The Hawley Book of the Dead by Chrysler Szarlan

the-hawley-book-of-the-dead The first line of The Hawley Book of the Dead is a very intriguing one: “on the day I killed my husband, the scent of lilacs startled me awake.” Immediately there are questions. Who is speaking? Why did she kill her husband? And what does the scent of lilacs have to do with anything?

I didn’t have long to wait for the first two questions, at least, to be answered. The narrator is Reve (short for Revelation) Dyer and she didn’t intend to kill her husband. She and Jeremy were happily married with three children and had worked together for years as part of a successful Las Vegas magic act known as the Amazing Maskelynes. Jeremy’s death was the result of a stunt that went wrong when someone replaced the blanks in Reve’s pistol – a stage prop – with real bullets, something which must have been done deliberately. Now Reve has been left devastated and afraid – even more so when she becomes convinced that the murderer is a man who has been on her trail since her student days, a man she knows only as ‘the Fetch’.

Deciding it’s time to start a new life as far away as possible, Reve and her three young daughters, Grace, Fai and Caleigh, move to their family’s neglected old estate in Massachusetts. Hawley Five Corners was once a thriving little town, but was abandoned long ago amid stories of unexplained disappearances and a haunted wood. It seems the perfect place to hide from the Fetch, but almost as soon as she and the girls move into an empty farmhouse in the deserted town, strange things begin to happen. When she finds a mysterious red and gold book which has been in her family for years, passed down through the generations, Reve discovers that the only way she can keep her daughters safe is to try to understand the secrets the book contains.

The Hawley Book of the Dead is the third book I’ve read for the R.I.P. XI event. It proved to be an ideal book to read at this time of year when the weather is beginning to change and the nights are starting to get longer (the characters even celebrate Halloween halfway through the novel). I’ve seen comparisons with The Night Circus, The Lost Book of Salem and A Discovery of Witches and while I can see some similarities with all of those, I thought there were plenty of original ideas here too.

I liked the way magic was handled in the novel. It’s important to the plot but doesn’t dominate the story to the exclusion of everything else. A few chapters in, we learn that the female members of the Dyer family (going back for centuries) possess magical powers of one sort or another – for example, Reve’s gift is the ability to vanish into thin air, while Caleigh’s is a fascinating one involving string games. At first I didn’t really understand the purpose of their magic but as the history of the Dyers and Hawley Five Corners was gradually revealed, it all began to make more sense. I was particularly intrigued by the Irish mythology and folklore – especially the tales of the Tuatha de Danann – which were woven into the story of Reve’s ancestors.

However, the magic was the most interesting thing about the characters. Although I liked Reve and her daughters and enjoyed the occasional scenes involving Reve’s grandmother, Nan, and her mysterious friend, Falcon Eddy, I didn’t find any of the characters very strong or memorable. I also thought the inclusion of Reve’s old boyfriend, Jolon, as a love interest was unnecessary, especially as she was still supposed to be grieving for Jeremy. These were my only disappointments with the book; otherwise, I loved the author’s descriptive writing, the entertaining story and the atmospheric setting.

The Hawley Book of the Dead was published in 2014 and according to the About the Author note at the end of the book it was intended to be the first in a quartet. I can’t find any recent news about a second novel, but I hope there’s still going to be one as I would like to know what happens next!

The Postmistress by Sarah Blake

It’s 1940. Frankie Bard is an American radio reporter working in London for CBS, broadcasting news on the Blitz into American homes. Frankie is right in the heart of the action, spending her nights sheltering from the bombs and her days reporting on homes that have been destroyed, families torn apart and children left orphaned.

Meanwhile on the other side of the Atlantic, we see the effects the war is having on the small town of Franklin, Massachusetts. In Franklin, we meet the postmistress (or actually, postmaster, as she prefers to be called): Iris James, a middle-aged single woman. And we also meet Emma Fitch, the doctor’s wife. When Emma’s husband travels to London to offer his medical skills to the war effort, it sets a chain of events in motion which will affect the lives of all three women.

I seem to have been reading a lot of books about World War II recently – books written during the war, set during the war and about the aftermath of the war. The Postmistress is a book I’ve had my eye on for a while and I was looking forward to reading it. Unfortunately, it turned out not to be one of the better WWII books I’ve read. In fact, it’s probably the most disappointing book I’ve read so far this year and I very nearly gave up on it after a few chapters. Although the writing was very elegant, it felt impersonal somehow and scenes that I’m sure should have made me cry left me unmoved.

The biggest problem I had was that I didn’t feel a real connection to any of the characters. The only one who came alive for me at all was Frankie Bard. I thought the book lacked focus and might have worked better if it had concentrated more on one central character. As it was, I’m not sure The Postmistress was the best title for this book. It implies that the postmistress (i.e. Iris) would be the main focal point of the book, which she wasn’t – this was really Frankie’s story in my opinion – and although Iris does play an important part in the plot, her character’s potential was never fully explored. As for the third main female character, Emma, she seemed very two-dimensional and I never felt that I got to know her at all.

It’s not all bad, though: there were some things that I did like about this book. I enjoyed the section where Frankie was sent to report on the refugee trains departing from Berlin and to attempt to interview some of the Jewish families who were leaving the city. I’m sure she wouldn’t really have found it quite so easy to travel by ferry from England to France in the middle of the war and then to catch a train to Berlin, though! Despite this and a few other inaccuracies (in the author’s note, for example, Sarah Blake admits that the recording equipment Frankie was carrying hadn’t been invented until 1944), I thought this was easily the most compelling part of the novel. This was around 150 pages into the book and was the first time I’d found myself becoming absorbed in the story, which made me glad I hadn’t abandoned it. Sadly though it didn’t continue to hold my attention and I quickly started to lose interest again when the focus returned to Iris and Emma.

I did find it interesting to read about the various ways in which the war was affecting the lives of people in Massachusetts, thousands of miles away from the fighting. We see people worrying about loved ones in Europe, people feeling frightened and expecting a German U-boat to land at any minute, people tuning into the radio every day to hear the latest news and wishing there was some way they could help. Most of the WWII books I’ve read have been from a European perspective so this was something different and I really liked that aspect of the book.

The Postmistress didn’t work for me personally, but I’ve seen a lot of reviews that are much more positive than mine, so clearly other readers have been able to connect with the characters and the story better than I have. I do however think it would make a good book group choice, as it raises some issues which would be perfect for a discussion, such as the importance of truth and whether the truth should always be told – and what happens to the people we hear about on the news after the reporter stops speaking and the radio is turned off.