A World of Curiosities by Louise Penny

Are you a Louise Penny fan? There are a lot of us, but in case you haven’t read any books by this amazing mystery writer, here is a push to get you started!  Set in Canada, her Three Pines mysteries are complex, intelligent and thoughtful with appealing characters (especially the main character Chief Inspector Gamache) and tense scenarios. You can start with any in the series, but the characters and relationships develop over the course of the novels. I would recommend starting with any in the series and then, when you realize you must read them all, start from the first one (Still Life)

The newest, A World of Curiosities is the 18th in the series and, like the previous ones, is highly recommended. From the publisher:

It’s spring and Three Pines is reemerging after the harsh winter. But not everything buried should come alive again. Not everything lying dormant should reemerge.

As the villagers prepare for a special celebration, Armand Gamache and Jean-Guy Beauvoir find themselves increasingly worried. A young man and woman have reappeared in the Sûreté du Québec investigators’ lives after many years. The two were young children when their troubled mother was murdered, leaving them damaged, shattered. Now they’ve arrived in the village of Three Pines.

Gamache and Beauvoir’s memories of that tragic case, the one that first brought them together, come rushing back. Did their mother’s murder hurt them beyond repair? Have those terrible wounds, buried for decades, festered and are now about to erupt?

As Chief Inspector Gamache works to uncover answers, his alarm grows when a letter written by a long dead stone mason is discovered. In it the man describes his terror when bricking up an attic room somewhere in the village. Every word of the 160-year-old letter is filled with dread. When the room is found, the villagers decide to open it up.

As the bricks are removed, Gamache, Beauvoir and the villagers discover a world of curiosities. But the head of homicide soon realizes there’s more in that room than meets the eye. There are puzzles within puzzles, and hidden messages warning of mayhem and revenge.

In unsealing that room, an old enemy is released into their world. Into their lives. And into the very heart of Armand Gamache’s home.

The Jane Lawless Series: Hallowed Murder by Ellen Hart

After loving Devil’s Chew Toy by Rob Osler (you should read it!!) I was on the lookout for more LGBTQ mysteries, and discovered that Ellen Hart created a cult classic lesbian detective in Hallowed Murder, published 1989. Best of all, most of this series is still available through Rivershare at our local libraries.

In Hallowed Murder, we meet restaurateur Jane Lawless (and her theatrical friend Cordelia Thorne) and learn that she has started volunteering at her old college sorority, against the objections of Cordelia, who feels that Jane gives the sorority too much loyalty, considering it would have rejected her outright if it had known Jane’s sexuality. But then one of the senior students at the sorority dies suddenly, and while the police are dismissive (especially after the girl’s relationship with another woman comes out), Jane feels there’s more to the story and starts to investigate. Soon she finds herself drawn into a world of religious fanatics, blackmail, and fear, but remains determined to find out the truth.

As a longtime Agatha Christie reader I loved that this book paired a vintage tone and writing style with LGBTQ-inclusive characters. Like Christie’s work, it’s a product of its time, but in this case its time was the 1980s and 1990s, so it’s more aware of modern sensibilities and ethics. Unlike other modern cozy  mysteries, however, it doesn’t have that (apparently compulsory) formulaic storyline of the feisty heroine getting drawn into a turbulent relationship with a strong but sensitive local man or two — yawn! Instead there are slow hints of a relationship in Jane’s past that still haunts her, which is truer to Christie’s Poirot (as most recently shown in the recent Poirot films Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile by Kenneth Branagh) than to a modern cozy detective.

It’s definitely fascinating to read a work of 80s queer literature in 2022 and see how the language has changed around identity, not to mention social perception. The religious abuse and general scandal that the LGBTQ characters face in this book paints a stark picture of what it was like to be queer at that time, and remind us that some places still feature this kind of social and religious persecution toward LGBTQ people. At the same time, Hart also chooses to have one toxic character begin to realize how flawed religious ideas are, which lends the whole thing a hopeful air.

I’m excited to see where this series goes and how Jane Lawless develops as a character – if you’re looking for an inclusive cozy mystery series to try, come along with me on this journey!

Under the Harrow by Flynn Berry

Flynn Berry’s Under the Harrow twists and turns and twists back again  – setting up expectations and then redirecting them. Nora discovers the brutal murder of her sister – which leads to a reexamination of their trauma-filled past. Both women have had issues with impulse control – and Nora, especially, becomes increasingly volatile.  Readers begin to doubt the reliability of just about everyone – suspects, investigators, and people from the past.

There is something very compelling about the slow reveal of the very close bond the two women have. The many idyllic meals and trips are told in flashback and each one reveals a bit more about the sisters’ relationship and complicated history. As close as they were, Nora keeps uncovering secrets – making the trauma she’s experiencing even more complicated.

The notable thing about Berry is her skill in understatement. She’s the master of “show don’t tell.” Nora narrates events and her own actions, but never indulges in emotive drama. For example, during the early stages of the murder investigation, Nora destroys property in the hotel where she’s staying. From this, we can intuit the unbearable pain and loss she’s suffering but she doesn’t explicitly tell us.

London and the seaside settings in England are revealed the same way – through the peregrinations of Nora, not through descriptive words and adjectives. The one exception is a trip to Cornwall.  The scene of a happy time in the past, this part of the book has a magical glow, which makes what follows even darker.

In some ways, this book is a classic who-done-it – readers are kept guessing until the last pages.

Winter’s Orbit by Everina Maxwell

I’m a bit of a picky reader, wanting mostly to read books with LGBTQ-diverse characters. Often (as you’ll know if you’ve read my posts) this leads me to fantastic books in the romance genre. However, there are more titles available in other genres, though they’re trickier to find. Most recently I’ve been exploring sci-fi titles, starting with Winter’s Orbit by Everina Maxwell.

Kiem is a very low-level royal in the Iskat Emperor’s family, and he’s got a bit of a bad reputation from his student days that he just can’t shake. Jainan, meanwhile, is well-respected and has been representing the planet Thea for the empire quite well with the help of his Iskat partner Taam. But just as the Empire enters high-stakes negotiations with the ominous Auditor of the Resolution, Taam is killed in an accident, and it’s very important Jainan remarry to present a strong and united front. Enter Kiem – whose main qualifications are his bloodline and his ability to look confident in photos. One quick marriage ceremony later, Kiem and Jainan are struggling to navigate dangerous galactic politics, trying to find out if Taam’s death was really an accident, and feeling surprisingly attracted to each other…

I saw this described as Ancillary Justice meets Red, White, and Royal Blue and I do think that’s a cleverly apt description – although I personally think Boyfriend Material is a closer fit (and the book I prefer between the two). The space opera / imperial conspiracy / political maneuvering elements are a big part of the story and its setting, but Kiem adds some much needed humanity and humor to the story. Throw in a murder mystery and it’s practically a gay version of Star Wars. Better yet, this is a universe that’s very honest, frank, and unconcerned about LGBTQ relationships and identities – which was delightfully refreshing to read.

If you’re a sci-fi reader looking for more representation, don’t miss this critically-acclaimed book!

The Best Corpse for the Job by Charlie Cochrane

A satisfying cozy mystery woven with a well-drawn gay romance, this book reads like a modernized Agatha Christie Miss Marple story or a more diverse Midsomer Murders adventure.

In The Best Corpse for the Job by Charlie Cochrane, Adam is a young teacher expecting nothing but boredom and sniping from the process of selecting a new Head Teacher for St. Crispin’s school. The board of governors is prickly at the best of times, after all. But things go beyond gossip when one of the applicants is found dead. The police send Robin, a police Inspector and an alumni of St. Crispin’s, to investigate, much to his regret. Memory lane only brings up the traumas of bullying he endured, so he’s eager to get the case resolved. But the case is trickier than it appears, not least because Robin and Adam feel an instant attraction to each other that’s hard to fight. They start to work together to piece together clues, but struggle to keep up after a second body is discovered. The stakes have never been higher with justice, love, and careers on the line.

In terms of plot and pacing this is a highly readable mystery, with sympathetic characters and a relatively believable resolution. The balance between romance and mystery was good, which kept both the calm domesticity of the characters’ attraction as well as the methodical police procedural, from getting dull or repetitive. There’s also a very strong sense of place rooting the story strongly in England, and as an Anglophile I was delighted  a cozy mystery that is true to the genre and evokes classic tropes while seamlessly including gay main characters.

If you’re looking for a light, quick read that is thoughtful and positive in its depiction of LGBTQ life, but focused on a mystery plotline, this is a good pick for you.

Did You Know It Was a Book First? Ragdoll by Daniel Cole

It’s an age-old story: I was flipping through a streaming service and started watching something new, only to do a search later and realize it’s based on a book! In this case, the show is Ragdoll, from AMC+, based on a book of the same name by Daniel Cole. If you’re like me and love comparing page to screen adaptations to their original source material, here’s the breakdown of this grisly murder mystery, then and now.

ON THE PAGE

We meet Willam-Oliver Layton-Fawkes (nickname Wolf, for obvious reasons) at the trial of the Cremation Killer, where due to irregularities in Wolf’s investigation and chain of evidence, the suspect is acquitted. When the verdict comes down, Wolf drags the accused out of the defendant’s box and almost beats him to death on the courtroom floor. The book then flashes several years into the future, when a demoted Wolf goes with his friend and former partner Emily Baxter to a bizarre crime scene, where one corpse is made of parts from six different people. Thanks to the maneuverings of Wolf’s ex-wife Andrea, the press runs with the case and turns it into a sensational firestorm after a list is uncovered – with six new victims predicted, along with the dates they’ll be killed, the last being Wolf himself. Wolf works to solve the case alongside a troubled Baxter dealing with alcoholism and a buried attraction to Wolf, as well as Andrea, struggling to navigate the pressures of the news team and her own ambition continually driving her to violate privacy and sensationalize a horrifying event. Meanwhile, rookie Edmunds has his own theories about the killer, which he chases despite the damage it’s doing to his marriage to pregnant Tia. Along for the ride are Wolf’s good friend and current partner Finlay and unit boss Simmons, who discovers he doesn’t like being in charge while his people are thrust again and again into danger.

ON THE SCREEN

Our main character’s name is now Nathan Rose, and he does attack the acquitted Cremation Killer on the courtroom floor. In the show, however, more time is devoted to the direct result of that attack: Rose’s time at a mental hospital. His confused memories of that time, and of his friend there, Joel (on his own quest for justice) suddenly rise to the surface when Rose and Baxter (sober, witty, fighting for respect as a woman in the police) come to a crime scene where one corpse is made up of six different people. When the list of upcoming victims comes to light, delivered mysteriously to the police station, Rose quickly realizes that it’s all connected to the Cremation Killer, and that shadowy time in Rose’s past. He launches his own secret investigation to try and avert more murders (and atone for his own role in the ones that have occurred) as the police try to protect the victims on the list. Matters are complicated by frenemy Andrea (Rose’s on again, off again lover) in the media, and the resistance of the listed victims to accept protection. One very important change: intrepid rookie Edmunds has been transformed into a young American transplant named Lake Edmunds, an extremely young and liberal lesbian who struggles to fit in with the old boys’ club which Simmons and Finlay have been reduced to represent – though she remains determined to unravel the mystery, even if she has to do it on her own.

Without giving too much away, the changes made in the show (specifically what’s revealed and when) work really well to ratchet up tension and heighten the drama for the viewer, including a deeper sense of Rose’s emotional life.  In the book there’s a greater emphasis on the puzzle and trying to make it all fit together, using the dates the murders are predicted for to make it a race against time. While Andrea is less prominent in the show, which means less exploration of the pressure inherent in media work, the Ragdoll show still attempts to show the struggles of professional women through its focus on police procedure; Baxter and Edmunds have a number of conversations about the double standards women are held to. On a less serious note, I personally appreciated Rose’s name change; invoking a rose makes him seem complex and sensitive where, for me at least, “William-Oliver Layton-Fawkes, nickname Wolf” is a bit on-the-nose for an aggressive British police detective.

If you’re looking for a new crime thriller, serial killer story, or addictive binge-watch, I definitely recommend Ragdoll for an intricate puzzle that dives into questions of guilt, responsibility, justice, friendship, memory and identity.

Online Reading Challenge – October Wrap-Up

Hello All!

How did your October reading go? Did you find a historical novel that was especially good?

I read A Perilous Alliance by Fiona Buckley, part of a series of Tudor mysteries featuring Lady Ursula Blanchard. I was a bit reluctant to get started – my To-Be-Read list is never ending and this would have to be squeezed in. However, once I got started, I really enjoyed it. It’s well written with a story that moves quickly and lots of interesting action. This is part of a series – I might just have to add other titles to my TBR list!

Lady Ursula is a widow of independent means and some influence – she is the illegitimate half-sister of Queen Elizabeth. In the past Ursula has assisted the Queen by acting as a spy for her against her enemies, but she has tired of the danger. Hoping to withdraw from public life, she has moved to her country home to raise her little boy and manage her estate. Unfortunately, the public life follows her, with a request from the Queen’s advisors that she marry a French count, strictly for political reasons. Ursula is not pleased with this major life change and only reluctantly agrees to meet the French count.

Almost immediately there are warning signs that the count is not a suitable husband. The Queen insists, saying that the political alliance from the marriage is vital to the safety and future of England and Ursula reluctantly accepts the count’s proposal. However, the entire household is thrown into disarray just hours before the wedding is to take place and Ursula finds herself in a perilous position. Will she be able to untangle the reasons behind the mysterious death of one of her staff? Will she need to return to spying to track down the enemies of the realm? Will she be forced into a loveless marriage that will seriously curtail her independence?

This is a quick and lively read, with lots of details of the lives of ordinary people (well-off but not royalty) during this time. Fun and interesting.

What about you – what did you read in October?

The King of Infinite Space by Lyndsay Faye

An amazing retelling of Hamlet that makes the original more comprehensible to a modern audience, The King of Infinite Space is the ultimate read for those who loved reading Shakespeare in high school, those who (like me) are suckers for a good retelling, and those who just live for drama, love triangles, family intrigue, yearning, sinister dreams, and yes, murder.

Here’s the gist: the Hamlet character in this case is Benjamin Dane, son of oil tycoon and theater magnate Jackson Dane, recently deceased. Benjamin is spiraling because his manipulative mother, Trudy Dane, has suddenly married his annoying uncle, Claude Dane, AND his ex-fiancée, Lia, has recently started appearing in his dreams, an unwilling participant in some kind of psychic link revisiting the fire that traumatized their shared childhood. In order to have any kind of support, Benjamin summons back to New York his estranged best friend Horatio, who fled home to London after his longtime crush on Benjamin culminated in a one-night-stand that neither of them knew how to deal with.

That’s already a lot, right? And that’s just the setup – the whole book spirals, like water around a drain, toward a gala event that Trudy and Claude Dane are hosting to celebrate their marriage / honor Jackson Dane’s contributions to his theater company. Benjamin is trying to find out whether his mother, uncle, or anyone else contributed to his father’s fatal overdose, while Horatio desperately tries to keep him alive and sane. Lia, on the other hand, has become caught up in the machinations of three enigmatic sisters and their (for lack of a better word) frenemy as they all seek to influence the outcome of the doomed gala. There are secrets and deceptions and half-truths GALORE that need to be unearthed before the book comes to its inevitable (but still surprising) conclusion.

Personally I thought that Faye knew exactly where to be faithful to the spirit of the original and where to deviate. For example, Lia’s role is a a great interpretation of the role of Ophelia, with certain improvements including rounding out her personality more and giving her more power over the narrative. For another, Horatio and Ben’s complicated platonic/romantic relationship seems to just make explicit what Shakespeare strongly implies in the original (depending on how you read it). In another important point, Faye also uses typeface and writing style to great effect in Ben’s chapters, moving the text around on the page in various ways to reflect his neurodivergence and unique experience of the world. If you’re into murder mysteries, modernized classic lit, and lush magical realism, you’ll probably love this book.

Online Reading Challenge – April Wrap-Up

Hello Challengers!

How did your reading go this month? I hope you found something interesting for our Jojo Moyes read-alike month. I hadn’t read anything by Moyes, so I choose one of her more popular titles, The Giver of Stars.

Taking place in the Appalachian Mountains of Kentucky, The Giver of Stars dramatizes the work of the WPA Packhorse Librarians of Kentucky which ran from 1935 to 1943. Hobbled by poverty, isolation and lack of resources, the people of this area had little access to reading material. The Packhorse Librarians brought books, newspapers and magazines to far flung mountain homes, facing difficult terrain, bad weather and suspicious landowners. Their hard work provides a fascinating backdrop to the stories and adventures of the people of this beautiful but unforgiving land.

The small town of Baileyville. Kentucky has been hit hard by the Great Depression. Coal mining has provided some jobs, but at great cost both to the miners and their families and to the land. Alice Van Cleve, recently arrived from England and newly married to the son of the mine owner, she finds it nearly impossible to fit in. When the call goes out for ladies to help run the newly established Packhorse library, she is quick to volunteer despite the objections of her conservative husband and father-in-law. Away from her overbearing family and loveless marriage,  Alice has more freedom and independence than she has ever known and grows to love the land and the people she serves.

Alice and the other library workers face many obstacles including a catastrophic flood, townspeople who try to shut down the library as “unChristian”, lack of funds and materials, wild animals and treacherous terrain. There’s some romance, some heartbreak and a murder mystery. Through it all, Alice and her library friends form an unbreakable bond, coming together to support and celebrate. I especially enjoyed reading about and was impressed by the hard work these women did and their dedication to their patrons and literacy.

Earlier in the month I mentioned that I had read The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Richardson a couple years ago. It is also about the Packhorse Librarians of Kentucky and was published just a few months before The Giver of Stars. At the time, there was some controversy that Moyes’ book had plagiarized  the earlier book. I didn’t feel that though – while both books center on the Packhorse Librarian program during the Great Depression, the characters and what happens to them are very different. Both are worth reading!

Now it’s your turn – what did you read in April?

Online Reading Challenge – March Wrap

 

Hello Challenge Readers!

How was your March reading? Did you find something wonderful to read? Hopefully not anything too creepy (unless that’s what you like!)

As I said before, I’m not too interested in reading about serial killers so I passed on those and went for a straightforward murder. (Nothing creepy about that, right? ha!) I decided to read A Better Man by Louise Penny, a book that had been gifted to me and wow, it was great!

A catastrophic flood, a missing woman and tensions at work greet Chief Inspector Armand Gamache when he returns to the Sûreté du Québec (the national police force in Quebec, Canada) after serving a suspension in the 15th installment of Louise Penny’s popular series.

Gamache has been demoted and now his former second-in-command Jean-Guy Beauvoir is temporarily his supervisor – as well as being his son-on-law. Gamache had been Beauvoir’s mentor and the two share a close bond complicated now by their change in position and the fact the Beauvoir and his wife (Gamache’s daughter) will soon be moving to Paris. In addition, heavy rain and a sudden thaw have caused ice jams on the many rivers of Quebec, threatening dangerous flooding and diverting all personnel to cope with the national emergency. Into this chaos a father reports that his daughter is missing – she had been repeatedly abused by her husband and was desperate to escape and now she cannot be found. The father appeals to Gamache’s love for his own daughter – what would you do if it was her? – and Gamache is drawn into a complicated, twisted, emotional mystery.

This is the first novel by Louise Penny that I’ve read and boy am I hooked now. Penny is a masterful writer, conjuring up a cast of colorful characters in a beautiful setting (I desperately want to go to Quebec now!). It’s not sugar-sweet idyllic because people are, well, people, full of messy emotions  and always managing to get themselves tangled up in one situation or another. The mystery is interesting, but the heart of the novel is Gamache, his calm, wise counsel, his brilliant mind, his love for his family and his staff. Now I’m well on my way to reading the entire series from the beginning!

Now it’s your turn – what did you read for March?