Monthly Archives: December 2017

Serial killer pursued by a most worthy, though inexperienced, FBI adversary

Before Evil, by Alex Kava. Prairie Wind Publishing. 336 pages. Hardcover $27.00, Trade paperback $15.99.

It’s not every day in the book business that you run into a prequel for a highly regarded thriller series. However, here it is displacing A Perfect Evil as the first installment of the long-lived Maggie O’Dell Series in that it is constructed to bring readers a slightly younger and less experienced version of the series protagonist.  Maggie is already recognized as a particularly talented young FBI agent, proficient as a profiler and as a forensic wiz.


She has done much of her work fielding inquiries from other agents via computer. Now, though her somewhat reluctant supervisor provides her first field assignment – a real live crime sign. Problem is the victims are no so very live. Serial killer Albert Stucky is as crazy as he is skilled. He haunts backwoods Virginia (though he has killed elsewhere) and is brazen enough to enjoy being identified – though as a master of disguise his apparent identities are just part of a game. He is a grand manipulator. He leaves messages for the law enforcement officers who are trying to track him down and end the carnage.

He finds Maggie to be an irresistible adversary.

Chapters focused on Maggie and her co-workers are alternated with chapters that takes readers into Stucky’s brilliant but damaged mind. He’s a killer who simply loves his work. A man who has made millions of dollars, Stuckey needs bigger thrills than money can provide. He has developed a slew of well-planned hiding places, and no description of him will hold up as he readily discards and replaces signs of age, physical stature, social class, and anything else identifying that one might think of.

Stuckey is a careful and usually meticulous planner. He loves it when a plan comes together, but he also enjoys surviving risky adventures. He’s a show-off. There is nothing, however, like the thrill of the kill. His major weapon is a crossbow. He is truly a hunter – mostly of women. He often imprisons his victims before ultimately destroying them. He fancies himself a surgeon, and he leaves evidence of his skill. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the December 27, 2017 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the December 28 Naples, Bonita Springs, and Charlotte County editions, click here: Florida Weekly – Before Evil.

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Phil’s Picks 2017

The following is a list of outstanding books reviewed in these (Florida Weekly) pages during the past year. In a way, all the books reviewed are outstanding, as they were selected from a much longer list of books crying for attention and in many cases deserving such attention. However, I can only review one each week in my column.  The full reviews can be found by using the search box on the Naples edition of the Florida Weekly web site: So, here are an even dozen titles, nine fiction and three non-fiction, for your reading and gifting pleasure.

To encounter reviews that I’ve prepared for other publications, go to

The Magdalen Girls, by V. S. Alexander. Kensington. 304 pages. Trade paperback $15.00. 

Set near Dublin in the 1960s, this unusual novel carefully constructs a powerful vision of religiosity run amok. Its focus is two teenage girls who are assigned to the Magdalen Laundries at The Sisters of the Holy Redemption Convent. Their parents have assigned their care to the convent, believing that its discipline and Spartan living conditions will bring the young women to faith, responsibility, and eventually to productive, upright lives. That’s the positive spin on the parents’ motives, which readers will find far less noble.

In fact, the institution is a prison and slave labor operation, all in the name of Jesus and his Father.

An Honorable War, by Robert N. Macomber. Pineapple Press. 392 pages. Hardcover $26.95. Trade paperback $16.95.

How does Mr. Macomber keep doing this? The thirteenth installment of his splendid Honor Series, like the earlier titles in the series, once again transforms a pile of historical fact into a colorful, well-imagined, and highly suspenseful entertainment. Captain Peter Wake, assigned to the Office of Naval Intelligence, is no desk-jockey, but a man of action – in this case leading the action plan that he designed to satisfy the ambitious and often outlandish Theodore Roosevelt, Assistant Secretary of the Navy. The author’s subtitle sets the historical scene: “The Spanish-American War Begins.”

This episode, cast as another segment of the memoirs of Peter Wake, launches a three-part trilogy within the burgeoning series.

Kenmore Square: A Novel by Carol June Stover. Champlain Avenue Books. 264 pages. Trade paperback, $13.99.  

Set in Boston during the 1950s and early 1960s, this curious coming-of-age tale involves unusual characters and several life-altering secrets.

Iris Apple’s world is rocked at the age of 10, when her mother is murdered. Iris suspects her crude and cruel father might very well be the murderer, but she has no way of acting on her suspicions.

Nick Apple, son of a well-known Boston bookie, runs the Kenmore Square rooming house where the family lives among the down and out boarders. One boarder is very special: Madame Charlemagne, a once-popular performer who has become a recluse. The aging cabaret singer and young Iris assist and console one another in various ways.

The Red Hunter, by Lisa Unger. Touchstone. 368 pages. Hardcover $25.99.

This delicately constructed thriller explores the distance and proximity between two women whose paths cross in strikingly unusual ways. The younger of the two, Zoey Drake, has lived through a lengthy and ongoing recovery from a devastating childhood trauma. Her parents were murdered before eyes in their rural home outside of New York City. Zoey, who barely survived, has lived with a rage she must control to function effectively. Rigorous martial arts training has been her coping mechanism and her security against being victimized in her adulthood as she was in her childhood.

She has been reared and put through college by the man she calls Uncle Paul, and she assists him as he struggles with poor health. She supports herself through cat-sitting jobs and by helping her martial arts mentor teach self-defense to young girls. Nightmares haunt her, but she has gained a healthy self-confidence.

An Ice Age Mystery: Unearthing the Secrets of the Old Vero Site, by Rody Johnson. University Press of Florida. 224 pages.  Hardcover $24.95. 

For 100 years, the human and other remains of Vero, Florida have engaged the skills and imagination of professional and amateur archaeologists. Just what was the region like during the Ice Age? What grew there? What were the geological features? Did animals thrive? Did humans leave their marks — and their bones – somewhere in the layers of sediment washed by intruding waters? Why are these questions important?

The history of archaeological investigations of “the Old Vero site” is characterized by sporadic periods of accelerated interest and action separated by longer periods of general neglect. Rody Johnson tells the story in a highly accessible style, even making the forays into science understandable and engaging.

The Late Show, by Michael Connelly. Little, Brown. 416 pages. Hardcover $28.00.

Several years ago, I fell in love with Randy Wayne White’s new Hannah Smith series. The Hannah Smith character provided a fresh focus for Mr. White’s considerable skills, while the Doc Ford series continued to satisfy his devoted following. Now we have Mr. Connelly, masterful creator of both the Harry Bosch and Mickey Haller (Lincoln Lawyer) series, launching a new venture centered on a distinctive and totally engaging female character. Detective Renée Ballard is a winner. I swooned over Hannah, and now I’ve fallen for Renée as well.

Mr. Connelly mastery of the police procedural, honed throughout the Bosch series, is put to good use here. Ballard is a credible mixture of impulse and orderliness, and the latter trait usually allows her to follow the steps – regulations and protocols – that underpin effective police work.

The Ghost Ship of Brooklyn, by Robert P. Watson. Da Capo Press. 304 pages. Hardcover $28.00.

Lynn University Professor Robert P. Watson makes reading history a totally engaging experience. He does so by choosing unusual and challenging topics, setting them into contexts rich in detail, and presenting them in a prose style that is clear, vivid, and uncluttered by academic jargon. His latest book is a piece of fine storytelling, accessible to the general reader. Prof. Watson makes historical events shine as if they were today’s news. Readers will care about what happened on HMS Jersey, the major British prison ship during the American Revolution.

As he must, the author attaches his relatively narrow topic to a few larger concentric circles: prison ships in general; overcrowded British prisons in the colonies and insufficient buildings to repurpose; and the overall Revolutionary War. The book’s spatial focus is New York, particularly Brooklyn waterways, and New England.

Cold Water Canoe Club, by Jeffery Hess. Down & Out Books. 292 pages. Trade paperback $16.95.

I can’t think of another short story collection that I’ve read in recent years that has given me such a jolt of vicarious experience and insight. Original, fraught with every kind of pain, clearsighted and despairing, Mr. Hess’s book takes us to external and internal places that most of us have been able to avoid. And that avoidance has distanced us from people, whole swaths of society, who we have unwittingly depended on to keep us safe – and even prosperous.

Given today’s concerns about American’s conflicts and rivalries with Putin’s Russia, a group of 15 stories focused on the lives of Navy seamen during the Cold War has an added dimension of relevance. In addition, the stories are amazingly well-written, filled with an abundance of explosive imagery, and presented through unmistakably authentic first or third person voices. Well, perhaps there is a bit of literary overlay on and around these voices.

Florida Soul: From Ray Charles to KC and the Sunshine Band, by John Capouya. University Press of Florida. 374 pages. Hardcover $24.95. 

For a scholarly enterprise, this book is notable for its high energy and conversational tone. One can feel the author’s obvious excitement over the opportunity to celebrate the dazzling contributions of those in the art and business of soul music. It’s a sizeable group of talented and inventive characters who make longer or shorter appearances in this lively slice of Florida’s cultural history. Interestingly, though soul is thought of as a sturdy branch in the tree of Afro-American music, Mr. Capouya makes it clear that white performers and other white music industry professionals played major roles in the regional and national success of this musical genre.

Mr. Capouya’s chaptering system links the recording artists and other music professionals with key ciites, large and small, in the history of the genres development and significant presence. His titles add up to a map of the world we are exploring, but without an actual map. Clearly, the state has been saturated with native born or adopted Floridians who build a musical tradition.

Come Home, by Patricia Gussin. Oceanview Publishing. 368 pages. Hardcover $26.95.

Remember 2011 – the year of the Arab Spring? The turmoil in the Middle East provides a backdrop for Ms. Gussin’s fast-paced thriller. Ahmed Masud, middle son in a wealthy Egyptian family, is called back to Cairo to help prepare for his family’s future after the Mubarak regime collapses. Their wealth derives being favored by Mubarak’s son, who handed them an Egyptian cotton empire. Also, Ahmed’s parents wish to see his five-year-old son, Alex. Succumbing to their pressure, and unsettled by medical malpractice lawsuits, Ahmed steals his son away to Cairo, rashly jeopardizing his marriage and the American dream lifestyle he and his wife, also a plastic surgeon, have shared.

Readers will be puzzled by Ahmed’s sudden sense of family duty, as was his wife, Dr. Nicole Nelson, who is outraged and crushed by his behavior. She wants her son back! Nicole rallies the support of her twin sister Natalie and their accomplished, successful brothers.

The Shark Club, by Ann Kidd Taylor. Viking. 288 pages. Hardcover $26.00. 

Maeve Donnelly is the thirty-year-old protagonist of this elegantly written first novel. She is part of the shark club triumvirate, the other two being her long-time boyfriend Daniel and Daniel’s daughter, six-year-old Hazel. This informal mutual interest group was put together to help Hazel find stability in a young life that has been – and still is –filled with uncertainty.

Maeve and Daniel have decided to see if their long-severed relationship, once seen as strong and vibrant, can be restored. Hazel is the unplanned child of a woman with whom Daniel had a quick affair. That misstep cost him Maeve’s trust. Hazel’s mother died. Now the question is whether these three individuals – the only members of the shark club – can form normative family bonds. Maeve and Hazel are bonding in beautifully, but there is still something keeping some distance between Daniel and Maeve.

When They Come for You, by James W. Hall. Thomas & Mercer 288 pages. Trade Paperback $15.95.

Add James W. Hall to the list of premier mystery/thriller authors who have jumped tracks from a classic series featuring a male protagonist to a new series featuring a female character. Having raved over Michael Connelly’s Renée Ballard and Randy Wayne White’s Hannah Smith, I am now gushing over Mr. Hall’s Harper McDaniel.

We meet Harper on a pleasant February day in her Coconut Grove home. Her husband Ross, an investigative reporter, is shaving while holding their infant son Leo. Harper must snap a picture of them. That’s part of her nature as a professional photographer who is also the daughter of Deena Roberts, a photographer superstar and a suicide. A few blocks away, Spider Combs performs his electronic surveillance of the home, taking pictures and filming the movements of the gorgeous Harper. He knows a lot about this family, a family he has been contracted to destroy. Only Harper survives the fire.

That’s all, folks! See complete review as it appears in the the December 21, 2017 Naples Florida Weekly , the December 27 Fort Myers edition, and the December 28 Bonita Springs and Charlotte County editions. Link is to first page of article. Continue through the following pages.  Florida Weekly – Phil’s Picks 2017

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“The Ruined House: A Novel” by Ruby Namdar

Translated by Hillel Halkin. Harper. 528 pp. Hardcover $29.99.

This breathtaking tale of a prominent professor’s undoing is expertly woven with biblical passages.

Some books are so spectacularly original, so far beyond the boundaries of any reader’s expectations, and so challenging that they establish a new point of reference for any further discussions of literary achievement.

Ruby Namdar’s The Ruined House, set at the dawn of the 21st century, explores the givens of a cataclysmic era that may become a period of tumultuous cleansing. Though centered on the physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual disintegration of a successful, middle-aged college professor, it fully engages the new American century’s self-masking: its adulation of elites and its confusion of cultural values.


Andrew P. Cohen, an accomplished and proud secular Jew, has tripped over the scales of hubris and found himself to be a foul beast. His aura of polite self-congratulation has become contaminated and slowly begins to smother him. His many faults, the recognition of which he has artfully hidden from himself for decades, are in the process of being revealed.

The selfishness with which he ended his marriage is exposed to him. The comfort and security he felt in his academic achievements, the physical attractiveness and health that he nurtured and in which he delighted, and his assumption of fully controlling his always upward-bound destiny are most painfully stripped away.

Namdar tells his story, almost sings it, with a lyricism that is only the richer for the hideous images that increasingly fill up Cohen’s world as he falls apart. The erotic turns into its hideous opposite. Images of grotesque tongues and penises fill his imagination.  He sees signs of what’s coming, has nightmares and incredible daydreams, and they all finally rest on how his being — if not his world — has been penetrated, irradiated, by ancient texts: sections of Old Testament with accompanying Mishnaic commentary.

This material, represented in the graphic style of the original manuscripts, focuses on the preparation of the Temple’s high priest for performing his duties during the seven days leading to Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar. These duties are largely rituals of purification, but also include various kinds of sacrifices — offerings to God.

Inner and outer cleansing of the self and the temple are described, along with a number of sacred objects like fire pans and candelabras. The strange ceremonial practice of purifying holy places by sprinkling them with blood is included. . . .

To read the full review, click here: The Ruined House

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Dueling narratives interact to extend Michael Lister’s literary mastery of North Florida ethos

Blood Shot, by Michael Lister. Pulpwood Press. 346 pages. Trade paperback $17.99.

How many writers come up with a novel that is a sequel to two of their earlier novels? Perhaps only one – the super talented and tireless Michael Lister. Blood Shot is number 15 in the John Jordan Mysteries series. It is also a follow-up to Double Exposure, a Remington James Novel. Do you need to know this? Well, there is plenty to enjoy without such information. However, the author may be leaning a bit too heavily on his established fan base. For example, characters’ names are dropped that will mean nothing to a new Lister reader.  

Set in the northwest section of Florida and taking us deep into heavily forested areas of great natural beauty that Mr. Lister describes with profound passion and acute vision, this novel runs along to rails separated by three years. The chapters alternate. Those labeled “then” trace the movements of photographer Remington James. Those labeled “now” follow sheriff’s department investigator John Jordan’s search to bring James’s killer or killers to justice – one way or another. Jordan is committed to help his good friend Heather, James’s widow find closure. It’s a cold case that needs to be heated up. Earlier investigations seem to have lacked commitment – or worse.

We meet James making his way through the disorienting woods, looking for the opportunity to snap the perfect picture, and speculating about the source and cause of a distant scream. In subsequent “then” sections James is questioned about what his is doing on his own land and warned about staying too long as darkness falls. He does, in fact, get lost. When he finds one of his camera traps, he scrolls through the images on the memory card. Plenty of great shots of wildlife, and then “the random horror his camera has captured” – a murder. He becomes panicky, wondering of the killer is still out there. And he is going to find out.


In the “now” sections, Jordan’s effort to find James’s murderer connects with the attempt to discovery what lies behind the murder of the former sheriff of Gulf County and several of his men, each “executed one by one with their own guns.” Jordan’s relationship with his boss and other law enforcement associates is developed in a context that suggest that lawmen are participating in or ignoring certain crimes.  There is an enormous amount of money coming from a huge marijuana enterprise. . . .

To read the full review, as it appears in the December 13, 2017 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the December 14 Naples, Bonita Springs, Charlotte County, and Palm Beach editions, click here: Florida Weekly – Blood Shot

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Super Bowl scam and fix threaten master con man

Super Con, by James Swain. Thomas & Mercer, 376 pages. Trade paperback. $15.95.


James Swain has long been the king of mystery fiction that deals in magic, gambling, and graft. His newest series, featuring Billy Cunningham, entices readers with insider information on Las Vegas, the gambling industry, and the myriad ploys of cheaters. The moral premise of the series is that the gambling industry is by its very nature corrupt. The odds are against us whenever we step into casino.

The sounds of the coins jingling in the slot machines, along with the occasional large payoffs at the roulette wheels and the blackjack tables, whet the appetites of both the naive and the addicted. If the casinos only exist to take our money, it seems fair enough for there to be specialists in the gaming arts who are there to take the casinos’ money.

There are such confidence men, and Billy is the top dog. Clever, usually cautious, and a shrewd reader of human nature, Billy has an effective crew of subordinates who can execute his plans to rip off one or another casino income source. He can create big winnings at the card tables, manipulate the slots, and — in the case of this caper — design a plan for windfall payoffs in sports betting.  

This time out he is going to fix the betting strategy for the Super Bowl so that huge winnings come his way. For this momentous payoff, he needs allies who will share in the execution, the risks, and the profit. Billy’s plans are compromised by Broken Tooth, a Chinese crime boss who has leverage on Billy and wants him to assure the Super Bowl’s outcome through rigging the game, a quite different matter from rigging the betting.

Readers will enjoy the various scams and devices that allow the desired cheating to be accomplished. They will enjoy the feeling that Mr. Swain’s descriptions allow them of feeling like they are part of this unfamiliar world with its secrets and codes of conduct. The will get to know the members of his crew, the major figures from other crews with whom Billy associates, and the sometimes shady figures who police the gambling industry, supposedly on behalf of the public. . . .

To read the full review, as it appears in the December 6, 2017 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the December 7 Naples, Charlotte County, and Palm Beach editions, click here:  Florida Weekly – Super Con

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