When I agreed months ago to read and review The Book of Speculation, a debut novel by Erika Swyler, all I really knew about it was that it involved a librarian and an unusual book he received. Since this bookaholic is a sucker for books about books, and thinks librarians rock, I had to find out what it was all about. When I received it, I learned in the accompanying note that Ms. Swyler had sent the original copy to the publisher looking just like a replica of the book the librarian received, complete with leather covers, hand-stitched binding, tea-stained and gilded pages, and original illustrations. How clever is that at setting the atmosphere for this story? Now I was really intrigued.
And the story – ah, the story. I was mesmerized by The Book of Speculation. This mysterious fantasy is also a mysterious puzzle filled with clues that must be put together before something catastrophic happens. I loved every minute of it and couldn’t wait to share it with you. And one of you is going to win a copy in our giveaway, so be sure to enter!
Simon Watson is a librarian, living alone in a huge old decrepit house on the edge of the Long Island Sound. It’s the house he grew up in so it holds some fond memories as well as sad ones. His mother died when she was still pretty young and his dad was never the same afterward. In fact his mom drowned in the Sound near the house, which was very odd since she had performed as a mermaid in a circus at one time.
Simon’s dad is gone too. Given his dad’s apathy after his wife died, Simon was left to raise his younger sister, Enola. Although he did the best he could, he feels like he must have done a lousy job. Ever since she ran away to join the circus as a tarot card reader and fortune teller, Simon almost never sees or hears from her and doesn’t even know where she is most of the time, and that saddens him.
The house is beginning to fall apart, just like the cliff upon which it sits. At this point, it’s just a matter of time before it all crumbles into the sea. On a librarian’s salary, Simon has little hope of being able to fix everything that’s wrong with it and he’s just found out that he may be laid off. Great, just great. Now what?
“’Looks like the storm hit you hard, Simon,’ he [his neighbor, Frank,] says.
‘I know. I lost five feet [off of the cliff].’ Five feet is an underestimate.
‘I told your dad that he needed to get on that bulkhead, put in trees.’ The McAvoy property lies a few hundred yards west of my house, farther back from the water with a terraced and planted bluff that’s designed to save Frank’s house come hell or, literally, high water…
‘I may end up having to sell.’
‘I’d hate to see you do that.’ Frank’s brow furrows, tugging his hat down…Frank knows my financial constraints. His daughter, Alice, also works at the library.”
Then Simon gets an odd package in the mail. It’s a really old book with a note attached from a Mr. Churchwarry, a bookseller who deals in rare books. For some reason, Mr. Churchwarry thought the book belonged with Simon, and that there might be a family connection to it, so he sent it to him. As if Simon has the money for a rare book. What kind of con is this?
“There in plain letters, a name. Bess Visser. Dead. July the 24th, 1816. Drowned.
I know that name. Worse still, I know the date. The flinch is involuntary and almost painful. My mother drowned on July 24th…
Her [Alice’s] eyes land on the book and she traces her fingers across the cover. ‘This is really old.’
‘Someone sent it to me. I’m not sure why.’
‘Ah, a puzzle. You like puzzles.’
I would agree, but the book feels different now that I’ve seen a familiar name. Drowned on July 24th, like my mother. It’s a small piece of awfulness. ‘It’s a little off. My grandmother’s name is in it. I spoke with the guy who sent it. He’s a bookseller, antiquarian type. Says he got it at auction. I don’t know what to make of him.’”
As Simon begins to try to unravel the mystery behind the book, he keeps finding more and more unsettling information in it. Every woman in his family, going back until at least the 1700’s, has apparently drowned on the same date and at the same age. All were circus performers whose specialty was performing in water as mermaids.
How can someone drown who can swim like a fish and hold their breath for as long as ten minutes? What’s wrong with this picture? And what does this mean for Enola, who works for a circus and is having that same birthday soon? True, Simon is the probably the best swimmer in this generation since his mom taught him but he taught Enola. He’s afraid this means Enola is in danger without even knowing it. He’s frantic to protect her. Surely the book must hold clues about how he might save her or how he can reverse what feels more and more like a curse on his family.
Please note: This novel has two story threads: 1), a contemporary one, which I’ve touched on above; and 2), a historical one dating back to the late 1700’s, which I’m omitting to prevent spoilers. They interweave to gradually provide clues to the odd drownings and to give context to Simon’s current situation.
Simon is the kind of person who always feels responsible and does his best to do what’s right for those around him. He doesn’t always succeed and sometimes he fails miserably but he always gets back up and tries again. In many ways, he carries the weight of the world on his shoulders – at least the part of the world that’s around him and important to him. I’m not going to tell you about Annie or Frank to prevent spoilers but they figure prominently in this story’s contemporary thread. Enola is more of a free spirit, albeit a troubled one – which is one of the reasons Simon is so concerned about her. Enola exhibits some of the same traits his mother had, and he’s concerned about her obsessive behavior around a particular set of old tarot cards. Mr. Churchwarry also must remain a mystery, although you have to wonder at his motivations for sending the book to Simon.
Fantasies are all about magical thinking and The Book of Speculation does not disappoint in that. The historical thread in particular is filled with magical phenomena, although placed within a fairly realistic seeming story. The contemporary story is headed for the logical conclusion to what’s been building for centuries unless Simon can identify and then find a way to change the pattern. As I read, I kept asking myself whether that was even going to be possible, given its magical origins.
Although The Book of Speculation is a fantasy, it’s an excellent example of two very real phenomena: intergenerational patterns and family myths. Both of those play out in all of our lives whether we realize it or not, and we literally can’t do anything to change that until we can identify them and make them conscious – which is what Simon is actually doing in The Book of Speculation, thanks to Mr. Churchwarry’s unexpected gift. And I loved every minute of it. Was it all believable? Maybe – maybe not, but I didn’t care. Maybe it helps that I love research and genealogy, but I was swept up in Simon’s dilemma and was playing detective right along with him. I was also caught up in the magical back story that the historical thread provided, as centuries of drama played out. If you like fantasies and good puzzles, I think you’re going to really enjoy this one so be sure to enter our giveaway!
Can’t wait to read it?
The Book of Speculation will be published on June 23, 2015; however, it’s available for pre-order in all formats from your favorite online bookseller below (or in the right column for iBooks). If you pre-order the ebook, it will be downloaded the minute it’s published.
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One lucky reader will win an ARC (advance readers copy) of The Book of Speculation by Erika Swyler!
1) The deadline for entries is Saturday night, 7/4/2015, at 11:59pm EDST. No entries after that date/time will be eligible.
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