Marvelous Reading: Erika Swyler’s, The Book of Speculation


Early reviews have compared Erika Swyler’s The Book of Speculation to The Night Circus and Water for Elephants. While it contains elements of both — magic, marvels, love and mystery — Swyler’s book stands firmly on its own as a remarkable feat of storytelling. Bold in its plot, stunning in its language, The Book of Speculation kept me reading, thoroughly entranced, and hours past my bedtime. This is a book that comes alive, a book that stays, stitched like tattoo ink, enduring.

Simon Watson, the main character, is losing it — his house is tumbling into the Sound, his job is snared in budget cuts, and his days are tangled in the losses of his past. On the surface, he’s a young librarian, a dutiful brother, a quiet friend. But Simon is also a breath-holder, a swimmer who can suspend his breathing underwater for an impossible ten minutes. His mom could do eleven — before she drowned herself when he was young. Before she left him with a father paralyzed by grief and a two-year-old sister, Enola. When their father dies years later, Simon raises Enola on his own, holding his breath in life, as he can underwater, in order to support her. He remains suspended, stuck in time and place, while Enola leaves to join the circus as a tarot reader. A fortune-teller. But, in this family, fortunes are slippery and shadowed. Curses are real. And the future, like their history, is a swelling flood, capable of drowning.

As Simon’s present crumbles, he receives a book that drags him back into the past. Peabody’s Portable Magic and Miracles is part circus-show account book and part diary, interspersed with sketches. It contains both the everyday details of a traveling show and a deepening mystery involving Simon’s family history — and his sister’s future. Simon and Enola come from a long line of breath-holders, mermaids, women who all drowned themselves on July 24th. As that date draws near — and Enola grows more fragile and edgy — Simon realizes that he can no longer save his sister by remaining still. He must solve the riddles of their past and break the curse that binds them.

These twin narratives, past and present, mirror each other with subtle brilliance, through plot, character, and theme. They are linked through family lines and repeating cycles of love, loss and betrayal. Both probe what it means to be present for someone you love, what happens when a love goes wrong, how to carry guilt and put it down, and how to reclaim history. There are many ways to drown, here, many ways to disappear, to curse, to heal, to make — and break — a home. These patterns weave an elegant bridge between reflected worlds. Swyler’s control of storylines is masterful and deft.

Her characters are vivid and enchanting: a lightning boy tattooed with tentacles; a scarred acrobat and thief; a mute boy who can vanish; a grandmother with a steel heart and wooden spoon; a Russian fortune teller on the run from Selkies; a boatswain with deep secrets; and a book dealer with a past that links them all. They are, at once, both magical and deeply human, flawed and striving. There are no easy heroes here, no cookie-cutter figures. Instead, Swyler gives us people strung with magic — some have “half a soul,” and others have too much, but all of them are daring. All of them are vibrant.

Early in the novel, Simon says, “All folktales have a price,” and there are many prices paid here. Swyler knows her history, and her fairytales — not the Disney brand, but older stuff. The witch, the woods, the water that devours. In The Book of Speculation, she chronicles the price, but reminds us to look deeper, to watch the story dazzle, to find something else inside the depths, the drowning: “a hope so bright it blisters.” The best novels show us not just who we are, but who we were and might become. They are mirrors that work to shove us from our skins — to live a different life, to imagine elsewhere. All the maybes. These books become a part of who we are and what we carry, what sustains us. Swyler’s novel works this type of magic. The Book of Speculation is a wonder, both marvelous and true.


A Child’s Bookshelf: Anna Hibiscus, by Atinuke

If you have an elementary-age child looking for a new storybook friend, then you will delighted to discover Anna Hibiscus.

Each of the four stories in this collection begins with simplicity: “Anna Hibiscus lives in Africa. Amazing Africa.” Inspired by the life experiences of the Nigerian-born author, Atinuke, the sensory bustle of Anna’s city reflects a deep and abiding rootedness, a sincere love of place.

But it is Anna Hibiscus herself who makes each story sing. Anna lives with her mother, her father, her brothers (Double and Trouble), her grandparents, her aunties, her uncles and more cousins than she can count. She lives in a very large house where the children all climb the old mango tree and Uncle Bizy Sunday shops and cooks for everyone. Family is the center of Anna’s life, a net that cradles her through each of her adventures. Continue reading

Book Review: Making Waves, by Tawna Fenske

Tawna Fenske, Making Waves

Tawna Fenske’s debut novel, Making Waves, is a smart, sassy high-seas adventure with the power to seduce both fans and skeptics of the romance genre. Her innovative plot twists and quirky characters are flat-out fabulous. Having followed Fenske’s blog for the past year, I was prepared for humor — but Making Waves exceeded all of my expectations, and then some. Fenske’s wit kept me turning pages even as my kids argued, the dog chewed up the house, and dishes spilled out of the sink. Once I picked the book up, it was impossible to set it down. Continue reading

Book Notes: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

Anyone who knows me, knows that I love words. I’ve posted before about my love of literary quotes. Last week, I finished reading The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. It offered me this gem, which I’m sharing with you:

“When I got up this morning, the sea was full of sun pennies — and now it all seems to be covered in lemon scrim. Writers ought to live far inland or next to the city dump, if they are ever to get any work done. Or perhaps they need to be stronger-minded than I am.”

Guersney is the story of the writer Juliet Ashton who is, herself, looking for a story to tell. She finds one in the history of Guernsey Island, occupied by the Germans during World War II, and in the island’s lively heroine, Elizabeth McKenna. The novel takes the shape of letters passed between characters as diverse as an island witch/detective, Juliet’s  British publisher, a valet who pretends to be his own master during the war, a devotee of Charles Lamb, and the inventor of the Potato Peel Pie who otherwise cannot cook a bit. The novel immerses its readers in the lives of these distinct personalities, lives that surface with remarkable breadth and clarity from sheaves of correspondence. At its heart, though, the book is Juliet Ashton and her delightful way of looking at the world. Continue reading

Book Review: The Bird Sisters, by Rebecca Rasmussen

The Bird Sisters, by Rebecca Rasmussen

We are a species enraptured with flight. Six hundred years ago, DaVinci drew plans for mechanical wings, his ornithopter, the inception of a wish designed.  We have cast ourselves at the sky with increasing determination even since, from the Wright Brothers, to Kennedy’s challenge hurled at the moon, to the invention of biofeuls for commercial jets.

In The Bird Sisters, Rebecca Rasmussen writes from within the heart of these aspirations.  Her main characters, Milly and Twiss, seem at first glance to have spent a lifetime of quietude on the edges of a changing world. Milly still climbs down the cellar stairs for jars of ancient pickles while the rest of the world flies by in a flash of grocery-store coolers and pre-packaged futures. Milly and Twiss are the bird sisters, two little old ladies known for the endearing quirk of patching up injured birds. But when the past comes switch-tailing home, bisecting the present in all its illusive simplicity, Milly and Twiss turn out to be much, much more than a single glance allows. Continue reading