Rick’s Recent Reads

Here’s my report on two books I’ve really enjoyed recently. They couldn’t be more different, but they were both excellent — one for kids, one for adults.

Wonder, by R.J. Palacio. Middle grade realistic fiction.

Ye gods, what a wonderful book! I don’t read a lot of realistic middle grade fiction. I tend to gravitate toward fantasy. But this is probably the best such book I’ve read since Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.

The main character August (Auggie) Pullman is a ten-year-old boy with severe facial abnormalities. Little kids scream when they see him. Older kids make fun of him and call him a freak. Auggie is home-schooled through grade four, but for middle school his parents decide to send him to a private school, Beecher Prep, in New York City. Wonder is the story of his fifth grade year, told partly from Auggie’s perspective, and partly from the other kids in his life — his sister Via, her oldest friend Miranda, Via’s boyfriend Justin, and Jack and Summer, Auggie’s new friends at Beecher Prep. Each narrator has a distinct, completely believable voice. Palacio writes with just the right balance of humor and pathos, making each character both flawed and sympathetic. She “gets” kids — how they think, how they talk, how they have the capacity to be both horribly mean and incredibly brave and kind. I recognize these characters from my years of teaching middle school, and I’m sure young readers will recognize them too. The book rings with authenticity. The short chapters and shifting narrative make this a quick, easy read. It’s a feel-good book with a great message, and the ending is a tearjerker in the best possible way. I’d recommend it without hesitation to most middle grade readers, girls or boys, even those who may not normally pick up realistic fiction.

The Given Day, by Dennis Lehane, adult historical fiction.

I’ve been a fan of Lehane’s since his earliest detective novels. When I was writing mysteries, he was one of those writers I was simply in awe of — a guy who writes with such talent and vision it’s a little intimidating to the rest of us schmucks plodding along in the genre. The general public will be familiar with his novels that were made into movies: Mystic River, Shutter Island and Gone, Baby, Gone. I’ll confess I haven’t seen any of those movies. I have difficulty seeing movie adaptations of my favorite books even if the adaptations are good, but the novels are uniformly excellent.

At any rate, I hadn’t read any Lehane novels in years before I picked up The Given Day. This is a huge departure for Lehane — an ambitious, sprawling historical novel set in Boston in 1918-1919. Clearly, Lehane has done his homework, and this is a labor of love to capture one of the seminal eras of his hometown of Boston. At its core, The Given Day is about two men — Irish-American policeman Danny Coughlin, and African-American laid-off factory worker Luther Lawrence — whose lives intertwine through some of the major crises of the day: the Spanish flu epidemic, the end of World War I, race riots, and the rise of the labor unions. We also get interlude chapters told from the perspective of Babe Ruth, who provides a wonderful third perspective on the era and some dark comic relief. (The story of the piano in the pond is worth the price of admission by itself.)

Do not expect a fast read. This is not a roller coaster of a book. It’s more of a steam train ride across a vivid landscape. The characters are fabulous, however. Lehane’s writing is as lean and evocative as ever. You will feel like you’ve actually visited Boston in 1919. And like all good historical novels, you’ll be struck by how many things have changed in American culture — and how many things haven’t.

Rick Riordan