The Wonder Garden — A Wry Look at a Small Connecticut Town Through Loosely Connected Short Stories

I generally avoid short stories, but Lauren Acampora’s The Wonder Garden offers a compelling collection of connected stories featuring the inhabitants of a Old Cranbury, a small Connecticut town with historical pretensions.  Old Cranbury’s citizens take themselves pretty seriously, but frequently come across as silly and obtuse.  To round things out, some characters reveal odd anarchic tendencies, while other characters are just plain cruel.  For all the apparent homogeneity and small town congeniality, there is a lot going on here.  Generally The Wonder Garden is more humorous and insightful than tragic, but whatever Acampora’s take on her characters, this is an entertaining book that provides a deft take on certain mainstay characters of small town life.  

It is almost as if Acampora has gotten behind the scenes and dug up the dirt on some of the stock characters featured in Hollywood movies about small town life.   (Frank Capra would have loved this.)  Happily, The Wonder Garden also bears some similarities to EE Benson’s Lucia series (see Queen Lucia, etc.), which is set in a small English town, although The Wonder Garden offers a more twisted and sobering view of small town life, than Lucia‘s sillier madcap approach.  Since these are short stories, very little gets resolves — just like life in a small town where the same people keep interacting again and again.

So, I recommend this book.  

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Smaller and Smaller Circles — a Terrific Mystery Set in the Philippines

Felisa Batacan has written a stunning murder mystery set in the Philippines.  Smaller and Smaller Circles has it all — a strong emotional plot involving serial killing, political corruption and child abuse.  The protagonists are two academic priests with a specialty in forensics.  Their relationship has a history and is warm, humorous and oddly endearing.  Together they face enormous hostility from powerful political and religious power brokers who prefer to bury the unpleasant “problem” as quickly as possible.  The victims are all poor young boys who would be forgotten, but for these two remarkable forensic priests who are determined to honor the victims by solving their murders.  They also need to find the murderer fast, before more deaths occur.

I don’t think I’ve ever read a mystery featuring forensic priests before, but Felisa Batacan is clearly on to something.  The combination of the decent, clever priests with brutal murder and the stench of political and religious corruption makes for a truly fascinating story. The interplay of relationships is a strong component — everyone seems to be linked to someone else, for better or worse.  This excellent mystery also offers the intriguing possibility of redemption.  Some of the bad guys may not stay so bad.  

The writing is strong and clear, and this books has deservedly won a number of awards in the Philippines.   Apparently Smaller and Smaller Circles  is one of the first Philippine murder mysteries, and I hope Ms Batacan makes her excellent debut novel the first in a series.  

I really recommend this book!

The Song and the Silence — A Strong Account of Looking for Roots and Belonging — by Yvette Johnson

Yvette Johnson has written a brave and vivid account of her own personal struggles growing up as the African-American daughter of a professional football player and a fierce mother.  In The Song and the Silence —  A Story about Family, Race, and What Was Revealed in a Small Town in the Mississippi Delta While Searching for Booker Writght, Johnson analyzes her own substantial problems and conflicts.  She didn’t get what she wanted or thought she needed from her parents and found herself adrift.  She also struggles with mental illness.  But fortunately, curiosity and a great deal of personal strength prevail.  Johnson starts to dig into the remarkable story of her maternal grandfather, Booker Wright, who was the subject of a short but epic television documentary filmed in Greenwood, Mississippi, in the 1960’s.  Understanding what her grandfather’s world was like in the Jim Crow South leads Johnson to keep investigating.  Booker Wright may have been an icon, but he also led a very complicated personal life.  He did some fine things for the community and he spoke out bravely on television, but he also inspired alot of resentment within his community.

Johnson has written a great story in and of itself.  The writing is clear and compelling.  What makes this a great book is the author’s determination to keep working at unraveling the past and acquiring a better understanding of what happened and how the tragic effects have never completely gone away.  She forces herself to dig into the past, even when it tells her things she would rather not know.  She develops and shares a profound appreciation for just how horribly, horribly hard it was to grow up in the Jim Crow South and how those scars shaped people such as her emotionally remote mother.  This information is not obtained in one fell swoop.  Johnson’s patience in visiting repeatedly and lingering in Greenwood during some hot summer months yields a far greater understanding than a more sharply focused investigation might have done.

Determined not to settle for the hand she has been dealt, Johnson ends her book with some sound and encouraging recommendations for people struggling with mental illness.  I’m inevitably inspired by people who are candidly struggling with their own problems and still reaching back to help and inspire others.

I strongly recommend this book.  It goes beyond what I’d expected.

Live from Cairo — Ian Bassingthwaighte’s Juxtaposes the Middle East’s Refugee Crisis with Egypt’s 2011 Revolution

Live from Cairo features sharply drawn youngish adults confronting the Middle East’s refugee crisis in the midst of Egypt’s revolution in 2011.  Each of Ian Bassingthwaighte’s characters tries to pursue and protect her or his own agenda in the face of utter confusion and inescapable misery.  Charlie and Aos, the legal aid workers, together with Hana, the Iraqi-American resettlement officer, combine romantic idealism and a sense of purpose with jaded exhaustion and an overarching hopelessness.   They also share some personal spark impelling them to go rogue.  Dahlia, Omran and the other refugees suffer from terrible past trauma and find themselves trapped in a bleak and inhuman refugee crisis.  Desperate as their situations are, the refugees persist in their struggle to maintain personal relationships and care for each other.  Red tape, violence and mind-numbing uncertainty are the enemies.  

Live from Cairo‘s premise is reminiscent of the film Casablanca in that an interesting assortment of desperate individuals find itself trapped in a corrupt, dangerous place rocked by trauma and violence.  The tense mix of fear and personal desire in an unforgiving environment where everything keeps changing is not quite as horrific as it sounds, because, like Casablanca, there are some deft comic aspects to the characters and the situations.  I found myself so invested in these characters that I really needed to now what would happen to them and how they would react.

I particularly admired the way in which Bassingthwaite managed to provide so much information about a significant number of characters in his brief and highly active narrative.  The reader’s situation mirrors that of the novel’s characters, who have to pick up information about each other through short bursts of information and relatively brief encounters.  Like the characters, the reader also has to decide quickly who is trustworthy.  The dialog between characters is particularly sharp and advances the narrative brilliantly.

I recommend this novel as highly informative and entertaining all at the same time.

Not Just Jane — Shelley DeWees Identifies Seven British Women Writers Who Are Probably New to You

Shelley DeWees’s Not Just JaneRediscovering Seven Amazing Women Writers Who Transformed British Literature provides a fascinating look into seven successful, yet relatively unknown, British women writers of the 18th and 19th centuries.  Born of her love of Austen and Bronte, in this book DeWees sets out to discover other women writers who were pioneers of their times.  I had never heard of any of the writers featured in this book.  Charlotte Turner Smith, Helen Maria Williams, Mary Robinson, Catherine Crowe, Sara Coleridge, Dinah Mulock Craig and Mary Elizabeth Braddon all enjoyed some success in their day.  Their stories tell us a lot about what was going on in England during their life times.  Many of them faced poverty and had few honorable options for earning a living.  They might become a governess or they might become prostitutes.  Faced with these options, one way or another these women became writers, and some of them became expert networkers as well.  Sara Coleridge’s story is a bit different.  She was well educated and didn’t suffer poverty, but her father, the famous poet Samuel Coleridge basically ignored her existence.  Under those circumstances it seems a shame that so much of her work was devoted to organizing her father’s work posthumously.

I have yet to read one of their books, but I certainly enjoyed reading about their lives and their environments. 

A Mystery Centered in Shanghai by the Skillful Qui Xiaolong

Shanghai Redemption, a Chinese mystery featuring Chen Cao, the recently demoted chief inspector of the Shanghai Police Department.  Chen, who has hitherto maintained an enviable reputation as an honest and resourceful detective, is now inexplicably in jeopardy.  Trying to figure out where he went wrong or which of his investigations proved too hot for his enemies compels Chen to navigate the treacherous waters of modern day China.  A rat’s nest of party politics, corruption and disgraced cadres proves difficult to unravel and exceedingly dangerous.  The author does a stellar job of revealing Chen’s personality, perceptions and strategies.   Seeing events from Chen’s perspective, as well as the perspective of some of his old allies, makes for a great narrative.  This novel also provides a wealth of interesting characters with all kinds of connections to Chen and his enemies.   I did find it difficult to keep track of the names of so many characters who drop in and out of the narrative in no particular order.  If I had it to do over again, I would keep a list of who the characters were and when they first appeared, because many of the names sounded very similar me.

I’m increasingly interested in mysteries from the Far East, and Shanghai Redemption is a stellar entry in the genre.  This is the first Inspector Chen novel I have read, but it’s not the first in the series.  I plan to go back in time and read some of the earlier novels, because this is a very intelligent and compelling series with a unique detective.

Maisie Dobbs in Gibraltar on the Periphery of the Spanish Civil War

Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs murder mysteries are always interesting and enjoyable.   A Dangerous Place is no exception.  Maisie, a recent widow, is working her way through a period of great personal trauma when she stops in Gibraltar on her way home to England after sojourns in Canada and India.  The setting is the sinister, troubled period of the Spanish Civil War, and Gibralter is right on the brink of it, literally.   There is a lot going on, and perspectives keep changing.   In addition to Winspear’s inspired choice of setting and an unexplained murder, she gives us Maisie Dobbs.  Dobbs is a different kind of detective — thoughtful to the extreme about the crime in question and the people around her.  In this novel, Dobbs is also compelled to give a great deal of thought to her own well being.  She is trying to center herself even as she unravels the murder she has discovered.

I really like this series because of Maisie Dobbs and the way she approaches her cases.  This particular novel is especially good because of the horrific yet fascinating political context presented by the Spanish Civil war and the inexorable  approach of fascism.

The Devil and Webster — An Unsettling Academic Novel by Jean Hanford Korelitz

Jean Hanff Korelitz has written another deeply unsettling novel about an accomplished middle-aged woman who suddenly confronts unexpected attacks on her sense of well-being.  In her 2014 n0vel You Should Have Known, the therapist heroine is suddenly thrown the ultimate curve when she learns that husband has gone way off the rails.  In Korelitz’s most recent work, The Devil and Webster, Naomi Roth is a single mother and the successful president of an elite university and she is going to confront some big-time challenges.

Korelitz writes in a suspenseful style, so you are fully alerted to the fact that bad things are going to happen.   Naomi presents as a loving mother and successful academic who thinks of herself as a good, responsible person and who is generally regarded as such.  But as events unfold, Naomi learns that she hasn’t thought enough about important things and that ultimately she hasn’t been responsible enough.  

Naomi hasn’t done anything particularly bad, and she isn’t nimble in the face of unexpected adversity.  This presents problems as it turns out that Naomi has taken the wrong things for granted and has missed some important clues.   So when events overtake her and make her the bad guy she doesn’t know how to react.   She is bewildered and furious.  She also feels terrible wronged.

I recommend this book, even though it is unsettling.  There is this sense, which Naomi certainly has, that if you lead a productive honorable life, your efforts are to be rewarded, or at least that you shouldn’t fall victim to vicious attack from people who have absolutely no interest in understanding you or respecting anything you’ve ever done.  There is also the strong tension of waiting for the bad things to happen to someone not equipped to handle them.

Why We Die  —  A Strong British Mystery Featuring a Tough Female Detective and a Very Noir Atmosphere 

Mick Herron’s Why We Die is a strong mystery with quite a lot happening.  It’s a shame Lauren Bacall isn’t around to play the vamp, but Jennifer Lawrence would make a powerful Zoe Bohm, a down on her luck private eye who stumbles into the highly perilous inner workings of a crime family.  Arkle, one of three brothers, is seriously the scariest thug I’ve seen.  Sociopath doesn’t begin to describe him.  The interplay among Arkle and his two seemingly less scary brothers provides unifying substance to the careening violence, where nothing seems to go quite right.   The plot is spectacular, but so too are the characters and their troubles.  It’s a page turner with depth, supported by a grungy Oxford setting.    I highly recommend this book, particularly to people who like female detectives, British mysteries and a lot of noir. 

Small Admissions is a Wise, Funny Novel about a Couple of Serious Topics

I thoroughly enjoyed Amy Poeppel’s first novel Small Admissions.  This is a funny book and not a heavy read, but Poeppel has deft insights about friendship and our assumptions about our friends and relatives.  The characters are appealing and just a little more complicated than they seem.  Even the “bad guys” are kind of charming.  Without giving too much away, Peopppel plops a young woman who is reeling from multiple personal failures into the admissions office of a highly competitive Manhattan private school.  The book is populated with several points of view and highly entertaining emails, all of which combine to keep a brisk, neurotic pace.  Poeppel’s deft treatment of neurotic, competitive parents, coupled with the highly useful question of how much can and should you help flailing friends makes this a thoughtful book, that was also a hoot to read.  Small Admissions would make a great movie!