Curiosity

9781101593417_p0_v1_s260x420Although Gary Blackwood’s historical novel – Curiosity – is targeted for middle-schoolers, this tale of a young chess wizard has adventure and intrigue appealing to adults.  Like Brian Selznick’s story of Hugo Cabret and the famous Automaton, Blackwood uses a mechanical figure, Otto the Turk, as the key character.  Otto resembles the Swami who changed Tom Hanks from boy to man in the movie “Big”; in his prime, Otto played chess, with the help of twelve year-old Rufus.

Rufus could be a character in a Charles Dickens novel; he is banished to the House of Refuge when his father, a defrocked minister who dares to preach evolutionism, loses his position and is sent to debtor’s prison.  As he is trying to make money to buy food and blankets for his father (this is the mid 1800s in Philadelphia), Rufus’ talent for chess is discovered by an unscrupulous carnival man, Maelzel, who owns an exhibit of automatons.

To escape the orphanage, Rufus agrees to conceal himself inside the cabinet below Otto the Turk and play chess against ticket-paying customers. Rufus secretly works the chess board, as Otto seems to beat all challengers with Rufus’ amazing skill at the game.   Although Rufus is promised a small salary with which he hopes to help his father get out of prison,  he must always remain hidden to avoid the secret of the Turk being discovered. He can never go out, and he struggles to get enough to eat, to not be beaten, and to find a way to survive.

Blackwood includes a wild cast of supporting characters based on real people: Jacques, the legless mechanic who brought Otto back to life; the author, Edgar Allan Poe who is determined to reveal the ruse; P. T. Barnum appears in a minor role, with his fledgling “Believe or Not” business.  Historical details lend realism and offer glimpses of a world with cholera and without electricity – when machinery was a curiosity rather than a means of making life easier.

The real “curiosity’, however, is the narrator, Rufus, with his hunched back and brilliant mind.  As he tells the story – a character dealing with the scorn of being different and the physical pain of his deformity – Rufus emerges as a hero.

Full of suspense, mystery, and drama, Curiosity has rightfully been mentioned for this year’s  Newbery Award possibilities.  Don’t worry if you are older than twelve; the book is still worth reading; it’s a great story.

 

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry

9781616203214_p0_v2_s260x420Gabriells Zevin’s The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry vicariously fulfills the dream of many readers to own a bookstore in a small town, where being able to read all day and talk about books, trumps profits.  With clever references to familiar books and pithy quotes from favorite authors, Zevin offers a handy resource of good reads along with a quirky love story that will charm you as she follows a recognizable formula for second chances.

Both A.J. and his wife, Nic, are literary beings who have forsaken the grueling years they could have dedicated to writing their dissertations to open a bookstore in a small town off the coast of Massachusetts, accessible only by ferry. After Nic dies in a car accident, A. J.’s life follows the usual pattern of despair – until two seemingly unrelated occurrences change his life forever: his valuable first edition of a rare Edgar Allan Poe book is stolen, and a toddler is abandoned in the stacks of the store’s children’s books.  Zevin follows up with a slow-moving romance connecting A. J. to a publisher’s rep, a plot twist involving his dead wife’s sister, and humorous episodes as A.J. revels in his new role as father to the precocious young girl left in his store.

The story has the pace and flavor of a “Major Pettigrew” or Beginner’s Greek, with characters who don’t fit the mold and a story line that easily moves from slight mystery to poignant moments and satisfying resolution, with lots of bumps along the way.  The ending is contrived and not as happily-ever-after as you are led to expect, but I enjoyed this fast read about redemption through books – a good one for book lovers.

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Bellman and Black

9781476711959_p0_v6_s260x420Diane Setterfield’s strange new fiction – Bellman and Black – is an eerie mystery with rooks (related to crows) as the force behind the lives of the characters. The plot is reminiscent of an Edgar Allen Poe tale – with dark abstract references to death, greed, and apathy.

After 10-year-old Will Bellman kills a young rook with his slingshot, a mysterious presence lurks in the background of his life. As the boys who were with him – friends and a wealthy cousin – die young, Will prospers as the owner of the town mill, eventually marrying and having children. At each funeral, Will leads the congregation in mournful song until a plague takes his wife and three of his children. His daughter, Dora, is saved on the brink of death by Will’s bargain with the dark stranger who mysteriously appears on the outskirts of each graveside service.

As Dora’s health improves, Will turns his attention to a new venture, an emporium for funeral services that includes clothing and accouterments for the deceased as well as the bereaved. Once again, business flourishes, and Will creates a silent partnership with his graveside savior, not knowing his name, but calling him Black.

The soft ending is not macabre, as I’d expected, but Setterfield is careful to include images that will linger in your mind. The message that life goes on and death is inevitable, no matter how much money the successful accumulate, is tempered with a warning to be accountable.

Setterfield inserts enigmatic information about the black birds between her chapters, prompting readers to associate the character Black with a rook. The references motivated me to find the nonfiction that had inspired her – Mark Cocker’s “Crow Country ” – to learn more about the birds who are both the villains and heroes of her story. The myths and habits of these birds – the crow, raven, rook – have long been evocative of death.

Setterfield set the bar high with her first book, The Thirteenth Tale,  and Bellman and Black seems long-winded by comparison, with too much detailed descriptions of the mill’s operations and the itemization of mourning items. Nevertheless, this book has that same Gothic flavor and dark Victorian mystery that fans of Setterfield expect and will enjoy – a nice break from the cheery optimism of this time of year – a little savory to balance the sugar.