Monthly Archives: March 2012

Murder and mystery in the Missisippi Delta

Plunder, by Mary Anna Evans. Poisoned Pen Press. 306 pages. $24.95 hardback, $14.95 trade paper.

This latest adventure of Ms. Evans’ protagonist, archaeologist Faye Longchamp, has many centers of interest. Faye is at work in the area where the Mississippi River empties into the Gulf of Mexico. That is, she is in Louisiana not far from New Orleans. Her client, a major environmental firm, has asked her to perform a routine archaeological survey. However, it is no longer quite so routine, as the Deepwater Horizon crisis, with crude oil approaching the Gulf coast, amplifies the urgency of the survey many times over. 

Mary Anna Evans

Faye, accompanied by her husband (Native American Joe Mantooth) and their one-year old son, is drawn into a strange situation that involves a teenager, Amande, whose grandmother and uncle are suddenly murdered. These murders occur soon after Amande’s mother, who had abandoned her to the grandmother’s care, dies of illness. Inheritance vultures are circling, but just what is it that is at stake? These are extremely poor people, though hardly salt-of-the-earth types.

What ties the murders and the jockeying for inheritance claims and the positioning for guardianship rights together?

It can’t be just the houseboat that Amande has lived on with her grandmother, or the few pieces of old coins and other relics that Amande has collected. No. There must be much more.

And there is: sunken treasure from the days when pirates roamed and sometimes ruled. Amande has an inheritance share of a small island that might be a key to finding and claiming those treasures.

Is the murderer eliminating other heirs? Is Amande in jeopardy? What can Faye and Joe do to protect this young woman whom, soon after meeting her, they greatly admire and respect – even love?

The novel’s ongoing present involves a race toward the resolution of these questions, a race accelerated by the enormous, spreading oil catastrophe that is threatening to foul the waters and the coastline. It represents a different kind of plunder and a different kind of piracy. How different, asks Mary Anna Evans, is pirate greed from petroleum greed? Who or what must die when plunderers battle to extract the riches of the New World?

The readers of Plunder will learn a great deal about the history of the Mississippi Delta region and about the unique weave of cultural strands that characterize it today. In addition, reading Ms. Evans’ series is an ongoing lesson in archaeology.

Special attractions in “Plunder” include the exquisite characterization of young Amande. Few sixteen year olds face her predicament of isolation and threat, and few show her maturity, her resourcefulness, and her determination. We can see why Faye and Joe want to help her. . . .

To read this review in its entirety, as it appears in the Naples Florida Weekly for March 22, 2012 and the Fort Myers edition for March 28, click here: Florida Weekly – Mary Anna Evans pdf

This review also appears in Southern Literary Review: “Plunder,” by Mary Anna Evans

See also:

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Spring and Summer Florida Writers’ Events

The 3rd Annual University of Central Florida Book Festival
will be held on March 31st, 2012

Join us for one of Florida’s premier literary events, featuring renowned national and local authors, book signings and sales, exhibits, book appraisals, and special children’s activities.


 Florida Writers’ Association Spring Mini Conference                                          
On Saturday April 21, 2012, ten speakers will be presenting at the Altamonte Chapel, 825 E. Altamonte Drive (Route 436) in Altamonte Springs, FL 32701.

 Cost:  $59 for FWA members ($79 for non-members)  Click here to register online or by sending a check payable to FWA to Chrissy Jackson, President, P.O. Box 66069, St. Pete Beach, FL 33736- 6069. 

  NY Times Best Selling author, Tim Dorsey, will be the keynote speaker! Tim’s wildly successful stories of Serge and Coleman crisscross historical Florida sites as their adventures unfold.

For more information – please click here to download our FWA Spring Mini Conference Flyer.


Tallahassee Book Festival and Writers Conference

Holiday Inn and Monroe St. Conference Center

May 4-6, 2012


Fifth Annual
Florida Heritage Book Festival
and Writers Conference

September 13-15, 2012


The 12th Annual
Gulf Coast Writers Conference

Featuring John Dufresne

Saturday, September 17th, 2011
9:00 A.M. — 5:00 P.M. (Saturday)


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Three Catholic cardinals spur a sea change in religious history

“Cushing, Spellman, O’Connor: The Surprising Story of How Three American Cardinals Transformed Catholic-Jewish Relations,” by Rabbi James Rudin. Eerdmans. 157 pages. $18.00.

Rabbi James Rudin provides a well-researched yet easily accessible insider’s view on the how the Second Vatican Council’s statement against anti-Semitism came into being. In particular, he underscores the roles of two Influential men – Cushing and Spellman – in gaining support for the transformative “Nostra Aetate” document that finally became official Vatican policy in 1965. 

Rabbi Rudin prepares for his main narrative by backgrounding the history of Jewish-Catholic relationships over the centuries. In so doing he details the two major stumbling blocks to accommodation. One was the promulgation of the concept that Christianity, rooted in the covenant of the New Testament, rendered the Israelite covenant with the one God obsolete and irrelevant. The “replacement theology” that made Christianity spiritually the New Israel and the only path to redemption could never create harmonious relationships with a people who continued, in spite of all forces turned against it, to maintain itself as a viable, powerful faith tradition.

The second was the inherited view, based on faulty history, that the Jews were Christ-killers.

The author shows how both of these concepts nourished anti-Semitism and possibly even fed the flames of hatred that culminated in the Holocaust.

His detailed biographies of the theologically conservative Richard James Cushing and Francis Joseph Spellman, contemporaries with very different personalities, help Rabbi Rudin explain how each man prepared himself to take advantage of a moment in history at which their personal power, political influence, and largely unexpected commitment to a new vision could bring forth a strong majority vote in favor of the “Declaration on Jews and Judaism” that concluded the Second Vatican Council.

Rabbi James Rudin

Of particular interest is Rabbi Rudin’s section on “The Art of Romanita” in his biography of Cardinal Spellman. He defines this term “as the art of subtly bestowing personal favors to cement friendships” which later could be “converted into influence for the individuals who had provided the favors.” Rabbi Rudin writes, “Spellman practiced ‘Romanita’ better than anyone else within the global Catholic Church.” He used his mastery of this art quite well in the service of the Second Vatican Council.

Rabbi Rudin takes us through the endless rewrites (primarily by Cardinal Bea), the strenuous politicking, and the persuasive speeches of Cardinals Cushing and Spellman that eventuated in the “Nostra Aetate” and the opening of new possibilities. He also points out the fragility of this new teaching in the light of the engrained anti-Jewish hostility that is still part of Catholic tradition. The Declaration needed and still needs ongoing support, constant positive action by Catholic and Jewish leaders, to maintain its vision and force.

In this regard, the exemplary figure was the third American Catholic giant, Cardinal John O’Connor, whose efforts a generation later brought forth important results. . . .

To read this review in its entirety, as it appears in the March  14, 2012 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and in the March 15 Naples and Palm Beach Gardens editions, click here: Florida Weekly – Rabbi Rudin pdf

For more on Rabbi Rudin, click here: Florida Weekly – James Rudin Review  and here: Florida Weekly – James Rudin Profile

This piece was reprinted in the October 2012 issues of the Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Collier County), L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte Counties) and The Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota /Manatee).

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Sanibel and Captiva history come alive in new book

“Historic Sanibel & Captiva Islands: Tales of Paradise,” by Jeri Magg. History Press. 128 pages. $19.99.

Southwest Florida’s coastal islands are among the state’s – and the nation’s – most enjoyable treasures. Sanibel and Captiva are particularly colorful both in their fascinating histories, their natural beauty, and in their present-day balance of old and new. Jeri Magg’s new book provides a wide array of insights and anecdotes about what makes these places special. It also provides fifty black and white images to help engage our imaginations. 

The author’s plan is traveler-friendly. After a concise, general overview of the region’s history, Ms. Magg pins her exploration to two maps –one for each island. The maps number and name almost fifty places of interest (sometimes merely crossroads or historic buildings), and the names and numbers then head her larger and smaller narrative treatments. These sections and sub-sections are in themselves chronologically organized. With this book in hand, one can make one’s way around the islands and soak up information about colorful personalities and changing times.

The history stretches back hundreds of years to a time when the Calusa Indians built shell mounds on the islands, when Spaniards and later Cubans wrestled for influence and dominance. Later, enterprising individuals from around the colonies (and then the states) struck out for opportunities to enjoy and exploit the natural beauties, the fertile soil, and the bountiful marine life.

Those of us who live in Southwest Florida and other desirable, once-obscure locations, know the story of the constant struggle between the forces of conservation and so-called progress, between privacy and exclusivity on the one hand and population growth/development on the other.  In many of her vignettes, Jeri Magg presents versions of this paradigmatic story. Indeed, the famous lighthouse on Sanibel (that has undergone so many technological changes) can be said to stand for the tension between a place being marked out – being put on the map for safety and convenience – and a place screaming “notice me” and being overrun.

Jeri Magg

The detailed stories Ms. Magg tells of transportation to and from the islands – from private commercial piers to ferry boats to the causeway – are filled with this kind of tension. Make it easy to get there and people will come, and then more people will come, and then . . . you’re stuck in traffic and surrounded by noises that drown out the ripple of surf and the sea breezes.

Stories of postal service, eateries, schools and churches, important homesteads (like that of George W. Carter), agricultural enterprises, and resorts come laden with their casts of characters. We learn about Jake Summerlin, lighthouse keepers Dudley Richardson and Henry Shanahan, the Kinzie family’s steamship line, and postmistress Laetitia Nutt. We enjoy tales of the pioneer families like the Bryants and somewhat more recent families like the Lindgrens, the Matthews, and the Baileys. We witness the slow march of technology as it modernizes life on the islands. . . .

To read this review in its entirety, as it appears in the March 7, 2012 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the March 8 Naples edition, click here: Florida Weekly – Jeri Magg

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Three from

Patti LuPone: A MemoirDouble DexterThe Face Thief

I am now writing reviews for — the online arm of the print & digital journals San Francisco Book Review and Sacramento Book Review. I’m covering a wider variety of titles and working with a more compressed (200 words) form.

The parent company is reviving the book review journal enterprise and making its strategy and technology available to able entrepreneurs.

My first three by-line reviews are:

Double Dexter | City Book Review

Patti LuPone: A Memoir | City Book Review

and The Face Thief | City Book Review

Look around. You might want to review there too. You’ll certainly find an enormous number of reviews easily accessible and conveniently classified.

 Lots of information, as well, for members of the writing community.

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A brilliant, post-apocalyptic gem from Julianna Baggott

Pure, by Julianna Baggott. Grand Central Publishing. 448 pages. $25.99

This amazing novel, by prolific Florida State University creative writing professor Julianna Baggot, is stunning in its vision, specificity, and suggestiveness. Configuring a post-apocalyptic world of the near future, Julianna Baggott achieves nothing less than a profound inquiry into the nature and meaning of what it is to be human. This book is likely to become an instant classic. It is at once science fiction, moral fable, and coming of age tale. The prose is gorgeous, the scale is cinematically epic. When I finished reading it, I was sorry it was over. Fortunately, there are two more installments of “The Pure Trilogy” to come.

The “Pure” are those who were chosen to live in the Dome in order to survive the detonations that destroyed much and created a wasteland for the survivors kept outside. The detonations seem to have been a programmed destruction predicated on future renewal and rebuilding — like burning a forest to make way for new growth. Who chose the elite to be saved and educated as the leaders of a new order? Where was the line between altruistic tough love and simple, naked self-interest? The novel explores such issues with deep sensitivity and intelligence.

Pure is structured around the actions of and relationships among four young adults. The Pures are Partridge (son of the Dome’s leader) and Lyda. These teenagers are being groomed to take over leadership roles in the reintegrated world society, though Partridge has yet to prove himself and Lyda has been institutionalized as unstable (perhaps not yet effectively programmed or “coded”). Partridge, who has begun to doubt the history he has been taught, manages an escape to discover what really goes on outside the Dome. Lyda, wrongly believed to be his girlfriend, is sent out to lure him back.

Julianna Baggott

Those who live outside the dome include Pressia and Bradwell. They are both, like the other Wretches, physical victims of the detonations, which have disfigured everyone – not only with burn scars, missing limbs, and other bodily distortions, but also by being welded in the explosions to nonhuman beings and materials. Pressia’s damaged hand is fused with the face of a doll. Bradwell’s back is inhabited by birds whose wings rustle constantly. Pressia’s grandfather has a small electric fan lodged in his throat. These people constitute the highest order of life outside the Dome, above the Beasts and the Dusts.

Bradwell, like Partridge, is a rebel and a truthseeker. Eventually, fate (or is it complex external manipulation of their lives?) brings the four young people together. The future for everyone seems to be in the hands of this inexperienced and untested quartet. However, they meet some early tests quite well.  .  .  .

To read this review in its entirety, as it appears in the March 1, 2012 edition of the Naples Florida Weekly, click here: Florida Weekly – Julianna Baggott pdf

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Marty Ambrose, Mallie Monroe, and Mayhem

Marty Ambrose’s Killer Kool is the latest addition to her “Mango Bay Mystery Series.” Set on fictional Coral Island, which bears some resemblance to Lee County, Florida’s Pine Island, Killer Kool establishes the charms and foibles of Southwest Florida’s island communities. It’s not only a nice place to visit, but real people with jobs, friends, and problems actually live there. It’s also a natural arena for story-telling. Sure, you can get off the island, but by keeping the action set there Ambrose maintains the classic unity of place that gives the energy of compression to her narrative. 

Mallie Monroe, a woman with a degree in Comparative Literature, is eking out a living as a reporter for the island’s weekly newspaper – the Observer. She is hovering between two beaux: local police detective Nick Billie and former boyfriend Cole Whitney. When her skinflint boss, Anita, gives Mallie the opportunity to become the paper’s restaurant critic, the assignment puts her in proximity to danger.

Two brothers who have been at odds for years die within just a few days. Carlos Santini, owner of a popular ice cream shop, dies under circumstances somewhat suspicious, and Mallie’s co-worker, Sandy, is assigned to write his obituary. If there is foul play, then Marco Santini – the estranged brother and owner of the Little Tuscany restaurant – might be a suspect. However, Marco himself dies soon after. In preparing to review Little Tuscany, Mallie gets closer to crime reporting, as Marco seems to have eaten tomato sauce laced with shellfish, to which he has a deadly allergy.

Who could have it in for Marco? Is it his restaurant rival and ex-wife Francesca? Is it his daughter, Beatrice, who considers Marco an obstacle to her desired relationship with Guido? Boyfriend Guido? Marco’s employee, Jimmy, in whose locker Mallie (in investigator mode) finds a bag with seafood shells?

Mallie, a self-confessed motor-mouth, gets in and out of the way of Nick Billie’s investigation many times. Even before the possible crimes are public knowledge, we meet Madame Geri, a psychic who proclaims that the plans for a marriage between her son Jimmy and Mallie’s friend Sandy are jeopardized because there is a killer on the island.

The cast of humorously eccentric characters, most notably Mallie herself, will keep readers smiling as the strands of the mystery are unraveled. Killer Kool is the best kind of beach reading: compact, light-hearted, and in touch with the buzz of small town life. Broken heaters, run-down vehicles, panaceas against aging (like island bee honey cream), and a superannuated – and unwanted – suitor for Mallie all add to the comedy-colored dilemmas adroitly fashioned by Marty Ambrose.

More about Marty

Born and raised in St. Louis, Marty Ambrose often vacationed on Fort Myers Beach during the summers. “Florida just made my heat sing from the time I was a kid,” she writes. “Fort Myers Beach was just incredibly beautiful then.” She earned a B.A. in English at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and an MPhil from York University in England. English Romanticism was her specialty.

After moving to Florida in 1982 (her parents retired there), she started teaching at what was then Edison Community College. “I felt at home from the first day in the classroom,” Ambrose admits. She’s now spent 28 years teaching American and British Literature, Creative Writing, and Composition.  She claims that she remembers “every student’s writing style – it’s like a thumbprint.”

To see the entire article as it appears in the March/April 2012 Fort Myers Magazine, including Marty Ambrose’s writing habits and tips, click here: Ft.Myers magazine – Marty Ambrose

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Spinoza — what a problem

The Spinoza Problem, by Irvin D. Yalom. Basic Books. 352 pages, $25.95.

Nazi propagandist and self-proclaimed philosopher Alfred Rosenberg – a high-ranking party official driven by an obsessive need for Hitler’s approval, had a “Spinoza Problem.” How could a German cultural giant like Goethe pay homage to the mind and writings of a Jew? Dr. Yalom establishes this intellectual and emotional quagmire as a key to Rosenberg’s essential nature. A virulent anti-Semite who promoted the concept of the essential depravity of “Jewish blood,” Rosenberg’s confidence in Arian supremacy was threatened by Spinoza’s stature. One time line of Yalom’s daring novel is a fictional biography of Rosenberg up through the fall of the Third Reich.

 The other time line is a fictional biography of Baruch Spinoza, the 17th century Dutch apostate Jew whose writings prefigured much in modern and contemporary philosophy. Spinoza’s argument with the fables of traditional organized religion and his pursuit of a reason-based way of living and responding to Nature are dramatized through chapters of intense conversation and strenuous, disciplined thinking. Yalom explores the psychological consequences of Spinoza being cut off from participation in the Jewish community. Shunned and isolated, his exile and loneliness seem, eventually, to benefit his cerebral mission.

 The timelines are developed in alternating chapters, magically interweaving the characters’ destinies. For both Rosenberg and Spinoza, Yalom invents plausible confidantes to allow access to their most intimate fears and feelings. Dr. Yalom’s own professional experience as a practicing psychiatrist fuels his penetration of these half-real, half invented characters.

 Beautifully written, remarkably ambitious, filled with vivid descriptions of place, and bursting with brilliant insights, The Spinoza Problem carefully develops its personalities and issues so that they come alive in a highly original and absorbing way.

 foreword, epilogue. PKJ

 This review appears in the Spring 2012 issue of Jewish Book World. To see it on the Jewish Book Council’s spiffy web site, click here:  The Spinoza Problem. Click on my name to see my other Jewish Book World reviews.

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