“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.

“My Policeman” by Bethan Roberts (2012)

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my-policeman“I considered starting with these words: I no longer want to kill you – because I really don’t – but then decided you would think this far too melodramatic.”

Despite America’s attempts to drag us back into the past, we’ve definitely come a long way in the last few decades. My latest read was set in Brighton, a city notable for its collection of the weird and wonderful, as well as seeming to always have been a haven for anyone who felt like they didn’t fit in. It was for this reason, according to many, that it became home to so many of the LGBT community. But Britain wasn’t always so tolerant, even in Brighton, and this book explores the city in the 1950s.

Teenager Marion has just met Tom, the older brother of her best friend and she is in love. His blond hair, his strong arms – he’s perfect. They meet again when they’re a little older, and he teaches her to swim in the sea, and she becomes convinced that they are going to get married and her love will be enough to propel them though a beautiful future.

Elsewhere, Patrick has just met Tom, a policeman with an interest in art and culture, which seems very unusual. Immediately smitten, Patrick teaches Tom more about these subjects, and the two begin meeting more regularly until it becomes clear that there is a little more than art appreciation on their minds. But this is the 1950s, and so it will be safer for Tom to marry Marion. Both blinded by their love for their policeman and prepared to ignore what’s right in front of them for a sniff of happiness, they must share him, but it all becomes too much one day, and something’s got to give.

The novel opens with the three characters now living together in 1999; although while Marion and Tom are still married, Patrick is a guest and being looked after by them after his second stroke. Half of the book is narrated by Marion, writing to Patrick about what really happened back when they were young, as she hopes he’ll be able to hear the truth before it’s too late. The other half is from Patrick’s point of view, as taken from his journal in the fifties where he is very cagey about naming his lover, referring to him as simply “my policeman”. Despite the perfectly good reason the two have for hating one another, they are curiously similar, and it’s interesting to read their opinions on one another, and see the way they describe the same events from different points of view.

The world is conjured up beautifully, a slightly sad and tragic world in both the fifties and the nineties. We are given constant reminders of how homosexuality was viewed during the middle of the century, with a vast range of opinions on show, much like today. Still, this isn’t nearly as jolly as back then a man could still be imprisoned for being a “sexual invert”. The struggles they go through are writ large and people rarely seem willing to jump to their defence, while Tom, who is perceived by most people to be straight, coasts through life feeling loved by one and all.

Personally, I don’t understand quite what they both see in Tom. They both seem far more attracted to him physically than to who is he, Marion in particular, and while he does seem rather a kind man in some ways, he’s still willing to marry a woman just to act as a cover for his affair with a man. It’s heartbreaking to see both Marion and Patrick suffer, especially Patrick who suffers more than most. Nonetheless, it’s a wonderful story and full of emotional truths that can resonate with anyone who has had to lose the person they love to someone else.

Charming and cruel in equal measure.

“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.

“The Last Girlfriend On Earth” by Simon Rich (2013)

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The-Last-Girlfriend-on-Earth

Dibs.

Heartbreak and failed romance form the bread and butter of fiction – practically always have done, and probably always will. Most people, unless they choose to spend their days under a rock or doing nothing but grinding on World of Warcraft, will eventually have their heartbroken by someone or other.

Simon Rich has taken this idea and run with it for thirty short stories about different aspects of love and, more specifically, the problems that arise from that word when things begin to go wrong. Like most anthologies, there are going to be some stories within that are better than others, and definitely there are some weak links in the chain here, but generally this is a very strong book from a great comic (Rich writes for Saturday Night Live). The stories are mostly told from a male point of view, and while some people may want to scream “Sexist!” at some of the ideas present, I think all of them, eventually, are supposed to show how ridiculous men are when it comes to their ideas of women. And, above everything else, the stories are all comedic and tongue-in-cheek.

I’ll pick out a couple of my favourite stories and discuss.

“Set Up” a great story about a chap in his thirties who, realising that all of his friends are getting married, asks them to set him up with someone which they delight in doing. Only, when it comes to meeting the girl, he discovers that she is a two foot six troll who usually lives under the Manhattan Bridge and doesn’t speak English. Concerned as he is, his friends apparently don’t understand the problem and become offended when he kicks her after she tries to bite his leg.

“The Adventure of the Spotted Tie” is about Holmes and Watson. While Holmes can tell with a glance that Watson has lost money at the dog track that day, he is completely unable to understand why a spotted tie would have appeared in the overnight bag of his girlfriend Alyssa. While Watson thinks it’s obvious, the great detective is stumped, theorising that someone must be trying to subvert the fabric tariff by smuggling clothes into the country.

“Wishes” has a woman come home to find her husband in talks with a genie, having used up forty-eight of his fifty wishes for sex, with the genie on hand to dole out some wise words about the nature of men.

“Unprotected” is, perhaps, the gem, and the first story in the collection. It is told from the point of view of a condom (yes, that’s right) who lives inside a wallet with his friends Learner Permit, Blockbuster Video, Visa and the dollars, who keep coming and going. It’s a brilliant creation, that character, who when told by MetroCard what his purpose in life is states, “I am too embarrassed to admit truth, which is that I thought I was a balloon.”

Alongside this fantastically naive condom, we also find Charles Darwin figuring out natural selection, a man getting maried to Mother Teresa, the Sex Aliens from Planet Sex, a hip-hop loving Cupid, modern day sirens, Santa Claus avoiding his “marriage of convenience” and, of course, the titular last girlfriend on Earth.

A great collection and worth a read for anyone who is or thinks they might be in love.