Monthly Archives: March 2011

Who knows what evil lurks at a garage sale?

“Garage Sale Stalker,” by Suzi Weinert. Barringer Publishing.  352 pages. $15.95.

Jennifer Shannon is an inveterate garage sale junkie. She loves to discover a hidden treasure, either for herself or as a gift. An organized bargain-hunter with a detailed calendar outlining her efficient shopping schedule, Jennifer brings along batteries, light bulbs, and whatever else might be needed to test a possible purchase before making a deal. Her white Cadillac crossover SUV is well-traveled throughout McLean, Virginia, an affluent suburb of Washington, D. C. She works her territory like a pro. 

Jennifer is by nature a people-watcher. She gives her fellow shoppers nicknames that label their behavior in the rough-and-tumble world of garage or yard or estate sales. Shrewd and energetic, mostly she is observant. She doesn’t miss much. And that is how she happens to discover that recent newspaper notices of property thefts at certain addresses match up with dates of garage sales she has attended at those same homes. Someone is going to garage sales in order to “case the joint” and return soon after to make off with treasures that were not for sale. She convinces a police officer that there is something here to investigate.

Before long, Jennifer and detective Adam Iverson are almost partners in an investigation that leads in unexpected directions. The suspect is not just a thief, but a man who was an abused child and has become an abuser in turn; indeed, he is a programmatic and audacious serial killer. Once he learns that Jennifer is interfering with his schemes and twisted desires, he is driven to punish her, to put an end to her meddling – and perhaps put an end to her. Ruger Yates is a truly monstrous villain, and Ms. Weinert’s ability to enter his mind provides one of the book’s great strengths.

Suzi Weinert carefully builds suspense and understanding of her characters in this well-turned first novel that teaches while it entertains. The author addresses the classic nature-nurture dichotomy as she, through her protagonist, explores the wellsprings of personality and behavior. Readers receive a course in the garage sale as a revealing slice of American culture and ritual. The author handles police procedures and medical matters with believable authority.

Suzi at work

Romance? Well, there’s that too as one of Jennifer’s daughters becomes enamored with Detective Iverson, who is mightily smitten himself.

How did the publication of this chilling thriller come about? Three talented people who reside in Naples meet a forum that puts authors, publishers, and agents together.

To read this review in its entirety, as it appears in the March 16, 2011 issue of Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the March 17 issue of Naples Florida Weekly, click here: Florida Weekly – Suzi Weinert

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Velva Jean Learns to Drive, by Jennifer Niven

Jennifer Niven has fashioned a delightful and probing fiction set in the remote Appalachian communities of North Carolina. We first encounter the title character, Velva Jean Hart, in 1933. She is a ten year old whose mind is beginning to turn toward serious things, like being saved at the annual Three Gum Revival and Camp Meeting. Velva Jean’s sense of herself as a sinner ready to turn a page in her spiritual life is set against her aspiration of going to Nashville to become a star performer at the Grand Ole Opry. She wonders if she can be saved and yet fulfill her dreams. As Jennifer Niven explores the next eight years of her protagonist’s life, the intersection of the sacred and the profane is the author’s moving thematic target.

Niven’s exploration of the revivalist religious dimension in the isolated and Depression-plagued mountain south is powerful, as is her evocation of family and community feeling. In a place with few paved roads and few cars, the mountain walls seem to imprison and protect the people who dwell there. Folkways and local superstitions collide with other kinds of private, public, and communal identity markers. Change comes slowly, but sometimes that change is momentous.

In an economy based on mining and moonshine, the coming of a major highway that will link the mountaintops presents, to some, a sense of opportunity and wonder. To others, it is a threat, an invasion, an intrusion of outer forces on a settled lifestyle. For Velva Jean, the road promises a future, a means to fulfill her dreams.

But she’ll have to learn how to drive.

The link given below will take you to the full text of the most recent of my several reviews for Southern Literary Review. Others can be found via the link on the menu bar to the right.

Velva Jean Learns to Drive, by Jennifer Niven –

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A tale of high tension in today’s Turkey

“Snow on the Golden Horn,” by Walt Breede. AuthorHouse. 228 pages. $14.90 hardback, $9.90 paperback.

While asking readers to accept more than the usual amount of improbabilities and questions of motive, first-time novelist Walt Breede has fashioned a rousing story of international intrigue and mayhem. What is unusual and charming in this retired Marine officer’s book is how he blends an idyllic portrait of American small town family life with a harrowing tale of abduction, chicanery in the art world, Turkish delights and menaces, and Russian Mafia operations. 

Mr. Breede’s protagonist is Alan Llewellyn, like the author a retired Marine officer who is enjoying life as a high school mathematics teacher and coach. As a sideline, Alan hires out as a mathematics consultant. His family life is enviable, his professional life is satisfying. His military background, including years stationed in Turkey, is a receding pool of memories. Unexpectedly, one of his consulting clients, defense contractor Sam Whelan, asks him to accept an unusual assignment. 

Sam Whelan’s younger sister Andrea, an artist whose reputation is on the upswing, has disappeared from her home just outside of New York. Sam asks Alan to provide a mathematical estimate, based on available facts, of where she is likely to be. And he offers him plenty of money to do it. Overcoming his reservations about taking time away from his family, Alan, the narrator of the chapters in which he appears, accepts.

In alternate chapters narrated in the third person, Mr. Breede allows readers to follow Andrea Whelan’s situation. We witness her abduction to Istanbul where she is essentially imprisoned in luxury and offered a great opportunity that she literally can’t refuse. A major art dealership with wealthy clients wants her to create original artworks to order. Their customers will pay astounding prices. In addition, Andrea is asked to make copies of other artists’ works which she is assured will be sold as copies and not forgeries. Hmmm. Where can it go from here? Andrea is worried.

Alan’s early explorations and calculations suggest that there is a 60% chance that Andrea is now in Turkey. After a detective Sam hires to investigate further produces no useful result, he persuades Alan to take the next step and assume the investigator role. The price is right, and after Alan assures his wife and daughter that everything will be okay, he arranges trips to Turkey that will not cut into his school responsibilities. More and more, Alan draws upon his military experience and skills to pursue the facts and find Andrea.

To read this review in its entirety, as it appears in all four editions of the Florida Weekly for March 9/10, 2011, click here: Florida Weekly – Walt Breede.

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Explore lower SW Florida with Chelle Koster Walton

“Sarasota, Sanibel Island & Naples,” by Chelle Koster Walton. 5th edition. The Countryman Press. 335 pages. $19.95.

It’s important to say “5th edition” because Chelle Koster Walton produces and updates travel guides more frequently than she updates her own web pages to tell us about them. She is a marvel of the travel writing profession in skill, flair, and industry. This handsome new edition is informationally dazzling, attractively designed, and thoroughly engaging. I wouldn’t buy any other. While its range and amount of detail at first might seem intimidating, this book is remarkably user-friendly. 

Ms. Walton has conceived of a simple plan to contain the wide-ranging materials that her guide to subtropical Southwest Florida gathers together. She begins with several brief introductory sections that give readers an overview of the region and help them find their way around. At conferences, we would call this the orientation session. It’s like getting your feet wet before jumping into the gulf waters. Indeed, the first fifty-page section constitutes an abbreviated guidebook in itself.

Then the fun really begins. Ms. Walton divides the region into four distinct territories: “Sarasota Bay Coast,” “Charlotte Harbor Coast,” “Sanibel Island & the Fort Myers Coast,” and “Naples & the South Coast.” Readers can travel with her from north to south, or they can jump to their territory of interest. In each of these four chapters, the author strives to make cultural and life-style distinctions that are serviceable to travelers, her principal audience; but they are equally serviceable to people looking for a second home, a retirement home, or simply a place to move and raise a family.

Each of these four central chapters is launched with a map and an overview, followed by the listings of places of interest. Ms. Walton emphasizes the special flavor of various communities, places of architectural and historical interest, destinations for families with kids, outdoor facilities and activities, and the expected array of lodgings and restaurants. Her selections and descriptions are ample, clear, and thoughtful. Some are even surprising.

Chelle Koster Walton

Throughout, the author uses graphic symbols to indicate the special features of an entry: places that specialize in weddings, places she considers as providing special value, places that accept pets, places of special appeal to kids, and those that provide handicapped access and wireless internet access.

Are you interested in live theater? Historic monuments? Boating? Shelling? Nightlife? Specialty restaurants and shopping? Art galleries and museums? Chelle Koster Walton will help you find what you are looking for, assess it, and get you there. Each entry not only provides the expected telephone number, but also gives the internet address that will lead to more information.

To read this review in its entirety, as it appears in the Fort Myers Florida Weekly for February 23, 2011 and the Naples Florida Weekly for March 3, click here: Florida Weekly – Chelle Koster Walton.

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Nancy J. Cohen heads Naples Writers’ Conference

To see this article as it appears in the March-April 2011 issue of Fort Myers Magazine, click here: Ft.Myers magazine – Nancy J. Cohen

When Nancy J. Cohen retired from her first career as a clinical nurse specialist in order to write full-time, she continued keeping people in stitches. This witty writer, who had earned a bachelor’s degree in nursing from the University of Rochester and a master’s degree from the University of California in San Francisco, knows that vicarious adventure and the release of laughter are effective cures for what ails us.

Cohen’s most recent title, Silver Serenade, is a smashing good combination of two genres: romance and science fiction. Two highly motivated, extremely able, and extremely attractive characters have goals that both intersect and interfere. Jace Vernon, a young leader from the domain of Kurash, has been charged with the murder of his parents. Jace needs to bring the intergalactic plunderer, Tyrone Bluth, to justice so that his name can be cleared and his ancestral estate restored.  Government security agent Silver Malloy, an Earthling, has been tasked with the assassination of Bluth, but her motives are highly personal as well as official. 

Cohen manages the novel so that the missions of the two dynamic figures bring them into conflict even as an all-consuming passion draws them together. Jace cannot clear his name and prove that his own cousin had plotted the murders and framed him if Bluth does not live to testify. Silver cannot allow anything to interfere with her monomania about ending Bluth’s life as soon as she can. Jace and Silver are suspicious of one another, but form an uneasy, fragile alliance – one that is complicated by the magnetic attraction each has for the other.

They are both suffering from overwhelming personal losses. As Ms. Cohen puts it, “They both carried around enough emotional baggage to fill a cargo hold.”

The author draws a fascinating world of intergalactic politics, futuristic technologies, and clashing moral priorities. She also paints a delicious cast of secondary characters – a population drawn from the variegated worlds that intersect in her plot.

Principal among these is Mixy, the Elusian, who is bonded to Jace as his valet. Elusians, who have essentially emotionless lives, are programmed to bond with species whose emotional dimension is powerful. This bonding is not physical, but psycho-spiritual. Their garments absorb and reflect emotional waves from those to whom the Elusians are bonded, signaling the emotions by changing colors. Elusians have a kind of telepathic awareness of emotion – and they can magnify and retransmit it.

This characteristic provides a paranormal dimension to the novel, a dimension that links Silver Serenade to Cohen’s earliest books, written under the pen name of Nancy Cane. It also provides, in this novel, a good deal of comic relief, as the guarded feelings that Jace and Silver have for one another are vividly revealed through the warmer colors radiating from Mixy’s garments, creating some embarrassment. Mixy, appearance-conscious and finicky, is a delightful, over-the-top comic character who is almost unbearably loyal.

The sex scenes between Jace and Silver are hot and heavy, but in themselves do not resolve the issues of trust, respect, and conflicting loyalties. Nancy J. Cohen teases the readers along to see if Jace and Silver can each achieve mission success without abandoning the growing need each has for the other, and if the need transcends physical attraction.

But wait, isn’t Nancy J. Cohen the author we know from her popular “Bad Hair Day” series? The series with the catchy titles like Died Blonde, Highlights to Heaven, and Permed to Death? The series whose protagonist, hairdresser Marla Shore, gets caught up in crime-solving in South Florida’s resort towns while building her relationship with detective Dalton Vail? Yes, she’s the one. Cohen packs mystery, humor, popular culture, and plenty of attitude into this delightful series, and several of these books have been listed as best sellers by the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association. Her next “Bad Hair Day” mystery, Shear Murder, will appear early in 2012 from Five Star Publications.

Nancy J. Cohen knows her worlds well, both the complex, imagined worlds of outer space, which she draws with sure-handed detail, or the more familiar worlds of the beauty shop and the sunshine state. Just as important, she knows how to craft plots, develop characters, and – what it all adds up to – satisfy her readers.

Aspiring writers can learn a lot from this talented and successful writer, who is also well-known for giving her time to writers’ organizations and speaking at conferences. She has served as President of Florida Romance Writers, and as Secretary for the Florida Chapter of Mystery Writers of America. 

Nancy J. Cohen

On April 9 and 10, Nancy J. Cohen will be featured at the Naples Press Club’s 9th annual Writers’ Conference / Authors and Books Festival. On April 9, she will be giving a keynote address at the Celebrity Author Luncheon, to be held at Vergina Restaurant on Fifth Avenue South. Cohen will discuss the digital devices that promise to morph tomorrow’s reading—and publishing—experiences. She’ll also delight and entertain attendees with anecdotes from her writing life.

On the morning of April 10, Ms. Cohen will present “Writing Fiction for Fun and Profit” as part of the Writers’ Conference.

Other Conference presenters include fantasy author Sandy Lender (conference chair); forensic mystery novelist Lisa Black; marketing guru Randy Jones; financial news reporter and editor Lawrence J. DeMaria; Diane Gilbert Madsen, author of the “Literati Mysteries” series and fact-checking expert;  and Zachary Petit, managing editor of Writers’ Digest.

Conference sessions will separate into three tracks: “Business and Marketing,“ “Creative Writing,” and “Journalism.” However, conferees will be able to switch from one track to another. A selected number of conferees will be able to schedule pitch sessions with representatives of Barringer Publications and Night Wolf Publications.

Registration for both the Luncheon and the Conference can be achieved by clicking on the Naples Writers’ Conference tab on the website

Authors and publishers who wish to exhibit during the book fair along Fifth Avenue South on April 9, should check out the information on the same website and register via the Authors and Books Festival tab. [Note: exhibitor registration is now closed.]

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Sisterhood, Sizes, and Secrets

This review appears in the March 2011 issues of the Jewish Federation of Collier County’s Federation Star and in L’Chayim, published by the Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte Counties (Florida)

Sima’s Undergarments for Women, by Ilana Stanger-Ross. Penguin.   336 pages. $15 paperback.

We all know the old saying about how those who can’t do something end up teaching it. This bit of folk wisdom applies to Sima Goldner, a woman who can neither enjoy her own body nor forgive its inadequacies. Nonetheless, Sima can run a successful garment shop in the basement of her home, offering a lingerie specialty along with enthusiastic advice for the women who shop there. She helps them accept and enjoy their own bodies, even though she has almost abandoned our own.

Readers learn that the tragedy of Sima’s life is her barrenness. Unable to have children, Sima has never been able to fully share and release her grief – even with her husband, Lev. This buried wound has deadened her marriage and her bodily self. Her loss has been sublimated into her art as a nurturing confidante whose tiny shop is a magical, sacred place where women can receive a perfect fit and share their secrets. Ironically, Sima’s real three-decade business is dealing in intimacies, not merely in intimate apparel. 

A non-observant but Jewishly knowledgeable outsider in an Orthodox Brooklyn neighborhood, Sima has somehow made herself necessary – central, in fact – to the lives of the women who arrive for one or another kind of uplift. But something is always missing for Sima.

The hope for fulfillment comes in the beautiful form of a young Israeli woman who takes a job in Sima’s shop. Timna is the seamstress that Sima needs and also the exemplar of a woman comfortable in her own skin. Sima finds in Timna a second chance. Sima knows that the impulse is irrational, but can’t she sort of adopt Timna as her own daughter? Give her love and advice? Redeem herself in a relationship that has already changed her inner world, allowing her to meet each new day with eagerness and excitement?

Sima at once idealizes and worries about Timna. She is frustrated that Timna’s personal revelations are sketchy. With Stanger-Ross’s readers, Sima learns that Timna doesn’t get along well with her mother. The young woman breaks off her long-time relationship with her boyfriend, to Sima’s dismay. With Sima’s encouragement, Timna is makes new friends and ventures into new experiences, but Sima does not trust Timna’s choices. 

Though seemingly open and outgoing, in her own way Timna is as guarded as Sima. Because readers are never permitted to enter Timna’s mind, they can only guess, as does Sima, about Timna’s motives, her character, and her secrets.

The relationship between the older and younger woman evolves through many curious twists and turns, ups and downs. On more than one occasion, Sima spies on Timna, shadowing Timna’s journey home and elsewhere, taking us along into the wider world of Jewish Brooklyn and even into Manhattan.

In chapters titled with the names of nine months, from August through April, Stanger-Ross projects a metaphor of gestation, with a Passover seder signaling a remarkable harvest of new beginnings.

Ms. Stanger-Ross has produced an exceptionally rich first novel. Wise in its insights into relationships, the borderlines between privacy and sharing, and the possible outcomes of second chances, Sima’s Undergarments for Women provides comedy and pathos in equal parts. The splendid, pitch-perfect dialogue and evocative imagery rank high among the book’s many pleasures. The microcosm of the lingerie shop is in itself a stroke of genius, and the author has fully realized its potential.

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A fateful mission, a powerful vision

“Night Vision,” by Randy Wayne White. Putnam. 368 pages. $25.95.

In the 18th installment of Randy Wayne White’s Doc Ford mystery series, the artistic stakes are higher than they’ve ever been. The rich amalgam of sensibilities that the author has fused together raises his new novel several notches above the genre expectations that Mr. White has always satisfied with cunning and passion. His portrait of a Guatemalan girl on the edge of adolescence, a true believer on a fateful mission, is startling and emotionally stirring. It is also spiritually uplifting. “Night Vision” goes way beyond tough guy action (Ford is the only cerebral marine biologist action figure you’re ever likely to meet), yet there is plenty of that, too. 

In a squalid Southwest Florida mobile home park called Red Citrus, a young girl named Tula witnesses the park manager dumping a corpse into a polluted lake.  The man, Harris Squires, is a steroid junky body-builder and all-around creep, and his girlfriend Frankie is even worse. Together, they run a steroid brew factory and are involved with several other criminal enterprises including prostitution, snuff flicks, and human trafficking. Squires knows that Tula has seen him, and he needs to silence her.

Tula has traveled on her own from Guatemala hoping to find her mother and other relatives. She is convinced that their decision to fracture family life for the illusion of financial betterment has been misguided. She wants to bring them home, restore them to themselves. A wise, disciplined, worshipful young person, Tula believes that she receives advice and direction for Joan of Arc, her patron saint.  Tula’s magnetic personal power affects those around her; she immediately becomes a spiritual guide to other Red Citrus residents, especially those who share her Mayan ancestry. Many feel that Tula herself is a saint.

Tula is befriended by Doc Ford’s close buddy Tomlinson, and both of them become involved in an effort to rescue her once Squires has stolen her away. The main plot describes this rescue effort, the menacing criminal underworld with which Squires is associated, the Hispanic immigrant communities in Southwest Florida (especially Immokalee), and a new romantic interest for Ford . 

Randy Wayne White by Wendy Webb

Doc Ford has to apply all his skills as a well-trained undercover agent and assassin to put down the bad guys and rescue Tula. Just how he does it – the technical details, the adrenalin firepower, and the ferocious imagery – is what keeps readers glued to Mr. White’s words.

In each of Doc Ford’s recent adventures, Randy Wayne White has portrayed a man who is increasingly thoughtful and increasingly self-aware. Also, Ford sensibilities are continually being broadened and deepened. These aspects of characterization complement the high-energy, literally explosive action that never misfires.

To read this review in its entirety, as it appears in the February 16, 2011 issue of Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the February 17 issue of Naples Florida Weekly, click here: Florida Weekly – Randy Wayne White 2

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