Award winning mystery writer Louise Penny is back with her eighth book in the Chief Inspector Armand Gamache mystery series.  The Beautiful Mystery is a bit of a departure (as far as the location) from her previous books, but it just as captivating and engrossing as her previous titles.  I hold a soft spot for Three Pines, the quaint and picturesque village where the previous books are located, and even though I was a little leery of the new setting, it is definitely another superb mystery.  The book takes place in a remote Quebec monastery where 24 monks live in complete isolation and silence.  Ironically, the rest of the world has just discovered this group through their voices and a recording of their haunting and beautiful chants that have been released to the world with rave reviews.

The Beautiful Mystery opens with the shocking murder of one of the monks, Frere Matthieu, the choirmaster of the group.  Matthieu has been a champion of releasing the chants to the world in order to raise much needed funds for improvements to the monastery. Chief Inspector Gamache and his right hand man, Jean-Guy Beauvior arrive on the scene to interrogate and question the monks, attempting to piece together the puzzle of which of the remaining monks could possibly commit murder.  In addition to solving the crime at the monastery, Gamache and Beauvoir confront personal issues and demons that could have the ability to tear apart their own lives.

The Beautiful Mystery is intriguing enough on its own but if you want to start with the first book in the series pick up Still Life.

 

Charles Todd’s A Duty to the Dead (the first mystery in the Bess Crawford series) has far too much life and vigor for the god-awful cover design it’s been dealt. It’s really a hideous cover: the image, the colors, the fonts, they’re all drab and uninteresting. But if you can look past them, this is an engaging mystery novel with a heroine anyone would love.

Bess Crawford is a gentleman’s daughter and an Army nurse in the Great War (if you’re thinking of Lady Sybil Crawley right now, you’re not alone!). She’s injured when the hospital ship Britannic is sunk, and during her convalescent leave, she visits the family of Arthur Graham, a wounded soldier she befriended, to deliver the deathbed message he begged her to pass on to his brother. What she finds in the Graham hometown of Owlhurst is a web of secrets and lies that the all-too-British neighbors have happily swept under the rug while they keep calm and carry on.

Bess is in-demand in Owlhurst for her nursing skills, and before long she is pressed into duty caring for a shell-shocked soldier and a possible lunatic. The effect of witnessed horrors and repressed violent memories on the mind is a big part of this novel, which is as much psychiatric as it is suspenseful. In a time when mental health was imperfectly understood, Bess’s intuitively modern understanding of the way our brains work is a mark in her favor.

While you’re waiting (and waiting… and waiting … ) for Downton Abbey to come to US shores next January, this novel can help fill the gap. Its shared setting, dealings with the same issues (the affect of the war on families back home), and the similarities between Sybil and Bess will keep you in the mindset of Downton while you wait for season 3.

I’m going to tread very lightly with this review, because to spoil any plot point of Gillian Flynn’s masterful suspense novel Gone Girl would be a crime against anyone planning to read it.  Nick and Amy Dunne were once young and in love.  But now, on the fifth anniversary of their wedding, their relationship is crumbling and neither spouse seems happy.  It is on this day that Nick receives a phone call from a concerned neighbor:  the Dunne’s front door is wide open, the living room is trashed, and Nick’s wife nowhere to be found.  Anyone interested in the true crime genre could tell you that the husband is always the first suspect, but did Nick really do it?  Told in alternating chapters of Nick’s perspective when Amy goes missing and Amy’s diary entries chronicling their relationship, the novel plays with the narrators’ unreliability to keep the reader guessing every step of the way.

I’ve heard a ton of buzz about this book all summer and trust me, it is all well-deserved.  The fast pacing and many twists and turns make this book painful to put down, even for just a minute.  This is no average whodunit; in addition to being a captivating mystery/thriller, this is also an intriguing character study about what happens when relationships go wrong and when your spouse isn’t quite what they seem to be at the beginning of the relationship.  I finished this book three days ago after reading it in two sittings, and I still can’t stop thinking about it.  I highly recommend Gone Girl to anyone looking for a unique mystery that will keep you on the edge of your seat.

For this installment of Amazing Audiobooks, I have a jumble of fun, funny, exciting, just-plain-great fiction that didn’t fit with the previous three categories. But you have my word: all these are winners!

  • Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. You’ll laugh out loud at this one, in which the Apocalypse goes all wrong when an angel and a demon accidentally swap out the Antichrist for a normal human boy.
  • The charming Flavia de Luce Mysteries by C. Alan Bradley, beginning with The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie
  • Calico Joe by John Grisham
  • 11th Hour, the latest from James Patterson (or if you’re new to the Women’s Murder Club series, start at the beginning with 1st to Die)
  • …In Death series by J.D. Robb: a futuristic police procedural – particularly recommended for those who like listening to sexy, seductive, lilting Irish accents.
  • The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach, a novel about a college baseball phenom (I reviewed the novel in June)
  • The Book Thief by Markus Zusak: A deeply sad but very sweet and rewarding novel; tells the story of a girl who learns about death and love while helping her parents hide a Jewish man from the Nazis in a small German town. Appropriate for teens and older kids as well as adults.
  • Stephen King’s latest hit, 11/22/63, about JFK’s assassination and time travel.
  • The Night Circus, a lovely atmospheric love story brought to life by Jim Dale. Lexie reviewed this on the blog back in October. There’s a movie version in development scheduled for a 2013 release, so get in on the ground floor of opinionated ‘book-was-better’ arguments by reading the book first!
  • Twenties Girl by Sophie Kinsella: listen to Lara, a twenty-something Brit, spar with the ghost of her great-aunt Sadie, whose 23-year-old form has come straight out of 1927 to beg the living girl to track down her missing necklace. It’s a hoot!

JULY 3

Journey 2 – Mysterious Island – Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Josh Hutcherson, Vanessa Hudgens

The new journey begins when young adventurer Sean receives a coded distress signal from a mysterious island where no island should exist, a place of strange life forms, mountains of gold, deadly volcanoes, and more than one astonishing secret. Unable to stop him from going, Sean’s new stepfather joins the quest. Together with a helicopter pilot and his beautiful, strong-willed daughter, they set out to find the island. PG

JULY 10

Sherlock Holmes – Game of Shadows – Robert Downey Jr., Noomi Rapace, Jude Law

Sherlock Holmes has always been the smartest man in the room, until now. There is a new criminal mastermind at large, Professor James Moriarty, and not only is he Holmes’s intellectual equal, but his capacity for evil, coupled with a complete lack of conscience, may give him an advantage over the renowned detective. Holmes’s investigation into Moriarty’s plot becomes more dangerous as it leads him and Watson out of London to France, Germany, and finally Switzerland. PG

American Reunion – Jason Biggs, Alyson Hannigan, Eugene Levy

The whole American Pie gang returns to East Great Falls for the first time since their legendary senior year to turn their reunion into the most unforgettable weekend since high school. Old friends will reconnect, old flames will reignite, and everyone will rediscover just how much fun you can pack into one outrageous reunion. Unrated.

JULY 17

Salmon Fishing in Yemen – Emily Blunt, Ewan McGregor, Amr Waked

A fisheries expert is approached by a consultant to help realize a sheik’s vision of bringing the sport of fly-fishing to the desert and embarks on an upstream journey of faith and fish to prove the impossible possible.PG – 13

Friends with Kids – Jon Hamm, Kristin Wiig, Chris O’Dowd,

A daring and hilarious ensemble comedy about a close-knit circle of friends whose lives change once they have kids. The last two singles in the group observe the effect that kids have had on their friends’ relationships and wonder if there’s a better way to make it work. When they decide to have a child together, and date other people, their unconventional ‘experiment’ leads everyone in the group to question the nature of friendship, family, and, above all, true love. R.

Three Stooges – Sean Hayes, Chris Diamantopoulos, Will Sasso

The Three Stooges (Moe, Larry, Curly) are on a mission. Left on the doorstep of an orphanage run by nuns, the young trio grows up finger-poking, nyuk-nyuking, and woo-woo-wooing their way into trouble. Now years later, with the orphanage forced to close its doors, the Three Stooges embark on a wacky mission to save it. Hilarious mischief and mayhem ensue.PG 13

JULY 24

Wrath of the Titans – Liam Neeson, Sam Worthington

Perseus braves the treacherous underworld to rescue his father, Zeus, captured by his son, Ares, and brother Hades who unleash the ancient Titans upon the world. PG 13

 

 

 

 

After finding out that her husband has just accepted a job in Luxembourg, Kate Moore is secretly thrilled that she can move to a foreign country and leave her deepest secret behind in the United States in Chris Pavone’s debut thriller/mystery, The Expats.  After the family settles in their new home country, her husband, Dexter, throws himself into his job working long hours and taking many work related trips.

Kate begins to fill her days with children’s playgroups and lunches with other expat wives who she has met.  Quickly, she makes friends with Julia, another expat and her husband, Ben who live in Luxembourg with their young children.  After some time, Kate begins to have misgivings about Julia and Ben and is convinced they are not who they seem.  Kate is thoroughly convinced that they know her secret and they are working to expose her.

She sleuths into Julia and Ben’s background and she discovers their true identities.  At this point the plot takes so many twists and turns, it becomes confusing and hard to piece together at times.  The conclusion is ambitious, creative and completely unexpected.  Overall, I really enjoyed Pavone’s debut novel even though the plot didn’t always come together as I would have hoped, but I am looking forward to Pavone’s next thriller.

In Last Night in Montreal, the debut novel by Emily St. John Mandel, Lilia Albert’s entire life has been a series of appearances and disappearances since she was abducted by her father when she was a young girl.  By growing up this way, it is no surprise that she continues to weave in and out of other’s lives as an adult.  During a short stay in New York City, she meets Eli and swifty moves in with him.  Early one morning after telling Eli she is going for coffee, she fails to return and after looking everywhere for her resigns himself to the fact that she has disappeared.  Some time later, he receives a postcard stating that she is now living in Montreal and he leaves on a quest to find her which leads him on a strange and unexpected journey.  St. John Mandel threads the past and present together with an ethereal quality and tells the story of Lilia and those she has left behind throughout her life.  I really loved Mandel’s writing and characters, but I have to admit the ending left me with more questions than answers.  St. John Mandel has proven to be a gifted writer and I have just started her second novel, The Singer’s Gun, which I hope to blog about soon.

 

Inspired by a glowing review on NPR and the gorgeous cover design, I snapped up The Dark Rose as quickly as I could. It’s a mild thriller-cum-literary novel that tangles with the questions of morality and guilt. If you intend to do harm but fail, are you guilty of the crime? If you intend to do good, but fall into the wrong side of the law, are you morally at fault?  Yes and yes, according to Erin Kelly, an author who hands out death and disaster with a free hand; hers is a universe where even minor crimes don’t go unpunished, and the result is oddly satisfying (if a bit bleak). The story follows two central characters – Louisa and Paul – and three timelines: Louisa’s volatile relationship with rocker Adam Glasslake as an 18 year old in 1989 London, Paul’s troubled upbringing in a suburban slum under the wing of his illiterate best friend Daniel, and the present day, where the two characters meet and work together restoring a sixteenth-century garden in the British countryside. Louisa is immediately drawn to Paul, a doppelganger of her long gone lover Adam, and Paul – vulnerable in the aftermath of agreeing to testify against his best friend in a murder trial – is drawn to her as well. Each of them is flawed in interesting and unique ways, and they have coping methods and personalities that feel genuine as well as compelling.

Juggling multiple timelines is a feat successfully maneuvered by few authors, but Kelly does a respectable job matching the pacing and tone between her segments and blending them together the right way. Unfortunately, she’s much better at characterization than plotting, as her attempt isn’t without flaws: the present day story starts off running and only picks up speed, while the back stories start off slower and eventually grind to a crawl near the 2/3 mark. It’s frustrating to have to leave the exciting, sensual present to revisit teenaged Louisa and Paul flailing in 1989 and 2009, respectively, as they cope with circumstances and guilt that will haunt them going forward. That aside, the language in this book is splendid and the gardening subplot is a rich source of metaphor and a tidy frame for the story.

We are all guilty of something; this book is about what happens when that guilt catches up to you.

Death Comes to Pemberley by P.D. James is a mystery set 6 years after Pride & Prejudice, when Lizzie’s disgraced sister Lydia comes to the Darcy estate screaming that her husband – the notorious rogue George Wickham – has been murdered. Everyone has a different opinion on Pride & Prejudice sequels. “Glorified fanfiction,” some say. “Total crap,” or “completely wonderful,” say others. I think the line between success and failure depends not only on good writing, setting, plotting, and characters, but on a critical distinction: no one but Jane Austen should write Jane Austen’s characters. Elizabeth’s wit and Darcy’s mysterious motives are the critical features that make Pride & Prejudice such an enduring classic, and any other authors trying to inhabit these characters inevitably struggle to do as well as Austen did. P.D. James, although an accomplished and talented author by any definition, is regrettably no exception. Her Darcy is wooden and boring, her Elizabeth does little but turn up every 25 pages and agree with her husband, and her speculation on Colonel Fitzwilliam’s future and character is hardly in line with the lovable, friendly man we know from P&P. The characters she invents – a dashing suitor for Georgiana, the staff of Pemberley – are much more vivid and entertaining.

James can turn a phrase admirably; even in its most stilted information-dumping passages (lots of early 19th century criminal law needs to be explained – feel free to skim these parts), the writing isn’t at fault here. It’s revealing that the best chapter of the entire book is the first one, where James neatly summarizes the events of Pride & Prejudice and weaves in the 6 years of additional plot she’s invented. You would expect a summary to be boring, but this one’s remarkably engaging; it’s the plodding mystery that stalls this book.

If you love mysteries and you love Austen continuations, give Death Comes to Pemberley a try. Although truth be told, you might be happier re-reading the original, especially if you’re an Austen purist or a demanding mystery fan. Despite a few good ideas, this book doesn’t satisfy on either end of that spectrum.

As someone who loves to read mysteries and is always on the hunt for another series to start, I stumbled upon the Bailey Weggins mystery series by Kate White and just finished If Looks Could Kill, the first book in the series.  Bailey Weggins is a freelance writer of crime and human interest stories for the monthly fashion and lifestyle magazine Gloss.  Early one Sunday morning Bailey is roused out of bed by her boss and the editor of Gloss, Cat Jones, who can’t get her live-in nanny, Heidi, to answer the door of her basement suite.  Bailey springs to action to help her boss figure out where Heidi has gone – and it isn’t far – when Bailey discovers the nanny dead in her suite.  Cat pleads with Bailey to use her sleuthing skills to try and figure out why Heidi was murdered.  Bailey, who puts her investigative skills right to the test, dives into the case.

The mystery heats up when it is determined that Heidi died from eating poisonous chocolate truffles that were an intended  hostess gift for Cat.  Who was the intended victim – Cat or Heidi?  Bailey uncovers evidence that points to someone trying to poison the editors of high profile magazines and she puts her life at risk with her unofficial investigation.

If Looks Could Kill is a light (as far as mysteries are concerned) and easy read that effortlessly blends fashion, vibrant New York City life and murder.