The Neon Rain by James Lee Burke is the first in his series featuring Lt. Dave Robicheaux. When he is visiting a death-row inmate at the infamous Angola Prison, just hours before the inmate’s execution, Robicheaux learns that someone wants to kill him. He later discovers that the Colombian drug cartel might be behind that threat because of a body he had discovered in the bayou that he considers suspicious but that the local sheriff had ruled a routine drowning. Add in gunrunning to Nicaragua, a corrupt CIA operative, and some local hoods, plus a romantic interest for Dave, and you’ve got a fast-paced thriller with sex, drugs, and violence—especially violence. Given the first-person narration and Dave’s rough persona, I found the book to be overwritten. This isn’t the first Burke novel I’ve read, but it might be my last. I know a lot of people are fans, and it’s reasonably entertaining as an audiobook, but it just isn’t for me.
Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Medicine, Madness, and the Murder of a President by Candice Millard is about the brief presidency of James A. Garfield. It’s a crazy story about a man who didn’t seek the presidency and was probably nominated for that reason amid his party’s in-fighting. He showed great integrity and promise but was shot by a nut who thought he was doing the country a favor. The book goes into the shooter’s thinking in depth, based on his letters and testimony, which is fascinating research. But Garfield might not have died if the doctors around him had been better informed. The bullet didn’t kill him, as the shooter actually argued at trial, it was the malpractice of the doctors who allowed deadly infections to spread. A side story is the involvement of Alexander Graham Bell who, hot off the invention of the telephone, invents a metal detector that might have helped find the bullet lodged in Garfield’s body if the doctor had allowed Bell to use it on the president’s left side instead of the right, where the doctor insisted the bullet must be.
Playhouse by Richard Bausch appealed to me because I studied with the author at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and have stayed in touch with him over the years. I was also interested in the book because of the subject matter, which deals with the revival of a Shakespeare theater in Memphis (where Bausch once taught). There’s a large cast of characters (and a cast list at the beginning, as befits a story about a theatrical production) and the story is told from many different points of view. Except that it isn’t particularly funny, the situation reminded me of Slings and Arrows, the Canadian TV series about a Shakespeare festival in Canada. My interest in the subject stems from my own involvement on the Board of Trustees of the American Shakespeare Center, where I’ve witnessed variations on the drama and intrigue Bausch portrays in the novel. I don’t think this is my favorite of his novels, but it was an engaging read.
Debris Line by Matthew FitzSimmons is a thriller set in Portugal and part of his Gibson Vaughan series. I might not have begun this book (on audio) if I’d realized this is the 4th book in that series, so that there’s already a lot of history between Vaughan and some of the other characters who are all on the run for some reason and currently hiding out in Portugal. In this book they are hosted by a crime boss who runs the Algarve region of that country, but their stay is threatened when the crime syndicate comes under attack from an unknown source. It’s a combination of cyberattack and drug smuggling, and the question is whether Vaughan’s hacking skills can save them all, or at least the Americans. There are other crimes being committed here, too, that will factor into the resolution of the story. The writing isn’t bad and it’s an enjoyable listen. I doubt that I’ll try to go back and read the earlier books in the series, though, and it might be my last by this author.
Hard Toward Home by C.D. Albin is a collection of short stories (Press 53, 2016) set in Arkansas. I don’t remember how or why I came to have this book, although I have a lot of books from this press (which has also published 3 of my own collections), but I might have picked it up because of the haunting cover. Anyway, the stories are quite good, dealing with the pressures of small-town life in the heartland. Some of the characters are teachers, like the author, others are farmers or retired blue-collar men who worked in construction or other trades. Real people, real conflicts. I’m a fan of endings that aren’t too neat, and Albin seems to prefer these also.
The Roots of Wisdom by Zang Di, translated by Eleanor Goodman, is a bilingual book of modern Chinese poetry. I’m glad I have the bilingual edition because I am able to read (a little of) the original and learn from Goodman’s excellent translation. Unlike classical Chinese poetry, which I also enjoy, these poems are more recognizable in their form and subject matter. I became aware of Zang Di and Goodman when I attended an online reading at which Goodman appeared along with some other poets and translators. It was enjoyable and I ended up ordering several of the featured books. So, more to come in this vein at some point.
A Man’s Place by Annie Ernaux is the second book by this recent Nobel prize winner I’ve read in recent months, having picked them up while traveling in Europe late last fall. This one is a memoir (although the other one, Simple Passion, a novel, closely tracks a real event in her life). Writing about her father, Ernaux’s spare prose is highly revealing. The relationship between her and her father vacillates, which feels very real, and it’s interesting to read the story of an ordinary man in the French countryside who is just working hard to support his family, dealing with the various challenges that come his way trying to run a grocery and café.