The Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman

museum18144053The Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman

I listened to the audio version of this book, which I didn’t like much. This was in part due to the breathy narration by Judith Light, whom I’ve admired in television programs, but was mostly due to the overwritten, over-wrought nature of the book itself.

Set in 1911, the story begins with some potential. A “professor” from France has opened The Museum of Extraordinary Things, a side show of freaks and oddities on Coney Island. He attempts to incorporate his daughter Coralie, born with webbed hands, into the exhibits, with mixed success. Meanwhile, Eddie Cohen, who has run away from his father to make his own way as a photographer, is asked to find a girl who has been missing since the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, one of two fires that bookend the plot.

If the romance between Coralie and Eddie hadn’t been so sudden (“I knew in that instant that I loved her”) and unbelievable, I might have been more interested in the intersecting stories. But also the descriptions–the two fires, the woods where Eddie finds solace, just about everything else–was so overdone that it was hard to stick with the plot.

Ghost Image by Ellen Crosby

ghostimageGhost Image by Ellen Crosby
Scribner, 2015

I had heard of Ellen Crosby’s Wine Country Mysteries (The Merlot Murders, The Chardonnay Charade, etc.) but had not read her books until I picked up this book, which is #2 in Crosby’s new series about photographer Sophie Medina. I’m not a big fan of the mystery genre–there are so many rewarding literary novels and short story collections being published that I feel guilty if I read anything else–but I admit that they can be entertaining. This one certainly was.

What is appealing here, at least to me, is the setting–Washington DC, Central Virginia (Middleburg and Charlottesville), and a bit of London–plus the unusual subject matter: intrigue concerning the possible discovery of seeds received by Thomas Jefferson from the Lewis & Clark expedition and potentially holding the secret of a treatment for Alzheimer’s Disease. Sophie Medina, a freelance photographer married to a former CIA agent (of course!), finds herself at the center of the mystery, and along the way learns a lot about seeds, the Franciscans, Pierre L’Enfant, and political shenanigans.

Apart from the fact that it involves a murder or two, it’s a fun read.

Dreams of the Red Phoenix by Virginia Pye

redphoenixDreams of the Red Phoenix by Virginia Pye.
Unbridled Books, 2015

My friend Virginia Pye’s first published novel, River of Dust, centered on a group of American missionaries in China shortly after the Boxer Rebellion. Her new book is about missionaries in China under Japanese occupation, at the time when Communist and Nationalist forces build a fragile alliance to combat the invaders.

Given the atrocities committed against the local population, it’s not hard to imagine some of the missionaries siding with the Communists and even finding ways to help them, and that’s the source of the conflict here. Shirley, a missionary wife, uses her nursing skills to treat wounded Chinese after clashes with the Japanese occupiers, which doesn’t sit well with them, creating trouble for everyone, including Shirley’s teenage son, Charles.

While the book doesn’t delve too deeply into Chinese culture or society, the reader will be compelled to turn the page by the suspense created by the hard choices facing Shirley. Interestingly, the novel is inspired by the author’s grandmother’s life in China before WWII.

Becoming Madison by Michael Signer

becomingmadisonBecoming Madison by Michael Signer

Public Affairs, 2015

This book is the March 2016 selection of my book club, Reading Liberally, chosen in part because I’ve met the author (currently the mayor of Charlottesville, VA) on several occasions. We also chose the book because we are fans of Madison after reading some years ago a terrific book, Founding Faith, by Steven Waldman, in which Madison was portrayed as the hero of Religious Freedom. Plus, we’re not that far from Montpelier, Madison’s home, so we all wanted to know more about him.

Signer’s book is excellent and readable, taking us from Madison’s childhood and early education, through the influential Princeton years, followed by his struggle to find a profession and to define his personal philosophy. We see his health struggles and the pressures of both service and family. Two things in his story really stood out. First, the book deals extensively with Madison’s decades-long conflict with Patrick Henry, an anti-Federalist. Second, much of Madison’s life was dedicated to persuading the States to ratify the constitution, especially in Virginia. The stories of both of these aspects of his life were fascinating.

Along the way we also learn about his relationship with his teachers–John Witherspoon of Princeton was a particular influence on him–and friends, including Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, and others.

It’s a fascinating book, highly recommended to lovers of history.

The Children Act by Ian McEwan

childrenactThe Children Act by Ian McEwan.

Nan A. Talese, September 2014

It’s been awhile since I read a McEwan novel (and I confess that I listened to the audio version of this one).

The main character here is Fiona, a family court judge in England who has to deal with some very difficult and heart-breaking cases. She’s 60, and she and her husband Jack are childless. Also, the passion has gone out of their marriage, but Jack doesn’t understand why because Fiona doesn’t, apparently talk about her work. So he doesn’t understand the impact these tough cases have on her because she holds everything in.

As a lawyer, I found the discussion of some of Fiona’s cases interesting, but too much for the story. The details of the law threaten to overwhelm the plot, and perhaps that is part of the point. Eventually we move into the case that is at the heart of the novel: a 17-year-old boy with leukemia won’t accept a life-saving transfusion because he and his family are Jehovah’s Witnesses. Can the court compel the hospital to give the boy the transfusion against his wishes? Fiona’s decision in the case has serious consequences for the boy’s family and, as it turns out, for her own marriage.

Well done and serious, as we expect from McEwan, with a resolution I didn’t expect.

The Lower Quarter by Elise Blackwell

lowerquarterThe Lower Quarter by Elise Blackwell

Unbridled Books, 2015

This book was originally part of one of the panels I’m moderating at the Virginia Festival of the Book next week called Pirates, Drones, and Other Catastrophes: Thrilling Fiction; unfortunately the author had to cancel her appearance, but I decided to read it anyway in case the audience asked about it.

The book is set in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, but it dwells not at all on race or the political implications of relief efforts. Instead, it is focused more narrowly on one specific death–a murder–and the relatively small world of art collection and restoration. The story is told from four points of view: Eli, a former artist and thief hired to return a missing painting to its rightful owner; Johanna, an art restorer who is connected in some way to the deceased; Clay, the scion of an old New Orleans family who helped Johanna escape her former life in Europe; and Marion, a young bartender/massage therapist/painter/part-time dominatrix who accidentally becomes embroiled in the whole affair.

Despite the rather even mix of the points of view, one gets the feeling that this is really Johanna’s story. She is the one who is connected to the dead man and the missing painting, and she is the one who connects the other characters together.

There are basically three questions to be answered. Who is committed the murder? Where is the missing painting? And who is the “rightful owner” to whom Eli is supposed to return the painting. Three mysteries in one, which was more than enough for me to keep reading.

The Changing Room by Zhai Yongming

changingroomThe Changing Room by Zhai Yongming (翟 永明)

Zephyr Press, 2011

I have been dabbling with Chinese characters for almost 40 years since my days living in South Korea. Later, when I lived in Singapore and worked extensively in China, I studied Mandarin, and off and on I have continued to dabble. I study, I learn, I forget, I begin again. So I can’t say that I got a whole lot out of the Chinese poems in this bi-lingual edition of poems by Zhai Yongming other than a thrill when I could make out a whole line here and there.

But you don’t need to read Chinese to enjoy this collection because the English translations by Andrea Lingenfelter really sing.

From “Fourteen Plainsongs”:

So when we speak of poetry     we no longer waver:
–it’s like stirring ice cubes
it’s like pairs of cymbals crashing into each other’s faces
Wounded     suffering like glass–
words, fair faces, and love at an impasse

I tend to think of Tang Dynasty classics when I think of Chinese poetry, but this is modern work, representing China today.

For more about the poet, see Zhai Yongming

And West is West by Ron Childress

andwestiswestAnd West is West by Ron Childress

Winner of the Pen/Bellweather Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction, this novel tells the story of two Americans who grow disenchanted with the questionable ethics of their respective employers. Ethan Winter, a young quant, has developed an algorithm that helps a huge bank profit off of both terrorist and counter-terror activities around the world through automatic currency trading. An Air Force drone pilot, Jessica Aldridge, takes action against a terrorist but causes the deaths of children in the process, a result she has trouble living with. The two characters inhabit very different worlds, but the intersection of their stories is inevitable from the outset.

Along the way, we meet a cast of very odd characters: John Guan, an Asian American banker who puts on a “gangsta” act that masks his genius; Alex, a bisexual artist friend of Ethan’s who takes a commission from a Russian Billionaire, Sergei; Zoe, a woman with a mysterious past who works in international development and takes advantage of Ethan; a jailed drug dealer, the father of Jessica; a dying tattoo artist and her pot-growing husband; a couple of bumbling FBI agents who pursue Jessica; and more.

Although it is clear where the focus of the story is supposed to be, the author lets us into the heads of several of the other characters, which, combined with the presence of the FBI pursuit of one of the main characters and the national security issues at stake, gives the book the feel of a thriller.

Which leads me to why I read the book. It’s part of a panel I’m moderating at the Virginia Festival of the Book this month called Pirates, Drones, and other Catastrophes: Thrilling Fiction. The book’s focus on ethical questions makes it stand out from other thrillers, however, and that’s why it’s worth a read.

The Tears of Dark Water by Corban Addison

tears25229209The Tears of Dark Water by Corban Addison

Thomas Nelson, 2015

Having read Addison’s first novel, A Walk Across the Sun, I had an idea of what to expect from this new book. I knew it would be international in scope, a fast-paced thriller, and multi-dimensional. I wasn’t disappointed. (I was also forewarned because the book is one of three I’m reading for a panel I will be moderating in March at the Virginia Festival of the Book called Pirates, Drones and Other Catastrophes: Thrilling Fiction.)

The book is told from several points of view, but it really seems to be the story of Paul Derrick, a top hostage negotiator with the FBI. It is his South African vacation that gets interrupted when Somali pirates seize a sailboat in the Indian Ocean with two Americans aboard–Daniel Parker and his son Quentin–and Paul is summoned to handle the talks with the captors. Other aspects of the story we get through the eyes of Daniel, his wife Vanessa, and one of the pirates, Ismail. Later, we learn more of the story from the perspective of two other characters, Paul’s sister and Ismail’s sister.

There isn’t much more I can offer about the plot that wouldn’t be a spoiler, so all I will say is that I was blown away by the scope and credibility of detail–the landscape of Somalia and Kenya, the voyage Daniel and Quentin have undertaken, the behavior of the pirates, the Navy’s rescue efforts. It felt credible and real in every way, but didn’t overwhelm the story, which has its own strengths. In addition, the characters felt genuine to me, for the most part, especially for the genre. These aren’t the cardboard cutouts that populate many modern thrillers. And the dialogue felt spot-on.

Furthermore, I admire what’s done here with the pirates, their motivations and their behavior. No excuses are made for the actions they take, but the enormous pressures on the Somali people are painfully clear. I confess I know very little about Somalia, but I learned a great deal from this novel.

I can highly recommend this fast-paced book especially for fans of international thrillers.


Why the Right Went Wrong by E.J. Dionne Jr.

whytherightwentwrongWhy the Right Went Wrong: Conservatism-From Goldwater to the Tea Party and Beyond by E.J. Dionne Jr.

Simon & Schuster, January 2016

This book is the selection for this month for our political book club, Reading Liberally. It is essentially a history of conservatism in America over the last 60 years or so, beginning with Goldwater’s departure from Eisenhower’s Modern Republicanism as implemented by Reagan and deepened by the Tea Party and its various adherents, including the backlash from G.W. Bush’s “Compassionate Conservatism.” Near the end of the book Dionne writes about the leading contenders for the 2016 GOP nomination for President, and what they each mean for the movement. He also points to some contemporary writers who have argued for reform on the Right (“Reformicons”) and observes that they in some ways would be taking the party back to the days of Eisenhower.

Given the rhetoric we hear from Republicans every day, I’m not optimistic that this will happen, although the party’s need to reach a different audience is becoming clear to them. The rich folks have only so many votes.

The book is a bit of a slog at times, but it’s a useful history.