WHAT HAS BECOME OF YOU

By Jan Elizabeth Watson

Dutton, 2014

352 pages, $26.95

ISBN 978-0-525-95437-8

When Vera Lundy signed on as a substitute English teacher at a posh girls’ prep school in Maine, she had no idea this new job would be a nightmare of self-doubt, bad decisions and murder.

“What Has Become Of You” at first seems like an odd title for a mystery, until it becomes clear this story is much more than just a crime caper. This is Maine author Jan Watson’s second novel, after the critically acclaimed “Asta In The Wings” (Tin House, 2009).

This is a mystery, but it is also a dark psycho-drama about an adult woman desperate to be self-sufficient, badgered by her mother, who fails to establish personal and professional boundaries, and who blabs details of her personal life to total strangers and her students. Vera is an emotional train wreck about to happen.

The Wallace School in Dorset, Maine, is where Vera teachers English to several classes of 15-year-old girls. “The Catcher in the Rye” and student journals are the assignments, but the journals reveal much about these girls, especially one clever student.

Vera’s hobby is the study of serial killers (how creepy is that?) and she connects with one girl in discussions of death, murder and suicide. Before she knows it, Vera is entangled in a confusing web of lies and deception after one of her students is strangled to death and another suddenly disappears.

The murder and disappearance form the framework for this complex and overly ambitious story, but Vera is the real story here. She thinks she can solve the mysteries, but her words and actions only make everything much worse. The reader will figure it out early on (see all the signs Vera misses), but will be disappointed in the abrupt and unconvincing conclusion.

MAINERS ON THE TITANIC

By Mac Smith

Down East Books, 2014

204 pages, $15.95

ISBN 978-1-60893-304-4

The sensational story of the sinking of the RMS Titanic in April 1912 has been retold countless times in books and movies. However, Stockton Springs author Mac Smith’s debut nonfiction book tells the dramatic story from a unique angle.

“Mainers On The Titanic” focuses on the Titanic’s passengers from Maine (or with a Maine connection), from millionaire families like the Astors, Thayers, Wideners, Speddens and Harpers to a widow socialite, a female doctor, an architect, a sportsman and a Bowdoin College senior.

Some Mainers survived, others did not, freezing or drowning, perishing in the frigid North Atlantic along with more than 1,500 other passengers and crew (only 710 people survived). This is a gripping tale of life and death at sea, where heroism, sacrifice, grief and survival reveal much about men and women in deadly crisis.

Smith astutely tells about the ship, the collision with the iceberg and the sinking, as well as vivid descriptions of passengers and crew, their gaiety and laughter turning to screaming and panic, then silence.

He tells of the budding shipboard romance between a gorgeous widow from York and a handsome architect from Bangor; about husbands sacrificing themselves to save their families; and about a thoughtful, brave Bowdoin College senior later eulogized by the class of 1912.

Best, however, are Smith’s descriptions of the survivors’ rescue, and the grim recovery operations of the Halifax-based “funeral ship,” retrieving and identifying dead bodies, burying some at sea, bringing others back to Halifax for interment or collection by relatives.

He also smartly includes the chaos and confusion among the public desperate for news, the primitive system of wireless radio communication and the shameless frenzy of newspapers to scoop salacious tidbits and businesses taking ghoulish advantage of this maritime disaster.

Bill Bushnell lives and writes in Harpswell.

 


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