Ordinary Grace. The title is only the first perfect thing about this novel. The story follows a family of damaged characters, rooted in faith, through the summer of 1961, when typical and extraordinary events occur in their rural Minnesota town.
My Favorite Point of View
Our main character and narrator is Frank Drum, currently 53-years old, who tells us the story of the summer he was 13, a summer filled with death. This removed-by-time 1st person perspective is one of my favorite points of view! One of my favorite novels, Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson, and one of my favorite short stories, “The Man in the Black Suit” by Stephen King, both share this perspective of an older man looking back on his childhood. When done right, it strikes the perfect balance of emotionally connected to the story but removed enough to not let the emotions rule the storytelling.
The Heart of the Novel
“And even in our sleep pain, which cannot forget, falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.” – Aeschylus, Greek playwright
The phrase “the awful grace of God” appears in the beginning of the book and is fully described near the end of the book in the full quotation, explained by Frank’s father, the local preacher. The author, William Kent Krueger, said the originally titled of the book was Awful Grace but he realized Ordinary Grace was a “more gentle and more appropriate title. Much more inviting to the reader.”
An enriching story about real life and untimely death. Filled with memorable, flawed characters. Written is a clear, comforting voice. Set in a world that feels far away yet so close to the heart. Ordinary Grace is a story well worth reading.
“Murder, magic, and madness at the fair that changed America.” That is the slogan on the cover of this outstanding piece of historical non-fiction.
This New York Times quote explains it well, “A dynamic, enveloping book…Relentlessly fuses history and entertainment to give this nonfiction book the dramatic effect of a novel…It doesn’t hurt that this truth is stranger than fiction.”
The “Devil” refereed to in the title is Dr. H. H. Holmes, a serial killer active in America in the late 1800’s. Holmes used Chicago’s 1893 World’s Fair, aka the White City, to lure young women into his life whom he charmed, often building long-term romantic relationships with, then murdered. Not only did Holmes use his charming persuasion, and vicious cunning to murder quietly, he also used it to build a small empire, with a small fortune. His story is certainly intriguing, but its only a small force in the attraction of this entire book.
Although the two men never met, Holmes shares the spotlight of the novel with a great architect of the time, Daniel H. Burnham. Burnham was the lead designer of the World’s Fair, an event “largely fallen from modern recollection but that in its time was considered to possess a transformative power nearly equal to that of the Civil War.”
Larson paints a vivid picture of the World’s Fair from more viewpoints than you’d perceive possible. From the main attractions to the (many) near downfalls, you will close this book knowing the World’s Fair of 1893 was one of the most spectacular events in history.
While so many historical nonfiction authors are not, Erik Larson is a story teller. The story drops teasers like a suspense novel, builds character like literary fiction, and weaves multiple story lines better than most novels in any genre. Quotes are woven in with ease, building the plot and strengthening historical accuracy with each appearance.
The Devil in the White City is by far the best piece of historical nonfiction I have ever read. I recommend it to anyone who 1) loves history, 2) loves a murder mystery, 3) is interested in American history or the history of Chicago, 4) is fascinated by architecture, 5) who knows nothings about the World’s Fair, and 6) anyone who simply loves a good story.
There are endless ways to structure a novel; the only limit is your imagination! Below I’ve compiled a list of novel structures that I’ve run across recently. Although I tried to keep point of view separate, the two are often very intertwined. Click on the links for more details on the structure from previous book reviews! Please add your favorite/unique structures in the comments below!
Types of Novel Structures
- Linear, following a single character
— Example: Still Alice, Harry Potter, most Stephen King books, and many, many more
- Linear, jumping between multiple characters
— Example: The Story of Forgetting, also, Mary Higgins Clark novels
- Major flashbacks
— Example: The Year of Magical Thinking and In Caddis Woods
— Example: The Perks of Being a Wallflower and Gilead
- Journal entries
— Example: Gone Girl and The Prestige
- Interview characters
— Example: World War Z
- Organize by chunks of time
— Example: Rainy Lake, every chapter covers one summer
- Write individual stories that connect under one theme/character/story
— Example: Elegies of the Brokenhearted or A Big Little Life
- Major backstory leading up to current time
— Example: The Kite Runner
- Include footnotes, poetry, or other unique sections
— Example: Sleight and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (book review coming soon!)
Comment below with more structure types you enjoy!
In the past, I have always been a 1-book-at-time gal and enjoyed it that way. For the past few years, I’ve gotten into reading two books at a time, one in paper and one on audiobook. I’m naturally a focused individual, not the greatest multitasker. Focusing on one thing at a time helps me get things done faster and to better quality. Thankfully, my mind can separate my paper book from my audiobook quite easily BUT I never read two paper books at the same time. If I begin a new book while in the middle of another, I’m unlikely to ever pick up that original book again.
I have always been hesitant to quit a book. I don’t like quitting (or taking breaks) in the middle of projects, whether its reading a book, mowing the lawn, or writing a story. But lately, I have encouraged myself to be more open to deserting bad/uninteresting books. There are too many great books out there to waste my time on something I’m not enjoying or learning from.
See my previous post on the subject, When to Drop a Bad Book.
Pros and Cons of reading multiple books at once, compiled from random blogs/articles:
Pros of Reading Multiple Books
Desire to read – One boring book won’t minimize your desire to read.
Flexibility – Being able to read more than one genre/story/author at a time. Choosing the book that matches your current mood.
Portability – Some books are more easily slipped into a purse or bag.
Cons of Reading Multiple Books
Split focus – As I am constantly deciphering the writing as well as the story, this is a huge disadvantage for me. I like to study the arch and structure and consistency of the voice while reading a book and switching between multiple books would make this difficult.
Memory – The more books you read, the harder it is to retain all the information you’ve read. If you leave sit too long, you may forget what is happening.
Less invested – Personally, I’m less likely to get enchanted by a story and its characters if I’m juggling multiple stories.
Encourages Short Attention Span – Reading is one area that still requires concentration on one thing for a long period of time. Reading multiple books at once will drop reading into the I-need-it-NOW-and-QUICK culture.
A true detective story from Stephen King, where the only extraordinary strangeness is a human psychopath. King referred to Mr. Mercedes as his “first hard-boiled detective tale.”
A young, disturbed man steals a Mercedes and rams it through a crowd, killing eight innocent people. Months later, after the case has gone cold, the detective receives a letter from someone claiming to be the Mercedes Killer. Now retired, Detective Bill Hodges quietly takes on the case and unravels a dangerous, unpredictable series of events.
Mr. Mercedes is the first book of the Bill Hodges trilogy by Stephen King. The second book, Finders Keepers, was recently released. See a Cleveland Finders Keepers review here.
Point of View
The point of view switches between the two main characters, the detective and the psychopath killer, making the suspense not who is the killer, but will the killer be stopped. The direct interaction between the two is limited to online letters. Knowing both parties motives, plans, and speculations gives the reader a lot of power; the reader knows everything while they watch characters speculate.
It could very well deserve more stars but I’ve been overloaded with King novels lately and the style and suspense becomes too redundant to fully enjoy. Don’t get me wrong, I love Stephen King and I enjoyed and recommend this book, but it didn’t capture my full attention.
My Previous Stephen King book reviews:
Revival – 2.5 stars
The Long Walk – 5 stars – published under King’s pseudonym, Richard Bachman
The Shining – 5 stars
Doctor Sleep – 4 stars
11/22/63 – 5 stars – this was my first book review ever!
Max Brooks writes World War Z as if the worst of the zombie apocalypse has passed. In a Q&A interview style, Max Brooks writes the first-hand accounts of a variety of people effected by and involved in the zombie apocalypse. The interviewees include scientists and doctors that saw the very beginning of the disease, families chased out of their homes by the threat of the living dead, the President of the United States, a pilot whose plane crashed in the middle of zombie breathing ground but managed to find her way out, and so many more…
This is the only novel I’ve read written in an interview style. The interviews were organized chronologically, starting by explaining the beginning of the outbreaks, widespread panicking, contained villages, soldiers traveling across the U.S. and leaving mountains of zombie corpses behind them, and finally with the aftermath.
One reason I didn’t like the interview style was that it created a very choppy structure. It read more like a collection of short stories than a novel. Besides the interviewer (Max Brooks) characters come and go as quickly as their story is told. Therefore, I didn’t get emotionally connected to the characters, often forgot their names, and didn’t care if their entire family turned into zombies and tried to kill them or not.
My favorite part of the interview style were the variety of first-person perspectives that were given. Each character told their own story, that I love.
I listened to World War Z on audiobook and would recommend doing so. The novel was read by a full cast of characters, a different voice actor for every interview, which adds an entertaining twist.
World War Z the movie, starring Brad Pitt, was released in 2013. I loved the movie (even though zombies are not my thing) so I thought I would give the book a try as well. Besides the title and the presence of zombies, the book and movie have nothing in common. The story line and structure is drastically different, as the movie does follow a certain character (played by Brad Pitt) through the entire movie.
I was pleased to hear that a sequel will be made, World War Z 2, and is expected to be in theaters in 2017. Not surprising considering the original was Brad Pitt’s highest grossing movie of his career.
The book gets 3 stars; the movie gets 4.5 stars! A very fun style of writing but overall I didn’t love the structure or the story itself, both of which were better in the film adaptation. I’m not much of a zombie enthusiast and although the structure of the book is unique, its still a typical zombie story.
Here are a few books I would highly recommend to keep you relaxed and entertained over the long weekend.
My number one recommendation! This collection of fictional short stories about the Iraq War is perfect for whatever amount of time you want to spend reading. Read a few stories (see my favorites on the full book review) or get sucked into the entire collection like I did. Redeployment is my favorite book of 2015 (so far)!
Even if you’re not a reader, you’ve probably heard this title, and the suspense is excellent! I also enjoyed the film adaptation, if you’re looking for more of a screen buzz this weekend!
A short, beautiful book about life, love, and one extraordinary dog. Dean Koontz shares his personal story through the memoir of this dog. A great book for any dog lover!
A story that needs to be heard. Alice, a mother and respected Harvard professor, is diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s. A close-up look at a struggle of love, identity, health, and family, Still Alice is a must-read.
Lost, broken down, alone? This book is a great read for anyone feeling a little bit down in the dumps. No matter how pointless and cruel life seems, there is always light to be found.
Redeployment is the best book I have read in 2015. It is a collection of short stories surrounding political, emotional, and humanity issues of the Iraq War. Phil Klay provides his readers with true entertainment. His writing is intriguing and dense. Emotion runs high, along with risk.
Klay’s writing doesn’t waste a single word. It is dense and relevant. Each short story combines multiple scenes surrounding a certain topic but his aim does not waver. Every story focuses on a different aspect of war or soldier life, making each story a unique and memorable piece of the larger puzzle.
The title story, Redeployment, was by far my favorite. It follows the rocky homecoming of a young veteran, faced with a difficult decision and the inclination of violence as a solution. The story’s emotion is paralyzing. As the first story in the collection, it demands an attention that does not let up through the entire book.
Money as a Weapons System is another powerful story about the misdirection of funding in the Iraq war, cultural road blocks, and resistance to change.
After Action Report follows the after effects of a solider forced to kill a teenage Iraqi child. What is one suppose to feel after killing a child? Guilt, fear, shame? What about a child shooting an AK with an aim to kill American soldiers? Terror, numbness, pride.
Bodies explores a young soldier’s return from war to find what was once comforting and loving is now cold and distant. Even when the soldier returns home healthy and unscarred, he realizes life will still never return to what was once considered normal.
Veterans coming home to abandoned homes
Religion on the warfront
Soldiers’ inability to reconnect to loved ones
Soldiers’ inability to talk about war
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
Best Book of 2015 (so far)
My favorite book of the year. 5 stars without a doubt. You should read this!
When the call wakes me and I see the name _____ glowing in the middle of the phone, I don’t want to answer. I’m still in that half-dream state, and I’ve got this sense that if I pick up it won’t be _____ on the other end of the line, but _____, which is impossible because ____________.
The above story trigger is the first two sentences of Phil Klay’s short story “Unless it’s a Sucking Chest Wound”. My attention was immediately captured and my curiosity instantly spiked by the lines, and I wanted to share them with all of you! “Unless it’s a Sucking Chest Wound” is one of many amazing stories that appears in Klay’s collection, Redeployment.
Check back soon for my full book review on this one-of-a-kind collection of modern war stories.