“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.

“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.

“One Of Our Thursdays Is Missing” by Jasper Fforde (2011)

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thursdays-missing“Everyone remembers where they were when the BookWorld was remade.”

Where does one even begin on this week? Fearing, and later seeing, the worst news of 2016 so far – and it was up against some pretty stiff competition – meant that I had to take refuge inside fiction, and where better than back inside Jasper Fforde. Continuing on the Thursday Next series, this is the sixth installment, possibly my favourite one, so be prepared for spoilers out the wazoo and to not understand anything if you’ve not read the others in the series. Though, in fairness, even if you have read them this still might not make much sense.

First up, the BookWorld doesn’t look like it used to. In the previous novels it’s been just the Great Library and characters jump from book to book. Now it’s been remade, and Fiction Island is just one of hundreds. The island is divided up into genres with the Metaphoric River running through them all, from Dogma in the north to Adventure in the south. This alone makes the book far more enjoyable and funny, as the books are now neighbours and people get around by public transport. There are a lot more jokes and concepts to mine from this, and mine them Fforde does. Anyway, the plot.

This book isn’t narrated by the Thursday Next we’ve grown to love over the last five books, but instead by the written version. Although she failed her Jurisfiction entrance exam, when not being read in her own series and dealing with the troublesome cast there, she works for JAID, the Jurisfiction Accident Investigation Division under Commander James “Red” Herring. When a self-published book, The Murders on the Hareng Rouge, comes down over Thriller, Thursday discovers that all the ISBN numbers have been scrubbed from the remains. Realising though that she’s just there to declare the case closed, she does so. However, she discovers soon after that the real Thursday Next is missing, and suddenly the downed book seems a bit more suspicious.

Accompanied by her clockwork butler Sprockett, whom she has recently saved from inside Conspiracy, and somehow equipped with the real Thursday’s Jurisfiction badge, written Thursday sets about finding out what has happened to her real self. But this is a Fforde book so we also have to contend with a brewing war between the genres of Women’s Fiction and Racy Novel, a lack of raw metaphor, a brief jaunt into the real world to find out more about Thursday’s absence from her husband Landen and the never-ending party on Fanfiction Island.

The idea of a geographical BookWorld is perhaps my favourite idea in here, as it entirely alters the way things work and, as I said, allows for all new jokes. The book also now contains a map of the new island, which is itself crammed with jokes. The genres of Racy Novel and Comedy border one another with the sub-genre of Bawdy Romp as a buffer zone; the Streams of Consciousness are literal; and there’s even a tiny island dedicated to MPs Expenses, a fiction if ever there was one. Another excellent joke scene is a minor one but features a support group for literary siblings who can’t live up to the popularity of their more famous brothers and sisters. They include the Mediocre Gatsby, who makes a living driving taxis, Rupert Bond who remains a virgin, Sharon Eyre, Tracey Capulet and Nancy Potter. You can work them out for yourselves.

Fforde also seems oddly prescient here, as if he knew something we didn’t. A major plot point is that the Racy Novel genre, on the banks of the Innuendo River, is trying to make itself more respected and gain a bigger readership. The following year, Fifty Shades of Grey was published, followed by hundreds of copycats trying to ride the coattails of its success. Seems that he knew something was going on. Because the book, like First Among Sequels, is set considerably later than the earlier books, we also get many more Harry Potter jokes, as well as a dig at the popularity of sexy vampires.

It’s also great to see a fictional character drop into the RealWorld for the first time and have to deal with such troublesome things as breathing, gravity, and conversations that serve no purpose to the plot. It’s also a chance to meet Square from Flatland, and learn a bit of what’s going on out there, which continues some gags from the last books and sets up some more ideas that will return in the next. This book is mostly set in the BookWorld, as indeed the next will focus primarily on the RealWorld.

As ever, Fforde weaves magic and I can’t believe I’m nearly done with Thursday again. But it’s a wonderful reminder that even in times of utter turmoil and trouble, books will be there to see us through the worst of it. Have faith.

“Something Rotten” by Jasper Fforde (2004)

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something“The Minotaur had been causing trouble far in excess of his literary importance.”

And I’m back to Fforde. This review will contain spoilers for those who haven’t read the earlier books, so make sure you’re up to date on The Eyre Affair, Lost in a Good Book and The Well of Lost Plots before checking this one out. This might just be the best of the bunch so far.

The fourth book in Thursday Next’s story picks up in 1988, two years after the events of the last one. She’s now heading up Jurisfiction and has spent most of the missing years within fiction, avoiding the real world where her husband no longer exists, having been eradicated when he was two-years-old. She is still a woman of action though, and hasn’t been held back by her infant son Friday. However, when an incident in the Western genre goes wrong, Thursday finds herself unwilling to stay on and so makes her way back into the real world, bringing Hamlet along with her as he’s under the impression that people in the Outland see him as something of a ditherer.

It couldn’t be a worse time to bring a Danish prince to England though, as the new Chanellor Yorrick Kaine – a fictional character who has escaped from who knows where – has all but declared war on Denmark and is setting about banning all Danish literature. Elsewhere, evil corporation Goliath has decided to apologise for all its past transgressions and is turning itself into a religion, the thirteenth-century seer St Zvlkx is due to make an appearance again, hopefully to discuss his Revealments, there’s an assassin after Thursday, in the absence of Hamlet, Ophelia has led a hostile takeover of the play and ruined it, and the fate of the world rests on Swindon winning the World Croquet League this coming weekend.

It’s just another normal day for Thursday Next.

As ever, there are a million different threads here but they all tie up wonderfully. Things from previous novels are brought back and explained, and we get a whole new list of things to enjoy. The star of the book though, other than Thursday, is Hamlet. He begins consuming the different versions of his play that we’ve produced, and finds that everyone seems to have their own take on who he is and how he feels. After all, he’s never had a clue himself. He’s portrayed as a worrier who is unable to make a snap decision, as well as being somewhat vain but very emotionally unstable. He’s a delight, and you can tell Fforde enjoyed playing with him, although at the end you do get the feeling it was all done just to have a single joke pay off brilliantly. But I’m not complaining.

Another great sequence involves Thursday and friends heading across the Welsh border to track down a cloned Shakespeare, playing on the notion of infinite monkeys on infinite typewriters. What if you had infinite Shakespeares? How much quicker would you find genius? The book is full of great scenes, and also becomes the first in the series to introduce illustrations, which bring to life the bizarre world even further.

There’s also the introduction of a few new characters, such as Cindy Stoker, the most dangerous assassin in England and wife of Thursday’s friend Spike, Millon de Floss, Thursday’s official stalker, and young Friday, who is it hinted at will become very important to the planet’s future survival. After spending the majority of the last book inside the Bookworld, it’s quite refreshing to now return to this bizarre, twisted version of England that Fforde has created. Any world that gives us dodos, croquet as a national sport, and George Formby as President is one that I want to spend more time in. Fforde continues to write with such intelligent humour that you laugh your way through a book that feels light as air and never bogs you down, despite occasionally dealing with some very dramatic and beautifully written scenes about love and loss.

The book feels like it’s wrapping up, and in some ways it is. This isn’t the last we’ve seen of Thursday, but it feels like an end of “part one”, as in the next book, we will have jumped ahead in time to the early 21st century. But we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it…

“The Well Of Lost Plots” by Jasper Fforde (2003)

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wolp“Making one’s home in an unpublished novel wasn’t without its compensations.”

As I continue on with my reading of Jasper Fforde’s work, we come to the third installment of the Thursday Next series. As explained last time, continuity once again hits hard so there will be spoilers from the off. There are also spoilers for another of his books within, but we’ll deal with that further down the page. So, for now, settle in and let’s discuss the third book.

Thursday Next has decided that she needs a break. After all, being hunted down by a sinister corporation that controls everything, making an enemy of one of the UK’s most powerful politicians, and finding yourself pregnant by your husband who doesn’t exist is enough to make anyone a bit stressed. She takes up residence inside fiction. Quite literally, she moves into an unpublished (and terrible) novel called Caversham Heights, with the stipulations that she must take on the role of Mary Jones and play her part, as well as continue working for Jurisfiction, the organisation that polices books from the inside.

But it’s not exactly going to be restful. Down here there are issues with an escaped Minotaur and a horrible accident with a mispeling vyrus, two Generics who are struggling to develop personalities before assignment, an apparent plot to kill prominent members of Jurisfiction, and the 923rd Annual BookWorld Awards to attend. And every day the memories of her husband become fainter and fainter…

As usual, there’s a lot more to this plot, but I don’t want to overload it. More than others, it sometimes feels like a string of funny scenes that Jasper Fforde has thought up and wants to get in, but I’m not complaining. The plot runs along and never gets lost in the madness, and the madness all works so beautifully that more than anything I’m simply angry that I didn’t get there first. This book is the first to spend the majority of the time inside fiction instead of the real world (the Outland) and so we get to explore in more depth some of the earlier concepts. These include the use of footnotes by characters to communicate with one another, finally showing them at their most wonderful in the climax of the novel, an explanation of how spelling errors get into books, and how some people are employed full time to fix plot holes, as well as introducing us to the way that characters are born and get their roles.

While some characters appear and are fictional within this world too, others are known to us. We get to spend a lot of time inside Wuthering Heights and Shadow the Sheepdog, both to hilarious effect. We’re introduced to heroes of literature such as Mr Toad, Miss Tiggy-winkle, Quasimodo, Captain Nemo, and a whole host of nursery rhyme characters. The latter group here are currently campaigning for more rights, as it’s tough being a character from the Oral Tradition with no set book to call home. If only they could be granted a novel where they could life in safety and find literary success… Frankly, this is the most bonkers and wonderful subplot in the entire series. No, actually, second. The first is still two or three books away.

As usual, I have very little bad to say about Fforde. It’s slick, hilarious, fiercely intelligent and a real love letter to literature. Here we learn that books are constructed within the Well of Lost Plots, the words being beamed directly to the author’s pen or keyboard once the words have been dredged up from the LiteraSea. I can’t fault this series, it’s so wonderful and it’s impossible not to laugh, or feel a little tug on the heartstrings when you catch a mention of a book or character that you love.

If you love books and still haven’t got round to this series, for goodness sake why?

“If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller” by Italo Calvino

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if-on-a-winters-night-a-traveller“You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveller.”

It’s been an interesting weekend in the UK. The news at the moment seems to be constantly full of very big, important stories, so my attention hasn’t been entirely on books. Hence, this short book has taken me longer to read than usual because of hours spent in front of news reports, as well as the book itself being incredibly dense. Anyway, this isn’t a political platform, so on with the business of reviewing fiction.

The novel begins with you, the Reader, settling down with a new novel, getting comfortable and telling the people in the room next door to turn down the television, and so on. You embark on the novel but discover a printing error; after thirty pages, it begins to repeat. Annoyed, you take it back to the shop to get a new copy, only to find that you haven’t even been reading If on a winter’s night a traveller, but instead Outside the town of Malbork which was in the wrong cover. You ask for that instead, return home, start reading, but find that this book is nothing at all like the one you just started.

This book becomes blank pages just as you’re getting into it, so you must return to the shop again, where you find the intriguing Ludmilla who is having the same problem. As you desperately try to finish the book, again and again you find yourself given copies of a novel that is nothing like the last and ends just when the story gets going. You are sent on a wild adventure where you must struggle with the police, who may or may not be undercover revolutionaries, your feelings for Ludmilla, and a conspiracy of faked literature. If you manage to keep anything straight in this book, then good luck to you.

What a novel. It’s so postmodern that it’s basically eaten itself. I really love the idea, as it really is a bunch of unrelated opening chapters interspersed with an increasingly confusing narrative, but I just couldn’t get into it very well. There’s not much dialogue, and paragraphs are generally huge and unwieldy. The use of the second person is an unusual choice, but you’re soon reminded why it doesn’t get used much, and doesn’t help when the “you” in question changes for certain chapters. It probably also doesn’t help that I read the last twenty or so pages after drinking, so they washed over me.

I don’t really know what to say about this book. Obviously it’s a modern classic, and it’s really interesting and it probably is very smart, but I’m just not smart enough to compete. The way in which each novel is stopped is quite good fun and they work as ideas, but I had real issues with trying to keep the narrative and the unrelated chapters straight in my head. You might have better luck with it, but Calvino has bested me, well and truly.

“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.

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