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?

The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula Le Guin

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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?

All for Nothing, by Walter Kempowski

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To this last novel, published a year before his death in 2007, Kempowski brings all the experiences of his long life. Born in 1929 in Hamburg, he was caught up in WWII, at 15 witnessing the East Prussian refugees in Rostock, the coastal town where he grew up. Soon after, he learned that his father had been killed.

He escaped to the west at the end of the war, but on a 1948 visit back to Rostock, now occupied by the Russians, he and his mother and brother were arrested for espionage and sent to a Soviet prison. Released, he was deported to West Germany and became one of that country’s most famous authors.

Drawing on these experiences, Kempowski crafts a story of an East Prussian family continuing to live their normal, even banal, lives while the first Baltic refugees fleeing the approaching Russians begin to pass their estate. Eberhard van Globig is serving in Italy, leaving his beautiful, if vague, wife Katharina to drift around their manor house or visit her pregnant friend in the nearby town while his elderly aunt actually runs the household and his twelve-year-old son Peter is tutored by a schoolmaster too old to fight who comes out from the town every day.

They welcome refugees that come to the door, sharing their food with them and enjoying the songs or stories the travelers bring. It breaks up the monotony of their lives. However, we learn later that each refugee has filched something from the van Globigs before leaving. Then the self-important head trustee of the local Labor Front, who lives in the new settlement across the road and considers himself their pseudo-mayor, decides to start billeting more refugees in the manor.

Underneath the details of the days, calm, somewhat repetitive, sprinkled with quotes from poems and folksongs, there are questions being asked over and over. Should we leave now? How close are the Russians? Will our forces turn them back? If we leave, where should we go? Should we turn back or go forward?

The family exists in a pre-war bubble of serenity, Peter playing with his train set, adding to his treehouse, looking at things with his new microscope, even as the train of Baltic refugees swells and the sound of guns grows louder. The scenes grow more and more surreal.

What makes this story so remarkable is its unsentimental, objective tone. The author never even hints at what we should think about these people and their actions, letting us draw our own conclusions. The characters are given to us whole, with all their kindnesses and cruelty. Each is formed by the live they’ve lived; none are totally good or totally bad.

But always we have the title. Each of the characters—refugees, family, other locals—is obsessed with what to take when they go and mourns what they have left behind. Auntie insists on thoroughly cleaning the manor before they embark.

What do we leave behind? What use is all our learning, the poems we’ve memorised, the love we’ve given or deaths we’ve mourned? What sense can we make of life when fate so randomly bestows both favors and misfortunes? In wartime, we are constantly reminded of the capriciousness of fate. One family on a road packed with refugees is killed by a bomb while others are not. One son is killed in battle and another is not.

This quiet but intense book makes us consider all these ‘last questions’. It carries the weight of our not-so-long-ago history, which is always happening all over again. What could be more timely than a novel about refugees? It also has much to tell us about human nature. And then there’s the title.

What novel have you read that seems to carry an entire life’s worth of experience?

The Springs of Affection, by Maeve Brennan

Brennan

Maeve Brennan was a staff writer for The New Yorker, and by all accounts a colorful character. In his Introduction, William Maxwell described some of her antics such as hanging her large framed photograph of Colette by Louise Dahl-Wolfe on the wall above his desk, removing it later when he said or did something she didn’t like. One day it was back again. It came and went “like a cloud shadow. I never knew why and thought it would be a poor idea to ask.”

The stories in this book, all quite stunning, are set in Dublin where Brennan grew up. The first set seem to be autobiographical. They are in first person and the characters have the names of Maeve and her family. The home is the rowhouse on a dead-end street in a Dublin suburb where Maeve grew up.

Each recounts some incident—whether small, such as a man coming to the house to sell apples or the delivery of a new sofa, or large, such as a fire in the garage out back or raids by men looking for her father during a time of dissension between those in favor of a Republic and those supporting the Free State—but imbues it with such accuracy and character that it seems to hold a whole lifetime.

These stories remind me of writer and teacher Meg Rosoff advising us writers to look at the incidents that stick in our memory’s colander, those seemingly unimportant bits of the past. Yet there is a reason we remember them, and if we dig deeper we may be surprised by what emerges.

The second section is a series of stories exploring the particulars of Hubert and Rose Derdon’s unhappy marriage. Their only son John has become a priest, leaving Rose bereft. Over the course of the stories, details emerge about the family dynamics and the psychological burdens borne by the couple.

The stories in the third section are also about a marriage, not quite so fraught as the Derdons’ but held in a precarious balance. Martin and Delia Bagot lead mostly independent lives, he working late while she is responsible for the house, garden and two girls. However, the eponymous final story, told through Martin’s twin sister Min after the couples’ deaths, gives us a different slant on their relationship, though not perhaps the one Min intended.

What especially fascinates me about the Derdon and Bagot stories are the narrative scenes. As writers we usually balance narrative, also known as exposition, with dramatic scenes. These scenes usually have action and dialogue and conflict between characters. However, it is possible to write scenes that are all narrative. Usually writers are advised not to include long narrative passages, as they can be boring and slow the story to the point where momentum is completely lost.

However, a narrative scene is different, containing all the drama and emotion of an action scene. C.S. Lakin says, “What makes for great narrative scenes is the character voice.” I agree, but Brennan in these stories also shows the value of burrowing deep into her characters’ hearts and minds. Her astute understanding of their psychology, their fears and dreams, their upbringing and social context makes for stirring reading.

For example, 87-year-old Min is still furious about Martin having married Delia, even though both of them are now dead. She believes that his doing so broke up their family, saying of their mother:

. . . who had sacrificed everything for them and asked in return only that they stick together as a family, and build themselves up, and make a wall around themselves that nobody could see through, let alone climb. What she had in mind was a fort, a fortress, where they could build themselves up in private and strengthen their hold on the earth, because in the long run that is what matters—a firm foothold and a roof over your head. But all that hope ended and all their hard work was mocked when Delia Kelly walked into their lives.

This is telling about something that happened instead of showing it in a scene with action and dialogue. Yet it works, because of the vivid language, the voice—can’t you just hear Min?—and the accuracy and precision of the author’s insight into this character.

As I closed the book, moved by Min’s unconscious revelations about herself and by the two couples and Maeve herself as a child, I found myself thinking about my own childhood. Like Brennan, like all of us I suspect, those early years of family and the house that contained us have almost mythic status in my imagination. I can understand how she wanted to return again and again to that well of inspiration.

Have you read a collection of short stories that you’d recommend? Perhaps they carried you away to a faraway place or gave you a new understanding of human nature? Perhaps they introduced characters whom you can’t seem to forget?

The Lying Game, by Ruth Ware

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More a suspense novel than a mystery, this 2017 novel from Ruth Ware starts with a body turning up by a tidal estuary on the south coast of England. The next day Isa Wilde, living in North London with her husband and six-month-old daughter, receives a text saying simply “I need you.”

To her husband’s baffled dismay, Isa immediately packs up her baby and leaves for the village of Saltern, where 17 years earlier she had briefly attended a boarding school. There she’d become tight friends with Kate, Thea and Fatima, getting up to all kinds of mischief, sneaking cigarettes and alcohol, slipping out at night.

They also played what they called the lying game. The game had many rules, including points for how persuaded the unfortunate recipient was by their lies. That summer the four of them formed a bond strong enough to bring them back all these years later.

Kate, who sent the text, still lives in Saltern, in a ramshackle building called the Tide Mill on the other side of the Reach—the local name for the estuary—from the school. Her father Ambrose had been the art teacher at the school, enabling Kate to board there. His relaxed bohemian ways left the girls free to escape school regularly to make their way across the Reach to the Mill where they let loose as only 15-year-old girls can, swimming and drinking and exploring.

And confronting something that not only could blow the four apart from each other, such that they had not seen each other for 17 years, but was so explosive a secret that fear of it had haunted them all that time.

The book is more psychological suspense than the runaway train of a thriller. I appreciated the insight into the characters, all of whom we encounter through Isa’s eyes. I was fascinated by the changes in the young women. Fatima has become a doctor and begun practicing her faith, disconcerting the others with her hijab and refusal of alcohol. Kate has become an artist like her father, but barely making enough to hold body and soul together. Thea’s intensity and tendency to anorexia have only increased, while Isa has settled happily into marriage, motherhood, and a civil service job. They all have a lot to lose.

As a writer, I appreciated Ware’s sure-footed ability to take the reader in and out of the past without ever leaving us floundering, wondering what time period we were in. Good transitions and textual clues ensured that we always knew which time period we were in.

I also was impressed by her use of setting. The details we encounter through Isa’s eyes not only create vivid images of the places themselves but also add to the atmosphere and underline themes throughout the book. For example, at one point Isa is describing Saltern village and mentions the fishing nets hung on many of the cottages, presumably to add to the village’s appeal as a tourist destination. However the drooping, grey webs of netting make her wonder how anyone could bear to live enclosed by them.

Another example is the Mill itself. Remembered as a lost paradise, it has decayed through years of neglect to the point where it is not only falling apart, but is actually sinking into the sand. It has gotten so bad that during some high tides the electricity shorts out and the footbridge over the millstream to the land beyond is flooded.

Too much? Readers’ tastes vary, but I enjoyed how Ware could take clichés such as a house built on sand, being caught in a spider’s web, or crossing a treacherous bog and make them work, creating an intense atmosphere and increasing the suspense. The twists and turns of the story make the plot exciting, but more importantly reveal new layers of all of the characters, large and small.

What novel of psychological suspense have you read lately that you’d recommend?