The Cruelest Month by Louise Penny (2008)

Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, Book #3

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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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The Rules of Magic by Alice Hoffman (2017)

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“Do as you will, but harm no one. What you give will be returned to you threefold. Fall in love whenever you can.” From the Owen Family Grimoire

The three Owens’ siblings — Franny, Jet, and Vincent — have always known they were different from other Manhattan children: with their child psychologist father who sees them as experiments and a mother who makes them follow harsh, incomprehensible rules and lies to them about her family history.

It is only when they become teenagers that just how different they are becomes clear: mind reading, talking to animals, ability to attract or repel people as they wished, and even occasional glimpses into the future are certainly not common gifts. When they approach their parents about these talents, they are told it is nothing, only nonsense. But the children know there is much, much more to it than that.

The year the oldest daughter, Franny, turns seventeen, an summer invitation arrives asking the teens to stay in Salem, Massachusetts with a Great-Aunt who lives in the Owen family ancestral home. All three readily agree to go, despite their father’s protests (their magic should have been nurtured out of them) and their mother’s protests ( they did not know what powerful forces they were tempting.) But the very existence of the invite and the reluctant acknowledgment from their parents that what they could do was magic is too thrilling to ignore.

The teenagers arrive in another world: a place where magical powers are common attributes; where their relatives are considered both cursed and capable of great power; and where they must face the knowledge that the paths they choose could have great consequences.

Franny is curious to know why her mother has lied to her children and hidden from her past. What made her mother so terrified of her children exploring their magical powers? It is in the local library that Franny learns of the curse on the Owens’ witches — cast down upon them more than three-hundred years ago from a women, heartbroken and abandoned– the curse: “ruination for any man who fell in love with them.”

Franny is desperate to know which rules she should follow, the request of the family’s Grimoire, that she “fall in love whenever you can,” or the threat of the family curse that warns of “ruination?” The answer, her beloved aunt tells her, is complicated. It lies in the actions of each member of their family and who they love, but to ignore the curse would be foolish and deeply dangerous.

When a series of accidents, heartbreaks, and deaths occur in quick succession after that summer the three siblings — suddenly alone — know that their magic has grave consequences and that what they choose to do with their powers can indeed ruin their loved ones, and themselves. All three must grapple with the family gifts and the family curse for the rest of their lives: shall they live in fear? In denial? With reckless abandon? What path would be best?

A Fatal Grace by Louise Penny

Chief Inspector Armand Gamache Book #2

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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

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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 Tommyknockers by Stephen King (1987)

Western-novel writer Bobbi Anderson lives in rural Haven, Maine, where she spends most of her time alone, writing, hiking with her dog, with an occasional visit to her neighbor Jim. Jim “Gard” Gardner is an barely functioning alcoholic, failing poet, and anti-nuclear activist; he is also Bobbi’s sometimes lover.

One summer morning, Bobbi and her dog, Pete, are hiking in the woods outside her home when Bobbi stumbles across a metal object that she cannot identify, nor remove from the soil. Intrigued, Bobbi makes a cursory attempt to remove the object but finding it too heavy, and lodged too deep, and thinks to continue hiking and forgot about it. But she finds that she cannot. She is inexplicably drawn to dig the object up. She works for hours the first day, and then finds herself returning day after day, digging endlessly trying to retrieve — desperate to retrieve — the object and find out what it is.

The object has an immediate and hypnotic effect on Bobbi, and her obsession with it begins to take over Bobbi’s life. Despite the fact that bizarre and terrifying events begin happening once she discovers it, Bobbi cannot stop her excavation.

Three weeks after Bobbi’s discovery, “Gard” arrives back in Haven to find Bobbi a changed woman; nearly mad and physically almost dead from the efforts of her digging and other “projects” that have consumed her since finding the object. Bobbi reveals to Gard what she has found — what she calls The Tommyknockers — and he is stunned…not just by her discovery but by the way it has transformed her into someone almost unrecognizable.

The two must decide what they will do with the discovery: the revelation might change the world (if they can convince the world that the Tommyknockers are real) but it also might mean that the two of them would be locked up and interrogated for more information. And there are the fascinating projects that Bobbi has begun to build, things that seem as if they should not exist at all, and certainly not built by a writer with no previous technical skill; things that are of immense importance and value.

To keep it secret means they risk the unearthly pull the object has on them, with no one and nothing to dilute its effects. However it also means that whatever gifts or knowledge the Tommyknockers have to bestow upon the world will belong to just the two of them…at least for a while.

What will they choose? What will the Tommyknockers reveal? What risks are worth taking and what are Bobbi and Gard willing to give up of themselves in or to receive the Tommyknockers wisdom?

 

 

 

 

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 Far Side Gallery by Gary Larson

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One of our many, many books in the The Far Side Collection.

Around our house, in nearly every room and next to every comfy reading spot, you are very likely to find one of the many books that make up the collected works of the 1980’s and 1990’s cartoonist, Gary Larson. The one-panel strip is pure, comic genius: conveying in a few short words — often no words at all — an enormous amount about the hilarious absurdities of life or revealing the less desirable parts of ourselves that — when portrayed by Larson — are horrible and hilarious all at once. Despite the fact that the comics in the books are forty years old, the humor remains umdiminished. My family loves the books, we read them on-and-off, all year long. A rainy day, or a stressful week, might find any one of us flipping through one of the books and laughing out loud. Before long, the rest of us are drawn over to see what’s so funny and soon are all laughing.

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The Far Side comic strip had a strong presence in my childhood as well, my family owned the entire The Far Side Gallery books and we were often saying to each other, “wait, wait, read this one!” When my teenage son became obsessed with following funny memes that pop up on social media, it occurred to me that he might enjoy our old copies of The Far Side books. I way, way underestimated how much he — and his brothers — would love discovering Larson’s work. The books now live permanently off the book shelves and on tables and bedsides around the house.

Since the work of Larson speaks for itself, I thought I would post of few panels that I personally love … and let them speak for themselves. Enjoy!

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