Category Archives: Authors and Books

Solving a crime in The Villages is no walk in the park

Vindication, by H. Terrell Griffin. Oceanview Publishing. 320 pages. Hardcover $26.95.

Mr. Griffin’s Matt Royal novels have formed a reliable, suspenseful, and neatly crafted mystery series since they began to appear over a decade ago.  

When Matt’s police detective girlfriend, J. D. Duncan, asks him to sign on as her Aunt Esther’s lawyer, Matt reluctantly adjusts his beach idler persona and sharpens his legal mindset. The case against Esther, who has been thrown in jail, is a strong one. Her fingerprints are on her gun and its bullets, and her gun expelled the bullet that killed the victim, a first-time bestselling author.

Aunt Esther’s motive is, according to the prosecution, grounded in her notion, perhaps delusional, that the manuscript of the best-selling novel was stolen from her. However, the evidence that Esther had the skills to write such a manuscript is lacking.

To help move the case forward. J. D. gets time off from her Longboat Key work in order to go undercover in Esther’s community – the senior mecca called The Villages in North Central Florida. She does much of the leg-work that the case needs while Matt develops a defense strategy.

Much of the enjoyment of this novel comes from Matt’s careful, dogged preparation, his professional rapport with the prosecuting attorney and the judge, and the discoveries that J. D. makes. Once the courtroom scenes begin, Mr. Griffin’s mastery of this material turns Vindication into a red hot legal thriller.

The fact that he is threatened to drop the case leads to background information about decades-old issues that might provide others with a motive to murder the novelist. How long can one carry a grudge about being unfairly treated in a Miss Georgia beauty contest? Cloaked identities slowly unravel, leading to a sure-handed dénouement.

The action keeps Matt moving back and forth between The Villages and Longboat Key. Followers of Mr. Griffin’s work will enjoy the comfortable, familiar rendering of the Longboat Key environment: the relaxed, supportive friendships; the good spirits and pleasant hangouts; and the seaside’s natural beauty.

Mr. Griffin’s treatment of The Villages lacks the usual sarcasm that taints other attempts at capturing this highly successful retirement community for seniors. His is a respectful understanding of what makes The Villages tick.

Always delightful is the loving, teasing relationship between Matt and J. D. Mr. Griffin makes it abundantly clear how perfectly these intelligent, capable individuals are for each other. They have found their soulmates, and they are just too smart and too caring to take their good luck for granted. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the February 22, 2018  Naples Florida Weekly, click here: Florida Weekly – Vindication

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“The Orchard,” by Yochi Brandes; Daniel Libenson, trans.

 Gefen Publishing House.  382 pages. Hardcover $24.95

Originally published in Hebrew as Hapardes shel Akiva in 2011, this unusual historical novel furthers biblical scholar Yochi Brandes’s refashioning of our understanding of Judaism’s roots, recently amplified in her novel The Secret Book of Kings

Can you imagine sitting down with Rabbi Elisha, Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Joshua, Rabbi Tarfon, Rabban Gamaliel, and other sages of the first centuries of the common era? Can you imagine eavesdropping on their debates, their moments of uncertainty, their jealousies, their alliances and misalliances?

Can you imagine an era during which those spiritual leaders interacted not only with the ruling Roman power but with the dawning Christian culture and its challenges?

Yochi Brandes

Can you imagine their bewilderment—a mixture of awe and suspicion—when the illiterate shepherd who married far above his station bloomed in exile from his wife, Rachel, until he took his place among them and then became their master?

Yochi Brandes imagines these scenes and many more in this astonishing novel that expands our understanding of how early modern Judaism and Christianity began. The book is centered on the powerful fable concerning Rabbi Akiva’s ascendancy and is dressed in all of the surrounding, attendant history—in particular the Bar Kokhba revolt against the Romans. . . .

The full Jewish Book Council review may be found at JBC – The Orchard

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A thriller that spills over into the literary fiction genre

City of Endless Night, by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child. Grand Central Publishing. 368 pages. Hardcover $28.00.

Now that one member of this writing team, Lincoln Child, has established a winter residence in Sarasota, I have the pleasure of reviewing their new book in my “Florida Writers” column. Though each author has published notable fiction as a solo writer, their jointly written Pendergast Novel series has perhaps provided more best sellers. This one is certainly a dazzler. 

New York Police Department Lieutenant Vincent D’Agosta has been assigned to the case, a search for a tech tycoon’s missing daughter. But then her body is discovered in an abandoned warehouse – headless! Now it’s a gruesome murder investigation. D’Agosta is please to discover that genius FBI Special Agent Pendergast is also assigned to the case.

There is a ton of pressure to solve this horrible crime. Fortunately, both D’Agosta and the legendary Pendergast handle pressure well, though their styles are quite different. Much of the pleasure in this addictive novel is how Preston and Child build such intriguing, distinctive major characters.

The pressure thermometer increases as more headless victims turn up. Why this horrifying signature? What possible motive? Is there one murderer or a bunch of copycats? Are such heinous crimes a symptom of a diseased city?

Preston & Child

The working out of the plot, and the series of beheadings, requires the efforts of many additional law enforcement professionals. The authors handle these subordinate figures well, providing just enough individuality for each so they don’t seem like merely walk-on parts.

The FBI and NYPD are not the only investigative forces at work. New York Post reporter Bryce Harrington is planning a long uptick in his career as the person who reveals the “decapitator.” He stirs things up with an emphasis on how the one percent (the phenomenally rich and privileged New Yorkers) exploit the ninety-nine percent. Maybe the motive – and the disease – is connected to this huge imbalance of power. Maybe someone is righting the scales by bringing down the powerful. Vengeance may be driving the series of crimes. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the February 15, 2018 Naples Florida Weekly, click here: Florida Weekly – City of Endless Night

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Renowned scientists offer keys to The Keys

Geology of the Florida Keys, by Eugene A. Shinn and Barbara H. Lidz. University Press of Florida. 160 pages. Hardcover  $34.95.

How did the Florida Keys come into existence? What forces continue to work upon this island chain and the countless neighboring coral reefs? What threatens these geological marvels? Such broad questions and many narrower ones are explored and tentatively answered in this handsome volume.  Although the study attempts to be “as nontechnical as possible,” it is nonetheless a major challenge even for the committed student who has at least a general background in geology.  

The authors do not attempt a full geological history of the processes leading to the present situation; however, most readers will be content with engaging only the last 130,000 years!

Before the hard science begins, readers are presented with a multifaceted overview of the Keys. This synopsis includes social history, scientific interest and research, demographic change, freshwater intrusions on the environment, and the short-lived period of oil exploration.

Then the authors plunge into the intricate and interactive processes, particularly how the shifts in sea elevation and movement affect the sedimentary activity. The formation and character of limestone is the key factor in understanding the geology of the Keys.

The chapter on data gathering and mapmaking is filled with interesting details about data collection and the technology of measuring structural characteristic by using explosives, bursts of air, and high voltage pulses. In this chapter readers will also find a detailed definition of “what is a reef?”

The following chapter examines “Major Geomorphic Topographies,” include the area known as White Bank. Throughout, the effects of rising sea levels over time is discussed and regularly underscored.

The next two chapters engage, respectively, the “Western Terminus of the Reef Tract” and, of great interest for future planning, “Coral Health, or Lack Thereof.” In the latter, the authors examine the various factors affecting climate change and the likely outcomes to the keys and reefs of such change.

A final chapter reproduces a geological/biological field trip, setting a model for hands-on experience that productively interfaces with studying professional scientific literature. . . .

To read the full review, as it appears in the February 8, 2018 Naples Florida Weekly, click here: Florida Weekly – Geology of the Florida Keys

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Author brews an unexpected antidote for a poisoned world

The Taster, by V. S. Alexander. Kensington Books. 336 pages. Trade paperback $15.95.

Here is a totally gripping and credible imagining of how a young German woman was affected by the building chaos and cruelty during the late stages of Hitler’s rule. It gains its power through the very special perspective of its main character, who is also the narrator. In 1943, Magda Ritter leaves her parents’ endangered Berlin home seeking employment in a part of Germany less in the path of the war. Though she finds Hitler’s leadership abominable, she takes a position at his Berghof mountain retreat, and she mostly keeps her thoughts to herself. 

Her main job is to be a food taster, one of several protecting the despicable Führer from attempts on his life. Magda learns how to recognize poisons and how to control her fear of dying to save the beast. She makes friends and some enemies. In a place like this, dominated by true believers, its important to play along with the party line and not show your true thoughts or feelings. Indeed, your life depends on living a lie.

Despite her caution, Magda will find some people who share her views and are alarmed at Hitler’s menacing actions which are taking Germany in a nightmarish direction. Most notably, she falls in love with Karl, an SS officer, who belongs to a growing cadre of conspirators against the Reich. At first, they keep their relationship secretive; later, they can be more open about it – especially when Hitler seems to sponsor their relationship and urges them to have many children for the Reich.

Magda is befriended by Eva Braun, Hitler’s lady friend, which is a mixed blessing as the intelligent, attractive, and otherwise perceptive woman is clearly in thrall to the master deceiver. Nonetheless, Eva exhibits generosity and compassion – at least in Mr. Alexander’s version.

Alexander

Hitler stays on the move to make his location unpredictable. He travels among various retreats that serve as temporary headquarters. A large entourage travels with him, and the more and more indispensable Magda is among the group. Each of these places has a distinct personality. . . .

To enjoy the entire review, as it appears in the February 1, 2018 Naples  Florida Weekly as well as in the Charlotte County edition, click here:  Florida Weekly – The Taster

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A trio of gruesome murders raises questions about Wall Street shenanigans

Perish, by Lisa Black. Kensington. 320 pages. Hardcover $26.00.

This is Ms. Black’s third Gardiner and Renner novel, and there are some signs that it might be the last. I hope not. These thrillers are so reliably macabre, so brimming with fascinating forensic detail, and so well-crafted that I’d hate to see this odd couple break up. This one begins with a bang and never lets up.

Cleveland forensic expert Maggie Gardiner has never seen a body so decimated. The gorgeous leader of the Sterling Financial operation has been pretty much shredded. Although blood is all around, the clever killer has left no trace of his (or her) entrance or exit. Nothing has been stolen. Nothing revealing has been left behind. The kind of forensic evidence that is Maggie’s bread and butter just isn’t there. No break-in. No furniture tossing. The most curious item is a suspicious statement, in plain view, of a $600,000,000 Panamanian account in Joanna’s name.

Lisa Black

How did this young woman put together such a fortune? Did she make enemies in the process?

Secretive Joanna Moorehouse’s lacerated throat seems a gruesome icon of the cutthroat world in which she has become a major player. Who would want her dead? Those who lost their homes by being conned into taking out unaffordable mortgages? Or who had supposed fixed-rate loans turned into adjustable ones? Perhaps. How about her business rivals? Or maybe members of the firm who might ascend to the throne? Did she dump her boy-toy?

Working with the police team of Jack Renner and Tom Riley, Maggie needs to find the answer. Sorting through the possible suspects connected with Sterling Financial means sorting through the intricacies of their work practices. To open readers to this world, which echoes the situation leading to the 2008 financial collapse, Ms. Black gives us an amazingly readable lesson in the shoddy business of bundled mortgage derivatives and related financial chicanery. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the January 25, 2018  Naples and Palm Beach editions of Florida Weekly, click here:  Florida Weekly – Perish

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Debut novel illuminates the boundaries of community, connectedness, and identity

The Other Side of Everything: A Novel, by Lauren Doyle Owens. Touchstone. 272 pages. Hardcover $25.00.

Lauren Doyle Owens, who lives in the Fort Lauderdale area and has set her first novel there, is someone to watch. She has written a stunning literary murder mystery that is at once a nailbiter and a brilliantly nuanced evocation of how communities work and don’t work. How proximity to others does not create a neighborhood, how aging in place can foster a misery of isolation as contemporaries pass away and new neighbors remain strangers. 

Ms. Owens builds her novel around three major characters whose situations and perspective rotate through the novel. Bernard White, about to turn eighty, has lived in the suburban community called Seven Springs for decades and witnessed its socio-economic changes. Since his wife’s death, he has become increasingly withdrawn. When he sees smoke rising from his neighbor’s house, he calls 911 and awaits the firemen, police, and paramedics. The fire seems to have covered a murder. But why Adel? Who really knows her, anyway?

Bernard feels helpless in the situation, somehow responsible for what happened. The tragedy wakes up the neighborhood, leading Bernard to begin a tentative re-engagement.

Lauren Doyle Owens / photo by Summer Weinstein

Amy Unger, a cancer survivor, spots the fire on her way home. Once a promising artist, she thought briefly of photographing or sketching the scene. But she is not yet ready. She is still cowed by her husband’s disdain for her avocation. The marriage has gone cold, and Pete’s business trips are far too frequent and extended.

Maddie Lowe, fifteen and suffering from her mother having abandoned the family, works in a restaurant near school and home. She attempts to take care of her brother, and she attempts friendship with a homeless man, Charlie, who comes into the restaurant regularly. Her need for respectful attention is met in part by a neighborhood college student whose advances flatter her. However, her sexual awakening has a raw edge to it. She is a child being pushed into adulthood way to fast and yet meeting her challenges with a surprising degree of effectiveness.

Murders of elderly women in the neighborhood continue. These are not random. The killer has an agenda. What’s his motive? Is he an outsider, or someone in their midst? . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the January 17, 2018 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the January 18 Naples, Bonita Springs, Charlotte County, and Palm Beach editions, click here: Florida Weekly – Owens.

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Touring America with soaring dancers as your guides

Dance Across the USA, by Jonathan Givens. Eps Pub. 306 pages. Oversized trade paperback. $39.95.

In his beautiful and inspiring book, Mr. Givens celebrates the United States, especially its dedication to maintaining parks, preserves, forests and other natural areas owned collectively by citizens; the separate states plus DC individually; and the art, excitement, and pleasure of dance.

Mr. Givens raised money to make an ambitious tour with an ambitious mission. In his modified Nissan van named Buford, he crossed over 22,000 miles of America in 90 days. The trip took him to all 50 states plus Washington, DC. Developing his route and choosing his settings carefully, he took photographs in 56 locations. While most of these locations are relatively untrammeled by buildings, he couldn’t resist urban places like New York City’s Grand Central Terminal. National Parks play an important role in this hymn to nature, but so do smaller and less known recreational areas: Lakes and streams, ocean coasts, mountains, canyons – even swamps.

Sometimes a setting includes a distinctive structure that grabs the photographer’s attention.

There are no crowd scenes in this collection, which is just as much focused on the figure in the landscape as it is on the landscape. The figure is a dancing person frozen in time. Most of these figures are girls and young women. Perhaps the average age is 14 or 15, though some are much younger and a few considerably older. There are very few male dancers. The statistical outcomes have to do with who showed up for the advertised opportunities to participate. The author-photographer aimed at inclusiveness, but he didn’t force it. 

Each dancer seems embraced by the selected setting. One can sense reverberations between the monumental, imposing stages and the smallish figures. These dancers seem illuminated in a way that strengthens the image, balances it against the magnitude of the setting. Dancers are the foreground. They seem to leap out of or above the place, defining it while being defined by it.

Indeed, a great number of the photos are of girls in flight. Not fleeing, but flying. They leap in ballet poses that enhance the sense of their physical fitness, elegance, and beauty. But mostly what comes across, in part because many of them were invited to talk about their experience as dancers, is their strong sense of self – their distinctive personalities.

Indeed, the voices of the dancers show that they themselves are inspired as well as inspirational. Listen to 13-year old Sonja Giardina at the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park:

“Before written language, before the spoken word, there existed the language of the body. A raw form of personal expression unhindered by the boundaries of conscious thought. Dance is pure movement and emotion channeled into a manifestation of one’s true self.”

Givens

At the Theodore Roosevelt National Park (North Dakota), Ieree Lundin announces: “Dance tells the stories I can’t get out of my mouth . . . I dance with joy. I dance with fear. I dance to overcome.” See the photos of Ms. Lundin and you will believe her words. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the January 10, 2018 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the January 11 Naples and Charlotte County editions, click here: Florida Weekly – Givens

 

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The Hapsburg Variation: A Cold War Thriller

  • By Bill Rapp. Coffeetown Press. 264 pges. Trade paperback $15.95.

A CIA agent’s mettle is tested in this tale of post-WWII intrigue.   

Vienna, indeed all of Central Europe, is a place of uncertainty in 1955. The major post-WWII forces are working hard to move beyond the uncertainties toward stability. In this powerful historical novel, that movement is centered on the State Treaty among the former Allied nations. This treaty will restore Austria’s independence and rid it of occupying forces.

As the time for the signing approaches, the nations invested in the outcome keep jockeying for position. It is not clear if all parties wish the treaty to succeed. Maintaining influence remains the goal of Great Britain, the U.S., France, Germany, and the Soviet Union.

The intelligence agencies are the key players, and CIA agent Karl Baier, stationed in Vienna, is part of the U.S. government team hoping to avoid an outcome that positions Austria as a neutral entity. Soviet motives and moves are suspect. Baier is a complex, well-developed professional who has been with the agency for eight years.

Baier finds himself involved in investigating the death of an Austrian aristocrat, a man who seems to have been trying to bring back the structure of the Hapsburg Empire. He has connections with the British and the Soviets, but the meaning of these connections is not clear.

Complicating Baier’s professional and personal life is the abduction and imprisonment of his wife.

Bill Rapp

Intrigue is everywhere, trust is hard to find, and needed information, let alone the interpretation of that information, seems hidden behind murky windows of indirection, suspicion, and fear.

Most of author Bill Rapp’s scenes are built on conversations between Baier and his colleagues or counterparts. The flavor of these exchanges is nightmarish. Representatives of supposedly cooperating agencies are busy trying to pry into each other’s heads, attempting to gain knowledge without giving away anything. It’s clear to Baier that even those in his CIA cadre hold things back. Therefore, the accumulation of information is a slow and unsteady process. All involved fear being compromised — or worse.

The conversations go around in circles and barely move Baier forward. Readers will share his frustration, and Rapp runs the huge risk of losing them even as his characters move on with their mind games.

When a narrative depends this much on dialogue, that dialogue ought to accomplish something beyond setting up smokescreens. While this technique captures a valuable verisimilitude, one is tempted to skip much of it and look for the next action sequence.

In scenes with greater action and less of the artfully phony chatter, Rapp more readily holds readers’ attention. When Baier checks to make sure he isn’t being followed, for instance, we feel his anxiety and appreciate his tradecraft. When Baier evaluates meeting places or notes the hide-and-seek of carefully orchestrated seating arrangements at clandestine gatherings, the author has his readers in thrall. . . .

For the full review, published in Washington Independent Review of Books, click here:  The Hapsburg Variation

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A speedy, short, slick, and satisfying addition to Michael Bennet detective series

Manhunt, by James Patterson with James O. Born. BookShots. 144 pages. Paperback $4.99. Kindle Ebook $3.99.

The BookShots imprint is a new line in the Little, Brown publishing domain. These are titles that are long on action, story-driven, and easy to read in an evening. Bestseller king James Patterson considers these “among his best novels of any length.” By partnering with other writers, Mr. Patterson has stepped up his productivity (which was always high).  Writing shorter books helps as well.  

These books seem aimed at readers of digital versions. As the author says, you can enjoy them “on a commute” (let’s hope this means in a vehicle you are not driving), “or even on your cell phone during breaks at work.” Indeed, there is a handy app for downloading BookShots titles to your smart phone or tablet.

This title is part of the highly successful “A Michael Bennet Story” series. Written in a partnership by two Floridians, it justifies Mr. Patterson’s recent practice of inviting a co-author to the writing party.

Its Thanksgiving Day in New York, and the action begins with Michael and almost all the members of his family are out on the street with a good view of that great institution – Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Even with the hyper vigilance of the New York City Police Department, something resembling the cliché terrorist pattern occurs. A white truck slams into a crowd of spectators, and Michael barely has the time to grab and rescue his daughter Shawna.

Patterson

The driver exits his truck and shouts “Hawqala.”

Michael attempts to take control of the scene, safeguarding his family as well as others nearby. Then the driver detonates an explosive device that sends the truck’s roof thirty feet into the air, from which it crashes straight down. Pandemonium has broken loose. Oddly, there are very few patrolmen nearby. Many had been hurt, some were aiding victims, and “no one was chasing the perp.”

Michael follows the driver of the truck and is about to overtake him, but the man makes his escape.

It’s a great cityscape action sequence, ready for the movies.

Born

Being the key witness, Michael reports what he knows and works with the sketch artist. Before long, the FBI takes over the case and expects the local police to hang back yet be supportive. Michael makes an uneasy truce with agent Dan Santos, who introduces him to the gorgeous Darya Kuznetsova, the FBI’s liaison from the Russian Embassy. She convinces Michael that she can provide a valuable perspective.

It turns out that the perpetrator is most likely a Russian speaker from Kazakhstan. That news leads Michael and Darya to Russian immigrant neighborhoods where Darya’s cultural knowledge is an asset. Michael is impressed with her for standing up to the FBI team leader. She makes it clear that Russia has many more terrorist attacks to deal with than the U.S. does. Perhaps she has more than one kind of expertise to share. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the January 3, 2018 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the January 4 Naples, Charlotte County, and Palm Beach editions, click here:  Florida Weekly – Manhunt

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