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Brooklyn Secrets

Brooklyn Secrets amazon

Brooklyn Secrets: An Erica Donato Mystery by Triss Stein (Poisoned Pen Press, $15.95, 242 pages)

“I’m from Brooklyn. In Brooklyn, if you say, ‘I’m dangerous,’ you’d better be dangerous.” – Larry King

In Brooklyn Secrets, Erica Donato is an urban history graduate student. And she is a single mom with an teenage daughter. While conducting research for her dissertation on organized crime in Brownsville in the 1930s, a young girl with a promising future, Savanna, is beaten to death and, shortly thereafter, Savanna’s girlfriend is also found dead.

Secrets is Stein’s third “Brooklyn” book, following 2013’s Brooklyn Bones and 2014’s Brooklyn Graves. Brooklyn Ware is coming next. All are part of the Donato mystery series.

Poisoned Pen Press is dedicated to the crime/mystery genre and Stein’s third novel is commendable. It will likely have regional appeal and, early on, the reader is invited in with promise. Stein writes primarily in dialogue and for those crime/mystery fans who enjoy that approach they, too, will likely enjoy the book. At 223 pages, the book registers as readable and accessible.

Yet, for this reviewer, the book is not in the upper echelon of books in the genre. After a positive start it falls short of truly engaging the reader, drawing him or her in, or moving them willingly on to the next page. The characters could have been developed to a greater degree (something difficult to do when a writer relies heavily on dialogue), especially after the initial assumption that the mom-daughter, Erica relationship theme would have greater prominence or importance as the story develops. It’s not clear why so many contemporary novels are structured around a single mother lead character, but when this is the case the mother-child relationship should presumably be well developed.

Brooklyn Secrets back cover

Brooklyn Secrets is a respectable novel, but it is a difficult read to connect with.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

Dave Moyer is an education administrator in the great state of Illinois, and is the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel.

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Sail On Silver Girl

Brooklyn Story: A Novel by Suzanne Corso (Gallery Books; $23.99; 336 pages)

Suzanne Corso’s Brooklyn Story is described on the back cover as being a true-to-life novel, which is something of an understatement, considering the acknowledgements open by stating, “The one thing that I know is that I am a survivor and was extremely determined to have my story told.”

This admission is good because without it, some of the storytelling would be confusing.   The story is told in a very even and objective manner, but in the first person.   The reader is inclined to believe this to be a personal tale.   But when the detached narrative continues, it becomes difficult to understand how the main character, Samantha Bonti, can continue to be so naive as to follow along with her mobster boyfriend, Tony Kroon, seemingly oblivious to the obvious.   The admission that the story is largely, if not entirely autobiographical, makes it easier to accept the human frailty associated with this young girl’s mistakes.

In the book Bonti grows up in Brooklyn and dreams of being a writer and crossing the Red Sea, or, in this case, the Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan and an alternate lifestyle – one free of the curse of abusive males, crime and cyclical poverty.   The life she dreams of differs radically from that of her mother, who, though pregnant young, poor, and addle-minded from years of drug and alcohol abuse, deeply wishes for her daughter to avoid these traps, despite her inability to adequately communicate that to her.

When Bonti falls under Kroon’s spell, thanks to her best friend Janice’s efforts to connect the two, Bonti’s life begins to unravel.   Miraculoulsy, she narrowly escapes her mother’s fate.

Bonti’s grandmother is a kind soul who takes up residence with the two, both to take care of her daughter and, at the same time, shield her grandmother from her.

There are two redeeming male characters in the book, Samantha’s teacher, Mr. Wainright, who encourages Samantha in her writing endeavors, and Father Rinaldi.   Both see the good in Samantha and encourage her to pursue a more enlightened path.   Without either, she may have not made it beyond her circumstances.   If she frustrated them as much as she frustrates the reader with her behavior. then they perhaps both should be up for sainthood, because Samantha’s escape is a near miracle.   How desperate must one be to ask a priest for money for an abortion?

At least one passage serves more to provoke the reader or appeal to a certain readership than to actually advance the core themes of the story, but these are things that one must accept when digesting a story that is, for the most part enjoyable, though it did not elicit in this reviewer the emotional reaction that the author was likely shooting for.

Recommended.  

This review was written by Dave Moyer, author of the novel Life and Life Only.   A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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A Town Without Pity

The Chaos of Order

Toby Ball’s debut novel,The Vaults (St. Martin’s Press) is a fine first work.   Fans of crime novels and/or the suspense/thriller genre will find this an enjoyable read.   Ball is true to the convention of short chapters and brief vignettes and anecdotes that keep the reader turning to the next page.

The Vaults are essentially a record (literally a criminal record) of one city’s depravity, and when the sole archivist, Arthur Puskis, notices that something is amiss with his detailed system of categorizing the files, the reader is led along a trail of corruption that reaches to the highest level, mayor Red Henry’s office.   Set in the 1930’s, the story involves tales of big labor, organized crime, political corruption, and journalistic heroes, somewhat reminiscent of a Doctorow novel.

The story is best when it does what it purports to do:  tell an action tale.   The plot is carefully constructed, and the pace is fast.   This reviewer’s primary criticism is that it became difficult to truly care about where the story was headed because it was difficult to actually care about the characters themselves.

In the first half of the book, character after character is introduced with little development and few clues as to what makes them tick or motivates their behavior.   The character one is inclined to be most attracted to at the outset, Puskis, essentially disappears for a good portion of the first half of the book, only to reappear more prominently toward the end to help tie the story together.   Frings, the reporter, who is the closest thing to a hero this book offers, is a rather shallow fellow and not overly likeable.   In the end, Poole, the Private Investigator whose travails run parallel to Frings’ throughout the book, probably comes across as the person with the most conviction and integrity in the story.

There are a few moments where there’s an attempt at social commentary, such as when Puskis contemplates whether the improved technology introduced to the Vaults will take away a layer of humanity from the information people receive or when Puskis and Van Vossen, who has set out to write a book about the tales hidden away, contemplate the significance of the collective humanity contained in the Vaults and come to the realization that order cannot be imposed on the natural universe by man.   Generally speaking, though, there is little of this.   That type of thought and discourse is not really the point of this novel.

Overall, the writing is strong and unforced.   The reader has to occasionally suspend belief to allow for some of the events to connect, but that is why they call it fiction.   This book is recommended.

This review was written by Dave Moyer, author of the novel Life and Life Only.   A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Spinning Wheel

Rough Justice: The Rise and Fall of Elliot Spitzer by Peter Elkind (Portfolio)

“(Elliot was) a muscular populist who wasn’t afraid to confront business institutions by punching them in the nose.   The MO was to keep things under wraps, announce them in a big way, then work with the press.   You lay out all the appalling facts, and they’re dead, because they’re in the market.  …When he really had the facts on somebody, it was like something out of Wild Kingdom.”

This is the story of the brisk rise and brutal fall of the Sheriff of Wall Street; the man who might have been the first Jewish President of the United States.   It is also a true morality play and what Spitzer himself called a Greek Tragedy.   In the end, it is a story about human strengths and weaknesses.

Elkind’s account (he was the co-author of The Smartest Guys in the Room) starts off promisingly, but he attempts to set up an odd comparison between Spitzer and John Kennedy.   It seems that Spitzer grew up under a demanding wealthy father who made his sons discuss major issues around the dinner table.   The elder Spitzer is made to sound like the second coming of Joe Kennedy.   But there are no signs that Spitzer was an intellectual like JFK (Spitzer made the law review at Harvard through a writing competition rather than on his grades).   If Elkind had called it correctly – and he never does in this account – he would have seen that Spitzer was the 2.0 version of Robert Kennedy.

RFK was the original liberal populist sheriff out to smash organized crime and tough in a manner that remains unusual for Democrat politicians.   Bobby Kennedy was always convinced of the moral rightness of his causes, something that appeared to be true also for Spitzer:  “We did not investigate Wall Street because we were troubled by large institutions making a lot of money.   We took action to stop a blatant fraud that was ripping off small investors.”

But one cannot write a quasi-biography of a subject’s life without giving the reader a sense of the subject’s flesh and blood.   Except for his sexual proclivities, Elkind fails to deliver here in presenting a portrait of Spitzer the man – for better or worse.   Instead, we have a newspaper reporter’s-style telling of Spitzer’s youth, education, unlikely political rise and early exit from the world of politics.   It is a shame and a major missed opportunity, as Elkind was perhaps the first person to get Spitzer to sit down for an interview after his short period of enforced exile.   But Spitzer made it clear that he is not a contemplative person, and saw little use in attempting to explain his actions to the author.

At the conclusion of Rough Justice, the reader is left with the same question posed by Lloyd Constantine, an aide and friend who had been with Spitzer from the start of his professional life, “I kept on feeling: what is wrong with this guy?   Who is he?”   Asked but not answered.

Take Away:   Elliot Spitzer comes off as a cardboard figure in this flawed account of a flawed man.

A review copy was received from the publisher.

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