Tag Archives: The Humans

Ordinary Grace getting well-deserved accolades

ordinary-grace-200I read and reviewed William Kent Krueger’s Ordinary Grace almost a year ago, noting at that time that I hoped the book would receive the recognition it deserves.   And here it is now, nominated for the Best Novel Edgar.   Hooray!  For those who have read Krueger’s Cork O’Connor mystery series, this standalone will be a revelation.

The book begins with a framing device, as Frank Drum recalls the summer of 1961, when he was 13 years old. Just one page long, this prologue sets the tone for the story that follows, a tragic story filled with loss and anguish.  And then the story begins, first person, as it happens.

Frank’s father, a Methodist minister, is a rock upon whom many lean. His mother dreams of a better, more fulfilling life for Frank’s sister Ariel, who is a talented pianist, accepted to Juilliard in the fall. And his younger brother, Jake, is the tag-along kid with a stutter under pressure. What unfolds is shocking: Ariel disappears. When her body is found in the river, suspicion lights on first one, then another of the town’s inhabitants, and Frank learns that many people are not as they seem, including Ariel herself. What Frank learns about betrayal, his family and his own capacity for understanding and forgiveness is astonishingly moving. Read the book for the mystery – it’s a good one. But you’ll remember it for the insights it offers and the emotions it evokes.

Let’s compare to the other nominees!

the humansMatt Haig’s The Humans is sci-fi, Ordinary Grace is a literary mystery.  The Humans is fun, while Ordinary Grace is real and sometimes painful.

sandrineSandrine’s Case by Thomas H. Cook keeps the reader guessing, but so does Ordinary Grace.   Both books are character-driven.   But Krueger’s book is beautiful, and Cook just strives for beauty.

best5Finally, Ian Rankin’s Standing in Another Man’s Grave.  You know I love me some Rebus.  The book is tightly plotted and also big on complex characters.  But Ordinary Grace has staying power.  Of the two, it’s the one you’ll remember long after you read it.


mwa_logoLunchbox Rankings: Best Novel

  1. Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger
  2. Standing in Another Man’s Grave by Ian Rankin
  3. Sandrine’s Case by Thomas H. Cook
  4. The Humans by Matt Haig

Only two more books to go!  Don’t think I haven’t noticed that so far, each one I review moves to the top of the ranking.   Coincidence?  Fate?  We’ll see.

Sandrine vs. The Humans

sandrineI have a long history with Thomas H. Cook, having been introduced to him in 1996 via his Edgar-award wining novel, The Chatham School Affair.   Wikipedia tells me that he has been nominated for an Edgar seven times, and I have no cause to doubt it.  Sandrine’s Case, Cook’s most recent book, is a worthy nominee for the MWA Edgar award for Best Novel.  It features that most challenging and frequently disappointing protagonist:  the unreliable narrator.

That narrator is Samuel Madison, and the Sandrine in question is his wife.  She was ill, suffering from Lou Gehrig’s disease, shutting down in stages and dead by her own hand – or was she?  The novel opens as the jury foreman is about to render a verdict in Sam’s trial for murdering her… and immediately skips backwards, to the first day of the trial, and then back further, to remember a conversation with his lawyer on the day he was arrested, and then further back, to the evidence that had been gathered against him.  And while the type of crime novel feels a great deal like the innocent-man-falsely-accused, it also begins to feel like a you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me-he- actually-did-it! type of novel.  AKA the psychological courtroom thriller.

Suspense builds throughout the book, primarily because Cook is such a skillful writer that many of the “clues” can be read in more than one way.  The reader’s perspective on Sam’s guilt or innocence changes from chapter to chapter.  On one hand, Sam is clearly a jerk.  More than selfish, he’s totally self-involved.  On the other hand, Sandrine had his measure, and loved him anyway.  And their daughter, Alexandria, is loyal to her father.

Resting by Antonio Mancini Art Institute of Chicago

Resting by Antonio Mancini
Art Institute of Chicago

The final twist comes when Sam realizes that with her death, Sandrine has recreated a painting they had seen together long ago, at a time when Sam was not yet jaded and cynical, but empathetic and soulful.  (The painting Cook references is a real one, shown at right.)  With her suicide, Sandrine sought to remind Sam of what he had been – and to return him to that better self.  It was the final act of a desperate woman, undertaken out of love.  Sam returns her self-sacrifice by refusing to offer this explanation in the courtroom, leaving his final judgment up to the jury.

In my opinion, Cook should have stopped there, but I know readers across the country would have let out a mighty cry of frustration.  Indeed, he is found innocent, and an unsatisfying coda is added  – the idea that Sam Madison would be so moved, so changed by his wife’s suicidal action, that he would change his life and spend the next 25 years teaching children in Africa.  I found this final grand gesture to be unnecessary.

Overall, Sandrine’s Case has the advantage over The Humans in that it is clearly in the mystery/crime/suspense genre.  It also has suspense, plotting, pacing, and characterization going for it.  No surprise, it takes the lead.

mwa_logoLunchbox Rankings: Best Novel

  1. Sandrine’s Case by Thomas H. Cook
  2. The Humans by Matt Haig

The mystery of The Humans

the humansThe Mystery Writers of America Best Novel nominees  line-up is six-deep, and I had read five of the six finalists previously.  The Edgar awards will be presented on May 1, so I’ve got time now to review and rank them all, starting with Matt Haig’s The Humans.  And I’ll get it out of the way right up front:  I can’t fathom the mystery of this book.  Literally.  It’s not a mystery.  Or a crime novel.  Or suspense.  It is, quite simply, science fiction.  Pretty darn good science fiction, but still…

Here’s the set-up:  there’s a naked man on a lonely country road.  He looks like mathematician Andrew Martin, of Cambridge University.  But he’s not.  He’s an alien who has killed Professor Martin because he proved the Reimann Hypothesis.  The alien has taken over the professor’s body so he can destroy any existing evidence and kill anyone who may know of the professor’s achievement.  (Fortunately for alien Andrew, Martin tends to secrecy and has only told one colleague.)

Alien Andrew, not knowing Earth’s ways well, is hit by a car, escapes from the ambulance, jogs to a Texaco station where he learns Earth’s ways a little bit better by reading a copy of Cosmopolitan magazine.  (The Humans is not without humor!)  He ends up home with his not-all-that-loving wife, Isobel, and his troubled son, Gulliver.  You recall that he’s supposed to kill everyone who knows of Andrew’s discovery… fortunately for Isobel, she and Andrew haven’t been talking that much lately.  Not such good news for the professor’s colleague.  And it could have been seriously bad news for the son.

As an alien, Andrew is part of a communal consciousness where all is always perfect and no one dies.  The goal is to keep this perfect state, which is threatened when any civilization becomes too advanced.  Human Andrew begins to appreciate that the communal consciousness is not all it’s cracked up to be.  In fact, the essential loneliness of humanity is the reason why love is so precious and loss so painful.  He fights for his family and for the human race, giving up immortality in the process.

starmanI’ll admit it, I enjoyed the book.  Totally caught up in it, and about 1/3 of the way through, I gave up trying to figure out where the mystery was and settled in for the ride.  But I had a nagging sense of déja vu, until it finally hit me:  Starman.  The Jeff Bridges movie about a alien who takes on the form of a young widow’s husband, and they’re pursued cross-country by the U.S. government.  It has alien nudity, super-natural powers, growing romance, and self-sacrifice.  All of which are notably present in The Humans as well.

I think it’s quite likely that The Humans will end up ranking at the bottom of my list, if only because I can’t quite get my head around the fact that it’s even up for an Edgar.  With my luck, it’ll win.  But in the meantime, I’ll enjoy putting it at #1 for now!

Lunchbox Rankings:  Best Novel

1.   The Humans by Matt Haig