Virgil Wander, by Leif Enger

We first meet Virgil Wander soon after he dies. Or not. (It isn’t entirely clear.)

Virgil is an inhabitant of Greenstone, a small, steadily declining town in Minnesota. He works as the town clerk, lives in and operates the local cinema house, and for years now has run his life on autopilot—until his car flies off the road and into Lake Superior, leaving him impaired, reflective, and reluctantly needing in-home assistance.

Enter Rune, a new-to-town Scandinavian who has recently discovered that he is the biological father of a minor-league baseball player named Alec Sandstrom. Alec—a talented but erratic pitcher–had had a brief moment of glory with the Greenstone team, then disappeared mysteriously, leaving behind his stunningly attractive wife Nadine, their brooding young child, and a lingering mystery. Rune has come to Greenstone to fly kites, talk to the residents, and try to understand the son he never knew.

Virgil and Rune are on intersecting journeys of discovery, with the gritty widow Nadine at the hub. Their journeys are made a little more challenging by the return of the town’s prodigal son, who is Satan. Or not. (It isn’t entirely clear.) We’re also distracted by 10-year-old Galen Pea and his quest for revenge on a killer fish, and by sad Jerry Fandeen and his dissolving marriage. But really, this is just a loose premise for Enger’s amble through Midwestern quirkiness, gilded with a coating of magical realism. Each sentence contains a wry smile; each character is imbued with gentle melancholy. The story itself moves slowly and ends with a fizzle. Still, Enger’s characters tug at the heart, and his prose—which first captured me nearly 20 years ago with his enchanting Peace Like a River—is as sweet and warm as a cup of hot chocolate in a Minnesota snowstorm.

Beartown, by Fredrik Backman

I understand Beartown: Always the afterthought, populated by misfits and hard-working scrappers, looking down the road with envy at Hed, the town next door that always gets the money, the jobs, the attention. Anyone who grew up in Battle Creek, Michigan, just down the road from Kalamazoo, as I did, understands the dynamic. Throw in a rivalry between the towns’ two ice-hockey clubs, populate the story with the kinds of characters that both small towns and ice hockey attract, and you have a surprising, insightful, emotional book that is about so much more than sports.

When we first are introduced to Beartown, the community is on a nervous high, waiting for the town’s junior ice-hockey team to compete in a huge national semifinal game. For once, the team—and by extension, the town—has a real chance to come out a winner, thanks to Kevin, the star player, and the Beartown team that has grown up around him. But things don’t go quite as planned: as the game approaches, the community is split apart by a violent act. The decisions that must be made as a result test the loyalty and ethics of Beartown’s residents.

I loved Fredrik Backman’s A Man Called Ove (see Kristie’s review here) so much that I was afraid that I would be disappointed by this book. Silly me. Backman’s deep understanding of emotions, motivations, and relationships made A Man Called Ove shine in its portrayal of an individual; with Beartown, the author masterfully depicts an entire community, making us feel that we know each member, that we’ve sat with them in the Bearskin pub and listened to their innermost thoughts. We root for them to do the right thing, and care about them even when they don’t. We understand the mistakes they make, even if we sometimes find it hard to forgive them.

Backman’s extraordinarily pleasurable writing is worth spending time with, no matter what the subject, and if I were the sort of person who highlights great sentences in a book, Beartown’s pages would have been glowing like a radioactive lemon. The author’s insightful offhand comments and wry humor mark every passage. But perhaps the most unexpected aspect of this book with a boys’ sport at its core was its feminist streak–subtle at first, but by the end of the story, there’s no missing it.

If you know the world of ice hockey well, Backman’s portrayal of the coaches, players, parents, and fans will have you nodding your head and grinning in recognition. But even if you don’t know a faceoff from an offsides, Beartown’s story resonates with its examination of family, community, sacrifice, and what it means to be a good person.

Where the Crawdads Sing, by Delia Owens

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Where the Crawdads Sing was the book that you saw everywhere this summer—the season’s “It” book. I’ll be honest, with an “It” book, I usually wait until I’m pretty sure that we don’t have another TwilightFifty Shades of Grey, or Girl on a Train on our hands—or at least until the paperback is released. But I was heading out to the beach and in need of something to hold my attention between naps, so I took a leap and bought the hardcover. I’m not sorry; this was a solid, emotional read with some unexpected twists.

It’s the story of a remarkable girl, Kya, called “the Marsh Girl” by the denizens of the small nearby town on the North Carolina coast. Abandoned as a very young child, first by her beloved mother, then by her older siblings, and finally by her abusive father, she manages to avoid the authorities long enough for them to lose interest in capturing her, then essentially raises herself in the wild. Though a few of the townspeople provide her with subtle assistance, most consider her a freak. As she grows older, a careful friendship with an older boy tempers her loneliness and gives her the tools to educate herself; then a less careful friendship with another young man leads to heartbreak and tragedy.

The book does require some suspension of belief. The idea of a six-year-old girl surviving on her own in the marshes without starving or injuring herself is a bit of a stretch. (On the other hand, I read books where time travel and vampires are de rigueur, so who am I to judge?) I also found it hard to accept Kya’s character development through her relationships–by her late teens she had been abandoned by everyone she ever loved, which made her initial reaction to a major betrayal difficult to process. And the ending, while surprising and emotional, does rely on the reader to avoid thinking too hard about how secrets are revealed.

Still, a good story populated by appealing personalities trumps all for me, and the author does a beautiful job of incorporating the marsh and its wildlife as characters worthy of a lonely young girl’s love. Kya may be lonely, but with the marshland around her, she is never alone.

How to Stop Time, by Matt Haig

What if your life expectancy were measured in terms of centuries rather than years? Would it be a blessing or a curse? How would it affect your relationships, your choices, your enjoyment of life?

These are the questions with which How to Stop Time wrangles through its protagonist, Tom Hazard. Tom has been alive since the sixteenth century. His development was normal until puberty, when the ageing process slowed markedly: outwardly, he aged one year for every 15 he lived. The condition comes with a heightened immune system, providing extra protection from diseases. So although Tom isn’t immortal, in many respects he may as well be. He’s over 400 years old, but he looks like a robust 41-year-old.

Tom’s condition is rare, but not unique. There are others like him around the world, and a secretive group has formed to offer support and protection, though its assistance comes with a price. Among other requirements, he must never fall in love. This is not a problem for Tom; his wife, Rose, died during the Black Plague, and even the centuries since haven’t dimmed his love for her. But his emotional isolation is about to be tested as he returns to live in a city brimming with memories of Rose and meets a charming French teacher who draws him in, despite the danger.

This poignant story is dotted with glimpses of history—William Shakespeare plays a key role, as do Captain Cook and Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald—but these mainly serve to provide an entertaining structure for a fantastical romance, and for thoughtful, wry philosophical musings on what it means to live.

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, by Haruki Murakami

Author Haruki Murakami is a rock star in Japan, where his books—including this one—are instant bestsellers. Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage isn’t quite as catchy a title as, say, IQ84, but then, at this point, Murakami can name his book Blah Blah Blah and it wouldn’t affect sales.

The basis for the story is very simple. In high school, Tsukuru had four dear friends with whom he formed an extremely tight-knit group. After high school, Tsukuru headed to college in Tokyo, but when he returned to hometown for a break during his sophomore year, these very close friends “announced that they did not want to see him, or talk with him, ever again. It was a sudden, decisive declaration, with no room for compromise. They gave no explanation, not a word, for this harsh pronouncement. And Tsukuru didn’t dare ask.”

Tsukuru was understandably confused, then devastated, and Murakami details the excruciating after-effects of being inexplicably declared persona non grata. The emotions are searing. We see Tsukuru’s shaky mental state and watch him make subsequent choices, mostly poor, that flow directly from his broken heart.

After college, Tsukuru works for a railway company designing stations. He struggles with his few personal relationships until, at age 36, he meets Sara, who draws him out and encourages him to track down his former friends to finally find out why they had so cruelly abandoned him.

The plot is as plain as that. The writing, though, has a dreamy quality that made me wish that I could read the book in the original Japanese. Translated into English, the metaphors and wordplay Murakami uses need to be explained in detail; I suspect that the subtlety of reading it in the original may create a more seamless experience. Color is an obvious theme, as each of Tsukuru’s high-school friends has a last name that involves a color, and their nicknames become those colors: The boys are Red and Blue, the girls are White and Black. Only Tsukuru, as the title reminds us, is colorless. But those of us who are reading a translation only know this because the translation spells it out in great detail.

There was much in the story that made me uncomfortable, not least of which was the answer to the central mystery. I also found Tsukuru to be a difficult character to connect with, despite my sympathy for his pain. Then there were the rather odd hallucinogenic scenes thrown into the mix. I came away wondering whether I should blame the story for my discomfort, or the translation, or maybe both. But because I couldn’t read the book the way the author intended me to, I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt.

I found myself thinking about Tsukuru long after I’d finished the book– a sign that the story had resonated. The tale made me consider how our friends can define us—after all, would Tsukuru be “colorless” in a group that was not defined by color? It also made me think about how our unwillingness to put ourselves out there socially in the short term—why, oh why, didn’t Tsukuru simply ask what had caused his banishment in the first place?—can lead to unnecessary long-term pain and, yes, pilgrimage.

Mostly, the book made me think about translations of various types, and how they affect our interactions with art, with history, with each other. The limits of translation are clear in a book like this, where so much of the effect seems to depend on wordplay in another language. The author’s intentions fade a bit without the sharpness of the original Japanese. But in the end, this simple tale about a simple man with a broken heart depicts the joy, suffering, and color that friends can bring to one other, and makes it worth the reader’s effort to become acquainted with Tsukuru and his colorful, colorless life.

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, by Taylor Jenkins Reid

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Evelyn Hugo is a Hollywood icon—Elizabeth Taylor meets Lauren Bacall, with more than a touch of Greta Garbo. She’s the woman that every woman wants to be, and that every man wants to have. Her meteoric rise to stardom and subsequent climb to superstardom leaves a pile of husbands by the wayside. To the outsider, her love life is very complicated. But in the context of her career, it makes perfect sense—to Evelyn, at least.

Evelyn is now in her late 70s, and she has been living quietly, having retired from public life decades before. She decides that it’s time to tell all. And there is much to tell. To do the job, she chooses a nobody, Monique Grant, who has been a magazine reporter for barely a year. Why Monique? That’s a mystery to everyone, including Monique, and Evelyn is in no hurry to give answers as she narrates her scandalous story.

It’s a wild ride indeed. We meet poor Eddie Diaz, goddamn Don Adler, gullible Mick Riva, clever Rex North, tortured Harry Cameron, disappointing Max Girard, and agreeable Robert Jamison, all of whom are lucky/unlucky enough to be married to Evelyn at some point. We also meet Celia St. James, Evelyn’s rival, dearest friend, and fellow Hollywood megastar. We learn, too, that the title of the book is a bit deceptive, as there is more to Evelyn’s love life than meets the eye.

The present-day story is told in the first person by the frankly uninteresting Monique, which works to give us an outside perspective on Evelyn—at least, Evelyn as a still-glamorous senior citizen. Evelyn’s story, though, is told in the first person by Evelyn, which is awkward. It’s just too much of a stretch for Evelyn to be able to remember full conversations and assign thoughts and feelings as she does. On the other hand, this approach does provide an explanation for the reader’s inability to grasp any of the other characters in the book—Evelyn is all about Evelyn, even when she’s protecting those she loves.

The answer to the first mystery of the book—who is Evelyn’s true love?–is revealed early; the answer to the second mystery—why Monique?—develops late and is a bit unsatisfying. And the book skips over some major, and potentially interesting, sections of Evelyn’s life. But despite its flaws, this is a rip-roaring beach romp through old Hollywood, with some interesting observations on love versus intimacy, and on the sacrifices needed to keep up appearances while living in the public eye.

Ordinary Grace, by William Kent Krueger

Ordinary Grace

“All the dying that summer began with the death of a child, a boy with golden hair and thick glasses….” And with this first line, the tone is set for Ordinary Grace, a quiet coming-of-age novel set in small-town Minnesota in the 1960s.

Frank Drum is just thirteen years old when the serene town of New Bremen is disrupted by a series of disturbing, deadly events, one of which causes Frank’s world to crack. With his sweet, stuttering younger brother Jake as his shadow, Frank pokes and prods the dark corners of the town, eavesdropping and exploring, trying to make sense of what has happened.

Frank’s father is the town pastor. Though he was originally on the path to become a lawyer, his searing World War II experiences diverted him to the ministry. Frank’s mother, who thought she was marrying a lawyer, is uncomfortable as the pastor’s wife and resentful of his reliance on faith. This novel is as much about the rifts in this marriage as it is about the disturbances in the town. Secrets are uncovered, faith is tested, grief must be dealt with. But ordinary grace proves to be this family’s salvation, and that grace finds its voice in surprising ways.

An Edgar Award-winning novel, Ordinary Grace is less a mystery book than a portrait of a family and a town in crisis. Frank is a boy who is always on the move, one who will climb out of the bedroom window in the middle of the night without hesitation if it will bring him answers. Jake might doubt his brother’s methods, but he’s by Frank’s side through thick and thin. They are a resilient pair with secrets of their own.

This nostalgic, moving novel manages to be simultaneously sad and uplifting. Frank is telling the story forty years later, with the perspective of time—a wise choice by the author, as it allows the adult’s more mature viewpoint to overlay the child’s experiences. All of the characters are familiar and fully drawn, but Frank’s brother and father are particularly captivating in their generous,loving natures. It is a book that reminds me strongly of Peace Like a River, by Leif Enger—one of my favorite novels of all time. It lingers sweetly in the mind long after its central mystery is laid to rest.