Monday, July 24, 2017

LEGACY OF THE DEAD by Charles Todd






Charles Todd’s Legacy of the Dead is an important book in the Ian Rutledge series.

Scotland Yard Inspector Ian Rutledge ends up in Scotland investigating murder charges against a young woman who has a special connection to him.

Rutledge gets there in a roundabout way.  His arch enemy Superintendent Bowles sends him to visit an elderly aristocratic woman who was the mistress of a king. The lady’s daughter is missing. She wants to know if her daughter is dead.

Scottish authorities believe the young woman they have in custody killed the woman’s daughter and stole her infant. But the evidence is circumstantial. Authorities can’t even definitively identify the bones they believe are hers.

So Rutledge investigates two cases. He seeks to identify the bones. And he horns in on the local case by trying to prove the accused woman innocent.

As always, Hamish, the haunting voice in his head, accompanies him. This part of Scotland is Hamish’s old stomping ground. Even the places Rutledge visits remind Rutledge of the most terrible day of his life.

The fully described setting is not far from the home of Rutledge’s Godfather who holds a special place in Rutledge’s heart.

All these people and places play into the story.  Rutledge is worse for the wear when the story comes to its crashing conclusion. And he has used skills learned from his Scottish soldiers, most of whom are now long dead, interred in unidentified graves on a World War I battlefield.

As with all the Rutledge books so far, the war and its aftermath play a huge part.

Despite the attempt of local authorities to solve their crime by accusing an outsider, Rutledge does as almost always. He proves how local the crime was.

If you love historical mysteries, you should try the Ian Rutledge books. Start at the beginning and read from there. Then when you get to Legacy of the Dead, you’ll see how central it is to the whole saga.

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I checked out this book from our local library as a Kindle book. Your library might offer such e-book services too. 

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

MERCY FALLS by William Kent Krueger






William Kent Krueger’s Mercy Falls reminded me of the Louise Penny book where Gamache got the wrong guy. You had to read the next book to get the whole story.

Somehow I felt like Louise Penny had cheated, not played by the rules of the game.

Mercy Falls is one of those books where you have to read the next book to get the whole story. And I will read the next book, but not right now. I didn’t find Mercy Falls that compelling.

For one thing, Mercy Falls had too many repetitive events. Cork O'Connor had already gone into the Boundary Waters wilderness area searching for a missing woman. That was in the best book in the series so far, Boundary Waters. Cork’s family had already been put at risk in another book. Cork’s wife had found another attractive man in another book. This story seemed repetitive.

Mercy Falls is well written as always.  After a prologue which foreshadows “How It Ends,” Mercy Falls opens with someone trying to assassinate Tamarack County, Minnesota, Sheriff Cork O'Connor.

Instead, the assailant shoots and seriously wounds a young female deputy. Then someone kills and castrates a sleazy wheeler dealer from a rich family. The man came into the county representing a group that wants to make a deal to manage the Anishinaabe tribe’s  casino. He negotiates with Cork’s lawyer-wife Jo who represents the tribe.

Jo had had a prior love connection with the murdered man’s brother.

To further complicate things, the murdered man’s father vows to find the killer. He sends the book’s most interesting character ex-FBI agent Dina Winter to keep Cork’s investigation on the straight and narrow.

Then Cork and others go into the Boundary Waters wilderness to try to rescue a kidnapped woman. And from there, things go terribly wrong leading to a violent conclusion that takes us to the next book.

This is a short sketch of the first part of what is an action-filled book. The book’s interpersonal relationships and violent interactions are more complicated than my words imply. Even if I didn’t find this to be the best Cork O’Conner book, Mercy Falls kept me reading.

Mercy Falls won the 2006 Anthony Award.


Sunday, July 9, 2017

WATCHERS OF TIME by Charles Todd






Charles Todd’s Watchers of Time was one of the more ordinary Inspector Ian Rutledge novels.

Again Chief Superintendent Bowles sends Rutledge on what looks to be a fruitless case. In 1919, someone murders the local Catholic priest in Osterly. The bishop and his assistant want Scotland Yard involved.

Local authorities find a likely suspect. The case seems open-and-shut. But Rutledge thinks what is happening has to do with an unusual visit Father James made to a dying Anglican man. The man asked his own vicar to get him Father James for a private conversation.

Then Father James ends up brutally murdered. And the whole thing ties back to a wealthy family in the local community.

Local authorities want the original suspect to be guilty. He’s an outsider. To convict him would make it clear no local resident would murder the beloved priest.

The case comes to involve the Titanic (one local woman was thought to have died on the ship); Rutledge’s own war experiences; Hamish, the voice in Rutledge’s head; and Rutledge’s dogged persistence against impossible odds.

Like the other Rutledge books, Watchers of Time has several psychologically penetrating insights. The rich man has a strange statue in his garden, the watchers of time. It is four baboons sitting, looking, and watching. They know everything that happens but cannot tell about it.

“I’ve always hated those damned baboons in the garden,” one family member tells Rutledge. “They stare at me as if they can look through the flesh and blood into my very soul.”

Father James was a watcher of time. He knew more about this small town and its history than he could tell.

Much about the case mirrors Rutledge’s haunting World War I experiences. By the end, a totally exhausted Rutledge is still struggling to put his own ghosts at rest.

Watchers of Time is the fifth book in the Ian Rutledge series. I am reading through the series. I put myself on the waiting list at our local library for the fourth book and went on to the fifth. Watchers of Time refers to the earlier book in ways that make me look forward to reading it.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

SEARCH THE DARK by Charles Todd






Shell shock and war wounds permeate Charles Todd’s Search the Dark.

Someone murders a woman previously seen waiting for a train in the village of Singleton Magna in Dorset. 

Superintendent Bowles sends Scotland Yard’s Inspector Ian Rutledge to investigate.

Bowles hates Rutledge and is jealous of Rutledge. After Rutledge came out of an asylum following his war-related mental breakdown, Bowles sends him on useless, already solved cases. He wants Rutledge to fail. If Bowles could, he would destroy Rutledge.

The murder seems open and shut. The woman’s mentally disturbed husband saw his wife and their children from the train window, went to find them, and probably killed them. 

But his wife and their children are already dead. They died in the bombing of London. If the accused committed the murder, he did so out of his own war-caused insanity. 

Now the authorities are searching for the missing children.

Rutledge finds a small town immersed in the pain of the war. Even Simon, the “lord of the manor,” can hardly function. People expected him to use his war experiences to vault himself into politics. Now he is setting up an esoteric museum and, along with his French wife, becoming a recluse.

At one point, someone tells Rutledge, “I don’t suppose [Simon’s] father expected the war to last, and I don’t suppose Simon did either. Well, none of us did! Quick in and quick out was the idea. Only it wasn’t that way, and in the end, those of us who survived knew what kind of men we were. Some of us even learned to live with it, however little we liked what we saw. But Simon, told all his life that he was Jesus Christ, son of God, fell far below his own estimation and never recovered.”

Searchers find another woman dead. Rutledge is convinced the accused man did not commit either murder. That man is so disabled by his own war experiences he can barely talk or move.

Another outcast tells Rutledge--“You are so very sensitive to what people are thinking. It is a gift. And a curse. To be able to put yourself in the minds of others. Is that how you come to find your murderers?”

So Rutledge has to search the dark, other people’s and his own. He has to live with Hamish, the voice in his head who reminds him of his most terrible moment in the war.

Particular individuals often survive wars because of blind chance.

So far, the Ian Rutledge books are about the aftermath of World War I, about Ian Rutledge and others trying to survive.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

THE MOUNTAINS HAVE A SECRET by Arthur W. Upfield






A QUOTE FROM THE BOOK--

A transformation of himself was going on, and it was not the first time in his life nor the first time he had noted it with incurious interest. It was similar to the transformation of Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll, although the opposing influences where not good and evil, but rather the complex and the primitive in man. The highly-civillised Inspector Bonaparte was retreating before the incoming primitive hunter.

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Arthur W. Upfield’s The Mountains Have a Secret (1948) is one of his best in the series so far.

Australia’s Detective-Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte (Bony) relies on the aboriginal side of his nature to solve the crime. He started on the civilized side and made no progress.

As almost always in these books, the story revolves around an Australian geographical landmark, this time the Grampian Mountains in central Western Victoria. Two young women disappeared in the mountains. To all appearances, someone kidnapped and killed them.

To cover the crime, the murderer kills the yardman at a nearby resort.

Bony tries to break the mystery open by going to the resort disguised as a wealthy nature tourist. He gets nowhere. For the first half of the book, he makes no progress. He almost gets himself beaten to a pulp.

Then he leaves the resort, reverts to his aboriginal self, his mother’s part of his heritage, and taps into a dark part of Australian history.

Bony gets an ally, a young man who loves one of the missing women and wants to learn what happened to her. Along the way Bony watches someone exhume the buried body of the yardman, cremate it, and then become part of the bazaar ritual which gives the book its power.

Bony’s single greatest fault keeps him from bringing the crime to a close, though he is hailed as a hero at the end. He says of himself, “I am a vain fool. If only I had not attempted to grab all the glory.” And that sums up Bony’s abiding weakness. He is too prideful. He always solves the crime, but often his pride gets in the way.

What I have said is intentionally vague. I wanted there to be no spoilers in these comments if I could help it. But I would say this--If you want to read one of the best of the Bony books, read The Mountains Have a Secret.

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P.S. I have said elsewhere that my favorite of these books in the series so far is The Bone Is Pointed.  That remains the case. 

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

BLOOD HOLLOW by William Kent Krueger






A QUOTATION FROM BLOOD HOLLOW--

“Cork didn’t believe anyone was purely and simply anything. All human beings, it seemed to him, were a collection of conflicting impulses stuffed into one skin, trying somehow to find peace. Death was certainly one way.”
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William Kent Krueger’s Blood Hollow involves religion--murderous religion and healing religion.

Someone kills a teenaged girl who leaves a New Year’s Eve party on her snowmobile. She ends up unconscious in the snow as the murderer sits and watches her freeze to death. All the while, the murderer gorges on snacks and sandwiches.

Cork O'Connor’s wife Jo agrees to defend the prime suspect Solemn Winter Moon. Cork, the former Tamarack County, Minnesota, sheriff, will investigate the murder for the defense.

Solemn is the young woman’s ex-boyfriend. She broke up with him when she took up with another (perhaps married) man. The people of Tamarack County know Solemn as a troublemaker who broke into the local Catholic church, urinated in the baptismal font, and left angry graffiti.

But when Cork puts Solemn in touch with Henry Meloux, one of the Midewiwin, a member of the Grand Council of the Medicine Society of Ojibwe tribe, things change.

Solemn has a startling vision. He talks to Jesus. Though he ends up in jail awaiting charges, Solemn becomes known as a miracle worker, a healer. That reputation almost destroys him.

Solemn’s connection with Henry and his earlier time with the now dead Sam Winter Moon helped heal the young man.

Cork purses the killer, uncovers strange facts about the victim and her family, and struggles with his own painful feelings about the Roman Catholic church. He also uncovers an insane distortion of religion, a distortion that has led to serial murder.


As is often the case with the Cork O’Connor books, Blood Hollow has a tragic but fulfilling close.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

THE CHALK PIT by Elly Griffiths






Elly Griffiths’ The Chalk Pit is an ensemble production. Many of the characters play major parts, and many have their lives changed. The book ends with a full obituary for Bilbo, a homeless man murdered in the story.

When a car full of drunk teenagers narrowly avoids driving into an opening hole in the highway, they see a strange Jesus-like man. He seems to have come up from the pit.

Norwich DCI Harry Nelson enlists his former lover Ruth Galloway to analyze bones found at the bottom of the pit.

Someone kills two homeless men and kidnaps three women including a homeless woman named Babs. Babs turns out to be a strong, important character.

Why would someone kidnap the women and kill the two men? Would it have anything to do with homeless people living underground in the abandoned mining tunnels beneath Norwich?

Griffiths' whole ensemble cast plays a part. Many have their lives changed. Major things occur to people like Nelson’s wife Michelle, Ruth herself, the major investigators in the story, and others. All have well-developed stories. Harry and Michelle’s story involves a startling irony.

Griffiths introduces an interesting new character, Superintendent Jo Archer. She is different from what she first seems to be.

For me, reading a new Ruth Galloway story is like coming upon another good episode of a favorite TV series. Griffiths’ stories entertain me. I enjoy the characters. And I find the plots interesting.

If you like reading ensemble mystery stories in which many characters play important parts, you should enjoy reading Elly Griffiths’ The Chalk Pit.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

WINGS OF FIRE by Charles Todd






Charles Todd’s Wings of Fire sneaks up on you.

Scotland Yard's Inspector Ian Rutledge plods along following people’s stories. Then, all of a sudden, the book turns into an excellent horror story.

Rutledge struggles with his WWI PTSD. He can’t escape the haunting voice of Hamish MacLeod who died beside him in the trenches.

Superintendent Bowles exiles Rutledge to the village of Borcombe in Cornwall to investigate what seem to be routine suicides. And Rutledge uncovers family murder.

The two main suspects are already dead. Rutledge may gain nothing but trouble by unmasking the serial killer. Many of the major clues are in a famous book of poetry, Wings of Fire.

While Rutledge solves the murders in Borcombe in Cornwall, his major nemesis, Bowles, fails to unmask a serial murderer in London.

As always with Charles Todd, the storytelling is straightforward and clear. For me, the book was compelling.


One of my major tasks in the next year or so will be to read my way through all of Charles Todd’s Ian Rutledge books. 

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I checked this out as a Kindle book from my local library. Your library might offer similar e-book services. 

Tuesday, May 30, 2017






William Kent Krueger’s Purgatory Ridge is a good book with two surprises.

One surprise involves an action which goes against human nature. The other has to do with the solution to the murder.

Aurora, Minnesota, former sheriff Cork O'Connor investigates an explosion at a local lumber mill. The explosion killed a well-known leader of the Anishinaabe tribe.

Some people believe the old Indian accidentally blew himself up in a failed attempt to set a bomb at the lumberyard. The owner of the lumberyard is about to harvest a sacred grove of White Pine trees called Minishoomisag or Our Grandfathers.

In the midst of all this, wildfires rage.

Cork’s wife Jo represents the Anishinaabe tribe, further complicating the situation for Cork.

Along the way, Cork grows even farther from his virtually estranged wife and then reconciles with her. But the heart of the story comes with a kidnapping and the violent struggles that involves.

As always with Krueger’s stories, Purgatory Ridge keeps you reading.

Purgatory Ridge was not my favorite Kent Krueger book (of those I’ve read so far), but like all the Cork O’Conner books, it keeps you reading. 

Sunday, May 21, 2017

A HISTORY OF GOD by Karen Armstrong







Karen Armstrong’s A History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam is what it says it is--a detailed historical survey of the various shades of belief in three of the world’s major monotheistic religions.

Armstrong discusses at least four ways of coming at God--theophany, philosophy, science, and mysticism. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam had shades of all four.

Theophany is God’s decision to intrude into the world in ways like the burning bush.

All three religions have a God who makes Godself visible in signs, actions, a savior (in the case of Christianity), the scriptures, or in other ways.

For me, Armstrong’s book was heavy reading, especially when it came to Islam with which I am unfamiliar.
       
She spends a long time on the Mystics in all three faiths.

So what interested me? I was struck by how quickly religious thought drifts from what the founder teaches. To give one example, Armstrong writes about Basil, Bishop of Caesarea’s comments on the Trinity. Basil lived ca. 329-79.

Armstrong writes, “Basil also warned us against imagining that we could work out the way in which the Trinity operated, so to speak: it was no good, for example, attempting to puzzle out how the three hypostases of the Godhead were at one and the same time identical and distinct. This lay beyond words, concepts and human powers of analysis.”

So within just a few hundred years Christianity had gone from teachings like the Beatitudes, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Jesus’ parables to esoteric discussions about the nature of the Trinity.

As I see it, starting with Paul, Christianity moved away from the teachings of Jesus to speculation about Jesus.  And similar moves away from what the founders taught occurred in the other two religions.

Armstrong taught me a lot. She helped me understand why I like the Old Testament prophets so much. They relate to God in a concrete way, seeing God speaking to them and believing they can see God acting in the world. To me, that makes more sense than seeing Christianity (or any of the three religions) from a Platonic point of view.

A History of God discusses whether God exists, and, if so, all the many ways we try to perceive God. It left me thinking what I thought before. If I choose to believe in God, all I can do is trust in God’s goodness, and leave the rest to God. As a follower of Jesus, to the small extent that I can know what Jesus teaches, he guides me as to how to live today.

One warning. This book is heavy reading.

Hopefully, for me A History of God was a stop along the way to learning more, especially about Islam.


Sunday, May 7, 2017

BOUNDARY WATERS by William Kent Krueger






William Kent Krueger’s Boundary Waters describes the evolution of an Anishinaabe hero story.

The book opens with a psychopathic killer torturing and murdering Wendell Two Knives. Two Knives refuses to reveal where he hid Shiloh, a famous singer running from an enemy who wants to kill her.

Already two people, Shiloh’s mother and Shiloh’s psychiatrist, have been murdered. As a child, Shiloh saw her mother’s murder. Her psychiatrist may have helped her remember the episode and name the murderer.

A search party sets off into the Boundary Waters wilderness to find Shiloh. Along the way, they find out about Wendell’s murder.

Wendell’s ten-year-old grand nephew Louis guides the party. The party includes Aurora, Minnesota, former sheriff Cork O'Connor; two supposed FBI agents; Shiloh’s stepfather; and Wendell’s nephew (Louis' father) Stormy Two Knives.

Two men claim to be Shiloh’s father, a dying mobster and a well-known politician who is on his way to becoming governor.

All nature gathers to help save Shiloh. Amidst a series of brutal killings (including the murder of two innocent fishermen who cross paths with Shiloh), a gray timber wolf shadows Shiloh and protects her.

Cork O’Connor’s estranged wife Jo plays a crucial part in the story. She is the first one to figure out who is paying for the killing.

But at the heart of the story is the wolf and the idea of Wendell’s walk on The Path of Souls. The book portrays the evolution of Wendell’s hero story. It tells how heroes touch lives and save people in ways some cultures remember forever.

Boundary Waters ends with a moving scene where the youngest member of the search party, Louis Two Knives, tells Wendell’s hero story.


Thursday, April 27, 2017






William Kent Krueger’s Iron Lake is a violent, powerfully written novel with a Native American religious subtheme.

Anishinaabe legend says that when the Windigo calls your name, you are bound to die.

Disgraced Aurora, Minnesota, former sheriff Cork O'Connor investigates the apparent suicide of a corrupt local judge. The judge was a powerful figure. His son has been elected to the U.S. Senate. O’Conner believes someone murdered the judge.

At the same time, O’Connor looks for a teenager who has disappeared. The former sheriff believes his disappearance ties in to the judge’s murder.

And all of this happens as O’Conner tries to put his shattered family back together. He struggles with his love for a woman other than his wife.

These details only hint at the power and tragedy in the story. But for me, one of the major interests was in the Anishinabee legends themselves. Cork, who is half Irish and half Anishinaabe has two Native American mentors. One is Sam Winter Moon with whom he hunted “the big bear.”

Sam Winter Moon and the big bear changed the fourteen-year-old hunter’s life.

Cork’s other mentor is Henry Meloux.

Meloux tells Cork about the Windigo, “... you got to be careful, because even if you kill the Windigo, you’re still in danger.” And when Cork asks, “What danger?” Henry replies, “Of staying a Windigo forever. Of being the ogre you killed.”

The Windigo calls several other names including Cork’s.

As each of those people dies or is murdered, the question remains if Cork will be next. But Cork’s destruction is not physical. It is much more terrible than that.

So this book does more than keep you reading. It reminds you that often in life, we cannot separate the terrible and the beautiful.


Iron Lake is the well known first novel in what is now an extensive series. I hardly need to write about it for you to have heard of it. I am glad I ran across a mention of it in Friday’s Forgotten Books, and I’m glad I read Iron Lake

Friday, April 21, 2017






Michael Innes’ Death at the President’s Lodging (1935) is a cozy locked room mystery.
              
The story involves three “locked rooms.” Someone kills the president of St. Anthony’s College in his locked apartment in a locked orchard compound in the walled and locked college.

The doors to all the locked areas have the same key. Ten keys exist, nine accounted for. The president changed all the locks the day before.

Scotland Yard Inspector John Appleby identifies seven suspects (accounting for the alternative title of the book, Seven Suspects).

Most of the suspects lie, either to protect themselves or to try to throw suspicion on another colleague. (So much for collegiality at St. Anthony’s.)

To say that Death at the President’s Lodging is complex makes it sound too simple.

Innes writes the book in a humorous, but academic, style. One short sample sentence--“I would remind you, Mr. Appleby, that the horror of these events was exacerbated by the inspissated gloom in which they were enveloped.” And Innes’ descriptions are longer and more complex.

So Death at the President’s Lodging is a particular kind of book. If you like complex, “where were the suspects at 9:30 p.m. and 22 and one-half seconds”-type cozy, clue-driven stories, you should love this book.

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I learned about this author from the listing of another of his books in Patricia Abbott’s weekly “Friday’s Forgotten Books” listing. I find a lot of interesting books in the “Friday’s Forgotten Books” weekly lists. 

Sunday, April 9, 2017

THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE: MY CLIMB OUT OF DARKNESS by Karen Armstrong






Karen Armstrong’s The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness is a testament to the power of literature and poetry.

This second volume of Armstrong’s spiritual autobiography takes its central conceit and title from T.S. Eliot’s “Ash Wednesday.”  Armstrong compares her climb out of darkness to hesitantly climbing a spiral staircase, moving up and dropping back.

Along the way, Armstrong quotes Coleridge, Pope, Tennyson (with whom she has a strong affinity), Wordsworth, and others. She takes the words, “We will grieve not, rather find/ Strength in what remains behind,” as her mantra.  Those words come from Wordsworth’s “Ode to Immortality.”

At one point, Armstrong writes  “...the religious quest is not about discovering ‘the truth’ or ‘the meaning of life’ but about living as intensely as possible here and now. The idea is not to latch on to some superhuman personality or to ‘get to heaven’ but to discover how to be fully human....”

Later she writes: "Here again, the religious traditions were in unanimous agreement. The one and only test of a valid religious idea, doctrinal statement, spiritual experience, or devotional practice was that it must lead directly to practical compassion."

And later yet,  "Compassion was the litmus test for the prophets of Israel, for the rabbis of the Talmud, for Jesus, for Paul, and for Muhammad, not to mention Confucius, Lao-tzu, the Buddha, or the sages of the Upanishads. In killing Muslims and Jews in the name of God, the Crusaders had simply projected their own fear and loathing onto a deity which they had created in their own image and likeness, thereby giving this hatred a seal of absolute approval. A personalized God can easily lead to this type of idolatry..."

And finally, she comes back to the role of literature in her salvation. “Indeed, studying English literature at university may have been a fruitful preparation, because increasingly I was coming to see theology, like religion itself, was really an art form. In every tradition, I was discovering, people turned to art when they tried to express or evoke a religious experience: to painting, music, architecture, dance, or poetry. They rarely attempted to define their apprehension of the divine in logical discourse or in the scientific language of hard fact. Like all art, theology is an attempt to express the inexpressible.”

So, after she left the convent, Karen Armstrong's love of literature helped her deal with her mental depression and physical illness. It brought her to a place where she could write The New York Times’ bestseller A History of God and many other books.

I came to know Karen Armstrong from her writings about Islam, some of which I read following 9-11. I wanted to know more about the Muslim faith. The jingoistic slogans I heard everywhere back then (and still hear now) seemed inane to me.  

I plan to read more. Right now, I have Armstrong’s Buddha on my reading list, and her most well-known book, A History of God: The 4000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

Also, I plan to read her Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths. The City of Jerusalem and her visits to the Holy Land played a large part in Armstrong’s healing.

Karen Armstrong’s The Spiral Staircase is a moving book. If you are interested in spiritual biographies and in how one woman worked through her darkness to find light, you might want to read this book.