Monday, October 5, 2015

How the Light Gets In by Louise Penny

Reviewed by Jeanne

Chief Inspector Gamache of the Homicide Department of the Quebec Surete  is facing what would seem to be a rather bleak Christmas.  His department, once composed of a close-knit group, has been split up.  The new agents seem to intent on breaking down the department, mocking the once highly regarded Gamache. At least one of the Chief Inspector’s protégés has turned against him; others, frightened and bewildered, are keeping their distance.  Those in authority want him out for their own nefarious reasons.  The question is, will Gamache go quietly?

As Gamache weighs his options, he gets a call from his friend Myrna in Three Pines, the tiny isolated village where he has solved cases before.  A friend of Myrna’s had planned to come for Christmas but has not shown up and the psychologist turned bookseller is concerned.  She calls Gamache, but is strangely reluctant to tell him exactly who is missing. The secret of the woman’s identity is going to open a door into the psyche of a nation and perhaps a murderer. Meanwhile, a trap is drawing shut. . . but who is the trapper and who is the trapped?

As you may guess from the somewhat vague plot description, I feel strongly that this is a series that needs to be read in order. I’d rather err on the side of caution and not spoil the book for anyone else.  Penny has been building to this scenario from quite some time and fans will be eager for the payoff.  They won’t be disappointed. For everyone else, let me give you some background to the series:

In Roman mythology, the goddess Minerva was born as an adult, fully armed and armored.  She was the goddess of wisdom and poetry, among other things, and is in many ways the perfect symbol for Louise Penny’s books.  From her very first Inspector Gamache novel, the writing has been mature and graceful, the characters deeply layered, and the plots satisfyingly complex. That debut won almost numerous mystery awards and launched Penny into a fabled career as an author. Poetry plays a major role in the books:  not only do characters quote lines frequently, but one of the main characters is a mad poet herself:  Ruth Zardo, who seems to be a bit of a horror, an angry and bitter person, but who sees things others don’t and who writes the truth—something that’s terrifying in and of itself.  For all that, there’s a strong sense of humor that runs through the books; I find myself frequently smiling at a description or a bit of banter.  And have I mentioned the lovely use of language and imagery? It’s no coincidence that visual artists appear frequently in the cast of characters.

Penny’s writing always examines the human condition; mostly the human heart and spirit.  The books are rooted in the psyche. All the characters have depth; they change and grow.  Many are significantly different than the people we met a decade ago. In some ways Penny’s writing reminds me of P.D. James; but where James’ approach was clinical, Penny’s is emotional.  And no matter how grave the situation, there are always grains of hope and joy.  Penny has said that “goodness exists.” That’s not to say that goodness always wins or that evil isn’t real, but simply that there is true goodness in the world. And that knowledge gives us all hope.

With all that said, I admit I put off reading How the Light Gets In.  The previous book, A Beautiful Mystery, had left me saddened and fearful of changes to come to characters I loved.  The title itself was a hint; it comes from the Leonard Cohen song, Anthem: “There’s a crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in.”  Broken things can become stronger. And light shines against the darkness.

The series order is as follows:
Still Life
2. Fatal Grace
The Cruelest Month
4.  A Rule Against Murder
The Brutal Telling
Bury Your Dead
The Hangman
A Trick of the Light
The Beautiful Mystery
How the Light Gets In
The Long Way Home
The Nature of the Beast

Friday, October 2, 2015

Bastion by Mercedes Lackey

Reviewed by Holly White
Bastion is the sequel to Redoubt, and the fifth in the Collegium Chronicles quintet.  Bastion takes up where we left off in the story of Herald Trainee Mags.  Mags has just been rescued from a kidnapping attempt, but has not come through the experience unscathed.  His mindspeech works again, but his captors messed with his mind, and he has memories that he never experienced, of a land, language, and culture not his own. He returns to Haven to find everything the same, but changed.  Bear and Lena are now married.  Bear is about to receive his Healer Greens, and Lena has but to complete her final Master piece in order to earn her Bardic Scarlets.  Soon their days as relatively carefree Collegium Trainees would be over, and two of his dearest friends would move, no doubt far away.  Mags’ own love interest, Amily, once crippled and unable to defend herself, has now learned to fight and defend herself so well that she now helps the Weaponsmaster teach younger Trainees.  Mags finds that he has been replaced, as expected, on the kirball team, which while disappointing, affords him more time for his classes and other duties.  However, then he discovers that he has been suspended from classes for a time.  Indeed, he is to be sent away on circuit with a Heraldic mentor, without having taken the classes necessary to prepare him for the responsibilities of such a journey. 
When Mags goes out on circuit, who will be his Herald mentor?   The only Hearld Mage he knows well is Nikolas, the King’s Own Herald, who cannot do it due to his being needed at the palace.  Who knows if the Herald selected to mentor Mags on his journey will even be someone with whom he can get along?  In addition, how will Mags endure being separated from his closest friends for over a year, especially Amily?  The situation is made more difficult by  knowing that his enemies are still on the loose and are still searching for him, enemies who, he knows from experience, have the skills to infiltrate Haven and even the palace itself right under the noses of the best Heralds in Valdemar.  How will Mags ever get rid of such tenacious, talented pursuers?  Furthermore, how will he ever find out where he comes from and who he really is?  Find out by reading Bastion.
Bastion is a wonderful story full of fantasy, action, romance, magic, espionage, and adventure.  Bastion wraps up the Collegium Chronicles quintet beautifully.  All my questions were answered with answers tied up with a neat little bow.  Mags and the other characters faced an impossible situation with unsurmountable odds.  However, they solved their problems in such a brilliant and unexpected way that, in hindsight, it was the only thing that would have worked.  I love it when an author does that!  Everything seems hopeless, and then, BAM!  The tumblers click into place, one by one, like a combination lock being opened.  Fascinating work from a delightful author!  Definitely one for the favorites shelf.  My next review will pick up with Mags’ story in the first book of a new series about him, called Closer to Home, which is Book One of the Herald Spy series.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Nevermore: Nightingale, Lions, Forsytes, and More!

Reported by Ambrea

This week at Nevermore, our readers explored some new books—new to our book club, that is—and even discovered some new favorites with The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah, Descent by Tim Johnston, and Forsyte Saga by John Galsworthy.

Our readers first dived into an audiobook copy of U is for Undertow by Sue Grafton.  Twenty years after the disappearance of a four-year-old girl, Kinsey Millhone is asked to investigate the case by Michael Sutton.  Sutton, a college dropout at twenty-seven, may possibly be the only witness in a mystery that’s remained notoriously unsolved for two decades—and Kinsey must help him dredge up a memory she’s not even sure existed in the first place.  Bouncing back and forth in time, following both the original witness of the case and Kinsey Millhone as she seeks to fit together pieces of the puzzle, U is for Undertow is a psychologically intricate thriller that received high praise from our Nevermore reader.  She said it was “absolutely incredible—I love this kind of stuff!”

Next, our readers explored a second novel by Justin Halpern called I Suck at Girls.  Like Sh*t My Dad Says, I Suck at Girls is an uproariously funny narrative.  Chronicling his misadventures with the opposite sex—from first dates to engagement parties, from high school to college and beyond—I Suck at Girls is a poignant memoir about the best and worst of love.  Our Nevermore reader absolutely loved Halpern’s latest book.  Both light-hearted and funny, I Suck at Girls was a comedic adventure of the very best kind—and, having listened to the audiobook, she thought it was hilarious how the author managed to give a different voice for every character.

One of our readers also picked Ghosts of Tsavo:  Stalking the Mystery Lions of East Africa by Philip Caputo.  Set in Tsavo River Kenya in 1898, Ghosts of Tsavo explores the construction of the Uganda Railway through east Africa—and the lions that brought construction to a grinding halt after killing 140 people.  According to our reader, Caputo’s book has the opportunity to spark an intriguing discussion—especially after the debacle with Theo Bronkhorst, a big game hunter, and Cecil the lion—but our reader found she just couldn’t become enthusiastic about man-eating lions.  She managed to read 135 pages, but she just “couldn’t go any farther.”

Our readers also visited The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah, which follows the intersecting lives of sisters Vianne and Isabelle.  Vianne, who must cope with her husband’s departure for World War II, and Isabelle, a rebellious young woman who falls in love—and, subsequently, joins the Resistance—are “separated by years and experience, by ideals, passion, and circumstance, [but] each embarking on her own dangerous path toward survival, love, and freedom…”  For our Nevermore reader, The Nightingale was an incredible novel.  Although she was initially hesitant to begin Hannah’s novel, having read so many books based in the midst of World War II, our reader was quickly hooked and begrudged having to do anything other than read.

The Forsyte Saga by John Galsworthy also made an appearance at our Nevermore meeting.  Published in a series of three novels from 1906 to 1921, The Fosyte Saga received recognition in 1932 when Galsworthy earned a Nobel Prize in literature “for his distinguished art of narration which takes its highest for in [his novel].”  For the most part, Galsworthy’s novel centers on Soames Forsyte—a successful solicitor who lives in London, and a pillar of excellence in his Victorian community—and his wife, Irene.  But beneath the happy façade of their marriage, the Forsytes’ relationship is crumbling into a bitter feud within the family.  According to our Nevermore reader, The Forsyte Saga was excellent.  Although she said it takes some patience to read through the entire series, she said it’s a beautifully written novel that’s well worth reading.

Last, our readers discussed Descent by Tim Johnston.  Chronicling the disappearance of Caitlin Courtland and her family’s desperate search for answers, Descent is an emotional rollercoaster ride that tears the Courtlands’ apart before finally bringing them together again.  Two of our Nevermore members have had the chance to read Johnston’s novel, and they have both given positive reviews:  one reader said he was left speechless by this book, saying it was “very good, extremely good,” while another asserted it was by far the best book she’s read this year

Monday, September 28, 2015

Madam, Will You Talk? By Mary Stewart

Reviewed by Jeanne

Charity is on a trip to Provence with her friend Louise, trying to distract herself.  Her RAF pilot husband Johnny was shot down in the War and Charity is still coming to terms with the loss. She’s a strong woman who isn’t wallowing in grief but who is getting on with her life as best she can.  Louise wants to read and paint, while Charity wants to visit the local historical sites:  Roman ruins, old castles, and such.  

At the hotel she meets David, a charming little British boy who is there with his stepmother. She soon realizes there is something a bit wrong with this set-up:  David seems troubled.  She begins to hear stories that his father is a murderer who may be stalking the boy.  Recklessly, Charity decides she is going to protect David at all costs and is plunged into a breathtaking game of cat and mouse.

Recently, several members of the DorothyL mystery group discussed Mary Stewart and what a strong impression she had made on so many of them growing up, with her exotic locales and strong heroines. I was embarrassed to realize that while I had read and thoroughly enjoyed her Merlin/Arthur books (Crystal Cave, Hollow Hills, Last Enchantment, etc.) I had not read any in the genre for which she was best known, romantic suspense. I decided to rectify that at once.

Madam, Will You Talk? was Stewart’s first novel, and was an instant hit when it was published in 1954.  She went on to write several more novels, including The Moon-Spinners which was turned into a Disney movie.  The writing is lovely and graceful, even when the situation is dire.  Charity is a wonderful character, a smart, mature woman who isn’t afraid to step up when the situation calls for action.  She loves history and poetry—she and Louise were once taught together—so she’s able to beautifully convey the setting. That is a real strength to this book and apparently her others as well: the ability to vividly describe a location without dragging the plot down.  She also peppers the story with quotations and literary allusions but again is able to do so while advancing the story.  

I also enjoyed the unadulterated 1950s flavor.  Contemporary writers who set a story in that time period can’t help but bring a twenty-first century view to it.  They try to unobtrusively explain attitudes and items on the assumption that modern audiences won’t have a clue—or in some cases, to show off how much research they’ve done (my sneaking suspicion).  Since the book was actually written in the 1950s, Stewart is under no such compunction.  In a modern retelling, the Riley that Charity drives so nimbly and expertly would be explained as a particular brand of British Motorcar from a company that began life as the Bonnick Cycle Company in the late 1800s.  Did I need to know that? Nope, I just accepted that it was a car and moved on.  Nor did the author have to omit or make excuses for people smoking constantly and imbibing.  (I’m reminded of a story about the TV series Mad Men which drew comment for the amount of smoking and drinking that went on.  When someone connected with the show spoke with a retired ad man who had worked in that era, the ad man said it was all fairly accurate except that there was even more drinking and smoking.) The plot twists and turns as Charity tries to figure out who to trust and, more importantly, who NOT to trust.  There are exciting car chases through the villages and countryside, around winding streets and into back alleys. I’m not usually one for car chases but these manage to be both tense and interesting. The thing I liked least about the book?  The title. It sounds so formal, not reflective of the lively story. How's that for a minor quibble?

For me, the book certainly passes the test of time and I look forward to reading more by Mary Stewart.