Tag Archives: book reviews

Experiment produces a new kind of technologically-augmented human

Cutting Edge, by Ward Larsen. Forge Books. 332 pages. Hardcover $25.99. 

This futuristic thriller has everything going for it: a great premise, suspenseful plotting, vivid sensory detail, fine characters, and a highly engaging narrative style. The possible future it explores seems just over the horizon of today’s digital and medical technologies. Young, handsome Trey DeBolt works as Coast Guard rescue swimmer in Alaska. He survives a helicopter crash only to find out he has been declared dead. And he is not the man he used to be.

He is much, much more.

Once recovering consciousness, Trey finds himself in a remote cabin along the Maine cost under the supervision of a nurse. Slowly, as he recovers physically, he discovers that he has special abilities that will take him a while to understand and control. It will take him even longer to discover why he has them and what his reincarnation means.

In the meantime, the nurse is assassinated, and her cabin is blown up.

Trey has been part of a clandestine, perhaps illegal, government experiment that wasn’t even supposed to succeed. He has been rewired by a mad genius doctor and put under the direction of a renegade army general. He is now an important component in the wired and wireless world through which data flows. If the title hadn’t been taken some years back for a Michael Crichton novel and the movie based on it, he could be Terminal Man. Indeed, the two novels have more than a little in common regarding new technologies and the battle for control over them.

It’s enough that Trey is Data-man. He can tap into any source of digital information, finding what he needs to solve any problem. He sends out a question, and – sometimes with a bit of delay – he will receive answers. The receiving instrument for Trey’s digital processing is a tiny screen imbedded in his eye that allows him to scan images and text from almost any source. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the March 14, 2018 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the March 15 Naples, Bonita Springs, Charlotte County, and Palm Beach editions, click here: Florida Weekly- Cutting Edge

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A high-energy romp from the prolific Randy Wayne White

Caribbean Rim, by Randy Wayne White. Putnam. 336 pages. Hardcover $27.00.

The champ is at it again. It’s number 25 in the Doc Ford series, and he is in high gear. This novel takes us to the Bahamas, especially Andros Island – which is larger than all the other inhabited Bahamian islands put together. For Doc, this trip is part getaway and part “help out a friend”: not always a good way to relax. Doc’s Sanibel hippy-dippy neighbor and part-time genius Tomlinson is not far away, helping Doc engage with Carl Fitzgerald, a friend of both men. Carl is addicted to the potentially enormous payoffs of finding sunken treasure.  

Carl is in trouble. His in trouble for breaking regulations of the Florida Division of Historical Resources. The agency’s director, Leonard Nickelby, is on his case. As it turns out, events fulfill Fitzgerald’s favorite maxim: “The first rule of treasure hunting is to trust no one.” Not even a government agent. As ever, Doc Ford will turn out to be the exception to the rule, even as he realizes he is being manipulated so that others might profit – if they survive.

Somehow, Leonard (alternately Leo and other derivatives) goes off the charts, and along with him is a young boy and a hard-used, admitted ugly, but astoundingly smart woman named Lydia. If there ever was a woman who invited abuse, Lydia is she – but Lydia is a survivor and a shrewd manipulator in her own right.

White – photo by Wendy Webb

What’s at stake? Rare Spanish coins, Fitzgerald’s logbook about uncharted wreck sites, and everyone’s life. There are plenty of beasts out there to contend with, but the human breed is the worst. This includes the once successful movie-maker, Efron Donner, who has captured Leonard and Lydia – the young boy, too. Donner is one of the author’s most despicable villains, though he has a lot of competition in this regard. Watching Lydia play him is a reader’s delight.

Oddly, Lydia has brought out the best in Leonard, who has some unexpectedly heroic moments, as well as the predictable foolish ones. Among other things, he is a “nerd reborn” in the sensory delights of the Caribbean. . . .

To enjoy the full review, as it appears in the March  7, 2018 Fort Myers  Florida Weekly, and the March 8 Naples, Bonita Springs, Charlotte County, and Palm Beach editions,  click here: Florida Weekly – Caribbean Rim

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Thrilling second installment of Wakefield detective series will leave readers wanting more.

Cut You Down: A Wakeland Novel, by Sam Wiebe. Quercus. 288 pages. Hardcover $26.99.

What a pleasure it is to encounter a new voice, a new kind of edginess, a contemporary formulation of detective fiction that has the heft and distinction of the genre’s classics. Cut You Down is a true puzzler, filled with unusual characters and majestically described places — though many of those places are not at all majestic.

There’s a lot of the seamy side of life here, and much about human behavior that rings true even in its repulsiveness. Is this Canadian noir? Perhaps.

This second title in the Wakeland Novel series presents a sequence of murky challenges for former policeman and youngish private investigator Dave Wakeland. One of them is to redefine his relationship with former girlfriend Sonia, who maintains her career on the Vancouver police force.

Another is to maintain a productive balance with his business partner, Jeff, who is taking their company into the realm of security work while Wakeland continues with the PI effort in the missing-persons arena.

The third is a nightmare of a new case that comes his way, a case that will test his limits.

Sam Wiebe

When Wakeland gets a call from Dana Essex, his world changes. Essex wants him to find a missing college student named Tabitha Sorensen. The caller, a professor, has been a mentor and friend to Tabitha — perhaps even more than that.

Wakeland’s path is rocky and dangerous because Tabitha’s disappearance may be connected to a scandal at the college. She served on a committee that managed a large fund for school programs — a fund that has been stolen. Moreover, it also appears there are connections to local gangs.

In his investigation, Wakeland is aided by his sister, Kay, who works for him, and by Sonia, who is crossing lines that might end her police career. She is entangled with a cop who turns out to be dirty. Wakeland must work with and around unscrupulous characters to make headway, and he does: even wrestlers who moonlight as paid muscle. Even a professional assassin. Even a pair of hardened criminal brothers.

Wakeland moves through a murky world. Everything and everyone he touches has something to offer and something to hide. The investigation takes him to several locations in and around Vancouver and across the border into Washington. Most of the locations of these interrogations are unsavory, depressing places which author Sam Wiebe makes come alive. . . .

To read the entire review, click here: Cut You Down / Washington Independent Review of Books.

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Unbound – or just untethered?

Unbound, by Stuart Woods. Putnam. 318 pages. Hardcover $28.00.

What do you call a Stone Barrington Novel in which Barrington’s role is severely diminished? Some might call it edgy and inventive. I call it an unnecessary gamble – unless the author is toying with the idea of development a new series focused on the film industry.  

The central figure in Unbound is a former CIA operative once known as Teddy Fay, who has also established an identity for himself as Ted Shirley. Teddy has been long established as a Hollywood producer named Billy Barnett, his CIA days relevant only in terms of special skills he can bring to bear to suit special circumstances.

The special circumstance here is Teddy’s need revenge himself upon the husband of the looney woman who killed Teddy’s wife in a hit and run. It helps of the man is in general an SOB who ruins the lives of almost anyone he deals with. Such a man is Dax Baxter, a movie industry climber whose path would be likely to cross with Teddy’s anyway. In fact, Teddy – incognito movie business Jack of all trades Ted Shirley – easily attaches himself to a Dax Baxter project.

Stuart Woods

The scenes that follow the “Ted Shirley” escapade not only bring Teddy in proximity to his unwitting nemesis, but develop engaging insights about how movie deals – and actual movies – are made. Indeed, they reveal how careers are made in a cutthroat world in which loyalty is bought and sold.

The still-grieving Teddy travels to Santa Fe where he spends time with good friends Stone Barrington and Ed Eagle. Suddenly, “Unbound” feels like a Stone Barrington novel for a while: the gorgeous woman, the gorgeous residences, the lifestyles of the wealthy, and the networks of power. It doesn’t take Teddy long to rebound from his sadness and latch onto an attractive new lady friend named Sally Ryder. It hasn’t taken Stone Barrington long, following the death of his wife, to develop a new, hot relationship with the appropriately wealthy and exotic Anastasia Bounine.

Some guys are just lucky, I guess.

This thread of the novel, familiar Stuart Woods territory, allows us to imagine the pleasures of exclusivity. However, plot development lags as Barrington has little to do besides offer Teddy advice and favors. . . .

To read the full review, as it appears in the March 1, 2018 Naples Florida Weekly, click here: Florida Weekly – Unbound

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To read the entire review, as it appears in the February 22, 2018  Naples Florida Weekly, and the March 21 Fort Myers edition, click here: Florida Weekly – Vindication

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A thriller that spills over into the literary fiction genre

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

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

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

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

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

Preston & Child

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

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

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

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Renowned scientists offer keys to The Keys

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Author brews an unexpected antidote for a poisoned world

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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A trio of gruesome murders raises questions about Wall Street shenanigans

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

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

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

Lisa Black

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lauren Doyle Owens / photo by Summer Weinstein

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

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

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

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

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