Monthly Archives: January 2011

An otherwise beautiful day on Longboat Key

“Bitter Legacy,” by H. Terrell Griffin. Oceanview Publishing. 360 pages. $25.95.

H. Terrell Griffin continues his Matt Royal mystery series with a stunning thriller in which uncompromising evil and equally uncompromising courage meet in a fight to the finish. Along the tale’s violent way, Mr. Griffin explores a little-known aspect of Florida’s history involving Black Seminoles. Though it’s not clear at first, what’s at stake is control over a phosphate mining empire. What’s Matt got to do with it? Well, almost nothing – but others think he does. Clearly, someone is after Matt and his good friend Logan Hamilton, as shots ring out on an otherwise beautiful day on Longboat Key.

Involved in the investigation is Longboat Key police chief Bill Lester, who actually hears the crack of the rifle and sees Logan fall on a downtown Sarasota street. A large book stuffed in Logan’s inside jacket pocket blocks the bullet. Logan’s pal, retired lawyer Matt Royal, returns from a week’s boating dalliance with a lady friend to find out about Logan’s mishap and soon enough to discover that he, too, is a target.

A piece of the novel’s action takes place in and around a fictitious small Collier County town, Belleville, where a poorly-skilled lawyer, Jason Blackmore, is assassinated. Readers learn that Blackmore had referred a man named Abraham Osceola to Matt Royal, who in fact had met him before on Key West. Now some of the bits and pieces of information that Griffin parcels out begin to make tenuous connections. Abraham Osceola is a “Black Seminole,” returned from his people’s settlement in exile on Andros Island in the Bahamas to make a case for their ownership of extensive mineral rights in Florida. There are hints about an old document that supports this claim.

To enjoy this review in its entirety, as it appears in the January 12-18, 2011 issue of the Fort Myers Florida Weekly, and in the Naples and Palm Beach Gardens editions for January 20-26, click here: Florida Weekly – H. Terrell Griffin

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The Hidden World of Everglades City

“Hidden History of Everglades City & Points Nearby,” by Maureen Sullivan-Hartung. History Press. 128 pages. $19.99.

Local and regional histories have come into vogue in recent years, especially those that savor and save a vanishing or already vanished way of life. It’s clear that Maureen Sullivan-Hartung loves her topic, and her industry in seeking out the facts, tales, and personalities of the Everglades City area is commendable. As both a freelance writer and as a reporter for the “Everglades Echo,” the author has developed a keen sense of where the story lies. The individual portions of the book – in many cases originally periodical pieces – are usually well-shaped; however, they haven’t always been recast to flow smoothly into one another, nor are they arranged for maximum effect. The whole is somewhat less than the sum of its parts, but one can savor the parts. 

The book begins with a history of the Everglades City area (once called “Everglade”), figured as “Florida’s Last Frontier.” This introductory section underscores the importance of the key player in the region’s history, Barron Gift Collier, and his leadership role in making development of what became Collier County possible through building a major stretch of the Tamiami Trail. The author details this major engineering feat, recognizing the talents of David Graham Copeland. Ms. Sullivan-Hartung’s descriptions of the construction equipment are impressive, as is her discussion of law and order taming a frontier society.

She continues to draw the history of the city proper through an examination of its major buildings, their genesis and changing uses. Along the way, readers are introduced to prominent families and businesses, to significant events, and to a way of life in transition. Portraits of pioneers and colorful characters give humor and flavor to the reader’s journey. The section on “Harriet Bedell, Deaconess of the Everglades” is particularly intriguing.

In a chapter on special events, Ms. Sullivan-Hartung pays attention to the annual Seafood Festival, the dedication of Everglades National Park, the visits of Hollywood filmmakers to the Everglades City environs, the impact of several major hurricanes, and the curtailing of the illegal “square grouper” (marijuana) industry by the Drug Enforcement Administration. The author offers a great deal of variety as she builds our understanding of Southwest Florida’s fringe.

To read this view in its entirety, as it appears in the January 5-11 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the January 6-12 Naples and Port Charlotte/Punta Gorda editions, click here: Florida Weekly – Sullivan-Hartung pdf

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Phil’s 2010 Top Picks

Phil’s 2010 Top Picks

 The following titles, which I prefer to list without ranking, are my top picks among those published in 2010 that I reviewed during 2010. It would be easy to find room for another 5-6 fiction titles (I truly enjoyed and admired recent titles by Jonathon King, Kris Radish, Julie Compton, Chris Kuzneski, Kristy Kiernan, and Bob Morris), but I’m staying with the 10 selected.

Because I review far fewer nonfiction titles than fiction, I’ve made this list a “top 8.” The first two lists reflect my favorites among the trade publications that I reviewed.

Separately, I’ve listed 3 self-published titles that seem to me especially worthy of notice.

FICTION [trade]

Julie Orringer, The Invisible Bridge

Lisa Unger, Fragile

Randy Wayne White, Deep Shadow

William Heffernan, The Dead Detective

Robert Macomber, The Darkest Shade of Honor

Allegra Goodman, The Cookbook Collector

*James Lee Burke, The Glass Rainbow

Connie May Fowler, How Clarissa Burden Learned to Fly

Michael Lister, The Body and the Blood

Susan Hubbard, The Season of Risks


Rodger Kamenetz, Burnt Books

*Anna Lillios, Crossing the Creek

Doug Alderson, Encounters with Florida’s Endangered Wildlife

Michael Hirsh, The Liberators

Dorothy Seymour Mills, Chasing Baseball

Benjamin Balint, Running Commentary

*Ron Ellis, ed., In That Sweet Country: Uncollected Writings of Harry Middleton

Lu Vickers, Cypress Gardens, American’s Tropical Wonderland


Robert Hilliard, Phillipa

Lander Duncan, Children of Secrets

Saul Cooperman, Eddie and Me

For all but three of these titles, reviews are available via this web site. Just type author or title in search box on sidebar.  *Titles reviewed in – see link on sidebar.

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William Heffernan’s detective attends to the dead

“The Dead Detective,” by William Heffernan. Akashic Books. 340 pages. $24.95.

William Heffernan’s Harry Doyle is a hard-boiled, no-nonsense police detective with a spiritual side and a powerful sense of mission. Some say that dead speak to him, and Doyle doesn’t deny it. After all, he was dead once himself – murdered at age ten, along with his younger brother, by a lunatic mother who thought her sons needed the benefits of the heavenly hereafter. Technically, if briefly, gone from this world, Harry Doyle was miraculously resuscitated. In part due to his testimony, Doyle’s mother was locked up for life. The boy was adopted by the loving couple who had become his foster parents, taking their last name. 

The present time of the story is two decades later. Doyle is a detective with the Pinellas County (Tampa area) Sheriff’s Department tasked with examining the homicide of Darlene Beckett. The victim, a gorgeous young woman, was herself recently a perpetrator. Because her victim did not wish to testify, she was able to receive a light sentence for sexual assault of a minor, a fourteen year old boy who was a student in Beckett’s middle school health class. Her sentence included three years of wearing an ankle monitor, but no actual jail time. Many outraged people felt she deserved a much harsher punishment. Would they take matters into their own hands?

Doyle and his colleagues find Beckett’s body seductively posed with the word “evil” cut into her forehead. Though she had bled out from her throat being sliced through, there was no blood pool where the body was discovered, suggesting that Beckett had been murdered elsewhere and then moved.

The case, investigated by Doyle and his team under great political pressure, is conducted (and narrated) with careful attention to procedural detail. Mr. Heffernan is able to fashion the procedural trail so that it is not only authoritative and authentic, but also intriguing and suspenseful.

The range of suspects includes the boy’s parents and members of the church they belonged to, many of whom seem ready to take the Lord’s retribution into their own hands. They have been urged on by the church’s head minister, who has used his pulpit to stir them up. Additionally, the minister’s son, a young man with a juvenile police record, has been one of Darlene Beckett’s playthings and may have his own motives. Another of Beckett’s bedmates is a would-be Lothario policeman soon removed from working on the case. Altered police records point a finger at him.

Harry Doyle and his new partner, the sharp and shapely Vicky Stanopolous, lead the investigation, with the help of an eager young deputy named Jim Morgan. However, something else is on Doyle’s mind. His mother is up for parole after twenty years in prison, and Doyle is determined that she be kept behind bars. His own testimony will be part of the parole hearing.

To read this review (with interview)  in its entirety, as it appears in the Naples (Dec. 30, 2010), Fort Myers (Dec. 29), and Port Charlotte/Punta Gorda (Dec. 30) editions of Florida Weekly, click here: Florida Weekly – William Heffernan pdf

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Jonathon King’s “Max Freeman” series continues to excel

Midnight Guardians, by Jonathon King. Open Road. E-book. $9.99.

This sixth and newest novel in Jonathon King’s “Max Freeman” series picks up in the wake of Max’s girlfriend’s crippling injury. Broward County Sheriff’s Office Detective Sherry Richards’ loss of a leg is something about which Max can’t help but feel responsible (see Acts of Nature in which the calamity occurs), and he is doing all he can to redeem himself and assist in the psychological healing that Sherry needs. Not that she admits to any needs. An independent and courageous woman, she is struggling to get on with her life, which means mainly her job. Stubbornly refusing assistance as much as she possibly can, Sherry makes it difficult for Max to know how to do and say the right things to nourish their relationship. 

She has taken on the assignment of counseling Marty Booker, a fellow officer who just lost both legs in what seemed to be a routine traffic stop. However, it turns out the Booker might have been set up – possibly for even more than the double-amputation.

Meanwhile, Max’s old Philadelphia friend and principal employer, well-healed attorney Billy Manchester, has something for Max to investigate. Billy’s client, Luz Carmen, is a young woman who works for a medical equipment supplier that she suspects is involved in Medicare and Medicaid fraud. She feels certain that her younger brother, Andres, has been drawn into the gang that is making the false medical claims. She wants to save Andres, who is essentially a delivery boy, while bringing the masterminds to justice. Though Luz had insisted on seeking a safe place to discuss this matter, she and Max barely escape being victims of a drive-by shooting. Was it just a prank? Or was someone following Luz?

Billy insists that Max keep an eye on her.

Jonathon King

Through the device of having several chapters explore the thoughts of Marty Booker, Mr. King offers another center of interest and also a series of steps to the realization that rogue policemen are in on dealing and abusing illegal drugs. A shadowy fellow nick-named the Brown Man, with whom Max has had past encounters, is found to be straddling the criminal world, moving from the drug trade to  the more white collar fraud enterprise. Marty had been trying to separate himself from the steroid-using police gang before his “accident.”

To read this review in its entirety, as it appears in the December 22-28, 2010 issue of the Fort Myers Florida Weekly and in the December 23-29 issue of the Naples edition, click here: Florida Weekly – Jonathon King pdf

[only the Naples edition carries the additional material on e-book publication]

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Julie Orringer’s Bridge of Words

This review appears in the January 2011 issues of Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Collier County, Florida) and L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee & Charlotte Counties).

The Invisible Bridge, by Julie Orringer.  Knopf. 624 pages. $26.95 [e-book and paperback available]

Though some critics have felt that the plot of this remarkable novel is overly contrived, I was willing to give it a break. Given its romantic elements and its concern with human destiny, the coincidences that drive the plot did not seem out of bounds. Besides, the book has so many strengths that a bit of contrivance can be forgiven. 

In dealing with Hungarian Jews living in France and then back in Hungary during WWII, and in taking us through the foreshadowing, onset, and full madness of The Holocaust in those settings and several others, Orringer does an exceptional job on many levels. She manages a wide scope of events and characters, keeping our attention on the smaller story of the key players and families while suggesting and often elaborating the larger story – the enormity of the forces that at once surround them and permeate them. Orringer’s ability to perform meticulous historical research and then refashion it into action and emotion is astounding. Her portraits of places are always richly detailed and authentic; more than merely giving us the sensory realm her characters move through, Julie Orringer reaches for and conjures the intangible, atmospherics of a place – its very spirit and soul.

The love affair between a naïve architecture student, Andras, and a somewhat older and more worldly dance instructor, Klara, is told with boldness and nuance. The young man, against all odds, has somehow been able to leave Hungary and enter a respected institute in Paris. The thirtyish woman, with a daughter old enough to be the student’s girl friend, is also Hungarian. She has been living in Parisian exile for reasons that have to do with her past. Orringer manages the ways in which their relationship builds, ebbs, and flows with great mastery of the processes of the heart.

Eventually, both must return to Hungary – just when Hungary is increasingly subject to Hitler’s sway. The young man is impressed into a Jewish forced labor unit that supports the Hungarian army. The woman and her family struggle through the extreme deprivations of a city under siege, while the man is literally enslaved. Orringer’s descriptions of the physical tortures that the youth endures through frozen, virtually foodless months are harrowing. Andras is reduced to being a beast of burden, and then reduced to less than that. Klara’s anguish is physically less severe, but the psychological torment of both is profoundly agonizing.

Orringer is at her best in showing how each of the two major characters, the lovers, is measured against the other. In lives so beaten down, in situations so desperate, can there be a spark that allows a relationship to flourish on any level? When you are numb, exhausted, bewildered, dehumanized – can you still care and still give? The author weaves these questions through scenes of despair and hope.

The Invisible Bridge, a book of epic scope and power, redeems its horrifying subject matter with astonishing compassion and literary grace. For obvious reasons, including its length, it is sometimes a difficult book to keep reading. However, stay with it. The arduous journey has many rewards.

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