The Lost for Words Bookshop, by Stephanie Butland

37946044Trigger warning for domestic violence.

Lovejoy Cardew is in hiding. She has good reasons for laying low. There’s the notoriety of what happened with her parents. There’s the lingering trauma of foster card. There’s the obnoxiously persistent ex-boyfriend. But when books from her past start to arrive at work at the beginning of The Lost for Words Bookshopby Stephanie Butland, Lovejoy rethinks the wisdom of hiding. Perhaps the time to hide is over and it’s time for her to get angry and live.

I really enjoyed taking a peek into Lovejoy’s life. (Also, her name is the best.) When we first meet her, she’s a quiet employee of Archie’s York-based bookshop. She has an encyclopedic knowledge of the store’s contents and can find readers anything they ask for. The biggest annoyance in her life is Rob, a former boyfriend who won’t take no for an answer. Her biggest fear, we learn, is that she will be found out once more as the daughter of a violent father and a criminal mother. It takes several chapters for us to learn what actually happened; the writing moves luxuriously slowly. Some chapters are set in 1999, when Lovejoy is nine, in the last happy year she spent with her parents. Others are set in 2013, in the months when she dated Rob. The chapters in 2016 show Lovejoy as slowly falls in love with poet and magician Nathan—and as she tries to figure out who is sending her books that she knows her mother owned.

Some of this plot summary makes it seem like The Lost for Words Bookshop sound a bit like a mystery. That’s not really what this book is about. Rather, this book is about how difficult it is to break free of controlling, abusive relationships. The relationships in this novel are like frogs in boiling water. The wronged partner (with one notable exception) doesn’t leave immediately. They’re invested in the relationship. They believed their abusers’ apologies. They stay long enough to be hurt terribly. There’s no pity in The Lost for Words Bookshop, only understanding, for which I am very thankfully. Domestic violence is not used to create instant backstory or to raise the stakes for narrative tension. This book also offers a deep look at what it might feel like to be a secondary victim of domestic violence: it’s not just the partner who is physically and emotionally hurt, but also their children.

I really enjoyed the emotional depth of The Lost for Words Bookshop, as well as the thread of book love that runs through the entire story. I also loved watching the relationship between Lovejoy and Nathan as it grew. The epiphany that hits Lovejoy towards the end of the book is so satisfying that I would have liked the book just for the conclusion. This is a great, booky read.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 19 June 2018.

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The Butcher’s Daughter, by Victoria Glendinning

36361421Victoria Glendinning’s The Butcher’s Daughter explores a theme I hadn’t considered before—or even really addressed—in historical discussions of Henry VIII’s dissolution of abbeys and monasteries after he threw off the Catholic Church and established the church of England. I realize this sounds dry, but exploring what happened to women and men who suddenly had no place to stay or way to make a living after the dissolution turned out to be rich territory for historical fiction.

At least, it might have been if Glendinning hadn’t used her narrator purely as a pair of eyes with almost no opinions of her own. My reaction to Never Anyone but You was not a fluke, apparently; this type of narrator just doesn’t work for me.

Agnes Peppin, the titular daughter of a butcher, is sent to Shaftesbury Abbey in Dorset after she gives birth to an illegitimate son. Marrying the father is not an option, so it’s a nunnery for Agnes. There aren’t a lot of options for women even if they don’t run afoul of the social mores of the time. If you’re not a wife, you have to become a nun. (Spinsterhood doesn’t seem to be an available option either.) Agnes doesn’t have a religious calling, but she does seem to appreciate being useful without being a drudge. Early in the novel, Agnes references the Biblical story of Martha and Mary. When Christ visits, Mary listens to him speak while Martha does the cooking and serving. Martha’s complains are met with scolding that listening to men talk about religion is more important than getting things done. Agnes is on Martha’s side. Life at Shaftesbury agrees with her for the most part, though she wishes that she might be free to explore the wider world.

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Angel sculpture, Shaftesbury Abbey ruins. (Image via Wikicommons)

Agnes is offered a position as the Abbess’ secretary shortly after she arrives at Shaftesbury, thanks to her ability to read and write. As a secretary, she is privy to all sorts of discussions that a mere novice would never get to hear. She shows us the Abbess’ struggle to preserve as much of the Abbey’s riches and land as possible so that the women of the abbey can have somewhere to stay. Many of them are old. Most have no where to go or family to take them in. A few are so devoted to their faith that they wouldn’t be able to function in the outside world even if they did have a place to go to. After Shaftesbury is dissolved, Agnes heads out into the world and makes a meager living with one of the odder inhabitants (one who ends up threatening her life more than once).

I worried for Agnes and her fellow former nuns and novices. It’s a hard world now for a single woman. Life was exponentially harder for one in the sixteenth century. And yet, even though this is rich emotional ground for a writer, Agnes only gives us glimpses of the struggles of the other women. Her own struggles are glossed over with little reflection. I was intrigued, but disappointed by how this book fails to fully explore the issue. It’s entirely possible that I just don’t like this kind of narrator and it’s coloring my review. Other readers may enjoy this book for its unique setting and themes. I’m going to wait for something with a little more soul.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be release 19 June 2018.

Number One Chinese Restaurant, by Lillian Li

35020361There are two ways to respond to a family legacy. One way is to try and carry on whatever one’s progenitors created. The other way is to strike out on one’s own to create something new. In Number One Chinese Restaurant, by Lillian Li, Jimmy Han finds a third way: to try and create a new restaurant that will leave the old family Duck House in the dust only to land smack in the middle of possibly irreparable problems. This novel follows Jimmy and a few of the employees of the Duck House at a moment of dynastic crisis, as they face questions about what they want to be and what they want to leave behind.

Number One Chinese Restaurant begins and ends with a conversation between Jimmy and Uncle Pang, a man who is not an actual member of the Han family. Pang, however, is a connected man and those connections have made it possible for the family to create the Duck House when they came from northern China to Maryland. Jimmy plans to open a new restaurant, one that won’t serve cheap Peking duck and Americanized Chinese food. He wants to go upmarket. He also wants to leave Uncle Pang’s favors behind. Unfortunately for Jimmy, Pang is not a man to let a lucrative venture go without a fight. Hours after Jimmy hands over what he thinks is his last payment to Pang, Pang hires a young ne’er do well waiter to burn the Duck House to the ground.

Jimmy trades places as narrator with Ah-Jack and Nan, employees who should’ve retired years ago, and Pat, the budding arsonist. Ah-Jack is a diabetic waiter who is still serving tables because his wife has terminal cancer. Nan has been in love with Ah-Jack for years, so she frets about him as much as she does her son, Pat. Each chapter of Number One Chinese Restaurant shows this handful of characters sinking into problems that they can’t see solutions for. Should Pat turn himself in, will he take down his girlfriend (Jimmy’s niece) with him if he does? Will Ah-Jack and Nan find a way to be together? Will Jimmy’s new venture succeed or go down in metaphorical flames the way the Duck House succumbed to real ones?

These questions sounds like good fodder for an interesting book. There are parts that made for good reading. My problem is that I wasn’t invested in any of the characters—except maybe Ah-Jack, because his problems didn’t come from hubris or a thwarted sense of entitlement. While I can deal with unlikeable characters (as long as I can understand why they’re unlikeable), I have a hard time with characters I just don’t care about. Still, readers who like books that take the quotidian and raise the stakes so that it feels like actual kingdoms are at stake might enjoy Number One Chinese Restaurant.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 19 June 2018.

Me, Myself, and Them, by Dan Mooney

36868738There’s an old joke: How many psychologists does it take to change a lightbulb? One, but only if the light bulb wants to change. Denis Murphy, the protagonist of Dan Mooney’s Me, Myself, and Them, is a light bulb that does not want to change. He’s fine, thank you very much. Seven years after a devastating car crash that killed his sister and best friend, Denis lives an isolated life. He has severe OCD, can’t bear to touch anyone, constantly blames himself for the accident—and cleaning up after his four roommates who may or may not be manifestations of his emotions.

Denis might have continued to live his rigidly confined life if Rebecca hadn’t walked back into his life near the beginning of the novel. There mere sight of her released emotions that he’s been suppressing for all those seven years. In addition, Rebecca is not like his other friends and his mother. She refuses to let him keep his restricted life. Suddenly, he loses track of his routines, can’t concentrate on work, and starts to argue with his destructive “roommates.”

Me, Myself, and Them is a memorable story of a man recovering from a devastating trauma because of those roommates. One is an anthropomorphized hairball named Deano. Another is a cat woman named Penny O’Neill. The third is a zombie named Professor Scorpion. The last is a sinister clown called Plasterer. While the first three roommates might be willing to go, Plasterer is violently stubborn about maintaining the status quo. Somehow, Denis has to find the will and strength to overcome his dysfunctional coping mechanisms. As usual for fiction, this is easier said than done. Denis has been living this life for seven years and the memories he has to face are terrible.

I really enjoyed the way Me, Myself, and Them handles mental illness and recovering from trauma. Nothing is easy; if it was easy, it would have seemed facile and superficial. By making Denis’ emotions actual characters helps us understand what Denis is going through. It’s not just grief that he feels. He feels anger, regret, guilt, sorrow, and more. We see not just the depth of Denis’ feelings, but also the breadth. This is a sad book, but offers a unique perspective for readers who want to read stories of recovery and forgiveness.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 19 June 2018. 

Magic or Madness? Or, The Genre is in the Interpretation

Usually, assigning genres to a book is not a difficult task. I’m a librarian; we categorize things all the time. But there’s one kind of book that I have a hard time putting a book in a category because it might 1) spoil the book because it flavors how another reader might approach a book, and 2) because I could be entirely wrong. The books in this weird little sub-genre are difficult to classify because, depending on how you read them, they might be magical realism/fantasy or they might be a psychological portrait of a character descending into madness. If the character is mad, nothing magical happens. If magic is real in a book’s setting, the character is perfectly sane, but misunderstood.

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In the Room, by Géza Vörös

There are a few books that got me thinking about this. The Silent Companions, by Laura Purcell, is a book that could go either way—right through the ending, I think. Sometimes, the author pushes things towards the magical (again, I think), as in Jane Rosenberg LaForge’s The Hawkman. There’s also Joy Williams’ The Changeling, although I still haven’t quite made up my mind about this one. Depending on who the reader sympathizes or how deeply they examine things, the book could fall into either genre.

The reason all this matters (apart from working out which tag to apply just before I hit publish) is because I don’t want to push a reader to one side or the other before they even star. The point of these books is that decision: is the character mad? Similar to the way that telling people that a book contains a twist, clueing a reader into the fact that this decision has to be made puts the reader on their guard before page one. Telling someone that a book is fantasy/magical reality or a psychological thriller right off the bat means that a reader will have certain expectations; they will interpret events, dialogue, etc., according to genre expectations.

I think that the experience of reading these puzzling stories should feel like following a character along on their journey into their reality. Not knowing about that a choice has to be made, I think, generates a more honest, sympathetic read. It also means that, when the decision is made, the reader gets a metaphorical punch in the gut. Because it makes a bigger emotional impact, these stories can help us be more sympathetic to people who have mental illnesses. Following a character on their journey into an episode of mental illness (or not, as the case may be) means that we have an opportunity to see the world through the eyes of someone who sees reality differently from others. That’s the power of story, after all.

As for point 2 (above), I really hate to be wrong.

Island of the Mad, by Laurie R. King

36296239Laurie R. King’s Island of the Mad is the fifteenth entry in the Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes series, which imagines the characters as a married couple who are always willing to dive into a new case. This episode is set in 1925 and sees the pair on the trail of a woman who, formerly an inmate of Bethlem Royal Hospital, disappears into thin air during the festivities of her marquess brother’s birthday.

Vivian Beaconsfield is the aunt of Mary’s good friend so, when that friend asks Mary to find out where Vivian went, Mary can only agree. Besides, if Russell and Holmes don’t have a case, they tend to get a little itchy. Mary starts asking questions at the family estate—Vivian’s last known location. Holmes snoops around London to see if Vivian pawned her share of the family jewels. The trail leads to Venice and Mary and Holmes set off in hot pursuit.

Unlike some of the other books in the series, Island of the Mad doesn’t seem to be about solving a mystery so much as it is about the setting. Mary and Holmes—who also has a task from his brother, Mycroft, to perform—decide to divide and conquer. Mary puts on the disguise of a Bright Young Thing and hangs around Venice’s Lido, hoping to catch word of Vivian among scads of people intent on having a great time. Holmes sidles up to Cole Porter, where he might catch word of Vivian through the artistic crowd. Readers who know the songwriter’s oeuvre will be tickled pink at all the references to his songs.

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Venice’s Hotel Excelsior, c. 1914, where a lot of the book’s action takes place.
(Image via Panorama)

The pairs’ points of view show the frenetic decadence of the Roaring 1920s. Everyone drinks and parties like it’s their last day on earth. As a dark counterpoint to all this high-octane frivolity, Blackshirts roam the city in increasing numbers and throwing their weight around. It doesn’t take too long to see the dichotomy of the times. On the one hand, you’ve got the live-and-let-live crowd. On the other, there are fascists who will violently assert their version of how they think people should live.

Island of the Mad is a mostly languid mystery, with most of the action crammed at the end. Readers should be prepared for regular doses of Venetian history and plenty of foreshadowing about what the fascists are going to get up to in about a decade. Even though it’s not the most gripping of mysteries, Island of the Mad is an entertaining jaunt to the height of the 1920s in always popular Venice. The scenery is so richly described that I started to feel like should put on some sunblock as well as Russell as she zips up and down the canals. This is very much a summer read.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 19 June 2018.

Convenience Store Woman, by Sayaka Murata

36605525Keiko Furukura has an unusual flaw. Though she’s intelligent, she doesn’t understand other people. Ever since she was a child, she had a hard time knowing how to act, how to speak, how to emote, how to just be in the world. But she seems to have found a place for herself in Convenience Store Woman, by Sayaka Murata (translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori). As an employee of Smile Mart, Keiko performs the role of a thirties-something part-time convenience store worker. She functions well enough, until the day when he meets the reprehensible Shiraha and realizes that her friends and family keep asking when she’s going to get married.

I really enjoyed reading about neuro-atypical Keiko. Once I stopped trying to diagnose her (I couldn’t help it; I took a semester of psychology as an undergrad), I learned to see through her eyes. She’s a scientist who constantly studies the people around her to learn how to be “normal.” She adopts mannerisms and speech patterns from the people around her. Essentially, she’s been acting her entire life, because her default state is affectless, unambitious, baffling, and occasionally frightening to the people she meets and her family. In the same way that she doesn’t understand people, they don’t understand her. The chance to look at society through Keiko’s eyes reveals a lot about how inexplicable most cultural norms are.

Shiraha, on the other hand, does not try to fit in. He is an awful person, straight from a red pill reddit thread. He talks about the Stone Age constantly to “explain” why men and women are expected to behave in certain ways, sneers at any kind of gainful employment, and is basically a dick. And yet, Keiko is willing to put up with him because having a “boyfriend” makes her life a bit easier. People stop wondering about her quite so much because she suddenly makes sense to them.

But as Convenience Store Woman develops, it becomes clear that Keiko is in an untenable position. Does she keep up the charade? Or does she insist on being who she is, in spite of the social consequences? I also felt a little bit of extra tension because most of the Japanese literature I’ve read lately had me worried about the possibility of things taking a turn for the macabre. (At the risk of spoiling things, I’m happy to report that no one dies in this book.) I wasn’t sure what to expect from Convenience Store Woman. What I found turned out to be interesting, unusual, and moving. I really liked this novella.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 12 June 2018.


Notes for bibliotherapeutic use: Recommend to readers who would like to understand a neuro-atypical mind.

The Bookshop of Yesterdays, by Amy Meyerson

36477572Either C.S. Lewis or William Nicholson said, “We read to know we are not alone.” Readers who read a lot can’t help but sometimes see our selves, our friends and family, our experiences, and our lives in the books we read. This is especially true of Miranda Brooks, the protagonist of Amy Meyerson’s affectingly bookish, The Bookshop of Yesterdays. After learning that her estranged uncle has died and left her his bookstore, Miranda returns to Los Angeles. The funeral is hardly over when she discovers that Uncle Billy has left her one last scavenger hunt, one that will finally reveal the big family secrets that no one would ever talk about.

Sixteen years after she last spoke to Billy, Miranda is a successful middle school history teacher in Philadelphia. She has a boyfriend. They live together. Things are good. But then she gets word that her uncle has died. Despite the estrangement—and her mother’s continued hostility towards Billy—Miranda flies back for the funeral. She doesn’t plan to stay long, even after she learns that she’s inherited Billy’s beloved Prospero Books. But then she receives the first clue in the scavenger hunt and she starts to put off her return. She has to know what happened to Billy and her mother. And she also can’t bring herself to sell the bookstore. While she follows the clues Billy left, she dives into a possibly quixotic quest to save Prospero Books.

The Bookshop of Yesterdays, in addition to the literary scavenger hunt and the bookstore subplot, does something that I love. At the beginning of the book, I was set up to feel very specific things about some of the characters. Miranda’s mother is portrayed as simultaneously cold and overprotective. Billy is the magical relative who made Miranda’s childhood wonderful. Miranda herself is a seeker who just wants to know why her mother fought with her uncle before he vanished from their lives. The scavenger hunt—in which quotes lead to books with clues—results in Miranda (and us) getting the story in small doses. We and the protagonist are constantly reevaluating what we know about everything.

The way that books function in The Bookshop of Yesterdays strongly reminded me of one of my favorite books, The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, by Gabrielle Zevin. Readers who’ve been trying to find something like it should definitely pick up this novel. The longer I read, the more I enjoyed this book. At the very end, as Miranda heads off into a brave new world, I was cheering for her and the possibilities of her future. For a book that has so many emotional family stories, it ends with a surprisingly beautiful hopefulness.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 12 June 2018.


Notes for bibliotherapeutic use: Recommended to mothers and daughters who are on the outs but want to reconcile.

Space Opera, by Catherynne M. Valente

24100285Every now and then, I’ll run across a book where you can absolutely tell that the author had a great time writing. This is definitely true of Catherynne M. Valente’s ecstatically delightful Space OperaThere’s more than one place in the novel where I think Valente just knocked her own socks off. This book is one of the funnest novels I’ve read in a long time.

The premise of the book is simple. After the Sentience Wars, the surviving sentient species created a contest that would decide whether newly discovered species were collectively wise enough to join the family—or still so mired in species-centric violence that there were a danger to self and others and need to be destroyed. (The novel is inspired by the Eurovision Song Contest.) The Humans of Earth have just been discovered by those other species. They have no choice but to compete. If they don’t accept the invitation, that’s it for Homo sapiens sapiens. Even worse (so everyone things), the visiting species have already decided who will compete: has-been glamrock singer Decibel Jones and the sole remaining member of the Absolute Zeroes. (Their first choice was Yoko Ono, but they couldn’t get her.) Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeroes haven’t had a hit and years. They’ve lost their confidence. In spite of this, the two men are whisked light-years away to perform at the Megagalatic Grand Prix.

Space Opera‘s plot arc is simple. We follow Jones and his former bandmate, Omar Calişkan, ask they struggle to come up with a song in time for the contest and save the human species. What I loved most about the book, however were all the asides where the narrator talks about the mayhem of previous Grand Prix, the Sentience Wars, what sentience is, and the power of music to create empathy for species who wouldn’t otherwise be able to understand each other. The language is hyperbolic, drenched in glitter, and strongly reminiscent of the loopiness of Douglas Adams. Seriously, Space Opera is dementedly funny.

Reading Space Opera is a lot like watching the Eurovision contest, down to the aftermath. When I finished the book, I had had a good time while also having a strong feeling of “what the hell did I just read?” While the book is not strongly ekphrastic—after all, how can you describe what it’s like to experience a song that arrives as an infection from a sentience virus?—but it ends on a profound note (heh) of the fundamental ability of song to capture the desire to survive, the ability to fully feel, and hope for the future.

I really loved this book.

This week on the bookish internet

  • Adam Kirsch has thoughts about the other big problems with the Nobel Prize for Literature and calls them “the Politburo of literature.” (The Atlantic)
  • Rachel Deahl reports that publishers are starting to include “morality clauses” in their author contracts because of #MeToo. For fuck’s sake. (Publishers’ Weekly)
  • Feleena Hopkins has discovered the worst way to get attention for her books: trademarking the word “cocky” and threatening other authors. (Book Riot)
  • This story tickles and annoys me at the same time: Ian McEwan helped his son with an essay on one of McEwan’s novels and the teacher gave the son a C-. (Jezebel)
  • Christine Prevas argues for more non-binary human characters in fiction. (Electric Literature)