When a librarian receives a rare old book from a stranger in Erika Swyler’s The Book of Speculation, he discovers a door into his past, leading to a world of carnival performers with mysterious secrets.
Simon Watson’s life is disintegrating: his job as a research librarian in a small New England town is eliminated through budget cuts and his childhood waterfront home is falling apart from years of disrepair. The book – bought on spec by an antique book dealer, hence the name – becomes his source for researching his family line. The story connects the lives and history of three families affiliated with a nineteenth century traveling carnival – the carnival overseer; the mysterious Russian fortune-teller; and the underwater mermaids of Simon’s heritage through his mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother. Unraveling who has grown into the present-day characters offers more speculation – until Swyler reveals all in the end.
The story flips back and forth from Simon’s present to the past. The history of traveling carnivals with freak sideshows offers a vivid description of the hard life on the road in the early nineteenth century, and a glimpse into the lives of the performers. At times, however, the story swerves into strange territory with a young tattooed man who can turn on lights with his touch, a deck of tarot cards infused with mystical powers, and a curse causing the breath-holding women to cause floods and abnormal tides, before they all die at a young age. Simon’s pain-staking task of finding his heritage leads to a bizarre family tree and an extramarital affair that seems contrived to explain away a strange childhood.
Nevertheless, I enjoyed the easy flow of the story, the magical possibilities, and the outlandish explanations. If you are a fan of The Night Circus, The Golem and the Jinni, and other books with a mix of other worldliness and family drama, Swyler’s book will fix you under its spell.
Related Review: The Night Circus
Sunday night viewing is getting better on PBS – a reprieve from the long wait for the return of Downton Abbey. And unlike the Maggie Smith driven saga created by Julian Fellowes for television, two PBS televised series follow real books, published and available: Poldark and Grantchester.
Poldark – the newest addition from the BBC for Masterpiece theater – is based on a series of twelve books by Winston Graham. After reading Stephen Brunwell’s review – What Merits a Remake? – with his promise of “a wealth of back stories missing from the televised versions,” I found the newly reissued books and plan to immerse myself in the Cornwall saga of a Revolutionary war hero who returns to find his land in disrepair, and his former love lost to another man.
Grantchester – sadly appearing only briefly on PBS, with the second series not available until 2016 – follows a series of books by James Runcie. The handsome, erudite Canon Sydney Chambers is the clergyman/detective solving crimes with his sidekick, local police officer—Inspector Geordie Keating, in a small village near Cambridge in the 1960s.
The books are available through public libraries and in paperback. If you want to follow the stories in order, Poldark begins with Ross Poldark (1945), followed by Demelza (1946). To continue reading, find the list and a few free downloads at NLS Minibibliographies.
The Grantchester Mysteries begin with Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death, published in 2012. Muncie has been churning out a book a year, with the latest, Sidney Chambers and the Forgiveness of Sins (2015).
Comfortable and comforting – cozy with romance and mystery – just what I need right now.
His baby son’s mispronunciation of “bicycle” was the inspiration for the title of Dan Santat’s 2015 Caldecott winning picture book – The Adventures of Beekle. Beekle is an imaginary friend who has yet to be imagined by a real child.
Rather than wait on his island for his special someone to appear, Beekle sets off to find her. Santat floats him through a series of adventurous illustrations, with Beekle travelling through dark starry nights, reminiscent of Chris van Allsburg’s designs, to encounters with colorful dragons and double-page drawings of whales and harbors that mirror Maurice Sendak’s wild ones, until he finally reaches the real world. Searching for his friend takes him through busy streets and subways, to fantastic playgrounds, and finally to the top of an amazing tree.
When Beekle does find his friend, Alice, the relationship slowly blossoms from shyness to perfection, and the story ends with a frame of Alice and Beekle connecting with a real boy and his imaginary friend, happily proclaiming – “The world began to feel a little less strange.” Friends can give you the courage to face the world – both the real and the imagined.
A lovely book to share and read aloud, as the pictures evolve in color and excitement to the final happy ending.