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Book Review: The Book of Speculation by Erika Swyler (4/5)

8 May

This is one of those books that was popping up everywhere for a few months. I added it to my list and was really surprised my library only offered an ebook copy. I always read ebooks really slowly on my phone, mostly while I’m eating lunch at work or waiting at the doctor’s office. Recently, I’d been reading it more consistently and was really hooked by the climax at the end. The two plotlines were converging and I was loving it. But, as all good bookworms have experienced, I lost the hold! Because it’s an ebook, it auto-returned and I couldn’t even agree to pay overdue fines to finish it. Fortunately, the ILL system in my area is pretty great and I was able to get a physical copy a week and a half later. I literally had twenty pages left. I finished the book while eating lunch the day I picked it up.

Cover image via Goodreads

The Book of Speculation by Erika Swyler

Summary from Goodreads:

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.

One day, Simon receives a mysterious book from an antiquarian bookseller; it has been sent to him because it is inscribed with the name Verona Bonn, Simon’s grandmother. Simon must unlock the mysteries of the book, and decode his family history, before fate deals its next deadly hand.

The book started out a little slower than I was expecting and there was a bit more magical realism than I had anticipated. Magical realism isn’t something I enjoy and I think if Swyler had put any more into it, I wouldn’t have liked this book. As it stands, it was just enough to be fun without being overwhelming. Simon is very lost in his life and it seems appropriate that a book would help a librarian find his way. The subplot with Alice was a nice touch. I liked the back-and-forth between Amos and Simon. I could tell there would be some kind of relationship between them and the way it came together at the end was fun.

I’m always weary when I see a writer pick the opposite gender for their main character. Sometimes it’s fine and sometimes it seems awkward. It’s hard for me to tell if a female author is writing a man well, as in this case. Simon felt very relatable and I couldn’t tell if it’s because of the female writer or he’s a relatable human.

Amos was a great character. The bit about him literally disappearing was a bit much for me, but I thought his emotional development from Wild Boy to a father was realistic and his emotional turmoil as it related to Evangeline was moving and real. I wanted better things for him, but he was very happy for a time. I wish he’d handled his grief better and thought about Bess more.

Alice was most relatable to me. I tend to be the practical one come whatever situation. When Simon’s let go and the house is collapsing, she’s not swept up in her emotions but trying to find a way out of a bad situation for him. I could see myself reacting to bad news the way she did and trying to find jobs for Simon. I also related to the betrayal she felt with Simon stole from the library. It wasn’t an affront to her but reflected badly on her. I could sympathize with that sense of guilt.

Erika Swyler
Image via Allen & Unwin

I liked the descriptions of the horseshoe crabs. It was a little hard to understand where they came from (magical realism) but it explained the deaths in Simon’s family and it was a great tension-building tool that Swyler used. I knew something bad was going to happen when they showed up!

Amos’s journey seemed odd to me. He came from the woods, couldn’t talk but learned English and then spoke through Tarot cards. It seemed too much of a stretch and he didn’t seem to grow as a character. His ability to disappear didn’t add much to him, even at the end. I would have liked that to be flushed out a bit more.

The message about holding onto the past was well done. The cards were a bit much for me, but the message with the house and family secrets was well done. Enola had moved on physically and emotionally from her childhood while Simon was stuck in the house and his past. He started trying to get away when he applied for jobs in Georgia but he seemed to self-sabotage when he let his phone die and be disconnected. By the end, he’d gotten ahold of himself and his goals though not in the way I expected. I was really surprised Alice went with him, too. She seemed much more practical than someone who was going to quit her job to travel with the circus. That bothered me a bit.

Writer’s Takeaway: I liked Swyler’s dual timelines. I normally don’t like a back-and-forth approach but this one worked for me. I think it’s because the plots were so different that I didn’t confuse them easily and they converged slowly and mostly at the end which made for a great climax individually and for the book as a whole. It was great pacing.

I really enjoyed the book and its structure. Four out of Five stars.

This book fulfills the 1700-1799 time period for the When Are You Reading? Challenge.

Until next time, write on.

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