“The Readers Of Broken Wheel Recommend” by Katarina Bivald (2013)

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There is a book for every person and a person for every book.

“The strange woman standing on Hope’s main street was so ordinary it was almost scandalous.”

Books are great, and books about books are even better. This blog already has a stack of reviews on it based around bookshops thanks to Veronica Henry, Penelope Fitzgerald and Robin Sloan, but there’s always room for one more. There’s something wonderful about bookshops; so much promise held in those shelves. Adventures await, romances are blossoming, and characters are waiting to tell us their stories. Here’s another excellent example.

Sara Lindqvist is a Swedish bibliophile who has just arrived in the small, notably un-notable town of Broken Wheel in rural Iowa. She has come to meet her penpal, Amy Harris, an old lady with whom she has been swapping books and letters for the last two years. Tragically, she arrives to find that Amy has died. Nevertheless, the townsfolk insist that she has to stay and that Amy would have wanted them to take care of her. They put her up in Amy’s house, and assign someone to drive her wherever she needs to go, despite the small size of the town.

Sara is shy, much prefers books to people, and is starting to wonder what madness gripped her to drop her into a situation so unfamiliar. Soon, she realises that no one is willing to accept her money. The shopkeeper, John, gives her free groceries. Grace, the diner cook, rustles up free dinners for her. Andy and his “very good friend” Carl at the bar refuse to take her money for beer. She becomes determined to do something to pay back the townsfolk for their kindness and soon hits on the very idea – Broken Wheel needs a bookshop.

Despite having a huge love of reading herself, Sara finds that no one else in the town much cares for reading, but she is determined to go through with her plan in Amy’s memory and to try and convince the residents that there is a book for everyone. The shop changes the town, and soon the locals are plotting a way to keep her around permanently before her visa expires.

It took a little while to get into, but once it has its claws into you, it isn’t letting go until the last page. Some of the plot points, such as Broken Wheel’s residents plot to keep Sara in town, are a bit madcap, but somehow still rather endearing, if not entirely believable. The characters themselves, however, are wonderfully deep and you really care about them and their happiness. The central plot eventually fell by the wayside for me, and I became far more interested in some of the more minor threads and what was happening with them, none of which I want to spoil here.

The book is packed with messages though, and the whole thing seems to be about the power of literature to change people. Those who have never picked up a book in their lives suddenly find themselves being given books that Sara thinks they’ll like, and many of them soon learn that they do indeed like reading, even if some of their tastes are a little bizarre. George, the old town drunk, develops a fondness for Bridget Jones and the Shopaholic series, and elderly Gertrude becomes hooked on the thrill of Steig Larsson. Sara is frequently to be found with her nose in a book, and her tastes are wide and eclectic, wonderfully often overlapping with my own. Indeed, I’ve never seen a character anywhere else read a Douglas Coupland novel.

There are also discussions to be had regarding religion, taste and decency, aging, family and community. One particularly notable scene has the very proper and Christian Caroline complain about Sara stocking gay erotica in her shop. Sara calls her out on judging something without trying it, and Caroline begins to thaw a little, sending her into a subplot that even she didn’t see coming.

Frankly, the whole thing is a little bit beautiful, and I found myself on the verge of tears more than once. It’s a love letter to books above anything, and I firmly believe its core message: there is a book for every person, and a person for every book. If you don’t like reading, you just haven’t found the right thing yet. A charming tale.

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“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.

“Books” by Charlie Hill (2013)

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Some books are fatally bad.

Some books are fatally bad.

“It was three o’clock on Saturday afternoon, the end of a typically long week, and Richard Anger – the owner of the last little bookshop in town – was waiting for a cab to take him to the airport.”

I like books. And I like books about books, as I’ve shown several times over on this blog. So a book called Books was surely going to be a winner, wasn’t it? Wasn’t it? Well, it’s just a reminder that sometimes that stuff on the sale table in Waterstone’s is there for a reason. I’m being a trifle unfair, because this isn’t a terrible book. It’s just another example of a brilliant idea poorly executed.

Gary Sayles is a pompous, self-aggrandising author who has produced three bestsellers. After a break from writing, he’s coming back with his fourth “male confessional”, this time apparently bigger, better and more truthful than ever before. While the masses seem to like his work, those who claim to be in the know are less keen, particularly Richard Anger, a bookshop owner from Birmingham. He despises Sayles’s work, disparaging it whenever he can as being lowest common denominator fiction, and poorly written to boot.

On a holiday to Corfu, he witnesses a woman drop dead, while in the middle of reading a Gary Sayles novel. This piques the interest of a neurologist, Lauren Furrows, who discovers that this woman isn’t the first to die in these circumstances. A new name for the disease is coined – Spontaneous Neural Atrophy Syndrome (SNAPS) – and while scientists start to wonder what causes it, Richard is sure he has the answer. Gary Sayles’s books are so mediocre that they’re capable of killing.

In a few weeks, the newest book will be out on the shelves, and the whole country will find itself in a SNAPS epidemic, as reader after reader pitches over dead while trawling through the mess of wordplay, punnery and purple prose. Richard and Lauren must convince the world of this threat, all the while dealing with the feelings they appear to be developing for one another. And as if the challenge wasn’t hard enough already, two London hipster artists are also on Sayles’s trail, as the man himself sets about launching the book with the biggest bang he can think of.

It’s a great concept, a book that kills people, especially because it’s so terrible. It reminds me of Chuck Palahniuk’s Lullaby, which similarly is about a lullaby that kills anyone who hears it, but while that was genuinely terrifying and smart, this just feels a bit farcical. None of the characters are particularly pleasant. Sayles is so enamoured with himself that he can’t see how trivial his work really is; Richard is an alcoholic with a similar sense of his own importance; Lauren is emotionally stunted; and Pippa and Zeke, the artists, are everything about the Shoreditch way of life that I can’t bear. Whether it’s intentionally Charlie Hill’s method to have the story mimic his actual work is beyond me, and it feels layered, but I just can’t get myself to care about any of these characters. They’re nasty to the point of caricatures. A couple of plot threads go nowhere, and the insistent use of brand names and pop culture references, which are actually a nice touch and firmly give the novel a sense of time and place, are inconsistently used. At the start there are a lot, and then they slowly dribble away.

I get that it’s a book satirising the publishing industry, about how real life sucks more than we ever care to mention, and also about how society has evolved levels of literature, declaring what is acceptable and what isn’t (the snobby division of “readers” and “people who read”, something I unfortunately buy into a little), but the only thing I’ve taken away from it is the following quote attributed to Michael Kruger by Richard Anger:

“Someone who reads too much without wetting his whistle regularly will become stupid; someone who drinks too much without diluting his drink with literature will end up in the gutter. Only the two together preserve culture; only the two together are culture.”

Mine’s a large white wine.

“The Bookshop” by Penelope Fitzgerald (1978)

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bookshop“In 1959 Florence Green occasionally passed a night when she was not absolutely sure whether she had slept or not.”

I’ve covered elsewhere my love of bookshops, but if you haven’t read that post (and you should, because it’s bloody marvellous) it’s probably a given that I have a fondness for them. There’s nothing more enjoyable than browsing the shelves of a bookshop, hundreds and thousands of new worlds sealed up in paper and ink, ready for adoption by a hungry reader.

In Penelope Fitzgerald’s classic novel, The Bookshop, we get the tale of middle-aged widow Florence Green who has decided that her small seaside town of Hardborough could really do with a bookshop. She purchases the building – a house that has been empty for seven years due to damp and a resident poltergeist – and despite various objections, begins running the only bookshop and lending library in the area.

As her success grows, so does her animosity with some of the other residents, not least the social climbing Mrs Gamart, who believes that the building should have instead been used to house an Arts Centre. However, others are far more willing to give their blessing, including young Christine Gipping and reclusive Mr Brundish. With their encouragement, Florence sets out against the struggles to make the best of the situation and inject a little bit of culture to the sleepy town.

This is a book about that peculiarly British issue of class. Florence is not a member of the high society, and perhaps that is why she is looked down upon by those who are. In fact, those who oppose the bookshop are the same ones who claim to be cultured, fighting tooth and nail to show that they are more cultured than everyone else by knowing what is best for the town in the fields of art and literature. The lower orders, who care little for social standing but rarely read, are much more supportive.

Florence is a magnificent character. I imagine that the late fifties were not the easiest time for a woman to make it on her own – the following decade would do much for equality – and perhaps this adds to the views of her detractors. However, through correspondance with her solicitors and bank manager, it is made clear that Florence can hold her own and has a core of steely determination. She will not be beaten back, not by inspectors, lawyers or ghosts, and she will fight against the vile people around her to do what she thinks is right.

It’s a charming, if emotionally poignant and gut-wrenching, story that shows a nasty side of human nature, and what happens when a force for good comes up against them. One for the ages.