‘Florida Woman’ turns creepy; fantasy fuels mystery in ‘Dance Among the Flames’ – Sun Sentinel

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‘Florida Woman’ by Deb Rogers. Hanover Square, 352 pages, $26.99

One might naturally think that a novel titled “Florida Woman” would be a comic mystery, akin to Carl Hiaasen’s social satire or Tim Dorsey’s slapstick. Instead, St. Augustine author Deb Rogers’ debut is a thoughtful, quite serious story with only a few snatches of humor about a young woman seeking to belong, friendship and animal sanctuaries run with good intentions.

“Florida Woman” quickly evolves into a quintessential Florida novel, utilizing the state’s rural environs, far from beaches or theme parks. “Florida Woman” takes place on the Atlas Wildlife Refuge, a sanctuary for 42 macaque monkeys. It’s located on the edge of the Ocala National Forest, about two hours from the Atlantic Ocean, “verdant and rank instead of sun-washed and salt-dried.” Atlas “holds court on a primitive stretch of land. . .avoided by indigenous farmers and settlers alike, shunned by thieves and developers, skipped over by Flagler and Disney. Relentlessly, tenaciously wild.”

For Jamie Hawthorne, the Atlas is akin to Eden, seemingly offering the first home for this friendless 28-year-old who was raised in foster homes and lost touch with her only brother more than a decade ago. Jamie became known as the “Florida Woman” after a video of her committing a crime that involved a fire, autographed dollar bills and a pelican went viral. She’s allowed to serve her three-month sentence at Atlas, doing whatever work is assigned by the three women who run the refuge.

Jamie finds she enjoys the hard work needed to maintain the refuge; she adores the monkeys and develops a camaraderie with the women who make her feel at home and praise her labors. The daily vegan feasts are a treat for this “convenience-store-honey-bun-for-breakfast kind of person.” She’s actually thinking about asking to stay on at Atlas, after her legal troubles are settled.

Jamie’s “raw glee” is sometimes undercut by the women’s odd rituals, their demands that she not leave her dank cabin after dark and by the screeching of the monkeys late at night. Then there is the sanctuary’s medical lab that is off limits, and the lake with at least one hungry alligator. And her monitoring device seems to hurt her ankle more each day. A current of creepiness moves throughout the story and only Jamie is surprised when the events take a fatal turn.

Rogers keeps the story moving with a brisk hand while allowing Jamie’s personality to develop as she becomes devoted to Atlas and the women. Her worries about the refuge devastate her but also give her a strength she didn’t know she had.

“Florida Woman” ushers in a new talent who knows the quirkiness of the Sunshine State.

‘Dance Among the Flames’ by Tori Eldridge. Running Wild, 386 pages, $19.

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The key to weaving fantasy into mystery fiction is that each aspect must seem believable — no matter how outlandish.  Tori Eldridge manages to do just that in “Dance Among the Flames,” which incorporates religion, magic, powerful goddesses and a contemporary domestic situation.

“Dance Among the Flames” begins in 1650 France, moves to the mid-1970s Brazil and to contemporary California. The adage “suspend disbelief” — often associated with genre fiction — needs to be in full force because the rewards in this unusual story are worth it.

“Dance Among the Flames” also is well within the wheelhouse of Eldridge, whose action-packed thrillers about ninja Lily Wong, of Chinese-Norwegian descent, have won her awards and a solid following.

The unconventional reigns in “Dance Among the Flames” beginning with Serafina Olegario, who, in 1974, is raising her infant son Carlinhos in a Brazilian slum after her married lover has rejected them both. Any plans she had for the future have been squashed. Now powerless and vulnerable, she is ripe for manipulation and becomes possessed by the goddess Yansã, and follows the Umbanda religion. But she leaves the Umbanda, looking for power and revenge against those whom she believes betrayed her. Through the decades, Serafina settles down in several areas in Brazil as her powers deepen, as does her hatred.

As Serafina’s story continues to evolve, “Dance Among the Flames” also moves to the present, as Serafina’s granddaughter, Adriana, is locked into an abusive marriage. Adriana’s future seems bleak when she falls for an American artist who may have a link to France during the 1600s.

Eldridge never stumbles as she melds these two storylines, eras and generations into a cohesive story that challenges the reader while delivering a tense thriller filled with Brazilian lore.

Deb Rogers and Tori Eldridge will be among the authors leading panels, presentations and workshops during Sleuthfest, the writers conference July 7-10 at the Doubletree Hotel, Interstate 95 and Hillsboro Boulevard, Deerfield Beach. Jeffery Deaver, author of the Lincoln Rhyme novels, is the guest of honor. More than 40 authors are scheduled to speak. Private sessions with editors and agents are offered. Visit sleuthfest.com for more information and to register.



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