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What I'm Reading - Still Life

“Life is change. If you aren't growing and evolving you're standing still, and the rest of the world is surging ahead. Most [immature] people...lead "still" lives, waiting.”

Still Life is Louise Penny's first book, published in 2007. I only discovered Louise Penny a few years ago, recommended by a friend. I'd call this book a literary cozy. This is the first in the Chief Inspector Armand Gamache series, set in the small town of Three Pines, Quebec, near the American border. She has now 21! books in this series. I can't imagine writing more than 1 book a year it makes me tired thinking of it.

I recently re-read Still Life, and recommend reading them in order, if possible.

So, you can read a zillion reviews and plot summaries on goodreads -- over 12,000 reiews and 130,00 rating for Still Life -- so I'm just going to tell you why I think Louise Penny is worth reading and studying.

Let's get started.

First, Ms. Penny can write beautifully. But she does not take the high brow route of unending flowery description, she uses her words to delight. She is smart, yet her writing feels so approachable. Words that are precisely delivered, that make you pause, may even pull you right out of the story with their perfection. (The below bold is mine, I love that sentence.)

"Rummaging through the cupboard like a wartime surgeon frantically searching for the right bandage, Peter swept aside Yogi Tea and Harmony Herbal Blend, though he hesitated for a second over chamomile. But no. Stay focused, he admonished himself. He knew it was there, that opiate of the Anglos. And his hand clutched the box just as the kettle whistled. Violent death demanded Earl Grey."

Second, she lets her characters live and grow over the course of her books. They face significant life events, their relationships change, sometimes for better, sometimes for the worse. She addresses the world in which they live in, brings in topical issues like homophobia, racism, opiate addiction, police corruption and brutality and French/English tensions.

Third, her characters are campy. But it works. She built the town to which every disillusioned liberal wants to escape. Inhabited by a famous old crusty poet, black psychiatrist turned book seller, multiple artists, the gay couple who runs the B&B and bistro (with fantastic food, of course) get the picture. In her book the murdered artist, Jane Neal, paints her local villagers as exaggerated stick-figures, and I think that is an apt description, they are caricatures.

Finally, it's written in third-person omniscient narrative. What, you say? Yep. For those not obsessed with writing like I am, this means the narrator is all-seeing and all-knowing, and can access the consciousness or characters at will. In Ms. Penny's books this is limited to the primary characters, but this means at least 10 for any book.

What to take away from that? In writing classes this is often seen as a cop-out, taking the easy way out. After all, people communicate with each other using words and gestures and facial expressions, not telepathy. But her characters are so quirky, their internal monologues, well, just make me smile, if not laugh out loud.

Overall, her writing is outstanding, and the books are fun, and the audiobooks are a joy. If you don't expect them to feel real -- be honest, can't you use a little escapism right now? -- then just sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride.

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