In The Woods by Tana French

I recently listened to the audiobook version of Irish author Tana French’s debut mystery, In The Woods.  French thrusts the reader into a dual storyline – one past and one present – both inextricably linked by one man, Inspector Rob Ryan of the Dublin Murder Squad.  Twenty years before, Rob and his two young school chums made headlines when all three disappeared and Rob was later found alone exiting the woods without any recollection of what had happened to his friends –  the case has remained unsolved. 

In the current case, Rob and his partner Cassie Maddox are assigned to a case involving the murder of a young ballet dancer, Katy Develin – a crime that was committed in the exact same spot as Detective Ryan’s incident twenty years prior (he changed his name from Adam Ryan due to the publicity of his case).  Katy’s family begins to exhibit odd and baffling behavior and it peaks the interest of the detectives.  Ryan and Maddox realize that someone close to the victim may be involved – but which family member knows more about Katy’s murder than they are admitting?  

I am a big fan of mysteries and the ending of In The Woods was a shocker- I highly recommend it.

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

Ann Patchett’s latest novel, State of Wonder, takes the reader deep into the heart of the Brazilian jungle.  Dr. Mariana Singh, who conducts research for a pharmaceutical company in Minneapolis, has just been informed that her co-worker, Dr. Anders Eckman, has died of a mysterious fever in the Amazon.  At the time, Dr. Eckman was attempting to find the pharmaceutical company’s top research scientist, Dr. Annick Swenson, who has ceased all contact with the CEO of the company.  Dr. Singh has been recruited to travel to South America in order to find out more about Dr. Eckman’s death and to make contact with Dr. Swenson about the status of her research, which may culminate in a lucrative new drug for the company.

 After a long trip to Brazil, Dr. Singh learns more about Dr. Swenson’s remarkable research and its ethical connotations.  While trying to process what Dr. Swenson has uncovered and the worldwide implications of her findings, Dr. Singh learns the truth about what has happened to her colleague, Dr. Eckman. State of Wonder is full of adventure, scientific breakthroughs, ethical dilemmas and coming to terms with the triumphs and mistakes of the past.   Actress Hope Davis reads the audiobook and does a superb job of narrating this complex story.

On a side note – about 12 years ago I heard Patchett read from her book “The Magician’s Assistant” in Nashville, Tennessee.  Although the book sounded fascinating, I never got around to reading it.  After listening to this audiobook, I can’t wait to go back and listen to “The Magician’s Assistant.”

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern has become one of the most buzzed-about books of the year, and with good reason.  Set in the late 1800s, it is the story of a boy named Marco and a girl named Celia who are bound in a competition that they don’t truly understand, but they know that it will involve using the magical abilities that both show at a young age.  They spend their young lives being trained by instructors whose methods differ greatly until the time comes for the challenge to begin.  For this purpose, a venue is created:  a stunning, mysterious black-and-white circus that travels constantly and only operates at night, called Les Cirque des Reves.  It is like no other circus you have ever seen, complete with a fortune teller, an illusionist, acrobats, the most delicious food you can imagine, and tents filled with landscapes that will take your breath away.  The two spend years using their abilities to make alterations to the circus, constantly one-upping each other as they grow more and more aware that the consequences could be dire.  Especially once they realize their true feelings for one another.

The story is told through multiple points of view all while bouncing around in time to different points in the lifespan of the circus.  Initially this can make it a little hard to follow exactly when and where everything is happening, but once you catch onto the flow of it, this makes the story more complete and layered.  The focus of the story isn’t just on Celia and Marco, but on all the supporting circus folk as well.  In fact, the part of the story I found most compelling was the story of Bailey, a boy who becomes enthralled with the circus at a young age and waits for years for it to come back.  Eventually he befriends two of the circus performers and find his fate intertwined with that of the circus in a way he never expected.  But my absolute favorite thing about the book is how beautifully it is written.  The language is absolutely lovely and creates the most vivid and uniquely beautiful pictures in the reader’s head.  I don’t even want to describe any of it to you because part of the fun of the book is discovering new parts of the circus as Celia and Marco make their alterations!  Morgenstern creates a very sensory experience; you can see, hear, smell, and taste the circus as though it is going on all around you. 

Making my expereince with The Night Circus even better, I listened to the audio version read by the amazing Jim Dale (narrator of the Harry Potter audio books).  He really brings the characters to life, and his narration makes this already beautifully-written book even more magical.  If you like magic, romance, and very vivid reading experiences, I highly recommend picking up this incredibly enchanting novel.

The Wilder Life by Wendy McClure

The beginning of the audiobook version of this book is fun – especially if you are also a Little House fan. You’ll have many “I felt like that too!” moments, as the author describes her love of what she calls “Laura World.”

Wendy McClure, the author of The Wilder Life  is on the extreme end of the Little House research continuum, however. After a while, I found myself withdrawing – wishing I hadn’t heard that bit of myth debunking. I was quite happy believing that most things in the books were based on emotional, if not factual, truth.

Of special interest are the details about how the tv series overtook the books in popularity and the legal battles over the “Little House” brand, or LHOP, as the author calls it.

The end is satisfying and thought-provoking. McClure ties in what she learned about how Laura Ingalls Wilder and Rose Wilder told their stories with  how she came to terms with memories of her mother.

The Weird Sisters by Eleanor Brown

The three Andreas sisters, Rosalind (Rose), Bianca (Bean), and Cordelia (Cordy) grew up like no other sisters you have ever met in The Weird Sisters by Eleanor Brown.   Their father, a college professor who speaks to them the majority of the time by rattling off Shakespearean quotes, instilled a love of books in his three daughters.

Raised in the college town of Barnwell, Ohio, the sister’s lives took dramatically different directions after leaving their childhood home.  Their lives are as different as their personalities and although they are sisters, they realize that they truly love each other, but actually don’t like each other that much.  The three reunite back in Barnwell for a variety of reasons, most importantly, their mother’s battle with cancer.

In addition to their mother’s illness, each of the Andreas sisters has their own personal struggle to deal with whether it be running away from their past lives or struggling with their future and its choices.  The engaging characters and witty dialogue make The Weird Sisters a treat to read.  You will find yourself immersed in the lives of the sisters as a member of the Andreas family and you will find yourself caught up in their triumphs and in their failures.

The Flavia de Luce series by Alan Bradley

I don’t read a lot of mysteries, but at the suggestion of a good friend I picked up The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, the first in a series by Alan Bradley starring wannabe detective Flavia de Luce.  Flavia is one of the most unique protagonists I have seen lately:  she’s smart, inquisitive, resourceful, and witty.  She has an obsession with chemistry, especially poisons.  Oh, and did I mention that she’s eleven years old?

In The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, we are introduced to Flavia and her family, who are living in an estate called Buckshaw in England in the 1950s.  Her mother disappeared when she was a baby, so Flavia is left with her distant father, her antagonistic older sisters, and man-about-the-house Dogger.  Things are boring as usual at Buckshaw when Flavia discovers a dead man in their cucumber patch in the middle of the night.  When Flavia’s father is taken into custody as the prime suspect, Flavia gets on the case to find out who really did it and prove her father’s innocence.  Flavia follows a series of initially puzzling clues (including an antique postage stamp and a dead bird) that lead to the identity of the killer, making for an exciting and surprising climax.  I listened to the audiobook and it’s very enjoyable; the reader manages to capture Flavia’s spirit very well and make it an exciting listen.

After finishing this book I had to immediately go out and pick up a copy of the second in the series, called The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag.  Flavia meets a traveling puppet show team whose car has broken down, and so they elect to do a series of shows in Bishop’s Lacey while they are waiting for the repairs.  When the star of the show is murdered, of course Flavia is the first one on the case.  I’m in the middle of it right now and I’m glad to say that Flavia has kept her cheek and tenacity fully intact.  The third book in the series, A Red Herring Without Mustard, just came out a couple months ago to rave reviews, and it’s certainly next on my “To Read” list.  If you like mysteries with a strong female protagonist, the charming setting of England, or mysteries that really keep you guessing right up to the end, this series will not disappoint.  Even if you don’t usually read mysteries, I recommend checking out this series, because I’m sure you’ll enjoy getting to know Flavia de Luce.

Still Summer by Jacquelyn Mitchard

Four close friends, Tracy, Olivia, Holly and Janis who met years earlier at St. Ursula’s High School, decide to reunite by taking a relaxing trip to the Caribbean in Jacquelyn Mitchard’s Still Summer.   At the last minute Janis cancels due to the health of her husband, so Tracy invites her nineteen year old daughter, Cammie, in the hope to salvage their fragile relationship.  After boarding a private yacht, complete with the two person crew of Lenny and Michel to navigate the waters, they set sail on their journey upon the Opus.

In the early days of their journey, Cammie develops a relationship with the young and handsome co-captain, Michel, much to the chagrin of her mother, Tracy.  When Michel and Cammie set off for a secluded part of the beach, they are discovered and head back to Opus to suffer the consequences.  When trying to dock with the boat a tragic accident ensues with both Lenny and Michel falling overboard and the women don’t know if they are dead or alive.  Quickly the foursome realize they are alone on the boat – now without a working engine.

Soon thereafter, they are discovered by a trio of modern day pirates – with deadly results.  Still Summer captures some of the turmoil between these women held over from their youth  as well as the desperation of trying to survive on the open sea.  I listened to the audiobook version of Still Summer, which made for a suspenseful and emotional journey of survival and what it means to live a fulfilling life.

You Were Always Mom’s Favorite by Deborah Tannen

Deborah Tannen’s newest book explores the sister dynamic in family relationships. As one of three sisters, it was a relationship she knew a lot about. She also interviewed over 100 sisters of all ages and stages in life to discover more about the double edged sword that is sisterhood.  In this “combination of closeness and competition,” she says “the one constant was comparison.”

When siblings talk, every conversation is weighted by what has gone before. This fosters special closeness but also means that a comment that seems innocuous to an outsider can cause pain that would appear to be unreasonably exaggerated.

As a linguist, Tannen’s expertise is in how language shapes relationships.  Sisters are different from brothers in that they are often the glue keeping a family together – organizing get-togethers to celebrate birthdays, holidays and family reunions. They also foster closer relationships with the male members of the family. Because their conversational style is more personal and emotional, they allow men to be more open.

Tannen reads the audiobook version of You Were Always Mom’s Favorite which seems appropriate when she closes with very personal anecdotes from her own family. She says, “Having a sister adds an extra image in the mirror. Understanding who you are means discovering who you are in relation to her.”

Food Week – Southern Charm with Recipes

In my quest to find all fiction books set in Savannah, Georgia and low country South Carolina, I have found Mary Kay Andrews. She is a wonderful author and these three books about Savannah are the funniest I have read. The characters are Eloise “Weezie” Foley and BeBe Loudermilk, best friends to the end.

Savannah Blues

Landing a catch like Talmadge Evans III got Eloise “Weezie” Foley a jewel of a town house in Savannah’s historic district. Divorcing Tat got her exited to the backyard carriage house, where she has launched a spite-fest with Tal’s new fiancé, the elegant Caroline DeSantos. BeBe owns a restaurant in town, and Weezie makes pies for her. An antiques picker, Weezie combs Savannah’s steamy back alleys and garage sales for treasures when she’s not dealing with her loopy relatives or her hunky ex-boyfriend. But an unauthorized sneak preview at a sale lands Weezie smack in the middle of magnolia-scented murder, mayhem . . . and more. Dirty deals simmer all around her — just as her relationship with the hottest chef in town heats up and she finds out how delicious love can be the second time around. There are not recipes in this book, but it does introduce you to Weezie and BeBe.

Savannah Breeze

In this eagerly awaited sequel to Savannah Blues, Southern belle BeBe Loudermilk loses all her worldly possessions thanks to a brief but disastrous relationship with the gorgeous Reddy, an “investment counselor” who turns out to be a con man. All that’s left is a ramshackle 1950s motor court on Tybee Island-an eccentric beach town that calls itself a drinking village with a fishing problem. Breeze Inn is a place where the very classy BeBe wouldn’t normally be caught dead but, with no alternative, she moves into the manager’s unit, vowing to make magic out of mud. With the help of Harry and BeBe’s junking friend Weezie, she soon has the motel spiffed up and attracting paying guests.Then there’s a sighting of Reddy in Fort Lauderdale, and BeBe decides to go after him. She puts together a posse, and with the irrepressible Granddaddy Loudermilk snoring in the backseat of the Buick, heads south. The plan is to carry out a sting that may be just a little bit outside the law but that, with any luck at all, will retrieve BeBe’s fortune and put the dastardly Reddy in jail where he belongs. The recipes in this book are for Breeze Inn Crabcakes and Blue Breeze Cocktail… Yummy

Blue Christmas

It’s the week before Christmas, and antiques dealer Weezie Foley is in a frenzy to garnish her shop for the Savannah historical district decorating contest, which she intends to win. Weezie is ready to shoot herself with her glue gun by the time she’s done, but the results are stunning. She’s certainly one-upped the owners of the trendy shop around the corner, but suddenly things start to go missing from her display, and there seems to be a mysterious midnight visitor to her shop. Still, Weezie has high hopes for the holiday—maybe in the form of an engagement ring from her chef boyfriend. But Daniel, always moody at the holidays, seems more distant than usual. Throw in Weezie’s decidedly odd family, a 1950s Christmas-tree pin, and even a little help from the King himself (Elvis, that is), and maybe there will be a pocketful of miracles for Weezie this Christmas Eve. The recipes in this book are for Foley Family Irish Corned Beef Dip and Red Roosters, a Christmas-y cocktail.

Listening to Chet the Dog

I have found a new series to listen to as I drive around the Quad Cities and beyond.  It is the “Chet and Bernie Series”  from Spencer Quinn who introduces the world to two-legged Bernie, a down in his luck private detective and his four-legged pal Chet—a canine with a penchant for solving mysteries. In an interview with the author on how he decided on this series

Q. How did you come to write Dog on It?
A. My wife said, How about doing something with dogs? The basic building blocks came to me right there at the kitchen table: two detective pals; narration by the four-legged one; and all in the first person, which I’d never tried before in a novel. Plus the most important thing – Chet would not be a talking dog (or be undoggy in any way) but would be a narrating dog. Anything that thinks and has memory must have a narrative going on inside. I went to the office – over the garage, commuting distance fifteen feet – and wrote the first page. Then I wanted to know what happened next.

Chet is a mixed breed law academy dropout. Bernie is a retired police officer trying to be a private detective. Between Bernie’s divorce, Charlie his sone and Susie Sanchez, Bernie’s reporter girlfriend, Chet can’t catch a nap and is always on the alert. Chet has a dry sense of humor, which the reader, Jim Frangoine, does well.

These are wonderful books for those who enjoy the narrator being the four legged kind.

There are three books in teh series so far:  Dog on It, Thereby Hangs a Tail and the newest book, To Fetch a Thief.