Short Takes: Book reviews, in brief

“The Skeleton Road” moves at a brisk pace as the action moves from Scotland to England to Croatia.
“The Skeleton Road” moves at a brisk pace as the action moves from Scotland to England to Croatia.


The Skeleton Road

Val McDermid, Atlantic Monthly Press, 384 pages

Author Val McDermid pulls together a complicated tale of war and its aftermath for a plot that feels both intensely personal and global. “The Skeleton Road” moves at a brisk pace as the action moves from Scotland to England to Croatia.

Detective Chief Inspector Karen Pirie is called to a decaying Victorian building where a skeleton with a bullet hole in its head has been found. Karen and her team link the skeleton to Dimitar “Mitja” Petrovic, a Croatian army general who emigrated to England after the Balkan conflict. There, he lived with Oxford University professor Maggie Blake. Maggie has never gotten over Mitja, who she believes left her more than eight years ago to return home.

“Skeleton Road” gracefully moves from Karen’s investigation to Maggie’s life and her memories of the war and Mitja. Meanwhile, two members of an international war crimes tribunal also are seeking Mitja as they try to find who is killing people accused of war atrocities before they can be indicted.

Without being overly graphic, “Skeleton Road” depicts the horrors of the Serb-Croat war during the 1990s, including both genocide and personal betrayal. Maggie’s war memories delve into the personal cost of war while exhibiting the effects on a nation.

Associated Press

Family Furnishings: Selected Stories, 1995-2014

Alice Munro, Alfred A. Knopf, 640 pages

A year after Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize for literature and was cited for her mastery of the modern short story, her publisher has collected 24 of her stories published over the past two decades. “Family Furnishings” serves as a companion volume to an earlier compendium, “Selected Stories,” and is as good a place as any to get acquainted with her distinctive voice: pitiless and tender, solemn and sly, elegant and clunky, and always, terrifyingly intelligent.

The stories are mostly written in a straightforward key, yet some are strange and experimental – parts of “My Mother’s Dream,” for instance, are narrated by an infant. They veer sharply backward and forward in time, the point of view shifting among a host of major and minor characters. Braided through her pointillistic accounts of family life, set largely in the farm towns of southwestern Ontario, are shocking episodes of adultery, incest, alcoholism and even murder, always recounted in her calm, matter-of-fact tone.

Echoes of her life reverberate through the stories, and while the names and circumstances change, the themes remain constant: the value of hard work, the enduring influence of family, the corrosive effects of class, the explosive power of love, and the beauty and terror of nature. Not the least of her concerns, perhaps best expressed in the title story, is her ardent ambition to turn her life into art.

Associated Press