Maximum Shelf: The Book of Speculation by Erika Swyler

Maximum Shelf is the weekly Shelf Awareness feature focusing on an upcoming title we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere. The features are written by our editors and reviewers and the publisher has helped support the issue.

This review was published by Shelf Awareness on April 15, 2015.


book of speculation

Erika Swyler’s debut novel, The Book of Speculation, opens on a precipice: Simon Watson’s house teeters, ready to tumble into the sea. “The Long Island Sound is peppered with the remains of homes and lifetimes, all ground to sand in its greedy maw. It is a hunger.”

Simon is precariously employed as a librarian, and thus lacks the funds to shore up his family home, from which his family is gone: his mother drowned, his father dead from grief, and his sister, Enola, departed, making her life with a traveling carnival. These days, Simon’s community is composed largely of the next-door neighbor, Frank, a longtime friend of Simon’s parents; and Frank’s daughter, Alice, a library colleague and a reliable constant in Simon’s life.

Enola rarely visits, but happens to be on her way home just when Simon receives a strangely apt package in the mail: an antiquarian book dealer, a stranger, has sent him a very old book which he believes has ties to Simon’s family history. The bookseller, Martin Churchwarry, bought it as part of a lot at auction, purely on speculation. It is the log book of Peabody’s Portable Magic and Miracles, a traveling circus in the 1790s, and contains the name of Simon’s grandmother. A librarian with archival experience, Simon is ready to treasure this unexpected gift on several levels, but puzzled by the family connection. Still, it draws him in, and by the time Enola arrives, he is thoroughly absorbed. She is unimpressed with his studies, while her obsession with her own tarot cards seems to be growing.

Simon reads and researches the names he encounters in Peabody’s book, calling into service his librarian friends and Martin Churchwarry himself, with whom a strangely easy friendship is established. These efforts yield a disturbing pattern. Simon already knew his mother was a “mermaid”: she could hold her breath for many minutes at a time, a trick she taught to her children. This skill notwithstanding, she drowned herself on a 24th of July. Simon did not know, however, that she came from a line of circus-performing mermaids, all drawn to the water, and that they all died by drowning on the 24th of July. In mid-July, as Enola, acting strangely, returns to their home by the sea, Simon fears that time is running out if he hopes to solve this puzzle and save his sister.

Meanwhile, the events of the past simultaneously engage the reader, as chapters alternate between Simon’s time and that of Peabody’s menagerie. A mystical Russian tarot card reader, an avuncular business-minded circus boss and other colorful characters populate the parallel thread of The Book of Speculation. But in Peabody’s world, it is Amos, a mute bastard who plays the “Wild Boy,” who will most capture the reader’s imagination and compassion.

The strengths of Swyler’s novel are many. The atmosphere of storm-tossed Long Island, with a house that threatens to dive into the sea, is at once fully, realistically wrought and fanciful: Is there a curse? Simon pursues the secrets of his family as his life literally falls apart around him, floor, ceiling, foundation and memories crumbling. Likewise, Peabody’s peripatetic enterprise evokes the promised “magic and miracles,” as well as more prosaic hazards. Each chapter is in itself a small departure into a fantastic, engrossing world. Imagery of woods and animals, small towns and family dynamics are finely drawn; everywhere is the water that frames both stories, from the Long Island Sound that menaces Simon’s home and those he loves to the rivers and streams alongside which Peabody travels. Indeed, if this story has a soundtrack, it is the gurgling waters that promise both succor and ruin to the mermaids’ line.

The Book of Speculation is driven both by character and by plot, as the reader aches for the vulnerable Wild Boy in Peabody’s circus and roots for the crooked romances of Simon’s time, and wonders, as the story develops, whom to trust. To round out an eccentric cast, Enola brings home a boyfriend from the circus who is covered in tattoos and possesses an electrifying special talent, and Simon explores new ground with Alice, the girl next door. Each of the men and women from both timelines proves multi-faceted and compelling. The overall effect is captivating, as Swyler’s delightful, mesmerizing prose keeps the story tripping playfully along through both light and dark moments. As Simon pursues the loose ends and they tie oddly together, Swyler keeps the pressure and the pacing on, as her characters struggle to make connections.

The meandering plot offers many charms: likable, quirky librarians; circus menageries and freak shows; love stories; tarot cards and trickery; mysticism; family secrets; and prickly sibling love–all accompanied by the author’s illustrations. [Swyler also painstakingly hand-bound, gilded and aged her manuscript submissions, in imitation of the old book in her story.] In short, The Book of Speculation, like the book at its center, promises to grasp the reader with a supernatural force and not let go.


Rating: 8 horseshoe crabs.

Come back Wednesday for my interview with Swyler.

A Burnable Book by Bruce Holsinger

A medieval scholar takes a fictional turn in 14th-century London, in a story full of murder, literature, politics and intrigue.

burnable book

A young prostitute watches horrified from the bushes as a woman is beaten to death–then looks down at the book in her hands, placed there by the victim moments before. A London “fixer” and minor poet named Gower is asked by his friend Geoffrey Chaucer to track a missing book. The court surrounding the new and untested King Richard II worries over the new games of playing cards and a book rumored to contain a series of verses circulating London regarding the deaths of kings past and present. This one book that troubles bawdyhouse prostitutes, the royal court, bureaucrats, poets and criminals holds potentially great consequences for England’s future. It is treasonous, a “burnable book.”

Bruce Holsinger, a prolific and respected medieval scholar, turns his hand to fiction with A Burnable Book. His academic background makes him well suited to render diverse settings in 14th-century London, from the Southwark stews to the grand halls of Westminster. The young woman murdered outside the city walls is only the first victim, and Gower is not the only one searching for the book in question, for scruples are scarce when the stakes are so high: England’s royal command itself is under threat. Murder mystery, political intrigue and the engaging world of Chaucer’s London are brought to life with a cast of complex, sympathetic characters who are far removed from and yet also familiar to our modern world. Holsinger’s expertise with medieval times is put to good use in a thriller filled with suspense and literary taste.


This review originally ran in the February 25, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 7 quatrains.

Lost in a Good Book by Jasper Fforde

lostAll those books on my shelves waiting to be read, and I couldn’t resist taking this one out from my local library and jumping in. You will recall that I enjoyed the first Thursday Next book on audio. I couldn’t find this one in that format, so text it is. I have some observations on the format, but first, what is it about?

Thursday Next is back, recently married, and pregnant. She and Landen are happy, but overwhelmed by the publicity linked to her successful but still controversial victory over Acheron Hades, which involved changing the ending of Jane Eyre. The forces of darkness are not through, however: Goliath Corporation wants Jack Schitt back (oh, these names!), and his brother Schitt-Hawse is not afraid to use some pretty ugly blackmail techniques to get him. Landen is in trouble, and Thursday will have to follow Schitt into Poe’s The Raven to execute both men’s safe return. And finally, Acheron Hades may be dead, but (shockingly) he had friends…

Everything I liked about the first book is here: silliness and hilarity, but also some rather sober statements on the ugliness of war, and an evil, all-powerful corporation that is both deliciously ogreish and frighteningly true to life. Not to mention that most central quality: that in this alternate world, books and literature are deeply important to everyone. This fantasy is deeply enjoyable for those of us who feel that way in the real world but who are, sadly, the minority.

What is better about book 2 than book 1 is that there is far more entering of books: in this edition, Thursday acquires the skill, with the help of the Cheshire Cat and Miss Havisham, of reading herself into any book she chooses. Thus we get to visit Sense and Sensibility and The Raven, and of course Great Expectations, as well as a few others, even unpublished manuscripts. Great fun! This aspect of the story’s possibilities (that is, the possibilities of Fforde’s delightful invented world) is not perhaps exploited fully; but the series continues, and I am joyfully anxious to read the next installment.

Format-wise, I loved the voices (and the accents) on the audiobook I listened to of book 1; but there’s a lot to be had in the print version of this one. For one thing, certain inhabitants of Book-World speak to Thursday in foot-notes, which only she can hear and which appear to me as actual foot-notes on the bottom of the page – the disjointedness of which was quite appropriate. I don’t know how that would have been executed in audio format. And there are other things: spellings, subscripts, and the like, that are very much printing jokes, and thus best (only?) enjoyed in print. So while I like the convenience of audio (and the accents!), this may be a series to read in actual book form. Which is probably how Thursday and her Book-World/JurisFiction cohorts would have it, anyway.


Rating: 7 pounds of cheese. (It fits, really.)

The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde (audio)

eyreaffairThe Eyre Affair is the first in the Thursday Next series of bookish mysteries by Jasper Fforde, and I am pleased to have discovered it. The alternate world inhabited by Thursday Next (our protagonist) is ingeniously imagined, fully realized, and great fun: centrally, books are very, very important, and justify an entire branch of law enforcement (which is, admittedly, sort of a stepchild in the law enforcement community, but we’ll take it). Extinct species have been recreated through genetic engineering: Thursday has a pet dodo bird named Pickwick. In a sobering parallel to reality, the Crimean War is ongoing; Thursday opposes it, having served, herself, and having lost her beloved brother in action. Wales is an independent republic. And on, but you get the picture: Fforde is a fine worldbuilder, and his is a world both hilarious and serious.

Thursday works as a LiteraTech, one of those book-police, and is still scarred by her experience in the Crimea, and the loss of her brother there. She remembers fondly her former fiancé, who lost a leg in the same battle, but can’t quite be with him, for reasons we have to learn as the book unfolds. Her father is a time traveler, put briefly, and we get occasional time-stopping visits from him which also color the alternative universe Thursday dwells in. She finds herself a villainous opponent in Acheron Hades, her former college professor and now professional criminal extraordinaire. He has special powers (appearing in various forms, impervious to gunshot wounds) and Thursday is uniquely able to combat him, although not without personal injury and great risk. Their conflict takes Thursday back to her hometown, where we meet her delightful inventor uncle Mycroft (he of the bookworms), and witness the (clearly inevitable) reunion with the former fiancé.

The genius of The Eyre Affair, in case I have not sufficiently made this point, is the world that Fforde creates. All the little details are charming, fun, and silly in the best possible way; the characters are likeable and real. Thursday’s trauma as a war veteran is believable and makes her a fuller character. Her uncle is sweetly flawed and fabulous. Only Landen, the former fiancé, might be a little saccharine; and this is the book’s only real shortcoming: where Fforde digresses into romance he tends to be a little too sweet. His skill is not particularly apparent in terms of plot. The mystery story is fine, passable, amusing – and the villain is deliciously evil, taking pleasure in evil for its own sake – an adequate vehicle for the characters and worldbuilding that are Fforde’s greatest strengths. The love story is a little bit pat, but who cares? Give me more Thursday Next, set in this outrageously entertaining alternate universe, and I will be happy. Oh, and audio reading by Susan Duerden is fun and perfect; I will be looking for her reading of the next book in the series as well.


Rating: 7 dodos.

Teaser Tuesdays: The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Anyone can play along! Just open your current read to a random page and share a few sentences. Be careful not to include spoilers!

eyreaffair

Sorry. I know I just teased you with this one recently, but it’s simply too much fun. See:

He patted the large book that was the Prose Portal and looked at Mycroft’s genetically engineered bookworms. They were on rest & recuperation at present in their goldfish bowl; they had just digested a recent meal of prepositions and were happily farting out apostrophes and ampersands; the air was heavy with them.

How could I have passed up the meal of prepositions and the farting of apostrophes? I ask you. Great fun, this world of Thursday Next!

Happy reading in 2013, kids! Year-in-review post coming later on today.

Friday

Well this has been a heck of a day! I’ve been intimately connected with my IT guy all day, for one thing (thanks Wes) and that’s just the beginning. But at least my library patrons have been pleasant all day.

I was looking forward to lunchtime today, not just for the usual reason :) but because I was interested to see what would happen with poor Justin, and whodunit? in Murder Past Due! Congrats to author James for getting me involved. The whole thing ended in what I consider to be a very Agatha Christie scenario: all the players in one room, with the Poirot-character asking increasingly perplexing questions in a crescendo of uncovered secrets, ending with the perpetrator very unwisely spilling all of his/her secrets and all the details of the crime, even the ones unnecessary to confession. There was a bit of a twist, of course, since librarian Charlie has been our cozy amateur detective all along, and the policewoman takes over at the end; but it was still satisfactory and adequately surprising. (The hints build towards the end, which I think is slightly less satisfying than an all-out oh-my-goodness surprise crook, but still.) I was sad that it was over; I was becoming a fan of our Southern-small-town characters and want to know them better. But, this is the beginning of a new series, we’re told, so I guess I’ll be back! While not the most serious or life-changing book I’ve read lately, it was entertaining and I don’t regret my time.

Soon it’s off to the house for some sweet rest before off to the races all weekend! Next weekend I’m taking a vacation that involves some racing as well as some live music and some just-for-fun riding, but I also hope it’ll involve some reading!! as I’m getting behind. (For one thing, I still have yet to start Henrietta Lacks which I really did intend to readalong with Kristi; but I think she’s very busy and thus a slow-ish reader too, so maybe there’s hope.)

Today, by the way, marks six months at my new job here at the Patient Family Library. It’s been rewarding and I’m glad to be of service. Here’s to more of the same, er, better.

current book mystery

So I’m still working on Murder Past Due, by Miranda James.

First, about the author: Miranda James is a pseudonym for Dean James, Associate Director of Collection Development at the HAM-TMC Library (that’s the Houston Academy of Medicine – Texas Medical Center, whew), and he’s general manager at Murder by the Book, a local bookstore. Since I work in a library in the Texas Med Center too, we’re neighbors; he’s also a fellow alum of the University of North Texas Library & Information Sciences program. Aren’t you surprised he hasn’t come by to meet me yet? Maybe after I write about his book. Maybe if I say nice things. :)

Really, I am enjoying it. It’s decidedly a “cozy” mystery: our amateur detective hero is a retiring and kindly man, and a librarian (if you can believe it); his Maine coon cat, Diesel, who has been mentioned here before, adds a warm fuzzy note, almost literally. It’s a comfortable and, well, cozy story. I have to admit that compared to the last few book-related mysteries I’ve read, it’s more believable and realistic; more of a mystery novel, if you will, and less a novelty. I’m engaged in the story. I make my way happily along on my lunch breaks, all the while mourning over the stack of books piling literally up around me as I go about my daily routine… not enough time to read, as usual.

I haven’t even started Henrietta Lacks. The new Connelly isn’t here yet but you can bet that’ll move to the top of the stack! Also I finally came across a copy of A Darkness More Than Night the other day – the final Connelly novel that I haven’t read. So that’s in the stack, but I have some time to let that one rest, seeing as how it was first published in 2001! I’m racing my mountain bike this weekend and the next… pretty busy in general, in fact, also with the readers’ advisory class I’m taking right now and loving by the way. Be patient with me, forgiving reader, and I’ll keep you up to date as I move along. As I tell my patrons here at the library, there are too many good books in the world for anyone to read them all. But I do my best.

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