Friday, September 30, 2016

Voodoo River by Robert Crais: A review

Returning to my reading of Robert Crais's Elvis Cole/Joe Pike series, I've reached entry number five, Voodoo River. I think it may be my favorite so far, although it's hard to say just why that is.

It follows the by now familiar formula. Elvis, "The World's Greatest Detective," is hired by someone in trouble, usually a beautiful woman, to extricate her from that trouble. He noodles around doing his detecting thing until he more or less stumbles into a theory of what's going on and how to solve the problem, at which point his more deadly partner, Joe Pike, enters the game and the two of them clean up Dodge, usually with a lot of gunfire involved.

I think perhaps my liking of this book may have something to do with its setting. Most of the action takes place in Baton Rouge and New Orleans, places that I have visited and have some familiarity with, so perhaps it was easier for me to enter into the action. Anyway, for whatever reason, it was an entertaining read.

The story this time is that Elvis is contacted by television star Jodie Taylor and her agent Sid to look into Jodie's past. She was adopted as a baby back in Louisiana and has no idea who her birth parents were. Now she wants to find out about her biological background and she hires Elvis for the job.

Elvis heads to Baton Rouge where he meets the lawyer representing Jodie's interests there, Lucy Chenier. There is an instant attraction between the two and it is clear where this is headed.

Elvis begins his investigation and soon starts to turn up evidence of a darker reality that is happening among the bayous around Baton Rouge, something more complicated than the biological history of one thirty-six year old woman.

He notices that there seem to be an unusually large number of Hispanics working in the area. A bit more digging reveals that there is a flourishing human smuggling operation going on that brings undocumented immigrants up the river from the Gulf Coast to work processing fish and crayfish. The immigrants are under the radar with no protection of the law and they are being terribly exploited and sometimes killed. It's an injustice that Elvis Cole, Righter of Wrongs, cannot let stand.

Soon Joe Pike arrives on the scene and the action kicks up a notch.

Meanwhile, Elvis has uncovered the history and origins of his client. (Well, actually, a local PI uncovered it and Elvis stole the information from his office files, but let's not quibble over details.) Once again things get complicated as it develops that the local PI was trying to blackmail Elvis' client with the information that would have been shameful 36 years before and still might cause some problems in 1995 when this book was written. It's interesting to contemplate how things have changed in the last twenty-one years. Things that might then have been considered scandalous no longer are.

As always, Crais keeps the plot moving along briskly. It's a plot that has a lot of meat on it with interracial relationships and mixed race children, as well as the element of the smuggling and exploitation of immigrants. Moreover, the two new characters, Lucy Chenier and her son, are appealing and serve to give a bit more depth to Elvis' personality. From what I understand, these become recurring characters, so it will be interesting to see how those relationships develop in future books.

All in all, a very satisfying read. The bad guys get their comeuppance. Righteousness reigns in the end and once again Elvis Cole has managed to serve his client's interests and to come out smelling like a rose. Not an easy task in hot and humid Louisiana.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars  

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Succinctly stated

I find it quite ironic that the people who seem most offended by African-Americans protesting the unlawful killing of unarmed black men by trigger-happy police are some of the same people who proudly display their Confederate flags and who delight in posting on social media the most hateful racist rhetoric concerning our president and his family. And yet they will tell you that they are the patriots and anyone who protests by refusing to stand for the national anthem is unAmerican at best, and at worst should be stood up against a wall and shot. I thought Bors' cartoon expressed all of that pretty succinctly.

The would-be banners

They are still out there, even in 2016. They are the people who obsess over stopping the dissemination of ideas which they find offensive. Specifically, they try to stop books that contain such ideas from becoming widely available to the public. They are the would-be book banners.

These are the people who challenge books available through libraries and schools and ask for them to be taken off the shelves. They would say that they are just trying to protect children, but it generally turns out that they are trying to keep children from reading about things which they find offensive, without regard to whether such knowledge is actually harmful to kids.

Over the years, a dazzling variety of books have been challenged. For example, Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye and, of course, Harry Potter have been the subjects of concerted campaigns to get them off the shelves. In 2014, even Dr. Seuss's Hop on Pop came in for criticism and an attempt to ban it. The argument was that it promoted violence! Against Pops, I guess. That complaint was quashed.

Every year in September, the American Library Association calls attention to the attempts to stifle ideas by designating Banned Book Week. This year the week runs from September 25 to October 1, and, in connection with that, the ALA has released its list of the most frequently challenged books during the past year. Here are the top ten, along with the reasons that they were challenged.

  1. Looking for Alaska by John Green: "Offensive language, sexually explicit, unsuited for age group." This is literature for young adults by a phenomenally successful writer in that genre. Two of his previous books are The Fault in Our Stars and Paper Towns, both of which were adapted as movies. Looking for Alaska also will become a movie.
  2. Fifty Shades of Grey by E. L. James: "Sexually explicit, unsuited to age group, (Really? What age group is that?) concerns that a group of teenagers will want to try it, poorly written." If being poorly written were a legitimate reason for banning books, the shelves of the library would not be so well populated.
  3. I Am Jazz by Jessica Herthel and Jazz Jennings: "Inaccurate, homosexuality, sex education, religious viewpoint, and unsuited for age group." This is an illustrated children's book based on the true story of Jazz Jennings, a transgender child who helped to write the story.
  4. Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out by Susan Kuklin: "Anti-family, offensive language, homosexuality, sex education political viewpoint, religious viewpoint, unsuited for age group." Book contains the stories of six transgender young adults about their experiences in establishing their identities.
  5. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon: "Offensive language, religious viewpoint, unsuited for age group, profanity and atheism." This one is a perennial on these lists. It tells the story of a 15-year-old autistic boy who is falsely accused of killing a neighborhood dog.
  6. The Bible: "Religious viewpoint." This is the first year for this religious text to be on the list. The main complaints seem to be that it condones the killing of people who don't conform to the majority view of appropriate behavior; e.g., homosexuals and women adulterers.
  7. Fun Home by Alison Bechdel: "Violence and graphic images." This graphic novel tells the story of the author's coming to terms with her sexuality, coming out as a lesbian, and learning that her father was homosexual.
  8. Habibi by Craig Thompson: "Nudity, sexually explicit, and unsuited for age group." This is another graphic novel, set in the Middle East, which tells the tale of two child slaves fighting to find a place in the world.
  9. Nasreen's Secret School: A True Story from Afghanistan by Jeanette Winter: "Religious viewpoint, unsuited to age group, violence." This children's book tells the true story of a grandmother in Afghanistan who risks everything to send her granddaughter to school, even though it is forbidden by the Taliban.
  10. Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan: "Homosexuality, condones public displays of affection." This is a young adult novel based on a true incident that tells the story of two 17-year-old boys who attempt to set a Guinness World Record with a 32-hour marathon kissing session.
Do you detect a theme in these challenges? It seems that the challengers are most afraid of sexuality and religion - at least any sexuality or religious viewpoint that deviates from their own. And though the titles on the list do change from year to year, that is the continuing theme: Our children should not be exposed to any idea of which we don't approve. 

And yet they are exposed to such ideas every day simply by living in the modern world. Wouldn't it be better if they could be exposed through a well-written and interesting book?

In the end, of course, book banning doesn't work. There is no way to permanently stop the flow of ideas once loosed in the world. But you can bet some people will keep trying and there will be another list next year.

Monday, September 26, 2016

The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson: A review

The Gap of Time was the first entry, published last year, in the Hogarth Shakespeare series. This is the project that has modern writers reimagining the Bard's plays in modern settings.

This book is a reimagining - or, in Winterson's own words, a cover - of Shakespeare's play, The Winter's Tale. It is one of his late plays, usually classified as a romance. It starts in tragedy and ends in comedy with everyone, but for two notable exceptions, living happily every after. The tragedy part of the play deals in some heavy psychological drama and the comedy part is replete with Shakespeare's famous misdirections and misunderstandings that are all cleared up in the end.

At least this is what I gather from the Wiki information about the play, for, in truth, I have not read it nor have I ever seen a production of it. Neither have I ever read any of Winterson's work, so I come to the book as a complete virgin.

The center of Shakespeare's tale is King Leontes of Sicilia. Winterson turns him into Leo, a fabulously wealthy, arrogant and utterly paranoid hedge fund manager in London in the era after the 2008 financial crash.

Sixteen years before, his best friend had been Xeno (Shakespeare's King Polixenes of Bohemia) who is now a gay, introverted video game designer. In Winterson's telling the two had had a sexual relationship as teenagers.

When we first meet him, Leo is married to MiMi, a popular singer-songwriter, who is mother of his son, Milo, and now heavily pregnant with another child. In his paranoia, Leo becomes convinced that the soon-to-be born child is not his, that his wife and Xeno have been having an affair and that he is the father.

He tries to kill Xeno by running him down in a parking garage and then goes home and rapes his wife. She goes into labor and gives birth to a daughter, whom Leo rejects and gives to one of his employees to deliver to Xeno.

Plans go awry, of course. The messenger with the baby is killed after he leaves the baby in a BabyHatch at a hospital because he senses he is about to be attacked. A man named Shep and his son Clo find the baby when they stop to change a tire next to the hatch. Shep, who has recently lost his wife, takes the baby and the bag left with her that contains money and jewels. As his son later said, "he fell in love with that baby and the baby healed him," and Shep raises the child as his own.

Through too many misdirections to recount here, sixteen years later, the foundling named Perdita meets Xeno and his son Zel - and, of course, falls in love with Zel - and eventually is reunited with her now penitent and lonely father. And, bottom line, all (or at least most) wounds are healed and everything is made right once again.

I really appreciated Winterson's writing. She made everything in this very convoluted tale zip along with her beautiful and seemingly effortless prose. She was able to capture the complex emotions of the characters and to build the story scene by scene so that those characters attained a certain heft and they all emerged intact from a complicated and satisfying contemporary tale that I think even Shakespeare might enjoy.  

I don't mean to imply that the tale is perfect. There are a few clunky and awkward passages, but, on the whole, it was a thoroughly enjoyable read. It stands along all the other "covers" that I have read in this project, every one of which I have found to be entertaining. Now I'm looking forward to reading the rest of the series.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The awards you've been waiting for

The Nobel prizes will be announced in early October, but stealing a march on their "competition," last week at a ceremony in Boston the Ig Nobel prizes were announced to general hilarity and profound amazement at the lengths that some scientists will go to in their quest for knowledge.

The Ig Nobels are in their 26th year and every year at this time they honor some of the strangest research in all of science. The prize this year was Zimbabwean currency worth about forty cents in U.S. money and the prizes were given to the winners by some actual Nobel prize winning scientists.

Proving that there are no bounds on the curiosity of scientists, these were some of the winners this year:

  • Egyptian urologist Ahmed Shafik investigated the effect that wearing trousers would have on male rats. He made trousers for his subjects in different kinds of materials including 100% polyester, 50/50% polyester/cotton, all cotton and all wool. He found that rats wearing polyester had significantly lower rates of sexual activity but that those wearing cotton or wool were relatively normal.
  • A team from New Zealand and the UK studied the personalities of rocks. Yes, that's right - rocks. They determined this by asking 225 New Zealand students to describe what they perceived as the personality of various rocks.
  • The biology award went to two Britons, one of whom created prosthetic limbs that allowed him to move like a goat and to live among goats and the second one who tried to live as a badger, an otter, a fox, and a stag. While living as a badger, the researcher ate worms, dug a hillside den, and tried to sniff out voles. The goat researcher infiltrated a herd in the Swiss Alps and spent three days eating grass, bleating, and stumbling over rocks.
  • The psychology award was given to a team that studied liars. They asked 1,000 liars how often they had lied over the course of their life and rated how well they lied. They found that lying decreased with age, although they had to admit their their respondents might have been...uh...lying.   
  • The peace prize was awarded to a team of philosophers who published a paper titled "On the Reception and Detection of Pseudo-Profound Bullshit." The group studied how people understand gibberish that has been presented as if it means something, and they came to the conclusion that "bullshit may be more pervasive than ever before."
  • A group of German scientists earned the medicine prize by determining that if you have an itch on your left side, you can look into a mirror and scratch your right side to relieve it.
  • A perception prize was awarded to Japanese researchers who tried to learn whether bending over and looking at things between your legs changes how they appear.
  • Physics awards were given to researchers who found that white horses attract fewer horseflies and that dragonflies are fatally attracted to black tombstones.
  • The award for literature went to a Swedish author, Fredrik Sjoberg, who wrote a trilogy about collecting flies.  
Finally, the most surprising award was that for chemistry which was given to the automaker Volkswagen. The tongue-in-cheek citation for the award stated that it was given "for solving the problem of excessive automobile pollution emissions by automatically, electro-mechanically producing fewer emissions whenever the cars are being tested." They were given the nearly worthless Zimbabwean currency prize to help pay for their massive legal costs for cheating on emissions tests.

Gleeful absurdism and high satire were the mood of the night. Never let it be said that scientists don't have a sense of humor. 

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Poetry Sunday: The Beautiful Changes

Autumn has arrived and, if we just peek over our windowsill, we can see October coming up our driveways. It is a time of change - changes in Nature and changes in ourselves as we enter this more contemplative season.

Richard Wilbur's poem addresses the beautiful changes that take place in autumn as the forest and the meadow are touched back to wonder. If we look hard, maybe we can see the changes in ourselves as well. 

The Beautiful Changes

by Richard Wilbur

One wading a Fall meadow finds on all sides
The Queen Anne's Lace lying like lilies
On water; it glides
So from the walker, it turns
Dry grass to a lake, as the slightest shade of you
Valleys my mind in fabulous blue Lucernes.

The beautiful changes as a forest is changed
By a chameleon's tuning his skin to it:
As a mantis, arranged
On a green leaf, grows
Into it, makes the leaf leafier, and proves
Any greenness is deeper than anyone knows.

Your hands hold roses always in a way that says
They are not only yours; the beautiful changes
In such kind ways,
Wishing ever to sunder
Things and things' selves for a second finding, to lose
For a moment all that it touches back to wonder.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

This week in birds - #224

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

Green-winged Teal


The winter finch forecast is out. This is the forecast published by Ron Pittaway every year that predicts the movements of finches from Canada and the upper northeastern United States into the southern parts of the continent during the winter months. In general, he says that some of the cone crops in Canada have been poor this year which may prompt the finches to move farther south in search of food.


The modern day version of the Sagebrush Rebellion advocates turning over federal public lands in the West to private ownership or to the states. One of many questions not addressed by such proposals is just how the new owners would deal with protecting communities from wildfires that occur with increasing frequency over the area.


For the past fifteen years, ultralight aircraft have led young captive-hatched Whooping Cranes from Wisconsin to Florida on their first fall migration. There have been numerous problems with this program and this year researchers are trying something different. The young cranes are being placed with mature experienced cranes who, it is hoped, will lead them on migration. 

A few of this year's chicks which researchers hope will be able to make it safely to Florida with their adult leaders.


The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced on Monday that it is proposing giving the Iiwi, a red honeycreeper unique to Hawaii, status as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, allowing the bird to have greater protections. This comes at a time when very many of Hawaii's indigenous birds are in dire circumstances and facing possible extinction. 


The rusty-patched bumblebee has been proposed by the USFWS for protection under the Endangered Species Act. This native bee, found in the Midwest and Northeastern United States, has been declining over the past two decades due to habitat loss, use of pesticides and other chemicals in farming and gardening practices, and other challenges. 

Rusty-patched bumblebee


The National Audubon Society announced results of a national poll that suggests that two-thirds of America's registered voters are in favor of stronger regulations of energy industries that make them more accountable for causing the deaths of birds.


News from the world of anthropology: The first extensive study of the DNA of indigenous Australians supports the claim that they are the most ancient continuous civilization on Earth. The study dates their origins to more than 50,000 years ago and traces their journey out of Africa and across Asia. 


Birdbaths are important aids to birds' survival, but it is important to keep them clean to prevent spread of disease and breeding places for mosquitoes which may cause harm to humans and other animals as well as birds. 


There is a crisis going on in American forests which isn't getting a lot of notice. Call it a quiet crisis. Millions of trees across the continent are dying from drought, disease, insects, and wildfires. All of these problems are exacerbated by a warming climate. 


The winds of Hurricane Newton which hit the western coast of Mexico in early September pushed many seabirds all the way into Arizona, a bonanza for birders there.


Ancient oyster shells, long entombed in the muck of salt marshes, may be able to give scientists clues that will aid in the restoration of such vital habitats. 


The islands where two Pacific seabirds, the Scripp's Murrelet and Guadalupe Murrelet, breed have been restored and invasive species that posed a threat to birds have been removed. This has prompted the USFWS to announce that the birds no longer need to be listed under the Endangered Species Act. Common sense conservation practices do work!


Caspian Terns have been found nesting 1,000 miles farther north than ever before recorded. This is an adaptation to the warming climate.


The world's only alpine parrot, the Kea of New Zealand, is facing extinction from predation by non-native predators and persecution by farmers who view them as a threat to their crops.


Did you know that fish sing? Apparently, fish on the reef have been found to greet the day much as birds do with a dawn chorus. Of course, a fish "song" sounds a bit different.

Thursday, September 22, 2016


Autumn tiptoed through our doorways this morning, glancing fearfully over its shoulder in case summer was about to tackle it and pull it back. And it should well have been nervous. Temperatures have still been in the 90s this week and the high today is supposed to be 90 degrees F. 

Maybe that doesn't sound too bad, but the humidity makes that feel like it is 97 degrees. To step outside, as I just did for about thirty minutes, is to quickly realize that autumn has not exactly taken hold yet.

Still, the calendar says it's here and there are some autumnal signs in the land. Some of the leaves are beginning to turn. 

Now, we don't get a lot of fall color in our leaves here, but a few trees, like the sycamore pictured above, will give us a bit of the feeling of fall. (Full disclosure: That picture was actually taken a couple of years ago and it was in late October when most of our fall colors, if we get any, make their appearance.

Crape myrtles, too, offer some reds and yellows in their fading leaves.

Crape myrtle leaves.

And the muscadine leaves in my backyard do get quite colorful before they drop.

Monarch butterfly sunning itself on the yellowing muscadine leaves.

Besides the changing leaves, there are other signs of autumn, of course. The fall bird migration has been in progress for weeks now. The most visible sign of it in my yard has been the hummingbirds. There's been a lot of activity lately as Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, Black-chinned Hummingbirds, and Rufous Hummingbirds pass through. 

If we are lucky, some of the Rufous hummers will choose to stay with us through the winter, like this female shown perched on the crook holding one of my feeders last winter.

So, even though the signs are faint and often fleeting, I have it on good authority that autumn has arrived, finally. Our weather forecasters even promise us milder temperatures in the 80s, and on one day in the 70s, over the next ten days. I'm going to hold them to that. 

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Wishbones by Carolyn Haines: A review

Needing some light reading as a palate cleanser, I turned to Carolyn Haines. It doesn't come any lighter and fluffier than her Southern belle private eye series featuring Sarah Booth Delaney (hereafter referred to as SB). It turned out this one didn't so much cleanse my reading palate as poison it, or at least curdle it. Let me not mince words: This is not a good book.

In this entry, we have SB heading to Hollywood, on the basis of one turn as a star in a production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in Zinnia, Mississippi, to star in a remake of Body Heat, with her in the Kathleen Turner role and her lover, Graf Milieu (that name - really???), in the William Hurt role. So, we have two complete unknowns starring in the millions of dollars remake of this major motion picture.

Oh, yes, and Ashton Kutcher is in a supporting role.

In Hollywood, SB and Graf seem to spend most of their time making sweet, sweet love and very little time working. They roll onto the movie set around midday, after spending the morning in bed, and play hot, hot scenes, getting it all done in one take.

But soon, even stranger things start happening to people involved in the movie. One woman falls to her death. A man falls from a balcony and is seriously injured. Rumors start circulating that the movie is cursed.

Before the police investigation of the death and injury are complete, the whole mob is allowed to decamp to Costa Rica where most of the movie will be shot at a home that is owned by the director. And when we get to that house, weird things REALLY start happening.

The house seems to be haunted by the mournful spirit of the director's long dead wife who apparently died of anorexia nervosa. She starved herself to death thinking she was not thin or beautiful enough. It also seems to be haunted by the very much alive daughter of the dead woman and the director, who blames the director for the death of her mother.

Of course, SB is very much at home with "haints" since she has her own personal family ghost, Jitty, back in Zinnia, Mississippi. In fact, Jitty actually turns up in Costa Rica when SB calls on her for help. Moreover, all of SB's Mississippi gang of friends drop everything and travel to Costa Rica to support their friend and SB and her PI partner Tinkie get busy trying to solve the mystery of what's going on with this movie set.

Oh, did I mention that people were getting pushed down stairs, tied up on rocks by the ocean and left for the tide to drown them, conked on the head with various instruments, there are mysterious moans and whimpers coming from somewhere in the walls of the house, and a woman in red keeps materializing for SB, although nobody else seems to have seen her? Yeah.

This plot is a mess. It just flails around and it seems that the writer is just throwing everything up against the wall in the hopes that something will stick. Nothing does.

Perhaps the silliest thing about the book is all the name-dropping. We have Robert Redford and Brad Pitt dropping by the set - just because they have nothing better to do, I guess. Ben Affleck and Matt Damon (because you can't have one without the other of course!) turn up at a party. Charlize Theron gives SB and Tinkie a plane ride back to Hollywood from Costa Rica.

No, I take it back. The silliest thing about the book is that SB and Graf are continually referred to - and refer to themselves - as movie stars, even though neither of them has ever been in a movie before. And everyone is continually gobsmacked by the prodigious talent of SB. She's "brilliant!" The director is "brilliant." Graf is brilliant and off-the-charts sexy and his only desire in life is to settle down with SB and raise a family.

The early entries in this series were entertaining and had a certain charm. The last two that I've read just seemed like the writer had lost interest and was phoning it in. This was the last one of the series that I had in my reading queue. I can't imagine a circumstance where I will be adding any more.

My rating: 1 of 5 stars   

Wordless Wednesday: Black swallowtail

Monday, September 19, 2016

The Devils of Cardona by Matthew Carr: A review

Matthew Carr has written several nonfiction books on historical subjects, including the Inquisition and the purging of Muslims from Spain in the 16th century. Now he has written his first novel, also dealing with that subject.

The Devils of Cardona refer to the Moriscos who were Moors who were forced to convert to Christianity. But, as the book makes clear, they were not devils; they were just human beings trying to survive in the world and raise their families in peace. Peace, however, was in very short supply in the Spain of the 16th century.

It was the time of the Spanish Inquisition, which nobody expected. (Sorry, Monty Python fans. I couldn't resist.) The Inquisition saw heresy and conspiracies everywhere and the Moriscos were easy scapegoats. They were persecuted unmercifully.

The story here begins in 1584 when a priest in Aragon is murdered in his church. The church itself is desecrated with the walls defaced with Arabic words written in the priest's blood. The crime is blamed on Moriscos and the province's Inquisitor soon receives a letter that threatens to drive all Christians from the region by the same methods that were used to forceably convert the Moors. The letter is signed by someone who calls himself the Redeemer.

Bernardo Mendoza, whose Jewish ancestors also were forced to convert, is a veteran of the wars that expelled the Moors from Granada and is now a criminal judge in the city of Valladolid, an important role in the Catholic Spanish government. He is sent to Aragon to solve the priest's murder and bring his killer(s) to justice.  

Mendoza takes with him his ward, a 17-year-old Moor whom he has raised as Christian, to serve as his scrivener and write his reports. Also in his entourage are his cousin Luis de Ventura, a professional soldier; Johannes Necker, a stern German constable; and two young soldiers who are to provide escort and protection. 

When Mendoza arrives in the town of Belamar de la Sierra where the priest was killed, he learns pretty quickly that no one mourns the dead man. He was a corrupt and lecherous man who preyed on the women of his town and had earned the enmity of all the townspeople.

Mendoza also meets a greatly beloved local figure, the Countess of Cardona, who is a benevolent overlord to the region and is sympathetic to the Moriscos. He soon begins to suspect that the killing of the priest will not be a simple matter to unravel and, in that assumption, he is absolutely right.

I thought Matthew Carr did an excellent job of bringing the late 16th century to life. It was a savage and terror-filled time and he does not shrink from describing some of the tortures of the Inquisition in all their gory detail. I did shrink, however, from reading those descriptions and I admit I skipped over a few pages to get to the end result. 

Many of the scenes are truly harrowing and hard to read about. Some of the vicious and sadistic inquisitors who presented themselves as God's judges on Earth do get their just rewards as the plot proceeds and it is difficult to feel any sympathy for their characters.

All in all, this first novel was a creditable effort, although the plotting of the mystery at the center of the story was less successful than the descriptions of society and the culture of 16th century Spain. The solution to the question of who was responsible for the priest's death and other atrocities in the area seemed fairly obvious early on. Moreover, the writer stretched our credulity with the number of coincidences that were necessary to wrap everything up in a neat denouement. But endings can be difficult, even for experienced novelists. 

My rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Poetry Sunday: September Tomatoes

The end of the spring/summer vegetable garden is fast approaching as we anticipate the autumnal equinox a few days hence. It's a bittersweet time for the gardener, pulling out all those plants that she had so assiduously cultivated for months. But they are spent. They have fulfilled their purpose and now it is time for them to go. 

"The whiskey stink of rot" that pervades the garden confirms that this is so. And so, even though "it feels cruel," the good gardener steels herself and pulls up the plants and tosses them on the compost in a ritual as old as our great-grandmothers and even older. A ritual that may even be so powerful that it can "turn the weather." 

As we swelter under the late summer sun, we can only hope.
September Tomatoes

by Karina Borowicz

The whiskey stink of rot has settled
in the garden, and a burst of fruit flies rises
when I touch the dying tomato plants.

Still, the claws of tiny yellow blossoms
flail in the air as I pull the vines up by the roots
and toss them in the compost.

It feels cruel. Something in me isn't ready
to let go of summer so easily. To destroy
what I've carefully cultivated all these months.
Those pale flowers might still have time to fruit.

My great-grandmother sang with the girls of her village
as they pulled the flax. Songs so old
and so tied to the season that the very sound
seemed to turn the weather.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

This week in birds - #223

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

White Ibises photographed at Brazos Bend State Park earlier this year.

President Obama this week created the first national monument in the Atlantic, thus prohibiting commercial fishing and other types of extraction in a series of deep canyons and extinct undersea volcanoes that lie more than 150 miles off southern New England, along and beyond the continental shelf. The protected area includes part of the wintering range of the Atlantic Puffin.


By a vote of 95-3 on Thursday, the Senate passed a $10 billion water resources bill that includes funds for the Central Everglades Planning Project which will redirect water to undernourished Florida wetlands affected by human development.


Purple Martins are birds that, throughout most of their range, depend almost entirely on human-provided nesting structures. Joe Smith suggest that maybe we need to rename them People Martins!


A new study finds that populations of landbirds in North America are in steep decline, down by about 1.5 billion over the last 40 years. The decline is pretty much across the board, affecting both endangered birds and those that are common. Drivers in the decline include urbanization, agricultural practices, and, most likely, climate change.


While polar bears have adapted by changing their diet as a result of the changing climate, they still depend on life-sustaining sea ice for hunting, resting, and breeding. Unfortunately, sea ice is declining in all 19 regions inhabited by the big bears. 


Cape May Point State Park on the East Coast is Mecca for birders looking for raptors during the migration season. Because of the peninsular structure of New Jersey, birds in the East are funneled along the coastline to the southern tip of the state - Cape May. And the hawks follow the other migrants, their prey. Thousands of the birds can be seen there any day during the height of the migration season.


Fungal diseases are among the greatest threats to wildlife, bats and amphibians being prime examples of animals that are being decimated by such diseases. Often, the agent that spreads the spores seems to be human beings and their activity.  


We know that crows of all kinds are uniquely intelligent birds and some of them use tools in their search for food. Add to the list of such birds the critically endangered Hawaiian Crow, called Alala in the native language. It rivals the New Caledonian Crow which is generally considered the brainiest of the crow family.


Like the polar bears, Ivory Gulls are dependent on sea ice, and like the polar bears, these gulls are disappearing from the Arctic as the ice recedes.


The warming of the planet and the rising oceans that result from it are threatening many Pacific islands, among them the Marshall Islands. The numerous atolls that make up the island nation are now regularly swamped by rising sea levels and many of the inhabitants are fleeing to the United States. Such migration due to the effects of climate change threaten to destabilize political boundaries in the future, creating challenges for those nations where the migrants seek sanctuary. One more reason - if we needed another - why we should exert every effort to stop or ameliorate global warming.


Laura Erickson writes about the proposed splitting of the Yellow-rumped Warbler into two separate species, Myrtle Warblers and Audubon's Warblers, or, as some of us old-timers would say, returning to the way things are 'sposed to be.


Yes, even more about Arctic sea ice because it is an important story. The ice reaches its minimum in September each year. This year the lowest point of ice coverage was reached on September 10 and it was the second lowest ever recorded, just above the absolute minimum that was reached in 2012.


The endangered Piping Plover was named "Shorebird of the Year" by an online poll conducted on World Shorebirds Day. The results were announced on September 6.


Our national parks serve as living laboratories for many kinds of scientific research, including tracking the effects of climate change.


Around here, we think of Blue Jays as permanent residents, but, in fact, the birds do move around a bit. This year's hatchlings may disperse northward while a bird hatched in New York State may head south for the winter and spend the season as far south as the Gulf Coast.

Did you just fly in from New York?

Friday, September 16, 2016

Another Clinton "scandal"?

Political cartoonists can get across their points very succinctly. A few frames of a good cartoon can be more effective than thousands of words. Here's a case in point: Jen Sorensen explaining how even the most innocuous action Hillary Clinton takes becomes - in the minds of her haters, at least - a "scandal."

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day - September 2016

Oops! I almost forgot about Bloom Day this month. The day slipped up on me. Can it really be the middle of September?

Fortunately, Carol of May Dreams Gardens never forgets and she hosts this meme every month. Thank you, Carol.

Now let's see what, if anything, I can find blooming in my zone 9a garden this month.

The coral vine is beginning its bloom right on schedule.

The white Texas Star (swamp) hibiscus is still putting out a few blooms.

The butterfly ginger blooms just outside the window of the room where I do my daily pedaling on my recumbent bike, so I'm able to watch the hummingbirds jostle over the blooms as entertainment while I do my boring exercise.

The tall pink (and invasive) ruellia called 'Chi-Chi' is in full bloom.

And so is its compact and non-invasive cousin, 'Katie.'

The buttonbush is still sporting its weird little blossoms.

White cat's whiskers.

Turk's Cap - the old dependable.

The bronze Esperanza has bloomed steadfastly all summer long.

And so has the 'Pride of Barbados.'

Anisacanthus wrightii is in full bloom at this time of year and attracting Sulphur butterflies.

'Darcy Bussell' rose.


And more lantana with Gulf Fritillary.

Pink brugmansia has been a good bloomer this year.

And the Duranta erecta (Golden Dewdrops) just keeps on going.

It's easy to see why a common name for Hamelia is firebush.

My everblooming blue plumbago.

 And last but not least, lots of zinnias.

Thank you for visiting my garden this month. I look forward to visiting yours!

Happy Bloom Day.