Murders Quell Innocence in Small Town

Some of my favorite novels are coming of age stories. "Dream with Little Angels," fills the bill, a debut book by Michael Hiebert with a setting that’s reminiscent of summers spent sitting on the front porch sipping glasses of lemonade, life in a simpler time when kids played outside and parents didn't see them till supper.

Sadly, the innocence of Alvin, Ala., is tainted in the mid-1970s when a young girl disappears. Her ravaged, naked body later discovered in a desolate area. Twelve years pass, the case is still unsolved and Leah Teal, a member of the town's police force, remains haunted by her inability to find the girl’s killer. Teal has her hands full at home, as well.

Her 11-year-old son Abe doesn't rock the boat, but her daughter has discovered boys and is rebelling against her mother's authority—strict rules Leah sets in place because she doesn't want Carry to end up like she did, as a pregnant teenager. Though Leah's marriage worked out, she is now a widow, having lost her husband in a car accident.

Young Abe is a precocious boy. He runs the streets and woods with his buddy Dewey. The two are the neighborhood watchdogs. When a rather peculiar man named Farrow moves in next to Abe's house, they're sure he's up to no good and is responsible for the disappearance of another young girl, Mary Ann Dailey. But Leah Teal isn't having any of it. The new crime reawakens her guilt about not solving the former case, and her heart breaks seeing another family in chaos.

Leah becomes obsessed with finding Mary Ann, all the while tightening her grip on her daughter's dalliances, sure Carry is putting herself in harm's way. When a third girl disappears, a little African American child that Abe and Dewey were the last ones to see, and Mary Ann's body turns up in a shallow grave, Leah makes an arrest. Subtle hints are dropped throughout the mystery, yet the murderer’s identity comes as a surprise.

"Dream with Little Angels" has engaging characters, a riveting plot and pacing that flips between languid and runaway train. It's a marvelous portrait of small-town America, and families struggling to come to grips with a trying, terrifying series of ordeals.

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A Sensual Work of Art with a Checkered History

Jojo Moyes burst out of the literary gate with “Me Before You,” a book that reduced many to tears, the tale of plucky English woman, a caretaker for an upper-class paraplegic man. Right-to-life issues intertwine with a love story in this engrossing pageturner. It remains a book I continually suggest, as do others, a word-of-mouth title that’s become a bestseller.

In “The Girl You Left Behind,” Moyes newest, the author again focuses on a complex issue. At the center of the controversy is a prized painting of a French woman completed before her husband is taken prisoner by the Germans in World War I.

Did Sophie Lefève, the woman in the painting, give this treasured portrait to the kommandant who came under her spell when his troops occupied her village, or did the Germans confiscate the painting? Readers are left wondering as the action shifts ahead to London, 2006, and another love triangle between a couple and the coveted painting.

Thirty-two-year old Liv Halston’s husband David buys the painting for her on their honeymoon. Four years later he dies in an accident. Liv has no clue about the painting’s history, and quite innocently becomes embroiled in a dispute that nearly costs her a chance at newfound happiness with Paul.

She meets Paul quite by chance, having no idea the American works for a company that represents clients whose relatives have had art stolen from them during the world wars. When Paul sees the painting on Liv’s wall, he recognizes it as one his company has been searching for. This knowledge sparks a legal battle that threatens to upend their relationship.

Moyes raises moral questions using the framework of an engaging love affair and has written another book sure to spawn discussion. One wonders what subject Moyes will tackle next as she adds an army of admirers on this side of the pond to those she already has in the United Kingdom.

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Historical Fiction, Tragic and Gripping

“The Purchase” by Linda Spalding

The year is 1798; Daniel Dickinson is forced to leave his Quaker village in Pennsylvania, ousted by the church elders for allowing a teenage orphan girl to remain in his home after his wife dies in childbirth. Needing someone to help care for his five children, one a babe in arms, Daniel marries the orphan girl Ruth and heads south with his brood to establish a home in Virginia. It is a journey fraught with difficulties that foreshadow what lies ahead.

Author Linda Spalding bases her new novel “The Purchase” on her generations-old family history, visualizing the struggles Daniel, an abolitionist, faces when he finds himself, quite by accident, in possession of a young slave boy.

His “purchase” seems deemed by fate—Daniel goes to an auction to buy tools to build his house and is appalled to see slaves penned with pigs and cattle, treated as mere creatures to be sold on the block. Forces outside his control intervene at the auction, “…he felt his right arm go up as if pulled by a string.”

Much to his family’s shock, Daniel returns with a slave, another mouth to feed and one devoid of any skills the Quaker needs in building a home in the wilderness. As his children age, Daniel’s troubles intensify, and his relationships suffer.

Throughout this sad but riveting novel, Daniel, a man with high values, is dogged by his poor choices and happenstance. But unlike Jack in “Jack in the Beanstalk,” who trades his mother’s cow for a handful of magic beans, Daniel’s life has no fairy-tale ending replete with happiness and wealth. His “purchase” brings on tragedies that test Daniel and alienate him from those he loves.

Despite his strife, loss and heartbreak Daniel retains his “high moral character.” This, then, is the ray of optimism in “The Purchase,” an engaging but dark novel that received Canada’s 2012 Governor General’s Award for Fiction.