Murder in the Bastille, by Cara Black

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I’ve written before about Black’s series set in Paris featuring private investigator Aimée Leduc. After the shocking death of her father, a police detective, she decided that she would stay away from crime-solving; she and her partner René would only provide information security services, such as computer forensics and corporate security. However, when Aimée stumbles into a murder investigation, she can’t help but be drawn in.

One of the pleasures of this series is the setting. Each installment takes place in a different neighborhood, or arrondissement, of Paris. Here, it is the Bastille, known to many of us because of the famous prison. Once a working class neighborhood, it’s now a gentrified area with the Opera Bastille, fancy restaurants and nightclubs. However, there is still a maze of old passages, back alleys and inner courtyards, the home of furniture makers since the 12th century. Now, apparently, these mostly house trendy shops, but in 1994, the time of this story, some older businesses still held on.

In this, the fourth book in the series, she wears a new—supposedly one-of-a-kind—Chinese silk jacket to dinner only to find the woman sitting next to her wearing the same jacket. The woman appears afraid and forgets her cell phone when she leaves. When Aimée takes it up to the maître d’, it rings and she answers it. The person mistakes her for the owner of the phone and implores her to show up at a planned assignation. Aimée goes there, expecting to find the woman but instead is brutally attacked in the dark Passage Boule Blanche.

Found by René, she awakens to learn that damage from the beating has blinded her, though it is not known if this is temporary or permanent. Even worse, the woman wearing the same jacket was killed in a nearby street. Now she must help Loic Bellan, the distracted policeman in charge of the investigation, solve the crime before the murderer silences her.

As a reader what I most enjoyed was René’s expanded role. Preferring always to work at a computer, his partner’s blindness forces him to take on some of her investigative activities, a prospect which terrifies and excites him in equal measure.

As a writer what I most enjoyed about the book was the intimate experience of sudden blindness. The author has thrown herself heart and soul into Aimée’s emotional and practical struggles, ranging from despair to pride to the craving for a cigarette. I have no idea how accurate the treatments and expectations for the blind might have been at that time, only that Aimée’s emotions rang true to me.

What I can say, as an information security engineer and analyst myself, is that the technology side of the story is accurate. Some readers have complained that the technology used in the story didn’t exist in 1994, but they are wrong. Not only were Aimée and René, by virtue of their profession, working with cutting edge equipment and software, but the technologies described in this story were in common usage in certain arenas in the U.S. and even more so in Europe.

I don’t know Paris and have only schoolgirl French, so I can’t speak to the accuracy of the descriptions and the various French phrases scattered through the book. I can only say that I enjoyed them and hope someday to visit Paris, seeing it not just through the eyes of a tourist but through the gritty lens Cara Black’s books have given me.

Have you been to Paris? Which arrondissement did you stay in?

The Overstory, by Richard Powers

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I read this popular, Pulitzer Prize-winning novel a few months ago but wanted to let it sit for a while before blogging about it. I needed to sort out the emotions it left me with: a combination of enchantment and disappointment.

It’s an ambitious work, one that is out to change the world, at least our human part of it. Powers conjures our life as a whole, the one that we share with the rest of nature, through nine characters, whose individual tales bounce off each other and sometimes intersect. While their goals may be art or love or survival, each character’s journey is also one of developing a relationship with nature, specifically trees.

Writers are told to avoid polemics, to get down off our soapboxes, or we risk annoying or alienating readers. I don’t think anyone could question the wondrous greatness of trees or their life going on independently of us, yet Powers avoids the trap of dogma by giving us their side of the story through those of his characters, their resistance, their devotion, their sacrifice.

I didn’t need convincing. I’ve had a deep emotional attachment to trees since earliest childhood, counting some among my best friends. Nor did the rest of my book club, all of us already in love with trees, living as we do in the Green Mountains. Yet we all struggled with the beginning of the book, unable to remember the characters after each was introduced in the first section, having to flip back to remind ourselves.

We were also disappointed—while profoundly moved—by the ending. I try not to give away endings, so I’ll just echo the assertion of writing master Donald Maass that we want stories that reflect reality; he says, “the truth is that while we may live in a bleak world we are not empty inside.” Here, the enigmatic ending left us debating this idea.

The writing is enchanting. Eventually the characters became distinct and memorable but always the events and descriptions kept me reading.

Now the linden, it turns out, is a radical tree, as different from an oak as a woman is from a man. It’s the bee tree, the tree of peace, whose tonics and teas can cure every kind of tension and anxiety.

Powers also brings devastating psychological insight to his characters. One, a man who has lived a life considered normal for a middle-class American man, says: “I’ve been a man who happily confuses the agreed-upon for the actual.” A brilliant description that could fit quite a few people I know.

But what I find most stunning is the brave attempt to write a larger story, surely another meaning of the title, which the author uses as a synonym for trees’ canopy. By telling the world’s story through those of nine characters, Powers has chosen the most effective way to accomplish this seemingly impossible task. As writing master Lisa Cron has memorably described stories have been our means of survival since the earliest days. Stories are how we learn and the best way for us to remember.

My book club discussed the concept of forest bathing, the idea of destressing and even healing by walking through the woods, agreeing that we all had been doing this long before the term was coined. We hoped that this novel would increase awareness of and activism to protect the natural world, especially our beloved trees.

Have you read this book? What did you think of it?

Prairie Fires, by Caroline Fraser

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A friend recommended this book so vehemently that she actually sent me a copy. As I mentioned before, I’d never read the Little House books, so I’ve been catching up on them as I read this biography. Wilder always maintained that her stories were true, but questions arose even as the books were taking the world of children’s literature by storm. Now Fraser’s meticulously sourced account shows what is fact and what is fiction in those books.

That is not a criticism of Wilder. She was writing for children and wanted to spare them the most devastating details. She was also writing to memorialise her parents, her father in particular, so of course she managed the details to show them in a good light.

For example, one thing that was obvious to me reading the books as an adult, even without Fraser’s clarification, was that Wilder’s father was not above stealing, as when he knowingly tried to homestead on land that belonged to the Osage. He was also terribly reckless, constantly dragging the family away from security to chase a dream of a self-sufficient farm far from other people.

Fraser makes clear the near impossibility of achieving that dream, given the lack of federal programs at the time, the uncertain and often disastrous natural conditions—drought, storms, locusts—and the unsuitable land set aside for homesteaders. There is much here for us to consider looking at today’s situation: ongoing ecological damage that has put us on the edge of another Dust Bowl, the difficulty of making a small farm work even with boutique vegetables and the growth of farmers’ markets, and the near takeover of agriculture by enormous farms run by corporate agribusinesses with large federal handouts.

Yet, as the book’s subtitle, The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder, asserts, that image of the self-sufficient pioneer pulling himself up by his bootstraps is a big part of the U.S.’s mythology. Much of the credit for that goes to Wilder’s books, as Fraser’s account shows.

As an adult, however, I could glean even from Wilder’s idealised stories that the family often depended on the help of others. The truth is even more substantial, not only during Wilder’s childhood, but even as an adult when she somehow didn’t see the hypocrisy of decrying government assistance while receiving federal money herself. Just as many of the people today who hate the government are the ones themselves receiving the most assistance.

Before reading Fraser’s book, I was unaware of the influence of Wilder’s daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, on the books and on her mother. It was Lane, already a journalist, although one who larded her stories with fictional elements, who pushed her mother to write the books. It was Lane who first edited them, with the two wrangling over changes. Lane also wrote her own books, appropriating some of her mother’s stories and penning a thinly-veiled Mommy Dearest novel.

Fraser treats Lane fairly, acknowledging her strengths while not hesitating to point out her weaknesses. She presents her as emotionally unstable, with several nervous breakdowns, and increasingly prone to paranoid conspiracy theories. Lane was part of the triumvirate of Founding Mothers of the Libertarian movement, along with Ayn Rand and Isabel Paterson. She also pushed her mother to join her in her angry rants against the government, adding political screeds to some of her mother’s later books.

Of course, we are still struggling with the effects of Lane’s work. Many of today’s politicians criminalise the poor, condemning them for needing assistance. Many demand that the federal government be downsized, if not disbanded, while living high on the hog on federal money themselves, ignoring the hypocrisy. An egregious example is Maryland Republican Andy Harris who campaigned on doing away with the Affordable Health Care Act, which would take away heath care from up to 10 million citizens, complaining when elected that his taxpayer-funded health care wouldn’t take effect for a month.

It is no wonder that during the Great Depression and WWII people flocked to Wilder’s simple tales of a loving family, enduring hard times together, as embodied by a line from a hymn that recurs in the books: “We are all here.”

The Little House books are lovely fairy tales for children, but not something to base a nation on. However, even if we question the myth of a self-sufficient, rugged individual, many of us today embrace other values extolled in Wilder’s books: the importance of family, being happy with simple things, pulling together and being brave when things go wrong.

Even if you’ve never read the children’s books, this biography is essential to understand how we in the U.S. have gotten to where we are today.

What book have you read that illuminated an historical era and its effects on us today?

Little House on the Prairie, by Laura Ingalls Wilder

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I never read these books as a child, being too busy with fairy tales and Arthurian stories, and never saw the television series. However, Caroline Fraser’s biography of Wilder, Prairie Fires, came highly recommended to me, so I thought I’d better catch up on these children’s books.

In this, the third book in the loosely autobiographical series, Laura and her family leave their beloved Wisconsin house in the big woods, described in the first book, and set out for Kansas. The experience of traveling in a covered wagon is vividly conveyed, seen from young Laura’s perspective, though the discomforts are minimised. Laura, her older sister Mary, and baby Carrie get restless sitting in the wagon all day, and Laura worries about the dog Jack who has to run the whole way, but she’s also fascinated by all she sees and comforted by the sound of the horses feeding as she goes to sleep.

As in the other books, the small family encounters hazards and setback, but Ma and Pa can always be relied upon to keep the girls safe and feeeling loved. Eventually they find themselves on an open, seemingly uninhabited prairie near Independence, Kansas. The descriptions of the grasslands—their shy colors and scents, their creatures and breezes—show a genuine love of this land.

Reading this book as an adult gives me a curious double perspective. I know too well the ecological damage done by farmers like Pa plowing up the fragile prairie. I know too much about blatant lies of the government and railroads that lured homesteaders onto lands not appropriate for wheat farming, and of course about the injustice and genocide visited upon the Osages who in fact inhabited this land.

There has been some outcry about the depiction of the Osages in these books, but at least in this one I found it pretty even-handed. Remember that it is from a child’s point of view, one who knows nothing of the larger picture or the history. When the Native Americans do turn up on their seasonal migration, Ma and some of the other nearby homesteaders are afraid of them, but Pa treats them as neighbors, with courtesy and respect. Young Laura describes the ones she actually meets as beautiful and awe-inspiring.

I also know too much about poverty, and do not take at face value the nostalgic recreation of life in a one-room cabin with sometimes only potatoes for dinner. If I’d read this book as a young child, in a bedroom well-stocked with toys and books, nourished on three balanced meals a day, I wonder how I would have reacted to young Laura’s blissful descriptions of her single doll, a rag doll made by Ma, and the comfort of a single potato or turnip for dinner and Pa’s fiddle afterwards.

As an adult, I was fascinated with her detailed description of the house Pa built: the way he notched the logs, put on the roof, built the door, and crafted leather hinges for it. Laura’s childish pursuits are charming, but what captured me was Ma and Pa’s endless toil, the heartbreak of lost harvests, the impossibility of breaking even.

It was not a simpler time; it was an infinitely more difficult time. I’ve chopped wood for winter fuel and washed clothes with a washboard. I’ve tried to live off what I can raise. The hardships of frontier life, of homesteading don’t seem romantic to me. Perhaps they might have if I’d read these books as a child, unaware of all that was being glossed over.

Have you read or reread a children’s book that seems different to you as an adult?

Setting the Family Free, by Eric D. Goodman

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This latest novel by my friend Eric Goodman, author of Tracks and other stories, takes us to Chillicothe, Ohio where Bobbie Anne Thompson looks out of her kitchen window and sees a tiger attacking her horses, killing and eating one even as she calls 911.

She knows where it came from: her neighbor Sammy Johnson has been collecting exotic animals for years. As much of a hoarder as he is with his guns and cars, Sammy has collected 60 or 70 animals (reports differ), including lions, cougars, bears, tigers, leopards, panthers, wolves, komodo dragons, monkeys. And now he has turned them all loose.

One of the things I love about this novel is the compassionate insight Goodman brings to Sammy, the animals themselves, and the various men who must hunt them down before they kill any more people. Though the female characters are all secondary, I was disappointed that they are not presented with the same insight as the men.

Another thing I admire about this book is the unusual format. Chapters with traditional scenes alternate with sections made up of snippets of quotes from various people, and sometimes with news articles. This combination speeds up the pace of the story and plunges us into the terrible race to save the citizens of central Ohio. The hunters are rural police officers, aided by a couple of animal experts. Already horrified at what they must do, they are hampered by the questioning and accusing voices of those sitting safely far away. Their job is also complicated by the obliviousness of those who continue hiking and walking to work and taking children to playgrounds despite the urgent warnings to stay inside.

Though the prose is not difficult to read, the content—human and animal killings—is probably too upsetting for middle grade level. However, this book would be appropriate for a Young Adult (YA) audience, and would be a great starting point for a discussion of our relationship with animals.

It’s a fascinating premise for a story, contrasting the way Sammy and his wife view the animals—as family, as their children—with the way others view them, including the animal experts, the citizens who’ve lost family and pets to them, the animal lovers who aren’t actually being threatened by them, and the first responders caught in the middle.

There is not a clear protagonist for this story. We dip in and out of a number of points of view, including various members of the responding officers, Sammy and his wife, and several of the animals.

Equally, no human antagonist has been identified. The closest is an ambitious reporter who takes the low road: inciting anger at those taking on the difficult—physically and emotionally—task of killing the animals. This reporter whips up the public with opinionated pieces using words like “massacre” and unrealistic claims that the animals could have been tranquilized instead of killed, all of this in the hopes of furthering their career, and maybe leading to a high-level job in New York.

You’ll notice I used gender-neutral terms. One concern I have with this novel is that the author makes this reporter, who is putting their own career ahead of the safety of citizens and first responders, a woman, thus joining in on the way our society attacks women for behavior that is considered normal for men. In our society, ambitious and powerful women are derided and demonized. I know the author and I know that he is not misogynistic, but I wish he had not chosen to egg on the misogynists by perpetuating this negative stereotype.

I’m not advocating censorship. But I do believe that authors should take responsibility for the effect their work may have on our culture. They should think carefully before employing negative stereotypes.

We all should be rethinking how we view others, questioning stereotypes, not leaping to conclusions based on inaccurate and emotional reporting, just as we should be rethinking how we view animals. As we learn more about animal intelligence, we begin to question the idea that we should have dominion over them. This book is a valuable step in opening that conversation.

Have you read a novel that made you question a long-held opinion?

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

Meet Me in Monaco, by Hazel Gaynor and Heather Webb

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What a delightful summer read! Whether you’re at the beach, on a plane, or—like me—glued to a fan, weathering a heat wave in town, this Novel of Grace Kelly’s Royal Wedding, as the subtitle says, is the perfect read.

The story opens in May of 1955 as Grace Kelly arrives in Cannes for the film festival, trailed by a horde of paparazzi. Among them is James Henderson—“Jim to my friends”—an English photographer more interested in landscapes than celebrities, but needing to make a living to help support his divorced wife and beloved daughter Emily.

Despite her sunglasses and headscarf, Grace is spotted by Jim and takes refuge in a small perfume boutique. The shop and the perfumerie in Grasse where the perfumes are produced are owned by Sophie Duval. Her home in Grasse, “a stone farmhouse surrounded by sunflower and lavender fields”, is where Sophie prefers to spend her time, creating new scents and experimenting with different blends, but she needs to maintain the shop in Cannes. Luckily she has her and her father’s longterm employee Natalie to run it, but Sophie must be present during the festival.

With Sophie and Natalie’s help, Grace avoids Jim, but he’s not disappointed. He tries out his terrible French on Sophie and snaps a parting shot of her, capturing her angry response. Even in the scrum of the film festival, the two will run into each other again, as Jim struggles for the perfect photo of the film star while Sophie attends events with her wealthy fiancé Lucien.

I loved this story. (Full disclosure: I’m acquainted with one of the authors.) The time period is beautifully evoked, pulling the curtain to reveal more of the reality behind the glamour. The characters, including Grace herself, come fully alive, even minor characters like Natalie, Jim’s daughter Emily and his friend Teddy. They linger long after the story is brought to a satisfying conclusion, like the ghost of a scent.

The perfume business is what most intrigued me in this novel. Sophie’s father taught her that “A parfumeur is to be a keeper of memories.” The scents she creates conjure up memories of people and places. It’s what she thinks of when she meets someone for the first time: what combination of ingredients capture this person’s essence? The descriptions of these blends are enchanting: verbena, vanilla and ginger for young women; violet, oakmoss and cinnamon for an older woman; lime and jasmine for someone who sparkles. Caught up as I was in the story, I still was happy to absorb some information about how perfumes are produced and the way the scents are layered.

It can be risky to write historical fiction set in a time that is still within living memory of many readers, disconcerting as it is to realise that what seems to vivid to some is considered history by younger generations. It can also be risky to include real people as characters. But Gaynor and Webb meet both these challenges effortlessly. Or so it seems; it is only in retrospect that I can appreciate the amount of research that must have gone into this novel and the care taken to keep it from intruding on the story.

If you’re looking for a read that will carry you off to destinations such as Provence and the French Riviera, a story that will fill your senses and your heart, you can’t go wrong with this novel.

Have you been surprised by a novel that appeared to be pure entertainment, but turned out to be something much more substantial?

Fruits of the Poisonous Tree, by Archer Mayor

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I’m continuing to read Mayor’s mystery series featuring Vermont detective Joe Gunther. In this fifth book someone close to Joe is the victim of a terrible crime, and he quickly realises that the best thing he can do to help—indeed, the only thing—is to find the perpetrator as quickly as possible.

However, that’s not so easy when police protocol calls for him to stay out of the investigation. His boss strikes a deal with States Attorney James Dunn, involved in a tight reelection race, that allows Joe to participate while his second-in-command runs the investigation. Also, Joe must be babysat, i.e., accompanied by another cop wherever he goes.

This is one of the most exciting of the Mayor novels I’ve read so far, with several nail-biting chases and standoffs in surprising locations, phsyical danger for Joe and others, and plenty of personal conflict for Joe as he examines his own motives and capabilities.

But what I most enjoyed were the descriptions of the town of Brattleboro itself. Often what draws me to a mystery series is the use of location as a character: Boston for Robert B. Parker, Baltimore for Laura Lippman, Paris for Cara Black, Venice for Donna Leon. Even fictional locations work, such as Three Pines in Louise Penny’s series.

Mayor’s descriptions of Brattleboro are brief but capture its personality. Here, for example:

Brattleboro is an unusually mixed bag of a town. An icon of the previous century’s industrial might, it has an imposing downtown of stolid red-brick buildings, a few obligatory tree-lined neighborhoods of impressive Victorian showpieces, and a vast number of standard, modest, updated nineteenth-century homes—in good or poor shape depending on the locale. The whole thing rests on a broken-backed, topsy-turvy, creek- and river-creased patch of land . . .

Sprinkled throughout, however, just off the well-traveled thoroughfares, Brattleboro has a contrasting scattering of neighborhoods unique into themselves. They are poor or middle class or shyly redolent of old money, but they all share a separateness from the whole, as if, during the town’s early evolution, hidden genetic strains of other far-distant communities were subversively introduced.

Now that I’ve gotten to know the town a bit better, I can recognise some of the neighborhoods and follow Joe’s slippery race through falling snow to a street near where I live. As with Boston and Baltimore, my own knowledge of the place makes me nod with recognition at Mayor’s descriptions of the town’s character.

Ian Rankin once said he began writing his enormously successful Rebus series in order to get to know Edinburgh, his then-new home. As in reading Rankin’s books, Mayor’s series rewards the reader with a cornucopia of pleasures. You can read them for the puzzle or the excitement of the chase; you can read them to immerse yourself in a unique location; or you can read them for the satisfaction of watching a character like Joe Gunther grow and develop. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do.

What mystery series do you enjoy? What do you like best about it?

An American Marriage, by Tayari Jones

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That this novel addresses one of the most important social issues of our time, one that has rarely been explored in fiction, is enough to make it a must-read book. Add to that a smooth prose style, lashings of tension, and well-rounded characters and it’s no wonder this book is a mega-hit.

At first it seems like a fairly mundane domestic drama. Rob and Celestial’s new marriage is already beginning to show some cracks. Their different backgrounds lead to disagreements about money and ambition, while Rob’s wandering eye creates even more tension between the two.

Then the police knock at the door. Oh, by the way, Rob and Celestial are African-American.

A woman whom Rob helped earlier in the day has been raped and identified Rob as the perpetrator. Unexpectedly, the author speeds through the details of the trial and Rob’s subsequent imprisonment; this is no polemic, even though it’s obvious that Rob is not guilty.

Instead, Jones explores the effect of this violent and unjust separation on the couple. Our expectations continue to be upended, as the narrative shifts from Rob to Celestial and back again before moving to include letters exchanged between the two. We are brought into their marriage and the marriages of their parents in a surprisingly intimate way. I found my sympathies wavering between Rob and Celestial without ever settling on one or the other.

I have been thinking about sacrifice a lot lately, in particular the sacrifices women make as daughters, wives, and mothers. Here, tension swirls around the issue of how much Celestial should be willing to sacrifice to support her husband who has been sentenced to 12 years in prison. The question of what loyalty or duty she owes him is complicated by their being part of a minority that has in certain ways pulled together to survive the discrimination and abuse they suffer.

As one of my friends pointed out in a discussion of this book, one of the strengths of this novel is that it does not take bother to give the white view of the story. For example, we don’t learn much about the woman who falsely accused Rob. My friend compared this book to To Kill a Mockingbird with its similar story, but told almost entirely from a white point of view.

Another friend nailed an aspect of the novel that I both liked and disliked. The author’s voice seemed to come through nearly all of the characters, making them sound much the same. While that made the book read more easily and one character’s point of view transition to another more smoothly, it also made it more difficult to distinguish the characters, to feel I’d really gotten to know them.

In fact, when I came to the discussion three weeks after I finished the book, I had trouble remembering much about it beyond the initial premise of the effect of Rob’s unjust imprisonment on their marriage. I think part of my slight disengagement came from the use of the letters that by their nature relate events that happened in the past. Much of the narrative, too, tells of things that have already happened.

But this is a minor concern. The story quickly came back to me as we discussed it, and my appreciation for it deepened as I began to understand better Jones’s subtle interweaving of theme and story. An American Marriage deserves all the praise that’s been heaped on it.

What bestseller have you read that was even better than you expected?

The Postmistress, by Sarah Blake

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We don’t often reflect on just how amazing it is that we can put a letter in the post and know that it will arrive at its destination in a timely way. Iris James is the sole employee of the post office in Franklin, Massachusetts, a small town on the tip of Cape Cod. It is the fall of 1940, and the U.S. is holding off from entering the war. Meanwhile, Iris and her neighbors listen to the news coming out of London where the Blitz is flattening buildings and posters urging Londoners to Keep Calm and Carry On abound.

Many of the newscasts come from Edward R. Murrow but some people in Franklin are being drawn in by the voice of Murrow’s protégé Frankie Bard. She talks about the little moments that bring to life the horrors happening in London for the inhabitants of Franklin.

One of those inhabitants is Emma, new wife of the town’s doctor, Will Fitch. Orphaned during the flu epidemic of 1918, Emma has grown up feeling invisible, untethered as she is by human bonds. Meeting Will has changed all that, but Will has his own demons.

Franklin seems far away from the war and the U.S., like Franklin’s mob of summer tourists, is too busy being entertained to pay much attention to what is happening in Europe. “How easily the face of the world turns away,” Frankie thinks at one point. Yet the war’s reach is long.

Blake’s evocation of wartime London is brilliant; equally vivid is her portrait of quiet Franklin, where Iris takes comfort in the routine and order and consistency she can bring to her work in the tiny post office, holding the secrets of the town in her hands, as one neighbor tells her. I found Iris fascinating, yet for once didn’t mind moving between protagonists as the story shifted between the three women, because Emma and Frankie are equally fascinating.

I didn’t expect to like this book, despite (or perhaps because of) the effusive praise on the cover. One Thanksgiving when I was eight or nine, my cousin Bobby piled a lot of sauerkraut on my plate, and my mother made me eat it all. I’ve never been able to eat sauerkraut since.

That’s how I feel about novels set in WWII. I find it hard to read yet another one. My perception of the outsized number of WWII novels may be a function of my age. As the central event in the lives of my parents’ generation (along with the Depression), it was obviously a subject that stirred many writers and readers during the decades when I was growing up. And then there’s the aftermath of the war that I experienced. After my mother’s sentimental stories of the boys she danced with before they shipped out, no tragic wartime romance could seem anything but old hat. After the Eichmann trial, no Holocaust novel could shock me.

Yet Blake has found what for me is a previously unexplored corner of that war—twelve months while London is being bombed and the U.S. is trying to stay neutral—and used it to pose important questions.

How do we cope with our world being destroyed? You don’t know where the next bomb is going to fall; if you put a loved one on a train or ship to safety it may itself be destroyed. Is it better to keep them near? What do you do when you lose your home? Your neighbor? Your mother?

More importantly, how do we live our ordinary lives knowing other people are suffering these horrors? Frankie’s colleague Harriet has been collecting the brief reports and hints coming out of Germany describing what is being done to the Jews, but no one wants to hear about it. Iris’s friend Harry keeps a lonely vigil every night, convinced that a German submarine may be headed for Cape Cod, but others in town make fun of him. As Frankie asks Murrow:

“What are we doing back home, Ed? What are people doing, for Christ’s sake?”

“Living their lives.”

“How can they be?”

Yet we do, even now.

Questions like these lurk in the background of this engrossing novel, while we follow the trajectories set in motion by the characters’ decisions and twisted by outside events, including an undelivered letter. Blake’s unsentimental yet compassionate tone makes us care about these characters even as she avoids the all-too-common pitfall of romaticising the war. I fell into the world of this novel and stayed there right to its satisfying conclusion.

Have you read a novel that you found both absorbing and thought-provoking?

Storm Track, by Margaret Maron

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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?