Review: Glass Houses by Louise Penny

33602101Glass Houses is one of Louise Penny’s best novels in her Armand Gamache series. What drew me to the first book I picked up (A Great Reckoning) was the distinct humanness of all her characters, but in particular, Gamache.

Oftentimes I feel that protagonists lack a bit of humanity. Something is missing, not large, but enough to elevate them above an average human. (At least, that’s what’s happening in the books I’m reading.) They are often characters we can aspire towards or admire. But they are never quite vulnerable enough to make me think deeply.

The quality that elevates Gamache over the host of other characters I’ve gotten know across many, many books is his vulnerability. Penny crafts a character who is at the same time thoughtful, brilliant, and kind with one who is flawed, who doubts himself and his choices, and is at times haunted by his past. Gamache is someone we can both aspire to be and relate to, because he faces his troubles with an unnerving honesty, clarity, and transparency.

All of these qualities were highlighted to their full extent in Penny’s most recent novel, with an interesting delivery. Glass Houses brings us back to three pines with the murder of a mysterious figure. Penny uses flashback to weave the past and present, bringing the reader from the trial in the courtroom to the investigation in the village. Far from being confusing, the back-and-forth gave clarity to both plots. The murder is one, but there is a (slightly) lesser sub-plot with Gamache, now the new head of the Sûreté du Québec, and his new task force working on an operation to bring down the bourgeoning drug trade in the city. We soon find that the murder and the operation are more closely intertwined than could have been imagined, inviting some delightful and unexpected twists that make the novel a page-turner. (I’ve been known to marathon Penny’s books, not sleeping ’till I’ve finished!)

With decisions that toe the line at morality, Penny puts beloved characters in the interesting position of potentially being portrayed as “the bad guy.” The situations ask the reader to question right from wrong, and at what point power is abused. Speaking poignantly to present issues, Penny’s novel questions how we define what is moral and the authority and integrity of the judicial system.

 

Review: A Fatal Grace by Louise Penny

352921Words are perhaps the most powerful weapon humans can wield against each other. They give us the power to love, to hate, to profoundly alter someone’s reality.

In A Fatal Grace, Louise Penny explores the potency of words to craft our own realities, kill others’, and the the brutal consequences of love denied.

As part of the Armand Gamache series, Penny brings the reader back to the quiet village of Three Pines with the murder of CC de Poitiers. The woman has been found, electrocuted, on a frozen lake during a curling match. The culprit may seem surprising, but after reflection, there could be few other suspects.

CC de Poitiers is quite despicable from the first chapter. Vain, self-absorbed, and extremely cruel, she is one of the most nasty character’s I’ve encountered in Penny’s novels. CC has the unpleasant side affect of making those around her nasty, too, and at worse, making them feel like utter garbage.

She lives in her own world; anything she does not like or that does not fit is not a part of her reality. Words are key. The illegitimate daughter of a now homeless vagrant, CC crafts for herself a new identity as the daughter of Eleanor d’Aquitaine, also called Eleanor de Poitiers. In this new reality, she becomes somewhat of a princess in her mind, and words are so important she marries a man for his name: Richard Lyon, a play on Richard the Lionhearted, son of Eleanor d’Aquitaine.

The most central element in the chaos and subplots that ensue is CC’s verbal abuse of her daughter, Crie. Crie– desperately overweight, beaten down by her mother, withdrawn to her self– has a brilliant mind, gifted in science. But no matter how smart, how graceful she tries to be, it is not enough to earn her mother’s regard. Love is out of the question. Crie is a blemish on the world CC has constructed for herself.

When we are so alienating, so cruel, so senseless, it is foolish to expect that there will be no retaliation. Each person has constructed their own reality, banishing those who threaten their security. And sometimes, this fatal grace is the most merciful action.

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Review: Médicis Daughter by Sophie Perinot

23848325Love, duty, war. Princess Maurguerite de Valois finds herself in the middle of all three in this historical fiction novel by Sophie Perinot. As she grows up in her mother’s court, Margot (as she is often called), must navigate the treacherous, sinister world where nothing is as it appears. It is, in a way, a coming-of-age story about a young woman who learns to make her own choices—despite the consequences.

In efforts to win her mother’s (Catherine de Médicis) favor, Margot willingly becomes a political pawn by way of marriage. This is, however, before she falls in love with the charming Duc de Guise, and afterwards, it is a war of the heart. While Margot is eventually betrothed to her cousin, Huguenot Henri de Navarre, Perinot uses this tug-of-war to raise the question, “what would you do for love?”, and “what would you do out of duty?” It is never so simple, it seems, as Margot makes some surprising—and surprisingly daring—decisions.

Perinot also puts the fraught, teetering mother-daughter relationship on display. Often done away with for being a daughter, Margot flits from being accepted and, perhaps, warmly regarded (as much as Madame la Serpente could be warm) to being despised and distrusted. Catherine de Médicis’ favor acts as a central, unstable, ever cruel measurement of her daughter’s self-esteem, and the reader is asked to question how cruel love can and should be.

It is Margot’s courage in the throws of violence to defy everything she once held sacred that truly marks her coming-of-age as she claims her agency and her voice. We are often afraid to take what is rightfully ours, but are surprised when we are bold enough to own it. Love is a wildly powerful thing and not always benevolent. Love is manipulative and conditional, a tool to Catherine de Médici. To Margot, it her one chance to be valued for who she is, not for what she offers.

As the two women and others wrestle with love and war, it becomes clear that the most important thing is love of self. The dependence on others to provide love only hampers, but to see ourselves is to take ownership of who we are. This is what gives Margot the courage to take back her life and, ultimately, perhaps, alter the course of history.

Review: The Little French Bistro by Nina George

32283424***This is the start of a new section of the blog, where I keep my reviews for all francophile reads!!! The regular book blog is still here, too.***

Marianne, wife of a German military officer, has suffered for decades under an uncaring husband when she throws herself into the Seine. Later, after breaking out of her hospital room, she finds her way to Brittany, reputed to be “the end of the world,” and to a little restaurant called Ar Mor. There, Marianne learns to discover what she has for so long missed.

In The Little French Bistro, Nina George explores self-love, renewal, second chances, and adventure, showing that despite past choices, it is never too late to turn around.

Love is twofold in the world George creates. There is external love, given by others. However, there is also a love of self, a permission we grant ourselves to be who we are. Arguably, lack of self-confidence and self-love can be infinitely more limiting than lack of external love. Marianne must learn this as she learns to love, be loved, and give herself permission to take ownership of her life.

At 60 years old, it seems that she has let her life slip away. Her unexplained unwillingness to leave her husband shadows her throughout the novel, but her actions in Brittany attest to the belief that we can always have a fresh start—but that we choose it is key. In many parts of the novel, Marianne is on the verge of returning home, believing that it is impossible to stay and own her life in the small coastal village. But, as she slowly discovers what it means to be alive, she finds her will to commit suicide and her urge to run back to her husband waning.

Through all of the lessons, George still shows that Marianne is very human, and highlights the struggle to break free of our old selves. One of the greatest powers we have is that of choice, and oftentimes it is our unwillingness to make or commit to one that traps us.

{Review} The Brutal Telling by Louise Penny

6449551If you’ll recall, I sped-read Louise Penny’s A Great Reckoning during spring semester in order to write an arts review for class. Since then, I had tucked her away in my mind with a note to read more of her books.

While perusing the table of books at Costco a couple weeks ago, as I am wont to do, I stumbled across her again, and being my very cheap self, took a photo of the cover as a reminder to borrow it from the library. The Brutal Telling is the fifth book in Penny’s  Armand Gamache series, and A Great Reckoning the most recent. In fact checking that statement, I just discovered that a new Gamache novel, Glass Houses, will be published in August!

While only my second Inspector Gamache novel, I can already tell that Penny has a penchant for incorporating themes of secrets, truth, and façades. I admire the consistency, and she does it well, all whilst weaving in minor themes, notes, and commentary that, although not the focus, draw an acute attention to themselves.

The discovery of a body in Olivier’s bistro in Three Pines, Quebec rattles the tiny, welcoming village. Instantly, all are plunged into an unfamiliar world of secrets and brutality. As the blame constantly shifts and lies create a façade, it seems that more questions will be created than answered. It begs the question of what is more dangerous: the truth, or the comfortable walls that conceal it?

As the case drags out, Olivier’s past is unearth in a brutal telling, revealing an insecure, greedy man hidden behind the generous, well-loved bistro owner the villagers have come to adore. But, while his secrets are revealed, the process also raises an important question about how we love: conditionally or unconditionally? Do we have the power, or more importantly, the will, to love unconditionally? What are the boundaries? How far will we go when we feel someone we love has betrayed our trust?

All the while, Clara’s about to receive the artistic recognition of her dreams…until her agent makes an ugly remark about her friend, Gabri, Olivier’s partner. As Clara wrestles with her conscience and swings between silence, safety, and acceptance; and courage, risk, and dignity; she must decide how important it is to stand up for friends and family. Is it worth sacrificing her dream to defend her friends and stand up for what she believes is right?

And, remarkably, there is the entrance of a rookie Sûreté agent, Paul Morin, whose courage, gusto, and willingness prove to us that there is much more than what meets the eye. Sometimes, we must stand out from the crowd, withstand the ridicule, and put ourselves out there. If we want our dreams badly enough, we will weather the judgement, the laughter, and sometimes, disdain to prove ourselves and take the risk. In Inspector Gamache, he continues to testify to the power of kindness to strangers, colleagues, and friends.

In regards to A Great ReckoningThe Brutal Telling was lacking somewhat in character development. We see the struggles of Olivier, Clara, Peter, and others, but few come to favorable resolutions, if any at all. Instead, the issues are suspended, perhaps to be continued in the next book, perhaps to be laid to rest.

 

{Review} The Paradise Prophecy by Robert Browne

10110260John Stuart Mill was on to something when he wrote about achieving the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. The question of how to achieve this remains mind-boggliningly relevant as we look for solutions to the world’s problems, and it is also a question that Robert Browne expertly wrestles with in The Paradise Prophecy.

With a plot that brilliantly combines history, mystery, and classics for a Dan Brown-esque thriller, Browne transports key figures of John Milton’s Paradise Lost to present day as they all race, in good against evil, to be the determiner of the world’s fate. Tangled up in the action, albeit unwillingly, are Batty and Callahan, and it is unsurprisingly the two humans who, through their actions, ask the hard questions.

First, there is Callahan. She’s skeptical, at best, about religion; tough as nails; no-nonsense; and no frills. Callahan sees what she wants to see, and it troubles her when events don’t line up otherwise. “Seeing is believing” is her mantra, and she holds tight until proven wrong. Proven wrong she is, which leads readers to question her decision and, perhaps, their own life philosophy: Callahan was in Mill’s camp. Greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. She was willing to sacrifice an innocent to save the world, but at what cost? Callahan also chose out of fear for herself.

Are we willing to sacrifice innocence as the price for survival? Extrapolated, will we choose the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people? It is also important to look at what drives this decision, because it must somehow, always, benefit ourselves as well—no one would choose the greatest good for the greatest number unless they stood to benefit in some way.

Batty, perhaps, wrestles with the heavier topic: the freedom of choice. Batty’s made many poor choices, but it all boils down to one. He must decide whether or not to sacrifice the innocent; the choice is his and his alone. Does he save the world and kill a blameless child? Or, does he spare her, and face unknown, and potentially devastating consequences?

“This is about choices. And the intent behind those choices, and proving to the father that humans are still capable of making the right ones. And this is a choice not made through malice, but out of love. A love for humankind.” -St. Michael to Batty

As St. Michael points out, intent can make a choice evil or good. Whether Batty kills out of malice or love will make the difference, and it’s something we can confront in our lives, too. What are the motives that drive our actions? Selfish gain? Selflessness? Sometimes, what we feel is right may not make sense. But that’s where intent and motive come into play.

“‘If creating some kind of utopia on earth requires me to take the life of another living, breathing human being, I’m sorry, but you can count me out. Self-defense is one thing, but this is flat out murder.'” -Batty

In deciding not to sacrifice the innocent, Batty does right by his conscience and the child, at the risk of potential havoc. His decision only highlights the paradox: If he had chosen to sacrifice the child, it would have only been because of his sense of obligation to prevent the world’s destruction. Obligation obstructs free will and the freedom of choice, because the choice Batty made would not have been solely his own. It would have been heavily influenced by outside factors.

“Free will, Batty thought. That’s what it ultimately came down to. And what so many people thought of as weakness—the ability to empathize, to care, the thing that seemed so absent in the world of late—was really man’s strength. His lifeblood.”

{Review} The Race for Paris by Meg Waite Clayton

23460961How daring must we be, for how long must women fight for the recognition of equality? When will all men stand up and say, “yes, you matter, too, as much as we do”? Meg Wait Clayton, in a beautifully crafted novel, uses two brilliant heroines to make the point that not much has changed…but it could, if we are brave enough to stand up. Based on real female war correspondents reporting during World War II, Clayton delivers sharp social commentary, as relevant today as it was in 75 years ago, with fearless heroines proving that determination and good friends can get you just about anywhere.

As the scene unfolds at a hospital camp in Normandy, the readers are introduced to three journalists whom Clayton skillfully uses to portray a few common mindsets prevalence even today.

Olivia “Liv” Harper is a daring, headstrong, and extraordinary photographer, defying even her husbands wishes as she heads to France. Jane is a young journalist, writing for a Nashville newspaper owned by the family for whom her mother works as a maid. Marie is Jane’s fellow journalist and stiff on following the rules. She may not like them, but she will not break them, nor allow herself to think beyond them.

When Liv defies direct orders to remain at the camp, Jane, hungering to see and write about more than field hospitals, takes the risk and follows Liv. As they experience life at the front, Liv and Jane find themselves fighting against the obstacles that come with being females amidst the sea of male war correspondents, but also find allies along the way.

There is a great need in the world for men like Fletcher Roebuck and Hank Bend. In aiding Liv and Jane, from driving them to the front against orders, to keeping the women safe and distributing their stories and photos when they were denied access to the men’s press camp, Fletcher and Hank showed their support with something much more powerful than words. They acted.

Of course, they weren’t perfect, as revealed in Fletcher’s character: “…he certainly didn’t need the distraction of Charles blood Harper’s beautiful wife, no matter how talented she was…”, but his ultimate support of Liv and Jane, acting against the wishes of even his best friend Charles, showed that even engrained opinions can be pushed aside. We are not always obligated to hold onto all the beliefs of society.

Liv’s eventual death while photographing the front is a larger allegory of the sacrifices women have made and will be forced to make in order to obtain the same opportunities and prove themselves equal and capable. More than that, it’s a tribute to the women taking risks, defying norms and doing something that they love, with or without society’s approval.

In Jane’s decision to accompany Liv to the front, she represents those who want something badly and only need a push, people fearless like Liv to pave the way and show us how to live. Sometimes all we need is a friendly face and an outstretched hand, knowing that we’re supported and not alone.

So what should we women be doing? Reading about what’s happening, after its happened? No. Rather, we should look to Liv’s daring philosophy to be in the trenches of our lives: “Photos of the parachute sermon itself, the gunfire, the bicycle ride—those are the photos I ought to be taking. Not photographs of a woman in a safely liberated French town recalling them.” We need to be in the thick of it, not picking up the pieces.

Right now, many of us are Marie, discontented with the confines of society, but unwilling or unable to fight against the system. We find ourselves “couch potato activists,” unable to do more than support the Livs from behind a screen.

Not all of us will be Liv, but we can be Jane. Clayton is right. We need to acknowledge the risk, but take the chance and follow. Otherwise, we could be missing out on the greatest adventure of our lives. Liv and Jane were living in a changing world, and it’s still evolving now. Where will it take us?