Curiosity House: The Shrunken Head by Lauren Oliver and H. C. Chester, 368 pp, RL 4

I first encountered the work of Lauren Oliver around 2010 when I read her phenomenal dystopian YA novel Delirium, hot on the heels of The Hunger Games and just as dystopian novels were beginning to take over vampire novels on the shelves of the teen section. In the America of Oliver's novel, love has been outlawed, being deemed a threatening source of all discord. Shortly after she finished the Delirium trilogy (as well as several other YA stand-alones) Oliver tried her hand at middle grade novels with Liesl & Po and Spindlers. Oliver is a talented writer and, while all of her novels seem to have elements of fantasy or the supernatural, she is diverse in her stories and settings. This proves especially true with her newest trilogy, Curiosity House, which she has "co-written" with the reclusive H.C. Chester, a "collector of unusual relics" and author of The Complete Collector's Guide to Early American Pencil Sharpeners.

Curiosity House is set in New York City in the 1930s and features the owner and inhabitants of Dumfrey's Dime Museum of Freaks, Oddities, and Wonders. It is H.C. Chester who came into possession of the artifacts of the museum's estate and discovered the story of the four children who make up the main characters. Slightly suspicious of these details, I did a little digging and discovered an interview between Oliver and Chester at The Children's Book Review as well as a telling author photo for Chester... Oliver's choice (creation) of a co-author is clever and yet another mark of her talent and creativity and perfectly fitting for the work at hand.

Of course a dime museum in 1930s New York City is going to make for an interesting setting and offer up a raft of compelling characters, but I think that Oliver put it in a very relevant and fascinating context in her interview with Chester, saying

I think it's difficult for a modern person to grasp the way in which curiosity about the natural world, its endless varieties and strangeness, was entwined with the entertainment of the time. I suppose in some ways dime museums were the precursor to the kind of reality TV shows that make you goggle over the fact that people exist who look, speak and behave the way they do on TV. Dime museums were all about celebrating the strange and unexplained phenomena of the scientific and natural world - since, of course, so much that we now treat, cure, or can explain remained at the time a mystery.

As much as I loath (and am enthralled by certain) reality TV, Oliver makes a great point, it's human nature to be fascinated by the other, and what is more other than the oddities at a dime museum? The most checked out book in my library? Any form of Ripley's, a show I loved as a kid and a museum I dreamed of visiting, along with Madame Tussaud's.

Curiosity House: The Shrunken Head opens with Thomas, one of the young curiosities and performers taken in by Mr. Dumfrey, in the attic playing a game of his own invention, DeathTrap. Similar to chess, he played it on a threadbare Persian rug, using the patterns as spaces and pilfered parts of oddities (a baby kangaroo's foot, a dented Roman coin, an old scorpion's tale and a shark's jawbone) as game pieces. Thomas is inhumanly flexible, Pippa can read minds, but only to tell what is in your pockets, Sam has superhuman strength and Max, new comer to Dumfrey's, has amazing knife throwing skills. Adults at the museum include albino twins, a bearded lady, a fat lady and a magician as well as a few floors of oddities on display. One fateful night, Mr. Dumfrey brings out a cursed, shrunken head for the audience and a reporter in the audience writes a story about it. When the head is stollen, accidental deaths start mounting, Mr. Dumfrey is arrested and the museum is shut down. The four children decide to investigate with the hopes of saving their home and seemingly the only safe place for them.

The children find lead after lead and clue after clue, even going toe to toe with Bill Evans, the reporter who seems to be enjoying the deaths of those coming in to contact with the cursed head a bit too much. One refreshing aspect of Curiosity House is the fact that there are actual deaths of adults in this mystery for kids, which is rare, and Oliver handles it well as they are neither gruesome or gratuitous.

As you might anticipate from the title and setting, Oliver packs her book with details, illustrations by French artist Benjamin Lacombe bringing her words to life with a slightly creepy, ominous edge. Oliver also fills her story with red herrings, although I had a suspicion early on about one seemingly very minor character. There is a revelation at the of the first book that sets up the rest of the trilogy for what promises to be a climactic ending.

Books 2 & 3 in the Curiosity House Trilogy
(The Fearsome Firebird comes out April, 2017)

Source: Purchased Audio Book

My reviews of a few other books by 
Lauren Oliver:

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