Category Archives: Mystery/Thriller/Crime

Summer Reading: Good Times

Summer loving is good but summer reading can be even better! I won’t waste your time with long explanations — I want to give you plenty of hours to spend reading! Add in a little loving when you can, and you will have a great summer.

New Books
Maya’s Notebook by Isabel Allende — a wonderful new novel from the great Isabel Allende, this book will have you crying buckets and laughing plenty, and thinking all the time: how could I survive something like this? what is the purpose of memory? what influences can I bring to bear on the young people in my life? how can I respect and learn from the old people in my life? So many great lines, descriptions, and characters, this is a book to underline and return to, and enjoy down to the very last page.

Bad Monkey by Carl Hiassen — yes, Hiassen is back, as raunchy and wild and incisive and topical as ever. Applying his journalistic eye for detail and his humanistic sense of outrage when things of the planet go way wrong, Hiassen takes on corruption in the Florida Keys and beyond. Never a dull moment and always a great ride.

Dad is Fat by Jim Gaffigan — I won’t guess his true weight but Dad is hilarious. For me, this book was a trip down memory lane, when life among the savages (young children) made me crazy, crazy in love and crazy in every other way. Peanut butter crackers for dinner, anyone? With baby carrots on the side, of course.

Letter to a Young Scientist by Edward O. Wilson — everything I ever wanted to know about ants and more. Inspiring in his enthusiasm, impressive in his intelligence, and engaging in his writing, this book is just the right length (short) and just the right tone (life is amazing), for a weekend spent in a lawn chair watching the grass grow and wondering about the lives teeming within its wildness.

The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins — best book ever. Enough said?
The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa – decay and ruin, love and food, Sicily and need I say more?

The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating — everything I ever wanted to know about snails and life, and I promise you: this book will inspire and enthrall.

The Hidden Life of Deer by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas – Don’t hate the deer munching on your garden this summer, try to understand them. Thomas will take you to a new place of appreciation of this omnivorous (don’t believe what the nursery workers tell you – if hungry enough, there is nothing a deer won’t eat) creature populating gardens, parks, and woods everywhere.

The Sailor from Gibraltar by Marguerite Duras – a woman in search of her lost lover, a man in search of meaning in his life (and love), the Mediterranean and heat and sex. Perfect for beach or bath.

My House in Umbria by William Trevor – a woman who writes romances must face reality to save people she loves, and those whom she has just met. Umbria, great food, beautiful old house, heat, love.

Anything by Louise Penny – and a new one coming out this summer! How the Light Gets In comes out in time for Labor Day. In the meantime, read everything else she’s ever written!

Anything by Andrea Camilleri – back to Italy, Sicily this time, with a grouchy detective and a beautiful backdrop and crimes to curl your brain around.

Fancy a trip to Istanbul but worried about the uprising? Go via any mysteries by Jason Goodwin — you’ll get plenty of the history and the sites to see (the cisterns, the Blue Mosque, the Hagia Sophia). Have I taken you back to mysteries? Yes, they are my weakness and if I can combine them with travel….perfection.

From Beirut to Jerusalem by Thomas L. Friedman — this book has aged well; it is never dated, although the politics by now are a bit historical. Never mind, the settings (and the conflicts?) are eternal.

In the Shadow of the Sun by Ryzard Kapucinski – another book by a journalist, the politics are fascinating but the people and the landscapes steal the book – a visit to Africa, up, down, and all around, that you will never forget.

Lost in Front of Our Eyes

I’ve called S.J. Bolton the Queen before and I proclaim it again: Bolton rules the world of psychological thrillers.S.J. Bolton presents the evidence, year after year, of just how twisted the wires of human psyche are. No matter our outward appearance, inside we harbor moral imperatives that often conflict with our desires and make bolder our fears. In Lost, her latest magnificent novel, Bolton’s unforgettable characters (and thankfully, she has brought back some of my favorites) are ordinary people living complicated lives. Before our reading eyes, those characters become entangled in situations (both of their own making and not) that force them to confront the conflicting voices in their heads – and bring them to the edge of an abyss. Will they fall in, becoming forever lost, or will they find their way back to sanity and safety?

A character doesn’t have to be a grown-up to be brought to the edge of hell – Bolton has never shied from bringing kids into her stories, and her children are deeply layered, and very real. So real that while reading Lost I wanted to reach into the book and pull one or two out, to give them the hug and the cup of cocoa they so clearly needed. But it will take more than hugs or cocoa to save the children or adults of Lost – it will take a combination of utter bravery, risky foolery, and all out determination to rescue what can be rescued and mourn what must remain forever lost (and innocence is just the start).

Bolton doesn’t dish up chills and thrills for the hell of it, or just to get a rise out of us. She uses every curve of her plot to make a deeper incision (figuratively) into the characters, allowing us painfully sharp insights into what makes them tick and what it would take to make them break down, utterly and completely. Not only do we have the bogeyman of the hour to fear (in this case, a killer stalking young boys and leaving them dead on the banks of the Thames when he has done with them – and I will not reveal what it is he has done with them – or is the killer a she?) but we also fear for our characters themselves, their sanity and their future. We know they will not all end up dead but are there worse things than death? Maybe. How about a life mired in fear or remorse or doubt?

Police Detective Lacey Flint, for example, was left shattered by the case in Bolton’s last book, Dead Scared. She has been given an extended leave of absence and things are not going well for her. The man who could help her most, Mark Joesbury, she keeps at more than arms’ length, while the ghosts who can do her the most harm, she entertains on a nightly basis. It takes the arrival of murder on her doorstep – or close to it, on the riverbanks just down the road – to bring Flint lurching back into detective mode, but only because she fears for a young neighbor. Barney Roberts is left on his own a lot, his mother gone and his father often off on mysterious assignments.

Lost is about many things, including fear, despair, and empathy, but for me it is most hauntingly about the human need to feel protected and anchored under another’s care. For children, such guardianship is imperative for survival. When parents fall short of the caretaking required, self-appointed guardians, both well-intentioned and not, may step in to do what they can. Lacey Flint becomes Barney’s secret guardian; Mark Joesbury is secretly looking after Flint; and Barney is looking out for his friends, lost boys like him.

Detecting Humanists

A humanist is a person having a strong interest in or concern for human welfare, values, and dignity. (Thank you, For me, being a humanist also means believing in the inherent ability of each human being to think and reason, and to decide to act not just for one’s own benefit but also for the benefit of the community.

In reading two mysteries, one that just came out, Midnight at Marble Arch by Anne Perry, and one that comes out in May, Little Green by Walter Mosley, I am struck by a marvelous similarity between the two very distinct novels: the detecting heroes are humanists, fitting both the dictionary and the Sankovitch definition. Charlotte and Thomas Pitt, living in Victorian London, and Easy Rawlins, living in 1960s Los Angeles, all believe in the inherent value and potential goodness of every human being. No matter the class or gender (the Pitts) or the race (Rawlins), the integrity of each person (mind and body), is to be protected and respected. These detecting humanists don’t battle evil by force but by their wits and by their goodness, and by their belief in the potential goodness of others.

I love the many, many mysteries written by Anne Perry (not only her Pitt mysteries but also her Monk and Christmas mysteries) and Walter Mosley (Easy Rawlins and also the Leonid McGill mysteries) but I always thought my love was due to the twisting plots, marvelously created settings, and richly characterized heroes, villains, and victims. Now I understand I love these novels because of the humanism of the detectives – they have what it takes, with their belief in humankind and their brains and their bravery, to fight evil and win. Charlotte and Thomas Pitt, and Easy Rawlins: they know evil is worth fighting because people are worth protecting – a detective who doesn’t care much for the human race just cannot be as effective as one who finds kinship across boundaries of race, gender, and class.

In Midnight at the Marble Arch, the problem of rape comes viciously to light when an upper-class wife is found raped and murdered in her own home. After the truth of her death is revealed (raising the question of shame that has been attached to rape since the earliest of times), Charlotte Pitt suddenly sees its threat everywhere – from servant girls to society daughters, no woman is safe if just one woman fears to face her accuser. And what woman will admit the damage that has been done her, when so many will find her own actions suspect? The Pitts are sure that if more people can be made to see the harms wrought by the silence around rape, the number of such crimes will decrease. But the Pitts are also resolved that even if legal punishment cannot be exacted for this terrible crime, the perpetrator must be prevented from repeating it; castrated in ambition, if not in fact. A humanist trusts in the law but works beyond it to protect human beings, when the law falls short.

Easy Rawlins also finds himself working beyond the bounds of the law when a young black man, the “Little Green” from the title of the book, goes missing. He tracks the boy to Sunset Strip, a place of free love and free drugs. Rawlins is surprised by what he finds there: white people as distrusted by the police as black men have always been. Working with these social rebels, he finds more than just the missing boy – he finds new hope for what he always believed was true, that all men can get along, no matter the color of their skin. A humanist finds good where he can, and develops it by giving it the room to grow.

I now realize that all of my favorite mystery writers have created detecting humanists: Peter Tremayne’s Sister Fidelma, from 8th century Ireland; C.J. Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake, living in Tudor England; Donna Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti of Venice; and Martha Grimes’ Richard Jury of London, to name just a few. Do I look for humanist detectives to buttress my own belief in the inherent goodness of human beings — that by using our hearts and our minds, we can save the world? Or is it the other way around: fictional detectives reflect the truth that evil is battled not by force and violence but by wits and goodness? We need a lot of goodness these days, and any heroes, fictional or not, that can inspire us, are welcome.

Historical Fiction, Then and Now

I love historical fiction.  A writer takes what is known about a place in time or a character from the past, and then transports the reader further and deeper into what are the blood and guts of the past.  And I mean blood and guts: people and moments in time are brought back to life, bumps, lumps, warts and all.  And, of course, heart and soul.  Any great novel has to have heart and soul.  When a novel of historical fiction succeeds, history becomes as real as what we see out our window, or read in our newspapers, or experience on the street, every living day. We are offered insights into the past that not only deepen our understanding of history, but also of ourselves, the present time, and the promises (or threats) of the future. History does not repeat itself, not entirely, but great historical fiction allows us to repeat history, and what we gain from our time travel can be profound and lasting.

I am not talking about simple approaches to famous figures from the past, like Jennifer Chiaverini’s one-dimensional presentation of Mary Todd Lincoln and her dressmaker Elizabeth Keckley in Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker.  I am talking about vivid, complicated, and even disturbing portraits of real life characters, such as found in Peggy Horan’s Loving Frank Loving Frank rendered Mamah Borthwick Cheney in such exquisite detail of internal substance that her awful death hits us almost as hard as it hit Frank Lloyd Wright (and, of course, poor Edwin Cheney); we anguish over the risks, financial, social and familial, taken by Mamah in loving a man not her husband, and mourn the awful price she, and everyone around her, had to pay.

But even more, through Loving Frank, we understand, in a whole new way, the patterns of a paternalistic society that controlled and confined women, and we appreciate the advances forged over the past eighty years to ensure women’s ability to decide for themselves in matters of career, marriage, and divorce.

Searching for a deeper presentation of Mary Todd Lincoln and Elizabeth Keckley, I turned to Tazewell Thompson’s play, Mary T. and Lizzie K., which offers multi-dimensional characters who debate and discuss the nature of friendship, loyalty, and identity.  Thompson creates a rich portrait of the two women and also a profound exploration of what it means to be alive in times that perplex, confuse, and provoke; in other words, in the times we are living now.  When Mary Todd laments the soldiers coming back from Civil War, maimed by the experience of killing and fear of being killed, and confused over why the war was fought in the first place, we understand the trauma borne by today’s veterans. And when she damns the man who invented the first slingshot, we join in her curse and feel stronger in the cause to end wars — for what better way to get a grip on the present madness than by understanding a sliver from the past?  And what better way to do that than through the might of great historical fiction.

I am excited to read Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, and look forward to the insights Therese Anne Fowler offers not only into Zelda’s character but also into the complicated relationship she had with her husband. Zelda has been an object of fascination for me since I was sixteen-years old and first read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night.  I wondered then, and I wonder now, what Zelda’s life might have been under different, less demanding circumstances – how much was her mental illness caused by being married to Fitzgerald, and how much of it was inevitable? Tender is the Night is a kind of historical fiction; after all, Fitzgerald based much of the novel, both its plot and its characters, on himself and Zelda, and the complications and sorrows and joys of their years of courtship and marriage. Tender is the Night is both fiction, and a history, but it was a contemporary history of his own reality. Does that count as historical fiction today?

I wonder if Jamaica Kincaid’s See Now Then, a novel of fiction based on her present day reality, will lead, in some way, to a novel written forty years from now about the relationship between this writer from the islands and her husband from the Northeast establishment, who meet, fall in love, and fall out again.  Kincaid claims her novel is a work of fiction but she draws deeply from her very real life marriage to Allen Shawn and the life they built together in Bennington, Vermont, which was torn apart by Shawn’s leaving Kincaid for another woman.  See Now Then is, like Tender is the Night was, a kind of historical fiction written in the present.

I read many mysteries set in the past, including the works of Anne Perry, Stephanie Pintoff, and Caleb Carr.  I also read mysteries set in those same time periods (late 1800s and early 1900s) that were actually written in those time periods, including the delightful Father Brown mysteries written by G.K. Chesterton and the classic whodunits penned by Burton Egbert Stevenson, such as The Mystery of the Boule Cabinet.

Those mysteries were written as contemporary fiction but have become historical fiction.  Another favorite collection of mine, the Travis McGee series written by John D. Macdonald, is set in the 1960s and ’70s, and I first read them in the late 1970s.  Rereading them now, the behavior of the characters, and their surroundings — including a southern Florida just starting to be developed — are dated and fascinating, and thought-provoking: where have the past four decades brought us?   In other words, the works of MacDonald have  begun to seem historical….Who knows what the future will bring?

Escaping the Blizzard Through Books

Midwinter is the perfect time for reading mysteries. And now that a blizzard is heading my way, I am glad I’ve stocked up. For those of you still with time to gather a pile of great books to read your way through to spring, let me make a few recommendations.

If you are one of the few on the planet yet to discover Molly Murphy, created by Rhys Bowen, now is the time to take the plunge. Molly is sassy, saucy, brave and smart — and living in New York City in the early 1900s. She’s come over from Ireland to escape the arm of the law and ends up, literally and quite happily, in the arms of the law. Along the way she discovers she has quite a skill in solving crimes, as documented in the ample selection of Bowen’s books about Molly. I started with Murphy’s Law, just out in paperback, and then devoured the series one by one. The last installment, The Face in the Mirror, was a short novella available only as an e-book, and just perfect for one long winter’s afternoon spent on the aforementioned couch. It whetted my appetite for the next full-length novel, The Family Way, which comes out in March.

A brand new sleuth on the murder mystery circuit is Stryker McBride, whom I met in the thoroughly entertaining and satisfying debut novel Aloha, Lady Blue, written by Charles Memminger. Stryker is a former swimmer and journalist recuperating from an undercover reporting job gone bad. He’s taken to holing up in his houseboat (named The Travis McGee in homage to an old sleuth), drinking beers, and swimming from one pier to another in the yacht club he guards with his two huge German shepherds. Memminger does for Hawaii what Hiaasen does for Florida: shows all us tourists the bad and the ugly sides of these holiday paradisos, while also giving us full access to the beautiful and the good. Strong vibes of Don Ho mixed in with Steve McGarrett mixed in with Memminger’s own take on island life make Aloha, Lady Blue a great first in what I hope will be a long series of Stryker McBride mysteries.

Hiaasen has his Florida, Memminger now has his Hawaii, and Dana Stabenow most definitely has her Alaska. I may never make it all the way up north but, Stabenow takes me there with every Kate Shugak mystery she writes. Each of these penetrating novels is good, from the very first, A Cold Day for Murder (available practically for free as an e-book) to Stabenow’s latest, Bad Blood. Bad Blood comes out later this month and is the 20 Kate Shugak mystery in 20 years. Congratulations to Stabenow and lucky for us. Twenty years on, Shugak is just as determined as ever, and when her badass trooper boyfriend gets involved in the feud between two neighboring communities, she does not hesitate to jump in to help out. Stabenow does it all: ample history, rich socio-political background, vivid atmosphere, complex characters, hot sex, twisted plot, and solid conclusion. What more could anyone want from a midwinter escape?

2012 Books and Thanksgiving

Thank you to the authors who make my year of reading — whether it is a book a day or a book a week — a core pleasure of my life.

Pure by Andrew Miller: Set in 1785 France, Baratte, an ambitious provincial engineer, is commissioned to clear out the oldest cemetery in Paris, disposing of the bones, destroying the attendant church and filling in the holes left behind any way he can. Miller is a marvelous writer, weaving his amazing story around the framework of his characters, each one so full of heart and muscle that they seem to come alive on the page. Or maybe it is the other way round, that his amazing characters weave and dance around the framework of his plot, a plot full of wild machinations and lofty dreams and sober realities.

Dead Scared by S.J. Bolton: I just could not put the book down (and this has been true of every Bolton book I’ve ever read) because of its twisting plot (offering surprises at every turn), compelling characters (including reappearances of some of my favorites from past books), fascinating setting (the colleges of Cambridge, England) and the constantly increasing undercurrent of dread and fear. The building of tension and suspense only crested in the very last paragraph, sending me into spasms of relief and then back into the book to reread the last hundred pages all over again.

Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter: This book is a marvel and a gem. It is hilarious and heartbreaking, and it has a message: “Be brave in love and in life.” Jess Walter, himself, is brave, flinging his characters (whom he clearly loves) out in the world, through time and across continents, in and out of crazy and not-so-crazy situations, and allowing them (and us) to come to some very profound realizations about dreaming big, wanting more and taking on the world.

The Names of Things by John Colman Wood: This book tells the story of a man who journeys to Africa to find again the groups of nomads with whom he traveled years ago. As an anthropologist, he was always looking for the names of things as a way to define their meaning in the culture he studied and how such meaning connected to his own way of life. As a man now trying to deal with overwhelming sorrow, he finds that the name of a thing is only the place to start understanding the substance of experience, and that in the end, it is the substance that might sustain him, while the names twist away.

A Beautiful Mystery by Louise Penny: Penny’s mysteries are wonderful, one after the other. In the latest, the heroic and kind Inspector Gamache finds himself behind the stonewalls of a monastery, soaking up the beauty of Gregorian chants and the ugliness of murder (along with rich stews, cheeses and wild blueberries dipped in dark chocolate — good food is always present in a Penny novel). Despite the abundance of gourmet treats, Penny doesn’t write feel-good, frothy novels with everything falling neatly into place by the finish; instead she creates real scenarios that expose the tolls exacted by real living, where good is not always rewarded and evil not always punished, where lives are overtaken by the tolls of abuse — and lives are lost.

Wild by Cheryl Strayed: I read Wild side by side with The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac, and found striking parallels in the quests of Strayed and of Kerouac. Like Strayed, Kerouac had problems with packing his gear, choosing his shoes and planning meals (and satisfying his appetite!), but found what he needed: solace in the wild. Strayed was looking for solace, but even more, for restoration: After the death of her mother, Strayed hit rock bottom and decided the only way back to her true and good self was to undertake the hiking journey of a lifetime. (Some of us read tons of books to find solace and answers, some of us take long hikes.) In making that hike, she filled the hole in her heart and restored herself to sanity and strength.

And what a déjà-vu I experienced in reading The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce, a book I absolutely loved. Like Kerouac and Strayed, poor Harold has the wrong shoes on for his trek across England, but he doesn’t let pain and blisters stop him. And like Strayed, fictional Harold has a hole in his heart that needs patching up. This surprising man and his lovely story took me by the hand, and then gave my soul a good thumping (I cried buckets!) — thank you for the hike, Ms. Joyce, and I look forward to your next novel.

Friendkeeping by Julie Klam: We can all use gentle and funny reminders of how to be a good friend — and why. Klam serves up her signature wit and big heart, and inspires us all.

And for good e-books, I give thanks for: The Fulcrum Files by Mark Chisnell: Set in England just before World War II, sailor Ben Clayton, committed pacifist, finds himself involved in an international spy game involving gambling, intimidation, weapons build-up and murder. This book satisfies sailing buffs, history fans, espionage addicts, and anyone else yearning for a good, satisfying yarn; and…

No One Knows You’re Here by Rachel Howzell: Syeeda, the reporter at the heart of the novel, is a modern-day heroine, complicated and smart and tough, who discovers that a serial killer is on the loose in the back alleys of Los Angeles. Based on the Grim Sleeper killings that occurred in L.A. in the 1980s, No One Knows You’re Here is about crimes that go unnoticed (committed against the underclass) and heroes that go unsung (journalists and writers), providing not only a great book but a sharp jab in the shoulder: Are you paying attention yet? After reading this book, you most certainly will be.

Sister Fidelma Rides Again

As a longtime fan of Sister Fidelma, and her creator Peter Tremayne (penname of Peter Beresford Ellis), I am thrilled to report that the latest Fidelma mystery is a lovely pleasure to read, and a thrilling ride to take. Behold a Pale Horse does indeed feature death riding on a pale horse, over the mountains and valleys of northern Italy. Fidelma travels to the Abbey of Bobbio to visit her old mentor and finds evil in the air. Will she be able to track its source in time, using her sharp mind and dalaigh (lawyer) skills of observation, logical analysis, and conclusion? Or will the absence of her companion Eadulf cloud her mind, leaving her susceptible to possibly lethal errors of calculation?

In Behold a Pale Horse, Tremayne leads us on another enthralling journey through the supposedly Dark Ages, which in fact were much less dark than I ever supposed. Having read so many wonderful — and historically accurate — novels by Peter Tremayne, I have become enlightened as to life the seventh century, and, even better, I grow more wise about life in our twenty-first century. After all, keeping an open mind, separating religion from law, and celebrating love in all its forms are timeless lessons and eternal maxims. Keep up the time travel, Tremayne — and ride on, Sister Fidelma!

The Beautiful Mysteries of Louise Penny

A Readallday reader recommended Louise Penny to me over the summer, and with her new book, A Beautiful Mystery, coming out, I thought I’d dive right in.

“Oh, no,” the reader told me. “Start with the first book and read them through in order. You’ll want the order…”

She was absolutely right. I started with Still Life and over the past month have read — no, inhaled — the eight wonderful novels of Louise Penny and her Inspector Gamache: Still Life, A Fatal Grace, The Cruelest Month, A Rule Against Murder, The Brutal Telling, Bury Your Dead, A Trick of the Light, and A Beautiful Mystery.

Great novels, each one, and now I am left with the agony of waiting for the next installment. A whole year? I cannot wait that long! Write quickly, dear Ms. Penny, write quickly!

Penny’s novels are rich and full, intelligent and entertaining, and worthy of all the many awards they’ve garnered (including the Agatha Award for Best Novel, and the Dilys, Arthur Ellis, Anthony, Macavity, and Nero Awards).

Set in the province of Quebec, Penny uses the history of old Canada to set up her characters, and illustrate their differing personalities and backgrounds. She then takes on huge themes — memory, guilt, hope, love, friendship — that are amplified but never overtaken by the murder mystery the quietly heroic and hugely kind Inspector Gamache must solve, time after time — and time and again in the tiny but absolutely enchanting village of Three Pines, with its lively citizenry of artists, a poet (rude beyond belief but with a core of gold), a gay couple, a retired psychologist running a bookstore, and a slew of minor originals, including a young man nicknamed “Old” and his wife, nicknamed “the Wife.”

Not all the stories take place in Three Pines (there is only so much murder a small village can tolerate — or produce) and although at first I missed the small town atmosphere and charm (blooming bushes! crackling hearths! bottles of wine and loaves of bread and boards of cheese and long walks along the rustic river), Penny makes sure her characters eat well no matter where they are, and her writing guarantees that atmosphere never takes a back seat.

In her latest, The Beautiful Mystery, Gamache finds himself behind centuries-old stonewalls, soaking up the beauty of Gregorian chants and the ugliness of murder (along with the delights of rich stews, breads, cheeses, and wild blueberries dipped in dark chocolate). In Bury Your Dead, he is in Quebec City for Winter Carnival; but except for a few mentions of revelers and Caribou (a fatal drink made from vodka, brandy, sherry and port), the focus is on an old library of the tiny English community, and its connection to the hero of Quebec and French separatists, Samuel Champlain. Penny never skimps on her research of food, history, location, or psychology and the result is books that are absolutely addicting.

But not only are we drawn into Penny’s novels by the places and the food and the murder itself (always a bit strange and fascinating) but because Penny writes books about people whom we come to know as friends — compelling friends, who deserve our interest and ignite our caring.

With that caring comes pain. Not all of Penny’s characters come through the darkness imposed by murder and make it through to the light on the other side. Penny doesn’t write feel-good, frothy novels with everything falling neatly into place by the finish, but instead she creates real scenarios that expose the tolls exacted by real living, where good is not always rewarded and evil not always punished. Penny shows us that lives can be overtaken by the tolls of abuse, deceit, greed, and revenge — and lives lost.

I finish reading the novels of Louise Penny with feelings of great satisfaction, renewed awe, and just a bit of anxiety: She leaves a question (or two, or three) unanswered but persistent, and we poor readers must wait! We must wait for the next novel to find out how and where, when and if, justice will be delivered, love affirmed, and happiness awarded to those that have waited too long for it. Waiting, waiting — must I really wait a whole year to find out what happens next to Gamache, his sidekick Beauvoir, and the friends that surround them, the enemies that invade them?

Yes, I must wait. But in the meantime, I can reread the seven novels that came before. Because there are new clues to be found, I am sure; there are people to meet again, and see in a new light; and there are places to return to (food and hearth, wine and conversation!). And always, always there is murder. Awful murders, wonderful novels.

P.S. and warning: Penny does such a great job describing so many delicious meals and snacks and drinks, you will not be able to resist eating and drinking while reading her novels. I think I gained five pounds in blue cheese and red wine alone….

This post also appears on The Huffington Post.

Excitement at Sea: The Fulcrum Files

Mark Chisnell’s latest thriller, The Fulcrum Files, is a great e-book to add to your reading device — and make sure you take it to the beach, pool, or yard with you this weekend.  You are sure to find digital satisfaction, as The Fulcrum Files pleases sailing buffs, history aficionados, and espionage addicts, and anyone else yearning for a good, satisfying yarn.  With a love story thrown in for good measure and fascinating characters from up and down the British social ladder, The Fulcrum Files is a jolly good show.

Set in England just before World War II, the characters of The Fulcrum Files all bear, to a different degree, the scars of the last World War and no one is eager to repeat the taking-on of German military might.  Most in Britain believe Germany has been de-militarized and rendered powerless through the Treaty of Versailles but there are those who suspect a buildup is going on, under Hitler’s direction and Europe’s nose. Sailor Ben Clayton, pacifist and anti-war, wants only to continue his job working for the wealthy Harold Dunwood, building a racing yacht worthy of the Americas Cup and courting his lovely Lucy, daughter of a fisherman.

But when good friend and mentor Stanley Arbethwaite is killed in a bizarre accident, Ben gets caught up in an international spy game involving gambling, intimidation, weapons build-up, and murder. 

The Fulcrum Files reminded me of two old favorites of mine, Drink to Yesterday and Toast to Tomorrow, written by Manning Coles, the pen name of a duo who wrote twenty-two spy mysteries arising out of their own very real experiences spying for Britain during both World Wars.

Mark Chisnell has no spying experience, as far as I know, but he is a renowned sailor and his expertise comes through; joined with his riveting plotting and engaging characters, Chisnell provides a good read.  Another one of Chisnell’s novels, The Defector, is now just 99 cents from Amazon and I will be adding it to my Kindle, for more thrilling reading.

Aunt Dimity Delights, Again

I devoured Aunt Dimity and the Village Witch in two sittings. I offer my most grateful thanks to Nancy Atherton for providing yet another delightful foray into the village of Finch, set deep in the Cotswolds and peopled with gossips, artists, shopkeepers, and the unstoppable Lori Shepherd.

Finch is a sleepy town where nothing much happens but then again, so much does occur. No killings or kidnappings feature in the Aunt Dimity series, but rather mysteries of a more prosaic nature take place, more or less front and center, or at least front and center to the curious and energetic Lori. In Aunt Dimity and the Village Witch, the mystery circles around the presence of a witch in 1600s Fitch — and the present time memoir of her existence, hidden in bits and pieces around the village. Will Lori find the missing manuscript? You betcha.

I’ve loved Aunt Dimity since my first reading Aunt Dimity’s Death — and encourage all readers of English cottage comfort books to jump in and find the magic — you won’t be disappointed.