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Tuesday, February 25, 2020

When We Were Vikings by Andrew David MacDonald and Glass Houses by Louise Penny

I know a lot of people loved When We Were Vikings, and sometimes I did, too. 

from description:  For Zelda, a twenty-one-year-old Viking enthusiast who lives with her older brother, Gert, life is best lived with some basic rules:

1. A smile means “thank you for doing something small that I liked.”
2. Fist bumps and dabs = respect.
3. Strange people are not appreciated in her home.
4. Tomatoes must go in the middle of the sandwich and not get the bread wet.
5. Sometimes the most important things don’t fit on lists.

But when Zelda finds out that Gert has resorted to some questionable—and dangerous—methods to make enough money to keep them afloat, Zelda decides to launch her own quest. Her mission: to be legendary. It isn’t long before Zelda finds herself in a battle that tests the reach of her heroism, her love for her brother, and the depth of her Viking strength.

I loved Zelda, who suffers from cognitive disabilities as a result of fetal alcohol syndrome, and sympathized with Gert, who had been responsible for her most of her life. 

It wasn't the characters that didn't work for me, they were well realized.  It was the narrative that bothered me.  Also, Zelda's ability to read and retain information,to add and use words to her vocabulary daily, as well as her ability to problem-solve were a little puzzling.  I know college-educated adults who would have difficulty reading nonfiction works about Vikings and remembering in detail.  Zelda shows both maturity and immaturity in equal measure, almost as if her intellect was fine and only her emotional responses were childlike. 

There were parts I loved, but something (I'm not sure exactly what--a kind of ambivalence or doubt that kept creeping in) kept me from wholeheartedly believing.

I do recommend When We Were Vikings.  A sense of compassion permeates the story.  It is easy to fall in love with Zelda and to admire Gert's commitment to his sister.  The support of AK47 and others is another uplifting element to this modern myth of heroes, Valkyries, and villains.  

NetGalley/Gallery, Pocket Books
Literary Fiction.  Feb. 1, 2020.  Print length:  335 pages.  

Louise Penny's Glass Houses begins slowly with a murder trial, but moves back and forth in time between the inciting event and the trial.  

Nearly a year before the trial, a strange masked figure wearing a hooded black robe appears at a Halloween party.  No one recognizes the figure and the figure remains silent, ignoring the questions of party goers.  Puzzling, but since it is a Halloween party, most of Three Pines residents and the two visiting couples find it merely curious.  

The next day, the figure appears on the village green, silent and seemingly immobile--and curiosity turns to uneasiness.  When Armand Gamache approaches it, questioning its identity and intent, the silence and lack of physical response begin to feel menacing.  The figure has hurt no one, but the silent vigil is unnerving for the community.  They want Gamache to do something, but no laws have been broken.

Eventually a guest mentions the cobrador del frac--a Spanish debt collector dressed in top hat and tails who follows people who owe money and refuse to pay.   

He adds that much less is known about the medieval origin of the cobrador, a collector of moral debts--who acted as a conscience and stalked his target until confession or penance occurred.  

The idea of an incarnation of the ancient cobrador--taking no action, speaking not at all, but shaming the guilty party--causes citizens of Three Pines and their guests to wonder whose moral crimes have attracted the cobrador.  And who has called a Conscience to Three Pines.  

In a discussion of conscience, the question is asked about why the Holocaust happened.  Myrna answers, "It happened because no one stopped them.  Not enough people stood up soon enough.  And why was that?"  

Clara suggests fear may have prevented people taking action,  and Myrna responds, "Yes, partly.  And partly programming.  All around them, respectable Germans saw others behaving brutally toward people they considered outsiders.  The Jews, gypsies, gays.  It became normal and acceptable.  No one told them what was happening was wrong.  In fact, just the opposite."   

Armand follows up a little later with "We see it when bullies are in charge.  It becomes part of the culture of an institution, a family, an ethnic group, a country.  It becomes not just acceptable, but expected.  Applauded even."

The cobrador is conscience, and someone in  the tiny village knows that he or she is the guilty party.  Then a murder.  

As the narrative moves back and forth between the court scenes and the arrival of the cobrador in Three Pines nearly a year earlier, the background is gradually filled in.   

Gamache faces a dilemma that results in a decision that will bother his conscience with either  dreadful choice.  

Character-driven and complex, Glass Houses is another outstanding offering from Louise Penny.

Now, I have only three more books to be caught up with this remarkable series.  

Crime/Mystery.  2017.  Print length:  391 pages.

One of my favorite books last year was Erik Larson's The Splendid and the Vile:  A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz.

Here is an interesting interview:  Erik Larson on Writing Wartime Life During the London Blitz


  1. I think I have five left in the Three Pines/Inspector Gamache series and I'm going to savor them so I will always have one to look forward to and not have to wait for a new release.

    Thanks for the article. My husband enjoyed The Splendid and the Vile, so I'll pass it along to him. I've got the book in my TBR stacks.

    1. I feel the same way about wanting to savor the next books in the Three Pines series. They also leave me thinking about them for a good while because they touch on so many issues are so full of the strengths and flaws of humanity.

    2. I read this one (Glass Houses) a week or so ago and LOVED it! I can't get over how good these books are and how much better they get with each installment. I only have two left to read, so I'm going to try to spread them out so I don't have to wait to long before the next release. After that, I have no idea what I'll do! :)

    3. :) It is such a good series. Writing, characters, plots. I know what you mean about having to wait for the next book, though.

  2. When We Were Vikings sounds heartwarming but I think I will skip it. It sounds like the cognitive disabilities come and go as the plot needs them to. Alas, not so in real life.

    I've never gotten into the Three Pines series and always feel like I am missing out! I know they are beloved.

    1. When We Were Vikings has a fascinating character in Zelda and her dreams of becoming legendary. :)

      When I read the first in the Three Pines series, I wasn't sure what I thought about it. At some point, I read another as a standalone and went back and picked up those I missed. It is a series that improved and became more complex with each book. And the characters! Well, the crazy poet Ruth is my favorite, but they are all wonderfully genuine.

  3. I liked your review of Glass Houses very much. I will be keeping a look out for this one.

    1. Louise Penny's Three Pines series is one of the best out there. Her writing and the issues she undertakes have resonance. From an almost cozy beginning, the books become deeper and more thought-provoking with each new entry. :)

  4. I need to catch up on Louise Penny's Armand Gamache series! And that book by Erik Larson sounds interesting.

    1. I have more Three Pines/Armand Gamache books to be caught up, but as Les suggests, I plan to savor each one. The Erik Larson book on Churchill and the London Blitz was excellent.

  5. I approached When We Were Vikings as kind of a late-bloomer's coming of age novel and rated it accordingly, but some of the things you say here about the character's contradictions caught my eye, too. It's a good story, and I can see why it was so popular. I'm reading another one right now that is pretty similar in plot, The Reckless Oath We Made, in which the author is doing a much better job at keep the main character's behavior and abilities consistent. Have you read that one?

    Loved the Gamache novel you mention here. It really took me a while to figure out what must be going on, but it fits into the theory that the Gamache books are getting darker and darker - and much more complicated than the early books in the series. I think I like that trend - at least so far.

    And the Larson book - I'm going to read that one at some point for sure because I don't think Erik Larson is capable of writing a bad book. He's one of my go-to nonfiction writers.

  6. When We Were Vikings is a late-bloomer's coming of age, isn't it? As much as I loved Zelda (and Gert for his love and concern) I did find some things inconsistent. I haven't read The Reckless Oath We Made, but I'll see if I can find it.

    It took me a long time to figure Glass Houses out as well. The books are so much more than mysteries, and it seems fitting that they become darker and more complex.

    I need to read more of Erik Larson--especially since I enjoyed The Splendid and the Vile so much and love good nonfiction history. What would you suggest for my next Larson book?

    1. My favorites of his are still: Thunderstruck, The Devil in the White City, and Dead Wake.

  7. I can't decide if I want to read When We Were Vikings, or not. But I do like the sound of The Splendid and the Vile. Larson's such a good writer. I really liked The Devil in the White City by him.

    1. I need to read The Devil in the White City. It's been around forever and still gets great reviews!

  8. I need to read these. Thanks. Happy Thursday.

  9. I am reading the Louise Penny series in order, a great series, and plan to read The Splendid and the Vile. I find Winston Churchill and his courage fascinating and am reading a biography of his wife, titled Clementine.

    1. I'd like to learn more about Clementine! She wasn't a large part of The Splendid and the Vile, but her personality was more vivid than I'd previously imagined. What is the name of the biography you are reading?

  10. The extracts you had from Louise Penny's book is certainly thought provoking. Definitely a series I need to look in to.

  11. very sweet ! Have you considered a launch strategy for your book ? usabookreviewers dot com helps gather reviews for your book, gain visibility and traction. Would you like a book trailer ? I can do one for free.