Educated, by Tara Westover

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As so often happens with books that have been hyped to the moon and back, I was underwhelmed by this memoir of growing up in a dysfunctional family. Dysfunction comes in many guises. Here, it takes the form of a survivalist family in Idaho, Mormons so distrustful of the government that they hole up on their rural property, stockpiling food and guns for the expected “end times” and refusing medical help when injured.

It is Gene, a pseudonym for Westover’s father, whose paranoia drives this withdrawal from the world, taking the three older children out of school and not allowing the other four, of whom Tara is the youngest, to attend at all or even to have their births registered. Their mother is an obedient drone, who towards the end of the book finally begins to express other opinions when Gene isn’t looking, only to recant in his presence.

The thrust of the book is Westover emerging from her isolated and physically dangerous childhood, using education as her way out, getting all the way to a PhD from Cambridge. However, her journey away costs her not only her home but her family, who shun the worldly person she has become. Of course, by that time I couldn’t help but be baffled by how she kept going back to her appalling family, trying to make peace with them.

The overwhelming popularity of the book seems to be driven by the titillating details of their survivalist life. Having known some survivalists, I found that aspect of Westover’s family not as remarkable as the violence perpetrated by Gene and one of the older boys. The people I knew may have mistrusted the government but didn’t resort to machine guns and a cannon; they didn’t force their children into labor so unsafe they nearly lost limbs or their lives.

The descriptions of the injuries the children and Gene sustain, and treat only with herbal remedies—or, in the case of tonsillitis, sunlight—are so terrible that my suspension of disbelief wavered. I want to believe that Westover is telling the truth, and indeed she uses occasional footnotes with alternate versions of some incidents provided by others, yet it is had to believe that they could have survived such injuries without medical care.

I also struggled to accept that a girl who had never been schooled (at home or elsewhere), never read anything but the Bible, the Book of Mormon, and a child’s picture book on science could teach herself enough during one winter to score sufficiently high to win a place at Brigham Young University—and then do well in all her courses.

Also, some things didn’t quite add up to the portrait of Gene as a survivalist. When Westover is trying to get financial aid, she uses her parents’ tax returns. Gene won’t let his children go to school, but pays his taxes? Also, while the younger children are forced to work in Gene’s scrapyard at home, Gene himself goes out building barns and the older boys work as truckers and other jobs out in the world. They have drivers’ licenses then. It seems obvious to me that Gene is not so much a paranoid survivalist as a power-hungry bully, a narcissist who sees his wife and children as peons under his iron control.

My patience was tried by Westover’s continued attempts to reconcile with the family who had shunned her and by her continued expression of love for the father who had inflicted so much damage on those he should have protected. As a friend of mine who endured an abusive childhood said, “Some parents don’t deserve to be forgiven. Just because they had you doesn’t mean you have to keep them in your life.” Yet even in the final pages Westover still seems to feel guilty about the breach between her and her family, especially her father, as though it were her fault.

While the prose flows smoothly, I never felt Westover emerge as a person in this book. From a distance I see her being tortured physically and emotionally. I see her sudden leap into extraordinary achievements. But that’s all. One of my book clubs agreed that they now knew what happened to her but didn’t feel that they knew her. They said that the descriptions of the shocking injuries and abuse were the most powerful and memorable parts of the book. That’s a shame. I’d hate to think that the book’s popularity is due to its gruesome descriptions of young people being hurt. I wish the excitement and joy of learning could have outshone the torture.

Have you read this hugely popular book? All three of my book clubs read it this year. What did you think of it?

New and Selected Poems, by Gary Soto

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I’m grateful to poet Lynn Martin for introducing me to Soto’s work. Born in the U.S. to Mexican-American parents, Soto grew up hard after his father died when he was only five. Many of the poems in this collection speak of that life, work in the fields and factories, encounters on the street.

He tells stories of collecting copper and dancing in Kearney Park. He tells of his grandma who “Pounded chiles / With a stone / Brought from Guadalajara” burying a cigar box of money. He tells of a couple getting ready to leave a cantina and a widow “slumped down in the closet / Among a pile of dirty clothes”.

Many of the poems are like paintings, landscapes—urban and wild—that he conjures for us so clearly. The first poem, the title poem of his first collection, “The Elements of San Joaquin” is a perfect example. In sections with titles like field, wind, sun, fog, he seduces us with images:

A dry wind over the valley
Peeled mountains, grain by grain,
To small slopes, loose dirt
Where red ants tunnel.

The wind strokes
The skulls and spines of cattle
To white dust, to nothing,

Covers the spiked tracks of beetles,
Of tumbleweed, of sparrows
That pecked the ground for insects.

Yet, the way he shows us the reality of a migrant worker’s life, without rancor, is persuasive. There’s no need for political slogans or outraged cries.

When autumn rains flatten sycamore leaves,
The tiny volcanos of dirt
Ants raised around their holes,
I should be out of work.

. . .

The skin of my belly will tighten like a belt
And there will be no reason for pockets.

With moments of witness like these, I understand why his poems are often used in schools. I see that he is also author of 21 Young Adult and children’s books. In fact, I am astounded by his output: fifteen poetry collections, eight memoirs, a play and two films, while also editing four anthologies.

Sometimes a poem is a story; sometimes just a slice of life. One of my favorites is “Mission Tire Factory, 1969” which starts out:

All through lunch Peter pinched at his crotch,
And Jesús talked about his tattoos,
And I let the flies crawl my arm, undisturbed,
Thinking it was wrong, a buck sixty five,
The wash of rubber in our lungs,
The oven we would enter, squinting . . .

It then delves into an incident both tragic and funny, as well as sweet. I particularly appreciate this aspect of Soto’s work because I know how harmful and hurtful stereotypes can be, whether we’re talking about welfare mothers like me or immigrants or people of color or those with mental or physical handicaps. By taking us into the lives of Latinx workers, parents, and children, Soto gives us reason to respect them and—even more—see ourselves in them.

These poems show Soto walking a sometimes uneasy path between his early life working in the fields and his current life as college professor and award-winning poet. While “The Elements of San Joaquin” gives us an inside look into the life of a seasonal fieldworker, “Ars Poetica, or Mazatlan, on a Day When Bodies Wash to the Shore” holds the mixed emotions of how far he has come (or not come) since those days.

With vivid details, the narrator describes how he and Omar, presumably a friend, explored the town.

Earlier, we were at the mercado,
With its upside down chickens
Blinking blood from all holes.

Fat cats from the north, they left big tips in restaurants, happy to be able to help the poor of Mazatlan. Then he says, “Now we’re not so sure.” In even more vivid detail he describes the body of a man washed up on the beach. Again he says:

Now we’re not so sure.
. . .
The truth is, we want to go home,
Vanish in the train’s white smoke,
And miraculously find ourselves
In America.

It is death that finds us, unready, our work unfinished, and no amount of privilege will save us.

There is craft here, in the sounds and tastes, in the choice of details, in the music of the lines, but these poems are so accessible that you don’t need to know any craft to enjoy them. He welcomes us into his world and we find ourselves at home there.

Have you read Gary Soto’s poetry? Which of his poems would you recommend?

London Review of Books, Vol. 40, No. 21, 8 November 2018

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A recent vacation gave me the opportunity to catch up a bit on my backlog of LRBs. I’m a longtime subscriber to this review that comes out twice a month, enjoying not just the reviews themselves, but also the British perspective.

This issue has many articles that intrigued me. A review of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s final volume by Frederic Jameson in which he analyses the fascination of Knausgaard’s massive My Struggle, placing it within the history of writing and philosophy, exploring questions of truth versus fiction, theorising about the identity of the “you” addressed in these books. I’m still not convinced I want to jump into these books, but I learned a lot from the review.

On the other hand, Michael Wood’s review of Graham Greene’s The Third Man & Other Stories, in which he delves into Greene’s process of working on the film and the story at the same time, made me watch the film again and sent me in search of the book.

When the LRB began including political essays some years ago, I was disappointed. Yet I’ve found the British point of view on U.S. and world events intriguing and the insight into British politics helpful. Of particular interest in this issue is a point-by-point analysis of the consequences of a no-deal Brexit by Swati Dhingra and Josh de Lyon. This should be required reading for every British voter, and news commentators from other countries.

I was also fascinated by Malcolm Gaskill’s “Plot 6, Row C, Grave 15”, his account of looking for the grave of Lieutenant Van Dyke Fernald, killed near Conegliano in July 1918. He gives us Fernald’s short life, especially taking us inside his experience as a fighter pilot in the ridiculously dangerous planes of the time. A U.S. citizen, Fernald became a British citizen at the age of 18 so he could join up. Most heartbreaking is Gaskill’s account of the reaction of Fernald’s mother to his death: devoting herself to spiritualism, certain that he was contacting her, ignoring her younger son Jack in the process.

Deeply moving, as well, is Jane Campbell’s account “The Year of My Father Dying” about Peter Campbell who, among other things, created all of the LRB’s cover art until his death. She captures the unreality, the chasm between past and present.

I understood how pampered and oblivious I had been before; perhaps the most shocking thing about the emotional torture of the year of my father’s dying was how ordinary I now realised it must be. I sat on buses and walked down high streets, wondering how many others like me there were.

She uses Christian Marclay’s art piece The Clock to explore time itself, its elasticity and ultimate inscrutability.

My one complaint about the LRB is illustrated by its appallingly low Vida Count: only 27% women in the latest count (though in fairness their count is up 5% from the previous year). This breaks down to women making up 28% of authors reviewed, 24% of book reviewers, and 28% of bylines. By comparison, The New York Times Book Review’s count is 46% women, Poetry Magazine’s a healthy 50%, and The Times Literary Supplement’s slightly better 36%. The New York Review of Books, however, clocks in at only 23% women.

I’ve only scratched the surface of this issue. Take a look at the LRB in your local library or use the three free articles a month available to nonsubscribers on their website. Let me know what you think.

Storm Track, by Margaret Maron

storm

Although I like mysteries and I like to read a series in order, I avoided Maron’s Judge Deborah Knott books at first. Mostly this was because of their being set in North Carolina, a place familiar to me but paling in comparison to other mysteries set in Yorkshire, Quebec, Venice, etc. However, the idea of a woman judge as the main character intrigued me, so I dove in. As this is the seventh in the series, you can tell that I’m enjoying them.

In this book, a series of hurricanes are bearing down on Colleton County, far enough inland that they don’t usually suffer much damage. Deborah’s ruling in a divorce case comes back to haunt her when a woman’s body is found at the Orchid Motel, clad in black lace underwear. Lynn Bullock, wife of an up-and-coming attorney was known for having many affairs, so suspicion focuses on her former (and current?) lovers. Among the suspects are Deborah’s own cousin.

As the threat of Hurricane Fran increases, various liaisons come to light for Deborah. Remarkably, they are treated without judgment, but rather a sympathy for all parties. Suspense ratchets up along with the storm. Then the killer strikes again.

One of the things I like about these books is the equal real estate given to African-American characters. Unlike so many books that depict only white characters, Maron’s stories matter-of-factly present the diversity found in real life. And as in reality, while there are friendships and collegial relationships between the races, there are also tensions and distrust.

Another thing I like about this series is Deborah’s family. Her father, the patriarch of the family, was notorious as a bootlegger and political insider, grows in complexity with each book in the series. She is the youngest, with twelve older brothers and half-brothers, some old enough that their children are her contemporaries.

Independent and strong-willed, Deborah occasionally chafes at their casual assumption of care for her—turning up with a kerosene lantern for her, as if she hadn’t laid in her own supplies, for example. Yet, they are there with a tractor when needed, or hosting a family get-together. I love when they turn up, each so different yet a comfortable and enduring presence.

An exciting mystery that plumbs the secrets of a small town, this book really shines in its sensitive depiction of relationships—between friends or lovers, between races, between parents and children. Plus it has an outstanding description of living through a hurricane. I’m thrilled that there are many more books in this series for me to explore.

Have you read any of Maron’s books? Which is your favorite?

A Balanced Life, by Patricia Schultheis

balanced life

I teach a lot of memoir classes and, as a freelance editor, help memoirists shape their stories. However, often people will tell me, “There’s nothing remarkable about my life. No one would want to read about it.”

I disagree. Sure, celebrities and politicians have a built-in audience for their memoirs. Some memoirists introduce us to cultures we know little about or let us experience extraordinary events with them. But those of us with even the most ordinary of lives have wrestled with the great questions of life and experienced a range of powerful human emotions. Each of us has lived in a unique constellation of cultures: family, community, world events.

This compelling memoir is of such a life. Looking back over seventy years, Schultheis invites us to experience moments both large and small with her: picnicking at the beach as a child, taking the hand of the man she will marry, caring for her sister in her last days. In vivid scenes she conjures not just the events, but the emotions swirling in them. In a few deft strokes she adds the context of the times.

Sometimes she frames a scene with a bit of scientific knowledge or philosophy, perhaps a legend or a description of some event. For example, near the end, as she grieves for the loss of her husband, she describes the origin of the Hale-Bopp comet and how she and Bill would watch for its return.

Before any of us ever were, we were held by ice. Scientists once thought that life sprang from Earth’s fiery core . . . But now some scientists believe that the midwife of life is ice. That as microscopic stardust-buds we were carried by comets and delivered to our earthen mother. Like interstellar storks, comets hurtled past the sucking gravity of the solar system’s giants and skirted the glowering, stony asteroids to reach this middling planet with a warm, green bosom.

No wonder Hale-Bopp twinkled with almost parental beneficence, as if locked in its frozen core it held some prior knowledge, some reassuring certainty about ourselves that we had yet to discover.

Much of this memoir is about ice. Schultheis uses figure skating as the line upon which she pins her scenes, giving a consistency and narrative arc to the diverse events of a lifetime. Despite decades of lessons and practice, she never attains more than a moderate competency on the ice, but she learns enough to admire the grace and power of the true athletes she encounters.

Moving easily across the years, she finds countless different ways to use the metaphor of ice skating to illuminate events. From the first life-changing gift of a pair of second-hand skates, to sharing the ice with Dorothy Hamill, to fulfilling the dream of skating at Rockefeller Plaza, Schultheis shares what skating has meant to her over the years. Each time she returns to the metaphor, she adds a new layer of meaning.

As an amateur figure skater myself, I love this aspect of the book. Although I am acquainted with the author via the Baltimore writing community we share, I had not realised before reading her book that we both skated at the same rink, though I think not at the same time, and knew some of the same skaters there. Someone who is not interested in skating might find the constant refrain tedious, though the author’s brief descriptions of the technical aspects of turns or edges or the skates themselves always pertain to and enhance her story off the ice.

I do think that everyone has a story to tell. Whether people will want to read it depends largely on the writer’s skill in crafting an engaging story. Here, Schultheis excels. Her writing—sometimes lyrical, always accessible—welcomes you in and carries you through the story, introducing you to new ideas, inviting you to examine your own life. This is a story to savor and remember and reread.

Have you read a story—fiction or memoir—with a particular metaphor running through it?

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a copy of this book free from the author. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula Le Guin

left hand

If you haven’t read this classic, stop right now and go read it. Came out in 1969? No problem: it couldn’t be more relevant to today. Don’t like science fiction? Won’t matter; there aren’t any space battles or robots; just beings you will recognise going about their lives. And any initial questions you might have about the culture you’re reading about are exactly the point.

Genly Ai, who is from Terra, has been sent as an envoy to the far-away planet of Gethen. He is there to invite the inhabitants to join the federation of planets, one that makes trade possible and mediates disputes but does not rule its members. Gethen has no space travel capability, so its people initially cannot believe that Genly comes from another planet, despite his vehicle and slightly different appearance. The federation has sent only one person as an envoy to reassure the people that it is not an invading force.

Gethen’s climate is so harsh that the planet is known as Winter. It is divided into two major nations: Karhide and Orgota. It is to Karhide that Genly goes first.

What is most baffling to Genly is that Gethen’s inhabitants are androgynous. They only take on gender characteristics for a few days once a month, a time they call kemmer, when sexual interactions are taken for granted. They could be female one month, male the next. The rest of the time, they have no gender. Genly keeps trying to overlay his gender preconceptions on the people he meets, for example, distrusting what he sees as the feminine side of Estraven, the prime minister of Karhide who has done the most to validate Genly’s story and promote his work.

As the story opens, Genly is at last about to have an audience with the king of Karhide, said to be mad. However, the night before the audience, Estraven invites Genly to dinner and afterwards tells him he can no longer assist Genly and has not recommended his cause to the king. Feeling betrayed and angry, Genly leaves, but at his audience the next day he learns something that makes him see the evening in a new light.

It is this that is most fascinating to me in this story. Confronted with a foreign culture and despite all of his diplomatic training, Genly constantly misunderstands or guesses blindly at meaning, distracted and misled by his own cultural frameworks.

What could be more relevant to today’s fractured and polarised world? How do we learn to set aside our preconceptions and see each other?

And on top of this is what Genly perceives as gender confusion. Having taken the power politics inherent in gender roles out of the equation, the difference in the resulting cultures is fascinating. And promising for the world many of us would like to see.

For one thing, there have been no wars. Disagreements, skirmishes, certainly. But that’s all. However, now a border dispute between Karhide and Orgota threatens to change that, as power-hungry politicians try to cultivate a previously-unknown sense of nationalism. Brexit, anyone?

With all these fascinating themes, you’d think this would be a dense story, a slow read. It is anything but! Le Guin spins the tension so tightly you barely have time to catch your breath, culminating in a thrilling escape that touches some of our own near-mythical stories.

All I can say is: Read it now! Let’s talk about it.

Dusk and Ember, by Robert Jacoby

Dusk and Ember

Jacoby’s latest novel is a deep dive into the tumultuous and incandescent mind of nineteen-year-old Richard Issych. Though set in Cleveland in 1980 and 1981, Richard could be any young man today, spat out from the ugly and boring, but known, world of high school into a baffling world of choices he’s not prepared to make.

College doesn’t seem to be one of those choices, despite his grades. For a working class boy, college was not an automatic possibility in 1980 and isn’t today. His parents, a fireman and homemaker, had never been to college and didn’t push it, but they are quick to inform Richard the day after graduation that he has to get a job and pay rent. He has no idea how to look for a job or what he might want to do.

The store where he bags groceries has no full-time work for him, so he quits. At his mother’s suggestion, he drives around to factories and fills out applications. Eventually he gets hired to work third shift at a tool and die factory. It is there that he meets and comes to know the men who fill this story, a heterogeneous collection of men drawn to work through the night. Some are cocky and brash, while others are damaged or careful, yet all are independent, the way you can be in the darkness.

As the story opens, Richard is about to go to the funeral of Melvin, the man he worked with most closely, shot by Dale, another co-worker. His mind is in turmoil as he struggles to grasp the reality of the death, of his role in it, and the motives of the two men he thought he knew. So much of our lives is hidden from each other, something Richard is well aware of.

In school he mostly kept to himself, with two friends who drift away after graduation. Inside, though, he boiled with questions and still does. He cannot see his life. On graduation day, “Richard woke with despair and dread, with the sensation of being disemboweled, reckoning the day.” He knows he doesn’t want a life with his parents. He sees other boys with girlfriends, but has no idea how to have that for himself.

Thoughts of suicide, escape from the pain of a life without meaning, curl around his brain, as they have for years. Death to him is a rest. Except that now he must look it in the face, in Melvin’s face.

We have many stories of the plight of young men of color who see few opportunities before them, armed only with the shreds of a poor education, surrounded by drugs and the crime they bring, burying their young friends. Recently, though, in the wake of school shootings, we have begun to probe the minds of young white men, often working class like Richard, with even fewer opportunities than he had in 1980, now that most of the factories have closed or automated or moved overseas.

In the memoir Hillbilly Elegy, Vance rails against some of his contemporaries for being violent and unwilling to work, and instead embracing welfare dependency and drug addiction. The young men in this book—Melvin is only 26 when killed—do show up for work, but most rely on drugs of one kind or another to make it through the night. With his job, Richard has stepped into another world, one where he envies the self-assurance of his new friends, but is disgusted and scared by the violence of their lives and the shabbiness of their relationships.

While there are lyrical moments, sometimes the stream-of-consciousness of Richard’s fractured and repetitive thoughts is hard to read and allows the tension that keeps us reading to leak away. I enjoyed most the scenes that make up the bulk of the book, either Richard alone or with others. The characters are well-drawn, and there is just enough of the settings—the factory, Richard’s bedroom, party houses, etc.—to create effective atmospheres.

I met the author years ago at a writing conference and have followed his career ever since. I reviewed Jacoby’s first two books. Here, he has done what writers are encouraged to do: “to peel our own layers back until we reach that tender, raw, voiceless place” where the strongest stories come from. This powerful story of a young man wrestling with the most essential and existential questions will touch anyone who remembers that terrible time when the world opens up in front of you and—paralyzed—you have no idea what to do.

What story have you read that brought back long-buried memories of your youth?

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a copy of this book free from the author. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

The Mapping of Love and Death, by Jacqueline Winspear

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Like many readers, I enjoy books that are part of a series. The initial plunge into the story is easy because the main characters are familiar, as is the world of the story. Winspear’s series featuring Maisie Dobbs starts in 1929 when Maisie sets up in business as an inquiry agent in London.

I find her a a delightful person to spend time with: calm, resourceful, full of common sense. She, like most of her generation, bears wounds from the Great War even ten years after the Armistice, at the start of the series. Her physical scars from the bombing of the medical station in France where she served as a nurse have healed. But her beloved Simon, a doctor who was more seriously injured in the same bombing, remains alive in a nursing home but brain-dead.

The other effects of the trauma she endured in France are heightened by the evidence of the war’s damage around her: the veterans who litter the streets, maimed in mind or body or both, often unable to find work; the women left without prospect of marriage after the decimation of a generation of men; the economic hardship and social uncertainty of a nation still measuring the cost of what’s more a cessation than a victory.

She also occupies a peculiar spot in England’s class structure, which at the time is still rigid if beginning to fray. Born to working class, she was placed in domestic service at 13, not uncommon at the time. However, once her employer Lady Rowan discovered Maisie’s yearning for education, she began supporting the girl’s education, roping in Maurice Blanche, a family friend who eventually trained her as a detective. Equally at home downstairs and upstairs, Maisie went on to enter Girton College, before leaving to enlist as a nurse.

In this outing, the seventh in the series, Maisie is hired by a wealthy couple from Boston whose son was killed in the war. His remains have just been found, a farmer having accidentally uncovered the bunker where Michael’s unit died under bombardment. Letters that he had on him, safely wrapped against the elements, indicate that he’d been having an affair with a nurse, and Michael’s parents are eager to find her to learn anything more about their son.

Taking on the task, Maisie must navigate the past, calling forth echoes of her own ordeals, as well as the present, with all of its dangers. Someone does not want her to succeed. She and her assistant Billy Beale are kept busy tracing out the various tentacles of the investigation while dealing with their own personal challenges.

The challenge for the writer of a series is that each book must show development of the main characters while at the same time ensure it can stand alone. There must be enough information from past books so the new reader is not lost, but little enough that the dedicated reader is not bored.

Winspear is adept at working in nuggets of explanation just when they are needed. I’m also becoming more appreciative of the character arc of Maisie across the series, as well as that of other characters, such as Billy Beale and his family, Lady Rowan and her family, Maurice Blanche, Maisie’s contacts at the police, and her one close friend Priscilla Partridge.

I started reading the series when it first came out, but lost track of it for awhile. Now I’ve started at the beginning and am reading straight through: a writer’s worst nightmare! Reading them in quick succession instead of waiting a year or more between them should make me quick to spot inconsistencies and be bored by duplicated information.

Instead, I have to marvel at the author’s artistry. I find Maisie’s development as a person even more fascinating than the cases she’s investigating—though there’s no lack of suspense and puzzles there. The real puzzle lies in us, the way each of us navigates our lives. This book, like the others in the series, demonstrates deep psychological insight combined with thorough research into the time period.

I admit it was my fascination with the Great War that first led me to these books, and they continue to add color to my own studies. But it is Maisie Dobbs who keeps me coming back.

Is there a series of books that you’ve particularly enjoyed?

The Bear and the Nightingale, by Katherine Arden

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The story opens on a March evening, which in northern Rus’ (an earlier portion of what eventually became Russia) means winter has not loosened its grip. The three children of Pyotr Vladimirovich, the local landowner, beg their nurse Dunya for a story. Prompted by their mother, Dunya tells the story of Morozko, the Frost King, who was much feared by the people.

The stepmother of a peasant’s beautiful daughter decides to rid herself of the child by marrying her off to Morozko. Left alone deep in the forest, the girl does indeed meet Morozko who tests her courage with his power over the cold winds.

This is a marvelous way to start the story of Vasya, a fourth child born soon after this scene. Dunya’s story lets us know that this story is going to e a tale, one that draws on myths and legends of Rus’. It also sets up the story to follow.

Even as a child, Vasya—an independent scamp if ever there was one—demonstrates a power that no one else has: she can actually see the chyerti, the spirits that protect the household and horses, that live in the woods and ponds. Others believe in them and leave offerings for them, but only Vasya sees them and talks with them.

When Pyotr brings back a new wife—the children’s mother had died at Vasya’s birth—things begin to change. Anna forbids any recognition of these spirits and brings a beautiful and arrogant priest to their household to preach against this heresy, not just to the family but also to the village.

As crops fail and winter’s cold grows harsher, it becomes apparent that an ancient evil has awakened. Vasya is caught up in its rivalry with his opposite, though he appears to be as ruthless as the evil one and his goodness questionable. Vasya must draw on all of her gifts if she is to protect her family and her village.

It’s an exciting story, graced with vivid characters and stunning descriptions. I particularly liked the way real myths and legends are woven into Vasya’s story, and the sometimes astonishingly original depictions of mystical happenings.

The only thing I missed was Vasya’s internal life. True we get her thoughts and fears, but all her battles are with external forces; she never has to wrestle with herself. She is the same person at the end of the story as she is at the beginning. Though her circumstances have changed, she herself has not. Perhaps this is simply a given of the fairy tale genre, even one aimed at adults.

I had a couple of other minor quibbles—the title did not reflect the story, and some of the minor characters who loom large in early chapters then disappear—but overall I thought it a remarkable achievement, especially for a first novel. I look forward to reading the rest of the trilogy.

Have you read a fantasy novel that incorporated myths and legends in an unusual way?

The Quiet Game, by Greg Iles

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Prosecutor turned bestselling novelist Penn Cage is still reeling from the death of his wife. He’s also worried about their young daughter, who can’t feel safe unless she is physically touching her father. Struggling to cope, Penn decides to return to Natchez, Mississippi, to his parents’ home, knowing they will be thrilled to have their son and granddaughter stay as long as they want.

Though his parents’ home seems at first the safe haven Penn is seeking, he quickly finds himself groping through a fog of secrets and the consequences of the past. Something isn’t right at home, but no one will talk about it. Even when Penn discovers his father, a (mostly) beloved GP, is being blackmailed, he has trouble persuading his father to give him more information and let him help.

While pursuing that investigation, Penn almost accidentally reopens a 30-year-old murder case, one that almost everyone in town wants to keep buried. He works with Caitlin Masters, a young woman he met and chatted with on the flight home and is shocked later to discover is the publisher of the local newspaper. Feeling betrayed, he is not sure he can trust her, despite being attracted to her.

Even with attempts on his life and threats against his parent and daughter, Penn keeps digging. He fired by the suspicion that a certain judge might be involved. A powerful man in Natchez, the judge viciously attacked Penn’s father just before Penn left for college, damaging his father and effectively destroying Penn’s relationship with his first love, the judge’s daughter. She disappears, refusing to see him.

Then Olivia returns to Natchez as well, and sets out to charm Penn.

There are lots of twists to the story and great suspense, with the stakes ratcheting higher and higher, especially once the FBI gets involved. With so many secrets and hidden agendas, Penn has to move ever faster if he is going to understand, not only who the murderer is and who was behind it, not only how to save his father from the blackmailer, but what really went on behind Olivia’s disappearance.

However, for me there was much that was not believable. I had no problem with the widespread corruption—I’ve seen too much of that in real life—but the lack of any official response to the many brutal murders and other violence that pepper this story seemed unrealistic to me. And, frankly, the author lost me near the end during a marathon escape that I know with complete confidence was physically impossible. I don’t want to give away details, but trust me on this. People are capable of many amazing feats, but not this.

I found Penn an engaging character, and the other characters are well-drawn. However, my other problem with the book was the way characters get abandoned as Penn chases after answers. His young daughter, the one whose trauma first captured my allegiance for her father à la Save the Cat? Dumped. We hear almost nothing more of her once she’s turned over to Grandma and Grandpa. As the investigation accelerates, Penn isn’t even there at night for his child, the one who can’t sleep without touching him.

Caitlin, who gets lots of attention early in the story as Penn’s love interest and helpmate in his efforts to solve the murder, gets demoted to being a rarely-seen sidekick once Olivia arrives. His parents, too, have little to do in the story, aside from having to bear a brutal attack meant to deter Penn, who curiously seems to care little about the risks to them and his daughter. I also found his blindness towards Olivia surprising in a man supposedly so astute, but I guess that’s the way it is with first loves.

Still, as I said, the book is a good, suspenseful read that has much to say about the danger of keeping secrets, how they fester over the years. It also has much to say illuminating the civil rights era. I remember the spring of 1968 only too clearly, and Iles does a good job of evoking the tensions of that time.

Reading any novel required us to suspend our disbelief; after all these are fictional people and events. Have you, while reading a novel, ever struggled to keep your disbelief held at bay?