Tuesday, November 29, 2022

A World of Curiosities (Armand Gamach #18) by Louise Penny: Reading Room Review


“He held the younger man’s eyes, inviting him to set aside for a moment the great brutality that existed and to remember the acts of greater courage.  Of integrity and decency.  Of self-control.  Of forgiveness.”


I have to confess that the beginning of A World of Curiosities was a hard read for me.  The subject matter of the child abuse, sexual abuse, distresses me.  I was tempted to quit reading, but it came down to a matter of faith in Louise Penny’s stories, in her ability to tell the horror of something with hope, of making the look at evil have meaning.  I knew she had something important to tell me, and it’s the repercussions of the abuse that figure into the story.  It’s not a book focusing on the abuse or even describing the abuse.  Only the evidence that something had occurred is there, not the occurrence.  So, I continued to read, and it won’t surprise anyone who has read this book or read any of Louise’s books that I made the right decision.  Louise Penny digs deep into the darkness to shine a light on it, exposing it and knowing it can’t be ignored, just as she has created Armand Gamache to do.   

What so many Chief Inspector Gamache fans will be very happy with is that we finally get a front row seat to Armand Gamache finding Jean Guy Beauvoir in the basement of a Surrette detachment station and bringing him into the light of day and the heart of an investigation.  (Nobody uses dark and light better than Louise Penny.)  Their first meeting could have easily been the last, but Gamache sees past  Beauvoir’s surly behavior, at his observational skills and passion to get things right.  Inspector Gamache has been called from Montreal to a desolate place where Lac Plongeon sits, hours northeast of Montreal.  A dead woman has been discovered in a shallow part of the lake, who carries pictures of herself and her two children in her wallet.  The identification is easy due to a driver’s license and her reputation around the small town as a prostitute. Delivering the news of her death to Clotilde Arsenault ‘s children, Fiona, 13, and Sam, 9, Gamache discovers that the children have been left alone for the few days after their mother was reported missing, and he is outraged by this oversight of the surette officer in charge at the detachment station.  This oversight is only the first and least of the outrages Gamache and his team will uncover in this case and at the detachment.  By the end of this visit to the past, Jean Guy Beauvoir has become a member of the homicide team out of Montreal.    


“It seemed like a coincidence, but in Gamache’s experience, almost everything that happened was the end result of a series of apparently unconnected events.  Often set in motion years earlier.  Remove one, and the thing did not happen.”


Repercussions and reverberations.  Interspersed into the narrative about Gamache’s and Beauvoir’s first case together is the current timeline.  We join Armand and Reine-Marie Gamache as they prepare to attend a graduation ceremony of some personal significance in Montreal at the École Polytechnique, an engineering school.  Fiona Arsenault, the girl who was one of the two abused children in the pivotal case for Gamache and Beauvoir, has earned her engineering degree.  It is due to Armand Gamache’s intervention that Fiona Arsenault has been able to attend the classes and obtain her degree.  Armand and Reine-Marie have served as sponsors for her and are happy to see this day arrive.  Harriet Landry, the niece of Three Pines’ bookstore owner and former psychologist, Myrna Landry, is also graduating this day. 

Another person being honored this graduation is a special friend of Armand’s, Nathalie Provost, who, thanks to Armand, survived the Montreal Massacre, where fourteen women were killed and thirteen women were injured at this school, a tragedy born from the malevolence of misogyny.  It was the day that Armand Gamache decided to make homicide his path of service in the Sûreté du Québec.  It’s an emotional day, but a day to celebrate, and Three Pines is doing so with a community-wide party. 

Unfortunately, Sam Arsenault, Fiona’s younger brother shows up for the graduation and for a stay-over in Three Pines, which concerns Gamache.  Gamache has seen the evil emanating from Sam Arsenault as a child, and as a young man, he hasn’t changed.  Sam appears charming to others, but Gamache had him pegged when encountering Sam that first time.  Sam knows this and hates Gamache for it.  Seeing Sam again after all the years since his mother’s murder, brings sharply into focus how that level of malevolence works its way past Gamache’s barriers in his mind and preys upon him.  Only Sam and the serial killer John Fleming have been able to get inside Gamache’s head.

Things are about to get twisted in Three Pines.  Myrna and her significant other Billy would like to move in together, so they are looking to either move from her bookstore or miraculously make more space there.  A letter from Billy’s stonemason ancestor that comes into Billy’s possession reveals another room in Myrna’s house/bookstore, a room that has been bricked up since 1862.  Upon opening this space, a huge painting greets those present, a copy of the famous Paston Treasure, also known as A World of Curiosities, with its many depictions of objects found in the time of the 1800s when it was painted.  However, this modern copy of the painting includes items found in current times.  As murder and other unsavory events start to occur, the painting is studied by Gamache and his team, as connections between objects in the painting and events emerge.  A deadly game is underway, and no one has more to lose than Chief Inspector Armand Gamache.   

No review would be complete without comments about the characters whom we readers of this series have come to love over 18 books.  Fans of this series know that the characters are second to none in their development and reader investment.  They have become friends, those friends whom we don’t see every day, but when we see them again, we pick up right where we left off.  Armand, Jean Guy, Reine-Marie, Annie, Ruth, Clara, Myrna, Gabri, Olivier, Isabelle, and Billy, share their thoughts and emotions with us, and we are buoyed by the community attachments they’ve all formed.  Even crotchety old Ruth with her cursing duck inspires us.  Of course, Ruth’s poetry quoted throughout the book and often by Gamache is moving and memorable.  Technically, Jean Guy and Annie and their children and Isabelle don’t live in Three Pines, but the people who do live there readily adopt them as their own. The magic of Three Pines is the characters who “All having discovered a village only ever found by people lost” gain strength from each other and discover the best of themselves.  And, as we read the heart-warming scenes of the meals they share at one another’s homes in Three Pines, we gain strength from such, too.   

The newest character to Gamache’s homicide team is Amelia Choquet, who readers first encountered in A Great Reckoning (#12) where she was an unlikely cadet in the Sûreté Academy.  Amelia is still tattooed and unconventional, but she has shed the anger which consumed her then and become a trusted member of the team.  Armand Gamache is a great giver of second chances, and he has once again struck it rich with Amelia Choquet.  Louise Penny is purposeful in showing the value of people who might otherwise be discarded by society.  Hopefully, readers carry that message into life with them.

A World of Curiosities is a story of increasing danger to Gamache and his family, both those related and others in his circle of care.  It is a journey of frayed nerves and horror-filled expectations.  A World of Curiosities is by far the most suspenseful book I’ve read this year, and it goes to top of my list now when recommending suspense reading.  Edge of the seat sounds so trite, but that phrase seems to have been made for this book.  The nefarious, twisted forces trying to destroy Gamache have no boundaries of evil, and the worst seems inevitable. Tears will likely be waiting to spring. This may be Louise Penny’s best book yet, and with seventeen previous solid-gold hits, that’s saying something.


Thanks to Minotaur Books for an advanced copy of A World of Curiosities.      


Wednesday, November 23, 2022

Still Waters (FBI K-9 series) by Sara Driscoll: Reading Room Review


Every time I read a book in Sara Driscoll’s F.B.I. K-9 series I fall completely into the world of its story.  I am all in, trying to keep pace in a high action story where danger is never far away.  The combination of human handlers and their canine partners is thrilling to see, or read about, in how it works.  The trust between them is essential, and it pays off in saving lives.  Meg Jennings and her Labrador, Hawk, are part of the FBI’s Human Scent and Evidence Team out of Washington, D.C.  Meg and Hawk partner up with Brian Foster and his canine, Lacey, in search and rescue efforts.  They are called in to find survivors in large- and small-scale cases.  Hawk and Lacey are not cadaver dogs, those that search for the dead, but it can turn out that a search and rescue ends up in a body recovery status.  Time is always a crucial element in the team’s work, and in reading this series, you feel the urgency of the searches.

Still Waters takes Meg and Hawk and Brian and Lacey to the wild terrain of the Boundary Waters National Forest  in Minnesota, more specifically to the waters of Lake Superior which are part of the area.  Always wanting their dogs to be at the top of their game, Meg and Brian have signed up for a water skills training competition.  While Hawk and Lacy are both unbeatable in their land skills, the water training is new, as is the searching for something dead.  The training is the most important aspect of the weekend, but the two handlers also would love for their K-9 partners to excel in the competition part. 

Along for the trip is Todd Webb, Meg’s paramedic/firefighter boyfriend, and his two firefighter brothers.  Also accompanying the group for their big camp-out is Ryan, Brian’s husband.  Todd has assured Meg that she will love the camping experience, with meals prepared by him and his brothers and an air mattress that she can get a great night’s rest on.  It seems like the setup for a perfect weekend of spending time with her amazing K-9 partner and a group of great friends.  Well, maybe not so perfect.

Both Meg, with Hawk, and Brian, with Lacey, have top results in the first day’s training, with the dogs being able to locate cadaver tissue in tubes down in the water while in a boat.  However, when it comes time for the land to water trials, the competition part, Hawk seems to get confused at one point on the trail, which is completely unlike him.  Lacey leads Brian to what he thinks is the top time, but when times are announced, another handler is named in first place.  Brian is sure he timed himself correctly, but the judge of the competition rules against him.  Something seems off in this competition right awy.  The winner of the first day’s trail is Rita Pratt from the Laramie Sheriff’s Department in Wyoming.  She is an arrogant, hostile person, unlike other handlers Meg has met.  Meg has to step in when Pratt is berating another handler to keep the dogs from becoming agitated.  Meg’s interference is not appreciated.  Meg has another encounter with Pratt that evening, which will have serious consequences for Meg, maybe even causing Hawk to be taken away from her.                      

Pratt is discovered dead the next day when during the training session, Hawk sniffs out human remains in the water, after already finding the cadaver tissue hidden by the training crew.  The F.B.I. agent who arrives to investigate the suspicious death focuses on Meg as the lead suspect, after hearing about her dust-ups with Pratt and that Meg’s dog found the body in a complex search area.  It becomes apparent that Meg is going to need help beyond her supporters already there.  A call to Clay McCord, her sister Cara’s boyfriend, who is an investigative reporter for the Washington Post and a call to her supervisor, Craig Beaumont assures that she will have the best people working on proving her innocence, as both men head to Meg's training location.  There have been strange reactions from people concerning Pratt all weekend, but, unfortunately, Meg’s interactions are the ones most visible.  The time is short and the facts are slippery in trying to ensure Meg doesn’t lose her freedom and her dog.  And, Pratt’s death won’t be the only murder that weekend.

Still Waters incorporates all the successful elements of the past six books in this FBI K-9 series.  The high energy of the humans and dogs working together in a clock-driven suspense plot.  The bonds between humans and dogs and between humans and humans that mean the difference between life and death.  The sense of community in the world of Meg Jennings, including her co-workers, her boyfriend, her family, and her friends.  The settings which are different in each story, and in this story are a fascinating character on their own.  The information woven throughout the story about how search-and-rescue dogs and their owners work.  The story that always deals with something new, something you probably haven’t read about before.  Writing that flows smoothly and puts the reader in the setting, in the situation, and in the lives of the characters.  All these elements combine for a story not to be missed.  Still Waters is one of my favorite reads this year in one of my favorite series every year.


Full Disclosure.  I received an advanced copy of Still Waters from the author for review.  I enjoyed it so much, I plan on buying a hard copy, too.

Saturday, November 19, 2022

The Bullet That Missed (Thursday Murder Club #3) by Richard Osman: Reading Room Review


The Bullet That Missed by Richard Osman is right on target as another exceptional book in the Thursday Murder Club series.  I am so thrilled with this unique series that celebrates the knowledge and skills of the older population.  Only horses should be put out to pasture, not people who are still vital and capable of contributing.  Richard Osman has given us a group of the most delightfully irrepressible seniors who engage in the solving of murders and leave the naysayers in the dust. Elizabeth Best and Joyce Meadowcroft and Ibrahim Arif and Ron Ritchie are the Mod Squad of the retirement set.  The Thursday Murder Club that meets every Thursday at Cooper’s Chase, a lovely upscale retirement village, is dedicated to solving cold case murders, providing excitement, albeit often dangerous, to the clever septuagenarians and bringing closure to victims’ loved ones.  It’s not a macabre hobby that the group has; they truly care that justice is served.  We know that murder is a serious business, but the humor injected into these stories is brilliantly done by Osman.  It’s often the deadpan humor of Elizabeth or Joyce, with its wit and straightforwardness, that has me smiling the most.

The Thursday Murder Club has a new cold case they are starting to work on.  Joyce directed their attention to this particular cold case because the victim worked alongside TV news personality Mike Waghorn on “South East Tonight,” and Joyce would like to meet him.  The disappearance of Bethany Waite ten years ago has never been solved due partly to a body never having been discovered.  Her car was found after it went off a cliff, but Bethany was gone, dead or alive, and the evidence led toward dead.  There was a story she was working on at the time of her disappearance, a huge VAT fraud involving mobile phones that had put millions in the pockets of at least two people.  Some attributed her death to suicide, but lack of a body doesn’t support that, and it’s more likely interfering with a criminal enterprise doomed her.  After the group interviewing Mike Waghorn, he and his makeup artist Pauline Jenkins join the Thursday Murder Club members to look for answers about Bethany’s fate. 

As I mentioned Elizabeth is a former spy, a world renowned one back in the day, and it is through her fame in that world that she becomes a target for a wealthy money launderer.  He has someone he wants Elizabeth to kill, and if she refuses, Elizabeth and her friend Joyce will die.  Well, Elizabeth is nothing if not calm and cool under pressure, even when she learns the mark is an old friend in the spy business. She formulates a plan to deal with this threat, while keeping her eye on the current project of uncovering the truth about Bethany Waite.  Her plan for this looming problem is to trick “The Viking,” the name Elizabeth has given him, but he proves he is a more formidable and intelligent force than Elizabeth had presumed.  However, “The Viking,” does not really have his heart in killing, so there may be hope for a solution after all. 

These books are clearly character driven with the most delightful, unconventional characters at the wheel.  Their quirkiness is part of their charm, and their ages make them the perfect sleuths to be ignored by the bad guys.  Being invisible is, of course, just one of their superpowers.  Their intelligence and strategic skills are never to be doubted.  Ibrahim, a retired psychiatrist and Elizabeth, former MI5 operative, are a bit more intellectual in their manner, but Joyce, a retired nurse, has plenty of smarts simmering on-call, and Ron didn’t run a union without knowing how to get things done.  There is a fantastic supporting cast, too, that includes Bogdan Jankowski, a Polish emigrant, who is a handyman extraordinaire; PC Donna De Freitas and DCI Chris Hudson, local police partners who have become friends as well as cohorts of the Thursday Murder Club members; Elizabeth’s husband, Stephen, who is in the clutches of dementia.  Newcomers in The Bullet That Missed are Victor Illyich, Elizabeth’s former KGB friend, and The Viking, who loves books and proves to be quite entertaining.  One of my favorite scenes in the book is when The Viking and Joyce meet at Joyce’s apartment and what ensues. The British dry humor that readers encounter in the characters’ thoughts and speech gives comic relief at all the right places.

There is romance in this story, too, some of it new. Donna and Bogdan have found one another to be quite compatible, in all ways.  Donna’s mother, Patrice De Freitas, is still in a relationship with Donna’s police partner, DCI Chris Hudson.  And, Ron is happily surprised that makeup artist Pauline has taken an interest in him.  Of course, Elizabeth is devoted to her husband Stephen, who suffers from dementia, and it’s both heartwarming and heartbreaking to follow her attempts to shield him from his decline.  Joyce’s great love in her life is her husband who passed some years ago, and while she doesn’t dwell on it, we know how deep their love was.  No overbearing message here, but a gentle reminder that love is for the old as well as the young.  Of course, romance within this crew lends itself to some humor, too, and when Ron’s new girlfriend Pauline takes him to the spa, be prepared to absolutely laugh out loud.   

The pace of The Bullet That Missed never drags. The action flows seamlessly along a path of continuing momentum, working up to the finale.  The only problem is that it does end.  I am so enthralled with the characters and situations they get themselves into that I truly want it to be the never-ending story.  It’s a rare murder mystery that will keep one smiling throughout the whole book, but this book and this series have the witty dialogue and plots that accomplish the balance of danger and levity.  Yes, there are plenty of serious moments, but the love that the characters have for one another and the friendships that outshine any fears give readers a sense of well-being from beginning to end.  I think The Bullet That Missed is my favorite of the three books so far, but I would gladly read all three again and love them all.  So, I don’t just recommend The Bullet That Missed, I wish it for you as a read and feeling you deserve to experience.