The Star Side of Bird Hill

star side of bird hill

Penguin Press, June 2015

 

It’s time for summer vacation but rather than spend it at home in Brooklyn Dionne and her sister Phaedra have been shipped off to Barbados, which may sound like paradise to many of us, but not for Dionne. At sixteen this was going to be the summer she broke out of childhood and into the fun life of leading the cool group of girls at her school. Instead, she is stuck with her grandmother and baby sister in the small town of Bird Hill. The Star Side of Bird Hill is Naomi Jackson’s debut novel about how even when it seems like nothing is changing anything can happen.

The girls have been sent to their grandmother, Hyacinth, because their mother can’t care for them anymore. While it is a relief to be away from her erratic and sometimes frightening behavior, Hyacinth’s old-school ways cause Dionne to launch into a full-scale rebellion in an effort to prove her independence. As Jackson puts it she is “… sixteen going on a bitter, if beautiful forty-five.” Hyacinth’s scrutiny means the summer can’t end fast enough for Dionne, but for ten-year-old Phaedra life in Barbados is a fascinating chance to learn about her grandmother, a midwife and practitioner of obeah, an African religious practice. At the same time, she’s trying to understand what growing up is all about. She is bright, smart, and independent but still hoping she can fit in and hurt when she does not. Her journey is the one that tugs as she starts growing into herself. Unlike her sister, she comes to see that she can manipulate people, not for her own gain, but in ways that make them happy.

Barbados easily conjures thoughts of idyllic beauty but Jackson looks beyond the eye candy to real life. She is one of those special authors who moves words around in unexpected ways to perfectly describe something mundane, seen a million times. She shows the same gift for tone, dancing between Dionne’s bored and sullen mutterings to Hyacinth’s folksy and humorous wisdom without missing a step. These are three females at three very different stages of life but Jackson renders the essence of each beautifully. The Star Side of Bird Hill is not a novel that will stomp on your heart or mess with your mind but it doesn’t need to be because Hyacinth, Dionne, and Phaedra are enduring and endearing characters, brought to life as brightly as sunshine sparkling off island waters.

Free-Form Monday

monday

 

I’ve been passive-aggressively alluding to the renovation we’ve been living through for the past three months but it’s finally reached the point where our contractor said that even though there is still work to be done (and fixes to be made) we could start unpacking this past weekend. Oh, happy day!

What this means is that despite my best efforts, reading in ‘review mode’ has not been possible so I’m going off-track a bit today. It’s been pretty tough ever since we moved into the house because of the constant noise and lack of privacy, but to finally get to think about how we’re going to use this space AND to continue with all the last minute detail decisions (how high should the towel bar be?) means that my brain is overloaded. I decided to cut myself some slack and read a book simply for the sake of reading. I opted for something I haven’t read since high school and which I hardly remembered at all: To Kill a Mockingbird.

To try and review this book would be foolish, especially as it has been written and talked about since it first appeared in 1960 and went on to win the Pulitzer Prize. To Kill a Mockingbird is of the kind of novel that sweeps you away to another time and place. Lee is a magnificent storyteller and through her the voice of Scout is vibrantly, achingly alive with all the humor, frustration and imagination that comes with being a six-year-old girl in a small Southern town. There is so much to love about this novel that the only bad thing I can say is that once I finished I really didn’t want to read anything else. If you haven’t read To Kill a Mockingbird recently, I’d highly recommend it. Treat yourself. It will either be a wonderful reward or the cure for whatever ails you.

Do you ever find yourself so overwhelmed by life that as much as you want to read, you can’t? What kind of books do you turn to at those times?

It’s Not You, It’s Me: Mini-Reviews

mini-reviews

The “It’s Not You, It’s Me” phrase is more true this month than almost any other. My head space is so messed up by living in a construction zone with the ear-shattering noise, frequent questions, and now, mistakes being made on a renovation that is 20 days behind schedule that my attention span is shot to hell. The only place I’m finding mental peace these days is floating in a pool after a long swim.

It’s fitting then, that the novels below are all well-written, they simply didn’t work for me.


it's not you it's me

Harper, March 2015

It’s 1962 and Kitty Miller owns a bookshop with her friend Frieda. She is single but lives a life she finds fulfilling. Or so she thinks until she starts dreaming about herself with a different name in a different life. She is Katharyn Andersson, happily married and with two children. Kitty and her dream-self Katharyn are the protagonists in Cynthia Swanson’s The Bookseller.

Swanson uses the dream device adeptly. As Kitty’s life begins to change in ways that are not positive she longs for sleep when she can go back to a world that, while much more traditional than she ever thought she wanted, offers a sense of security. The Bookseller weaves this premise through the story and layers in the mystery of the gaps and inconsistencies between the two worlds. One of the greatest is that Kitty’s lifelong friendship with Frieda no longer exists. As the Kitty/Katharyn tries to reconcile her lives the differences between the two become more obvious and painful.

There is a lot to recommend The Bookseller especially how carefully Swanson tracks the two worlds. The novel did not so much fall short for me but went a direction that left me a little sad. And that’s all I have to say about that.


The Little Paris Bookshop has all the components to make readers swoony: Paris, a

it's not you it's me

Crown, June 2015

bookstore, and lost love. Monsieur Perdu owns a barge on the Seine called the Literary Apothecary. He named it this because

I wanted to treat feelings that are not recognized as afflictions and are never diagnosed by doctors. All those little feelings and emotions no therapist is interested in, because they are apparently too minor and intangible. 

Instead of drugs, he is able to intuit the moods of his customers and then sells them books to suit those moods. Outwardly, he is a quiet, composed man but inside he has his own heartache yearns for a love he lost decades ago. When he discovers, via an unopened letter he finally reads, that his love may still be his, he embarks on his boat to find her. That he does so with a neurotic young author as a co-captain and no money, provisions, or directions takes what starts as a charming love story and mystery and turns it into a farce.

This may be what I think of as mood reading in that it could possibly appeal to the right person at the right time. The author’s prose is often lovely and evocative, if a bit flowery. Perdu’s plight is compelling but pages of his introspection started to wear on me and I had to jump ship.


it's not you it's me

Knopf, July 7, 2015

Carolina De Robertis brings Buenos Aires in the early 1900s to life in all its raw, passionate chaos in The Gods of Tango. Leda is a young immigrant who arrives to meet her husband, only to be told he is dead. Left alone and almost penniless, Leda decides that rather than return to Italy she is going to make her way in this crowded, brutal environment. Unfortunately, job opportunities are limited for single women and the danger is high. Leda’s passion is playing the violin so she cuts off all her hair, abandons her dresses, takes her husband’s clothes and re-emerges into the city as a man.

The focus of The Gods of Tango is, wait for it…the tango, a dance known to Argentinians but foreign to the numerous new cultures arriving in Buenos Aires. It is this music that Leda wants to play. De Robertis’ prose evokes its vibrancy and the variations of the music of tango culture and the times around it. What she didn’t do was capture my attention—after Leda’s choice to live as a man the plot lost its power and my interest. It may just have been the wrong novel at the wrong time, but I was able to put it down and not pick it up for again.

Have you read any of these It’s Not You, It’s Me mini-review books? If so, please leave your thoughts!

Dietland: A Novel

dietland

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, May 26, 2015

 

Once I had a taste of real food, I always wanted more. I spent my days tiptoeing around food, the way one might tiptoe into a baby’s room while it’s sleeping. One wrong move and the baby wakes up and screams. That’s how it was with hunger, too. Once it awakes, it screams and screams and there’s only one way to quiet it. 

First of all, I promise to restrain myself from the plethora of wordplay about food that is going to want to burst forth from me regarding Dietland by Sarai Walker. It’s an over-the-top novel about food, weight, and society. Alicia is a morbidly obese young woman who has faced a lifetime of ridicule about her weight. She has failed every diet plan out there despite subsisting on fake lasagna with plastic cheese. In desperation, she decides to sign up for weight-loss surgery, at which point not only her life but also the novel turns upside down.

As incongruous as it sounds, Plum works for a fashion magazine, but only from home, answering letters from young women about their life issues. Through her job, she meets Verena Bishop, a woman whose mother created a famous weight loss plan and made millions. After her mother’s death Verena writes a scathing indictment of both the diet industry and specifically her mother’s company. Plum reads the book and is led to Verena, who offers her $20,000 for the plastic surgery she’ll need after her stomach stapling, but only if Plum fulfills a series of tasks which Verena hopes will make her re-evaluate wanting the surgery at all. The tasks are largely to boost Plum’s self-acceptance but the final one is to go on four blind dates.

There is a lot to chew on (sorry, I made it into paragraph three, but I’m weak) in Dietland and because it’s fiction I’m not going to weigh-in on matters of weight, self-esteem and health. Suffice it to say, the public derision Plum faces for her weight is no greater than what she feels towards herself yet she cannot find a way to lose it. Walker strikes a difficult balance in the face of these multi-layered issues by imbuing Plum with enough intelligence and awareness that her self-loathing is painful. However, after each of her blind dates has either literally run away or publicly humiliated her, Plum regains some of her power by deciding:

Because I’m fat, I know how horrible everyone is. If I looked like a normal woman, if I looked like you, then I’d never know how cruel and shallow people are. I see a different side of humanity. 

If this sounds like a lot for one novel, it is but it mostly works. No matter how you feel about the subject or where you fit on the spectrum, Walker will evoke compassion and a response. However, I’m not finished. In addition to Plum there is an entire secondary plot in Dietland about a feminist vigilante group called the Jennifers that exacts retribution for crimes against women. Using the slimmest of connections, one of the women being sought for these crimes is someone Plum knows via the fashion magazine. Uhmmm…OK.

Dietland is a novel that calls out a number of the institutions that seem to exist to make women feel bad about themselves. However, Walker bites off way more than she can chew (I can’t keep apologizing). Plum and her issues with her weight, self-esteem and health are more than enough to make a statement and provide great reading. When you add in feminist terrorists that begin to eliminate men they have targeted for targeting women, you’re are talking plot overload. Characters become cardboard stand-ins for people I might have cared about and while the Jennifers’ vicious ideas of justice gave me a bit of a YES! thrill tying them into a novel about an overweight woman stretches the feminist theme too thin. More importantly, by the end of the novel it weakens Plum’s story and Walker’s prose to the point that neither works. Much like the diet chow Plum forces herself to eat, Dietland is not ultimately satisfying.

Dietland did not ultimately work so well for me but it did resonate with other members of The Socratic Salon. Stop by tomorrow and see what they had to say. If you’ve read the novel we’d love to hear your take on it!

Our Souls at Night

our souls at night

Knopf, May 2015

I’m talking about getting through the night. And lying warm in bed, companionably. Lying down in bed together and you staying the night. The nights are the worst. Don’t you think?

This is the crux of the proposition Addie Moore puts to her neighbor, Louis Waters, in Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf. Both are in their seventies and widowed and Addie is lonely enough that she has no concerns for what anyone will think about Louis coming over to her house at night and leaving in the morning. She just wants someone to talk with and to fall asleep next to. It is out of such a seemingly small request that Haruf crafts another novel about the small town of Holt, Colorado, using Addie and Louis as the foundation for a multi-generational story about family, aging and how we decide what matters.

Our Souls at Night is not a novel of ingenious plot peopled with unusually complex characters. Rather it is a simple story of life as it happens and how we choose to deal with it. As in his previous novels, (Plainsong and Benediction are two of my favorites), this is what Haruf does best. Addie’s life goes from being alone to finding solace with a new friend and, unexpectedly, to caring for her grandson when her entitled son, who has relied on her emotional and financial generosity his entire life, finds the boy to be too much after his mother leaves them. Later, he decides that while Addie has no say in his choices he has every say in hers. What begins as a lovely and loving situation, with three lonely people making a difference in each other’s lives, ends in unhappiness for all of them.

With his delicate, bare sentences Haruf’s prose charts depths of the human heart other more wordy writers never find. He imbues Addie and Louis with a profound dignity and tenderness that, even when tested, cannot be diminished. And yet, Our Souls at Night is not a treacle-y Hallmark card for senior citizens but a fragile reflection on love, respect and kindness at all ages. Even at its saddest Haruf’s writing is a soothing balm to the frenetic rawness of today’s world. That he passed away last year means that the solace provided by this incomparable writer’s words is gone and that is the part of Our Souls at Night that hurts the most.

Who does ever get what they want? It doesn’t seem to happen to many of us if to any at all. It’s always two people bumping against each other blindly, acting out of old ideas and dreams and mistaken understandings.

The Stager by Susan Coll

Given that we’re still in the midst of our home remodel I thought it appropriate to re-publish this review The Stager, a book I loved from 2014. It’s just been released in paperback and is a hilarious satire about the world of home staging and so much more. This time last year we were still looking for a house in Seattle so this novel gave me much needed laughs. Now that we’re living in our unfinished home, I need a satire about remodeling. Maybe something called The Contractor?!

 

stager

Picador, paperback release July 7, 2015

As the real estate market appears to be rebounding it has given birth to an entire new industry—staging. And you know an industry has arrived when it makes its debut into fiction. Susan Coll’s new novel The Stager is about a quirky stager, who remains nameless for much of the novel (which is not surprising as these people slip into your home, remove everything that is yours and replace it with anonymous furnishings), but becomes an integral part of the main family’s life. They need to sell their house fast as the wife has been promoted into a new high level position in London and they’ve already purchased a house there. Unfortunately, a psychotic rabbit, a recalcitrant child, and a high maintenance husband are making the move especially difficult.

Bella is the uber-achieving, Hermes-bag-owning executive in this drama and yet, despite being the only character with any control she is the only one with no voice. We hear the story extensively from her husband Lars and her daughter Elsa and then later from the stager Eve, but Bella, the centerpiece of all this narrative never speaks on her own behalf. She apparently controls all and either feels no need to give her side of the story or is prevented from doing so. Either way, it makes the retelling of this group’s history wildly inventive and amusing.

Coll designs two of the narrators, Lars and Elsa, as sources of perpetual annoyance so well that I grind my teeth when they speak. Once known as a major tennis star, Lars has now lapsed into obesity and drug abuse and can hardly leave the house or bathe. And yet, he manages to hold onto the tiny power of his many illnesses to get what he wants. When Bella suggests a chandelier for their new home rather than punching two holes in the roof for the skylights he wants he whines, “It needs to be natural light, Bella. I think you know that. Artificial light offers no nourishment.”

As the novel progresses the massive doses of painkillers, anti-depressants, and anxiety meds he takes lead him to believe he can read the minds of others and that a rabbit is speaking to him. One who seems to truly understand his pain:

“It’s Bella’s story. That’s the problem! You’re living life on her terms. You do everything she says. And you even believe her version of events. Like, she’s probably even put some sort of happy spin on the current situation. You get all of ten percent fidelity out of her, yet all she has to do is put out a press release with her own version of the story and then she controls the narrative.”  

Elsa is everyone’s worst nightmare of an only child—precocious and so solidly certain of her inalienable right to anything and everything she wants that there are no limits to what she will do to get it. Can’t find the Pop Tarts in the kitchen newly cleaned by the stager? Pull everything out of every cupboard, then change your mind, and leave. Want your bedroom to have a huge rabbit painted on the wall despite the stager saying it was not a good idea? Get the paint yourself, spill it, then walk in it and on your white carpet, and again, leave. She is also the proud owner of Dominique, the rabbit, who is apparently demented and wants to return to the wild so he runs away at every opportunity but not before chewing holes in the carpet, throwing up, climbing the drapes, and slashing holes in velvet upholstery with his claws.

Eve is the hapless stager and initially remains as innocuous as the furnishings she tries to set up in the Jorgenson house and deal with a pre-middle school child who thinks the world revolves around her. What slowly becomes apparent is that Eve is not unknown to the Jorgensons—most specifically to Bella. In fact, they go back many years to when they were both financial journalists and good friends. And then they were not and now Eve wants to set the record straight; all while maintaining her professional ethics and doing her best to ready their house for sale.

The Stager is sly and snarky and Coll ties the story together like a good room, adding pieces here and there to fill in the gaps between the characters. It is no coincidence that Eve takes this job but her rationale for doing so is a bit off. Regardless, it all leads to a funny conclusion in this satire about real estate, friendship, money and life and if Coll leaves some portions of the novel askew, in a way a stager would find off-putting, they are not enough to ruin the overall appeal of the story. As a buyer I’m sold.

 

Boo: A Novel

boo

Vintage, May 2015

 

You are thirteen; standing in front of your locker at school one morning and the next thing you know you wake up in an austere white room and are informed you’ve been ‘rebirthed’ into Heaven, although it’s not called Heaven it’s called Town. For most 13-year-olds this would be fairly traumatic but for Oliver, the protagonist in Neil Smith’s Boo it’s not altogether unexpected. You see, he’s been told from an early age that he has a heart defect so he figures that’s what did him in. Also, Oliver is a very scientifically inclined young man. A nerd, one might say. Actually, many did say, and frequently, at his school where he was given the nickname Boo due to his pale skin and white-blond hair. Life there was not easy but Oliver’s interests and adaptability meant he always had something to pique his interest. As an agnostic he approaches Town the same way.

Probably the most noticeable aspect of Boo is Town/Heaven as imagined by Smith. It is a safe-ish, worn out version of Earth, bland and unremarkable except that it is segregated by age, so Oliver finds himself surrounded by other 13-year-olds. There are all the kinds of people you find in life but would have hoped had transcended into better souls upon dying. No such luck. There are stupid, lazy, and rude people. The buildings are rundown, there are limited quantities of everything and you are only there for 50 years before re-dying and going who-knows-where. Is it any surprise that the tedium leads to a lot of Townies spending their time trying to find a portal back to Earth so they can at least have fun haunting the living?

This less-than-stellar description of Heaven aside, Boo is about the reality of Oliver’s life, death and the aftermath of both. Shortly after he arrives in Town, Johnny, another boy from his school, arrives and informs him that his heart did not give out but that they were shot and killed by someone. Johnny says this person was their age and that he then killed himself and must be somewhere in Town. His obsession with finding their killer has disastrous consequences. Through the two boys, Smith makes all of the characters in Boo feel real. Oliver is so firmly drawn that we see not only his off-putting fastidiousness but also the heart of a boy behind it, the self-awareness and humor, and the deep abiding love he feels for his parents. In the same way, Johnny reaches out from the page as a young teen who seems to have it all on the surface, but who cannot find his way free from the pain that lies below.

That Oliver and Johnny connect in the afterlife is bittersweet and poignant. This bond continues through to the novel’s final pages and is strong enough to carry Boo, but the odd, disjointed pieces of Town, as they continue to accumulate, overwhelm the characters. There is a sense that Oliver’s journey after death provides the peace he did not get in life, but Johnny’s details veer into the uncomfortably bizarre. This is not enough to make Boo a disappointing read but it leaves the emotional aspects of the novel blunted. A bit less would have felt like a lot more.

Have you read Boo? If so, you know there’s lots more about this novel to discuss. The Socratic Salon will be sharing our thoughts and feelings about the novel tomorrow, June 16th, so feel free to stop by and join in!

The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty

the diver's clothes

ecco, June 2, 2015

Plenty of people go on vacation to lose themselves but probably not in the way of the narrator in Vendela Vida’s novel The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty. She lands in Morocco and midway through the check-in process at her hotel realizes her backpack has been stolen, almost out of her hands. It contains every piece of ID she has, her wallet, new camera and her laptop. Despite the willingness of everyone to help and the fact that the thief is shown on the security cameras she is left stranded at the Casablanca police station. Until, that is, the police chief presents her with a backpack and a passport, neither of which is hers, but which he intimates she should take because it is all she will get. And so she does.

From a beginning that is every traveler’s nightmare Vida constructs a story that is both believable and wild in its details. The narrator is taking this vacation to get over a personal situation that is extreme in its levels of betrayal and yet, despite the sympathy this engenders she remains a character almost impossible to pin down. She makes the decision to accept another woman’s identity, to later shed that skin and then embark on a third made-up persona. Is she an innocent victim or is she as complicit in her misfortune as she believes the authorities and even the sales clerk who sold her the backpack to be? Questions like these are enhanced by her thoughts early on when things begin to go wrong

You have been in situations like these before and you feel this tranquility, the green-blue of an ocean, wash over you.

These small enigmatic sentences contribute to the feeling of unease Vida brilliantly uses throughout The Diver’s Clothes. By writing the novel in the second person the narrator is never named but only referred to as ‘you’ thereby superimposing her story onto you, the reader. This causes polarizing feelings of intimacy and remove, sympathy and suspicion, belief and incredulity. Each time the maze of events threatens to come to a dead-end the narrator shifts shape, drops another piece of her previous identity and past and emerges lighter and brighter onto a wider vista. That Vida also imbues her with a sense of humor and a poignant self-awareness means that even with no set name she is a strong presence. In this way, the title The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty is a perfect summation of the novel because she is sloughing off all her externally defining layers as unnecessary and moving on. Who she is now and will be is fluid and yet to be determined but through sheer force of will she has managed to move from a space of survival to one of adventure. How wonderful…

Killing Monica

killing monica

Grand Central Publishing, June 23, 2015

Killing Monica is Candace Bushnell’s newest novel and in it Pandy Wallis is a struggling writer who hits it big with a female protagonist (Monica) who takes on Manhattan. Soon the book is on its way to becoming a movie and Pandy discovers an unknown actress to play Monica. Both the movie and SondraBeth, the actress, are a success and Pandy finds herself with money and a new best friend in SondraBeth. What follows is non-stop partying fueled by drugs and alcohol paid for by the money streaming into both their pockets. More books and movies follow but as Monica’s life ascends Pandy’s descends. After SondraBeth helps herself to Pandy’s boyfriend the friendship dies and as Pandy finds herself shuttled to the sidelines of the Monica franchise she begins to wonder how much fame is worth.

Killing Monica is at once a departure for Bushnell and more of the same. Unfortunately, the departure part is not a positive one. In previous works her protagonists, while somewhat frivolous were all self-sufficient career women pitted against the younger, voracious social climbers who want their spot at the top. Pandy is the former but Bushnell chooses to surround her with twits who, as she approaches forty, badger her about marriage as the only life worth having, so she ignores her own intuition and beliefs and marries a bad-boy chef who promptly starts using her hard-earned money to fund his restaurants. Bushnell may be writing a parody of celebrity life but unlike her previous books, Killing Monica lacks the killer instinct and knife sharp prose that makes such a novel work. Instead, by the final third of the novel the plot is moving at a pace that is frantic and careens into a crescendo of costume, gangsters, threats, and vaudeville theatrics as Pandy tries to kill off the character that made her famous. It’s the Keystone Cops in high heels—only not funny.

The ‘what to do when your fans love a character so much you can’t write anything else’ concept is an interesting one (hello, Misery) but not new and in Killing Monica there is not enough material to put a twist on an old trope. Instead, it feels like Bushnell is recycling used stories without a new perspective. More importantly, the intelligent slyness, witty dialogue and camaraderie she has utilized so well in the past is nowhere to be found. If Bushnell has found herself hamstrung by the Sex and the City franchise then, I, for one, would be thrilled to see her come back with a new heroine, like Pandy, but one who doesn’t sell out to her friends’ idiotic ideas of what constitutes happiness. As Pandy herself says:

How she wished she could make her friends understand that not being married and not having children was a small price to pay—if, indeed, it even was a price—for the deep self-esteem and self-confidence gained by being a self-made woman.

There is plenty of drama, challenge, and humor to be found in the life of a woman in her forties happy in her own skin, as Bushnell well knows. I’m not looking for a Carrie Bradshaw knock-off, I want the next real thing.

The Book of Speculation

book of speculation

St. Martin’s Press, June 23, 2015

Debut novelist Erika Swyler does not waste any time before throwing the reader into the deep end of The Book of Speculation. The novel begins with Simon Watson, a librarian with the ability to hold his breath for underwater for almost ten minutes at a time, a skill passed on to him by his mother before she drowned herself when he was seven. Now, he lives alone in the family’s home on the Long Island shore, and watches both his life and their house slide slowly away, one into the ocean and the other into aimless unemployment. When an Iowa bookseller sends him a book that appears to be a carnival owner’s log, it provides the distraction he needs from the pressing realities around him. When he discovers it dates back to the 1800s and contains his grandmother’s name the distraction becomes an obsession.

Hermelius Peabody is the carnival owner, a wise and resourceful man, capable of making something out of almost nothing. One of his best discoveries is Amos, a mute abandoned by his family, who becomes the Wild Boy, and is our introduction into the world of Simon’s ancestors. Later, he becomes an apprentice to Madame Ryzhkhova, a fortune-telling crone who tells him early on

“Water comes, strangling what it touches as if made flesh. Father, mother, all will wither. You will wear and break until there is nothing. For you it will be as water cuts stone.” 

Shortly, thereafter he meets Evangeline, a beautiful young woman who can hold her breath underwater long enough to play the part of a mermaid. She draws in the crowds and Amos as well. Through the carnival log and his own research Simon begins to piece together a family history that is both haunting and tragic. Namely, that going back for generations the women in his family have been drowning themselves in their early twenties on July 24th—a date that is fast approaching. Oh, and did I mention that Simon’s fortunetelling sister Enola decides to come for a visit in late July after having been out of touch for years?

Swyler has a prodigious ability to shift eras, merge and add elements in a way that mimics the unusual and somewhat magical skills of the carnival members. By its midpoint, The Book of Speculation is moving so quickly and with such intensity that it feels as if she is channeling the story rather than directing it. In the present, Simon is battling to keep his house from falling into the ocean, has lost his job, and is trying to sort out his personal life while in the past Amos and the carnival, with its plethora of fascinating characters, is generating the backstory for what lies ahead. This profusion of plot, characters, magic, mystery and a fluid timeline generates a riptide of information with the potential to pull the reader under. There are horseshoe crabs, selkies, tarot cards, history, affairs, suicide, curses, men whose bodies conduct electricity, an old book and always, the lure of water, that ties all this to Simon’s family. For some there will simply be too much happening in The Book of Speculation, but for those who want to dive in and stay submerged it is a wild ride.

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