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Book Review

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

“Hi, it’s me – Shellbee!” Thus begins “Shellbee’s Story,” a tale of a dog (no pun intended) as told by the dog and “recorded” by her “Mommy,” Port Jefferson resident Jennifer Flynn-Campbell. “My story,” continues Shellbee in the first lines, “has been put into words so humans see the world through my eyes, hear the sounds of emotions, and come to understand the purpose behind the adventures of my life.”

Related in a series of almost three dozen letters, Shellbee tells her own story from pup to forever home and beyond. It is funny and touching, clever and honest. In this unusual journey, Flynn-Campbell has chosen to endow the black Lab with extraordinary insight; by the end, she has artfully convinced us that it is Shellbee relating her life’s story.

The author with her mom, Jennifer Flynn-Campbell

The book — a hybrid of memoir and fiction and something all its own — is not just for dog lovers but for anyone who has ever been touched by a pet (and, this would most likely encompass just about everyone). Shellbee makes us reflect on ourselves as keepers of these innocent souls — the pleasures and the joys of companionship but also the deeper responsibility. It is about unconditional love on both sides or, in Shellbee’s words, it is “the story of my heartfelt love festival on earth.”

From the get-go, the “Hi, it’s me — Shellbee” that opens each letter captures the voice we imagine our canine companions to have. It celebrates the “it’s-me-it’s-you-I’m-so-glad-your-here” enthusiasm that dogs project.

We are treated to her earliest memories and the routines that root her life. Everything — from parties to pools and canoeing on the lake to staying in hotels — is described in childlike wonderment and appreciation. Shellbee compares country life with city living and ponders with puzzlement her first snow. She vividly relates the terror of getting lost and the relief of being found. 

And, of course, at the heart of her thoughts is food, food and food. Food, needless to say, is the focus and center of Shellbee’s life, but it is presented in a manner both humorous and believable. (Even the success of a wedding is measured by how much food is dropped on the ground.)  

The Labrador retriever details her training (most notably under the person she refers to as “Dogman”). She does have concern that she wants to maintain her individuality and not become a “Stepford Dog” (which she most certainly does not). She frames the “training” as “companion connection” and “obedience” as “comfort connection.” Shellbee (Flynn-Campbell) has clear ideas about how dogs should live and be educated. She even does work as a therapy dog, here described from her appropriately simple perspective.

The cover of Shelbee’s book

Shellbee imparts her responses to all of the creatures she comes across — both human and animal, viewing them as one world — all her “littermates.” She even assigns humans to different dog breeds, categorizing them on looks and personality including a hilarious description of her first visit to Santa: “The first time I saw him I was creeped out: a big, fluffy, hairy-faced human yelping, ‘Ho Ho Ho!’” It is an accurate assessment from an outside point of view.  

Shellbee also likes galleries because she has “plenty of room to wag [her] tail while viewing the artwork.”  

Flynn-Campbell also introduces some interesting references to studies that have been done — most notably about “declarative memories” and how and why dogs remember the people with whom they’ve crossed paths. In addition, she writes about scientist Rupert Sheldrake’s work on “morphic resonance,” which explains how dogs are aware when their people are coming home. These small digressions further enhance an overall perspective on what it is to have these dogs so present in our lives.

The book deals with serious health issues — both of Shellbee’s as well as both of her human parents. How they support each other in these difficult times is related in tender and touching passages, showing the pain and emotional confusion, and the pure happiness of being reunited. Furthermore, the important topic of animal abuse and the responsibility we have to end it, is highlighted briefly but pointedly: “Humans put a lot of work into helping heal animals who have been hurt on earth.” It is a statement, but, more importantly, a reminder.  

There are many photos of Shellbee with her family in various places. They are not portraits but snapshots that capture her in all her day-to-day adventures. Credited to Ariana Boroumand, they make a welcome addition to the narrative.  

Shellbee continually comes back to the fact that love will conquer all. Ultimately, it comes down to family. “Knowing you can trust someone is a wonderful feeling.” The book builds to a powerful and inevitable conclusion. While you know it is coming, you cannot help but be moved. Shades of the Rainbow Bridge and spiritual connections are present but are neither saccharine nor maudlin: They are a celebration of all Shellbee was. The ending is one that transmutes grief to hope, loss to recovery.  

In the final letter, the sole written by the humans, there is genuine expression of complete appreciation: “Your presence in our lives enriched us in ways that only Shellbee Ann Campbell’s unique soul could. You found a way to break through the struggles we face as humans. Somehow, you always knew just the right thing to do to bring smiles and comfort to everyone you met. Your gift to make tears stop flowing and erase fears from hearts seemed to come naturally to you. You faced each day with effortless happiness, excited for any and all possibilities.”

“Shellbee’s Story” gives a true and poignant meaning to “a dog’s life.”

“Shellbee’s Story” has been featured in Modern Dog magazine as one of its picks for Best Reads and is available online at Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Shellbee posthumously appears weekly in her own blog: www.doggyletters.com and has a popular Twitter account, Facebook page as well as an Instagram account.

Author Ruth Minsky Sender, center, with her brothers. File photo
‘Surviving one more day in the camps was spiritual resistance.’
Ruth Minsky Sender

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

Ruth Minsky Sender’s three memoirs — “The Cage,” “To Life” and “The Holocaust Lady” — are must-reads. The books chronicle the author’s life in Europe, from before World War II, through her inhumane imprisonment in the Nazi concentration camp system, and beyond. Sender is a writer of exceptional ability: vivid, introspective and yet always accessible. I have seen her speak and she is every bit as strong and present in person as she is on the page.

Now, the East Setauket resident has a new and unusual offering, a book of poetry, with the majority of poems written while she was in the Mittelsteine Labor Camp (1944–1945). Translated from the Yiddish by Rebecca Wolpe, the poems are raw and disturbing — as they should be. But underneath many of them is her mother’s motto: “While there’s life … there is hope.”  

Miriam Trinh’s well-thought-out introduction shows the importance of “Jewish poetic creativity during the Holocaust as a reaction to Nazi oppression, persecution, and annihilation,” giving context to the writing as well as insight into Sender’s work. “This poetry,” writes Trinh, “was a direct reaction to her experiences during and after the Holocaust: the loss of her prewar identity, the realization that this loss was permanent and unrecoverable and the need to construct a new, postwar identity.”

In addition to the works written while she was in the camp, there are a handful of poems that were created in the 1950s and later. They are equally as important but are taken from a different perspective. All but two of the poems were written in Yiddish (those two in Polish), first on scraps of brown paper bags stolen from the garbage, later in notebooks.

She writes, “These poems were written in little notebooks while I was incarcerated in the Nazi slave labor camp in Mittelsteine, Germany, as prisoner #55082. I wrote them while hiding in my bunk. Every Sunday, I would read them aloud to the fifty other women living with me in the room. They were my critical and faithful audience. I endeavored both to depict scenes from our life and to give everyone a little courage and the will to continue. This was how we spent our Sundays, and anyone who had bit of talent did her best to bring a little happiness into our tragic lives.”

The notebook was given to her by the Nazi commandant after the girls were forced to perform at Christmas. They were told if they didn’t perform, all 400 Jewish girls would be punished. Sender read two of her poems (“My Work Place” and “A Message for Mama”) and somehow they touched the cold-hearted, pitiless Nazi commandant who presented her with the first book to record her verses.

Each poem is a delicate work of art. Some are a dozen lines, while others run to several pages. Given the cruel nature of the subject, it is difficult to comment. Needless to say, they are all vividly descriptive and fiercely honest.

“My Friend” explains the importance of writing. “Our Day” is a single day in the camp, from dreaming to sundown, and shows, even in the brutality, the glimmer of hope. “Greetings from Afar” addresses the day-to-day evil and sadism the prisoners relentlessly faced every moment. “Separation” expresses the pain of being split from her brothers. In “At Work,” the language depicts the harshness of the factory; in the clipped lines you can hear the merciless grinding of the machines.

“A Ray of Light” is just that: the courage to aspire to liberation in the midst of misery. “The Future,” one of the most complicated, looks at liberation from a different aspect: what will become of them and, even more so, where will their anger go upon being freed? It is a breath-taking piece. 

“We Need Not Their Tears” faces the issue of where to go when returning to your home is a deadly option. “Where Is Justice?” is offered in two versions: one composed in the camp and the other written many years after. Both are the horrific story of a prisoner forced to beat another prisoner, driving the girl mad. In a book of challenging pieces, it is one of the most unsettling and haunting.

A later poem (1955), “Teaching Children Yiddish” is a celebration of the language that still exists, a symbol of persistence, with education being at its heart.

“While There’s Life …” is a volume that should be read and re-read by people of all faiths. It is a portrait not just of survival but of how one woman transformed her pain in humanity’s darkest hour into art … into life.

To order your copy of ‘While There’s Life …’ visit www.yadvashem.org and choose the Shop icon.

The cover of Karol's book

By Donna Newman

One of the certainties of life is that, unless one departs first, sooner or later each of us will have to deal with the death of a loved one.

Among his many duties as a spiritual leader, Stephen Karol, now Rabbi Emeritus at Temple Isaiah in Stony Brook, has ministered to the bereaved. He has officiated at funerals, counseled families and helped people navigate the mourning period that begins upon a death and continues through memorial services throughout the ensuing years.

Rabbi Karol has gathered a series of memorial sermons into a book titled, “Finding Hope and Faith in the Face of Death” and subtitled, “Insights of a Rabbi and Mourner.”

Author Stephen Karol

What motivated you to write this book?

I decided to do it for a couple of reasons. First, I’ve gotten really good feedback on my Yizkor (memorial) sermons. People have asked for copies and that sort of thing. And, throughout my career officiating at funerals, I just think people need comforting, hopeful messages to help them cope with death. That’s what this book provides.

Is this a ‘Jewish’ book, or do you feel it has broader appeal?

The book is written primarily for Jews, but not exclusively. While I speak from a Jewish context, a lot of what I have to say in these messages can be applied to people who are Jewish or not, religious or not, whatever they may be.

Why publish it now?

As a congregational rabbi I was devoted to my congregants — and happily so — and didn’t have the time to write a book. Now, in retirement, I decided to share my words of comfort. And when I submitted my proposal to the publisher (Wipf and Stock), they loved my idea and enthusiastically agreed to publish it under their Cascade Books imprint.

What was the most challenging part of compiling the manuscript?

In creating the introduction to the book, I wanted to be honest. I had to confess that, despite my faith in life after death, I am afraid to die. So, I describe my fear and explain how it materialized at a particularly happy time in my life, shortly after my daughter’s birth. I tell about the ways I’ve learned to cope with it and describe how a combination of hope and faith have helped me not only as an individual but also as a rabbi. That’s why I think my words can be universal, because you don’t have to be a rabbi to believe what I believe, and to feel and think what I feel and think.

How did you choose the sermon that became Chapter 1?

The first chapter in the book was chosen because it dealt with a personal loss. I titled it, “Accompanying the Dead” and it begins: “My uncle Harry died last month.” I talk about the experience of being in my uncle’s hospital room with him when he died, and officiating — along with my brother who is also a rabbi — at his funeral. A good number of the chapters involve personal experiences.

The cover of Karol’s book.

Aside from your own personal losses over the years, did other experiences contribute to your understanding of life and death?

I suffered a heart attack in 1995 that gave me a greater sense of perspective. One of the messages in the book is that we need to value life and make every day count. We need to tell people that we love them whenever we can.

How long was this book in the making?

The book consists of 16 sermons that I have given both at Temple Isaiah and at Congregation Sha’aray Shalom in Hingham, Massachusetts, over the course of my tenures at both synagogues. So, when people ask me how long it took to write the book, tongue in cheek I say: 35 years.

“Finding Hope and Faith in the Face of Death” is currently available for purchase on Amazon, Kindle and Ingram. Meet Rabbi Karol at a book talk and signing on June 24 at Temple Isaiah, 1404 Stony Brook Road, Stony Brook from 5 to 7 p.m.; or at a book signing on June 28 at Barnes & Noble at the Smith Haven Mall in Lake Grove from 7 to 9 p.m.

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The cover of Philip F. Palmedo's latest book, a tribute to his late father

Reviewed by Elizabeth Kahn Kaplan

“Roland Palmedo: A Life of Adventure and Enterprise” looks behind the extraordinary achievements of a 20th-century pioneer in the development of skiing in this country.

Author Philip F. Palmedo

Several previous books by the author, St. James resident Philip F. Palmedo, delved into the relationship between sculptors’ lives and their work. Turning now to a subject closer to his heart, in this biography Philip explores and illuminates the traits that propelled his father to be “an exemplar of an uncommon adventurous life that has become all too rare.” 

Written 40 years after Roland’s death, Philip provides more than details about his father’s adventures and accomplishments. 

He reveals his father’s deeply held values and the philosophy that propelled him to create lasting institutions of benefit to many. 

Born April 5, 1895, in Brooklyn, Roland was encouraged by his mother to explore Europe after high school. Visiting cousins in the German Alpines, he experienced a life in forests and mountains for the first time. Love of nature underpinned much of what he did afterward and formed a fundamental part of his character. He fell in love with skiing. Upon his return, he chose Williams College in the Berkshires, which had a ski team. He founded the Outing Club to share his love of sports with fellow student enthusiasts. This was a pattern he would follow; organizing clubs as the best way for an amateur to engage in his sport with others. 

Roland was an advocate of amateurism, with separate races for amateurs and professionals in domestic and international competitions. He believed that the structure of amateur sport should give maximum encouragement to participation. College students, business people, doctors and other professionals ought to be able to enter state and national championships. A participant sport offers a great public benefit, rather than an entertainment for spectators. All the sports he loved — skiing, bicycling, kayak racing, mountain climbing — he looked upon as character building.

In the 1920s New England had no plowed roads and few accommodations in winter. Roland led friends from New York City on skiing expeditions to snowy trails and logging roads in the Berkshires and Vermont. Recreational skiing was little known. 

Roland Palmedo on a kayaking trip. Photo from Philip F. Palmedo

Arguing that it could best be encouraged in clubs, he formed the Amateur Ski Club of New York in 1931. Its members supported Roland in organizing and sponsoring the first U.S. Women’s Ski Team at the 1936 Winter Olympics.  The club was behind him in developing two ski areas in Vermont — Stowe during the 1930s, on Mount Mansfield, Vermont’s highest mountain; and Mad River Glen in the late 1940s.  Roland initiated the Mount Mansfield Ski Lift Company at Stowe to build and operate a single-chair lift that served skiers for half a century after its opening in 1940.

Stowe became the number one ski resort in the East. When the crowds and hotels and night clubs followed, Roland sought virgin terrain in the Mad River Valley of the Green Mountains. With others he created Mad River Glen. He led a trail design team designing interesting, narrow trails that guided a skier to “experience nature’s particularities.” The nature-respecting trails were the reason for Mad River’s reputation as an expert’s mountain; bumper stickers declared, “Ski It If You Can.” Roland was determined to retain the love and joy of the sport. At his insistence, Mad River Glen was designed to keep all but serious skiers away: “No hotels; just a few homey inns; no nightlife, except of the most home-spun country sort.” It is still a favorite of amateur skiers attracted by the untouched nature of the area.  

Without his financial expertise, neither Stowe nor Mad River Glen would have come to be. Similarly, he used his business organizational skills at Lehman Brothers in the 1920s to create aviation companies. Roland served on several aviation company boards, including Pan Am. He remained with Lehman Brothers until the 1960s.

The cover of Philip F. Palmedo’s latest book, a tribute to his late father

The U.S. Naval Air Force was in its infancy when Roland became a member of the first air squadron, in 1917. He flew air patrols with the RAF. Returning to civilian life, he continued flying out of the now-defunct Long Island Aviation Country Club in Hicksville. He compared flying with skiing, for in both you interacted directly with and controlled the forces of nature. He flew open-cockpit planes, including a Stearman biplane, from Manchester, Vermont, to New York in 1939. Four months after Pearl Harbor, he re-enlisted in the U.S. Naval Airforce. Lt. Commander Roland Palmedo served on the aircraft carrier Yorktown near the coast of Japan.

Many sons and daughters of men with distinguished careers and all-consuming personal passions have felt the loss of a warm companion and a strong guiding hand. Not so with Roland Palmedo. He taught his sons to ski and play tennis and provided adventures from white-water kayaking trips to expeditions to Europe and to Chile.

Philip appreciated Roland as a patient and loving grandfather. Roland’s granddaughter, Philip’s niece Bethlin “Scout” Proft, lives in the mountainside house that Roland rebuilt in the 1930s as “the first ski chalet in Vermont.” She created and runs a working farm there, in East Dorset. Scout quotes her granddad when she says, “Leave the world a better place.”

Roland died just before his 82 birthday on March 15, 1977. Philip regrets that he did not ask his father what it was like to fly rickety biplanes, to explore Mount Mansfield before there were lifts and to create aviation companies in the 1920s.

 Perhaps those of us still lucky to have a father with whom we can celebrate this coming Father’s Day may wish to ask a few important, revealing questions. Both of you will profit.

“Roland Palmedo: A Life of Adventure and Entreprise,” Peter E. Randall Publisher, is available online at Amazon.com or from its distributor at www.enfielddistribution.com. For more information on the author, visit his website at www.philippalmedo.com.

Reviewed by Melissa Arnold

Molly England is a featured author in a new self-improvement book, ‘Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Empowered Woman’ Photo by Annemarie A. Varona

Molly England of Huntington knows that it takes strength, self-confidence and a lot of support to raise a family. A wife and mother to three young children, 35-year-old England has shared the ups and downs of life with other moms through writing articles online. Now, she’s celebrating the release of her first print story, “Welcome to New York,” one of 101 stories featured in the new anthology, “Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Empowered Woman,” edited by Amy Newmark.

In the book, England tells the story of her family’s turbulent move from Texas to Long Island last summer. As Hurricane Harvey rattled the South, England took matters into her own hands, choosing to drive to New York with her children. That solo road trip ended up being a journey of self-discovery that she’ll never forget. I recently had the opportunity to interview England as she prepares for a book signing at the Book Revue in Huntington.

Tell me a bit about your background. Were you raised in Texas?

I actually grew up in Santa Monica, California — my whole family is over there. My husband is from London, and we met while I was visiting Scotland with friends. I ended up going to graduate school for social work at the University of Edinburgh so we could be together.

Is this your first published story?

No. I’ve also written articles for The Washington Post, Scary Mommy, The Huffington Post, Babble and several other outlets. But this is my first print story!

Did you always want to be a writer? Did you study writing in school?

I never realized when I was a kid that I was a good writer, but I was always journaling. I ended up getting my bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of California in Santa Barbara.

My biological father is Dutch and lives in the Netherlands, so while I was living in Scotland I started blogging about my attempt to find him as a way of processing my feelings. It was very compelling to people and there was a lot of support. I loved sharing the ups and downs of that experience through writing in a way that connects me to others. At the same time, I started writing about natural childbirth and parenting as a childbirth educator. That blossomed into freelancing for different publications.

How did you hear about ‘Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Empowered Woman?’

I remember reading the college edition of “Chicken Soup,” and I loved the stories. I identified a lot with the “Chicken Soup” brand. One day, I got an email advertising that they were doing an edition focused on empowered women, and I was so excited. I thought, “This is for me.” I felt so honored when they accepted the piece.

Were you nervous about moving to New York?

We had already moved from California to Texas for my husband’s job, so we were excited and it was a great move for our family. We were looking forward to it. Plus, my family is in LA, and my husband’s family is from London, so we’re halfway between them now.

What was it like going through Hurricane Harvey in Texas when your husband was already in New York?

It was horrible! Luckily, we were safe. I’m a California earthquake girl, but this was my first hurricane. All of the anticipation and warnings made me very anxious, but we were surrounded by a wonderful group of friends and they helped us get through it.

What made you decide to drive from Texas to New York with your kids?

We were working with a relocation company, so the timing wasn’t fully in our control. We were doing a lot of waiting, but I wanted my kids to be able to start the new school year in New York. I decided that I didn’t want to wait anymore, and that we needed to do it on our own.

How did you feel on the trip?

It was a roller coaster of emotions, but we really enjoyed getting to see places we never would have seen and staying in a new hotel every night. The kids were having fun and it was a really positive experience. They were really great.

What did it feel like for you when you arrived on Long Island?

It was the greatest sense of achievement and relief that I was able to deliver our three kids and dog safely to our new home, and to reunite with my husband. It really brought us closer together as a family.

What did that experience teach you about yourself?

Honestly, I underestimated myself. I thought that birthing my children was my biggest achievement. But realizing that in this trip I made the right choices, I could rise to the occasion when things got tough. I learned to trust my choices and have confidence in my abilities.

Why did you choose to tell this particular story for the book?

I write from my heart, and this story had been published elsewhere before with a lot of positive responses. I wanted to share whatever I could with other women about being strong and independent.

Do you feel that there’s a need for more initiatives that empower women?

Absolutely. I think it’s very hard right now for women because we’re trying to do it all and make it look effortless. There’s a saturated market of perfection — we don’t need more of that! We need to be able to share our vulnerability and our struggles, and see that even in difficulty we can manage to find our feet. I love this project because it shows women in real and relatable situations. Women have to be there for each other.

Where can we follow your life and future work?

I love Instagram! You can follow me at @bluebonnetbabies, and at my Facebook page, Bluebonnet Babies by Molly England. My website is www.mollyengland.com.

Join Molly England for a meet-and-greet and book signing at Book Revue, 313 New York Ave., Huntington on Tuesday, June 12 at 7 p.m. Light refreshments will be served. “Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Empowered Woman” is available in stores and online wherever books are sold.

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

“No matter what the story is, it’s all under the same sky.” 

Author Sarah Beth Durst

In her new young adult novel, “The Stone Girl’s Story,” Sarah Beth Durst has created a genuinely unique universe where those of flesh and blood (human and animal) coexist with animate stone creatures.  It is a fascinating conceit and she has populated a world where often the creatures of stone have more humanity and self-awareness than their living counterparts.

The book is an original take on the traditional Wizard of Oz-style journey. In this case, Mayka, a stone girl, leaves the mountain to rescue her stone companions. What has shifted in the secure retreat is that Father (the Stone Mason who carved them) has passed away and their markings have begun to fade. The markings are at the center of the story as they are at the heart of their stories: It is these designs that not only give them being but also individuality and purpose.

The carved designs define them. For instance, the cat, Kalgrey, is engraved with “This is Kalgrey the cat. Sharp of tongue and claws, nimble of paws and mind. She climbed the top of the chimney and scolded the sun and then slept when it hid, frightened behind a cloud.” But there is more to Kalgrey: as she “curl[s] up every night by the door to watch over [them] … and keep the rats out of the chicken feed.” Durst captures these simple yet complicated souls in an eloquently poetic prose.

The book opens with a touching scene where Mayka is visiting a stone turtle who is no longer aware, as its marks have faded. The poignant tableau casts the shadow of what is happening and possibly what is to come. Her feelings toward her comrade establish who she is and what she is willing to risk to help this intimate community. Even though she cannot smell the flowers or shed tears (though she ponders what both would be like), she has a heart that is full of truth, honesty and compassion.

The cover jacket of ‘The Stone Girl’s Story’

The stone Badger, now the oldest of the group, gives Mayka a blessing of sorts to send her on: “We are family. No blood binds us, for we have no blood, but we are bound by time and love. You will carry our love and hope with you to the valley, and it will strengthen you.” With this kind benediction, she leaves the protected Eden (where the stone animals feed and care for the real ones) and embarks on an odyssey down the mountain, into the valley, and finally to the town of Skye, where her goal is to find a stonemason to return with her and restore the patterns.  

She is accompanied by two stone birds:  the cautious Risa and the outgoing chatterbox Jacklo, who provides a wholly enjoyable mix of on-the-nose as well as deadpan humor. On their way, they are joined by a whimsical 2-foot-high stone dragon, Siannasi Yondolada Quilasa — called Si-Si—who deeply yearns to find her purpose — her “story.” 

“The Stone Girl’s Story” has a rich and accessible mythology, complete with the lore of how the first Stone Mason brought his work to life as well as a historical Stone War that devastated the society. It is this event that had far-reaching repercussions:  Stone Masons went from revered to feared to something in-between, now sequestered in the Stone Quarter. (The departed Father turns out to have had a very important connection to the war and all that ensued.) 

Mayka and her troupe become embroiled in the events surrounding the annual Stone Festival. It is here that they meet and join forces with a young man, Garit, who is apprenticed to Siorn, the stone mason. Siorn is a fully realized character, not merely an adversary and a villain; he is a dimensional human with his own deep-rooted beliefs (both dangerous and misguided).

Without revealing too much of the tightly woven and engaging plot, it is the challenges the quartet face and how they overcome them that encompasses the latter half of the adventure. Mayka and her mountain friends truly learn what it is to be “other” — both from humans and other stone creations.

While not illustrated, Durst paints in language so vivid that the tale leaps off the page. Her images are visceral. Prior to Mayka’s first experience in the city, her life has been pastoral. Now, she is overwhelmed by Skye’s tumult; the account leaves the reader in the midst of the chaos and is truly breathtaking: “Now that she was within the city, it seemed … too full, too much. This deep in the forest of people, she couldn’t see anything but more people.” Even gazing up, “the sky was only a thin streak of blue. But the roar of the city felt muffled, smothered by the walls.”

She takes in the surroundings and the inhabitants:

“They came in all shapes and sizes, wearing more colors than she knew existed: a boy in a more-orange-than-a-pumpkin hat, a woman wearing a dress of feathers, a man with a bare chest but a many-layered skirt with tassels dangling all around. Between them were stone creatures, plenty of them. Stone rats scurried through the street with rolls of paper strapped to their backs, carrying messages. A stone squirrel with a bucket around its neck was scrambling across the face of a building as it cleaned the windows. Other stone creatures — bears, wolves and bulls, some crudely carved and others exquisitely detailed — blocked the entrances to the fancier houses, acting as guards.”

Durst ponders what it is to be alive and the wonders of the natural universe (epitomized in a memorable depiction of butterfly migration). Time is relative and it is in how you use it, and she presents this in the contrast between mountain and valley worlds.

The book offers several important lessons without every overstating them or sacrificing the engaging narrative: That joy in living is freedom and we must be able to choose our own destinies … and that, ultimately, we have the ability not just to create but to change our own stories. Furthermore, it is not what we ask of others but of ourselves — and that our own untapped resources can be our deliverance. The powerful message is elegantly and honestly presented in a way that young people of all ages can comprehend the significance of this lesson. Like in “The Wizard of Oz,” the heroine seeks help but finally realizes she had the power within herself all along.

And, most of all, the book reminds us that “we make our stories our own.” It is that “everyone [has] a story that matter[s] most to them, that define[s] them.” “The Stone Girl’s Story” is that we are all need and hope — but, above all, we are potential. “I am the hero of my own story.” And that is a wonderful truth in a truly enchanting novel.

Sarah Beth Durst is the award-winning author of 15 fantasy books for kids, teens and adults. The master storyteller lives in Stony Brook with her husband, her children and her ill-mannered cat. Recommended for ages 10 to 12, “The Stone Girl’s Story,” published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt/Clarion Books, is available online at Barnes & Noble and Amazon. For more information, visit www.sarahbethdurst.com.

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Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

Michael Di Leo’s debut novella is a powerful and engaging look at the days leading up to and just following the murder of John Lennon. Focusing on the separate and yet not completely disparate stories of several unrelated people, it creates a vivid chronicle of a time of great sadness and unrest.

Author Michael Di Leo

It is December 1980 and the country is in the advent days before Ronald Reagan is to take office. Three very different people are facing the frustrations of day-to-day life. The story follows this trio as they attempt to tackle a series of emotionally difficult challenges.

Sixteen-year-old Angela is obsessed with the Beatles. She is struggling with the things that are modern and yearns for the ’60s, a time she never experienced but has come to venerate, epitomized by the music of the Beatles. Her friends do not understand her — in particular an insensitive but realistically portrayed boyfriend who has only one desire in their dysfunctional relationship. Angela is reaching back to a past era to try to make sense of her own.

Thirteen-year-old John is inspired to look at the ’60s by former hippie Mr. Watkins, his easygoing and inspiring teacher, who assigns John an extra-credit project to research the period.John is caught between his hard-edged, conservative father and a mother whose heart is connected to the freer time that she never allowed herself to fully experience.

Finally, Tommy, in his 20s, going nowhere, lives in a cramped Manhattan apartment, working a dead-end job selling typewriters, and trying to parse his exact feelings for his girlfriend, Mary, who is pressuring him for both a ring and a change in who he is. Like Angela, he is fixated on the Beatles. Tommy is also haunted by the death of his brother in Vietnam, a milestone that caused the implosion of his family and created his own sense of detachment from the world.  

Tommy makes a point of his dis-ease in the universe. He feels that the ’80s have not yet started because there has been no defining moment to herald an age. He sites the assassination of JFK and the landing of the Beatles for the ’60s and Nixon’s resignation for the ’70s. He does not realize that his worst nightmare will be the signal of this new epoch.

Short, crisp chapters create small fragments that are windows into each of the character’s lives and thoughts. As it progresses, the picture, like a mosaic, becomes clearer.

The first half of this delicate, slender novella follows their day-to-day existences that are then shattered by John Lennon’s tragic murder. The latter part of the book then tracks the repercussions of this terrible event. Both Tommy and Angela are broken by Lennon’s death as is John’s mother. But it is through this loss that they find themselves and, in the grand scheme, are stronger for it.

It is the teacher, Mr. Watkins, who is able to best express this new time: “There were a lot of people in the sixties who influenced my generation. JFK, his brother Robert, Martin Luther King. And yet, John Lennon may have had more of an influence than any of them. And he survived it all and was in a position to possibly influence us again to make things better. Something he always tried to do. And they killed him, too. They’re all gone now.” It is the indicator of both an end and a beginning.

The cover of Michael Di Leo’s latest book

Tommy had lived in hope of a Beatles reunion. For him, “It wasn’t supposed to end this way.” The Sgt. Pepper album had gotten him through the loss of his brother, giving him solace in the worst of times. It is now, through the music and the memory, that he survives this next challenge. A particularly poignant description follows Tommy’s visit to his childhood home. He sees his parents, who have never recovered from the death of their oldest son, in a new light. The scene resonates on many levels. It is in this trip that Tommy realizes that he can make something of himself, and it is John Lennon’s example that inspires him to do so.

John’s mother opens up to her son with pieces of her life and heart that she had kept tamped down to please her husband and his expectations. Lennon’s death releases her true spirit. “You know, I always had a secret thing for the Beatles, and John, he was always my favorite. He was so smart and funny, and he always did or said what he wanted, whatever the consequences, and now after everything, he was back, and he was happy, and now he’s gone. It just doesn’t make any sense. I guess maybe I really was a hippie at heart.” She, like Tommy, eventually finds release in embracing her true feelings.

Di Leo’s compassion for his characters gracefully shows the initial shock turning to profound mourning and, ultimately, to redemption. It is a visceral portrayal. He manages, with great sensitivity, to give us a glimpse into the turmoil of these people’s souls. In addition, Di Leo is not seeking easy answers. Instead, he presents the phenomenon of our attachment to these icons. He sheds light on our personal connection to distant stars (literally and figuratively) and how we take their deaths in a personal way. It is a strange truth but we often suffer these losses deeper than we do of those who are truly close to us. He reveals this fact without judgment but instead with nonjudgmental insight.

A prescient touching upon the discussion of gun control that occurred in the wake of the shooting reminds us that though time has passed, many things have not changed.

A gathering in Central Park of thousands of fans serves as a gentle climax to the book where the characters intersect but don’t truly interact. Di Leo chooses not to give us facile coincidence but instead reflects life as it is. A beautiful and honest coda provides both closure and hope — that out of even the darkest times can come good, and, in this case, light.

Much like the “Imagine” mosaic created in memory of Lennon, “Images of Broken Light” gives us broken figures that create a powerful and memorable whole.

“Images of Broken Light” is available in paperback and Kindle versions on Amazon.com, and E-books are also available on Barnesandnoble.com, iBooks and Kobo. This is the Nesconset resident’s second book. The first, titled “The Spy Who Thrilled Us,” covers the first 19 films in the James Bond series. For more information, visit his website at www.michaeldileoauthor.com.

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

Cynthia Baxter, one of our most prolific and delightful cozy mystery writers, has outdone herself with her most recent offering, a delicious confection titled “Murder with a Cherry On Top.”

Cynthia Baxter

As a longtime fan of Baxter’s work, I have read many of her books, most notably ones in the Reigning Cats & Dogs series (“Dead Canaries Don’t Sing,” “Hare Today, Dead Tomorrow,” “Who’s Kitten Who?” and “Murder Had a Little Lamb”), Murder Packs a Suitcase series (“Murder Packs a Suitcase”), as well as “Temptation,” a fascinating and wicked stand-alone novel (written as Cynthia Blair). They are all truly entertaining works, with fun and engaging heroines who are smart, independent and wholly original.

In her latest outing, “Murder with a Cherry On Top,” the Three Village resident sets us down in the fictional Wolfert’s Roost, a small town nestled in the Hudson Valley. Here, the central character, 33-year-old Kate McCay, has come back to her hometown. Prior to this, Kate had been a public relations director at a large New York City firm. Returning to take care of her beloved grandmother, she has embarked on a new venture, namely being proprietress of the Lickety Splits Ice Cream Shoppe:

“After all, there are some things only ice cream can fix.”

Her love for the dessert is rooted in her childhood. She has memories of her father taking her for her third and fourth birthdays for ice cream. By her fifth, he had passed away. When she is 10, her mother dies, leaving Kate and her sisters to live with their loving grandmother:

“Then Mom passed away the summer I turned ten. Grams suddenly found herself playing the role of mother. She knew how devastated my sisters and I were, and to help us all cope with our confusion, our anger, and our intense feelings of loneliness, she did her best to keep our lives as much the same as they had been before. A big part of that was to keep our family ice cream addiction going, since it was one of the easiest and most obvious ways of linking us to the past and moving ahead with our lives.”

In Kate’s world, ice cream is deeply connected to love and caring and she brings this to her new found vocation. She delights in the work, creating the traditional flavors along with signature choices such as Peanut on the Playground (laced with jelly), Honey Lavender and Avocado and Carrot Cake. (The detours describing her frozen sweets add to the fun.)

After being open only a week, her childhood nemesis and unreformed mean girl, bakery owner Ashley Winthrop, announces that her store, Sweet Things, will begin carrying ice cream. As the bakery is directly across from the ice cream parlor, this drives Kate into a public confrontation with Ashley. Soon after, Ashley is discovered murdered and the police see Kate as a possible suspect.

Kate embarks on her own investigation, which has some wonderful twists and turns, building up to a genuinely surprising but nonetheless believable climax. At its height, the mystery becomes something deeper and eventually much more complex.

An element of the book that is particularly effective is that Kate actually uses her business to solve the crime. Unlike in many mysteries where the characters seem to have insights they couldn’t possibly have, here there is logic to her approach. She utilizes her occupation to provide her with insight as well as opportunity. She cleverly uses the collective love of ice cream as a means to certain ends. And, even as she is pursuing leads, she still is thinking about the growth of her new undertaking.

In a light-hearted way, Baxter addresses the issue of not just the difficulty in returning home but also the joys — rare in literature, which tends to fixate on dysfunction. Kate is genuinely glad to be back and wholly embraces the chapter ahead of her. She finds satisfaction in her work, a passion and a drive that help her reacclimate to Wolfert’s Roost.

The fact is Baxter is a strong writer. Throughout, she is able to articulate the modern struggle to communicate with wit and honesty:

“I wondered how any of us managed to not look bored or lonely or even uncomfortable in public places before we all had cell phones. Maybe that was why books had been invented.”

Baxter nimbly fleshes out characters who are (or at least initially seem to be) transitory. They are whole people, often created in a few crisp sentences. This is ideal in a mystery where there is the need for a parade of suspects and supporting characters.

We get to know Willow, her childhood friend, who works for her when she’s not teaching yoga. Emma, Kate’s in-search-of-herself 18-year-old niece, comes to live with her and assists in the investigation. Ashley’s sleazy ex-husband and her most recent amour, an egotistical chef, both get creative page time. Kate’s love interest, blue-eyed broad-shouldered Jake Pratt, has a past with Kate that becomes pivotal in the present — but the thorny history never bogs down the movement of the narrative. A visit to a harried mother of three is particularly vivid.

Baxter finds variety even in the rather reviled murder victim as certain pieces of her backstory are revealed, transitioning from the “she-had-it-coming” to something far more complicated. The fact that Ashley is running an illegal co-op becomes a fascinating detail in the tapestry of the crime.

All of these pieces, like the exotic sundaes Kate fashions, are rich in texture, color and invention and make for a wholly satisfying read.

Two nice little bonuses: Each chapter is headed with a “fun fact” from the history of ice cream, with sources ranging from Guinness to the International Dairy Foods Association. The appendix shares a few interesting recipes that are referenced in the book.

This first entry into The Lickety Splits Ice Cream Shoppe Mystery series is a great one. Grab yourself a bowl of ice cream, sit down and dig in.

Cynthia Baxter is the author of 54 novels. A Three Village resident for the past 25 years, “Murder with a Cherry On Top” is the first book in her new Lickety Splits Ice Cream Shoppe Mystery series with Kensington Publishing Corp. and is available online at Barnes & Noble and Amazon. Meet Cynthia at the Emma S. Clark Library’s Author Event on May 6 from 1:30 to 3:30 p.m. and visit her website at www.cynthiabaxter.com.

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Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

Jeannie Moon’s latest romance novel, “Then Came You,” is a wonderful portrait of love in a small town and gets to the heart of what really makes a family.

The book is cleverly rooted in a legend connected to the history of the fictional town of Compass Cove, founded 1667. The prologue tells the story of a young widow, a compasssmith and a needle that pointed not north but to an individual’s true north (i.e., love). It is a sweet tale and one that sets just the hint of magical realism (and will surface later in the novel).

Above, author Jeannie Moon

At the center of Moon’s novel is 29-year-old Mia DeAngelis “who in another life … would have been a star. In this life, she was doing damage control. Again.” Mia is raising her orphaned nephew, Ben, after her sister’s suicide nine years earlier. Initially, Mia’s rather cold mother was raising Ben with Mia’s father. After the two were hit by a drunk driver, taking the father’s life and injuring Mia’s mother, it was decided that Mia should become guardian.

There is nothing of the Hallmark movie about Moon’s dealing with the dysfunctional pieces of the family; she has created real people in a complex situation. Mia’s desire to adopt Ben is very candid and the complications that ensue feel honest. Mia is faced with the double challenge of being a single mother who is not the biological mother. This desire to adopt Ben is the driving force in her life and in the story.

Ben is now an active 10-year-old boy who Mia has moved from Maryland to raise Ben in Compass Cove where she had summered as a girl. Her grandmother, a vital and free spirit, pitches in and Mia is finding a new life. There is nothing random about the relocation from a city to the Long Island suburb. Mia is doing everything she can to save Ben from himself and the latent anger that is brewing beneath the surface. Gradually, it is revealed that Mia lived in the shadow of her thinner, prettier sister — “the sainted Sara” — and is just now coming into her own. It is clear that the sister’s suicide had been a destructive force in all of the family members’ lives, and they are each dealing with it in a different way.

Mia has taken up the post of librarian at the local university, and it is there she begins to find romance. Prior to Compass Cove, she had been unlucky in dating, not having had a second date in five years or a real relationship in nine. Ben has become her whole life and she has accepted that this is her lot. At this point in her life, Mia has never been in love.

Her immediate chemistry with the college football coach Adam Miller is helped along by Adam’s kindness to Ben and his welcoming the boy to become a sort of mascot to the football team. Adam, a former pro-athlete and past “bad boy,” is smitten with Mia. Adam has a long history of risk-taking that ended his professional career but helped him find himself. A native of Compass Cove, he moved back home to find balance again. Their attraction is natural and believable and electric at the get-go.

The cover of Moon’s latest book

There are struggles from the beginning of their courtship (Mia’s mother, even at long distance, has a real canker about sports in general and athletes in particular) but their attraction is undeniable. The novel addresses real fight-or-flight issues in relationships and the challenges that force people to put up walls and barriers.

Moon shifts effortlessly between the voices of Mia and Adam, changing syntax and diction seamlessly, alternating between the articulate and educated Mia and the slightly rough-hewn Adam.

After Adam stands Mia up for a date, she becomes more involved with Noah, a self-important professor, who is “the right guy” and ticks all of the appropriate boxes — but who is clearly not the right choice. Mia begins seeing Noah seriously but is constantly drawn back to Adam.

It is in a crisis involving Ben that the two suitors true colors come out, and Moon deftly addresses the issue of what makes a hero and, ultimately, what makes a good man.

There is plenty of heat between Mia and Adam and their passion is vividly depicted. Their intense and breathless physical compatibility leads to deeper feelings and the examination of second chances and what defines “the love of your life.” One chapter ends with Adam’s plea to himself: “Love her back. Just love her back.” Likewise, when she looks into Adam’s eyes, she sees the future — their future. In “Then Came You,” passion and intimacy are about trust.

In the background of the burgeoning relationship is a cast of interesting and engaging characters, including both their grandmothers, whose families are longtime Compass Cove residents and are involved without the caricature of meddling.

One of the richest characters is Mia’s mother, Ellen, a distant woman of strong opinions and a judgmental streak who has become acerbated by her daughter’s and husband’s deaths. Living in Charleston, Ellen does not want to give up legal custody of Ben and yet she doesn’t want to take full-time responsibility as it would interfere with the new life she has set for herself. While she is mostly portrayed in phone calls, the depth of her control permeates Mia and Ben’s lives. Moon has well-crafted Ellen’s literal and figurative disconnects and becomes the threat to Mia’s adoption of Ben.

In addition, the surfacing at Thanksgiving of Adam’s ex — the rail-thin, acid-tongued model Pilar — brings up doubts but then strengthens Adam and Mia’s future. This forced confrontation with his past, helps Adam grow yet another step toward what he really wants in the world. There is a late-in-the-game plot twist that enforces Mia’s complicated family history. But rather than feeling contrived, it is brutally honest and raises the final stakes in Mia, creating the family she truly craves.

If anything, “Then Came You” is a tribute to the support of a small town. “Mia had only started to learn it was okay to lean on others since moving to Compass Cove.” She moves from a life of isolation and the illusion of independence to embracing extended family in the form of friends and neighbors.

For both Mia and Adam, making Compass Cove a home brings out the good and the better in them. “Then Came You” is an appealing novel that will delight fans of both the romance and literature genres.

Jeannie Moon is the author of 15 published novels. Born and raised in Huntington, Moon is currently a librarian in the Smithtown school district and the president of the Long Island Romance Writers. “Then Came You” is the first book in her new Compass Cove series, published by Tule Publishing Group, and is available at Barnes & Noble, Amazon, Kobo and iBooks. Meet her at a romance author panel, The Power of Love, at Sachem Public Library in Holbrook on Saturday, Feb. 10 from 1 to 2:30 p.m. Books will be available for purchasing and signing. For more information on the author, visit her website at www.jeanniemoon.com.

A cornucopia of crime and punishment

By Jeffrey Sanzel

Author Kerriann Flanagan Brosky

“Historic Crimes of Long Island” by Kerriann Flanagan Brosky is a highly readable journey through “Misdeeds from the 1600s to the 1950s.” The Huntington author has collected 20 tales of local mayhem, ranging from murder to kidnapping, crimes motivated by money, passion and, occasionally, insanity. Brosky’s tight, you-are-there prose propels the reader from one piece to another, covering a wide range of sinister and often heinous actions. As aptly stated in the Preface, the book includes “pirates, witches, jealousy, revenge, tar and feathering, beheadings, drownings, madmen eccentrics, axe murderers and more.”

Brosky never shies away from skin-crawling detail where appropriate; but what separates this work from many others like it is her compassion for the victims. More often than not, books that chronicle the darker side of history tend to celebrate the perpetrators. Brosky instead shows great sensitivity and understanding of the targets. She offers insight into the motivation of the offenders but never excuses or glamorizes their actions. She does not revel in evil but explores it from multiple angles. She is more interested in the “why.”

The book wisely eschews chronology but instead opts for contrast as the accounts venture back and forth throughout time, weaving a rich tapestry, no two stories identical. Incidents in Quogue, Huntington, Islip, Smithtown, Westhampton Beach and other well-known Long Island towns create an intense backdrop to the range of occurrences.

Brosky focuses on not just a variety of episodes but chooses to spotlight different aspects of the proceedings. The Corn Doctor Murder exams a tangled legal system whereas The Mad Killer of Suffolk County emphasizes a sociopathy that drives a man to thrill killing.

Kidnapping or Murder? The Alice Parsons Case shows the politics that can interfere with an investigation as the conflict between the FBI and local police left the case unsolved. The Murder of Captain James Craft stretches from Glen Cove to the Tenderloin and includes both deception and decapitation. The Samuel Jones Murder addresses capital punishment in light of a botched hanging in 1875. Buried treasure, a violated burial ground and obsessed gardener are examined in astute detail.

One of the most intriguing entries is East Hampton Witch Trial of 1658. Like all sagas of this era, it shows the power of a vindictive nature in a culture of suspicion. It clearly sites the hysteria and danger but what is unusual in this report is the surprising outcome.

Perhaps the strongest and certainly most heartbreaking is Starr Faithful: Drowning, Murder, or Suicide. Here is a devastating sketch of a tragically abused girl, ill-treated from a very young age. This is a detailed commentary, mired in deep unhappiness, promiscuity, alcoholism and blackmail. Above all, it is a dimensional portrait of the victim. (As an interesting side note, Starr Faithful was the inspiration for John O’Hara’s novel, “Butterfield 8,” and the Elizabeth Taylor movie that followed.)

The book is well illustrated with photos, period prints and newspaper clippings, supplemented by Penny Dreadful-style illustrations by author Joan Harrison (who also provided the Foreword). Some stories are solved; others are left open, haunted by doubts and conflicting evidence. A variety of characters sharply presented, flesh out this slender but consistently engaging composition, sure to please a wide range of readers this Halloween season.

“Historic Crimes of Long Island,” published by The History Press, is available online at www.amazon.com and local bookstores. Upcoming lectures and book signings in the area include Port Jefferson Free Library on Oct. 27 at 7 p.m., Northport Historical Society on Oct. 29 at 2 p.m, and Half Hollow Hills Community Library in Dix Hills on Oct. 30 at 7 p.m. For more information, visit www.kerriannflanaganbrosky.com.

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