Friday, July 29, 2016

Ham Bones by Carolyn Haines: A review

Ham Bones (Southern Belle Mysteries)Ham Bones by Carolyn Haines
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Feeling the urge for some popcorn for the brain - or, since it is summer, perhaps a shaved ice for the brain - I turned to one of Carolyn Haines' Southern Belle Mysteries. This is the seventh one in the series. I had read the other six and found some of them diverting and others less so. There was at least a fifty percent chance that this one would entertain me.

I don't give up on books. If I choose to start reading one, I'm going to finish it, even if I don't like it. Many, maybe most, readers can't really understand this, feeling that life is too short to waste any of it on a bad book, and they have no hesitation in tossing one aside if it doesn't appeal to them. But I have this sense that I've made a contract with the writer by picking up his/her book and I need to fulfill my contract.

All that being said, I came about as close as I have in recent memory to giving up on a book after about fifty pages of Ham Bones. Although it didn't get any better after that, sadly, but true to my philosophy, I persevered. Those are hours of my life that I will never get back.

So, what was wrong with the book? Well, the plot was implausible and the characters unbelievable. Moreover, the main character, who in the earlier books exhibited a kind of quirky charm, has become whiny and bitter, constantly complaining about her state in life, although most people would probably consider her state in life to be pretty privileged. After all, she is the owner of her ancestral estate, partner in an at least semi-successful private investigation business, and surrounded by scores of friends, who, for no good reason that I can see, think she is wonderful. She just comes off as spoiled and self-centered, not someone the reader can readily root for.

As for the writing, perhaps the less said the better. It is slapdash and careless at best. One example may suffice.

Early in the book, our heroine, Sarah Booth Delaney (who is always referred to as Sarah Booth, never just Sarah) is sent on an errand from her Mississippi Delta hometown of Zinnia to Memphis. As she starts home again, we get this sentence:
As I crossed the mighty Mississippi, my cell phone rang.

Carolyn Haines grew up in Mississippi, as indeed I did, and she now lives in Alabama, so she must surely be aware that Memphis and Mississippi are on the same side of the river. One would not cross the "mighty Mississippi" to go home again from Memphis.

And that pretty much exemplifies the quality of the writing.

The plot, briefly, is this: A Broadway touring company comes to Zinnia to do a week-long run of performances of Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. The company just happens to comprise a number of actors whom Sarah Booth had worked with during her brief stint of trying to make it as an actress in New York. One of them is her former lover. Another is a woman who hated her. Sarah Booth is drafted to be an understudy to the star of the show (the woman who hates her) and in the middle of their first performance, the star is found lying dead on her dressing room floor. Turns out she was poisoned.

But the show must go on and it does, with Sarah Booth in the role. She is a great success, winning rave reviews and no one is the least bit sorry that a woman is dead, because everybody disliked her.

There is the little matter that the woman appears to have been murdered and the person who seems to have gained most from her death is Sarah Booth. Soon the county sheriff who loves her and who she loves is knocking on the door of the old plantation home to arrest Sarah Booth for murder.

Accck!!! I can't go on. Suffice to say that it all works out in the end and it is crystal clear long before the end just what had happened. No real mystery here. Except the mystery of why I read this book all the way to the end.

I have one more book in this series, #8, in my reading queue and, at some point, when the bad taste of this experience has dissipated, I'll probably read it. But unless the quality of it dramatically improves, it will be my last experience with the Southern Belle series.



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Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Backyard Nature Wednesday/Wildflower Wednesday: July images - Joe Pye Weed

If it is July, it must be Joe Pye weed time. This is the month when this plant really gets its blooms going. They are very long lasting, continuing into the end of August or even into September.

Joe Pye weed, Eupatorium purpureum, has begun to come into its own recently. No longer seen by gardeners as just another unwanted weed, the attractive plant has come to be appreciated for its good qualities, namely as a wildlife attractant for habitat gardens. It is especially attractive to butterflies that flock to feed on its sweet nectar.

Interestingly, the plant got its common name from a New England man who used it as a medicinal herb in the treatment of typhus fever. In addition to its medicinal qualities, the plant's flowers and seeds have also been used in producing pink and red dye for textiles.

Joe Pye weed is hardy in zones 4-9 and can be found  growing in thickets and woodlands throughout the eastern half of North America. They can grow quite tall, anywhere between 3 to 12 feet. In my garden, they stay closer to the three foot mark. They are best located at or near the back of the bed to provide focal interest. When conditions are dry, as they have been around here lately, the lower parts of the plant can drop leaves and begin to look rather spindly.

The plant will grow quite happily in full sun to partial shade. I have plants growing in both conditions, and, this year, those in full sun are suffering more than the ones in partial shade. They do prefer moist conditions, so when it is very dry, they may need supplemental water in order to thrive.

This is basically a care-free plant, which is the kind I like best. 
The plants will die back to the ground in winter but come back strong in spring. About the only care needed is to dig and divide the clumps when they get big. This is best done in the spring. 

If you are looking for a native plant to add to your butterfly garden, give Joe Pye weed a chance. You won't be disappointed.

One of my plants growing happily in partial shade.

Today I'm linking up with Gail at Clay and Limestone for her Wildflower Wednesday feature. Coincidentally, she is also featuring Joe Pye weed! You know what they say about great minds... 

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Vertigo 42 by Martha Grimes: A review

Vertigo 42: A Richard Jury MysteryVertigo 42: A Richard Jury Mystery by Martha Grimes
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The books in Martha Grimes' Richard Jury series often are rich in literary and film references and this one is no exception. The homage to Alfred Hitchcock's film Vertigo is perhaps obvious from the title, but there are also overt references to Thomas Hardy and William Butler Yeats, as well as more subtle nods to Oscar Wilde and even the Bard himself, Shakespeare. It all makes for a fun game for the reader, a kind of hide-and-go-seek, which is an actual game that plays a part in one of the mysterious deaths of the plot.

Once again, Jury is called upon to investigate a cold case, this time as a favor to a friend. Seventeen years before, Tess Williamson died in a fall down stone steps in the garden of her house in Devon. The verdict on the death was left open, as no definitive conclusion could be reached, but the inspector in charge of the investigation at the time leaned toward an accidental death due to the victim's known problems with vertigo. Her husband, Tom, is convinced that her death was murder, and, in that conclusion, he has an ally in another detective who was involved in the original investigation, Jury's friend, Brian Macalvie.

Tom is also friends with Sir Oscar Maples, another in Jury's circle of friends, and it is Maples who suggests to him that Jury might be willing to investigate the death, and it is he who delivers the request to Jury. Jury meets with Williamson at Vertigo 42, a bar in a City of London tower, hears his story, and agrees to look into the case.

One curious aspect of Tess's death is that five years before, a nine-year-old girl had also died in a fall at the Devon home, during a children's party that Tess was hosting. The victim was a particularly nasty child who was not liked by any of the other children, or, for that matter, any adults. There was suspicion that she was pushed and Tess was a suspect, but, again, there was no conclusive evidence and the verdict was left open.

So, two suspicious deaths seventeen and twenty-two years earlier, but before Jury can get very far into his investigation, another death occurs near the village where his friend Melrose Plant lives. A woman dressed in an expensive red silk dress and four-inch-high red heels dies in a fall from a tower. Did she jump? Was she pushed? How did she climb to the top of that tower in those four-inch heels? When it turns out that this woman was one of the children who were present at that party in Devon long ago when the little girl died, Jury sees a pattern and suspects that there may have been three murders.

Then, the woman's husband also turns up dead of gunshot wounds with his dog Stanley standing guard over his body. Four deaths - two in the past and two in the present - dot this intricate and compelling plot. How will Jury ever sort this puzzle out?

This is the latest entry in the Richard Jury series, number 23, and it isn't clear if there will be any more. If indeed it does turn out to be the last one, then Grimes will have ended on a fairly high note. This was a strong effort, more so than some of the recent books in which she seemed to be just phoning it in.

As usual, the plot meandered all over the countryside between Devon and London and it encompassed visits with most of the recurring characters that we've come to know and love (or hate) over the years. It had the usual quirky animals, but at least this time we didn't spend time inside the animals' heads watching their nonverbal reaction to events. There were no charming children this time around, which made for a bit of a change. But, all in all, particularly with the literary allusions, it hit all the notes that we've come to expect from Martha Grimes and it was a fun summer read.


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Monday, July 25, 2016

Bruno, Chief of Police by Martin Walker: A review

Bruno, Chief of Police: A Novel of the French CountrysideBruno, Chief of Police: A Novel of the French Countryside by Martin Walker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Benoit Courreges, known to everyone as Bruno, is the chief of police in the small village of St. Denis in the Dordogne region of southwestern France. He's a unique kind of policeman. He has a gun but he keeps it locked away. He makes every possible effort not to arrest people, preferring reasoning with them and sometimes turning a blind eye to minor infringements. His main challenge as a policeman seems to be protecting the vendors at the village market from the EU health and safety inspectors who are charged with ensuring that regulations are followed and who are authorized to hand out fines to those who attempt to circumvent the rules.

Bruno is an orphan who found his calling as a soldier serving with United Nations forces in Bosnia. Coming home, he had a mentor in one of his former commanders in Bosnia and through the efforts of that man, now the mayor of the town, Bruno became chief of police and found a sense of family at last in the people of his village. He is completely devoted to them and to the welfare of his community.

That community includes some Arabs, descendants of immigrants from North Africa. One particular family is well-known and highly esteemed by the close-knit citizenry. The village is rocked when the patriarch of that family, a man who was considered a war hero who had won the Croix de Guerre for his services in Vietnam, is brutally murdered, with a swastika carved on his chest. The murder brings to the fore hidden racial and cultural resentments and threatens to rip apart the unity and the easy-going rhythms that have long marked life in this community.

The national police are charged with the investigation of the crime, but Bruno, as the local expert, is attached to the team of investigators. It soon develops that the roots of the crime reach far back to World War II days and the role that the French Resistance played. It seems that the victim may not have always been the hero that his family believed him to be. The writer was able to seamlessly weave in details of the World War II experience in the French countryside which helped to make the story more realistic.

Throughout the investigation, Bruno continues his daily interaction with all the locals, the friends and neighbors who are a part of his circle. We get to know them all as they meet at the market, play tennis or rugby, visit the local caves which contain prehistoric paintings, and especially as they share meals. And what fabulous meals! Food is an integral part of this story. Well, it is France, isn't it?

This is the first in a series. I learned about it through one of my blogger buddies, Snap of Tales from Twisty Lane. It's a favorite of hers and since I have found that she and I often agree on reading material, I was interested to give it a try. I'm glad I did. It is well-written, humanistic in philosophy, and the characters are believable and thoroughly likable. It actually reminded me somewhat of Alexander McCall Smith's Botswana series featuring Precious Ramotswe. Moreover, I thought the plot and the pacing of the story were deftly done and, even though the story moved at the pace of country life and there was not a lot of action, it was sufficient to keep the reader interested and turning the pages to see what Bruno would do next.

I particularly enjoyed the writer's vivid descriptions of what must be a truly beautiful region. It is obviously a place that he knows well and loves, and I look forward to learning more about it in future books in the series. 



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Sunday, July 24, 2016

Poetry Sunday: Analysis of Baseball

I'm not a big sports fan in general. But there is one game that 
I love, that I have loved since I was twelve years old and that 
is baseball. I love the grace, the balletic quality of the players 
in the field as they go for the ball. I love the twitchiness of the 
batters at the plate as they fiddle with their gloves, adjust their 
helmets, and play for time as they try to figure out what the 
pitcher is going to throw next. I love watching the pitcher and 
catcher collaborate as they work on a plan to get this guy out. I 
love the fact that it is a timeless game; i.e., it's played without a 
clock. The only limiting factor is 27 outs - and sometimes not 
even that is enough. I love the fact that the same game can be 
played by 6'2" Mike Trout and 5'6" (maybe on a good day) Jose 
Altuve and that Jose Altuve can win, proving that size truly 
doesn't matter, except maybe the size of the heart.

I think May Swenson loved baseball, too, and she summed it up 
perfectly in this poem.    


Analysis of Baseball

by May Swenson


It's about
the ball,
the bat,
and the mitt.
Ball hits
bat, or it
hits mitt.
Bat doesn't
hit ball, bat
meets it.
Ball bounces
off bat, flies
air, or thuds
ground (dud)
or it
fits mitt.

Bat waits
for ball
to mate.
Ball hates
to take bat's
bait. Ball
flirts, bat's
late, don't
keep the date.
Ball goes in
(thwack) to mitt,
and goes out
(thwack) back
to mitt.

Ball fits
mitt, but
not all
the time.
Sometimes
ball gets hit
(pow) when bat
meets it,
and sails
to a place
where mitt
has to quit
in disgrace.
That's about
the bases
loaded,
about 40,000
fans exploded.

It's about
the ball,
the bat,
the mitt,
the bases
and the fans.
It's done
on a diamond,
and for fun.
It's about
home, and it's
about run.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

This week in birds - #216

A roundup of the week's news of birds and the environment:

Male Wood Duck.

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June marked the 14th consecutive month of record-breaking heat on the planet. It is likely that July will be the 15th.

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Osprey and Bald Eagle chicks in Florida are starving, possibly as a result of the encroachment of salt water into the fresh water areas where their parents seek food to feed them.

*~*~*~*

The "Capital Naturalist" tells us about a very interesting insect, the cicada killer or cicada hawk.

*~*~*~*

Unesco has designated the Iraqi marshlands as a world heritage site. The area includes four archaeological sites and three wetland marshes in southern Iraq.

*~*~*~*

Bird species that are able to adapt and live in different types of environments can more easily make the adjustment when faced with the challenges of climate change.

*~*~*~*

Trump's border wall would be a disaster for wildlife. The worst thing about the wall's likely wildlife impacts is that they're completely unnecessary. Even if you feel that the human rights crisis involved in international migration is best addressed by sealing the border, there are other ways to do just that, with cameras and other mid-range surveillance equipment, that won't affect so much as a single hungry javelina.

*~*~*~*

A study of Ovenbirds and Acadian Flycatchers reveals that the habitat needs of nestling songbirds and fledgling songbirds may be different.

*~*~*~*

Even if de-extinction could work and we could bring back species that have gone extinct in the past, they would not be the same as that original species, so it is imperative that we save what we have.

*~*~*~*

Ptarmigan, which live in cold ecosystems, are not strongly affected by fluctuations in seasonal weather based on two separate populations that were studied in Colorado, scientists report.

*~*~*~*

"Bourbons, Bastards, and Birds" writes about the updated list of species from the American Ornithologists Union with its most recent combining and splitting of species.

*~*~*~*

Climate change could make much of the Arctic unsuitable for millions of migratory birds that travel north to breed each year, according to a new international study published this week in Global Change Biology.

*~*~*~*

Recent research has shown that the largest and most species-rich group of lichens are not simply alliances between two organisms - one fungus and one alga - as every scientist for the last 150 years has claimed. Instead, they’re alliances between three. There are actually two fungi in the group.

*~*~*~*

The "View from the Cape" blog profiles the Solitary Sandpiper.

*~*~*~*

The Dovekie, also known as the Little Auk, is one of the smaller members of the unique auk family. They live in the Arctic and recent research found that their foraging may be determined by the underwater terrain in their habitat.

*~*~*~*

Hummingbirds have a unique collision avoidance system built into their brains that allows them to perform high-speed aerobatics in safety. The agile birds, whose wings beat up to 70 times a second, can hover, fly backwards, and whizz through dense vegetation at more than 50 kilometers per hour. How they manage to avoid potentially fatal crashes has remained a mystery until now. Researchers in Canada conducted a series of experiments which showed that the birds process visual information differently from other animals. As they dart and dive at speed, they judge distance from the way looming objects appear to get bigger, and vice versa. So, to hummingbirds, size, as they perceive it, certainly matters.

Male Ruby-throated Hummingbird visiting a canna blossom.