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Book Review

Suzanne McKenna Link with her third novel, 'Finding Edward'

By Jeffrey Sanzel

Looking for a life-affirming summer romance? Finding Edward, Suzanne McKenna Link’s third novel in her Save Me Series, is a first-rate diversion.

Author Suzanne McKenna Link

The stand-alone story follows Eddie Ruddack, a Long Island boy of twenty-six, in a time of challenge and transition.  The novel opens with him reluctantly leaving his family home. His brother, Ray, is moving in with his fiancée, so Eddie is going to live with his boss, Toby, his pregnant wife, Claire, and their two daughters. And while he lives in the basement, it is clear he is a welcomed addition to the household.

Toby is a benevolent and involved employer; Claire is the ideal confidant and surrogate mother; both are things that Eddie desperately needs. In the meantime, Eddie, Ray, and their mother are awaiting news of the maternal grandmother’s will and their shared inheritance. 

Eddie is a nice “getting-by” guy in search of answers but isn’t sure of the questions.  And while he claims to want the perfect relationship (i.e., family, children), he just hasn’t found himself. He’s not so much a slacker as he is floater, much due to a spotty and inconsistent upbringing. His interests are clothes and art, without ever committing to a passion or landing on who he is or what he wants to be.

Even when taking a look at his room for the last time, there is a sense of disconnect: “A trash bag of dried up dreams filled with old tubes of paint, brittle paintbrushes, sketchbooks with yellowed pages, and several near-finished canvases. Bulky with squared edges that threatened to poke through the plastic, the bag was heavier than all the others. I dropped it off at the curb for waste pickup.” 

His beloved grandmother’s bequeathal brings forward some life-altering truths, the most important of which is that Tom Ruddack, the father who walked out his family years before, is actually not Eddie’s biological father. His mother had a brief affair with a man named Giovanni Lo Duca, an Italian who was on a short-term work visa.

According to his grandmother’s wishes, Eddie needs to travel to Positano, on the Amalfi Coast. After the trip, he will receive money that she hopes will go towards tuition for art school, the interest that had bonded them in his childhood.

Eddie departs bruised — both figuratively and literally:  the former from the news of his unknown paternity, the latter courtesy of her mother’s boyfriend, Mike. He arrives feeling “like a randomly placed pushpin on a wall map.” Immediately, the situation becomes fraught with problems, including the loss of his wallet with his debit card.

His disastrous first day in this idyllic setting is an excellent juxtaposition of a contradictory adventure. However, a chance act of bravery in the hotel lobby makes him a local hero, changing the course of his visit.

Through this he earns first the respect and then the friendship of the beautiful doctor, Ivayla, and ends up as her guest, staying in the house she shares with her two fathers, the gregarious Mario and the taciturn, reclusive, but gifted artist, Paolo. Ivayla becomes his guide as well as the object of his ardor. Their growing attraction fuels the book’s more personal and eventually intimate moments.

The cover of ‘Finding Edward’

The book is full of rich detail, painting a vibrant Italian countryside, along with celebrating its people, its culture, and, of course, its food. Link is an engaging storyteller and shows us this magical foreign country through Eddie’s eyes. The descriptions reflect Eddie’s artistic bent and enhance the sense of a potentially bright and welcoming new world.

“Sun-bleached pastel houses, in gold, peach, white, and red, stacked high like a seawall. Precariously perched, they appeared ready to tumble into the sea at any moment. I imagined the people who lived in such a vertically challenged geography would be mentally tenacious and squat, physical powerhouses.” It is this artistic whimsy through which Link gives us a glimpse of Eddie’s creative potential.

Eddie experiences a reluctant but powerful awakening. He realizes that prior to Italy he had been living but not alive. “If I’d been home, I probably would have been in my basement apartment on the computer. I was here in an Italian city sharing wine and olives on a warm sunny evening with a local man and a mature, beautiful woman. Heightened by the foreign sights, sounds, and smells, my senses were becoming acutely discriminating, picking up scents and flavors I hadn’t known I was capable of.”

Ultimately, art and love become deeply intertwined. Eddie needs both to take the next step in his growth. The tale comes to a satisfying conclusion:  Scritto nelle stelle … “It is written in the stars.” It is the incomplete Eddie who leaves for Italy but it is the maturing Edward who returns home. Finding Edward is a charming journey with just enough Italian sun to warm the heart.

A resident of Sayville, Suzanne McKenna Link (suzannemckennalink.com) is also the author of Saving Toby and Keeping Claudia. Pick up a copy of Finding Edward at bookrevue.com, Amazon.com or BarnesandNoble.com.

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

Mike Domino’s seventh novel, Camp Hero, is a vigorous thriller with hints of noir around the edges.

Author Mike Domino

Private investigator Bobby Fallon takes on a case in Montauk that becomes more complicated the deeper he goes. Fallon, a former Manhattan detective, was accused of killing the man who murdered his brother, another New York City cop.  He was tried and acquitted but has been branded the Vigilante Cop. While it cost him his position on the force, it cuts a strong swathe with the townsmen of Montauk, an important fact as he enters the world of eastern Long Island.

Fallon has been dispatched from the City by the high end law firm for which he works to help clear the Montauk sheriff of an accusation that is most likely a set-up. Sheriff Kemp has been accused of sleeping with an underaged prostitute, which he flatly denies. Kemp, who cares for his two adult special needs children, is a tight-lipped fellow who gives Fallon little information to go on. Fallon trusts his instincts and realizes there is much more to the investigation. 

In the midst of this, Senator Vance Hildreth is in league with multi-millionaire Matilda Wong, a Wall Street demagogue whose fortune was in pharmaceuticals, specifically a wonder drug called Zioxyn, a painkiller used for late stage cancer.

Fallon stays in a group of nearly deserted bungalows called The Beehives. There he meets and teams up with successful mystery writer Jennifer Connery, who becomes not just his assistant but an astute set of eyes on the case. They quickly become romantically involved as well.

At the center of the story is Camp Hero.  Hildreth and Wong want to turn the old army base into a national park. But their motives are clearly not as pure as they sound. Hildreth is connected to organized crime and has no problem engaging help from the wrong side of the law. This he does to the tune of twenty-five million dollars.

There is a great deal about Camp Hero’s use during and after World War II. Top-secret experiments, the CIA, SAGE (Semi-Automatic Ground Environment) radar, and Operation Paperclip (that covertly brought top Nazi scientists to the United States to work on rocket missile propulsion technologies) have all swirled around the site’s history.

In addition, alleged drums of nuclear waste dating back to 1958 are rumored to be beneath the empty facility. These speculations are important both to the building mystery and the final outcome. Domino knows how to lead the reader down one path and then swiftly alter to a separate course.

There is a nice peripheral piece introduced about Bonackers. These are the descendants of the original European settlers of Scottish and German lineage; much of the Bonacker lore is centered around the Hamptons and its environs. The early Bonackers were fisherman, cattlemen, and farmers. In later years, those still active are fisherman. Again, what seems like randomly introduced trivia and character background becomes germane to action later in the book.

Domino writes in an easy style, moving quickly from scene to scene and event to event. It has the right energy and pace for a thriller, and it is dialogue-rich, allowing the characters to speak for themselves, avoiding lengthy descriptions. One of the few places Domino goes for detailed narrative is a disturbing incident during a demolition. Both the accident and the reaction of those involved are well presented and have the complete ring of truth.

Mike Domino’s Camp Hero is a swift and entertaining thriller — and it takes place right in our own backyard.

A resident of Port Jefferson, author Mike Domino is also a feature filmmaker (“Mott Haven: Cash for Keys”) and the owner of Domino Plastics Company. Pick up a copy of his latest novel in paperback or on kindle at www.amazon.com. For more information, visit www.campheromontauk.com.

Reviewed by Melissa Arnold

Author Tara Drouin

For the past several weeks, a national conversation about racism and discrimination has reached a fever pitch. Protests are happening from coast to coast, social media is buzzing, and statues are being taken down.

As a musician, teacher and parent, Tara Drouin has always tried to instill young people with good values, among them respect, inclusivity, and celebrating the things that make us different and unique. Several years ago, Drouin’s band iRideSense (pronounced “iridescence”) wrote a song called “One Heart” that shares those messages. Not long after, she published a book for children, also titled One Heart.

Now more than ever, the message of “One Heart” — both on the page and in the fun, upbeat tune — is needed in our world. The book is easy enough for young readers to try alone, and can be used as a lighthearted, positive conversation starter about these important issues. Tara Drouin is also available to lead 45-minute lessons on diversity for students either in-person or virtually. Teachers can hire her via the Nassau County BOCES system. 

Are you from Long Island?

When I was very young, I lived in Far Rockaway, and then we moved to Merrick when I was about 12.

Were you a musical child? Do you come from a musical family?

Yes! My mom would play guitar around the house. She was really into Joni Mitchell and a lot of classic rock — The Eagles, Linda Ronstadt, Led Zeppelin — all of those were played at home. I took guitar lessons when I was around 12, but it didn’t really stick in the beginning. My younger brother really took to it, though, and he was writing songs at 16 years old. It wasn’t until I started playing bass that I really found my instrument. 

What did you pursue in school, and what did you end up doing for a career?

When I first started college, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, so I got a degree in liberal arts from Nassau County Community College. I was taking a music class, as well as a lot of English and poetry classes. 

I worked in the fashion industry for many years, but music was always a serious pursuit. Songwriting came easily to me. I would use music as an outlet for my feelings and expressing the way I live life. It’s my therapy. A lot of the songs I write are the things I need to tell myself. 

Tara Drouin

Tell me a bit about your band, iRideSense. 

I’ve been playing in iRideSense since my early 20s — we’ve been together since 1993. I’m now married to the drummer, and my brother is a part of the band as well. When I first started school at Nassau County Community College, I met Rob Viccari, who became our guitar player, and my husband Rich auditioned for us. He was the last piece of the puzzle. Some of our songs ended up being licensed to Nickelodeon, which was really cool. We released a couple albums and got to do a cross-country tour, so it’s been a crazy ride. 

You’re also a teacher, correct?

I am. I went back to school to become a teacher when I was in my 30s. I had always thought about teaching and I knew I wanted to make a difference in the world with music. The band was moderately successful, but I did want another career, and my husband encouraged me to go back to school. I got a bachelor’s in English and my master’s in education for grades 1 through 6 from Queens College. I’ve been teaching for 12 years now in Brooklyn, Queens and Long Island. 

What came first, the idea for the book One Heart or the song?

The song came first. I’ve had a diverse population in all my classrooms  my students have been Dominican, Haitian, Asian, Jewish, and from many other backgrounds. I saw a need for children to learn that while, yes, we might all look different and have different experiences, on the inside, we have the same heart. We’re all human. 

I wanted to write an upbeat song that would bring people together and share that message of unity. It’s a bit of a departure from our normal pop-rock sound — “One Heart” is more folk-based, and I had my daughter and nephew sing on the chorus. We released the song on the International Day of Peace, Sept. 21, in 2016.

What inspired you to write this story?

I could always picture images to go along with the lyrics of the song. I really saw it turning into a book. 

How did you go about publishing the book?

I self-published. At first I didn’t know that was possible, and I put a lot of time into researching and sending query letters to publishers. I read that the process was competitive. But then a friend said to me, “You know you can self-publish, right?” I had no idea. I ended up going with Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing, where each book is printed on demand instead of in mass quantities. It works really well for me. 

Is there a target age group?

I think it would be a good fit for kids in pre-K through 5th grade

Who is the illustrator and how did you find her?

I met a really nice art teacher working in the Bethpage School District named Nancy Noskewicz, and she also loved the idea of the book, so she offered to illustrate it for me and we began to collaborate. She had never illustrated a book before, and it had been a long time since she’d done artwork for herself, outside of the school setting, so she was really excited. I loved the creativity she brought to the illustrations.

Have you gotten feedback on the book since it was written?

Yes, I got some great feedback and sold a bunch of copies. A friend of mine put the book images together with the song track on YouTube, which went over really well, too. I also got to do an interview on The Donna Drake Show. 

What message do you hope kids will come away with after reading your book?

This book teaches kids about unity and kindness in a way that’s easy to understand. No one should be judged by the color of their skin, but rather the kind of person that they are. In light of everything that has happened with race relations in America, most recently with George Floyd, I feel a responsibility as a mom, a teacher and a musician to speak out against this systemic racism. 

We cannot change the past but we must change our future. Our children need to be taught that acceptance, kindness, unity and love are all important to making this work. Our lives are all intertwined. As the book says, “When voices come together there’s nothing better! Inside everybody’s got One Heart!” I do believe we are all alike more than we are different. 

What’s next for you? Have you written any other books?

Before the pandemic started, we were getting ready to go back into the studio to record some new songs with the band. We haven’t put out an album since 2015. We just got the green light to come in whenever we’re ready, so that’s exciting. I also have two children’s book ideas in the works — one is about my parent’s house in the Catskills, called Red Rock Road, and the other is based on a lullaby.

“One Heart” is available to purchase at Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com. To keep up on what’s new with One Heart, follow @1heartofficial on Instagram. The song “One Heart” is available wherever you stream music, and a free download is available at www.iridesense.com.

 

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

We saw from a distance the open truck with children. Marta was standing next to me with her twin girls, who were five years old. The Gestapo was looking for more children. The girls screamed to Marta, “Mama, the takeaway men are coming, they’re going to take us away!” And they scooped up my little nieces, and the truck — loaded with children — drove off, and we never saw them again.

Author Meryl Ain

This vivid and disturbing description will come back to haunt Aron, a Holocaust survivor, in a very different way.  

Meryl Ain’s The Takeaway Men (SparkPress) is an exceptional and vibrant first novel. It is the story of Aron and Edyta Lubinsky and their twin daughters Bronka and Johanna. It is a tale of painful secrets and complicated histories. It shows the shift in the United States and in the free world from the desire to find justice for the victims of the Nazi’s genocide to the paranoia surrounding the Red Scare during the Cold War. But The Takeaway Men is also a portrait of the power of love and the ability of family to embrace and heal.

The prologue takes place in Poland, 1942, at the threshold of the Holocaust’s darkest hours. It then briefly jumps to the displaced persons camp outside of Munich, where the twins are born on July 4, 1947. Finally, the main portion of the book begins in 1951, settling into Bellerose, Queens, where it plays out for the next eleven years. Here the Lubinski family is taken in by their only living relatives, Izzy and Faye. In 1908, at age twenty, Izzy had left Poland to escape an arranged marriage and a religious life. In America, he found a new path, opening up two bakeries, and enjoying both a more relaxed existence than he would have found as an orthodox rabbi.

And while the issues of fascism versus communism are part of the book’s political core, The Takeaway Men is truly a celebration of America. There is a deep appreciation of the United States as a country that welcomes refugees and it shares the message without preaching. It embraces the wonder of a free democracy to give hope to those fleeing tyranny and seeking a new life:

“You know,” [Aron] told Izzy, “in Europe, people think the streets are paved with gold.”

“Yes, I heard that rumor before I came here too,” Izzy said with a laugh. “America accepts people like us and gives us the chance to get ahead on our own merit — that’s what’s golden about it …”

But even here in America, Aron continues to be haunted by his past. When the neighbor Lenore is arrested by men in suits, he sees the shadow of the Gestapo. Lenore’s daughter cries: “The take-away men took Mommy away.  When is she coming back?”

What is revealed is Lenore had a vague connection to Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were arrested, convicted, and then executed for espionage. The plight of the Rosenbergs is one of the many historical elements that are subtly introduced throughout the story’s arc.

The Lubinskis remain with Izzy and Faye as the girls grow up. Aron has actively chosen not to reveal his nor Edyta’s history to the girls.  But several incidents, including a fascinating scene in which a Hebrew school teacher shares what she feels is necessary knowledge, the publication of The Diary of Anne Frank, as well as a suspected Nazi working in the neighborhood, force some painful and startling revelations.  

In addition to the central characters, the book is populated by characters richly drawn in all their human complexity. Izzy and Faye’s mentally troubled daughter, Becky, returns to the fold, introducing someone who has a capacity for great love but is chased by demons of her own. 

Jakob Zilberman, a gregarious friend, survived as a member of the Sonderkommando, the prisoners who were forced to work in the gas chambers and the crematorium. Unlike Aron, he is compelled to speak out on his experience. He is another man plagued by not only what he witnessed but by his own actions: “I would prefer to tell you another story, one in which I look brave and fearless. I would prefer a story where I was a hero and saved people. But that wasn’t possible in those circumstances, and I wouldn’t be honest if I embellished what really happened to make myself look better.” Ain gives us more than a hero:  she gives us a human being.   

And, at the novel’s heart are the twins, Bronka and Johanna, as they grow up and grow apart but never lose their bond in this every changing world.

Many of the characters struggle with their religious and ethnic identities. Izzy and Faye’s son has married outside the faith and it is a fascinating study of conflict to see the parents try to find a way to accept this without losing their own cultural commitment. The issue of what it is to straddle the Jewish and non-Jewish worlds is addressed without judgment. The question of how to belong and yet not lose one’s sense of self is raised in all its contradictions.   “It was easier to be a Jew in America than in Poland, but it still wasn’t easy … when you’re a Jewish immigrant in Bellerose, you don’t quite fit in, no matter how many Christmas carols you know.”

There is a refrain in the book that references the biblical Ruth. Ruth, who was not Jewish but married an Israelite, in widowhood remains with her mother-in-law. The idea that “whither thou goest, I will go” resonates throughout.

Ultimately, The Takeaway Men is not just about family — it is about a neighborhood and a community. It is about the choice to survive even if you must make great sacrifices in the process. But finally, it is about finding that acceptance comes from understanding and understanding is what can make one whole. 

Available Aug. 4, The Takeaway Men may be pre-ordered at BookRevue.com, BarnesandNoble.com and Amazon.com.

Author Kristin McGlothlin. Photo by Ron White
Novel for kids 8 to 12 explores art, growing pains, and Long Island native Walt Whitman

Reviewed by Melissa Arnold

Author Kristin McGlothlin. Photo by Ron White

Kristin McGlothlin’s greatest passions are art and writing, and as a longtime art historian, she was able to enjoy the best of both worlds. But the desire for something more continued to tug on McGlothlin’s heart, and she ultimately left museum work behind to pursue a writing career.

Her debut novel for middle-schoolers, Drawing with Whitman, is the first in a collection called Sourland Mountain Books. Inspired by a rural, mountainous region in central New Jersey, the books explore art, music, family dynamics and coming of age through the eyes of the neighborhood kids.  

Drawing with Whitman finds 13-year-old Catalynd Jewett Hamilton on a journey of recovery after a car accident leaves her badly injured and her mother battling depression. She finds solace in art and literature, encouraged along the way by the kind neighborhood painter, Benton Whitman — a descendant of Huntington native Walt Whitman. 

What was your childhood like? Were you interested in writing early on?

I was born in Detroit, and then we moved to Toledo, Ohio — we stayed there until I was in high school, and then we ended up in Jacksonville, Florida. I’m an only child, so I’ve always enjoyed being by myself. 

I loved both art and writing from a young age. Art was a huge part of my life — Detroit has an incredible art museum — and I loved to write letters to pen pals and friends. As a preteen, I got to take art classes in Toledo and spend time at their art museum as well. I grew up in a standard suburban neighborhood, but we also had a cottage near Lake George in Michigan. I loved to explore in the woods and go swimming in the lake.

It was around the age of 13 that I really felt that writing was what I wanted to do. I even came up with two of the characters from a later book in the Sourland Mountain series at that time. 

What was your favorite book as a child?

My favorite book was From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg.

Did you go to college? What did you end up doing for work?

I did my undergrad at the University of Delaware. They have an amazing art history program there, and my mom suggested I would enjoy it because it combined both writing and art. I learned so much from the Northeast, getting to visit museums in D.C., Philadelphia, and New York.  

After graduation in 1992, I moved back down to Florida and got a job as the assistant curator of education at the Norton Museum of Art. I learned a lot, and I’m so glad I went on that journey, but after a while I realized it wasn’t where I wanted to be. The desire to pursue writing was still there. I ended up going back to school at Florida Atlantic University and got my master’s in English literature in 2013.

How did you start writing professionally? Was it hard to take that step? 

I had a strong belief in myself, and I really wanted to introduce kids to art through writing, so I left the museum and began writing full-time. I went to a lot of writers’ conferences to learn everything I could about the profession.

Why did you decide to write a middle- grade novel? 

When I first started working on the book, I actually wrote for a general audience. But as I began to formulate Cat’s character, and the ins and outs of being 13, I was really drawn to that age. You’re not in high school yet, and a lot of people that age still have a more childlike curiosity. It’s an interesting time. The stories I want to tell don’t have any violence or sex, so that also fits in well with middle-grade readers. 

When did you first come up with the idea for the Sourland Mountain series? What inspired it?

Sourland Mountain is a real place in central New Jersey — my parents moved there around the time I went to college. It started with the idea of incorporating art lessons into a narrative. I

In graduate school, I took a class on Walt Whitman and read a lot of his work. There’s a book of his called “The Wound Dresser,” a collection of journal entries and incredible letters written to his family that I really enjoyed, and I wanted to find a way to incorporate him into the book somehow. 

He was a great patriot and his work is still relevant today, and I want to share that with kids to hopefully inspire them. So that’s how I developed Benton Whitman, a landscape painter who is a descendant of Walt Whitman.

Your characters have very unique names. How did you decide on them? 

It’s funny, because Cat’s name is Catalynd Jewett Hamilton, but then her brother is named Buddy! I sat down and started playing with names, and for Cat it started with the name Caitin, and the word “catalyst.” Jewett comes from a favorite author of mine from the late 1800s, Sarah Orne Jewett, and Hamilton is honestly for the Broadway musical. I saw a commercial on TV and it just fit!

As for Benton, he gets his name from the American painter Thomas Hart Benton, and of course his ancestor, Walt Whitman.

This book deals with a lot of tough issues. Why did you decide to write about injury, depression, and loneliness? 

It feels like an act of service to address the tough things that kids can go through. When I was researching the kind of books that were out there for middle grades, I had trouble finding books that featured a parent living with depression. It can be hard for kids to understand what’s going on when someone they love has a mental health issue, and I wanted to write something that made them feel understood and supported. For Cat, who is in casts and a wheelchair after an accident, she finds that art is an outlet for her to figure things out and make sense of her experiences.

Is this your first book? 

I wrote a picture book called “Andy’s Snowball Story” about the contemporary artist Andy Goldsworthy. But this is my first chapter book, and my first book for middle grades. 

How did you go about getting published? 

It’s incredibly difficult to get an agent, especially as an unknown author who’s never been published before. Self-publishing has gained a lot of respect in recent years, and I knew I wanted to publish my first book quickly, in time for Walt Whitman’s 100th birthday. I found an amazing self-publishing company called Girl Friday, and they helped me put the book together and connected me with the cover illustrator, Kristina Swarner, who did a beautiful job.

Working with Kristina was such a cool experience. I had an idea of what I wanted — to have a mountain and a barn in the background, and for Cat to look a certain way. Even the most basic pencil sketch she sent me was so sweet and detailed. There were very few changes in the final version. I was really happy.

What message do you hope kids take away from the book? 

I want them to know that, sometimes, there’s a lot that can happen to a family unit, and that they don’t have to go through difficult times alone. It’s important to express what you’re going through in a healthy way, whether that’s through therapy or talking to a trusted adult.  

What’s next for you? 

I’m working on the next book in the Sourland Mountain series, called “Listen.” The main character is Cat’s next-door neighbor, Gwilym Duckworthy, a 13-year-old boy who loves jazz music and plays the trumpet. His mother left the family behind to pursue a career in music when he was very small, and now she’s returned. There will eventually be a total of four books in the series.

The recipient of the 2019 Moonbeam Silver Medal Award for Pre-Teen Fiction, Drawing with Whitman is available online at Amazon.com, BarnesandNoble.com and Target.com. Keep up with Kristin McGlothlin at her website, www.sourlandmountainbooks.com, and on Instagram @McGlothlinKristin for updates and live readings.

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

Anthony Sciarratta’s The Letter (Post Hill Press) is a romance that examines both the power of faith and the strength of love. 

Author Anthony Sciarratta

Victor Esposito is a novelist who came to success in this thirties with each work featuring a very distinct female protagonist. His readers are unaware that she is not solely (or wholly) a creation of fiction: She is based on Eva Abrams, a vibrant and quirky individual he met by chance at concert just over a decade before. Eva, married with three children, was as drawn to Victor as he is to her. The two embarked on an intense but painfully platonic affair that lasted about year. “How could you see someone you know is perfect for you and never act on your feelings?”

After meeting two and three times a week, Eva broke it off with no explanation. During the ensuing years, the two had no contact. But she continued to be his muse, fueling his creative process: “To write a book about someone, to capture every groove of their face, curve of their body, and thought in their head, takes a great deal of studying … It was a special bond they shared that no person would ever come to understand.”  

Now in his forties, Victor is a successful writer living in a luxurious Manhattan apartment. One night, he is shot during a bodega hold-up while saving a mother and child, resulting in his ending up in a coma. When Eva learns of this, she immediately leaves her Long Island home to be at his bedside. His mother, Barbara, immediately recognizes who this woman must be: “Victor has no children, no wife. You’re the only mark he left on this world. His life’s work is because of you.”

While sitting vigil, Eva examines the choices that have brought her to this juncture. Coming from an abusive and unstable childhood, Eva gave up her dreams of being a musician for the constancy of domestic life, married to the steady but disconnected Stanley. While being a mother gave her great joy, the marriage was never fulfilling resulting in a gnawing sense of loss.  

Meanwhile, Victor does not regain consciousness. He is transported to a limbo where he, too, examines his life choices, in particular his brief relationship with Eva that motivated the change in his career from carpenter to writer. In this netherworld, he is guided by the enigmatic Benedict, who turns out to be someone from Victor’s earlier life.  This half-world becomes populated with important figures of his and Eva’s histories.

Throughout, the characters are revealed in all their humanity, wearing their scars just below the surface. Sciarratta is not afraid to show confrontation or petty jealousies. These moments lend further dimension and texture.  

The cover of ‘The Letter’

Also present is the shadowy figure of Louis, who appears just before the bodega incident, and then returns in the book’s final chapters. He is the dark angel that lurks in the mind’s shadows: “I bet you have a lot of regrets now. You had everything: Money, health, and a great career. Being a good guy isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, huh, buddy?” He is a chilling figure that offers temptation and relief. This emissary of worst fears adds further conflict to the final road in Victor’s journey.  

While the book is primarily a romance, it has elements of mystery as Sciarratta unravels his lead characters narratives.  

His lovers’ consummation is unusual — if not unique — in its setting. It is both ardent and detailed.  However, this does not in any way obscure the romantic force of the novel. Eva is his “North Star, guiding him through a depression by showing him what unconditional love feels like. She had looked past his sadness, despair, and anger to find a man with a beautiful soul …” A pair of socks given at a candlelit lunch in the park become a particularly compelling totem, representing a deeper caring than even the most fervid caress can show.

The story also nods to the solace drawn from belief: “Eva protected those she loved with a shroud of prayer, hoping that God would bless the lives that meant so much to her.” It is this mix of the spiritual and the visceral that are the foundations of both the story and the relationship. Whether drawn from religion or from nature, they find their way. In a touching episode, Victor sees himself in a wounded bird that he gently cradles in his hands; knowing that it wants to live but also accepting that death is part of the plane of human existence.  

Ultimately, The Letter addresses the issue of soul mates. This is seeded at the outset and blooms in its epilogue. It is about the alchemy of love and its power to heal wounds, whether psychological or physical. It is a bold statement in a book that tells its story with straightforward passion and wide-eyed honesty.  

The Letter is available at bookrevue.com, barnesandnoble.com and amazon.com.

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

Author Talia Carner

Talia Carner’s The Third Daughter (William-Morrow and Company) is one of the most intriguing and riveting books published in the last year. Batya is the third of poor Russian milkman Koppel’s four daughters. The Third Daughter begins in 1889 as the family flee their ravaged shtetel of Komarinoe. If this seems a nod towards Sholom Aleichim’s Tevye, it is not unintentional.  In essence, Carner is using the end of those stories as a place to begin her narrative but in no way does it attempt to be a sequel. The Third Daughter is wholly original. In the prologue, with a few simple strokes of place and time, she is able to evoke the horror of the pogrom. This sets the tone and style for the rest of Batya’s grim  journey. It is told vividly but with never a wasted word or thought.  

The family’s goal is to travel to America.  “God wasn’t here [in Europe], where His Jews were being tortured and exiled, if not murdered.  Maybe he was in the Holy Land — but more likely He was in America, where everyone prospered and ate chicken every day.” Koppel’s brother — with whom he has had no contact for many years — lives in Pittsburgh; this becomes the golden dream. 

With no money or way to travel to the United States, they are forced to live in conditions worse than they endured in Komarinoe. There is a shabbat meal with a cobbler’s family that distills the grueling and grinding poverty of eastern Europe. Unlike many portrayals of these small villages, Carner never glamourizes. This is a hallmark of the entire book.

Enter Yitizk Moskowitz, a prosperous businessman, who takes a shine to the fourteen year-old Batya. He makes a deal with Koppel for Batya’s hand in marriage.  Initially, he agrees that he will come back for Batya in two years but then changes his mind, saying that he will take her now, and she will live with his sister until she is sixteen and of age. Koppel readily agrees.  

This begins the dark heart of the book. Moskowitz is not the businessman he claims but, instead, a procurer. (Another nod towards Aleichem, this time his short story The Man from Buenos Aires.)  Later, Moskowitz describes himself:  “‘My hands never get dirty in menial work,’ he liked to say when he delegated the beatings and cigarette burnings to others.” He assaults Batya; her violation in essence brands her. “‘You are mine now,’ said Reb Moskowitz.  ‘Forever.’” He then turns her over to a thug who transports her to a ship where she is further abused. Finally, she lands in Buenos Aires.  

Batya enters a realm of torture and debasement, a world devoid of humanity: the legal brothels of this Argentinian city. There, she is sent to Freda, Moskowitz’s equally pitiless sister, who runs the house for him.  

Carner has done her research and her depiction of Zwi Migdal, the far-reaching union of pimps, is as ugly as it is accurate. This ruthless organization rules through physical violence, bribes, and corruption. Buenos Aires is shown as a community that is just as poor as the one Batya escaped with the difference that this South American hell is a glimpse of Sodom and Gomorrah. 

The anti-Semitism of the Old Country is replaced by an equally appalling existence in the New World. Carner’s ability to make the reader feel Batya’s shame and fear is extraordinary; even among her own people, Batya is an outcast, as shown by a scene in which her humiliation is furthered as she is driven from the synagogue. Carner never lets us forget that Bayta is a child, an innocent thrust into a nightmare. There is one heart-rending moment where the girl creates a doll out of a pillowcase, attempting to give herself a moment of solace. Batya, whose name means “daughter of God,” is paradoxically given the name Esperanza, which translates as “hope.”

There are occasional odd acts of kindness.  Freda allows Batya to sit shiva (the ritual seven day period of mourning) for her mother. The prostitutes form a quick female minion, the group of ten that is the sole province of men, to pray with her in her loss. The laying to rest of a prostitute who has committed slow suicide shows a kindness underneath the day-to-day suffering.  Another time, Batya is taken to a café where she encounters girls from another house: “She caught the eyes of a sister across the table and smiled.  She didn’t know the woman’s name, and they couldn’t chat over the men’s conversation, but the bond of shared tragic history was a fine spiderweb that tied them together.”

Carner never allows sentimentality to overtake the reality. Batya’s wondrous visit to an opera house is rightly juxtaposed with the hideous persecution of an abducted girl who refused to become a prostitute. Her subsequent descent into insanity and the knowledge of her eventual fate cuts through any joy.  

Batya is introduced to the tango, which becomes both thematic and pivotal to what ensues. She is given context by Nettie, another prostitute: “This is what happens to sadness once it reaches Argentina. We can either cry about the past or laugh about the future. So we drown out the old pain in dance.” This is particularly germane to the final quarter of the book which involves Batya’s attempts to both bring her family over and to free herself from her bondage. It is as page-turning and tense as any thriller, with many complications that build the relentless suspense. Batya is forced to make life-altering choices, each with possibly calamitous repercussions.  

Talia Carner’s The Third Daughter is an epic work that is rooted in a deep sense of truth. While it deals with a cruel and terrifying chapter of history, the novel is also a celebration of the ability of great writing to transport and enlighten. It is a work of art, of craft, but, above all, humanity.  

The Third Daughter is available at bookrevue.com, barnesandnoble.com and amazon.com.

Carl Safina with his buddies, from left, Cady and Chula. Photo by Patricia Paladines

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

“A sperm whale learns who she will be journeying with, a macaw casts a covetous eye on a beautiful neighbor, a chimpanzee learns to pay to play. Culture creates vast stores of unprogrammed, unplanned knowledge. The whole world speaks, sings, and shares the codes.”

Carl Safina’s latest book, Becoming Wild: How Animal Cultures Raise Families, Create Beauty and Achieve Peace (Henry Holt and Co.), is a fascinating look at the world of animal culture. It is an analysis of what is passed down (inherited) and what is learned (culture). 

Much of the study focuses on communication within the species and how animals form their own societies. “A lot of learning travels socially from parents to offspring or from a group’s elders.”  the author doesn’t so much redefine the term culture but, instead, encourages us not to be quite so human-centric in our perceptions.  

Safina divides the book into the study of sperm whales (families); scarlet macaws (beauty); and chimpanzees (peace). Each of the three sections is rich, detailed and engaging enough to be a book onto itself. He has brought them together under the umbrella of his exploration of culture. 

Each is given a detailed history of the species; description of their habitats; personal characteristics; intersection with the human world; and many fascinating details in both macro and microcosm. This is expertly mixed with his first-hand accounts of his experiences among them as well as the people with whom he takes the journey.  It is both objective and wholly personal.

His observations are enlightening:  “Chimps horrify and delight us because we recognize in them parts of ourselves. We see in them aspects of our own passions, and so they hold us in fascination.  We cannot look away. So much of what is uncomfortable for us in watching chimps is their excruciating similarity to us.” The book is rife with these epiphanies that are presented so simply and yet with such acumen.

One point that Safina makes is the debate over nature vs. nurture. His belief is that it is impossible to separate them as they interact. “Humans,” he writes, “are genetically enabled to acquire any human language. But we must still learn a language. Genes facilitate the learning, but they do not determine whether we will speak Russian.” Applying this to the terms of his overall thesis: “Genes determine what can be learned, what we might do. Culture determines what is learned, how we do things.”  

Safina has exceptional clarity and explains his ideas with focus and an underlying hint of humor that bring the reader further into his universe. There are a handful of black-and-white sketches but there are eight pages of glorious color plates. These should be studied prior to reading each section as they will give the ideal visual compliment to the descriptions.

Safina writes in engaging prose, rich in detail, vivid in his descriptions.  The depictions of these beings in their habitats truly give a sense of place in a thrilling and absorbing way. 

The fact that he is out there, in the midst of it, gives a sense of his joy and wonderment and his unceasing desire to understand. He never loses his awe of the depth and breadth of the natural world. 

He is a teacher, a student, and a tour guide. “I seek encounters that will enable me not just to see … not just to observe … but to penetrate past the labels and feel the beings as selves, living with their families, sharing the air where our two worlds meet.” Safina succeeds in his goal —and shares with grace, passion, and honesty.  

An ecologist and a MacArthur Fellow, Carl Safina is the author of numerous books on the human relationship with the rest of the living world. He holds the Endowed Chair for Nature and Humanity at Stony Brook University and is founder of the not-for-profit Safina Center. 

Becoming Wild” is available online at bookrevue.com, barnesandnoble.com and Amazon.com. Learn more at CarlSafina.org.

Elevating the Nature of Modern Landscapes
By Piet Oudolf and Rick Darke

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

“I feel very strongly in the sort of planning that I do, that you feel the changes all the time.  It is a changing beauty: from beauty into beauty.” Piet Oudolf

In the introduction of Gardens of the High Line, Richard Hammond, co-founder of Friends of the Highline, addresses the issues that confronted the creators of the gardens. Is the goal to preserve the natural wildness of the vegetation or to recreate entirely? The final decision was to find something in between, that both honors the desire to conserve but also understands the value of change. 

Matt Johnson’s Untitled (Swan) was crafted from one of the High Line’s original steel rails

What resulted was both native and introduced flora:  “[a] multi-season garden of perennials, where the skeletons of plants have as much a part in the landscape as new growth … the wilderness in the city, the art museum on a train track. Like the park itself, the gardens hover between beauty and decay.”  

The High Line gardens are a true reflection of New York City. It is a place of growth and loss, romance and introspection; elements that are fixed and others that are constantly transforming. And, amazingly, it is where these aspects can co-exist.

The book’s prose is as elegant and eloquent as its imagery. It gives multi-leveled insight to not only the creation of the space but the more esoteric motivations beneath. It takes the reader through the history of the High Line and its roots in industry. It discusses its changing identity and evolution and, finally, its reinvention. 

There is also a detailed exploration of wild gardens, citing historical sources, and how untamed growth often transforms ruins. It explains the art that inspires and the craft that designs — and, most importantly — the alchemy that joins the two. This is not your average gardening book.

“Though it’s unlikely there will ever be another place quite like the High Line, it offers a wealth of insights and approaches worthy of emulation in gardens large or small, public or private. Authentic in spirit and execution, the High Line’s gardens offer a journey that is intriguing, unpredictable, imperfect, and, above all, transformative.”

After the introductory analyses, the book begins at the southernmost end of the High Line, at the Gansevoort Woodland, the area that is Gansevoort Street through Little West 12th Street. The route continues north, each section highlighting a different area: Washington Grasslands, Hudson River Overlook, etc., going all the way up to the Rail Yards, ending at West 34th Street.  

Ultimately, the glory of this book is the hundreds of photos by Rick Darke to be seen and savored. The photography is vivid, an explosion of color and texture. The chapters offer dozens of photos that span a range of viewpoints, showing the change of seasons, both extreme and subtle. Each turn of the page reveals the gardens in some different perspective, no two alike, but allowing the viewer to see the similarities as well as the contrasts. The book shows both an unbridled and an organized environment through the prism of the world as nature’s art gallery.

A compass plant frames the view west across the Hudson River to New Jersey.

In the end, the authors see the book’s goal as one that will “serve as a beautiful memory of a great place, as guide to the infinite opportunities it presents to practice the art of observation and as an inspiration to all who, publicly or privately, seek to elevate the nature of modern landscapes.” They have succeeded in a work that honors artistry and insight with deep understanding, celebrated through hundreds of dazzling and breathtaking images.

Published by Timber Press, Gardens of the High Line: Elevating the Nature of Modern Landscapes is available online at www.timberpress.com, www.amazon.com and www.barnesandnoble.com.

'Nature's Best Hope'

Reviewed by John L. Turner

Author Doug Tallamy Photo by Rob Cardillo

Authors have differing goals for writing. For some, the motivation is to entertain, for other’s it’s to illuminate some slice of life, and for others still it’s to explore some fascinating historical event. In rare cases, though, the author writes with the not-so-modest goal of changing the world by presenting a new and novel way of looking at things, the result being a change to a person’s perspective on an issue, concept or their set of values.

Changing the world, or at least a part of it, by shifting our collective mindset is Doug Tallamy’s goal in his highly insightful book Nature’s Best Hope. The target of this change? The front and backyards of suburbia, dominated as they are by grass lawns and non-native shrubs. As Tallamy makes clear our yards are a virtual dead zone, biologically speaking, requiring vast amounts of water and chemicals and which provides little to no food or shelter for wildlife, large and small.

In its place, Tallamy sees a suburbia vibrantly alive with wildlife — butterflies and moths, pollinating bees, and abundant birds — all sustained by widespread plantings of native, life-sustaining plant species — white oaks, willows, and black cherry trees; elderberry, arrowwood and spicebush shrubs interspersed among beds of wildflowers including goldenrods (not the producers of hay fever!), asters, evening primrose, blazing stars, and milkweeds. He sees residential landscape design incorporating new values beyond just aesthetics to include the needs of the local ecology by providing species that help maintain, and to a large degree enhance, local food webs. 

What does he call this interconnected webs of land with interconnected native plant and animal species flourishing within? Homegrown National Park, a place every bit as diverse as any national park existing today and “Nature’s Best Hope” for restoring highly important ecological relationships.

‘Nature’s Best Hope’

As Tallamy makes clear, the spread of “sterile suburbia,” dominated by turf grass and exotic trees, shrubs, and wildflowers, is not a small problem. Collectively, lawns take up approximately forty million acres of land in the United States, equivalent to the combined size of the states of New York and Massachusetts. And it is growing daily.

And as Tallamy further makes clear, this growth has come at a high ecological cost. Forests and fields, filled with native plants that sustain caterpillars, bumblebees, squirrels, and Scarlet Tanagers, are replaced with exotic and sterile plants — Callery Pears, Arborvitae, hostas, and English Ivy, to name but a few. These plants and other exotics are fed upon by very few species, causing food webs to fall apart, a trend that portends an ominous future.

Here’s but one example — butterfly and moth caterpillars are the major source of food that songbirds feed their young — and oak species sustain 557 caterpillar species! If there are oaks, and other native trees, then the local food web is intact; remove and replace them and other native plants with non-natives and it unravels — insects decline followed by birds and mammals.

And this unraveling, happening quietly before our eyes, means that Tallamy’s idea isn’t just an interesting one — it is vital to our survival! Birds are not the only group of animals dependent on insects for their survival — we humans depend upon insects too. If we were to do away with all insects, human society would soon collapse and humanity would simply not survive long-term for there would be no replacement agent to pollinate the nearly 90% of all plants that they currently depend upon insects for.

Many insects are in trouble, a trend which scientists have labeled the “insect apocalypse.” Several North American bumblebees have already gone extinct and 25% of our other native bumblebees risk extinction. Many other of the continent’s 4,000 bee species are in trouble too, not to mention countless moths, butterflies, and beetles. Even the workhorse European honey bee is in trouble.

Tallamy is a fine writer with an interesting and clear style and he presents subjects and concepts in logical sequence. Color photographs of numerous plants and butterflies (and their famous larvae-caterpillars) fill the book and there’s an informative question and answer section in the back of the book. Also, an extensive bibliography is available if the reader is interested in digging deeper into some concept covered in the book.

And the most important chapter in the book? Chapter 11, entitled “What Each of Us Can Do.” The chapter includes a bunch of common sense ideas: shrink the size of your lawn; remove invasive species; plant native plants that are ecologically important like the aforementioned oaks and goldenrods and be generous with these plantings; talk to, and team up, with your neighbor to coordinate plantings; install bee hotels; place covers over sunken window wells that can serve as death traps for small mammals and amphibians; use motion-sensing security lights that only go on when needed (security lights that stay on all the time can kill hundreds if not thousands of moths attracted to the light); and do not spray or fertilize — native plants don’t need it.

Each of us can do some or all of these things. If we do any of them, we are helping to expand Homegrown National Park!

Released in February through Timber Press, Nature’s Best Hope is available online at www.timberpress.com, www.amazon.com and www.barnesandnoble.com. For more information on the author, visit www.bringingnaturehome.net.