The Silence of the Sea, by Yrsa Sigursdardóttir

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In the middle of a cold night, a luxury yacht appears in Reykjavik harbor on schedule, but instead of slowing down it plows into a pier. When the security guard and three customs officials board her, they find no one on board. There is no sign of the captain, two crewmen and the young couple with two small children who had set off from Lisbon a few days earlier.

As a lawyer, Thóra Gudmundsdóttir is subsequently hired by the elderly parents of the husband. The youngest daughter had been left in their care, now apparently an orphan. The grandparents need to establish that the couple is dead so that the little girl’s future can be secured. They also fear that the authorities will take the girl away from them, saying they were too old and not well off enough to care for her. Apparently this is common practice in Iceland. The grandparents hoped that the life insurance would at least do away with one factor.

The atmosphere is suitably chilling, calling up echoes of other ghost ships such as the Mary Celeste. or is there a more rational explanation for what went on and if there could be survivors somewhere. The chapters alternate between Thóra’s efforts to discover what happened, belated accompanied by a police investigation, and a narrative of what happened on the yacht through the eyes of Ægir, the young husband.

Thóra must assemble as much documentation as possible to persuade the insurance company that the whole thing is not a scam perpetrated by Ægir and his wife, who have jumped ship somewhere and gone off to lead a new life. One would think that the youngest daughter as a hostage left behind, not to mention the missing crew, would be enough to end that line of enquiry, but apparently not.

Although the book is described as “A Thriller” on the front cover, I found the pace, especially in Thóra’s chapters measured, more befitting the PI/police procedural genre that it fits. Meanwhile the initial sense of unease in the yacht chapters accelerates gradually as their situation worsens. This adept handling of pacing is one of the things I appreciated most about the book.

One thing that struck me as unrealistic from the beginning is the behavior of Bella, the receptionist. Thóra and her partner Bragi in the law practice have five employees; the only one we meet is Bella who not only damages office equipment, insults Thóra and tries to sabotage her, but also spends her days using the firm’s computer and limited internet resources for her own personal purposes. Then she blackmails Thóra by refusing to tell her information she’d been asked to dig up unless Thóra pays for higher internet capacity, something the partners had decided they couldn’t afford. That’s when I almost put down the book. She is so astonishingly awful. Who would keep an employee like that? Though it’s possible there’s something I don’t understand about the Icelandic culture that would explain it.

I was also confused about Thóra’s home life. I haven’t read the previous books in the series, but a man named Matthew is introduced as her partner, which I at first took to mean another business partner as well as her significant other. It’s not clear what his profession is; at first I thought banker, but later she seems to refer to him as a doctor. Then there are a three children living with them, two of whom are apparently teenagers who have a baby. It took me way too long to untangle the relationships. This is the kind of information that should be completely clear, even in a series book, and not make us have to reread several times to sort out.

This is a minor quibble, though. Overall, I thought the book presented an intriguing mystery set in a country I’m eager to visit. The ending was abrupt but believable, though it left a couple of unresolved questions. Thóra is an interesting protagonist. I admired the fluidity of the way the people on the ship were presented; their twists and turns increased the suspense. I especially liked the way Sigursdardóttir used our bemused fascination with ghost ships to add to the creepy atmosphere.

Have you read a book set in Iceland?

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?

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?

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 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 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?

Borderlines, by Archer Mayor

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If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know I like mysteries. Their literary quality is often outstanding, and I always love a good puzzle. This second book in Archer Mayor’s series featuring Joe Gunther hits every mark, making it one of the best police procedurals I’ve read.

Gunther, a policeman in Brattleboro, Vermont, has been seconded to the State’s Attorney at the opposite end of the state. Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom is an isolated, rural area far from the state’s scenic mountains and tourist destinations, and depressed economically, even in 1990 when this novel came out.

He’s familiar with the area, having spent childhood summers here with his aunt and uncle. He’s looking forward to time with his now-widowed Uncle Buster, whose benevolent support he could use as he wrestles with questions regarding both work and love.

In the gripping opening scene, Gunther’s journey is interrupted by an illegal shot, but he is quickly reminded that his authority as a law enforcement officer is limited in the Northeast Kingdom, which is “populated by people who had chosen to put their independence and wariness of the rest of the world above the hardships of living here.”

The pace doesn’t let up, as Gunther arrives in Gannet, the small village of his childhood summers. Ramshackle and rundown, the town allowed half of its building to be bought up by an intentional community, seen by some as a cult. Tensions between the Order and the town have grown, only to explode when a couple from Massachusetts arrives to rescue their daughter. The tension is nicely modulated, with plenty of scenes of Gunther sitting on a step with a childhood friend, walking with his uncle, or phoning his girlfriend to vary the suspense before building to a satisfying climax.

What’s best here is Gunther himself. With this character Mayor finds just the right balance of thought and action. Gunther’s quiet, unassuming voice sets him apart from sometimes brash or bragging detectives. Though there’s not a lot of soul-searching, he’s quick to acknowledge his own mistakes. We’re given all we need to perceive his sorrow at the way the village and its people have deteriorated. The loss of his childhood refuge provides shading to Julie’s story, the young woman whose parents have come to steal her from the cult.

There is one twist that seemed to come almost out of nowhere. Mystery writers have the daunting task of planting enough clues to significant plot twists so that readers think Oh, of course! Why didn’t I see that? while not so many that we guess it too soon. Mayor did an excellent job of preparing for all the plot twists here, save one, noticeable only because of the superb plotting everywhere else.

In talking about the elements in fiction, plot and character are the stars. Increasingly, though, I find myself drawn to novels in which the setting is richly evoked and becomes almost another character. Mayor does that here, brilliantly. The environment he evokes helps us anticipate and understand the people in this story, all brought to life, no matter how small their role. It also charges the mood of the story.

When I was younger, the Kingdom had been much as the name implies – a magical other world, removed from the mainstream and endowed with a specialness in the minds of those who knew of it. Its topography, both rugged and cursive, could reject and embrace, kill and nurture. It was a place where land and weather ruled, where the beauty came less from the majestic mountain views found further south, and more from the perpetual surprises that lurked behind the low, ever-present hills. Even at its harshest, the Kingdom was seductive, as when its omnipotent sky darkened with boiling blue-black clouds, low slung and pregnant with threat.

Its people, like those of Gannet, clung to this mercurial terrain mostly out of choice . . . They were independent, self-supporting, proud, and generally uninterested in what was happening outside of their boundaries . . . But, obviously, the fabric of the Kingdom had begun to strain and yield.

Even now, several decades after publication, this book is a valuable resource if you want to understand the crumbling lives of the rural poor. Mayor’s insight into his fellow Vermonters is demonstrated on every page. As death investigator for Vermont’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, and formerly a detective and volunteer firefighter, Mayor brings the authority of real-world experience to this spellbinding tale.

Have you read one of Archer Mayor’s books? What did you think of it? Do you have a favorite?

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?

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?

Ordinary Grace, by William Kent Krueger

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I’ve long been a fan of Krueger’s Cork O’Connor mysteries. Like many such series today, they are graceful and profound enough to qualify as literary fiction. This stand-alone novel, too, while a mystery, is so much more than that.

Frank Drum tells us about the summer of 1961 when he was 16. A bit of a scamp, he is in that liminal space between childhood and adulthood, when we move from innocence to a more complicated knowledge.

He’s often thrown together with his younger brother Jake, partly because he feels he must protect Jake who has a stammer. They are also somewhat isolated from other youngster their age because their father is the Methodist minister in the small town of New Bremen, Minnesota, and they both firmly believe in their father’s religion. Their older sister Ariel is a musical prodigy headed to Juilliard the following year.

As the summer begins, Frank and his family are struggling to come to terms with a death that has been ruled an accident but may be something more terrifying. Frank and Jake, exploring the sand flats where they are forbidden to go, encounter a squatter and notice he has a key piece of evidence in that death. Thus we are unsettled right from the beginning, aware of peril, but unsure whom to trust.

Although told from the distance of forty years, we get a strong sense of what it’s like to be 13. Frank pushes his boundaries, struggles with bullies, and fears the tensions within his family. His mother, once a promising musician herself, is a native of New Bremen who thought she was escaping by marrying a lawyer-to-be, only to be thrust back into her stifling hometown as a preacher’s wife. Adding to her discontent is her rejection of any kind of religion.

With the summer’s events, Frank must also grapple with issues of prejudice and race. He must find his own way through the religious quagmire of bad things happening to good people. And, like many teens, he must suffer those moments of recognising you’ve made a terrible mistake and those when you must make a difficult choice.

Part of the pleasure of reading this story is the delicate balance between these coming-of-age struggles and the dangerous tensions that bubble up as more deaths ensue. Another part is the subtle way the past threads through these events, exposing unexpected strains and traumas. These stories from before the story add depth and resonance.

Yet another remarkable aspect is the way not only the characters change over the course of the story, but also the way relationships between the characters transform.

Most of all, for me, after several novels in the last few years with vague or disappointing endings, the conclusion here is deeply satisfying. All the pieces come together. We have gone on a journey with these people, a journey that has left me with a full heart.

What novel have you read recently that engaged you emotionally from start to finish?