“How To Find Love In A Bookshop” by Veronica Henry (2016)

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Where better place to look?

Where better place to look?

“He would never have believed it if you’d told him a year ago.”

There are few places quite as wonderful as a bookshop, from the enormous five-storey flagship branch of Waterstone’s in Piccadilly, to the tiniest second-hand place in the sidestreets of Edinburgh. Hatchards, Daunt and its like are enormously influential places, so it’s no surprise that plenty of books exist about bookshops. Penelope Fitzgerald had a bittersweet bash, and Robin Sloan gave the environment a funny, fantastic airing. It’s Veronica Henry’s turn now, and she’s taken the magic of bookshops to a new level.

Emilia Nightingale has rushed back to England to be at the bedside of her father, Julius, who is dying. Her final promise to him is that she will return to the bookshop, Nightingale Books, that he has run for the last thirty years and keep it going in his memory. Unfortunately, she discovers that her father hasn’t had his eye on the ball, and the shop is losing money hand over fist. It might always have been full of people, but half the time they came in to chat with the charming and kind Julius, rather than buy anything. Emilia must decide whether to keep the shop open or sell off the property to the money-grabbing Ian Mendip who wants the land to expand his empire.

The small town, however, is full of residents who want the shop to stay, but few of them are quite what they seem. Sarah is the lady of the manor, looking forward to her daughter’s upcoming wedding and hiding a painful secret that she can’t tell anyone. Bea has moved to the countryside from London for a better life, but the monotony and boredom is driving her mad. Jackson has never read a book in his life, but now is determined to start so he can bond with his young son and prove to his ex that he’s capable of being a good father. June nurses heartbreak that is decades old. Thomasina is a chef crippled by shyness and desperate to talk to the cute guy at the cheese shop. And Dillon is contractually obliged to keep his place.

The fact that this book has so many characters does wonders for it. We learn enough about each of them to really feel for them and want them to find the happiness that they each seem to deserve. They’re not perfect, which makes them even more so. You learn to love these people despite their flaws. The stories weave together neatly and while Emilia is the central figure, she’s not the most interesting one, and the book soon spirals out from being her story to being the story of many. I love a book that reminds you that we’re all part of one another’s stories, and no one is going through this madness alone.

I only have issues with a couple of moments of characterisation. Thomasina is apparently shy, but this for the most part is an entirely informed quality, as every time we see her, she seems confident. Talking to a stranger in the bookshop and setting up a two-person restaurant in her own home are not the actions of a shy person. Indeed, the first major part she has in the book is reading at Julius’s memorial, a task that seems to immediately do away with the trait she’s most linked to. I’m also not totally sure how to feel about Jackson and his ex, Mia. Jackson supposedly was kicked out after becoming feckless and not helping out with their son, but later he’s shown to be paying maintenance without having been asked, and is desperate to take Mia back despite saying how much she’s changed. For such a nice guy, he can be a bit of a dick. He redeems himself by the end, though.

While it might just be because I’m a bit emotionally unstable at the moment anyway, I did shed a tear or two in the final chapter. As is only right in a book of this kind, there are happy endings all round, and they feel deserved. It’s a book that feels like a nap in front of the fire – warm, comfortable and familiar. As much as there is a lot of human love in the book, of all different kinds, it’s really a love letter to books and to bookshops. Books are so important, and anyone who doesn’t read them just hasn’t found the right one yet. Henry’s passion for the medium is highly pronounced.

A nice little addition is that every few chapters there’s a list of books recommended by one of the characters. Thomasina, for example, lists books about food, and Dillon gives us books with particularly notable servants. This is the kind of book that will only cause you to add further to your reading lists. Devour this book and give yourself some cheer.

“The Making Of Us” by Lisa Jewell (2011)

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making of us“Glenys Pike was thirty-five years old.”

I’ve always considered myself lucky to have such a close family. Oh sure, we argue and bicker, but I know that when the chips are down, they’ll be there for me, and I for them. To imagine life without a close family is strange to me. But this is one of the issues in Lisa Jewell’s The Making of Us. It’s been a few years since I read Jewell, but I’m a big fan of hers, and I’ve got a bit behind on her output. It was time to sort that out.

This is the story of Lydia, a self-made millionaire who lives alone in an enormous London mansion and is struggling with life now her best friend has had a child. Lydia has no one, her parents are both long dead, and she feels herself drifting from her friend. This is also the story of Robyn, a street-smart, uber-confident girl who has just turned eighteen and her life is completely and utterly perfect in every possible way, down to the fact that she’s just met the man of her dreams. This is also the story of Dean, a young man who has suddenly been thrust into fatherhood when his daughter is born prematurely and his girlfriend dies in childbirth. Unable to cope with the situation, he runs.

These three don’t know each other, but the world soon conspires to bring them together. It turns out that each of them shares something huge – they are all the progeny of the same sperm donor. He, Daniel, is in a hospice, dying of cancer, and calls upon his friend Maggie to help in in his final hours. Daniel wants to meet his children.

Each chapter gives us the point of view of a different character – usually Lydia, Robyn, Dean or Maggie – and allows us into their version of the world. Jewell captures the struggle of loneliness well, and her characters are all wonderfully distinct. She notes in the back of the book that she enjoyed writing this one, and it shows. Jewell is excellent at setting her stories so intensely in the real world that we feel that these people might be living just down the road from us. They certainly feel real.

But this is a heartbreaking book, too, a study in the ways our lives can go wrong and what we can do to fix them again. It’s about how all families are different, but they’re all extraordinary. Jewell ties everything up nicely, and the one potentially contrived plot point I was worried was coming didn’t (although it turned into something much sadder), and the book ends on a note of hope, that these characters are going to be OK. And that’s good, I want them to be.

I think my favourite character is Dean. There’s something sweet about him, even if he does run out on his daughter. He’s not perfect, but he’s young and scared, and he needs more of an anchor in his life. He never had a father, and his mother doesn’t seem interested in helping him get on with his life particularly, so he needs a family more than the rest, I think. Robyn is my least favourite narrator, but she’s not without charm. I just think she’d irritate me if I met her, since she appears intensely self-absorbed.

Once again, I am reminded that Jewell’s name is very apt – she is a diamond. She can take the everyday lives of people and make them interesting, allowing them to sparkle and shine. It’s an interesting book, and like many stories, there are sections that are better than others, overall it’s brilliant; very moving and very positive.

“You’re The One That I Don’t Want” by Alexandra Potter (2010)

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Fate has a lot to answer for.

Fate has a lot to answer for.

“The summer heat creates a shimmering haze, through which Venice appears like a Canaletto brought to life.”

The two themes that run through all fiction are, of course, love and death. Eros and Thanatos seem to control all the drama of literature, and indeed in the real world too. You find me a story that doesn’t concern itself with one or the other (or both) and I’ll eat my hat, providing I’m wearing my bacon hat. “Chick lit”, a term I discussed last month, usually brings great helpings of love to the table, although usually spends the meal complaining about cellulite and that they really shouldn’t have another scoop but go on then, as it’s a Friday and the diet starts tomorrow.

I’ve read Alexandra Potter before and I enjoy her slight twist on traditionally romantic fare. I bought this one for a friend’s birthday and it was proclaimed to be very good, so I borrowed it back off her. The thing with Potter is that while her characters are very much cut from the same cloth as every other protagonist in this sort of fiction, she adds a dash of the supernatural to her stories. For example, in Who’s That Girl? the heroine accidentally travels back in time and meets her younger self; in Be Careful What You Wish For, she finds everything she wishes for coming true. This time around, we’re dealing with folk legends and what happens when they come true.

The story begins in Venice in 1999 where teenagers Lucy and Nate have met and are rapidly falling in love. They hear a rumour from a street vendor that if they kiss under the Bridge of Sighs, they will never be parted and they will stay together for eternity. Deciding to give it a go – young love being what it is – they follow it through and then laugh it off as a silly superstition. They part ways at the end of their holiday and she returns to Manchester while he goes back to America.

Ten years later, they have entirely lost contact after the relationship soured, but now Lucy has just moved to New York to work for an art gallery. Her sister Kate is already a successful lawyer in the city, and Lucy moves in with new age hippie Robyn, a woman who casts spells, thinks tie-dye is the height of fashion and has been told by a psychic that her soulmate is called Harold. Then one day and quite out of the blue, Lucy bumps into Nate again. They rekindle their relationship when he admits that losing her was the biggest mistake of his life and soon they’re back to acting like lovesick teenagers.

But in the intervening decade, they discover that they’ve both changed, and not necessarily into someone that the other one likes. Lucy lives off junk food and loves spending time in art galleries. Nate is a wealthy TV producer who spends every waking minute on the phone and no longer has time for carbs or coffee. After a massive row, they break up again when it turns out that you can’t just pick up where you left off. But the legend of the Bridge of Sighs is apparently more powerful than either of them realised and suddenly they’re bumping into each other all over the city, as if the universe is determined to keep them together, just like it originally promised.

All of which makes it a bit awkward given that Lucy has just met Adam, and he might actually be a far better option than Nate ever was…

So there are clichés stacked up here by the crate – love at first sight, a creative protagonist who worries about her body, a love triangle, the sensible sister who is the polar opposite to the ditzy heroine – but it’s also quite refreshing. Not only is Potter genuinely quite a funny writer, this is a hugely interesting twist on the idea that we don’t always know what we really want for ourselves. We’ve all seen stories where people are told they’ll be together forever, and then have to fight the obstacles in the way, but this shows what happens when the people stop wanting to be together. The blessing becomes a curse and soon life becomes unbearable. After all, how would you feel if every time you got into a taxi, sat down in a restaurant or stepped into a shop, your ex was already there?

The secondary characters seem more developed than Lucy, but that’s because we’ve seen her type before. She’s an artist who is very good but had to give it all up. She’s clumsy, weak-willed when it comes to food, always late, and desperately seeking out The One. Nonetheless, I enjoyed the book a lot simply because it takes an old idea and turns it upside down. Sometimes you don’t need a hugely different story (although it is nice). You just need to take a classic and shake it up a little.

“One Hundred Names” by Cecelia Ahern (2012)

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100 names“She was nicknamed The Graveyard.”

I’ve never much been a fan of the term “chick lit”. It seems disparaging, as if its trying to do down a whole genre of fiction. I’m also not going to defend it as a brilliant genre, but it definitely has its examples of good writing; Lisa Jewell and Alexandra Potter both do it very well. Cecelia Ahern became well-known when her debut novel, P.S. I Love You, stormed the charts and went on to become a successful film, but it always sounded too mushy for me. However, the blurb of this book intrigued me so I went for it and, frankly, I came out disappointed.

In this book, we meet Kitty Logan, a journalist whose professional and personal lives are falling apart around her. She has become embroiled in a scandal after accusing a school caretaker of sexually abusing two students live on national television. This was a scandal because she was wrong. Now with the court case over, she is trying to piece together her reputation once more. Constance Dubois, her friend and magazine editor, is dying of cancer, and she and Kitty talk about the stories she never got to run. Constance says there is one left, and she’ll pass it onto Kitty. If Kitty brings the envelope in Constance’s filing cabinet to the hospital, she’ll explain everything.

Kitty finds it but before she can make it back, Constance dies. Now the magazine wants to run a tribute and Kitty is determined to write this story for Constance. But inside the envelope there is no story – there is just a list of one hundred names. Kitty now has just over a week to track down everyone on the list, find out what Constance wanted to talk to them about, and save her reputation. Her journey introduces her to a strange assortment of characters, including a convicted prisoner who can hear prayers, a butterfly expert with a fear of people, and two very enthusiastic men with a pedalo.

Many of these sorts of books run to a formula and this one is no exception. Sure, some of the secondary characters are quite interesting but one of the most interesting of all is Constance who dies pretty soon into the novel. Kitty makes for a singularly unpleasant and unsympathetic protagonist. I get that we’re supposed to see her redemptive arc and how she’s struggling to bring herself to apologise to the man whose life she ruined, but frankly I didn’t care. Fictional or not, what she had done was beyond the pail, and I couldn’t bring myself to forgive her and consider her a decent person. For much of the novel, she’s also incredibly selfish, only apparently concerned about how her mistake has come to affect her own life, rather than the life of the man whose reputation she has dragged through the mud. Even when she reveals all about her hardships to an old college friend who is now a journalist too and promptly splashes her “exclusive story” across the tabloids is it hard to feel any real pity for her.

While I get that introducing the one hundred characters on Constance’s list would be a massive undertaking and require a book many times this size, I found the actual number to be a complete cop-out. Of those hundred, we meet six. Oh sure, they’re interesting – more interesting than Kitty – but it still seems like there was a lot more potential here that just doesn’t come into play.

At the end, everything ties up far too neatly, with happy endings for pretty much everyone, but there are a couple of plot points that just never seem to properly get resolved. This book could’ve been so much better, but it failed to live up to the hype and the execution of an otherwise pretty good concept is somewhat shoddy. Shame, really.

“Just A Little Disco On An Open-Top Bus” by Candy Guard (2006)

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just a little“I had noticed that all I did was do things and then immediately regret them.”

I first read this book many years ago. Given the date it came out, I must have been eighteen or nineteen, perhaps. Over the following years, it remained on my shelf and if I ever caught sight of it, I smiled and remembered something funny from it. It was a cute, good book. Time passed and more and more scenes slipped from my memory, until earlier this year when my psychologist friend, who had reached a point where her usual crime novels had saturated her brain so much that she couldn’t close her eyes without seeing some dismembered cadaver, asked if I could recommend a book in which no one was disembowelled and was overall a bit lighter. This book immediately came to mind.

Trouble was, by this point, I couldn’t remember anything about it, just that I had enjoyed it. Trusting my own distant judgment, she borrowed it and then reported back that she had loved it too. So, when I started feeling blue recently, as discussed in my previous post, I figured that despite the long list of books waiting to be read for the first time, I would go back and see if a second read would perk me up.

It did.

This is the story of Edie Dudman, 21-year-old anxious mess who keeps trying to do so many different things that she ends up doing nothing at all. Armed with a part-time job in a bakery, a recently engaged flatmate, a boyfriend who doesn’t seem interested anymore and an elderly neighbour with bad body odour, she is ready to take on the world, attend some evening classes and finally do something with her life. Once she’s watched one more episode of Knots Landing.

Edie is one of nature’s worriers, fretting about absolutely everything and getting ahead of herself in all aspects of her life. She eventually manages to sign up to a photography evening class and there she meets Ralph, eccentric artist who wants to live in a water tank and might just be the right kind of man for her. But she clings to the notion that Steve, her current sort-of-boyfriend, will want to rekindle the magic, although it’s not looking promising as he’s just bought her a sandwich maker for her 21st birthday.

Despite her worries and constant habit of making mountains out of molehills (she rehearses conversations in her head and makes them appear bigger issues than they really are), she is fundamentally a good heart. Slightly lost and lonely, confused and not knowing what she wants in her life, she struggles on regardless. Her pains are familiar to many of us, who reach our early twenties and find that adulthood isn’t what we thought it was going to be, but there aren’t any refunds. It’s a funny book, but with serious, painful moments too – again, just like life, really.

The novel is made all the more adorable by constant doodles of the characters and events; particularly funny are the ones of Edie herself, who always seems to have a blank, shocked look on her face. The secondary characters are also brilliant, including Edie’s television addict mother, Lucille, the flatmate who has it all together, and Buster, Edie’s ex-boyfriend who still hangs around hoping that maybe something will happen again.

It’s a beautiful story of hope, awkwardness, love, growing up (sometimes against our will), bad birthdays and how life never goes the way you think it will. There are some wonderful comments about the difficulty with loving someone you don’t necessarily like, and it also stands out as being one of the few books I’ve read with a bisexual character who isn’t immediately shuttled into a gay or straight label, which is refreshing.

If you’ve ever felt lost or confused, then Edie Dudman is here to show you that you are most definitely not alone.

“Adorkable” by Sarra Manning (2012)

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adorkable

Probably not a dense space opera, eh?

“‘We need to talk,’ Michael Lee told me firmly when I stepped out of the makeshift changing room at the St Jude’s jumble sale, which was actually four curtained rails arranged in a square, to have a good preen in front of a clouded mirror.”

If it’s not already clear, I will read practically everything and anything. Drama and dystopia, fact and fiction, horror and history, crime and classics, thriller, mystery, short stories, doorstoppers, biographies and books of lists and everything in between. This does occasionally, therefore, include chick lit and young adult literature, the former of which I often enjoy, the latter of which I rarely do.

So, with the assurance to myself that I read everything in order to give as many people as possible a suggestion of something to read, I set myself off reading Adorkable. It was actually a present from a good friend, and I’ll come totally clean right now – I thought I’d have to lie about liking this book because while reading it I had many strong emotions, and not all of them positive. However, on the whole, I don’t need to lie. I did enjoy the book. I’m not saying I don’t have complaints, but I came out of it with a fairly positive opinion.

It seems like it’s going to be a very modern boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-wins-girl novel going on the blurb. A quirky, individual blog-obsessed teenage girl keeps kissing a hotter-than-hot cool teenage boy and I kind of figured that was all I was going to get. No.

Jeane Smith is a self-proclaimed dork, Twitter-obsessive, blogger and she doesn’t care what anyone else thinks of her. Thanks to convoluted circumstances, she lives alone at seventeen years old (my thoughts on this sort of aspect of the book are below) and dresses however she wants, is respected across the globe via her Adorkable brand and lifestyle. Michael Lee is about as mainstream as it is possible to get, doesn’t think much of Jeane and her way of life and generally does what he can to avoid her. However, their arguments become more and more frequent and soon they find that whenever they bump into each other, they end up kissing, although they’re both convinced that the other one is initiating it and that it’s all a mistake that keeps happening again and again.

What occurs is a curious love story in which both parties have very strong antagonistic feelings towards one another. This is not a story of true love overcoming all odds – this is one in which the characters have real emotions and the politics and problems of dating at the other end of your social spectrum become all too clear. It’s actually rather good. Jeane is certainly suffering with a personality disorder of some kind (her backstory leaves you in no doubt as to the cause of this) and Michael is rather vain and too busy being concerned with how his hair looks and what his friends are doing to really have any deep thoughts. They’re actually quite realistic people – you know these sorts of people.

What I can’t buy with it is that Jeane is supposed to be some kind of social media mogul. She has half a million followers on Twitter, updates her blog daily, runs a company called Adorkable which sells various “cool and offbeat” products, was noted by the Guardian as an influential teenager, lives by herself, and is frequently invited to speak at conferences around the world getting paid tens of thousands of pounds a time to do so. She’s friends with rock stars, attends New York soirees and gets drunk despite being very much underage and seems to live entirely off Haribo and coffee.

I would’ve had a lot more time for Jeane if the book wasn’t so set on telling us how bloody wonderful she is all the time. There obviously are these success stories on the Internet, but Jeane seems like an impossibly extreme example. There seems to be a good deal of a Mary Sue about her. However, there is far more too her than that. She might not be a particularly likeable character, but she’s definitely three-dimensional, even if it takes a long time for us to see that third dimension. The love story appears halted almost instantly. On the first page, she describes how the whole school thinks Michael Lee is the hottest guy in the world, and I immediately thought, “Ah, she’s just going to start fawning over him now” but instead she is just rude to him and refuses to accept him as someone worthy of her time. Clearly, that changes, but it does add an extra layer to the whole thing.

The strangest thing about the book, maybe, is that Jeane never once mentions Tumblr, and she is the sort of girl who would be over that website like a rash. Much is discussed via the medium of Facebook and Twitter, both of which are valid social networking platforms, but for what Jeane seems to be trying to achieve, Tumblr would make far more sense. Of course, she may well use it but given that every other website from Etsy to Gawker is mentioned, it seems a curious omission.

Once you get over the excessive use of “obvs”, “blates”, “totes” and “whatevs”, there is actually quite a sweet story in here. I flipped and flopped so much over it, sometimes mid-chapter, because something would happen that would cause me to scoff in its ridiculousness, but then it would become heartfelt and real again afterwards. It’s an interesting read, with some beautiful observations about friends and family, and the Tumblr generation would, I feel, certainly enjoy it, but it’s by no means perfect and there are many things I would’ve done differently. The ending is nice, but weaves its way there in such a curious pattern that I thought I was going to detest its finishing line. I didn’t, not at all.

It’s not great literature, but it’s better than some stuff I’ve read for young adults. It talks about sex in that matter-of-fact way that the kids seem to these days (Christ, I sound old) but maybe Manning is trying to hard to be cool. In many respects, then, she should take a leaf out of Jeane’s book and embrace her inner dork.