Readers and writers: A bio of a mob boss, an inventive novel, and scary middle-grade books

What a good book roundup today. We’ve got the first full-length biography of a Mafia boss, fiction beginning with the trauma of the first Chinese woman to arrive in America, and middle-grade scary stories featuring killer clowns and dead sailors.

“Sonny: The Last of the Old-Time Mafia Bosses, John ‘Sonny’ Franzese” by S.J. Peddie (Citadel Press, $27)

“Sonny: The Last of the Old-Time Mafia Bosses, John ‘Sonny’ Franzese”

Over the years, I interviewed some bona fide mobsters, and they were, for the most part, not very interesting. They were greedy and violent, and there was no code of honor among them. They were out only for themselves. I knew enough to stay away.

And yet here I was, interviewing a man who had murdered and hurt countless people in pursuit of power and money, and I was enthralled.

That’s award-winning journalist Sandra Peddie admitting in her book “Sonny” that even when mobster Sonny Franzese was more than 100, he was charming and honest as he talked to Peddie in his nursing home.

Living in a senior facility was a comedown for this man who headed the Colombo crime family and became rich through racketeering, fraud, and faux unions.

Sonny may have participated in, or ordered the murders of, 40 to 50 people. He went to trial in 1964 for the murder of Ernest “the Hawk” Rupolo, but he beat that rap. He was in and out of prison numerous times but the law finally got him in 1970 when he was sent to prison to serve two 25-year sentences for conspiring to rob four banks. Released for the last time in 2017, he died in 2020.

As a Mafia capo, Sonny worked out of his Long Island home and when he went to prison he kept his enterprises going.

At the peak of his power and glamour in the mid-1960s, Sonny and his “beautiful and tough-minded” second wife, Tina, held court at the Copacabana nightclub, where he and Frank Sinatra had a power struggle about who would be the most famous and dominant. Sonny, often magnanimous, said he didn’t mind helping the “skinny kid” if he needed it.

Legendary mob boss John “Sonny” Franzese, the head of the Columbo crime family, in an October 1966 booking photo from the New York Police Department. (Courtesy of Sandra Peddie)

Sonny loved show business folks and they loved him. He credits himself with helping bring African-American performers such as Sammy Davis Jr. into the Copa’s spotlight. He also groped Ava Gardner in a back room while her boyfriend, Sinatra, was onstage.

Peddie traces Sonny’s crime career from the time he was 14 and allegedly committed his first murder, to his move up through the Mafia ranks.

While Sonny had his problems with the law, his wife continued the pretense of a happy family. She dressed beautifully, supervised a lovely home and gave birth to two daughters and a son, John, who eventually became an FBI informant and informed on his father by wearing a wire.

Tina’s son Michael, whose father was her first husband, made millions running a gas tax scam on Long Island. He buried his mother, who prided herself on being fashionably dressed, in her hospital gown.

Peddie’s writing style is easy and she tells a complicated man’s life story clearly, showing his failings and the charm that drew people to him. A helpful cast of characters is included, listing “the songbirds” who cooperated with law enforcement and the investigators who pursued Sonny for years.

Sandra Peddie interviews mob boss John “Sonny” Franzese before his death in 2020 at age 103.  (Jeffrey Basinger / Courtesy of Sandra Peddie)

Sonny was admired in some gangster and law enforcement circles for his refusal to cooperate with the FBI after he went to prison. About his code of silence he told Peddie: “I could never give a guy up because I knew what jail was. I wouldn’t put a dog in a jail pod.”

Peddie, a former Pioneer Press reporter, is an investigative reporter at Newsday Media Group. She’s won more than 50 awards for her work and was a finalist for the 2014 Pulitzer Prize in Public Service. She was also a member of the team that wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning series on police disability fraud in 2011.

She will discuss her book at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 10, at Magers & Quinn, 3038 Hennepin Ave. S., Mpls.

“The Many Daughters of Afong Moy ” by Jamie Ford (Atria Books, $28)

“The Many Daughters of Afong Moy” by Jamie Ford.

For most of her childhood Afong thought that she must have been a horrible man in her previous life to have been reborn as a woman. She must have been cruel, to be reborn powerless. She must have been greedy, to come back as property. She must have been shiftless, to have had her feet bound in this life. She must have been vehement to have been forced to marry an old man whom she had never met, never seen, unable to forget the young man she cared for, dreamt about.

Jamie Ford’s inventive new novel, “The Many Daughters of Afong Moy,” is set in the past, present and future, as he traces the trauma of  women descended from Afong Moy, the first Chinese woman to set her bound feet on American soil in 1836.

When Afong’s fiance is killed in China, the young woman is forced to marry an older man whose family sends her away because she is bad luck. She becomes a sensation on the American stage as she travels the country, singing while sitting on a throne-like chair. But she is not considered human, as she finds when white doctors take off her clothing, including her lotus shoes, and poke and prod her naked body, rebreaking bones in her tiny feet that had already been broken several times.

Afong’s daughter, Lai King, experiences the burning of Chinatown in 1898 as authorities try to contain the spread of a plague.

Then there is Faye, who in 1942 is a nurse who loves a young pilot who dies and leaves her a watch with a photo clipped from a newspaper. It is a picture of a younger Faye and when she turns the paper over she sees, in her handwriting, the words FIND ME.

Greta, in 2014, is an award-winning founder of a dating app who loses it all. Zoe, in 1927, is a student at a fancy boarding school.

This is the way Ford introduces his characters — not in linear fashion but jumping from decade to decade. These women’s lives culminate in the experiences of Dorothy, who lives in the present day. Dorothy has emotional issues, and for the sake of her daughter, Annabel, she undergoes an experimental therapy that involves breaking the hold of generational trauma.

It ends in 2086 with Annabel profiting from her mother’s therapy. She opens her hotel room door to face a man who seems to be in her mentally healthy future.

Ford, who lives in Montana, is the great-grandson of a Nevada mining pioneer who emigrated from China to San Francisco in 1865. Ford’s debut novel, “Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet,” spent two years on the New York Times bestseller list.

The author will discuss “The Many Daughters of Afong Moy” at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 9, at Grace-Trinity Church, 1430 W. 28th St., Mpls., hosted by Valley Bookseller of Stillwater, with co-hosts The China Center at the University of Minnesota, The Association of Sino-American Neocultural Exchange, and the US-China Peoples Friendship Association. Tickets, which include a signed copy of the book, are $33 plus tax. Tickets can be purchased at valleybookseller.com.

“Monsters in the Mist” by Juliana Brandt (Sourcebooks Young Readers, $16.99)

“Monsters in the Mist” by Juliana Brandt (Courtesy of Sourcebooks Young Readers).

The problem with ghosts is that they’re not so easy to ward off when you’ve stepped into their territory. Lake Superior was claimed by the dead, and when the living sailed onto its waters, they risked becoming one of the dead as well.         

Glennon McCue’s father takes a job overseas and Glennon travels with his mother and sister to Uncle Job’s home on Lake Superior, where he is lighthouse keeper on an island that doesn’t exist on any maps.

There is something creepy about the island, as when Glennon (not Glen)  sees a shipwreck in which sailors disappear under the cold water, except for two men and a boy, Kit, who grab a rope to be pulled up the cliff to safety. Who is Kit, who manages to be in two places at once? Why is one of the sailors so menacing? And who is casting a spell on Glennon’s mom that keeps her drained of strength and in bed?

Glennon’s allies are Kit and Lee, who lives in a lighthouse on the other side of the island and seems to know everything about its history.

Is the big lake throwing up its haunted dead? Is everyone on the island a ghost?

Smart young readers will figure out the subtext of this story; the implied emotional trauma in Glennon’s family home in Minneapolis. The father is given to fury that comes out of nowhere, breaking things, raging at his family, telling his son he isn’t smart.

Brandt, a kindergarten teacher who lives in Minnesota, should be read by all middle-schoolers. She writes beautifully while conveying the feelings of young teens and she brings Lake Superior alive in all its moods. Like her previous novels, “The Wolf of Cape Fen” and “A Wilder Magic,” this one is very creepy but ultimately shows characters who have grown emotionally and mentally.

“Class Clown” by Allan Evans (Immortal Works, paperback $14.99)

“Class Clown” by Allan Evans (Courtesy of Immortal Works).

The other circus clowns were terrified of him. That should have been a tip off for me. When a clown was scared of another clown, you know something wasn’t right.

There’s a clown apocalypse at Pine Ridge High School (fictional Mahtomedi) and it’s sort of Abbey’s fault. She’s a ghost magnet and although she’s been seeing ghosts in various guises most of her life, these clowns are scary.

Abbey was introduced in Evans’ previous book, “Abnormally Abbey,” in which she was supposed to go to church camp but ended up in a tough love boot camp for disturbed teens. Now, she’s dealing with clowns she saw at a visit to the circus, where her dad was researching an article about the clowns.

Some of the comedians are benign, but some are terrifying in their garish makeup, and Abbey realizes why some people are afraid of them. One tall clown with an evil face is especially haunting, and when Abbey’s two friends go missing, she’s afraid the tall ghost has captured them. Meanwhile, clowns visible only to her march past her classroom door at her new school in Woodbury.

With the help of her new friend Max, Abbey must return to the circus and face the clowns, dead or not.

When Abbey isn’t fending off ghosts, she plays soccer. Evans writes vividly about her team’s games, which show that the girls can be as physical and tough as the boys on the field, even when they’re covered in mud.

Evans, the son of Twin Cities jazz musician Doc Evans, gives credit to John Sandford (John Camp) for inspiring him to begin writing because of Sandford’s “brilliant storytelling.” Evans is also author of “Killer Blonde.”

He will sign copies of “Class Clown” from 10 to 11:30 a.m. Aug. 26 at Lake Country Booksellers, 4766 Washington Square, White Bear Lake.

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