The Mama’s #CBR5 Review #52: Fringe Florida by Lynn Waddell

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CANNONBALL!

Confession: I was born and raised in the weirdest county in the weirdest state in the country. I still live here. That’s right – my claim to fame is that I live in the nudist capital of America. (I, however, am not a nudist. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)

Confession: I was born and raised in the weirdest county in the weirdest state in the country. I still live here. That’s right – my claim to fame is that I live in the nudist capital of America. (I, however, am not a nudist. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)

As a kid, I never thought my state was weird. Even now, as an adult, I’m not entirely sure everyone else is right. I mean, sure, I suppose we have some crazy stuff: Fantasy Fest, Fetishcon, The Holy Land Experience, Disney World, hanging chads, pirates, sideshow freaks, a month-long pirate invasion, cowboys, acres of oranges, festivals honoring corn, strawberries, pirates, rattlesnakes, and kumquats, the most famous strip club in the world, circus perfomers, six-toed cats, a two week festival honoring an Indian invasion, aliens, sharks, nudists, naturalists, hurricanes, tornadoes, water spouts, sinkholes that swallow homes and people, over-sexed teachers, over-sexed cops, over-sexed retirees (for a time, one of the most popular retirement communities in the state was considered the place where one was most likely to catch an STD), and alligator-eating pythons. We’re also home to Travis McGee, Archy McNally, Serge Storms, and Carl Haissen’s menagerie of characters. Huh. Okay, well, maybe we are a little different. Must be all the heat and humidity down here.

Fringe Florida takes a tiny bite out of our weirdness. In ten chapters, Lynn Waddell, a former writer for the now-defunct Weekly Planet (the Planet is now Creative Loafing) details just a touch of the fringe of Florida, some of the things that make us who we are down here. She starts off gently, telling us about a big cat rescue in the Tampa Bay area and an exotic animal amnesty program, and then moving just a few miles further in to Tampa to introduce us to Joe Redner, a staple of Tampa Bay history, and the Mons Venus, the strip club that is quite literally the most famous in the world. We drive out to Daytona to meet motorcycle mamas, and here’s where I learned that there are actually motorcycle gangs, true bad guys like from the movies. She introduces us to circus performers (Ringling still winters down here), to mud boggers (North Florida is often referred to as the Redneck Riviera), and to aliens (Pensacola used to be a hot bed of sightings). She unironically points out that the Holy Land Experience, where one can see Jesus singing as he is crucified, is located just an hour away from Cassadega, a community of healers and spiritualists. And then she circles back to my stomping grounds, the nudity capital, where the communities range from swinger clubs that hold coleslaw wrestling to country-club like places where they run 5Ks in the nude.

Waddell jumps in to her assignments with gusto. The same cannot always be said of her husband James who accompanies her on a few of her research trips, particularly the ones that involve sex and other potentially sketchy scenarios. But James is a supportive research assistant, even if he clearly finds the whole experience beyond weird. In his defense, I’m not sure there are many husbands who would leap without hesitation when their wives propose a trip to see naked old guys sing karaoke.

Fringe Florida is simultaneously gruesome and fascinating. The small town girl in me loved when I recognized places and yes, even characters. I’ve seen Peter Pan, and although I’ve seen photos of The Senator (a man who wanders Ybor City in little more than a thong), I haven’t yet had the pleasure of sharing a cocktail with him. The Florida girl in me wanted to stand up and defend my home state, but then I realized that Waddell wasn’t making fun of our wackiness, she was celebrating it.

*Note: I read Fringe Florida as an uncorrected proof from NetGalley. For some reason, the file was a little wonky and the pages with the photos wouldn’t load, which was disappointing, because I’m sure they were fantastic. The book is due out in September. You’d better believe I’m picking up a copy.

My full cannonball can be found here.

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ElCicco #CBR5 Review #24: The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls by Anton Disclafani

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Set in the years 1930-31, while the Depression continues to take its toll on the US economy, The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls tells the story of 15-year-old Thea Atwell. Thea and her twin brother Sam live a charmed life in central Florida. Their father is a doctor and their mother is a beauty who has created a lovely home for her family in the middle of nowhere. Thea and Sam are close, as twins often are, but moreso because there are no other children around. Their only other companion is their cousin Georgie, two years older and living with his parents in Gainesville. Thanks to their father’s profession as a doctor and their ownership of citrus land, the Atwells are weathering the depression fairly well. Thea owns a pony and is obsessed with riding. Sam is a born naturalist and has a gentle way with both people and animals. Georgie is their adored cousin and friend until something horrible happens and the loving family unit is ripped apart.

As the story begins, Thea’s father is taking her to North Carolina to the Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls. We know that the horrible thing has happened and that Thea, the narrator, has had a key role in said horrible thing. She is under the impression that she is attending the camp as punishment for a couple of months until summer is over and she can return home. Not until much later does she learn that she will be staying for the school year. As she makes her way through this year, we learn piece by piece what exactly happened back in Florida.

The school isn’t much as far as educating young women academically. It’s more of a “finishing school” where girls of wealthy families learn manners, elocution and riding. For Thea, it’s the first time she has had to be with peers, live with them and be known by others not of the family unit. Initially, she is resistant and uncomfortable, but she does grow to love the place and make close friendships. But the very feelings and impulses that caused so much trouble for Thea in Florida begin to assert themselves at Yonahlossee as well.

Disclafani does a remarkable job channeling into the complex and sometimes contradictory emotions of a fifteen year old girl (Anton Discalfani is female). If you’ve read any reviews, you know that this novel involves a sexual coming of age story. It also does a fine job of situating its characters in a specific period of US history which involved great upheaval as families once wealthy became impoverished and some women yearned for more than the narrow life of marriage and family.

There are a number of strong female characters in the story. Thea is at the top of the list. For a 15 year old, she has a strong sense of purpose and desire, a fearlessness and recklessness that she embraces. Though she resents and is hurt by the separation from her family, she eventually sees that it’s the best thing that has happened to her. Mrs. Holmes, married to the camp’s headmaster, seems to see all and know all at the school, is the head disciplinarian and fundraiser. She knew Thea’s mother when they were in school together and seems to know the details of Thea’s transgressions. One of Thea’s more interesting classmates, Leona, is aloof and stoic, from a very wealthy family and a superb horsewoman. Leona and Thea share a passion for horses and have a confidence and determination that the other girls lack. Most of them aspire to a good marriage and some are forced for financial reasons to marry young.

The final resolution of the novel, where we learn exactly what happened between Thea, Sam and Georgie and its aftermath, is a little surprising. Some details can be gleaned from Thea throughout her tale, but the big reveals are saved for the end. I found this to be a well constructed novel with engaging characters and a clever plot. Another great read for summer.

Valyruh’s #CBR5 Review #3: Live By Night by Dennis Lehane

A new book by Lehane with a different flavor. It starts in Lehane’s Boston during the Roaring 20s, where prohibition is in full swing, and Joe Coughlin, the youngest son of a Boston police captain, has chosen the path of easy money, easy women and working for the mob to get where he wants to go. But the young romantic falls for the favorite girl of mobster Albert White, and he gets set up. A bank robbery “goes wrong,” a cop is killed, and 20-year-old Joe takes the fall, getting a multi-year sentence in one of the worst prisons around. As the son of a police captain, his days are numbered until he hooks up with old man Maso Pescatore, a vicious boss in the Italian mafia who recognizes Joe’s life as currency and offers mob protection for the son in exchange for the favors of the father. Maso plans to expand his turf into the rum-smuggling of the Florida coast, and recognizes that Joe’s smarts make him the perfect manager for his new enterprise, once he gets out of prison.

Joe heads down to Florida and the story at this point takes on a different coloration, with Joe having to learn fast how to survive the tropical political climes, the mob turf wars, the Ku Klux Klan, cross-cultural tensions, and organized corruption on a mass scale. He not only survives but rises to the top, dramatically expanding his influence and amassing huge fortunes, both for himself and for the mafia. But it’s too good to last, and Joe’s refusal to ultimately take a back seat in the empire he has helped create–and his resistance to the escalating violence that empire now demands of him–puts him back in the crosshairs of the mob.

Joe is a fascinating character, with a youthful exuberance coupled with tons of charm and occasional twinges of conscience to leaven the otherwise ruthless and amoral streak that runs a mile wide in the guy. His saving grace is Graciela, a lovely Cuban woman whom he eventually marries and fathers a child with. She helps him discover his better half, but the reader knows that sooner or later, Joe will have to pay for the life he has led.

Unfortunately, I didn’t find this book to have the subtly-drawn nuances of both plot and character that Lehane is so famous for. It was an exciting and fun read, to be sure, but I found myself often wondering why I was rooting so hard for a mobster just because he was less bloody-minded than the guys he worked for. Joe makes “soft” decisions in the management of his criminal empire, to be sure, but his redemption by Graciela never really rings true and the end, when it comes, is a sad but foregone conclusion.