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Publisher's Summary

An intrepid young woman stalks a murderer through turn-of-the-century Chicago in "this rich, spooky, and atmospheric thriller that will appeal to fans of Henry Darger and Erik Larson alike" (Sarah McCarry).

In the sweltering summer of 1915, Pin, the 14-year-old daughter of a carnival fortune-teller, dresses as a boy and joins a teenage gang that roams the famous Riverview amusement park, looking for trouble.

Unbeknownst to the well-heeled city-dwellers and visitors who come to enjoy the midway, the park is also host to a ruthless killer who uses the shadows of the dark carnival attractions to conduct his crimes. When Pin sees a man enter the Hell Gate ride with a young girl and emerge alone, she knows that something horrific has occurred.

The crime will lead her to the iconic outsider artist Henry Darger, a brilliant but seemingly mad man. Together, the two navigate the seedy underbelly of a changing city to uncover a murderer few even know to look for.

©2019 Elizabeth Hand (P)2019 Mulholland Books

Critic Reviews

"An atmospheric crime novel.... A phantasmagoric time trip tailor-made for fans of The Devil in the White City." (Publishers Weekly)

"Elizabeth Hand is a national treasure. Sinister sideshow hustlers, back alley intrigues, and brilliant outsiders: Turn-of-the-century underworld Chicago comes alive in this rich, spooky, and atmospheric thriller that will appeal to fans of Henry Darger and Erik Larson alike." (Sarah McCarry, author of All Our Pretty Songs)

"A well-crafted and deliciously unsettling period thriller." (Booklist starred review)

What listeners say about Curious Toys

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  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars
  • Performance
    4 out of 5 stars
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    4 out of 5 stars

A period piece, but with a young, fun sensibility!

Note - Listened to it on Audible - and the narrator, Carol Monda - was impeccable. She had the perfect scratchy, smoky voice that absolutely fit the setting of a 1930s carnival.

Pin is a teenage girl, forced to dress like a boy, to make extra money to support her and her mother, who works as a fortune teller at the Riverview Amusement Park in 1930s Chicago. Pin is precocious and smart...and still trying to find her way in the world. She earns money by delivering dope to the local S&A film studio, where she longs to be a camera girl. Her work leads her to cross paths with Charlie Chaplin and a young starlet named Glory - who she begins to feel feelings for that she hasn't ever felt. Rounding out the cast of characters are Max, the "shemale" Circus Performer, Lionel the screenwriter, and Francis "Fatty" Bacon, a carnival cop who was disgraced and discharged from the "real" force after going after the ever present criminal force "The Black Hand." Pin also meets the unique and relatively suspicious Henry Darger, who claims he is part of the Gemini Girl's Protection Agency - but his ticks and quirks may point to something more sinister.

Especially since "Curious Toys" is a combination queer coming of age story, a historical fiction with a commentary on classism and racism from the era in which it takes place, and a suspenseful whodunnit serial killer thriller. Hand adeptly moves through these genres and writes a thoroughly entertaining book. She shifts from the perspective of Pin, Darger, Bacon and the mysterious killer who is obsessed with the doll he purchased, and the victims' dresses he dresses her in. The shifts can be a little confusing, especially between the killer and Darger (as you are led to believe they are one in the same.) But overall, it was a strong, well-written and enjoyable listen.

Pin finds herself involved in the murder mystery through the fact that her autistic sister Aubrianna went missing years ago, and now she found a dead body on the carnival Hell Gate ride, after she saw a man and girl enter the ride - but only the man exited. Are they connected? And who is the murderer?

The only drawback was Hand's need to include Charlie Chaplin in the story. I'm not sure if he was included to further enhance the time setting, but his involvement didn't seem all that germane to the story - unless Hand was trying to use him as a red herring and expose Chaplin for more than he was. Although he is painted as a bit of a scoundrel with a taste for young girls with whom he acted. Also, the epilogue is a bit too "Disney" for me, but is still a sweet conclusion to a story that I was fully invested in.

With so many mystery series that follow the same rote formula and stock characters, "Curious Toys" stands out as a unique story with a unique characters we don't encounter often. The book had a modern sensibility while still transporting you back to the past. It was a period piece, but didn't feel dusty. There is also an appeal for young and old readers alike.

I'm glad I saw a friend post her ARC copy to Instagram. It was definitely worth the read.

6 people found this helpful

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Terrific Story

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, very engaging, great characters, beautifully written as is true of all Liz's books.

3 people found this helpful

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Inconsistent Hand (Spolers!)

Some of Hand's work I love and some I can't get through without a lot of skimming. Had this been a physical book, I'd have skimmed (I did fast forward a little though). Not enough happens in a short enough time for it to be a thriller. It's torpid and spends paragraph after paragraph with setting, details (oh the endless details) and characterization. Most of it is good, but it's very repetitive and it gets in the way of any small amount of tension she manages to build. Too many characters are too obscurely identified and it goes on and on to an obvious resolution - Pin will "come out" as a girl so she can lure the killer into attacking her and of course Henry and Bacon will be on hand for the rescue. The very last vignette, of Pin as an old lesbian lady is superfluous and I wish the audiobook contained the non fiction account of the real Henry Darger. Probably the most interesting part of the book.

3 people found this helpful

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A dervish of a thriller

Elizabeth Hand is one of the best authors we have, and this stand-alone mystery is a charming, shocking, and gorgeously-written example of her greatest strengths. Hand is a world-builder who has turned her eye for the fantastic toward the era of silent movies, straw boaters, and early amusement parks. She's also interested in complex heroes who dream of breaking free of societal "norms" and living life on their terms.

Carol Monda is an incredible reader. She's the perfect voice to pair with Eiizabeth Hand's words, and any of the audiobooks available here are well-worth a listen.

I'd been saving this one since its release, and it was worth the wait. If you're looking for something unique, give this book a shot. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

2 people found this helpful

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A fun and interesting read

Curious Toys is a book with twists and turns that keep you guessing and along for the fun (yes, I said fun when discussing a book that features a gruesome series of murder). The book takes a look at the lives of people on the outskirts of society due to race, class, and gender and the ways they navigate the world they live in prior to and during the appearance of a serial killer in their lives. Many of the motivations of the characters, even the ones that seem far-fetched on the surface, ring true if you think about the realities of the people featured. As for the murder mystery itself, it is interesting and written in a way that kept me wanting to keep reading/anxiously awaiting the next chance I would have to dive into the story again.

I definitely recommend taking a chance on this wonderfully narrated book.

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What a dark ride it was!

What a dark ride it was! Highly recommended to fans of historical thrillers, strong female leads, and twisty plots.

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I wanted to like this more

Elizabeth Hand had 2 outstanding ideas on which to build this novel. First, using old Riverview – a native Chicagoans wonderland, which I visited as a very small girl a year before it was cruelly demolished – and second, the mysterious original outsider artist, Henry Darger, about whom very little is known. Hand could have gone anywhere with Darger, whose art and stories were highly original fantasies featuring girl armies battling evil men, and superb illustrations that established him posthumously as the first identified outsider artist. Hand had the right setting and crime to delve deeply into Darger and give us something breathtaking. She wasted the opportunity by reducing him to a mentally ill sidekick writing some children’s stories. I am so disappointed. Adding to my disappointment was the mediocre narration in which I frequently could not even distinguish the characters. I do not recommend this book.

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lengthy teadious horror story

despite being well written prose i found the pacing slow and was only able to listen to about half before giving up on the slow paced story well chosen title and good artwork definately does not overcome the overall story.