Fortune-tellers and floods, mermaids and mysteries, a traveling carnival and a tumble-down house threatening to fall into the sea. Erika Swyler packs all these and more into her first novel The Book of Speculation (St. Martin’s Press, digital galley), which both fascinates and frustrates with its alternating narratives. In the present, reference librarian Simon Watson lives in the family house slowly sliding into the Long Island Sound where his mother — a circus mermaid — curiously drowned when he and his sister Enola were children. Simon looked after Enola while their grief-stricken father withered away, but six years ago, she ran off with their mother’s tarot cards and no plans to ever return. But then Simon receives a mysterious, water-damaged old book in the mail, and Enola calls to say she’ll be home in July. Simon is alarmed because the book — the logbook of a traveling carnival — shows generations of the women in his family all drowning on July 24th. In the past storyline, a mute boy known as Amos is adopted by carnival owner, apprenticed to a Russian fortune-teller and is captivated by Evangeline, who may be a mermaid and is possibly a murderess. That the two storylines will eventually converge is a foregone conclusion, but the “how” makes for the suspense. Still, the novel’s rickety underpinnings sag under the weight of so many coincidences, romances and misfortunes that its magic begins to wane. The Book of Speculation ends up being both too much and too little. But I did like the horseshoe crabs.
Readers of Charlaine Harris’s Midnight Crossing know that strangers to the dusty Texas town of Midnight are not nearly as strange as its residents. Phone psychic Manfredo Bernardo learned that when he moved to Midnight and discovered his neighbors included a witch, a shape-shifter, a couple of angels and a vampire. Still, things have taken a turn for the really strange in Harris’ follow-up, the entertaining Day Shift (Penguin Berkley, review copy). For starters, Manfredo is suspected of murder after one of his clients drops dead, and then the Reverend, who tends the little church and adjacent pet cemetery, takes in a young boy who grows taller — really taller — every day. Beautiful Olivia Channing is keeping all kinds of secrets while her vampire gentleman friend Lemuel is away. But what’s really weird is that a mysterious corporation is supposedly turning the abandoned Midnight Hotel into a luxury resort but also has relocated some indigent Las Vegas seniors to the premises. And just to keep things interesting, Harris brings in a couple of characters from her Sookie Stackhouse series as strange events come to a head under a full moon. Some mysteries are resolved, but others only deepen. A third book, please?
Islands have a certain magic, some more than others. In author Susan M. Boyer’s mind, the fictional South Carolina island of Stella Maris is located a hop, skip, a couple of bridges and a ferry ride from Charleston. The picturesque beach community is also home base for PI Liz Talbot, although her hunky partner Nate wants her to move upstate in Lowcountry Boneyard (Henery Press, digital galley). As readers of the previous two books in this perky series know, Liz has a secret tie to the island in the shape of a ghostly guardian angel, her late best friend, Colleen, who conveniently pops up to warn of danger or gather clues in the spirit world. This time, Liz is searching for missing Charleston heiress Kent Heyward whom the police consider a rich-girl runaway. After meeting Kent’s family — including her stern father, matriarch Abigail and creepy twin uncles — Liz thinks Kent may have had good reason to leave town, but Kent’s chef boyfriend Matt and her BFF Ansley assure her otherwise. Dangerous surprises await when Liz goes poking around in a local cemetery and digging up family secrets in the lowcountry and upstate, but Colleen can’t come to the rescue if Liz is too far away from Stella Maris. Not to give anything away, but the fourth book in the series is due in the fall.
Elizabeth George, best known for her Inspector Thomas Lynley series, has a high old time with The Mysterious Disappearance of the Reluctant Book Fairy (Mysterious Press/Open Road, digital galley), her contribution to the Press short story series Bibliomysteries. At just under 50 pages, it’s a tale easily consumed in one sitting, true escapist reading a la Jasper Fforde. Janet Shore, the sickly youngest child in a boisterous Washington state family, perfects the art of escaping into a book at an early age. Literally. “Given a heart rending scene of emotion (Mary Ingalls going blind!), a thrilling adventure in a frightening cave (Tom, Huck, and Injun Joe!), a battle with pirates (Peter Pan and Captain Hook!), and our Janet was actually able to transport herself into the scene itself. And not as a passive observer, mind you, but rather as a full participant in the story.” Janet first entertains herself and classmates with book traveling, but gives it up when she grows older and has her heart broken. Then her best childhood friend Monie conspires to get Janet — now Annapurna — a job at the local library, where the overbearing Mildred Bantry sees a way to make money by setting up a book tourism company, Epic!, with Annapurna as chief tour guide. George has a lot of fun with this conceit, as will readers who can only imagine the joys of escaping into the pages of a favorite book or Greek myth. As for Annapurna/Janet’s choice of the perfect pages in which to get lost, let me just say that I’ll happily join her some gaudy night.