Hawke’s Discovery, by Mark Willen

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Last week I described Erica Bauermeister’s The School of Essential Ingredients, as a restorative read, much needed after a series of books with unpleasant and untrustworthy protagonists. This week I’ve struck gold again.

Jonas Hawke, a retired lawyer in Beacon Junction, Vermont, finds himself in a moral and ethical dilemma when his son Nathan, editor of the local paper, begins investigating one of Jonas’s old cases. Nathan is intrigued by the possibility of a coverup involving the leading contender for governor in the upcoming election. A big scoop like that could lead to a job offer from a large city paper, something Nathan has been seeking for a while.

However, Jonas’s client confidentiality severely limits how far he can go in answering Nathan’s questions, much to his son’s frustration. Nathan points out Jonas’s responsibility to his fellow citizens: what if Martha Bennett wins the gubernatorial election and then is indicted for obstruction of justice?

This is just the sort of story I needed right now. I love to see ordinary people with a strong sense of integrity navigate the tricky waters of an ethical dilemma. Nathan and Jonas are not the only ones in this story with competing personal and professional responsibilities.

The mystery of what happened in that long-ago case and the various interpersonal conflicts provide tension, but the real suspense is about the characters. What course will they choose? What will the outcome be?

What I like most about this book is its subtlety. All of the characters mean well. They want to do the right thing, if they could only be sure what that is. They seem like people I know. You don’t need a villain in a story like this. We are our own worst antagonists, drifting in the dark without a map.

I recently participated in a book dissection of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. My fellow authors and I couldn’t understand why it became such a big bestseller. There were things we appreciated: a quirky and charming cast of characters and an unusual real-life setting, for example. There were things we didn’t like: such as the misleading title and the epistolary format that made all the action happen off-stage.

What we finally concluded was that it was the heart of the book that made it appeal to so many people. To quote from John J. Kelley’s summary of our discussion, while “the novel never shies away from the tragedies of life” it has “an enduring optimism that many in the group found refreshing in these uncertain times. It was an unexpected charm that surprised many of us.”

Mark Willen’s novel has the same sort of heart. While exploring the murky regions where integrity is put to the test and competing responsibilities rend us, Hawke’s Discovery gives us characters who despite their flaws are essentially good. If you’re suffering from too many stories of sociopaths, serial killers and rapists, pick up this novel. It will refresh you with its enduring optimism.

What books have you read that feature characters who seem like people you know?

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 School of Essential Ingredients, by Erica Bauermeister

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I’ve had a string of books filled with unpleasant and untrustworthy characters. Likeability is not a requirement for me as a reader. Stories of people from whom I’d run screaming in real life can yield psychological insights, an engaging puzzle, or the sheer pleasure of nuanced characterisation. However, sometimes I need a break.

This gentle book, by an author recommended by my friend Christine, fit the bill.

Lillian taught herself to cook at a young age when her mother, shocked by her husband’s departure, disappeared into books. Proceeding by trial and error, eschewing cookbooks, Lillian became adept at assessing what sort of food a person needs and providing it.

The school of the title is a class Lillian teaches regularly at her restaurant on Monday nights when the restaurant is closed. As she gets to know her students, she is able to concoct lessons suited to their individual needs.

They range in age from a girl with heavy black eyeliner to a “fragile-looking” elderly woman. In between are an older couple, a young stay-at-home mother, a man clouded with sadness, a computer scientist, and a gorgeous Italian woman.

Each chapter takes one student, exploring their background, their wounds and gifts, through the particular dish or dishes being prepared that night. For example, Antonia is a kitchen designer, stumped by her current task. Her clients are restoring a beautiful old house, but their vision of a sleek modern kitchen with concrete floors and black cabinets fills Antonia with dismay. Not only is it wrong for the house, but it would mean destroying everything that is lovely about the room now.

For Antonia, the scarred wooden table, the window seat overlooking a kitchen garden, and the warm and welcoming open fireplace remind her of grandmother’s kitchen. So Lillian has the class make Thanksgiving dinner that night. At first that seems cruelly calculated to drive home the distance between that Italian village where Antonia’s grandmother lives and this new country with its baffling custom of celebrating by stuffing themselves and then falling asleep.

However, the menu is not a traditional one. While keeping traditional Thanksgiving foods such as turkey, cranberries, corn, and green beans, Lillian’s dishes rearrange and combine them with ingredients Antonia’s grandmother would use: rosemary, pancetta, gorgonzola, pine nuts.

More than these portraits, which make the book seem more like a connected series of short stories, what I loved was the sensuality of the writing. Not surprising, I guess, when you’re writing about food, but Bauermeister truly had me smelling the rosemary, tasting the heirloom tomato, feeling for the pieces of crabmeat in their tiny shell chambers.

It’s a lovely book, and one I highly recommend if you need a restorative break.

What book do you turn to when you need a rest?

Less, by Andrew Sean Greer

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This Pulitzer Prize-winning novel was my book club’s selection this month. What’s it about? Well, imagine Eat, Pray, Love with an insecure gay man, an author who visits double the number of countries trying to outrun his anxieties.

Arthur Less—no subtlety there, so I should have been warned—is our protagonist. About to turn 50, his latest book has been rejected by his publisher, and the much-younger man who has been his occasional bedfellow is about to get married.

Less is a sad, colorless person. Alone, he’s still riding on the fame of his long-ago first novel and memories of his early long affair with a much older famous poet. In those days, he was the youngster staying quietly in the background while his lover and his famous friends carried on.

Sounds a lot like Franny in Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth. As in that novel, the characters here are unpleasant—especially needy, insecure Less—and are played for laughs. His bumbling missteps and failures, together with random blows of fate, leave him suffering even more anxiety. It is all meant to be funny, but it’s still not a kind of humor that appeals to me.

Normally I’d have stopped reading, but was looking forward to meeting with my book club. Also, I kept wondering why in the world it won the Pulitzer. Some members of my book club found it amusing and agreeable, but all found it light-weight and definitely not worth a Pulitzer. One person suggested it was chick lit for gay men.

Certainly it’s well-written. Greer’s sentences are terrific, and the story is clear and consistent. Also, the descriptions of the various countries are superb. A device Greer uses is a narrator who seems to know Less. The narrator isn’t identified till the end, but it’s pretty obvious long before that. One person pointed out the clever allusions in the text to other books. We thought there must be more we didn’t recognise, but certainly enjoyed the ones we found.

So, not a bad book if this sort of character and this sort of humor appeal to you. Most of the reviews I saw were positive. It might be a book you’d enjoy. Just don’t expect there to be much to it.

When choosing your next read, are you influenced by prizes it’s won, the endorsements on the cover, or by reviews?

Sunburn, by Laura Lippman

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Pauline leaves her family at the beach and returns to their rented apartment to pack her bag. Inspired by Anne Tyler’s Ladder of Years, she has decided to simply walk away from her life.

Though Tyler’s book isn’t named, I knew immediately which one was meant. Who could forget Delia on Bethany Beach, walking away from her family, carrying only a straw tote decorated with a large flower? For all of us overburdened mothers with our unrealised dreams—often undefined even to ourselves—it was as though Tyler had revealed our most secret fantasy. Can you really do that? we wondered.

Lippman takes that fantasy and spirals deeper and deeper into it. What would make a woman leave her husband and three-year-old daughter?

Pauline doesn’t get very far. She hitches a ride to Washington D.C. with an elderly man whose wandering hands force her to abandon him in Belleville, a small Delaware town, only an hour away from where she started.

She decides to stay. Introducing herself as Polly, she persuades the owner of a bar/cafe to hire her as a second part-time waitress/bartender. What she doesn’t know is that the man sitting at the bar with her that first night is a private investigator hired to find her.

Adam wasn’t hired by her husband, who is only that night realising she is gone, but by a shady lawyer whose connection to her in unclear.

Much is unclear, to Pauline/Polly and Adam, and to us. Lippman seduces us, revealing bits of information while spinning out new webs of suspicion. We try to decide which of the stories these characters tell are true and which are lies, even as the characters themselves do the same.

It’s like a game of three-dimensional chess. There’s what Adam knows and doesn’t know, what Pauline knows he knows, and what she doesn’t know he knows. Same with Pauline: what she knows and doesn’t know, what Adam knows and doesn’t know she knows. And then there’s the reader. For all our insight into both characters, there’s plenty we know we don’t know, not to mention what we don’t know we don’t know.

It all unfolds naturally, the twists and turns easy to follow. The puzzle is embedded in an engrossing story: a love story, a change-your-life story, a mysterious-death story. Adam, Pauline, and the other characters make their moves based on their limited understanding of the others’ knowledge and motivations, just as we all do.

I especially liked Lippman’s reimagining of the classic noir femme fatale. She pries open the stereotype and takes us on an unexpectedly deep dive into Pauline, her history, her motives, her dreams and weaknesses.

I was also captivated by Lippman’s setting this noir tale in the tiny fictional town of Belleville in rural Delaware in the 1990s. True, there are forays into Baltimore and Wilmington, but the confines of a small town add intriguing nuances to the atmosphere. There is suspense for sure, but the book isn’t a thrill ride. It’s a measured unfolding over the course of one summer of a multi-layered story.

What did you do on your summer vacation?

Commonwealth, by Ann Patchett

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This 2016 bestseller has received lots of good reviews. It begins with an unexpected and uninvited guest arriving at the christening party for Franny, second daughter of Fix and Beverly Keating. Bert Cousins brings a bottle of gin as a present, something unexpected and unusual at a christening. As the party goes on, everyone gets drunk; most people behave badly; a priest gives up his vocation; and Bert, who has a pregnant wife and three children at home, falls in love with Beverly.

I was ready to stop halfway through this first chapter. I’m not a fan of stories of people behaving badly. I don’t find them funny, which is why I rarely watch any sitcoms. Yet many people have loved this book, according to Goodreads and various book reviews, and my book club had chosen it, so I plowed on.

In ten or so stand-alone vignettes like the first chapter, the story zigzags through the lives of the Keating and Cousins families. Two drawbacks of the book are the sheer number of main characters and the huge jumps in time and space from one chapter to the next. It was sometimes hard for me to figure out the chronology and also to keep track of which child belonged to which pair of parents.

The children’s lives are upended by the reckless decisions their parents make. The parents continue to neglect them, not just their emotional life but even their physical safety. At one point, the parents finally show up at the children’s motel room at 2 pm, saying that they “slept in”. What kind of parent does that?

Unsurprisingly, the children are little monsters. Left to their own devices and hating their parents, they entertain themselves by embarking on dangerous expeditions, drugging the youngest child with Benadryl, and carrying around Dad’s loaded gun.

I liked the vignettes where the children were older much better. Well, mostly. At least one, like some of the childhood vignettes, reminded me of a bad sitcom with things getting worse and worse, beyond the outer limit of credibility, with no humor to lighten it.

This is supposed to be a novel that explores blended families, which have become common as the divorce rate has soared. Yet the Keatings/Cousins families seem so cartoonishly awful that it is hard for me to see any useful insight into the concept. It’s not the blending of families that is the problem here; it is the selfishness of some of the four parents. It’s not as if we need another illustration of narcissism these days.

It’s also supposed to be a novel that explores the ownership of stories. Who gets to tell the story of your childhood? As a memoirist, this question is important to me. Patchett has said that she drew on her own memories to write it. And, to add some meta- to her fiction, she has included a much-older famous writer who becomes young Franny’s lover, listens to her stories, and then writes a novel based on them. The impact of the lover’s novel on the families is explored toward the end of the book, and was the part most interesting to me.

What kept me reading, besides my book club, was the structure. I was curious as to how these unconnected vignettes would hold up as a novel. For a long time it felt like a novel in stories, that is, a series of short stories only marginally related. But by the end, I did feel that the book cohered into a single novel.

Besides featuring the same eight characters throughout, Patchett accomplished that by her consistency of tone. One Goodreads reviewer complained about the tone, saying that it was distant and formal. I agree that it kept the reader at arm’s length. But I liked that. Usually I prefer to be immersed in a novel and live the story with the main character, but in this case, given these characters, I was happy to observe them from afar.

As always, these remarks are my own. Many, many people adored this book, and it got overwhelmingly positive reviews. To my surprise, most of these reviews talked of the humor the book, even citing some of the set-pieces that most horrified me as the most comical.

I think the difference is that I know parents like these and children like these, so I found the story heart-breaking rather than hilarious. I’m reminded of the time in my teens when a group of friends insisted I watch the sitcom All in the Family with them. I left at the first commercial break, near tears. To them, Archie Bunker and his family seemed so exaggerated as to be funny. To me, they were too close to my own family for me to be amused.

Have you read one of Patchett’s novels? What did you think of it?

The Melody, by Jim Crace

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Alfred Busi, a famous and beloved musician and singer, is awakened in the night by animals tipping over the garbage bins. His town has honored him by including a statue of him in their Avenue of Fame, and he is to speak at its unveiling the next day. In addition, he is to give a benefit concert in two days.

At “sixty-something”, Busi is comfortable with fame and with the declining quality of his voice. But since the recent death of his wife, he has had trouble sleeping and has let their villa deteriorate.

When he returns from chasing away the animals and righting the bins, he’s viciously attacked—his hands and face deeply bitten and scratched—by what he swears is a small boy, not a feral dog or cat. Other attacks follow, both physical and emotional, in this wrenching account of an aging man, who has been functioning well, suddenly falling off a cliff, as Atul Gawande describes it in Being Mortal.

We don’t discover until near the end the narrator’s identity. He seems to be speaking for the town throughout the long first part of the book. Once identified in the brief second part, he begins voicing individual opinions.

We are in a European town, apparently during the 1930s, a period whose unrest is mirrored in the town’s changes. Developers are buying up property, such as Busi’s aging villa, and clearing out areas that tradition has ceded to the poor and to wild animals. Busi’s account of the wild child who attacked him revives fears of an uncivilised people who according to legend live in the untamed forests. Such feral children are a staple of myth and folklore, sometimes raised by wolves or dogs or bears, but real cases have also been documented.

Our narrator, despite his claims of rationality, still senses “that something other than ourselves persists. Something wilder and more animated but still resembling us.” He goes on to speculate that these others are the ones who will survive “when we come tumbling down, our cities and our towns, as tumble down they must, when our apartments and our boulevards are tenanted by rats and weeds”.

As always with Crace, the language is subtly poetic, so that it is only on rereading that I notice the beauty of the sentences and the way information is conveyed. There is also much quiet humor, not only in the reference to nonexistent books in the acknowledgments, but also in the astute sketches of various characters that reveal their vanities and illusions.

There are other aspects of earlier Crace novels that I recognise. In Harvest, we see the fear of change, the scapegoating of those unlike us, and the issue of displaced people. In Being Dead, we see the unsentimental and dispassionate attention paid to the decomposing bodies that here describes Busi’s injuries and emotional deterioration. We also see a couple’s long and affectionate marriage, similar to Busi’s where the lobby of his house, “was meant only for coats and umbrellas and shoes, but it had witnessed their embraces and reunions a thousand times, and so, for Busi, it had tender memories.”

Books about aging and the changes that come with a longer life are of particular interest to me these days, such as Walter Mosley’s The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey. I was saddened by much of this book, as we along with Busi discover his new limitations, learn that he is not the man he thought he still was, and have to give up treasured belongings. Yet, I found hope in his openness to what is new. All of the characters here seem like people I know, and their story compelling.

What book about aging has given you comfort or new insight?

Just Like February, by Deborah Batterman

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As the story opens, five-year-old Rachel Cohen is worried that her hippie parents are not going to actually go through with their long-delayed wedding. Her mother keeps calling it off. For Rachel, its more than the much-fussed-over dress she’ll wear as the flower girl; it has to do with making her family seem less precarious.

Her conservative grandparents appear vividly in their humor, patience and bottomless love. Details such as Grandma’s raspberry rugelach and Grandpa’s jokes and stories bring them to life, as do their distinct voices.

But it is her Uncle Jake whom Rachel loves immoderately. A restless traveler, source of treasured gifts and postcards, Jake is a free spirit who seems to offer Rachel a different kind of stability. He really does, even though this may seem at odds with his move to San Francisco, which has given Grandma to an obsession with earthquake predictions. It is only as Rachel grows older—the story begins in 1969 and ends in 1986—that she begins to recognise his demons and the real dangers that threaten him.

One of the most enjoyable things for me in a well-written book is turning back to the first page and first chapter after I’ve finished. Batterman’s beginning holds the seeds of the story to come. I was delighted to find images and motifs that circled back at the end. These are techniques that make for a satisfying ending—so rare in novels these days.

Writers often discuss how much to bring the outside world into your novel. They can add resonance to a story or, if irrelevant, distract the reader. Setting this story in the turbulent mid-twentieth century: the 1960s, 70s and 80s, Batterman could hardly ignore the effect of outside events on this family, yet she goes further by incorporating them into the storyline.

She does a good job of integrating the counter-culture of the time, with its dizzying sense that an old order is actually coming to an end. She also captures the early days of the AIDS epidemic, with their panicked and irrational fears, using them to drive the story.

For me, the story vividly brought back those decades. And the sense of being there again cemented by the many little details and references that were familiar to me. The text is interspersed with Rachel’s diary entries and postcards written by Jake and Rachel, adding another dimension of authenticity and voice.

I want to mention the cover, too. If readers aren’t familiar with an author, then the cover design is the first thing they see and the first way to interest them in the book. This cover is brilliant. Delicate and lovely, yet troubled, it sets you up for a story that is all of these things.

The next thing readers notice is the title. Titles are a particular weakness of mine, so I wanted to shout from the rooftops when I finally understood how appropriate this title is. The mystery of it draws you in. It lingers in the back of your mind and, even when it’s later explained, it still takes on new layers of meaning.

Delicate and lovely, troubling and satisfying: this is a story to savor.

Where were you when Neil Armstrong landed on the moon? Now that a new film about that event is coming out, what do you think its significance is?

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 Two-Sided Set-up, by Eileen Haavik McIntire

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Melanie Fletcher thinks she’s finally broken her string of bad choices in men when she meets Hunter at a charity event in New York City. Rich and handsome, he treats her like a queen. After a whirlwind romance, they marry but it only takes a few months for the cracks in his façade to begin to show as he moves to separate her from her friends and job.

Running for her life, Melanie ends up at her father’s marina in Tidewater Virginia. She believes her childhood with her drunken, abusive father is the reason she keeps going from bad to worse when it comes to men, but has three reasons for going there. First, she’s escaped on her small boat, so a marina is a good place to park and clean the hull. Second, she hopes the obstinate man she once ran from might be strong enough in a pinch to provide some protection against Hunter. Third, maybe by finally confronting the demon of her childhood she will be able to break forever whatever makes her keep choosing the wrong man.

I won’t enumerate the ways in which things get worse and then even worse for Melanie. The suspense builds as she tries to create a new life for herself in Virginia, evade Hunter, and come to terms with her now-sober father. I’ll let you enjoy the ride for yourself.

As a writer, I find myself looking at ways McIntire maintains the suspense. (Full disclosure: she is a friend of mine.) Like an expert angler, she gives us some play now and then so we think we’re safe, and then reels us in ever more tightly.

There is not only the threat of Hunter finding and probably killing Melanie looming over the story. There’s the uncertainty of how much her now-sober father may have changed. And how much can she trust the seemingly gentle owner of the bike shop in town who offers her a job? And much more.

But even in small ways—what Donald Maass calls microtension—McIntire snugs in the hook a little closer on almost every page. Here’s an excerpt from a page chosen at random. Amos, Melanie’s father, has just said that he should have listened to her. She’s in her boat with Peedee, the dog she’s adopted for extra protection.

I sat in the cockpit and marveled at Amos’ last words . . . Did that mean he would stop pushing me to go back to Hunter? Had the blinders dropped from Amos’ eyes? I’d have to wait and see, but in the meantime I could cuddle Peedee.

I went to bed early and slept restlessly, waking in fear at every noise, worrying over how I could earn any money if I had to hide from Hunter on the road.

What I notice here is that as one strand of tension loosens a little, McIntire wastes no time in tightening another—even when the protagonist is sleeping!

Awash as we are in the fiercely honest anecdotes shared as part of the #MeToo movement, nothing in this story of Hunter’s behaviour will seem implausible. Writers are often advised to make their antagonists complex, not all bad, but sometimes it makes sense to break the rules.

In this case we are thrashing through the waves with Melanie in her attempts to escape him and take charge of her life. She is not going to see nuances in his behaviour or hints of good, at least not after she finally stops making excuses for him and tries to escape.

The other antagonist, Amos, though, is complex enough for both of them. I’ve seen how someone can change when they stop drinking. How much will he waver in his entrenched opinions? Can he and Melanie escape the patterns of the past?

If you’re looking for a protagonist you can cheer for and a captivating read, look no further.

What’s the most suspenseful novel you’ve read?

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.

The Forgotten Garden, by Kate Morton

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It being the end of summer, I went in search of a real vacation read. Not that I was going away, but I did have a week off from grandchild babysitting duties. I wasn’t looking for a beach read; most of my vacations end up in a cabin in the woods or a footpath in the Cotswolds. Instead I wanted to immerse myself in a big, fat, multi-generational novel, preferably set in the UK.

I found it in The Forgotten Garden. As the story opens, it is 1913 and a small girl is hiding on a ship on the Thames, as instructed by “the lady”. The ship casts off from its London dock to cries of “Bon voyage”, and the girl leaves her hiding place to follow a group of children. Later, a fall on the ship has damages her memory, so she no longer remembers her name or any other details of her former life.

She fetches up in Brisbane, Australia, where she is adopted by the harbormaster and his wife. As an adult Nell tries to discover how she came to be left alone on the boat and why a book of fairy tales was packed in her small suitcase. After Nell’s death her granddaughter Cassandra takes up the search, following Nell’s footsteps to Blackhurst Manor on the coast of Cornwall, ancestral home of the Mountrachet family.

I’d previously read and enjoyed Morton’s The Lake House, impressed by how well she moved back and forth in time without losing me—and I’m a notoriously easily confused reader.

Here Morton doubles down by using, not just multiple time periods but also multiple narrative points of view (POVs). Multiple POVs have proliferated lately, having the cachet of seeming modern. Many writers have tried their hand at using them. Most fail.

At least in my opinion—remember I’m easily confused. Sometimes it seems to me a lazy way of writing. It is a challenge to bring out all of a story’s incidents and information if you are confined to only one character’s perceptions. I think some authors try to get around that by moving from one character’s head to another, instead of finding more creative solutions.

That’s not what’s happening here. I should have been lost a hundred times over as we move between Nell, Cassandra, Rose Mountrachet, and Eliza, the author of the fairy tales. We jump around in time between 1900 when Eliza was a child, 1907, 1913, 1930, 1975-1976, and 2005 when Cassandra flies from Australia to England. We have letters and scrapbooks and journals. We even have some of the fairy tales.

And it all works. It’s not just that Morton labels each chapter with place and date. It’s not just that we have different characters associated with the different time frames to help ground us. Nor is it just that she pays attention to transitions, so for example at the end of one chapter Cassandra in 2005 is examining a legal document, while the next chapter starts in 1975 with Nell checking her passport and tickets.

It’s that Morton has carefully constructed her story so that whatever the date and POV, the line of the story continues. Thus, just as Nell in 1975 begins to learn about Eliza’s early life and that she is the author of the fairy tales, we go to 1900 where Eliza is watching the busy life of London’s streets through a chink in the bricks and making up stories about the people she sees. If I was unsurprised by the ending, I was at least not disappointed.

It’s always interesting to me as a writer to go back, after my gloriously immersive first read, and see how the author has handled releasing information. It’s a tricky balance. You want the reader on the edge of their chairs, but not so frustrated that they throw the book across the room. So you have to reveal information fairly regularly while also holding some back. One good mantra is: every time you answer a question in the reader’s mind, create a new one.

All of the characters, even minor ones, are well-drawn and memorable. The settings—ship, slums, estate, cottages, gardens—are gorgeously done. The letters and other ephemera add to the verisimilitude of the story and give us other voices. To my surprise, the fairy tales also work well, adding emotional depth to the story as the seeds planted by their images flower. In fact, the language throughout is particularly lovely: poetic without being distractingly so. There are some really gorgeous turns of phrase here, some haunting images.

All in all, Morton’s book is a perfect vacation read.

What did you read on your summer vacation?

Guardian’s Betrayal, by Johanna Van Zanten

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“Reader, I married him.” How many stories end like Jane Eyre’s with the happy lovers overcoming all odds to be together? There are also many stories of parentless children—orphans, foster children—that end happily with them finally being adopted. But what happens next? The story may end there, but life doesn’t.

Subtitled What Happens Seven Years After Adoption?, Van Zanten’s new novel explores new territory. Suffering from malnutrition and neglect, sisters Shayla and Abby were adopted by their social worker Bernice Harrison when their mother died. With her background, Bernice was well-equipped to help the girls and her own family, husband Tom and two young sons, adjust to their new family. However, as the story opens, seven years later, cracks are beginning to emerge.

Shayla, now 17, is already suffering from a lack of self-confidence when she gets a message on Facebook from the half-sister she’d forgotten existed. Excited to learn more about her birth family, the two talk often and Anna offers to put Shayla in touch with her birth father.

The story is narrated in the alternating voices of Shayla, Bernice and Tom. Each is struggling to stay above water. Shayla is navigating the terrors of adolescence: mean girls, first love, self-doubt. Sensing that his family is drifting away, Tom becomes involved in an affair with a much younger co-worker. Bernice finds herself suddenly a single parent of four children while trying to juggle Shayla’s problems and the other three children’s dismay at Tom’s defection.

Adding Shayla and Abby’s birth father to the mix strains Bernice even further, as she tries to decide whether or how to allow the girls to meet him. Abby, now 13, is not interested, but Shayla desperately wants him to be part of her life. Tom is dismayed at the thought of this man taking his place.

It’s a good story, and an important one. Van Zanten writes with authority and compassion for all of them. I appreciate her even-handed approach. There are a few times when the dialogue tips slightly into social-worker-ese, but for the most part is authentic.

Small errors, such as typos or a missing word, detract from the story. Occasionally the pronoun references are unclear, such as an extended scene where Shayla is referred to almost exclusively as “she” with nothing to show that it is Shayla and not either Bernice or Abby who are also present. These minor problems could have been caught by an editor or other outside reader, a good reason for writers to be part of a critique group or have beta readers.

With this unusual and emotional story, Van Zantan reminds me of how helpful it can be for writers to find a new area to explore. Of course, a good writer can make even the most common plot feel new again, but how exciting to find something so original! Anyone with an interest in family dynamics or adoption will enjoy this story.

Have you read a novel with an unusual subject lately?

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.