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The Book of Speculation

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Simon Watson, a young librarian, lives alone in a house that is slowly crumbling toward the Long Island Sound. His parents are long dead. His mother, a circus mermaid who made her living by holding her breath, drowned in the very water his house overlooks. His younger sister, Enola, ran off six years ago and now reads tarot cards for a traveling carnival.

One June day, an old book arrives on Simon's doorstep, sent by an antiquarian bookseller who purchased it on speculation. Fragile and water damaged, the book is a log from the owner of a traveling carnival in the 1700s, who reports strange and magical things, including the drowning death of a circus mermaid. Since then, generations of "mermaids" in Simon's family have drowned--always on July 24, which is only weeks away.

As his friend Alice looks on with alarm, Simon becomes increasingly worried about his sister. Could there be a curse on Simon's family? What does it have to do with the book, and can he get to the heart of the mystery in time to save Enola?

In the tradition of Sara Gruen's Water for Elephants, Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus, and Elizabeth Kostova's The Historian, The Book of Speculation--with two-color illustrations by the author--is Erika Swyler's moving debut novel about the power of books, family, and magic.

339 pages, Hardcover

First published June 23, 2015

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About the author

Erika Swyler

4 books825 followers
Erika Swyler is the bestselling author of Light From Other Stars, and The Book of Speculation. Her essays and short fiction have appeared in Catapult, Literary Hub, VIDA, The New York Times, and elsewhere.

Erika lives on Long Island, NY, with her husband and a petulant rabbit. She writes, bakes, is a casual runner, and has very strong feelings about typewriters.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 5,249 reviews
Profile Image for karen.
3,978 reviews170k followers
April 18, 2019
**short story prequel The Mermaid Girl available today!!**

and as a bonus, here is a really dark and blurry picture of me with the author, who is either delighted or terrified by my drunken enthusiasm about her book:

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this book is for all you fans of The Night Circus or Geek Love. BUT - if you hated The Night Circus, don't run off just yet, because this is both better-written and much darker. BUT - those of you who are turned off by me saying "much darker" should know it's not too dark. there, i think i've sufficiently confused everyone.

(oh, i just noticed katherine dunn blurbed this. that's pretty perfect.)

this is a book for people who like books about books, sideshows, family sagas with a little magic in 'em, and strong supportive boys covered in tentacle tattoos.

there's a magical element to the story, but it doesn't overshadow what is at its heart a melancholy and beautiful story of a family's sufferings across generations.

half of the book is the story of simon watson, a sweet and hapless librarian who is going through the roughest of rough patches. he loses his job, the family home, where he has lived alone for years in a nostalgic haze, is sliding ever-closer to the edge of a cliff overlooking the long island sound, he has just clumsily initiated a more intimate relationship with a woman he has known since childhood, his whirlwind of a sister enola has breezed back into town - scrawny, emotional, and trailing a heavily tattooed fella, and he has received a very curious book in the mail which is about to change his life.

the book is a log from a traveling carnival dating back to the 1700's, and simon discovers that it contains information about his ancestors, which calls his attention to a freaky coincidence: generations of circus mermaids* related along the female line all died by drowning on july 24th. which is the date his mother, a former circus mermaid, also drowned when he was a child.

both simon and enola were taught the breath-holding techniques of the mermaid by their mother, but while enola has followed her mother's path into a carnival career, she deals strictly in tarot. however, july 24th is only six weeks away, and patterns are starting to emerge in the book that are manifesting around him, causing simon to worry very seriously for enola.

alternating with simon's narrative is the fleshed-out story from the log, which documents the travels of peabody's; the traveling carnival where simon and enola's ancestors, amos and evangeline, meet and initiate the cycle that will affect subsequent generations.

it's rare for me, in split-narrative books, to be equally invested in both stories. usually there is one i am more drawn to, while the other becomes something i read in order to get back to the "real" story. but this time, i was just as engrossed in the amos/evangeline story as the simon one. and i took such delight in the details that crossed over from one story to the other; the lockpicking, the tarot cards, the horseshoe crabs, etc.

which, never have horseshoe crabs been so ... sinister.

oh, and did i mention this was illustrated? because it is. not heavily, which would be distracting, but appropriately.

and squeeee - this ARC came with a cool little mini-book about the making of the hand-bound, gilded manuscripts on tea-stained paper that were sent to book publishers in September 2013. which is the way to go when trying to get a book deal. and i want one of THOSE, please:

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but for those of you who do not have an ARC, or are reading this in the future when the book is already out, (hi!! what is the future like?? are there any new animals??) don't be jealous!! just click this link!

it's a very strong debut, and honestly - knowing that this woman hand-bound ornate manuscripts to circulate to publishers makes me very willing to support her in all her endeavors, because that's the kind of craftiness (in both meanings) i can enthusiastically applaud. plus, the book is really good, so there's that.

i am looking forward to reading other reviews of this, so read it!

* which are not mermaids like this:

which it what i was thinking of (minus the bull) when i read the back of this book and thought "hmmmm - sounds silly"

but are "mermaids" in the sense that they can hold their breath for a really long time and swim around sexily underwater in clingy white dresses for the delight of leering menfolk.

which is not silly, just kind of sad. like so many elements of the carnival.

come to my blog!
Profile Image for Emily May.
1,962 reviews293k followers
June 12, 2015
I fell asleep at my desk, having spent the last day teaching myself about curses and searching for Ryzhkova. The National Archives were lacking in ship manifests pre-1800, but allowed me to track bibliographies that led to the New York Public Library’s archives and manifests from 1600 on...

This is a book about a whiny narrator doing research. And also about tarot cards.

The Book of Speculation is a strange novel and, really, that's its greatest merit. Many different - flat and lifeless - characters have their own weird stories overlapping in this book and behind it all is the story of Simon Watson's family and the curse that may take the lives of all its women.

The book seems to promise dark family secrets, books, carnivals and magic - a blend which sounds like paradise for most readers. In truth, though, it was very slow and dull. It's one of those stories that is strongest in the very beginning when setting up the mystery; it propels the reader along by a need to discover the answers and nothing more.

The middle section of the book (about 80% of it) should have been made up of compelling drama, excitement, interesting discoveries and fascinating flashbacks to the past. Instead, it's about the boring character of Simon Watson - stealing books from the library and conducting tedious research into why the women of his family might be cursed to die on July 24.

The flashback - or, more accurately, the book Simon receives - starts off in a more interesting way. It features the story of two young lovers who are also carnival acts - Amos is a former wild boy and now reads tarot cards, Evangeline is a "mermaid" because she can hold her breath for a long time. My favourite bit (indeed, the only part I really liked) was the start of Amos's story as a mute boy from the wilderness, taken in and given a home at the carnival.

But eventually this became as tedious as the present day story. There is something a little fascinating about tarot cards, but this book drained every bit of excitement out of them. From endless mentions of cards and card-reading, to Amos using the cards to communicate with Evangeline, I just grew so tired of the book's plotlessness and boring conversations.

The Book of Speculation is being compared to two other popular books - The Night Circus and Water for Elephants. I haven't read the first, but I would say the latter is far more engaging than this book. Gruen's writing has an easy flow to it that Swyler lacks. It was so very easy for me to put this book aside every few minutes.

In my opinion, there are far better "books about books" - The Shadow of the Wind, The Thirteenth Tale and The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, to name but a few.

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Profile Image for Shelby *trains flying monkeys*.
1,573 reviews5,903 followers
July 14, 2015
The story of the Book of Speculation takes place in two time periods. Modern day and a setting in the 1700's.
Simon is our present day main character. A lonely research librarian that lives in his family home due to the fact that he can't bare to leave it. His mother walked into the water one day and killed herself and his father grieved himself to death. Simon raised his younger sister Enola and then she left.
Simon's family is a special family. All the women in it have been able to hold their breath for long periods of time but they all have died at an early age. From drowning.

Simon receives a book from a collector that unlocks links to his families past. He becomes obsessed with breaking the curse of the mermaids (carnival mermaids) that haunts his family.

Then you have the rest of the story. Amos was the "wild boy" in a carnival. He then was trained in reading the cards even though he is mute. He falls in love with Evangeline, who shows up at the show one day distraught with a special gift of being able to hold her breath under water.

The stories weave themselves together and then for me just flop. I wanted better characters for such a interesting concept of a book.
You have a guy with tentacle tattoos that can light up light-bulbs in his hands for crying out loud!

Disclosure:I picked up this book at the library. For free.
Profile Image for James.
Author 19 books3,573 followers
July 30, 2022
4 stars to Erika Swyler's The Book of Speculation, a beautiful story full of intense imagery and powerful connections among the many characters. With a slight border into the fantasy realm, this tale is well-woven and provides an opportunity to feel the impact the past has across a family's descendants and relationships. The book alternates chapters weaving the past and the present together while challenging the reader to determine the connection between the two stories.

In the past, a traveling carnival and circus heads up and down the Eastern seaboard in the mid 18th century lead by the incomparable Peabody. Along the way, he takes in stray who become part of his acts and his own life. When he's forced to choose between some of the older members and the newer finds, disaster strikes causing a flood of impacts for the future.

In the present, Simon Watson, receives a book from a mysterious bookseller in Iowa. Simon's Long Island shore house is crumbling and he loses his job as a librarian in difficult economic times. His wayward carnie sister comes home resembling their late mother. His childhood friend becomes his lover. He begins to make connections between the people in the book he receives with his own family but doesn't understand what it means. All the women are tied together on a certain date under certain weather conditions.

The two stories collide in a powerful realization leaving Simon at the center of preventing the same fate from happening to his sister. In the end, everything he knew about his life is turned upside down and he finds himself a tragic hero. But will he sacrifice himself in order to preserve his family?

The imagery is stunning. The intensity of the relationships is beautiful. The connections among the characters are vast. It's a very simple story but it's a very complex fall-out. The author hits the art form right in its center, providing a wonderfully tragic tale full of intrigue, suspense and drama. You never know who to root for, but you want them all to survive the impacts. It's one of the only books where I didn't need to care so much about specific characters as I did for the way they all relate to one another. It's about relationships and trust, love and power.

I generally am not a huge fantasy fan, but when I read fantasy, I want it to go all out, e.g. Harry Potter, Chronicles of Narnia, Lord of the Rings... this book crosses a very fine line of not actually having any fantasy in it, but the underlying arc that drives the connection feels like it has fantastical elements at its core. I would have liked to see that explored more so it had a very clear purpose in the end (don't want to give away spoilers). A little too much is left to interpretation on what really happened, and why it's happening... which is OK, I like the unknown magic aspects, but given this was such a strong and powerful story, I wanted a little more depth to the core of "why."

Final Thoughts
I like the author's style and would want to read more from her. I'm curious to see what others think of this debut novel. It has so many great components and images, it's bound to be a success. At the same time, it was missing that final piece to push it over the edge and gain immense popularity. The title, "The Book of Speculation" could have been explored more and it would have knocked it out of the park for me.
Profile Image for Darth J .
417 reviews1,252 followers
September 22, 2015
Average Rating: 3 Stars
Past Chapters: 4 Stars
Present Chapters: 2 stars

I felt like this book was a gyp. The blurb oversold this as more interesting than it actually was. The "mermaids" here are not the kind that transform and have a fish tail, they are just mundane people who can hold their breath. Ugh. I get that this is magical realism and everything, but that just feels cheap.

The most interesting story takes place in the past and involves a fortune teller. This is the backbone of the book and the only part that's entertaining, TBH.

The chapters that take place in the present are so heavily weighed down with melancholy that I started hating when the story would shift back into today. It's really just awful and depressing, and weirdly romanticizes suicide by drowning.

I know it's gross, but I started referring to this as the Book of Speculums. Sorry guys, but this wasn't the book for me. Like a scammy fortune teller, The Book of Speculation pulls you in with an interesting premise but fails to live up to the hype it as created for itself.
Profile Image for Tadiana ✩Night Owl☽.
1,880 reviews22.7k followers
December 31, 2018
3.5 stars. Review first posted on Fantasy Literature:

Simon Watson, a librarian, is unexpectedly gifted with a mysterious old book out of the blue, from a man he’s never met: a badly damaged record from a traveling circus. In another unanticipated development in his life, Simon enters into a romantic relationship with his longtime friend and next-door neighbor, Alice, though for now they’re keeping it secret from their co-workers and her parents. Unfortunately everything else in Simon’s life is crumbling: his career, as he’s laid off from his job at the library; his house on the edge of a bluff, which is in danger of sliding into Long Island Sound; his relationship with his only living family member, his younger sister Enola, who ran off to join the circus six years earlier. Worse yet, as Simon begins to research and explore the old book sent to him by a collector because it has one of his ancestors’ names in it, he realizes that the women in his family, who have uncanny abilities to stay underwater (working as a “mermaid” in a circus or carnival is a popular family occupation) always drown on July 24. Enola suddenly gets back in touch to let him know that she’s coming home to visit … and July 24 is only days away.

Erica Swyler alternates chapters telling Simon’s story with chapters telling a related story from the past, about Amos, a mute young man who was abandoned by his family as a young boy and is taken in by the proprietor of a traveling carnival. Amos initially acts as a “Wild Man” in the carnival’s freak show, showcasing his ability to literally vanish and reappear before the spectators’ eyes. As he grows older, Madame Ryzhkova, the fortune teller, adopts Amos as her apprentice, teaching him the secrets of the tarot cards. All goes well, until one stormy night an ethereal girl, whose skin shimmers as if made of water, wanders into their midst and joins the group, and Amos instantly falls in love. Madame Ryzkova is certain the girl, Evangeline, is a Rusalka (water nymph or mermaid), but Amos is deaf to her entreaties to leave Evangeline alone.

As Simon gradually finds out more about his family history, the themes and items from the past and current day become more and more intertwined: circuses with power-filled tarot cards and mermaids. Ominous horseshoe crab invasions. Love fraught with tension. Betrayal. Curses.

The main characters in the present day story, Simon and his sister Enola (whose temperament and dangerous fate echo the WWII bomber Enola Gay), are so flawed that they end up not being particularly likable. Simon seems to be compelled to take actions that are self-defeating. Amos and Evangeline are more appealing and interesting, though they each have a tragic streak that tends to tip over into fatalism.

Erika Swyler weaves together several intriguing elements in The Book of Speculation, with some enchanting magical realism touches: tarot cards really work, as do curses. Several characters have rather subtle magical abilities, like Amos’ ability to gradually vanish, Enola’s boyfriend’s electric touch, or the ability to hold one’s breath for ten minutes or more, at least if you have some Rusalka blood.

Tarot cards are a recurring device used to move the plot along. It will help your enjoyment of this book if you’re familiar with tarot cards and find them entrancing; but their frequent use failed to resonate with me, though it might appeal more to other readers.

The fantastical elements, though I appreciated them, didn’t seem fully integrated into the story. The theme of the titular Book of Speculation remains rather obscure, lacking the impact that it should have had. The Book of Speculation is a rather gloomy and slow-paced novel, and in the end it just didn’t all quite come together for me. It was mildly enjoyable, but personally I think it suffers somewhat in comparison to The Night Circus.
Profile Image for Mandy.
320 reviews321 followers
February 15, 2016
Wow.... Wow... Wow... This book was simply amazing. I'm not usually drawn to books of this nature but I thrive on how the author uses one book, a book that began with one man who ran a carnival with 3 people in it that change the course of the characters lives. Swyler braids these families together in the book with nothing out of place, no "hairs" loose. Truly a captivating story about family and love and how our roots can help us grow wings.

Read this novel it doesn't disappoint and is magical in a way that makes your heart twinkle!!
Profile Image for Diane S ☔.
4,733 reviews14.1k followers
July 10, 2015
It took me a while to get into this one, I didn't take to Simon right away and the pace started out very slow. It was the mysterious book that did it. Imagine being sent a book, with pictures of tarot cards, descriptions of traveling show acts and realizing you are reading about your own family.

Told in two separate time periods, the present and the late 1700's,this is a book that has a little of everything.

A mute boy who is originally a wild boy in the traveling show but than is taught to read cards.
Tarot cards, and a curse
Love and murder,
Mysterious drownings,
Strange occurrences at certain births.
Family loyal
A man who can light up bulbs with his body
Family secrets

All this comes together rather brilliantly in the end. Some very original characters and an inside look at how it was to travel from town to town in a traveling show, the various acts and the people who made up the show. In the present, secrets exposed and lives saved.
Good writing and a original concept for a novel. Another author I will keep an eye out for.

ARC from Netgalley.

Profile Image for Heidi The Reader.
1,376 reviews1,431 followers
February 5, 2018
Simon 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.

But my biggest librarian-related beef with this book is when

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 final thoughts: as brief as his role was in the book, I wanted to know more about Evangeline's father.

Some similar reads (perhaps a bit more magical than this): The Golem and the Jinni, Magonia or The Mermaid's Sister.
Profile Image for Carole (Carole's Random Life).
1,719 reviews461 followers
June 18, 2015
This review can also be found at Carole's Random Life.

2 Stars

I am not really sure what I expected from this book but I finished it feeling rather disappointed and completely underwhelmed. The story never quite pulled me in even though there were some sections that did catch my attention. In the end, this is one of those books that I will probably forget quickly. It wasn't a book that I hated but I didn't really like it either.

This book is told in alternating timelines which I admit that I am not a fan of. In the present time, Simon is a young librarian who receives a book that is believed to contain information regarding his family. Simon spends much of his free time researching the book and trying to figure out a way to save his house which is about to fall into the ocean. The past focuses on Amos, a mute child, who starts out being abandoned by his family and must fend for himself in the woods. He stumbles upon a traveling circus and soon becomes a vital member of the group as he grows into adulthood.

One of the problems that I had with this book is that anytime something would become interesting in either timeline the book would immediately switch to the other period of time. The two time periods were not as connected as I had hoped they would be which really interrupted the flow in my reading. The pacing of the story felt really off and there just wasn't enough going on during a large part of the story.

The characters in this story felt flat and I had a hard time connecting with any of them. With the exception of Enola and Doyle, the characters in the present time are B-O-R-I-N-G. The characters in the past were more interesting but only slightly so. The only characters that I actually liked in this book were Amos and Doyle. Doyle's role in the story is rather minor but he was my favorite character in the book. I thought Amos was interesting especially in the scenes before he joins the circus.

There were parts of the book that I felt were stronger than others. I thought that the conclusion to the story was well done. This is not a feel good story and I found much of the book to be rather depressing. I would not recommend this book but I can see what some people may see in this book. I think that this just wasn't the right book for me.

I received a copy of this book from St. Martin's Press via NetGalley for the purpose of providing an honest review.
Profile Image for Eilonwy.
814 reviews205 followers
November 19, 2015

3-1/2 stars, rounded up. I do appreciate the weirdness of this story.
This book consists of two stories, one present and one past.

In the present, Simon is paralyzed with loss. His mother committed suicide when he was seven, his father died ten years later, and his younger sister has left home to be a fortune-teller in a traveling carnival. Lost and lonely, with no direction or desires, Simon moulders away by himself in a house that is falling apart around him. Then a far-off bookseller sends him a mysterious book -- a collection of accounts and sketches covering 200 years -- because Simon's grandmother is mentioned in it.

In the past, a mute boy named Amos is taken in by a traveling circus as a Wild Boy who can disappear into his surroundings. He learns to read the Tarot from his mentor, Madame Ryzhkova, and falls in love with Evangeline, a beautiful "mermaid" who can hold her breath for many minutes, greatly impressing the crowds.

A curse seems to have followed Simon's maternal family down the centuries, and seems to be connected to the book he's been sent -- a book which mentions Amos and Madame Ryzhkova. Can he determine the source of the curse, and end it before tragedy occurs again?
Half of me loved this book. The past story was engaging, with interesting characters and an other-worldly, mystical feel. It made me want to learn to read Tarot cards, and normally I'm not a person who even believes in them, which is a testament to how convincing and integral to the story the author made the fortune-telling seem. I felt deeply for Amos and Evangeline. Madame Ryzhkova's possessiveness and spitefulness rang true. And I wanted to give treats to Sugar Nip, the tiny horse Amos bonds with. These characters were alive and felt real, and are what kept me reading this book.

The other half of me was bored and a little frustrated. Simon is a pretty dull guy, frozen and unable to enjoy anything, and while I understood and empathized with why he is that way, I grew less and less enthusiastic about spending time with him as his story went on. And on. Despite trying to set up some high stakes, this part of the book lacked the tension and power of the past. No one in these segments is happy, ever, and that dreariness started getting to me as I cared less and less about what happened to these people. The main thing that kept me going was that I imagined Mr. Churchwarry, the mysterious bookseller, as looking like Joel Grey's character on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and I was hoping he'd turn out to be that interesting (and he comes close).

Just when I was about to give this book the 2-1/2 star kiss of meh, the last few present chapters finally got tense in a good way, pulled a twist I maybe should have seen coming but didn't, and then ended on a glowing, positive, actually cheerful note that won another star and got me to round my rating up instead of down.

The writing is gorgeous, lush and poetic. I just wish the present story had felt more like it deserved such writing. But overall, this was an intriguing, fairly quick read for me, and I'm glad I was excited enough by Kelly's review to give this book a chance.
Profile Image for Phrynne.
3,219 reviews2,052 followers
October 16, 2015
I really can't decide between three and four stars for this one. On the one hand the characters never really grabbed me and a few of them actually antagonised me (Enola especially). Simon, the main character, is basically hopeless and helpless. On the other hand the story is original and I thought it was paced really well. I found it hard to put down and ended up staying up late to finish it. The ending is particularly clever with a nice little twist that I did not see coming. Take no notice of all the silly rubbish about it being like either The Night Circus or Water for Elephants. It isn't.
Okay, so reading what I have written so far I think I must give it four stars. It is actually excellent for a debut novel and I look forward to reading her future books.
Profile Image for Kels.
315 reviews165 followers
December 23, 2016
Wow. Just wow. I didn't have many expectations when I picked this novel up on a whim, yet this is by far one of the best books I've read. It's fresh and wildly innovated, gorgeously written, intelligently plotted, and utterly captivating. I haven't had much luck with magical realism, but this book is what I feel like the genre is missing. It has a puzzling mystery, depths that will drown you, well-developed characters, and a touch of curious magic that is spellbinding. I read this in doses to better appreciate the text, and I would recommend reading this in chunks as it can be a bit tedious, yet still enjoyable, to read all in one sitting. I know this won't be a story for everyone, but fans of literary writing styles are sure to be mesmerized by Erika Swyler's enchanting storytelling prowess!

Profile Image for Kaora.
568 reviews281 followers
April 26, 2023
3.5 Stars

Simon Watson is a librarian is struggling to keep his job and his home that is falling down around him. When he is sent a book in the mail by a old book dealer because his grandmother's name is in the book. He discovers it is a circus log book, keeping track of the comings and goings, which reveals another startling fact. Women in his family tend to drown themselves on July 24th. Suddenly his sister is calling saying she is coming home, and acting strangely as the day rapidly approaches. It is up to him to see if he can break the family curse.

This book is really beautifully written, and there were a number of pages that I marked with interesting quotes. The content is a bit dark, and the atmosphere is very similar to the Night Circus, a comparison I have heard several times before. That was the primary reason I decided to pick this book up.

However I failed to connect with any of the characters, not for lack of trying. They do have very interesting and well developed backgrounds, but all seemed to have a similar sad story. But that wasn't the reason I couldn't connect. The real reason was I found pretty much all of the characters pretty selfish, and had a hard time connecting because of it.

I think if that had happened, if I had cared what happened to Simon's sister Enoula, or Evangeline then perhaps I could have enjoyed the events more. But I didn't and I couldn't. The book still had a great plot and pace, so the potential is there.

I guess you could say its not the book. It's me.

Recommended for fans of The Night Circus.
Profile Image for Sheila.
951 reviews84 followers
April 17, 2017
2 stars--it was okay.

This book has everything I usually like (a narrative based around an old book, hints of the supernatural, dual narratives), but the whimsy fell flat for me. I greatly disliked the narrator as well (if he said "sorry" one more time--without taking any action to change himself or his life--I was gonna slap him) and found the other characters pretty hard to connect with as well. The book just overall was kind of a downer for me.
Profile Image for Kerry.
554 reviews61 followers
August 4, 2015
A wonderful tale of mystery, magic, carnivals, mermaids, tarot and through it all is the book of speculation linking the lives of two families. The main character is Simon who on receiving the book has to learn to unravel its mysteries if he wants to save his sister. His family has a line of mermaids and an unsolved mystery running through it.
The writing flows beautifully and is full of mystery, magic and the urgency needed for Simon to solve the riddle the book has delivered to him. It's such a great read and I would highly recommend it.
It certainly makes for a great summer read as its set beside the sea and rivers. Well where else would you expect to find mermaids?
Profile Image for Suz.
1,096 reviews565 followers
January 29, 2018
An audio read with the last chapter or so finished off via paperback from Old Bar library while on holiday. I didn't fancy finishing this off with a month gap in the middle. An interesting fact is that on seeing this book in the flesh, I was completely unaware the hard copy book is so full of beautiful illustrations, I am almost of the opinion this story is almost lacking the full picture without these illustrations. Listening to the audio misses out on so much.. None the less, still 'nice' to experience the audio.

This was an interesting read, given my interest in books and employment in a library. I cringed when imagining a library flooding - what books do you decide to save first - and also when the lost and found items being raided by the occupants trapped in the library during a snow storm!

This book was full of speculation and water related magical realism. A book purchased from a rare books dealer ends up in the hand of young librarian, Simon. Simon has the blood lines of circus performers, and this is the focus of our story when using his librarian research skills, and that of his industry friends, discovers a dreadful curse that has befallen many women in his family - they have begun dying at a certain date in July. Will his sister be next?

I don't often read this genre (I'm not even entirely sure what the genre is, to be honest), but given my line of work and love of books, this was rather captivating. I totally understood the budgetary restraints the industry is facing and understood Simon's predicament of being uncertain of his employment within the library.

Family history and passionate characters, with the inclusion of circus history was very interesting, but not quite to my taste, made this a good solid three star read.
Profile Image for Jacqie.
1,611 reviews74 followers
March 3, 2016
I received a copy of this book from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

I was suspicious of this book, but also curious about it. On the one hand, I gnerally hate books about the circus. I also find that most "literary" authors are rubbish at writing the fantastic. On the other, maybe mermaids? A family curse? Mysterious book? I did like "The Night Circus". Maybe this is another unexpected treasure?

No. It was not. The language was utterly precious. And the protagonist, either utterly unbelievable or someone who needed a good punch in the face. He's a male librarian and he's so sensitive that he can remember what it was like to have eggshells under his fingernails when he ate breakfast on the morning that his mother drowned. More than 20 years ago. When he was an elementary school aged child. OMG. Simon is the saddest sack that ever sacked. When methamphetamine would improve your lead character's personality, it's time to think again about what you're writing. Some female writers can write male characters that "feel" male. Not Simon, he didn't even feel like a real human being. He was kind of like Sadness in the Inside Out movie.

Such was my irritation with the Simon the sad librarian that I could go no farther. Reader, I rage-quit.
Profile Image for Shelleyrae at Book'd Out.
2,456 reviews513 followers
July 3, 2015

In Erika Swyler's gorgeous debut novel, The Book of Speculation, Simon Watson receives an old ledger that once belonged to a traveling carnival in the mail, along with a note mentioning a connection to his late mother's family. Struggling with his recent redundancy, the inevitable crumbling of his family home into the sea, and the return of his sister, Simon develops an obsession with the book which reveals a troubling history. For generations, the women of his family, all with a talent for holding their breath, including his mother, have drowned on the same date.

Dual narratives reveal Simon's growing concern for his fragile sister as July 24th approaches, and the truth of the tragic curse that has haunted their family since the early 1800's beginning with Evangeline, 'The Atlantis Mermaid'. Similar themes are reflected in both tales - lust, guilt, love, betrayal, loss, and magic, and tangible connections are drawn with a tattered deck of tarot cards and the appearance of horseshoe crabs.

"At the corner of a page, just above a quickly jotted note about oppressive heat and fog, is a delicate brown illustration of a horseshoe crab. I shut the book and leave the house as quickly as my ankle allows. I need to get into the water, to clear my head....On the sand, crabs scramble around my feet and over each other. The tide has come up since the afternoon, hiding the thousands more horseshoes that lurk beneath."

I loved reading about Peabody's spectacular traveling carnival. The characters of The Wild Boy, the Seer, the Mermaid and Peabody himself are vividly drawn, their dark secrets are haunting and tragic.

"Heralded by a glorious voice, a troupe of traveling entertainers arrived. A mismatched collection of jugglers, acrobats, fortune-tellers, contortionists, and animals, the band was presided over by Hermelius H. Peabody, self-proclaimed visionary in entertainment and education, who thought the performers and animals (a counting pig deemed learned, a horse of miniature proportions, and a spitting llama) were instruments for improving minds and fattening his purse."

The pace of the novel is measured, reflecting the melancholic, often close, atmosphere of the novel. The tension builds slowly in both timelines, as the truth of the curse is unraveled. The prose is often beautiful and enhanced by the illustrations that accompany it.

The Book of Speculation an enchanting tale.

"She knows that her name will find its way into his speculations. So will his. Because there are things you do for people you've known your whole life. You let them save you, you put them in your books, and you let each other begin again, clean."
Profile Image for Britany.
966 reviews417 followers
January 25, 2016
3.5 Stars

Simon Watson is a librarian in Napawset, NY and is on the cusp of losing it all, when a old book finds it's way into his hands, and as he tries to find how this book came into his possession. He discovers his family's hidden secret- they are mermaids that can hold their breath underwater for ridiculous amounts of time, yet on July 24th, they all seem to drown. He has to figure this out before July 24th this year to save his sister Enola. Two rotating story-lines make up this book- the present day where Simon is trying to save his family and figure out the key to his family's history. The other story-line goes back to the circus in the early 1800's- tarot card readers, the Wild Boy, the strong man, and the mermaid- all characters that are far more interesting than present day Enola, Alice, and Simon.

I love reading books about books, about circuses, about magical features running throughout the book. This one took a little too long to get me engaged, and was a little too far fetched for me to completely fall head over heels. I enjoyed the writing and the story enough to recommend it to others, just not one that will stay with me forever.

Profile Image for Anmiryam.
774 reviews132 followers
January 1, 2016
Okay, I'm reunited with my keyboard and can finally write -- try to write at least -- something a bit more cogent than my initial excited and incoherent ravings.

Carnivals seem to be popular in literary circles this year -- The Book of Speculation is the second novel I've read in the span of a month that incorporates elements of carnival life. Of course, carnivals have a long history of appearing in fiction. The strangeness of the lifestyle fascinates and allows for the exploration of both the extreme and mundane in human experience without having to hew to the strictures demanded by literary realism. Whether such tales are infused with speculative or magical elements or not, the triumphs and tragedies of characters who live life outside of the mainstream, in insular tribes, are fraught with intensity born of being both foreign (to most of us) and yet familiar. Carnival folk, in their nomadic and arcane ways, are odd, but are reassuringly familial -- whether biologically related or not -- which allows us a sense that their lives echo and amplify our own. People look strange, often do strange and seemingly impossible things while also being lovers, friends, enemies, parents, rivals, siblings, successes and failures. It's the familiar thrown into high relief by being juxtaposed against an unfamiliar background.

Families and traveling circuses are at the heart of The Book of Speculation. Simon Watson, a small town librarian in rural Long Island, knows his mother was a "mermaid", a carnival performer who could remain submerged for extended periods. Because she died young, by drowning, Simon knows little more about his family history than some names. Now in his late twenties, alone in the decaying cliffside house she loved, Simon feels trapped by the past, but compelled to remain in case his sister Enola, who has followed their mother into the itinerant life of a traveling circus, decides to return. His life seems to be spiraling downwards -- his house looks like its going to be swept into Long Island Sound sooner rather than later, his job is about to be eliminated, he's in love with a woman he's known since childhood. Their relationship is just beginning to blossom, but can it possibly survive? He knows it's time to move on, those around him see it, as will most readers, but Swyler equally makes us feel the emotional chains of love and loyalty that bind him to the only life he knows.

Into this swirling tension comes a book sent to Simon by a kindly antiquarian book dealer who discovered the name of Simon's grandmother in its pages. While much damaged, it is clearly the log book of Peabody's traveling circus that plied its trade up and down the east coast in the years following the American Revolution. It also reveals hints about Simon and Enola's family history which Simon, using his experience as a librarian, begins to investigate. It turns out their mother was one of a long line of women with uncanny abilities in the water who nonetheless drown tragically young. Stranger yet, they all die on July 24, a date that is rapidly approaching. Will Enola be next and what can Simon do?

At the same time as we read Simon's first person narration of his frantic quest for answers about his family's tragic legacy and forestall it from taking another victim, we are privileged to get an omniscient atmospheric and lyrical tale of two lost souls, the mute boy Amos who is adopted by Peabody's circus and his love, Evangeline, a young girl with her own secrets who is the first 'mermaid' in Simon's family. It is one of the great strengths of this debut that this story line, as infused with folkloric and fantastical elements as it is, is also as emotionally compelling as Simon's race to save his sister.

Swyler juggles tension skillfully and creates momentum in, and between, both parts of the novel. She insures that readers will know what Simon must do before he does, but instead of that being a release, it manages to ratchet up the suspense. Small, and not so small details, etch trails of connection and fascination between the two time periods -- water, tarot cards, curses, horseshoe crabs, tides, and rain. I relished them all.

This is one of the most satisfying books I've read in a long while, which is to say this is a book to dive into and be intoxicated by. If you loved the movie The Red Violin, Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus (this is better), or Carlos Ruiz Zafon's The Shadow of the Wind, or Audrey Niffeneger's The Time Traveler's Wife, get thee to a bookstore on June 23rd. You will eat this up and then wonder what you are going to with the rest of your summer vacation that could possibly be as good.
Profile Image for Ema.
267 reviews615 followers
March 16, 2017
Listening to the audiobook - that is, at a slower pace than reading myself -, I realized how boring and shallow this book is. There is practically nothing of interest here, at least not for me. It even failed to be that kind of light and entertaining read, the type that can be forgiven for its flaws. No trace of engrossing atmosphere or cliff-hangers or surprising discoveries, just a jumble of banal events propelled forward by the narrator's wish to uncover his family's past and find a way to prevent a possible misfortune befalling his sister.

Simon Watson is a librarian. An interesting enough starting point which could lead somewhere. It leads nowhere, as he soon looses his job and this detail is there only to account for all the research that goes on in this novel. No noticeable love for books or other feelings I could relate to as a passionate reader. Not sooner has the novel started, that Simon Watson receives an old tome from a stranger, who thought Simon might be interested because the name of his grandmother, Verona Bonn, is inscribed on its pages. What a kind and thoughtful gesture from a total stranger! He certainly has some dark motives for sending this book. No, he doesn't.

The ancient book and the stories it reveals were the only interesting aspect of Erika Swyler's novel. As Simon leafs through the tome, trying to understand the connection between his grandmother and this book that seems to be the journal of one Mr. Hermelius Peabody, owner of a travelling circus at the end of the 18th century, another narrative thread emerges, recounting events from the distant past, when there lived a mute boy called Amos and an ethereal girl called Evangeline, who both found a home with Hermelius Peabody's circus. History moves slowly onward, alternating with the events from the present, where Simon Watson worries about the fate of Enola, his sister, but also about the decaying state of their parents' house. Their mother had committed suicide by drowning, although the women in their family were famed for their ability to hold their breath under water, and their father died shortly afterwards, leaving Simon to care for Enola. Even though she doesn't seem to appreciate this too much.

There were a lot of ingredients with a high potential for building mystery and suspense (circuses, tarot cards, a strange book, inexplicably deaths by drowning taking place at the same date throughout the centuries), but they were totally lost in a slow-moving narrative, with boring events and boring characters. The tarot cards even became a chore to read about - even though they were mentioned all the time, the author failed to wave magic around them, as she failed to weave magic around the circus. Maybe they would appeal more to a reader who is familiar with their reading, but not to me.

The writing is dull, with only a few sparks here and there, the dialogues felt ridiculous at times (a lot of „Shit!” or fodder-like replies, with no substance). The characters were quite flat and uninteresting and their dramas failed to touch me, as they couldn't convince me. Simon Watson was always complaining about something - a sprained ankle or his crumbling house or his lack of job. I couldn't care less if Simon's house fell to pieces or if Simon couldn't find another job. His sister, Enola, seemed rather a sketch, she's mainly shuffling the tarot cards or saying „Shit!” or going for a swim or cuddling to Doyle - ok, but what else? Amos and Doyle were a tad more interesting, but they lacked a lot of flesh, too, in order to become real people. I couldn't relate or warm up to any of them, Simon, Enola and Alice were the most annoying of all and the only feeling this book squeezed out of me was pity for Mr. Churchwarry, who lost some books because of Simon, and more pity for Madame Ryzhkova and her miserable life.

[spoiler] There are a lot of coincidences which felt forced - come on, who gives a total stranger an old book out of the blue (for free!), lends more expensive books to that stranger and later even does research for Simon? I can understand the passion for old tomes & research, but this still felt forced. Plus the way all main characters from present times turned out to be related to the characters in the past. Really? And Mr. Churchwarry, with all his passion for knowledge, had no idea he was a descendant of Madame Ryzhkova?[spoiler]

The ending was anti-climatic, but then it suits the book as it is. I wasn't looking for a realistic explanation, I am perfectly satisfied by a supernatural one, if it feels logical in the realm of the book. But here it lacked power and substance, just like the entire novel did. [spoiler] At some point I came to think that all the women had drowned because they did some terrible thing in their past and came to the same conclusion, that they were murderers and should better take their own life. It turned out to be a curse perpetuated by the tarot cards, just that. [spoiler]

What about the title? I didn't get it and I don't see how it relates to the plot. It's all a speculation in the end and the descendants can't really understand the lives of their ancestors, or what? Maybe it has to do with the fact that Simon doesn't know the stories we are told (he only catches glimpses of the lives of those mentioned in the book, but not the whole picture) and he can only speculate on their joys and misfortunes and passions. And reasons for taking their own life. Nah, it would be too deep for this book.
Profile Image for Erin Clemence.
1,052 reviews312 followers
March 7, 2019
This review is for the audiobook version of “The Book of Speculation”, by Erika Swyler, narrated by Ari Fliakos and published by MacMillan Audio.

Audio: 5 stars The narrator for this one is Ari Fliakos, who apparently has starred in the television show, “Homeland” (haven’t seen it) but to be honest, I was prepared to hear that Ari was a long-time theatre performer, or awarded actor, as his narration skills are top notch. His diction and enunciation are perfect, making his voice soothing and melodic to listen to, but also entertaining enough to keep you engaged. He changes his voice just enough when switching between characters, and it is easy to tell when one section ends and another begins. A fabulous audio voice actor, this was a great choice for “Speculation”.

Story: 4 stars “Speculation” has a little “Water for Elephants” flavour. Featuring a circus, and its people, the story centres on a family with circus roots, trying to outlive a historical curse.

Simon Watson lives alone on the shore of Long Island, in a crumbling, aging house that he can’t afford to repair. His parents are both dead and his sister is a bit of a free spirit, traveling around with various circuses as a tarot card reader. When Simon receives an antique and mysterious book in the mail from an eccentric bookseller, he quickly becomes intrigued. Soon he realizes that a mysterious but long-holding curse has befallen the women in his family for centuries. Simon becomes increasingly worried about his estranged sister, and when she shows up randomly one day, Simon wonders just how connected she is to this curse, and how far he is willing to go to save her from herself.

“The Book of Speculation” is a debut novel from author Erika Swyler, but the author herself is a long-time writer ( of plays and editorial articles) , which is immediately evident in her writing. From the mysterious eccentricities of the circus and its people, to the love Simon has for books, “Speculation” was immediately entertaining.

Each chapter is told in alternating viewpoints, from different eras in time. Of course, there are the portions of Simon and his sister, Enola, and their story, but we also hear from “Amos the Wild Boy” and his adventures with the Peabody circus, which is tied to the Watson past. With each chapter being centrally focused, the storyline itself was easy to follow. Almost a story-within-a-story, “Speculation” brought the joy of two stories and combined them into one in a cohesive way.
The characters were charming and authentic, and with the mystique and intrigue that automatically attaches itself to a traveling circus, “Speculation” has a little bit of everything. I anticipated a different ending, but I was not at all disappointed; somehow a bittersweet story was able to end on a relatively happy note.

Props to Swlyer for bringing the joy of the circus back into the lives of her readers, through the uncovering of family secrets. Delightful to read and experience, I look forward to Swyler’s next work.
Profile Image for Liz Barnsley.
3,430 reviews991 followers
March 1, 2015
This was a beautiful read (fans of The Night Circus might want to check it out!) that hooked me right from the start and honestly I was totally in this world throughout the read, so wonderfully does it flow.

Shifting time between Simon Watson, a young man who receives a mysterious book, and the story of the people within that book, this is gorgeously constructed with some lovely prose and a completely fascinating story. Quite difficult to review honestly as it is one of those novels that you would not want to spoil for others. But if you like past/present impact stories, family drama and truly remarkable characters then you will LOVE this, I have no doubt.

The historical flavour in “The Book of Speculation” is marvellous – the world of the travelling circus comes magically to life, the carnie folk authentically drawn and absolutely compelling. In the other portion, Simon is a perfect protagonist to anchor the story and there are some surprises to be had along the way, all done with complete flair and an obvious fascination with the subject matter from the author.

I think I will leave it there for now – when we are nearer to publication date I shall revisit my feelings on this one and write a fuller review – it is definitely going to be one of my favourite reads of the year despite it being only March and it definitely comes Highly Recommended from me.

Happy Reading Folks!
Profile Image for Melissa ♥ Dog/Wolf Lover ♥ Martin.
3,461 reviews9,616 followers
April 13, 2015
**I would like to thank Netgalley and St Martin's Press for an ARC of this book.**

I love the ideal of this book, but it wasn't really for me. I think the only person I really liked in the book is Mr. Churchwarry. They are not bad characters, I just didn't click with any of them.

I loved Amos story from when he was a child. It was so very sad what his family did to him, but I am glad he found the circus.

Simon gets this book from Churchwarry with his grandmothers name written inside. After doing a lot of research he finds out generations of women in his family performed as mermaids, women who could hold their breathe a long time and did acts underwater. But each of these women drowned on the same day of the year at different years in time. I mean just walking into the water and drowning themselves. They have some kind of curse on the family.

I don't like Simon's sister Enola at all. She is annoying in everything she does. Every time her mouth opens it's something annoying.

I think this book is a wonderful read for a lot of people, but I just couldn't feel it. The only thing I really liked is the mystery of the mermaids.

Profile Image for TL .
1,820 reviews35 followers
January 14, 2016
Read via audiobook then put on hold for awhile till I finally got the hardcover in to finish it quicker.
Narrator: 5 stars
Story itself: 5 stars
Once you've held a book and really loved it, you forever remember the feel of it, its specific weight, the way it sits in your hand.

We carry our families like anchors, rooting us in storms, making sure we never drift from where and who we are. We carry our families within us the way we carry our breath underwater, keeping us afloat, keeping us alive.
Wow... just wow. Gorgeous, fascinating, beautiful... magnetic.

This book is a slow burn. It builds the story piece by piece, alternating between the past and the present to build a picture of the circumstances and people involved.
It's not one of those books that's non-stop action, zipping from one place to the next... I guess you could say it's more of a character piece than anything. Every character and place has meaning and its own pulse in a way.

There's elements of magic and mystery woven throughout, influencing some things more than others.

Fate and Destiny, funny things... is the curse real or is Simon losing his mind? The parties involved, were they drawn together at the right time to break the curse and let secrets unravel?

So many things intertwined here and it all fits together like puzzle pieces sliding into place. When certain things are revealed, it felt... natural, for lack of of a better word. It does leave you giddy in a few places ;-).

Tragedy is a presence throughout the book as well, in many different forms. It's not overwhelming but you know its there. A heaviness weighs over everything, as if the curse is there.. watching and waiting.

It's one of those books that I will be thinking of on and off until I read it again :)

I would recommend for fans of Carlos Ruiz Zafon and Kate Morton's books... it's that same sense of atmospheric story-telling and richly drawn people.

Happy reading!
Profile Image for Barbara.
1,338 reviews695 followers
September 24, 2015
I kept falling asleep reading this novel even though it had Librarians, book collectors, Tarot, Mermaids, electric boys, family curses, and carnie-folk. Those are fine ingredients for a captivating story! I truly wanted to LOVE this, yet I was a bit underwhelmed.

To be fair, I did finish it. There was enough Tarot reading in it to keep my interest. And I do enjoy books about librarians and fellow book lovers. There are illustrations in this novel that are by the author, which I found to be intriguing. By the time I wanted to quit the book out of sheer ennui, I was three quarters into the book. Maybe I just wasn’t in the mood for this one, as it has obtained ravishing reviews. For me….meh!
Profile Image for Melissa Crytzer Fry.
319 reviews347 followers
October 2, 2019
This book has been on my shelf for far too many years, and it seems to have spoken to me at just the right time. It may not be my typical go-to genre, but it was just what I needed right now: lush and lyrical language, magical realism, family, and hope.

Mermaids, librarians, circus acts, a historic house, horseshoe crabs, tarot cards, mysterious books and antique relics… well, yes, indeed… this was a fun romp of a book with emotion-laden familial themes that kept me entranced.

I was also mesmerized by the author’s story of publication (hand-binding copies of her manuscript into homemade books for submission to publishers!). Her own artwork is also featured throughout the novel. This is one of those rare dual-period novels that works. The current story is not simply a plot contrivance that leads to the past; both stories fuel one another, are intricately woven into a fine tapestry of folklore and thematic parallel. They join to make a perfect ‘whole.’

I’m looking forward to reading Swyler's newly released Light from Other Stars. And for a superior review of this book, check out Lisa Ahn’s commentary!
Profile Image for Kelly.
878 reviews4,018 followers
March 14, 2017
Let this be a lesson to me that spontaneous purchases are fun, but they come up roses about as often as you'd expect a random gamble at roulette to pay off in a non-Casablanca cheating environment. Ah well, if I must pay a literal price for my Kays and Tana Frenches, so be it.

This thing was behind glass the whole time, guys. Foggy, obscuring, distancing, thick plexiglass. The ugly kind that sheds and just makes it more difficult to see rather than enhancing the mystery. And the specimens on display were sick- listlessly so. Some literary symbols that act wth the logic of symbols rather than people and nostalgia for your hometown mixed in a blender does not alone an alluring tale make (and man, I'm *from* along the Long Island Sound). There's no life here, not a person to be found- just half-remembered character types given equally halfhearted life. And I just don't understand why- they deserved better than the (rather boring) pantomime they got.

Very disappointing. But if anyone has this archetypal tale told better, please let me know. Because I'd love to read the real deal.
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