Thursday, February 25, 2016

The Nature of Evil in "The Nature of the Beast"

Is there anyone out there who is not familiar with Louise Penny's marvelous, award-winning Chief Inspector Gamache series? "The Nature of the Beast" is the eleventh novel in a list of books that absolutely must be read in order to reap the full, awe-inspiring benefit of what Ms. Penny has accomplished. So much more than mysteries, these books build upon one another, not so much for plot, but for the growth and development of character.
Aficionados of Penny's work will tell you that the fictional village of Three Pines, in Canada's Quebec province, is so real to them that they could move there tomorrow and be perfectly happy. Each inhabitant comes to life in Penny's capable hands. Myrna, the retired psychologist who runs the bookstore, Ruth, the curmudgeonly poet and her pet duck, Clara, an artist who is finally coming into her own, and the B and B itself, where everyone meets in front of the fire for good food, drink, and conversation, are all as real as our own neighborhoods.
But now that Inspector Gamache, once head of the homicide division of the  Surete de Quebec, and his wife, librarian and researcher, Reine Marie, have retired permanently to Three Pines, Penny may be faced with a dilemma. How will she keep our hero realistically involved in murder investigations after his protégée, Isabel Lacoste, has been promoted to fill his very large shoes.
In this latest entry in the series, she sets the crime right in Three Pines. Penny has never shied away from violence, in fact her novels delve deeply into the nature of evil. She seems to believe that it can become manifest in any of us given an accumulation of circumstances, a perfect storm if you will, and sadly, I tend to agree.
Nine-year-old Laurent Lepage is the epitome of the boy who cried wolf. A fixture in Three Pines, Laurent freely explores the countryside on his bicycle, home-made spear at the ready, battling imaginary foes in the woods. So when he flies into the pub exclaiming that he's seen a big gun in the forest, everyone just rolls their eyes and say, "that's our Laurent," until little Laurent disappears and is later found dead on the side of the road.
Inspector de Beauvoir, Gamache's son-in-law, arrives in Three Pines to tell the citizens that Laurent's death is simply a terrible accident, a hit and run, but Gamache suspects something more sinister and we're off and running. I'm sorry to say that the novel soon takes a turn into the absurd, throwing out so many red herrings that even the most patient, discerning reader will want to scream.
From a draft-dodging Vietnam War veteran, to a purveyor of WMD's, to a criminal mastermind who wrote a play while in prison that's set to be performed by an amateur group in Three Pines, the plot bogs down in a tedium I've never before found in a Louise Penny novel. Still, I can't advise you to skip this one because there are clues as to what our beloved Armand Gamache will decide to do next and, according to Ms. Penny's website,, "A Great Reckoning," novel number twelve, will be released in August. You've got plenty of time to catch up!

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Miller's Valley - Place Your Requests Now

I can probably attribute my enjoyment and daily reading of the "New York Times" to the author Anna Quindlen. Her column, Public and Private, which won a Pulitzer prize back in 1992 for Commentary was one of the first that I'd ever read. I've been faithfully reading her fiction and non-fiction ever since.

<h2>Miller's Valley</h2>

So I was delighted when the publisher offered me a sneak peek at her new novel, "Miller's Valley," which will be out the first week of April. You're in for a treat. This is one of those books that sneaks up on you. Just when you might be saying, "mmmm-it's a little slow," you turn the page and you're totally involved. I read it in two sittings.

For those of us who grew up in any small town during the '60's, there are so many observations and ah ha moments to savor. In this case, we're in central Pennsylvania, and our narrator, Mimi Miller, a hoot at twelve, grows into a thoughtful, reliable young woman, one you'll enjoy spending time with.

Mimi's father's family has worked the farm in Miller's Valley for generations, but profitability seems to be further and further out of reach. Weather patterns are changing, the valley floods more frequently, and shadowy government employees drive from house to house offering buyouts that seem too good to be true.

But Bud Miller will never cave in or sell out, in spite of the fact that his wife, a nurse, is supporting them all, even her younger sister Ruth, a woman whose debilitating agoraphobia renders her incapable of helping with even the smallest tasks. Their oldest son Ed is off to college with no thought of returning, and the younger boy, Tom, took a very dark turn after his stretch in Vietnam.

Quindlen has always excelled at mining family dynamics and the Millers are a psychologist's dream. What from the outside appears to be a Norman Rockwell life, is laden with secrets, resentments, and unspoken disappointments that run deep. The woman's movement may be far from this valley but Bud Miller's wife is not going to allow her precocious daughter with an aptitude for science and math, to follow her friends into a hasty marriage or take over the care and feeding of the cows. She will use her considerable tenacity to ensure that Mimi doesn't stay down on the farm.

This honest and very recognizable story of families struggling to hold onto love when challenged by fate, illness, and time, is a deeply satisfying read that builds slowly, nestling in your heart, where all good books live. Better place your hold requests soon.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

The Prize by Jill Bialosky

Jill Bialosky ( is one of those many writers who's been on my radar screen for ages. She's a memoirist, a poet, and a novelist who has been compared to Alice McDermott. That should make you sit up and take notice. I spotted her latest, "The Prize," on the new book shelf at my library and seeing blurbs from the likes of John Banville, Helen Schulman, and Elizabeth Berg, I snapped it up.

The Prize

I'll admit, I wasn't smitten at first. A twenty-year marriage losing its oomph (don't they all?), a phony New York City dog-eat-dog art world where nice guys finish last (done to death?), but soon Bialosky got under my skin and I began to care about Edward and Holly Darby even if I wanted to reach through the pages and shake them.

Edward is an introvert trying to live in a world of extroverts. His job at the gallery is to mine for new talent, sign up artists, represent them, stage their shows, and bring in money. Agnes Murray is the jewel in his crown, no matter that she's needy, tedious, and insecure. Her work raises Edward's profile in the insular world of the creative while bankrolling the family's retreat in Connecticut.

There, a world away from celebrity, another introvert, Holly, relishes the cocoon Edward has built for her and their daughter Annabel. Holly prefers animals to people. She works at a refuge center and handles their barn and horses. As Edward's star rises, he's expected to travel and lecture more often, and though he tells us fervently how much he misses his family when he's away, we watch helplessly as the couple's lives begin that slow drift toward incompatibility.

The crisis, when it comes, has a feeling of inevitability. Ms. Murray is finally ready to show her new work to Edward, after a four year hiatus. But is she prepared to hear the truth from the man she's always trusted to intuit her artistic intentions? And Edward? Will he act on his burgeoning attraction to the young sculptor, Julia, with whom he's spent time in Berlin and then London?

What rescues this novel from the generally banal mid-life crisis lit is the nuanced way in which Bialosky allows us, through his sessions with a therapist, into Edward's heart where he protects his deepest fears and insecurities . The author is also bitingly funny when skewering the pretensions of the self-involved artists, their representatives, and the gallery owners who look at a canvas covered with cow dung and refuse to call it crap.

After reading this very satisfying novel I think I'll return to Ms. Bialosky's section of the library and snap up some of her earlier work. Why not give her a go?

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Theatre Conspiracy Does it Again!

I've always fancied myself a thespian. In fact, back when I had a memory, I appeared in all of my high school and college theatrical productions. But somewhere along the line I lost my confidence amid nightmares of standing before an audience in a blank fugue state, not knowing what to say next.

Thanks to my parents, who were talented actors themselves, I grew up appreciating live performances of all kinds and southwest Florida is overflowing with options for theatre lovers. And though I love the big, blowsy musicals like "Evita" or "Miss Saigon", my heart is drawn to the small, local troupes that leave one speechless.

This past weekend Don and I had such an experience at the final performance of "The Amish Project," at the black box theatre at Florida Southwestern State College, formerly Edison State College. The theatre was tiny, the chairs crammed in for the overflow crowd. But the discomfort was immediately forgotten as we were pulled into the mind-blowing performance by actor Tera Nicole Miller, one woman who, in seventy-five minutes, portrayed up to ten distinct characters and made you believe that she was each one.

Theatre Conspiracy (, under the able management of actor and director Bill Taylor, has been producing plays here in southwest Florida for well over twenty years now and, though I'd guess that I've seen most of them and been impressed by many, this play and performance stood out. Written by Jessica Dickey (interview here ) the play is based on actual events that happened in 2006, when a gunman entered an Amish schoolhouse in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, holding hostage and eventually shooting eight of ten young girls.

The incident is not known because of the brutality of the killings, but because of the amazing reaction of the local Amish population. Forgiveness. Like the members of the Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston after Dylan Roof did his worst, the people in Nickel Mines gathered around the gunman's wife and family, bringing food, comfort and prayers that even she didn't believe she deserved.

The story is a beautiful reflection of what's best and noble in humanity but I don't believe you could get the full impact by reading the script. It has to be seen performed and Tera Nicole Miller put her heart and soul into this gut-wrenching role. From a ten-year-old schoolgirl with a lisp, to a Hispanic sales clerk in a drug store, to a didactic professor and media spokesperson of the Amish faith, and most terrifyingly, to the murderer himself, (I could scarcely make eye contact with her she seemed so evil), Miller owned each persona with just a shift in body language, facial expression, or vocal octave.

When the end came with a dramatic trick of lighting, the audience sat in stunned silence, a fitting tribute prior to the standing ovation.

More on books later in the week. Yes, I'm reading as fast as I can between changes in the longest home project on record. Next up in the theatre, "The Bluest Eye," by Toni Morrison. We'll be at the Foulds theatre on Sunday. If you're a local reader, you really should try to make it.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Shamini Flint, Agatha Christie with a Social Conscience

My friend Don loves to look for the road not taken. He is constantly coming up with names of books and authors that I've never heard of, telling me how he just followed a link to another link and another and voila! He has introduced me to new worlds that I might otherwise have missed - a fine thing for one who claims to "read around the world."

Thus, today I'll be writing about the quite wonderful Shamini Flint,, prolific author of crime novels set throughout southeast Asia. Now that we've found her we won't rest until we've read them all.

If I had to choose an author that Ms. Flint reminds me of, it would be Agatha Christie. Like Miss Marple and Poirot before him, the Sikh Inspector Singh is an over the top character imbued with a list of personal quirks that will endear him to some and annoy others. He's smart and intuitive, selfish and impatient, but he always gets his man. Shamini has created a multi-faceted policeman who generously shares his musings with  the reader, allowing us into the thought processes of a good cop.

I've read three of the novels in the Inspector Singh series so far. Each adheres to a strict formula but it's not in the least off-putting. In fact, it's what drew me to the books. Singh is a Singaporean but his higher-ups are always sending him to other countries where his expertise is needed. One gets the impression that his bosses look for any opportunity to get the pompous detective out of their hair.

Once he arrives at his destination, be it Bali, India, or Cambodia, he acquires a local aide-de-camp, assigned to show him the ropes, but with whom he generally has a testy relationship. It's great fun to watch Singh slowly acclimate to a new culture, grudgingly confer respect on his foreign peers, and eschew the limelight, allowing the locals to take credit for their crime-solving prowess.

Especially impressive is how much factual history and research goes into each book. Shamini Flint was a lawyer before she found her true calling, but she could as well have been an educator. Whether we are learning about the international war crimes tribunal that was held in Phnom Penh after the Cambodian genocide, or getting into the hearts and minds of the terrorists who bombed tourist hotels in Indonesia, Ms. Flint forces readers to open their eyes to multiple points of view.

In "A Curious Indian Cadaver," Flint channels Katherine Boo's "Behind the Beautiful Forevers," by introducing readers to Mrs. Singh's niece, a young scientist who secretly labors in a Mumbai slum where she suspects that the children are being poisoned by effluent from her family's chemical plant. When Ashu disappears it's left to Singh, and we the readers, to decide if she riled up the wrong people or was simply fleeing an arranged marriage - my favorite puzzle so far. Police procedurals with a message? Who could ask for more?