Monthly Archives: April 2015

Casino scam thriller offers high stakes suspense

Take Down, by James Swain. Thomas & Mercer. 430 pages. Trade paperback $15.95.

In his latest novel, James Swain is back to painting the milieu in which he has no peers: the gambling scene. Set in Las Vegas and focused on a new casino hotel that serves as a money laundering front for a big drug operation, this novel has all the thrills, chills, and insider information one could ever hope for. Billy Cunningham, a thirty year old professional cheater, becomes a strange kind of moral pillar in a ruthless world where the only moral code involves scoring big money and staying alive.  TakeDown-cover

For people like Billy Cunningham, and his one-time flame Maggie Flynn, the enemy is the gaming board, a group empowered to protect the public and the gaming industry from scammers and thieves. However, the gaming board agents whom we meet in this tale are always ready to abuse their power and might just as well be the subjects of investigations for their own corruption. It seems that at times that this powerful board colludes with the worst elements in the industry.

Should the owner of the Galaxy, a big-time narcotic distributor, be the recipient of the gaming board’s protection or the subject of an investigation?

The board makes deals to pursue its priority cases. It lessens or drops criminal penalties in exchange for evidence leading to the successful prosecution of bigger fish.

The set-up of the story goes like this: Billy has a fantastic, convoluted plan to duplicate the gold-colored, high denomination chips used in the Galaxy casino and then manage to cash them in. This would result in a huge, multi-million dollar “take down.” At the same time, he is in on the Galaxy payroll – checking their security and promising to foil the upcoming scam of another slick team of scoundrels known as the Gypsies.



In fact, Billy hopes to use the cover of the commotion regarding the Gypsy “wedding scam,” which is that group’s own cover for a slot machine payoff manipulation, to cover his own counterfeit gold chip operation.

As readers watch Billy prepare his team for its biggest trick, they get to meet a fascinating group of characters who must use their skills and play their roles with precision or the scam will collapse – as will their outlaw careers. For Billy, loyalty is the ultimate necessity for smooth functioning; therefore is very generous in buying that loyalty from his team members. Beyond that, he really cares about them and shows it in many additional ways. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the April 29, 2015 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the April 30 Naples, Bonita Springs, and Punta Gorda / Port Charlotte editions (all with additional information about Swain’s new publisher), click here: Florida Weekly – Take Down

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This glorious debut novel is one of an unexpectedly fine crop of recent and *new Southern fiction. It confronts the tragic persistence of racism and the resilient, transcendent power of the human spirit. It is at once a story of young love, of traditions both poisonous and healing, and of murder. It is a brilliantly managed game played on a 100-plus year field whose goal posts are two hangings.



In 1860, a Black slave named Frannie Crow is charged by her mistress, Evelyn Anderson, with thievery and attempted murder by poison. Innocent Frannie was hung, and her son Amos was assigned the task of building a bench for the town square from the best pieces of oak and the best hardware that could be stripped from the gallows. The name “Square’s Bench” over time was replaced by “Liar’s Bench,” because of “its legacy of misfortune drawn from lies.” It is the multivalent icon of Peckinpaw, Kentucky.

112 years later, the Liar’s Bench continues to serve as a seat for both honest and deceitful promise making. Mudas “Muddy” Summers, daughter of the town prosecutor, experiences a very tumultuous 17th birthday. At an uncertain distance from the dizzying occurrences, she narrates her tribulations in a clear, powerful, and perfectly tuned voice.  liarsbench

Mudas’s mother, Ella, who had divorced her daughter’s father Adam over his infidelities, had then married an abusive bully, eventually moving with Tommy to Chicago and leaving Mudas feeling abandoned. Ella finds ways of still being supportive and moves back to Peckinpaw to be nearby. She works at various jobs including bookkeeping for a rich, crude good ole boy, McGee, who is running illegal businesses and blackmailing those whom he has pulled into debt or worse. When McGee’s incriminating business ledger for the Rooster Run disappears, his enforcer threatens Ella.

On Mudas’s birthday, her mother is found hung. . . .

To read the entire review, click here:Southern Literary Review — “Liar’s Bench,” by Kim Michele Richardson

*Other books of note include Laura Lee Smith’s Heart of Palm, reviewed elsewhere on this blog, and Steph Post’s A Tree Born Crooked, to be reviewed in late May.

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A brighter, softer, funnier installation in the ‘Doc Ford’ series

Cuba Straits, by Randy Wayne White. Putnam. 336 pages. Hardcover $26.95.

This book is a pleasant change of pace after “Doc Ford” series titles dominated by words like deep, dead, and dark. Yes, all those elements (with their neighbors named night, shadow, and black) are still lurking, but there is something brighter, softer, and just plain funnier about “Cuba Straits.” Perhaps this is because Doc Ford’s sometimes sidekick and constant nuisance Tomlinson, a drug-expanded loony-tunes, is in full bloom here. Naively hilarious with his karmic insights and self-aggrandizing moral gestures, Tomlinson steals long stretches of the novel.  Jacket_Cuba_Straits

Many characters introduced for the first time are at once menacing and humorous. However, Doc Ford, the ballast that keeps this production in balance and afloat, is his winsome, stoic, complicated, and courageous self.

Oh, yeah – the book is about baseball, sixty years of Cuban history, a weird cult, a Russian spy, powerful females, buried Harley-Davidson motorcycles, and hidden love letters.

The term “strait” is usually defined as a narrow passage between larger bodies of water, but I find no reference to Cuba Straits outside of the title of Mr. White’s book. It is surely meant to be a place name, but perhaps the other meaning of strait (or straits) is just as important to the novel’s focus: “a position of difficulty, distress or need.” That defines Cuba and the situation of its people pretty well.

In the spirit of baseball and comic hijinks, let’s play “who’s on first.”

Gen. Juan Simón Rivera? At a minor league baseball game in Fort Myers, Ford and Tomlinson run into Ford’s old acquaintance, the former dictator of a small Latin American country. Rivera smuggled shortstop Figueroa Casanova into the U. S., but now he’s lost him and insists on Fords’ help. What’s missing along with Figgy is an old briefcase with a horde of letters from the brothers Castro.

White / photo by Wendy Webb

White / photo by Wendy Webb

Some of these are love letters, others have the potential of shedding light on the Cuban Revolution, the Bay of Pigs fiasco, and the murder of JFK.

Rivera is quite an entrepreneur, with a thriving business smuggling Cuban ballplayers as well as baseball artifacts.

Figgy is also quite a character. Though he is more or less functional, he clearly has a screw loose somewhere and had been an inmate in a mental institution for three years. He has no problem with committing murder to solve his problems. He sees the world in a way that is both frightening and wackily humorous. Figgy’s grandmother had been the secret mistress of a Castro brother and the recipient of those valuable letters. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the April 22, 2015 Fort Myers Florida Weekly, the April 23 Naples and Bonita Springs editions, and the May 28 Palm Beach Gardens/Jupiter edition click here: Florida Weekly – Cuba Straits

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K-9 team is central focus in South Florida crime story

Scent of Murder, by James O. Born. Forge. 304 pages. Hardcover $25.99.

I don’t know if a new subgenre is blooming in crime fiction or not. Alex Kava’s recent “Breaking Creed” launched a new series about a dog trainer who does contract work for law enforcement agencies. Now James O. Born offers a new book that could very well also launch a series. It gives a detailed portrait of a K-9 unit operating within the Palm Beach Sheriff’s Office. Like Mr. Born’s earlier novels, this one capitalizes on his extensive experience as a law enforcement professional. SOMcover

Tim Hallett is rebuilding his career. He had lost his position in the prestigious Detective Bureau two years back by mishandling the case of a child molester. Retrained as part of a man/dog team, Tim has been rebalancing his life. Rocky, the Belgian Malinois with whom Tim is partnered, is more than a coworker; he has become an important part of Tim’s life. Along with his young son, the divorced father has created a new family.

Mr. Born’s sensitive handling of the relationship between man and dog is superb. This is a bond of true respect, mutual dependence, and responsibility. The author makes Rocky as real as any special-skill partner – a personality readers will come to know quite well. Certainly this is a book for dog-lovers, but those who aren’t canine fans can thoroughly enjoy it. I know I did.

There is a murderer out there kidnapping and abusing teenage girls before killing them. One girl manages to survive the perpetrator’s worst intentions and has been rescued by the K-9 team. Others are in harm’s way. Suspense is built by alternating the point of view. Most often, we are given Tim’s perspective, sometimes that of another one of the human K-9 team members. We also enter the mind of the perpetrator, Junior, whose impulses are out of control and whose planning is meticulous.

And (are you ready for this?) sometimes we are given Rocky’s point of view. At first, I found this device disturbing – a bit too much Scooby-Doo. However, after a while it grew on me and gained credibility.



Tim’s unit is comprised of three K-9 teams and a supervisory dog trainer. The police service dogs and their human partners have a range of skills that are put to good use in the pursuit of the criminal. Mr. Born draws the action scenes with authority and economy. He provides a detailed and engaging education in how such operations are managed.

The case that got Tim in trouble comes into play in the present situation and influences the direction of the investigation. Eventually, the clues lead in a surprising direction.

While the investigation plot provides the major center of interest, Tim’s relationship with his ex-wife and the possibility of a new love interest add stimulating complications and rounding of the protagonist’s character. Some of the subordinate characters are similarly elaborated, and all of the supporting cast members are carefully differentiated.

Another interesting aspect of “Scent of Murder” is the portrayal of interaction, competition, and strife within the working of the law enforcement community. Ambition, pettiness, vanity, and grandstanding all play a part in the world of law enforcement politics. These factors affect Tim’s progress in rebuilding his reputation among his professional associates. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the April 15, 2015 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the April 16 issues of the  Naples, Bonita Springs, Punta Gorda/Port Charlotte, Palm Beach Gardens/Jupiter, and Palm Beach/West Palm Beach editions, click here: Florida Weekly – Scent of Murder

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Set in Southwest Florida, Harry Brock Mystery rises above the crowd

An Anecdotal Death, by Kinley Roby. Five Star Publishing. 310 pages. Hardcover $25.95.

The tenth “Harry Brock Mystery” finds the game warden turned detective continuing to ply his trade in and near the Southwest Florida town of Avola. The place names Tequesta County and Avola allow Mr. Roby some imaginative space; many readers will quickly identify the setting’s originals as Collier County and Naples. More important than this identification is Mr. Roby’s worshipful perspective on the natural beauty and vulnerability of a patch of Florida wilderness that seems to be receding as the burgeoning town advances. Harry Brock works in both worlds, but he makes his home in a remote, simple dwelling on the edge of the Everglades.  AnAnecdotalDeathFront

The beautiful and wealthy Meredith Winters has summoned Harry to discover whether or not her missing husband, Amos Lansbury, is alive or dead. While the Coast Guard had rendered the verdict that Lansbury had died in a diving accident during a fishing expedition with several friends, no corpse has been discovered. Meredith has a feeling that Amos was murdered.

Touching base with his friends in the sheriff’s department, Harry worries about their reluctance to open an investigation. It soon becomes clear that political concerns are at work. When two more of Lansbury’s diving buddies turn up dead, it is hard to call the pattern a mere coincidence, especially since the common dominator seems to be that all worked in a very rough political campaign for a seat in the state senate. When a fourth campaign worker, not part of the diving activity, is found dead – the question becomes: who suffered so mightily from the outcome of the senate race that he (or she) has a serial score to settle.

Soon enough, Harry is nearly a victim, suggesting that the killer finds Harry too close to figuring things out.

As the investigation moves along, Harry’s personal life becomes just as much a center of interest as his professional one. He is meeting many divorced and widowed women in the course of the investigation, women connected with the victims in one way or another. Author Roby goes a bit overboard in describing each one, as well as Meredith and her secretary, as a surprisingly beautiful specimen of femininity. Or is that perception only Harry’s, a consequence of his own situation, appetites, and tendency to idealize?



Harry’s two failed marriages, and his impasse with his present love, have left him lonely and longing. Meredith throws herself at him, and there is plenty of flirtation in his sequence of investigatory interviews. Hey, whatever Harry’s got, I want some.

His emotional state is also colored by the growing fragility of his best friend and mentor, Tucker Labeau, whose residence on Bartram’s Hammock, a state nature preserve, is near Harry’s. The winding waterway named Puc Puggy Creek is for Harry something like Thoreau’s Walden Pond and its surrounding woods: a place to get back to basics. The profound friendship between the two men is based in part on their deep mutual respect for the natural world and a desire for self-reliance. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the April 9, 2015 Naples Florida Weekly and also the Punta Gord/Port Charlotte edition, click here: Florida Weeky – Anecdotal Death.

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Leaving Berlin, by Joseph Kanon

  • Atria Books. 384 pp. $27.00.

This taut page-turner captures the contradictions and complexities of the post-WWII German capital.

In his latest fast-paced thriller, Leaving Berlin, Joseph Kanon explores an exciting, fear-filled time. The constant drone of airlifts bringing scarce supplies to the isolated city devastated by World War II is the background music for beleaguered lives. The experiment of a Soviet Germany in which one authoritarian regime supplants another has everyone looking over his or her shoulder. Old loyalties — and old identities — give way to new or faked ones.Kanon’s central figure is Jewish writer Alex Meier, who, as a young man with a blooming reputation, had left Germany for the United States ahead of the war. Now, in 1949, he returns under complex circumstances.Meier has made a bargain with the devil. The House Un-American Activities Committee (“McCarthy”) threatened to deport him, an uncooperative German socialist, making his return impossible and his separation from his young son permanent. However, Alex reached a deal with the newly established CIA to provide information in exchange for a return to the U.S. A native Berliner with many connections, he is at once at home and in exile. Everything is changing as communist rule reshapes the culture.

Something of a celebrity, Alex mixes with such returned notables as Bertolt Brecht while finding his assignment as a CIA agent upsetting to his moral compass. . . .

To read the entire, juicy review as it appears in the Washington Independent Review of Books (posted April 3, 2015), click here:

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An exciting account of an astounding engineering achievement

“Water to the Angels: William Mulholland, His Monumental Aqueduct, and the Rise of Los Angeles,” by Les Standiford. Ecco. 336 pages. Hardcover $28.99.

WaterAngelshccCan statistics be exciting? In the case of Les Standiford’s energetic presentation of this enormous undertaking, the quantitative facts are essential and astounding. The goal was simple: to find a way for a small desert town to flourish. The lack of an adequate water supply circumscribed that possibility. William Mulholland had the vision, a vision many doubted and quite a few mocked.



He designed an aqueduct system to bring copious amounts of fresh water from 223 miles away via the power of gravity. Through landscapes often beautiful, but remote and stubbornly resistant to conventional reshaping methods, crews working under Mulholland’s leadership reshaped the flow of rivers, built conduits above and below ground, and established a network of dams incrementally taking the water from higher to lower levels.

Before the aqueduct could be built, an infrastructure for transportation; electricity; and the housing, nourishment, and medical care for countless workers was needed. Much of this construction was through a mountainous region, and unique equipment had to be invented and fashioned to solve engineering problems never before faced.

William Mulholland, a self-taught Irish immigrant, was up to the task that took six years and cost $23 million dollars. How did the fellow find himself in the position to do this job? To what extent did his colossal, confident, and forthright personality predict the course and eventual outcome of this venture? These are among the questions that Les Standiford answers in a book that is at once biography, history, and science.

Such projects need to be sold. Where does the money come from? What vested interests have to be satisfied? What kind of water and property rights need to be obtained? Mr. Standiford clarifies the economic and political issues, which are also enormous in scale. Indeed, often these issues threatened to cripple the endeavor.

Such gigantic undertakings are a bet on the future. For Los Angelinos, the bet paid off big – if you think immensity is desirable. Fresh water became more plentiful and less expensive, making all kinds of expansion possible. Confidence in the future of Los Angeles brought plenty of investment capital. Transforming waterpower into electric power helped to sell and sustain the aqueduct system.

Though people in the northern communities affected by the aqueduct construction often complained about the project’s negative impact on their property values, it is likely that some of those communities gained substantial benefits. The project, and the enhanced water and electric power system, was and is an employer. Mr. Standiford provides a fine analysis of the pros and cons, sorting out the claims, the facts, and the rumors. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the April 1, 2015 issue of the Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the April 2 Naples, and Bonita Springs editions, click here Florida Weekly – Water to the Angels

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