“Ordinary Grace” by William Kent Krueger

Genre:  Literary Fiction /Murder MysteryOrdinary Grace
Publisher: Atria
Pub. Date:  Oct. 19, 2012

“The sky had changed.  The gray sky deepened to the color of charcoal and the clouds had begun to boil” is an example of the gorgeous prose in this gem of a novel.   “Ordinary Grace” is marketed as a murder mystery.  It reads much more like a touching coming-of-age story set in a small Minnesota town where a murder takes place.  The book was published in 2012. It later went on to win the Edgar Award for Best Novel in 2014.  I am not sure how I came across this novel but I am very glad that I did.  “Grace” sends readers back in time to 1961 when the Minnesota Twins were playing their debut season, JFK was the new young president and life in a small town included a soda fountain, barbershop, and church. In the prologue, you will learn “It was a summer in which death, in visitation, assumed many forms.  Accident.  Nature.  Suicide.  Murder.”  Rather than focusing on the whodunit, “Grace” tells the story of how the deaths affect the town’s residents.

Frank is the 13-year-old narrator.  He is a kid who has a tendency to get into trouble.  His voice is charming.  He describes his father as “a man with a son who stuttered and another probably on his way to becoming a juvenile delinquent.”  His father is the local Methodist minister.  Post-traumatic stress is delicately woven into the story.  Before his dad left for WWII, he was on his way to being a hotshot lawyer. His mother resents her husband’s change of career. She is not a believer in God, which makes for good tension in the plot.  His siblings are a Juilliard-bound teenage sister and his sweet younger brother who is bullied for having a stutter. There are pages filled with other colorful, nice and not-so-nice townspeople.  All are written with in-depth character development.  There are similarities to Stephen King’s novella, “The Body,” which later became the movie, “The Stand.”  “Grace” like “Body” is a dark read at times that can be heartbreaking but overall its message is optimistic.

Without being preachy (pun intended), the author managed to write a book filled with life lessons. At the end of the tale, Frank thinks, “Loss, once it’s become a certainty, is like a rock you hold in your hand. It has weight and dimension and texture. It’s solid and can be assessed and dealt with.”  Even though the family goes through terrible experiences, his brother says, “The miracle is this: that you will rise in the morning and be able to see again the startling beauty of the day.”Simply said, “Grace” is a story of when bad things happen to good people and how they overcome their pain.  Krueger’s characters go through a wide range of believable and conflicting emotions.  You will laugh and cry along with them. The author’s skill in building tension, drama, and acceptance will leave the reader with a heartwarming glow.

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“Colombiano” by Rusty Young

Genre: YA/Coming-Of-AgeThe Colombmian
Publisher:  Havelock & Baker
Pub. Date:  Feb. 1, 2020

The Coming-Of-Age and Young Adult genres are often confused. “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” is a C-O-A classic. “The Outsiders” is a YA classic. Although I enjoy the YA classics, I am not a fan of contemporary YA. At the age of thirteen, I read “The Outsiders,” which began my life-long love of reading. It inspired me to write my own manuscript at a tender age (something that has never seen the light of day).  It was a teenage S.E. Hinton, afterall, who wrote “The Outsiders,” and she did so with a teen audience in mind.  Still, I know of adults who read the book and became invested in the story’s portrayal of class struggle, with its strong dose of Jets vs. Sharks. Hinton’s writing style provides many satisfying nods to an audience beyond teenagers. Readers fell in love with Ponyboy Curtis as they did with Francie Nolan.  I find most of contemporary YA, on the other hand, to lack anything of interest for those outside its target audience. For example, since I am a fan of Gothic literature, I gave the “Twilight” series a try. I never made it past the first book. Though I’m open to hearing any arguments otherwise, it’s hard to find something in the story beyond the central teen melodrama. Bram Stoker’s literary masterpiece would seem to exist on another planet.

So why in the world did I read “Colombiano,” a contemporary novel over 700 pages long?  The answer is the author. That he once chose to spend four months in a Colombian prison to research his 2004 non-fiction book, “Marching Powder,” demands respect. For this gritty and heartbreaking novel, he interviewed Colombian child soldiers. Not your usual YA kind of author. Young’s experiences make the novel feel utterly authentic. The book’s characters are fictional but based on the real-life children he interviewed, all of whom were swept into the never-ending Colombian civil war. To paraphrase the book’s blurb, you have to choose a side: the ruthless guerrilla FARC, or the equally ruthless Autodefensa, their vigilante rivals. “Pick a side, or one will be picked for you.”

As Young stated in a 2017 interview with the New Zealand Herald, “I took the most dramatic, powerful, of each of these stories, and attributed all those stories to one person.”  His protagonist is Pedro, a rural Colombian 15-year old.  He loves his family, his girlfriend, and fishing. When FARC guerrillas execute his peace-loving father, his life is forever changed. FARC will not allow him to bury his father. They banish him and his mother from their family farm, leaving them no way to make a living.  The execution scene is especially powerful because the author manages to show the father’s goodness and courage with minimal dialogue. When they tell him to kneel, he informs his murderers that he will stand. For the first time in his life, he curses at his son, insisting that he take his mother inside and that they both stay there. Pedro’s mother listens, he does not. His father dies in front of him.

When the police can do nothing to help Pedro seek justice for his father, he joins the vigilante group. Here, Young pulls no punches. The brutality that the boys go through in the Autodefensa training was too much for me, personally. I often needed to skim. These scenes were not practically gory, but Young takes pains to convey the Nazi-like disregard for life, friend or foe, instilled in the boys. As the pages add up, Pedro becomes accustomed to torture and death and moves up the chain of command. Even as he becomes part of a world of unspeakable violence, the author manages to keep Pedro an adolescent with teenage concerns.  Will his mother ever forgive him for joining Autodefensa? Can he win his girlfriend back? Will his best friend remain his friend? He is determined to leave the group once he has killed those involved in his father’s murder, but wonders, after that, will there be anything left of the old Pedro. What sort of man will he become?  Would his father be proud or disgusted with him?

The author took seven years to write this novel, complete with its glossary of Spanish terms and slang. I believe Young’s debut novel, “Colombiano” has the makings of a YA classic. It has enough action, romance, historical fiction, and a coming-of-age plot to please a wide breadth of readers.  Yet, I found the book to be too long. I love many long novels, but each battle in “Colombiano” is explained with such rigorous detail that repetition becomes inevitable. Sometimes, it reads more like history than historical fiction. Still, I find the novel to be a compelling and eye-opening read on Colombia’s history from the 1960s to the present. An intellectual page-turner for readers of all ages.

I received this Advance Review Copy (ARC) novel from the publisher at no cost in exchange for an honest review.

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“The Dutch House” by Ann Patchett

Genre: Domestic FictionThe Dutch House
Publisher: Harper
Pub. Date: September 24, 2019

After reading a mystery, a feel-good story, and a psychological thriller, this reviewer felt overjoyed to sink my teeth into literary fiction once again.  I can and do appreciate some contemporary reads, but this mythical novel felt like coming home, especially since the story explores the meaning of home itself.  It is not a spoiler to point out that this is a family-saga disguised as a dark fairy tale revolving around a house. The author breathes as much life into the house as the characters. It is not farfetched to say that the house itself is the main protagonist.

The book begins in1946 when a real estate mogul buys a fully furnished, Gatsby-like mansion, as a surprise for his wife.  Turns out that she hates the house, but his five-year-old daughter loves it.  Their son is born 8 years later.  The narrative jumps around in time through the son’s voice.  When the boy is three-years-old, his mother deserts the family, leaving the siblings devastated.  This is how his older sister becomes his main caretaker.  The bond between them is unwavering, even when the boy is a grown man.  Their closeness puts a strain on his marriage. When the siblings are 12 and 19 years old, their father marries a young widow with two little girls of her own.  The wicked stepmother from Cinderella has arrived. When the older sister visits home during a college break, she discovers that her stepmother has given her bedroom—which is the best room in the house—to her little stepsisters. An unused room in the attic is now her bedroom.

The author does a good job of showing rage through humor throughout the novel.   When the older sister learns about the room change she laughs and says, “It’s just like ‘The Little Princess!’ when the girl (Shirley Temple in the movie version of the book), loses all of her money and so they put her in the attic.” She demonstrates this skill with all of her characters, including the loving and long-suffering nanny, cook and housekeeper. The only small room in the house is the kitchen. As the cook says, “that was because the only people ever meant to see the kitchen were the servants.”

It would be wise to remember that you are reading a fairytale, if not the book will feel unrealistic. Put in the fairytale genre the story is as fascinating as the author’s 2011 novel, “State of Wonder,” which also has a mythical feel.  “House” stayed with me after I finished the book. I deliberately did not read the initial reviews. (I missed the ARC reviewers’ suggested deadline on this one). I came to believe that the book is mostly a coming-of-age story, as well as a reflection on one’s childhood as an adult. The author seems to ask the question, ‘Why do we repeat the same mistakes as our parents?’ In addition, wonders, ‘Why do some of us have childhoods that could have been written by the Brothers Grimm?’ Finally, ‘What one may need to accomplish to change our life story’s ending?’

I received this Advance Review Copy (ARC) novel from the publisher at no cost in exchange for an honest review.

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“Copperhead” by Alexi Zentner 

Genre:  Adult FictionCopperhead
Publisher:  Viking Press
Publication Date:  July 9, 2019

Mini-Review

“Copperhead” has a “Sins of the Father” theme. The novel reads like YA, but it is an adult story about racism that asks the question:  Can you ever out-run your family history? We meet a17-year-old high school football player who has a good chance of getting into an Ivy League school on a scholarship.  He is the star of the team and his grades are good. He desperately needs this scholarship to be able to attend college.  He lives paycheck-to-paycheck in a trailer and takes care of his mom and his 12-year-old sister.  His brother and stepfather are in jail for the murder of two black college students.  However, the students attacked his brother, not the other way around.  The stepfather was only given a four-year sentence since he arrived after the murder.  His crime was just wiping the murder weapon clean.  His family, but not himself, belongs to a white supremacist church.   Many in his town call him white-trash, even though he has shown himself to be a decent and hard-working young man. The book begins with his stepfather’s release from prison on the same day of the school’s big game.  Throughout the story, we watch the teenage linebacker struggle simply to avoid trouble while remaining loyal to his family and friends.  Zentner’s prose is taut and powerful. You can almost hear the music of Johnny Cash playing in the teen’s pick-up truck.  But the author never shares how this boy was able to see beyond his family’s beliefs.  Most of us can not accomplish this while still living in the family system. Still, this is a heck of a good coming of age story for our times.

I received this Advance Review Copy (ARC) novel from the publisher at no cost in exchange for an honest review.

Purchase “Copperhead”

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“Dear Edward” by Ann Napolitano

Genre:  Literary FictionDear Edward
Publisher:  Random House
Pub. Date:  Jan. 14, 2020

After losing everything, a pre-teen boy discovers there are still reasons to continue living. This is just the sort of sappy novel that I usually do not care for. Surprisingly, I enjoyed and recommend “Dear Edward.” The unique writing style is what made the difference for me. The reader goes in knowing that twelve-year-old Edward’s older brother, his parents, and almost 200 other passengers will die when the plane crashes. Edward is the sole survivor. The book is divided into two timelines, the past, which is during the flight, and the present. On the plane, we get to understand the family dynamics of Edward’s immediate family. We also meet a Wall Street rising star, an unlikeable septuagenarian business billionaire who is the rising star’s role model, an unmarried young woman who takes a pregnancy test while on the plane, a wounded vet with a secret, and an uninhibited, possibly crazy woman who happens to believe in reincarnation. These well-developed characters are very much a part of Edward’s story, creating interesting storylines that are not about overcoming tragedy. This helps make the novel less fatiguing to read since the bulk of the story in the present describes Edward’s overwhelming depression.

The events that occur on the flight are divided by time right down to the minute of the crash. (Boarding your next plane might feel different after reading this one). Even though we know the ending, this part of the tale still reads like a page-turning mystery. In the present, we meet a few new characters. In Edward’s new life, disagreeing with myself, there are characters that read a bit saccharine. His aunt and uncle, new best friend and high school principal are just too self-sacrificing and flawless to feel like true people. This contrasts with the realness felt in the characters from the plane ride. Still, in my mind, Napolitano’s weaving of past and present makes up for that over-sweetening. Plus, by the end of the novel, it can also read as a coming-of-age story, which is a genre I have always liked. Clearly, the novel is not all doom and gloom. By the end of the novel, as the author intended, I had a smile on my face. Heartwarming endings can be a good thing.

I received this Advance Review Copy (ARC) novel from the publisher at no cost in exchange for an honest review.

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“His Favorites by Kate Walbert

Genre:          General Fiction   His Favorites
Publisher:    Scribner
Pub. Date:   Aug. 14, 2018

“His Favorites” is a slice of life story about the wealthy with two different plotlines connected by the female protagonist, Jo.  It is written by the acclaimed American author Kate Walbert.  Similar to Curtis Sittenfeld’s debut novel, “Prep,” this tale is a powerful coming of age story that spotlights (no matter how rich you are) the vulnerability and powerlessness of female girls.  Unlike “Prep,” there is no laughter in “Favorites.”  This is a sad story which might have been easier to read with a little tension-cutting humor.  Walbert is also writing on the same female issues that follow girls into womanhood.  The story is narrated by an adult Jo, who is recounting painful memories.  In the 1970s, she was twice traumatized.

At fifteen, she and her two childhood best friends go on a drunken joyride in a golf cart. Jo is the driver.   The ride ends tragically when the golf cart flips over.  Two girls are left laughing and the third girl is left dead.  The author asks the reader to question if the tragedy is a type of privileged entrapment.  The girls are usually unsupervised.  They live on the grounds of a country club.   They know where the golf cart keys are kept.  Did Jo really do anything that most teens in her position wouldn’t have done?   I don’t think so, do you?  Nevertheless, after the death of her friend, Jo becomes the neighborhood’s version of a human pariah—Avoided.  Detested.  The dead girl’s mother, who is like a second mother to Jo, spits on her.  Her parents pretty much desert her.  Scared, alone, grieving her friend and brimming with endless guilt, she is sent off to a boarding school in New England.  I felt real anger at how heartlessly Jo is punished for being a teenager.

The second plotline begins at the boarding school.  It feels as if Jo is once again set up by affluent adults.   Isolated from family and friends she is easy pickings to become the next favorite (there are/were many) of her 34-year-old male teacher.  She has an unwanted sexual relationship with him.  The author now goes into society’s sexual unfavorable biases towards females of all ages.  She nails why Jo or the other girls didn’t say anything to the school’s authorities about their teacher’s sexual misconduct.  Who would believe them?  He is a powerful man and an academic award-winning teacher.  Who would believe them?  Everyone knows that girls and women have embellished imaginations. Who would believe them?  None of the girls actually said no.  They were so manipulated into the relationship that they themselves never realized that they were abused.  Of course, they were but, The Me Too Movement is decades away.  Hopefully, the days of powerful men getting off scot-free are nearing an end.

The reader never learns how adult Jo coped living with so much undeserved shame.  Was the rest of her life a wipeout like another one of the professor’s favorites?   Adult Jo has an unexpected encounter with her.  The other favorite now suffers from a cocaine problem.  (Possible Spoiler) After this meeting, the author teases the reader with the idea, ‘that the power might finally be in Jo’s hands.’  But, we really don’t know.   I have mixed feelings on the novel’s conclusion.  I think I would have preferred going back full circle to the story’s beginning with an explained ending.  But then again, Walbert’s ending gives me food for thought.  In a weird way, it is similar to the last scene in the last episode of another fictional wealthy family—“The Sopranos.”  Does, Tony live or doesn’t he?  We are left with the same question regarding Jo.

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