Saturday, August 13, 2016

Murder Most French AND English- The Chief Inspector Armand Gamache series

First novel in the Chief Inspector
Armand Gamache series
Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec has a knack, not to mention a reputation, of falling into strange and dangerous murder investigations. He also has a knack and a reputation of solving them. The creation of award-winning Canadian author, Louise Penny, Gamache appeared on the mystery genre scene in 2005 in Still Life, winning Penny numerous awards and kicking off the start to a continuing series, with the 12th and latest book, A Great Reckoning, debuting this year. Based in the culturally tumultuous Quebec, Canada, in a village called Three Pines, Gamache faces down various cunning killers, motivated by greed, ambition, insanity, hate, jealousy, and sometimes, under the surface, racial tensions and stand-offs between the Francophone Quebecois and the Anglophone Quebecois. This last tension plays a running theme throughout Penny's series. True to real life, Penny weaves the ebb and flow of the tension of the primarily French Quebec in a primarily English Canada; this causes racial tensions to flare and a general confusion over who 'belongs' and who does not. This, among many things, is key to Penny's flawless storytelling in her novels.

Gamache can easily be compared to Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot; he is detail oriented and believes that the solutions always lie within the personal interactions of people, rather than the physical clues that remain from the crime. His observations and analysis of the interactions is what primarily drives the story lines. Gamache, unlike many of the people around him, is largely without prejudices and utilizes his personal kindness and compassion in his investigations. He attempts to hammer these virtues into his fellow police officers and into the people involved in the investigations, suspects and witnesses alike. However, Gamache is not completely flawless; past mistakes come back to haunt him in several books and people who he inadvertently scorned come back with a vengeance. However, Gamache is the hero that everyone wants; he is calm, quiet, compassionate, deeply in love with his wife, and tries his best to balance the good and the bad in all people. He is the cop everyone wants on their case... except for the bad guy, because Gamache will most certainly nab them.

Penny does a startlingly wonderful job at making the reader want to back everything up and move to
Author Louise Penny
this quaint, beautiful village, even though murder seems to happen at an alarming rate in the area. Penny, as a Canadian native herself, infuses love and awe in her descriptions of the landscape and of the traditions and eccentricities of Canadian life and Quebec village life. Seasons play a big part in the series and Penny describes the weather's affect on the village and the people in a way that makes the weather almost another character. Penny's secondary characters, although memorable and crucial to the plot, still play second-fiddle to the power and the force of Gamache's character. Penny also does a great job describing the settings without using too many words; she uses the descriptions to lay the groundwork for the conversations and interactions that drive the story.

These stories are much better than I had expected. Penny took an unusual circumstance in Canada, the schism in Quebec, and wrote eloquent, complex murder mysteries that incorporate the tension. Readers will be completely immersed in these stories and will feel not only a part of Three Pines, but also like they have met and known everyone Penny writes about.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

The Last Days of the Romanovs: Tragedy at Ekaterinburg

I grew up with an undeniable fascination for the lost Imperial Russian Royal family (and particularly Anastasia, of course). I remember watching Unsolved Mysteries back in 1998 and listening to Robert Stack describe how Anna Anderson's ears matched Anastasia Romanov's ears at 14 different points. Well then, mystery solved, I thought. Of course that's Anastasia.

I was about ten. I didn't need much convincing.

The later discovery of the Romanov remains quashed any wishful thinking; the entire Romanov family had indeed died back in 1918 via firing squad in Ekaterinburg, Russia. Like Marie Antoinette, the Romanovs have endured in the collective public consciousness as tragic victims of a violent political upheaval. We see that beautiful young family in photographs and shake our heads. We mourn the loss of a royal dynasty. 

Helen Rappaport re-establishes the Romanovs as people in The Last Days of the Romanovs: Tragedy at Ekaterinburg. Her sharp focus on their final fourteen days highlights the Romanovs' familial relationships as they struggle to stave off the boredom that comes with being secluded in the private Ipatiev House. The Romanovs are kept alive as political pawns, isolated from the outside world, and have long ago lost the agency to determine or affect their fate. 

So what does a family do when they're isolated, when they've given up hope? They band together. The readers know what's coming; the dread lies in reading their monotonous daily trifles, their grinding routines to keep themselves occupied. 

It's hard to disagree with Rappaport's poor assessment of Tsar Nicholas II's reign: the introverted Tsar preferred to shut himself away inside the Alexander Palace rather than acknowledge Russia's challenges or shifting political climate. His German-born Tsaritsa, Alexandra, had given him four daughters before producing a sickly male heir, Alexey. Alexandra's reliance on an unpopular holy man called Rasputin to curtail Alexey's bleeding attacks had seriously wounded the family's pious public image. By the time Nicholas abdicated in 1917, Russia was in the midst of a full-blown Revolution.

Author and Historian Helen Rappaport.
Courtesy of
But Rappaport isn't really interested in exploring the failures of the fallen monarch. Instead, she focuses on the personalities stuck in solitary confinement. Olga, Tatiana, Maria, and Anastasia sew. Alexey plays with tin toys. Nicholas reads. Sewing and reading occasionally give way to card games. Talking with the multitude of guards is forbidden, though Nicholas and the girls try anyway. Maria, in particular, is caught in a "compromising situation" with a guard who'd smuggled a cake into the house for her 19th birthday.   

Rappaport's contrast of small routine to the big picture politics is brutally effective. There was nothing for the Romonov family to do but wait as Commandant Yurovsky worked out the particulars of their execution.

As soon as I finished reading, I grabbed my dog and took her for a long walk in the sunshine. Don't read this book at night. 

The Last Days of the Romanovs: Tragedy at Ekaterinburg by Helen Rappaport is available at the library and as an e-book on Overdrive.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Amory Ames is on the Case!

What's there NOT to like in murder, intrigue, post-war British grandeur, and a bit of romance?  This is what you get with Amory and Milo Ames. Picture Downton Abbey meets Agatha Christie's Tommy and Tuppence series and you get the Amory Ames mystery series.  Written by Louisiana librarian, Ashley Weaver, the Amory Ames series follows Amory, a young British socialite who is navigating the turbulent waters of British high society, her tumultuous marriage, and the occasional murder thrown in. Weaver, a librarian from Allen Parish, Louisiana, sets her mysteries in the boisterous, extravagant background of post-WWI England, where parties, high society, and a devil-may-care attitude reign supreme in the lives of the Ameses and their social circles.  Despite being a 21st century American, Weaver does an excellent job in recreating what English high society was and how it could be fraught with secrets, intrigue, and back-stabbing, not to mention shallowness, vanity, and superficiality that marked the 1920's in European high society.
Keep an eye out for Amory and
Milo's third adventure, 
A Most Novel Revenge,
October 11, 2016!

These are definitely cozy mysteries (great ones, a facet that is sometimes lacking in the genre), ones with fun antics, daring, and a neatly tied up ending; these are the ultimate beach books, ones that transport you to 1920's England with all the fancy trappings, but also involve you in a well-plotted, intriguing mystery. Amory and her handsome, playboy, there's-more-to-him-than-we-know, husband, Milo, are wealthy, beautiful, and have a knack for getting sucked into mysteries that often involve corpses.  Although reluctant to admit it, Amory enjoys playing detective, much the chagrin of the local police and Milo. Once engrossed in a mystery, Amory uses her social status, her wit, and her attention to detail to figure out clues and the whodunit on the sly.  Amory is your typical cozy mystery detective: fun, beautiful, bright, and keen, a British grown-up Nancy Drew. Although formulaic, Amory is still very engaging and is fun to follow through her sometimes dangerous exploits.

It is her husband Milo who breaks the mold of the cozy mystery husband, who is stereotypically doting and willing to take the backseat to the quick wits of his stubborn, but brilliant wife. Not Milo Ames.  He is a rogue, doing what he wants when he wants to.  He is a tabloid magnet, usually spotted with women who are not Amory and is usually gallivanting around the hot spots in Europe.  He adores Amory but makes no excuses for his apparent bad behavior, instead placating her with vague reassurances about his innocence and solemn promises of his love for her.  Milo is ridiculously handsome and knows it; he uses his looks and charms to assist Amory in her investigations, prying out clues and statements from unsuspecting suspects.  He is reluctant for Amory to get involved out of concerns for her safety, but is unable to resist the intrigue and the pull of being a detective alongside her.  Milo is possibly the best part of these books; he is witty, funny, and smart, both in mind and in looks.  There is much speculation about Milo and his vagueness about his whereabouts, his company he keeps, and why his exploits are in such contradiction with his seemingly sincere love and devotion for Amory.  Is he a spy?  Is he a criminal?  What is Milo hiding behind his apparent (but untrue?) philandering and playboy lifestyle?  Milo is the true mystery of the books and Weaver makes sure to keep the mystique of Milo alive while whirling his and Amory's relationship around the actual murder mystery taking place.
Louisiana Author, Ashley Weaver,
courtesy of

This is one of the best cozy mystery series currently out there.  It has all the elements of a great mystery and Weaver does an excellent job of condensing it down to a manageable read.  The books are great mysteries without being campy, a trap that many cozies fall into.  The plot lines has character and detail and draw the reader into the conflict and ruckus without becoming overbearing.  There is melodrama without being ridiculous and there is a sense of macabre without being gory.  Weaver tows the line of intriguing mystery and cozy mystery perfectly.  This series is definitely a relaxing but fun read, and the whodunit factor will keep you turning the pages (or swiping the screen!) until Amory and Milo solve the day!

Calcasieu Parish Public Library System would like to congratulate Ashley Weaver, from their LSW partner Allen Parish, on her success!  It is awesome to see a local librarian go to the big leagues!!!! :-)

Saturday, April 23, 2016

If You Give a Reader a Dessert, They'll Want a Book Pairing!

Desserts inspired by your favorite books
Courtesy of

Thanks to the lovely readers at Shari's Berries, I present to you the ultimate awesome list: books and accompanying dessert ideas!  Try out a dessert and bite into a good book!

This was provided by the awesome people over at Shari's Berries. I appreciate their reaching out to Bayou Bytes!

Friday, February 19, 2016

"Mockingbirds don’t do one thing except make music for us to enjoy...That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”

Today, America lost one of the greatest authors it has ever produced and certainly the most famous and influential author from the Deep South.  Harper Lee (1926-2016)  influenced millions and opened the country's eyes to the abhorrent racism that was still alive and strong in the South with her 1960 To Kill a Mockingbird. The book, which follows the Finch family as they struggle with racism, growing up, hope, and tragedy in their small town, Maycomb, Alabama during the Great Depression, became a quintessential part of American literature and became a staple work of Southern Gothic literature.  Lee received acclaim, fame, and criticism from around the world as people fell in love with the characters and the message of compassion and equality; on the opposite hand, Southerners responded with anger and staunch defense of their Jim Crow system.  Lee created one of the most memorable and beloved American protagonists, Atticus Finch, an older father and attorney who believes in the equality of man and does not bow down to peer pressure.  He became the symbol of stalwart morality in the face of adversity. Lee received the Pulitzer Prize for Mockingbird in 1961.

To Kill a Mockingbird cannot be described or reviewed.  It has impacted millions over readers for more than forty years and continues to be a shining light of how goodness and determination can overcome.  The lackluster success of Lee's highly-controversial (did she really write it?  was she taken advantage of? would she really want this to be published?) 2015 Go Set a Watchman, which was written before Mockingbird, has been firmly separated from the beloved classic Mockingbird.  Fans worldwide boycotted the new book, growing more steadfast in their refusal to read it with the revelation that Lee had initially written Atticus as a racist.  Yet, the steadfast devotion to Mockingbird remains stronger than ever.  Lee's novel continues to resonate with the American public as we still struggle with the same issues that the Finchs struggled with. However, we must remember Atticus's words: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view... Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” RIP Nelle Harper Lee, a woman unafraid to write the truth and change a country.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Wizardry, Hells Bells, and a Talking Skull: What More Could Go Wrong?

Wizard-For-Hire, Harry Dresden.
Courtesy of
Harry Dresden usually gets into deep trouble.  Whether it's with trolls, vampires (of four different courts, but all of the same opinion that he needs to die), fairies, thugs, wizards, women, or his know-it-all talking spirit skull, wizard-for-hire has a knack for getting in way too deep with people (or things) that can kill him.  And, hells bells, he would not change it for anything.  The leather duster wearing and gun toting Dresden is sarcastic, handsome, intelligent, and talented, with a white and black sense of good and bad, a strict moral code, and a devil-may-care attitude which helps and hinders him.  Oh, and he mainly uses spells, a blasting rod, totems for protection, and fights Chicago's, the city he loves, underworld monsters, supernatural and human.  The wizard is the creation of American author, Jim Butcher, and debuted in 2000's Storm Front.  Fourteen more books later, Harry's in for at least five more books, according to Butcher; the ever-growing Dresden fan base has devotedly read the books and watched the short-lived Sci-Fi Channel show for 16 years now and continues to be obsessed with the man who is often described as the "grown-up Harry Potter."

The Dresden Files series can best be described as wry, sarcastic, utterly hilarious, heart-breakingly sad, intriguing, and exciting... yes, all of these.  The series traces several over-arching story lines while simultaneously following one book only story lines.  Dresden himself is the catalyst for several of these story lines; his talent and power become the focus of several groups, none of which are too friendly towards Dresden.  On the flip side, he is the impetus for good in the city, trying desperately to stay ahead of the powers of evil that threaten to overtake Chicago and harm those that Dresden loves.  Butcher writes Dresden in a way that he is under-whelmingly human, despite his magical abilities. The character is extremely self-aware, leading the hilarious inner dialogues about his talent, his failings, and what the hell is he going to do next; aka, every person on Earth's regular inner dialogue.  Dresden is that sexy, lovable man your mother warns you about and your father thinks is awesome; Dresden's character alone makes the novels worth reading.

However, the writing is also noteworthy.  It is not whimsical like most fantasy/sci-fi/magic series. Butcher instead weaves a world where the supernatural simmers barely below the surface and although there are the groupies that want to be supernatural, the regular people force themselves to ignore the weird happenings around them.  Butcher manages to create an entire world of weird and unknown. Although Dresden has great power and glowing talents, he knows that he cannot succeed (or at least scrape by by the skin of his teeth) without help from others.  This is where Butcher's fantastic cast of side characters comes in; magic and supernatural powers are mere cliche lagniappe when compared to the interweaving, repeating characters that love and hate Harry Dresden. Archangels, vampires, fairies, werewolves, and cops all come in and out of Harry's life to help him when desperate times call or just to be present when needed. This is definitely a women-rock series, with strong female characters that Dresden relies on for support, intelligence, and to save his life regularly.  Dresden acknowledges that he would be nothing without the women in life and that he is also constantly running from equally strong women out to kill him.

Author Jim Butcher
This is not your typical series.  When researching it, one struggles to find a consistent genre classification for it.  Horror (fight scenes, gore scenes, and the monsters are pretty intense), sci-fi (magic and supernatural), fantasy (magic and a tall, dark, handsome man with outstanding morals), romance (see above), and mystery (Dresden is a wizard for hire to solve mysteries, not to brew love potions) can all be applied.  However, whatever you read and whatever you call it, Harry Dresden is definitely the man for you.  This series is not to be missed.  It is campy at times, and it hilarious at times, but Jim Butcher masterfully weaves in the underlying story of the struggle between good and evil.  This is the ultimate enthralling series to read; you'll zip through it in no time and be left with the rest of the fans, waiting for Peace Talks, the 16th book, due May 10, 2016. 

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Jenny Lawson is "Furiously Happy"

The world of books is inundated with self-help books.  Losing weight, getting on the right track,
Courtesy of
being happy, successful, healthy, perky, etc... you get the point.  Most of these books are formulaic; if you just follow these steps, life will be shiny, happy, and you will literally glow with all the positive energy and contentedness in your life.  However, as we all know, this is never the case.  Life can be the pits and sometimes hiding under your blanket might seem like the only step to follow.  Blogger extraordinaire, Jenny Lawson, not only is very familiar with these feelings, she revels in them.  The Texas born author and journalist is happily "out" with her diagnoses with a slew of mental illnesses; she blogs about her struggles and published her second book about the subject in September 2015, Furiously Happy.  Furiously Happy is unlike any self-help book you will ever read.  It does not provide answers or give you a goal list to 'get better'; instead, Lawson provides humor and comfort, the entire time reiterating that you are not alone in your sadness, your eccentricities, and your life. Gracing the cover is a picture of her furiously happy, taxidermied raccoon, Rory, who serves as a reminder throughout the book to be furiously happy, a state where one is constantly doing things and having experiences that make them happy, despite impending and inevitable sadness or depression. Lawson's theory is that these experiences will prop you up during the dark times and will serve as reminders that life is worth living and worth experiencing the heck out of.  

Lawson is definitely a breath of fresh air in the area of self-help books.  She has decided to address and tackle an extremely hot button topic with ease and confidence; mental illness is still a taboo topic, one that many books address in either a clinical, matter-of-fact way, or in a 'this is a fight and you need to do this to win' manner.  Yet Lawson's book is more about having adventures and living life to the fullest, along with her mental illness, not despite it.  The book is structured in a series of chapters, consisting of a mixture of  conversations, short stories, anecdotes, lists, and musings.  Lawson captures events in her life, whether the events are fueled by her mental illness or just by the quirks of life that everyone experiences.  Despite the rumor, raunchiness, and eccentricities of life, there is the ever-present theme of the struggles with mental illness throughout.  Lawson does not shy away from the darkness and pervasiveness of her illness; she does not mince words when describing the feelings of isolation, hopelessness, and despair she experiences in her 'down' times.  Instead she uses them as inspiration to live life to the fullest during her 'up' times.  Lawson stresses that, despite being successful and appearing to have everything she could want, she cannot stop the creeping anxiety caused by her illness.  It is a startling realistic portrayal of personal suffering from mental illness, and an accurate depiction of how it can wreak havoc on your perspective and life.  

Author and The Bloggess, Jenny Lawson
Courtesy of
Nevertheless, Lawson maintains a sense of humor and strength throughout the book.  She embraces her 'crazy' side and stresses that mental illness does not take away from one's life, but enhances it in an unique way.  Lawson reminds readers that they are not alone throughout the book; she says that there is a 'tribe' of people with similar struggles and that those experiencing the problems that come with mental illness must remember that they are not alone.  This book is truly an uplifting and encouraging book for people who are struggling; this is not preachy, does not tell you what you should do or what you should have done to prevent problem.  Instead, Lawson is comfort.  She is the friend who makes you laugh, who brings you candy, who is there for you in the 'down' times.  This book is for anyone and everyone; those who struggles with mental illness and those who have experienced sadness or self-doubt.  It stresses that your dark times should be fuel to live furiously happy in the light times; furiously happy will also get you through the dark times.