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Archive for the ‘Fiction’ Category

If you’re looking for escape from the world’s woes, look no further. Imogen Hermes Gower’s first novel, The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock (HarperCollins, digital galley), is a ribald romp through Georgian London, featuring the unlikely pairing of a middle-aged merchant and a golden-haired prostitute. They are brought together by a mermaid, actually two of them, and thereby hangs a witty, fulsome tale. Although it’s a long book at almost 500 pages, it reads fast. And it’s so good, I wished for more.

Jonah Hancock is a sedate widower who lives in the same Deptford house in which he was born, his simple wants looked after by a young maid named Brigid and his niece Suki, a bright 14-year-old. It’s 1785, and he’s waiting for one of his ships, Calliope, to come in after a long voyage to the South Seas.  Imagine his surprise when the ship’s captain shows up to say he’s sold the ship to buy a genuine mermaid — a small, wizened creature with a fearsome baby face, long fangs and a fish’s tail. Dead, yes, but it’s still a mermaid, and people will pay good money to see something so remarkable, although Hancock is initially dubious.

Meanwhile, in London’s SoDo, Mrs. Angelica Neal is contemplating her pretty face and an uncertain future. The duke who kept her the last three years has died and left her nothing in his will. Should Angelica return to Mrs. Bet Chappell’s famous bawdy house, where she grew up and learned her trade, or strike out on her own in hopes of attracting a new protector?

The wily Mrs. Chappell wants Angelica back; none of her current girls have the charms of a true courtesan. When Mr. Hancock’s mermaid becomes a popular sensation, Mrs. Chapell strikes a bargain with him. He will loan her his mermaid for a week, and she will make sure that he meets the lovely Mrs. Neal. But all comes to naught at a mermaid-themed party, where Mr. Hancock is appalled by the behavior of the gentleman in attendance, and self-involved Angelica spurns him, choosing to cast her fate with a handsome rake.

Enter a second mermaid. Not right away. Readers first encounter her through short lyrical passages, seductive siren songs of the sea. That she is very much alive only becomes apparent when Angelica jests to the now well-off Mr. Hancock that he needs to find her a second mermaid if he hopes to win her favor, and he immediately commissions an expedition to the North Sea. Magical realism meets historical realism with nary a seam showing. That a mermaid might swim in a shell-lined grotto behind a house in Greenwich seems just as possible as a prostitute marrying a merchant. Why Bel Fortescue, Angelica’s best friend, allows herself to be captured by an earl.

Gowar’s lively narrative is spiced with period cant and sparkling descriptions of life high and low in London, where birth is often destiny. She’s very good with domestic details — the houses, the fashions, the food — and populates the story with winning secondary characters: Suki, who reads Pope aloud to her uncle when she’d prefer a romantic novel; her mother Hester, for whom respectability is all; and Mrs. Chappell’s mulatto girl Polly, who discovers her own self-worth.

At one point, Angelica and Bel visit a confectionary, “a veritable temple of sugar,” with shelves of bottled liqueurs, salvers of jellies and cakes, caramels and custard tarts. “Angelica’s favourites are the millefruits, crisp clouds fragrant with orange water, their surfaces rugged with cochineal and gold leaf, almonds and angelico.”

Angelica thinks they are like jewels, “Delicious. . .I shall take some home with me.”

I suggest you do the same with The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock.

 

 

 

 

 

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An Iron Age mummy found in a Jutland peat bog inspires Anne Youngson’s epistolary novel Meet Me at the Museum (Flatiron Books, ARC), an appealing story of friendship and second chances. Celebrated in a poem by Seamus Heaney, the perfectly preserved Tollund Man has long fascinated English farmwife Tina Hopgood. She always thought she’d visit Denmark’s Silkeborg Museum, but an early marriage and three children intervened, and now 40 years have gone by. Then a letter from Tina about Tollund Man inadvertently crosses the desk of museum curator and widower Kristian Larsen, who writes her back. A correspondence develops, and then a relationship, although the two have yet to meet. When Tina’s letters and e-mails suddenly stop, Kristian fears the worst. For fans of Jessica Brockmole’s Letters from Skye and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.

Beatriz Williams again uses her winning formula for beachy historical fiction with The Summer Wives (Morrow, digital galley). Set on Winthrop Island in Long Island Sound, the story toggles between 1951, when 18-year-old Miranda’s mother marries into the wealthy Fisher family on Winthrop, and 1969, when Miranda is a famous actress reluctantly returning to the island. The events of 1951, including her relationship with islander Joseph Vargas and a murder that divided them, are eventually revealed, as are secrets with present-day reverberations. Suspend disbelief and go with the flow. For fans of Williams’ A Hundred Summers and Lisa Klausmann’s Tigers in Red Weather.

It’s the time of year on campuses across the country when the Greeks recruit new members. Lisa Patton’s entertaining Rush: A Novel (St. Martin’s Press, ARC) goes behind-the-scenes at a fictional Ole Miss sorority where tradition clashes with modern mores. Miss Pearl is the longtime and beloved Alpha Delt housekeeper who is in line for a promotion, but not if influential alum Lilith Whitmore has anything to do with it. But Lilith’s own daughter, another pledge hopeful with a secret, and Miss Pearl’s “girls” in the sorority have their own ideas about how their house should face the future. It’s a coming-of-age story mixed with mother-daughter drama and social commentary. For fans of The Help and Anne Rivers Siddons’ Heartbreak Hotel. (My favorite Southern sorority novel remains Babs H. Deal’s 1968 The Walls Came Tumbling Down).

Marcia Willetts’ British charmer Summer on the River (St. Martin’s Press, digital galley) centers on a large family house in the picturesque village of Dartmouth. Recent widow Evie Fortescue inherited the house from her late husband, somewhat to the consternation of her London stepson Charlie’s wife. Charlie and his family still come for holidays, like the annual regatta, and this year, his cousin Ben, a photographer going through a divorce, is also in residence. When Ben introduces Charlie to a new friend, and Evie confides a secret to her old pal Claude, things get complicated. For fans of Willett’s Indian Summer and Rosamunde Pilcher’s The Shell Seekers.

 

 

 

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Wait, wait — hold the pumpkin spice! It’s still summer, and I’ve got the books to prove it. Buzz for Stephen Markley’s first novel Ohio (Simon & Schuster) has been building for months, and it’s more than worth the wait. On a summer night in 2013, four former high school classmates converge on their hometown in northeast Ohio a decade or so after graduation. Having come of age in the post-911 era and the subsequent recession, they confront their shared history, their lost loves, deferred dreams, secrets and regrets. Bill Ashcraft, the substance-abusing rebel idealist, drives from New Orleans with a mysterious package. But before he can deliver it, he’s downing a few drinks and looking to score drugs. Afghanistan vet Dan Eaton has a date with the girl he left behind, while doctoral candidate Stacey Moore faces off with her high school lover’s homophobic mother. Emotionally scarred Tina Ross is finally ready to deal with the jock who abused her in high school. Those years, Markley writes, provide “stories of dread and wonder,” which he artfully interweaves with his realistic portrait of Rust Belt corrosion and disillusionment. It’s a big, ambitious book as Markley gets into the heads and hearts of his characters, writing with a lyric rush that pulls readers along. Ohio reminds me a bit of Nickolas Butler’s Shotgun Lovesongs and Ethan Canin’s early works. Grand storytelling.

Joanna Cannon’s 2017 first novel The Trouble with Ghosts and Sheep was a quirky tale featuring two 10-year-old girls on the trail of a neighborhood mystery during the British heatwave of 1976. Her new book, Three Things About Elsie (Scribner, digital galley) has a similar oddball charm, although its heroine is 84-year-old Florence, who has fallen in her room at the Cherry Tree Home for the elderly. She can’t get up, so while waiting for rescue, she reflects on the events of the last few weeks, which have made her think she might be losing her mind. Her lifelong best friend Elsie has assured her that isn’t the case, but Florence wants to know why small objects in her room have been rearranged. Mostly, though, she wants to find out why the new resident calling himself Gabriel Price is a dead ringer for Ronnie Butler, who drowned in 1953. Flo and Elsie like “to explore pockets of the past. Favourite stories were retold, to make sure they hadn’t been forgotten. Scenes were sandpapered down to make them easier to hold….It’s the great advantage of reminiscing. The past can be exactly how you wanted it to be the first time around.”

From the real to the surreal. Another August novel I liked a lot is Laura van den Berg’s The Third Hotel (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, digital galley and ARC), which I reviewed for the Minneapolis Star-Tribunehttps://map.tinyurl.com/ycnmvlty. Reading this disquieting novel is like walking out of a dark movie theater into bright sunlight. Part of you is still living in a cinematic dreamscape. The real world is what’s imaginary. Set mostly in Havana, the novel has the premise of a thriller as a woman thinks she sees her husband outside a museum — five weeks after he died in New York. Has her grief conjured a ghost, or is this a case of mistaken identity?

If you’re looking for charm with a bit of grit, Dear Mrs. Bird by A. J. Pearce (Scribner, digital galley) is just the ticket. In 1940 London, perky, 22-year-old Emmeline Walker dreams of being a Lady War Correspondent. Instead, she gets a job assisting Henrietta Bird, the the old-fashioned advice columnist of an old-fashioned women’s magazine. Mrs. Bird, rigid and overbearing, is of the stiff-upper lip school and doesn’t want to hear complaints about the war, life on the homefront, marriage and sex. Such missives are discarded — until Emme gets holds of them and starts mailing off replies under Mrs. Bird’s forged signature. She’s all good intentions, of course, but there will be consequences for Emme and her best friend Bunty; war doesn’t play favorites. Still, Pearce’s droll humor and Emme’s “carry on” attitude carry the day.

Delia Owens’ first novel Where the Crawdads Sing (Putnam, digital galley) is a somewhat awkward mix of nature writing, coming-of-age fable, murder mystery and courtroom drama. Kya Clark is known as the “Marsh Girl” because she has mostly raised herself in the wilds outside a small North Carolina community. In 1969, when the body of good-looking Chase Andrews is found dead, Kya becomes the prime suspect. Although she has the support of shrimper’s son Tate Walker, who taught her to read before going off to college, Kya must stand trial. The writing about the natural world is lovely and lush, but the characters are not nearly as realized, and implausibilities abound.

 

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Winter is coming — and it plans to stay in Naomi Novik’s shimmering new novel Spinning Silver (Random House, purchased hardcover). And while a sleigh ride on a frozen river might sound appealing in the midst of a sultry summer, Miryem, the moneylender’s daughter, really isn’t interested in being the bride of the king of Staryk. But she was the one who boasted about turning silver into gold, and now the icy fey monarch plans to hold her to her word. Meanwhile, servant girl Wanda and her brothers seek safety after confronting their drunken and abusive father and stumble on a mysterious cottage in the forest. And over at the castle, Irina, the shy daughter of a duke, discovers her new husband the tsar is literally possessed by a powerful fire demon. Novik, who also wrote the fantastic Uprooted, masterfully weaves these stories into a rich and original tapestry, drawing threads from classic fairy tales, medieval folklore and her own Russian Jewish heritage. With its themes of female empowerment, prejudice and class divide, Spinning Silver is timely and timeless.

C.L. Polk’s imaginative first novel Witchmark (TOR, library e-book) takes place in a country called Aeland, which resembles Edwardian England circa WWI — only with magic. The ruling mages hide their supernatural powers from the lower classes lest they are marked as witches and sent to lunatic asylums. Nevertheless, they secretly “sing” the weather, controlling the climate so there are no extremes. But Miles Singer didn’t want to be a human battery for his older sister, so he ran away to war and reinvented himself as a doctor. Working in a veteran’s hospital with shell-shocked soldiers, Miles hides his healing powers until an encounter with a man who has been poisoned is observed by a handsome stranger. Tristan is actually an angel in disguise and the one person who can help Miles track down a murderer and confront the machinations of his aristocratic family and their friends. Polk creates an entrancing world where magic can be used both for good and evil, and the fate of Aeland hangs in the balance.

 

Other recent fantasies range from dystopian tales to alternate historical adventures. Peng Shepherd’s dark and fable-like The Book of M: A Novel (HarperCollins, digital galley) reminded me of The Passage, American Civil War and Station Eleven. In the near future, the Forgetting is a plague that robs people of their shadows and then their memories. When Max loses her shadow, she leaves husband Ory but takes a tape recorder of shared memories. Both end up traveling to New Orleans, where a mysterious figure is rumored to have a cure for the shadow-less, but not without great cost. Raymond A. Villareal’s genre-bending The People’s History of the Vampire Uprising (Little Brown, digital galley) is a clever take on medical mystery/alien invasion as a vampire virus begin turning humans into “gloamings.” As they multiply, they begin demanding equal rights. A CDC investigator and a FBI agent are among those contributing to this oral history, which also includes “official” reports and documents. Rachel Caine continues her stirring Great Library series with a fourth book, Smoke and Iron (Berkley/Penguin, digital galley). The young group of scholar/soldiers who rebelled against the Archivist Magister are back in Alexandria to try and save the Library from the inside. Jess Brightwell is pretending to be his twin Brandon planning a betrayal, Wolfe is again a prisoner, Thomas is building a weapon to take on the fearsome automatons as the Great Burning approaches. And — wait for it — there’s a fifth book! I really loved Edgar Cantero’s Meddling Kids, now out in paperback, but I had trouble getting into This Body’s Not Big Enough for Both of Us (Knopf Doubleday, digital galley) despite its nifty premise: brother and sister P.I.s with opposing personalities in one body. Too many puns and general silliness overwhelms the wit.

 

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There’s something comfortably reassuring about Anne Tyler’s new novel Clock Dance (Knopf, digital galley), like turning down a road in your old neighborhood and seeing that not much has changed. The tree on the corner may be taller, but the neighbor’s house still needs a lick of paint. It’s all familiar — the gray cat crossing the yard, the light slanting across the front porch, the geraniums on the steps. You can’t help but smile.

So why is there a giant cactus on the cover? That’s not something you see every day in Baltimore, Tyler’s home turf and the setting of such well-loved novels as The Accidental Tourist and Breathing Lessons. Not to worry. Instead of having a character leave Baltimore in search of adventure, Tyler has Willa Drake departing her Arizona home for a shabby street in blue-collar Baltimore.

But before this we meet Willa at significant intervals in her life: as a 1967 schoolgirl whose mother has apparently walked out on the family; as a 1977 college student on a plane with her new fiance; as a 1997 widow, her controlling husband dead in a road rage accident. Skip forward 20 years, and Willa has remarried and is living in an Arizona golf neighborhood. While stuffy husband Peter golfs, Willa, having given up her teaching job, whiles away the time on mundane tasks. She’s actually sorting headbands when she gets a phone call bidding her to come to Baltimore to take care of her son’s ex-girlfriend Denise’s 9-year-old daughter Cheryl. Denise has been hospitalized with a stray bullet in her leg, and Willa has been mistaken for the grandmother who will drop everything and take care of a child she’s never met. Goodness!

Now Tyler’s cooking, and Willa comes into her own, getting to know the oddball neighbors, finding a kindred spirit in self-possessed Cheryl, listening to Denise fret about her shattered love life, and gracefully shuffling Peter to the background. There really are no villains in a Tyler novel. Some people are obtuse, even selfish, but the true enemy is time, ticking away the moments. Tyler, with her generous view of human nature and an affinity for illuminating what might be considered ordinary lives, alerts us to the moments and how they add up. Clock Dance is a very nice book in our not-so-nice times.

 

 

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It’s no secret that I spent my vacation reading assorted crime novels, chilling out in the summer heat.  Safe Houses by Dan Fesperman (Knopf, digital galley) is both a Cold War spy tale and a contemporary murder mystery. In 1979 West Berlin, young CIA recruit Helen Abell is frustrated by an old boys’ club, relegated to watching over safe houses where field agents secretly meet their sources. Then one day, she inadvertently tapes a coded conversation between two unknown men, and is warned off by her older lover, an experienced agent. Returning to the safe house, she interrupts a vicious agent “Robert” sexually assaulting a young German woman, who later turns up dead. When Helen tries to implicate Robert in the crime, she becomes a target, but two other women in the CIA offer covert help. Fesperman splices this tense tale with one playing out 35 years later on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. A farmer and his wife are shot in their bed, and their developmentally disabled son Willard is arrested. His older sister Anna refuses to believe her gentle brother guilty, and hires Henry Mattick, a former Justice Department investigator who just happens to be renting the house next door.  Their search for clues to Anna’s mother’s hidden past alternates with Helen’s spy adventures, the two narratives running on parallel tracks that inevitably converge. Fesperman (The Double Game, Lie in the Dark) knows his spy stuff, and Safe Houses is a clever, intelligent thriller with a couple of neat twists. I also like how the two stories echo one another. Why did Anna’s mother hang on to a tacky Paris snowglobe? It’s also a timely book, in light of the MeToo movement and the current swampy political scene. We all want a safe house.

Rosalie Knecht’s  wry Who is Vera Kelly? (Tin House Books, digital galley) also is told in two alternating narratives of almost equal interest. Growing up in the 1950s with an alcoholic mother, Vera Kelly has a rough time, separated from her best girlfriend and then deemed incorrigible and sent to reform school. Ten years later, she’s a fledgling CIA spy in Buenos Aires, pretending to be a student to blend in with campus radicals with supposed Soviet ties, as well as eavesdropping on government bureaucrats. But then she’s betrayed during a coup and forced into hiding, eventually fleeing the city. Her gritty coming-of-age in  New York is what brings her to the attention of the CIA, but her early years can’t really compete with her double-life exploits in Argentina. Throughout, however, Vera Kelly is a scrappy, resourceful outsider looking for a life in which she belongs.

Venice provides the atmospheric backdrop for the latest adventures of the intrepid Mary Russell and husband Sherlock Holmes in Laurie R. King’s Island of the Mad (Bantam/Random House, digital galley). The year is 1925, and Russell is on the trail of a friend’s aristocratic aunt, who recently vanished from the Bedlam lunatic asylum with her nurse. Holmes, meanwhile, is on a secret diplomatic mission to observe the rising Fascist scene for brother Mycroft.  Mingling on the Lido with the likes of society hostess Elsa Maxwell and composer Cole Porter leads to a locked island asylum, a Mussolini-backed conspiracy and a grand costume ball. Russell commandeers a gondola, and Holmes inspires a Porter classic. A good time is had by all, except the villains, of course.

 Gatsby meets Tom Ripley meets the movie Metropolitan in Tara Isabella Burton’s Social Creature (Doubleday, digital galley), a cut-glass crystal tale of obsessive friendship. Louise is a poor aspiring writer when rich socialite Lavinia decides they’ll be new best friends. Before long, Louise is caught up in the endless party of Lavinia’s life, drinking champagne under the stars and deliberately ignoring signs that’s she’s just another plaything of Lavinia’s. Besides, Louise likes Lavinia’s money and all that it buys, from the clothes to the makeovers to the glam friends with names like Athena Maidenhead. Still, all this can only end in tears. The question is whose tears and just what will be recorded for posterity on social media. Louise or Lavinia? Which one is bad, mad and dangerous to know?

Maybe I’ve read too many boarding school/secret society novels, but Elizabeth Klehfoth’s All These Beautiful Strangers (HarperCollins, digital galleys) seems overly familiar. Charlotte “Charlie” Calloway’s mother Grace Fairchild vanished when she was seven, presumed to have run away from her difficult marriage to wealthy Alistair Calloway. Rumors that Alistair might have had something to do with Grace’s disappearance were quickly squashed by his influential family. But when Charlie, now 17, begins the initiation process to become an “A,” the secret society at her New England boarding school, she discovers that the A’s history intersects with her own. Flashbacks in Grace’s voice and then Alistair’s reveal Charlie is on the right track, although her quest to discover the truth is hindered by the senior As’ sway over the school — and some ponderous and improbable plotting on the author’s part.

If you liked Riley Sager’s Final Girls — which I did, mostly — you’ll be pleased with The Last Time I Lied (Dutton, Penguin). I was, mostly. Painter Emma Davis is haunted by her short stint at Camp Nightingale 15 years ago. Her three cabin mates disappeared one night, never to be seen again, and the camp had to close. Now she paints her lost friends’ likenesses in every large canvas, but then hides the girls with brushstrokes of dark forest scenes. When Francesca Harris-White, the wealthy owner of Camp Nightingale, decides to reopen the camp for scholarship students, she hires Emma as a painting counselor — and puts her in Dogwood Cabin with three teenage campers. Eventually, they also disappear, and Emma’s truthfulness and mental health, then and now, is called into question. Flashbacks to her first stay at Nightingale and many games of Two Truths and A Lie show Emma to be a most unreliable narrator. Sager strikes some false notes with his summer camp setting, which is more like the camps I knew back in the day than those circa 2003. One of his supposedly big revelations is no surprise, but a later one is, as was the case with Final Girls. In the end, Sager proves adept with campfire smoke and mirrors.

 

 

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A Central Florida woman recently took a video of her son playing with an inflatable alligator on a Slip ‘n Slide in their backyard. It wasn’t until she replayed the video a few minutes later that she saw an alligator lurking in the shadow of a lawn chair just a few feet away.

This sense of menace in paradise, the feeling that you are being watched by someone or something — gator, snake, rapist — is pervasive in Lauren Groff’s new collection of short stories, Florida (Riverhead/Penguin, digital galley). The nameless narrator of the first story, “Ghosts and Empties,” is both watcher and watched as she tries to walk off her anger and frustration by pacing through her gentrifying neighborhood in the early evening. She witnesses snippets of others’ lives through lit windows, “domestic aquariums,” even as she is seen by feral cats and singing frogs, a shy homeless lady, a man who hisses by a bodega’s barred window.

This same woman, or one much like her, a writer with a husband and two young sons, concerned about climate change and the future, appears in several other stories.  She also seems like a stand-in for Groff herself, who has lived in Gainesville for the last 10 years. In the book’s ending story, the woman and her boys escape a Florida August for a disappointing vacation in France, where she realizes she doesn’t belong, despite having once been an exchange student enthralled by Guy de Maupassant. “Of all the places in the world, she belongs in Florida. How dispiriting, to learn this of herself.”

Maybe not. In her acknowledgements, Groff thanks Florida, “sunniest and strangest of states.” It has long been fertile territory for writers, too, from naturalist William Bartram — invoked in Groff’s “The Flower Hunters” — to contemporary crime writers, both gothic and noir. Groff and her characters dwell in sun and shadows, “a dangerous Eden,” where a concussed woman imagines herself a panther (“The Midnight Zone”) or two little girls abandoned on an island stave off hunger by eating cherry-flavored ChapStick (“Dogs Gone Wild”). The allusion to Hansel and Gretel is deliberate, but other stories also read like dark fairy tales. A widow who decides to stay in her house during a hurricane (“Eyewall”) is visited by the spirits of lost loves as the storm smashes down like a fist. In “Snake Stories,” there’s this once-upon-a-time sentence: “On the day I found the girl, the robins were migrating and the crape myrtles flashed with red.”

I like Groff’s stories for her gorgeous writing, but also because they remind me of when I first moved to Florida, 33 years ago this week. It wasn’t entirely unfamiliar. I grew up in the Carolinas and visited cousins in Central Florida both before and after Disney. I knew heat and humidity, palmetto bugs and Spanish moss. But after a few years in the Midwest, I found Florida’s jungle-like lushness exotic and overwhelming. I arrived in the midst of a frog-strangling thunderstorm in what turned out to be one of the wettest summers on record. Plants grew like Jack’s beanstalk, mosquitoes thrived, snakes sought higher ground. I saw my first wolf spider crawling up the wall behind me while looking in the bathroom mirror and fled the house in terror. Hurricane Elena taunted Florida that August, and a tree fell over in the parking lot but missed my car. Then came the sinkholes. And it wasn’t just nature that was disturbing. It was the summer six-year-old Regina Mae Armstrong went missing from her babysitter’s yard a few miles away. Her remains weren’t found until several years later, her killer never has been.

I feel at home in Florida these days, but every now and then I’m caught up short by its fierce beauty or its mundane weirdness, like the plane last week that was delayed by the alligator lumbering across the runway. Groff’s stories, with their indelible images and air of unease, reminded me Florida’s a place like no other, a state of mind, sunny and oh so strange.

 

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