Into the Heartless Wood by Joanna Ruth Meyer

I don’t think Father’s wall can keep the trees out if they really want to come in.”

What a delightful story. Props to my colleague at Shelf Awareness, Lana Barnes, whose review sold me this book. As I’ve done once before (and with another YA novel!), I’m reposting Barnes’s words here for you.

This dark fairy tale weaves together magic, romance and nature with lyrical words and imagery.

Into the Heartless Wood is an intense and haunting fairy tale tinged with horror, romance and magic, and filled with beautiful imagery of nature and love.

The Gwydden’s Wood is ruled by a witch who uses her eight tree-siren daughters as weapons, “commanding them to sing, to lure men and women into the wood and devour them.” Seventeen-year-old Owen and his sister stumble to the precipice of this fate, but are saved by the Gwydden’s youngest daughter, Seren. After his rescue, Owen–intrigued by the “monster” who defies her purpose of being–visits Seren in the forest every night. Their forbidden friendship blossoms into romance, and Seren’s desire to “be more than the monster [her] mother created” grows. When secrets and an ancient curse drive Owen and Seren apart, they find themselves on opposite sides of a centuries-old feud and must find a way to break the curse to free themselves.

This fourth YA novel by Joanna Ruth Meyer (Echo North) is gorgeously written, deeply intense and emotionally fulfilling. Owen’s and Seren’s story is portrayed vividly through a series of moments of euphoria and heartbreak. Whether it’s a scene of them dancing on a hilltop until dawn or a tree-siren-caused train derailment, Meyer uses poetic language and imagery to ratchet up the intensity. Meyer also uses a blend of prose (Owen) and verse (Seren) to parallel Seren’s transformation. As Seren becomes more humanlike, her short lines and simple sentences become more complex. This all creates an atmospheric fairy tale that is bewitching and unforgettable.

Lana Barnes, freelance reviewer and proofreader

I would add that Seren doesn’t have a name – because monsters don’t – until Owen offers her one. He is the son of a musician (his mother) and an astronomer (his father), both loves he has inherited, but it is astronomy that he excels at and dreams of; the name he offers to his new friend means ‘star.’ Seren’s adoption of that name, offered by her first friend, is meaningful, because names have great power; to name something or someone is to exercise power over it, and imagine the power to name yourself when no one ever has.

The setting is Welsh, or at least Welsh-adjacent: it is just a minor frame, but Owen’s cooking is Welsh, and the character’s names often look it as well. I found this charming, and it added a little bit to the otherworldly feeling of the novel.

I loved the dreaminess of this book, especially in Seren’s sections. I loved the difference in writing (speaking?) style between the two protagonists, as Barnes notes, and how that changed the tone I heard the story told in, and characterized each of them. And I love trees – or leaves – and stars as reference points for worldviews, as symbols. The romance in this book is sweet, innocent, muted – definitely YA – but moving. There really is something about young love, or in this case such youth that it doesn’t even recognize that it is love. The classic narrative trick is to put two people (or beings!) in an attraction but then throw something in their way; the conflict here is across worlds, and with the added challenge of a shared history, Owen and Seren on two sides of an old strife. (I shan’t spoil it, but they are not only opposed in the world-scale struggle between powers but also share a personal connection to certain events.) The obstacles they face are great. But out of great conflicts come great stories. This is a great story: emotionally impactful, heart-wrenching, sweet, beautifully told (with extra points for style, in the two very different voices). I’m charmed. Also bonus points for trees.


Rating: 8 slices of bara brith.

Thunderbird by Chuck Wendig

It’s been years since I got into a Wendig, but I had an itch. Frankly, at this point the specific events of previous books in this series (Blackbirds, Mockingbird, The Cormorant) are blurry, but the character of Miriam Black and the shape of those events still have a clear flavor for me, and I missed her. So, Thunderbird is book 4. Miriam is traveling the southwest states, deep in nic fits as she tries to quit smoking, running through the deserts. She’s searching for a woman who might just be able to relieve her of her curse, her gift, whatever it is.

Miriam’s curse is that when she touches a person for the first time – skin to skin – she can see how they die. She’s used this to her advantage, and she’s occasionally used it to try and change the events she sees, but that’s tricky: to change a death she has to cause a death. She’s ready for it to just all be over; she’s trying to get healthy and be a better person; she’d like to try and settle down. (Yes, this is all a little unbelievable to those who know Miriam; she’s as surprised as anyone.) But she’s having trouble finding the woman, and naturally, she’s running into all kinds of trouble along the way. For example, a crazy woman trying to protect her son; a mad militia; and an FBI agent following her around. Also, Miriam’s got an accomplice of sorts this time: a woman named Gabby who wants them to be more than friends.

It’s a fevered run around the New Mexico and Arizona badlands and cities. There’s lots of violence and some dark magic. There’s a kid in danger; and we learn more about Miriam’s past than we knew before. There are birds, magical birds, “a Hitchcockian apocalypse.” There are double- and triple-crosses, and of course there’s Miriam herself, who is an angry, profoundly antisocial, foul-mouthed, dirty, bad woman, who is also a sentimental softie. She reminds me of Mickey Milkovich. She’s got a certain badassness to her, but unlike a Reacher-type hero, she excels in poor decision making.

I thoroughly enjoyed this read. It’s snappy and well-paced; chapters are extremely short. Some of them are ‘interludes’ that shift backwards in time to help give context. It feels like a cinematic technique in which scenes move kind of choppily in time and space; we are often just a little off-balance, but that’s Miriam’s experience, too. She takes a pretty good beating in this book; perceptions are often challenged and challenging.

I find Wendig’s secondary characters engaging – friends like Louis and Gabby, enemies like those in this book, and then the ones who don’t quite fit either category at first – and entertaining, and the plot keeps me hooked and moving. Crisp pacing and clever language are definitely part of the appeal. But I think it’s clear that it’s the character of Miriam herself that makes this work; I’m here for her, whatever she does and whoever else comes along for the ride. She’s intoxicating, deeply messed up and sympathetic and with a delightfully sick sense of humor. I love her. I’m going to go order book 5 right now. Good stuff, Wendig. Keep it coming.


Rating: 7 cigarettes.

The City We Became by N.K. Jemisin

What a glorious book. N.K. Jemisin is a wonder.

I loved the fantasy/sci fi version of our world presented in The City We Became. When cities have achieved something like a critical mass of culture or soul, they sort of come to life in the form of a human avatar, a preexisting person who best possesses or encapsulates the qualities of that city. It takes a long time, a lot of history and life, for a city to become. There have only been a few in the Americas to get this far. New Orleans and Port-au-Prince were stillborn. Sao Paolo, as the newest city in the worldwide community, is on hand to help with the next birth to take place: that of New York.

New York is unique in that it has multiple souls, one for each of the boroughs as well as one for the city as a whole. Like London; except that something went wrong in London. So New York’s becoming is unprecedented and fraught. The novel opens with the perspective of the unnamed man who will, hopefully, be New York: “too slim, too young, and entirely too vulnerable,” Black, talented, homeless. His voice blew me away in these first pages, before I had any idea what was going on. (It also reminded me of the voice of a friend of mine, a talented young writer. You’re in good company, B.) Here’s the thing: in the birth moment of every city, the Enemy is near at hand, threatening. This is why some cities don’t come to life at all. It’s why some are killed: Pompeii, Tenochtitl├ín, Atlantis. Oh, yes: it’s not that Atlantis wasn’t real. It just isn’t real anymore.

Something is different about New York: the city’s main avatar may be precocious, but the Enemy (“squamous eldritch bullshit”) is much stronger here, too. The risk seems greater than ever. Luckily, New York (and his helper, Paolo) has the boroughs to rely on. Or does he? Manhattan has never set foot in the city before. He can’t remember his name–the name from before–or what he did, but he thinks it wasn’t good. Brooklyn grumbles that she is “too goddamn old to fight transdimensional rap battles in the middle of the night,” but she’ll do it anyway. The Bronx is always ready to rumble; her people have been here since before there was a New York. Queens would rather return to her studies (she hates financial engineering, “which of course is why she’s getting a master’s degree in it”). Staten Island is a real mess, downright antagonistic to her fellows. And what is Jersey City doing here?

As you may have realized, the idea of a place being personified in an individual is right up my alley; I bought into this concept immediately and whole-heartedly. I love the challenges it presents the author. To choose an individual means choosing a gender, a race, personality traits. It means committing: Brooklyn to be contained within one woman? If she’s a rapper, or a city councilwoman, that’s a commitment to one way of expressing all of Brooklyn: it sounds like a losing proposition from the start, but Jemisin knows her stuff. Here’s where I say that I know little of New York and the personalities of its boroughs; but I know how tricky it is to try and sum up a place, and I respect the complexities of The City We Became. (Also, I can attest that this story works even for the reader unfamiliar with New York.)

This book introduces a rich panoply of fascinating characters, with backstories, histories, cultural and ethnic heritages, professions, personalities, sexualities and gender expressions, to represent a richly varied New York. It is completely absorbing. The science and fantasy of the world in which cities become struck the right balance, for me, between sufficient explanation and satisfying mystery. (I don’t show up to sci fi for the science.) The whole thing is fully-fleshed, compelling, the kind of story to lose yourself in, both clearly related to the one I live in and weird enough to take me out of this one. Jemisin gives each character their own compelling voice, and plenty of sensory lushness to her settings–which are, pretty literally here, characters unto themselves. They are all, in their own ways, so smart. “There’s a lot to consider: particle-wave theory, meson decay processes, the ethics of quantum colonialism, and more.” Lovecraft is often present, “equal-opportunity hater” though he was. I had a fabulous time. And this is just the first in a trilogy! I’m so excited.

Unqualified recommendation: if you appreciate imagination, or a person’s connection to place, or cities, or cultures, or fine writing, get to know The City We Became.


Rating: 10 brigadeiro.

The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune

“This book is very close to perfect,” says the front-cover blurb by Seanan McGuire, and I confess I raised my eyebrows. But I just finished this book, and I agree.

I’m going to take an unusual step and repost my colleague’s review of this book as published by Shelf Awareness (on March 2, 2020), because I think it’s an excellent review and it’s why I purchased this book. (Which is not my typical fare.) My comments follow. Thanks, Jaclyn, for your good work!

A repressed orphanage inspector takes a stand for six magical children and their charismatic caretaker in this humorous, inclusive love story.

In this sparkling romantic fantasy, TJ Klune pits a mild-mannered paper pusher against the forces of discrimination, inhumane bureaucracy and precocious children, with hilarious and inspiring results.

“Make sure the children are safe… from each other, and themselves,” Extremely Upper Management of the Department in Charge of Magical Youth (DICOMY) instructs 40-year-old Linus Baker. Linus’s thankless task is inspecting orphanages that house magical children. He blanches at the children’s powers but treats them kindly and believes his work supports their welfare. His quiet life with his old Victrola and “thing of evil” cat Calliope gets interrupted when administration dispatches him to remote Marsyus Island Orphanage, home of six especially unusual children.

Though no stranger to telekinesis or witchcraft, Linus balks at the group: a distrustful forest sprite, a button-hoarding wyvern, a female garden gnome who swings a mean shovel, a boy who turns into a Pomeranian when frightened, a green blob who likes to play bellhop and “Lucy,” the six-year-old son of the Devil. However, their gentle, unflappable caretaker, Arthur Parnassus, unsettles Linus most of all. He exhibits no intimidation at parenting the magical equivalent of a nuclear warhead, and Linus, “a consummate professional,” finds himself attracted to the orphanage’s master in a most unprofessional manner.

However, his reservations about the children fade as Linus gets to know them and sees Arthur’s commitment to giving them a thoughtful, loving upbringing. The intention of remaining detached and going home in one piece evaporates when Linus learns that the island’s non-magical inhabitants have threatened the children. Nevertheless, Arthur Parnassus is more than he seems and, sooner or later, Linus will have to choose between remaining safe but complicit in an oppressive system or standing up for the people he has come to love.

Stuffed with quirky characters and frequently hilarious, this inclusive fantasy is quite possibly the greatest feel-good story ever to involve the Antichrist. Klune, who has previously won the Lambda Literary Award for Best Gay Romance (Into this River I Drown), constructs a tender, slow-burn love story between two endearingly flawed but noble men who help each other find the courage to show their true selves. Charged with optimism and the assertion that labels do not define people or their potential, The House in the Cerulean Sea will delight fans of Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series and any reader looking for a burst of humor and hope.

Jaclyn Fulwood, blogger at Infinite Reads

It started just a hair slow for me, perhaps because the style and genre weren’t what I’d been involved with lately (or much ever), but soon the magnetism of the story took hold. Linus is frustratingly meek; it took me a minute to get invested in his future. But there is certainly magic here, not only in the fun, quirky, vulnerable children, but in Klune’s imagination and the lovely house in the sea. By the end, I cried. This book is just deeply sweet, and sometimes we need that. It’s also got some powerful messages about acceptance, authenticity, honesty, and the value of a built or chosen family; and those messages are nicely couched in a story that is sweet but not precious. I found it most moving; TJ Klune has a new fan. I’m so glad I stepped away from my standard reading material. We all need that sometimes.


Rating: 9 buttons.

The Borrowers by Mary Norton

What a very special treat. Thank you, Julie, for this gift.

I loved this book as a child, the series in fact, and I remember that my mother blamed the small missing items in our household on the Borrowers. They are a part of my childhood mythology. As I type these words, I have only just lost a low-ankled white sock in the wash, and am hoping it will still turn up, but maybe I have Borrowers now.

This is a children’s book, I’m thinking grade school ages, and I don’t read a ton of books of this sort; I wonder if I’d appreciate it as much if I approached it as an adult without memories… but what a charming and comforting book I find it now. The Borrowers are a little people (the patriarch is “about as tall as a pencil”) who live in the floors and walls and hidden spaces of the big houses that belong to the “human beans.” They have a society of their own, and it is part of their worldview that the human beans exist to serve the Borrowers, who make a living by “borrowing” from the beans (Not stealing! because the human beans exist just for this purpose). Pod, the father, makes button-boots out of kid gloves. Homily, the mother, is very proud of her sitting room wallpaper (scraps of letters out of waste-paper baskets), and carpet (blotting paper). And Arietty, our protagonist, their fourteen-year-old daughter, sleeps in a bedroom made of two cigar boxes. The family has postage stamps hung on their walls, like paintings. They eat tiny scraps and sips of the human beans’ meals: leftovers, if you will.

The story was familiar to me, but the fine details pleased me all over again. Pod borrows, Homily frets, and Arietty dreams. The child has lived her whole life beneath a floor, and yearns for a wider world. But when she gets access to it, she gets closer to the human beans than any Borrower should, and this threatens the safety of everyone she loves. There is danger, rising action, and a moment of truth: will the human beans turn out to mean ruin, or salvation? Is it better after all to live beneath the floor, or venture out?

The frame for this story, sort of like in The NeverEnding Story or The Princess Bride, takes up little enough room at the start that we almost forget about it by the time we return to it: a young girl named Kate sews with an elderly relation, Mrs. May, while the latter relates the events, of how Arietty and her family got into such a pickle, and what might have become of them. This allows for some lovely remarks on the nature of story-telling. As this young girl protests the uncertainties:

‘Kate,’ she said after a moment, ‘stories never really end. They can go on and on and on. It’s just that sometimes, at a certain point, one stops telling them.’

‘But not at this kind of point,’ said Kate.

And fair enough, Kate, no one likes to be left hanging. That’s why there are sequels: this is in fact a series of five books. Realistically, you know I’m not going to get to the others any time soon, but as I closed the covers of this much-loved book, I wanted to jump straight into the next one. There’s nothing like a parallel world to spark the imagination.


Rating: for its age group, 9 safety pins.

movie: A Wrinkle in Time (2018)

I’m so glad I went to see this new Disney film of Madeleine L’Engle’s classic novel. It was admittedly not a perfect translation of the book into movie form, but that’s often just not possible, especially in a sci fi story like this one; it can be hard to not expect perfect reproduction when we love a book, but adjusting expectations is an important part of enjoying the movie version. There’s a reason they call it adaptation.

It’s been a few years since I reread the book, and I thought this site did a decent job of summing up some of the book-to-movie changes. I appreciated the modernizing details, including Mrs. Who’s quotations, the awesome soundtrack, and the general setting. I also count it as a modernizing detail that the Murrys became a multiracial family. Storm Reid was an absolutely inspired casting choice. This is a visually stunning movie, with resources clearly invested in costumes and colorful CGI; and the actors are all gorgeous people to boot. (The multiracial cast has made this more a story for everyone than it used to be, but it’s still a story of beautiful people, even if they’re now beautiful people of a range of skin tones.) Eye candy, without a doubt. And a star-studded cast: Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon, Mindy Kaling, Chris Pine, Zach Galifianakis!

My personal memory, or shall we say impressions, from the novel (and it’s been a while) involved more math and science than came into play in the film. As the Den of Geek’s reviewer noted, Meg was more of a nerd in the original. And I’d count this change as a real loss: to glorify nerds is a noble aim. I did love that she had to use her faults, had to refer to her own shortcomings in order to overcome a challenge. On the other hand, appealing to the love of another as her salvation, rather than loving herself, felt like a slightly less positive message for young girls (which I do read as partly the aim of the story, in either form).

Visually beautiful, enjoyable, uplifting, fun, and feel-good. Totally worth taking your sons and daughters to go see. And for that matter, take yourself: I went to a nighttime showing and we were all adults there, and that’s totally worthwhile, too.

I still need to get back to the rest of the Time Quintet.


Rating: 8 intricate braids.

The Children’s Home by Charles Lambert

Wonderful, eccentric stray children fill a decaying country estate in this strikingly dark fairy tale.

children's home

Charles Lambert (With a Zero at Its Heart) offers a startling and adept blend of realism and frightening fantasy in The Children’s Home.

Morgan Fletcher lives alone, served by a housekeeper and a skeleton staff he purposefully never sees, on a sizable estate of fading opulence. He has been disfigured by a mysterious accident; his inherited fortune has equally enigmatic origins. His family history is only hinted at, but apparently contains ugly secrets. His housekeeper, Engel, seems comfortably wise to these difficulties, and when the country doctor, a “sunlike man,” befriends Morgan, he feels a little like himself again. The real difference, however, is the children, who show up one by one as if out of the air, some of them mere babies on the stoop. Morgan is wonderingly delighted to find himself surrounded by youngsters, whose playful noises echo often through the house, but who are strangely silent when he wishes for silence. These are not ordinary children, but Morgan has had no contact with the wider world for many years and is slow to question their behavior. They seem to seek something within his house and simultaneously seem to know his past already.

Lambert opens with plausibly lifelike scenarios and proceeds with careful pacing through the Fletcher family story. The line between reality and illusion is as imperceptible to the reader as it is to Morgan, until the final, otherworldly action accelerates with glittering vividness both lovely and grotesque. The Children’s Home is unforgettable: fanciful, chilling and poignant.


This review originally ran in the January 15, 2016 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 questions.

The Merman by Carl-Johan Vallgren, trans. by Ellen Flynn

In this grown-up fairy tale, a young women’s battles with poverty, violence and neglect are further complicated when a mystical creature enters her life.

merman

Carl-Johan Vallgren’s The Merman, translated from the Swedish by Ellen Flynn, concerns the realistic and heartbreaking circumstances of teenaged Nella and her little brother, Robert; at the same time, it is a dark fairy tale about a mythical creature from the deep and the possibility of resisting evil.

Nella and Robert’s parents are terribly incompetent, uncaring people, more focused on drinking and crime than their children’s welfare. Robert struggles with learning disabilities and is bullied at school; protecting him, getting him the glasses he needs, and his general well-being falls to his sister. Nella is hard-pressed to handle the responsibilities of the household, including cleaning up after her alcoholic mother, about whom she muses, “it was about as hard to judge her as it was to understand her.” This mature and nuanced observation is typical of a girl who, despite her own troubles, seems drawn to others who need her help, such as a disabled man who is one of her few friends.

When the neighborhood bullies begin to threaten Robert with violence, Nella turns to her only ally at school, a boy named Tommy. But contact with Tommy’s brothers presents a new difficulty. They have pulled a mystical being from the ocean, whose otherworldly nature and wordless communication will change everything Nella understands about her life. All at once, Nella struggles with the bullies’ extortion and Robert’s fear; their father is released from prison and brings criminals home with him to disrupt their fragile household; their mother threatens to leave; and the sea creature looks to Nella for help. A burdened but strong and compassionate young woman, she will learn and grow through these tests, and wins the reader’s heart by the time her story reaches the final, hard decisions.

Nella is a compelling protagonist, reminiscent of Roald Dahl’s Matilda in her miserable circumstances, but with a harder, more adult edge. Robert’s suffering is almost unbearable, but sadly realistic. In Ellen Flynn’s translation of Vallgren’s tale, dialogue can be a bit stiff and formal, especially in the children’s cases, but overall she establishes a tone appropriate to the balance of reality and mysticism in Nella’s story, and the stark ugliness of her life. Vallgren evokes his fantasy element with wonder and detail; The Merman is a singular story. Fans of adult fairy tales and bleak realism will be haunted and enthralled by this novel of human tragedies, and the mystery of what lies beyond.


This review originally ran in the November 5, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 cartons of cigarettes.

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.

screenplay

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 as a *starred review* 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.
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