‘Eli’s Promise’ by Ronald J. Balson: A double dose of corruption

Author Ronald J. Balson’s new novel, “Eli’s Promise,” is a superb piece of historical fiction that features three interlocking and interweaving plot threads, each of which offers fascinating views of epochal eras in world and American history.

Plot number one takes place in the mid-1940s, as Jews are being rescued from the concentration camp called Buchenwald, a camp which had all too clearly demonstrated the unconscionable cruelty of the Nazi policy they called the “Final Solution,” the deaths of all European Jews. Among the victims at Buchenwald is Eli Rosen, a young Polish man who had been the owner of a building and construction company before he was taken. Also a prisoner there is his son Izaak. They survive after being rescued by American troops and are taken to an American-run camp in Germany. The camp is set up for Holocaust survivors who await their visas and transfers to new homes all over the world. It soon becomes apparent to readers that the real villain of the piece (other than the Nazis) is one Maximilian Poleski, a traitor to his people. Poleski is using his connections in America and Germany to illegally procure visas that will allow survivors to enter America. He sells the visas to those few former prisoners who have somehow saved or found the money to buy them, charging obscene prices for his services and moving the buyers to the front of a very long line of seekers of entry to America and other potentially new homes. Eli Rosen swears — promises — to bring Maximilian to justice, and he will not rest until he does so. But the visa issue is just the tip of the Maximilian iceberg, and his many other sins are revealed in plot thread number two.

The scene is Lublin, Poland, 1939. Hitler conquers Poland and orders his military henchmen to take immediate steps to corral all Jews. Eli Rosen, though, is important to the Nazis because of his expertise in construction, which will help the Nazi power structure to erect ghetto camps, build German official headquarters, and prepare to officially organize all Polish Jews into groups which will eventually be transported to concentration camps to be killed when they are no longer useful to the Nazi cause. Maximilian, the slimy eel, manages to ingratiate himself with the Nazis, saving himself and promising his Jewish friends that he will protect them — in return for huge cash protection payments. But when the noose begins to tighten, Maximilian continues to promise safety when he knows he will no longer be able to actually provide it. And he takes his victims’ last meager cash reserves as payments for the protection he knows he can no longer ensure. Eli’s wife is taken. Eli eventually is taken, too, as is his son. Only the oily obeisant Maximilian escapes significant punishment. Wherever he goes, wherever he is moved, he manages to slither away from the fate he so richly deserves.

The third plot thread flashes us forward to 1965 Chicago. America is again at war, this time in Viet Nam. Eli is an important figure in this thread, but he is not the protagonist. Having survived the Holocaust, he now works in some mysterious capacity for the American government. His assignment is to investigate a group of war profiteers who are in the business of collecting, storing, and keeping huge sums of cash through all kinds of scams involving weapons sales and sales of other wartime goods. The main character (though there are several important ones) is a young lady named Mimi Gold, who lives in Albany Park, Chicago, with her mother and grandmother. As the plot unfolds, Eli moves into the apartment below the Golds’. The women suspect that their new neighbor is working for the CIA or FBI. But it’s Mimi who is gradually becoming unwillingly involved with the network of wartime materials criminals. Vicious crimes ensue — murder, theft, intimidation, arson — all the horrors which almost inevitably result from wartime profiteering, the unchecked felonious activities of the rich and powerful, and the hypocrisy of governments and government officials as they excuse and justify their wartime sins. Meanwhile, as we might suspect, Maximilian, though we don’t know his exact role in the 1965 Chicago criminal enterprises, will appear once more in all his disgusting glory. And the stubborn quest and questions persist: will Eli’s promise be kept; will Maximilian finally be brought to justice?

Besides the three engrossing plots, “Eli’s Promise” vividly demonstrates other necessary qualities of historical fiction. We find fascinating information about actual events which we have likely never considered before: the details of the horrors inflicted on Polish Jews in Poland itself and, of course, in German camps; the difficulties of finding permanent homes for Holocaust survivors, including the stubborn resistance of the American government to the granting of visas to those victims of Nazi atrocities; the corruption of American governments at all levels — local, county, state, and federal — specifically in the 1960s. And on the plus side, we learn much about the courageous people who refused to bow to the Nazis; the Polish resistance and the stubborn will to survive of of the Jewish people; the complicated but extraordinary efforts of the American military to save, protect, and help Holocaust survivors to rebuild their lives.

“Eli’s Promise” is a moving and suspenseful piece of authoritative historical fiction; profoundly informative and entirely compelling. It’s highly recommended.

Review by Jack Kramer.

This review was first posted at Bookreporter.com.

‘The Awakening’ is Book One in Nora Roberts’ new series ‘The Dragon Heart Legacy’

An intricately detailed alternate world set just alongside Ireland, a world which has all the charm and natural beauty of Ireland but the addition of witches, fairies, elves, and dragons, makes Nora Roberts’ newest book, “The Awakening,” in her new series “The Dragon Heart Legacy” stand out. When Breen Kelly stumbles across the portal to Talamh, this alternate place brimming with magic, her life changes.

Breen’s life in Philadelphia had been very ordinary. She taught middle school language arts to students who didn’t inspire her. Or didn’t they inspire her because she didn’t love teaching? The truth is that Breen became a teacher because her mother told her that was all she was capable of, and Breen is miserable. But all her life, her mother insisted that Breen was never more than average. There was nothing that she excelled at. And yet Breen does her mother’s bidding, taking care of her home when she’s away.

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‘Pretty Little Wife’ by Darby Kane is a murder mystery with a special twist

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“Pretty Little Wife” starts with a special twist. We know who killed Aaron Payne before we even open the book. The back of the book’s heading reads, “Shouldn’t a dead husband stay dead?” We know that Lila Ridgefield killed her handsome husband, a beloved high school teacher — but there’s a problem. His body, whose death she had carefully staged, is gone, along with Aaron’s car and cell phone. Continue reading

‘To Tell You the Truth’ by Gilly Macmillan

When you don’t know whom to trust or who is telling the truth, the world can be a scary place. In “To Tell You the Truth,” by Gilly Macmillan, not only does main character Lucy Harper not know who is telling her the truth, or whether she can trust her best friend and alter ego Eliza, but we don’t know if we can trust what Lucy is telling us in her first person narrative.

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“Fallout” — the Horror and the Cover-up

“Fallout,” Lesley M.M. Blume’s non-fiction description of John Hersey and his essay, “Hiroshima,” is an all-too-vivid and, I’m quite sure, all-too-accurate account of how “Hiroshima” was created; of the dangers Hersey courageously faced because he dared to write and then publish the essay; of the roadblocks Hersey and his editors and publisher encountered because of the semi-forbidden subject matter; and, above all, of the horrors generated by war in general and the use of the first atomic bomb in particular.

The title of Blume’s work, “Fallout,” is itself a word of several relevant meanings: the fallout following the explosion over Hiroshima refers, in part, to the radioactive poisoning suffered by much of the city’s population and the resulting additions — deliberately hidden — to the original death-count caused by the bomb. The first estimate was 42,000. The count that was available to Hersey was 100,000. The count most often estimated today is about 280,000. Two hundred eighty-thousand dead innocent civilians. The entire U.S. government and military establishments, Truman to MacArthur to the government PR squads, perpetrated an expansive and complex cover-up in order to hide the horrors of Hiroshima. They implied that the Hiroshima event was “just” a big, impressive bomb invention that forced the Japanese to surrender and, in the process, demonstrated that America was inarguably the most powerful country in the world.

Blume concisely re-tells the stories of the six survivors whom Hersey chose to exemplify the actual devastation of the bomb and the effects of its aftermath. Hersey realized that numbers like 42,000 do not even begin to tell the story. The war-weary public was numb to the effects of numbers on their psyches. He also realized that in some cases a picture is not worth a thousand words. A mysterious mushroom cloud communicates nothing about the terror of a nuclear attack.

But, he knew, a detailed description of eyes hanging from their sockets; skin, like ill-fitting gloves, peeling off hands; and bodies and bones of loved ones forming ugly blackened masses lying all over the ground would affect readers in ways that death numbers and pictures of the bomb could never accomplish. And his words did work effectively to make the public aware of the very real and potentially very personal effects of the attack — personal because Hersey brought the sheer horror of the bomb directly to the minds, hearts, and homes of the American people. He accomplished his stated purpose: to warn every person that each of us is a victim; that the world would now be a boiling cauldron of nuclear power and waste; and that what happened to those six people might well happen to us if we don’t stop the spread of the  madness of nuclear armaments. The world was now in a new and different kind of ever-present mortal danger, every single day a threat to our very existence.

Blume’s work, like Hersey’s, is a testament to the power of fine journalism. She brilliantly recreates Hersey’s fragile position as the ultimate whistleblower, as well as his earth-shaking reporting. After “Hiroshima,” he was loved and appreciated by thousands of people. But he was also despised by hundreds of the world’s powerful figures and by many Americans who refused to see their nation in a new and unflattering light. He had divulged difficult truths. He had destroyed the cover-up. He had dented the glorious reputation of post-war America. He had exposed his country’s callous disregard for the lives of civilians — guinea pigs — human beings just like us.

And, ironically, he had become the enemy of both Cold War foes. Many American officials despised him and his essay because he had damaged our post-war image as the “good guys.” He had made the Japanese people the victims and had turned the spotlight away from the unforgivable tortures inflicted on American military men by the Japanese “animals.” He had given the Soviet Union even greater incentive to catch up in the nuclear arms race. And on the other side, the Soviet power structure felt that he had intended to make the USSR look comparatively weak in the eyes of the world; that he was simply a disgustingly effective purveyor of American propaganda; and that he was proclaiming, in effect, “Russia, here’s what we will do to you if you dare to challenge us.”

Finally, Blume makes a brief but powerful plea at the end of her book. She urges us all to demonstrate once and for all that we have learned the lessons of Hiroshima and “Hiroshima,” to heed the uncomfortable truths of journalistic truth-tellers, to accept and act on the reality that the world since Hiroshima is teetering on the edge of self-destruction, and to understand that the time for ending the madness is now. Time is short.

Review by Jack Kramer. First published on Bookreporter.com

‘One Hundred Dogs & Counting: One Woman, Ten Thousand Miles, and a Journey into the Heart of Shelters and Rescues’ by Cara Sue Achterberg will grab your heart

“One Hundred Dogs & Counting” by Cara Sue Achterberg is her book about the second part of the title, “One Woman, Ten Thousand Miles, and a Journey into the Heart of Shelters and Rescues.” In this book that will wring your heart, we learn about her selfless determination to foster, and thus rescue, as many shelter dogs as she can.

Achterberg makes no bones about the work that goes into fostering. She doesn’t play it safe like I do, only fostering adult dogs who will be quickly housebroken and are usually past the chewing and destructive stage. Her description of the work and cleaning involved in caring for litters of puppies has convinced me that adult fosters are definitely the way to go!

But Achterberg doesn’t shirk from hard work and from heartache. When you rescue, you know both. She passionately describes loving the foster dogs and then letting them go to permanent families. She knows that it’s easy to be what’s called a “foster failure” and adopt the foster dog you’ve fallen in love with, but then she wouldn’t be able to take in tens of dogs every year and save them. This one woman has saved over a hundred dogs in a short time by fostering them and then getting them adopted. Then repeat.

But the more dogs she saved, the more she thought about how the problem of unwanted and abandoned dogs doesn’t seem to be getting any better. And so she took trips to rural shelters to see what their problems were and what they thought needed to be done to solve the overpopulation problem which then leads to the problem of too many unwanted dogs. She describes her travels in detail. There are brutal descriptions of horrible shelters where caring people struggle to save as many dogs as they can in spite of almost insurmountable obstacles. There are also shelters where those in charge spend their own money to feed and care for the dogs. It’s a huge spectrum.

This is a book that will make you cry. It’s horribly depressing to realize that so many wonderful dogs and cats (and other animals) are discarded like trash when uncaring, heartless owners decide they don’t want them anymore. But those on animal rescue sites and Facebook pages dedicated to saving animals already know that. We see the despair deep in a senior dog’s eyes when its owner hands over its leash and walks away, away saying, “It’s too old so I don’t want it.” It will also make your heart sing as you recognize that there are many, many dedicated people who work tirelessly to save as many animals as possible.

It’s a book for those who already rescue. In Cara’s story, we recognize our own struggles with the mess, the baby gates, the dogs who have behavior issues. We know about the feeling of loss when the dog leaves – no matter how loving the adoptive home. And we all say to the adopters that if they ever don’t want “our” dog, we will take the dog back.

This is also a book for those who don’t know about rescue. Who might read this and learn how desperately foster homes are needed, and might just decide to try and foster a dog or cat. After reading about the work involved in fostering puppies, I can’t say she’s done a great job promoting that particular job! But also, it’s an important step in educating people on the importance of helping. Reach out to local rescues and see what they need. Usually they are the ones pulling from other public shelters in all areas of the country where dogs and cats are routinely killed for space.

No one wants to kill animals. But when shelters get overwhelmed, unless there are rescues willing to take the animals, there is no where for them to go. And unless there are fosters willing to help house and love the animals, the rescues can’t do it all. There are wonderful projects and things that shelters have done to get the community involved. Because once animal-loving people understand what is happening in their community, they often want to help. And sometimes it’s just as simple as asking for help, asking for dog walkers, building walking paths and inviting the community to come walk — with a shelter dog.

Please, read the book. Get involved. Foster a dog or cat. Or donate to your local rescue. Offer to help transport animals to their final destination. It’s a commitment of a few hours, but with a huge reward. Visit Who Will Let the Dogs Out for more information.

And when you are finished reading the book? Pass it on to someone who might benefit from reading it. Someone else who might help. (Pegasus Books)

A few of this reviewer’s rescues. Two black cats from the streets. One dog rescued from China (I flew her here) and the other from the Redland area of Florida by the Redland Rockpit Quarry Project, a group that feeds the homeless and abandoned dogs in that area each and every day. They do their best to find rescues for the dogs and cats.

Unions: The good, the bad, and the ugly

With all the news regarding police abuse of power, police assaulting and killing innocent people (like Breonna Taylor and George Floyd), and the fact that police unions support their officers no matter how heinous the crime, unions are going to come out of this as the bad guys. And you know what? Some unions deserve that bad rap. However, I was president of my local teacher’s union, the NSEA, for eight years. I think I can share what unions should and should not be about with a clear and unbiased voice.

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‘The K Team’: New from David Rosenfelt

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David Rosenfelt’s latest novel marks the beginning of a new series. After twenty Andy Carpenter books, we again meet newly designated hero Corey Douglas and his K9 partner Simon. Both had been introduced in the previous Andy Carpenter entry, “Dachshund Through the Snow.” And, Andy fans, fear not. Corey is just as funny, just as smart, just as charmingly naughty as Andy. Rosenfelt, here in “The K Team,” again demonstrates his prodigious talent for creating a main character whom you will love and laugh with, and who is very good at solving complex and confusing crimes that mere mortals like you and me are entirely incapable of de-puzzling.

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‘The Last Sister’ by Kendra Elliot is a nail-biting mystery that pushes all the right buttons

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Kendra Elliot has sold over seven million books, and after reading “The Last Sister,” this first book in a new series, “Columbia River,” her success is understandable. And this is a perfect opportunity to jump into a Kendra Elliot series at the beginning. Main character FBI special agent Zander Wells was introduced in a previous series, but readers “meeting” him for the first time will be charmed and touched by his story. Continue reading

Young Florida Dogs Urgently in Need of Rescue By March 1

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On Thursday, ten dogs at the Sebring Shelter in Florida will die unless they are adopted or pulled by rescue. Many of these dogs are still practically puppies. A few of the dogs should not go to homes with cats, including Ramsey, who is a volunteer favorite! Please read about them, share their story, and help them if you can. Pledging on their Facebook post helps rescues know that any medical needs will be covered. Please visit the Sebring Facebook page to see videos of the dogs, too.

Hammy is an incredibly sweet dog who arrived at the shelter horribly emaciated. He only weighs 36 pounds and he should be around 60 pounds. The volunteers say he’s sweet and happy. He certainly deserves a home where he will be fed and cared for, and where his love will be returned for the first time in his life. He’s only a year old.
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‘Act of Betrayal: A Will Cochrane Novel’ by Matthew Dunn Is a Thriller with Heart

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Author Matthew Dunn’s background in MI6 reads like the resume of his main character, Will Cochrane, in the eponymous series of which “Act of Betrayal” is the latest. While reading all the books in the series probably gives more background to the story, this reviewer has only read the previous book, “A Soldier’s Revenge” and that gave plenty of background for this novel.

Will Cochrane is the ultimate assassin but also the ultimate friend. His actions are always based on his strict morality, which he uses to do the right thing regardless of personal cost. To save a friend or an innocent person, he would sacrifice his life. But he also is human, which  means that he’s made mistakes. In fact, he killed the wife and daughter of a Russian spy by accident after painstakingly creating a plan to kill only the spy. It backfired and killed the spy’s family instead of the spy, but that spy is now one of Cochrane’s closest allies. That doesn’t mean they go out for coffee together, but that they can rely on each other in times of great need. Continue reading