Tag Archives: Southwest Florida

A history-mystery novel wrapped in romance and love of place

The Popping Cork Murder, by Mitch Grant. Create Space. 430 pages. Trade paperback $16.00.

Last fall, Mitch Grant came out with his first “St. James City, Florida Mystery.” Though the book is billed as a novel, and there is no better label for it, it really combines several categories of writing into something at once unique and a bit unsettling.

The most successful element is Mr. Grant’s homage to the area’s natural beauty. He also, through his surrogate narrator Jim Story, enjoys the independent spirit of the community, its relative isolation, and the friendly atmosphere of St. James City and by extension all of Pine Island, one of several intriguing barrier islands off Florida’s southwestern Gulf Coast. PoppingCork_front

In elaborating on these attractions, the author goes far beyond the needs of his story line into chamber of commerce enthusiasm. Still, it is fun to follow Jim and his wife Jill, victims of topophilia, into the handful of eateries and bars that dot the tiny town (actual places). We eavesdrop on the good-natured chatting that accompanies the drinking and eating. Getting to know the routes from here to there, the dangers of boating in shallow water, the technique of popping cork fishing, and the colorful history of these islands is certainly pleasurable.

And that history is intimately connected to the murder plot, so let’s get to it. Before Jim and Jill moved to St. James City, Jim’s work friend Javiar showed an interest in the place and planned to be an early visitor. Once he arrives, he stays a week with his friends and then rents nearby for another week. Javiar is filled with questions about anything and everything, and he asks them at a frantic pace. Though he pretends to be interested in the fishing, his real interest seems to lie elsewhere.


He learns his way around the islands, rents a boat, carouses with the locals until all hours of the night, and is seen less and less by Jim. One night, a local fishing guide visits the Story home with the bad news that he found Javiar murdered on Punta Blanca.

The mystery of who killed Javiar and why has to do with Javiar’s Spanish background and especially his particular lineage; the rumors of gold buried on coastal islands and ships at the bottom of the sea with gold treasure; pirates and politicians; and the tangled relationships among Spain, the United States, and Cuba back at the turn of the twentieth century. The lineages of several important families long established in this corner of the Florida peninsula also receive detailed attention. Indeed, even the Collier family is described, and – as the author puts it – “used fictionally.”

Jim and Jill develop a strained and limited partnership with Lieutenant Mike Collins of the Lee County Sheriff’s Department, the man in charge of the investigation. They sometimes work together, sometimes independently, in tracking down possible suspects and motives. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the May 22, 2014 Naples Florida Weekly, the May 28 Fort Myers edition, and the May 29 Bonita Springs edition, click here Florida Weekly – Mitch Grant 1 and here Florida Weekly – Mitch Grant 2.

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Paradise by the book

Journey Through Paradise: Naples, Marco Island & The Everglades, photographs by Alan S. Maltz with a narrative by Karen T. Bartlett. Light Flight Publications. 144 pages. $60.

This gorgeous coffee-table collection of fine art photographs would be an attraction for any lover of the natural environment as interpreted by a watchful and skillful photographer. For those who make their homes or take their vacations in Southwest Florida, it has the added attraction of capturing the particular flavor of our slice of the Sunshine State. That Alan Maltz brings to his meticulous craft a unique vision and a master’s signature of style makes this new book truly a portfolio of pleasure.  Journey Through Paradise - Naples, Marco Island & The Everglades

Though there is much energy in the play of light and shadow in Mr. Maltz’s work, it is held in check by a prevailing calm – a respectful stillness.  This effect comes in part from the artist’s preferred working times. Shooting at daybreak or sundown, he can find places that at those times are uncluttered by human activity. This, of course, is less of an issue at an unpopulated place like the Big Cypress Swamp and more of a concern in tightly packed residential and commercial areas.

Alan Maltz seeks the striking, enhancing moments during which the light is just right in its color, intensity, and angle, and the subject is perfectly revealed. This means being alert to seize upon the best opportunities that come along. His “drive – stop – shoot” method depends upon being ready for good luck. It is our good luck that readiness is part of his skill set.

Alan S. Maltz

Alan S. Maltz

We expect artists to give the familiar a sense of freshness, to change our way of seeing. One way in which Alan Maltz accomplishes this end is through giving us unexpected perspectives. On occasion, he shoots down from an elevated perspective, as in the spectacular “Fifth Avenue Overview,” that allows us to see the iconic neighborhood anew.

Another way of changing perspective is by employing the fisheye lens, taking advantage of its hemispherical or concave distortion to create what he calls “otherworldly” images. “Beach Dreams,” a Marco Island view, is one such scene. Mr. Maltz’s photographs of the familiar Naples Museum of Art and of Artis-Naples transform these structures in fascinating ways.

A major portion of Collier County is represented in the selected photographs. Settings include not only the major communities and wildlife preserves, but also Immokalee, Chokoloskee, Ochopee, Everglades City, Keewayden Island, and Corkscrew Swamp. Residential and commercial Naples (but with people absent) is abundantly included, as are such adjacent natural /recreational sites as Clam Pass, Gordon Pass, and Delnore Wiggins State Park.

Among the glories of this collection are two “books within a book.” Clearly two places of beauty that tempted and challenged Mr. Maltz beyond the others are Big Cypress Swamp and Naples Botanical Garden. “Violet Is the Night” is a breathtaking panoramic view in Big Cypress – one of many stunning long views and middle range views.

Karen T. Barlett

Karen T. Barlett

This photographer is also a magi of the close-up. “Shades of Blue” brilliantly reveals the coloration of the Little Blue Heron in light-streaked shadow, as well as the color of her eggs. “The Gatekeepers” captures the protective sternness of two Burrowing Owls (discovered on Marco Island). “Nature By Design” celebrates the patterns and hues of a Dutchman’s Pipe blossom at the Naples Botanical Garden . . . .

To read this review in full, as it appears in (as feature article) in the November 14, 2013 Naples Florida Weekly, click here: Florida Weekly – Maltz 1, here: Florida Weekly – Maltz 2, and here: Florida Weekly – Maltz 3. 

In truncated form, it also appears in the November 14 Fort Myers edition and the November 13 Bonita Springs edition.


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New book opens the door for new Neapolitans

Moving to Naples: the Un-Tourist Guide, by Alysia Shivers. Voyager Media. 150 pages. Paperback $24.95. Also available in Kindle and Nook ebook editions.

If, like me, you have been trying to keep people from moving to Naples, you’ve discovered that it’s a losing battle. They come no matter what roadblocks we put in their paths. To satisfy the needs of newcomers to our beloved Naples area, and especially to help those who are considering or planning to make Naples their home, Alysia Shivers has created a guide that is user friendly, packed with information, and fun to explore. MovingtoNaplesCover

“Moving to Naples” is not the usual tourist guidebook that tells us how to enjoy a visit; rather, it gets down to the nitty gritty of living here. Ms. Shivers provides concise and often colorful information about the school system, outdoor life, shopping, getting around, public services, jobs and businesses, health care, the housing market, neighborhoods, night life, and almost anything one can think of.

“Moving to Naples” is the first in a series of similar books that Voyager Media is making its publishing niche. “Moving to Sarasota” and “Moving to Charlotte” are soon to follow.

The book is attractively designed, with color-coded headers identifying main sections with inviting titles.  These include “Naples Is a Shopping Mecca,” “Florida Seasons,” “Assimilate: Associations and Social Ties,” “The Economy” and “Can You Live Well Here?”  Ms. Shivers also provides a “Practical Notebook on Moving” and a list of key online resources.

The book is abundantly illustrated, though the color reproduction is mediocre. I guess the cost needs to be kept under control.


I appreciated Ms. Shivers industry in comparing and contrasting the cost of living in Naples to that in other desirable locations across the country. She provides statistics about home prices, property taxes, and utilities to make the case that living in Naples in not beyond the means of normal wage earners. However, I found the housing cost comparison lacking because it does not take into account the skyrocketing costs of homeowner’s insurance in Florida, especially in the coastal areas. Maybe she’ll attend to that issue in the next edition or online update. . . .

To read this review in its entirety, as it appears in the September 26, 2013 Naples Florida Weekly, click here: Florida Weekly – Alysia Shivers

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Deception and corruption reign in White’s latest SW Florida thriller

Deceived, by Randy Wayne White. G. P. Putnam’s Sons. 352 pages. $26.95 hardcover.

This second installment in Mr. White’s Hannah Smith series, following the powerhouse debut of “Gone,” is totally satisfying. A reader with high expectations is easily disappointed; this reader had a delightful time getting to know Hannah better and being frightened, along with her, by mysterious and cruel events that test her courage and determination.  DECEIVEDbyRandyWayneWhite

There is a little corner of coastal Southwest Florida, not far from Sanibel Island, that has a troubled history and a threatened present. It’s officially known as Sulfur Wells. Hannah tells her curious fishing clients that the row of tiny tin-roofed cottages is known as Munchkinville . One of these men, a member of the important Chatham family, collects antique fishing equipment; the other, good-looking Joel “Rance” Ransler, at first hides his identity as special prosecutor for the county. What are these men really fishing for, underdeveloped real estate?

More than a few strange things are happening. Hannah’s mother, Loretta, is concerned that her good friend Rosannah “Pinky” Helms can’t be located. Soon, Hannah goes out to PInky’s dilapidated home and – though threatened by ferocious dogs and a crazed, axe-wielding man – finds that Pinky has been murdered.

Is there any connection between this murder and the unsolved murder of Pinky’s late husband many years ago?

Randy Wayne White

Randy Wayne White

Some of Loretta’s valuable possessions, which had be put in the custody of the Helms family, have disappeared. Is there a connection between their disappearance and the pamphlets describing an organization called “Fisherfolk of South Florida” which touts a “Preserve Our Heritage” motto? It seems as if the elderly locals are being scammed by a scheme that invites donations of their family heirlooms to fund a local heritage museum. The scammers push the idea that the donors can get tax benefits from the government that is usually busy regulating their livelihoods – like fishing –out of existence.

And what’s that monstrous building looming alongside of Loretta’s modest home and grounds? How did bad neighbor and shady shrink Dr. Candor, psychiatric clinic and rehab center entrepreneur, have a bunch of zoning codes waived for that edifice? And where are the remains of the historic Indian shell mounds that were demolished to level the land? . . .

To read this review in its entirety, as it appears in the August 28, 2013 Fort Myers Florida Weekly, the August 29 Naples, Bonita Springs, Punta Gorda / Port Charlotte editions, and the September 5 Palm Beach Garden / Jupiter edition, click here: Florida Weekly – White’s “Deceived”

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Motives and murders collide in a multi-layered mystery

Fatal Decree, by H. Terrell Griffin. Oceanview Publishing. 336 pages. $25.95.

As comfortable as old clothes, yet relentlessly suspenseful and constantly surprising, Mr. Griffin’s latest in the Matt Royal Mystery Series confirms his place as a worthy heir to the John D. McDonald tradition. The questions come early and do not stop growing in complexity: why are early middle age women being murdered? How and why are Guatemalan and Mexican drug gangs involved? Who is out to scare or murder Longboat Key Detective Jennifer Diane (J. D.) Duncan, Matt’s good friend and wished-for lover? How is the secret agency that employs Matt’s friend Jock Algren compromised by or involved in these murders? Fatal-Decree-high-res

Do we have a national security issue? A revenge plot: payback to J. D. for someone she sent to prison earlier in her career? Unusual coincidences somehow tie together unrelated criminal and law enforcement activities. Terry Griffin will have Matt and his colleagues get to the bottom of this murky swamp filled with intertwined tentacles. Honed intuition, sharp investigative work, raw courage, and good old happenstance eventually put the brakes on an exhausting, high-tension, high-speed ride.

The intriguing main plot is rivaled as a center of interest by three other factors. One of these is the colorful cast of three-dimensional characters, each a realistic mix of consistency and complexity. Matt, J. D., Jock, the head of the police force, and even the scum of the earth whom they pursue are sharply individualized. In this outing, the author artfully explores the damage to Jock’s psychological health caused by the assassination duties he has performed over the years. Relationships are given time to grow and change. Such literary heft is unusual in genre fiction.


The secondary plot in “Fatal Decree” traces the developing yet fragile relationship between Matt and J. D. Readers will root for them to come together while recognizing the factors that keep the relationship tenuous. Matt’s desire to protect this attractive, accomplished, and sharp-witted woman comes into conflict with her desire to prove herself as the competent professional that she is. His desire to win her over into greater and ongoing intimacy comes into conflict with her need to think for herself and not be pressured. Can J. D. overcome her island fever and glass fishbowl syndromes to find contentment on Longboat Key? Could Matt follow her back to Miami and give up his Southwest Florida paradise?

How each defines the balancing point between independent identity and a shared life together provides rich, penetrating dialogue and deep reader involvement. The pulse of embrace and withdrawal resounds on several levels. . . .

To read this review in its entirety, as published in the February 14, 2013 issue of the Naples Florida Weekly, the February 20 Fort Myers edition, and the February 21 Bonita Springs edition, click here:  Florida Weekly – Terry Griffin

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No one ever steps on the same beach twice

“How to Read a Florida Gulf Coast Beach,” by Tonya Clayton. The University of North Carolina Press.  228 pages. $40 hardcover, $16.00 paperback.

When I came across this title, part of the publisher’s “Southern Gateways Guides” series, it was apparent to me that I had an obligation to review it for this column. By the time I had read the first two chapters, my sense of obligation had turned into astonished pleasure. Tonya Clayton loves her subject and respects her readers. Her prose is clear, sinuous, and delighted. Her transformation of scientific information into an accessible guide for the beach-loving non-specialist is a total success. She has earned the glorious excess of her subtitle: “A Guide to Shadow Dunes, Ghost Forests, and other Telltale Clues from an Ever-Changing Coast.” 

Ms. Clayton begins with an overview of Florida’s Gulf Coast beaches, indicating the hallmarks of the various locations along the long, long stretch of mostly sand-blessed shoreline. Then she introduces us to the key elements that define the character of any beach, beginning with the overall tectonic setting of the coastal area. Sand supply (and the nature of the sand types), the effects of waves and tides, local geological history, climate and weather, and sea level are the defining factors in the very existence and personality of a beach.

I use the word “personality” to capture the author’s style and vision. Not only are the flora and fauna of the beach world alive, but also each beach has, as Tonya Clayton sees it, a living quality: a pulse and individuality. And, like our friends and family members, these beaches are processes more than finished products. They have something like life cycles. The causal factors of change are Ms. Clayton’s primary subject. Those factors, summarized early in the book, get detailed exploration in the later chapters.

Tonya Clayton

Readers will learn how islands are formed and how their shapes change. They will come to understand the language of striation, the comings and goings of dunes, the movement of sands through actions of wave and wind. Inviting us to look closely, Tonya Clayton validates what is probably the most charming assertion in her book: “No one ever steps on the same beach twice.”

Coastline Floridians know well the influence of large-scale natural disruptions to the normal patterns of beach evolution. Without ignoring to teach us about such blows (no pun intended) to the everyday patterns, the author makes sure that we also understand the influence that we can control: the human factor. The residential and commercial development that takes esthetic and economic advantage of attractive beaches is also their nemesis. . . .

To read this review in its entirety, as it appears in the November 28, 2012 issue of the Fort Myers Florida Weekly, the November 29 Naples edition, and the December 13 Punta Gorda/Port Charlotte edition, click here: Florida Weekly – Tonya Clayton 1pdf and here: Florida Weekly – Tonya Clayton 2pdf

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Randy Wayne White launches new series with a stunner

“Gone,” by Randy Wayne White. Putman.  336 pages.  $25.95.

In his latest novel, Randy Wayne White has taken a big chance, and it has a huge payoff.  After nineteen reliably exciting Doc Ford thrillers, he has begun a new series featuring Hannah Smith. Hannah is a fishing guide in Mr. White’s familiar territory – coastal Southwest Florida and is adjacent islands. She took over the business from her late Uncle Jake, and with it a rather moribund private detective agency. In her early thirties, Hannah is a tall, unconventionally attractive woman who does not usually think highly of herself. However, she has begun to find some late-bloomer confidence. And she’ll need all she can muster. 

A wealthy and somewhat eccentric fishing client, Lawrence Seasons, observing Hannah’s resourcefulness on a troubled fishing trip, determines that she is the one to find out what has happened to his missing niece, Olivia. The vanished young woman has a mind-boggling inheritance awaiting signature on a legal document. Since Olivia is not an adventurous person, Lawrence is worried about her having dropped out of sight. Once Lawrence’s choice is seconded by his good friend and lawyer, Martha Caulder-Shaun, Hannah swings into action.

From conversations with her wide range of local acquaintances, Hannah determines that Olivia may have fallen under the influence, perhaps the control, of Texas bad-boy Ricky Meeks. Meeks is a monster, one of the very best among the many that Mr. White has created over the years. His obsessive need to dominate and inflict pain is matched by his uncanny ability to foster dependency in the women whom he makes his prey. Hannah finds out about one such victim, Elka Whitney. Slowly, Hannah pulls out of her an understanding of the mesmerizing sick artistry of Meeks through which his sadly abused victims end up being jealous of his next victims.

How can a reserved young woman like Olivia Seasons survive the physical and psychological damage that Meeks lives to mete out? How can she be found, separated from Meeks, and set on the path to restored self respect? What will Hannah have to risk to secure Olivia’s rescue? . . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the August 30, 2012 issue of the Naples Florida Weekly, the September 5 Fort Myers edition, and the September 6 Bonita Springs edition, click here: Florida Weekly – RWW’s “Gone” 1 and here: Florida Weekly – RWW’s “Gone” 2.

For my comments on other RWW books, click here: https://philjason.wordpress.com/?s=Randy+Wayne+White

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