Book Review: Miami Days, Havana Nights by Linda Bennett Pennell
Miami Days, Havana Nights
By Linda Bennett Pennell
Sometimes our biggest debts have nothing to do with money.
1926. When seventeen-year-old Sam Ackerman witnesses a mob hit, he is hustled out of New York under the protection of Moshe Toblinsky, A.K.A., the mob’s bookkeeper. Arriving in Miami with no money, no friends, and no place to hide, Sam’s only choice is to do as the gangster demands. Forced into bootlegging, Sam’s misery is compounded when he falls in love. Amazingly, the beautiful, devout Rebecca wants only him, but he cannot give her the life she deserves. When Prohibition ends, Sam begs the mobster to set him free. The price? A debt, as Toblinsky puts it, of friendship. A debt that will one day come due.
Present Day. History of American Crime professor Liz Reams has it all—early success, a tantalizing lead on new info about Moshe Toblinsky, and a wonderful man to love. Life is perfect. So what’s keeping her from accepting her guy’s marriage proposals? Confronting a long-standing personal debt sets her on a journey of self-discovery. While she delves ever deeper into Sam’s and Toblinsky’s relationship, her understanding of her own relationships increases as well, but the revelations come at a price. The emotional and physical dangers of her dual journeys may prove too big to handle.
"Why had he thought two dollars extra a week made working for gangsters worth the risk?"
Because his family needed the money, that was why. It was hard enough keeping his siblings in shoes, let alone anything else. So what choice did seventeen-year-old, Sam Ackerman, have? When his father died so unexpectedly, he became the head of the house, and they desperately needed the income he earned from working in Josef Monza's speakeasy.
Liz Reams is determined to hunt down the mysterious man with the scar on his face in the photograph she has seen of Moshe Toblinsky and his mob. But the man is proving to be somewhat elusive. Liz is determined to discover the truth, however as she does so, she learns a few things that she did not know about herself as well.
Miami Days, Havana Nights by Linda Bennett Pennell is a book that is as impressive in its sweep as it is in its brilliance.
Pennell's use of two timelines was inspired, and it worked so incredibly well with this story. It gives this novel a real sense of movement. The historical detail of 1920s America was exquisitely portrayed, but so was modern day America as well. Pennell, it seems, has a visceral understanding of what makes history worth reading.
Sam Ackerman very quickly won my heart. He is this very honourable young man who takes his responsibilities seriously. Unfortunately, he finds himself caught up in the most terrible of situations and although he desperately desires to be released from the mobs’ clutches, he is pragmatic enough to understand the need for cooperation and to bide his time. He ends up doing things that he would never have dreamt he would have done, but he retains this air of goodness that makes him impossible not to like. I thought Pennell's depiction of Sam was sublime. This was a character that helped to drive this book forward.
The other protagonist of this tale is Liz Reams. While Liz's research takes her on a journey of discovery, she also unexpectedly discovers something about herself as well. Liz spends a great deal of time in this book trying to figure out who she actually is, and what she really wants out of life. Liz is a protagonist that is relatable to the modern reader, and I think that is what makes her character so successful and a pleasure to read about.
The antagonist in this story is the Jewish mob's CEO, Moshe Toblinsky. Toblinsky is not a historical figure, but Pennell certainly seems to have drawn inspiration from the likes of Bugsy Siegel, Lucky Luciano and of course, Al Capone. Pennell gives her readers a wonderful sense of what it must have been like during this era when gangsters ran racketeering, bootlegging, and many other criminal activities. And although we are given only the briefest of explanations as to who he is and where he comes from, it is Toblinsky that controls the narrative of Sam's story. Toblinsky is a villain, in every sense, and when he offers friendship, there is always a catch. I thought his relationship with Sam was very one-sided, but it does demonstrate the power that such a man could have had during this era.
Respect, as one would perhaps expect from a book about American gangsters, is a theme that runs throughout this novel. However, there are several different kinds of respect. The mob expects to be respected because of its reach and anyone who dares challenge them, or tries to move in on their territory, are dealt with brutally. But on the other hand, when Sam sees something he should not have seen, Top Monza, who is incredibly unforgiving, calls in a favour to make sure that Sam is never in a position where he could become problematic for them and would therefore have to be killed. It could have been very easy for Monza to dispose of Sam in a more brutal and permanent way, but he decides not to – why, the reader asks? Maybe it is because of Sam's age, or it is perhaps because he sees someone who can be easily manipulated. Nevertheless, whatever the favour was, Toblinsky honours it. Unfortunately for Sam, his respect is not earned, but it is demanded. Sam respects Toblinsky out of fear for his own life rather than because he deserves it. And it is this fearful respect that allows Toblinsky to become so formidable. Taking a step away from the gangsters, the reader also watches as Sam desperately tries to earn the respect of the parents of the woman he wants to marry. This ongoing theme makes this book a compelling read indeed.
Another theme that runs through this book is that of guilt and unrealistic expectations. I thought the depiction of Liz's mother was particularly well-drawn and demonstrates how very unhealthy it is to make your child meet impossibly high expectations, and it also shows the devastating consequences of trying to live your life through your child. Lillian is a rather formidable dragon who has to be in control, and who has to remind Liz at every opportunity of all the things she gave up to be a mother. I found this, at times, challenging to read, because as Liz achieves wonderful things, her mother criticises her for them – she should have become a constitutional lawyer rather than a professor in her chosen field. This double bind on achievement is incredibly destructive, and it means that they can never have a close and productive relationship. Add to this volatile situation, Liz's dad, who has Alzheimer’s Disease, means the emotional exhaustion that Lillian feels makes the situation even worse. I thought the relationship between these two women was extremely moving, but at times it was also very distressing. Their relationship also mirrored the mob in a way because everyone has to bow down to Lillian's demands — she always wins the argument, she always has the last word, and everyone else is terrified by her sharp tongue and her use of emotional blackmail. I thought Liz's response to her mother was very telling, and it certainly added a layer of despair and tension to this story. It also demonstrates very clearly that Pennell has an intuitive and empathetic understanding of the human condition in all of its greatness as well as its ugliness.
Pennell has also given her readers an insight into the widespread segregation and social antisemitism during this period in American history. This discrimination meant that the Jewish residents were restricted in not only employment, but they were also denied access to many residential and resort areas as well. Even Moshe Toblinsky, with all his influence and wealth, could not book a room in The Biltmore. Although antisemitism is a theme that runs throughout this book, it is not the most pressing concern in the protagonist's plight. However, if there had not been the antisemitism and Sam had more opportunities, then would he have taken a job with the Mafia in the first place? Circumstances are everything, or so it seems in this book.
Miami Days, Havana Nights by Linda Bennett Pennell is an astonishingly good read. It is undoubtedly a book that will stay with me for a very long time, and it is one that deserves to be read again and again.
I Highly Recommend.
Review by Mary Anne Yarde.
The Coffee Pot Book Club.
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Linda Bennett Pennell
After being named a finalist in the Writer's League of Texas 2009 Manuscript Contest, Linda Bennett Pennell set her heart on becoming a published author. She experienced the thrill of that dream coming true on July 10, 2013 when her debut novel, Al Capone at the Blanche Hotel, was released by Soul Mate Publishing. She is delighted that the novel has been well received by readers and reviewers alike. Linda would like to thank those who have read and reviewed Al Capone at the Blanche Hotel. Your wonderful support and generous praise have meant more than mere words can express. It is a great joy that her second and third novels, Confederado do Notre (2014, Soul Mate Publishing), Casablanca: Appointment at Dawn (2015, The Wild Rose Press), Miami Days, Havana Nights (2018, Soul Mate Publishing) have been warmly received, as well. Providing a good experience for readers is what makes all the hard work worthwhile. Linda is active in writer's groups including the Writer's League of Texas, the Historical Novel Society, Author's Guild, International Thriller Writers, Romance Writers of America, and Northwest Houston RWA. When she is not busy tapping away on the keyboard on behalf of her latest work-in-progress, Linda enjoys spending time with family and friends, volunteering with various local non-profits and her church, singing with the Texas Master Chorale and church choir, and researching future projects. She resides in the Houston area with her husband and their German Shorthaired Pointer, a dog who is quite certain that he's a little boy.
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