Even to the most die-hard sic-fi/fantasy/mystery/genre-loving readers and writers, its necessary to occasionally read a novel that is simply real. Real characters, in a real setting, dealing with real life issues. If you can convey the truth of human nature with crisp writing and clear intuition, the plot doesn’t matter, it will be a great story! These real stories (especially if they’re fictional) are the ones that nurture the soul in a way no genre fiction can.
Driftless by David Rhodes nurtured my soul.
Driftless dives into the lives of several characters, their stories interweaving like any small-town neighbors’ would. Rhodes builds each story with quick glimpses, each chapter jumping into the perspective of another character. We view the life of a lonely cripple who bets it all in hopes of finding new life; a mourning farmer who finds new love; a female priest that experiences the truth of the world; and my favorite story, a young family who finds themselves in the middle of a giant milk corporation scandal. Weaved into these stories are dog fights, car chases, deadly snow storms, and musical adventures. Although the story is largely philosophical and descriptive, these short bursts of adrenaline offer a great balance.
Nothing if not beautiful, the writing is descriptive and meditative. Lengthy at times but also heartfelt and comforting. Here are a few glimpses into that beauty…
Like primeval cathedral bells his mother’s voice called…
The color of the [cougar] impressed him…this kind of bright black. It drew all other colors to it, like water to a drain. The animal possessed a darkness even beyond black, with two glowing eyes as yellow as stars.
Gail, in her red coat, and surrounded by a sea of flowers, looked like a cardinal in a spring apple tree.
For more, check out my previous blog, The Outstanding Similes and Metaphors of David Rhodes.
Many of the short chapters in Driftless hold their own miniature but full stories. A few sections could be read out of context and still satisfy a reader. Its a beautiful thing that takes a talented writer. These stories help the reader feel fulfilled even when the long, slow plot seems exhausting at times.
I strongly considered 5 stars but the slow pace of the novel made me drop. If I was the editor I wouldn’t cut a single chapter, but still, the slow pace was a bit of drawback.
Presented by EpicReads! These are just my favorites, click on the link above for more!
A heartfelt tale that brings its readers real Dominican-American culture and history, as well as fictional struggles of an overweight nerd that feel just as real. Junot Díaz’s first novel mixes magic realism, comics, and sex-obssessed young men into the all-so-important family history of our main character, Oscar. Díaz’s novel questions how our family history molds our present as well as what is means to be an American. And in Oscar’s case, the two questions are endlessly interwoven.
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao has been named the best novel of the 21st Century so far by The Guardian and was listed as one of 11 21st Century Books Our Kids Will Read in School.
Narrator – Far from the story, Yet close at heart
I love the conflicting personality of the narrator. He is a typical, cocky, sex-driven college kid who tries and fails to hold a relationship with Oscar’s sister. Yet, he sees something in Oscar, something he can’t properly explain, that makes him befriend Oscar, when others seems disgusted by him.
The narrator, Yunior, is also an outsider with a distant yet curious view of the family. Most of the book is written in a “3rd person” perspective because Yunior was not present for most of the action. The parts he is present for are clear 1st person perspective. A tricky balance that Díaz pulls off well. Still, like any 1st person narrator, the reliability comes into question.
Junot Díaz balances the big and small, the love and hate, the real and magical, the American and Dominican with intricate precision. We view stories of many different time periods, in drastically different settings, and hear from different voices.
“It is Mr. Díaz’s achievement in this galvanic novel that he’s fashioned both a big picture window that opens out on the sorrows of Dominican history, and a small, intimate window that reveals one family’s life and loves.” – New York Times Book Review
A truly wondrous book that I recommend to all and I fully support teaching this book in schools. Why didn’t I give it five stars? Because it just failed to pull at my heartstrings. I was unable to relate to the characters, their struggles, the setting, therefore I didn’t get emotionally attached to this book.
The Story of Owen follows a teenage boy following his family tradition of slaying dragons. Set in a modern world, where dragons feed on carbon emissions, E. K. Johnston weaves the history of dragons into the history we read in our textbooks today.
Surrounded by normal high school kids, Owen finds himself somewhere between being an outcast and a celebrity. The narrator of the story, Sibohan, is Owen’s best friend and a musical prodigy. Together the duo, along with Owen’s famous family, wants to change the way the world views dragon slaying.
Things That Worked For Me:
- History – Johnston incorporates a lot of history (real and fictional) into the story. This is a great choice by the publisher, who focuses on educational-based children’s books. The history, although long-winded at times, was interesting and appropriate for the story. Johnston does a great job of weaving the story’s fictional history into the history we believe in our world. Its a great way to sneak a little history lesson into your child’s fun reading!
- Another creative twist of real life and fiction is the fact that these dragons feed on carbon emissions. We know its a danger in our world, but image if every time you drove a car or worked at a factory, you had a serious chance of being attacked by a fire-breathing dragon.
- Rural Canadian setting – The setting worked well for the story, keeping the reader grounded to reality in an unrealistic world. Growing up in rural Minnesota, the setting was familiar to me but also differed in interesting ways.
- Music, Dragons, History – What a mix!? The narrator is a musical prodigy and her best friend is a dragon slayer…where else will you find a duo quite like that!?
- Characters – Johnston incorporated a good mix of characters. Some are quiet and reserved, others are loud and outgoing. Some are athletic, others musical. Some past their prime, others growing into it.
- Dragons in a Modern World – Just plain cool.
Things That Didn’t Work For Me:
- History – Ironically the thing I liked most about the book (the interesting mix of real and imagined history) is also my least favorite. The history lessons, with a great mix of real and fictional, made my head feel like a bong getting hit over and over and over again. Especially in a book aimed for children and young adults, the story needs to move quick; the author can’t afford to waste a single page with useless backstory and, unfortunately, Johnston wasted much more than that.
- Over Simplified – Emotions were often over simplified and saw drastic, unexplained changes.
- Too Slow – Even at the height of action, the story moved too slow. This could have been helped by staying in the present and avoiding long “what might happen now” explanations.
Overall, I give The Story of Owen 3 stars.
The Story of Owen is a series. If interested check out the second book in the series, Prairie Fire.
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!