Kingdom of the Blind by Louise Penny (Inspector Gamache series — the 14th)

Writing: 4.5/5 Plot: 4/5 Characters: 4.5/5 Overall reading pleasure: 5/5

I’m (very, very) happy to say that this latest Inspector Gamache mystery is back to the high standards of the first 12. I thought the last book — Glass Houses — was incredibly disappointing.

This installment merges two stories: Gamache, Myrna, and a Dr. Seussian builder named Benedict are named as liquidators (think executors) of Bertha Baumgartner’s estate — a woman none of them knows. The will is odd, to say the least, and the almost immediate murder of one of the beneficiaries adds some definite tension! At the same time, a temporarily suspended Gamache is desperately trying to track down the last bit of carfentanil that he had to let slip in order to bust the drug ring in the last book. Carfentanil is 100 times more potent than Fentanyl, itself 100 times more potent than Heroin.

This is not your typical mystery series — it’s character driven but they aren’t just any characters. They are the idealized versions of the people you wish would populate your life. None of them are average or really have any annoying faults at all (though some do pretend). They are smart, capable, witty, loving, interesting, and always do and say the exact right things at the right time. In these books, kindness, friendship, love, and hope manage to take on the grit and grime of crime on a massive scale and actually win. Sure, it’s just a fairy tale … but such a nice one!

While I have a few issues with the plot, this is simply a book that is impossible to put down. The writing is succinct with great dialog and beautifully distilled principles, descriptions, and action. Character driven with lots of intriguing psychological and philosophical driving forces.

As an aside, Ruth, the longstanding and crotchety old poet, has been getting the credit for the acronym FINE (“F***ed Up, Insecure, Neurotic, and Emotional”) — I just realized that the true credit goes to an Aerosmith song from 1989!

A few quotes I liked:
About a man with dementia: “For the last year or so of his life, he no longer recognized family and friends. He was kindly to all, but he beamed at some. They were the ones he loved. He knew them instinctively and kept them safe, not in his wounded head but in his heart”

“Things sometimes fell apart unexpectedly. It was not necessarily a reflection of how much they were valued.”

“Four statements lead to wisdom: I don’t know. I need help. I was wrong. I’m sorry.” (Gamache’s favorite — repeated in most of the books)

Poetry line: “Who hurt you once so far beyond repair / that you would greet each overture with curling lip.”

2018 in Review …

2018 was a good reading year for me — 111 books in total; 86 by women authors, 25 by men; a lot of British and American based books but also a few from Korea, Ireland, China, and Rwanda.  Types:

10 non fiction
48 General fiction
17 Literary fiction
10 Fantasy and Science Fiction
8 Mystery
18 Children and Young Adult

My goal for 2019 — more non-fiction and more foreign fiction — but we’ll see what happens!

My favorites for the year …

Non Fiction:

The Art of Power by Jon Meacham — An insightful and well-written biography about one of the Founding Fathers and the author of our Declaration of Independence (Thomas Jefferson).

Killers of the flower moon by David Grann — A chilling history of the “Osage Reign of Terror” in which a large number of wealthy Indians from the Osage tribe were killed over a period of several years, possibly even decades, in the early 1900s.

The Library Book by Susan Orleans — The story (and multiple fascinating back stories) of the massive 1986 fire that brought the Los Angeles Central Library to its knees.

General Fiction:

The Almost Sisters by Joshilyn Jackson — Quintessentially southern, humorous, and impossible to put down. 38-year-old Leia Birch is a well-regarded graphic novel artist and self professed “uber-dork”. After an enjoyable comic book convention hook-up with a gorgeous black man in a come-hither Batman cowl and cape, she finds herself pregnant. Take it from there …

Chemistry by Weike Wang—A belated (she’s in her 20s) coming-of-age story about a young, Chinese-American woman in the midst of capsizing both her Chemistry PhD and long-term relationship. We view the process of life dismantling and reconstruction from within her own mind through her unique, first-person voice.

The Ensemble by Aja Gabel — A story about the Van Ness String Quartet and the individual members comprising it, both evolving from rocky beginnings to success and stability. Some very nice descriptions of music and the art of making music together.

The Last Year of the War by Susan Meissner — An historical novel that plunges you right into the WWII period period through the eyes of Elsie Sontag — a ten-year old Iowan girl whose life is utterly upended when her father is unjustly arrested as an enemy alien under Executive Order 9066 and first interned, and then repatriated to Germany.

The Lost for Words Bookshop by Stephanie Butland — Spiky Loveday Carew has worked in the Lost For Words bookshop in York (England) for 15 years. Her network of tattoos is a compendium of significant first lines from favorite novels — I was hooked right there. By the way, the first line of this book? — “A book is a match in the smoking second between strike and flame.” By turns comic, powerful, uplifting, and literary, this book about books and the people who love them made me one happy clam.

The News of the World by Paulette Giles — A Wild West story that by no means glorifies the period. Captain Jefferson Kidd — seventy two years old and making his living by reading the “news of the world” to audiences around Texas for a dime a piece — takes on a troubling task: to return a ten-year old white girl to relatives after being kidnapped by the Kiowa four years before.

Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield —An old-fashioned Story (with a capital S!) full of richly drawn archetypal characters, a convoluted but cohesive plot, and just the hint of inexplicable mysteries.

Literary Fiction
Exit West — A brilliant, insightful, distillation of the experience of two individuals who go from a life which appears “normal” to one of upheaval, exposure to extremism, and displacement.

Kinship of Secrets by Eugenia Kim — An utterly engaging story that follows two sisters as they grow up separately due to the Korean War.

Like a mule bringing ice cream to the sun by Sarah Ladipo Manyika — Beautifully written book about Morayo Da Silva — a strong, vibrant, deliciously interesting character. Almost 75, she lives in a small, book-filled, rent-controlled apartment in San Francisco with an incredible view. A retired professor of literature, she was born in Nigeria and lived around the world before settling in San Francisco.

The Museum of Modern Love by Heather Rose — A powerful and poignant novel about the transformational impact of Marina Abramović’s The Artist is Present on those who witness it during the 75 days of performance at MOMA.

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee — A sweeping, multi-generational, saga of a Korean family spanning the Japanese occupation of Korea, WWII, and beyond.

Salvage the Bones by Jessmyn Ward — Salvage the Bones is an utterly gripping depiction of life in Bois Sauvage, Mississippi for the Batiste family during the twelve days before, during, and after Hurricane Katrina — as seen through the eyes of 15-year-old Esch.

Sing Unburied Sing by Jessmyn Ward — A powerful novel. The language is riveting and evokes a pervasive sense of physical and emotional space in a way I haven’t felt since reading Toni Morrison’s Beloved.

Small Country by Gaël Faye — A coming-of-age novel in the politically charged climate of Burundi in the 1990s.

Virgil Wander by Leif Enger — A story of the opportunity for redemption and resurrection for a fading town and the fading men within it. Perfect for fans of Kent Haruf, Ivan Doig, and Wallace Stegner.

Fantasy and Science Fiction
Irontown blues by John Varley — A nice fast-paced, action-oriented, noir-mystery in a futuristic setting from Sci-Fi master John Varley. could be subtitled: “The Case of the Leprous Dame of Irontown”

Zoo City by Lauren Beukes — A blend of African style juju, speculative fiction twists, and a hard boiled detective story. Our first person narrator is Zinzi Lelethu December — the “animalled,” ex-junkie, hard-boiled, Sam Spade style character with a hefty past just struggling to survive in a dark environment.

Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson — Book two of Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive series as awesome and complex as the first.  Unrivaled world building with an  overwhelming variety and depth of populating cultures  — a constant mental exercise for the reader as a continual stream of new information forces refactoring of the complex models held in reader land.

Mystery:
Bluebird, Bluebird — A remarkable and entertaining book — appealing to literary fiction and mystery lovers alike. As a whodunit, it has it all — convoluted plot, simmering tensions in the community, and plenty of motive to spread amongst an array of characters. What takes it past straight mystery and into the realm of literary fiction is the top notch writing, truly in-depth characters, and the fact that the narrative never takes the easy way out.

Young Adult:
School for Psychics by K.C. Archer — A Harry Potter-style story for millennials with a menagerie of psychic powers nurtured by a blend of science, chakras, vegan diets and computer hacking in a School for Psychics. A fun book — well paced, great plot development, cool characters, and multiple layers of mystery. Also, nothing egregiously stupid which frankly tends to pepper this kind of book.

The Word is Murder by Anthony Horowitz

Writing: 3/5 Plot: 3/5 Characters

Disappointing! I loved Magpie Murders  and I love Horowitz’ TV work (Midsomer Murder, Foyle’s War) so I was looking forward to this book, which I picked up in London last year and finally got around to reading. But … it did not live up to my expectations.

Horowitz likes to experiment with writing style. In this book, he includes himself as a character who has been asked by real-life detective Daniel Hawthorne to follow him around and write a book about his cases — to be the Watson to his Holmes as it were.

The Horowitz character is annoyed that Hawthorne doesn’t give him any personal background or share his ongoing thoughts or inner procedures on the case (I bet Holmes frustrated Watson in the same way).

While I don’t mind this blurring of fact and fiction, I found the Horowitz character’s issues with his agent, his wife, and trying to out-think the detective (and getting it wrong) just a distraction from the actual murder mystery (that part was well done!). Instead of objectively following a detective and watching him work, we had a whiny author complaining about getting pulled out of an important meeting with Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson in order to go see the body, or complaining that the detective wouldn’t open up so he had no background to write.

I’m not sure why it didn’t work for me — it was obviously supposed to be playful and funny — but I just found it tedious!

The Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann

A chilling history of the “Osage Reign of Terror” in which a large number of wealthy Indians from the Osage tribe were killed over a period of several years, possibly even decades, in the early 1900s. The thoroughly researched story includes the background and social context of the killings, the investigators, and the individual politicians, bankers, and relatives involved in the case. Additionally, the launch of the FBI and some fascinating detail on the evolution of detection and law enforcement techniques.

For me, this is the best kind of non-fiction — told with clarity, drawn from original sources, not over-dramatized (a plain retelling of the events was dramatic enough), and told linearly such that no hindsight colored our perceptions of the players or events as they unfolded.

While it’s hard to be unaware of the gross injustices perpetrated on the Native Americans in this country since the arrival of the European settlers, the humiliating details of how the Bureau of Indian Affairs systematically dehumanized Native Americans and left them subject to institutionalized theft, mismanagement, and even murder was newly shocking. The Osage tribe was more susceptible than most as they were unfortunate enough to have chosen “worthless” land that ended up being oil rich — making them multi-millionaires and therefore prime targets.

A big part of the story is the attitude of most of the non-Indians. As one prominent member of the Osage tribe said during the trial of a set of conspirators to multiple murders, “It is a question in my mind whether this jury is considering a murder case or not. The question for them to decide is whether a white man killing an Osage is murder — or merely cruelty to animals.”

In some ways this reads like a good murder mystery, but as is the case with all non-fiction, there is never the complete closure you get with a good novel. While several of the perpetrators were caught, tried, and sentenced, it is clear that the number of murders was far greater than originally expected … and most of the perpetrators got away scot-free.

Extremely well-written — highly recommended.

Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke

Characters: 5 Writing: 5 Plot: 4.5

A remarkable and entertaining book — appealing to literary fiction and mystery lovers alike. As a whodunit, it has it all — convoluted plot, simmering tensions in the community, and plenty of motive to spread amongst an array of characters. What takes it past straight mystery and into the realm of literary fiction is the top notch writing (see great lines below), truly in-depth characters, and the fact that the narrative never takes the easy way out.

This is a story of murder in the small, East Texas community of Lark (population 178). Two bodies are pulled out of the bayou behind Georgia Sweet’s Sweet shop within days of each other — a 35-year old black man and a 20-year old local white woman. Darren Matthews, one of the few black Texas Rangers (his now-deceased favorite Uncle was the first) is unofficially asked to nose around the case. Darren is the epitome of the Hero — a strong, capable, focussed man who can’t bear to injustice — especially when it has a racial component. He won’t stand by as the black community takes the heat for the white girl’s death, but neither does he give in to the temptation of assuming the Aryan Brotherhood (ensconced just down the road at the Ice House) are to blame. He must work around a local (white) Sheriff who seethes under Matthews’ technically superior rank, the threatening Brotherhood members who would love to get “credit” for bringing down a black Ranger, and even a black community that doesn’t appear to trust him.

This 2018 Edgar Award winning book goes deep into the way racial tensions can fracture a community and give rise to crimes that are far more nuanced than your typical hate crimes. I couldn’t put this book down, though I have to say the stress level (for me, as I can never seem to separate myself from a book that feels as real as this one) was quite high.

Strongly recommended!

Some of my favorite lines:

“Seemed like death had a mind to follow her around in this life time. It was a sly shadow at her back, as single-minded as a dog on a hunt, as faithful, too.”

“Criminality, once it touched black life, was a stain hard to remove.”

“…men of stature and purpose, who each believed he’d found in his respective profession a way to make the country fundamentally hospitable to black life.” (about his uncles…)

“But sometime after he hit forty, the word Mama shot out as if it were a stubborn seed lodged in his teeth all these years that had finally popped free.”

“Most black folks living in Lark came from sharecropping families, trading their physical enslavement for the crushing debt that came with tenant farming, a leap from the frying pan into the fire, from the certainty of hell to the slow, torture of hope.

“For black folks, injustice came from both sides of the law, a double-edged sword of heartache and pain.”

Lethal White by Robert Galbraith

Writing: 4.5 Characters: 4.5 Plot: 4.5

Another great installment of the Cormoran Strike series. These books just fly for me — 600+ pages and I finished it in two days. The plot is just convoluted enough to require focus, but not confusing or (even worse) stupid. Rowling is the master of the archetypal character — each appeals to us in deeply rooted ways, but is fleshed out enough to feel fully human. I am drawn to Strike, and the reason is nicely summarized in this line: “…but the itch to detect, solve and reimpose order upon the moral universe could not be extinguished in him.” I like characters that are aware they dwell in a moral universe and apply themselves to keeping it that way!

In this episode, Strike and his equally well-developed sidekick Robin Ellacott, investigate the blackmailing of the distinctly unlikable Jasper Chiswell, Minister of Culture. Coincidentally, Strike is approached by a malodorous and highly agitated young man who claims to have witnessed a strangling and burial on the grounds of Chiswell’s estate when he was a small child. While he is most likely delusional, there is just enough about the interaction to turn “that niggling doubt into a significant and possibly permanent impediment to the detective’s peace of mind.”

Plenty of color is provided in the interactions between aristocrats (the Chiswell family and friends) and a group of Marxists, including the son of the old Chiswell estate caretaker. While none come off as particularly appealing, the aristocrats come off decidedly worse. While some are less unpleasant than others, they all share a disregard for the lives of those who are not in their social class. Also included, some pretty funny references to the experience of “sudden” fame for Strike, which must have come directly from Rowling’s own experience.

The writing is as great as you’d expect — my only complaint is that too much time is spent on the nature of the relationship between Strike and Robin. Does he like me? Why is she still with her twit husband? Is he falling for another woman? Blah, blah, blah. That part reads like a poorly drafted romance novel that has run out of ideas. Luckily, plenty of action and intriguing characters help distract the reader from that small irritation.

The Stranger Diaries by Elly Griffiths

Thanks to NetGalley and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for an advance reader copy in exchange for my honest opinion. Book to be released on March 5, 2019.
Writing: 4/5 Plot: 4/5 Characters 4.5/5

A fun, fast-paced, whodunit where real life begins to resemble the sinister stories taught in Clare Cassidy’s Gothic literature course. Clare specializes in RM Holland, author of the classic: The Stranger. However, when her best friend and colleague turns up dead, with a line from the story by her body, things start to get chilling. Unsure of whom she can trust, Clare turns to her diary — only to find that someone else is writing in it as well …

The first person narrative alternates between Clare, her 15-year old daughter, Georgia, and Harbinder Kaur — the 35-year old, highly suspicious, Sikh, lesbian detective assigned to the case. Plenty of plot twists, good character development, and lots of fun literary references since much of the action takes place in the English department! Most of the action takes place in a small town on the Sussex Coast, but some beautiful scenes in Ullapool, Scotland as well.

A standalone mystery offering from Elly Griffiths, author of the Ruth Galloway series.