Tag Archives: New Orleans

Hearts and Bones

Casting Bones: A Quentin Archer Mystery by Dan Bruns (Seven House Publishers, $29.99, 256 pages)

casting bones amazon

Dark, Darker, Darkest

Don Bruns is the author of 12 previous novels, five in the Mike Sever Caribbean mystery series and seven Lesser and Moore mysteries.  Casting Bones is the first Quentin Archer mystery, and Bruns fans or crime readers should not only read Bones but look forward to the next several offerings.

Archer is a New Orleans cop, exiled from Detroit for pushing the envelope to find the truth.  In Bones, old habits die hard.  Archer finds himself mired in – and inserts himself into, a tangled web of evil that extends to some of the richest power brokers in Louisiana.

Still reeling from his wife’s death, Archer has a partner he doesn’t trust (for good reason), forces that are breathing down on him to get a conviction, truth be damned (a common theme in many crime novels), and – for grins – a Voodoo Queen, Solpange Cordray, both advising and protecting him.  Cordray makes for an interesting good luck charm, and Archer needs one.

The Krewe Charbonerrie is a secret society – essentially a mafia of rich, white people established to preserve and advance the power and affluence and influence of the privileged few.  Cordray tips Archer that the Krewe is likely connected to the death of a judge, and – multiple murders later, with his life on the line, Archer must connect the dots.  He must also be the lone voice of integrity in a sea of dishonesty and criminal collusion.

Bones manages to naturally introduce many characters and plot twists that are all plausible and unforced.  The New Orleans Chamber of Commerce may not exactly be pleased with this novel; there is not much sunlight present in this portrayal of post-Katrina New Orleans.

As might be expected, Archer steps up and does his part, but as the novel comes to a close, clues to his dysfunctional family’s past and questions about his wife’s death continue to haunt him.  It is suggested that Cordray’s special powers will be needed to guide him in his quest for justice.  Loose ends thus linger upon the conclusion of Bones.  And thus the stage is set for Bones II.

Mystery lovers should be eager to find out what happens next.  Especially as Bruns is extremely adept at spinning a fascinating yarn.

Highly recommended.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

Dave Moyer is a school superintendent in Illinois. He is the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel.

 

 

 

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A Table for Two

Restaurant Critic's Wife

The Restaurant Critic’s Wife: A Novel by Elizabeth LeBan (Lake Union, $24.95, 306 pages)

What we have here are the confessions of a restaurant critic’s wife done up as a rambling narrative. Lila falls in love with Sam Soto whose dream it is to be a newspaper food critic. I kid you not.

It all began back in New Orleans where Sam was a political reporter for the local newspaper. Lila is a high-powered hotel special events troubleshooter who loves her job. Sam captures her heart through her stomach. He cooks for Lila making yummy breakfasts and, well, you get the idea. Pretty soon they are a couple.

Sam catches his big break, but at the Philadelphia Herald. They move for Sam’s work. Lila enjoys socializing and being part of the community; however, Sam’s worldview is vastly different then hers. Alas, the life of a restaurant critic is filled with incognito dinners, no close friendships and keeping a low profile, which makes for quite a difficult lifestyle for Lila.

The frustrations and travails that follow are the heart of the story. Both Lila and Sam must face their issues and decide whether life is to be lived in secret or in the community. Only the real wife of a food critic could have written this novel. Clearly, Ms. LeBan has drawn from her own experiences to create such a believable tale. It’s impossible to determine where her life leaves off and her imagination begins to work.

Restaurant Critic's Wife back

Well recommended for foodies and folks on vacation.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Modern Blue

Music Review: Rosanne Cash – ‘The River & The Thread’

river and the thread front

Rosanne Cash’s latest release illustrates how the label of country singer is far too limiting for a person of her talents. Perhaps she can be called a modern musician.

Here’s a look at the songs on The River & The Thread, which was produced and arranged by her husband, John Leventhal.

River_And_The_Thread-back basic

“A Feather’s Not a Bird” is a fine opening, as a Bonnie Raitt style attitude meets Creedence Clearwater Revival type instrumentation. It’s clear that there’s nothing tentative about Cash. She’s confident and in charge as she sings, “…a river runs through me.” “Sunken Lands” is unique as a blend of classic and modern country built upon a Johnny Cash pulse.

“Etta’s Tune” is an introspective love song that might have been written by Jackson Browne: “We’re just a mile or two from Memphis/And the rhythm of our lives.” One can easily visualize Tom Petty singing Cash’s rocker, “Modern Blue”: “I went to Barcelona on the midnight train/I walked the streets of Paris in the pouring rain/I flew across an island in the northern sea/I ended up in Memphis, Tennessee….” There’s also a touch of the Eagles in the lyrics: “Everybody around here moves too fast/It feels so good but it’s never going to last/Everything I had is twice what I knew….”

“Tell Heaven” is an unplugged song about faith. The Judds would have loved to have sung this. “The Long Way Home” is an angst-filled song about lost love that calls to mind Don Henley, Mark Knopfler and Carly Simon (“You’re So Vain”). It’s beautifully realized: “You thought you left it all behind/You thought you’d up and gone/But all you did was figure out how to take the long way home….”

“World of Strange Design” is a song about differences and discrimination, with a musical presentation that channels Dire Straits. “Night School” is a Tori Amos style balled: “I’d give anything to be lying next to you/In night school.” The uplifting “50,000 Watts” is reminiscent of Bruce Springsteen’s “The Rising”: “To be who we are/And not just who we were/A sister to him, a brother to her/We live like kings/without any sin/Redemption will come, just tune it on in….”

“When the Master Calls” is a touching song about the Civil War which would have fit well on Elton John’s Tumbleweed Connection album. “Money Road” is the relaxing closing song about a dream, but the standard eleven-track edition of this album is only 38 minutes long. Consider purchasing the Limited Edition Deluxe version, which adds three additional songs and 10-plus more minutes of music.

River and the thread back

“Two Girls” is the first bonus track on the Limited Edition, and it sounds like a song from Neil Young’s Harvest Moon album. “Biloxi” is one of the great songs written by the late Jesse Winchester: “Beautiful girls are swimming in the sea/Oh, they look like sisters in the ocean/The boy will find his path with salted water/And the storms will blow off toward New Orleans.”

“Southern Heart” is a short, 2 minute long, song with plucked violin strings that would have been a great single in the 1960s; it’s a song very much in the style of the Andy Williams hit, “Can’t Get Used to Losing You.”

river and the thread rosanne

Cash has laid out her musical skills for the world to see on this release. It’s a highly recommended masterpiece or very close to it. But forget the ratings, just think of this as a near priceless gift delivered by Cash to her fans, current and prospective.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by Blue Note Records.

This review was first posted on the Blogcritics site:

http://blogcritics.org/music-review-rosanne-cash-the-river-the-thread/

This review was also used by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer:

http://www.seattlepi.com/lifestyle/blogcritics/article/Music-Review-Rosanne-Cash-The-River-The-5411097.php

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Turn! Turn! Turn!

last season hardcover

The Last Season: A Father, A Son, and a Lifetime of College Football by Stuart Stevens (Knopf, $24.95, 224 pages)

“All along, the football season had been just an excuse to spend time together, and now that we were toward the end of the season, it seemed less important to pretend the games were really the best moments.”

A reader wrote on Amazon that, “Every Ole Miss fan, every SEC fan… will love this book.” Well, no. A key flaw with this book is that it is horribly and sadly biased. Political consultant Stevens writes that, “The SEC draws the best (athletes) in the country.” And he attempts to pile on by calling the SEC “college football’s brightest stage.” Well, this may be true in some years, but certainly not all.

This is intended to be a moving memoir about a son who celebrates what is likely his 95-year-old father’s final year on earth by attending every University of Mississippi football game. But it’s a missed opportunity. Stevens never wastes a chance to go sideways by inserting his ineffable personal opinion on, oh, almost everything. For example, “I didn’t really like New Orleans. It wasn’t interesting, it was boring and predictable.” Really?

Stevens also makes broad characterizations which are clearly not credible: “This love of college football and it’s importance in life’s schemes are natural for a southerner but difficult for (others) to grasp.” Really?

Last-Season-Stuart-Stevens

Steven’s father never comes to life in this work. And the conclusion leaves the reader wondering if this was, in fact, the final season.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher.

The Last Season was released on September 18, 2015.

My Losing Season 2

Note: A great book that the sports-minded reader might want to consider reading is My Losing Season: A Memoir by Pat Conroy. “Loss is a fiercer, more uncompromising teacher, coldhearted but clear-eyed in its understanding that life is more dilemma than game, and more trial than free pass.” Pat Conroy

“…maybe the finest book Pat Conroy has written.” The Washington Post

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I’m Walking to New Orleans

Mr. Cao Goes to Washington: A Documentary (shown on PBS TV on January 3, 2013 and afterward)

Joseph Cao was a Congressman who voted for Obama Care before he voted against it.   This is one of the factors that led to his defeat when he ran for a second term as a U.S. Congressman from the historic Ninth Ward of New Orleans, Louisiana.   The producers of this documentary would have the viewer believe that Cao’s defeat had more to do with racial partisan politics but that may be an overstatement; an attempt to find more meaning than is supported by the facts.Mr. Cao profile

Mr. Cao, a once-politically Independent Vietnamese-American who became a Republican, was elected to go to Washington in 2008.   His election was such a surprise that, in the wake of Barack Obama’s victory with 78 percent of the vote in the Second Congressional District, the national media came to call Cao “The Accidental Congressman.”

Cao was a former seminarian whose pro-life Catholic views colored his approach to political issues, and may have put him out of touch with his poor, primarily African-American constituents.   A key issue, as stated by an African-American community spokesman in the film, is that when speaking to constituents, Cao would say that he would do whatever was necessary to secure government funds and services for his district (i.e., a big government approach); but when in the company of big donor Republicans, he would oppose taxes on the rich and take other highly conservative positions (i.e., a small government approach).   It was transparent enough for the voters to catch on quite easily.

Mr. Cao Goes to Washington seems to argue that Cao was roughed up the vicissitudes of politics, but then politics is not bean bag; it’s a sport for big boys and big girls, and the thin-skinned need not apply.   When the Democrats nominated Cedric Richmond, a younger version of President Obama, Cao chose to go negative against Richmond, something that one of his chief political advisors (as seen near the end of the documentary) viewed as a basic mistake.   Throwing mud on Richmond seemed to contradict Cao’s labeling of himself as a man of “high integrity.”   Cao clearly worked extremely hard for his constituents after the disasters of Hurricane Katrina and the BP Gulf Coast oil spill, and perhaps his campaign should have focused, first and foremost, on his successes in securing services and corporate and federal rebuilding funds for his heavily-impacted district.

Cao’s strategy was proven to be quite wrong on Election Day 2010, as African-American voters in the District turned out at almost twice the usual rate – despite a heavy rain – to vote for the challenger Richmond.   The election was held just days after Cao had lost his father, and he appears to be devastated and disoriented at the end of the hour-long film.

Mr Cao Ep Main

This is an excellently produced documentary, and it’s fully engaging.   However, I suspect that it offers fewer lessons than intended for the average viewer since Cao is somewhat less of a sympathetic figure than the filmmakers intended.   Joseph Cao seems to have been bitten by the hubris that infects most politicians, and he appears to have adopted a world and political view that was strangely narrow, based more on his religious training and personal background than on the needs of the generally impoverished voters that he was elected to serve.

In the film, we’re expected to believe that Cao honestly viewed President Obama as a close friend, despite the fact that they were of different political parties.   (Sixty-eight percent of Cao’s votes over two years were supportive of the Administration.)   The friendship would not survive Cao’s position change on Obama’s landmark Affordable Health Care Act, which led to distrust on both sides.   Joseph Cao, like too many once-idealistic human beings, attempted to play both sides against the middle.

The lesson of Cao may be that a politician is free to change his or her views on major issues, but doing so without sufficiently explaining those changes to one’s constituents can be, and often is, fatal.

Mr. Cao is a tough reflection of a tough town.   It succeeds when brightly reflecting the political wars that rage in our capital.   It’s less successful when viewed as a tribute to a flawed, transitory political figure.

Recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review DVD was provided by PBS.   Mr. Cao Goes to Washington premieres on PBS TV on January 3, 2013. 

My thanks to Daniel D. Holt of Master Po Editing Services HP for his assistance on this review.

This article first appeared on the Blogcritics Video (TV/Film) site:  http://blogcritics.org/video/tv-review-mr-cao-goes-to/ .

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Helplessly Hoping

The Best of Me: A Novel by Nicholas Sparks (Grand Central Publishing; $25.99; 304 pages).

The Violets of March: A Novel by Sarah Jio (Plume; $15.00; 304 pages)

“He shouldn’t have come back home.   He didn’t belong here, he’d never belong here.”

I had never read a story by Sacramento native Nicholas Sparks, so I had high hopes for The Best of Me, his latest novel that I downloaded as a Nook Book on my Nook Color e-reader.   It starts off very promisingly, a tale of forbidden romance between the well-bred Amanda Collier and the boy from the wrong side of the tracks, Dawson Cole.   Amanda and Dawson grew up in the town of Oriental, North Carolina and societal pressures kept them apart.   Now it’s decades later and both of them are drawn back to Oriental to attend the funeral of Tuck, a man who was a father-figure of sorts for both of them.

Amanda has married a relatively-successful dentist and she’s a mother, but she’s never lost the feelings she had for Dawson.   Dawson, who has pined for Amanda his entire life, has remained single, working on oil rigs and living in a double-wide trailer outside of New Orleans.   The question raised by this story is, “Will Amanda and Dawson finally get together, even if it is late in the day in their lives (Dawson is 42); if so, what will it cost them to change their lives competely?”

Sparks writes in a calm, polite and seemingly timeless fashion, at least through the first four-fifths of the book.   But it’s when the reader gets to that last fifth – in sight of the finish line – that the story falls apart like a child’s sand castle on a beach hit by a high tide.   The ending is nothing less than trite, predictable and tacky; some serious readers are going to find it so bad that they may feel personally insulted.

The Best of Me starts off like a major motion picture but ends like a poor-quality “made for TV” film broadcast at 2:00 in the afternoon on a weekday.   If you love hokey corn packaged as romance literature, you may like this one.   For me, one Nicholas Sparks book is far more than enough.

Fortunately, The Violets of March, the debut novel from Sarah Jio is a fine antidote to having one’s hopes dashed by reading something as predictable as The Best of Me.   Jio has written a story about a young woman who has it all, a fine marriage and a successful writer’s life in Manhattan, when it all falls apart.   Emily Wilson’s husband suddenly leaves her for a younger model, and so she departs for some much needed rest and recuperation at her aunt’s home on Brainbridge Island in Washington State (a ferry ride from Seattle).   Once there, she finds a diary that was written by her lost maternal grandmother Esther, a woman who died under mysterious circumstances at a time when the love of her life had broken her heart.   (Esther, like Amanda Colllier, was married to a man that she did not actually love – a man who served as a substitute for her true love.)

All of her life Emily has been told that she looks exactly like her grandmother Esther, and she comes to find that there are some similarities in their lives.   Thus, Emily becomes determined to find out exactly what happened to this woman who she never met.   This is not an easy task, as no one in her mother’s family is willing to talk about what happened in the early 1940s.   Readers raised in families that pride themselves on keeping their secrets deeply buried will identify with this unique story.

Kudos to Jio for fashioning a satisfying ending in which everything comes together, made all the more satisfying due to its lack of predictability.   Jio does not rush events nor does she paste on a false-feeling ending to “…an unsolved family mystery and an unfinished love affair.”

The motto of Emily Wilson’s grandmother Esther was, “True love lives on.”   So does good writing and with The Violets of March, Sarah Jio shows that she’s a writer to watch.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy of The Violets of March was provided by the publisher.   The reviewer paid, unfortunately, for the Nook Book edition of The Best of Me.   (Spark’s novel is sometimes entertaining while one’s reading it, but the elements of the story simply don’t add up or ring true.   In retrospect, there are simply too many improbable and implausible events which precede the groaningly awful ending.)  

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Hello, Louis!

Pops – A Very Good Yet Flawed Biography

He is the beginning and the end of music in America.   Bing Crosby on Louis Armstrong

Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong by Terry Teachout makes for very good reading, at least for most of its nearly 400 pages (475 with source notes and index).   As a young person learning the cornet and trumpet, I was well aware that Armstrong was considered the greatest horn player of all time, but not quite sure why.   Teachout makes a very good case for Armstrong’s being the person who did so much to give birth to, and advance, modern jazz in America.   “You can’t imagine such energy, such musical fireworks as (the young) Louis Armstrong…  (he was) the greatest jazz musician of the twentieth century.”

The entertaining tale of Armstrong’s early years is of a poor boy from a one-room shack who is sent to reform school and then joins the Colored Waif’s Brass Band of New Orleans.   Armstrong never knew his father so he tends to make father figures of his band instructors and band leaders.   We go on in Pops – the word Armstrong used to describe himself – to see how Armstrong was a seminal figure in jazz and it’s a bit like watching a Ken Burns documentary.   So far, so good…

As with Sugar Ray Robinson in the recent biography, Sweet Thunder, we have two young men who grew up in extreme poverty (one in The Bronx, the other in N.O.) yet overcame their circumstances to become favorite citizens of the world.   The stories of both Robinson and Armstrong are cinematic in nature.   Yet the Robinson in Thunder comes off as a multi-dimensional character in a way that Armstrong never does in Pops.   True, Teachout is quite fair in showing the reader that Armstrong had his flaws as a man and human being – he was married and divorced too often; he liked his musicians to smoke pot before recording – but we never quite understand why Armstrong loved music the way he did.   We get very nice quotations, such as “Music became his reason for living…” but no real depth.

In Pops we also learn that Armstrong was self-taught and thus had very poor form as a horn player.   Despite this, he was amazingly talented, naturally gifted; but we never learn or even see a guess ventured as to where his talents originated.   Were they hereditary, or was he just an anomaly?

At the back portion of this biography, it is interesting to learn about how many years passed between Armstrong’s recording of the song It’s A Wonderful World – an initial flop that languished in sales – and its popularity once it was included in the soundtrack of Good Morning, Vietnam.   Fascinating, as is a great deal of Pops…   Still, the subject seemed a bit out of Teachout’s reach.   Apparently the great Satchmo remains larger-than-life and the printed word.

Now, who has the courage to attempt to write the definitive biography of Miles Davis?   Anyone?

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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