Category Archives: Book Beat

Book Beat Columns Resurrected

Over a year ago, it became clear to me that the 70 Book Beat columns I had written for the Naples Sun Times from mid-2006 to mid-2008 were NOT likely to appear, as once promised, on naplesnews.com. A few days ago I confirmed that fact when Phil Lewis, NDN editor, wrote to me with the news that these columns were not in their database. 

The good news: via Mr. Lewis I received word that the Naples Daily News would make no copyright claims and I could go ahead and republish them. What I’m assuming, then, is that THEY ARE MINE! 

I am now republishing them on this web site. What you’ll see here is the unedited copy I sent to the Naples Sun Times. I made no attempt to revise the copy to match what the staff editor, most likely Marty Miron, achieved before publication. They’re not raw. I’m careful. But they are not in most cases identical to the newspaper version.

Though I have illustrated the republished columns with head shots and book cover images, these illustrations do not necessary match those used in the original publication.

In republishing the Book Beat reviews, profiles, and book news, I have entered a posting date identical with the original publication. Thus they are lodged far behind the entries posted on this web site since it was launched in November 2008, shortly after I began writing the “Books” section for Fort Myers Magazine.

The easiest way to find “Book Beat” columns is to click the Book Beat selection on the Topics menu (right sidebar). Also, you can always use the search feature — that too is found on the sidebar — to enter the name of an author or other search term.

If I remain ambitious about the utility of this site as a register of local and regional literary creativity, I will make links among entries that deal with the same author. (There are already links to the now-dead site on which the Book Beat columns were originally posted. Sorry. I’ll eliminate or replace them when I can.)

Why did 2/3 of the columns appear in year one and the other 1/3 in year two? Changes in ownership, editor, and editorial policy account for this difference. When I came on board, invited by then-editor Larry DeMaria, the paper was independently owned. Sometime before that first year was over, the Naples Sun Times was purchased by a group affiliated with Scripps and the Naples Daily News. DeMaria was eased out and replaced by Leigh Tahirovic, who had enjoyed a previous stint as editor. Leigh’s second reign came during a period of shrinking circulation and advertising. Also, she wanted the paper to give less space to columns and more to local news and other kinds of features. Finally, she prefered pieces from me that were more conventional reviews, with less of the author profile material that I had been doing. So, there it is. Fewer pages, fewer columns, and for my particular column, more time spent on reading/reviewing and less on interviewing. While I was able to publish almost weekly during year one, I was lucky to appear twice a month in year two.

Note: Though my Book Beat columns and several other contributions disappeared from the database, many of my other contributions to the Naples Sun Times did not. Thus, you can find a couple of dozen news items and opinion pieces by doing a search on my name (in quotes “Philip K. Jason”) at www.naplesnews.com. However, it may not be clear which ones were originally in the Naples Sun Times and which in NDN or some other part of the NDN local empire.

http://www.naplesnews.com/search/?q=%22Philip+K.+Jason%22&t=&sortby=date&image.x=45&image.y=13 might do it.

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BOOK BEAT 70 – Lisa Unger

BOOK BEAT   Naples Sun Times   June 5, 2008

by Philip K. Jason

Where is the borderline between popular genre fiction and “literary” novels? This is a question that comes up more and more often, as some of the most accomplished novelists writing today choose to mine popular modes. Perhaps that’s the only way of attracting an agent or publisher. In a world of market-driven publishing decisions, one has to aim at a designated section of the bookstore: science fiction, romance, thriller, etc. At the outset of his career, James Lee Burke was a well-reviewed “literary” writer whose books did not sell well. But once Burke hit upon bad-boy Cajun detective Dave Robicheaux, he found himself regularly on the best-seller list. 

 Like Burke, like Geraldine Brooks in her astounding history-rooted fictions “March” and  “People of the Book,” Clearwater resident Lisa Unger has gone beyond the conventions and formulas of a popular genre and now knocks on the door of true literary artistry. “Black Out,” Unger’s third novel, is a powerful, penetrating, and truly frightening look at a compromised mind in a series of desperate situations. Her protagonist, Annie Powers, lives a fairly comfortable life with her husband and young daughter in the suburbs outside of (unnamed) Tampa. However, the substance of Annie Powers’ identity is a shell, a graft upon a young woman named Ophelia March who had suffered every kind of abuse, beginning with parental neglect and ending with forced complicity in a series of horrible crimes.

Ophelia was a prisoner to her lack of self-esteem, easy prey to manipulators and control freaks. Her escape from her dead-end life required, ironically enough, her apparent death, and her ultimate psychological freedom demands the sure knowledge that her principal jailor – the dark, mesmerizing, yet vacant young man who is also her lover – is dead.

Somehow (you’ll have to read the book for the slowly and artfully revealed details), Ophelia March disappears to be reborn as Annie. But Annie is haunted by the past, by memory gaps, by nightmares, by threats to the fragile peace of mind she has achieved. “Black Out” becomes the story of a lost identity, a divided identity, struggling to find itself and yet fearing what it will find. The reader can’t be sure, during Annie’s searing journey, if she is doomed to paranoia or if there are external forces at work to thwart her quest for wholeness.

Unger complicates her narrative and deepens the resonance of her psychological probing by interweaving several timelines. Each timeline has its own suspenseful integrity, and yet each is part of Annie/Ophelia’s horrendous, tortured path. By juxtaposing different stages of her protagonist’s real and imagined journey, Unger at once ratchets up the suspense and allows the reader to share Annie’s bewildering disorientation. Readers also recognize her determination to reclaim her life, which means to redeem Ophelia.

The supporting cast of characters is superb, including Ophelia’s inept parents; the psychotic criminal Frank Geary and his equally twisted son, Marlowe, who becomes Ophelia’s lover and controller; Annie’s husband, Gray Powers, and Gray’s manipulative father and stepmother. We meet as well Annie’s amazingly well-balance daughter, Victory; a compromised police detective; an equally compromised therapist; various thugs; and an assortment of lesser characters that are sharply individualized if only in walk-on parts.

So, we could say that “Black Out,” published by the prestigious Shaye Areheart imprint of Crown (itself a division of Random House), is an outstanding example of the psychological thriller. It’s also a white hot page-turner. However, this book is more than a thrill ride. Its feeling-tones and issues linger after the denouement, as is the case with significant literature. Its exploration of the human psyche brings insights both authentic and profound. Annie’s plight will mean something to astute readers – they will take it personally. Lisa Unger is not – or not yet – the American Dostoevsky, but she may be on her way.

Philip K. Jason, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of English from the United States Naval Academy.  A poet, critic, and free-lance writer with twenty books to his credit, this “Dr. Phil” chairs the annual Naples Writers’ Conference presented by the Naples Press Club.

Note: I was pleased that the “Book Beat” column ended on this high note. Lisa Unger is among the most talented authors now writing in Florida. You can find two reviews of her more recent books on this site.

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BOOK BEAT 69 – Dudley Clendinen

See this moving essay by Dudley Clendinen:

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/10/opinion/sunday/10als.html?_r=2

BOOK BEAT   Naples Sun Times   May 29, 2008

by Philip K. Jason

Florida is not the fountain of youth; rather, it is the fountain of extended old age. It is home to many retirement communities, as well as facilities designed to meet the needs of those elders who can live independently and those who no longer can do so. Dudley Clendinen, who provides a close, compassionate look at one such enterprise, presents in microcosm a portrait of what he calls “the New Old Age in America.” His book, “A Place Called Canterbury,” is at once a biography of his mother, a family history, and a history of Tampa. It is also a probing examination of the meaning and texture of extended old age.  Beautifully written, it recounts the closing decade of a remarkable generation whose lives spanned most of the 20th century and, in diminishing numbers, a bit of the 21st

When it was time for Clendinen’s mother to give up the family home, to scale down her responsibilities and activities, and to enjoy the virtues of communal dining and a range of professional services, she joined many of her long-time friends in Canterbury Towers, a geriatric apartment building constructed in the 1970s. In her apartment, she reproduced the ambience of her home as best she could. She maintained her habits of personal grooming and social intercourse. And she involved herself in a larger community of people, many of them strangers, who had come from elsewhere to enjoy similar benefits. Each had all made a deal with the devil of reality, giving up some aspects of their complex identities to maintain and even enhance others.

Her son, Dudley, had assumed many of her decision-making powers. Over the many years of Mrs. Clendinen’s residence at Canterbury, Dudley visited frequently and sometimes for extended intervals. His visits added up to something just short of 400 days. Over that period, this reporter, editorial writer, and columnist exercised his curiosity and skills as well as his heart-felt familial responsibilities. He came to know the residents and staff members of the Canterbury community intimately, and he came to know what a lot of middle-aged children come to know about their parents; that is, how little the children actually know.  

 Clendinen explores the structured relationships between parents and children in his own family. Sharing insights with members of his own generation, he finds his observations reinforced: locked in roles, parents and children often have surface relationships, and, as the children become adults – eventually with their own retirement years in view – they miss opportunities to ask the important questions, to hold the potentially revealing, intimate conversations. And then, too soon, it is too late.

The author interviewed and re-interviewed his mother’s core group as well as many fascinating new acquaintances. He left between the covers of this book a memorial of their fight for dignity and of their quest for the redemption of all those extra, unexpected years.

We read of their love lives, past and present. We receive glimpses of their childhoods and their wartime experiences. We see them at play: dancing and putting on entertainments, as well as extending their sex lives. We are witness to the steady and often embarrassing breakdown of their bodies. We marvel at their resilience and at their mutual support for one another. We discover all the ways that they find reasons to be alive while choices, appetites, and mental faculties are taken away by time.

We also get to meet a handful of skilled and dedicated caretakers.

Yes, the book has streaks of melancholy and nostalgia – and even heartbreak as Mr. Clendinen’s mother, a stroke victim, is relocated from her apartment in the towers to the nursing wing. She gradually loses her mind, and even more gradually – perhaps too gradually – loses her life. 

Dudley Clendinen’s mix of exposition and story-telling is just right. His descriptions of place, his handling of dialogue (especially the capturing of southern dialect), and his personality portraits are masterful. One might not expect it, but humor is abundant through this book. Clendinen allows the natural humor hovering around solemn situations to manifest itself. This humor is never disparaging, but rather bracing and respectful.

“A Place Called Canterbury” is a glorious piece of wisdom literature without the preaching. It is clearly one of 2008’s nonfiction masterpieces, a marvelous evocation of a new frontier – the “New Old Age.” You might find a signed copy at the Naples Borders, where Clendinen had a book signing on May 18.

Philip K. Jason, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of English from the United States Naval Academy.  A poet, critic, and free-lance writer with twenty books to his credit, this “Dr. Phil” chairs the annual Naples Writers’ Conference presented by the Naples Press Club.

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BOOK BEAT 68 – Tina Wainscott (3)

BOOK BEAT    Naples Sun Times    May 15, 2008                                                   

by Philip K. Jason

On a superficial level, Tina Wainscott’s new “What Lies in Shadow” resembles her recent “Until the Day You Die,” the New England setting and the obsessed stalker motif being the two most obvious points of comparison. However, the two works are radically different in tone, complication, and characterization. And the dilemma that Wainscott’s protagonist, Jonna Karakosta, falls into has no resemblance to anything in the previous novel. Jonna has blogged herself into danger. 

She begins innocently enough, developing a more adventurous version of herself, “Montene,” who entices an internet audience with her confessions and aspirations. Obliquely, through the Montene persona, Jonna reveals the unsatisfying state of her marriage. She and her husband have somehow been blocked from the kind of intimacy Jonna craves, and the blog that Montene generates brings forth an electronic suitor, Dominic, whose courtship of Montene via the blog turns into the preliminaries for an off-line relationship. Montene’s readers are privy to this affair-in-the making, writing in their own advice at each step of Montene’s journey and living vicariously through her adventure. The blog that Jonna has created is a huge success, with an audience ravenous for each successive entry.

And so Wainscott’s audience is hooked as well.

Jonna enjoys the excitement of her veiled popularity; she has certainly found a vein of frustration and yearning among her comment-posting readers. However, unknowingly, she has set herself up to be a victim of the man who calls himself Dominic. And once she finds out, which is soon after she decides to meet him, her excitement becomes tinged with and then dominated by terror. Jonna’s story, then, is a moral tale of the “be careful what you wish for” variety. 

Wainscott artfully shifts narrative point of view, giving us glimpses of what Dominic and other characters are thinking without ever giving away too much. Provided with partial revelations about Dominic, about Jonna’s husband Rush, and about her best friend Beth, the reader attempts to anticipate and ride the waves of the unfolding plot.  And this plot, revealed in part as a string of disguised motives, carefully guarded secrets, and formative influences from the characters’ early lives, moves swiftly and steadily ahead, sometimes in unexpected directions.

It is also a story of insecurity, suspicion, and betrayal. One of the novel’s strengths lies in the convincing dramatization of the emotional masking and distance that has paralyzed the relationship between Jonna and Rush. The mix of attraction, duplicity, and mistrust that swirls through each of these characters keeps readers longing for a breakthrough: “Hey, dummies, just be honest with one another.” But we all know how difficult that can be!

Another dimension of the story that works well is the efficient way in which Wainscott paints the working lives of Jonna and Rush. Jonna has a budding business as an event planner and Rush is co-owner of AngelForce, a company that finds investor funding to nourish young technology companies. There is just enough detail, just enough integration of their working lives into the characterizations and plot, and yet not too much. This material builds the credibility of the characters, connecting them to others in both commercial and social ways, and making them more than merely emotional bundles in a crumbling relationship.

“What Lies in Shadow” is a satisfying thriller by an established professional who just happens to be our neighbor. Find out more about her at http://www.tinawainscott.com.

Philip K. Jason, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of English from the United States Naval Academy.  A poet, critic, and free-lance writer with twenty books to his credit, this “Dr. Phil” chairs the annual Naples Writers’ Conference presented by the Naples Press Club.

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BOOK BEAT 67 – Silvia Casabianca

BOOK BEAT   Naples Sun Times   May 8, 2008

by Philip K. Jason

Have you ever felt guilty after swallowing yet another pill to mask symptoms of a disease or injury? Have you wondered if there was a better approach to physical (and spiritual) well-being than going on an antibiotic regimen or ingesting medicines designed to reduce inflammation? Silvia Casabianca causes us to ponder such questions in her new book, “Regaining Body Wisdom: A Multidimensional View,” published by Eyes Wide Open.

Casabianca’s mantra is that most of our remedies for discomfort and disease are at odds with the body’s natural responses to various types of invasion or imbalance. In her view, much of what is labeled conventional medicine overlooks and often hampers the necessary and natural communication between organs and the flow of vital energy that maintains health.

One of the simplest examples is that, when suffering from illness and injury, we do everything we can to minimize rest – and yet our bodies are screaming that rest is required. Our medicinal shortcuts to resume habitual modes of work and pleasure defy the body’s wisdom (in this case, the strongly felt call for rest), and often at significant peril. Recovery is actually jeopardized, and the opportunity to discover a dimension of the self is lost.

After a brief prelude of enticing stories that set her theme, Casabianca packages her material in three sturdy sections. The first of these, “The New Perspectives,” covers quite a bit of ground in surveying holistic approaches to well-being. For this reader, the most intriguing discussion is the one labeled “Curing vs. Healing.” Here, the author clarifies an important distinction. She writes, “Curing means removing a symptom,” which is not the same thing as discovering what caused the problem or seeing it in the perspective of a life history and the overall condition of the body.  Healing pays attention to these latter concerns, and it has more than physical dimension. “Healing,” writes the author, “is the product of our inner search for lost integrity; the developing and broadening of our awareness that allows us to recognize ourselves as creatures of the Universe and helps us assume responsibility over our body, our actions, our environment, our relationships with others, with ourselves and the world.”

The second section of the book, “The Body Wisdom,” explores the various bodily systems (connective, circulatory, respiratory, immune, etc.) and illustrates, in lay terms, the functions of each as well as the interrelationships among them.  This section of the book also elaborates the concept of the “inner healer.” For Casabianca, it is learning to hear and heed the inner healer that is the key to physical and psychic well-being. In a passage titled “The body speaks to us,” Casabianca insists not only on the need to be receptive to the body’s messages, but also to recognize that anything that affects us “affects the whole of us, even if we can only see part of the picture.” We need to enhance our receptors and learn to act on the full range of information and wisdom that is always being broadcast and to which we are not sufficiently attuned.

Finally, in the third section of her book, Casabianca – a licensed Reiki Master – introduces readers to “Reiki and the Art of Healing.” Here she traces the history and precepts of a philosophy for personal growth and healing through balance. The relationship between practitioner and recipient is explored, as is the full embrace of consciousness and self-knowledge requisite for harmonious existence.

Generally clear, straightforward, and nonacademic in style, “Regaining Body Wisdom” is still underpinned with scholarship and references to a wide variety of sources that Casabianca most often weaves together with sure-handedness and grace. Yes, there are passages in the book that could use one more level of stylistic revision; however, most of the material is presented with precision and – more importantly – the passion of conviction. If I would ask for one more ingredient to make this valuable book even more valuable, it would be an analytical index.

Information about the author, including ordering information for this and her other books, is available through the intriguing bilingual website: silviacasabianco.com.

Philip K. Jason, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of English from the United States Naval Academy.  A poet, critic, and free-lance writer with twenty books to his credit, this “Dr. Phil” chairs the annual Naples Writers’ Conference presented by the Naples Press Club.

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BOOK BEAT 66 – Wendy Lokken & Heather Drescher

A Book and a Bear Comfort Children of Divorce

BOOK BEAT   Naples Sun Times   March 20, 2008

by Philip K. Jason

For the children of divorce, life changes in challenging, dramatic, and often traumatic ways. These children have to process an enormous sense of loss, usually accompanied by guilt. And divorce is not something that happens one day and is over the next; the ramifications are ongoing and complex. Two Neapolitans, Wendy Lokken and Heather Drescher, are part of the team behind a fascinating project that helps children regain a sense of security while navigating this hazardous emotional journey. “You and Me Make Three” is a book that can make a positive difference in the life of any child coping with the disorientation and loss of parents divorcing.

B. B. the Bear is the narrator of the book, a cuddly friend, confidant, and counselor. The idea of B. B. was inspired by Wendy Lokken’s son, Michael, who had learned about “worry dolls” at school and suggested that every child coping with divorce needed a “worry doll,” a source of comfort much like Michael’s own Cozy Bear. Lokken shared this insight with her friend and eventual co-author, Gwendy Mangiamele, who realized that her daughter Mia has fastened upon her own floppy dog named Sheila as an imaginary traveling friend who provided constancy whether at Mom’s home or at and Dad’s.  Lokken and Mangiamele teamed up with author-publisher Edna Cucksey Stephens and illustrator Heather Drescher to develop Caring Creations and launch the book and the comforting toy, B. B. the Bear. 

B. B.’s consoling and supportive language is just right. The observations and suggestions made by this caring companion are accessible to kids, and yet the young readers are not patronized. This friendly bear is convincing when he says that even though Mom and Dad now live in separate homes, both still love their child. The bear is always available to hear the child’s secrets and jokes and to play “let’s pretend” with the child. Also, together they can help Mom with various tasks when visiting her, and help Dad with tasks when over at his place. Homework and personal hygiene need attention at both homes. The young reader is reminded that other kids are also going through the divorce experience.

B. B. assures the child that “it is not your fault” that the parents have decided to divorce, and that when things cannot be worked out it is better for everyone if the parents live apart. The love of each parent is a constant, and the love felt for each parent needs expression. B. B. also encourages the child of divorce to let his or her feelings out – to talk about them both to the parents and, of course, to B. B. Coping with loneliness is also addressed in specific, constructive ways.

The book has a second audience. Each issue in B.B.’s discussion is also recast in a boxed “SMILE Tip for Parents.” These tips, derived from Richard S. Victor’s Victor Smile Foundation, are as valuable to the divorced parents as B. B.’s observations are to the children of divorce. The parents are reminded that the greatest gift they can give the child is the right to love the other parent. Because of the incorporated Smile Tips, “You and Me Make Three” can be read by parent and child together.

“You and Me Make Three” is lavishly produced, and the vivid, energetic illustrations by Heather Drescher work perfectly to establish the mood and tone of the book. It is a book that should be in every grade school library and in the libraries of guidance counselors and professional family therapists as well. But most of all, it needs to be in the hands of the child whose world is threatened by divorce.

The release of this very special book was celebrated on March 12 at the International Kids Network benefit event held at the Naples Ritz Carlton. Upcoming appearances and book signings are Saturday, March 15th, 11am to 1pm at the Naples Borders Bookstore; Saturday, March 22, 11am to 3pm at the Naples Books-A-Million; and Saturday, March 29th at the Naples Barnes and Noble. You can find out more about this brilliant and much-needed book and bear project by visiting the website http://www.bbseries.com.

Philip K. Jason, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of English from the United States Naval Academy.  A poet, critic, and free-lance writer with twenty books to his credit, this “Dr. Phil” chairs the annual Naples Writers’ Conference presented by the Naples Press Club.

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BOOK BEAT 65 – Jean Harrington

BOOK BEAT   Naples Sun Times   March 6, 2008

by Philip K. Jason

Jean Harrington has been a stalwart member of the Southwest Florida chapter of Romance Writers of America for many years. In fact, she served two terms as president. The glow of success has shown brightly on many members of this productive chapter. Now it is Harrington’s turn to shine. This Naples resident (since 1993) has come up with a rip-roaring, feisty heroine in her first novel, “The Barefoot Queen.” Fiery Grace O’Malley should have a long life ahead of her in fiction. Great granddaughter of a pirate queen who once “savaged the whole English fleet,” young Grace has inherited her ancestor’s rebellious streak and courage, as well as her Irish pride. 

We meet the gorgeous teenager, with her “mane of gold-red hair,” immediately after the death of her father, who has just been hung by Lord Rushmount’s men for poaching deer. The scene introduces us to the conditions of late seventeenth century Ireland, suffering under the exploitation of England and of English landholders who have usurped Irish property rights. A vain and cruel landlord, Rushmount stands for the unabashedly ruthless English ruling class. Grace’s father had found the courage to risk his life so that others might have food.

But Grace’s brother, Liam, a man only too practical and sensible, will not cut him down from the hanging tree for a proper burial and thereby risk his own life. Grace is outraged at her brother, but finds solace in the actions of the village blacksmith, Owen O’Donnell, who defies Rushmount by cutting down Grace’s “Da” and secretly burying him. 

Such timely heroism only supercharges Grace’s admiration and attraction for Owen, who over and over (with a few notable exceptions) rebuffs her bold advances. Because his self-esteem in matters of romance has suffered from the consequences of an accident that has left him with one leg crippled and withered, Owen fights down his longing for Grace and tells himself that he cannot be a proper mate for her. Grace herself feels quite otherwise, and a major interest in the story grows out of this troubled romance.

Grace, of course, has been pursued by many suitors. Among these is “Young Con” Mann, son of Rushmount’s estate manager. The elder Connor Mann had renounced his Catholic faith during the Puritan Commonwealth in order to maintain his holdings, but he is now (in 1665) dependent on the good will of Rushmount during the Restoration period that followed Oliver Cromwell’s purges. The dull-witted “Young Con” would provide a relatively safe situation for Grace, who cannot as a young woman live on her own and who is being pushed out of the tiny family home by Liam’s marriage to Brigit, who is soon pregnant. But Grace is not one to seek only safety and to deny her heart.

To complicate matters even further, Lord Rushmount himself, frustrated in his recent marriage and dazzled by the village beauty, has his eyes on Grace. He would seemingly do anything to have his way with her – and she would be helpless to resist.

But wait, there is more:  Grace herself has followed in her father’s footsteps and turned poacher in order to relieve the excruciating poverty and hunger that devolves from Rushmount’s abuses of power.

In the end, it is Grace’s fearless sense of justice that dominates Jean Harrington’s achievement. Not always mindful of consequences, Grace’s bold actions threaten to bring more harm than good, but she cannot – as her brother Liam can – weigh things in the balance when her heart is committed to a sense of righteous action.

Jean Harrington has done a fine job of bringing knotty historical issues down to the flesh and blood lives of individuals. And with Grace O’Malley, a young woman whose adventures often find her lifting her skirts to her knees or getting them tangled in her legs or washing away the blood of butchered deer, she has devised a vital spirit ready to challenge any influential young actress prepared to buy the film rights.

“The Barefoot Queen” is published by Highland Press. More about the author is available at her website: jeanharrington.com.

 

See also: https://philjason.wordpress.com/2009/09/05/jean-harringtons-lion-of-a-book/

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BOOK BEAT 64 – Elizabeth Becka

BOOK BEAT   Naples Sun Times   February 27, 2008

by Philip K. Jason

Cape Coral resident Elizabeth Becka, who introduced forensic specialist Evelyn James in “Trace Evidence” (2005, and recently released in paperback), has now followed up with a startling new case for James to unravel. “Unknown Means” continues this heroine’s career in the Cleveland Medical Examiner’s office, while Elizabeth Becka (who once worked for the Coroner’s Office of Cleveland) continues her career with the Cape Coral Police Department. Though too many writers don’t take this age-old advice, Becka has wisely chosen to write about what she knows. 

The plot of “Unknown Means” involves a series of deaths, all to attractive women of some social prominence, as well as an attack on Becka’s good friend and co-worker, Marissa Gonzalez, who is about to marry into that social sphere. Becka’s challenge, which of course is the readers’ puzzle as well, is to discover the who, why, and how behind this series of crimes. The method of operation is a blatant calling card suggesting a single perpetrator.

The “locked room” crime scenes suggest that the criminal is known to the victims or has some special means of access to their various homes. While there are plausible suspects for the individual crimes, Becka needs to find the common denominators of motive and victim selection that point to a single actor. A smudge of grease ends up being a primary clue to the killer’s identity. It is one piece of the physical evidence that eventually leads to the solution.

Collecting and examining physical evidence is what Evelyn James does, and she is very good at it without being flashy or possessed of uncanny insights. The scientific work is interesting, though a bit tedious as well, and Becka knows just how much description of evidence collecting and laboratory work is enough to feed readers’ curiosity while keeping the story moving. She also knows how to continue building Evelyn James as a credible, engaging character, a working mom with concerns that make conflicting demands on her time and her emotional energy.

The protagonist’s character is developed through James’s commitment to her work and to her sticky relationship with her teenage daughter. Though the daughter, Angel, remains a somewhat insubstantial figure in this novel, that’s in part in keeping with the willed distance caused by her independent streak and the odd hours that James’s work often requires. That is, the daughter is not home that much, as she is beginning to build her own life, and when she is home James may not be. There is more to be done with this relationship in future novels. Another side of Evelyn James is shown in her complicated and convoluted relationship with homicide detective David Milaski.  It’s one of those “I should know better than to get involved in a workplace romance” situations, and Elizabeth Becka handles it quite well.

Solving the crimes involves getting to know the victims, and here too Becka crafts her narration of the investigation in an efficient and colorful manner. The portraits of the women are sharply drawn, especially that of bossy Kelly Alexander, whose family company owns the salt mines (yes, salt mines in Cleveland) in which an explosion takes place that kills several people, providing a motive for someone to kill Ms. Alexander.  

Interrogation is an important part of crime fiction, and in “Unknown Means” this part of the inquiry is frequently handled by Detective Milaski and his senior sidekick, Bruce Riley. Evelyn James does her share, but it is both realistic and entertaining to hear this range of voices gathering information. Roles are reversed when James herself is questioned by an aggressive young reporter named Clio Helms.

The city of Cleveland is a major presence in “Unknown Means,” as it should be. Becka establishes the city’s overarching personality as well as the particular feel of various neighborhoods and suburbs. Her handling of place is authoritative without being overdone. Of course, readers will wonder if James will eventually follow her creator to Southwest Florida. Meanwhile, following Evelyn James while she follows the evidence in Cleveland is a very satisfying experience.

Find out more about this must-read author at elizabethbecka.com.

Philip K. Jason, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of English from the United States Naval Academy.  A poet, critic, and free-lance writer with twenty books to his credit, this “Dr. Phil” chairs the annual Naples Writers’ Conference presented by the Naples Press Club.

SEE ALSO LISA BLACK

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BOOK BEAT 63 – Karna Bodman (2)

BOOK BEAT   Naples Sun Times   February 6, 2008

by Philip K. Jason

With her second novel, “Gambit,” Karna Small Bodman has established herself as one of the premier crafters of political thrillers. Drawing upon her own experience as a high-ranking media and security official in the Reagan White House, Bodman can make her handling of government decision-making, the Capitol Beltway environment, and international politics ring true. Her attractive heroine, a scientist who is both personally and professionally dedicated to national defense, wrestles once again with technological solutions to major threats to world peace. And, as in her first appearance in “Checkmate,” Cammy Talbot’s heart is tested on more than one level.

Why are jetliners falling out of the sky? An unknown enemy has found a way to bring down commercial aircraft while leaving hardly a trace of how it was done and how the destructive weaponry remained undetected. With the U. S. government seemingly incapable of dealing with this threat, the transportation industry is grinding to a standstill and the stock market is plummeting. Chaos is on the horizon. Who is behind these atrocities, and with what motive? These are the questions that need to be unraveled as quickly as possible. 

Talbot, whose inventive genius on missile defense systems had saved the world from possible catastrophe several months earlier, is once again placed on center stage in this new dilemma. While working with a Boston-based Chinese colleague on a new missile defense concept, Cammie Talbot learns of activities on mainland China that suggest the development of stealth missile systems with new guidance technologies. When Talbot leaves her friend’s university lab to grab a cup of coffee at a nearby Starbucks, the Chinese scientist and his lab are destroyed by an explosion. 

As the plot unfolds, we meet high-ranking government officials in furious panic, leaders of rival R & D firms vying for government contracts, and, though kept in the shadows, the perpetrators themselves. Panic accelerates when a plane taking off from Dulles Airport explodes, ending the life of Austin Gage, the National Security Advisor to the President. These doomed planes can no longer be considered random targets.

When Vice President Jayson Keller takes over Gage’s duties, new complications arise. Keller and Talbot are now working together on the accelerating security nightmare, and it is clear that he is interested in her. Talbot is hesitant, still nursing a sense of abandonment and betrayal in the wake of her aborted romance with Colonel Hunt Daniels, the White House Arms Control and Strategic Defense aide. When Daniels, who has been on secret assignments, comes back into the picture, Talbot is torn between her passion for him, the genuine appeal of Jayson Keller, and her unwillingness to get hurt once again. These workplace romances are hell, especially in the corridors of power.

As Talbot moves towards testing her new missile detection and defense concepts, it becomes quite clear that her centrality to thwarting the attacks on U. S. aircraft is known to the enemy. She becomes a target. Now it is her heart’s courage that is tested.

Cammy Talbot’s romantic and research concerns are neatly counterpointed through her friendship with Melanie Duvall, who heads corporate communications at Bandaq Technologies where Talbot works. Duvall, herself entangled with a dashing, spotlight-stealing senator, serves as a kind of confidante, yet she is an attractive character in her own right – a breezier and less guarded counterpart to Talbot.

The author moves us sure-handedly through a range of locals – not only the D. C. area, but San Francisco, Travis Air Force Base, remote sections of China, Brasilia, and Taipei. We hear of Chinese military exercises in the Taiwan Strait. We hear of alliances with Japan and assistance from India in the face of the looming threat. The pace quickens, and the pulse of expectation thunders louder and louder.

Karna Small Bodman has another winner in “Gambit,” just released by Forge Books. She will be signing her new title on April 5 and 6 at the Naples Press Club’s Authors and Books Festival, which is being held at the von Liebig Art Center.  

Philip K. Jason, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of English from the United States Naval Academy.  A poet, critic, and free-lance writer with twenty books to his credit, this “Dr. Phil” chairs the annual Naples Writers’ Conference presented by the Naples Press Club. Send him your book news at pjason@aol.com.

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BOOK BEAT 62 – Bob Morris

BOOK BEAT   Naples Sun Times   January 23-29, 2008

by Philip K. Jason

Our wonderful State of Florida must be the charmed zone for authors of outstanding crime fiction. One of the best to come along in recent years is Bob Morris, who turned novelist after years as a journalist, travel writer, and editor – working for such publications as the “Fort Myers News-Press,” the “Orlando Sentinel,” “Caribbean Travel and Life,” “Bon Appetite,” and “National Geographic Traveler.” His first novel, “Bahamarama,” was nominated for the Edgar Allan Poe Award as best first mystery novel. It achieved several other distinctions as well. It was followed by “Jamaica Me Dead,” which also received much positive attention. Most recently, Morris brought to press “Bermuda Schwartz,” which has just been released in mass market paperback. 

“Bermuda Schwartz” is a delightful romp, at once travelogue, mystery, and tough-guy romance. Morris’s continuing character, Zach Chasteen, travels to Bermuda with his girlfriend, travel magazine publisher Barbara Pickering. Their visit, occasioned by a birthday party for Barbara’s wealthy and somewhat wacky aunt, turns into a series of interlocking puzzles that Zach must solve.

There is the corpse that shows signs of a unique torture, linking the unknown perpetrator to crimes on Bermuda that happened some years back. There is the strange business of Zach’s sizeable Bermuda bank account having disappeared. And there is the fascinating character of Teddy Schwartz, a famous treasure salvager, whose mysterious behavior causes suspicion and mayhem. Then there is the guy at the dive shop, Bill Belleville, a somewhat questionable character whose name matches that of one of Florida’s most respected nature writers. (Florida authors seem to love these in-jokes.) And there is Zach’s sidekick, Boggy, a man of wisdom drawn from the indigenous Taino culture of the Dominican Republic, and a person of unfailing loyalty. And there is the attractive and determined Australian, Fiona McHugh, whose brother Ned is the victim.

We meet an obstinate Bermudan police officer who walks a tightrope between conducting his investigation by the book and resentfully granting Zach some space to freelance. We meet Manuolo Ferreira, the leader of a Portuguese crime family reputed to be connected to a mysterious religious order seeking an important remnant of the Holy Cross. Indeed, it seems that everyone is seeking it, and this quest becomes intertwined with Zach’s quest to recover his missing funds. We have an adventure that is on one level thousands of years old and on another level goes back merely hundreds of years to the late fifteenth century voyages of discovery to the New World.

Morris at Miami Book Fair

Morris adroitly maneuvers Zach through a series of confrontations, alliances, and near-misses until the final pieces of the puzzle are assembled. Morris’s skills in characterization, pacing, and scene-setting are powerful, and he invests Zach with an edge at once hard-boiled and humorous. Zach’s sarcastic, satiric wit and rough-hewn manner sometimes put him at odds with Barbara’s stuffy aunt, but the two eventually gain a grudging respect for one another. And Zach’s relationship with Barbara deepens in the process.

You have to like a guy who played big-time college as well as professional football and has evolved into the proprietor of the Chasteen Palm Nursery. Like many of his contemporaries in the world of fictional crime-solving leading men, Zach Chasteen does not play at being a detective – troubles just come his way. Morris, who knows his Florida and the fascinating world of nearby paradisiacal islands, paints with cool authority a colorful world populated by memorable characters – and his plot clicks like the tumblers in a safe.

You can discover more about this must-read author at bobmorris.net. And you can meet him in Naples on April 5 & 6 as part of the faculty of the Naples Writers Conference, held in conjunction with the Naples Press Club’s Authors and Books Festival.

Philip K. Jason, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of English from the United States Naval Academy.  A poet, critic, and free-lance writer with twenty books to his credit, this “Dr. Phil” chairs the annual Naples Writers’ Conference presented by the Naples Press Club.

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