- “Death of a Dancing Queen”
Hardboiled detectives certainly had it easier in the past. They didn’t have to worry about ex-boyfriends with connections to the Jewish mob; a grandfather who drinks too much; a gay brother, David, with mental health issues; and a mother suffering from early onset Alzheimer’s. All these factor into why Billie (Belinda) Levine, the heroine in Kimberly G. Giarrantano’s “Death of a Dancing Queen (Datura Books), decided to take over the detective agency her grandfather founded when he retired from the police force.
Billie is hoping for simple cases, like tailing cheating spouses, and, at first, believes her new case won’t be complicated. After all, it’s clear her client, Tommy Russo, is a drug addict, so Billie wonders if his missing girlfriend is just ghosting him. Unfortunately, the case proves far more complex. The missing person case morphs into a murder investigation that uncovers connections to the mob and a neo-Nazi group, and the reappearance of Billie’s ex, Aaron, whose family may not only be involved in her current case, but the murder of an exotic dancer 30 years before. To add to Billie’s troubles, it becomes clear that her mother can no longer be left alone, so difficult family decisions have to be made. That is, if Billie lives long enough.
Billie is a great character: courageous, caring and flawed enough to be interesting. The novel does an excellent job balancing the detective action and Billie’s personal life. The mystery is complex and convoluted, but exciting in its twist and turns. There are a few very subtle hints about the reasons for the murders, but it’s highly unlikely that anyone will guess them. Readers will definitely want to see more of Billie; here’s hoping this is the first book in a series.
- “The Red Balcony”
Jonathan Wilson’s legal thriller “The Red Balcony” (Schocken Books) is the most serious novel in this review. It focuses on life in 1933 Palestine when the British administration was trying to balance the demands of the Jewish community for increased immigration of Jews from Europe with the Arab preference for the status quo. The plot is partly based on the real-life assassination of Haim Arlososoff, a leader of the Labor Zionist Movement who’d been working with Nazi Germany to allow Jews to emigrate to Palestine. Ivor Castle, a British Jew whose outsider status in England was confirmed when he attended Oxford University, comes to the territory as the second counsel defending the two Jews accused of the crime. The prosecution believes that Arlososoff was murdered by those who disapproved of his dealings with the Nazis, even if they might have saved Jewish lives.
It quickly becomes clear that Ivor is out of his depth: he has no understanding of the politics involved in the trial and, even worse, falls deeply in love with a potential witness, Tsiona, an artist whose demands make little sense to the lovesick lawyer. Ivor also realizes that Palestine is having an odd effect on him: after several weeks, he acknowledges that while he no longer feels as if England is his home, he also doesn’t see Palestine as his homeland. Life gets even more confusing when he meets Susannah Green, a young American woman who is visiting the territory with her parents. She seems like a perfect match for him, but he is unable to forget Tsiona. However, even Susannah’s visit has political implications: her father is involved with secret meetings that will play a role in Ivor’s life.
Those looking for a clear resolution to the murder will be disappointed in “The Red Balcony.” Just as in real life, there are no answers: readers will have to decide for themselves whether the testimony offered makes sense and if the accused are guilty or innocent. However, the main focus of the work is watching Ivor change from a naive young man to one with a greater understanding of life’s realities. In that, the novel is a success.
- “Best Served Hot”
Romance, comedy and food: if you think that combination equals heaven, then you’ll find much to enjoy in “Best Served Hot” by Amanda Elliot (Berkley Romance). This is Elliot’s second novel to feature those elements: her “Sadie on a Plate” focused on its main character’s participation in a TV cooking contest. (To read The Reporter’s review of the book, click here.) This time, the author focuses on the debate between Internet food influencers and print media restaurant reviewers as to who best serves the public.
The narrator, Jewish Julie Zimmerman, works as an assistant to a retired CEO of a major TV network, but the true love of her life is food reviewing. As JulieZeeEatsNYC, she takes photos of the dishes she eats and posts her reviews online. However, eating out is expensive, which means she worries about her bank account becoming overdrawn. What she wants is the food reviewer’s job at the New York Scroll, a newspaper gig where she could charge her meals to an expense account. Unfortunately, rich, society boy Bennett Richard Macalester Wright is offered the job instead.
When Julie realizes that Bennett is at the same outdoor food festival she’s attending, the two have an argument about food and social media. When the encounter is posted online, the number of Julie’s followers soar, as does social media interest in the Scroll. Julie and Bennett agree to work together to help both her account and the Scroll’s get more buzz. As much as Julie disliked Bennett at first, she finds herself very attracted to him. Not only that, but he actually seems to be a nice person, even though he’s grown up rich and entitled. The question then becomes whether they can overcome their differences.
“Best Served Hot” has several subplots that add interest, especially one about Julie’s friend Alice, who works in the tech industry. Also debated are the differences between food reviews on social media and those that appear in the print media. The descriptions of the food (most of which are definitely not kosher) are well done and the sex scenes are hot. Lovers of rom-coms should find much to enjoy.
- “Planning Perfect”
It’s not easy being young, at least in Haley Neil’s “Planning Perfect” (Bloomsbury). This isn’t helped by the fact that high school sophomore Felicity Becker has very strong ideas about the proper way things should be done. She is obsessed with doing everything in what she considers the correct manner, in addition to worrying about school, getting into college and her future personal life – so much so that after an incident, she’s been seeing a therapist. Her mother, Hannah, on the other hand, seems to have done everything in the wrong order, at least according to Felicity: Hannah made a fortune selling tech software when she was in college. Then she had Felicity on her own, created an addictive phone game that became a movie franchise and now writes book adaptations of movies.
Felicity’s life becomes even more complicated after her mother’s boyfriend, Eric, proposes. Felicity wants to be an event planner and decides she’ll create the perfect wedding for them. A friend, Nancy, whom she met during an LGBTQ high school get-away, invites her to hold the wedding at her great- aunt’s apple orchard, noting there’s a cottage where Felicity, Hannah and Eric can spend the summer. Hannah agrees because she thinks spending the summer away from Boston will be a good way for her, Felicity and Eric to bond without outside pressures. Unfortunately, complications arise, including Felicity (who considers herself asexual) worrying about her relationship with Nancy, problems with her grandmother (who disapproves of Hannah’s life and puts pressure on Felicity to be perfect) and whether the wedding will be the one of Felicity’s dreams or the one her mother and Eric actually want.
Felicity is an engaging character and it’s fun to watch her learn more about herself, including how to better appreciate other people’s feelings and desires. Anyone who was uptight and dogmatic when they were young will understand Felicity’s dilemma, although those who have outgrown those feelings will find her mother delightful. While “Planning Perfect” is aimed at a teen audience, older readers will delight in the joy of not being young anymore.
- “Ring of Solomon”
Adventure, fantasy and humor: Those words describes Aden Polydoros’ tween novel “Ring of Solomon” (Inkyard Press). Polydoros is best know for “The City Beautiful,” a young adult novel that was so good it became one of my favorite books of 2022. (The Reporter’s review can be found here.) What surprised me about his new work was not the page-turning adventure; that was also true of “The City Beautiful.” It was the humor that was an added delight: the novel’s main character, Zach, can’t keep from spouting sarcastic remarks, even when faced with demons and monsters who take exception to his words.
When 12-year-old Zach and his younger sister, Naomi, buy a very gaudy ring for their mother’s birthday, their lives change. To Zach’s surprise, if you rub the ring, you can understand the speech of animals. Wondering if rubbing the ring might also produce a genie, Zach suddenly finds Ashmedai the King of the Demons standing in his bedroom. Ash looks like a regular teenager, well, except for the black wings, sharp teeth and bird talons instead of feet. When Zach shares news of Ash’s appearance with his best friend Sandra, she wants them to go to a priest or rabbi for help. However, Zach wants to use Ash to get back at Jeffrey, a bully who makes his life miserable at school. Unfortunately, they are not the only people who knows about Ash’s appearance: a mysterious group wants both the ring and Ash in their power. Why? They plan to destroy the world so a chosen few can enter the Garden of Eden. Zach, Ash and Zach’s friends must prevent that from happening.
Zach is a great character, partly because his insecurities make him talk when he should be keep his mouth shut. He has several reasons to be insecure: he’s worried that his parents won’t accept the fact that he’s gay (the only person who knows is Sandra), and that, since his family is interfaith, he’s not Jewish enough – although Jeffrey’s bullying is partly based on Zach’s religion. The plot is exciting and fun, and the characters’ reactions to events felt real. While not as literary as his previous work, Polydoros has written a great novel for teens and anyone who enjoys adventure.