Sunday, May 5, 2013

Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger

In Ordinary Grace, Frank Drum's world is rocked when tragedy descends upon small town New Bremen, Minnesota, in 1961. His teenaged worries seem small compared to the bigger issues he now faces. The secrets, lies and betrayal that are uncovered force him to grow up and face decisions that will test his nerve.

I love this book! The whole mood and setting of the book was terrific. It sort of reminded me of the TV show The Waltons with the character and his casual narration looking back on his teenage years in simpler times. There are many tragedies that descend upon this family and small town, but the action isn't graphic or gratuitous. The unrest that is normally associated with that 1960s decade either hasn't started yet or hasn't made it yet to this small town.

Frank Drum is a wonderful narrator. I loved that the story was told from his point of with him looking back on his life when he was a teenager. It really felt like he was sitting in front of me relating the story. He wasn't filled with angst and didn't make rash decisions that I often associate with teenagers. He was mild-mannered...more like Jim-Bob Walton and less like Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye. I think some of the wisest statements I've heard came from the youngest Jake, near the end of the book. He really got to me in the end. Who would have thought someone so young and quiet would turn out to be filled with wisdom?

The other main characters in the book were varied and a little eccentric. I loved that they weren't stereotypical or syrupy. They were: Frank's Methodist minister father, who's haunted by the war; Frank's artistic mother, who doesn't exactly act like a minister's wife; his older sister Ariel, who's off to Julliard; and his younger brother Jake, who seems to grow up before our eyes. There were also some peripheral characters who stood out for me: Lise and Emil Brandt as well as Karl.

I often wonder how an author picks which character is going to tell the story, especially when the protagonist or narrator is a child or in this case a teenager. It definitely would have been a whole different story had it been told from another character.

I also liked that the story took place not too far from here, Minnesota. It's not quite my backyard, but at least it's a state that I've been to that isn't too different from where I live.

New word: surcease (page 71): cessation or stoppage

I adore the following quotes. They made me love the book more and will definitely be added to my list of all-time favourites. I'm amazed that I found three I love from just one book.
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. You can use it to beat yourself or you can throw it away. (page 175)
...there is no such thing as a true event. We know dates and times and locations and participants but accounts of what happened depend upon the perspective from which the event is viewed. (page 306)
The dead are never far from us. They're in our hearts and on our minds and in the end all that separates us from them is a single breath, one final puff of air. (page 307)
This is the first book I've read by this author. He also writes a mystery series featuring Cork O'Connor, but haven't read any of them. This book is a standalone and is not part of that series. There's a mystery element to the story, but it's not strictly a mystery.

Highly recommended. I hope he writes another standalone book like this one.

For more information about this book, please visit Simon & Schuster's website.

For information about the author and his other books, please visit William Kent Krueger's website.

I'd like to thank those nice people at Simon & Schuster for this review copy.

Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger, Atria Paperback (Simon & Schuster) ©2013. ISBN 9781476740126(Trade paperback), 307p.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

The Banks of Certain Rivers by Jon Harrison

In The Banks of Certain Rivers, Neil Kazenzakis is struggling to put his life back together after a tragic accident has left his wife in a permanent state of comatose. Besides teaching and coaching, he's been raising his now teenage son on his own, while trying to keep a romantic relationship with his mother-in-law's private nurse a secret from everyone. Things are running smoothly, until a series of misfortunes threatens to derail his progress and set him back. First, a video surfaces showing Neil in a scuffle with one of the students, then he starts receiving harassing phone calls and emails. If that wasn't bad enough, his son finds about his affair and doesn't take it well.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book. The story was interesting, current and relevant. It's hard to believe that this is Harrison's debut novel. It was really well done. While I liked the whole story, I was especially touched by the ending. By then, I had connected with all of the characters and really wanted to see how things worked out for them.

Neil was a sympathetic and likeable character. He's far from perfect, but his particular transgressions made him all the more human to me. I really wanted things to turn out for him. I really liked Christopher, too, who was a pretty good kid when it came right down to it. Lauren rubbed me the wrong way in the beginning. Her first "romantic encounter" with Neil in the book felt a little gratuitous. However, as the story went on, she grew on me and by the end, I liked her as much as I liked Neil.

I loved the series of emails Neil sent to his wife, even though he knew she couldn't read them. It was therapeutic for him and a wonderful way for the author to add details to the story. I was a little sad that they ended a bit abruptly and that the author didn't make use of them throughout the whole story.

I don't want to give too much away about the video, but I will say it was really scary how quickly things got out of hand with it. Neil was lucky to have good people on his side.

New word:
d├ętente (page 233): easing of hostility

I really liked the title and the cover of this book. It would definitely draw me in and make me want to pick up the book (if it were in a bookstore) or investigate it further (online). However, I'm not sure what it had to do with the overall story. If there was a reference or explanation somewhere in the story, I'm sorry I missed it.

There were a few bumps in the story, but those were relatively minor and didn't at all detract from my enjoyment of the story. Highly recommended. I'd definitely read another book by this author.

For more information about this book, please visit, The Banks of Certain Rivers website.

I received this electronic copy for review.

The Banks of Certain Rivers by Jon Harrison, ©2013. ASIN B00BXKY6VA(eBook), 319p.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Fooling Houdini by Alex Stone

In Fooling Houdini, Alex Stone relates his story of how he became a master magician. His story goes beyond the training and hard work, though. He has done lots of research into the brain allowing the reader to see how magic and perception work with human nature.

I loved this book!! The whole thing is absolutely fascinating and so well written. When I pulled this off my shelf to read, I remembered that Mark from HarperCollins had recommended it, but I hadn't remembered that it was a memoir. I wasn't sure I was going to like it or if I was in the mood for a memoir. I shouldn't have worried at all. It really was fantastic.

I loved that Stone delved into so much more than magic. His offered insight into the human brain and how it works with our eyes and hands. To become a magician, he not only attended several magic camps, workshops and seminars to learn about magic, but he also visited psychology labs, Las Vegas casinos and the streets of New York for 3 card Monte games in an effort to understand magic and illusions better.

Richard Turner's story was both amazing and inspiring. He's a blind magician who has absolutely mastered playing card manipulation. Through his story, Stone explains more about the brain, the fingers and how the blind see with their fingers. Amazing!

It shouldn't surprise anyone that magicians who do card tricks or close-up magic need strong, flexible hands. Stone briefly takes the reader through his Finger Fitness (page 91-93) routine, which is essentially calisthenics for the hands. These exercises are not just for magicians. They are for anyone who does a lot of stuff with their hands or for those who've experienced pain in the wrists and hands. I fall into both categories: I type, craft and play the flute and have suffered from some arthritis and repetitive stress pain in my hands. I'll definitely be looking into this fitness routine further.

In one part, Stone relays his disdain for mentalists, whom he calls dishonest liars. He explains how they do what they do, from mind reading to spoon bending, and how easy is for some of us to believe them. This has never been my favourite type of magic, but Stone's explanations were insightful and interesting.

One of my favourite parts of the book was the examination of the 3-card Monte games on the streets of New York. He describes them as a well-choreographed play with numerous "actors" rather than a game or magic trick on a street corner. It was absolutely fascinating. I won't go into any detail, but the bottom line: don't play...ever. You can't win, not even once.

Of course, you can't have a book called Fooling Houdini without covering the Ambitious Card trick that actually fooled Houdini. If you are interested, you can see lots of examples by Googling the name.

Stone even touches upon the fact that the as the world changes, magic, too, has to change. This is evident with the likes of Criss Angel and David Blaine. These new guys are ok, but I much prefer the style of someone like David Copperfield, who, in the grand scheme of magic, is still one of the "new" guys.

Favourite quotes:
...most people have no clue how much skill and creativity and hard work goes into it, because magic is all about art concealing art. (page 137)

The next time I see a magic show or illusion, I won't have to wonder how it was all done. I'll know...basically. It's all done through a lot of hard work and years of training and practice. If nothing else, I'll definitely have a better appreciation for the magicians and their craft.

Highly recommended. I'll be talking about this book for months to come. Every other day or so I remember something that I read and say to my husband, "Do you remember that magic book I read...". He can't possibly forget because I must have said this a dozen times already. ;)

For more information about this book, please visit the HarperCollins website.

I'd like to thank those nice people at HarperCollins for this review copy.

Fooling Houdini by Alex Stone, Harper (HarperCollins), ©2012. ISBN 9780061766213(Uncorrected Proof), 301p.