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.
“The Lace Reader” by Brunonia Barry is tale of twins and magic, set in the unsettling town of Salem, Massachusetts, and told by a self-confessed unreliable narrator. The book, which holds a lot of promise in the beginning, sadly wanders off course. The story is recounted in part by the first person narrative of Towner Whitney, a twin and daughter in Salem’s infamous Whitney family, known for its eccentric and magical women. Towner has returned to Salem after having been gone a long time after an alluded to crisis which temporarily landed her in a mental hospital. Upon the mysterious death of her beloved aunt, a woman who could read the future in lace, she reluctantly returns to the house on the edge of the sea where her past still haunts her. The story slowly unravels of Towner’s relationship with her twin sister, who took her own life one summer. It is a story of a love triangle, a story of spouse abuse, a story of incest, a story of mental illness, parental love, religious intolerance… That is the problem. Too many stories. Barry had a great idea and tells a good story, but she has made it unnecessarily complex and entwined too much. On the plus side of the ledger, the atmosphere of Salem and the island the Whitney family inhabits is beautifully drawn, capturing a New England sailing culture, steeped in the old trader culture and dark history of the witch trials. I would go so far as to say the town itself is one of the strongest characters in the story. Barry also has a good voice. She uses quick, sharp sentences and keeps the pace moving, even though at times I found the situations unrealistic. Another potential problem is Barry’s handling of the multiple narrators and the shifting of time all over about a twenty year period. Overall, a solid book, and was a great read for this Halloween time of year.