Without a doubt, this is one of the best books I have read recently. Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger is a masterpiece on character study and development. Krueger is known for his award-winning Cork O’Connor mystery series (which I have not as yet read), but I suspect this book is something different. Although a mystery–a suspicious death–is the framework that holds the plot together, it is actually the compelling characters that move the story forward. It is told in the eyes of a man looking back on his 12-year-old self and childhood memories with the sophistication of an adult, but at the same time with the innocence and wonder of a child (not unlike that old t.v. show, The Wonder Years or the familiar A Christmas Story). The author does a masterful job of bringing to life the atmosphere of his 1960’s small town in Minnesota, including the food (fried bologna sandwiches and Kool-aide), barber shops, and kids who could roam free without parental supervision. Although the heart of the story is a potential murder, the real mystery is how the main character’s family will cope with the tragedy. As it turns out, the weak become surprisingly strong and family threads unravel and are woven back together again in a unique way. The boy’s father, Nathan, a Methodist minister, his wife, an atheist, struggling with her husband’s career path and faith, a town drunk, a brutal policeman, a priviledged favorite son, and a reclusive, damaged artist all come together as their lives cross, some surviving and others falling away. Krueger’s prose is rich, evocative, emotionally draining, and always spot on. I’ll be reading more of his work in the future.
I feel as if author Paul Doiron is my personal discovery, but of course that’s ridiculous. I read his first book, The Poacher’s Son, right after it came out and recommended him to several friends and mystery fans. I immediately fell in love the main character, Maine Game Warden Mike Bowditch, his dysfunctional family struggles, and the wild setting of rural Maine. Unfortunately, few of his subsequent novels left me wondering if he had lost his voice. The natural beauty of the setting and the life-like characters of backwoods Maine were lost to a more sensational plot line. His newest novel, however, felt more like the writer who won this reader over in the first place. In Widow-maker, Mike Bowditch runs into a woman who claims her missing son is Mike’s half-brother by his hard-drinking, womanizing father. And she wants Mike’s help to find him. Despite his desire to forget his past, Mike can’t resist uncovering the truth, but the truth comes with ugly ghosts from his past, the rescue of a wolf-dog, a near death experience, and a trip to a colony for sexual predators. In this novel Doiron returns to the story of Bowditch’s troubled relationship with his father and spent considerable time exploring his legacy as an outsider, which added depth to the story. I was terribly disappointed with the ending, however. It felt abrupt with many unresolved plot points, almost as if he had hit some page count and decided to just wrap it up in the most expedient (and easy) way possible. Just the same, an entertaining read from an author who has the ability to create life-like characters.
I finally finished reading Brain on Fire, My Month of Madness by Susannah Cahalan. I say “finally finished” not because it was a bad book, or boring, or anything like that. Quite the opposite. It was such an intense story, so dense in detail and facts and emotion, that I could only read it for so long at a time to absorb it properly. It is the story of a fast-tracking journalist in NYC who all of a sudden starts experiencing some strange behaviors outside of her control, visions, and other sensory hallucinations. She is a young woman, in the prime of life, who has everything going for her who descends into a hell she cannot understand or control. Imagine scenes from The Exorcist, but it’s real life. Quoting The Washington Post: “This story has a happy ending, but take heed: It is a powerfully scary book.” The inspiration in the book comes from her family’s steadfast belief that she will get well again, despite the diagnosis of experts. What is truly frightening is the fact that these experts had no idea what was wrong with her with misdiagnoses ranging from alcohol poisoning to various forms of schizophrenia. Through it all, Susannah experienced seizures, canonic states, total memory loss, manic behavior, and all manner of terrifying, uncontrolled behavior and memory loss. When a doctor–himself a miracle case who beat the odds–finally diagnosed her with anti-NMDA-receptor auto-immune encephalitis, Susannah starts down a very long road to recovery. Brain on Fire is more than a medical mystery–it is the story of an incredible woman’s fight to save her identity.
Three Truths and a Lie by Brent Harbinger is a Young Adult novel that examines the nature of truth, lies, and in a greater context, our view of reality. The story opens in a tattoo parlor where four kids have decided to get matching tattoos, except something happens just as the last kid, our narrator, is about to sit down for his. The four teens decide to escape to a remote cabin in the deep in the forest for a weekend of fun. As you can imagine, fun quickly turns to trouble as the towns people act in a hostile manner towards them and little things start happening: their satellite phone, the only link to the outside, goes missing and their car becomes disabled. Just when you think this is like so many other “locked room” mysteries with dead bodies piling up with no plausible explanation as to the culprit, author Harbinger adds another spin to the narrative. Not wanting to spoil the ending, this reader felt it was a bit too contrived and there was insufficient evidence given during the body of the narrative for the reader to have figured any of it out. If you like that sort of “final chapter reveal” you will love this one. This reader, however, in the end was not convinced by the motive given for the violence.
In addition to the plot line, the story also addresses the life, loves, and concerns of a gay teen couple. Harbinger, who founded a LGBT youth support group in his home town of Tacoma, Washington, has the credibility to successfully tackle this subject in a YA novel. I appreciated the scenes that illustrated the boys’ affection for each other and the insight it provided to “outside” readers, but felt some of the more sexually explicit scenes seemed included to make a point more than to flesh out a character or move a plot point. Overall, the writing is engaging, the voice of the narrator is strong, and the plot moves at a brisk pace.
John Hart came highly recommended as a great writer of mysteries with plot twists, angst filled characters, and plenty of page-turning thrills. I chose King of Lies–a tale that revolves around an unhappy lawyer, Jackson Workman Pickens–trapped in a miserable marriage who let the love of his life get away. His world becomes truly unglued, however, when his father–a hate-mongering, abusive, but very rich man–is found dead with two bullets in his head. When the will is revealed and Jackson has only a shaky alibi at best, he becomes a prime suspect. But he has even bigger worries and that is how to protect his troubled sister who he believes is the real murderer. Author John Hart gets full marks for creating the small world of the southern town which quickly turns on Jackson with only the slightest hint of suspicion to go on. He draw the complex relations between Jackson and his wife, his father, his sister, and his lover in rich detail and does put one in mind of Pat Conroy in that regard. Although I liked the story overall, I felt the first half was very slow as Hart draws the relationships and shows us Jackson’s obsession with protecting his sister who he believes with very little to go on that she had the motivation and means to kill their father. I thought that plot line was weak since there would be any number of other business partners or disgruntled clients who would have had means and opportunity to do the deed. The story takes off when the legal/court room scenes take center stage and Hart shows his mastery of legal loopholes and slight of hand. Once Jackson launches his own investigation to find the murder, it becomes much more of a who-done-it and less of a psychological family drama. Would I read another by this author–yes. Many of his main characters are deeply flawed and frankly not very likable at all, but he makes them fully real and human.
Jodi Picoult’s novel Leaving Time tells the story of teenager Jenna Metcalfe’s decades long search for her mother who disappeared–a dedicated scientist who was studying grief in elephants. When Jenna was a baby, something horrible happened one night at the elephant sanctuary where her family lived. A caretaker was found trampled to death and Jenna’s mother was taken to the hospital, only to disappear hours later and never return. If she was still alive, why hadn’t she returned for Jenna? The daughter’s search for her mother and the search for the truth about what happened that night leads her to accept help from two unlikely characters. The first is Serenity Jones–a famous psychic specializing in lost children who has lost her powers and knows she’s a fraud–the second, an out-of-work private eye, Virgil Stanhope, a former detective who investigated the case years ago and ignored critical evidence. All Jenna has to go by is a pile of her mother’s journals wherein she makes observations about the nature of grief in elephants and tracks their behavior. It isn’t long, however, before the mother’s writings and the events playing out start to dovetail. Eventually, hard questions the characters ask of themselves arrive with difficult questions they have to face.
Picoult draws some quirky and intriguing characters in this work and tells the story in the point of view of four main ones: Jenna, Serenity, Virgil, and Alice (through her journals.) I think this approach works, although other readers have found it jarring and disruptive to the flow of the story. I particularly enjoyed the amount of description about elephant behavior via the character of the mother, although, again, other readers criticized the level of detail, claiming it slowed the pace of the story. I did not, however, connect with the “main” character, Jenna, and felt she was too precocious, too smart and confident for her age and circumstances, and lacking certain dimension. More important, I was very let down with the ending. I felt as if the author had not prepared us for the twist at all and it had the feeling of being forced and very contrived. When an author holds back critical information from the reader to execute a big reveal, it always runs the risk of making the reader feel cheated–as if the author held back information just to trick you. The ending did not satisfy, as I said, and short of going back and re-reading the story, I’m convinced there were some continuity problems that would have made the events impossible. ((Hard to describe without spoilers)).
On the positive side, Picoult’s prose as always is luscious and rich, her dialog sharp. As mentioned, I drank in the scenes describing the elephants and wanted to research more about them. Ultimately, however, I would describe the book as “The Secret Life of Bees” meets “The Sixth Sense.”
There are millions of books out there on writing. They range from the technical how-to type to inspirational tomes aimed at increasing your productivity. Elizabeth Gilbert’s (Eat Pray Love) work, Big Magic, is something entirely different. In a conversational tone which makes you feel as if Gilbert is a good friend or wise older sister imparting her experience, she spins out her observations about Creativity and the life of being a creative person (not just writers!) The subtitle of the book, Creative Living Beyond Fear, says it all. She offers her perspective on the creative experience in anecdotes which lead to pragmatic conclusions. And her advice is not just a dismissive “don’t worry,” but rather she takes the reader by the hand and lets you see how to avoid needless suffering. The topics are addressed in sections entitled: Courage, Enchantment, Permission, Persistence, Trust, and Divinity. In each, she encourages us to shake off the seriousness, perfectionism, self-loathing, and other destructive tendencies of the martyr-artist in order to invite creativity and inspiration into one’s life. Indeed, Gilbert maintains that art, creativity or whatever you want to call it, seeks a home in us in order to find expression. That’s the Big Magic. It will find the right person through whom it can accomplish this, or it will move on, our choice. So it is our job to keep the channels open and inviting to unearth the “jewels” which lie within us. I have to confess, all that spiritualism aside, I felt I’d been given a “get-out-of-jail-free” card while reading this work. It gives one permission to not take art so seriously, to let go of failures and move on, and to use curiosity to seek out and attract fresh ideas. In the end, she points out the mysterious contradiction that is creativity: “What we make matters and it doesn’t matter at all. We toil alone and we are accompanied by spirits. We are terrified and we are brave. Art is a crushing chore and a wonderful privilege.” I may have to buy my own copy of this book so I can go back, re-read, and highlight certain passages when necessary–to keep it all in perspective. Oh, and by the way, Creativity if you’re out there–I’m ready to invite you in any time.
It’s comforting to settle in with a book featuring a character you’ve come to know and love. That’s the case with R. Lanier Clemons’ second title, Gone Missing, featuring novice detective Jonelle Sweet. In this second book, Sweet is assigned not one but two quirky cases. One involves a widow who claims her dead husband visits at night to steal her jewels and the other a missing transgender actress who has left a trail of broken hearts and suspicious characters in her wake.
Intrepid Jonelle Sweet is not only dedicated to her work in solving the case, but also to helping the victims and clients. She becomes emotionally invested in the cases and brings all to bear–to include facing her claustrophobia or going into dangerous places or crashing walking into clubs where she is strikingly out of place. In this new tale, we are re-acquainted with a few characters from the first novel, but Clemons introduces some new ones. One such new character is the fluff but wise homeless man, Luther, which I suspect we will see more of in subsequent works.
The plot of Gone Missing is more complex than Clemons’ first work, providing more twists and turns to the keep the reader guessing. As always, the author’s voice is fresh, brash and funny, the setting is gritty, and the plot engaging. Clemons’ Jonelle Sweet is a sweet new treat on the mystery reader’s plate.