New Iberia Blues ~ by James Lee Burke

As a long-time and avid fan of James Lee Burke, I had to get this and read it as soon as it was available. But my reading is still a wee tad slow due to various causes, so although it is certainly is a page turner, I took plenty breaks. I’m not going to worry about getting my speed and stamina back. I’ll read at whatever pace gives me most enjoyment.  

New Iberia Blues
by James Lee Burke
2019 / 465 pages
read by Will Patton -15h 3m
rating – A+++

So this is book #22 in the Dave Robicheaux series. Robicheaux is a homicide detective with the New Iberia force in Louisiana. These aree dark and gritty tales, but sublimely well written and the effect is like thick cream flowing slowly over coarse sharp gravel. The setting and internal dialogue of Robi-cheaux is where the creamy smooth wondrous literary narrative lies, while the plot, action and dialogue are the sharp-edged gravel, In some ways they’re similar to the crime novels of the old Elmore Leonard or more recently, Stieg Larsson, but Burke probably gets the prize for grit. 

So here we have Dave finding the dead body of a young black woman which washed up on shore from the bayou. She appears to have been crucified and is wearing only a small ankle bracelet. Clete Purcell, Robicheaux’s best old drunk buddy and informal partner in crime detection, Alafair, his grown adopted daughter, and Helen Soileau, his boss, are all on hand to help. There are a few other characters from recent novels also included. 

It seems that Desmond Cormier, local poor boy who has done quite well in Hollywood. has now come home bringing with him a strange friend named Antoine Butterworth. Added to that there is a death row escapee on the loose as well as a known trigger-happy nut-case out for some kind of vengeance. Dave, as usual, is haunted by his own demons which include three dead wives, his old battle scars and booze.  The East Coast Mafia is involved somehow and maybe even Russia are endangered. Prostitutes and other women are definitely endangered. 

If these books were less beautifully written I’d throw them across the room in a heartbeat. But with an underlying theme of good vs evil and some allusions to classic literature – I have to keep going.

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The Bookshop ~ by Penelope Fitzgerald

I read this a long time ago and thought I remembered it. Well, I did remember the setting and the heroine’s general predicament as well as how it ended, but my memory of the themes and specifics was almost nil so I read it again. This time my comprehension was way, way off and I misread this book completely. I can only put that down to general exhaustion and worry. 

The Bookshop
by Penelope Fitzgerald
1978 / 192 pages
read by Doranda Peters – 3h 30m
rating – 8.75
(both read and listened

But during the discussion at The Booker Prize GroupI got interested in one question: Why did Florence wear a red dress? So I explored that in my Kindle version and found myself intrigued by what all was involved. 

Oops! I started reading again starting with the Introduction which brought up all sorts of interesting facets And I continued. It is a very short book and events take place one right after the other with very little said about the individual characters and yet that’s what it’s mostly about. I suppose it’s minimalist in its own way and I usually really enjoy minimalist works but this is cutting some real corners when it rushes from one character smack into another. 

Oh well, it’s a wonderful novel, quite realistic in a very late modernist kind of way, but without all the detail which often accompanies that form. There is also some focus on nature and the peculiarities of small towns and their “characters.” An over-riding theme is that of predator and prey I suppose and that’s not unlike Fitzgerald’s other novels. 

Basically Florence Green, a widow who has lived in the town of Hard-borough for eight years. decides to open a bookshop in a large but broken down old building. That’s fine with everyone who doesn’t read much because they like her. That said, she has one formidable enemy, a wanna-be socialite who has her own high connections and her own ideas about what should happen with that Old House place.

As described in the first chapter, it’s a fight between a predatory heron and an lowly eel who is simply struggling to survive – it’s an “exterminator” and an “exterminatee” if you will. This is the image Fitzgerald paints for us a couple times to underscore that thee. . Although there are nicely humorous parts, a comedy of manners perhaps, a lot of the book, including the ending, are darkly disturbing.  

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The Tangled Tree ~ by David Quammen

Brilliant book – Quammen tells us the story of what has been happening to the idea of the “Tree of Life” idea in the field of biology. Charles Darwin came up with that idea and a little graphic back in the early to mid-19th century and it stuck until now. (The idea wasn’t brand new to Darwin, though.). 

The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life
by David Quammen 
2018 / 480 pages
read by Jacques Roy 13h 48m
rating – 10

But where Darwin’s tree had two basic branches (plants and animals) that idea was challenged in 1977 when, thanks to all the new techno-logy available, a 3rd form of life, a new kingdom, was discovered by Carl Woese. It was called archaeans, and following that, cells of this new form were found in other plants and animals. What did that do to the idea of separate plant and animal kingdoms? 

And with Darwin’s specialty being evolution. -what did it do to that idea? How did other scientists react? How did non-evolutionists react? What doors did it open? 

That all transpired back in 1977 and. a LOT has happened since then. Quammen covers it well. We don’t even have a tree anymore, not really. If one were to diagram what has been being found, it could look more like the “Tangled Tree” of the book’s title, but it really seems more like a web or a road map with intersections and all. 

This is a 2016 (metagenomic) representation of the tree of life[1] (from Wikipedia

Qammen writes very nicely and the book is wonderfully well organized. There are sections of biography on the important names, especially Woese, who, as a very old man, went out fighting for his own vision. 

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Milkman by Anna Burns

Wow. I mean “Wow!” Milkman is considered “experimental” and I think it is really what with the lack of character and setting names plus stream of consciousness approach. But it worked for me and apparently the Man Booker judges as well because it won the biggie! And it totally deserved it. 

I was a bit hesitant to buy into the hype (and it got lots of glorious reviews) because that sometimes leads me to expect too much from a novel and then I’m disappointed. But I hadn’t completely bought into the hype on this so I ended up being wonderfully well surprised by the enjoyment and quality Banks provided. – That’s just how I am, better off if I don’t expect a whole lot.

by Anna Burns
2017 / 360 pages (paperback) 
read by Brid Brennan – 14h 11m
rating: 9.6 


Although the unnamed first-person narrator lives an unnamed city in an unnamed country it’s obviously Northern Ireland but Burns has said she wanted it to be someone allegorical rather than history -specific. The time is one of high tensions and a disgust for the land “across the sea” so that’s likely going to set off Belfast in the reader’s mind. Ireland had serious troubles in the 1970s. 

The characters are referred to by the relationship to the narrator or the others in the story. There’s “third sister,” and “brother-in-law,” and “almost-boyfriend” plus Ma and of course Milkman and many others. Sometimes little groups have names, “wee sisters.” 

This is not really a historical novel as such because the dates and places are never specifically stated. Burns has said she was thinking more of an allegory when she wrote it. And she said that the novel’s characters just didn’t need names. 

The themes are more important and they deal with what happens to relationships in those kinds of times which are full of fear and suspicion and tear neighborhoods apart. There are women’s issues and LGBT issues and political issues and general gossip issues – this poor narrator is witness to lots of issues and she’s trying to stay low and out of it. 

I both read and listened and if you happen to listen, the reader, Brid Brennan. is absolutely fabulous. I’d still say you need the book though because it’s very complex and subtle and sometimes the words get confused, like “wee sisters” sounds like “we sisters.” 

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Three weeks?

Has it really been three weeks since I’ve written a book review? There was one non-review blog entry on January 3, but prior to that it was 12/28 and today is 1/17!

I really didn’t want to stop blogging – I was moving my mom into a lovely senior home and getting her settled plus having her birthday party. That took both time and energy as she’s 95 years old now! It will still take a bunch more time and energy to empty her old house and get it sold. But not today. I need at least a couple days free a week. Today I finished another book. (YAY) and that’s four for January so far.

I do have to admit that I wasn’t focused on two of the books I read this month at all. Both To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf and The Bookstore by Penelope Fitzgerald seemed too slow for me or something. I’ve read them before and I know there is meat in those books – delicious meat. At least they were short. And I didn’t bother with reviews.

Happy The books which did hook me this month were The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life by David Quammen and Milkman by Anna Banks.  (links to my reviews on this site)

Also today I started cleaning out my folders of really old posts with double and triple copies which were messing up my filing system. And I started listening to James Lee Burke’s new Dave Robicheaux novel, New Iberia Blues (number 22 in the series) and writing a couple reviews.

I might slow down a tad, but I’m not leaving. :-).

Happy Reading!

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My site is currently under fairly heavy reconstruction – remodeling you might say. It’s NOT cosmetic. I upgraded and then the filing system changed and it’s really too cumbersome anyway,. A lot of the old posts/reviews are going to be disappeared and many have gone already. This may take days or months – I have no idea because I’m also in the middle of some personal changes. (I’m hoping for a couple weeks, but …). ‘

I hope to be posting my reviews as usual but may not be reading as much,. Thank you.

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The Crisis of the Middle-Class Constitution: ~ by Ganesh Sitaraman x2

This book is so dense and so good I had to read it twice. Yes! This time it gets a 10, but it takes work. The author is a legal scholar at Vanderbilt University so, as one might expect, the book is very well thought out, researched, organized and written basically explains why the Constitution is a “middle class” constitution (rather than a class-warfare constitution”. and how the it changed over the centuries to where it now seems to protect the elites. 

The Crisis of the Middle-Class Constitution:  Why Economic Inequality Threatens Our Republic
by Ganesh Sitaraman 
2017 / 433 pages
read by MacLeod Andrews –  12h 24m

Rating:  9 / history-economics
(both read and listened) 

The Introduction is difficult but interesting and the next two chapters remain challenging. The narrative let up for me in Chapter 3 where I had more background and it continued in a relatively more accessible way.  

The material is organized into three Parts each divided into a few chapters.  This follows a fairly thorough Introduction. Part 1, “The Radicalism of  The American Constitution,”  goes back to the Greeks/Romans and what a Middle-Class Constitution might be as well as how others since,  like Machi-avelli, have viewed overall governmental structures,  and how all of this applies to the Western world, specifically the United States, today.  

Part II, “A Brief History of the Middle-Class Constitution,”  deals with the Western world prior to the ratification of the US constitution.  This means mostly the founding fathers and their era showing that what happened in America really was a Revolution and not just a War of Independence. 

And then Part III, “The Crisis of the Middle-Class Constitution,”  gets involved with more recent US history and how the struggle between the elites and the middle/lower classes. This includes the fight over slavery, and the feudalism of the south, but not much say about women. Sitaraman also covers the Progressive Era, the WWII boom, the Civil Rights era, the flattening of the middle class since 1970 and what’s been going on since, like the Citizen’s United court case   The final chapter deals with suggestions for reviving a Middle-Class and a Constitution which supports stability. 

Overall, it’s a fascinating account of what started out to be a brave new way of governance has turned into another form of government by elites., How and why did that happen and can we somehow alter the course of our Republic? 

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Lost Empress (a protest)~ by Sergio de la Pava

Great novel, inventive, ambitious, fun. It’s a bit wordy and convoluted, but still, one of the best I’ve read this year.  

First, the subtitle is definitely meaningful – pay attention. There is a Prologue, but the story really kicks off with Chapter 88. Odd, yes, but with a point – it’s like a countdown and increases tension in itself but there’s more. And we have the best opening lines since “A screaming comes across the sky,” (Pynchon Gravity’s Rainbow) or “Now single up all lines” (Pynchon again from  Against the Day): 

Lost Empress (a protest) 
by Sergio de la Pava
2018 / 624 pages (Kindle) 
read by full cast 19h 3m
rating 9.5 / contemp fiction 
(both read and listened) 


From Lost Empress

“Let us then have, in these pages, an entertainment.”

And indeed the book is, truly, an entertainment in the very best sense of the term. And de la Pava goes on with the paragraph: 

Not strictly one, but principally so. Let wit and peals of laughter distract to the point of defiance and leave for elsewhere the desultory analysis of decay and devolution.” –   

What a super way to open. It lends the old meaning to the term “novel.” Okay, so it is rather far-fetched 

I read de la Pava’s first book,  A Naked Singularity (link to my review on this site) and was totally enamored, finding it to be one of the best books I read all last year (2017). But in some ways, Last Empress surpasses that. So what am I to say now? 

Okay – so it doesn’t quite start out quite that hot. It took me awhile to get into it because there are so many characters each apparently leading their own weird and separate lives but eventually each a part of a plot thread. 

Changes in plot thread usually alternate with the chapters, but occasionally appear rather abruptly. And then there’s the third person narrator interjecting bits and pages( of meditative wisdom or hilarity as needed, sometimes at length. This narrator also addresses the reader directly from time to time. 

Meanwhile, some of the dialogue is written like a play script breaking up the narrative nicely and drawing more focus to the characters. There are also 911 (emergency) transcripts (including nonsense code which is not reproduced in the audio version), some excerpts from the Riker’s Island Inmate Rule Book, journal entries, and so on.  

The main characters:  The following list gives you a kind of sense of the general plot – an NFL strike precipitates the formation of a stronger IFL which is owned by one Nina Gill whose brother owns the Texas Cowboys. Her sidekick, Dia Nouveau is involved in everything. Meanwhile, Nuno DeAngeles, a brilliant but very unfortunate thug, is charged with getting Nina a copy of an old Salvador Dali print hidden on Riker’s Island. There are several more secondary threads including a professor of theoretical physics and various EMT units. 

Nina Gill is perhaps the star protagonist because of her “tall, thick, impossibly magnetic” self which de la Pava presents in all its smart-mouthed glory. She is already wealthy, but has been unfairly deprived of her father’s legacy football team (the Cowboys) in his will. Nina knows football and men and many other things but instead of inheriting the Cowboys, she becomes the owner of the Pork, the Indoor Football League (IFL) team of Paterson New Jersey. She spends much of her time in the book collecting a team. Nina is also a collector of the works of Salvador Dali which is important. 

Daniel Gill, Nina’s accountant-minded brother who unfortunately did get the Cowboys in their father’s will. There will be a strike. N

Nuno DeAngeles, a very intelligent and sneaky 18-year old inmate at Riker’s Island. Behind his facade of toughness, he’s really very human and literate. He’s in prison for his thievery and he’s angry and really only wants to leave. 

Major Harris: An ex-NFL player, friend and supporter of Nina’s –

Sharon Seaborg – a 911 operator, married to an EMT, Huge Seaborg. Lives next to Feliz Heredia

Dia Nouveau – a young woman Nina grabs to act as her attorney, but is actually her “sidekick.” She’s bright and funny and occasionally stands up to Nina. 

Travis Mena, MD is a very “unimpressive” young doctor with an elite background who is doing his residency at Bellevue. 

Hugh Seaborg – a corrections officer at Riker’s Island, married to the 911 operator, Sharon Seaborg. 

Jorge de Cervantes – parking garage supervisor – brilliant and rich now, with a wife and family (Nelson and Gisella), but questioning the meaning of his existence. He immigrated for success and he got it, but … 

Nelson de Cervantes – 13-year old son of the deceased Jorge de Cervantes – 

Coach Elkins – Ex Cowboys coach Nina gets for the Pork. 

Larry Brown – Emergency Medical Tech and friend of Hugh.

Solomon Hanes – a Riker’s island inmate hooks up with Nuno. 

Elsie Heredia – a very poor widow with an amputated leg who lives with her son, Feniz who came to the US first. They were originally from Puerto Rico but have now lived in Paterson for over 35 years. She is now in decline and hasn’t left the house for a decade.

Feniz Heredia – Elsie’s son and care-giver came to New York but landed in a mental hospital so now lives with Elsie. They tend to be pessimistic and live next to Sharon Seaborg. 

Dylan Reeves – a cornerback who is in Attica prison for drug possession until paroled into Nina’s care and football team. 

Sylvester Scarpetti – fatintern at the Manhattan District Attorney’s office who transcribes material perfectly and immediately and with sensitivity and “undeniable reality.” 

Manu Mutola – an NFL star from years prior who is recruited by Nina. 

Father Simon Ventimiglia – highly educated chaplain assigned to Paterson and Riker’s Island. 

Elvis Herrera – another inmate at Rikers, not a friendly one.

Celia de Cervantes – wife of Jorge and mother of Nelson de Cervantes. s

The Theorist – in Bellevue – 

The narrative goes from thoughtful to exciting to incredibly sad to silly to a bit of foreshadowing to philosophizing and so on – even theoretical physics and space-time considerations in an encyclopedic sort of way. 

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The Feral Detective ~ by Jonathan Lethem

I started reading Jonathan Letham back in the 1990s when he came out with Motherless Brooklyn and The Fortress of Solitude, both of which I greatly enjoyed. Then something turned me off, I have no idea what, and he dropped off my radar. 

But here he is back with a novel reminding me of a cross between himself, Jonathan Franzen and Michael Chabon, maybe even a bit of Thomas Pynchon as shown in Vineland or  Inherent Vice. I don’t know but he’s definitely drawn me back into his circle. 

The Feral Detective
by Jonathan Lethem
2018 / 287 pages
read by Zoisa Manmet 8h 23m
rating: 7.75 / contemp/fiction – crime novel?

Phoebe Siegler, our 1st person narrator, is 30-something, single, well educated and well to do, but she feels completely lost after Trump’s election. So she quits her job at the New York Times and travels to Los Angeles. Her mission is to find her friend’s daughter, Arabella, who seems to have disappeared into the California desert. 

Hiring a strange older guy named Charles Heist who technically knows the desert well and the people who populate it but doesn’t quite share how well or the two of them are kind of lost together although he knows the area well and even grew up there – he’s the feral one for fairly good reason. 

After a trip to a mountain Zen retreat where they come across a murder, they travel to the desert where they encounter the two feuding tribes, the Bears who are rather Hell’s Angels types, and the Rabbits who are basically arch-feminist. 

I suppose it’s a literary thriller of sorts – the thing which really ruined it for me was the narrator’s gravelly voice. And I kept comparing it to Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union (which I love). . 

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Bad Blood: ~ by John Carreyrou

Yes!  It’s every bit as good as the hype and reviews say it is and it’s on several “Best of 2018” lists.  I’ve been meaning to read it since it came out because the techie/true crime nature of it really appealed to me.  But the medical part didn’t at all.  

 This is the story of how the miracle medical breakthrough by a Silicon Valley startup health company named Theranos run by Elizabeth Holmes.  

Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup 
by John Carreyrou
2018 / 320 pages
read by Will Damron – 11h 37m
rating:  9.5 –   business-economics-true crime

What happened?  There’s still plenty of room for speculation as to specifics,  but the upshot is that most of the company’s results were fraudulent in some way. Carreyrou uses interviews with many of the top players as well as court transcripts and other written evidence (emails, reports and memos etc) to outline the inside operations of Theranos as Elizabeth pushed her way toward selling her product anyway. Back in 2004 Elizabeth Holmes,  the brilliant 20-year old daughter of a prominent business executive and his wife,  left Stanford University to form a startup she had conceived. She wanted to develop a method and device for doing blood tests at home instead of in medical labs. 

Elizabeth Holmes

The idea was apparently a hot one because she was successful in getting funded through family friends  and a few venture capitalists.  Then she managed to get the backing of famous people and hire some excellent engineers and other employees.  There’s also a developing paranoia on the part of Elizabeth and Sonny Balwani, her co-administrator/significant other. And they used a lot of techniques to intimidate people and skirt the law.  There’s a fair amount of material about legal shenanigans involved, but I love that. 

There are many interrelated threads as the narrative follows the stories of numerous employees of various sorts, legal people,  some friends, board members, doctors, reporters including John Carreyrou and others,  

Carreyrou is an excellent writer at the Wall Street Journal and skillfully builds the tension to near thriller level.  There is an Epilogue but it would have been written around January of 2018 and more has happened  –  Google Elizabeth Holmes,  there’s lots out there. 

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The Adventures of the Blue Carbuncle by Arthur Conan Doyle

This is the first of my Christmas readings this year.   It’s only a short story, (so it won’t count on my tally),  but it’s supposedly one of Doyle’s better Holmes tales, so I wanted to read it anyway,  and with the holidays here plus its being on sale…well…    

I’ve read his novels but not so many of the short stories.  I’d like to remedy that.  I think I have a volume of them around here. 

The Adventures of the Blue Carbuncle
by Arthur Conan Doyle
1892 /  20(?) pages
read by Matt Montanez – 47m
rating:  8/B+ /but it’s Christmasy crime by a master

Just around Christmas time there is a headline making robbery in London in which the thief got away with a precious gemstone,  a blue carbuncle.  A man who had been working at the mansion is quickly arrested but proclaims his innocence.  There is a hat left behind in a scuffle which provides Holmes with a great number of clues – naturally.  

And the stone turns up in the police chief’s Christmas dinner goose.  How in the world did it get there and why?   It’s a goodie, a nice puzzler but a bit lighter than some for the season.  

Text available here:

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Nursing Homes Are Murder ~ by Mike Befeler

It’s time for dumb.  I’ve followed this series since book #1 which, being a mystery series, caught my attention and then it tickled my silly-bone.  But be warned,  it’s a stupid kind of humor and while the first one is bad,  the following books are worse – lol.   This is number 6 in the – ta-da –  Paul Jacobson Geezer-Lit series.    I’m not sure what this says about me, but I do NOT recommend the series unless you enjoy rather ridiculous situations and silly old-man puns. They’re definitely in the “cozy” mystery genre.  

But actually,  in some ways I find cozy mysteries kind of refreshing after reading gritty suspense thrillers or challenging nonfiction.  

Nursing Homes Are Murder
by Mike Befeler 
2014 – 261 pages
read by Jerry Sciarrio – 6h 56m
rating:  7 –  / cozy crime 

6th in the Paul Jacobson Geezer-Lit series
(the final one)

Paul Jacobson, a lively 80-something “geezer,” suffers from extreme short-term memory loss,  has been asked by his friends in the Honolulu police force to go undercover in a nursing home due to suspicious reports about abuse there.  This home accepts folks with dementia so there are plenty of high-jinks. But on Paul’s first night there the woman who has been complaining about sexual abuse is murdered.  The next night someone tries to smother Paul with a pillow. 

His roommate is nearly blind but is able to help with sounds as Paul makes his rounds doing very informal inquiries about and with possible suspects.  There is also a cop assigned to the hospital (in custodial work) to assist him if he runs into trouble. 

It’s a fun book and it’s the last of the series.  Befeler has written several other books though including a couple of series.   We’ll see.  

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