Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman

Image result for the museum of extraordinary things

Like so many of Alice Hoffman's novels there is something that appears to be magic, but truly is not.  The extraordinary things in this novel are mostly humans with birth defects or acquired abnormalities such as being covered i tattoos.  They are all exhibited along with some rare birds, a giant tortoise, and a number of strange (sometimes fake) creatures in formaldehyde, in Coralie's father's museum.  Coralie's father keeps her away from these "freaks" when she is a child, but as she grows older she becomes one of the exhibits since she has her own abnormality, webbed fingers.  Coralie is trained by being required to stay in a tub full of ice water for hours and developing her ability to hold her breath so that she can become a "mermaid" in a tank of water in the museum. As the prosperity of the museum is challenged by bigger and brighter entertainments in Coney Island, Coralie's father stoops to having her perform as something of an underwater stripper for groups of "gentlemen" in the evenings. Coralie is extremely sheltered, never allowed out without supervision except for quick trips to the market.  When she happens upon a young man one night after a nightly swim in the freezing Hudson, her life changes completely.

The tale of this young man, Eddie, is interwoven with that of Coralie in the novel.  Having escaped Russia with his father after his mother and everyone else in his village was murdered, Eddie is not content to slave in a factory as his father has done.  He strikes out, first working as a sort of child detective, then becoming a photographer.  He abandons his Jewish traditions, and he and his father become alienated.  Eddie chronicles life in New York City including the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire.  This event involves him in searching for a lost girl who should have been in the building that day and leads him inexorably toward Coralie.

There is a great deal of suspense and there are some truly disturbing scenes, but mainly this novel explores what "humanity" is and how outward appearance has little relationship to the quality of character.  I thoroughly enjoyed this book.

A Magical Novel: The City by Dean Koontz

The city is a story about magic and relationships, and about achieving greatness despite huge obstacles.  It is a wonderful young adult novel that will appeal to both male and female readers.  Jonah is eight when the story begins in 1967 and is living in an unnamed metropolis.  Although he is African American and this is the height of the civil rights movement, the problems Jonah deals with are more global than simply those of race.

He is living with his mother in a walk-up apartment.  His father is a no-account smooth talker who comes and goes but never really offers anything to the family.  Jonah doesn't have many friends when the story begins, but he begins collecting an odd assortment.  First there is Pearl, a magical woman who may or may not be the city itself.  She is there when Jonah really needs her, and he credits much of his good fortune to her.  Then there is Mr. Yoshioka, an upstairs neighbor who becomes Jonah's friend, confidant, and co-conspirator. Finally, Malcolm and his sister become Jonah's closest friends. 

Jonah's mother is a singer and his grandfather is a pianist so music runs through Jonah's veins. Music, in fact, becomes the one thing that Jonah can hold on to no matter what happens.  He becomes immersed in a plot by a radical group and has to rely on all of his friends to help him through, but it is music that saves Jonah's life in the long run.

This is a beautiful book with memorable characters and moving events.  I would highly recommend it for students in upper elementary, junior, or senior high.  It is also a great read for adults. 

The Quick: A Novel by Lauren Owen

First, let me say that The Quick is not - quick that is.  The first quarter of this novel seemed interminable!  It begins with a brother and sister being raised by servants and a series of governesses on an isolated British estate.  "How Gothic!" you might think.  You'd be wrong.  There's tons of atmosphere, but little happens. The absentee father dies, leaving the son a pile of money and the estate so he goes off to an exclusive school then heads to London to try his hand at writing.  The daughter, meanwhile, gets squat since she's a female and spends several years nursing an ailing aunt who takes her in.

Many reviewers have referred to The Quick as a modernized vampire tale.  The only modernity apparent to me is the homosexual relationship in which the brother becomes involved (before he becomes a vampire) with a tortured metaphor about the fact that being a vampire is as socially acceptable as being gay in Victorian London.

Now, to the vampires.  The actual vampire story is fabulous.  There are two social classes for vampires in London, the wealthy and the poor.  The wealthy vampires only admit men and only those of a certain class. The poor have vampires of all ages, both men and women.  The novel finally starts rolling with the introduction of vampire hunters who become involved with the sister's quest to find her missing brother. There is action, suspense, intrigue...all of the things a reader hopes for in a book. There is a surprising turn of events at the end which is quite satisfying.  

Overall, I would recommend this book, but I'd also recommend skimming the first 25%.  It will seem much more entertaining that way, and much more "quick"