Saturday, July 16, 2016

Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger

Ordinary Grace was a good story from the Prologue to the Epilogue. The first sentence of the Prologue is, "All the dying that summer began with the death of a child, a boy with golden hair and thick glasses, killed on the railroad tracks outside New Bremen, Minnesota, sliced into pieces by a thousand tons of steel speeding across the prairie toward South Dakota."

The second paragraph of the Prologue begins, "It was a summer in which death, in visitation, assumed many forms. Accident. Nature. Suicide. Murder. You might think I remember that seems tragic and I do but not completely so."

So the book is the story of that summer. The narrator is Frank, the son of a Methodist preacher in the small town of New Bremen. He has a younger brother Jake and an older sister Ariel. It's set in the year 1961. The way the story is told, or maybe the way it felt as I read it, reminded me of To Kill a Mockingbird and also A Prayer for Owen Meany. And Gilead. A small town, several decades ago, and a family going through a seemingly ordinary time, but full of significance.

I loved the turns of phrases in conversations. In an early conversation between Frank and Jake, Jake wants to go along with Frank and Frank says, "Like hell." Jake: "You said hell." So simple, but I can just hear them saying it. And I felt like I was right there, in New Bremen. I could see the roads, the houses, the paths by the river, the woods, the trestle bridge, the river.

This was one of the most skillful uses of foreshadowing I've seen. Sometimes foreshadowing bugs me. It almost seems like a spoiler. Or I'm frustrated and think, "Stop hinting around and get to the story already." But that didn't happen in this book. Those 2 first sentences I quoted above had foreshadowing, right out of the gate. In this case, those hints made me want to keep reading.

At the beginning of this blog entry I thought about writing that the book is compelling, but I didn't want to make it sound like some kind of suspenseful mystery or something. Yet it is compelling. It was a good story, and I wanted to see what would happen. It was one of those books where I stayed up much of one night just to keep reading.

I think the foreshadowing was effective because I was more than content to stay in the story where I was. I didn't want to rush to find out what would happen next because I was happy right where I was, in whatever part of the story I read one of those hints about what was to come.

Frank is a kid who wants to be good but who also is filled with curiosity and eager to know everything there is to know. When his father gets called to situations, Frank always wants to go along. His brother Jake wants to go with Frank anywhere he goes. Sometimes -- often -- Frank's curiosity and wanting to know everything doesn't make him happier. But it definitely makes the story better.

Jake has a stutter. Kids make fun of him for it, and even though Frank sticks up for Jake over and over, Frank, when he wants to rile up Jake, sometimes mocks his stuttering. Because of his stuttering, Jake doesn't speak much, but he sees and understands much, often surprising Frank with insights Frank himself never would have noticed.

You get to know everyone in the family and they all have interesting personalities. Probably one reason the book reminded me of To Kill a Mockingbird is because the father, Nathan Drum, like Atticus, is a respected, honest, wise man of few words. The characters in the book love him, and you know he loves them.

Ariel, Frank's older sister, is in high school and looking ahead to going to Julliard to develop her musical talent. She plays piano and sings, and has inherited that talent from her mother, Ruth. Beyond the family, there are several other important characters you get to know and love.

I highly recommend this book. Good story, great characters, gives you food for thought, too. Kirkus review said, "A novel that transforms narrator and reader alike," and I would agree.

Saturday, March 05, 2016

Last Bus to Wisdom by Ivan Doig

Last Bus to Wisdom was a fun book to read. In a previous post I mentioned reading another book by Ivan Doig, The Bartender's Tale, and that one was fun, too. I plan to read more by Doig.

In this book, the hero of the story is Donal ("Donny") Cameron, 11 years old. His parents have died and Donny lives in Montana with his Grandma. She has to have surgery so Donny is sent to her sister Kate in Wisconsin. Donny travels there in a Greyhound bus (they call it "the dog bus").

He does not like staying with Kate. She is a crabby, selfish, rather mean lady. Donny does like her partner "Herman the German." After a few adventures and mishaps, Kate sends Donal back to his grandma, back on the dog bus. It turns out Herman joins him, leaving Kate. Donal and Herman go on a great journey with lots of adventure and wonderful characters they meet while traveling.

They end up with a group of hoboes near a town named Wisdom on a ranch owned by a rodeo broncing buck rider named "Rags." There's a satisfying happy ending. I highly recommend this book and any by Ivan Doig.

Outlander by Diana Gabaldon

I enjoyed Outlander. I didn't really know much about it when I started so I was not at all sure what I was getting into. I had heard of the TV show based on the series of books, but I knew nothing of what the story was or anything.

This first book of the series starts with a nurse who has returned from World War II, Claire, and is on a vacation with her husband. She goes to a kind of mini-Stonehenge and suddenly falls through the rock somehow and ends up in Scotland in the 18th century. She ends up with a Scottish man named James.

I enjoyed the book. It's a good, gripping story, and you really get the feeling you're in another world. It was more of a "bodice ripper" than I had expected. Nothing vulgar or even "hot and heavy" or at all embarrassing, but a bit more detailed about Claire and James' love life that I expected.

As everyone probably knows, this is the first of a series of books and it is a series on TV as well. I will try to see at least some episodes of the show. I haven't decided yet if I'll read more of the series. Right now my to-be-read pile is very high, so I'll wait at least a while.

The Eliot Family Trilogy - The Bird in the Tree, Pilgrim’s Inn, and The Heart of the Family - by Elizabeth Goudge

I loved all 3 of these books. If you like British literature or are an Anglophile like me, you'll love these, too, and I'm sure anything by Goudge. They are all about the Eliot family, starting with the matriarch, Lucilla. As I'm thinking about these books, I just realized they remind me of the movie "Enchanted April."

Place plays a big role in these books -- two country houses where the family lives. You grow to love those places in the same way you love the characters. 

Here, in my sister's blog, she talks a little bit about Elizabeth Goudge.

Besides the homes, Goudge writes a lot about the woods nearby. I usually find it hard to read every word of descriptions of landscapes. I often skim them. But in these books, kind of like the homes, the woods become important, too, and I had no problem at all reading every word and picturing those woods.

I don't want to call it "supernatural," but there's a little bit of sixth sense, or maybe spirituality, or a kind of magic, maybe a sense of God's presence, in the books. There's a place in the woods where it is hinted that the children seem to meet a long-ago inhabitant who helped to heal the animals. There's some kind of spirit to the houses, perhaps also from a long ago inhabitant of the homes. There are times where the characters seem let to actions or places by a force beyond them.

This force, or whatever you may want to call it, felt good to me. I was glad to read about it and feel it. That's not always true for me. Sometimes that kind of thing causes fear or a spooky feeling, which happened in the one book by Isabel Allende that I read. I might call it a little Narnian but I wouldn't want you to think the books are fantasy or science fiction. Not at all.

The stories are excellent. Here is a good review, where the writer summarizes what they are about. I highly recommend these books.