REVIEW: THE ARSONIST, BY SUE MILLER

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During one summer in a small New Hampshire town, tensions are ignited between the summer people and the locals after a string of fires spread across the landscape. Despite its time period, set in the 1990s during the Clinton years, the issues exposed during and after each conflagration seem timely.

Bud Jacobs, the editor of the local newspaper, writes about the impact of the arsonist:

“The sense of community that is the bedrock of small-town life is broken, suddenly.”

Home from a fifteen-year stint in Kenya doing aid work, Frankie Rowley finds herself caught up in the fear that overwhelms all the residents, as she also struggles with family issues. Her parents, Sylvia and Alfie, have retired to their former summer home in Pomeroy, but Alfie’s slow descent into dementia seemingly changes everything about the dynamic between them. Meanwhile, Frankie is at loose ends, undecided about what to do next and whether or not to return to Africa.

In Miller’s beautiful prose, the story of The Arsonist: A novel unfolds, while Frankie and newspaper owner Bud give in to the powerful pull between them.

We follow the tale from the perspectives of the various characters, as it sweeps back and forth through the years, revealing the relationships between them all and the paths that have led them to where they now are. We learn more about Sylvia’s teen years and how an unresolved relationship has informed her life in the subsequent decades.

Meanwhile, we must ask ourselves: Who is targeting the summer people in Pomeroy, and why? Could the frustrations and conflicts of the past be presenting themselves now? What will Frankie decide about her next project, and how can she escape the feelings of not belonging anywhere?

Themes of home and belonging, of the social context that surrounds us in our dwellings, and the divide across which hostilities are played out, bring the story to its somewhat nebulous conclusion, with still more questions than answers. A brief fast forward through the years gives us a glimpse of what might be, even as we puzzle over those unanswered questions. A lovely narrative that will never leave me. Five stars.

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REVIEW: MERCY SNOW, BY TIFFANY BAKER

17869466Titan Halls, New Hampshire, is a small town ruled by the paper mill and its owners, the McAllisters. They are the “haves,” while the “have-nots,” like the Snow family, live on the fringes, dubbed as itinerant ne-er-do-wells and a blight on the community.

So when a tragic bus accident ends a life and seemingly destroys another, the McAllisters, like some others, are quick to place blame on young Zeke Snow, who has recently returned to town with his younger sisters, Mercy and Hannah.

But Cal and June McAllister are keeping secrets, while trying to railroad the Snows out of town. Will Mercy and her young sister starve before the truth comes out? Will the runaway Zeke prove his innocence? And what long-ago secrets might be revealed after a skeleton is discovered near the accident site? Was there more to the story than a simple accidental death?

Following the struggles of Mercy and Hannah made me root for them, even as their desperate choices only seemed to bring more doubt upon any possible innocence. Hazel, the local sheep owner and the wife of the bus driver, injured in the crash, is barely hanging on. Will her sympathy for Mercy put her on the wrong end of things when faced with June McAllister’s pressures? And what surprising connections will Hazel discover in an unexpected way?

Mercy Snow: A Novel is a story that shines a spotlight on the long-buried secrets in a small town, along with the hierarchy of power and how those who possess it will struggle to retain it.

The story comes to its conclusion with a surprising reveal, and then fast forwards into the future to unmask how sometimes the sinners can find redemption. 4.5 stars.