Magic by Alice. Over the course of more than two dozen books, Alice Hoffman has created her own brand of magical realism, often tethering the fantastic to the everyday in lyrical, luminous prose. In her new novel The Museum of Extraordinary Things (Scribner, digital gallery), she takes a slightly different tack, telling of the outwardly weird who wish their lives more ordinary, the freakish fascinated by the more mundane. Coralie Sardie is the Human Mermaid in her father’s small Coney Island museum in early 20th-century New York. Born with webbing between her fingers, she hones her swimming skills in the Hudson River by night, then slips into a glass tank by day. Water is her element. For Russian immigrant photographer Eddie Cohen, it’s fire, from the flames that burned his boyhood home to the horrific blaze that consumes the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. Eddie and Coralie, each yearning for a different life, meet over his search for a missing woman and her father’s obsession to create a river monster for his failing museum, overshadowed by the amusement park splendor of Dreamland.
The story’s rich in atmosphere and glittering details — the “living wonders” of the museum like an armless girl painted to resemble a monarch butterfly, the red-throat hummingbirds let out of their cages on leashes of string, an ancient tortoise who rocks himself to sleep. It’s also a dark valentine to an early New York, where the rich ride in carriages and the poor strive in factories. It ends with the actual conflagration of Dreamland, imagined with a terrible beauty. Magic by Alice.
Sarah Addison Allen writes a more gentle kind of magical realism than Hoffman. Lost Lake (St. Martin’s Press, paperback ARC) is a sweet tale of second chances among characters who are mildly quirky instead of wildly eccentric. Kate Pheris, a widow of one year, impulsively takes her 8-year-old daughter Devin to visit her great-aunt Eby’s south Georgia resort camp, Lost Lake, where she spent her 12th summer. But the cabins are mostly unoccupied now, and Eby is ready to sell the rundown resort to a local developer. Devin is enchanted by the lake and the mysterious Alligator Man only she can see, and Kate begins to reclaim her life from her manipulative mother-in-law. That her first love is still around and available adds to Lost Lake’s charms. Several old-timers are also reluctant to leave Lost Lake, including a retired teacher, her va-voom husband-hunting friend, and a socially awkward podiatrist with a yen for Eby’s French cook, mute and haunted. But my favorite character is bespectacled Devin in her pink tutu and neon green T-shirt, who still believes in magic.
Lloyd Shepherd’s eerie The Poisoned Island (Washington Square Press, digital galley) is an historical mystery with a hint of horror. In 1812, the ship Solander arrives at London’s dock bearing botanical treasures from Otaheite, aka Tahiti. Soon after, sailors from the Solander begin turning up dead with blissful smiles on their murdered corpses. Charles Horton of the Thames River Police suspects the deaths are somehow connected to the Solander’s exotic cargo, which is destined for Kew Gardens under the supervision of Sir Joseph Banks of the Royal Society. Meanwhile, Sir Joseph’s librarian, Robert Hunter, is impressed by a breadfruit tree from the ship that is showing exponential growth and tries to get answers from his employer, who sowed wild oats as a young man visiting Otaheite 40 years ago. It all makes for a good yarn with a bounty of fascinating facts about botany, Tahiti and detection.
“Rain, rain all day, all evening, all night, pouring autumn rain.” So begins Susan Hill’s Victorian ghost story The Mist in the Mirror (Vintage, digital galley), appropriately moody and melancholy. Sir James Monmouth returns to the barely remembered England of his childhood after years of living in Africa and traveling in the Far East in the footsteps of the explorer Conrad Vane. Monmouth sets out to research Vane’s life and his own family history with plans to write a book, but is discouraged by odd events and persons. Seems Vane is not the hero he supposed. Indeed, he may be the very embodiment of evil. Is he behind Monmouth’s panic attacks and deteriorating health? And what of the strange apparition of the sad boy in rags? Is he warning Monmouth to keep away, or is he beckoning him onward?
Schoolteacher Lacey and her lawyer husband Drew think they’ve found their dream home in Sonja Condit’s creepy Starter House (HarperCollins, digital galley), but dontcha know the charming Southern cottage is haunted? Locals call it the murder house because of its dark past, but Lacey, pregnant with her first child, isn’t bothered, even after encountering a neighbor boy called Drew, who becomes increasingly possessive of her time. At first she tries to amuse him with games and placate him with cookies, but Drew’s odd behavior escalates to the threatening. Coincidentally, Brad is representing a client in a custody case who has ties to the house. Things go bump in the night — and during the day. Shiver!