The Book of Speculation by Erika Swyler

The Book of Speculation by Erika Swyler

speculationSimon works in the reference section at a struggling library in Maine, whose biggest draw is a whaling archive. He’s hard up for money and his historic home on the coast is in such disrepair that it’s about to fall into the ocean.

One day, Simon receives a very old book in the mail. Strangely, it has some of his family member’s names in it.

The text describes a circus, a boy who can’t speak, and a girl who can hold her breath so long that they call her a mermaid.

But, what does this have to do with his family? And why do so many of the people in the book die on the same day?

In addition to the mystery, The Book of Speculation includes one or two love stories: “Redheaded and pretty, Alice has her father’s smile and a way with kids. She’s better with people than I am, which is why she handles programming and I’m in reference.”pg 9, ebook.

I did not like how the reference section was stereotypically depicted as the “bad with people” part of the library. I have a soft spot in my heart for those reference types, having been one myself in my previous job. 🙂

Also, for being a librarian, Simon doesn’t act very librarian-y.

Take this part when he receives the mysterious book: “The box contains a good-sized book, carefully wrapped. .. A small shock runs through me. It’s very old, not a book to be handled with naked fingers, but seeing as it’s already ruined, I give in to the quiet thrill of touching something with history.” pg 15.

No self-respecting archivist would do that. “Already ruined” so who cares? I don’t think so.

The fantasy/magic portions of this book are subtle and written so that one could almost believe that it was real.

Take Amos’ (one of the characters from the old book) ability to disappear: “People may live for a century without discovering the secret of vanishing. The boy found it because he was free to listen to the ground humming, the subtle moving of soil, and the breathing of water- a whisper barely discernible over the sound of a heartbeat. Water was the key.” pg 18 ebook.

The history recorded in the old book is revealed to the reader through a series of flashbacks. That bothered some of my friends on Goodreads but the circus folk stories are my favorite parts of this book.

The characterizations are ok, nothing extraordinary.

My favorite minor character, Benno, could have used more fleshing out: “After a time Benno climbed down from the wagon. “You are my friend and you are kind,” he said quietly. “More than is good. I was taught to watch for gentle souls, as they’ve not the wit to look after themselves.” pg 124, ebook.

Some similar reads (perhaps a bit more magical than this): The Golem and the JinniMagonia or The Mermaid’s Sister.

Thanks for reading!

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Why take a different route to work? This book, that’s why.

Why take a different route to work? This book, that’s why.

iseeyouReview of I See You by Clare Mackintosh.

I See You is a tense thriller with fairly good execution that stumbles on its ending.

It takes place in London. The scary parts mainly take place on the public transport system.

“…I don’t know how you do this every day.” “You get used to it,” I say, although you don’t so much get used to it as simply put up with it. Standing up on a cramped, malodorous train is part and parcel of working in London.” pg 42.

Zoe Walker sees her photo, or what she believes is her photo, in the papers on her way to work. It’s weird and scary because she didn’t submit her photo to the press.

“Routine is comforting to you. It’s familiar, reassuring. Routine makes you feel safe. Routine will kill you.” pg 51.

Kelly is a member of the police. She has secrets in her past and reasons to prove herself.

“Kelly thought of all the crime prevention initiatives she’d seen rolled out over her nine years in the job. Poster campaigns, leaflet drops, attack alarms, education programs… Yet it was far simpler than that; they just had to listen to victims. Believe them.” pg 83.

When Zoe comes to Kelly with her concerns and her photo in the paper, she sounds crazy. But she finds a sympathetic ear with Kelly.

Can they figure out what is going on before its too late?

I read this title for book club. And even though I was disappointed in the ending, this story scared me. It also scared some members of the club.

I was frightened partly because I don’t usually read this type of book. But, it also felt so real to me.

We are creatures of habit, after all. It certainly made me consider taking a different route to work. You never know who could be watching…

Recommended for brave readers who don’t shy away from unsatisfying endings.

Boy’s Life by Robert McCammon

Boy’s Life by Robert McCammon

boyslifeBoy’s Life is about Cory Mackenson, the southern town of Zephyr and the magic of every day life.

We had a monster in the river, and a secret in the lake. We had a ghost that haunted the road behind the wheel of a black dragster with flames on the hood. We had a Gabriel and a Lucifer, and a rebel that rose from the dead. We had an alien invader, a boy with a perfect arm, and we had a dinosaur loose on Merchants Street. It was a magic place.” pg 10, ebook.

The story begins with a death and a mystery. “On that morning before the sun, as I sat eating my breakfast with my dad and mom in our house on Hilltop Street, the year was 1964. There were great changes in the winds of earth, things of which I was unaware.” pg 15.

After witnessing something terrible sinking into the lake, Cory sets about discovering what or who put it there.

The trauma is almost too much for Cory’s father to bear. “Whoever did it had to be a local. Had to be. … It might be somebody who sits on our pew at church. Somebody we buy groceries or clothes from. Somebody we’ve known all our lives… or thought we knew. That scares me like I’ve never been scared before.” pg 35, ebook.

But this book is about more than just the central mystery. It is also about the community of Zephyr and the relationships between the people who live there.

There is a racial divide in the town. When the river overflows its banks, the white and black communities come together to prevent disaster. “There is something about nature out of control that touches a primal terror. We are used to believing that we’re the masters of our domain, and that God has given us this earth to rule over. … The truth is more fearsome: we are as frail as young trees in tornadoes, and our beloved homes are one flood away from driftwood.” pg 97, ebook.

Boy’s Life also examines coming-of-age issues like bullies, over-bearing parents, and accepting the realities of old age and death. “But I’ll tell you a secret, Cory. Want to hear it?” I nodded. “No one,” Mrs. Neville whispered, “ever grows up. … They may look grown-up but it’s a disguise. It’s just the clay of time. Men and women are still children deep in their hearts.” pg 221, ebook.

I loved this book. It is a far-reaching tale made for winter nights, to be read with a hot drink in your hand and a warm blanket on your lap.

It vaguely reminded me of The Help because of its southern location, the racial issues and some of the mystery elements. But really, Boy’s Life stands on its own.

Recommended for readers who enjoy historical fiction with a touch of magic and mystery.

The English Wife by Lauren Willig

The English Wife by Lauren Willig

english wifeThe year is 1899. The Van Duyvils are an extraordinarily wealthy and established family in New York. One night, at a holiday party, there is a murder… or is it a suicide?

The newspapers whip the public into a fury with their sensational headlines. They ask, ‘Who are the Van Duyvils and who is the new English wife?’

And there, our story begins.

Lauren Willig has created a lovely mystery/historical fiction with snappy dialogue and enough layers to keep readers guessing to the very end.

I loved Janie Van Duyvil, one of the main characters in this tale “There were times when she wished she had been born a male, that she might make her own way, that she might marry as she pleased and live as she would.” loc 45, ebook.

As she desperately tries to piece together the clues to find the murderer, Janie also comes into her own and begins to stand up to her tyrannical mother.

“It is her marriage,” Georgie pointed out drily. “Surely, she has some say.” “If you can think that, you haven’t met my mother.” loc 1179, ebook

I also enjoyed the role of the press in this story. James Burke is a reporter for ‘The News of the World.’ He wants to get the scoop on the murders. But, part of his job, is to sell papers. “The man had the gall to widen his eyes in innocence. “We prefer to call it investigative reporting, Miss Van Duyvil.” “I call it scandal-mongering, pure and simple.” loc 252, ebook.

My favorite scene is when Janie goes to ‘The News of the World’ building and readers get a glimpse into the crazy newsroom. “There was an undeniable energy to the room, the clacking typewriters, the shouting voices, that put energy into her step and color in her cheek.” What fun.

Willig seems to have a handle on what makes reporters tick. She even captures the gallow’s humor that they use to maintain their sanity. “Will it appear in an illustrated supplement in The World?” “Not unless there’s a body hidden there.” Mr. Bruke grimaced. “Sorry. In the newsroom, we… well, the worse it is, the more of a joke we make it. It’s a way to get through the day without being sick.” loc 2765, ebook.

Recommended for readers who want to lose themselves in a mystery with some romance along the way, The English Wifemay just fit the bill.

Thank you to NetGalley and St. Martin’s Press for an advance digital copy of this book. Reminder: the brief quotations in this review may vary from the final printed form.

Thanks for reading!

An Ancient Evil (Stories told on Pilgrimage from London to Canterbury, #1) by Paul Doherty

An Ancient Evil (Stories told on Pilgrimage from London to Canterbury, #1) by Paul Doherty

anancientmysteryAn Ancient Evil is a charming historical fiction based loosely on the premise of The Canterbury Tales.

In the introduction, a knight tells a story to a group of pilgrims on their way to Canterbury. “My tale begins hundreds of years ago, just after the great Conqueror came here. So, gentles all, your attention as I describe these horrors sprung from the very pit of Hell.” pg 6.

In the story within the story, a menacing prologue introduces the reader to Sir Hugo, who buries alive the leader of a group of evil magic doers and burns the rest of his order. The evil leader who is buried alive doesn’t seem that upset about the whole thing. Which is weird.

Fast forward a couple hundred years into the future.

Sir Godfrey and a clerk, Alexander, are tasked by the king of England to discover the truth behind a series of mysterious and grisly murders in Oxford.

They are assisted in their task by Dame Edith, a blind anchorite who is known for her exorcism talents. ‘Sir Godfrey, whoever the killers are, we are about to enter the Valley of Death, but,’ Alexander couldn’t resist gentle banter, ‘we have your sword, my brains and the prayers of Dame Edith.’ ‘I think we might need more than that.’ pg 64.

I enjoyed this medieval, just a bit too bloody to be called “cozy”, mystery.

The characters are layered. The author drops enough hints to lead the reader towards the bad guy without giving the game away.

It reads a bit like a Nicholas Cage movie. We’ve got a battle between good and evil with some paranormal stuff and swords thrown in.

“Dame Edith tapped the side of her head. ‘Sir Godfrey, you are a soldier. You, of all people, should realize that a man is what he thinks he is. What causes one man to be a coward and another to be a hero? After all, they may be the same flesh and blood. They may even be brothers from the same womb. It’s what they think.” pg 170.

I also enjoyed the details about medieval life that are sprinkled throughout.

Recommended for readers who enjoyed The Thief Taker by C.S. Quinn or Mistress of the Art of Death by Ariana Franklin.

Thanks for reading!

The Thief Taker (The Thief Taker #1) by C.S. Quinn

The Thief Taker (The Thief Taker #1) by C.S. Quinn

thieftakerIn the 1660s, thief takers solved the cases that were beneath the dignity of the typical London watchmen. The poorer sort of people, who had experienced a crime or theft, would come to men like the title character in this story for justice. He would attempt to track down the perpetrator by finding the property that they took and fenced.

Usually, the thief taker could either get the property back for his client or turn the thief in to the higher authorities. But, the punishments back then were so barbaric- chopping off a hand, splitting noses- that the thief taker would usually just let the criminal go with a warning to not steal again or advise him to find a different clientele.

Charlie Tuesday is a thief taker in London. One day, a beautiful young woman comes to him for help in solving her sister’s murder. Normally, he doesn’t work on any cases larger than theft but the money that is offered is more than he can refuse.

From the strange mutilation of the body, he determines that there’s more to this crime than meets the eye. As the plague descends on London, he and Anna-Maria race to stop the murderer from striking again and, perhaps, even threatening the throne of England itself.

The Thief Taker‘s scenery is lush. The customs, clothing, and food from 1665 are so different from what we have now. The reader is whisked away to a world that is the same in some ways (human behavior and emotions) and so different in other ways (social structures and occupations). I didn’t even know what a thief taker was until I read this book.

The story is an intricate mystery with the murders, possible witchcraft, and treason. I didn’t see the ending coming at all. It could be that I don’t read that many mysteries, but I thought that it was really well done.

Another fascinating piece to this story are the plague victims. The horrific conditions that the author describes, like bodies rotting in the streets and the Thames becoming clogged with corpses around London Bridge, actually took place.

Because of these icky details, The Thief Taker occasionally veers towards the horror genre but never really crosses that line. I kept picturing the rotting plague victims as zombies. In some ways, they’re similar. Contact with a plague victim could bring infection. Sometimes, the main character would come across a body that would appear dead, but wasn’t dead. At one point in the story, a character describes the plague victims who are wandering the streets in search of mercy as the “walking dead.” It was very creepy.

Also, the societal breakdown that accompanied the plague was so quick. Every moment the characters were in the London streets was filled with tension. The reader didn’t know if a plague victim was going to pop out of a quarantined house or if a thug was going to try to commit a robbery in a dark alley.

Readers who like the historical fiction of Philippa Gregory, Judith Merkle Riley, and Sarah Dunant may enjoy this.

I received a free copy of this book through Goodreads First Reads program.

Thanks for reading!

Mistress of the Art of Death by Ariana Franklin

Mistress of the Art of Death by Ariana Franklin

mistressoftheartA medieval mystery in which Simon of Naples, a eunuch and a unique woman with the ability to decipher the wounds inflicted on bodies, race to discover the identity of a violent killer of children before he strikes again.

From its opening lines, The Mistress of the Art of Death had me in its thrall. “Here they come. From down the road we can hear harnesses jingling and see dust rising into the warm spring sky. Pilgrims returning after Easter in Canterbury. Tokens of the mitered, martyred Saint Thomas are pinned to cloaks and hats- the Canterbury monks must be raking it in. They’re a pleasant interruption in the traffic of carts whose drivers and oxen are surly with fatigue from plowing and sowing. These people are well fed, noisy, exultant with the grace their journey has gained them. But one of them, as exuberant as the rest, is a murderer of children.” pg 1.

I have been to Canterbury and viewed the spot where Thomas Becket was cut down by the knights of Henry II. It is an amazing place. Even more so when you consider that it has been standing for so long. I loved going back there, if only in a story.

The Mistress of the Art of Death herself, Adelia, is a brilliant and headstrong heroine. She embodies what I imagine women to have been in the time before we were allowed the same privileges as men. “She sighed with impatience. “I see you are regretting that the woman, like the doctor, is unadorned. It always happens.” She glared at him. … “Turn over that stone”- she pointed to a flint nearby-“and you will find a charlatan who will dazzle you with the favorable conjunction of Mercury and Venus, flatter your future, and sell you colored water for a gold piece. I can’t be bothered with it. From me you get the actuality.” He was taken aback. Here was the confidence, even arrogance, of a skilled artisan.” pg 52.

The reality that Adelia has been taught to see is not pretty. She learns all about the horrors that mankind inflicts on one another through her schooling. It has hardened her, but she seeks, beyond all else, to give voice and justice to the murdered. “Man hovers between Paradise and the Pit… Sometimes rising to one, sometimes swooping to the other. To ignore his capacity for evil is as obtuse as blinding oneself to the heights to which he can soar.” pg 77.

And yet, Adelia is still sassy. I loved her attitude. “He found her modest- a description, Adelia had long decided, that was applied to women who gave men no trouble.” pg 88. Though this novel could have dragged the reader through the stultifying reality of medieval attitudes and prejudices, instead Ariana Franklin takes us on a sparkling adventure filled with just enough detail to give the flavor of the time.

Recommended for those who like mysteries, historical fiction, strong heroines and perhaps some romance on the side. The Mistress of the Art of Death, though it touches on dark themes, was a welcome respite for me from a world that so often shows its shadows. I hope that it is an escape for you too.

Thanks for reading!