Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Review: The Book of Speculation by Erika Swyler

Title: The Book of Speculation
Author: Erika Swyler
Publisher:  St. Martin's Press (June 25, 2015)
ISBN: 9781250054807
Pages: 352 pages
How I Read It: eARC
Genre: historical fiction, magical realism, mystery
My Rating: 1.5 cups 


A sweeping and captivating debut novel about a young librarian who is sent a mysterious old book, inscribed with his grandmother's name. What is the book's connection to his family?

Simon Watson, a young librarian, lives alone on the Long Island Sound in his family home, a house perched on the edge of a cliff that is slowly crumbling into the sea. His parents are long dead, his mother having drowned in the water his house overlooks.
His younger sister, Enola, ran off to join the circus six years ago.

One June day, an old book arrives on Simon's doorstep. Fragile and water damaged, the book is a log from the owner of a traveling carnival in the 1700s, who reports strange and magical things-including the drowning death of a circus mermaid. Since then, generations of "mermaids" in Simon's family have drowned-always on July 24, which is only weeks away.

As his friend Alice looks on with alarm, Simon becomes increasingly worried about his sister. Could there be a curse on Simon's family? What does it have to do with the book, and can he stop it in time to save Enola?

The Book of Speculation is Erika Swyler's gorgeous and moving debut, a wondrous novel about the power of books, family, and magic.

My Thoughts:

The Book of Speculation seemed to have all the makings of my kind of book. The description sounded perfect - "a wondrous novel about the power of books, family, and magic" (check); it included a dual narrative (check); and it promised to combine my favorite genres of historical fiction, magical realism, and mystery (check, check, and check). So how did this book tick all these boxes and still fail to 'wow' me? Good question. I'm not entirely sure I can express it exactly, but I will do my best to explain.

The beginning was promising as the author set up the past and present storylines and introduced the characters. However, it quickly became apparent that things were going nowhere fast. Though not a particularly long book, it began to feel like one because the pacing is so incredibly slow. I was never drawn in and immersed in the story, and the narrative frequently felt dry and dull. This is not one of those books that demands you keep reading. Frankly, I was bored much of the time and easily able to set this book aside.

Not surprisingly, as it involves traveling circus/carnival performers, most of the characters are intended to come across as a bit odd or quirky. Instead, they seem flat and one-dimensional, especially the main character of Simon, and I was unable to connect or empathize with them. The cast in the historical portion of the novel is slightly more engaging than that of the modern timeline, but only to a minor degree, and even they lack real depth. Although we are told the characters feel certain things, those feelings and the relationships between the characters did not resonate with me. To be honest, I simply wasn't invested enough in any of these characters to care what became of them.

The premise for the mystery was intriguing and held great potential but completely failed in the execution, in my opinion. I could see the direction everything was heading pretty early on, and the way the two timelines eventually intersected felt contrived and more convenient than I would have liked. Rather than crafting a cleverly interwoven tale in which the pieces of the puzzle are gradually unearthed and slip together, the author gives us dumps of information from Simon's research (or the conclusions he jumps to without any clear basis in the story) that allow her to merely tell us how the various dots connect. And yet, even with all the info dumping, the mystery is still never delved into fully - certain aspects of it are never explained at all, while the ones that are don't entirely make sense or satisfy. Ultimately we are left with many remaining questions and only superficial, if any, answers.

Based on reviews, there are a number of other readers who enjoyed this book. Unfortunately, the storytelling here just did not work for me. I wanted to love this book, but instead found myself disappointed, underwhelmed, and drowning in the tedium of it, just as the 'mermaids' in the story drowned in the watery depths.
  "I was hoping for a bit of happy providence and now I can't help thinking I've opened Pandora's Box."

This review is based on a complimentary copy from the publisher provided through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. The quoted material may have changed in the final release.

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