Two Tudor Plots

Steve Berry’s The Tudor Plot is a novella, and a prequel to The King’s Deception, short and entertaining. It almost slides over to the science fiction shelf, because its alternate timeline is so clear. Berry’s American set thrillers have fictional Presidents and Senators The Tudor Plot(which sounds to me like a pretty good idea right now), but we expect that in a political suspense novel. In fact, that’s pretty much a necessity. But the contemporary thriller story line in The Tudor Plot features an entirely alternate British Royal Family, headed by Victoria II, the fourth monarch of the Saxe-Coburg line, who succeeded her father, Edward VIII (who never abdicated, apparently willing and able to rule without the support of his American divorcee). Her Duke of Edinburgh, James, is an actual Scot, and they have tempted fate, unhappily, by naming their children Richard and Eleanor (poor choices on Victoria’s part, good ones on Berry’s). All four of these people are important characters in the story. A plot to disrupt and replace the succession echoes the Tudor replacement of the Plantagenet rulers (which I probably wouldn’t have appreciated as much if I hadn’t just read Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time), while the historical story line follows attempts to establish the real existence (and resting place) of the legendary King Arthur in hopes of strengthening the modern monarchy. The connection between contemporary and historical is a little more tenuous than is usual in Berry’s full-length novels, but I enjoyed it.

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I’m sure I read all of Josephine Tey’s mysteries (not that she wrote many) decades ago. When I saw The Daughter of Time on one of the ebook sale emails recently I decided to see if it was as good as its reputation (and as I vaguely remembered). It is, especially for a history geek like me.

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Tey’s detective, Alan Grant of Scotland Yard, is facing weeks in hospital, flat on his back, The Daughter of Timewith a broken leg and a back injury of some unspecified sort (apparently this was possible back around 1950, with no worries about the resulting bill, either). A visiting friend brings him a stack of pictures, including one of Richard III, and Grant whiles away the rest of his stay investigating (with the help of a young American researcher in need of an excuse for hanging out at the British Museum) a very old cold case, the fate of the Princes in the Tower.

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I found the book, and the investigation, fascinating. Tey makes a very good case for Grant’s eventual theories, but what really struck a chord with me was his discussions of various historical “events” that actually never happened, at least not in the form that everyone thinks they did. His examples are largely from bits of English history I know little about (a riot in Wales, remembered as a massacre, in which no one was killed; “martyrs” who not only didn’t die for their faith, but didn’t die at all; vicious religious zealots remembered as heroes). Aha, I thought: Alternative Facts! Not a new concept at all.

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The Daughter of Time was voted Number One of the Best Crime Novels of All Time by the British Crime Writers Association in 1990, rather remarkable for such a non-traditional mystery. Very much worth reading. I may have to rediscover more of Tey’s work.

Suspense!

What’s a novel without suspense? Well, probably boring. All fiction, and for that matter the more readable sorts of non-fiction, need suspense. But not all novels are marketed with suspense as a main sales point. Here are two romantic suspense novels and one thriller that I’ve enjoyed recently.

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Years ago, when New York publishers ruled the romance world, we were told never to Tinderboxwrite stories about archaeologists. Turns out that’s no longer true, as Rachel Grant has proved with her romantic suspense novels featuring archaeologist heroines. The latest of these is Tinderbox (the first in a new Flashpoint series), set in the desert heat of Djibouti on the Horn of Africa. Dr. Morgan Adler has made an immensely important find while surveying possible routes for a railroad that will allow a U.S. Naval Base to expand, but someone clearly doesn’t want her dig to continue. Sgt. Pax Blanchard is the Special Forces man assigned to protect her after someone rigs her car with a bomb. The two fall hard, against their better judgment. Morgan is the rebellious daughter of a general, and Pax is just the sort of son-in-law Daddy would want, making him off limits to Morgan. And Pax was once married to an officer’s daughter—never again! As the action and the dangers heat up, so does the attraction between Morgan and Pax, until their romance is almost as dangerous as the threats to Morgan.

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I hadn’t read anything by Jayne Ann Krentz (or her alter egos Amanda Quick and Jayne Castle) recently, but when I learned she was coming to Houston for a book signing and dinner with a group of local writers, I picked up her romantic suspense from last year, When All the Girls Have GoneWhen All the Girls Have Gone, which I enjoyed. The two main characters, Charlotte Sawyer and Max Cutler, meet when the murder Max, a one-time profiler now trying to get a P.I. business off the ground, intersects with the apparent disappearance of Charlotte’s stepsister Jocelyn, the murder victim’s close friend. Charlotte and Max solve the mystery, of course, and, well, it is romantic suspense. Max does have a mystery of his own left unsolved, involving a childhood trauma shared by his two foster brothers, so I wasn’t surprised to discover that the next JAK suspense novel, Promise Not To Tell, will feature one of Max’s brothers and continue that story. I’ll be watching for it in January.

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The book signing was for Jayne’s Amanda Quick persona’s new book, The Girl Who Knew Too Much, a mystery set in southern California in the 1930s, a big change from Victorian London. That one’s waiting on the To Be Read Really Soon shelf above my bed.

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I’ve been a fan of Steve Berry’s novels since his first, The Amber Room. He’s written more than a dozen since then, and I have them all on my shelves, but I’ve fallen way The King's Deceptionbehind, and I’ve just read The King’s Deception, published in 2013. (I will catch up. Somehow. Someday.) Berry is not exactly a prose stylist (although who am I to criticize an author with his track record?) but he is one heck of a story teller, and I find his elaborately constructed and all too plausible historical mysteries/conspiracies irresistable. The historical elements in The King’s Deception date back to the reign of the first Queen Elizabeth, at first appearing to be simply the search for a lost treasure, but turning out to be so much more. The modern action also involves the release of the terrorist who blew up Pan Am 103 over Scotland. Cotton Malone is back, as he and his son Gary find themselves in the middle of it all when they stop in London on the way from Gary’s home in Georgia to Cotton’s bookshop in Copenhagen for what was supposed to be a quiet Thanksgiving visit. Not quite how things work out. This one kept me up a couple of nights in a row.

A Country Mouse in London

The fourth installment in Cheryl Bolen’s Brazen Brides series, Miss Hastings’ Excellent London Adventure, begins with Miss Emma Hastings’ arrival in London.

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Miss HastingsEmma has never met her Uncle Simon, but they have corresponded for years, and he wants her to join him in the Ceylon Tea Company, of which he is a proprietor. She’s eager to accept his offer, to escape her sheltered life with an elderly aunt in Upper Barrington, and to see London. In all her twenty years, she’s never had such an adventure.

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But when she steps off the mail coach at the George Tavern, it’s raining, she has no money, she’s burdened with an enormous portmanteau containing all her possessions, and the uncle who has invited her to live with him is nowhere in sight.

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Emma is a very determined young woman, if perhaps not as cautious as she should be, so she sets off on foot to find her uncle’s house on Curzon Street. She arrives, soaking wet and exhausted, in front of a dark, clearly unoccupied house. This adventure is not going well.

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But along comes the neighbor, clearly drunk, but with a kindly air about him, offering help.

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Adam Birmingham has been drowning his sorrows. His mistress, a beautiful opera singer named Maria, has run off with—and married!—an Italian Count. Surely she was The One, and he will never find another woman to love, never have a happy marriage like his brothers, Nicholas (His Golden Ring) and William (Oh What a (Wedding) Night).

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Soused as he is, Adam invites Emma to spend the night in his house. As if that weren’t improper enough, he falls asleep on the chaise in her bed chamber! After hearing her story the next morning, Adam sees a new project for himself: If he’s doomed to be miserable, why not make someone else happy? Why not take care of this poor little country girl he found standing alone in front of the house next door? And since he’s already compromised her reputation, why not offer her a marriage of convenience?

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Emma the country mouse and Adam the wealthy bachelor are an unlikely match, but together they set out to solve the mystery of Uncle Simon’s fate. As they investigate, they also come to suspect that a marriage of convenience might not be so convenient after all.

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As always, Bolen gives the reader a delightful look at Regency London, this time from the wide-eyed viewpoint of a respectable but not at all aristocratic young lady from the countryside. Along the way Emma holds her own, meeting characters from Bolen’s earlier books and making a place for herself in their world.

Three New Mystery Series

I’ve recently read the first installment of three mystery series. They don’t have much else in common (except that I enjoyed them all), but I do my best to find some way to tie these reviews together.

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Curse the DayCurse the Day, by Annabel Chase, is a delightful paranormal cozy mystery, first in a series, set in the small town of Spellbound. Spellbound isn’t just any small town in rural Pennsylvania. It’s populated entirely by paranormals, everyone from angels to vampires, witches to were-ferrets. And none of them can leave—no one is entirely sure how or why, or even when the town was cursed, but cursed it is.

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When underpaid and overworked lawyer Emma Hart stumbles into town (in the arms of a morose fallen angel), she has no idea that she’s anything but an ordinary human being. But when she tries to leave, she walks into an invisible but unbreakable barrier. The curse on Spellbound won’t release her, and the witches of the town recognize her as one of their own—and one badly in need of training. Before she can say abracadabra, Emma finds herself trying to learn the art of spell casting and trying to fill the now-empty shoes of the town’s public defender, a recently murdered vampire.

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Emma is a snarky, self-deprecating, very funny narrator, and the supporting characters, from the apprentice witches (who are sharper than their elders realize) to the cranky centaur sheriff, night-golfing vampires to flea-conscious werewolves, are a hoot. I thoroughly enjoyed Curse the Day, and there are several more installments waiting to be read. Number 2, Doom and Broom, is waiting on my Kindle.

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One of the most enjoyable aspects of the cozy mystery genre is the variety of setting and background. Zara Keane’s Dial P for Poison is the first in a series set on a small island off Dial P For Poisonthe coast of Ireland, featuring Maggie Doyle, who grew up in California but spent childhood summers visiting her Irish relatives on Whisper Island. Recently divorced from both her cheating husband and the San Francisco Police Department, Maggie has come back to help her Aunt Noreen run the Movie Theater Cafe, and maybe to hide out from life for a while. But she’s thrown right back into detecting when someone is murdered during a movie showing at the cafe and Noreen is accused of the crime.

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Surrounded by childhood friends—and enemies—and faced with a local Guard Sergeant who would really rather be playing golf, Maggie recruits a few allies and sets out to clear Noreen.

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I enjoyed both the writing and the setting, and have already downloaded the next book, The Postman Always Dies Twice. Keane’s web site promises at least one more, How To Murder a Millionaire.

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A Study in Scarlet Women is the first installment in Sherry Thomas’ Lady Sherlock series. A Study in Scarlet WomenThomas takes her time setting up the premise for her female Sherlock, Charlotte Holmes, youngest daughter in a thoroughly, suffocatingly Victorian family. When Charlotte deliberately engineers her own social downfall to escape her home life, she inadvertently throws suspicion on her father and sister in the wake of a series of unexpected deaths. Once she gets her now-independent feet on the ground, she falls back on her old penchant of writing letters of detective advice to the appropriate authorities, signing them with the name of her non-existent brother, Sherlock Holmes.

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It took a bit of a stretch for me to buy into a Sherlock Holmes tale in which, let’s face it, Sherlock doesn’t exist, but Charlotte, Lord Ingram Ashburton (who knows the truth), and Inspector Treadles (who doesn’t) combine forces to solve the murders.

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Thomas is primarily a writer of historical romance, and a bit of romance shows up for Charlotte toward the end of the novel, along with vivid descriptions of Victorian London from the viewpoint of a woman who has lost (voluntarily) her social position, and considerable commentary on the situation of Victorian women in general. The next volume in the adventures of Charlotte Holmes is due this fall.

Gerry Bartlett’s Texas Trilogy

With Texas Heat, Gerry Bartlett begins a new contemporary romance series set in the Houston oil industry. Cassidy Calhoun has no idea she’s even distantly related to the owners of Calhoun Petroleum until she’s invited to the reading of Conrad Calhoun’s will. Texas HeatSuddenly she finds herself moving in with the three half-siblings she never knew about, required to work at the oil company for a year before collecting her inheritance, and more attracted than she should be to Mason MacKenzie, the oil field competitor who will be evaluating the performance of the Calhoun siblings. If they don’t perform well, Calhoun Petroleum may go right down the pipeline, or be devoured by Mason’s Texas Star Oil, which is facing its own share of financial problems.

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Cassidy has more to deal with than Mason’s questionable intentions. She has no idea why her mother kept her away from the Calhouns all her life, even though it meant living in near poverty for both of them. She doesn’t know who to trust, either—can her siblings be as welcoming as they seem? And what about the people at Calhoun Petroleum? And then the real danger begins.

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The Calhoun Petroleum story continues in Texas Fire, as Cassidy’s newly discovered sister, Megan Calhoun, sets out to fulfill her assignment in the will, working in theTexas Fire oilfields for a year, a tough call for someone who has changed jobs—and boyfriends—whenever boredom set in. And to make the situation touchier, she’s volunteered to go on the road with engineer Rowdy Baker, the long-time boyfriend Cassidy left behind. Rowdy has about as much love for Calhoun women as Megan does for dust storms, work boots, and cramped travel trailers.

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But Rowdy and Megan make up their minds to soldier on, even while Megan learns to live without credit cards and Rowdy finds himself saddled with an unexpected puppy. Megan’s fake ID, intended to deflect the feelings of people hurt by the downsizing of the oil industry in general and Calhoun Petroleum in particular, doesn’t last long, and she’s thrust into representing the Calhoun interests to everyone from diner waitresses to environmental protesters.

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As if that wasn’t enough, Megan has a guilty secret—she knows something about Rowdy’s past that even he doesn’t know. How in the world will these two share a year in the oilfields without killing each other or bringing another disaster down on Calhoun Petroleum?

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Texas PrideThe story continues in October with Texas Pride, when the action shifts back to company headquarters in Houston. Shannon Calhoun is struggling with her assignment, protecting Calhoun Petroleum’s image with press releases, when her old flame Billy Pagan, now a top drawer lawyer, shows up with yet another threat to the Calhoun family business.

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I’ve really enjoyed Texas Heat and Texas Fire, and I’m looking forward to Texas Pride (available October 3 from your favorite ebook source).

John Scalzi’s Fuzzy Reboot

Several years ago when I heard that John Scalzi had published Fuzzy Nation, a retelling of H. Beam Piper’s much loved 1962 classic Little Fuzzy, my first thought was Why? My second thought was No Thanks.

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Little Fuzzy and its 1964 sequel The Other Human Race (published together as The Fuzzy Papers) has remained on my keeper shelf for decades and multiple readings. Although Piper wrote numerous novels and short stories between 1947 and 1964, influencing many of the science fiction writers who came after him, he is probably best remembered for his Fuzzy tales. Other authors stepped in after Piper’s 1964 suicide and wrote Fuzzy sequels, which were knocked out of Piper’s time line by his own third Fuzzy novel, Fuzzies and Other People, discovered long after his death and published in 1984. (That one is on my shelf, too, along with The Complete Paratime, Piper’s Paratime Police/alternate timeline series.)

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Recently, though, I’d heard so much praise for Scalzi’s work that I picked up his latest novel, The Collapsing Empire, from the New Book kiosk at my local Half Price Books. Fuzzy NationLooked interesting, so I went back to the science fiction section to see what else they had and found a copy of Fuzzy Nation. Well, why not, I thought. If I hate it, I don’t have to read it.

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I didn’t hate it. I loved it.

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In his author’s note, Scalzi calls Fuzzy Nation a reimagining of Piper’s story, a “reboot” not unlike the recent Star Trek movies. I’ve enjoyed those, despite being a Trek fan since the premier of the original series. And I hadn’t read Piper’s stories in at least twenty years (so little time, so many books on my To Be Read shelves, and on my Kindle, and on my Keep To Reread shelves, and people keep writing new ones).

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Fuzzy Nation is indeed a reimagining of the story. It does begin with prospector Jack Holloway discovering a huge seam of sunstones on the apparently uninhabited planet Zarathustra XXIII. And Jack Holloway does indeed meet a family of Fuzzys (Scalzi’s rebooted spelling), adorable, clever, cuddly creatures vaguely resembling large bipedal cats. And Scalzi’s story, like Piper’s, revolves around the question of Fuzzy sentience. If the Fuzzys are people, Zara 23 will no longer be an uninhabited planet, and all the rules for its exploitation will change.

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Scalzi’s Holloway isn’t quite the same person as Piper’s, nor are Scalzi’s Fuzzys, not that they’ve lost any of their intrinsic charm. The supporting cast is completely different, the characters more developed than Piper’s. Not to mention Holloway’s amiable dog, Carl, who lets the Fuzzys into the cabin through his doggy door (when he’s not setting off explosives on command).

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Scalzi has also brought the sensibilities and technology of the story up to date. A lot has changed in the last fifty years, from computers to ecological awareness. He has also added at least two more sentient species to the story (although we don’t meet them), along with the warning story of a possible third which was exterminated before its existence could disrupt the exploitation of its world.

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If you read Piper’s Fuzzy stories back in the day, don’t be put off by Fuzzy Nation. Scalzi’s love and respect for the original is clear, and the book was written with the approval of Piper’s literary estate. If you’ve never even heard of Piper (alas, sadly possible these days), you need no prior knowledge to enjoy Fuzzy Nation.

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I liked Scalzi’s approach and style so much that I ordered a copy of his 2013 Hugo Award winning novel, Redshirts. I mean, how could an old Trek fan not love that title? I’ll keep you posted.

Dave Barry’s Florida

The other day while I was poking around the recent hardback shelves at Half Price Books, adding to my lifetime supply of unread books, I stumbled over Dave Barry’s Best. State. Ever., subtitled “A Florida Man Defends His Homeland,” a clear shot at all those “Florida Man” news headlines that have cropped over over the last few years. Barry quotes a lovely collection of these in his introduction, including such gems as “Florida Man Sets Home on Fire with Bomb Made from Bowling Ball,” “Florida Man Seen Trying to Sell Live Shark in Grocery Store Parking Lot,” and my personal favorite, “Florida Man Says He Danced on Patrol Car in Order to Escape Vampires.”

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Barry is not a native Floridian (surprisingly few people of our generation are), moving to Miami in the early 1980s. Neither am I, but I lived in the Sunshine State (as it was then known—Barry says it is now called the Joke State) from the beginning of fifth grade until I graduated from Florida State University, some years before Barry’s arrival from the North. I began migrating around the Gulf Coast, and Barry began writing humor for the Miami Herald.

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I’m firmly rooted in Texas now, but I’ve kept a soft spot for Florida. So I couldn’t resist Barry’s take on the state. And he is, as always, hilarious.

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After an introduction in which he describes phone calls from people in states which have had to build new prison wings to house their convicted office holders, demanding to know “What’s wrong with Florida?” he goes into a brief (and hilariously off-the-wall) history of the state, and then on through the Everglades to the tiny community of Ochopee, home of the Skunk Ape Research Headquarters. There he meets alligators, turtles, and a few human beings, but no skunk apes. He is not surprised, but he’s having a great time.

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Barry goes on to describe, in laugh-out-loud detail, the mermaids of Weeki Wachee Springs and the sponges of Tarpon Springs, rating tourist attractions in terms of one to five out-of-order Mold-a-Matic machines (apparently there are very few functional Mold-a-Matics).

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One spot Barry visits that I had never even heard of is Cassadaga, a Spiritualist community which bills itself as the Psychic Capital of the World. His analysis of his psychic reading from a woman not really named Judy is a scream, and the pet psychic who analyzes his dog Lucy from a photo is even funnier (“In short, to summarize what Lucy’s aura reveals, as seen by a professional in the psychic field: Lucy is a dog.”).

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Barry then turns his attention to a retirement community known as The Villages and to Gatorland, near Orlando, which receives a rating of 4 out of 5 out-of-order Mold-A-Matics, in part for having a Mold-A-Matic that actually works, producing a toy “made of what appears to be radioactive mucus, of a hat-wearing man who appears to be having sex with an alligator.” (There is a photo; this appears to be an accurate description.)

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Back in Miami, Barry and his brother-in-law visit The Machine Gun Experience, to which he awards an amazing 6 out of 5 out-of-order Mold-A-Matics. And then a visit to a night club (where Barry and his wife are unquestionably the oldest people there, and would never have been admitted without help from the owner), and finally a trip to Key West, “Florida’s Florida—the place way down at the bottom where the weirdest of the weird end up.”

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If you’ve ever read Dave Barry, you know how funny he is. If you’ve ever read the wild Florida novels of Carl Hiaasen, this is the non-fiction—really!—version. Barry even mentions in passing the incident which spawned the title character of Hiaasen’s novel Razor Girl. I don’t know if I would find humor about, say, Idaho nearly this funny, but if you have any connection to Florida, don’t miss Best. State. Ever.

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