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.


The Rules of Magic by Alice Hoffman (2017)

rules of magic hoffman

“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?

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:  )

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.



You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott (2016)


“That’s what parenthood was about, wasn’t it? Slowly understanding your child less and less until she wasn’t yours anymore but herself…a girl who kept so much inside.”

All of Megan Abbott’s novels have a tense undercurrent to them, a sustained unease that permeates them from beginning to end, so that readers cannot help but read feverishly, hoping that the next page — the next conversation, the next chapter — reveals one more sliver of the story.

You Will Know Me is perhaps the most wonderful example of that mastery of suspense. From the opening pages, it is clear that the author is presenting these specific events to us because they are crucial to understanding the story that is unfolding, but she does not reveal why they are important…that she requires her readers to unearth for themselves. The story is only partially revealed throughout the novel. The novel’s characters are all constantly telling one another lies — or at the very least cloaked, half-truths — so that some of what they reveal leads readers astray, but some bring us closer to the ending; always only one small step at at time.

Telling the story of the Knox family, You Will Know Me introduces readers to the intensely competitive world of Olympics-level girls gymnastics. The exploration of this largely unknown community — the intense practices, the injuries, the jealousy, the costs it exacts on its gymnasts and their families — serves as the back-drop for an accidental death that may or may not relate to the Knox’s.

At the novel’s center is Devon Knox, a supremely talented gymnast who is preparing for her last possible chance at a spot on the US National team. Not only is Devon under pressure from relentless practices and strategy sessions, her entire family — mother Katie, father Eric and brother Drew — are also weighed down by the demanding preparations.  It is Katie who narrates to readers Devon’s path to toward gymnastic super-stardom and the oversized toll it has taken on them all. Katie presents a family that has committed everything to Devon’s success: house crumbling and mortgaged to the hilt; work lives stymied; their younger son largely ignored; their marriage built almost exclusively on supporting Devon. At the start of the novel, readers find the Knox family weary and run-down from the demands of gymnastics, “all their duties hung like heavy raiment over then all of the time.”

Adding the the emotional toll of Devon’s competition preparations are the rumors and jealousies that swirl around her and her success: other gymnasts nasty and undermining, other parents suspicious of her talent and hoping to reveal her secrets to their own daughters. When rumors reach Katie and Eric about Devon, they largely brush them off as part of this constant undercurrent of resentment. Both of her parents believe they know all there is to know about their daughter; that all she thinks about is gymnastics and all that occupies her thoughts is competition. When a young man who works at the gym is killed in a hit-and run accident, Devon’s parents — indeed all of the parents in the story — must confront the fact that their children all keep parts of their lives hidden.

The stress of the murder and its subsequent investigation begin to tear apart first the tenuous camaraderie of the gym and ultimately the relationships between all of the members of the Knox family. All four of them are keeping secrets from one another and from the police and they all become desperate to extract themselves from the case so that they can, once again, pursue only one thing…Devon’s spot on the Olympic team.

As in all of her novels, Abbott explores at length how risky it is for anyone — parent, spouse, sibling — to think they know another’s secrets. Readers follow along as the Knox family struggles to come to terms with the lies they have all been telling one another and as they decide just how many lies they are willing to tell the rest of the world in order to protect their investment in Devon.

“Isn’t it a strange day when you realize you have no idea what’s going on in your kid’s head? One morning you wake up and there’s this alien in your house. They look like your kid, sound a little like them, but they are not your kid. They’re something else that your don’t know. And they keep changing. They never stop changing on you.”

Dare Me by Megan Abbott (2012)

Dare Me is an in-depth and deeply disturbing look into the complex social hierarchies of teenage girls, their cutthroat politics and ruthlessness often making them simultaneously best friends and worst enemies. At the center of their universe is their queen bee: the most ruthless and reckless of them all, a girl whom the others are both terrified of and desperate to befriend. As if caught up in her spell, the girls grant the queen bee a terrifying amount of control over their lives: taking her abuse and accepting her challenges, all for a chance to be pulled into her inner circle. “Queen of the hive. Don’t mess with the queen.”

The story told in Dare Me focuses on a high-school cheerleading squad, a group of gorgeous young girls drunk with their power: a mix of popularity, sex appeal, and exclusivity. At their helm is their hard-as-nails Captain, Beth Cassidy, whose wildness sets the tone for the entire squad. At Beth’s side for years is Addy, the story’s narrator and Beth’s “Lieutenant,” always up to harass the other girls or stay out late drinking and taunting lustful boys. Hardly anyone dares cross Beth and Addy — certainly not other girls, not even adults — and they both revel in their freedom to be as wicked as they please.

Enter Colette French, the school’s new cheerleading coach and former Queen Bee of her own teenage life. She is young, beautiful, and tough: the girl’s on her squad are immediately enamored with her and her glamorous seeming life. In hardly no time, Coach French has maneuvered herself into the power position, dethroning Beth of her team captaincy, her head-girl status, and her best friend, Addy.

The girls are all frantic with longing for their adult lives to begin, spending their time trying on behaviors the associate with growing up: drinking stolen bottles of vodka, popping their mother’s pills, and tempting men with their new-found sexiness.

“Ages fourteen to eighteen, a girls needs something to kill all that time, that endless itchy waiting, every hour, every day for something — anything — to begin….We are all waiting, wanting things we don’t understand. Thing we can’t even name. The yearning so deep like pinions over our hearts.”

Colette offers to the girls on the squad a place to try on their grown-up selves; hosting them for parties at her home where she doles our cigarettes, diet pills, and wine…sharing some of her secrets with the grasping girls. In return, Colette gets adulation and, more importantly, a chance to reconnect with her youthful self: before marriage and motherhood tamed her.

Soon, however, the adult world she has brought the girls into — especially Addy — grows all too real. Addy, longing to be claimed as Coach’s favorite, jumps into a wild, after-hours life that Colette begins to lead, discarding many of her own pursuits to play wing-man (and alibi) to her Coach.

Dethroned and wild with rage at her growing impotence, Beth channels all of her conniving into finding out Coach French’s secrets so that she can cost the woman her job at least, ideally her entire life. When she learns that Addy is a willing accomplice to Coach French’s double-life, Beth realizes she has the power to not only bring down Coach, but also to punish Addy for her disloyalty.

The author repeatedly refers to the girls in terms of their “witchiness,” and describing them as having power over one another and over others, especially men and boys, a power that often wield without understanding the consequences. Selfish and self-absorbed with themselves — keeping their tiny bodies tiny and their boyfriends interested — the girls on the cheerleading squad fail to see any of the potential pitfalls that might ensnare them. Their coach is also blinded: her desire to recapture her youth and the power she feels having the girls in her thrall blind her to the risks she is taking with their lives.

The author creates a creepy, realistic world in which young and beautiful girls play fast and loose with their bodies and with their very lives. A truly wonderful and haunting novel.