‘The Murder Stone’ by Louise Penny (Gamache #4)

Louise Penny’s books are a cut above. They are well written and thoughtful as well as compelling and mysterious. And as with any series, getting to know the usual cast of characters and seeing a deepening in their development over time, is part of the pleasure. For me the series is getting better and better. I also loved the setting of this fourth Armand Gamache mystery which is called A Rule Against Murder in the US. The usual setting for Penny’s novels, the little quaint town of Three Pines, is not forgotten even though in this one it only makes a guest appearance.  The fictional town of Three Pines is practically a character itself in the series by now.

Chief Inspector Armand Gamache and his wife Reine-Marie are spending an anniversary holiday at a beautiful logged lodge overlooking a lake in the magnificent Canadian wilderness. There is a wealthy dysfunctional family staying there as well, in fact some of the family members are a little annoyed when they discover that they don’t have the whole place to themselves, and another couple is staying there. Little do they know that the man in the back bedroom is not the housekeeper’s husband, but the head of homicide for the Sûreté du Québec and that a murder is about to happen.

Louise Penny says she based the character of Armand Gamache on her husband Michael without even realising it. The manor in this novel was loosely based on a real manor (Manoir Hovey Resort) where Louise and Michael celebrated their own wedding.

 

‘Only Child’ by Rhiannon Navin

I love it when novels with a difficult subject matter are narrated in a child’s voice. The innocent description makes a story less overwhelming and gives a unique perspective. The child’s voice can bring an element of tenderness, awe, and even humour to life’s most heartbreaking situations, exploring big emotions with simplicity and fresh insight. Examples you may know are The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer, Room by Emma Donoghue, and The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne.

This book is especially poignant because the child has been largely abandoned by a grieving family when his older brother has died in a school shooting. Already a quiet introverted child, Zach retreats even further to try to cope with his memories of the shooting and the loss of his brother. When his parents remain absent and continue to struggle with grief in their own dysfunctional way, Zach’s courage, honesty, and integrity find a way to save his family from the darkness.

‘Esther the Wonder Pig’ by Steve Jenkins and Derek Walter with Caprice Crane

“The idea that some lives matter less is the root of all that’s wrong with the world.” Paul Farmer

Warning: you may never eat fragrant bacon or a succulent pork chop again, after reading this book, or at the very least, you might begin thinking about going to a more plant based diet! 🙂

One day Steve Jenkins came home with a gift to surprise his partner Derek. Since they already had a couple of dogs and cats, he thought he would get an interesting boutique pet–a micro pig. Well, don’t believe everything you read on online. It turns out that the seller of this cute little piglet did not tell the truth and Esther the mini-pig would grow into a 650 pound farm animal and would change her owners’ lives forever! By the time they figured it out, it was too late. They had already fallen in love with Esther.

Living in Georgetown, Ontario they were terrified because of zoning laws, that Esther would be removed from their home, as well as the impracticality of having a massive pet in the house was becoming increasingly evident. The solution they eventually came to was genius. They bought a farm and started a sanctuary that rescues and rehabilitates abandoned and abused farm animals. According to the Hog Blog, they now have 64 residents: pigs, cows, birds, goats, a donkey, a horse, sheep, rabbits, and of course their own dogs and cats. There is a huge team of volunteers and donors who help to keep the place running and the Ontario farm is open for visitors if you’d like to go and see for yourself!

The sequel Happily Ever Esther carries on seamlessly from the first book, focussing on how these sanctuary owners and accidental animal activists managed in the first four years. I listened to the audio book which is narrated by Steve himself. Anyone who has ever moved, knows that adjustment doesn’t happen overnight. In this case it wasn’t just living in a new place, but also learning about how to run a farm. Even though Steve is a real estate agent, his eagerness had blinded him to the serious amount of work it was going to take to get the farm, house, and barn up to the standards necessary. But the couple met their new challenges with the same resilience, grace, and love it took to learn how to live in a residential home with a 650 pound farm animal. In addition to rescuing animals, their aim is also to win hearts to a vegan lifestyle through example, positivity, humour, and kindness–no judgement here, just guidance and open conversation. Their website is worth a visit: Happily Ever Esther Farm Sanctuary.

‘Sylvanus Now’ by Donna Morrissey

“On Canada’s Atlantic coast at the edge of the great Newfoundland fishing banks of the 1950s, Sylvanus Now is a handsome and wilful fisherman. His youthful desires are simple: he wants a suit to lure a girl—the fine-boned beauty Adelaide—and he knows exactly how much fish he has to catch to pay for it. Adelaide, however, has other dreams. She longs to escape the sea, the fish, and the stultifying community, but her need for refuge from her own troubled family leads her to Sylvanus and life in the neighbouring port.”

This book is a love letter to the Newfoundland of the 1950’s. It’s the first in a trilogy that I will definitely be reading all of. Evocative and heartbreaking, it is a character driven novel that also does a beautiful job of highlighting how individuals were affected by the cataclysmic changes that were forced upon them by the outside world. Foreign trawlers and the advent of modern industrial factories robbed simple fishermen of their livelihood. Sylvanus and Addie are at the center of this novel and they are unique and intriguing characters. All of the personalities in this novel are so distinctive and the setting is beautifully atmospheric. Even though the novel is not big on plot, and a bit tedious at times, there is an earthiness and everyday drama to it that I really enjoyed. According to reviews, apparently the pacing picks up in the later books, especially in The Fortunate Brother which ended up being a mystery set in the Alberta oil fields.

The titles in the trilogy in order are:
Sylvanus Now
What They Wanted
The Fortunate Brother

Note: when reading the Newfoundland dialect, I found it helpful to know that b’ye means ‘boy’ or ‘buddy’, not goodbye.

I’s the b’y that builds the boat
And I’s the b’y that sails her
I’s the b’y that catches the fish
And brings them home to Liza.

‘A Distant View of Everything (#11) and The Quiet Side of Passion (#12)’ by Alexander McCall Smith

With the addition of a new baby brother for Charlie, Isabel struggles with the common sorts of post-partum challenges like slight depression and sibling rivalry. Her life is happy and fulfilling enough, but Isabel still suffers from her usual weakness of getting herself embroiled in other people’s lives. She views this as a compelling urge towards helpfulness, but when does involvement become meddling and when is it time to mind your own business?

When the daily demands of work, children, and keeping the household become overwhelming, Isabel decides to employ both an assistant to help her edit the philosophical journal as well as an au pair to help around the house. She imagines her burdens being magically lifted, but of course, the additional staff cause an additional set of problems. Isabel finds herself embroiled in a number of dangerous situations with some rather unsavoury characters. I was finding that Smith’s writing in the last few years was becoming a bit less compelling, so I was pleasantly surprised that there was quite a bit more adventure in both of these.

The philosophical musing that Smith likes to do is inherent in this series especially because Isabel Dalhousie is an editor for a philosophical journal. As is true for many philosophers, her mind tends to wander when she thinks about the ways of human life and grapples with everyday moral and ethical questions.  So is this the end for this series? We’ll have to wait and see. He has started a new series which is coming out this month called The Detective Varg Series set in Sweden which is more “Sandinavian Blanc” rather than Scandinavian Noir–featuring very odd, but not very threatening crimes. Sandy Smith is such a prolific writer, I always joke that he writes them faster than I can read them! See his website for a complete listing of all of his series. It’s like a big bag of chips–once you start, you won’t be able to stop!

‘Braving the Wilderness: the Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone’ by Brené Brown

“We are complex beings who wake up every day and fight against being labeled and diminished with stereotypes and characterisations that don’t reflect our fullness. Yet when we don’t risk standing on our own and speaking out, when the options laid before us force us into the very categories we resist, we perpetuate our own disconnection and loneliness. When we are willing to risk venturing into the wilderness, and even becoming our own wilderness, we feel the deepest connection to our true self and to what matters the most.”

What Brené Brown says matters. Her research, storytelling, and honesty are hallmarks of her writing. In some of her other books she has spoken profoundly about how vulnerability, authenticity, and imperfection can be life changing in our interaction with others and how we see and conduct ourselves. In Braving the Wilderness, she delves into cultivating true belonging in our communities, organisations, and culture. In an age of increasing polarisation, belonging can be harmful as well as beneficial. It’s easy to stay quiet, hide in our ideological bunkers, or just try to fit in, rather than show up as our true selves and brave the wilderness of uncertainty and criticism. Sometimes we need to have the courage to stand alone and disagree or speak the truth in love. Personally I didn’t connect with this book as much as I did Daring Greatly and The Gifts of Imperfection, but I think it is an important work and very current.

This youtube of the author encapsulates what all of her books say in one way or another and it is powerful. Watch the whole interview or skip to the best nugget at minute 32:40.

 

‘A Spark of Light’ by Jodi Picoult

This was vintage Picoult with a bit of a twist, although not in the tale, but in the structure. Picoult always takes on a big controversial issue and extensively examines it, but never taking sides. Her characters are clearly on opposing sides, but sometimes they gain empathy for each other and find in their own stance something that might be questionable, thus maturing in their own understanding. Seeing something from someone else’s point of view is something that sadly seems to have gone missing in our world today.

In this case the issue is abortion and the novel begins with a shooting/hostage-taking at an abortion clinic. The author describes the event and then backs up an hour in time every chapter after that, leaving the epilogue to explain a few things, not even all, (which is kind of a cheap trick in this case because the novel is going back in time the reader has no choice but to hang in there, or skip to the end). It’s a different sort of structure for Picoult, perhaps she was trying to break out of a formulaic box. At any rate, in this case, I found the reverse timeline made the book drag on because all of the action had taken place at the beginning and the rest was backstory. Interesting, but not very compelling, and I felt that it resulted in too much dwelling on and rehashing of the tragic attack which made the book unnecessarily traumatic. Picoult is known also for a breathtaking twist, but again, in this one the only twist was small and predictable. However, the ‘Author’s Note’ at the end of the book was excellent, where in essay form, she discusses abortion in the US and the wider world. Clearly her research was thorough as usual, but it didn’t translate into an amazing story for me this time.