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.
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.
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.
Shelley DeWees’s Not Just Jane — Rediscovering 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.
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.
Hanya Yanagihara has written a wonderfully long novel, A Little Life, about the forty year friendship of four men. Jude,Willem, JB and Malcolm start out as college roommates in New England and end up in New York. After various struggles, they all achieve significant success in their chosen fields. More importantly they are all interesting and likable men. With the exception of JB as an occasional foil, they are fundamentally kind and loyal. Their careers and their sex lives figure in the story, but they aren’t the main thing. Their friendship is the heart of the book, even as all four men lead independent lives.
Jude commands most of the attention. Brilliant, kind, fragile and needy, he is a singular character. I kept wanting to fix his life. (I would literally wake up in the morning with some notion about how Jude could do something differently, and that isn’t my normal reaction to a book.). The slow unwinding of Jude’s past shapes drives the narrative. We gradually learn more about Jude than do his friends, who persist in their loyalty to him even when he makes that hard to do. Similarly, Ms. Yanagihara slowly peals away the past of the other men so that we come to understand them.
This is a long, rich book. I just had to keep reading. The deep, evolving friendships and a pervasive acknowledgement of kindness and ethical behavior consistently held my interest. The very idea of four men remaining friends for such a long period was intriguing.
Perhaps because the book was so long, I became very invested in the characters. I wanted more for them. Some problems can’t be overcome, but I found myself wishing that a character might be stronger or more resilient. If only they could have gotten past some obstacle…
For some reason, I assumed this novel was written by a man, and I only realized that it was written by a woman after I finished it. (You don’t get dust jackets when you read on Kindle.) Ms. Yanagihara’s style is clear, and she skillfully tells the story from a number of perspectives and points in time. I was driven to keep reading because I needed to know more, and it was hard to accept that ultimately the book came to an end.
S.D. Sykes has written a masterful murder mystery set in the immediate aftermath of the Black Death in Britain. Plague Land has an unwilling hero. Oswald de Lacy, the third son of a minor British lord, was destined for the religious life, despite his lack of faith. When Oswald’s father and two elder brothers are killed by the plague, Oswald inherits his father’s title and returns home literally to become the lord of the manor.
In the course of an interesting plot and intriguing characters, S.D. Sykes tells her readers quite a bit about how the Black Death
The principal characters in Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings have dubbed themselves cool and interesting. They come together as teenagers at an artsy summer camp in the early 1970’s, and the novel follows them into their fifties. The group, initially comprised of a wealthy brother and sister, a striving would-be cartoonist and the talented son of a folk star, invites Jules (previously know as Julia) Jacobson to join them. Although told in the third person, the story is largely seen through Jules’ eyes. As the story begins, Jules is a miserable teenager from a middle class New York suburb. Her father has recently died, and she feels estranged from just about everything. Awarded a scholarship by the camp, Jules is mystified as to why she has been invited to join this “cool” group of New Yorkers. She eagerly joins them, and a great story of decades of friendship ensues.
All of the other Interestings are from New York City, and Jules views everything about them as hip, fascinating and special in contrast to her own stifled life in the suburbs. She can’t believe she is part of this group and becomes known as a consistently loyal and wryly funny member. Jules’ view that the other characters are special and generally lead relatively charmed lives in contrast to her own more prosaic and periodically impoverished existence is one of the central themes of the book. Jules spends a lot of time regretting that she hasn’t been more “successful” as she stubbornly defines it and discounting her own significant, real-life accomplishments. We all know people like this, and they can get pretty annoying, but Jules held my interest. Her struggles and the decisions she made were heroic in their own way and gave structure to the book.
Whereas Jules’ backstory is pretty much laid out at the beginning of the book, Wolitzer supplies the details for the other characters as the story proceeds. The novel tracks these friends well into their fifties, through years of crazy success, economic hardships, romantics ups and downs and various highs and lows. At times each of these characters gets pretty annoying. I wanted them to suck it up and got on with their lives. Sometimes they do, but often they don’t. Whereas Jules is persistently observant and dissatisfied, the others generally seem far more caught up in the details of their own lives and more accepting of the lives they have been dealt.
In the end some of the characters have luck and others don’t; some of the characters adjust and some of them don’t; and the definition of success is probed and redefined. Wolitzer’s writing is clear and gives the reader plenty of time to think about the choices the characters make. I liked this book. It made me think a lot about past and current friendships.