A mystery within a mystery to watch for!

  • Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz (Harper, US release June 2017)
  • In 40 words or less: A London editor receives a mystery manuscript just as the author falls to his death. Despite her antipathy towards the author, Susan Ryeland is committed to finding the missing chapters and the real cause of Alan Conway’s death. Horowitz’s literary allusions and adroit wordplay make this a true joy.
  • Genre: Mystery
  • Locale: London and environs
  • Time: Contemporary
  • I’m a sucker for British whodunits. Horowitz is known to PBS viewers for his teleplays, Midsomer Murders and Foyle’s War. Magpie Murders pays homage to the great mystery writers and detectives with more than a little tongue-in-cheek. Horowitz’s literary allusions and adroit wordplay make this a true joy and a great choice to take anywhere this summer.

For some reason, British murder mysteries seemed so much more civilized than their American counterparts. Even when one victim’s head is removed by the sword from the suit of armor in the manor hall – rather hard to believe. It’s the air of gentility, found more often in those who have suffered reverses than those on the rise, and generations of community connections despite differing social strata. Villages are traversed by walking or biking, and city dwellers live in lovely row houses or quaint flats. All of these elements, plus the necessary school ties, are present in Magpie Murders. Rather than feeling trite, it is entertaining to see how Horowitz manages to bring all these elements together, stringing out the clues bit by bit.

It’s not a great surprise that Alan Conway, author and murder victim, is disliked by many who know him. He is the ticket to his small publishing house’s success as both his publisher and editor realize. Just as his latest manuscript in about to be delivered, Conway comes to London for a dinner with the publisher at a private club. Unfortunately, all does not go smoothly. So after the incomplete manuscript appears and Conway dies, his editor is highly motivated to find the missing conclusion and the answers. She soon learns that Conway’s final mystery has far too many parallels with the leads she is following.

Dan, my very supportive husband, often wonders how there can still be people in Britain given the number of poisonings, falls, stabbings and hunting accidents that occur under suspicious circumstances. Somehow the bucolic settings make crime seem oh, so different, from the flashing lights and screaming sirens of American crime stories. Crime is intensely personal and localized, motives deep-seated and clear.

For fans of classic British mysteries, there is so much to like. Horowitz is reveling in each allusion he scores and inside publishing barb he plants. If you are intrigued, this is your June read.  It is coming out next week, just in time to take along wherever you go this summer.

Sharing books with Mom

Regardless of where you sit on the family tree, there is likely a mother (daughter, sister,  in-law, or you) in your life that is deserving of recognition. Just as I’ve shared suggestions of books for Dad in the past, mothers should have equal time.

For Mother’s Day, you want to give (or get) just the right thing.  One thing likely has not changed from the days when a handmade macaroni necklace was perfect – it’s the thought you put into it that counts. There are more pluses to giving books than the obvious reasons.

When you select a book you are opening a conversation. Are you giving a book you’ve enjoyed or one that reminds you of a shared experience? Is it by Mom’s favorite author or takes place in a city she loves? Whether it becomes her new favorite or not, talking books is usually interesting, often more so if you disagree about merits of a title.

Before I give some of my picks, I’d suggest you think about those titles that you’d read again, either because they entertained or informed you. They may be a perfect choice for gift giving. Please share your picks in the comments.

Here are some titles and authors my mother may see if she hasn’t already. Titles with links have my reviews:

  • Helen Simonson’s  The Summer Before the War or Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand. Two novels of English small town life with endearing characters, the first WWI-era and the second contemporary.
  • The Girls of Atomic City is a fascinating look at the integral secret role women played in the development of the atomic bomb. Oak Ridge was created almost overnight from nothing and was at the forefront of research (and social engineering) during the latter days of WWII. By Denise Kiernan.
  • Geraldine Brooks really does have something for every Mom! My favorites are Year of Wonders, a fictional account of a real community that isolated itself during the plague, and Foreign Correspondence, her memoir of her beginnings as an Australian schoolgirl whose pen pals set the stage for her career as a journalist and author. March and People of the Book are also great choices!
  • Israeli novels in translation are a favorite of mine. Three picks are The English Teacher by Yiftach Reicher Atir, a novel about the high personal price of life in the intelligence service, and The Hilltop by Assaf Gavron, a contemporary story of the complexities and absurdities of life in an Israeli settlement. Lastly, The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem by Sarit Yishai-Levi is a novel about life in Palestine/Israel at the end of WWII and the beginnings of the State told in the rare voices of generations of a Sephardi family. This view has made it a huge bestseller in Israel. My review will appear soon.
  • Three very different historical fiction stories of strong women are The Girl Who Wrote in Silk by Kelli Estes (19th/21st century), The Pearl that Broke Its Shell by Nadia Hashimi (20th/21st century), and The Widow’s War by Sally Gunning (18th century).
  • Start her on Louise Penny’s Three Pines/Inspector Gamache mysteries and she will have books to keep her busy for months. A Great Reckoning was just released in paperback, or start at the beginning with Still Life. Rich characters that deal with life’s big issues in a setting you wish you could visit. There are many reasons her fan base is so loyal.
  • Perla, Carolina deRobertis’s magical novel about seeking identity during Argentina’s “Dirty War” will send her searching for information about the Madres de Plaza de Mayo, the women who demonstrated and sought out information about their children and grandchildren “disappeared” by the government.
  • For something totally unexpected, share one of these stories about the American West immediately after the Civil War. News of the World is a beautiful small book by Paulette Jiles about a newsreader and a young girl rescued from Indian captors. EpitaphMary Doria Russell’s novel about the legendary Earp brothers and Doc Holliday, has just been optioned for a movie. I’d stand in line to see either on the screen.
  • Speaking of the screen, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Smoot and The Zookeeper’s Wife by Diane Ackerman are wonderful nonfiction titles have been adapted recently.
  • I love Venice and I’m a sucker for detective stories. Donna Leon’s Commissario Brunetti keeps me coming back to explore that wondrous city. There are now 26 titles in the series. While the principals have aged some since the beginning, it is not critical to read them in order.
  • If you, or the mother in your life, enjoys short stories, travel, and mysteries, check out the Akashic Noir series of titles. There are books for cities from Baltimore to Belfast to Beirut and beyond, each with stories written by local authors.
  • Finally, some “drop everything and read” titles that are perfect for getting away. Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney is a new gem, based in part on the life of the top female advertising copywriter in the first half of the 20th century. The Truth According to Us is Annie Barrow’s story of long-held family secrets wrapped up with lots of information about the National Writer’s Project which employed writers to tell the histories of small-town America during the Depression. Before Me Before You, Jojo Moyes penned The Girl You Left Behind, a novel of life in the French countryside during WWI, a painting, and questions of its ownership almost a century later.

This lengthy listing barely touches on the possibilities. I specifically avoided WWII/Holocaust historical fiction. There are many, many wonderful and well-promoted books in this genre. Cookbooks and food memoirs with rich stories would be great for foodies but they are specific to individual tastes (excuse the pun!) Short story collections are making a big comeback, as are narrative nonfiction titles. While a few biographies or memoirs have been included, an entire list could be made of this genre. Still looking for something else? There are many recommendations on the website.

‘A Great Reckoning’ is another reason to love Louise Penny

  • Unknown-3A Great Reckoning by Louise Penny (Minotaur Books, August 2016)
  • In 40 words or less: Penny’s twelfth novel featuring Armand Gamache is much more than a mystery. In the twilight of his career, Gamache wants to leave a legacy. Strength of character, forgiveness, and the importance of community are at the heart of A Great Reckoning.
  • Genre: Mystery
  • Locale: Quebec
  • Time: Contemporary
  • Read this for a well-constructed mystery and so much more – to meet people you’d like to know, in a place you’d like to call home.

I’ve always been a mystery fan. There was a period I spent more time with Nancy Drew than my neighborhood friends. In recent years there has been only one mystery writer that I’d drop anything to read. Louise Penny.

A Great Reckoning is a beautiful book with a specifically moral point of view. Penny’s main character, Commander Armand Gamache, has left his position after decades as head of homicide for the Sûreté du Québec. He and his wife have settled in Three Pines, an idyllic community virtually off the grid and not on any map. Save for the occasional murder, Three Pines is perfect – oddball neighbors, a B&B, cafe and a bookstore – but Gamache is not ready to retire.

Faced with a variety of career options, he decides to head up the Sûreté’s academy, the residential training facility for all cadets.  Gamache was instrumental in rooting out major corruption within the Sûreté, facing serious injury in the process. Before retiring he wants to alter what he sees as a corrosive training climate that creates divisive elements from the start.

Just before he takes up this new position, a map appears in Three Pines, apparently dating back about one hundred years. Hand drawn, it bears a resemblance to the local area with some unusual additions. Gamache brings it with him to the academy, giving copies to several of the cadets in the hope they will work together to explain its symbols.

And, of course, there is a murder.  In this case, one of the academy’s professors is killed after the building has been secured for the night. Gamache took the appointment with concerns about the ethics of some of the staff and even brought a discredited former colleague to serve as an example. There is no shortage of suspects.

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Penny is her element when she takes Gamache’s students to Three Pines. As a reader, I couldn’t wait to see what would happen when they met the locals. The portrait of local life, modelled on the community in which Louise Penny and her husband live, could easily carry a novel without the addition of a mystery.

Sense of place is vital in all of the Three Pines mysteries. In A Great Reckoning, both the academy and Three Pines are intentional communities. Cell phones, the internet, and unexpected visitors play very specific and controlled roles. In Penny’s novels, human interaction, individual histories, and human frailties are key.

I’m never one to include “spoilers” in a review. But I will tell you that Armand Gamache’s personality and outlook are in large measure based on Louise Penny’s husband, the former head of hematology at the Children’s Hospital in Montreal. Sadly, he has been in failing health for several years. Having heard Penny speak at Book Expo last May in Chicago, both her husband and Gamache are strong, smart and well-loved.

‘The Woman in Cabin 10’ is another summer thriller

IN A NUTSHELLUnknown - Version 2

  • Unknown-4The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware (Scout Press 2016)
  • In 40 words or less: A journalist lands the assignment to report on an ultra-luxury cruise ship. A break-in at her home before departure makes her wary and vulnerable. When she sees evidence of a crime on the ship her veracity is questioned and her safety endangered.
  • Genre: Thriller
  • Locale: London, North Sea, Norway
  • Time: Now
  • Read this if you are a fan of The Girl on the Train or Gone Girl.

There’s something about summertime. It seems wherever you turn there is another psychological thriller vying for your attention. Granted, they are often the perfect length for a long flight or some time at the pool, preferably with a dip or a nap or two thrown in.

British women writers have taken the US by storm with female protagonists who may not be completely believable.  The latest entry, The Woman in Cabin 10, starts with a heart-stopping scene. Lo Blacklock, the narrator, awakens in the middle of the night to find a masked intruder in her apartment. In confronting him she is wounded and to save herself ends up locked in a room without any way to exit and with no way to communicate. After smashing her way out, she is physically and emotionally battered. Even while trying to work with the police, secure her apartment and replace her stolen phone and credit cards, she and her boyfriend have an argument. And then there’s a magazine assignment on an ultra-luxury cruise just one day away.

Ruth Ware sets up a classic locked room mystery on the North Sea.  The 10 cabin, ultra-luxury ship is on its maiden cruise to drum up publicity and major investors. The ship is a project of a British businessman and his ailing heiress wife and, aside from Lo, the other passengers are major photographers, writers or venture capital advisors. On the first night out, Lo returns to her cabin having had little sleep since her attack and too much to drink. She wakes up to some commotion in the adjacent cabin and thinks she sees a body go overboard and blood on a glass panel. The cabin was allegedly empty and no one seems to be missing from the passengers or crew.

Lo is desperate to uncover the truth. Ruth Ware has done a masterful job of balancing Lo’s occasional self-doubt with her resolve. The novel has numerous twists and turns, all in the very confined quarters of a small ship at sea. Lo is uncertain of the trustworthiness of her fellow passengers, including a photographer, Ben, she had a relationship with several years earlier.

Interspersed in the on-ship narrative are occasional web articles, forum strings, and emails questioning Lo’s possible disappearance since her family, boyfriend, and co-workers have heard nothing from her despite the ship’s high-tech capabilities. These serve to emphasize how alone Lo is on this cruise.

The Woman in Cabin 10 is a fast-paced grabber of a book. Despite the early attack,  Lo fights off a victim mentality and pushes back at every attempt to minimize her contentions. Earlier in her life, Lo suffered panic attacks. When Ben suggests to others that an interaction of her medications and alcohol may have caused her to imagine the body, Lo loses trust in the one person she thought was on her side. The challenge of dealing with anxiety is part of Lo’s story. In its telling, it enhances the acceleration of the plot.

If you enjoyed The Girl on the Train, Gone Girl or Widow, Ruth Ware’s latest might be just the book to take away with you.

My to-be-read list is summer ready!

Ahhhh! Even if your student days are far in the rearview mirror, somehow summer has its own unique rhythm. Now’s the time to change your reading horizons in all sorts of ways. Grab a book and head to a park bench at lunchtime – your desk can manage without you. Try out an audiobook for that road trip. Negotiating a title with your fellow passengers may introduce you to an author or genre you’d never have selected on your own.

For me, summer is the time to queue up books that take me to another place and imgres-2time. Last summer, two particular titles really fit the bill. The Truth According to Us, Annie Barrows’ novel of small-town West Virginia in the summer of 1938, just out in paperback, has an enticing combination of family drama, labor unrest and explication of the New Deal program that brought writers to small communities across the country to preserve their histories.

In The Oregon Trail, Rinker Buck brings the reader along as he and his brother follow the trail from imgres-3Missouri to Oregon using equipment and tools of 150 years ago. Buck, a seasoned journalist in the midst of a personal crisis, decides this is just the change he needs. As a child, he and his siblings were taken on unusual journeys by their father, an accomplished, loving but difficult man. Needing another skilled horseman for the trip, Buck invited his brother who was dealing with physical and emotional problems of his own. Not particularly close since childhood, the extraordinary physical challenge of the undertaking tested and strengthened their relationship.

Page after page, the reader joins them on the trail, often within spitting distance of 18-wheelers. Along the way they take meals and spend the night with locals in small towns across the route; on farms, in dying communities set aside after an interstate usurped their role as staging point or provisioners. They meet old-fashioned craftspeople that keep their rig going when repairs are beyond their skill. Weather, rough terrain, exhaustion, and injuries leave them minutes from abandoning the quest. It was a joy to accompany them from the air-conditioned comfort of my home!

So what’s on the list for this summer? First up, Everyone Brave is Forgiven, ChrisUnknown-5 Cleave’s latest about Europe in 1939. Mary North takes on the task of teaching students that were not accepted in homes in the countryside as most children were sent for safety from London. Tom, charged with supervising the school, and Alistair, Tom’s best friend now serving as a military officer, both fall for Mary.

On a more serious note, Tribe, Sebastian Junger’s Unknown-4assessment of the damage we have brought on ourselves by loosening the communal bonds of society. He contends that combat veterans overcome their fears and insist on returning to their units after injuries because of the tribal ties they create.  Junger suggests it is the breaking of these bonds that fuels PTSD.

Louise Erdrich’s The Round House, 2012 National Book Unknown-2Award winner, is one of the finest novels I have ever read. Her latest, La Rose, is another family-centered novel of contemporary Native American life with a storyline drawn from tragedy.  Erdrich brings a unique perspective to the complexity of the tribal and state justice systems. Snagging a copy of La Rose at the library was a real coup!

Another Louise is near the top of my TBR pile. Louise Penny has created the  magical hamlet of Three Pines in Quebec. Unknown-3With an assortment of quirky locals, poor internet and cell coverage, a cafe, bookstore, and a B and B, it is the perfect retreat except for the occasional murder. Chief Inspector Gamache is the warm, intuitive yet analytical detective who uncovers the culprits and the underlying stories. Through the course of the Three Pines series, his wife and his second (now his son-in-law as well) add a comfortable and familial tenor to the stories.

Now that I’ve shared the top of my pile, I hope you’ll do the same. Please go to the bottom of this post (on the website) and click on COMMENTS so that I (and others) can see what you are reading.  I’ll keep sharing if you will!