There is an argument surrounding A Visit From the Goon Squad whether it is a novel or a collection of linked short stories. This gray area is a main reason I loved the story. It jumps in time, switches character perspective, and at times feels plain messy. Messy in a very tidy way. Just when I thought I was getting lost and confused, Egan would slip in a quick reference to time or character that would ground me again.
In a Nutshell
A Visit From the Goon Squad is not an easy plot to summarize. The main character changes from chapter to chapter. Often, a minor character in one story will become more prominent in the next. The settings range from New York City to Africa, from childhood homes to safari adventures.
Each chapter is a fresh start, a new story, but the thread that connects them makes them much more than if they were standing alone.
Music and Time
The array of characters are mostly related to the music industry in some way. We connect with musicians and agents; missed talent and forgotten stars. The variety provides different views of the world and each one draws interest in their own way.
Time kills. I think Egan would agree. Every character is defeated, or at least beaten down, by time. We see hopeful talent that falls flat, golden memories tarnished by reunions, and optimism sours into demise.
I read A Visit From the Good Squad by Jennifer Egan several months ago and never posted a full book review until now. As it is an exceptional book that made my list of Favorite Books of 2015, I thought late was better than never.
Bird Box by Josh Malerman is one of the most suspenseful books I’ve ever read. The intense mystery is set in the very first chapter and does not cease until the very last page.
The only comparable suspense novel I can think of is The Shining, and that is high praise.
A Strange, Strange World
In the first chapter we meet Malorie and two four-year-old children who are trying to escape a life of terror to a place they can only get to by rowing blindfolded down a river for several miles. Why is her life filled with terror? Why does she have to be blindfolded? Why are all the windows on their house boarded up and covered? Why has Malorie not seen sunlight for over 5 years? Why does she never refer to the children by name? Where are all the people?
All these questions and more hook the readers’ curiosity and the intense danger Malorie feels is transferred to the reader. With every chapter, more answers are revealed but more questions also arise. Malerman reveals just enough to keep the reader understanding this strange world more all the time, but keeps the door closed on the biggest secrets until the very end.
Great Suspense Stems From Great Writing
Without giving too much away, I will tell you that the characters in this world refuse to open their eyes outside. This had two major effects on the writing: 1) sight was often lost, and the author deepened upon the other senses for description, 2) not knowing what could be right next to you, something dangerous, something deadly, adds a lot of suspense all by itself.
At one point, Malerman integrates counting into a suspenseful scene. Set outside in a world full of unseen dangers, the characters are putting themselves at risk every second they are outside. The counting draws attention to those danger-filled seconds ticking by.
Without a doubt, Bird Box is the best book I’ve read so far this year. If you love suspense, horror, apocalyptic stories, or simply good writing, you should read this book!
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.
Not only is Still Alice populated with great characters and vivid writing, it approaches a topic that deserves more attention. The main character, Alice Howland, is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s at the age of 50. Slowly, all of Alice’s passions are stolen from her. As a tenured psychology professor at Harvard, Alice’s early symptoms force her to stop attending speaking engagements and psychology conferences. Less than six months after her diagnosis, Alice is forced to stop teaching. It becomes harder and harder for Alice to participate in conversations, she gets lost in familiar places, repeats things she said minutes before, and is unable to comprehend reading material.
Although the Alzheimer’s infects every area of her life, the central focus surrounds how Alice’s family learns to live with her disease. Alice and her husband, John, have three children in their 20’s, all of whom have a 50% chance of inheriting the gene that precedes Alzheimer’s. When Alice’s oldest daughter finds out she has the gene, she has to reconsider her decision to start a family.
Point of View and Structure
The third person limited perspective gives the reader the perfect balance of Alice’s personal perspective of the situation without having the mess of an unreliable narrator. Her dementia comes across clearly without confusing the reader. Genova brilliantly used repetition to describe Alice’s short-term memory loss.
Every chapter represented one month in Still Alice. Genova typically focused each chapter on one or more events that show the progression of the disease. This consistent timeline helps the reader understand how fast the disease progresses.
Alzheimer’s vs Cancer: the public opinion
Genova describes the social stigma of Alzheimer’s brilliantly in the following passage:
[Alice] wished she had cancer instead. She’d trade Alzheimer’s for cancer in a heartbeat. She felt ashamed for wishing this, and it was certainly a pointless bargaining, but she permitted the fantasy anyway. With cancer, she’d have something that she could fight. There was surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy. There was the chance that she could win. Her family and the community at Harvard would rally behind her battle and consider it noble. And even if defeated in the end, she’d be able to look them knowingly in the eye and say good-bye before she left.
Alzheimer’s disease was an entirely different kind of beast. There were no weapons that could slay it. Taking Aricept and Namenda felt like aiming a couple of leaky squirt guns in the face of a blazing fire.
5 stars. Read this book! Not only is it an entertaining, emotional story, but it covers a topic every individual should learn more about. Now a major motion picture, I plan to rent the movie when it comes out on DVD and I have high expectations. 🙂
Have you read and watched Still Alice? How did the book and movie compare?
The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini is one of the most powerful stories I have ever read. It delves into explaining the flawed truth of humanity, defying cultural biases, and portraying an inside view of a significant world change. And Hosseini does it all in beautiful prose!
The Kite Runner is in a category all its own and well deserves its spot on the list of Modern Books Our Kids Will Be Taught in School that I blogged about recently. Its a list I plan to read in full.
Summary of The Kite Runner
Amir and Hassan were the greatest friends either would ever know but society placed a wedge between them. Hassan was a Hazara, a discriminated class of Afghan, and the son of Amir’s family servant. The two friends grew up under the same roof, played the same games, and loved the same books but because Hassan was a Hazara, he was not allowed to go to school with Amir or sleep in the family’s extravagant house. Hassan and his father slept in a one-room hut in the yard. While Amir learned to read and write at school, Hassan cooked his best friend’s breakfast and made his bed.
The boys’ friendship ends harshly and with tragic heartbreak but their story does not end there. True childhood friendships stay close to heart one’s entire lives.
As the Taliban take over the Afghanistan government, destroy his hometown, and crash into the Twin Towers, Amir escapes the evil rule of Afghanistan and moves to the US. The Kite Runner is a story of Afghan culture before and after it made American headlines. It will open readers’ eyes to that culture but even more so, it will open your eyes to the immense connection of friendship and family and the emotions will tear you apart as surely as they tear apart the characters of The Kite Runner.
The Flawed Truth of Humanity
The range of emotions and the depth at which they are explored is incomparable. Love and guilt. Shame and fear. Pride, joy and love. Desire. Hate.
Perhaps a man can only be considered a “great men” if he is a successful secret keeper. Why? Because everyone is flawed. Every human being holds the entire range of human emotion, including hate, envy, jealousy, selfishness.
Point of View and Tone
Amir tells the story in first person. The mass of the story is told in past tense but the very end jumps to present tense. The switch worked well for me.
The emotion that was so strong in this novel had a lot to do with the tone of regret Amir told the story in. From the very first sentence, the reader feels the regret of his childhood. Watching young Amir act cruelly, knowing how much he regrets it later in life, makes my heart ache even weeks after turning the last page.
Afghanistan’s Discrimination and American’s Stereotypes
The characters in The Kite Runner keep immense secrets and make life-altetering sacrifices in order to keep their name “honorable” by going along with the cultural discrimination of Hazaras. As hard as we try to be fair to all genders, races, religions, ect. in America, we struggle. And because we are so drawn up in our own struggle for equality, we overlook the downright racism and discrimination that is going on all over the world.
This novel opened my eyes to a culture and a religion that is stereotyped more than any other in America.
The Kite Runner is relevant in world news, in politics, and in the struggles of Americans’ daily life. Published in 2003, this book couldn’t have been released at a more relevant time. It reflects a time in American history from the point of view of someone emotionally, physically, and culturally close to the change while still keeping a “neutral” stance on the political aspect. The book does not verbally abuse the Taliban, it simply shows their evil nature. It does not go in depth about the effects of 911, but it reminds readers there are innocent people on both sides of this war.
The Kite Runner is a heart-felt story written in beautifully-crafted prose but the reason it makes the list of Modern Books Our Kids Will Be Taught in School is because of its political and cultural reflection of 21st century American history.
5 stars!!! An extended timeline packed with action. Characters too real to let go. Emotions too deep not to shed a tear. Cultural and political relevance during a testing time in history. Simply stated, The Kite Runner is not a book you will easily forget.
“Elegies is the literary equivalent of a hand grenade: brisk and unsparing, fueled by anger, laced with caustic wit and composed in long, cartwheeling sentences that expose the bleakest of truths.” –New York Times Book Review
Elegies of the Brokenhearted is broken into five sections, each one centering around an individual that influenced the main character, Mary Murphy, in a significant way. These characters include Mary’s favorite uncle who was the drunken failure of the family, a high school outcast, her overly-eccentric college roommate who tells fortunes, an aging musician composing a life-long composition, and her mother who is no less interesting than all the previous combined. Through these detailed looks at others, we get a gradual picture of Mary’s life.
Elegies takes a close look at how even the smallest characters in our lives can have a huge effect on us. Although that theme has certainly been beat into the ground, Christie Hodgen spins it into a unique and entertaining tale you will not quickly forget.
Point of View and Structure
Mary Murphy makes herself a side character in her own story. She narrates each elegy in the second person, focusing the bulk of the narrative on side characters and away from herself. We learn about Mary–her tendencies, her desires, her fears–as she focuses on the traits of others. Each elegy (section) is a very distinct story from the next, each section could be considered a short story in itself, but the thing that ties them all together is Mary’s narrative and the stretched timeline of her life.
The story reads like a memoir. The timeline is structured by the individual stories, freeing it from a linear structure and often revealing plot points early on that will be discussed in depth late in the novel. It might sound confusing, but its written seamlessly. Because the novel covers 20+ years of Mary’s life, there are obvious time markers (like Mary attending college) that make the timeline very easy to follow.
Mary is as passive a main character as you will find. Not only does she focus the narration away from herself and onto others but seems to live through these people. She admires their quirks, their adventures, their bravery, their confidence, but has none of these things herself. She is very content (to the point that she’s okay washing dishes at a restaurant after earning a college degree) and accepts whatever happens to her. She allows the people around her to direct her life (she chooses French as a college major simply because an adviser suggests it and she doesn’t know what else to do).
Hodgen balances her main character’s passivity and uneventful nature by surrounding her with characters that are the exact opposite, characters that have aspirations and take risks, characters that do not settle. Its a beautiful balance.
Writing Prompt: Brainstorm other ideas/plots/settings that would make a passive main character interesting.
5 stars! I loved Elegies of the Brokenhearted. It touched me emotional and intellectually and I will look forward to rereading it a few years from now when I’m sure to find even more magic within the pages.
A big little life is a story of a dog that loved, inspired, entranced and spread joy to everyone close to her. Just as Trixie, the soulful golden retriever, changed the lives of those that loved her, this book has the power to change the lives of its readers. A big little life is so much more than a story about a dog. It’s a story about life, love, and loss.
This memoir highlights not only the wonders of loving a dog, but the wonders and magic of life itself. It opens the reader’s mind to the beautiful complexities of life and how a dog can help us enjoy the simple pleasures that are always around us. Unconditionally loving a dog and receiving that unconditional love in return can soften the heart and open the mind.
When death takes someone whom you love to the very core, whether family, a friend, or a dog, the pain reflects the joy that came before it. The more you loved that soul during their life, the more painful it will be to say goodbye but never will the pain outweigh the previous bliss. Koontz’s enforces this in the book’s dedication, “…the pain was so great because the joy before it was even greater.”
Koontz’s personality shines through in this novel. Not many books make me laugh out loud (and I am quick to laugh) but this book provided me that pleasure. I fell in love with Trixie. She made me laugh, she made me cry and though I never knew her, I love her because I cherish what she left behind; a better world.
Some will say, “She was only a dog.”
Yes, she was dog, but not only a dog. I am a man, but not only a man. Sentiment is not sentimentality, common sense is not common ignorance, and intuition is not superstition. Living with a recognition of the spiritual dimension of the world not only ensures a happier life but also a more honest intellectual life than if we allow no room for wonder and refuse to acknowledge the mystery of existence.
**All photos taken from DeanKoontz.com/Trixie
Some books are not meant to be picked apart;
some books are simply meant to be enjoyed and shared.
The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman is one of those books. Winner of the Newberry Medal and the British Carnegie Medal, The Graveyard Book is a brilliant story that young and old can both enjoy.
If I did pick this book apart, I would have nothing but great things to say. The characters, the plot, the suspense, the relatability, the dash of fantasy, and the scattered illustrations… everything was perfectly simple. There was nothing overpowering or complicated about the book, yet it kept me interested and smiling the entire time.
Although the story was not complicated, it captures Gaiman’s creativity and imagination. The main character is a human boy, named Nobody Owens, who is raised by a group of ghosts. The ghosts were all buried in the graveyard where the story is set and Nobody grows up. The ghosts took him in as a toddler to protect him from a mysterious group of “Jacks” who killed the boy’s entire family and are still trying to find and kill him. Gaiman keeps this dark plot lighthearted and fun, the boy is relatable and the ghosts are charming, always fascinated by their own histories. The writing is straightforward and simple, like most children’s books, but also smooth and poetic. I feel its very important that children’s authors never write down to their audience, that although they may use a simple approach to telling their story, they should never dumb it down, and I felt Gaiman succeeded in that area. The Graveyard Book puts readers in a world that all ages can get lost in.
The Graveyard Book is a 5-star read!
The Prestige by Christopher Priest will have you clueless and confident, astonished and suspicious, charmed and furious, all at the same time.
The Prestige is a two-sided story of a pair of feuding magicians in the late 1800’s. The story is told two generations later as their grandchildren read the magicians’ journals. The feud begins when Alfred Borden interrupts a fake séance of Rupert Angier’s, revealing him as a fraud. The event enflames a life-long feud as both magicians rise to popularity. Continuously trying to disrupt one another’s performances, the feud pushes the magicians to the very boundaries of magic, deception, and life itself. As the story encounters many twists and turns, so do the lives of Borden and Angier.
The unique structure was my favorite part of the novel. The magicians’ story is told through their journals and interweaved with the present story of the grandchildren who are now in their 30s. Borden’s journal comes first, covering many years of the feud in a linear fashion. The journal reveals some of Borden’s secrets and provides our first impression of his rival, Angier. After we are told the entire story from Borden’s point of view, the story jumps back to the very beginning and is retold from Angier’s point of view.
Even though the reader is already aware of what is going to happen, Priest does an extraordinary job at exposing new secrets and Angier’s insights to keep the story fresh and exciting.
Old Story, Fresh Point of View
As the reader is introduced to Borden first, and is told the story from his POV, one is driven to take his side and believe his view that Angier is a petty, sometimes cruel man who will not let go of a silly, old grudge. But once the narrative changes to Angier’s POV, that belief muddies. The reader becomes aware that every story has two sides, and depending on who tells the story, the “facts” and the attitude behind them changes drastically. There are multiple points in the second retelling of the story that things that initially seemed unreasonably dramatic make sense once both sides of the story is told. Once the story flips to Angier’s point of view, we realize he had strong reasons for acting the cruel way he did. Slowly but surely, Angier becomes the character I wanted to trust and wanted to come out on top of this feud.
How Priest Keeps an Old Story New
By switching narrators halfway through the novel, Priest pulls out a lot of tricks that need delicate balance. The contrasting personalities of the two men adds interest to the retelling of the story. During each magician’s telling, we must not only learn new, interesting things about the same story but also connect with each narrator at the time of their telling. The deception that magicians live with in order to become successful on the stage is a perfect cover for this structure because in order for a retelling of the same story to be successful, certain secrets must be unknown by each narrator.
Angier’s story, the second journal, extends past the point where Borden’s journal left off. This is another necessary choice by the author to keep the reader interested and the story moving forward. The novel ends where it began, in present time with the grandchildren of the magicians. Although the grandchildren’s story starts off as a slow way to give context to the journals, it ends with a flash of action that ties the entire novel together in an unexpected twist.
5 stars! The plot, the characters, the structure, the mystery, the suspense, they all deserve 5 stars. I specifically recommend the book to all writers because unique, creative structures are something every writer should keep in their “tool box.”
The Prestige was adapted into a major motion picture in 2006 staring Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman. Although the movie does vary slightly from the book’s plot, it stays true to the major themes of the story. The acting is excellent. The movie and the book are both worth one’s time. If you are a fan of the movie, read the book! It varies enough to keep you interested but you will still enjoy the same main premise.