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. 

Big Little Lies (CBR9 #5)

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Cannonballers love Liane Moriarty, and they really love Big Little Lies. I could no longer hold out against the deluge of positive reviews and the upcoming HBO series produced by Reese Witherspoon who has a history of putting her money behind female driven projects.

Hot take: It is quite good, but I was able to call all the big twists save one. Read it before the HBO series arrives in late February if you want to be a smug book reader.

More in depth review to make MsWas happy:

Big Little Lies is told from the point of view of three different characters, all moms to the incoming kindergarten class: Madeline, Celeste, and Jane. Each is at a different place in her life, a different stage, and each has a BIG thing they are dealing with during school year.  Big Little Lies is also, however, a carefully plotted look at bullying amongst children and adults. Finally, Big Little Lies is mystery about the unraveling of a death at a school function.

It doesn’t sound as good in blurb form as it is in execution, no matter how much I play with it.

The characters, even the ones who only appear in end of chapter pull quotes from the interviews (and what an awesome way to include further character point of views and conflicting information), are all designed to pull you in, and they do the trick. In theory I shouldn’t have wanted to skip other things I’m doing in order to work through 460 pages of bullying, domestic violence, divorce and second family politics, but I did.

As I said above, I really enjoyed this book, and the workmanship Moriarty has on display in it. I’m going to leave off here, and keep this review rather vague, because I want you (for the dozens who still haven’t read it) to go in clean, like Station Eleven, I feel like that’s the best plan.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read which raises money for the American Cancer Society and enjoys saying FUCK YOU to cancer.

The Brutal Telling (CBR8 #64)

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My chief complaint when I read A Rule Against Murder this summer was that while it was an Inspector Armand Gamache novel with all that entails, and it featured some of the characters who populate Three Pines, the book was not set there and I felt the lack of the world that Louise Penny had spent three books crafting. Well, in book five I got my wish to return to Three Pines, and Penny makes the reader pay mightily for the return.

Mild spoilers for the book and series, I suppose, from this point forward.

Louise Penny crafts incredible prose. I have chosen to listen to the Ralph Cosham read audiobooks for as long as they last (through book 10, I believe) and sometimes while listening I actually lose track of the plot threads because my brain is busy savoring the way the words are put together. The way Penny uses language to describe art, music, and food is simply sumptuous. It is by far the best part of the books, followed closely by the character of Armand Gamache himself.

At the end of book three, The Cruelest Month, the Arnot case has been put to rest and we are left with Gamache in what is perhaps his first time truly being post-Arnot. The books move away from the inner workings and conspiracies of the Sûreté du Québec, and instead focus on the solving of the crimes at hand. I find myself missing that side of the narrative as books four and five have narrowed their focus to the cases at hand. There is some expansion of the story of the residents of Three Pines, specifically the Morrows, but it takes a back seat to the mystery.

In The Brutal Telling Gamache is called in when a body is found at Olivier’s bistro. From the beginning the reader knows that Olivier knew the dead man, whose name we do not know, while Gamache does not. Over the course of the book we watch Gamache, with his team of Beauvoir and Lacoste, and the new man Moran, piece together the seeming impossible mystery of the hermit, his cabin filled with unspeakable treasures, and who moved his body after his death, not to mention who actually murdered him.

At the end of the book I’m not sure the man who was found guilty of the crime of manslaughter actually did it, and there are plenty of characters in the book who agree with me, perhaps even Gamache. It’s interesting to watch a character we trust implicitly, Gamache, have no choice but to follow the evidence where it leads, even if it means arresting someone he considers a friend.

This book wasn’t perfect, there was a decidedly ridiculous portion of time where highly esteemed cryptographer doesn’t just do a very simple check to solve a code, and when the thing is solved it matters not to the overall case, it felt like a needless eddy in a book full of interesting eddies. There is also the problem of the case left seemingly dangling. My personal plan for these books is to read them in the time of year they are set, which means I won’t be reading Bury Your Dead until January and that is a long time to wait to find out what happens to Three Pines with one of its own in jail, and Inspector Gamache left with an unsatisfying conclusion to this case.

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

The Cruelest Month (CBR8 #27)

Last year I double cannonballed with the second Inspector Gamache book, A Fatal Grace. It grew naturally from its predecessor, Still Life, and expanded the universe of the Sûreté du Québec and the various residents of Three Pines and its surrounding area in the Eastern Townships. Having decided that I enjoy consuming these books in the time of year in which they are set, I knew that I would be listening to The Cruelest Month this April. I can  report I’m as happy with this series as ever.

In an effort not to spoil the book (which is difficult in the case of Louise Penny’s books as everything is carefully interconnected) I’ll proceed with a quick summary, and then talk about a couple of topics related to the book and call this review done.

The Cruelest Month takes place surrounding the Easter holiday. A group of friends and neighbors (including some favorites from previous books) holds a séance at the old Hadley house, hoping to rid it of the evil spirits that have haunted it, and the village, for decades. One of them ends up dead, apparently of fright. Chief Inspector Armand Gamache and his team from the Sûreté du Québec investigate the old house and the villagers of Three Pines to track the identity of the murderer and the manner of the death. Simultaneous to that, Armand Gamache’s leadership of the investigation of this case forces him to face his personal ghosts of the terrible case which derailed his career and cost him friendships.

Louise Penny’s writing, as delivered by the inestimable Ralph Cosham, is simply sublime. Penny weaves in meditations on life, love, friendship, and hope – all while her characters most base inner motivations are on display. As we are offered view into everyone’s darkest side we are left to wonder at whodunit. I find myself more and more interested in Penny’s writing on the life of the people while the mystery takes a back seat. But that doesn’t mean the Penny writes a poor mystery, the very opposite is true.

The Inspector Gamache books are prime examples of the whodunit detective genre. These books, particularly of the British variety, include murders by unconventional means, bucolic villages, large casts of suspects, red herrings, and a dramatic disclosure of the murderer in the last few pages of the book: checks all around for The Cruelest Month. It also allows the reader time to think through the logic, or lack thereof, of various possibilities and deduce their own conclusions – and in the case of this book we have both the murder in Three Pines, and the growing tension for Gamache surrounding the Arnot case. With all these moving parts coming together Louise Penny delivers a book well worth your time. It is imperative, however, that you start with book one.

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

The Silkworm (CBR8 #3)

This one is a boon for me, a book I was intending to read anyway fulfills a Read Harder challenge as well. Task 9 was to listen to an audiobook which has won an Audie Award. The Silkworm won the 2015 Audie for Mystery. I believe Robert Glenister absolutely earned his prize, but he was aided by the literary prowess of Rowling as Galbraith.

The Silkworm is the second book in the Cormoran Strike series. Cormoran, a hero and disabled veteran in Afghanistan who was once in the Special Investigative Division and is now a Private Investigator of some repute following the events of the first book in the series, The Cuckoo’s Calling,  takes on the case of the missing author Owen Quine. But things quickly escalate as at first, Mrs. Quine just thinks her husband has gone off by himself for a few days, which is not out of character. But as Strike investigates, he discovers that there is more to Quine’s disappearance. Quine had just turned in a manuscript featuring toxic pen-portraits of almost everyone he knows and if the novel were to be published, it would ruin lives. When Quine is found brutally murdered under bizarre circumstances, Cormoran and his partner Robin must race against time to understand the motivation of a ruthless killer, and free an innocent person from jail.

The thought that kept occurring to me while listening to this story is that I’m continually surprised with how much story Rowling has to tell. Most authors would have wrapped things up in their narrative much earlier in the plotting. And, I wouldn’t be made at them for doing so. But much like her other works Rowling builds a world and then only slowly unpacks the details. There are layers upon layers of detail 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. There are easily three stories taking place at the same time (which helps explain the 17 and a half hour listening time) but Rowling has them balanced near perfectly.

So, why only four stars? I don’t know. While this book was certainly mastercrafted, and I am even more invested than I was with The Cuckoo’s Calling, I just don’t feel it was perfect. Maybe Career of Evil will be the book to earn five stars from me in this series, The Silkworm earned a full star higher than its predecessor.

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