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.

Screenplay by MacDonald Harris

An enthralling, time-traveling version of Alice, in dual wonderlands of 20th-century Hollywood.


Originally published in 1982, Screenplay by MacDonald Harris (The Balloonist) exhibits remarkable sleight of hand with two parallel versions of Los Angeles. Alys was raised in the late 20th century by fabulously wealthy, unconventional parents and orphaned at age 18. With no personal connections and unlimited money to burn, he amuses himself with unusual old books and music and soulless sexual liaisons. An odd old man shows up at his doorstep and requests to rent a room–though no room has been advertised. He introduces himself as Nesselrode, a film producer, and says he can get Alys into pictures.

Soon Alys’s tenuous link to modern 1980s L.A. falters as he steps through a screen into black-and-white 1920s Hollywood with Nesselrode as a surly, time-obsessed guide. In this alternate world, he falls in love with a beautiful starlet, but can they make a life together in her time? Or in his?

In addition to the unmistakable overarching reference to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Harris’s novel recalls the moral questions of The Picture of Dorian Gray and Alys himself could have stepped from the pages of The Great Gatsby. Even with such classics for comparison, Screenplay is a masterpiece of darkly playful cunning. Harris’s evocative prose, in Alys’s disturbingly clinical, coldly self-indulgent first-person narrative, is both intoxicating and disquieting; the altered reality here is more sinister and sensual, even erotic, than in Carroll’s Wonderland. The tension in this memorable and singular dreamscape builds with perfect pacing to an ending that raises more questions than it answers.

This review originally ran in the December 30, 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: 8 toasters.

The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

little princeThe Little Prince is a classic children’s book that has been on my list for some time, so imagine my surprise when it appeared as well in a book I recently enjoyed, Hell and Good Company: The Spanish Civil War and the World it Made by Richard Rhodes. I had no idea that Saint-Exupéry played a role in the Spanish Civil War – apparently he volunteered there as a pilot. This helped The Little Prince jump to the top of my list, and here we are.

As it is a children’s book, it was an easy, quick read, just under 90 pages and full of delightful illustrations by Saint-Exupéry himself. These illustrations are an important part of the story: the power of art, and its greater or lesser power to realistically capture appearances. Apparently my edition is a new translation, by Richard Howard, and comes with newly restored illustrations as well. Howard opens with a brief meditation on the important work of translation that I found thought-provoking.

And then the story itself, which concerns our narrator, a pilot crashed and stranded in the African desert, and the little prince he is surprised to meet there. The prince tells us he has come from his own tiny little planet, far away. He is worried about a very special flower he left there. Thus proceeds the story of the little prince, and our pilot’s somewhat clumsy attempt to help; the prince’s departure, and the pilot’s dealing with it.

The morals here are sweet, as one might expect, and as I hadn’t expected, also offer some words about handling grief and loss. The image of one’s departed friend living in the stars and comforting us from afar is familiar and cozy. The Little Prince also comments on the strangeness of the adult world:

If you tell grown-ups, “I saw a beautiful red brick house, with geraniums at the windows and doves on the roof…,” they won’t be able to imagine such a house. You have to tell them, “I saw a house worth a hundred thousand francs.” Then they exclaim, “What a pretty house!”

…That’s the way they are. You must not hold it against them. Children should be very understanding of grown-ups.

Further allegory and comment are provided by the little prince’s bemusement at the confused values of those he meets on his interplanetary travels, before reaching Earth: the king, the vain man, the drunkard, the businessman, the lamplighter, the geographer; and those (considerably wiser) he meets on Earth before the pilot: snake, flowers, and others; and the wisest of all, a fox. It is the fox that teaches him that “anything essential is invisible to the eyes” and that “you become responsible forever for what you’ve tamed.”

A beautiful story, sweetly told and charmingly illustrated, with layers to appreciate on different readings and at different ages: everything a kid’s book should be.

Rating: 7 boas with elephants inside them.

The Dark Tower by Stephen King

Just to review the Dark Tower series:

The Gunslinger (I)

The Drawing of the Three (II)

The Waste Lands (III)

Wizard and Glass (IV)

The Wind Through the Keyhole, written last but fitting between books IV and V

Wolves of the Calla (V)

Song of Susannah (VI)

And here we are with book VII, The Dark Tower.

dark towerHow to even begin? Everything that was wonderful about the first six (or seven) books of this series was at least as wonderful in this, the final installment. I love our characters – and you’ll recall that I love them best when they’re all together, which they are for the most part in this book (meaning, when they split up, they reunite in a fairly speedy manner). (The thing I am perhaps happiest about in this book is that the ka-tet reunites to work as a unit once more. That was what I found most frustrating about Susannah’s Song in particular.) I love the excitement – the many challenges, with the almost assurance that they’ll make it through, right? Because ka-tet? But then again, this is the last book… I love the suspense, and I very much love Stephen King’s prodigious, just about unbelievable imagination – where does he get this stuff? I love that even the minor characters (hello, Irene Tassenbaum) or most short-lived of locations are fully explicated, fully detailed, perfectly real – you can imagine King expanding any one of those vignettes, no matter how minor, into a full-length novel of its own, because that’s how well thought-out they are.

I feel that I need to skip the plot synopsis entirely on this one. It wraps up the series, so you know it’s denouement – nearly 850 pages of denouement, so quite a bit of action & adventure of the BEST kind prior to that wrap-up, but still. I can’t tell you what happens. If you’re that interested, I challenge you to read the whole book after reading the whole series. You won’t regret it.

There is heartbreak. But in brief response to King’s Author’s Note, in which he predicts some reader unhappiness: no, I respect this ending. I am not angry. I’m miserable that it’s over, of course. But there is a beautiful resonance to the way it all ended. Almost makes me want to …go back and start it all over again.

I am deeply amused by the extent to which King plays a role in this one. He had appeared before (I call it self-referential, he calls it metafiction; which of course it is, but I share his negative feelings about that term), but was a major player in this book, to my endless entertainment. Arrogant? Maybe a little, but I’ve bought fully into the idea that Stephen King is a master, so why not play with it? And, regarding my misery that this series is over, the fact that ALL King’s books are interconnected or woven around the Dark Tower, just means that there is more (tenuously related) to read on the subject.

The references are not limited to Stephen King as person or Stephen King’s other books, either; see Harry Potter as well as the Lord of the Rings as well as Homer as well as… pop culture, life, what you will. One of the most fun things about this series is that sense of metaconnection. It’s written into the plot – “there are other worlds than these” – and so it only makes sense.

I love the plot lines for their detail, intricacy, realism, imagination, and enormous world-building power; I love the characters; and I love the masterful way King structures every level of his stories, from dialog all the way out to a 7-(or-8)-book series arc. I am mad for this stuff.

Rating: for the sake of your father, 10 turtles, may it do ya!

This is the first book in the series to have gotten a 10; but call it a 10 for the series as a whole, to boot. Thank you, SK. Keep writing, and watch out for minivans so you can keep writing for a long while yet. Thankee sai.

book beginnings on Friday: The Dark Tower by Stephen King

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. To participate, share the first line or two of the book you are currently reading and, if you feel so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line.

dark towerCan you believe it? I’m finally getting around to book 7! I’m so excited! It’s hard to fathom, I know, but I recently came to a break in my reading-for-review schedule and found the time to pick up this behemoth, at 800+ pages, which will finish the Dark Tower series. It begins:

Pere Don Callahan had once been the Catholic priest of a town, ‘Salem’s Lot had been its name, that no longer existed on any map. He didn’t much care. Concepts such as reality had ceased to matter to him.

And let me tell you, it begins with a bang. These next few pages are action-packed. Hooray for King! I’m glad to be back…

And for those of you who recognized the King self-reference there (no hard thing, as Salem’s Lot is the title of another of his books), you might be interested to note this one just a few pages later.

[A certain item] tumbled to the red rug, bounced beneath one of the tables, and there (like a certain paper boat some of you may remember) passes out of this tale forever.

Yep, I’m in the club on this one now!

Gretel and the Dark by Eliza Granville

Two historical storylines, great evil, and an abiding mystery combine into one sinister and memorable fairy tale for the stout of heart.


As the title Gretel and the Dark suggests, Eliza Granville’s debut novel is a grim, spooky fairy tale. But keeping with the nature of any good fairy tale, there is another layer: it is also a meditation on historical good and evil, set both in Nazi Germany and fin de siècle Austria.

In 1899, a shockingly beautiful young woman is rescued off the street and delivered to the home of celebrated Viennese psychoanalyst Josef Breuer. She claims to have no identity, so the besotted Josef calls her Lilie, a name that will come to have greater significance than he originally intended. She is emaciated, bruised and beaten, hair shorn, with numbers inked on her arm. The story she tells is simply not possible: when questioned, Lilie tells Josef that she is not human but a machine, sent to kill a monster, whom she must find before he grows too large. She frightens him with her dreamy fantasies of how she’ll do it–“it doesn’t take long to kick someone to death”–but she casts an irresistible spell, and Josef (and his equally smitten gardener) is driven to puzzle out the truth of her history and the abuses she has experienced.

In the parallel plot, told in alternate chapters set several decades later, a little girl named Krysta pouts as the world around her changes. Her father works in a “zoo” during the days and can’t stop washing his hands at night; she is surrounded by unfriendly people, and retreats into her imagination to avoid the hazards and hatred she can’t understand. As her personal situation deteriorates and her circle of trusted acquaintances shrinks, Krysta hopes to save herself using the fairy tales on which she was raised–even, or especially, the nasty ones, with wolves, witches, beheadings and gore.

In precise balance and crafted in lovely, lyrical language, Gretel and the Dark is a masterpiece of fantasy, horror, childhood innocence and the evils of both our innermost imaginings and our shared history. Deliciously chilling and both fantastical and gravely real, with momentum building throughout, Granville’s extraordinary debut holds its crucial secrets to the last, adding suspense to its virtues. The connection between the not-entirely-likeable little Krysta and the enigmatic Lilie remains an open question until the final pages, and the power of imagination and storytelling is a prominent theme. This chilling, fantastical tale will simultaneously entertain and provoke serious contemplation on the depths of human depravity.

This review originally ran in the October 7, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

Rating: 10 cherries.

Teaser Tuesdays: Gretel and the Dark by Eliza Granville

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.


This is a delightful blend of dark, gloomy fairy tale, historical fiction, and horror. I don’t want to say anything more about it at this point, but I think I’ve found a real winner.

For now, enjoy these lines, which are a fine example of the emphasis placed on the importance of storytelling.

“When I make up stories I’ll write them down so they won’t disappear or be changed.”

Greet shrugs. “Then they won’t be proper stories, will they?”

Also, who doesn’t love a little girl who thinks this:

When I grow up I shall be a famous author like Carol Lewis or Elle Franken Baum, but the girls in my books will be explorers, they’ll fly planes and fight battles, not play down holes with white rabbits or dance along brick roads with a silly scarecrow and a man made out of metal.

Stay tuned. Gretel and the Dark looks like a star.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.


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