Modern Lit: The Museum of Extraordinary Things, by Alice Hoffman

The Museum of Extraordinary Things

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Alice Hoffman works her magic again in The Museum of Extraordinary Things, a tale about a place that, in its time, would ordinarily be referred to as a freak show. The museum is located near Coney Island’s Dreamland. Among its extraordinary performers is the owner’s daughter, Coralie, who was born with webbed fingers, and therefore, to his way of thinking, will make a perfect mermaid. Night after night, she immerses herself in her tank to entertain audiences  that range from ordinary folk to out and out perverts. Her autocratic, rather demoniacal father also forces Coralie to take nightly swims in the Hudson, to foster stories about a mysterious river creature.

Coralie narrates her own role in this tale, sharing the protagonist role with Eddie, a young Jewish emigre who is estranged from his father, a garment worker in New York’s sweatshops. Eddie rejects this life to become a photographer, quite a gifted one, and he narrates his own side of the story, working among the lower classes in such settings as the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. He also develops a reputation for being exceedingly good at locating missing persons. Eddie and Coralie’s paths of course with cross, and the second half of the book chronicles the  halting development of their relationship.

This is a book replete with vivid period detail. Hoffman includes among her characters some real-life figures as she depicts the terrible hardships of life among the underclasses at the beginning of the twentieth century, and one of the joys of reading her is that she never has to lapse into preaching to make her point clear. Though it is ultimately a love story, even its denouement is far from light and airy; this is the sort of tale that will stay with you long after you’ve returned the book to its shelf.

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It’s a Mystery: The Girl Before, by J.P. Delaney

The Girl Before

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Recently, it’s become increasingly difficult to find new original novels, what with so many authors seeking to capitalize on the popularity of such bestsellers as Fifty Shades of Gray, Gone Girl, and Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and also the dystopian/YA/vampire market. Some book sources are inventing names for new genres. I don’t know about that, but it’s pretty easy to recognize piggy backing for popularity when you see it. Some of the writers doing that are Ruth Ware and B. A. Paris, both of whom I’ve read and enjoyed, and perhaps if their  books had been published first, they’d be the bestsellers. The same can be said of The Girl Before, by J. P. Delaney, but to give credit where it’s due, Delaney has added some twists of her own.

This book focuses upon two women who rented One Folgate Street, an avant-garde, architectural prize winning house in London going for a ridiculously reasonable rent. Emma is the first tenant, the “girl before”, whose occupancy ended with a fatal fall down the interior stone stairs. Her successor is Jane, who is struggling to find her equilibrium following a stillbirth. It’s a mystery why either of them would even consider moving to a place whose creepy, obsessive owner, architect Edward Monkford, presents them with a manual containing hundreds of  restrictions (just the two about no rugs and no books would have killed the deal for me) and has a computerized, visual monitoring system called “housekeeper” that controls the home’s every system and ensures the tenant’s compliance.  The book’s other mystery concerns Emma’s death; when Jane learns about she becomes determined to discover what happened and why. That task is complicated by the steamy affair she and the kinky Edward are conducting.

Though loaded with time-honored  tropes and other derivatives (that creepy “housekeeper”, an owner reputed to have caused the death of his own wife and child, the fact that both Emma and Jane are ringers for the dead wife), this book has its appeal. The atmosphere is decidedly eerie, and the  house, austere as it is, nevertheless provides some clues, as does Emma’s rejected former boyfriend.  Jane’s behavior is often foolhardy, but if you can accept that, the psychological implications of all that goes on are fascinating, as is the surprise that abruptly pops up at the very end. The characters are strange and Edward in particular is odious, but their story is weirdly compelling.

It’s a Mystery: Raven Black, by Ann Cleeves

Raven Black (Shetland Island, #1)
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ever since experiencing a fascinating visit to Scotland’s Iona and Staffa Islands a few years back, I became interested in other islands in the region. Books set in the British Isles always appeal to me, and I regularly troll the new book release lists looking for new titles and/or authors. In the case of Raven Black, it was the author’s name (Henry VIII’s fourth wife)  that hooked me. Also, the names Shetland and Fair Isle have long been familiar to me as an avid knitter, so I just had to give Ann Cleeves’  Shetland series a try.

Like another popular novel series set in Scotland, Raven Black is a book involving outlanders. The first one we meet is Fran Hunter, who, following her divorce,  relocated to Shetland from London so her daughter could have contact with her father, a prominent island native.  She is struggling to find a niche in the small, literally insular, community where most families have lived for generations. Not surprisingly, it’s the sort of place where everybody knows everybody else and everybody else’s secrets, things not shared with outsiders. When she discovers the strangled body of another newcomer, high school student Catherine Ross, Fran will quickly learn what many of those secrets are.

Detective Jimmy Perez, called in from nearby Fair Isle, is the next incomer on the scene. Nearly everyone he interviews throws suspicion on an elderly local man, who was implicated but not accused in the disappearance of another young girl eight years earlier. Perez, being familiar with the way of life, resists jumping to conclusions, always observing, listening, reading between the lines.

This is a tautly plotted mystery  full of local atmosphere, tradition, and  complex characters.  Perez slowly teases out the conflicts and resentments that underlie community relationships, and he finds no dearth of suspects as well as an abundance of clues. But clues are not evidence, and not until the killer makes another move, during the biggest folkloric festival of the year, do his theories crystallize. There’s plenty of local color and attitude from start to finish, and none of the many clues are tells. The surprising  and satisfactory ending left me eagerly anticipating the sequel, White Nights.

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Nonfiction Worth Reading: New England Bound, by Wendy Warren

New England Bound: Slavery and Colonization in Early America

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Most Americans know about slavery on southern plantations, and about New England’s role in achieving abolition. As school kids, most Americans learned about the horrors of plantation slavery, and were taught to take pride in the wisdom and perseverance of  the Northern states as leaders of the abolition movement. What we weren’t taught anything about was the institution of slavery in New England, where many Native Americans and the first Africans were enslaved within a decade of the founding of Plymouth Colony. More than a few studies of this topic have been published in the past decades or so and are gradually making inroads into the public’s awareness of this hidden history.  Wendy Warren’s meticulously researched new book is a welcome addition to the discussion.  Prominent 17th century families such as the Winthrops and the Mathers, and countless ordinary families either owned slaves, trafficked in them, or built their fortunes on the forced labor, deprivation, and pain of several thousand kidnapped individuals.

New England Bound draws upon such primary documents as court records, journals, and runaway slave notices to illustrate the breadth of this system in the context of the Triangle Trade. But more interestingly, the author has interpolated some of the ways in which the lives of those enslaved were impacted by the experience.  For example, Indian captives were locally available but proved to be difficult to manage because, being natives, they had recourse to a network of kin; for this reason, they proved less reliable than Africans, and most Indians  were sold/shipped off to the West Indies. Warren does a particularly effective job of presenting the  psychological effects of being ripped away from one’s family and social network  to an alien environment oceans away. Slave laws prevented the forging of new connections (families, networks of friends)  for these victimized people, whose sense of isolation must have been profound, whether they were island bound or working in a New England farmstead.

Writing in a flowing style, Warren provides much food for thought. She also looks into the earliest anti-slavery tracts, the very first written at the end of the century by none other than Samuel Sewall of Salem Witchcraft fame. Reading this book will forever change the reader’s conception of America’s first hundred years.

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Modern Lit: Into the Water, by Paula Hawkins

Into the Water
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The sleepy, remote little town of Beckford, England has a decidedly spooky history. The river that runs through it has what’s known as the drowning pool, which over the centuries has the site of a string of drownings, all women. As Into the Water opens, Jules Abbott is summoned following the death of her older sister Nel, to identify the body and to take care of Lena, her teenaged niece. Nel has been researching the  history of all the local women who died in the pool, starting with a young 17th century woman who drowned during the dunking test for witchcraft. There are many in Beckford who resent that work and who vow to keep the book from publication. The police believe, or say they believe, that Nel committed suicide, but Jules isn’t buying it. One of Nel’s supporters is Nicky, the elderly town mystic. Most view her as barmy, but when she tells Jules that most of the victims, recent and historical, have been wronged by the men in their lives, what she says resonates with Jules, who will come to rely more and more upon Nicky’s insights. Nicky may not have paranormal powers, but she’s certainly a good observer.

Into the Water has multiple narrators, and it is difficult to tell which are reliable. The star of the production is the town with its river; the theme is social justice, misogyny, and the misuse of power. Because there are several victims, there a several subplots, the most vivid being not Nel’s death but that of her daughter’s best friend who drowned only the month before. But all of the women’s stories are compelling in their own right;  the development of Jules’s thorny relationship with her niece is well presented, as is the denouement of her thorny relationship with her sister.  And over everything lies the aura of the strange, secretive town, not threatening, just peculiar. And it’s easy to allow oneself to be drawn into Nel’s conundrums. Into the Water is more psychological drama than suspenseful mystery.

Most of the critical reviews I’ve read compare Water with Girl on a Train, all opining that Water lacks the same brilliance. I prefer to judge books on their own merits, and that’s what I’ve done with my own review.

 

It’s a Mystery: A Pale Horse, by Charles Todd

A Pale Horse (Inspector Ian Rutledge, #10)A Pale Horse by Charles Todd

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“I looked, and behold, an ashen horse; and he who sat on it had the name Death; and Hades was following with him.” Apocalypse.

Charles Todd continues exploring the hideous ramifications of war in this tenth Ian Rutledge mystery.  Four years after the end of WWI, Rutledge still suffers symptoms of PTSD, which are debilitating even though he manages his flashbacks quite well. The most prominent among his  symptoms is the voice of Hamish, a soldier whom Rutledge unwillingly ordered executed for refusing to follow orders. Hamish functions as a sort of conscience and sounding board , giving readers insight into Rutledge’s thoughts and emotional struggles.

In spite of those struggles, Rutledge is a fine detective, doing  a credible job with Scotland Yard, no thanks to his superior, Chief Superintendent Bowles. Now he’s sent to Berkshire to assist in a War Department search for a missing operative, Gaylord Partridge (really!) Partridge has been residing in a tiny village among eight misfits, who reside in a cluster of cottages originally built for lepers, at the foot of the famous iron age White Horse of Uffington. Though he’s not been briefed, Rutledge strongly suspects that Partridge participated in some top secret mission during the war. Muddying the waters is the discovery, within the ruins of  Yorkshire’s Fountains Abbey, of a corpse wrapped in a hooded cloak, face covered with a gas mask. Though not a part of Rutledge’s assignment, that will prove to be the crucial piece of the puzzle.

Populated with an array of interesting characters, some quite complex and all very real,  and set in one of England’s most mysterious locales, A Pale Horse is a layer cake of secret upon secret, some interrelated and some discrete.  If it weren’t so tightly plotted, following this investigation might have been a bit confusing. As more murders and several arsons occur, Rutledge has an ever increasing abundance of connections to sort through while trying not to tread on the toes of the local police.

The Inspector Rutledge series has a prominent place among the more literary mysteries in the genre, and A Pale Horse definitely fits well into that place; it’s an intelligent, socially relevant novel with resonance in today’s world, where war, business, political secrets, and yes, PTSD,  play such  a large role.

It’s a Mystery: Lie to Me, by J. T. Ellison

Lie to Me

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

After the first few chapters of Lie to Me, it impressed me strongly as Gone Girl redux, and it stayed that way for most of the book. Bestselling authors Ethan and Sutton Montclair live the writerly life in Tennessee, and to the outside world, theirs is the perfect marriage. Of course, all is not what it seems, and when Sutton takes off, leaving a note instructing her husband to give her some space, Ethan is unsure what to think or do. The plot thickens relatively quickly, the first half related from his point of view, and the second from Sutton’s. Once the press gets hold of the missing person angle, Ethan comes under suspicion. Someone, it seems, is trying to frame him, but for what? Most of the midsection of this novel drags somewhat, picks up eventually when Sutton relates her side of events, and from thereon, diverges from the Gone Girl trope with a series of surprising developments make it clear that all indeed is not what it seems. Both of the Montclairs have kept  secrets from one another, which combine to create complex and deadly situations for each of them. Even the denouement, however, borrows from other sources.

As characters, Ethan and Sutton are not particularly original or sympathetic, and it’s those in the supporting roles that ultimately add life to the story.

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