Review: Glass Houses by Louise Penny

Review: Glass Houses by Louise PennyGlass Houses (Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, #13) by Louise Penny
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss, publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, suspense, thriller
Series: Chief Inspector Armand Gamache #13
Pages: 400
Published by Minotaur Books on August 29th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository

When a mysterious figure appears on the village green on a cold November day in Three Pines, Armand Gamache, now Chief Superintendent of the Sûreté du Québec, knows something is seriously wrong. Yet he does nothing. Legally, what can he do? Only watch and wait. And hope his mounting fears are not realized.
From the moment its shadow falls over Three Pines, Gamache suspects the creature has deep roots and a dark purpose. When it suddenly vanishes and a body is discovered, it falls to Gamache to discover if a debt has been paid or levied.
In the early days of the investigation into the murder, and months later, as the trial for the accused begins in a Montreal courtroom on a steamy day in July, the Chief Superintendent continues to struggle with actions he’s set in motion, from which there is no going back. “This case began in a higher court,” he tells the judge, “and it’s going to end there.”
And regardless of the trial’s outcome, he must face his own conscience.
In her latest utterly gripping book, number-one New York Times bestselling author Louise Penny shatters the conventions of the crime novel to explore what Gandhi called the court of conscience. A court that supersedes all others.

My Review:

I started Glass Houses while waiting for the eclipse to reach totality. And read it all the way home (there was a LOT of traffic). For this reader, the new Gamache book each year is every bit as much of a fascinating treat as the eclipse, with the added bonus that there’s a Gamache book every year, while the next eclipse won’t happen over the U.S. for another seven years.

I was not disappointed in either event.

As with several of the books in this series, Glass Houses is about more than it seems, and has its roots far back in the past. Not just Gamache’s past, but the past of the Sûreté du Québec, the agency that he loves, and to which he has given his life and his career.

How the Light Gets In by Louise PennyThere’s a saying that “the fish rots from the head down”. In many of the previous books in this series, culminating in How the Light Gets In, Gamache, while solving normal cases, or as normal as anything gets in Three Pines, is in the middle of getting rid of that rot, no matter the cost. And even though he does manage to get to the heart of the corruption, the fish has been rotting for 30 years. That rot has done a lot of damage, not just to the Sûreté, but to the people of Quebec.

The rotting fish was on the take. Unfortunately, not really a surprise. But what comes as a terrible surprise to Gamache and his inner circle is the terrible result of that rot, that taking. As this story begins, Gamache is now the head of the entire Sûreté du Québec, and not merely his own little corner in the Homicide Division. And what he has discovered is that the rot has gone on too long, and that it was rooted too deeply in the drug trade.

They’ve already lost the War on Drugs. They’ve passed the tipping point, and there’s no going back. Unless Gamache and his inner circle are willing to risk everything on one last throw of the dice. If they are willing to sacrifice  their reputations their careers and even their lives on one final million to one chance. If they can lure the drug kingpins, the snakes in their grass, into one final, fatal error.

Winner take all.

Escape Rating A: As so many of the books in this series, Glass Houses begins in Three Pines, that lost village near the U.S. border. And, also like many of the books in this series, it starts small. Someone is standing in the middle of the village green, black robed and black masked, terrorizing the village. Not by doing anything menacing, but simply by standing there, unmoved and unmoving, watching everyone in the village.

It, whatever it is, is there for someone. But whoever it is there to accuse, or warn, or menace, it is terrorizing everyone in the village with its ominous faceless gaze. And Gamache, now a full-time resident of Three Pines, can do nothing. Not that he doesn’t want to, but he really can’t. Standing on the village green in a mask is not illegal by itself. But when someone dies by its hand, or because of its presence, only then can he act. When it is seemingly too late.

The trial that results, from beginning to end, is a farce. But a farce with a purpose. Gamache and his colleagues, his co-conspirators, are ready to spring their trap. That they must subvert the cause of justice in order to save it is just one of the many tragedies wrapped inside this utterly compelling story.

Gamache is, as always, a fascinating character to watch. Although some of the early books in the series, beginning with Still Life, seem like more traditional mysteries than the later ones, there has always been a psychological element to the stories. Gamache solves crimes by searching for the why first. He’s a thoughtful observer, always looking for the thing or the person out of place. Once he knows why a crime occurred, from there he determines the who and the how. And the answers are never the obvious ones – and neither are his solutions.

(If this type of mystery appeals, then also try Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs series. Maisie, like Gamache, looks for why because she searches out who and how. And her stories always have a deeper underlayer below the surface mystery, as does Gamache’s story)

A huge element of what makes this series so marvelous is the village of Three Pines and its quirky inhabitants, including Gamache and his wife Reine-Marie. Added to the mix of villagers (and often well-stirred into that mix) are Gamache’s two principal lieutenants, Jean-Guy Beauvoir, his second-in-command at the Sûreté as well as his son-in-law, and Isabelle Lacoste, his handpicked successor in the Homicide Division.

For those of us who have followed this series from its beginning in Still Life, we know these people intimately. They are all old friends, and it is always wonderful to see them, even in the midst of yet another crisis. Their friendship provides support for Gamache, as well as surprising insights into events. There is always an undercurrent of wry humor, no matter how serious the case, and that humor is rooted in how well we know these people, and just how well they know each other. And how much they care. Just as we do.

They are all FINE, as the crazed poet Ruth Zardo puts it. Where FINE is an abbreviation for Fucked up, Insecure, Neurotic and Egotistical. Because aren’t we all?

Review: Another Man’s Ground by Claire Booth + Giveaway

Review: Another Man’s Ground by Claire Booth + GiveawayAnother Man's Ground (Sheriff Hank Worth, #2) by Claire Booth
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: mystery
Series: Sheriff Hank Worth #2
Pages: 320
Published by Minotaur Books on July 11th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository

The next taut, witty mystery featuring Branson, MO’s new sheriff Hank Worth from acclaimed author Claire Booth.
Called out to investigate the theft of elm tree bark (who knew it made a valuable herbal supplement?), Branson, MO Sheriff Hank Worth meets the talkative and combustible property owner, Vern Miles, who is trying to make enough money off the land he just inherited to pay the taxes on it.
The thieves have stripped so much of the bark that the trees are now dying, so Miles decides to go ahead and cut the whole grove down. The only thing is, he uses undocumented workers to do it, and when Hank and Sam stop by the clearing in the woods to check on things, the whole crew takes off like a flock of birds. One unfortunate runaway laborer tumbles into a deep crevice and lands on not one, but two bodies—a month-old rotten corpse and a decades-old child skeleton.
Hank suddenly finds himself in the midst of two separate murder investigations, not to mention tree bark theft, all while running for re-election as county sheriff.

My Review:

I really like slightly beleaguered Sheriff Hank Worth, to the point where I just spent a good fifteen minutes trying to figure out whether there will be a third book in this terrific new mystery series.

Alas, that is still a mystery, so in the meantime, let’s explore Another Man’s Ground.

There are two stories in Another Man’s Ground and those stories compete with Hank’s, and the reader’s, attention from beginning to end.

Hank is not merely the new sheriff of Branson County, but he is also merely filling out the remaining term of the previously elected sheriff, recently promoted to the state senate. To remain the sheriff, and remain in Branson, Hank needs to run for election. But he absolutely hates everything about politicking. He wants to solve crimes and keep people safe, not make speeches and curry favor with local politicians. He hates making speeches and he detests a good chunk of the local politicians, and with good reason.

But he is the best man for the job – his competition, one of his own deputies, is no good as a deputy and absolutely in the pockets of the politicians. He doesn’t want to actually do the job, he just wants the perquisites.

Hank’s future isn’t the only one that’s riding on this election, either, which just adds to the pressure. He and his wife Maggie moved back to her Branson hometown after her mother died of cancer. Maggie’s family has lived in Branson for three generations, which still doesn’t quite make her “one of the locals”, but close, especially since her late mother was an absolutely beloved school principal in town.

Hank needs to stay in Branson. Maggie is now a surgeon at the local hospital, and her dad, Duncan, needs them around. Equally, they need him, because he’s the one taking care of their kids while they are both working all the hours of the day and night.

Hank’s chief deputy needs him to win the election, because she’ll be lucky just to be relegated to jail guard duty for the rest of her life if Hank loses. The good-old-boys really, really don’t like Sheila, because she’s smart, gifted, female and black. They’ll make her life hell if Hank is out of their way.

And into the middle of all of the election shenanigans, a murder case drops on Hank’s head. Or rather, someone running from the scene of what seems to be an entirely different crime drops on the murder victim’s head – along with the rest of his messily decaying corpse.

In the process of investigating the crime scene where “Rotten Doe’s” body is found (this corpse is particularly ripe), Hank and his technicians uncover another body buried under the first one. The second victim becomes “Child Doe”. While no one seems to mourn “Rotten” very much, everyone grieves “Child Doe”, including the six local families with long-unsolved missing children’s cases.

The two corpses lead Hank and his team on a not-so-merry foray into not just one but two of Branson County’s long-standing hot spots. The Kinney property, where the body is found, and the Taylor compound. Jasper Kinney is the last of a long line of local landowners who once had a lot of power and a lot of clout, and still seem to, mostly out of inherited fear among the locals. The Taylors are just no good – every member of the family has a long rap sheet. The sheriff’s department has always been sure they were cooking meth somewhere on their property, but never had probably cause to search.

Now they do. And when they do, things go tragically wrong, just as so many of the decisions that Hank makes on this case do. But in the end, he figures out the solution. Delivering it is something else again.

Escape Rating A-: I have squeed a lot about this book. I did about the previous book, The Branson Beauty, too. I think I just like the characters, and enjoy watching them work.

I also don’t think you absolutely have to read The Branson Beauty to get into Another Man’s Ground, but who can resist any book that starts with half the crew humming the Gilligan’s Island theme, and with good reason?

The case that sucks Hank and his team in was a real page turner. There was so much going on, so many tempting red herrings, and so much local history that Hank can’t help stepping in. Everything goes way back, and it all matters.

I also enjoyed the way that the case starts rather small and slightly crazy. It begins with tree bark, segues into rising prices for herbal remedies, takes a detour through illegal immigration, trips over drug trafficking, and crashes through a long-simmering feud that feels also too much like the Hatfields versus the McCoys. All while Hank is desperately trying to solve two murders and not totally screw up his election prospects. It’s a daunting challenge.

I will say that when the focus was on the mutating ramifications of the original cases, I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough. But when it came to the campaign shenanigans, like Hank himself, the events and incidents seem to take forever to finish, even when nobody screws up. I may have felt for Hank just a bit too much in those scenes, because I’d want to be out of there just as badly as he did.

But the way the mystery unfolded, and the way it was finally solved, well, that will keep me hunting for Hank’s next outing.

~~~~~~ GIVEAWAY ~~~~~~

I’m giving away a copy of Another Man’s Ground to one lucky US/Canadian commenter. I hope the winner enjoys this series as much as I do!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

This post is part of a TLC book tour. Click on the logo for more reviews and features.

Review: The Branson Beauty by Claire Booth

Review: The Branson Beauty by Claire BoothThe Branson Beauty (Sheriff Hank Worth, #1) by Claire Booth
Format: ebook
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: mystery
Series: Sheriff Hank Worth #1
Pages: 310
Published by Minotaur Books on July 19th 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository

The Branson Beauty, an old showboat, has crashed in the waters of an Ozark mountain lake just outside the popular tourist destination of Branson, Missouri. More than one hundred people are trapped aboard. Hank Worth is still settling into his new role as county sheriff, and when he responds to the emergency call, he knows he’s in for a long winter day of helping elderly people into rafts and bringing them ashore. He realizes that he’ll face anxiety, arguments, and extra costs for emergency equipment that will stretch the county’s already thin budget to the breaking point.
But he is absolutely not expecting to discover high school track star Mandy Bryson’s body locked inside the Captain’s private dining room. Suddenly, Hank finds himself embroiled in a murder investigation, with the county commissioner breathing down his neck and the threat of an election year ahead of him. And as he wades deeper into the investigation, Hank starts to realize he’s up against a web of small town secrets much darker and more tangled than he could have ever imagined.
In her captivating debut novel, Claire Booth has created a broad cast of wonderfully compelling characters, and she perfectly blends humor with the emotional drama and heartache of a murder investigation.

My Review:

The Branson Beauty is an old paddle-wheel showboat, and the book about the events of her last cruise will stick the reader as fast between its pages as the poor old boat is stuck to the shoal its grounded on.

It really was supposed to be a “three-hour tour”, so when the Branson Beauty runs aground, and her passengers find themselves stranded aboard for much, much longer, the number of rescue workers who end up humming the Gilligan’s Island theme seem inevitable. Also hilarious.

But Sheriff Hank Worth stops finding any humor in the situation when he discovers the ship’s captain comatose and locked inside his piloting cabin. The situation turns downright grim when the Sheriff discovers the dead body of a local track star locked inside the captain’s private dining room.

Mandy Bryson was supposed to be away at college in Norman Oklahoma, running track and studying English at Oklahoma University, not dead on an aging cruise ship with finger-shaped bruises clearly circling her throat.

Worth is literally the new sheriff in town. When the previous sheriff moved up to the state legislature, his term as sheriff needed to be filled. Hank, an experienced officer from Kansas City, thought he was ready for a management role. He was certainly ready to move from KC to Branson, where his father-in-law was available to serve as a live-in babysitter for Hank and his wife Maggie’s children. Maggie is on constant call as a surgeon in the local hospital, and Hank’s hours as sheriff are far from predictable at the best of times. Her father needs a bit of their help, and they need heaping helpings of his.

Between the grounding of a local institution, and the murder of a home-town heroine, Hank has his hands overfull. This is his first homicide in Branson, and the first local homicide in a long time that wasn’t a screamingly easy case to solve of drug deals gone wrong or domestic battery gone deadly.

This case is a puzzle from beginning to end, not because the victim had no enemies, but because there are too many competing means, motives and even crimes for Hank to zero in on what parts thwarted young love, stalking, affluenza and insurance fraud played in Mandy’s death.

Or perhaps all of them did.

Escape Rating A-: This one grabbed me from the first undertone hum of “a three-hour tour” and didn’t let me go until I turned the final page. The mystery at the heart of this story kept me turning pages every spare minute all day long.

And that mystery is convoluted as it unfolds, but makes complete sense once it is all revealed. It kept me guessing from beginning to end. The red herrings are all delicious, and all the more convincing for often being partially correct while not necessarily contributing to the solution of the whole.

The author also does an excellent job of conveying the depths of the grief and sadness that consumes not just the family but the whole small community when a young and promising life is cut short so senselessly.

But The Branson Beauty, in addition to being a crackerjack mystery, is also the first book in a new series, and has to introduce its setting and its characters, preparing readers for the stories yet to come. We need to learn who these people are, and why we should care about what happens to them.

In that regard, The Branson Beauty is off to a good start, but there is plenty of work yet to do. This case is overwhelming, and Hank Worth is often overwhelmed by it as well as the responsibilities he has taken on as the sheriff of Branson. He’s still adjusting to his new job and to the small town politics he now must contend with. When his appointment is up in a few short months, Hank will need to run for re-election. To do that he not only has to please his constituents, but has to learn to play with the politicians who are both his peers and his rivals, and in some cases even his bosses. The county commissioners, after all, set his budget.

So while there’s a murder to be solved, that’s not the only crime that Hank uncovers, nor is it the only trail he has to follow. Some of those trails lead him into the murky undergrowth of political corruption and influence peddling, and the reality that the county’s biggest employer has too many ways of influencing people and institutions to look the other way as he bends and even breaks the law. Hank has a tough road ahead of him, and he’s only taken the first steps – possibly even the wrong ones.

The one place where The Branson Beauty needs a little work is in the development of the characters who inhabit Hank’s world. Only one member of his police force stands out, and only because she seems to be the lone female in the ranks, even if she is Hank’s second-in-command. Likewise, it took me quite a ways into the book to figure out whether the female at home Hank referred to was his wife or his daughter, and what she did and where she fit. (It’s his wife and she’s as overworked as he is) I left the story still not certain what the precipitating event was that sent Hank and Maggie to Branson, but I know there was one. I’m looking forward to discovering the answers to all these questions and more in future books. The next book in the series, Another Man’s Ground, is already on my reading schedule this month.

While the boat may have run aground, the story never does. It chugs along quickly and compellingly from its comic opera beginnings to its inevitably sad but ultimately satisfying resolution. I can’t wait to see what mystery Hank has to solve next.

Review: The Daughter of Sherlock Holmes by Leonard Goldberg

Review: The Daughter of Sherlock Holmes by Leonard GoldbergThe Daughter of Sherlock Holmes by Leonard Goldberg
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical mystery
Pages: 320
Published by Minotaur Books on June 6th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository

1910. Joanna Blalock unknowingly is the product of a sole assignation between the late Sherlock Holmes and Irene Adler. After the nurse and her ten-year-old son see a man fall to his death in an apparent suicide, elderly Dr. John Watson and his charming handsome son Dr. John Watson Jr. invite her to join their detective team. From hidden treasure to the Second Afghan War of 1878-1880, the group devise an ingenious plan to catch a murderer in the act while dodging Scotland Yard the British aristocracy.

My Review:

This book is absolutely charming, and I was utterly charmed.

The title does give just a bit of it away, as well as the reason why I picked it up in the first place. I find Sherlock Holmes pastiches completely irresistible, and with that title, well, it couldn’t be anything but. The protagonists of this lovely little mystery are the esteemed Dr. John H. Watson, friend and chronicler of the original Sherlock Holmes stories, his son, John H. Watson the younger, also a physician, and Mrs. Joanna Blalock, the aforementioned daughter of the, by this point in time, late and very Great Detective.

This is story for those who love the Holmes stories, but don’t mind playing a bit with the stories and the characters. While the mystery itself is a callback both to The Adventure of the Dancing Men and particularly to The Adventure of the Empty House. This case in our present story parallels much of Empty House, most especially in their villains. Just as our detective is Holmes’ daughter, our villain is Sebastian Moran’s son.

And Inspector Lestrade’s son is now himself a Scotland Yard detective. And the son is just as willing to let an easy solution lay, and to allow Holmes’ daughter to solve the case while he takes the official credit, as ever his father was with hers.

Some things never change, and that is definitely part of the charm of this story.

The case itself stems from the Second Afghan War, where Watson Sr. and both Morans served. (A war that seems to never end. Dr. Watson in the contemporary Sherlock series was also wounded in the Afghan War).

But in this case, a young man appears to have committed suicide while playing cards with Dr. Christopher Moran, and losing disastrously. His family does not believe that it was suicide, even though they absolutely cannot believe that their son’s good friend Dr. Moran could possibly have had anything to do with it.

Mrs. Joanna Blalock, a friend of the family, finds herself at Dr. Watson’s door, which is still 221b Baker Street, in search of assistance with the case. Watson knows precisely who she is, and is more than willing to assist her in her endeavors, first by cudgeling his memory, and second by assisting her with her case – with the help of his son, who is smitten with the young widow.

As the case unravels we follow this intrepid trio, as chronicled by Dr. Watson the younger, as they form a tight-knit partnership and eventually solve this string of terrible murders that would have all passed as accidents without their timely assistance.

The case is a worthy successor to the canon from which it sprang.

Escape Rating A-: This was the right book at the right time. The Daughter of Sherlock Holmes was calling my name from the top of my TBR pile, and I simply decided to answer the call. I fell right into this Edwardian continuation of the Holmes stories, and I sincerely hope that there are more.

As far as the Holmes canon goes, it has to be said that this story ignores the events of His Last Bow, the final Sherlock Holmes story which is set on the eve of the First World War. The Daughter of Sherlock Holmes is set in 1910, and by this point in its history, Holmes has been dead for several years.

But one part of the canon that is surprisingly tastefully handled is the birth, or rather the creation, of his daughter Joanna. Yes, Irene Adler was her mother. It’s nearly always Irene Adler when someone tries to continue the Holmes tradition by providing him with a child. The problem is that Holmes in the original stories is such a cold and seemingly unemotional character. It is difficult to imagine that thinking machine indulging in the pleasures of the flesh, let alone having a torrid, or even a tepid, affair.

The problem is often handled by changing some of the nature of Holmes, making the actual person of Holmes a considerably warmer character than the fictional version, and this is not implausible. The author of this story takes another tack. Here, we have Joanna as essentially the product of a one-night stand between two lonely people who mostly valued each other for their minds. It feels more plausible than some of the other possibilities.

One of the other parts of the story that is handled well is the inclusion of both Drs. Watson. Watson Sr. is in his 80s, and time and age are catching up to him. But he lives at 221b and occasionally helps people who still drop by searching for Holmes. It is not an attempt to recapture past glory. Instead, as he says himself, it is out of a desire to remain relevant. The case presented by Joanna Blalock provides him with that. It takes all three of them to solve this puzzle and Watson Sr. feels not merely relevant, but invigorated. It was good to see this often undersung sidekick get one last chance to shine.

I truly hope that this is the start of a series, because I want MORE!

Review: The White Mirror by Elsa Hart

Review: The White Mirror by Elsa HartThe White Mirror (Li Du Novels #2) by Elsa Hart
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: historical mystery
Series: Li Du #2
Pages: 320
Published by Minotaur Books on September 6th 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository

In The White Mirror, the follow-up to Elsa Hart’s critically acclaimed debut, Jade Dragon Mountain, Li Du, an imperial librarian and former exile in 18th century China, is now an independent traveler. He is journeying with a trade caravan bound for Lhasa when a detour brings them to a valley hidden between mountain passes. On the icy planks of a wooden bridge, a monk sits in contemplation. Closer inspection reveals that the monk is dead, apparently of a self-inflicted wound. His robes are rent, revealing a strange symbol painted on his chest.
When the rain turns to snow, the caravan is forced to seek hospitality from the local lord while they wait for the storm to pass. The dead monk, Li Du soon learns, was a reclusive painter. According to the family, his bizarre suicide is not surprising, given his obsession with the demon world. But Li Du is convinced that all is not as it seems. Why did the caravan leader detour to this particular valley? Why does the lord’s heir sleep in the barn like a servant? And who is the mysterious woman traveling through the mountain wilds?
Trapped in the snow, surrounded by secrets and an unexplained grief that haunts the manor, Li Du cannot distract himself from memories he’s tried to leave behind. As he discovers irrefutable evidence of the painter’s murder and pieces together the dark circumstances of his death, Li Du must face the reason he will not go home and, ultimately, the reason why he must.

My Review:

jade dragon mountain by elsa hartIn this second story of the travels of Li Du, exiled Imperial Librarian, he has traveled far from the Court he left behind. But even in this remote mountain valley, it is still very much with him, and not just in his bittersweet memories.

At the end of the marvelous Jade Dragon Mountain, Li Du leaves China intending to travel to Lhasa. Even though his exile has been revoked after the services he renders to the Emperor in that tale, he still feels the urge to travel.

But the further he gets from his home, the more he longs for it. And the more that the mysteries he left behind beckon him to return.

Before that can happen, if it can happen, Li Du must first confront the mysteries that have arisen on his journey. His caravan has been taken off the beaten path, to a remote mountain village, for no reason that he can determine.

And as they reach their destination, Li Du finds himself in the middle of another murder mystery. Just as in Jade Dragon Mountain, Li Du has found another dead priest. But this time, the priest he has found is a Tibetan monk and not a Jesuit priest.

Not that there isn’t a Jesuit involved in this mess, because there is. But this time the Westerner is neither the victim nor the perpetrator. He is lost on a mission of his own. And he is just plain lost.

As the valley is covered in snow, the caravan is stuck waiting for the thaw. And Li Du finds himself incapable of letting the matter rest. The locals want to believe that the bizarre death of the priest is suicide, in spite of many, many clues that make that verdict a bit difficult to swallow. But no one wants to talk about murder.

Except Li Du, and his friend the storyteller Hamza. Li Du may be in pursuit of the truth, but Hamza seems to be looking for a good story. And he tells a bunch of them as he assists his friend.

At first, it seems as if this village murder is a local crime for local reasons. It is all too obvious that someone has designs on the local landowner, his holdings and his pretty wife. There’s a ready made villain, but not one who would have had a reason to kill the more than a bit crazy priest.

Li Du is forced to look far far afield for the reasons behind this crime. He may have left the Imperial Court, but its intrigues have found him. It is up to him to solve the crime before it claims more victims, or before the snow melts and he is forced to leave it all behind.

Escape Rating A-: This story started a bit slower for me than the utterly awesome Jade Dragon Mountain. In the end, I enjoyed The White Mirror very much indeed, but I missed the machinations of the court that permeated the action in the first book. The more this story reached out beyond its remote mountain setting, the faster it flew and the more I loved it.

There are so many delicious red herrings scattered through this snowy landscape. There is some obvious skullduggery going on between the landowner, his wife and his cousin. In that piece of the story there’s a fascinating amount of information about the way that the Dalai Lama and other Lamas are chosen. And how easily that process can be manipulated for both personal and political ends.

At first, it seems as if the current mystery is part of a conspiracy to make the wrong boy a lama, and a different but  equally wrong boy the heir to the household. It’s tragic that both young men have found themselves in situations to which they are not suited, and part of the solution to the crime allows them an opportunity to figure out who they are really meant to be.

But the mystery in The White Mirror, just like the one in Jade Dragon Mountain, involves wheels within wheels, and plots surrounded by counterplots. By the end of the story, we discover that no one is quite who they initially pretended to be. Removing their masks and discovering their true loyalties is what allows Li Du to finally determine not just who murdered the monk, but also why it was done. And just how far the tentacles spread.

And as he unravels the tangled threads, he also unravels the tangle of his own life. Not that he finds a solution to the issues that drove him into exile, but that he finally learns that the only way he can truly solve that mystery is to return to where it all began. He turns for home.

Review: A Great Reckoning by Louise Penny

Review: A Great Reckoning by Louise PennyA Great Reckoning (Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, #12) by Louise Penny
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery
Series: Chief Inspector Armand Gamache #12
Pages: 400
Published by Minotaur Books on August 30th 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository

The next novel in Louise Penny's #1 New York Times bestselling series featuring Chief Inspector Armand Gamache.
When an intricate old map is found stuffed into the walls of the bistro in Three Pines, it at first seems no more than a curiosity. But the closer the villagers look, the stranger it becomes.
Given to Armand Gamache as a gift the first day of his new job, the map eventually leads him to shattering secrets. To an old friend and older adversary. It leads the former Chief of Homicide for the Sûreté du Québec to places even he is afraid to go. But must.
And there he finds four young cadets in the Sûreté academy, and a dead professor. And, with the body, a copy of the old, odd map.
Everywhere Gamache turns, he sees Amelia Choquet, one of the cadets. Tattooed and pierced. Guarded and angry. Amelia is more likely to be found on the other side of a police line-up. And yet she is in the academy. A protégée of the murdered professor.
The focus of the investigation soon turns to Gamache himself and his mysterious relationship with Amelia, and his possible involvement in the crime. The frantic search for answers takes the investigators back to Three Pines and a stained glass window with its own horrific secrets.
For both Amelia Choquet and Armand Gamache, the time has come for a great reckoning.
#1 New York Times bestselling author Louise Penny pulls back the layers to reveal a brilliant and emotionally powerful truth in her latest spellbinding novel.

My Review:

In this 12th book in the Chief Inspector Gamache series, maps ARE magic. And everyone is fine. Sometimes just fine but all too often FINE, poet Ruth Zardo’s acronym meaning “Fucked-up, Insecure, Neurotic, and Egotistical.”

nature of the beast by louise pennyAt the end of the utterly marvelous The Nature of the Beast, Gamache (and the reader) are left with several burning questions. Only one of those questions gets answered in A Great Reckoning. It’s the question of what will Armand Gamache, retired Chief of the Homicide Division of the Sûreté du Québec, do for a second act? Gamache is in his late 50s, and still has more than enough time to make his mark on another service.

And there are plenty of services interested in letting him do just that. Not just in Canada, but internationally as well. In the end, he chooses to finish what he started in A Fatal Grace and brought to an explosive conclusion in How the Light Gets In. He has cleaned up the rot at the top of the Sûreté du Québec, but there is still a cesspool left at the bottom. Or at the beginning.

The corruption at the top wanted to make sure that it would continue to flourish for decades. The way to do that was to create new agents to fill in the ranks of those fallen by one wayside or another. The late and unlamented head of the Sûreté appointed his own agent to run the Sûreté Academy, thus ensuring an endless pipeline of young agents who had been trained to see the people they were supposed to serve as an enemy to be beaten and brutalized at every turn.

Gamache takes the position of Commander of the Academy, to root out the last vestiges of that rot. While he fires many of the corrupt “old guard” he leaves a few in place, under the principle of keeping his friends close and his enemies much closer.

But he doesn’t watch them carefully enough. He thinks he’s starting to get a handle on what has gone wrong. Some of the freshmen, at least, can be saved. But only if Gamache figures out exactly how deep and disgusting the merde is before it swallows both the Academy and himself whole.

By the time a corpse floats up out of the stink, it is almost, but not quite, too late.

Escape Rating A+: I finished this is less than a day. Just like so many books in this series, once I started, I couldn’t put it down.

There is always a mordant sense of humor in this series, Some of that is born from the situations, but much comes out of the very diverse characters that populate Gamache’s world and the village of Three Pines. Because we already love these people, even the frequently profane and generally misanthropic poet Ruth Zardo, the way that they interact with each other, the teasing and bantering that comes of long and loving friendship, brings a chuckle at the most unlikely of places.

still life by louise pennyThis is a series that rewards readers who start from the very beginning with Still Life. (Do not take the short cut of watching the made-for-TV movie instead of reading the book. This is a case where the movie does not remotely live up to the book. It’s not awful, but it isn’t really Gamache or Three Pines)

We start out with two mysteries, one seems new, and one is long-standing. In the end, both mysteries have been years in the making. And there’s a third, which we discover that we should have expected all along, but don’t even realize until near the end.

There has always been a mystery surrounding the village of Three Pines. It appears on no map. None. GPS can’t find it. There is no internet service and no satellite coverage. This seems like magic, or perhaps fantasy, but is nevertheless true. So when Reine-Marie Gamache finds a map to Three Pines among the detritus excavated from the walls of the bistro when it was redecorated, questions about the map spring up like weeds. Who drew this map? And why are there no others?

Gamache, in what seems like an attempt to engage some of the more disaffected students, assigns two seniors and two freshman the task of unraveling the mystery of the map and its origins.

When the much-feared and extremely corrupt former second-in-command at the Academy is found dead in his rooms with a copy of the map at his bedside table, the former and current purposes of the map take on sinister overtones. While it seems that Gamache continues the cadets’ assignment in order to keep them busy and safe in Three Pines, he always has a secondary and tertiary reason for everything he does.

And he really does want to solve this particular mystery. But not half as much as he needs to figure out who murdered Serge Leduc. Because someone seems determined to pin the murder on him. And while Gamache did not murder the slime, the more he uncovers about exactly what Leduc was doing to the cadets, the more he knows that he could have. Even his closest friends begin to suspect him.

In the end, this is a case that reaches back to the very beginnings of Gamache’s life, and who and what made him into the person he is. It is also a story that reminds us that the barbarian is not at the gates, but that we have already, perhaps unwittingly, let him in.

There’s a lesson in this story,as there often is in this series. In this case, it all boils down to, “Don’t believe everything you think.” You’ll think about that long after you close the book. I know I am.

Review: Jade Dragon Mountain by Elsa Hart

Review: Jade Dragon Mountain by Elsa HartJade Dragon Mountain by Elsa Hart
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery
Pages: 336
Published by Minotaur Books on September 1st 2015
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository

On the mountainous border of China and Tibet in 1708, a detective must learn what a killer already knows: that empires rise and fall on the strength of the stories they tell.
Li Du was an imperial librarian. Now he is an exile. Arriving in Dayan, the last Chinese town before the Tibetan border, he is surprised to find it teeming with travelers, soldiers, and merchants. All have come for a spectacle unprecedented in this remote province: an eclipse of the sun commanded by the Emperor himself.
When a Jesuit astronomer is found murdered in the home of the local magistrate, blame is hastily placed on Tibetan bandits. But Li Du suspects this was no random killing. Everyone has secrets: the ambitious magistrate, the powerful consort, the bitter servant, the irreproachable secretary, the East India Company merchant, the nervous missionary, and the traveling storyteller who can't keep his own story straight.
Beyond the sloping roofs and festival banners, Li Du can see the mountain pass that will take him out of China forever. He must choose whether to leave, and embrace his exile, or to stay, and investigate a murder that the town of Dayan seems all too willing to forget.

I absolutely loved this book. I was swept away instantly, and remained fully immersed in the author’s world until the very last, reluctantly turned, page.

Jade Dragon Mountain reminds me of The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco, but upon analysis, I am not sure why. That I read The Name of the Rose 30 years ago does not help the comparison. But the feeling is still there.

While Rose has a library at its heart, the investigator in Jade, Li Du, is a librarian. And an exiled librarian at that, forced to leave his post at the Imperial Library in Beijing because he allowed a traitor to do research at the library. Li Du was never part of the conspiracy, he seems to have been a bit of collateral damage.

But he has found his calling as a scholar wanderer, roaming the roads and small villages of the Chinese Empire in 1708 to discover whether all the travel journals he read while at his post contain truth, or are composed mostly of hyperbole. In the middle of his wanderings he comes to remote Yunnan province in the southwestern portion of the Empire. Yunnan is one of the great tea producing regions of China, and it was in 18th century China as much as it is today.

Li Du comes to Dayan, the capital of the province, to check in with the local magistrate, as is required by his sentence of exile. Fortunately for Li Du, the magistrate of the province is his cousin. Unfortunately for Li Du, Dayan is about to receive an unprecedented visit from the Emperor who exiled him. The Emperor has predicted that there will be a lunar eclipse, visible in Dayan, in just a few days.

The prediction was made a year ago, in secret consultation with Jesuit astronomers. It takes an entire year to travel from Beijing to Dayan, but the Emperor considered the journey worth the investment of time. Yunnan Province has only recently been brought fully under the Manchu Empire, and there are still pockets of resistance. The ceremony of the fulfillment of the Emperor’s prediction will do much to showcase his divinity and the pre-eminence of his empire.

If the entire ceremony isn’t derailed by the death of one old Jesuit scholar, who has come to Dayan, like so many other foreigners, for a brief glimpse of the otherwise closed Celestial Empire. While everyone in the provincial palace is bent on sweeping the crime and the old man’s body under the carpet, Li Du is unwilling to let the truth rest in an untended grave.

Because Li Du, wandering scholar, is certain that the old priest was murdered. He is reluctantly, and with many threats of punishment, given 6 days to find the murderer before the Emperor arrives.

He has barely enough time to solve the case. The questions are the eternal ones, who benefits from this man’s death, and who benefits from covering it up, and most tellingly, who benefits from covering it up in the particular way that it is done. In the process of his investigation, Li Du finds motives upon motives, and a killer lurking in the most unlikely place.

And he very nearly does not find out enough.

Escape Rating A+: This story takes place at an absolutely fascinating point in history. In 1708, the Qing Dynasty, known more popularly in the West as the Manchu Dynasty, was in power. But the days of the previous dynasty, the Ming Dynasty, are still within living memory, although just barely. The Ming and their supporters still considered the Manchu barbarian outsiders, and there were still rebellious impulses. The Yunnan Province, while it had been part of China for centuries, had only been very loosely governed from Beijing until the later Manchu. The previous provincial royal family had been decimated, but they and their adherents were still around.

Also, the wealth of China and its markets was completely closed to the West at this point. The British East India Company was extremely powerful, and was absolutely salivating at the possibility of entering China to engage in their own unique brand of conquest through economic hegemony. The First Opium War is still in the future. Considering the way things were already going in India, resistance may have been futile, but it was well worth fighting.

So the story centers around one of the rare occasions when China was open, if not to the West, then at least to certain select Westerners who could pay tribute to the Emperor and make their case for more access. And because this festival is taking place in a far-flung province, there is even more opportunity than usual for nefarious double-dealings and attempts to change the state of affairs, or overthrow them all together. It is also an unprecedented opportunity for officials in the province to have a chance to catch the eye of the Emperor, and perhaps gain future influence and position back in the capital.

In other words, everyone is a stranger or an outsider, security is in disarray, and every man and woman is out for their own interests. It’s a great place for a murderer to hide in plain sight.

Li Du is both a fascinating and an enigmatic character. We know very little about him, only that he has been exiled from the capital for not being rigorous enough in his observations of researchers working in the library. But his exile has put him in the position of being both an insider and an outsider in his cousin’s province. Li Du knows the things that are supposed to be said in public, as opposed to what is known and believed in private, but he is also in a position where he doesn’t have to care. He’s already been punished.

He serves the truth. And he rightfully fears that if the death of the old Jesuit was murder, that sweeping his death under the carpet leaves a murderer on the loose. He is a dogged investigator, but he has no modern forensics to work with. So in the end, he studies the crime, it’s motives, and even more, the motives for covering it up. In the end, it is all about stories. Not just because his friend and assistant is a professional storytelling, but because it is the way that this crime is meant to tell a particular story in a particular way that leads to the killer.

That it just doesn’t lead far enough makes for a surprising, and surprisingly satisfying, conclusion to the mystery, and finally wraps all of the events and their motives into a neat little package.