A nice balance of genres this week, an intriguing true story of a town under attack by arsonists, a humorous novel about marriage and, on the heavier side, a novel of a Pakistani family living under the shadow of their terrorist father.
American Fire: Love, Arson and Life in a Vanishing Land by Monica Hesse
In a five-month period beginning in November 2012, firefighters in Accomack County, VA, would be called out more than 60 times in a bizarre series of arson cases. Accomack is a rural, isolated peninsula also known as the Eastern Shore of Virginia and while the area is picturesque along the water, Hesse describes the inland area: “It was long. It was isolated. It was emptying of people but full of abandoned houses. It was dark. It was a uniquely perfect place to light a string of fires.” The arsonists are identified early on but it is the motive behind these Bonnie and Clyde pyromaniacs that is both mysterious and riveting. Stories of dedicated volunteer fire fighters and local sheriffs exhaustively running from one fire to the next does the heart good and brings the community together, but the underlying fear of a town under attack by a ghostlike predator hangs over this nervous county. (For levity, there is a small band of camo-clad nitwits who call themselves the East Shore Arsonist Hunters, who camp out in hopes of spotting the bad guys and winning the $25,000 reward…they sell t-shirts!!) Some of the history of the county and research into fire starters is a tad dry but for the most part this true crime reads like a novel and offers some seriously good drama.
Standard Deviation by Katherine Heiny
The main reason I’m recommending this one is that it is laugh-out-loud funny. The story itself is about marriage, exes, children with issues, ordinary yet extraordinary events in everyday lives. A lot of novels cover the same territory, but the humor makes this one very special and only endears us even more to narrator, Graham (plus, I’m always impressed when an author swaps gender with the protagonist…brave!). At the outset of this novel, I feared Graham was tiring of his second wife, Audra, who is younger, vivacious, chatty and knows everyone in their vicinity of New York City. But after an encounter with his first wife, icy Elspeth, the three carve out an unlikely friendship, and we see how much Graham really appreciates his nutty wife and their origami obsessed son, Matthew. Thank goodness, because I want to be friends with Audra, who is flaky, flawed and wonderful. An interesting, witty look at a marriage, despite all its quirks and heartaches.
Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie
Once her twin siblings are of University age, Isma leaves London to return to her studies at Amherst, which were abandoned after her mother and grandmother died, leaving the three orphaned, and Isma in charge of raising her adolescent siblings. We see her detained at Heathrow…did I mention that Isma is Muslim and the father missing from this scenario died while carrying out a terrorist attack? As Isma grapples with trying to have a normal life in America, she worries over her sister, Aneeka, a headstrong free-spirit and her aimless brother, Parvais, whom she’s given up contact with…why? Did he follow in his father’s footsteps? In the meantime, Isma meets Eamonn, a charming man with ties to her family in London but with very different religious and political views. Things gets complicated when Eamonn returns to England and seeks out the beautiful Aneeka and a passionate affair is born, much to the distress of Eamonn’s father, a high-ranking Parliament official who wants his son to have nothing to do with a woman with ties to a jihad. Finally, we are introduced to Parvais who has been coerced into following in his father’s footsteps and doesn’t realize that he’s in way over his head until he finds himself in Syria with no passport. As the family attempts to bring him back home, the novel takes on the jittery feel of Homeland episode as loyalties and politics collide. Complicated and intricately plotted, this is a great read.