Tuesday, July 21, 2015

What's in the Tarot Cards: Erika Swyler's The Book of Speculation

Inspired to pick up this book by the folks at Book Riot, I got myself a copy from the library and started reading. Pitched as something similar to Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus, I had high hopes of being carried away into the magical world of night performers. Although it took a while for the story to pick up, by the end I was left more than satisfied by this excellent debut novel.

Erika Swyler's The Book of Speculation takes place in two time periods, switching back and forth as the author slowly reveals the secret that has cursed protagonist's Simon Watson's family for generations.

In our current time period, we have Simon Watson, a recently fired librarian living in the dilapidated ruins of his childhood home. Simon wallows in his own failure, and the haunting memory of his mother who drowned herself when Simon and his sister Enola were still children. Simon mysteriously receives an ancient book, sent by an overly friendly book collector, that has references to his grandmother and appears to reveal an alarming trend of the family's women drowning themselves.

Swyler then takes us back tot he mid 19th century, to the world of carnivals and travelling circuses, where "wild children" and "mermaids" entertain locals easily captivated by the slight of hand or inexplicable mysteries. We are introduced to a young mute, Amos, who has fallen into favour of the circus' ringleader and who falls in love with the local faux-mermaid, who he can only communicate through the symbolism contained in the Tarot cards of his guardian.

Slowly the story moves forward as Simon tries to figure out what is wrong with his family as he fears his Tarot reading carnival working sister may follow the family destiny. Simultaneously, Amos' tale brings us closer to revealing the source of a curse that powerfully stays with his family for generations.

While Speculation doesn't necessarily quite create the dark and mysterious aura of The Night Circus, the plot is better paced and the ending more satisfying than Morgenstern's big hit. I found myself captured toward the end, desperate to find out why such poor fates have doomed Simon's clan. This book takes a while to get into but by the end you'll be happy to have gotten through the slower moments.

I read this on my e-reader but I will also say that it may be worth checking out the hard cover. It is beautifully put together with beautiful fonts and such that really are not captured that well by the epub version.

So go off and get it and enjoy!

Thursday, July 9, 2015

In the Unlikely Event...Judy Blume Wrote a Bad Book

It feels sacrilegious disparaging this book. Judy Blume is an icon and has been a very influential author, especially for young women readers. I didn't read her as a teen (gendered reading habits back then sadly) but I get that she broke ground, talking about taboo issues of female sexuality in ways that many young adult literature tended to avoid.

So when it was announced that Blume was releasing an adult novel this year and after Anne Kingman from Books on the Nightstand gave it a pretty glowing review I eagerly picked it up and looked forward to catching the Blume fever so many seem to have.

Sadly, this just isn't a very good book.

The premise is admittedly fascinating. The story takes place in early 1950s Elizabeth, a suburb of Newark, New Jersey. In the span of three months, three planes crashed into the largely residential town, killing passengers and residents alike. Blume recounts the events through the fictionalized eyes of the towns residents, who grapple with fear and confusion as the sky appears to be falling around them.

The most prominent narrator is Miri Ammerman, a 15 year old daughter of a single mother who deals witnesses the first tragedy and whose life is personally shaken by all three crashes. Blume also jumps to different perspectives, using more than a dozen townspeople's accounts to advance the plot. In addition to the back drop of the accidents, the story follows the intense dramas of various families as their pleasant and quiet suburban lives are pushed in unexpected directions as the fallout of the tragedies force people to make difficult decisions about what they want their lives to look like.

So much potential! And with a pro like Blume I really expected more. Instead I got a muddled story, filled with weak writing and tacked on adult situations to appeal to a mature audience.

Where to start:

1. This isn't an adult book. The writing style and themes are those traditionally falling under YA: young love, teen angst and friendships, awakening sexuality. While adult voices are featured, it is Miri who centres this novel and her story that is our focus. While Blume has probably included racier and more explicit sex than in her more traditional teen writing, this is now common parlance in the YA world. I have no issues with YA...it's a category filled with so many good books and I am jealous that there wasn't the breadth of reading choices available to me when I was a teen, BUT this book was pitched as an adult book, so I was expecting a bit more sophistication in plot and themes. Instead I got simple writing with the occasional sex scene.

2. The story is tedious. I found myself wanting the book to end and still had half of it left. The characters, aside from Miri, are pretty shallow and boring. Their desires so pedestrian. The last chapter, recounting a thirty year reunion after the crashes, comes up with so many cliche ways to tie up the loose ends.

In the end, Blume may just be a writer whose time has passed. What was edgy and groundbreaking thirty years ago feels banal and trite today. I am sure those who grew up devouring Blume's work will feel the nostalgia and enjoy this more than I, but as someone coming to her writing carte blanche I came away feeling disappointed and wondering what the big hype was about.