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Posts Tagged ‘Florida fiction’

ladiesnightYes, spring was late most places, but Florida is already prepping for a long, hot summer, as my pal Mike reminded me. Could I recommend some books for those seeking escape from the heat and humidity? You betcha. Here’s my TBR summer list, or at least the beginning of it.

Ladies’ Night, by Mary Kay Andrews (St. Martin’s Press; June). After driving her cheating husband’s sports car into the pool, a Florida lifestyle blogger moves in with her widowed mom who owns a rundown beach bar. Court-mandated divorce therapy sessions soon evolve into “ladies’ night’ at The Sandbox. Andrews’ 2012 hit, Spring Fever, just pubbed in paperback.

badmonkeyBad Monkey, by Carl Hiaasen (Knopf; June). The king of comic crime (Skinny Dip, Lucky You, Stormy Weather) returns with the tale of a former South Florida cop who is drawn into a murder investigation involving his ex-lover, real-estate speculators, a kinky coroner, a voodoo queen, a frozen arm and the eponymous monkey. 

Heart of Palm, by Laura Lee Smith (Grove/Atlantic; April). I reviewed this first novel a couple weeks ago (“Family Matters.”). To recap, the past and future collide when the quirky Bravo clan of a sleepy North Florida town must decide whether to sell the family homestead to real-estate developers.

boardstiffBoard Stiff, by Elaine Viets (NAL; May). South Florida sleuth Helen Hawthorne works “dead-end jobs” to keep off the grid. Murder Unleashed found her at a dog grooming parlor, while she was a yacht crew member in Final Sail. In the 12th in the cozy crime series, Helen and her new P.I. husband are on the trail of “the Paddleboard Killer.”

The Blood of Heaven, by Kent Wascom (Grove/Atlantic; May).  In this early 19th-century frontier epic, a preacher’s son runs off to Spanish-held West Florida before joining up with other radicals in New Orleans, where Aaron Burr wants to create a new country.

gatsbygirlsThis summer’s classic re-read appears to be F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, what with the new movie coming out in May. The renewed interest in Fitzgerald extends to his Southern belle wife, Zelda Sayre, the subject of two new novels.  Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Ann Fowler (St. Martin’s Press) was published in late March, and Call Me Zelda (NAL) by Erika Robuck, who wrote Hemingway’s Girl, comes out in May. So does Gatsby Girls (BroadLit), a collection of eight Fitzgerald short stories inspired by Zelda and which originally appeared in The Saturday Evening Post.

Open Book: I have digital galleys of most of the above, and I’ll be buying copies of the books by Andrews and Viets, who are friends.

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Toddlers often squeal upon first seeing the ocean, jumping up and down as the tide tickles their toes. Older kids charge forward into the waves with a whoop. But every now and then, a little girl stands on the shoreline with arms outstretched, as if to embrace the sweep of sky and water. Her  expression is one of awe and outright joy.

That would be  Alice Rice, the beguiling heroine of Kevin Henkes’ Junonia (HarperCollins Children’s Books), a sweet and gentle story  set on Sanibel Island.

An only child  growing up in Wisconsin, Alice looks forward every year to the winter week when she returns with her parents to the beach cottage called Scallop. Because she  will turn 10 while at the beach, Alice has high expectations as they cross the  bridge to the island and spot the first pelican.

“The bird was so  odd and silly looking, a mysterious, mesmerizing wonder. Alice reached out,  pressing her palms flat against the half-opened window. She’d seen pelicans  before, every year that she had been here, but when you see something only once  a year it’s always new, as if you’re seeing it for the first time.’’

But some things  have changed at Sanibel this year. Not all of the usual neighbors are on hand,  and Alice’s beloved “Aunt Kate’’ – her mother’s college roommate — has decided  to stay in the cottage next door because she is bringing her new boyfriend and  his 6-year-old daughter Mallory. Alice reluctantly makes friends with the  younger child,  taking her shelling and  patiently identifying their discoveries. Alice hopes this will be the year she  at last finds the rare junonia shell – now that would be a real birthday  present.

But Mallory  disrupts Alice’s birthday party, and Alice experiences a jumble of emotions as  she turns 10. She is growing up, and it’s not quite what she expected.

Henkes, who has  written and illustrated many best-selling picture books (Chrysanthemum, Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse) as well as the  award-winning Olive’s Ocean for older  readers, writes lyrically of natural wonders and childhood feelings. He finds  the extraordinary in the ordinary.

The deceptively simple illustrations that begin each chapter  complement Alice’s small adventures on Sanibel, where Henkes and his family vacation annually. He says it is a special place. And Junonia is a special book.

Open Book: I read a digital copy of Kevin Henkes’ Junonia (HarperCollins Children’s Books) through NetGalley. It brought back a lot of memories of childhood trips to the beach,

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Back in the early 1930s, a white Ohio timber mill worker bought — sight unseen —  what he thought was prime Florida farmland. Sure enough, his Everglades parcel ”turned out to be covered with six feet of crystal water. Stalks of nine-foot saw grass glittered in the wind, in every direction, the drowned sentinels of an eternal slough.”

But Grandpa Sawtooth Bigtree, who changed his name to suit his new surroundings, saw possibilities in a hundred-acre island inhabited by hundreds of alligators. He called the gators all “Seth,” and their home (now his), “Swamplandia!” Soon the tourists were flocking by ferry to see Grandpa’s son, the Chief, wrestle the primordial beasts into submission, and daughter-in-law Hilola, “swim with the Seths” by starlight in the silky black water.

Ava Bigtree, the 13-year-old narrator of Karen Russell’s picaresque debut novel, Swamplandia!, summarizes the glory days of gators and airboat rides, reptile walks and cheesy souvenirs, within a few pages. Then she gets down to business, noting: “The Beginning of the End can feel a lot like the middle when you are living in it.”

Swamplandia! is under seige, threatened by suburbs and Big Sugar to the south, the invasive melaleuca woods to the northeast. The Bigtrees are falling, too. First, Grandpa Sawtooth, slipping into senility, exiled to mainland assisted-living. Next, the lovely headliner Hilola, succumbing to cancer. The grieving Chief and his three teenagers — brainy Kiwi, beautiful Osceola, resourceful Ava — do their best to carry on, but then the death knell tolls: a modern theme park arises nearby. The World of Darkness offers “escalator tours of the rings of Hell, bloodred swimming pools, boiling colas. Easy access to the mainland roads.”  

Russell charts the decline and fall of Swamplandia! with the sure hand and silver tongue of a born storyteller. The Chief goes AWOL, Kiwi defects to the dark side by working for the competition and going to school. Osceola, possessed with the spirit world, runs away with a possibly phantom lover. And Ava sets out on a perilous journey with the mysterious Bird Man to try and rescue her family. A rare red alligator may yet save the day.

Russell’s inventive tale grew out of one of the stories in her acclaimed first collection, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves. A Miami native, she’s just 29 and already honored as one of Granta’s Best Young American Novelists and a New Yorker “20 under 40” writer. Swamplandia! dazzles as bright as the sun even as it casts an unsettling shadow of innocence and paradise lost.

Open Book: Swamplandia! by Karen Russell is being released this week by Alfred A. Knopf. I received a bound manuscript from the publisher, but I plan to buy a copy because I want it for my Florida collection and for its most excellent cover.

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Who knew? Years before Nancy Drew ever cracked a case, Zora Neale Hurston was solving mysteries in early 20th-century Eatonville, Florida. At least that’s the way writers Victoria Bond and T.R. Simon have imagined it in their engaging new novel for middle-graders, Zora and Me, narrated by Zora’s best friend, Carrie Brown.

The summer before fourth grade, Zora, Carrie and their pal Teddy set out to solve the murder of a wandering minstrel/turpentine worker named Ivory. Was he killed by the mythical, shape-shifting gator-man who prowls the swamp and who Zora claims to have seen standing on Mr. Pindar’s porch, his big ol’ gator snout perched on a man’s shoulders? Or is human evil responsible for the death that’s upsetting both the blacks and whites in segregated Central Florida? How does Zora’s penchant for storytelling fit into the mix?

Carrie has always counted on Zora telling stories to make sense of the big events in their lives, But now, Zora tells her, “Every time I try to explain to myself what probably happened, what really happened outgrows my imagination.”

Zora and Me is fiction, but with the blessings of the Zora Neale Hurston Estate, Bond and Simon have created a spunky, curious heroine who could well have grown up to be the celebrated writer, anthropologist and folklorist. They’ve done their homework, borrowing the local color of Hurston’s childhood — Joe Clarke’s storefront, the Blue Sink, the Loving Pine, Lake Maitland — to paint a vibrant story, much like one Zora might have told. 

Zora was always an unreliable narrator when it came to details of her real life, not one to let facts necessarily get in the way of a good story. I expect she’s smiling with approval of Zora and Me.

Open Book:  I wrote numerous stories about Zora Neale Hurston, her life and works, during my years at the Orlando Sentinel, and interviewed scholars, biographers, family members and fans. I highly recommend  Valerie Boyd’s 2003 biography, Wrapped in Rainbows, for further reading. I borrowed a copy of Zora and Me (Candlewick Press) from the Orange County Library.

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Unlike Carl Hiaasen, who uses Day-Glo colors in his almost-black comedies of Florida, John Brandon goes for the dark side of the palette in his second novel, Citrus County. This disquieting tale of adolescent crimes of the heart and worse plays out in a off-the-road, middle-of-nowhere world of muddy browns and greens, mosquitoes, mushrooms and mildew. 

This is not the palm-tree beckoning Florida that Shelby Register imagined when she moved from the Midwest to seasonless, “sickeningly hot,” Citrus County with her father and three-year-old sister Kaley. “She’d wanted surfers instead of rednecks. She’d thought Florida would make her feel glamorous or something, and there was a region of Florida that might have done just that, but it wasn’t this part.” 

Shelby’s okay, though. She sees “foreign pink sunrises” in her future. Meanwhile, she likes getting the answers right in the quiz-show-like games in Mr. Hibma’s middle-school geography class. And the good girl in her is attracted to the bad boy in classmate Toby, who lives with his abusive uncle on a few sorry acres studded with sinkholes. Toby’s a restless loner with a taste for petty delinquencies who longs for the future to begin. He knows of a secret bunker in the backwoods near his uncle’s. He thinks of Shelby as an ally of sort. “She had misery in her and she didn’t give it away.”

But more misery is on the bleak horizon when Toby’s “prank” on the Register family goes, yes, terribly wrong. Toby didn’t think things through. Bad things happen to good people.

Brandon, a native Floridian, writes the kind of rural realism of Larry Brown and Tom Franklin, but his sentences are more stripped-down, his tone detached. The result is sometimes funny, sometimes creepy, certainly unsettling.  His Citrus County may not be a tourist hot spot, but it’s a must destination for readers.

Open Book: I bought my copy of John Brandon’s Citrus County (McSweeney’s). Now I want to read Brandon’s first book, Arkansas.

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I fully expect Clinton Tyree to garner a number of write-in votes in the upcoming Florida gubernatorial election. Or some may just scribble “Skink,” the name the former governor of the Sunshine State goes by these days in Carl Hiaasen’s wild and crazy novels. Ever since Tallahassee politics drove him off the deep-end, Skink has been hiding in the South Florida swamps, dining off roadkill and blissing out to classic rock on an ancient boombox, emerging only to deal out eco-justice to those who would harm his beloved state.

“The cherished wild places of his childhood had vanished under cinder blocks and asphalt, and so, too, had the rest of the state been transformed — hijacked by greedy suckworms disguised as upright citizens. From swampy lairs Skink would strike whenever an opportunity arose, and the message was never ambiguous.”

No kidding. After reading Hiaasen’s latest romp, Star Island, I’ll never look at sea urchins in quite the same way. But remembering how a frozen monitor lizard became a murder weapon in a previous book, and an amorous dolphin committed foul play in another, I’m not surprised. Count me among the Carlheads  pleased to see Skink in action again, as well as Chemo, the facially disfigured felon with a weed-whacker for an arm. (A barracuda took a bite of the original). 

Actually, Skink and Chemo play supporting, although significant roles, in Star Island, which falls into the classic Carl tradition of outrageous, chuckle-inducing satire. As Hiaasen himself has noted, making fun of the weirdness that is Florida is like shooting fish in a barrel. No matter that his targets are Shamu-sized this time around, his aim is as true as ever.

Meet Cherry Pye, born Cheryl Gayle Bunterman in Orlando 22 years ago, who rose to teen stardom after being spotted as a cart-wheeling cowgirl on Nicklelodeon by talent shark Maury Lykes, producer of Jailbait Records. That Cherry cannot sing proves no hindrance to her pop-tart fame. She can dance and lip-synch with the best of them on a good day. Alas, much to the displeasure of Maury and her stage-managing parents Ned and Janet, Cherry hasn’t had many good days lately because of numerous overdoses, meltdowns, sexcapades. And she’s not the most intelligent ant at the picnic.

Because the made-to-look identical twin sisters, the Larks, only can put so much spin on their celebrity client’s repeat offenses, actress Ann DeLuisa is secretly hired as Cherry’s “undercover stunt double” to fool the tabloid press and paparozzi. When Cherry’s in rehab or gone AWOL with actor Tanner Dane Keefe on Star Island, Ann’s in dark glasses at the South Beach clubs and parties. 

But plans for Cherry’s new CD and concert tour go terribly wrong (Have you ever noticed how often cable TV anchors use that phrase?).  Photographer Claude “Bang” Abbott, who “once worked for a serious newspaper, back in the day when newspapers mattered,” mistakenly kidnaps Ann, who has smarts as well as looks. She also has a phone number to reach out to Skink, who was so impressed with her during a recent bus hijacking, that he rushes from the mangroves to her rescue. Mayhem ensues. Toss in a sleazy developer, a scumbag politician, a scorned source for “maggot mob” members like Claude, a South American hitman, the aforementioned Chemo (now Cherry’s security guard), a few gullible tourists, and, wow, Hiaasen has really chummed that barrel.

It is literally a sad state of affairs (although very funny) when Hiaasen has to go so far over the top to keep up with current headlines. But it gets harder and harder to make this stuff up about Florida now that other states — South Carolina, Alaska, Arkansas — are putting their brand on bizarre. Yet Jersey Shore still cast its second-season net to Miami. Cherry Pye all around!

Open Book: I bought the e-book edition of Star Island (Knopf) to add to my permanent collection, which began with 1986’s Tourist Season.  I think that was also the same year I first interviewed Carl. Central Florida Carlheads should know that the author is scheduled to sign copies of Star Island at 6:30 p.m. Sept. 1 at Borders in Winter Park. (Still working on how he’ll sign my e-book).

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