These two most recent books -- one a mystery, the other a work of non-fiction -- satisfy my number one criteria: they are entertaining reads.
Book 84: Packing for Mars by Mary Roach
Entertaining isn't something you necessarily expect, or look for, in a work of non-fiction, but that's an apt description of Mary Roach's treatise on man's efforts "to boldly go where no man has gone before."
Roach writes in a effortless manner that equates to a dinner-time chat across the kitchen table with a knowledgeable friend, a friend who is seeking to entertain as well as to inform. Her sense of humor infuses the entire book and, again, brings an unexpected, but welcome quality to a work of non-fiction.
Another apt description of Packing for Mars is gross. Roach dishes out gross, but also engrossing information on all those things we've wondered about life in space, but never asked. She discourses on vomiting, farting, body odor and peeing while among the stars, but her most notable chapter is on pooping in zero gravity.
One might conclude (and I will) that Roach takes the line "to boldly go where no man has gone before" literally in this charmingly informative book.
Book 85: The Cruelest Month by Louise Penny
Charm oozes from the work of Louise Penny. The Cruelest Month is her third novel to feature Inspector Gamache and the villagers of Three Pines.
Give Penny credit, she is willing to embrace all the conventions of the cozy novel. In The Cruelest Month she goes so far as to summon all the murder suspects at the scene of the crime, a haunted house overlooking the village, for the grand denouement by Gamache. It's an ancient convention that Penny manages to make freshingly new.
All her strengths are on display: a genuine mystery to unravel, a brisk and riveting narrative and vividly drawn characters. One particularly nice aspect of The Cruelest Month is the conclusion of a shadow upon Gamache's career.
I have not dwelt on this plot line in talking about Penny's first two books, and I won't here either, expect to say Penny weaves the various threads together into a most satisfying conclusion.
It will be interesting to see where she takes this series in future novels. We have so much more we want to know about Gamache, the members of his team and the village of Three Pines.