The Book of Speculation

The Book of Speculation by Erika Swyler9781250055637

publication date: 2015
pages: 339
ISBN: 978-1-250-05480-7

The Book of Speculation alternated between two linked story lines. The first, set in modern day, told the story of Simon Watson, a down-on-his-luck research librarian. Simon was desperately trying to hold on to the coastal house his family grew up in. With a diminishing career, a suicidal mother, a negligent father, and a roving sister who visited only once every few years, Simon felt the house was the only earthly thing he had to cling to. That changed when he was mysteriously sent an old ledger manuscript that contained his grandmother’s name and described an even older circus troupe, and when his sister arrived home, taking a break from her own life as a traveling circus performer.

The circus ledger detailed the second story line, set in the 1780s, about a traveling group of circus performers. That story focused on Amos, a mute man who became apprenticed to a fortune-teller and dreamed of finding and keeping love. One day, love fell into his lap in the form of Evangeline, a young woman with a gift for the water who was marketed by the circus as a mermaid.

The Book of Speculation was saturated with themes and motifs. There was water, of course, and drowning. Tarot cards and symbols. There were also themes of home, obsession, family, and the past as shackles. There were no subtle metaphors in Speculation: for example, Simon’s house, a relic of his failed family, literally hurt his leg and hampered his ability to walk away when one of the floorboards broke and swallowed him whole.

All these various plots, and themes, and characters, and fantastical elements – mermaids, circuses, tarot cards – fell flat for me. I didn’t care too much about Simon, which meant I didn’t care too much about the people in his constant dramas. Also, so many things seemed just a little bit off. I kept asking myself, “Does that make sense?” “Would someone do that?” “Do they really use lathes to angle doors?” (As far as I could tell – no.) For example, here was a passage from Simon’s narrative that rang false:

Alice cracks the door. Swollen eyes, a red nose, face bruised from crying.

Frank [had already] told her everything. I’m sorry and wish we’d never come. The worst is she’s a pretty crier and learning that is awful.

Learning she was a pretty crier was really the worst part about that situation? It wasn’t what Alice was crying about or what Frank told her or why you’d confront a grieving woman in the first place? It was that her face still looked pretty with tears on it?

Although the plots and characters often fizzled, Swyler imbued the book with vivid and effective imagery. As an example of writing that left an indelible image in my mind, here was a passage of Simon reading to his newly-returned sister, Enola:

[The story] is from the Bolokhovskis. She wants me to read Eglė. I do. Slowly, the way Mom used to, unraveling the story of the farmer’s daughter who would become Queen of the Serpents, and her children who were turned into trembling trees. All folktales have a price. Enola listens silently, pressing her forehead to my shoulder, letting me remember her.

The book was a steady read, so if any of the themes above intrigue you, you might want to pick this book up. However, I don’t have anything particular to recommend about it, either.

3/6: more good that bad

other reviews:

Bits & Books
npr
The Book Reporter

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by J.K Rowling, John Tiffany & Jack Thorne9781338099133

publication date: 2016
pages: 308
ISBN: 978-1-338-09913-3

I’m sure this review was too late for most of you readers. Either you were planning on reading this new play and you’ve done so, or you had no interest in reading it and my review would not sway you. Just for fun, though, and because I love Harry Potter, I’m putting this review out there.

This book – it’s actually a script – returned to the story of hero wizard Harry Potter nineteen years after the seventh book ended. Harry was now a father to three young children who were experiencing their own adventures at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

Cursed Child focused on Harry’s middle son, Albus, as he encountered his own brand of troubles at Hogwarts. The book included much about Harry. However, there was definitely an emphasis on the next generation.

Obviously, this little play was surrounded by anticipation. Harry Potter was one of the most cherished and endlessly examined book series of all time. As I was reading, I tried to keep my expectations in check because it would be impossible for something to live up to the original series. However, I thought this book was a lot of fun.

I liked the plot: it had a low point and an emotional climax and there was a twist that took me by surprise. I also liked the characters, both old and new. There was continuity with the characters I was familiar with from the original book series. This scene was a great example, where the main characters were unexpectedly gathering in Professor McGonagall’s office:

PROFESSOR McGONAGALL: Right. Very sensible. I expect . . . there will be quite a few [volunteers].
RON bursts in. Covered in soot. Wearing a gravy-stained dinner napkin.
RON: Have I missed anything – I couldn’t work out which Floo to travel to. Ended up in the kitchen somehow. (HERMIONE glares as he pulls the napkin off himself.) What?
Suddenly there is another rumble in the chimney and DRACO comes down hard, surrounded by cascading soot and dust.
Everyone looks at him, surprised. He stands and brushes the soot off himself.
DRACO: Sorry about your floor, Minerva.
PROFESSOR McGONAGALL: I dare say it’s my fault for owning a chimney.
HARRY: Quite a surprise to see you, Draco. I thought you didn’t believe in my dreams.
DRACO: I don’t, but I do trust your luck. Harry Potter is always where the action is at. And I need my son back with me and safe.
GINNY: Then let’s get to the Forbidden Forest and find them both.

That was simply classic Harry Potter. McGonagall’s dry chiding. Ron constantly doing slightly the wrong thing. Draco being the only polite one. A Weasley sounding a call to action.

I liked the new characters, as well – especially Albus Potter’s best friend Scorpius. He was a sensitive, intelligent kid with a great sense of humor. Here was some fun dialogue between Scorpius and Albus, on top of the Hogwarts Express:

SCORPIUS: Okay, now we’re on the roof of a train, it’s fast, it’s scary, this has been great, I feel like I’ve learnt a lot about me, something about you, but –
ALBUS: As I calculate it we should be approaching the viaduct soon and then it’ll be a short hike to St. Oswald’s Home for Old Witches and Wizards . . .
SCORPIUS: The what? The where? Look, I am as excited as you are to be a rebel for the first time in my life – yay – train roof – fun – but now – oh.

Although I liked a lot about Cursed Child, the writing was not as captivating as the book series. I think most of that was because this was a play and not a book. Because this was a play, I couldn’t read about the rich inner lives and monologues of any of the characters. As a play, this story would be more visually compelling than a book, but it does not create the same immediate and long-lasting connections with the characters.

Also, Cursed Child had some of the same flaws as the original series. People were always getting outraged for seemingly no good reason. And these people weren’t kids anymore; now they were adults! There were little riddles and adventures that didn’t actually make a lot of sense but did provide good fun. And many of the small plot points were just a little too convenient.

My mind cannot fathom separating this book from the original series, so, if you have never experienced the Harry Potter series, I have no idea whether you would like this book or if it would even be understandable. However, if you were a fan of the original series, I thought this play was a likable continuation, as long as the constraints of a play are kept in mind.

4/6: worth reading

other reviews:

New York Times
The Independent (this review quotes a 10-year-old kid’s review)
Read at Midnight

Butterfly Winter

Hi all! I’m sorry for my extended break. I was busy with the holidays and then, this January, I’ve been doing the final edits for my friend Beaufield Berry’s first book: Childhood Friends. But all should be back on track now. Thank you for reading!

Butterfly Winter by W.P. Kinsella9781586422059

publication date: 2011
pages: 300
ISBN: 978-1-58642-205-9

W.P. Kinsella, probably most famous for writing Shoeless Joe – the inspiration for the movie Field of Dreams, wrote several books and stories that centered around baseball and magical realism. Butterfly Winter was just such a book, and was the last book he ever published.

The book introduced Julio and Esteban Pimental: twin brothers born in the fictional Latin American country of Courteguay. The boys were born playing baseball and quickly ascended the ranks and began playing professional ball in America at the age of ten. They went on to play for several successful years as their home country of Courteguay was consumed by human rights abuses that were put into place by a string of homegrown dictators.

Butterfly Winter exhibited a lot of what might be called “magical realism,” but was what I would call nonsense. Here’s an example of a story told about a baseball pitcher who carried around the arm of another pitcher, who had recently died:

What happened next, and this is a secret between us, resulted in Milan Garza’s finest year in the Major Leagues, the year he won thirty-five games.
“Milan Garza used to carry the arm in a tuba case. . . . Milan Garza told the Old Dictator that he pitched until he got tired, or was being hit too hard, then he let Barojas Garcia pitch for a while.”
“A portable relief pitcher?” asked Julio. . . . “Is that how it happened?” Julio asked.
“If it isn’t, it’s the way it should have happened,” said the Wizard.

Because the plot was so “magical,” nothing made sense. Magic and possibility were used to explain everything. For me, this meant the plot had no meaning, and I was rarely interested in the story or the characters. Here’s an example of the exaggerated characters:

Julio was walking by seven months, however Esteban remained stable in the catcher’s crouch until he was nearly three. . . . The women immediately fell in love with [Julio]. He would stare arrogantly at the prettiest female in the audience, tug suggestively at his diaper, then unleash a wild pitch into the crowd, aimed, usually with great accuracy, at the stuffiest looking male present.

This kind of writing style, while boring to me, might be interesting and fun to someone else. However, the biggest problem I had with the book was its treatment of dark-skinned people and Latin American history and government. Most of the characters were explicitly light-skinned, and here were the descriptions of the two most prominent dark-skinned characters in the book:

[Julio] picked a woman who, while not unattractive, was of a type not desirable to him. She was a black girl with a wild tumbleweed of hair. She wore a read skirt slit to the waist, and a turquoise blouse that showed off her sloping breasts. She was brazen, not very intelligent, and almost impossible to understand when she spoke.

I thought that was pretty bad but then there was this description of another character:

Dr. Noir wore a smart vizored military hat with gold braid and epaulets on his shoulders the size of giant hairbrushes. His cheeks were like black, pockmarked grapefruit halves, so black they might have been polished. A round surgical mask, white as an angel, covered his nose, hiding the huge, slug-like lips Quita knew well from photographs.

As I am quoting this passage I honestly cannot believe someone had the temerity to put those words to page. I was going to include another passage that denigrated Haiti, but I don’t want to read any more of this stuff.

So with that said:

2/6: many problems

other reviews:

The Globe and Mail
Magic Realism Blog
Quill & Quire

Drag Teen

Drag Teen by Jeffery Self9780545829939

publication date: 2016
pages: 261
ISBN: 978-0-545-82993-9

This YA book followed JT and his friends Heather and Seth from Florida to New York as they entered JT in a drag queen competition to boost his confidence and win a college scholarship. I’m glad this book exists, because there should be books about people pursuing drag for fun and for life. However, this particular book was not great.

The writing was very uneven. The narrator skipped from one topic to the next and any emotional changes were generally jarring and confusing. Also, the author assumed that just because he described something in a certain way, then that thing made sense. Here’s an example, when JT’s best friend was introduced:

Heather was just as much of a mess as me. Which is why our friendship worked so well. We were the kind of outcasts they don’t make teen movies about. Heather was funny, biting, sarcastic, and had a variety of beautiful features, but none of them really went together, and her weight problems were even worse than mine, which meant she turned to her big personality to distract the judgmental eyes of our peers.

That paragraph was all over the place. And, those two sound like exactly the folks people would make teen movies about. A gay teen and his funny, overweight best friend? I think 60% of teen movies post-She’s All That have that combo in there.

Generally, the humor did not work. However, there were a few parts that I thought were funny. This line was one of my favorites:

We all awkwardly chuckled along with her, the way people do in action movies when the bad guy makes a lame joke and laughs at it while holding a weapon.

I also liked how buoyant and passionate the writing was. The author really loved his topic and his characters. Although a lot of the characters in the book were just props for JT or plot pieces, JT’s boyfriend and best friend, Seth and Heather, were well-developed characters with their own interesting back stories and lives.

This book had a lot going for it, including good main characters and convincing settings and motivations, but unfortunately the plot and writing were flawed.

3/6: more good than bad

other reviews:

Twirling Book Princess
Portland Book Review
Edge Media Network

Permanent Record

Permanent Record by Leslie Stella9781477816394

publication date: 2013
pages: 282
ISBN: 9781477816394

Permanent Record was a YA book with an uncommon main character – Badi Hessamizadeh, also known as Bud Hess. Badi was a young Iranian-American living with his family in urban Chicago. When we met Badi at the beginning of the book, he was in mandatory therapy after a suicide attempt and was leaving his old school because of his threats against students and blowing up a toilet.

When Badi started at his new school, his parents forced on him a new Americanized name – Bud Hess. Along with the new name, Bud wanted a fresh start at his new school, without the bullying and depression and maybe even with some friends. As the story continued, Bud refused to take his medication and his narrative became increasingly paranoid and violent. Bud found himself in almost the same situation he was in at his previous school.

The tone and voice of this book was classic young adult. It was angst-filled, with a lot of talk about girls and rebelling against parents and other authority figures. The dialogue was usually good, but not necessarily realistic. Leslie Stella did infuse the book with a lot of humor, some of it dark. For example, Bud described the new freshmen in school as having “the stunned look of livestock.”

I also liked the setting of a Middle Eastern-American household. Stella did a great job conveying Bud’s family as realistic Americans with an Iranian culture and background. Here was how Stella introduced Bud’s father:

We’re halfway through when Dad clears his throat, puts down his fork, and turns to me. “Son, I have some news for you.” . . . Dad lifts his palms in a gesture of surrender. “Now, now, do not derange yourself.” My father emigrated to this country – right here to Chicago, in fact – from Iran thirty years ago, and while he has only the slightest accent and is completely fluent in English (and Farsi and French), he’s retained some dialectical oddities.

Stella deliberately crafted the pace of the book. As Bud’s narration devolved into paranoia and desperation, the tone of the book gradually became less coherent and more frantic. Throughout all this, Bud’s actions and motives became less justifiable and more threatening. And yet we were still supposed to root for him, or at least identify with him. I thought Stella did an effective job of making Bud a sympathetic character even as he was unequivocally plotting violence against his alleged enemies. However, it did raise the question: how much sympathy, understanding, and forgiveness should we give a violent person, know matter how mentally ill or how bullied they feel?

What the book lacked in depth and character development, it made up for in an unusual plot and setting and funny writing. For people who like YA, or for those encountering depression, I would certainly recommend the book.

4/6: worth reading

other reviews:

Teen Librarian Toolbox
Drunk On Pop
School Library Journal

Dark Lover

Dark Lover: The Life and Death of Rudolph Valentino by Emily W. Leider9780374282394

publication date: 2003
pages: 423
ISBN: 0-374-28239-0

I picked this book up as I was wandering through the library. The title caught my eye because it was also the name of the first book of a romance series I sometimes read called The Black Dagger Brotherhood. When I started the book, I knew almost nothing about Rudolph Valentino and the era of silent movies.

Rudolph Valentino was an Italian man born in 1895. He moved to New York City when he was 18, where he became a dancer and an actor in bit parts. His first big break was in 1921 as the lead in the successful silent movie The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse. That role led to many more parts and to him being a new kind of sex symbol: the dark and mysterious, maybe even a little evil, lover. He had a short and powerful career and died at the age of 31 of stomach ulcers.

Dark Lover was obviously well-researched. Leider described Valentino’s life in great detail and included several passages about the biographies of the people closest to him, including his immediate family and his wives and friends. Leider also uncovered facts about Valentino’s life that had been forgotten or had been wrongly presented in other accounts of Valentino.

Although Leider’s writing did not sparkle with wit or originality, she did present a fun tone throughout the book, and an undeniable passion for the subject. Here was her description of the negative implication of Valentino dancing for money when he first arrived in New York:

American opinion found nothing strenuous in dancing done by men, whether in ballets or ballrooms. [Russian male dancer] Nijinsky, who appeared in New York in 1916 with the Ballets Russes, was slammed in the press for being effete. To move with graceful insinuation, wear citified evening clothes, show off, and make a woman sigh as you swept her across the floor – sorry, it just wouldn’t do, especially if the woman was picking up the tab. The [dancer’s] slicked-back hair became a symbol of what made him suspect. Instead of being rugged and leathery like a 100 percent American, his oiled hair and manner made him “smooth” and slithery, like the fabled snake in the grass.

The book also contained three different sets of photographs. Leider found some wonderful pictures of Valentino, including a photo of a shirtless Valentino wearing skintight goatskin pants and playing a flute.

For me, the book was about one hundred pages too long. Leider included a lot of detail throughout the book, from her descriptions of Valentino’s clothes and purchases to the summaries of his movies. Someone with more than a passing interest in Valentino’s life presumably would have found the content more engaging. To me, the book seemed repetitive at times and would drag on. Leider never elevated Valentino’s story to be more than just a recounting of facts.

3/6: more good than bad

other reviews:

The Guardian
London Review Of Books
Curled Up With a Good Book

S.

S. by J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst9780316201643

publication date: 2013
pages: 456
ISBN: 978-0-316-20164-3

This book was a lot of fun. The physical book that the reader actually held in their hands was a first edition of the 1949 book Ship of Theseus by V.M. Straka. Within that Straka book, were notes in the margins, written by Jen, a college student, and Eric, a graduate student seeking his Ph.D. on Straka and his works. There were also several related papers stuck in the Straka book, like a copy of a telegram sent by Straka in 1924 and a postcard sent from Eric to Jen in 2012. All these different layers of narratives made for an intriguing book. There was also a lot of mystery within the Ship of Theseus story written by Straka, and surrounding Straka’s identity and death, and around Jen and Eric’s relationship and work.

The different narratives within the book gave me a choice as to how I could read it. I thought the best way I would be able to judge the Ship of Theseus text and the Jen and Eric annotations was to read each story separately. So I read Ship of Theseus and it’s footnotes first, without looking at Eric and Jen’s notes or the material stuck in the book. Then, after I read to the end of the text, I read the later notes and material.

J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst obviously spent time creating this book, and the effort paid off. The different voices of Eric, Jen, Straka, Straka’s editor, and other characters were all varied and interesting. There were several clues and codes within the book that the reader could investigate and untangle. Also, the added material within the book, like letters, photos, and newspaper clippings was all detailed and well-done. Probably the most exciting part in the book for me was when I turned a page to find a hand-written map drafted on a napkin. As I was unfolding the map, I felt like I really was going on an adventure.

I was impressed by the distinctiveness of the different character voices. For example, here was a passage from Ship of Theseus about its main character, S:

It’s not so much the killing that exhausts S. as it is the planning and rowing and trusting and traveling and stalking and killing and escaping and rowing and sewing and sailing and writing and sailing and writing and sailing and writing and planning and rowing and trusting, all the while knowing that Vévoda is hunting him, too. . . .

And here’s a typical passage in the margins between Eric and Jen:

[Eric]: Sometimes I wonder: how much of this am I doing just to get back @ Moody? And Ilsa, too?
[Jen]: You’re doing exactly what you would have been doing. You’re just a little more intense about it.
[Eric]: Apparently I’m allowing you to make rash decisions (which admittedly, benefit me indirectly).
[Jen]: You’re not “allowing” me to do anything.

Although I enjoyed the book, parts of it could be annoying. For example, it’s very nature made it self-indulgent. Doug Dorst was able to write a book and then write notes in the margins commenting on how interesting and well-written the book was. Also, the Ship of Theseus narrative was sometimes excessively stylized.

Overall, it was a fun, intriguing book that left several mysteries unsolved for those readers who want to solve puzzles on their own.

4/6: worth reading

other reviews:

The Guardian
Hypable
The Telegraph