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. On to the next book in the series, A Rule Against Murder.

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A Fatal Grace by Louise Penny

Chief Inspector Armand Gamache Book #2

A_Fatal_Grace

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.

The Nowhere Man by Gregg Hurwitz (2017)

Orphan X Series, Book #2

the no where man

The Orphan X novels are not works I am typically drawn to, with their secret agent/ass-kicking characters and lengthy gun fights; but I read the first book in the series, Orphan X, while at the beach last summer and found myself greatly entertained by Evan Smoak and his mission and so I picked up the sequel, The Nowhere Man, to see if his story continued to intrigue me. (You can read my review of Orphan X here: http://wp.me/p6N6mT-zt  )

Taken from a boys group home for orphan’s when he was twelve, Evan was trained to become an elite assassin for a covert US Government program under the code name Orphan X. Evan completed missions all over the world for the program, making considerable amount of (unrecorded, illegal) money in the process. When the work began to take too much of an emotional toll, Evan retired and committed himself to using his skills and money to help the downtrodden, exploited, and abused.

Under the new moniker, The Nowhere Man, Evan finds victims and helps them escape their abusers…generally by killing the abuser in a spectacularly complex and dramatic way, while also taking out anyone who colluded with the abuser to hurt others. With a legion of high-tech weapons, custom-made vehicles, aliases and super-computers, he has liberated girls sold into sex-slavery; workers exploited in sweat-shops; children taken by pedophiles; and on and on the list goes.

Since he has spent his entire life learning to work without detection, Evan is shocked when — in The Nowhere Man — he finds himself the prisoner of a master-villian, René Cassaroy. René has no idea he has captured a sophisticated and highly-trained killer, he has eyes only for Evan’s enormous bank accounts. He has drugged Evan and is holding him in a remote mansion until Evan agrees to transfer all of his money to René.

Of course, Evan has no plans to remain a captive and soon he is kicking ass and killing René’s men right and left; often with no more than a paperclip or a drinking straw. As he fights he way out of the compound, he works to free as many of René’s other prisoners as he can along the way.

While this book was not as thrilling as the first in the series, it was still enjoyable. The super-villian is a bit cartoonish and the prolonged captivity-escape-captivity cycles slowed the action way down. That said, I would definitely sign up to read the third book in the series, and I would do so with high hopes that Gregg Hurwitz returns Evan to his original mission — saving the hopeless — for those stories are far more compelling than one that centers around one villian.

The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe (2009)

I cannot think of a book better suited to read in October than The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane. Although it does not take place during Halloween, it is the perfect story for reading in the lead up to the holiday: interwoven stories of a witch on trial in Salem in 1692 and a modern-day historian who studies colonial America and the witch trials. These two women’s stories are joined into a haunting tale that is filled with secrets and  magic.

Harvard PhD candidate and colonial historian Connie Goodwin has just completed a grueling semester of schoolwork when her estranged mother asks her to move to Marblehead, Massachusetts to their family’s ancestral home for the summer. Connie has been tasked with clearing out nearly three-hundred years of heirlooms (long neglected) and preparing the house for sale.

Almost immediately Connie feels a deep and unsettling connection to the house, despite the fact that her mother — rebelling against her parents as a young hippie — had never allowed her to visit. As a historian, Connie is thrilled at the antiques, out of print books, and centuries-old contents of the house. “The silent interior felt so timeless, so untouched by the outside world as to seem unreal.” 42

When she is being honest with herself, Connie is simultaneously thrilled and saddened to get a glimpse of the family her mother has worked so hard to shield her from. “Connie became aware of a displaced, intrusive ache in her stomach, a creeping sorrow that she had never seen this hidden realm. Her grandmother had made this garden. But she would never know her. The finality of this realization felt leaden and inescapable.” 39

Soon Connie begins to suspect that the house is affecting her in unusual and highly improbable ways. While staying their, she seems to be highly in touch with the house’s past inhabitants and their secrets; and these “experiences” are unsettling for a woman who deeply prides herself on her practicality and levelheadedness. Her grandmother, who seemed so remote and unknowable upon her arrival at the house, seemed to come into sharper focus each day and with those glimpses, Connie began to feel a connection between them that is still intact.

While exploring the house Connie finds an ancient bible, and in it a key with the name “Deliverance Dane” wrapped around it in parchment. From that moment, Connie’s life begins to change. Deliverance Dane becomes her personal obsession — and possibly her dissertation topic — and the hope of learning more about her sends Connie on a historical scavenger hunt throughout Marblehead, Salem, and Boston; tracing Deliverance’s long-forgotten footsteps.

Sorting through archives and libraries for traces of Deliverance, Connie begins to believe that the woman was hung as a witch during the 1692 Salem Witch Trials and learns that the woman had left a book to her daughter that might be a collection of recipes — but might also be an actual witch’s spell-book. That knowledge propels Connie ever onward, hoping now not just to learn who Deliverance Dane was, but to see if the “physick book” still exists…and just what secrets it contains.

 

 

The Lying Game by Ruth Ware (2017)

The Lying Game

This is Ruth Ware’s third psychological thriller, the first two have both been reviewed on this blog: In the Dark, Dark Wood http://wp.me/p6N6mT-y and The Girl in Cabin 10 http://wp.me/p6N6mT-1uT

Like those earlier two novels, The Lying Game unfolds in a haunting and memorable setting: The Reach, a small coastal town whose locals are at odds with the girls who attend the local boarding school; more specifically a sinking, crumbling Mill that has been the home to a moderately famous artist, Ambrose Atagon, and his family. An artist who considered himself a part of the town, but one who upset the locals by working at and sending his daughter, Kate, to the boarding school.

Entering this remote and wild locale, are the story’s main characters: Thea, Isa, Fatima, and Ambrose’s daughter, Kate. The girls are sent by their families to attend Salten, “a last chance” all-girls boarding school where they meet and form a immediate bond, all four outsiders and longing to belong. Their solution? To form a club, exclusive to these four girls, where they constantly play what they call The Lying Game.

Rule #1 Tell A Lie

Rule #2 Stick to Your Story

Rule #3 Don’t Get Caught

Rule #4 Never Lie to Each Other

Rule #5 Know When to Stop Lying

Aiming to see who can tell the most outlandish story and ensnare the most people in it, the consequences of The Lying Game be damned. The girls soon develop a reputation, both at school and in town, for their outrageous lies. The damage these lies cause is not always immediately clear to the girls, and often when they are confronted by people hurt by their lies, they are unrepentant.

As the year passes, the girls grow wilder and more out of control, and soon take to using Kate and Ambrose’s house — a sinking mill that stands out over the water of the Reach — for nights and weekends of drinking, smoking, and parties. On one spring night, Kate sneaks out to the Mill house and finds something there that has her begging the others to sneak out of Salten to come to her aide. The sneaking out, added to a long list of transgressions relating to The Lying Game, leads to all four girls being expelled from Salten. They leave the school and each other, swearing to keep each other’s secrets forever.

Fast-forward seventeen years, and the story finds all four women living rather ordinary lives: Isa, Fatima, and Thea in London and Kate still living in the Mill despite it’s slow sinking into the water of the Reach. When Kate texts the others that she needs them to come to the Mill House immediately, the other women drop everything and rush out to help their seldom-seen but not forgotten friend.

Isa finds that the text from Kate sets off an avalanche of lies to her boyfriend, from whom she hides the real reason for her trip and the truth of the life she led at Salten, but she feels she has no choice. The Lying Game ties the four women together in ways that she cannot unravel herself from. So, terrified, Isa travels with her infant daughter, Freya, back out to the Reach, the Mill House, and to her former best friends and the keeper’s of her darkest secrets.

A good thriller, with (as I stated early) an excellent sense of place in the Mill, the Reach, the creepy boarding house, and the suspicious small town that surrounds them all. However, Ware’s timing and pacing falter throughout and her characters — as is true in all of her books — seem at times unfinished and lacking in any self-preservation. That criticism aside, it stands as Ware’s best book so far.

The Jane Austen Project by Kathleen Flynn (2017)

“History consisted of big events and larger-than-life characters, like Jane Austen. The rest of us contributed to history in our little ways, as drops of water make up the ocean: collectively powerful, meaningless alone.” 174

A science-fiction novel about time-travel and a fictional account of a year in the life of Jane Austen: on the surface the two seem incompatible stories but Kathleen Flynn manages to blend the two in The Jane Austen Project and with good results, perhaps best appreciated by true Jane Austen fans.

In the distant future, scientists have created a time-travel machine that is still in its testing stage. Teams of experts are being sent to various eras in the past to attempt small changes so that the effect these actions have on the future can be studied, with the hopes that larger changes (stopping war and preventing the devastating effects of global warming) can be attempted.

Dr. Rachel Katzman and actor and scholar Liam Finucane have been selected to travel back in time to recover an unpublished manuscript by Jane Austen. After years of study and preparation — horse-back riding, clothing making, etiquette classes — the two are finally ready to be sent to Regency London; posing as brother and sister West-Indies plantation owners who have decided they wish to live a “more civilized” life in England. Their mission is to befriend first Henry Austen, Jane’s closest brother, and then Jane herself with the hopes of recovering her unpublished novel The Watson’s and any other works they can procur. They are also under strict orders from the physicists overseeing the project to disrupt the past as little as possible while there.

Although they have studied relentlessly for their roles, they are beset by challenges almost immediately. The intricate behaviors they must adopt to “pass” as wealthy, the elaborate manners they must observe, and the patience required to be introduced to the right people; are all more complex then they seemed while studying. For Rachel, the requirement that, as a woman, she spend her time on only a handful of appropriate pursuits and appear unintelligent and subservient to men are especially heavy burdens.

Slowly, they meet the right people and soon find themselves close friends of the Austen family. However, the continue to make decisions — both large and small — that have the potential to change the course of history…something they will not know until they return to the future.

Months pass and both Liam and Rachel are pulled more and more into their roles and the future — and the consequences of their actions — seems more distant with each passing day. As they get closer to their goal of obtaining the manuscript, they also grow closer and closer to Jane. Rachel, in particular, finds herself star-struck by Jane’s brilliance and heart-broken as the author grows weaker and weaker from the illness that, both time-travelers know, will soon kill her. As a doctor, Rachel has the potential to diagnose and cure the author but to do so would be a direct violation of her mission’s rules.

What will they choose to do before they must return to the future? Save a new friend and change the world in dramatic, possibly catastrophic ways, or watch her — and the chance for new novels — die?

 

 

 

The Good Daughter by Karin Slaughter (2017)

the good dauther

Is there any feeling as delicious as opening a book by a favorite author and knowing — from the first paragraph — that you are not only going to love the book, but you are going to ignore all of your responsibilities and stay up way to late to finish it all in one sitting? That is exactly how I felt reading The Good Daughter. Karin Slaughter’s latest stand-alone novel is perhaps her best yet; perfectly paced to keep the reader breathless with anticipation; told from the point of view of flawed but relatable characters; with just enough of the story withheld so that you are kept guessing until the very last pages. It was a absolute treat to read, I only wish it were longer!

Charlotte Quinn was a happy thirteen-year-old girl living in a rural Georgia town, who until late found the only tension in her life to be the precarious position her father holds in the community. Rusty Quinn is a defense attorney to the worst the town has to offer: drunks, abusive husbands, thieves, and drug dealers. This makes him hated among the town police and its more law-abiding citizens, who find his work keeping criminals out of jail deplorable. He is also often targeted by those he failed to keep out of jail, so much so that his family — at the start of the novel in 1989 — have been victims of a arson attack by a disgruntled client that has burned down their house and left them with nothing, forced to live in rotting farmhouse outside of town.

Rusty believes deeply in his work. While he may represent men and women who have failed to make good choices, he truly believes that punishments should fit the crimes and everyone (almost) deserves a second chance. But his work puts him in many dangerous situations and the risks to his family seem to be growing worse, when, one night two armed men break into farmhouse and shoot his wife and older daughter, leaving Charlotte to run for her life.

Charlotte escapes and, showing the grit of a much older woman, testifies in open court against the killers: two brothers from a well-known family of violent criminals. The trial does not lessen the town’s dislike of Rusty and forces them both to live out her remaining childhood being targeted by the killers’ family, who think she framed their relatives. Charlotte also struggles for years to live down the horror of her attack and the loss of her beloved family, all the while living alongside a town that offers daily reminders.

Fast-forward twenty-eight years, we find Charlotte still in her small town, now a defense attorney herself working alongside her father defending the very people the rest of the town wants locked up. Charlotte and her father have struggled for years to heal from their grief; but for Charlotte it remains dangerously close to the surface, a simmering anger that she can only sometimes control. Of late, her marriage has failed and her hold on her sanity seems to be slipping.

Then, by set of almost impossible circumstances, Charlotte finds herself inside of the local middle school when a student with a gun attacks, taking the lives of two people. The shock of the shooting unlocks all of the terror of that night long ago, and suddenly Charlotte cannot keep her demons at bay.

In true Rusty fashion, her father signs on to represent the school-shooter and enlists Charlotte to help him build her defense. However good a lawyer she may be, Charlotte is finding in next to impossible to be involved in yet another traumatic murder trial. She feels so lost and dangerously close to unraveling completely, but cannot help but get involved in the case, since her father appears to believe that the school shooting is far more complicated than the police and the media are presenting it to the public and that perhaps an innocent girl has been caught in a larger web of crimes.

The tale that unfolds is thrilling, intelligent, heart-wrenching, and even at times funny, and shows (once again) that Karin Slaughter is one of the absolute best thriller and crime writers writing today. Not to be missed!