Fantastic Strangelings book club!

Well hello!

My copy is digital for now so just imagine Dorothy Barker in the background, okay?

If you’re already a member of the Fantastic Strangelings Book Club then you already got an email from me about next month’s book club pick and you already know how giddily excited I am about it. (PS. It is never too late to join and we have spots open right now if you want to be part of a wonderfully bizarre book club that never makes you put pants on.) So today we’re going to open up discussion for January’s book (The Swallowed Man by Edward Carey) on the Fantastic Strangelings Facebook page and on this post in case you’re not a Facebook fan (no rush if you haven’t finished it!) but first I’m going to tell you all about February.

So. February was one of the hardest picks ever because there were SO MANY amazing books out there. I literally whittled it down to 10 books and Elizabeth was like, “What is wrong with you? We can’t send people 10 books” and she is right but also, it was an impossibly hard decision so I went through them all and thought “What if I could only read one of these?” and I realized it had to be The Witch’s Heart by Genevieve Gornichec.

When a banished witch falls in love with the legendary trickster Loki, she risks the wrath of the gods in this moving, subversive debut novel that reimagines Norse mythology.

This book was the perfect mix of heart-ache and hope and it literally made me cry but in a really good way and as soon as I finished it I wanted to erase it from my head so I could read it again for the first time. SO GOOD.

(And you don’t need to be a big fan of Norse Mythology to know what’s going on, in case you’re wondering. Most everything I knew about Loki is from Tom Hiddleston.)

I always pick an optional bonus book for those of you who (like me) need more than one book to get you through the month and so I can highly recommend The Echo Wife by Sarah Gailey. Sort of a sci-fi clone thriller but deeper than that. It was like Westworld (except it actually made sense) and at the end I was filled with a million what-if questions.

Do you need more than that? I think maybe you do because THERE ARE SO MANY GOOD FEBRUARY BOOKS AND I WANT TO SHARE THEM ALL. So here are a few that I really loved.

The Girl from the Channel Islands: A WWII Novel by Jenny Lacoat (Fascinating and based on a true story)

The Electric Kingdom by David Arnold (Like if the Walking Dead and Phantom Tollboth had a baby)

The Removed by Brandon Hobson (Heartbreaking and dreamlike.)

In the Garden of Spite: A Novel of the Black Widow of La Porte by Camilla Bruce (for true-crime lovers)

The Kindest Lie by Nancy Johnson (A poignant look at motherhood, race and the American Dream)

My Year Abroad by Change-Rae Lee (This book is weird as hell but I loved it)

Burning Girls and Other Stories by Veronica Schanoes (Two of these stories BLEW ME AWAY. Worth it just for those two alone, in my opinion.)

The Memory Theater by Karin Tidbeck (A folkloric fairytale about the fabric of reality)

PS. If you’re a member of the Fantastic Strangelings check your email for an invitation to a live book-discussion on zoom with Zeyn Joukhadar next month (He wrote our November book, The Thirty Names of Night). I think we’ll also be doing one with Edward Carey sometime soon but no definite dates yet. (We try to put some of them on our youtube channel if you’re an honorary member or miss it.)

My thoughts on The Swallowed Man are in the comments. Happy reading!

20 thoughts on “Fantastic Strangelings book club!

Read comments below or add one.

  1. My thoughts on Swallowed Man:


    I wasn’t sure what to think of this book at first but I loved it.

    The prose was so beautifully Victorian right from the start. When he called candles “so many night-killers, so many suns” I was in. It reminded me a bit of Poe mixed with Bronte sisters. I’m a speed reader but beautiful prose makes me slow down, which is nice, especially since this is a smaller sort of book.

    This book was supposed to come out last year originally and was postponed (like a million others because of covid) so strangely, I ended up reading it exactly one year from the day I’d been in Italy with my family when I insisted that we go on an adventure to find The Witch’s Oak, which is same tree under which Pinocchio was written. A year before I was in Europe for the first time ever and a year later I was reading about a man trapped in a sea monster as we all felt trapped in our own small spaces. There was something comforting about that…knowing that the world is still going on even if I can’t see it and remembering that eventually we’ll all spring from our tiny jails.

    I think there are several ways to read this book…one that reflects the willing-suspension-of-disbelief fairy tale nature where things sometimes make sense and sometimes don’t but you are along for the ride. It’s an easier read that way, I think, although it can be confusing if you’re reading it from the Disney-fied idea rather than the original Pinocchio, which was much darker. (Pinocchio is a real dick at first and does burn his own legs off. He kills Jiminy Cricket with a hammer. The Blue Fairy is dead and is waiting for a hearse to show up to take her away. Gepetto goes to jail for a night for child abuse.) If you’re reading it simply from an enlarged idea of that then it’s a very on-the-nose while still being interesting. Almost more of a study of how an artist never stops and how art can be humanity and vice-versa.

    But because Geppetto (I know his real name is Joseph but Geppetto sticks with me) is such an unreliable narrator I kept wondering if he was just totally mad. There are a few hints to this. He talks about the gas leak in his house that made him hallucinate “Laura”, the woman with the blue hair. I know it’s an illusion to the Blue Fairy but it’s interesting that the women in his life (the sisters he loved) both died young of Cholera, a disease that turns you blue. And when he shares the image of his son which he puts in a tintype frame his eyes are closed, like a momento mori (an image of the dead). Geppetto says it’s because he drew him when he was sleeping but then later he shares a photo of himself and an empty chair where he’d thought Pinocchio would be. He said he took it the day Pinocchio was at school but I almost wonder if this story isn’t really about the death of his real family by cholera and the isolating mourning that comes with it. Even the little “Ill-Face” that turns all of the boat black seems like a manifestation of guilt and depression.

    Or maybe it’s more literally about the grief and joy of letting your children go into the world? Or an allegory on God (Geppetto) and his frustrating, disappointing, glorious child (Jesus)? I sort of love that there are so many ways to read it. Or maybe my imagination is just too big for this book.

    What did you think?

  2. Like if the Walking Dead and Phantom Tollboth had a baby) <—– This is the best synopsis ever and guarantees I will find this book. P.S. Loki fangirl appreciates photo of Hiddleston Loki.

  3. Just started this month’s book, so quickly scrolling past spoilerland. Wanted to say I’m looking forward to next month’s book, and I have no idea *how* you manage to narrow down all the choices out there.
    (One thing – I don’t think I’ve been getting my emails from the book club. I get the ones about billing, but that’s all)

    (Check your spam box to make sure they’re not in there. They’ll be from Nowhere Bookshop. If you don’t see them then you may have fallen off the Strangelings email list so just email us at and we’ll put you back on the list. 🙂 ~ Jenny)

  4. Just the fact that you mentioned The Phantom Tollbooth makes me love you even more! That was one of my favorites!

  5. I found my reaction to the book to be closely tied to my experience being insolation since mid-March (February, if you include my husband’s trip to the ER and miracle survival). Anyway … Joseph’s experience was relatable; he’s totally cut off, can’t communicate with anything beyond a little crab, pieces of wood, and sculptures from hardtack. He longs for contact with ‘family’. Past experiences consume his thoughts. Certainly he is struggling with depression. Who wouldn’t spiral into madness?

    Any of this feel familiar to others who have been in extreme isolation?

    I’m checking off the boxes: talking to the cat and furniture, feel in the dark most the time, miss family and friends, waves of depression. For now, I’m holding off on checking the box for madness until a reliable human from outside these four walls can give me some feedback.

  6. I read “The Swallowed Man” as soon as it arrived, given that I fell behind last year and am currently catching up while determined not to get so far behind again. Jenny’s comment makes me like the book more than I did. Honestly, I expected to find out that Geppetto was dead all along and the time in the whale was all in that instant between life and death. I was surprised when that turned out not to be so. I don’t know the story of Pinocchio beyond the Disney version but am familiar enough with the Brothers Grimm tales that the dark edge to this book didn’t surprise me (I don’t know if the original was a Grimm story – but that tradition of darkness is what I mean). I just spent the entire time I read it thinking, “Well, this is weird.” But I do agree that the prose was beautiful, and that buys a lot of points for me. I think I am too logically minded to see the deeper symbolism, so I really appreciate Jenny’s analysis.

  7. For anyone who’s intrigued by the Norse Mythology element of February’s book, The Witch’s Heart, and who also enjoys video games, you might want to play (or watch a playthru of) God of War (2018) – if you haven’t already. It’s a beautiful game with an excellent story that’s also a (different) retelling of Norse Mythology. And if you’re interested in learning more about the mythology itself, a friendly starting point for a modern reader is Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman. 🙂

    Thanks for the book rec, Jenny! I look forward to reading The Witch’s Heart next month.

  8. Not to disrupt the bookclub but I keep wanting to tell you about this book, which if you haven’t read – you HAVE to. It is so up your alley: Nothing to See Here by Kevin WIlson. Just part of the description:

    Lillian and Madison were unlikely roommates and yet inseparable friends at their elite boarding school. But then Lillian had to leave the school unexpectedly in the wake of a scandal and they’ve barely spoken since. Until now, when Lillian gets a letter from Madison pleading for her help.

    Madison’s twin stepkids are moving in with her family and she wants Lillian to be their caretaker. However, there’s a catch: the twins spontaneously combust when they get agitated, flames igniting from their skin in a startling but beautiful way. Lillian is convinced Madison is pulling her leg, but it’s the truth.

    The kids CATCH on FIRE when they get upset! It’s a beautiful story that’s heartbreaking but also ultimately hopeful.

  9. I read the “Burning Girls” novella years ago (it was published in 2013) and can’t wait for the rest of the stories!

  10. I want to be part of the book club, but somehow I lost my way in reading. It started several years ago when I noticed I had to read things several times over to “get” them. Then I figured out I needed reading glasses, and it got a little better once I got them. Then it kind of got worse again, like I couldn’t focus. Anyone have any advice? I miss reading dearly, but can’t seem to commit to it.

  11. @psaina – If it’s been a few years since you got your last pair of glasses, it’s possible that you need an updated prescription. When it’s safe to do so, I recommend scheduling an eye exam.

    About being able to focus – I presume you mean to mentally focus on the book – I don’t know you, obviously, but I’m going to throw out a couple of ideas. First, finding someone to talk to about all of the things running through your mind that are keeping you from being able to enjoy a book. That someone could be a therapist, a good friend, a journal – but saying them out loud or writing them down can help your mind let go of them for a while. The other thing that came to mind is that I’ve known friends and coworkers who have trouble giving themselves permission to enjoy something “frivolous” that only benefits themselves. If that sounds true for you, then give yourself that permission. If you need to, schedule an hour or two every week for reading (and write it in your calendar). Let others in your household know you’re doing this and solicit their help in carving out that time for your self-care. But possibly knowing that it’s your time for reading and all other responsibilities are set aside for the moment, will help you find your focus again.

    I hope you are able to get back into reading soon and wish you the best! 🙂

  12. I just wanted to say thank you for all your book lists. Every time I see one, there are at least two or three books that I add to my GoodReads list (so I don’t forget them!) Hooray for readers! There are fewer and fewer of us these days.

  13. I can’t wait to look into these as soon as I finish the terrible book I’m half-way through. Because I hate to leave a book unfinished. I may have to do an extra fast skim-reading to just get it over with lol.

  14. Candy, give yourself permission to put down a book that you aren’t enjoying. Life is too short – with far too many good books waiting to be read – to spend your time on a book that doesn’t suit you.

  15. I definitely agree with Trish that the other commentary here makes me like the book more than I did. I mostly hit on the notes of artistry and fatherhood and that just didn’t resonate much with me, and the fact that it could be interpreted in so many ways detracted from the book even more for me. I tend to like clear messages, no matter how beautiful the prose is.

    That said, it was beautiful writing, and I was unaware to the connections to the blue fairy in all of Gepetto’s loves. And it’s a little easier to connect to when you come back to isolation and how we’re all getting hit by it right now.

    Looking forward to next month’s book!

  16. Just the fact that you mentioned The Phantom Tollbooth makes me love you even more! That was one of my favorites!

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