Force of Nature by Jane Harper (2017)

force of nature

In a follow-up to her outstanding debut novel The Dry, Jane Harper brings back Australian Federal Agent Aaron Falk for yet another mystery.  (Read more about The Dry here ) A Force of Nature centers around five women who go into the bush for a corporate team-building retreat, of which only four emerge — battered and terrified — days after they were meant to meet their guide. The women are shocked to find their colleague has not made it back on her own.

When local police determine that the missing woman is Alice Russell, Aaron Falk and his new partner Carmen, are asked to head out of Melbourne and into the wild outback to join the investigation.  As it turns out, in addition to being a corporate partner at her accounting firm, Alice Russell is also a police informant helping provide Aaron and Carmen with information about her boss’ illegal activities. While it seems highly unlikely that her disappearance in the wilderness is related to her undercover work for the AFB, Aaron knows better than to ignore the possibility that it is more than a coincidence.

Offering assistance to the local police Aaron and Carmen help search for Alice, both unable to quell their unease the another member of the company might have learned that Alice was helping the feds and taken advantage of the retreat’s remote location to harm Alice, after all the bush has more than enough places for a women to disappear. Their worries do not end there; rescuers know the cold, rainy temperatures and the hostile terrain pose a challenge for even the most seasoned hiker. Adding to their worries, rumors that have plagued the National Park for decades, relating to a serial killer who targets solo, female hikers, begin to swirl around the search.

As Harper details for readers the search for Alice, she also takes us back to the start of the retreat, into the heads of the five women who were dropped off in the bush with little expertise and many, many long-buried grudges. Between the present day police work and the story the women reluctantly reveal, the full story is finally unearthed…along with several unexpected skeletons, real and figurative.  A great, atmospheric novel, and hopefully the start of a series featuring Aaron Falk.


The Favorite Sister by Jessica Knoll (2018)

 The Favorite Sister is set, primarily, in the world of reality-TV and follows the rise and fall of the stars of a fictional show called, Goal Diggers. At its outset, Goal Diggers intended to be the first feminist reality TV show: following the story of four young, ambitious women who are working to make their unique ideas into million-dollar businesses. This show is not intended to be The Bachelor, with cat fights and backstabbing. These are women who will hold each other up, support one another, and not succumb to sabotage to get ahead.

However, as the show grows in popularity, the show creators see a chance to increase ratings by pitting the women against one another, creating conflict, firing stars who are too old for their demographic, and using manufactured drama to win fans. The ploy works, the show becomes at hit and its stars celebrities. But soon the drama and competition between the cast becomes all too real, and a show meant to hold up feminist women as role models for the new millennium, becomes just another venue for showing women that what really matters are looks, money, and fame.

Among the main narrators of the story are Brett, Stephanie, and Kelly. Brett is a gritty, tattooed, lesbian who rises to fame with a no-nonsense attitude and (apparent) disregard for the trappings of wealth. Stephanie is an African-American writer who is the elegant, calm, intelligent leader of the group. And finally, Kelly, Britt’s older sister who has grown more and more resentful of Britt’s fame and riches and has maneuvered herself on to the show, bringing with her ratings-spiking drama and deception.

As the book picks up speed, the characters start unraveling. Soon the years of lying, in-fighting, competition, and artifice begins to wear on everyone. Fights abound, friendships crumble, and — feeling that this may be there last chance to “win” — businesses are sabotaged.

Despite the fact that the story is interesting, it is also tawdry and out of touch, much in the same way that reality TV is. On the surface, Knoll has presented readers with a story that harshly criticizes the manufactured and manipulative world of reality TV; but she has failed offer an alternative to us. Every character is the book is selfish, cruel, and unlikable — there is not one person who stands to represents “real” women. Every woman in the book — from the precocious twelve year old to the aging octogenarian — is deceitful or desperate (or both) and more than willing to discard her integrity for money and fame…or at the very least for name-brand clothing and the envy of others.

While the story is sensational fiction, it is telling that there are no depictions of women in the story who seem like those in my life. Surely Knoll is not suggesting that any woman can be corrupted into be hateful and shallow with the smallest of promise of celebrity, money, or status? Yet that is what each character in the book does…shed her decency when presented with financial gain. In the book that is (at least attempting) to put forth feminist counter-arguments to the nature of celebrity worship, reality TV, and social media, the characters never live up to their own self-proclaimed ideals.

In many ways, the book is aiming to make money sensationalizing the sleazy and back-biting world of reality TV, just like the characters in the book. By failing to offer characters or plot lines that balance out the outlandish ones in the book, no real lessons are learned nor warnings sounded…and the result is a book that leaves readers feeling that the views of women are in no way furthered. We are being given the same stories as always about how — at our core –we petty, competitive, and looks-obsessed.

The Brutal Telling by Louise Penny

Chief Inspector Armand Gamache Series, #5

the brutal telling

Just as fall is beginning to creep into the woods of Quebec, another murder brings Chief Inspector Armand Gamache back to the village of Three Pines. A body has been found in the town’s beloved bistro, run by Olivier, and shocks the entire village.

This murder investigation is unlike any the Chief and his team have previously investigated. The victim is a man known by no one: who has no name, no home, no neighbors, absolutely nothing at all that allows the police to identify him. Without knowing who the man is, it seems impossible to determine why someone would want to kill him.

The location where the body was found, at Olivier‘s, offers the only insight early in the case. Was this murder a threat to Olivier? An attempt, as some villagers believe, by a new business rival to destroy the bistro, in an effort to make his own Inn more of a success? Armand is not sure, but his instincts tell him the the bistro owner is at the heart of the crime, even if it is not at all clear how or why.

When the coroner finds that the man was not killed at the bistro, but murdered elsewhere and moved to the bistro, Armand and his team begin to search for the location of the murder, with the hope that this will give them more information on the victim.

The trail they follow leads them deep, deep into the woods surrounding the village to a tiny, hidden cabin. Inside the modest cabin they find the murder scene…and a mountain of antique treasures worth millions of dollars.

Was the man murdered by someone who wanted the treasure for himself? Or by a person to whom the treasure rightfully belonged? Or is there a third and more complex relationship this unknown, unnamed man had with the murderer, one that grew so discordant that a murder was committed in a fit of rage?

It is greed, the deep and dirty desire for more that leads Armand to the killer. The killer, “a hungry ghost” whose emotional emptiness he has long been trying to fill with money but could no longer be satisfied with ordinary riches. The hole in the murderer’s soul demands it all, and death was the only way to get more.


Repost, originally posted 11/2/2017

The Woman in the Window by AJ Finn (2018)

the woman in the window

Dr. Anna Fox was once a prominent child psychologist with a thriving practice in NYC. At the start of A Woman in the Window, however, readers find that she has fallen far. Now, Anna Fox is an agrophobe, unable to leave her house for the last year, surviving on daily cocktails of booze and psychotropics, and estranged from her family.  What has caused this dramatic change? It is unclear as the story opens.

Anna, alone and desperate, tries to keep her terror at bay by keeping herself occupied. Busyness, she finds, helps her avoid dark thoughts about the past. She divides her time between “counseling” other agrophobes online, chatting with her estranged family, watching old movies, and spying on her neighbors.

It is the latter of those past-times that starts to cause Anna trouble. Anna becomes obsessed by the Russell family when they move in across the park. Anna learns about the family from the way they spend their days and nights, helped along by the lack of curtains in their house. She finds herself transfixed by their beautiful, shy teenage son Ethan, his wealthy and aloof father Alastair, but most of all by Jane Russell.

Then, suddenly and incredibly, the Russell’s make themselves a part of her life. Ethan visits her and opens up about the stress his family is under. Anna’s psychological training kicks in and she cannot resist offering him advice. Then, Ethan’s mother arrives on Anna’s doorstep, and Anna spends one captivating, unnerving night with her.

Now, all Anna can think about (and watch) are the Russell’s, growing more obsessed by the day. And then, Anna, witnesses someone murder Jane Russell.

Terrified and shocked, Anna tries to leave the house to help Jane but her own terror of the outside world prevents her from getting there. She awakens in the hospital and finds that no one – not her doctors, not the police – believes her story.

She is a drunk, they explain, taking dozens of strong drugs many of which induce  hallucinations. Her history of mental illness, her agoraphobia, and her disheveled and wild manner make her more than an unreliable witness…they make her a crazy and entirely worthy of ignoring.

Anna, however fragile her mental state, refuses to believe she has imagined the murder. Growing more unstable by the hour, she cannot stop investigating what she is certain she saw, but her inquiries draw the ire of the police and the Russell family.

But something drives Anna on and on, fueled by drugs, wine, and her refusal to believe she has become someone who has completely lost touch with reality. With no allies, Anna realizes she cannot trust anyone to help her. Without being able to leave the house, Anna realizes she is an easy target for a murderer. Now she is the one under the microscope, her life is being scrutinized and her privacy violated; but who is watching?

Shelter in Place by Nora Roberts (2018)

On an ordinary summer night, in a shopping mall filled with families, three teenage boys armed with their parents guns, opened fire killing nearly one hundred people and forever changing the lives of those who survived. Among the survivors, are Reed and Simone, teenagers at the time of the shooting, whose lives were shattered by the violence they witnessed and the loved ones they lost.

Shelter in Place follows Simone and Reed as they work to rebuild their lives and fill it with purpose and love. As the two grown up, their paths never quite crossing, readers see how the mass shooting haunts them both: Reed becomes a police officer to help protect the lives of innocent people, Simone becoming an artist whose work is deeply influenced by her survival.

Nearly a decade after the attack, a serial killer surfaces and begins to target the survivors of the shooting. One by one, the killer tracks down and ends the lives of people who would have otherwise died in the mall shooting attack. Reed and Simone are both on that list. They are also both now living on Tranquility Island and are embarking on a romance and trying to build a relationship that is not marred by terror or death.

While Roberts have crafted a good story with a strong plot, her story meanders too far from the action for too many pages. She distracts with unnecessary characters and sub-plot lines drawing out for nearly 500 pages a story that could have been told — and possible told better — in 300 pages. While enjoyable, Shelter in Place is not as good as some of her older works.

The Cruelest Month by Louise Penny (2008)

Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, Book #3

the cruelest month l penny

The worst of winter seems to be receding from the small, lovely village of Three Pines. Snow is melting, flowers are beginning to bloom, and the town residents are cheerfully preparing for the village’s Easter celebrations. In the opening chapters, readers get to catch up with some of the characters they have grown to love in the series’ first two books as they — along with some new faces — plan for egg hunts and potluck lunches.

At the local B&B, the proprietor Gabri has planned a surprise event for Easter weekend — a seance is to be held, lead by a psychic who is visiting the village for the holiday. Some villagers are appalled at the idea of raising the spirits of the dead: some protest that a seance is in bad taste because the town has been the site of two brutal murders in recent years. Others because it seems sacrilege to host a seance during the Easter holidays. A group of villagers who see it as a lark arrive at the B&B on Good Friday. While fun, the seance does not produce any ghosts; which the psychic suggests is because the B&B is too happy of a place and the guests at the seance too cheerful.

Why not try again, it is suggested, but this time, at the haunted Old Hadley House?

The second seance is much darker, the house’s horrific past seems to be much more conducive to calling up the dead. Indeed, the guests at this seance not only stir up the house’s ghosts, but they make a new one when a local woman named Madeline is scared to death during the event.

Once again, Chief Inspector Armand Gamache is called the the sleepy village to investigate when it becomes clear that Madeline’s death was not only because the woman was very frightened; her death was hastened when she was drugged by someone before the seance began, drugs that helped stop her heart.

By all accounts the dead woman was beloved by all and no one can imagine who would want her dead. Gamache and his team know that love can turn to hate over time, and that some murderers can hide their evil intent even from those closest to them.

As the case plods along, Gamache is introduced to the idea of the “near enemy” theory by town book-shop owner and psychologist, Myrna Landers. It is possible, he is told, that people can hide their true intentions behind the mask of another emotion. What on the surface looks like compassion can really — in the mind of a person with ill-intent — be pity. Some might see a person in love, but inside, he or she might really just be feeling obsessive attachment: a emotion that is dark and controlling. As Gamache begins to ponder this theory, he suspects that the “near enemy” is indeed at the heart of the case. The murder is masquerading as one type of person, while a more sinister and vindictive person lies underneath.

Yet another masterpiece of mystery fiction by Penny, filled with heart, wisdom, and compassion.

Reposted, originally post from October 20, 2017

A Fatal Grace by Louise Penny (2007)

Chief Inspector Armand Gamache Book #2


In her second book in the outstanding Armand Gamache series, A Fatal Grace, Louise Penny takes us once again to the picture-perfect village of Three Pines in the days leading up to Christmas. Nestled in the mountains outside of Montreal, Three Pines is a small, sleepy, village filled with good people, cozy homes, and cheerful businesses. It is a place painted with such detail and heart by Penny that readers can imagine they are in the village along side the book’s characters: walking along the snowy town green, looking up at the towering pine trees by the lake, glancing in the windows of the tidy homes to see Christmas trees lit and fires roaring. Three Pines is a place everyone wishes to call home.

This Christmas, there is a dark stain sullying the village — CC de Poitiers. CC is hard woman who has alienated or insulted many of the villagers since her recent move to Three Pines. Along with her husband and daughter, CC is living in the old Hadley House, a house that looms over the town, a reminder of past horrors, of murder and pain. To her family, CC is hateful toward her daughter and cruel and dismissive of her husband. To the villagers in her new town, she is mean-spirited and largely detested. In a short time of living there, CC has managed to create a long list of people who could be called her enemies. But CC is possessed by a sort of madness, an obsession with herself that blinds her to how much others loathe her, all she cares about are her spiritual “teachings” that she is trying to bring to the (dull, stupid) world around her. She wants to enlighten these poor, backwoods slobs about the real truths of the universe; and she will stop at nothing until she has made millions leading the world down her “path”, which she calls Be Calm.

Despite the ill-will that CC has been spreading in town, Christmas finds the villagers happily celebrating their beloved holiday traditions: church, parties, shared meals, gift-giving, and well-wishes. One local tradition at Christmas is a Boxing Day breakfast and curling match that raises money for local charities. It is at this match the CC’s misdeeds catch up with her. She is electrocuted to death in front of the entire community, yet no one seems to have know who committed the crime.

Enter Armand Gamache, Chief Homicide Inspector for the Sûreté du Québec, and his investigative team who are dispatched from Montreal to solve the crime. Wise, patient, calm, and unfailingly kind, Gamache is known and liked in the town of Three Pines and utterly worshiped by his fellow officers. With his signature slow pace, intimate interview style, and his determination to examine the feelings of those involved in the crime; Gamache begins to piece together a list of suspects who might have wanted to kill CC…a list that is very, very long.

Through the ice, snow, and cold; Gamache and his team unearth the truth about who CC was and why she was such a hard, hateful woman and start to connect her to those people she had hurt, exploited, and abused, knowing that one of them was sure to be revealed as the killer.

Louise Penny is a brilliant writer and this book was utterly fantastic! Her prose is gorgeous; so poetic that it is almost spell-binding. Her words bring to life Three Pines in stunning detail and she presents us with characters who are so life-like it seems entirely possible that they will step off the pages of her book, as real as her readers. I have already started the next book in the series and cannot wait to read more about the characters — good and evil — Penny has brought to life.