A Brilliant Place to Begin with Summer Reading

The Book of Speculation: A Novel, by Erika Swyler, (St. Martin’s Press), 352 pages, release date 23 June, 2015

I build a ten-best books list over the year, adding to it when I find a title that’s outstanding. The good books seem to come in clusters. January and February were good months for for the list, but things have been dead since then. As a result, I was particularly appreciative of Erika Swyler’s The Book of Speculation, which definitely belongs on a ten-best list.

The Book of Speculation offers a sort of East Coast side show magical realism. It includes three generations of “mermaids” (performers able to remain underwater for ten minutes or more), a wild boy turned fortune-teller, a recently fired librarian, a mysterious carnival log more than a century old, and a house that is slowly falling into the sea. It offers magic, menace, and romance. Swyler moves back and forth between time periods and plot lines, building multiple narratives that gradually draw closer and closer to one another.

I love reading this sort of rich fiction at any time of the year, but I particularly appreciate it in summer, when I can carve out more sizable blocks of time for reading. Once I began reading The Book of Speculation, I felt compelled to put everything else on hold until I finished. I expect a lot of readers will be doing that over the next month or two. The Book of Speculation is a very special book, indeed.

Seeing and Seeing

The Body Where I Was Born, by Guadalupe Nettel, translated by T. J. Lichtenstein, (Seven Stories Press, Random House), 208 pages, release date 16 June 2015.

Sight is the dominant leitmotif in Guadalupe Nettel’s The Body Where I Was Born. There’s the unnamed narrator’s own sight, defective from birth, and which is complicated by efforts to correct it. There’s the narrator’s emotional sense of sight—her ability to see the behavior and motives of those around her, even when they wish she wouldn’t. She also has a sort of reflective sight, an ability (or compulsion) to see the timeline of her own life.

The Body Where I Was Born is essentially a monologue. Our narrator tells the story of her life to her psychoanalyst, Dr. Sazlavski. She was raised by “swinging” parents in the 70s, sent to one of Mexico’s few Montessori schools, drawn later to the culture of punk rock. Mexican herself, she lives in a neighborhood in Mexico that is home to many refugees from Pinochet’s Chile; then moves to France with her mother, who is pursuing graduate studies; then returns to Mexico to live with her grandmother.

Given the novel’s monologic structure the reader doesn’t always trust the narrator. There is no external reality—only her version of events spinning out page after page. At times her observations are perceptive. At other times they seem self-indulgent. The reader can, however, share some part of the feeling of self-actualization she finally reaches when she decides to live in “the body where I was born.”

A Young Feminist in a Magical World

The Magician’s Dream: An Oona Crate Mystery, by Shawn Thomas Odyssey, (Egmont USA), 320 pages, release date 23 June, 2015, publisher recommended for ages 8-12

Once again I’ve stumbled into the middle of a series and have enjoyed myself so much that I’m going to have to go back and read the earlier titles I missed. The Magician’s Dream is the third book in the Oona Crate series. Oona is an apprentice wizard living on Dark Street, a mysterious, revolving realm bridging the world of man (“of humans,” Oona would insist) and the world of the faeries. These are not the fluttery beauties that the word faerie often conjures. These are powerful, malevolent, battle-ready beings. Centuries ago, a wizard locked the gates that let the faeries travel down Dark Street to the world of man (“of humans,” Oona would insist again). Oona is a teen in training to become the next wizard charged with keeping that gateway sealed.

While the publisher is marketing this as a book for late elementary/early middle readers, it’s fun enough to entertain readers on either side of that range. The world of Dark Street is vividly portrayed with a wealth of images to fuel one’s own imagination: a library that is an indoor forest with books spread out along the trees’ branches; magic wallpaper and carpeting that seem like living presences; a dragon-bone desk that can come to life.

Oona is a young feminist, a rebel against the unquestioned male authority that governs Dark Street. She supports the first female candidate for the Dark Street Council; she isn’t afraid to take the lead in a budding romance with a young librarian apprenticing to become an expert in magical law. She’s also a detective, determined to find her father’s killer and to outdo Inspector White, who took over her father’s post as head of Dark Street Police after her father’s murder.

We live in a literary age with a multitude of wizards, but Oona is a delightful, original addition to the bunch. Instead of a wand, she uses her father’s magnifying glass. Her history tutor is a talking raven named Deacon. When you need a bit of magic, Oona’s just the girl to turn to—regardless of the age you are.


Eight Legs, Three Hearts, and One Wonderful Book

The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness, by Sy Montgomery, (Atria Books, Simon & Schuster), 272 pages, release date 12 May, 2015.

Sy Montgomery’s The Soul of an Octopus is a wonderful nonfiction read. The subject matter alone is compelling. If you’ve seen octopuses in an aquarium or on film, you know what beguiling creatures they are. They are completely foreign to us and yet oddly like us in their intelligence, affection, and problem-solving ability.

Montgomery has had the opportunity to interact with octopuses in a way a non-scientist rarely has. She’s volunteered behind the scenes at the New England Aquarium, watching and participating in the transitions among the different octopuses the aquarium has been home to. She learned to scuba dive specifically for the purpose of observing octopuses in the wild. The Soul of an Octopus is her attempt to understand the logical and emotional worlds of octopuses—at least of those she’s known well.

Physiologically, octopuses are every bit as unusual as the creations of the best writers of science fiction. They have, as Montgomery tells us, three hearts and a brain that wraps around its throat. Their blood is blue, not red like ours, because octopuses’ oxygen is carried by copper, not iron as in our bodies.

She explains that octopuses are “extreme multi-taskers,” required to simultaneously “coordinate all those arms; to change color and shape; to learn, think, decide, and remember—while at the same time processing the flood of taste and touch information pouring in from every inch of skin, as well as making sense of the cacophony of visual images offered by the well-developed, almost human-like eyes.”

Experiments have demonstrated that octopuses have what is called “theory of mind,” a trait, Montgomery tells us, that was once considered uniquely human. Theory of mind “implies self-awareness. (I think this, but you might think that.)” In fact, Montgomery argues that “of all the creatures on the planet who imagine what is in another creature’s mind, the one that might do so best might well be the octopus—because without this ability, the octopus could not perpetuate its many self-preserving deceptions,” which include altering its appearance to that of a rock or coral, using displays to unnerve prey animals and startle them into motion, and to rapidly alter its color, pattern, and shape, making it impossible for fish to perceive it as a single sort of image.

Along with the science, Montgomery offers plenty of speculation, but I don’t use the term speculation in any pejorative sense. Her reflections on how these creatures might perceive their worlds, including—for those in aquariums—all us bipeds, are fascinating. In other words, this is book that won’t just add to your knowledge base, it will stretch your mind and challenge your sense of self.

A Mystery Novel Not to Be Missed

A Pitying of Doves: A Birder Murder Mystery, by Steve Burrows, (Dundurn), 352 pages, release date 16 June, 2016

Last year, I reviewed the first book in Steve Burrows’ Birder Murder mystery series, A Siege of Bitterns. Since then, I’ve been waiting eagerly for the next novel in this series. Seriously—I wrote the publisher last summer to say, “You are going to publish more in this series, aren’t you? Please tell me you wouldn’t let this novel be a one-off.” That’s how much I liked the first volume.

A Pitying of Doves, the second novel featuring Chief Inspector Domenic Jejeune, is as absorbing and intelligent as its predecessor. Inspector Jejeune, originally from Canada, now lives in a small coastal town in England. He is oddly cursed in his brilliance as a detective: he’d much prefer to be bird-watching. However, having earned national recognition on an earlier case, he faces a steady demand for his services.

A Pitying of Doves has a multi-layered plot. It begins with the murder of an odd pair: a grad student who runs a small bird sanctuary and a senior attaché with the Mexican Consulate. This immediately sends the investigation in several directions. There’s the grad student’s untrustworthy PhD adviser; the campaign run out of the sanctuary to convince local farmers to set aside land for bird habitat, reducing their production and profits; the widow and son of the reclusive collector of doves, originally from Mexico; more members of the Mexican Consulate; British politicians more concerned with avoiding international slights than with uncovering the murderer; a small-time thief; the former superior officer of one of the sergeants on the case, who severed time in Afghanistan; and the unsteady local woman who insists the sanctuary has stolen birds given to her by her husband.

Jejeune, as always, is tight-lipped and highly rational. There’s good reason for any course his investigation takes, but that reason is almost always a complete unknown for those who work with him. The reader, who has slightly more information than Jejeune’s investigative team, still is faced with a multitude of questions as the book progresses.

The novel also offers an interesting secondary plot. The grad student had been doing field work in northern Africa studying doves. Now that she’s been killed the position is open—and Jejeune would love nothing more than to leave police work for a chance to work as a field biologist.

If you’re a fan of mystery novels with rich characterization and complex plots, put A Pitying of Doves at the top of your summer reading list.


Conan Doyle and Wilde—Together Again

The Dead Assassin: The Paranormal Casebooks of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, by Vaughn Entwistle, (Minotaur Books, Macmillan), 352 pages, release date 9 June, 2015

A little over a year ago, I reviewed the first volume in Vaughn Entwistle’s Paranormal Casebooks of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle series. Now, Entwistle is putting friends and co-investigators Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Oscar Wilde back together again in a novel that opens with a great set-up. Charlie Higginbottom, a pickpocket, has brutally murdered one of the leading figures in Her Majesty’s government. What makes this a paranormal case? Well,  Higginbottom had been hanged at Newgate Prison two weeks earlier in front of dozens of witnesses.

The personal lives of each man are growing more complex. Conan Doyle is falling in love with Jean Leckie as his wife Touie grows ever weaker from the tuberculosis that will ultimately take her life. Wilde’s eye seems to be wandering more frequently, and warily, toward handsome young men.

As both men juggle these complications, they find themselves in the middle of a plot to bring down the government. They are simultaneously helped and harried by the enigmatic “Cypher,” who runs a top-secret intelligence gathering team out of Whitehall Palace. Men of importance in government and industry continue to die, and soon Conan Doyle and Wilde themselves are threatened.

If you’re looking for a page-turning summer adventure novel that leans towards the steampunk and contains plenty of literary badinage, this is the book for you. Take it to the beach for a weekend and immerse yourself in the fog-shrouded mysteries of London while you catch a bit of sun.

Folktale, Monster, Friend

Golemchik, by Will Exley, (Nobrow Ltd.), 24 pages, release date 9 June 2015

Do you know the story of the Golem? He’s a creature made of mud who comes to life when a rabbi places a piece of paper with a sacred word inscribed on it in the Golem’s mouth.

Will Exley’s Golemchik brings us a new version of the story: no rabbi, no sacred word. Instead, one lonely boy—the only one among his friends not going away for summer vacation—is startled to meet a Golem come to life from items his friends have left behind in their clubhouse. The Golem is both friend and monster, so the boy both wants to get to know him and at the same time has to protect his village from him.

This short graphic book is a fun read, capturing and building upon the sort of childhood loneliness we’ve all faced. This is a great book for young illustrators and story-tellers. The story line and vivid illustrations leave lots of room for imagined embellishments, allowing each reader to make it her or his own.

Mystery and Survival in the Court of Henry VIII

The Tapestry: A Novel, by Nancy Bilyeau, read by Nicola Barber, (High Bridge Audio), 13 and 1/4 hours on 11 discs, released 24 March, 2015

In theory, my commute should be a quick one, but theory and reality in commutes are two different things. As a result, when I’m driving the 20 miles that take an hour when they should only take half that, I listen to books on CD. As a result, I was absolutely delighted when I found I’d won an audiobook version of Nancy Bilyeau’s The Tapestry through LibraryThing’s early reviewer program.

Set during the waning years of Henry VIII’s rule (Catherine Howard, wife number five, rises and falls over the course of the novel), The Tapestry is a rather open-ended mystery novel. This book is the second in what will no doubt be a series with several more volumes. Now, while I love Tudor-era mysteries, I have little patience for Tudor-era romances, so I was a bit trepidatious when I slipped disc one into the CD player. As it turns out, the novel didn’t contain an overabundance of romance. Yes, there’s a bit of romance, but the plot is primarily driven by the politics of Henry’s court and the larger world—which is all for the good as far as I’m concerned.

One of the aspects of The Tapestry that captured my attention right away was the identity of the narrator. Dominican novice Joanna Stafford was one of many religious left homeless after Henry’s dissolution of the religious houses. She’s already participated in one plot against the King and now is determined to keep her head low—thereby keeping her head fully attached to her shoulders. As a result, Joanna is now working as a weaver in a small town a day’s ride from London.

I’ve read Tudor-era mysteries with Protestant protagonists, with agnostic protagonists, and with Catholic protagonists, but The Tapestry is the first Tudor-era mystery I’ve read with a narrator who genuinely loathes Henry—and with good reason. Normally he’s presented as unpredictable and intimidating, but a character viewed with a mix of fear and respect. To hear the voice of someone who genuinely despises him—and a former nun (well, near nun) at that—is fascinating.

Joanna is, unfortunately, brought to the King’s attention by Anne of Cleves (wife number four), who purchases one of Joanna’s tapestries as a gift for the King. Joanna is unwillingly summoned to court and given a position as the King’s tapestry mistress. Naturally, she is under the King’s eye a great deal and deeply worried as to when he might learn of her part in the earlier conspiracy to bring him down.

At court, Catherine is reacquainted her cousin Catherine Howard, meets Thomas Cullpepper, is the target of several intricate murder plots, and travels to protestant Europe on a buying trip for the King. In other words, there’s action a-plenty, but it’s well-balanced by the depiction of Joanna’s inner life.

If you’re looking for a good summer read with a strong heroine, a wicked King, victims both innocent and guilty, a touch of witchcraft, and religious schism, this is the book for you.

The Sunset of the Pinochet Regime in a Striking YA Novel

Surviving Santiago, by Lyn Miller-Lachmann, (Running Press Kids, Perseus), 320 pages, release date 2 June, 2015

When I began reading Lyn Miller-Lachmann’s Surviving Santiago, I hadn’t realized it drew on her earlier work Gringolandia (which I haven’t yet read, but which I purchased immediately after finishing Surviving Santiago). The central character, Tina Aguilar, is a rather naive sixteen-year-old, spending the summer in Santiago, Chile, with her activist father, who she hasn’t seen since her parents separated.

The novel is set after the plebiscite that ended Pinochet’s rule in Chile, but before he has left office. Tina’s father, who was imprisoned and tortured during the Pinochet regime, and who is still closely watched by Pinochet’s government, is the host of a popular, liberal radio program. He has insisted upon Tina spending the summer with him, but seems to be going to great lengths to avoid spending any time with her. Instead, Tina is left to be looked over by her paternal aunt Ileana (who, interestingly, is a very closeted lesbian) and spends increasing amounts of time with Frankie, a young man she’s met in her wanderings around the city.

As I said, Tina is naive—unaware of the dangers of careless speech or action in the waning days of the dictatorship. What follows can perhaps be anticipated, but is moving nonetheless. Tina inadvertently puts her father’s and her own life in danger and, in the process of saving them both, builds a new relationship with him.

Surviving Santiago is a solid young adult novel, balancing family, romance, and crisis in unexpected ways. To most young adult readers, Chile’s Pinochet regime isn’t even a bit of fog in the distant past—it’s completely unknown. For that reason, I particularly appreciate the deftness with which Miller-Lachmann provides the historical context that many U.S. readers will need. The recent history of Chile unfolds over the course of the novel, laid out clearly, but not in a way that interrupts the narrative. Surviving Santiago’s blend of entertainment and history is an enjoyable and welcome addition to recent young adult literature.