|Curiosity House: The Shrunken Head by Lauren Oliver and H.C. Chester, illustrated by Benjamin Lacombe. HarperCollins, 2015.|
I was scanning the kids' shelves at my favorite indie bookstore a couple weeks ago, looking for something new. Something fun. Something that screamed "October." The cover of this book caught my eye, as did the name "Lauren Oliver." I haven't read many of Oliver's books, but I loved Liesel & Po.
Flipping it over, I decided I had to have it.
Not to mention the fact that, under the jacket, the book itself was rather lovely.
Curiosity House is a new series, co-written by Lauren Oliver and H.C. Chester, supposedly a collector of relics and the one who first learned about the four children at the heart of the book. [In reality, H.C. Chester is the pseudonym of Oliver's father, author Harold Schechter.]
The series centers (will center?) around four children with remarkable abilities, who live and perform at an "Odditorium," Dumfrey's Dime Museum of Freaks, Oddities, and Wonders. It is the last of New York's creepy dime museums, as the action in the book takes place some time in the mid-1930s.
We meet three of the children. Philippa ("Pippa") can read the contents of people's pockets, if not their minds. Thomas can contort and squeeze himself into the tightest of spaces. Long, lanky Sam has superhuman strength. We are given a glimpse of the other acts living in the museum - a bearded lady, a giant, a dwarf, a fat lady, an elephant man, an alligator man, a magician, albino twins - as well as other workers, such as the costume mistress, the cook, the custodian. We learn via a radio advertisement that Mr. Dumfrey has recently acquired a "genuine" shrunken head from the Amazon.
There is a knock at the door. A disheveled young girl, the same age as the other children, has come looking for a job. Mackenzie ("Max") is a brilliant knife-thrower. She is also extremely surly, having raised herself on the streets for some time. She is just in time to join the cast for the evening show. Which goes very well, until something goes wrong.
And so, the mystery begins. There are several murders, and the crack reporter at The Daily Screamer will not let up. "The Curse of the Shrunken Head," scream the headlines, and the police close the museum temporarily. As its in dire financial straits already, this could spell doom for the children.
There are clues sprinkled throughout the story, alluding to the children's past. Mr. Dumfrey is overheard telling Miss Fitch, "Can you believe it? Now I know all four of them are safe." It takes most of the book to learn the truth about the children, and when it comes, it feels rather sudden and rushed.
As for content, there is murder and a general feeling of creepiness, but it would be fine for a child already raised on Lemony Snicket, etc. Max has had a hard life, and she has a coarse way of speaking, but she isn't given a free pass.
While the museum and " Odditorium" setting is established, and its other inhabitants are touched upon, it feels like most of the action in the book takes place in the outside world, and the other performers' personalities are not clearly developed. Of course, I love these kinds of settings, so I was disappointed not to spend more time with the other "freaks," especially after seeing Benjamin Lacombe's beautiful illustrations.
The Shrunken Head definitely feels like the first book in a series, and I'm very curious to see what the next book brings.While not perfect, it seems like a promising start.