June 07, 2016

Coney Island Plague

Magruder’s Curiosity Cabinet: A Novel, by H. P. Wood, (Sourcebooks Landmark), 368 pages, release date 7 June, 2016

Like most readers, I’ve developed a list of very specific genres that are of particular interest to me. Not genres like historical fiction, but genres like historical fiction dealing with religious conflict in Elizabethan England or complicated mysteries with books at their center that also include magical realism. Another of these ultra-specific genres is explorations of class and individual opportunity set on Coney Island near the turn of the 20th Century. The most recent top-notch addition to this genre is H. P. Wood’s Magruder’s Curiosity Cabinet, which I’m putting on my shelves next to Alice Hoffman’s The Museum of Extraordinary Things and Leslie Parry’s Church of Marvels (you can find reviews of these two titles on this blog).

In Magruder’s Curiosity Cabinet H. P. Wood creates a world that is distressingly real and simultaneously infused with just a touch of magical realism. Wood’s Coney Island is highly stratified: there are the wealthy business owners, the more established performers and venues, and a highly marginalized community of small-time performers and oddities.

Two new arrivals on the island set this novel in motion: one is Kitty Armstrong, from a wealthy English family, whose mother has disappeared during their first day on the island, and the plague. Yes, that plague. Wood uses the San Francisco plague epidemic of 1900-1904 and the epidemic in Honolulu that occurred during the same period as inspiration. The wealthy see that Coney Island becomes quarantined, abandoning the vulnerable to attempt to live out the epidemic with limited resources and almost no health care.

Kitty is befriended by a con man, who leads her to Magruder’s where she becomes part of an eclectic community: the legless African American man who runs Magruder’s, the youngster who won’t speak a word aside from his own unusual name and who has an obsessive fondness for fleas and flea circuses, an eccentric experimental scientist, a robot boy who is also an artist, a character who is half male half female divided neatly down the middle, the heir of a senator who is a major Coney Island business owner—the list goes on and on. Wood does an admirable job of bringing these characters together and gradually building relationships among them that are both affectionate and volatile. This isn’t a cast of gutter angels, rather it’s a group of gutter and high society individuals, most of whom are both a bit angel and a bit devil.

I’d recommend starting Magruder’s Curiosity Cabinet on a Friday evening. You’ll need to have Saturday and Sunday free because once you begin reading, you won’t want to put this book down.

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May 31, 2016

A Birder, A Murder

A Cast of Falcons: A Birder Murder Mystery, by Steve Burrows, (Dundurn), 384 pages, release date 31 May, 2016

A Cast of Falcons is Steve Burrow’s third “Birder Murder Mystery,” and they just keep getting better. I’ve reached the point as a reader where I devour each title in this series as it appears and then wait anxiously for the next.

Detective Chief Inspector Dominic Jejeune is both investigator and birder, a brilliant, misleadingly placid figure, who is always a step ahead of his cohorts. His back story—originally from Canada, now working in Saltmarsh in Norfolk, a “successful” case that led to the death on one innocent and the rescue of another, and a brother on the other side of the law—is gradually revealed by Burrows.

In this volume Jejeune investigates a pair of seemingly unrelated murders: one of a Scottish birder, the other of a climate change scientist, whose work was underwritten by a family whose wealth comes from oil. A prize offered for a successful method of clearing oil spills may or may not be motivating the murderer.

If you haven’t discovered this series yet, you need to. If you have, like me you’ll race through this title and be eager for more.

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May 17, 2016

Class and Murder in Shakespeare’s England

The Players’ Boy Is Dead: A Shakespearian Murder Mystery, by Leonard Tourney, (Endeavour Press), 169 pages, release date 24 March, 2016

The Players’ Boy Is Dead (note that Shakespeare does not play a significant role in this book despite its subtitle) is an historical mystery that works reasonably well in both categories, but never truly captivates. It kept me reading, but when I’d finished, I could put it aside easily. It’s not the sort of book that lingers.

Clothier Matthew Stock serves as village Constable, reporting to Magistrate Sir Henry Saltmarsh. But what is Stock to do when the murders start piling up and the evidence points to Lord Saltmarsh himself? First, a boy traveling with a group of players, taking the female roles, is found murdered. Then, there’s a suspicious suicide. This is followed by a roadside accident that may not have been an accidental at all.

The Players’ Boy Is Dead illustrates some interesting facets of life at the turn of the 18th Century. Tourney shows us a class-bound society, where changes in status are both difficult and dangerous. He offers a potentially engaging mystery, but gives readers few clues, so that the resolution feels as if it comes by happenstance as much as anything else. The most interesting aspect of the novel is its depictions of the theater scene in London and rural England.

If you’re a fan of historical mysteries, you’ll find diversion in this title, but it’s not apt to prove satisfactory for those not already committed to the genre.

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May 12, 2016

Feline Scientific

Professor Astro Cat’s Atomic Adventure, by Dr. Dominic Wallman and Ben Newman, (Flying Eye Books), 56 pages, release date 10 May, 2016

There are so many reasons to love Professor Astro Cat, I just can’t help myself. This brave and brilliant feline, with a mouse sidekick, has already led readers through Frontiers of Space. Now he’s back on an atomic adventure, explaining topics like gravity, the scientific method, atoms, molecules, and laws of force and motion.

Like the first Professor Astro Cat book, Atomic Adventure offers a feast of fact and image. Always dapper—he wears a derby even under his space helmet—Professor Astro Cat models a spirit of inquiry that’s infectious and entertaining.  Grade-school scientists will enjoy poring over the pages of this book, reading main and secondary text, finding fact within fact within fact.

And frankly, Professor Astro Cat’s charm extends well past his grade school audience. Any lover of illustration will be charmed by this book—whether or not she has children in her life. The bright colors and the retro/modern style illustrations are nothing short of visually delicious.

If you know any budding scientists, particularly those who enjoy sorting through data and making their own discoveries, you’ll delight them with Professor Astro Cat. And if you have adult friends who appreciate top-notch design and illustration, they’ll be equally pleased with this title.

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May 10, 2016

A Baseball Mystery That’s Got Lots of Game

Sayonara Slam, by Naomi Hirahara, (Prospect Park Books), 280 pages, 10 May, 2016

The “detective” in Naomi Hirahara’s Sayonara Slam is Mas Arai, former gardener, baseball fan, and resentful host to his extended family. Like most of the characters populating this novel, Arai is fascinating, drawn in careful detail.

The mystery in this mystery novel is the murder of an unpopular Japanese journalist, who drops dead while covering a World Baseball Classic game being held at Dodger Stadium and played between historic opponents Japan and Korea.

More interesting than the mystery (which is interesting) is the network of relationships among the book’s “Japanese” characters. I’m putting Japanese in quotation marks here because their experiences are different enough to make lumping them under a single heading inappropriate. There are the Japanese who lived through internment in the U.S. in World War II. There are the Japanese who returned to Japan rather than be interned. There are the Japanese who survived the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, who are now U.S. citizens. There are Japanese who will acknowledge the wrong Japan committed when it forced Korean women to serve as “comfort women.” There are younger Japanese trying to climb their way up today’s economic ladder. Sayonara Slam lets us sees the complexity of culture played out on both historical and global scales.

Read this book for its central character and for the puzzle it’s built around, but also read it for the rich, complicated world it will introduce you to.

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May 05, 2016

Forgery and Fascination

The Last Weynfeldt, by Martin Suter, translated by Steph Morris, (New Vessel Press), 303 pages, release date 16 February, 2016

If you appreciate interesting mystery novels—and by interesting I mean with unusual settings and particularly well-developed, quirky characters—you’ll love The Last Weynfeldt. Adrian Weynfeldt is an art authenticator and appraiser working for an auction house. He lives alone in a roomy apartment filled with original art, enjoying both comfort and predictability.

The Last Weynfeldt opens just as Adrian’s life is turned doubly upside down: he realizes that a painting he’s authenticated is, in fact, a forgery, and he finds himself involved in an increasingly complex relationship with a volatile woman whose presence is pulling him out of his comfortable habits. One grasps the content of the central mystery fairly quickly, but the resolution is uncertain until the novel’s end, which makes it a rewarding read.

Martin Suter’s writing, as translated by Steph Morris, is a pleasure to read—precise, with effectively painted emotion that never comes across as sentimental. If you’re starting to think about your summer reading pile, add The Last Weynfeldt to your list. Its mix of complexity and charm will prove deeply satisfying.

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May 03, 2016

An Outsider on Roanoke

Left in the Wind: A Novel of the Lost Colony: the Roanoke Journal of Emme Merrimoth, by Ed Gray, (Pegasus) 352 pages, release date 3 May, 2016

One might think that by now the tale of the lost colony of Roanoke had been done to death, but one would be wrong. Ed Gray’s Left in the Wind is a solid addition to the fictional explorations of this colony’s doomed history.

In this version of the story the expedition’s leader, Governor John White, realizing the project is failing, abandons the colonists and sails to England, claiming he is going to secure additional supplies. Meanwhile, the colonists face Indian tribes of varying levels of hostility—and often exacerbate the hostility through their own arrogance.

Emme Merrimoth records these events in her journal. Once White’s lover, she later was both accused of witchcraft and enslaved by one of the local tribes. As a single woman she is much freer than other women of the colony, but also more suspect. As the colony’s failure grows more certain, Emme allows us a viewpoint that is both grounded within the community, but also placed outside of it. She is both participant and observer at the same time, pursuing many of the same questions that readers will find rising in their own minds.

If you’re a fan of historical fiction. Left in the Wind will provide an enjoyable, thought-provoking read.

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April 28, 2016

Resistance in Amsterdam

Girl in the Blue Coat, by Monica Hesse, translated by Natalia Payne, (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers), 320 pages, release date 5 April, 2016

Don’t let the fact that Girl in the Blue Coat is published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers fool you. Yes, young adults would enjoy this title, but it makes deeply satisfying reading for adults as well—and it’s worth making a trip into a different section of the bookstore.

The central character, Hanneke, has been surviving the Nazi occupation of Amsterdam and providing sole support for her parents by dealing in black market goods. She works days as a receptionist in a funeral home whose owner is good at finding the increasingly rare things that wealthy Amsterdamers are willing to pay for. Hanneke serves as his delivery person.

Hanneke has no interest beyond keeping herself and her family safe. She certainly doesn’t want to take unnecessary risks. However, Hanneke’s work in the black market brings her in contact with a group of young people working for the resistance… and the novel’s action proceeds from that point.

Monica Hesse has done valuable research into a little known part of the history of resistance in Amsterdam, and The Girl in the Blue Coat brings this history to vivid life.

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April 26, 2016

Dead and Deadened

These Heroic, Happy Dead: Stories, by Luke Mogelson, (Tim Duggan Books, Random Houe), 192 pages, release date 26 April 2016

I’m lucky to receive electronic review copies of a great many interesting books—but one of the rules that I’ve established for myself is that when one of the electronic review copies turns out to be of five-star quality, I buy it in hardback the day it’s released. Maybe that’s not necessary, but when I find a book that’s truly worth supporting I want to support it—both by blogging and through my personal purchasing power. These Heroic, Happy Dead is one of those books.

These Heroic, Happy Dead falls just shy of being a  novel. Instead it’s a collection of closely related stories tracking the lives of U.S. soldiers and their families, both while the soldiers serve in Afghanistan and after their return to the U.S. The heroic and the happy of the title are both sardonic. While these men may be brave, they aren’t heroes. And they’re certainly not happy.

Luke Mogelson shows us men who have been changed by war—both more detached and more volatile, more rigid and more unsure of what it is they hope for from their lives. The reader feels almost relieved not to be meeting these men in person, but at the same time empathizes with them. They may have been undirected before serving in Afghanistan; that war has now left them completely unmoored.

As these soldiers and ex-soldiers try to main a sot of minimalist existence, their families circle around them like asteroid-shattered planets. There’s the mother who is unaware of both the unthinking violence and the deep regret that live side by side within her son. A teenage son who understands that something is off with his father, but who doesn’t yet have enough experience of the world to understand how very off that off is.

This book is a quick read, but it’s worth taking slowly, letting the stories sink in one at a time, so each has its own full resonance and is more than just one part of a whole. I haven’t been in combat, so I can’t really know how accurate these stories are, but I do know that they overwhelmed me with their mix of tragedy, hope, and impotence in the face of both the world of war and the world at home.

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April 21, 2016

Dream Catchers, Distillers, and Bottlers

The Girl Who Could Not Dream, by Sarah Beth Durst, (Clarion Books), 384 pages, release date 3 November, 2015

Imagine a world where dreams can be captured, bottled, bought and sold, in which dream merchants must hide their trade from other who distrust their skills. Imagine, too, that a very few, very unique people, who cannot dream, can bring to life creatures from the dreams of others.  That’s the situation at the center of The Girl Who Could Not Dream.

Sophie has dreamed only once—when she stole a bottled dream from the dream store hidden beneath her parents’ bookshop. She brought her best friend back from that dream—a monster named Monster, who is fluffy, blue, four-legged, tentacled, and possessed of multiple rows of teeth. Aside from Monster, Sophie doesn’t have any real friends—just the kids at school she provides with dream catchers, which spare them from nightmares and allow her to bring dreams back to her parents’ store for distilling.

When Sophie’s parents disappear, she must rescue them from a world where dreams and reality increasingly overlap and in which terrifying creatures have begun to appear. In this process, she learns, finally, about friendships with other children (and a tribe of fluffy, pink killer-bunnies), about courage, and about forgiveness.

The Girl Who Could Not Dream is a fun, silly-serious, just-the-right-amount-of-frightening read for kids in late grade school or middle school. Its mingling of fantasy and the ordinary world make its magic seem almost possible.

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