The Spanish Game, by Charles Cumming

After a disastrous operation six years ago, a disillusioned Alec Milius left MI6 and has been living under the radar ever since. He believes that both MI6 and the CIA, who figured in his last op, are looking for him, so he employs all the counter-surveillance techniques he learned as a spy: multiple phones, multiple email accounts, always on the watch for a tail. He's landed in Madrid where he's built a new life for himself, working for a banker, Julian Church, whose wife is Alec's mistress.

This life is thrown into disarray by two occurrences: a visit by an old friend from England—his first contact with anyone from his past—and a job Julian sets him. Alec's careful attention edges into paranoia as he wonders if Saul's visit is actually an attempt by MI6 to entrap him. Perhaps even Julian is out to get him, sending him to San Sebastián to interview Basque separatist Mikel Arenaza and report on the current stability of that part of Spain. Alec likes Mikel, and they plan to meet later in Madrid, but Mikel disappears en route. Caught up in Basque politics, unsure whom to trust, not even sure if he can trust himself, Alec tries to find out what happened to Mikel.

This, for me, is the best type of spy novel, the kind that tests my brain. Intelligent and surprising, it is not an adrenaline-fueled race to the finish, though suspense does build through the book. The characters, men and women, major and minor, are well-drawn. Alec, himself, is not someone I would want to know, but his honesty about his faults is enough to put me on his side. And there's also the integrity in him, twisted perhaps by his past, and the possibility of redemption. Adding to his appeal is his predicament as a loner, working outside the system, like so many of Le Carré's spies.

I loved the descriptions of life in Madrid, recognising many places and customs from my visits. Cummings does a good job of working in the necessary background about Basque politics in a natural way that did not drag even though I was already familiar with it. Even the title works well; there are prisoners here, though often in dungeons of their own making. I didn't realise this was a sequel to Cummings's first novel, A Spy by Nature. The book works fine as a stand-alone. Sufficient information was provided for me to understand where Milius was coming from. I will certainly go back now and find that novel and others by Cummings.

Suburban Myths, by Sam Schmidt

Recently I reread Kerouac's On the Road for a book club and was surprised to find only brief flashes of the sense of adventure that filled my memory of reading it in my teens, and even these flashes were overwhelmed by the sadness and yearning that made up the bulk of the story. I am not so old that I do not remember the feeling that life—real life—was going on somewhere else, like a party or distant music whose location I couldn't quite pin down. I remember the occasional wild night with loud music and too much wine, and remember, too, the bleak grey mornings that followed. I even recall feeling that maybe a bum's life was what I wanted, though my version was a beachcomber on a South Sea island. Some writers believe that they must live wild, or at least unusual, lives in order to write: hop boxcars to San Francisco, hitchhike into Mexico, smoke hash in Morocco. Schmidt demonstrates in this collection that it is possible to make brilliant poetry from that most unpromising of material: suburban life.

In these poems, Schmidt takes a simple truth, such as that the way to a woman's heart is by befriending her cats, and draws it out detail by detail until it comes to mean much more. Scattered among the collection are a handful of numbered Suburban Myth poems that give us the roar of history and culture embodied in even the simplest experiences: vacuuming the rug, raising the hood of the car. There is also a brilliant sequence of poems about G.I. Joe, imagining his life as an action figure. These are funny but carry a sting of recognition about how we raise boys, corporate life, the military, or the ever-changing relationship between men and women.

What makes these poems resonate is the depth of emotion and experience contained within their uncomplicated, often humorous lines. Writing advice columns often caution young writers that accruing experience as they continue to write might be more valuable than racing to see their first efforts in print. A few months ago I picked up the first issue of a new college literary magazine, nearly all of the contents written by students though the magazine hoped for broader submissions for later issues. The stories and poems were limited by narrow experience—a party, a bad breakup, the death of a grandparent—but also by a lack of further insight. There was surprise that something bad could have happened and perhaps some anger or sadness, but none of the complex emotions and negotiations behind our relationships with others and with the world that I find in Schmidt's collection.

A good example is “He Ho Ha” where a father tries to calm his daughter's fear “that a T. Rex will suddenly / break in through her window / two stories tall with a head / the size of a Volkswagen.” He tries several ways of reassuring her. Her replies make me laugh, not only by how unexpected they are, but by the mix of fantasy and practicality that a five-year-old, suspended between two worlds, can produce. In these brief lines, illuminated by perfect details and images such as the Volkswagen, you can see him learning to be a father.

Schmidt is a local poet whom I have run into a few times. In this collection he shows how experience, a thoughtful eye, and a sense of humor can create moving and memorable poetry out of the minutiae of ordinary lives. Take heart, all you poets and writers! It can be done.

Crossing to Safety, by Wallace Stegner

As the novel opens Larry recounts waking up in a cabin in northern Vermont, part of a family compound where he and his wife, Sally, have been coming for many years. It is Larry's voice that tells this story of a friendship between two couples. Larry and Sally meet Charity and Sid when Larry takes up his first teaching job in Madison, Wisconsin, where Sid also teaches. In an extended flashback we learn about that magical year in Madison, where the couples become friends right off, one of those rare mutual friendships where both sets of spouses become the closest of friends. Larry is driving himself to write stories and articles on top of his teaching load, while Sid and Charity are becoming ever more deeply entwined in the life of the college and the town.

With generous returns to the “present” of Vermont, we find out about the next phase of their friendship, before returning fully to the present. This is a novel that covers most of a lifetime, so of course the joys are tempered with sadness. Even so, it is a mild story. In fact, that is one of the reasons Larry the novelist gives for not writing about the four of them: that their lives don't include the kind of drama that modern fiction demands.

I'm grateful to my book club for selecting this novel. I hadn't read anything by Stegner before. I was delighted by the first part, feeling immediately that I was in the hands of a excellent writer who delivered the best kind of story-telling, best for my tastes anyway. I was never in any doubt as to where we were with the flashbacks. I loved the length of them, while the initial and intervening scenes in Vermont were sufficiently vivid that I never forgot where we would end up.

Yet as the store progressed I became more and more uneasy. Not because the golden youth of the two couples gave way to the inevitable griefs and losses of middle-age, but because of the way the two women were presented. Sally, stricken by polio—no spoiler; we learn this in the opening pages—becomes more and more of a saint. We never see her impatient or unhappy. She's simply perfect. I find it hard to believe in a marriage that is 100%, 24×7 sweetness and light. Charity, on the other hand, appears more and more of a witch as the story goes on, until the final scenes where she behaves despicably.

One person in my book club pointed out that she had to be the most fragile of all of them to behave so, which may well be true, but Larry doesn't allow her that excuse. She is simply awful and has destroyed his old friend, Sid, in the process. Unfortunately, this depiction of the two women ruined the book for me, being too close to the old madonna/prostitute way of judging women, that they must be one or the other. Aside from the implicit misogyny, the flatness of the characters was disappointing in an otherwise excellent book. Main characters should be multi-dimensional and complex for me to fully enjoy a book. It's a major plus when even minor characters are too. Here, everyone other than the four friends, even their children, are barely shadows on the story.

Another member of my book club told us that this novel, written when the author was in his late 70s, was really a memoir. She'd met the daughter of the real-life Sid and Charity and showed us photos of the Vermont camp. I've written before about the grey area between fiction and memoir. Knowing the story was drawn from life didn't change my opinion of it. I don't know to what extent this story was fictionalised beyond changing the names. The daughter said that Stegner allowed the family to read the manuscript and deleted scenes they objected to, which surprised me given the negative depiction of Charity compared to the saintliness of Sally.

I felt this flaw of the one-dimensional women the more deeply because everything else about the story was top-notch. I will try more of his stories to see if the depiction of women is a more general problem for Stegner, or if it was just a problem in this book where his feelings for Sid surely played a role in his presentation of Charity and those for his wife affecting his depiction of Sally. If anyone out there has read this book or others by Stegner, please let me know what you think.

Memory's Wake, by Derek Owens

In this extraordinary memoir, Owens delves into his mother's past, into the childhood memories that suddenly began to surface when his mother is in her fifties. While properly skeptical and examining the controversy around recovered memories, Owens comes to believe in the terrible abuse his mother, Judy, suffered at the hands of her mother. This woman, deserted by her husband and left with a detested five-year-old, takes out her frustrations on the child. Confronted later by Owens's father, she does not deny any of it.

The book is more than a woe-is-me or even a woe-is-she memoir. Bringing together history, photos, journals and narrative, Owens contrasts his mother's horrific early life with the enchanted childhood she provided for him and his sister on Golden Glow Drive. Gradually revealed in this mosaic is Judy's amazing ability to survive and to put behind her everything she had been taught about child-rearing in order to become the loving and attentive mother she herself had longed for.

Judy received some love from her grandmother, Anna, who gave her presents which Judy's mother made her burn as soon as Anna left. I couldn't help but wonder why Anna, why any of the aunts and uncles didn't do something about the abuse of this child. Owens traces the strain of violence in the family back through Anna's husband and cousin Raymond. Anna herself took refuge in her garden from her bully of her husband. Owens also says that “children were property then, it was not one's place to intervene” and refers to the Protestant ethic of the time that called for extensive use of the rod in raising children.

He pulls back to offer some local historical context. Judy grew up in the Finger Lakes region of New York, where Mark Twain wrote Huckleberry Finn and General Sullivan led a march through the area, burning crops and villages belonging to the Iroquois, causing widespread famine. Another piece of the area's history is the Helmira prison where Confederate soldiers were housed in terrible conditions. Owens talks of “lives in one century commingling with, rubbing against, those in other eras.” It is something I have wondered about, too, the presence of the past, the local history, and its effect on you as you grow up.

Further context he provides is insight into the multiple fundamentalist movements that took root in the area during the 18th century, such as the Publick Universal Friend, founded by one of Judy's own ancestors, who settled in the area, calling their land New Jerusalem. More cults settled in the area in the 19th century, their waves of evangelical firestorms giving the region the name “Burnt-Over District”. He wonders about the lasting effect of these “historical and at times hysterical passions” on the region's inhabitants. I have one of these evangelical reformers/cult founders in my family tree, one I know of anyway, and shiver at the idea that some remnant of her genes inhabits my cells.

Owens brings poetry's attention to sound and compression to this work. His narrative structure is unusual but appropriate for this fractured tale. No matter how far he pulls out, he always ties his ruminations back to his mother, her ordeal and her survival. I particularly liked the chapter where he reveals local history within the story of Judy running away from home, pausing as she passes certain landmarks to give us the necessary background, but in such an organic way that I didn't realise what he was doing until I read the book a second time.

Being alert to covers, I have to give the book designer credit for the cover. This photograph shows a man and three women all laughing. One of the women, presumably Judy's mother, has her hands around the child's neck, a child whose face and body are contorted with pain. The other adults laugh at the camera. They do not seem to notice the child's agony.

The author sent me a copy of this book to review, and I'm very glad he did. This powerful book deserves a wide audience. It is one I will never forget.

Believe in Me: A Teen Mom's Story, by Judith Dickerman-Nelson

I met the author recently when we appeared together on a panel at the Virginia Festival of the Book. Although her book is designated a work of fiction, it is closely based on Dickerman-Nelson's own experience of getting pregnant at 16 while attending a Catholic school. We quickly found common ground between her experiences and my own, described in my memoir Innocent: Confessions of a Welfare Mother. We also had a similar motivation for writing our books: to dispel or at least try to counteract the harmful stereotypes that stigmatise people in our situations.

Reading Dickerman-Nelson's book that night, what resonated most for me was her honesty. No platitudes here about slutty girls (in sharp contrast to recent political shenanigans) or irresponsibly promiscuous boys; no Splendor in the Grass tragedy with a violent ending out of an Appalachian ballad. Just a girl and a boy, completely recognisable, who are in love and believe they are about to be married and make a life together. The narrator, Judith, is a cheerleader who, far from being ostracised and condemned as one might expect, is allowed to stay in school even after she admits to her pregnancy and is supported by her loving adoptive parents. Meanwhile, Kevin struggles to stay true to their vision of a life together while enduring pressure from his family who don't want him to ruin his life by becoming a husband and father at 17. His wavering between his love for Judith and obedience to his family keep the suspense high for both Judith and the reader. No villains here, just a conflict that many people face, honestly presented.

There is nothing wrong with placing a book that is mostly memoir in the fiction category. Authors get snarky when readers assume that their novels reveal true experiences from the author's life. I, myself, had to speak sternly to my critique group when they continually referred to the protagonist of my fictional work-in-progress as though she were me. We certainly use what we have learned from our life experiences, but transform them to meet the needs of the story. One author, whose name I've forgotten, compared our experiences to butter which is used to make a cake (the novel). You would never look at a cake and say, My, what a nice block of butter. The novel is purely an invention of the author. That's why it's called fiction.

At the same time, it's true that some novels, especially first novels, are thinly disguised memoir. And, unfortunately, some so-called memoirs are mostly fictional. In the memoir workshops I teach and in online writing groups I often hear from people who want to mix a little fiction with their memoir, perhaps to make the story more interesting or to make a point more strongly. I have no problem with that, but the resulting work is not a memoir, in my opinion. It is fiction. The strength of memoir is that it tells a story that is true, that really happened to the author. There have been too many newsworthy memoirs later revealed to have been enhanced or even completely made up. The public outcry and sense of betrayal should make it clear that readers expect something called a memoir to be true. I've read much research about the fallibility of memory, so perhaps I should add “to the best of the author's ability”. So I applaud Dickerman-Nelson for calling this mostly-memoir fiction. The truth in it shines through.

I was impressed by how well the book straddles the line between Young Adult and Adult fiction. Librarians and booksellers must make a distinction between the two, but we readers just want to read what we enjoy. The voice, vocabulary and concerns are clearly those of a teen-aged girl, making it utterly appropriate as YA. Yet, the book works well for adults, too, especially those of us who have children of our own and may have forgotten our own tumultuous teens. I was so engrossed that I finished it that night, and it was well worth my bleary eyes the next day. I recommend the book, and hope that the author and I can appear together again soon.