Category Archives: Florida Authors

Techno-thriller finds assassin troubled by shadowy double

Assassin’s Run, by Ward Larsen. Forge. 368 pages. Hardcover $26.99.

This is the fifth of Mr. Larsen’s David Slaton Novels, and it is an amazingly ambitious addition to an ambitious series. A former Mossad operative, Slaton finds himself in a situation in which all fingers point toward him when a series of skillful, high-tech assassinations take place. Now trying to live a no-profile domestic life in order to protect his wife and young son, Slayton knows that he must track down the killer whose efforts are endangering his loved ones and his desire for a tranquil family life.  

He finds himself in the middle of a complex adjustment of the world’s strategic order.

The victims of the unknown assassin are Russian oligarchs who are killed in various settings, each slain by a single bullet that has traveled what seems to be an impossibly long distance. The scenes that reveal how Slaton discovers the exotic technology that his double has been armed with and mastered set an extremely high standard. What Slaton discovers is a large caliber guided bullet that can be programmed and adjusted in a way that parallels the technology of a guided missile.

Larsen

Slaton is approached by CIA agent Anna Sorensen who engages him in an effort to find out why – and by whom – the super-wealthy associates of Russia’s government leader, Petrov, are being threatened.

A weighty handful of additional plot strands slowly become intertwined with the initial action. One involves the private, secretive retooling of retired Russian jet fighters (MiGs) as drones. Another concerns the high-security annual assembly of the extended Saudi royal family. Yet another strand details the convergent mission of three freighters owned by a private Russian combine. We meet Russian military officials, engineers, ship’s captains, and a wide variety of functionaries necessary to populated and sustain the overall plot.

We also, standing behind the characters or the narrator and looking over their shoulders, perceive fascinating vistas. Assassin’s Run is quite a travelogue, taking us to vividly described scenes in Capri, Vieste, Sebastopol, Amalfi, and Rome. We also visit CIA headquarters in Langley, Virgina; the Kremlin in Moscow; Davos, Switzerland; Marrakesh, Morocco; and a collection of other locations. Some visits provide extended views, others a snapshot. The settings feel authoritatively written, but one yearns for a map. . . .

  • To read the entire review, as it appears in the November 7, 2018 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the November 8 Bonita Springs edition, click here:  Florida Weekly – Assassin’s Run

Soon in other local editions. 

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A cautionary tale unfolds in a gemlike psychological thriller

Under My Skin, by Lisa Unger. Park Row Books. 368 pages. Trade Paperback Original $16.99.

Lisa Unger’s craft is so astonishing that it makes me want to cry tears of appreciative joy. Tears are also prompted by the harrowing situation of Ms. Unger’s main character, Poppy, as she tries to rebound from the hideous murder of her husband Jack. In the aftermath of the tragedy, Poppy blanked out for several days, coming to consciousness in a state of confusion. Her identity has been oddly transformed and her confidence shaken.  

With the help of a therapist, she has made a lot of progress in the year since Jack’s death, but she is frequently tormented by strange nightmares that might be distorted memories. Are bits and pieces of the lost days pressing for recognition? There are also other patches of time that she cannot recall. Moreover, she doesn’t trust herself to sort out what’s real and what’s the product of a dream-state.

Her goals are to fill in the blanks and to bring Jack’s murderer to justice. Then to pick up the pieces of her life and move forward.

Poppy’s path to health is thwarted by her abuse of pills and alcohol. She sabotages Dr. Nash’s therapy by lying to her. In her attempts to regain control of her life, she resists the overtures of her controlling best friend, Layla. She also resists the overtures of her controlling mother. Poppy needs to be in control; she needs to set limits on well-meaning intrusions on her autonomy.

Poppy lives in a state of fear; she is pathetically vulnerable.

She believes that she is being tracked by a hooded man who might be connected to Jack’s murder. Her attempts at gaining control show courage but also recklessness. Slowly, ever so slowly, she makes progress.

Important secondary characters include Detective Grayson, the NYPD policeman working the murder case, and a Neil, a man who makes metal sculptures. Neil is a shadowy figure from Poppy’s recent past now clearly an important part of her present. Both are protective of Poppy, but in very different ways and with different motives.

Poppy’s ordeal, her attempt to recapture the idealized memories of her married life, carries the unexpected strain of doubts about the true nature of her relationship with Jack, a relationship compromised by his responses to her two miscarriages. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the October 24, 2018 Fort Myers Florida Weekly, the October 25 Naples, Bonita Springs, and Venice editions, and the November 1 Palm Beach and Charlotte County editions, click  here: Florida Weekly – Under My Skin

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A series of grotesque murders ravages an institution for juvenile delinquents

Suffer the Children, by Lisa Black. Kensington Books. 320 pages. Hardcover $26.00.

This latest addition to the Gardiner and Renner Thriller series finds the skilled and dedicated forensics specialist Maggie Gardiner in a highly claustrophobic, menacing situation. She and her Cleveland police force colleagues – Jack Renner and his partner, Riley – visit an advanced multi-purpose institution to investigate what turns out to be the first in a series of murders. 

The Firebird Center for Children and Adolescents is a state-of-the-art juvenile detention center, part school and part prison. The inmate-pupils are grouped by age, by learning skills, and by social redeemability. Most, but not all, are victims of abuse, and too many are capable of abusive behavior. Few will ever be normal, but they might be able to stay out of trouble and lead productive lives. In some, sharp intelligence is warped toward brutal psychotic behavior. These are high-risk kids, to put it mildly.

They have psychological switches that go on and off, affecting behavior in unpredictable ways. They are master manipulators who can act normal.

They live in a controlled environment run by security personnel, therapists, and educators with special training. The institution’s leaders are constrained by delicate legal issues and marginal budgets.

Lisa Black, photo by Susan M. Klingbeil

Maggie’s task – discerning, collecting, and interpreting forensic evidence – is one center of interest. The other is how well Ms. Black uses Maggie’s reactions as a lens to enlighten readers about the nature of Firebird, including the personalities of individual children and staffers. Seeing what goes on there, even short of murder, is a harrowing experience. The admirable motives and skills of the professionals seem buried under a cloud. The inmates and the jailors share a no-win situation, and Lisa Black shows us why.

Are various children killing one another? Is a junior mastermind serial killer committing these horrendous crimes? If so, who is it? How are the victims chosen? Where will the evidence point? What will the motive be? Is it anything beyond blind, ungovernable aggression? . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the October 10, 2018 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the October 11 Naples and  Bonita Springs editions, and the October 18 Charlotte County edition, click here: Florida WeeklySuffer the Children

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Educating, entertaining fiction about seniors and assisted living

Don’t Admit You’re in Assisted Living – First Mystery: The Kiss, by Dorothy Seymour Mills. Blue Water Press LLC. 154 pages. Trade paperback $15.95.

This delightful three-part mystery series by Ms. Mills, who recently turned ninety, provides an insightful and humorous look at senior living communities. The author’s model for the setting, a place she calls Locksley Glen, is her Naples home of The Carlisle. However, she is writing fiction and she means for her exploration of such a community to be representative. Through this book, readers will journey into a world of people “who are past being active physically and whose ability to contribute to modern life is limited by physical decline and encroaching age-connected illness.” 

As the novel makes clear, these people, mostly women, are abundantly alive, curious, engaged, and brimming with experiential knowledge. They offer one another vital, shareable experience in a setting made to order for their needs.

When 80-year-old Locksley resident Clarence is spotted accepting a kiss from a young Greek waiter named Petros, the rumor mill starts grinding. Alice, the principal character and the narrator, wonders if this behavior – an elderly man showing sexual interest in a teenage employee – fits into the parameters of normality. What is the revealed relationship all about? What is the mystery behind the kiss?

Some speculation about sexual activity between senior citizens follows, but the question is left up in the air. It seems less and less important as another strange event take over the imaginations of the residents. Someone is stabbed during a Halloween party.

Dorothy Mills

Preparations for the party involve the creation of costumes. A most popular and attractive resident, Starr, borrows some paint from Alice, who is an artist about to have a significant exhibition of her paintings. Starr uses the paint to fashion a cardboard gun and knife as part of her outlaw cowboy costume. Somehow the imitation knife is replaced by a real one – a steak knife stolen from the Locksley Glen kitchen.  It ends up being used as a weapon in a real crime against Petros’s father, Tzannis Papadopoulos, who Petros had been trying to prevent from being allowed into the United States. Meanwhile, the cardboard knife is found to have real blood on it. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the September 27, 2018 Naples, Bonita Springs, and Palm Beach editions and the October 3 Fort Myers and Charlotte County editions, click here:  Assisted Living

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Blood, bullets,brutality abound in latest from Jeffery Hess

Tushhog, by Jefferey Hess. Down & Out Books. 330 pages. Trade paperback $17.95.

Set in 1981 in Fort Myers, Florida and nearby Lehigh Acres, Mr. Hess’s second Scotland Ross novel abounds in blood, bullets, and brutality. Rival crime cadres vie for power, alliances are reshaped, and conditions are such that not taking sides can be an act of courage. Scotland, still mourning the death of his young son, is preoccupied with trying to achieve a life on the right side of the law, but all around him forces are at work to push him over to the wrong side.  

Though he has a sense of right and wrong, Scotland has a history of poor choices. Also, he has difficulty in checking his instinctive reactions to situations that come his way.

Does he have a girlfriend? Well, course. What would a tall, trim, muscular dude be without a beautiful girlfriend? Gorgeous Kyla, his sexy drummer girl, has an independent streak that makes Scotland nervous. He wants to take care of her – to keep her safe. But she has other ideas. Kyla is a fine character, and one can hope that she has a future in the next installment. Like all of us, she keeps secrets. Finding the balance of intimacy and independence is difficult for each of them, and Mr. Hess paints their ups and downs with convincing precision.

Hess

For an action novel, this one has a lot of talk. Ordinarily, I would find dialogue this detailed and prolonged to be out of balance with the other elements of story-telling. However, Jefferey Hess has a flair for orchestrating the various voices (characters) he has created, individualizing them and giving their interplay rhythm and force. The voices project social class, ethnicity, education, and personal style. It’s mostly a southern smorgasbord, with a bit of New York and Cuba thrown in depending upon which part of the novel’s criminal spectrum is being represented. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the September 19, 2018 Fort Myers Florida Weekly as well as the September 20 Charlotte County edition and the  September 13  Naples, Bonita Springs, and Palm Beach editions, click here:  Florida Weekly – Tushhog

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Florida, families, and fruit trees anchor a dazzling fiction set in the early 1960s

Goldens Are Here, by Andrew Furman. Green Writers Press. 364 pages. Trade paperback $21.95.

There are so many strands and points of interest in this fine, highly original novel that it’s hard to know where to begin. In the background is the Cuban Missile Crisis, the blooming (technically and economically) of Florida’s Space Coast, and the Civil Rights struggle. In the foreground is the Florida citrus industry in the early 1960s as represented by a body of small grove owners along or near the Indian River.  

In these communities, the white folks own the groves and the black folks perform much of the labor. Race relations are in an uneasy truce, a tangle of old habits and shaky dependencies. A great freeze threatens to destroy the groves, even if insects don’t.

The central character, Isaac Golden, has abandoned his career as a physician and set out on a grand adventure with his wife Melody and their two young children – Sarah and Eli. Moving away from the Philadelphia area, where their Jewish identity was readily reinforced, they have settled in a small town with only one other Jewish family and a considerable ride to Jewish institutions. The Goldens are clearly outsiders, and the way they are addressed by many of the townspeople carries a brand of politeness that barely veils a cultural tradition of anti-Semitism.

Professor Andrew Furman
Credit Benjamin Rusnak

Prof. Furman portrays how Isaac and Melody deal with their displacement and discomfort with skill and sensitivity.

The story of Isaac’s attempt to develop improved breeds of oranges becomes a continuing lesson in citrus science. Prof. Furman provides a large specialized vocabulary that is the basis for reader understanding of Isaac’s mission and of the industry he has entered. This material and the extensive exposition should fall flat, but somehow the author makes it sing. He does this by capturing Isaac’s poetic passion, especially his interest in avoiding chemical pesticides and employing means of protecting his groves using natural, nontoxic agents.

Well, he is spending more money than he is likely to make. Melody develops a roadside business selling from her vegetable garden, from the groves, and from the kitchen – her wonderful pies add much-needed income to the Goldens’ enterprise. . . .

To see the entire review, as it appears in the August 22, 2018 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the August 23 Naples, Bonita Spring, Charlotte County, and Palm Beach editions, click here:  Florida Weekly – Goldens Are Here

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When you hear voices, is someone there?

Flame Vine: His Voices, by Charles Porter. Privately published. 338 pages. Trade paperback $16.95.

This, the second volume in Mr. Porter’s The Hearing Voices Series, is not like anything else I’ve come across in my many decades of avid book reading. Really! The author provides a truly original voice, a distinctive cast of characters, and an East-Central to Southern Florida landscape that sweeps upward from norther Palm Beach County, touching Wellington, Stuart, Belle Glade, and perhaps Mr. Porter’s home town of Loxahatchee. The narrative has the smell of the burning sugar cane fields up that way, and its characters engage with a lot of other substances that are turned to smoke or imbibed in some other way.

The novel portrays the cultural scene of this swath of Florida as being in many ways representative of the U.S.  during the second half of the 20th century. It opens in 1950 and takes us into the life of Aubrey Shallcross, his friends, and his resident voices through the early 1980s—when things change for the worse as an age of materialism seems to override an age that fostered various types of spirituality.

Did I say “resident voices?” Well yes. Aubrey has been hearing voices since childhood, living with them, confiding in them, even learning from them. The primary voice, capable of positive influence, is Triple Suiter, affectionately called Trip. Other voices – or presences – are Amper Sand and a darker presence called Slim Hand. Traditional psychiatric medicine would call Aubrey’s condition schizophrenia, but Charles Porter is wary of this label to the point of suggesting that no treatment need be recommended. Aubrey is a fully functioning individual whose unconventional, unwilled, capacities extend rather than limit his sense of the world and his humanity.

Porter

He is a member of a community that not only tolerates him but finds him to be a steadying anchor. The gang that meets at the Blue Goose for nourishment and alcoholic refreshments – and every kind of narcotic – is a group given to excess. While some, like murdering vigilante Sonny, who stuffs his dead victims in refrigerators, are truly over the top, they are nonetheless reasonably loyal to one another. . . .

To read the entire review, as published in the August 8, 2018 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the August 9 Naples, Bonita Springs, Charlotte County, and Palm Beach additions, click here: Florida Weekly – Flame Vine

 

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James Swain’s new thriller takes him in a new direction

The King Tides, by James Swain. Thomas & Mercer. 303 pages. Hardcover $24.95.

If you are looking for a new James Swain novel, a tantalizing tale of magic, gambling, and casino chicanery, don’t look here. Mr. Swain has launched a new character, and I hope he’s launching a new series. Jon Lancaster is something of a throwback to the hardboiled detective school; but the label has tears in it. He doesn’t completely fit. He’s tough, but he has a heart. A former Navy SEAL and a former policeman, Lancaster has a formidable package of skills and experience. As a private detective, freed from the restraints of federal or local governments, he has maintained connections that serve him well.

Slovenly and seemingly out of shape, Lancaster doesn’t make much of a first impression. But that’s how he likes it. To his adversaries, and even to his clients, he is a man of surprises.

Attractive teenager Nicki Pearl’s life has been turned upside down. She is constantly being stalked by perverts. Except for one rebellious misdeed, she can’t figure out why. If we can believer her innocence, we must wonder how she finds herself in this situation.

Swain

Dr. Nolan Pearl, Nicki’s father, has a difficult time thinking that Lancaster is the right man for the job. His wife is even more reluctant to trust rough-hewn Lancaster. But they succumb to his self-confidence and credentialed experience. They are in a panic, especially since two creeps had attempted to abduct Nicki at a nearby mall. When Lancaster sees a video of the mall scene, he can tell the men are professionals.

I may be giving too much away by saying that Nicki is being mistaken for someone else, someone in porn videos designed and circulated to attract and trap degenerates. The actress is Beth Daniels, an FBI agent who turned to crime fighting after surviving abduction in her college years. . . .

To read the full review, as it appears in the July 25, 2018 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the July 26 Naples, Bonita Springs, Charlotte County, and Palm Beach editions, click here: Florida Weekly – The King Tides

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A highly original time-shifting thriller rendered in gorgeous prose

The Shimmer, by Carsten Stroud. Mira Books. 304 pages. Hardcover $26.99.

Here is a daring, magnetic, and brilliantly constructed novel that takes readers places they’ve never been. Well, you may have traveled to Jacksonville, St. Augustine, and New Orleans – but you will not have encountered the kind of time-travel orchestration of action that Mr. Stroud has managed to portray with such power and authoritative detail. “Authoritative” is the right word. These places and what happens in them – and then unhappens – are so compellingly imagined that you will believe what can’t be true.  

The narrative begins with a high-speed chase episode that is unforgettable – and it gains momentum from there.

In the present, Florida Highway Patrol’s Sergeant Jack Redding pursues a serial killer, a kind of time traveling femme fatale, who back in 1957 was sought by his grandfather, Clete Redding, of the Jacksonville police. The cycles of pursuit and escape follow this evil spirit known as Selena, Diana, and by several other names as well. Her lifetime is extended by time shifts that involve riding a time-bending force called The Shimmer. To catch her, one must follow her. Time markers in the Selena story go back to 1914.

Carsten Stroud photo credit Linda Mair

One aspect of the plot premise is the possibility that the damage Selena has done can be undone by adjustments in – or to – time. However, these adjustments – if made by entering through the wrong temporal portal – can have disastrous unintended consequences. Characters travel into the past to shape (reshape?) the future, but the outcomes of their efforts, even if in pursuit of justice, are unpredictable.

Mr. Stroud builds a fascinating logic of cause and effect that keeps readers hooked while it keeps them guessing. As the characters slide (or shimmer) from the world we share to the world adjusted by time travel, our belief in them is carried over to our belief in what they experience and hold true.

Can a tragedy that occurs on the Matanzas Inlet bridge along Florida’s route A1A be wiped away by a time shift back to before the bride was built? If so, what other time-bound occurrences will be altered? . . .

To enjoy the full review, as it appears in the July 11, 2018 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the July 12 Naples, Bonita Springs, Charlotte County, and Palm Springs editions, click here: Florida Weekly – The Shimmer

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The surprisingly influential Jewish community at the southernmost corner of the United States

The Jews of Key West: Smugglers, Cigar Makers, and Revolutionaries (1823-1969), by Arlo Haskell. Sand Paper Press. 208 pages. Deluxe Trade Paperback $24.00.

In seven well-shaped chapters, Haskell packs an enjoyable and frequently astonishing history of Key West’s Jewish community. Hearing of the topic, some people will assume that this is a slender thread to spin into a book. However, they would be wrong. Haskell’s research has turned up a considerable amount of information that brings to life 144 years of Jewish involvement in this most idiosyncratic town.

Young Men’s Hebrew Association

The chapters bite off chronological slices of history, each focusing on the economic and cultural aspects of Jewish life. Thus, the journey begins with a discussion of sailors and merchants in an era of military events,stressing the importance of Key West as a port town, a multilingual place that had an international flair. In the first half of the nineteenth century, the Jewish community was tiny, hardly a real community. Early Jewish settlers included Mordecai White and Samuel Cline, who were tailors and clothes merchants. The naval presence brought them customers.

During a twenty-year span that followed the initial attraction of Jews to Key West, opportunities in a growth industry took hold and swelled the population, including the Cuban and the Jewish population. Samuel Seidenberg “was the first manufacturer to capitalize on the fact that a cigar as good as the Cuban ones could be made in Key West at significantly lower cost.” He constructed a huge factory. His Jewish rivals included M. Myerson, Max Marx, the Pohalski brothers, and Julius Ellinger. Haskell’s narrative of the Key West tobacco boom shows how it promoted the town’s economy, attracting investment with its hundreds of employees. The Pohalski brothers built a company corner of town with homes for their workers. Their section of Key West gave rise to dry good and grocery stores, as well as a drug store and a saloon. These leaders were primarily secular Jews.

Arlo Haskell photo Nick Doll

As he traces the growth of the Jewish presence in Key West, Haskell keeps us in touch with larger issues of the time, including the Civil War and the Ten Years’ War fought to liberate Cuba from the Spanish Empire. He points out parallels in the age-old Jewish and nineteen century Cuban struggles for autonomy and independence. Haskell points out the need for Key West’s Jews to form alliances with exiled Cubans who, under the leadership of José Martí, had made Key West their command center.

The latter decades of the nineteenth century mark the beginning of a true Jewish community. New Jewish settlers in Key West often continued their European enterprises as peddlers and shopkeepers. Though Key West was ravaged by a fire in 1886, the rebuilding of the town brought new opportunities. Abram Wolkowsky and other Eastern European Jews shared religious customs, the experience of exile, and the Yiddish language. Slowly, Jewish institutions begin to take hold. Congregation B’nai Zion, still functioning, gives 1887 as its date of origin.

The Jewish Alliance’s Key West chapter emerged in 1891. Its primary concern was to establish a Jewish cemetery, and it did so. As the century wound down, “Jews had become an important and highly visible component of Key West business life.” One of the community leaders, Louis Fine, was not only a successful business man, but also served as lay leader for religious matters until Key West had its first rabbi.

Fine’s grocery store had a lower level used “to store weapons for the [Cuban] rebel army.” Haskell devotes a chapter to exploring the phenomenon of “Jewish Revolutionaries” in the 1890s.

The first two decades of the twentieth century witness a strong, thriving Key West Jewish community. The Jewish congregation held services and other activities on the second floor of the Fine family’s hardware store. When Fine was not available, itinerant Rabbi Herman Horowitz handled the community’s religious needs. All kinds of Jewish businesses were set up along and near Duval Street.

Marks, Rosenthal & Wall Family

Jewish shoe merchants

On top of the Honest Profit House, a clothing store run by the Wolkowsky family, sat the office of the U. S Immigration Inspector, and through that office many hundreds of Jews took their first steps toward citizenship.

Key West rode the wave of nationwide improvements in communication and other technologies. The growing Jewish population was serviced by efforts of the Jewish Alliance to find jobs for Jewish immigrants. This initiative included relocating immigrants from overcrowded New York to various other places around the country, Key West included. By 1905, the Jewish community reported having 158 members. Its members joined efforts to reunite Jewish families that had been separated. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the July 4, 2018 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the July 5 Naples and  Charlotte County editions, click here: Florida Weekly – Key West’s Jews 1  and Florida Weekly – Key West’s Jews 2

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