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Penny's World of Messy, Lovely, Dangerous Human Interactions

Review of Still Life

by Louise Penny

Review by Nancy Dafoe

I must begin with a confession: I’ve been told by a couple of people that my murder mystery You Enter a Room reminded them of the work of Louise Penny. That lovely compliment drove me to seek out Penny’s work, and I chose Still Life and to read and review.

One aspect of this murder mystery writer’s intricate craft that struck me immediately is her sense of humor beneath the text, embedded in punning, as in, “Jane Neal (the murder victim) had also been late, but in a whole other sense, a few days earlier” (2). Penny is also merciless in her human, at times, with observations: “Every year the hunters shot cows and horses and family pets and each other. And, unbelievably, they sometimes shot themselves, perhaps in a psychotic episode where they mistook themselves for dinner” (3).

Readers with an eye for details will appreciate the fine touches of Penny’s brushstroke: “Instinctively, Clara wiped her own face, inadvertently smearing a walnut into her hair” (10). The small town of fictional Three Pines in Quebec, Canada and the daily interactions of its people is so much more, so much richer than what is typically setting for a murder mystery.

I have a cabin that is 500 miles into Quebec, and I couldn’t help think of my own interactions with people in this Canadian province as I read Penny’s literature.

Louise Penny’s novel is about our messy, lovely, dangerous human interactions and foibles, why human beings are needlessly cruel and afraid and unaccepting. Still Life is also, quite appropriately for its title, about the meaning of art.

Half-Built Houses

by Eric Keller

Half-Built Houses

Eric Keller

5 stars

Published by Rogue Phoenix Press

Reviewed by Nancy A. Dafoe

In the vein of the pulsing arterial found in John Grisham’s crime/legal thrillers, Eric Keller’s Half-Built Houses is fast paced, meticulously developed, filled with plot twists, and the kind of complicated characters that keep you thinking about them long after you close the pages. Sex, drugs, and alcohol may lead to the predictable crime, but little else about Keller’s novel is predictable.

Keller’s familiarity with the law and court cases is apparent and the plot moves seamlessly through to an unexpected conclusion. More than a riveting, criminal procedural taking place in Calgary, however, Half-Built Houses offers subtle but significant social commentary on the issues of homelessness, the long-lasting damages of bullying, and the inequalities in class and social structures.

Charley Ewanuschuk, a homeless character accused of the murder of a young woman, stands at the center of the story, but Half-Built Houses is as much the story of Brian Cox, the charming but struggling young lawyer trying his first major criminal case. We know the crime in the opening pages as victim, Natalie Peterson, lies dying in the white snow, but Keller allows the reader to see into the characters’ heads and actions, shifting perspectives from the murdered woman to the suspected killer, to the defense lawyer to the Crown Prosecutor Clay Matthews, and the hardened detective Randall Jenkins on the trail of something that stinks. Lurking in the shadows, Charley is not as alone as he believes. Hugh Young and his son Jason may have wealth and power, but they, too, operate in the shadows. We come to know these characters’ backstories and circumstances leading up to their devastating encounter.

Highly visual, readers will feel as if they are watching this drama play out. With no false notes, Keller’s novel feels right even when everything is going wrong, down to the lurking ambiguity.

Today’s Special

Jonathan Dimmig

Published by Rogue Phoenix Press

Review by Nancy A. Dafoe

Rating: 4.5 stars

While there are no recipes for dealing with grief, Jonathan Dimmig’s novel Today’s Special offers some soul food that comes close. What is not to like about Dimmig’s novel Today’s Special, the title a play on words? The real surprise in this fast read is that the author never tries too hard, never overreaches into indefensible territory, keeping the story grounded and allowing his characters to reveal themselves, and our hearts to ache for them.

“Things weren’t always this hard” for Thomas Danielson and his wife Michelle. Dimmig has created something special, indeed, in their friendships and relationship with one another. A broken plate, a displaced picture frame foreshadow what is to come. A tragedy lies at the heart of this romantic novel, but Dimmig displays a surprisingly light touch in a story in which, “everything else is just details we can work out.” Tom, the protagonist, is a good guy but immensely fallible. We like him more for it.

Through Tom’s restaurant Gilded, we come to know the owner, his friends and employees. Kevin Sandstrom, the cook who never made in the culinary world but has the talent to sling a great plate of food in front of customers. We can taste that pan of scallops touched with white wine as Kevin expertly tosses and turns the fare. Tom’s restaurant is not simply setting but symbol, as friends Debra, Anna, Nicole, Ryan, Christoff, Kevin, and, of course, Tom and Michelle emerge in this rich and rewarding novel focused on the details of life.

The heart of the story is a character who appears and disappears, and a clever trope takes us through Today’s Specials in which memories and food become the healing focus.

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