Glass Houses, by Louise Penny

For the thirteenth time, Louise Penny has written a number-one best selling mystery novel. And once again, Superintendent Armand Gamache (now promoted to Chief Superintendent of the Sûreté du Quebec) plays the leading role.  But this time Penny’s plot weaves two seemingly un-related stories together into an intricate mystery full of twists and turns, juicy details and humor. It’s a great read.  And, like all Penny’s Gamache mysteries, it is beautifully written.

The book opens on a steamy July day in an uncomfortably hot Montreal courtroom. Surprisingly, Gamache is the one on the stand.  We see a whole different side of his character as we watch and listen to his testimony about drug trafficking.  We learn that he is the courageous, behind-the-scenes leader of a secret, one-man very dangerous war against drugs.  It’s a war that could cost—or save—hundreds of lives. Including Gamache’s.

The second, seemingly un-related, story begins three months later on a cold, rainy November day in Three Pines with the sudden, mysterious appearance of a masked, cloaked figure.  He stands unmoving for hours, then days, on the Village Green thorough rain and sleet, staring at someone or something in the village.

Villagers come to believe that the figure is a Cobrador, a debt collector. According to history, they act as a conscience for someone who has committed a terrible crime.Villagers are curious, but soon become wary.  Gamache suspects the creature has a “dark purpose.” But he can do nothing but watch and wait for days, as his fears continue to mount. Then the creature vanishes as quickly and quietly as it arrived.  But the villagers’ relief quickly turned to fear when a body is discovered. And another murder mystery begins.

Penny toggles between the two stories, between the courtroom in Montreal and the village of Three Pines, putting her readers inside Gamache’s head as he slowly and meticulously unravels the mysteries.  She weaves an intricate plot, taking readers scene by tantalizing scene to the truth that finally solves the mystery.

— by Gail Stilwill

The Songcatcher, by Sharyn McCrumb

“And  where she’s been and what she’s seen, 
     no living soul may know, 
And when she’s come back home, 
     she will be changed—oh!”
The Rowan Stave” Ballad

Lark McCourry is a popular folk singer whose tours regularly take her across the country.  But her roots and strong family ties are in the small town in the mountains of North Carolina where she grew up and learned to love folk music, especially ballads— and most especially The Rowan Stave ballad.  Lark moved from the mountains to the big cities to build her singing career.  But she continues to be haunted by the memory of the The Rowan Stave ballad.  She knows the song has been in her family for generations and finally feels compelled to leave her singing tour and travel back to the mountains to begin her journey to find it and restore a piece of her family’s past.  Her quest leads her to her estranged father, now a lonely and angry old man living alone, and dying, in the North Carolina mountains.

She also meets Nora Bonesteel, a wise mountain woman who talks to both the living and the dead, and who may be able to help with Lark’s search.  Nora believes that old, lost songs are a touchstone to the past, and so is eager to help Lark.

Songcatcher is the story of Lark’s journey.  But it also is the story of the lyrical, haunting ballad that has woven its way through generations, across oceans and mountains, from Scotland and Ireland and England to the hill country of North Carolina.

The first settlers in the North Carolina mountains brought the folk songs they’d sung in their homeland with them to their new home and sung them to their children, then to their grandchildren and great grandchildren.

The ballad was first heard in 1759 by a nine-year-old boy after he was kidnapped from the shores of his home in Scotland and taken aboard an English ship as a slave.  His name was Malcolm McCourry and during his 10 years on the ship, of all the songs he heard sung or played by his captors, “The Rowan Stave” ballad was the one he liked best.  The “strange and terrible” story in the ballad haunted him and also reminded him of home. He learned it by heart and for many years taught it to others he met on his travels.

Malcom’s other remembrance of home was the small white pebble, the “magic rock,” his mother gave him when he was just a toddler to keep him safe from drowning, a fear she’d had since a “wise woman” terrified her with a prophesy when Malcolm was born that “The sea will take him.”  He kept the small rock safe during all the years he traveled.

But when he lost his “magic” rock, he was afraid to sail without its protection.  So he jumped ship and settled in Morristown, New Jersey because he liked the “little village.”  The song went with him when he apprenticed with an attorney, became an attorney himself, and married Rachel, the daughter of the attorney who had befriended him.  It was with him when he fought bravely in the American Revolutionary War, and came home suffering from serious wounds and exhaustion.  He sang the song to his wife, then to his young son, Zebulon.

Tragically Malcolms son, Zebulon, was left an orphan after both Malcolm and Rachel died of Typhoid Fever, leaving their baby son to be raised by an uncle on his farm. Young Zeb enjoyed entertaining visitors to his village with ballads he’d learned, especially his favorite, “The Rowan Stave.”

As time went on, the ballad was shared with sons and siblings, with children and grandchildren, then continued to weave its way through generations, becoming a part of McCourry family history.

But as families grew and spread from the mountains to the and farms and small towns across the country, this ballad and other ballads and old songs— beautiful songs telling wonderful stories— began to be forgotten, replaced by new songs played in music halls and concert houses.  But the old songs were not lost to those who settled in the North Carolina mountains.  They had brought the music with them in their heads. Music was an important and constant part of their lives. And there were no concert houses or music halls in the mountains to introduce the new and different music to them.

As we follow Lark’s journey to find the ballad and her family’s legacy we learn the colorful, intriguing stories of other McCourry family members and how their lives impact each other.

Author McCrumb is a master storyteller knitting the fascinating stories of the McCourry family together with the history of The Rowan Stave ballad and other songs carried across oceans and mountains. It’s a book that held my interest and imagination from beginning to end!

P.S.  In her notes, author Sharyn McCrumb shares with us the surprising and wonderful fact that Malcolm McCourry is the author’s “four-times great grandfather.”

—Gail Stilwill

The Guernsey Potato Peel Pie Society, by Annie Barrows & Mary Ann Shaffer

The story and the characters in The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society are every bit as intriguing as the book\’s unusual and quirky-sounding title.
Told entirely in the form of letters to and from its characters, the story begins in 1946, shortly after the end of World War II as Europe is slowly emerging from the horrors of that war.  In London, writer Juliet Ashton is trying to come up with a subject for her next book when she receives a letter complimenting her on her writing from a stranger, Dawsey Adams.  Dawsey is a native of the Island of Guernsey, one of the English Channel Islands near the French coastline.  Guernsey was under Nazis occupation. 
Dawsey\’s letter sets off an exchange of letters between the two.  Eventually other residents of the small island join the exchange, describing the effects of the occupation on their lives. Through the residents\’ letters Julia is introduced to the Guernsey Potato Peel Pie and Literary Society which was initially created as an alibi when the Nazis caught the islanders breaking curfew.  The Societyquickly becomes real, banding them together and making them friends as well as survivors.
Some of the residents were not readers, but they came together for companionship and entertain each other with discussions about books.  And they share their letters from Julia, who soon becomes so intrigued with her new friends that she takes up temporary residence on Guernsey so that she can meet them face to face and write a book about their experiences.
Julia learns their very real and painful stories about the effect the Nazi occupation has had on their home and their lives.  Their letters to her are colorful, sad and very descriptive.  We also get to know the Islanders as individuals—courageous, frightened, sometimes funny but always determined to survive. Julia\’s letters to them are thoughtful and wonderfully funny.
In the years the Nazis occupied Guernsey, they tightly controlled every aspect of islanders\’ lives. They were cruel conquers, rationing their food and the fuel they needed for heat and cooking, robbing their vegetable gardens and forcing the islanders to live in constant fear.
Islanders shared rations and helped each other in every possible way with medical aid and whatever else they needed to survive—including their sense of humor.  Together they
lived through the ever-present cold, dampness, relentless hunger and very real fear of the Nazis.  And a gentle love story quietly develops.
With little notice, Guernsey\’s children were rounded up and shipped to England.  Having their children sent to another country, frightened and alone, to unknown caregivers and for an indefinite length of time was a terrible heartbreak for the Islander, who could only hope that at least their children would be safer.
The book gives us an all too realistic picture of the Nazi occupation of Guernsey.  But we learn even more about courage, strong friendships and the importance of both.  And the story is told with warmth and humor.   The letter-writing format is a clever, surprisingly effective and believable way to get to know the courageous, creative, sometimes quirky residents of Guernsey and to see how they struggled to survive and were effected by the Nazi occupation of their island. —Gail Stilwill
NOTE:  The original author, Mary Ann Shaffer, died before she was able to complete the book, after spending years researching material.  Her niece, Annie Barrows, was able to pick up where Shaffer left off and compete the book. It was well worth the efforts of both writers.