Tuesday, July 8, 2014

The Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman

I have always loved Alice Hoffman because she manages to mix realistic characters, a strong sense of place, and a spiritual or magical element all into a fascinating, believable story that stays with me forever. The Museum of Extraordinary Things is another of these extraordinary stories.

Coralie Sardie is extraordinary for many reasons. She lives with her father, the mastermind and owner of a boardwalk "freak show." Coralie herself is one of the "freaks" billed as the Mermaid Girl, floating in a tank of water for many hours at a time to entertain the masses and swimming for hours in the dark, dangerous waters of the Hudson. She lives among the other acts including a "wolf man" and a "butterfly girl" who all have extraordinary looks and talents, but are, as Coralie knows, just people.

Eddie Cohen is not a sideshow act but a photographer trying to find his way in a confusing world where he feels alone and unworthy until he happens upon Coralie, who seems to him like a dream in every way. He also happens upon a mystery involving a missing girl and all the characters who played a role in her disappearance. He cannot shake the need to solve the mystery for the parents of the girl, and he can't shake his longing for Coralie.

When Coralie and Eddie find each other, it is more than a simple romance. It is a mysterious and dangerous tangle of past, present, and future. It is two people simply trying to have ordinary love when their lives and bodies and friends are almost too extraordinary to hold it.

If it's magic, mystery, and great characters you want, then Alice Hoffman will never fail you. Give this, or one of her other wonderful books a try. Great summer reads!

Friday, March 21, 2014

Ashfall by Mike Mullin

Another librarian friend of mine told me about this new series, and it's truly amazing. If you like post-apocalyptic YA, you will love Ashfall, the first in a trilogy set in our very own Iowa.

In the first chapter of the novel, a teen boy named Alex is left home alone for the weekend. While he is innocently trying decide which computer games to play without interruption, the house begins to shake, thunder sounds louder than he's ever heard, and he ends up pulling himself from the rubble pile that is his home. No one in his small town seems to know what is going on, but a strange substance begins to fall from the sky and doesn't quit - the ash from a distant mega-volcano. The struggle that ensues for Alex, who tries desperately to get back to his family a couple hours away, is mesmerizing. The ash becomes like the dust in the American Dust Bowl era, covering everything and killing people and animals who breathe it in and destroying the natural resources by suffocating them. Along the road, Alex is met with struggles of violence both from other people and the desolate environment and altered weather patterns that follow the volcano's destruction. He does find a friend, Darla, along the way, who is both a hindrance and a help in his survival but who helps him retain his humanity in a very inhumane setting.

I'm not quite sure why I couldn't put Ashfall down. It was dark and dystopian, yes, but the idea of the ash and the struggle and randomness of the characters Alex meets was like no other. It seemed very real and unbelievable at the same time, and while the journey had a pattern and rhythm to it, it was so exciting, I couldn't wait to see if he made it to his family.  I also can't wait to read the second in the series, Ashen Winter, and all Mullin's fans anxiously await the newest and last book, Sunrise, which comes out soon.

The Bat by Jo Nesbo

So I couldn't help myself and thought I'd start at the beginning, with the first Harry Hole mystery. Getting to see the inspector as a young pup just starting out and beginning his good-natured self-destruction was very fun and dark at the same time, and the premise of this one was every bit as intriguing as The Snowman.

In The Bat, Harry travels to Australia after the movie of a celebrity from Norway is killed. He befriends his "partner" in the police department and learns about the lives and prejudices regarding modern Aboriginals. He also becomes romantically involved with a witness, which adds some spice to Harry's character. Will these relationships get in the way of the investigation? 

This first novel, while a little less polished perhaps than Nesbo's The Snowman, was nonetheless completely readable and unpredictable, and we can really see why everyone fell in love with Harry Hole. Give this series a try!

The Snowman by Jo Nesbo

The Valley Book Club chose this Norwegian thriller for its discussion in February, and I was so glad. I had always wanted to read one by this very popular author, and I was not disappointed. It was filled with suspense, cool characters (no pun intended), and a little gore thrown in for good measure. Love it!

Inspector Harry Hole is known for his stellar insights and knowledge of serial killers. (Note that this is the 7th Harry Hole mystery by Nesbo, but don't let that deter you from reading anywhere on the list. It was my first and didn't bother me a bit that I hadn't read others.)This new case began with a little boy discovering that his mother was not at home, and she had left without her pink scarf, an item she cherished. When police find the scarf wrapped around a snowman in the back yard, they discover the gruesome truth, and this calling card leads them to other murders. The last of which gets very personal for Harry.

If you like creepy, dark, and spell-binding, then Jo Nesbo and The Snowman are for you. You may want to go back and read all the Harry Hole mysteries. I know I do.