Monday, May 21, 2012

Review and book giveaway: Lesley Kagen's 'Good Graces'

Review: "Good Graces" by Lesley Kagen (September 2011, Dutton, $25.95. 340 pp)

I don't think I did myself any disservice by reading Lesley Kagen's"Good Graces," the followup novel to "Whistling in the Dark," without having read the first book. That said, reading the sequel piqued my interest in learning what happened to the narrator in that first novel, set a year prior to "Good Graces." But the book can stand alone.

"'Whistling in the Dark' concluded with the girls (Sally and Troo O'Malley) having survived a summer spent dealing with their father's sudden death, their mother's remarriage and hospitalization, and their near escape from a child predator. 'Good Graces' deals with the aftermath of those traumas, and presents a slew of new ones," the author writes in press materials.

"Good Graces," told from the earnest viewpoint of 11-year-old Sally O'Malley, puts the reader smack dab in the middle of the heat-soaked summer of 1960 in Milwaukee. It's drawn out, sleepy and slow, with moments of glittering summertime fun interspersed with moments of dogged boredom, as told from a child's perspective.

Kagen knows from where she speaks - she was born in Milwaukee and spent her early years in a working class neighborhood, "much like the one where 'Whistling in the Dark' and 'Good Graces' are set," she writes on the book's website. She describes "Good Graces" as "a literary novel with a dash of mystery."

Sally and her stubborn, colorful sister Margaret, better known as Troo, age 10, are inseparable not just because they like hanging out together, but because Sally made a promise to her father on his deathbed that she would watch over Troo.

Sally, for all her gifts (including being intuitive, smart, compassionate and unfailingly kind to older neighbors, a friend with Down Syndrome, and a couple who are grieving the loss of their daughter) is beleaguered by anxiety. She has trouble quieting her mind in the daytime and sleeping at night because of flashbacks of what happened to her the previous summer. (In "Whistling in the Dark," she was attacked by a male camp counselor/serial killer).

In Sally's favor is the fact that her mother's boyfriend who also happens to be her biological father is one of the local detectives and treats Sally with respect, loving kindness and kid gloves. Her mother seems to be more concerned with getting her second marriage annulled so she can start on her third than on what's going on in her daughters' lives.

Sally is still mourning the sudden death of her father from injuries sustained in a car accident, her mother's recent hospitalization (for reasons that aren't made clear) and, of course, her ordeal with child molester/murderer Bobby Brophy the summer before.

Sally's summer is filled with reading Nancy Drew books to an ailing neighbor, writing her "charitable" story for her return to Catholic school in the fall, trying to spend time with her hemophiliac boyfriend Henry, and trailing Troo all over the neighborhood.

But things are not exactly so picture perfect as they seem in this close neighborhood. There are a string of "cat" burglaries, a juvenile delinquent named "Greasy Al" is on the loose, and a kid who goes missing.

Sally and Troo find themselves at the heart of the action in a climax and denouement I can only describe as too quickly past and too neatly summed up. (I won't give away the only somewhat fast-moving part of the book).

"Good Graces" is worth a read. On my own personal star scale I give it 3 out of 5. Sally's voice is unique and endearing. The author goes a long way to create this urban sticky hot Wisconsin atmosphere in a town that smells like chocolate chip cookies all the time (thanks to the local cookie factory). The slow pacing overall but hurried rush of a climax for me was a drawback.

I've somehow read a lot of books told from a child's viewpoint in the past few months (This book, "Room" by Emma Donaghue, and "The Girl Who Would Speak For the Dead," by Paul Elwork, among them. All three were narrated by sort of darkly humorous kids). It's a clever device, but I think I'm ready for some more adult books now. (NO, not those kind of adult books!).

Visit the Kagen's website to read the prologue and hear an audio excerpt, as well as learn more about the book.

Want to win it?
If you would like to "win" my just slightly used (read by me) new hardcover review copy of the book, simply comment on this post with your email address. If you're selected as winner (at random, of course), I'll contact you to find out where to mail the book. If no one comments or otherwise claims the book it will be donated to the Pottstown Regional Public Library. 

About the author:

Lesley Kagen is also the author of "Whistling in the Dark," "Land of a Hundred Wonders," and "Tomorrow River." She is also an actress, voice-over talent, and restaurateur. She lives near Milwaukee, Wisc.

"Having a crappy childhood is just about the best thing that can happen to a writer. I use the traumas I experienced as a kid as fuel for my writing. I could create a bonfire," the author writes.

"Telling a story through the eyes of a young narrator isn't too different from telling it in an adult voice. Sure, the language of children is less developed, their perceptions can be skewed, but we share something important. An emotional core. The kid in me whats to connect with the kid in my readers so we can get down to the nitty-gritty of life our emotions without the armor of adulthood getting in the way."


Carl said...

Hi Michelle,

I was just about to drop you a line to say thanks for the copy of Business Networking and Sex when your email popped up.
The book arrived yesterday and I spent last night skimming it and nodding my head - "yes, that's true", "of course", "that's so obvious, why didn't I know that?". It just keeps ringing true. So, thank you very much for sending it.
I was also looking at this newest book you had on your blog. I haven't read the first one in the series but I'd certainly like to get a look at this one and I think my wife would enjoy it as well.
Of course I did just win one so if someone else pops up they should probably get the first shot at it.
In any case, please enter my name for the chance to win if it goes wanting and many thanks for the book you already sent.

Best wishes,

skkorman said...

I would love to read this book—thanks for the opportunity to win a copy!

skkorman AT bellsouth DOT net

Michelle Karas said...

Congratulations to repeat-book winner Sheila K. of Coral Springs, Fla., who will soon be receiving the "Good Graces" giveaway.

Carl, glad you are enjoying the "Business Networking and Sex" book. Since you just won a book last week, I passed you over for this one.

Happy reading!