August Blue by Deborah Levy (Literary Fiction – Audio Book)

Writing: 5/5 Characters: 4.5/5 Plot: 4/5

A beautiful book about self-discovery, identity (in the classic sense), and a search for “home” amidst the angst and displacement of Covid. The music and musical themes that lay at the absolute center of the story had wonderful depth and were enlightening, inspiring, and real. I listened to this as an audio book. It was narrated by Alix Dunmore who was so good that I’m seeking out her other narrations because she put a voice to the prose so very well.

Elsa M. Anderson — a former child prodigy — was at the height of her career as a pianist when she walked off the stage in Vienna in the middle of a performance of Rachmaninoff’s second piano concerto. Now there is a pandemic on, her teacher (who adopted her at age six) is dying far away in Sardinia, and Elsa is roaming Europe, teaching a few lessons, playing very little, and allowing herself to go wherever currents take her. She sees a woman in Athens who she feels is her double, and sees her repeatedly throughout the story, serving as a kind of foil that both drives Elsa and causes her to reflect.

The writing is beautiful — poetic, but not to the point of losing content. I would have many quotes if I weren’t listening to it without an opportunity to write them down. I loved the other characters and the interactions that allowed Elsa to learn more about herself with every engagement. I loved the role of music and how it informed the very way she thought. I loved the way she taught music sensitivity to a young and brilliant student with an overbearing parent. I love the interplay between music, life, and emotions that comprises the mind of a true musician. I loved the fact that the ending didn’t really tell you what would happen in the future, but I was left with a sense of where she was going simply from “living her life” with her. In case you can’t tell, I loved this book!

Lastly, while I don’t have an exact quote, I very much liked Elsa’s answer when her friend mocked her (Elsa’s) interest in Isadora Duncan, who he said was “ridiculous.” Elsa retorted that she (Isadora) had to be ridiculous because she was making something new. That made me think.

Thank you to Macmillan Audio and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on June 6th, 2023

All the Devils Are Here by Louise Penny (Mystery)

Plot: 3.5/5 Characters: 2/5 Writing: 4/5

Number 16 from Penny’s ever-popular Inspector Gamache series. Gamache has served in a number of senior roles (including short spells of retirement) in the Surete — the provincial police force for Quebec. In this book, we are transported to Paris where his two adult children are living with their families. While visiting his family, Gamache also meets with his (never before mentioned) godfather — German-born billionaire Stephen Horowitz. Within hours of their meeting, Horowitz is intentionally hit by a speeding car and left for dead. What follows is a multi-layer intrigue concerning a gigantic multi-national engineering firm, corrupt government officials, and a whole set of characters whose allegiance is suspect and highly confusing — all sprinkled liberally with Gamache family scenes filled with love, hurt feelings, old resentments, etc.

As with all Penny books, you literally can’t put it down once you’ve started. Her plot twists are captivating even when (as in this case) they are in fact kind of stupid — both the engineering and finance details on which her plot rests are completely ridiculous. I had to keep resisting irritation and just suspend disbelief and go for the story. Unfortunately, that isn’t the worst of it. What originally drew me (and I believe many others) to these books were her wonderful characters. They were intelligent, warm, humorous, capable, and had strong moral compasses. In short: potential best friends for me! But over the past 5-6 books, Penny’s characters — once so alluring — have become completely two dimensional. They are suffused with sorrow and explicitly radiate love and kindness in return. They are constantly saying “I love you” to each other and maintaining inner dialogs about how much they care. New characters are always larger than life — they are billionaires, or the best in their field, or can call the head of the Louvre for a small favor. No longer the quirky and interesting denizens of Three Pines. Even the evil corporation is a two-dimensional character — happy to let people die to make a buck. There is even a surprise twist at the end — with no impact on the plot whatsoever — which is sanctimonious, sorrowful, and completely unnecessary IMHO.

Penny’s much loved husband died four years ago of dementia. I can’t help but tie the shift in her writing style to what was and still is a sorrowful time in her own life. She gets to write whatever she wants, and I respect that! However, in its current form I don’t find the insight that might be gathered from her experiences. Instead I have a kind of mixed experience reading these part crime / part “the world is full of sorrow but we must love each other and be kind” drama. The crime part is fast-paced, engaging (if technically full of beans), and impossible to put down; and the second part a little too Hallmarky for me.