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Thursday, April 8, 2010

What I'm Reading: Still Life and The Spellman's Strike Again

In March I went on a Spring Break vacation to the Caribbean. As I mentioned in this post, picking your books for vacation can be a tricky proposition. I went with 2 well reviewed cozy mysteries, one I had been suggesting to people for years but never read and one a brand new edition to a series I always enjoy. But before I get into details, the key here was I chose books that were going to be fast, character-centered stories which would hold my interest, but not require my full attention (as that was firmly planted on relaxing).

Still Life: A Chief Inspector Gamache Novel (Three Pines Mysteries)Now on to the details of the books.  After putting Louise Penny's Still Life in readers' hands for the last few years, and hearing nothing but thanks for turning them on to the series, I figured that it would be safe bet for vacation. Well I was pleasantly surprised at just how much I enjoyed this book.

Still Life is the first book in Penny's Three Pines series. We are introduced to Three Pines, a mostly "English" town in French Quebec, just over the American border. The town has a strong artist community. The main characters are a married couple who are artists, another artist who is also the son of the recently deceased town matriarch, a poet, a retired psychologist/used book store owner, and the gay couple who own the bed and breakfast/bistro in town. And then there is the murder victim Jane, a woman everyone loved. She was the former 1 room school house teacher and a artist who would never share her work, that is, until just days before she was killed by a hunting arrow as she took her morning walk. Who would kill Jane? And could her strange art have something to do with it? And why has no one ever actually been in her house after all of these years?

On the case is Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec, the Frecnch Canadian homicide detective squad, and his crew. Gamache is a great detective both literally and as a character to follow. He obviously has some past issues which are only alluded to here. He is highly thoughtful and perceptive and obviously a great mentor. For me, Gamache and his crew turn this book from a cute cozy into a great mystery. I liked visiting Three Pines for 300 pages, but I will return for Gamache.

Three Words That Describe This Book: character-centered, compelling, intriguing

Readalikes and Appeal: This book is for fans of smart cozies: fairly bloodless mysteries which are character centered, with interesting settings, that still contemplate larger issues. The overall tone here is fun, but can move to serious and thoughtful at times. Gamache is a complex lead investigator who is always thinking, teaching, and observing.

The point of view is interesting. It is 3rd person omniscient, which allows us to see what just about everyone is thinking at any and all times. Penny moves between people and their thoughts very fluidly.  People will either love this pov or hate it.

The setting is detailed with lots of information about the issues between the "French" and the "English" in Quebec. Three Pines feels like a place you want to go visit, sit in the cafe, walk in the woods, and chat with the characters.  This is a huge appeal that cannot be overlooked. Even cosmopolitan Montreal resident Gamache cannot seem to get enough of this charming small town, despite one resident's murderous impulses.

Penny's series is also for people who like series because once you read Still Life, you will be compelled to keep going with the series. These are people and a town you will want to visit again and again.

Other mystery authors who share this overall appeal and are good matches for fans of Penny are Alan Bradley, Peter Robinson, Deborah Crombie, and Jacqueline Winspear.

Nonfiction options would include books about Quebec and/or books on the separatist movement there. Also, people may want to know more about archery. I would also suggest Tracy Kidder's Hometown, a nonfiction account of a small town in MA.

The Spellmans Strike Again: A Novel (Izzy Spellman Mysteries)I also read the 4th, and apparently final, installment of Lisa Lutz's laugh-out loud, satiric, brash, and silly series following the PI firm owning, San Fransisco dwelling Spellman family.

In true Izzy Spellman (our narrator) fashion, I will not discuss the specifics of this book, but rather, I will refer you to the previous documents. (by the way, if this statement/brand of humor bothers you....don't read this series.)


Laurie said...

I have listened to the first two of both of these series on audio, and agree with your recommendations. I think the audiobook versions of Still Life and The Spellman Files both received Audie awards.

1ibrarylady said...

Agree completely with your descriptions of Still Life - If you enjoy character oriented mysteries, Louise Penny's books are great - they get better as you read through the series.