Thursday, April 08, 2021

Chief Inspector Armand Gamache [series]

Chief Inspector Armand Gamache [series]

   - Louise Penny

The novels in the Armand Gamache series are primarily set in a small Canadian village and feature a protagonist who is nearly 50 years old, kind, sociable and settled in a happy marriage. This is a very welcome change from the usual murder mysteries set in UK or US, having a lead character who is bitter and has issues forming relationships, both personal and professional.

This series is as much about the characters as the mysteries, and the arcs capturing the evolution of the story of the primary characters are an important part of the narrative. The most prominent recurring characters have of course been given an appropriate focus in terms of creating their backstory and the ongoing changes in their lives, but the other significant characters in each book are also well developed. The village of The Three Pines, where these stories are based, is a (fictional, of course) tiny village that has somehow evaded being marked on any map. The author has described in such a charming manner that it makes you want to leave where ever you are and move there, despite an unusually high rate of crimes!

I started this series because it featured in some of the lists of best cozy mysteries, and enjoyed high recommendations on Goodreads and my reading group. However, I would call only the first few books as cozy mysteries; as the series progresses, it becomes darker and more gruesome. I understand the challenge of sustaining readers’ interest through a series, without some sort of progression in the story lines of the key characters – I have abandoned quite a few series because the mysteries eventually become tepid, the characters do not change, and all books start appearing same. Which is why one must admire writers like Doyle and Agatha Christie and Erle Stanley Gardner, who created an engaging series with very little by way of continuation from story to story in the lives of their fictional characters.

The books in the series are not consistent in the quality of the plots – I really enjoyed some of them, while there were some that I could not like at all. Anyhow, I stopped reading after 12 books, because they were getting too dark for me (and that is not what I was looking for), and somewhat repetitive, and I felt that I have read enough for now and should look at other things. I am not giving up on the possibility of resuming the series, but given that there are so many diverse books on my TBR, I do not think it is likely that I will return to it


#1 Still Life

In this first installment, I knew the murderer, and partially the reason, very early in the book. Yet, I enjoyed the unfolding of the drama, and the observations about human nature and interactions.


#2 A Fatal Grace

The mystery and the tension in this one was better than the first book in the series. I knew the identity of one of the murderers early on, but kept wavering between two characters for the second one. As before, I liked the quaint village setting, and its lovely inhabitants. The thing that disconcerted me most was fat-shaming of the child, not just by the characters, but by the author herself, which was apparent in the way every time she was described.


#3 The Cruelest Month

The mystery in this was better than the previous ones, and the much dreaded Arnot case is explained as well. The too frequent verbose details become a drag though. And it was annoying that throughout the book, change of scenes kept happening within a chapter, without even a little break to indicate this.


#4 A Rule Against Murder

I haven’t liked the character of Peter Morrow right from the first book, he is not just vain and shallow, but is also highly insensitive to his wife Clara. This book shows us probably the worst side of his character, and I do wonder why Clara puts up with him at all.

I found the plot of this one very good and suspenseful, though the denouement was somewhat unexpected. Had the end matched the build-up, it would have been a great thriller.


#5 The Brutal Telling

This is one of the best books of the series so far. The twists and turns were thrilling, and I have to say, courageous on the author's part. The characters form as much a part of the book as the murder mystery, and the evolution of the characters and their relationships adds much more interest to the story.
I was quite unaware of Canadian history, particularly the natives before it was colonized, and have wondered about it, though did not find out more. So, it was also good to get a little bit of insight from that aspect.


#6 Bury Your Dead

This was a disappointment in some sense – it was too cluttered, as the author seemed to be experimenting with several formats all at once.

There are two parallel murder mysteries, one with Gamache in Quebec, and the other with Beauvoir in Three Pines. Both were interesting in themselves, but they had nothing to do with each other. I found the story line with Gamache set in old Quebec City more interesting, for its historical context and the way he solves a 200-year-old mystery.

Flashbacks from past interspersed with the current events is a common device; however, here we have the memories of the same terrible event from the perspective of both Gamache and Beauvoir. It became very confusing as the reader must reconstruct the whole event from bits and pieces through the entire book.

Detailed review: here


#7 A Trick of The Light

The mystery and tension here were really good. The aspects of human behavior and relationships play a great role in the story, and the discovery of the murderer. The dynamics of the art world and its underlying brutality were well depicted. I really enjoyed this one.


#8 The Beautiful Mystery

This book is set in an isolated monastery in the midst of a deep forest, and we have a little bit of history of this particular monastic order, believed to have died out during the inquisition. A lot of focus is given to the routine of the monks and the Gregorian chants, which became boring after few repetitions.

The explanation of the murder did not match the buildup of the mystery and was rather an anti-climax. The manipulative ways of Francoeur and Gamache’s helplessness to do anything about it were depicted very well, and I truly detested him. It leaves us on a cliffhanger, wondering about his real motive.

Detailed review: here


#9 How The Light Gets In

This moves in two parallel story lines - a murder mystery, and the escalating conflict between Gamache and Francoeur. The only common thread between the two is the murder victim's connection with The Three Pines village, but the murder mystery is not the focus in this book. The focus is Gamache's investigation into what Francoeur is really planning for. This is more of a thriller than a mystery, with an end that is a little too theatrical.

The events in this book stretch the credulity of the story arcs of primary characters, reaching a cinematic climax and a happy-ever-after ending. The writing style in this book was jittery. There were several instances of repetitions of the same events or explanations, and a whole bunch of chopped sentences attempting to build up the tension during the climax. I do hope we have a smoother story and style in following books.

Detailed review:here

 #10 The Long Way Home

This is the worst book in the series so far, both in terms of story and the writing style.
The choppy writing style I noticed towards the later part of the previous book (not sure if it wasn't used earlier or I missed it), continues in this book from the beginning.

A large part of the book consisted of everyone viewing Peter's paintings. This is described so many times, that it gets on one's nerves. The chase was okay by me (though not as interesting as a murder mystery), but the entire cause and means and result put together, it was a bit too farfetched.

Detailed review: here

#11 The Nature of the Beast

I have mixed feelings towards this one. On the positive side, it is a great thriller, with an amazing build up of the suspense and tension. It keeps you at the edge until a cinematic kind of climax. As before, I like the way the primary characters in the series keep evolving and the way the important characters in this novel are developed.

On the downside, the basic premise behind the whole story – the incongruous weapon, seems well, incongruous. It may be loosely based on factual events (of which I learnt afterwards), but the impression I gathered while reading it made the entire operation unbelievable, and my doubts persist. Secondly, this was quite gruesome, and I don’t want so much blood and gore and psychopathy (which is the reason why I started reading cozies after all).

Detailed Review: here

#12 A Great Reckoning

This is a taut mystery-thriller, even though a little too disturbing for my taste. While I liked the fast-paced mystery despite my aversion to violence, I am disconcerted by the implausibility in the fundamental structure of the plot.

For all the buildup it was given, I found the auxiliary story line concerning the map not quite relevant to the central plot, even though it had its own elements of interest. A parallel story line with little connection to the main mystery is also becoming a recurring feature in the novels.

The fractured sentences are not so frequent, or I have become used to them and do not notice them as much as in some of the previous books.

Detailed Review: here


A Great Reckoning

A Great Reckoning (Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, #12)

A Great Reckoning

  - Louise Penny

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Of the several job offers he had, Gamache has accepted to join as the head of the Surete training academy, with the purpose of rooting out the corruption and cruelty in the force at its base. However, the dynamics of power being complex (and this being a murder mystery) , soon enough a senior officer is murdered. Due to his ingrained quality of honesty and commitment to protect people he is responsible for, Gamache gets more deeply involved than he might have expected.

This is a taut mystery-thriller, even though a little too disturbing for my taste – I find explicit and implicit descriptions of gore and sadism unsettling. While I liked the fast-paced mystery despite my aversion to violence, I am disconcerted by the implausibility in the fundamental structure of the plot, as was also the case in some of the previous books.*

For all the buildup it was given, I found the auxiliary story line concerning the map not quite relevant to the central plot, even though it had its own elements of interest. A parallel story line with little connection and no relevance to the main mystery is also becoming a recurring feature in the novels.

The fractured sentences are not so frequent, or I have become used to them and do not notice them as much as in some of the previous books. 





How does it happen that in a game of Russian Roulette there is no death over the course of years?

Wednesday, April 07, 2021

Thursday Next [series]

 Thursday Next [Series]

  - Jasper Fforde


Looking at the blurbs (which appeared too chaotic for my taste) and reviews (which were almost ecstatic), I switched several times on the decision whether to read this series or not. Well, I am glad that I eventually did, and ended up reading four of them in quick succession.

I would never have thought that I would like such a mish-mash of genres – literary thriller, fantasy, and to some extent, science fiction, but I loved it. If I have to describe it in one word (or two), what I would call it is “uniquely imaginative”. The novels are set in an alternate reality, where literature is more precious than jewels and special police departments are dedicated to literary crimes, technology is advanced enough to make cloning a household experiment and resurrect dodos as pets, and time travel is common but strictly regulated activity. One can move back and forth in time, and change the course of [current] reality, or slip sideways into an alternate reality. One can jump into a book and interact with characters, though it is a skill rare few can boast of. One can change a manuscript, and every copy of the book over the world would reflect the change. Entire museums are dedicated to an author, vote lobbies are created by preference to one author over another.

The world building is simply magnificent, of the “real” world, as well as the “book” world. It is teeming with literary references (I identified a number of them, even after possibly missing some), literary puns are scattered liberally, and has a lot of humor and charm. I particularly enjoyed the smaller Easter-egg kind, like why there is a difference in the spelling of words like colour and valour in US, how did Mycroft suddenly appear in Sherlock Holmes stories, enfranchising of King Solomon’s wisdom. It takes sarcasm at the government bureaucracy and the corporate operations and greed to the next level. Time travel and book travel are not novel concepts, but the way the author has used time travel is interesting, and the world he created around book jumping is simply ingenious. There seem to be inconsistencies caused by all the movement across time and place, but frankly, I was having too much fun to crib about it.

The first book – The Eyre Affair – is primarily created around Jane Eyre, and the fact that I haven’t read it did not deter my engagement with the book. I do not intend to read Jane Eyre, but someone who does, should be warned that it contains complete spoilers about the book. The one part I did not like in this one was the rather insipid love affair, even though I understood that it would play a key role in subsequent books.

In the sequel – Lost in a Good Book – the author describes book jumping as almost an art, which not everyone can possess, and anyone who does, must still hone it. The book world is a parallel universe, with its own rules and conventions and problems, and an entity that must govern it and keep the crimes at bay. The heroine, Thursday, develops her book jumping skills, and becomes an apprentice in jurisfiction (the judicial entity in the world of fiction; love the pun!), resulting in crazy adventures in both worlds.

The third book – The Well of Lost Plots – is almost entirely set in the book world, and I particularly liked the concept of a repository of unpublished works, the mechanics of creation of the published works, and the process of dismantling of rejected ones. The way the author has described the creation of generic characters and their shaping up, the incorporation of plot devices and plugging of plot holes is truly creative. However, the primary theme of the book, the conspiracy to take over all fiction writing and reading was over the top even for someone like me, who has been enjoying the crazily colorful worlds.

In the fourth book in the series – Something Rotten – Thursday returns to the more unpredictable, and therefore exciting, real world. But this is where, for me, the series starts to decline. The novelty of the worlds has worn off, and there were not much of new literary puns to enliven it. It was a mad caper of frantic action, jumping all over the place in time and between the two worlds. It progresses in terms of the story line, but does not grow conceptually. I am not giving up on the series yet, but will give it a rest for a while.

Haroun and The Sea Of Stories

Haroun and The Sea Of Stories

Haroun and The Sea Of Stories

  - Salman Rushdie

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I have never been inspired to read Salman Rushdie before, but this one has been praised a lot in my reading group, and highly recommended as a wonderful children's book. I love stories for children, and what reader can resist a title like 'Sea of Stories'

The story itself is a simple one, but with a number of puns in the names of the characters and places. It should be noted that these puns are derived from Hindustani (Hindi + Urdu) words. I am a native Hindi speaker so it was intuitive for me, but anyone who is not familiar with the language may have a difficult time following it, and perhaps not find as much enjoyment as someone familiar with the language can.

The story is a fantasy-adventure, in the vein of the fairy tales with princes and jinns that we read and listened to as children. I might have enjoyed it as a child (and quite a young one at that), though I am not sure of that either. As for now, I found the puns amusing for some time, but once they were used a few times, my interest waned as the story didn't engage me much. I speed-read the last 40% as I didn't want to just abandon it.

Friday, March 26, 2021

Mini Reviews - XI

Cleopatra's Daughter
  - Michelle Moran

It took me quite a while to get into the book, and perhaps because of the slow build-up and a saturation point in reading (had been reading at a frantic pace for few months then), it was almost 5 months before I picked it up again (or any reading at all).
Anyways, after the long break, I got absorbed into it quickly. The narrative was compelling, though I could see the plot twists that the author tried to create long before they were revealed .... the secret about Alexander, his fate, the identity of Red Eagle ....
I enjoyed it, but felt that there was something missing.

Read and Reviewed in Sept 2020

Blackberry Wine
  - Joann Harris

I love Joanne Harris's books, but this one didn't work as well for me as most of her other works. There always seems to be an underlying sadness in her stories, but this one felt melancholy to me, perhaps it was my state of mind when reading it, or the memories of growing up in a small town in a kind of isolated community (which were happy memories, the sadness comes from that part of my childhood being lost).
Her chocolate series is well loved for its magical realism, but this one bordered on supernatural, while I would have preferred a more logical explanation for the meeting in the later part of the book.

Read and Reviewed in Jan 2020

Angela's Ashes: A Memoir of a Childhood
  - McCourt, Frank

I had put off reading this for quite a while, as I was afraid it was going to be very taxing. However it turned out a great read. Although it is terribly sad, it doesn't drown you in misery (like Khaled Hosseni or Premchand's stories), as the heartbreaking tale of poverty and loss is related through a child's matter-of-fact voice, sometimes even with a little humor.

Read and Reviewed in Dec 2019