The Nature of the Beast (CBR11 #9)

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This is my first Inspector Gamache book without narrator Ralph Cosham. It took me a bit to get used to hearing Gamache’s voice in my head without the aid of Cosham, but after ten books Cosham is Gamache’s voice for me and once I got started it all worked itself out.

The tenth book, The Long Way Home, was a departure for both Penny and her characters and in some important ways this book is a return to form. We have at the core of this book a mystery set within the greater environs of Three Pines which opens even further the backstories of our favorite residents. But this is also a book that accepts the new status quo of the lives of Gamache, Beauvoir, and Clara.

I don’t fully know that I knew what to expect in this one, but I know that I wasn’t expecting Penny to dive into some truly horrendous baddies. There’s a serial killer haunting the periphery of the story and while other authors would use that to pile up the bodies Penny instead uses it to dig ever further into the whys of human nature. Why are we fascinated with what the serial killer did before the events of the novel, why would he kill so many, why is he resurfacing now, why is he still a threat from the SHU, and why is Gamache so afraid?

The serial killer isn’t even the main thrust of the mystery. Gamache is intent on enjoying his retirement with Reine-Marie in Three Pines, but that idyll is broken when the body of a young boy from town is discovered on the side of the road. An initial small, local search discovers things aren’t quite what they seem and something large and scary is found in the woods which brings in Chief Inspector Lacoste as well as the larger Canadian intelligence community. Three Pines is far from done uncovering her secrets.

I read an interview with Penny, and she nails what I love about these books. “[They] aren’t about murder; they’re about life and the choices that we make, and what happens to good people when such a harrowing event comes into their lives. It’s an exploration of human nature, I hope.” This book does that in spades, and while this book had to be returned over the Christmas holiday and I read it neatly in two halves I’m looking forward to book twelve, A Great Reckoning, and getting to read it all in one go.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read, where we read what we want, review it how we see fit (within a few guidelines), and raise money for the American Cancer Society in the name of a fallen friend.

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Lethal White (CBR11 #8)

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Fan Art cover to match previous in series.

It took me much longer to read this book than I thought it would. Sure, it’s a 22.5-hour audiobook and that’s a decent amount of listening time for something that absolutely could not be “background” noise listening – my brain had to be engaged – but I started this book nearly two months ago (although I did take a two-week break). Some of it had to do with the type of story Rowling is telling, there’s a lot of plot here. Some of it is also the layers of meaning she is including and the commentary on family, loyalty, fame, and pressure.

It’s not my favorite of the series, but it’s not my least favorite either (my favorite is Career of Evil despite its very violent nature) even though I found the mystery the least engaging of the four books so far. It has the potential for an interesting set up, Rowling takes on the political sphere, growing the world of Cormoran Strike  a little larger as she goes. The book picks up immediately where the previous one left off, satisfying the cliffhanger appropriately but painfully for those of us who hate Matthew with the fiery heat of a thousand suns. Then Rowling drop kicks us one year into the future where Strike and Robin are barely speaking to each other. The firm is doing well enough after the Shackleford Ripper case that they’ve been able to hire on contract investigators and slowly Robin and Strike have developed an icy gulf between them.

Billy Knight kicks off the story when he shows up in Strike’s office asking for help in ascertaining if he really did see a child murdered and buried near his home as a child. Unfortunately, Billy isn’t a reliable witness as he is deep into an episode and shows signs of living rough. Billy sticks with Strike though, and in the process of following up on Billy he meets his brother Jimmy, which in turn bring Strike int the orbit of Jasper Chiswell and the story is truly off to the races. The Chiswell family becomes the main focus and that family’s dynamics are complicated while also a bit stereotypical for fiction. There’s a gold digging younger wife, a disgraced youngest son, two loyal daughters, and the beloved dead eldest son.  Strike investigates Chiswell’s political enemies, and never lets the dead child out of his mind, wondering how it all ties in, chewing the details over and over.

I’m continually surprised with how much story Rowling tells, and I shouldn’t be anymore. The initial case Robin and Strike are hired for by Chiswell is over before the halfway point. Most authors would have wrapped things up in their narrative around this point and I wouldn’t be mad at them for doing so. There was already plenty of story to be had, but much like her other works Rowling slowly builds a world and then slowly unpacks the details, both of our two main characters and their personal lives, but also in the various characters who make up the cast of characters in this murder mystery. Because oh yes, there is a dead body and its demise must be solved.

Rowling is usually writing intricate mysteries where the clues are there in front of you, and even if you don’t catch the signs along the way, the resolution make sense after the big reveal.  This is generally the case this time but by the time the final revelations were made it also felt like the answers were overly convoluted. I felt vindicated when even Robin couldn’t seem to put together the slightly too many tangentially related clues.

But the characters are really and truly what make these books so enjoyable. They continue to feel like fully fleshed out people, whether we’ve known them for four books or they are brand new to us in this outing. Rowling is incredibly adept at giving life to her characters, and I feel as comfortable in this series as I did with the Potter books. Robin and Strike have rich internal lives that they don’t share with others and while it’s such a small detail in characterization, it has become incredibly important for establishing their unique rhythms. I wasn’t happy reading the decisions Robin was making regarding her relationship with Matthew, or what she was choosing to share or hide (she hid everything) but it all made sense in the context that Rowling had developed in the previous books: she spent three books showing how unhealthy, codependent relationships are incredibly subtle, persistent, and destructive.

So much of the novel is about relationships – Robin and her failing marriage, Strike and his girlfriend Lorelei, Strike and Charlotte, and how Robin and Strike react to each other in the aftermath of Robin’s wedding and each thinking the other is in a happy relationship.  There are multiple dysfunctional pairs of people peppered throughout, being foils for one another and yet another facet of the investigation for Strike to chew on. We also get more information about old secondary characters (Vanessa Akwenzi gets more fully fleshed out and we get updates on Nick and Ilsa, and an important few chapters with Strike’s nephew) as well as the new secondary characters, Barclay being a standout and I’m excited to see an interaction between him and Shanker in a future book, as this one was sorely lacking in Shanker (but the nature of the case precluded the kind of work Shanker is best at).

There is something else that stood out to me in the reading, something that was very obviously a sign post and left me wishing I had read more Ibsen, something I had not anticipated ever being the case. Rowling uses quotations from Henrik Ibsen’s play Rosmersholm at the beginning of each chapter in Lethal White. This is the very first time in any of the Strike novels that all the epigraphs came from a single source (although Career of Evil is all Blue Oyster Cult lyrics it isn’t quite the same thing). I did a little digging after I finished the novel, even though I was sorely tempted to do so before I finished, to double check my instinct. Rowling did indeed take the bones of Rosmersholm and send it through the blender of her creative mind and produce the narrative of Lethal White.

I won’t go point by point, there are others who have done extensive writing on the comparisons, but Rowling is continuing to play with metaliterary creations. The major plot points and locations in Lethal White are mirror images of things in Ibsen’s work, or are building off those ideas. I will say that it gave more meaning for me to the super injunction storyline, and the general fear of the press in this and the other Strike novels. Lethal White also shares imagery with Rosmersholm, the ubiquitous white horses and the hauntings of shared memory.  As an added bit of interesting trivia Rosmersholm is returning to the London stage this spring and starring Cannonball favorite Hayley Atwell and Tom Burke, who plays Strike in the television adaptation.

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Sometimes it’s a very small world.

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This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read, where we read what we want, review it how we see fit (within a few guidelines), and raise money for the American Cancer Society in the name of a fallen friend.

Last Rituals (CBR10 #56)

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Last Rituals is the first in series focusing on Thóra Guðmundsdóttir, Icelandic lawyer and divorced mother of two. We are introduced to Thóra following the discovery of the body of a young German student Harald Guntlieb at a university in Reykjavík, his eyes cut out and strange symbols carved into his chest. Police wasted no time in making an arrest, but the victim’s family isn’t convinced that they have the right person. They ask Thóra to investigate on the recommendation of her old professor and it isn’t long before the deceased’s obsession with Iceland’s grisly history of torture, execution, and witch hunts becomes entwined in Thóra and her partner’s research.

Beginning with a promising premise the book began to lag rather quickly. The plot in and of itself is interesting, but the narrative is structured in a way where there is virtually no suspense to keep the reader interested. The story also suffers from a lack of emotional intensity, there’s no sense of danger or excitement, with unnecessary attempts at trying to focus on the home life and opinions of Thóra aren’t successfully woven into the structure of the investigation.

For me, it was a fairly stilted and detail heavy novel. Based on the nature of the inquiry Thóra and Matthew are conducting the amount of detail thrown at the reader could have benefitted from some paring back, in many cases it just feels like an information dump. Last Rituals is essentially a straightforward recounting of the investigation of a macabre murder, but it is bogged down by wading through the intricacies of Harald’s research. As Thóra ploughs on through a wealth of documentation she uncovers more questions than answers. Which leads to one of my least favorite tropes – the slow and incomplete disclosure of information from Harald’s family particularly the significant revelations which are withheld and belatedly disclosed – it feels like a ruse to cloud the readers thinking and perhaps add a little excitement, which it doesn’t really accomplish if that was the goal.

This clearly well researched novel is unfortunately the antithesis of a page-turner, and for that reason this review probably reads harsher than my three star rating would indicate. I’m left with the feeling that Last Rituals requires a lot of effort from its readers for a fairly limited return. I am however hopeful that Thóra’s next job will involve topics with more general interest and less academic research (which in all honesty I was expecting to enjoy more – I find witchcraft quite interesting) and that Sigurdardottir leans more heavily into Thóra’s dry sense of humor.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read where we read what we want, review it how we see fit (within a few guidelines), and raise money for the American Cancer Society in the name of a fallen friend.

The Cuckoo’s Calling (CBR10 #27)

I don’t scorn rereading (see please, my Harry Potter reread), it just isn’t something I do often since I joined up with the Cannonball crowd back in 2012. It is sometimes very difficult to find new words to express a reaction to a book, and now that writing a review is part of my reading process I cannot skip a review. If I read a book… I’m reviewing it (with the exception of on book back in CBRV, but I still reviewed it on Goodreads).

So, why did I dive back into the world of Cormoran Strike? Several reasons, actually. I was longing for the world of these books, having spent 18 months away from them, I was willing the announcement of the publication date of book four, Lethal White, into existence (we got it!), and I had purchased the audio of the first book in the series, The Cuckoo’s Calling several months ago because I wanted to own the complete series as read by Robert Glenister. Which meant that I had spent money on a book that I had already read, so I should probably read it again to help justify to myself the purchase price (worth it).

So what is The Cuckoo’s Calling for the uninitiated? It’s a classic murder mystery in its style and delivery. Strike is an injured war hero, he’s just broken up with his mysterious fiancée after a long on and off again relationship, he’s the son of two famous people but eschews the spotlight for himself, and is dead broke. He’s hardened and grizzled, and he’s clever where others aren’t. He is also dogged and determined, and endearingly befuddled like all great investigators in fiction. Robin is the eager sidekick, super competent at all things, with agency: she has desires and wants and fears and ambitions that come to life over the course of the book and series. The victim is a gorgeous supermodel who apparently jumps to her death, but her grieving brother can’t accept how the case was closed and hires Strike to find out what really happened, and hopefully before their mother passes away from end stage cancer.

On the surface it would be easy to say that these books don’t share a lot thematically with the Harry Potter books, but I would disagree with that assertion. This is also a story where the unsuspecting forces of good battle to resist the forces of fear and hate. The characters of Robin and Cormoran are rediscovering themselves, unpacking who they can be and are in the pursuit of knowledge, of truth (how more Hermione can you be?). Additionally, the writing has a similar and familiar structure, Rowling’s style of writing flows easily; she uses plenty of adjectives and humor and is very good at putting you in the room with her characters. I’m watching along with the BBC miniseries as I reread, and it is so noticeable when the adaptation moves away from Rowling’s plotting – the character motivations are diminished. The adaption for the first book, which is three episodes, should have been enough time to lay the story arc out as Rowling wrote it, there was no need to move some plot points around or change the nuance of Guy.

But I digress. My complaint about this book when I read it back in 2015 was that the beginning was too slow, I no longer agree with that assessment. As I sat in my car listening to the world unfold I was happy to have the time Rowling puts into her worlds – she is not so much a builder as a suggester, but she does quite a bit of character and world building in the first quarter of the book before launching us, securely, into her better-than-average mystery. The series works on re-read (so far) on the strength of its characters and getting to spot the clues that Rowling left for us in plain sight.

My reread of this will continue in a few weeks, I’ve got a new shortened deadline to get these read again (although I know I have to wait a bit past publication for the audio version to be released).

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read, where we read what we want, review how we see fit (within a few guidelines), and raise money for the American Cancer Society in the name of a fallen friend.

 

One of Us is Lying (CBR10 #10)

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Five students walk into detention, they have little in common, other than that they were all caught with phones in class, and all five claim that they were framed and that the phones weren’t theirs. But only four walk out of that detention alive. Number five is dead and the other four all have motive and opportunity. Who is guilty? What really happened? That is the story which unfolds in One of Us is Lying.

However, it isn’t the only story that Karen McManus is telling. The book is told from the four perspectives of the suspects and the plot naturally expands from dealing exclusively with the murder to each character’s personal lives.  Here, instead of providing differing perspectives of the same scene, as many contemporary whodunits do the story lines simply separate as each character deals with the notoriety as well as the pressures after their deepest secrets are revealed.

We begin with each character in their stereotype: a princess, a jock, a brain, a criminal, and the self-described omniscient narrator.  But they don’t stay there, McManus builds these stereotypes out and deals with the pressure to succeed, having to survive on your own too young, coming to terms with your sexuality, dealing with unhealthy relationships, notoriety, mental illness, and addiction all get dealt with on the page, which makes it for an even more believable jaunt into a high school setting. It had its faults, but as a debut I can already see what McManus’s potential looks like and I’m cautiously excited in that regard.

I was able to piece together what really happened without too much difficulty, but that didn’t make it any less enjoyable. In fact I read this book in big gulps, it reads fast. I found myself absorbed in the goings on, interested in the various perspectives, and waiting (impatiently) for the next shoe to drop. The way that this book is structured it could translate to visual media quite easily, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we see it on the big screen or small screens via a streaming service limited series.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read where we read what we want, review it how we see fit (within a few guidelines), and raise money in the name of a fallen friend for the American Cancer Society.

The Hangman (CBR9 #18)

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A moment of fair warning: I did not enjoy this Gamache short story very much. However, I have come to find out that it was written for a good cause, and I feel a bit of an asshat for not enjoying it. Louise Penny wrote the book for an initiative put on by ABC Life Literacy Canada, which aims to increase life literacy skills. The Good Reads program specifically aims to have inexpensive and short books anyone learning English or English speakers learning to read later in life. For more information, Louise Penny has you covered.

So this book wasn’t for me, and if I had done a little more research I would have known that before diving in, but I have an Armand Gamache problem, so I probably would have read this anyway. I love him. I’m also a completest. C’est la vie.

This novella sees Gamache and Beauvoir back in Three Pines following the events of Bury Your Dead. There’s been a man found hanging from a tree. The man was a guest at the Gilbert’s Inn and in quick order the medical examiner and Gamache agree that this man did not commit suicide, but was instead murdered. Gamache and Beauvoir gather the evidence to determine who killed this man, and why.

While I was reading, I had the distinct impression that this story was not fully formed. It was, it has all the requisite pieces and plot points, but it felt underdone to use a baking metaphor. It makes sense looking back as to why this would be, but I have to say I prefer my Gamache books to be a fully cooked and prepared banquet.

On to book number 7, A Trick of the Light. Soonish.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read. 

Bury Your Dead (CBR9 #6)

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Often it can be difficult to review a book in the middle of the series, particularly on the first read through. I don’t know, for example, what will happen to the characters in this story as the next 6 novels progress, I only know that they exist.

This means that I can only trace the works as they culminate in this book, Bury Your Dead. Bury Your Dead is, however, not a book which can stand alone: it is tied inextricably to its predecessor The Brutal Telling. I will have to spoil that book in order to discuss this one, so after the next paragraph, SPOILERS can be found.

I listen to these on audio, since Ralph Cosham was the perfect pair to the material.  I cannot recommend highly enough that you take this series on if you enjoy classic mystery novels. In an interview at the tail end of the recording Penny discusses the adventure of creating these books and building the community of Three Pines, the characters who inhabit it, and those who come to visit. She speaks earnestly about creating characters true to life, and not caricatures. I was also pleasantly excited to hear her discuss these books as not being cozies, which I certainly didn’t think they were. Penny is an author with a good idea, the character of Inspector Gamache, and she is dedicated to exploring all the stories that build out the person he is, and the various facets of a personality.

Spoilery zone.

Penny uses a new layout for her arsenal to tell three stories simultaneously. We work forward in time with two, and backwards

Of the two plots which work in forward time, the first links with the end of The Brutal Telling. Gamache and company arrested Olivier for the murder of the hermit. Olivier has told too many lies, and while Gamache has built and the prosecutors have won the case against him and he is in jail. Bury Your Dead picks up over a year later, with Olivier in prison and his partner Gabriel writing Gamache a letter every day, enclosing his favorite candy and a handwritten note with one question  “why would Olivier move the body if he committed the murder?”. Gamache is unsure about his findings following another tramatic event, and deploys Beauvoir to build the case as if Olivier is innocent.

The plot which unfolds in reverse order, with a touch of nonlinear storytelling deployed, is that of how Gamache and Beauvoir came to be recovering from nearly catastrophic injuries and the discovery of who kidnapped Agent Moran.  The final thread is that of the investigation of a murder in Quebec which Gamache finds himself pulled into as he finishes his convalescence at his former chief’s home.

Other than time this various strings would not necessarily be bound together, and the novel could certainly be read on a surface level where you do not unpack anything further. I am occasionally guilty of doing just that with the Inspector Gamache books. However, the struggle to face our shortcomings, and our fears, and our mistakes its linked across every facet of this novel. Penny continues to tell us stories about art, food, and death as well as meditations on the human condition.

This book, and the next A Trick of the Light, was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.