Category Archives: Florida Authors

Racial tension threatens aircraft carrier, commander

No Salvation, by Jeffery Hess. Down & Out Books. 312 pages. Trade paperback $18.95.

The USS Salvation is a huge aircraft carrier that is part of a fleet patrolling in the South China Sea during the final months of the Vietnam War. It is a perfect microcosm setting, a floating island of tedium, outrage, hostility, pain, fear, and overworked bravado. It is 1972, and racial tension is high: perhaps nowhere higher than on a pressure-cooker at sea where the sailors are virtually imprisoned by the nature of the wartime situation. 

It’s been a long time since anyone has left the carrier.

That racial tension and its accompanying violence have become a major problem is no secret to the ship’s captain. He has decided to make his new Executive Office (XO) an up-and-coming commander named Robert Porter, who is one of the most carefully drawn major characters in the book and perhaps the one most likely to receive the reader’s sympathy, the linchpin for tamping down hostilities.

Perhaps chosen less for his illustrious record than for the fact that he is Afro-American, Porter immediately finds himself in a difficult position. His very success as an officer who has pleased his white superiors has pegged him as an “Uncle Tom,” with all the baggage that such a label conveys.

Black sailors, including those with some rank, have been sabotaging the ship’s overall effectiveness. They seem to be ready for an internal war with their white shipmates – and, indeed, they mount a most unpeaceful demonstration to demand equal treatment equal to that of the whites.

Hess

The ship has other problems. Drug use is rampant and the source of an unofficial economy among the abusers and the dealers. The ship’s cobbler runs the narcotic business and related ventures.

Mr. Hess has given himself a complex challenge, that of bringing readers close to the reality of this enormous vessel and the huge number of individuals who keep it functioning, both technically and as a complex amalgam of duties, skills, backgrounds, and personalities. He has done a marvelous job, though readers will find their memories tested by the large number of characters, their stake in the enterprise, and the astounding size of their temporary home in a physical structure that contains so many levels, so much task-specific work space, living spaces for four thousand men, and dangers. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the July 10, 2019 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the July 11 Naples, Bonita Springs, Charlotte County, Venice, and Palm Beach editions, click here: Florida Weekly – No Salvation

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Memoir offers lost souls a viable path to self-respect and renewal

The Burn Zone: A Memoir, by Renee Linnell. She Writes Press. 305 pages. Trade Paperback $16.95.

Heartbreaking as it is, this is a most important book. It is the harrowing journey of an accomplished, multi-talented woman whose need for spiritual enhancement leads her into a trap. Though it took too many years for her to admit it to herself, and even more years for her to extricate herself, the author had become the prey of a cult. In the name of bringing her gift of enlightenment and true peace of mind, her teachers turned her into a psychological slave.

Ms. Linnell, who grew up in Florida, was a vibrant, adventurous seeker who became an abused woman. Sometimes she knew it, sometimes she didn’t. In a way, being the target of abuse gave her some degree of definition, but of course such an identity is not much to build upon.

Renee (will keep it in the first person from now on) was physically slight, but nonetheless she had trained her body as a surfer and a processional dancer. She had the kind of looks that made her a successful surf model.

Renee Linnell

And beside body, she had brains and she put them to good use. She earned an MBA for NYU and she was a successful entrepreneur. Some of these accomplishments took place under the influence of the teachers whose brand of Buddhism denied her worth and attacked what they called her oversized ego; Renee accomplished more once she had freed herself from their destructive, perhaps psychotic, influence.

Though the narrative is mostly chronological, there are times when segments of Renee’s life are set against one another without temporal continuity. Vignettes become linked by thematic overlap or in the simple way that one memory triggers another. Changes of mood can be abrupt. Success and failure, however judged and by whom, knock against one another, sometimes rapid-fire.

It takes a long time for Renee to define herself in a healthy way, to offer herself the respect FROM herself that she deserves.

Readers will find themselves sympathetic to Renee, but they will also find themselves silently foretelling disasters she has set herself up for by trusting her mentors and rewarding their exploitation. “Renee,” one might think, “why didn’t you see this coming?”

To read the entire review, as it appears in the June 26, 2019 issue of Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the June 27 Naples, Bonita Springs, Charlotte County, and Venice editions, click here:  Florida Weekly – The Burn Zone 

Renee Linnell is a serial entrepreneur who has founded or co-founded five companies. Currently she serves on the board of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation and is also working on starting a publishing company to give people from diverse walks of life an opportunity to tell their stories. Ms. Linnell has an Executive Masters in Business Administration from New York University. She grew up in Florida and visits there frequently while otherwise dividing her time between Colorado and Southern California.

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Storms of the heart bring violence, catharsis

Mine, by Courtney Cole. Gallery Books. 304 pages. Original Trade Paperback $16.00.

This scorching-hot novel of infidelity, its causes, and its consequences is structured as a two-narrator duet in which harmony is unlikely. Accomplished and confident Tessa is taken by surprise when she discovers that there is a rival for her husband’s favor. At forty, and with three children and a booming career, she felt she and Ethan were on a steady path.

Twenty-six-year-old Lindsey, gorgeous but insecure about everything except her good looks, has set her sights on Ethan, whom she met online. She offers him literally everything, using her neediness as a weapon. 

Ms. Cole has clearly distinguished her two combatants. She has pitched their voices perfectly to capture the many contrasts in their personalities.

As a coastal Florida storm intensifies into a hurricane, blocking Ethan’s return home from a business trip. A glance at Ethan’s iPad turns Tessa’s world upside down. Ethan has been having a sex-tinged flirtation with a beautiful younger woman whose seductive photos are a challenge and a threat to his wife.

Courtney Cole photo by Christine Arnold

Alternating chapters reveal the two women’s thoughts, emotions, and words. Readers get to know them, and a clever plot device forces them to get to know one another.

Throughout the novel, the hurricane is effectively used as a metaphor for the darkness and danger of the women’s emotional situation.

There are interesting ironies that affect the relationship between Tessa and Lindsey. Not the least of these is that Lindsey, a nursing student, saves Colt, Tessa and Ethan’s oldest child, when he has what could have been a terminal bout with his serious disease. Not only must Tessa thank Lindsey for saving the young man’s life, but she begins to see Lindsey as a person with more dimensions than husband-snatcher.

Seeing the two women in the context of their families provides for engaging contrasts. Tessa’s accomplished brood of two sons and a daughter (her other children are Connor and Ava) reflects Tessa’s care and expectations. Ethan has been in the picture, but Tessa is the driving force. Reader’s learn little about the older generation – Tessa or Ethan’s parents.

On the other hand, there is a well-turned portrait of Lindsey’s mother, who has become the caretaker for Lindsey’s eight-year-old son, Logan, since Lindsey’s situation does not leave her with the resources or confidence to be raising him. Lindsey’s mother, a practical person, perceives and announces the many flaws that she finds with Lindsey’s decisions and expectations. She scolds her regularly.

There are several large-scale flareups between Tessa and Lindsey . . . .

To read the full review, as it appears in the June 19, 2019 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the June 20 Naples, Bonita Springs, Charlotte County, and Palm Beach editions, click here: Florida Weekly – Mine

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Moving ahead requires inventorying ugly truths from the past

Moral Inventory, by Tara Johnson. Austin Macauley. 154 pages. Trade paperback $10.95.

An intervention program named Helping Hands has, with her alcoholic mother’s connivance and permission, yanked young Elizabeth out of her downward spiraling life and provided a structure of rewards, punishments, and self-evaluation that might save her. At seventeen, she had found herself flattered by the attentions, muscles, and rebelliousness of Marcus, an unemployed predator several years too old for her. His controlling nature had become intolerable, though he had ways of making her feel important as well.

Not seeing him is part of her path to staying off drugs and making a meaningful, respectable life for herself.

Ms. Johnson’s portrait of about a half year in Elizabeth’s life is extremely vivid. It is a harrowing emotional ride in which the young woman’s intelligence is at war with her bad habits, including dangerous dependencies.

Elizabeth wavers between taking the lessons and regimen of Helping Hands to heart and merely playing the game of going along while looking for an out. Her life is on hold until she finishes the program – or runs away from it. She meets other young adults working their way through the program and in some cases assisting the director, Mrs. Stein. There is a well -constructed hierarchy of relationships and responsibilities that offers hope.

Readers will grasp the importance of such a “tough love” program, yet also understand Elizabeth’s ambivalent attitude and inconsistent behavior.

While the focus of the novel is Elizabeth’s struggles and successes within the confines of the Helping Hands structure, Ms. Johnson paints Elizabeth’s life and personality with a broader brush through flashbacks. The author clarifies the effects of Elizabeth’s father’s disappearance and her mother’s alcohol problem on Elizabeth’s early years.

Tara Johnson

The flashbacks include Elizabeth’s friendships with other girls and with temporary boyfriends. Her home environment places her in a low socio-economic class without the tools to transcend it. Though Elizabeth has a strong love for her mother, she also feels bitter about the unsought responsibility of dealing with a desperate drunk. At times, she is forced to take over the parent role. . . .

To read the full review, as it appears in the May 15, 2019 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the May 16 Naples, Fort Myers, Bonita Springs, Charlotte County, and Palm Beach editions, click here and see lower half of page: Florida Weekly – Moral Inventory

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A lesson in Florida’s fresh water crisis worth reading and understanding

“Drying Up: The Fresh Water Crisis in Florida,” by John M. Dunn. University Press of Florida. 272 pages. Hardcover $24.95.

Mr. Dunn, an experienced journalist, educator, and water advocate, puts the Florida particulars of the world-wide fresh water crisis before readers in an accessible, well-researched, and well-balanced study. The information is, in fact, horrifying. The warnings have been around for so long, people of good will have worked so diligently, and yet for a host of reasons the steps taken have often been misguided or insufficient. 

There is a war going on between those who use and abuse fresh water selfishly and those who truly recognize that the clock is ticking. While local jurisdictions issue building permits nonstop and new communities spring up overnight fed by new roads and hooked to the water infrastructure, their inevitable paved over appeal threatens the water supply by blocking drainage into the soil, while the sheer number of new users threatens it even further.

This battle rages almost everywhere. In Florida, the issues are complicated by the invasions of stupidity and greed that have crippled irreplaceable ecological wonders, most notably the Everglades. “Big Sugar,” dependent on the astronomical use of fertilizers that pollute the waters and overcharge plant growth while harming wildlife, threatens whatever is in its way. Lawyers and lobbyists prevail.

John Dunn – Credit SusanDunn

Reading through this book is a pleasure because of its carefully structured chapters and subchapters. Though the material is abundant and often complex, the packaging is extremely reader-friendly. Readers can set their own pace, and there is just enough repetition of key concepts and issues to create emphasis with the downside of tedium.

Here’s an example of concept clarification:

When one washes a car, most of the water eventually rejoins the aquifer. So that water is used, but not consumed. Some of the water evaporates, and some is relocated through the stormwater system. That water is used and consumed. Such distinctions run through the book, building a lexicon of critical terminology.

Running through the many chapters, more prominent in some than in others, is a well-turned geological history of Florida. This history, voiced eloquently and vividly by Mr. Dunn, is essential background for his detailed treatment of our recent centuries: Florida from the Industrial Revolution to the present time. Many of the most consequential chapters involve attempts to re-engineer the flow of water through the state, from Lake Okeechobee downward: attempts that have had questionable intended consequences and dangerous – indeed calamitous – unintended consequences. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in May 8, 2019 Fort Myers Florida Weekly, the May 9 Naples, Bonita Springs, and Palm Beach editions, and the May 16 Venice edition, click here:  Florida Weekly – Drying Up

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ISIS vs the Catholic Church: a Thriller

The Canonical Order, by T. R. Kurtz. 318 pages. Trade paperback $9.99. Kindle E-book $4.99.

This supercharged techno-spy thriller has it all. First of all, it has an intriguing premise. Kurtz imagines that the Catholic Church has developed a first-class intelligence operation with resources comparable to those of the superpowers. The Canonical Order is that impressive force, and it is presented as a late incarnation of the ancient Knights of Malta. Kurtz’s protagonist, Chad Stryker, is a highly experienced and outlandishly skilled former CIA agent who now works with the Canonical Order and has mastered its amazing resources. He is a leader of Black Swan, its covert action arm.

Why would the Vatican need such a warlike entity? Because a radical Islamist supergroup, led by a pair of Chechen brothers loyal to the Islamic State, has plans to destroy the Catholic Church and, by extension, all of Christianity.

Indeed, the Pope has been shot and is severely wounded.

What is amazing is the author’s ability to make his premise seem plausible. He has crafted a dynamic, suspenseful tale in which all of the many and often unexpected details fit together.

Stryker’s mission seems motivated in part by his need to redeem himself for any missteps he might have taken during the later stages of his wife’s death from a rare form of cancer. The portrait of the lovers’ relationship is powerfully drawn, and though Jennifer must always be offstage, she is as well-developed as any of the book’s many important characters.

Kurtz

Novices in the field of espionage and security countermeasures won’t know if Kurtz’s descriptions of the Order’s tools are accurate or not. However, they sure are appetizing. Devices are programmed to guide, respond to, and refine the parameters of the task at hand. Artificial intelligence seems to be blended with human assessments. Stryker is assisted by something called the “e-Mission Manager” that is as important as his Canonical Order human associates: namely, D’Orio, Moldovan, and the brains-and-beauty-blessed Sonia Navarre.  Another resource is curiously named MILEAGE.

However, as the mission progresses, it becomes clear that the outcomes are not what was hoped for or expected. Some tools have been improperly calibrated or otherwise compromised.

Dedicated readers will find out by whom and why.

Chad Stryker’s action tools include weaponized gear of all kinds. He has outfits that disguise and protect him, while hiding an array of immediately accessible, personal armaments. One imagines a world at techno-war in which new kinds of haberdashery adorn the compatible, superbly-trained agent.

Well-chosen bible passages connect chapter titles with the moral and “end-of-world” motifs of the action.

Kurtz is adept at describing intriguing settings and putting readers on the spot of the action. A long sequence set in Dubai engagingly establishes the interplay of character and place. Scenes in Kurdistan and elsewhere are similarly effective.

T. R Kurtz’s first novel has the makings of a best-seller, and its inventive imagery could inspire a movie.

Where did all this potentially history-changing imagining come from? . . . .

The full article, with  capsule profile and interview in the May-June 2019 Ft. Myers Magazine, has the answers.  You can read them by clicking here: CanonicalOrder

 

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Florida: at once a real place and a state of mind

“Florida,” by Lauren Groff. Riverhead Books. 288 pages. Hardcover $27.00.

The eleven short stories in this daring, luminous book reveal, in various and complex ways, the truth of the poetic adage in John Milton’s “Paradise Lost”: “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.” We carry our minds with us, wherever we reside. We can’t get away from who we are. Forget about blaming your troubles on your environment.

Lauren Groff photo by Kristin Kozelsky

The narrators in most of these stories, especially the recurring one with two small sons and only the pronoun “she” for a name, suffer from being too self-aware. They have expectations of themselves that sometimes seem imprisoning. They have intellectual and creative tools that are burdensome. They can wear their friends out by being unintentionally demanding.

They are lonely, and they are worthy.

If you are a person who often feeling threatened, imagine how much additional threat you would feel living in a place brimming with snakes and alligators, real and metaphorical sinkholes, and violent storms. A place like Florida.

Through the book, Ms. Groff builds conundrums of inner and outer weather, interweaving landscapes with emotional states. 

Ms. Groff understands North Florida communities like a native. She is alert to neighborhood changes – sometimes gentrification, sometimes something worse. The unnamed judgmental character who narrates the first story, “Ghosts and Empires,” is an evening walker who enjoys scrutinizing those she meets or merely sees or expects to see along the way. She measures her distance from those she knows and those who remain strangers, and she measures how quickly time is passing her by.

In another story, the author focuses on a young man, the son of a herpetologist, who has “learned how to keep a calm heart when touching fanged things.” Also, how to survive the distance between his mother’s and his father’s polar sensibilities.

Ms. Groff can pinpoint the loneliness and sense of isolation that breeds within members of the same families. And she is alert—makes readers alert – to such things as “how the screens at night pulsed with the tender bellies of lizards.” She knows how houses express themselves. Her imagery is consistently fresh, vivid, and unexpected. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the April 25, 2019 Naples, Bonita Springs, and Palm Beach editions of Florida Weekly, and the May 1 Fort Myers and May 2 Charlotte County editions, click here: Florida Weekly – Florida 

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Miami a major setting in spellbinding thriller with gruesome killings

Verses for the Dead, by Douglas Prescott and Lincoln Child. Grand Central Publishing. 352 pages. Hardcover $28.00.

Billed as “A Pendergast Novel,” this latest entry in the thriller series about a legendary, iconoclastic FBI superstar is brimming with suspense, surprise, and imagination. Fabled rulebreaker A. X. L. Pendergast, always at odds with FBI standard procedure, must take an assignment that keeps him on the payroll by agreeing to accept a partner. What a restraining humiliation! However, this premise allows the authors to build a new, unique character, Special Agent Coldmoon, whose Native American heritage brings a special flavor to the table. 

The assignment has the men prowling around every kind of Miami neighborhood to find out facts and discover the psychopath behind a series of outrageously gruesome killings. The killer skillfully excises the hearts of his victims and places them against gravestones in Miami cemeteries.

He also leaves behind strange letters filled with literary allusions and quotations. The perpetrator has taken for himself the name Mr. Brokenhearts

Want more? Each of the grave holds the remains of a woman who, years ago, committed suicide.

The perpetrator seems to be conducting a ritual of his own crazed making that is in some ways a form of expiation.

Centers of interest include the interaction between Pendergast and this somewhat resentful FBI superiors, the FBI’s interaction with local police departments, the growing relationship between Pendergast and Coldmoon, and the dogged if often irregular investigatory process.

Preston and Child

The large cast of intriguing characters provides many who are in themselves centers of interest. These include a modestly successful journalist, Roger Smithback, who makes a big, if short-lived, splash through his coverage of the case. Dr. Charlotte Fauchet, of the medical examiner’s office, puts in the beyond-the-call-of-duty hours that change the direction of the inquiry.

Another fascinating character, once discovered and confronted by the FBI duo, is the killer – a fellow who for all of his murderous deeds qualifies as someone to pity for the miserable life that had been handed to him. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the April 10, 2019 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the April 11 Bonita Springs, Charlotte County,  and Venice editions, and the April 18 Naples edition, click here: Florida Weekly – Verses for the Dead

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Balancing the thrill of adventure with level-headed caution

Ten Elephants Ten Memories, by Ellen Gordon. Mascot Books. 304 pages. Hardcover $19.95.

This is one of those books that takes the reader – even the reviewer – by surprise. At first glance, it seems too quirky to gain an audience, what with its elephant toys and statuary, the saga of the iconoclastic great aunt, and the heroine’s adventures in Australia. However, it has a addictive charm and generates a highly pleasurable experience, despite the hardships of its protagonist.

Ellen Gordon

We meet small town Ohio girl Cate Kingston when she is quite young, spending highly pleasurable time in the company of her eccentric Aunt B, whose spacious and dazzling nearby home is named Chartres. Cate grows up, in part, on her great aunt’s fabulous stories, many of them ending with an experience that is memorialized by a gift Aunt B has received – a fabricated elephant that takes its place in a lifelong collection. There is a great deal of variety in the collection, as there is in the memories that Aunt B recalls.

Cate’s story gains momentum as she grows into young womanhood. Her senior year in high school and her college years are marvelously rendered, especially Cate’s problems making friends and her very close relationship with her father, a veterinarian who also has a small farm. Cate’s identity is connected to the father and daughter riding horses together whenever they have the time. It’s a powerful bonding experience for her that ends with a powerful loss. Cate is also close to her mother, but in a very different way.

Cate’s own story takes the shape of a regularly disappointed search for the perfect mate, the disappointments perhaps predicated by her idealization of her father. One fellow seems too much like a big brother; another is too possessive. Other relationships seem to lose their passion and sense of fulfillment. Cate questions herself about these seemingly doomed relationships, but perhaps they serve to make her the complex, accomplished, and productive woman she becomes over time.

The author sets Cate into memorable historical events, notably the impact of the Vietnam War on Cate’s generation of college students and the related crisis of the Kent State shootings.

Ms. Gordon’s novel moves into a higher gear once Cate determines to shake up her frustrating life path by moving to Australia. Having credentials as a physical education teacher, she participates in a program that challenges and rewards her. However, as much as she loves many features of her new physical and cultural environment, many of her familiar habits reassert themselves. As the saying goes, “the mind is its own place,” and a person can’t get away from what’s inside of her simply by relocating. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the March 28, 2019 Naples,  Bonita Springs, and Charlotte County editions, and also in the April 3 Fort Myers and  the April 4 Palm Beach editions, click here:  Florida Weekly – Ten Elephants Ten Memories

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A delightfully complex Mediterranean adventure rooted in the past.

The Malta Escape, by Chris Kuzneski. Self-published. 390 pages. Hardback $27.99, Trade paperback $14.99.

It’s hard to understand why Mr. Kuzneski, whose earlier titles rang the cash register of a major trade publisher (the Berkley imprint of Penguin), is now his own publisher. One thing is sure: he’s not alone. Many best-selling authors have in one way or another been separated from high-profile publishers while continuing to satisfy readers. The Malta Escape should make his old fans happy and attract new readers as well. 

This is book 9 in his Payne and Jones series, the continuing tale of too brilliant buddies from different backgrounds with contrasting skill sets and a unique relationship. Jonathan Payne, a successful high-tech entrepreneur, is shifting gears, he is retiring from Payne Industries, the company built by his grandfather that has made him (and will keep him) rich.

As Jon thinks about the future, he also thinks back to his days in an elite special operations military unit, MANIAC. His buddy David Jones, who was second in command, has worked for Jon, but in most essential ways they are equals. They kid a lot about how the Caucasian Payne and the Afro-American Jones compete with and complement one another, each one always trying to outdo the other.

Now they join up for the latest in a series of globe-hopping adventures. Having come to Malta for a vacation, they are soon engaged in a quest to uncover – if it really exists – an unmatchable hoard of antique treasure hidden somewhere in or under the island nation.

Chris Kuzneski

At the outset, the narrative takes us to Estonia where a Russian named Bobrinksy working on his somewhat shady business in various kinds of rarities while hoping for a new and better life in the magic capital city of Tallinn. He is preyed upon by Ivan Volkov, to whom he owes money. Eventually, Volkov’s hunger for controlling others and amassing wealth will lead to a rivalry with Payne and Jones. Though our heroes would wish to simply recover the Malta treasure trove and make it a public resource, diabolical Volkov wants to control it for his own purposes.

The search requires extensive historical research, extremely detailed and complicated. Our team needs allies, and they find them. Among the team members are Marissa, a beautiful young woman who is an expert on Maltese history, and her idiosyncratic mentor. Readers will enjoy, as well, the eccentric Finn named Jarkko who has a good nose for clues and a magnificent yacht that plays an important part in the story.

So, of course, readers will need to spend some time in Finland. The story also has scenes in Switzerland, France, and Russia. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the March 21, 2019 Naples Florida Weekly, as well that dates Bonita Springs, Charlotte County, Palm Beach, and Venice  editions and March 27 Fort Myers edition, click  Florida Weekly – The Malta Escape

 

 

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