Tag Archives: Florida Authors

“True Crime” writer makes exposing miscarriages of justice his mission

Justice on Fire: The Kansas City Firefighters Case and the Railroading of the Marlborough Five,”by J. Patrick O’Connor. University Press of Kansas. 352 pages. Hardcover $34.95.

Long-time Naples resident Pat O’Connor presents “true crime” addicts with a treasure trove of juicy information in this case study of the judicial system operating at its worst. What’s criminal in this story is not those who have been convicted and sentenced. Rather, what’s criminal is the systemic failure itself and those whose indifference, ineptitude, or careerist blinders corrupted the process and the outcome. 

Thirty years ago, on a construction project near Kansas City Missouri’s once promising, but then and now impoverished Marlborough neighborhood, disaster struck. A guard on the construction site reported that a pick-up truck was on fire. Then came the news of fierce explosions and more fire. When the bodies were counted, six firefighters were found dead and the charge of arson was in the smoke-filled air.

Mr. O’Connor pays a great deal of attention to the Marlborough neighborhood and the five residents who were indicted and convicted of the crime. The bad reputation of the neighborhood, in the author’s view provides a prejudicial force from the beginning of the investigation, a force that never ceases to be part of the cause and effect links to the miscarriage of justice.

O'Connor

O’Connor

The author’s sketches of those soon known at the Marlborough Five reveal backgrounds that would also prejudice juries or judges. Arrest records, often for minor crimes, are not evidence – but they can affect attitudes toward the defendants. Somehow, this quintet of characters found trouble of various kinds, and sometimes arrests for other crimes (outside of the arson charge) were used as leverage by the prosecutors.

How does it happen that that “by the time the indictments came down . . . only Richard was not in prison on other chargers?”

That’s how the testimony of jailhouse snitches comes into play, an overused weapon in a rush to judgement that ironically took way too much time. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the the February 14, 2019 Naples, Bonita Springs, and  Palm Beach editions, click here:  Florida Weekly – Justice on Fire

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Enchanting historical mystery features intrigues of the Byron-Shelley group

Claire’s Last Secret, by Marty Ambrose. Severn House. 192 pages. Hardcover $28.99.

Set primarily in Florence and Geneva, this highly atmospheric historical novel honors a period of European high culture with a portrait gallery of a tightly knit group. One is Mary Shelley, formerly Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, who had recently eloped with the poet. She is the author of the forever popular novel “Frankenstein” and the stepsister of Claire Clairmont. At the time the novel opens, 1816, they are both attractive, precocious women in their later teens.  

The Shelley Circle is also the Byron Circle, and Claire is carrying Lord Byron’s child, though it takes a while for her to let him know. The group is summering together in Geneva. Claire is something of a hanger-on, as she is the most financially needy.

In Claire’s mind, Polidori, Byron’s personal physician and traveling companion, seems to be antagonistic to her desire to rekindle Byron’s passion for her. She would settle for the passion, since marriage is unlikely, as long as their love-child is somehow supported.

When not practitioners, the friends are devotees of the arts. Claire’s narrative, from the perspective of 1873, offers memories of the impressive architecture of homes and public spaces that the group, or a subset thereof, visited. The actual quarters they occupied were usually modest.

Ambrose

The greatest art that they shared amongst themselves was the art of conversation, with the upbeat Percy Shelley leading the way, and the frequently morose Byron contributing dramatic verbal gestures. His life is clouded by his self-created tarnished reputation.

There is a strong attraction, in all four of these friends, for rebellion against convention social behavior. Claire expresses the wish to follow her heart unencumbered by what others will think. She and Mary are aware of the stricter judgement that women receive for what may be considered immoral behavior.

One of Professor Ambrose’s gifts is capturing the individuality of these sometimes frivolous, sometimes insightful, and always enchanting voices. They speak a brand of English that seems authentic to the time, the personalities, and the social milieu. . . .

To read the full review, as it appears in the January 30, 2019 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the January 31 Naples, Bonita Springs, Charlotte County, Venice, and  Palm Beach editions, click here:  Florida Weekly – Claire’s Last Secret

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Confronting past trauma and betrayal on the path to revelation

Dark Rhapsody: A Novel, by Helaine Mario. Oceanview Publishing. 368 pages. Hardcover $26.95.

Ms. Mario’s new book is a sequel to The Lost Concerto, and now both titles are listed as parts of the Maggie O’Shea Mystery Series. The story concerns a series of secrets and misunderstandings, each with a dangerous obstacle on the path to revelation. It’s a story about trauma, harmful memories, betrayal, and ultimately the majesty of love. 

The author’s breathtakingly luxuriant prose captures the communicative emotional power of symphonic music. The plot winds through vividly rendered locales including Virginia, New York City, East Hampton, Tuscany, Rome, Vienna, Salzburg, and Provence.

Ms. Mario’s descriptions of the various settings are simply magnificent. She handles the interaction of character and scene with confidence and brilliance. She has a clear vision of the interplay between natural, man-made, and supernatural forces.

Mostly, she has a grand story, lavishly elaborated.

In the immediate aftermath of WWII, a young Austrian girl named Gisela finds a box among other containers holding gold and other Nazi-captured treasures. The box, which she hides, includes a rolled canvas marked as the property of Florence art dealer Felix Hoffman. From this opening scene, the story jumps into the present time.  We are brought to a cabin in Virginia’s Blue Ridge mountains and introduced to the renowned pianist, Maggie O’Shea; her companion, retired Colonel Michael Beckett; and Michael’s beloved Golden Retriever – “Shiloh.”

Helaine Mario

Michael has pledged to protect Maggie from her threatening oppressor, a revenge-seeking madman named Dane, who had attacked her and injured her fingers, attempting to thwart her return to the concert stage.

Maggie suffers from blackouts that leave her unable to remember key elements in her life and nightmares that hint at truths she has repressed. Michael’s strength and dedication help alleviate her suffering. Maggie works to recover her abilities in time for the scheduled performance of an extremely difficult rhapsody.

Several scenes set in Italy develop the grotesque Dane, a fugitive disguised by botched plastic surgery, who is striving to gain control of the black market for rare, including stolen, art.

Secrets, lies, and misunderstandings have left Maggie with two major mysteries. One is to discover the truth about how her mother died. The other is to understand the reason behind an action of her father, the great conductor Finn O’Shea, who one day walked off the concert stage, stared at or through Maggie, and completely disappeared from her life. . . .

To read the full review, as it appears in the December 26, 2018 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the December 27 Naples, Bonita Springs, and Charlotte County editions, click here:  Florida Weekly – Dark Rhapsody.

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Lost love regrets lead to uncovering the cause of a mysterious death

The Ephemeral File, by Henry Hoffman. Melange Books. 197 pages. Trade paperback $12.95.

The third installment of the Adam Fraley Mystery Series is an easy-to-like group of tales with an easy-going style and an unusual hero. What’s unusual about Adam? He’s normal: he’s not a superhero, he’s not a tough guy, and he’s not obsessed about firearms, forensics, or procedural conventions. He’s just there to help people and go where the case takes him.  

When Adam’s office manager, Tamra Fugit (pronounced how?) asks him to meet with an elderly man who’s a friend of her aunt, Adam is somewhat hesitate. Taking a case as a favor to someone is not high on his priority list. But he succumbs to Tamra’s entreaty. She’s a person he owes a favor, and she’s extremely good looking.

Roland Westwood is hoping to locate a long-lost love. Adam finds Roland’s lengthy story interesting enough to take the case, even though Roland’s relationship with the girl – Staci Carew – was a tenuous one that began and ended more than fifty years ago during WWII. At that time, Staci was finishing high school and Roland had already begun college. They met at the movie house where Staci worked.

Hoffman

Set largely in Florida’s Pasco County along the Withlacoochie River, Adam’s investigation leads him to a bridge where Staci’s fraternal twin sister, Kati, lost her life. While Mr. Hoffman’s description of this rural area is exceptionally expressive, the interest in the location remains the actions that took place upon the bridge, which soon come into focus.

With Adam, readers learn that the twins had contrasting personalities and didn’t get along well. Kati, an aspiring gymnast, was highly motivated to excel and had the discipline to keep challenging herself and improving her skills. Staci was less motivated. Kati used the bridge structure as an exercise platform.  On one occasion, it seems, things went wrong and she plummeted to her death.

From information that Roland reveals, it seems possible that Staci, jealous of her sister’s acclaim, might have taken the practice session on the bridge as an opportunity to harm her sister, who outdid her in cheerleading competitions and who ended up being favored by Staci’s boyfriend.

Such complications of the available information bring lawyers (including Staci’s husband) and police officers into the story line. The accumulation of facts eventually leads to a highly unexpected resolution in a court of law. . . .

To see the full review, as it appears in the December 12, 2018 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the December 13 Naples, Bonita Springs, and Palm Beach editions, click here: Florida Weekly – Ephemeral File

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A Florida farm’s fall festival becomes a setting for murder

Trimmed to Death, by Nancy J. Cohen. Orange Grove Press. 288 pages. Trade paperback $14.99.

This is #15 in “The Bad Hair Day Mysteries” that have won Ms. Cohen many fans – and many imitators – over the years. The author continues to maintain her status as the queen of the cozy mystery, a genre that she not only exemplifies in her own fiction but also defines and gives advice about in the expanded second edition of her guidebook “Writing the Cozy Mystery” (Orange Grove Press, 2018). There are four essentials: the sleuth must be both female and an amateur, and readers must encounter that sleuth fitting her crime-solving into a larger, multifaceted life within a well-defined community.  

Marla Vail, who runs a hair salon in the South Florida town of Palm Haven, is all excited about participating in a fall harvest festival sponsored by Kinsdale Farms, located at the western edge of Broward County. Local business bring attention to themselves by sponsoring competitions that attract entrants who sign up months in advance. The general public just loves the goings-on, the food, and the high spirits.

Marla has entered the baking competition, hoping that her coconut fudge pie will take the prize.

Cohen

Ms. Cohen introduces a very large cast of characters who are involved in the festival in some way. One, Francine Dodger, runs a magazine, another is a chef, and another is a food critic. The festival is a time for people to re-acquaint and to network. It’s also a time for fun.

Francine has set up a Find Franny contest for the festival, a kind of scavenger hunt that involves collecting cards, getting each stamped by answering a question correctly, and being the first to report to Franny with all of them stamped.

Only problem is that when Franny is found, she is dead: murdered!  

Marla’s husband – Detective Dalton Vail – will lead the murder investigation. Yes, you guessed it. Marla will be very busy doing her share of the investigation in her own way. For Dalton, it’s just another case – one of many that will occupy him every day and often for long hours.

For Marla, it’s a task (more like an addiction) squeezed in along with running her business, mothering Dalton’s 18-year-old daughter Brianna, running the household, networking all over own, dealing with her parents, etc., etc. Meanwhile, she is concerned about her clock running out before having a child by Dalton. . . .

To read the full review, as it appears in the November 29, 2018 Naples Florida Weekly and Bonita Springs editions, and the December 5 Fort Myers edition, click here: Florida Weekly – Trimmed to Death

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Havana/Key West conference encourages fruitful discussion but meets disaster

Death on the Menu, by Lucy Burdette. Crooked Lane Books. 304 pages. Hardcover $26.99

This is the 8th installment of Ms. Burdette’s Key West Food Critic mystery series, featuring the lovable Hayley Snow. This time out, it’s under the imprint of a new publisher. When a major three-day event is planned to find common ground between the cities of Havana and Key West, Hayley’s mother gets the catering contract. The venue is the Harry Truman Little White House. As the conference approaches, conflicting political agendas seem likely to undermine this good-will opportunity. They are also undermining the aspirations of the man who manages the Little White House facility.  

Hayley and Miss Gloria (Hayley’s 80+ year old landlady and friend) are pressed into service to help with the catering chores. Meanwhile, Hayley is being pushed by her employers at “Key Zest” magazine to meet several deadlines.

Members of a Cuban-American family get caught in the tangle of cross-purposes, and there is a scandal over the disappearance of a rare piece of Hemingway memorabilia that has been loaned to the event by the Cuban visitors. It has been stolen from its display case.

Who stole it? Why? How and why was Gabriel, a member of that Cuban-American family and assisting the event, murdered?

Well, of course, Hayley can’t help pushing herself into the investigation, even while warned about going too far by her boyfriend, police Detective Nathan Bransford.

Lucy Burdette / photo credit Carol Tedesco

As with previous titles in this series, Hayley’s investigations give Mr. Burdette the opportunity to provide colorful – and flavorful – tours all around Key West. The author brings this unique town fully to life, in both its physical and cultural dimensions. The inside look at the Truman Little White House is delightfully engaging, as is the portrait of the Hemingway home and all the adjacent neighborhoods. Hayley’s connection with the conference catering, as well as her need to generate three restaurant reviews for “Key Zest,” takes readers into a series of food establishments. The focus for the conference menu and for Hayley’s column are Cuban specialties, and these vivid scenes will make readers’ mouths water.

Suspense tightens when a relative of the murdered Gabriel is at first missing and then found seriously injured. It gets even tighter when Detective Bransford allows Hayley to play a dangerous role in the investigation as part of the detective’s plan to draw out the perpetrator. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the November 21, 2018 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the November 22 Naples, Bonita Springs, Key West, and Palm Beach editions, and the November 29 Charlotte County edition, click here: Florida Weekly – Death on the Menu

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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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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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