What to read next?

Oh dear – I just don’t read like I used to – the focus is not there. I get distracted by mail or by the news or by my daily doings or by just thinking. I’m currently reading one mystery while my heart is with the new “exposé” books like Disloyal by Michael Cohen or Compromised by Peter Strzok and Rage by Bob Woodward will be out on Tuesday. But I get 10 pages into something like that and my focus goes. And there are several new fictions on the market I’d love to get to. And this is saying nothing about the older history books lining themselves up on my wish list. Oh bother.

So many books so little brain.

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In My Father’s Den ~ by Maurice Gee

A friend in New Zealand recommended Maurice Gee and as I checked around and although Amazon has quite a number even in Kindle format, Audible had two. So I got this one which, as a mystery, sounded like something I’d appreciate. The book had been made into a movie which I would never have seen so. 

In My Father’s Den
by Maurice Gee (New Zealand)
1972 /
read by Humphrey Bower 6h 18m
rating B + / mystery

Having been first published in New Zealand in 1972 this book is much slower and gentler than our intense, page-turning thrillers. Still, get to the ending and it has tremendous impact. And it’s not a cozy either – there is a bit of graphic violence and discussion of matters not usually found in cozies. . 

Paul Prior has returned to his home town outside of Aukland to be a history teacher. He is single and relatively young.  There is one young woman who is particularly appealing to him, though, but they remain friends. Then she is found dead. The police first suspect Paul but he is quickly eliminated and the mystery goes on but Paul has a history of his own which has to be resolved. 

It’s a good book and I enjoyed the New Zealand atmosphere of the 1970s and 1950’s. The story was well plotted and the main characters were fully realized. I’m interested in the other Maurice Gee now.  

I really do enjoy Humphrey Bower’s voice and narration.

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Summer ~ by Ali Smith x2

Oh my goodness I love this book. Yes, it deals with some very difficult subjects, from the days of Nazi Germany to the current difficult times with Coronavirus. It’s the fourth in Smith’s Seasons Quartet so it’s also gathering up a few of the folks from the prior three books. The themes are the same, art, politics, time, nature, interconnections and more.

by Ali Smith
2020 / 393 pages
read by Juliette Burton 9h 27m
rating – 10 / literary fiction 

But along with the grief comes laughter and Ali’s lovely word games.

Where the book Autumn, the first in the series, dealt with Brexit, Summer mentions Trump a few times but sticks pretty much to the English side of the troubles. Autumn was in large part the story of Daniel, a very old man in a nursing home in Norfolk who has qutie a story to tell here in Summer as well And we have Art and Charlotte who were featured in Winter continuing their story as well. But the main characters here are Robert, a precocious 13-year old, his cheeky 17-year old sister Sasha and their mother, Grace.

It all gets tangled up with movies and technology and a memento from the past.

That’s enough – It might be best to start with Autumn and read them in order from there but I don’t think it’s absolutely necessary.

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Veritas: ~ by Ariel Sabar

This is a very good book by a well regarded journalist who follows the subject, but there is so much information that even at only 338 pages of narrative, I have to call it a baggy shaggy monster.

Veritas: A Harvard Professor, a Con Man and the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife 
By Ariel Sabar8/11/2020 – 338 pages 
Read by Robert Petcoff – 15h 32m 
Rating –  8 – true crime/ history 
(Read and listened) 


 I down-rated it because parts are too laboriously detailed and it gets to be a kind of “much of a muchness.” Then it all gets old when Sabar gets into the sex stuff in various ways. There’s way too much information on almost everything from the backgrounds lives of the major players, the ink types, and the translation(s) of ancient Coptic writing, to the examination of Egyptian papyrus. All that’s in addition to kinky and illicit sex in Florida and child abuse in Germany with a bit of post-modern literary theory thrown in.  

This is the story of a scrap of papyrus with ancient Coptic handwriting conveying the idea that Jesus was married. It turned up in the hands of a Harvard professor in religious studies via an anonymous source. Sabar focuses primarily on the involvement of Dr Karen King who was the contact of an “anonymous” collector.  I think I may have read something about this a few years ago when Sabar wrote his articles for the Smithsonian and Atlantic magazines. He continued the search for the truth of the matter until this date.   

There are times when Sabar outdoes Dan Brown (and the stories are related) for drama and other times it’s more like reading John Crossan, the renowned New Testament scholar.  I prefer Crossan although Brown can cut a good plot line. 

To me though, it’s True Crime fiction with a kind of journalist’s procedural sorting out how the expert historians plugged along verifying the scrap of papyrus which came across the path of one of their own, as well as how Sabar went about his investigation with the assistance of some interested media.   

There are three different threads Sabat explores. The first is the fragment of papyrus itself and the archeologists who examined it and what it meant to Karen King and the Early Christian history community.  The second is the sleazy back story of how that papyrus came to be in the hands of Karen King and Harvard Divinity School.  This concerns a lot of material on Walter Fritz.  Then there is a large section about Karen King and her development into the scholar she was.  This all gets very psychoanalytical.  

Then there is the detailed examination of the papyrus to figure out it was a fraud, a forgery at all and then to connect that to Fritz, or not.  Who did this laborious footwork and hid it?  The first part is pretty straightforward and deeply interesting. The second and third parts intertwine and are either sleaze or investigative work.  

When Sabar gets really into the story of Walter Fritz the story gets more compelling, but there’s a lot of pseudo-psychoanalytic stuff there.  Much of this seems like padding. 

There’s a lot of material such as names, dates, details, events and procedures and Sabat pushes each thread to the saturation point and then switches threads.  The threads do connect up within the tale, sometimes.  

Overall it was a good read for me what with my interest in True Crime and Christian history but I certainly wouldn’t recommend it to everyone.

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Summer – by Ali Smith

Oh wow – there was more in this book than I could really get a grip on in one reading but yes, I did read it all the way through. There was some material and characters from the earlier books in the quartet so it’s a series in more than name.

by Ali Smith
2020 / 393 pages
read by Juliette Burton 9h 27m
rating – 8+ / literary fiction

And there were the old themes of time and art and relationships as well as change of course but also interspersed here, again, is politics starting with Brexit and ending with the pandemic of the coronavirus. I wonder how it would have been to read them out of order. I suppose it might be okay. I think the Nazi angle was new.

I’ll be reading this again for sure so I’ll wait with a better review until I’m more connected with more of the connections in the book. I know I enjoyed spending time with these people and their ideas although they weren’t as fully drawn as in some of Smith’s prior works.

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The Death of Expertise ~ by Tom Nichols x2

I read this twice this month. The first time I was so depressed at reading the middle three chapters but then the end picked up. During the middle I felt like it was all lost and this was the funeral, the wake, the end of expertise as we know it and I could certainly see Nichols’ point. But the last couple chapters were less dirge-like, less angry expert-academic and in some way a different tone.

The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters
by Tom Nichols
2017 / 252 pages
read by Sean Pratt 8h 40m
rating: 8.5 / history and cultur

The book is based on an essay he wrote for The Federalist back in 2015. (He’s a Republican turned Democrat for Trump.) The book is almost more important now with a madman in office and another election coming up. There are a lot of voters out there who simply won’t listen to experts in a whole lot of areas and Trump himself seems to be one of them. There is very little really new information in the book since 2015 – a bit from 2016 maybe. It’s very well researched and sourced. Even Michiko Kakutani commented on that in the NY Times.

This may be the original article from which the book was expanded: https://thefederalist.com/2014/01/17/the-death-of-expertise/

Nichols starts out with a Preface to the 2017 book and then goes to the Introduction to the 2015 book. He lays out the reasons for writing it and what he’ll cover. There may be some padding to the book as a whole.

Chapters 1 and 2 are a lot of background. Chapters 3, 4 and 5 cover specific areas like in Chapter 3 and how experts are no longer respected in colleges with “entitled” kids (although he never does use that word. – I still have some problems with some of the material in this chapter.

Then there’s Chapter 4 covering the internet and Googling for knowledge. There’s the Dunning-Kruger Effect which describes the confident ignorance folks are proud of they’re quite smart. And Confirmation bias which has the Googler focused on sources which agree with him. Finally of course there are the conspiracy theories out there in the unchecked world with Qanon exploding into elected offices.

And Chapter 5 with the lazy journalists and those who would deceive them. Experts who are not experts. You can’t trust anyone anymore and what is to be done about that? Fox News, talk radio and Facebook. Journalism as entertainment.

Finally in Chapter 6 we get to the problem of when the experts are wrong as they often are – seriously wrong. Wrong about diets, about science, about lots of things – often about small things but sometimes about really important things – like the collapse of the Soviet Union.

I do wonder what his thinking is now with the Coronavirus and all the experts weighing in on that one but the president who knows he knows better, making the decisions which have cost so many lives. And he admits that although science can give us certain answers, it can’t decide things like how and when to open school this is a and question which depend on values for answers. How many lives is the economy worth?

Good book – I’m glad I read it twice because although Nichols did his job well enough, I was so put out by what I thought of as his really negative attitude toward the situation I wasn’t tuned in to what I caught on the second reading.

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Frederick Douglass ~ by David W. Blight

Brilliant!   I didn’t really know all that much about Frederick Douglass before reading this masterful biography.  I knew he was an escaped slave who became a speaker and writer of great renown who lived in Boston.  He lived to a great old age.  I think I knew he married a white woman in his later years.   

Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom
By David W. Blight
2018 / 862 pages
Read by Prentice Onayemi – 36h 57m
Rating:  9.75 biography 
Pulitzer winner – 2019

So wow – this book filled in a lot of blanks and added to my knowledge about other people of that era like Lincoln and John Brown.  And the political bits, the parts about the divisions within the Republican Party at that time were new to me. 

It’s written in traditional biographical style without much beyond a chronological telling needed because the story of Frederick Douglass is riveting in itself.  That said,  Blight is a master stylist and impeccable researcher.  

The biography is detailed, it’s wonderfully well written, it and, as the New York Times said, “(it) treats Douglass as a man. Along with winning the Pulitzer Prize in 2018, it was one of their 10 Best Books of 2018 achieving a massive amount of critical acclaim. 

Blight addresses the high points, the well known parts of Douglass’ life like his escape at age 20 from slavery with Anna helping him from that point.  Then came his rise to prominence in writing and, a bit later, making his famous speeches.  But Blight’s book also goes into his relationship with Lincoln who had the impossible job of maintaining a union of the entire United States, blacks, whites, abolitionists and slave holders. Lincoln was torn with his own ideas.  And then there was the fiery abolitionist John Brown.  Blight also has much to say about Douglass’ relationships with his wife Anna, a semi-literate black woman who stood by him from the age of  and other women like the English Judith Griffiths and German Ottillee Assing.  He and Anna had 5 children family difficulties as well as his glorious speechifying and passionate writings on his travels.  Blight also covers Douglass’ less than candid autobiographies – three of them! 

He lived to see the Civil War, Reconstruction, the Gilded Age and on until 1895 when he died of a heart attack at age 77.  There was lots happening during all those years and Douglass was a part of much of it.   

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The Redhead by the Side of the Road

Oh my –  I did need this book.  It’s nothing fancy in any literary way except that the straightforwardness of Tyler is always soothing and comforting and in these difficult difficult times that is such a blessing.  Covid is spiking here in North Dakota and California is on fire – (I moved here from California only a couple months ago – I still have friends and family there – some missing.) 

The Redhead by the Side of the Road 
By Ann Tyler

2020 – 192 pages
Read by McLeod Andrews / 4h 50m
(Long Listed for the Booker Prize)

Rating – 9.5 (for many reasons)

Also, it’s no wonder this was chosen for the Booker Long List.  Who else can write like Tyler?  Omg – she “gets it” about relationships, about family, about lots of things.  But she’s not mushy and romantic – she’s real.  The last beautifully skillful practitioner of that old fashioned American realism maybe, if realism is in the details.  

Micah Mortimer is a single, 44 year-old computer tech with his own business, “Tech Hermit,” which he runs out of his two-bedroom basement apartment in east Baltimore (this is Ann Tyler).  He’s somewhat thin with a nondescript appearance and he may be borderline Aspergers – but that’s a “may be borderline.”  He does have a girlfriend, Cassia,  a middle aged school teacher who’s also never been married. He’s a bit clueless when it comes to interpersonal relationships but he’s happy enough.  

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Wild Fire by Anne Cleeves

This is the last of the Shetland Island Mystery series which features a Detective Inspector  named Jimmy Perez.  There is a definite overarching plot which means the books are better read in order of publication. This is what I did with a binge of reading of books 3 through 6. 

Wild Fire by Anne Cleeves
2018 /  416 pages
Read by Kenny Blythe 10h 44m Rating:  A-  / mystery

#8 in the Shetland Series

The Four Seasons Quartet
• Raven Black (2006); Gold Dagger Award
• White Nights (2008)
• Red Bones (2009)
• Blue Lightning (2010)

The Four Elements Quartet
• Dead Water (2013)
• Thin Air (2014)
• Cold Earth (2016)
• Wild Fire (2018)

In this final book in the series, Emma Shearer, an off-island based nanny for a local family, is found hanging from a rafter in a barn.  Jimmy and his supervising detective Willow Reeves along with his assistant Sandy Wilson (male) do the usual investigating and interviewing to proceed through the case. We also read the interactions of some of the characters/ suspects.   Of particular note and interest is an 11-year old boy named Christopher who is autistic and has recently moved to the island with his family.  He has problems at school and sometimes  plays with matches.  Fires figure prominently in the story.  Abuse and bullying as well as dysfunctional families are some other themes.  

The overarching plot has Jimmy and the now pregnant Willow still not quite committing – Jimmy comes with a lot of baggage (read the prior 7 books first).  

Overall I very much enjoyed these books which I would categorize as being somewhere between traditional and cozy mysteries – maybe more traditional than cozy. They are traditional because there is a definite murder and a cast of suspects so it’s a who-done-it with a professional detective and his procedures solving the crime. But there’s a cozy element because of the close attention to setting and the various love stories of some of the main characters. I might try another Cleeves series – we’ll see.

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House of Rain by Craig Childs x2

So I read this a second time and in some ways appreciated it much more.  I understood better Childs’ lapsing into the poetic, but I got a lot of info this time which I’d missed the first reading.  My first reading I gave the book a 9.75,  but that’s before letting it settle a bit and rereading it.  That rating was due to the first excitement of the book.  This time an 8.5 is an okay rating.  I found shortcomings. 

House of Rain: Tracking a Vanished Civilization Across the American Southwest
by Craig Childs
2007 / 482 pages
read by author – 15h 21m
rating: 8 / Native American history – archeology

A poetic sample from Part 8 in the book (these poetic parts bothered me the first time):
“The wind hemmed among the pines outside, and José paused, hearing it. The flame in the oil lamp shifted just slightly with the change in pressure. Shadows ducked through the room.”  

And the word Childs means is ‘hemmed,’ it’s not a typo, because when he narrates it he says it that way.

Second readings are often quite illuminating for me and they’re usually totally worth the time but with House of Rain not so much. On the plus side I did get a better *feeling* for the Anasazi and their environment.  

One thing which bothered me this time was that I had to do so much Googling to get a good perspective of the landscape which is inseparble from its inhabitants. I also found many more photos so i could actually see what some of the dwellings and artifacts looked like.  There are lots of great web sites with some background info and excellent photos available.  The last section of the book, Part 8, was totally new to me – I don’t think I’ve ever been south of the border between Tijuana and McAllen, Texas.

So I had no idea the area in Northern Mexico was so barren – US interest in Mexico (as a place to expand slavery) certainly ended by the extreme geography.  They got to where they did becuase they needed a railroad to get to San Diego.
This is a fascinating video documentary of Paquimé area. It’s about 11 minutes: 

Here’s another one but it’s longer and has more info, but is irritating for some reason. Good photography though.   

And this is important – This reading I sense the tension between finding stuff out and leaving it untouched, unspoiled – Childs usually leaves stuff alone but once in awhile he picks things up and drops them back – his fellow travelers often leave with them.  That pretty much climaxes in the last chapters.  I suppose it’s a reason for the lack of photos, too.  And what there are are tiny – but expandable in the Kindle.  

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The Mother-In-Law by Sally Hepworth

This was very good until toward the end when the resolution to one “mystery” seemed to be clear and obvious,  but presented another issue. There was a slight lapse in suspense (for me anyway) during that time, but it only lasted a couple relatively short chapters.   

The Mother-in-Law
by Sally Hepworth
2020 (352 pages)
Read by Barrie Kreinik- 9h 12m
Rating: B+ / mystery 

The narrative involves alternating first person narratives which also change time frame – past and present –  leading up to Diana’s death and then the aftermath.  It’s interesting and different reading the point of view of the victim.
The eponymous mother-in-law, Diana,  is a formidable woman, quite rich, dominating and opinionated. Her husband seems to be the opposite, easy going and lovable, a very good provider and family man.  After Tom dies, Diana is depressed and then she’s dead with a bottle of Latubin next to her and a suicide note in a drawer.  
The suspects – their son, Ollie,  married a very nice woman named Lucy who has no immediate family living.  (So Diana is Lucy’s mother-in-law and the two have a somewhat complicated relationship.  Lucy and Ollie have three children and a nice life until there are money troubles.  Diana’s  daughter Nettie and husband Patrick also have a very nice life, but Nettie’s  suffering involves her inability to bear children. This consumes her until her last hope is to get enough money to cover the costs of getting a surrogate.    

But Diana was grieving her husband’s death – was this possibly a suicide?  
As it turns out there are plenty of twists to the plot, the character development of Diana and Lucy, both sympathetic characters in themselves, is excellent.  The writing is so-so.  The suspense is professionally developed and the ending is satisfactory.  great. 

Fwiw, Hepworth is an established fiction writer, but this is her 1st mystery and the “relationships” aspect is sometimes overpowers the mystery genre. It’s okay.

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A Private Cathedral by James Lee Burke

Burke is back with Dave Robicheaux in book # 23 and his usual luscious prose with evil characters set in an incredibly violent and gritty context, a context which includes some occult context.  He’s still coming out with great novels, but they’re not up to what the earlier novels were.  “In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead” and “Jolie Blon’s Bounce” were Burke at his height.  I’m not sure I like so much occult play in there either but a certain amount of that has almost always a part of the Dave Robicheaux novels.  Burke is dealing with the concept of “evil.”

A Private Cathedral
by James Lee Burke
read by Will Patton 11 h 30m

Rating –  A- / crime 

Dave Robicheaux, the series protagonist, gets older and older.  He would be either 81 or 75 in this book depending on the varied ages used within the series.  but in the early pages of A Private Cathedral it appears the story takes place prior to 9/11. In that case, he’d be in his 50 or 60s for this tale of vile and horrendously corrupted men. If there is a theme it’s the evil which lives within.  

The story is one of rich men, the trafficking of young girls, drugs and rock ’n roll.  Clete seems rougher and somewhat bossy while Dave isn’t as sure of himself.  Finding Helen back in the picture was fun.  

The book was okay, but not quite the A++ I used to almost automatically give Burke’s books. The literary aspect didn’t overcome the grit and violence and the literary language even sounded a wee bit forced or artificial.  All that said,  I still gave it an A for crime novel – Burke is still the best on the market. 

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