Still Life by Louise Penny
Back when I was hoping to complete a Cannonball Bingo, Still Life was my choice for the North America square. The first novel in Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Gamache mystery series, it’s set in the little town of Three Pines in Canada and follows the search for the murderer of 76-year-old Jane Neal.
I don’t often read mysteries, so I was surprised at how Penny approached the mystery. We spend a lot of time with other characters in the town and get to know them, which doesn’t really fit with my conception of what a mystery novel is, and I really liked it. Still Life, and I assume the other Inspector Gamache books, fits at least somewhat into the “cozy mystery” genre, which is also enjoyed.
Gamache is an interesting character. He’s thoughtful, observant, willing to give people chances – sometimes to his detriment. Really, I liked most of the characters, and even the one we’re not supposed to like, an agent with a bad attitude whom Gamache gives too many chances to, is described in a sort of compassionate way – we understand that she’s not receptive to feedback because she’s defending herself psychologically.
The only things I didn’t like were some moments of what seem to be fatphobia and that to me it seemed that Gamache almost stumbled into the discovery of who the killer is, rather than actually figuring it out. It adds to the tension and drama but detracts from the detective element.
With the Fire on High by Elizabeth Acevedo
This one has been on my TBR since Narfna reviewed it a few years ago, and I finally got around to reading it. It takes a first person perspective and follows single mother Emoni through her senior year of high school as she tries to figure out what she wants to do with her life.
This felt like such a warm book. While Emoni certainly faces some adversity, she is surrounded by so much love and support from family, friends, and even some school faculty. I loved seeing her personal growth over the course of the book as she takes more responsibility for her life and makes thoughtful choices. I’ve also been trying to read more books by and about BIPOC and LGBTQ+ individuals, and I appreciated the inclusivity in this book. Emoni is Afro-Latina , and her best friend is a lesbian.
Emoni has a passion for cooking, and there seems to be just a touch of magical realism in the novel. Some of her cooking evokes strong memories and emotions in people who eat her dishes in a way that would seem to go beyond her just being a good cook. For example, she cooked plantains after her disappointing and painful first experience with sex, and she notes that from that point on, whenever she cooks fried plantains for someone, they end up crying “for reasons they can’t explain.”
I do wonder if I’m starting to outgrow YA novels. I don’t have a rating for this novel for that reason. I enjoyed it and thought it was well-written, and I really cared about what happened to Emoni, but it didn’t resonate with me the way YA books used to. It’s been several years since I’ve read a YA novel, and maybe this is an outlier for me, but I suspect it’s just getting harder for me to relate to such young characters. My son is the same age as Emoni’s daughter, and I found myself connecting more for that reason. I was unreasonably excited when one of the chapters started with Emoni reading her daughter the last line from the book The Runaway Bunny, which we also read to my son every night. Overall, I do certainly recommend this book without reservation. It just didn’t resonate with me quite as much as I’d have liked.
A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman
CW for suicide attempts and pregnancy loss.
I think I probably also came across A Man Called Ove through Cannonball Read. I didn’t know much about it going in, aside from what I read on the back cover, and I don’t really know what I was expecting. I wasn’t expecting that Ove would make multiple suicide attempts, but in spite of the very serious content of the book, it’s still sweet and in many ways light-hearted.
Ove is a curmudgeon and essentially always has been. There’s a line in the book along the lines of his having been an old man since elementary school. He is set in his ways with rigid ideas of right and wrong and how people should behave, and he frequently complains about how different things are from the way they used to be. The book starts about 6 months after Sonja, his wife of almost 40 years, dies. She was the love of his life, and he regularly visits her grave to talk to her and plant fresh flowers, even in winter. At the start of the novel, Ove has just been forced into early retirement by his job, and between that and Sonja’s death, he doesn’t think he has anything else to live for, and he wants to join Sonja in the afterlife.
All of Ove’s near suicide attempts are well-thought out, and they aren’t played for laughs. They all also end up being foiled by people needing help, starting with new neighbors. Patrick and Parvaneh (initially termed by Ove the Lanky One and the Pregnant Foreign Woman) meet Ove when they back a trailer into his flower bed and then run over his mailbox. Their ongoing interactions lead to his starting to connect and reconnect with other people in the neighborhood. His need for things to be done the right way helps drive these connections, such as helping a young man fix a bike because Ove is good at fixing things and thinks people should know how to fix things.
Ove, rather against his will, adopts a cat that has clearly used nearly all of its 9 lives. I loved the cat and Ove’s relationship with it. The cat is very much personified, such as when Ove discovers a sign has been run over: “This inspired such colorful profanities from Ove that the cat looked quite embarrassed.” I’m a big fan of cats to begin with, and I love it when they become part of the story I’m reading rather than just occasionally being mentioned in passing.
Ove never stops being a grump, and that’s ok. That’s who he is and who he always has been, and this isn’t a book that’s trying to show that having loving people in your life changes your personality. It’s about Ove learning to re-engage with life and have connections that are meaningful to both him and others, and they accept him for who he is. I cried at the end, and they were good tears.