the mystery is more confounding. He spent that year well, learning much about the 1942 layout of the city, the whereabouts of commercial spots, city landmarks and bad guy hangouts.

I don’t read many mysteries, or, for that matter, much popular fiction. But I suspect even crime novel aficionados will find much to enjoy in The Letter Writer.

  • Paul T. O’Connor, contributing editor, is a university lecturer who is available for freelance writing assignments. Contact him at ocolumn@gmail.com.








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Danger lurks in gritty Texas

Here’s a review of a second novel by a fellow newspaper veteran who is a transplant to North Carolina. The review, now with a couple of modifications, first ran in the Greensboro News & Record.

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

WINNING TEXAS. By Nancy Stancill. Black Rose Writing. 226 pages. $16.95, paperback.

In real world time, it’s been two years since Nancy Stancill’s first thriller, “Saving Texas,” appeared on the scene. But in book time, it’s been four years, and Stancill’s heroine, Annie Price, has faced changes and setbacks.

As Stancill’s new book, “Winning Texas,” opens, the newspaper business is in even worse straits than it was before. Annie is working as an assistant metro editor because her beloved job as an investigative reporter has been eliminated.  The newspaper is so short on staff, however, that she sometimes gets to help cover a story, an opportunity she relishes. Like everyone else on the staff, she lives with the constant threat of being “downsized,” a prospect that appears more imminent as the story progresses.

Her personal life is not faring much better.  As the previous book came to its dramatic conclusion, her longtime relationship and her newer romantic interest both ran into major problems. At 40, Annie is wary about getting involved with someone new or picking up where she left off with anyone from her past. But sometimes she’s tempted.

In the greater world, many things remain much the same, however. Houston, where Annie works for the only daily newspaper, is still a gritty city, And Annie and the reporters who answer to her often see the worst it has to offer – an unidentified body in the ship channel, topless clubs that push the limits of lax laws, even human trafficking. All of Texas, really, is still a rough, sometimes violent place. Annie was instrumental in helping to thwart the secessionist movement four years earlier, but there are signs that its ringleaders have not given up their goals, and that they are still dangerous.

Meanwhile, the German Texas movement is gaining momentum. The idea is to enhance and capitalize on the strong German heritage in the Texas hill country in an effort to draw tourists and stimulate the economy. As the story progresses, it becomes evident that the secessionists take a dim view of the German Texas movement and pose a threat to its members. Annie and one of her reporters are at a German Texas fundraiser when the threat becomes all too real.

Two dramatic murders propel the action, and one hits very close to home: A young reporter who works with Annie is killed in the parking lot of a strip club he’s investigating.

Stancill, who left a real-world investigative reporting job in Houston to move to Charlotte with her husband, has written a sequel to her first thriller that provides a fast-moving plot and plenty of action. She writes in third person, shifting the point of view among various leading characters.

This second book shows some maturity as a writer: The dialogue is more believable, and Annie is a little more discriminating in her romantic dealings with men.  Stancill continues to paint a realistic, if depressing, picture of the state of the newspaper industry, and she doesn’t hesitate to portray some of the contemporary problems and tensions in the state of Texas.

“Winning Texas” also has fewer editing lapses than the first book, although there is a confusing passage in which Sunday morning somehow becomes Saturday morning.

As she did at the end of “Saving Texas,” Stancill leaves us with the strong suggestion that Annie Price has more adventures ahead of her in another book in the Texas series. It would be interesting if, now that she lives in North Carolina, Stancill would try her hand at a thriller that delves into the darker side of this state. Maybe if Annie is downsized in Houston, she’ll find a new job at a newspaper in Charlotte or, say, Greensboro.

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