Book About A Bookstore or Library

Ummmmm…I am kind of at a loss for words on this one. The Bookshop started out as something I normally really like. A widow decides to open a bookstore in her tiny English village. I thought it would have some humor, some quirky characters, some very British perseverance in the face of adversity – and it did. It also had an overwhelmingly sad ending that I really didn’t expect and, as it turns out, I learned that people are just mean and you shouldn’t bother trying to bring some light into people’s worlds because they simply won’t appreciate it. Does that sound dark? It’s how I felt after listening to this book.

It’s 1959, and Florence Green has decided to open the only bookshop in her little seaside town. She picks an abandoned property that’s been vacant for seven years and falling into decay. Oh, and it’s haunted, a fact which plays a minimal role in the story. Florence fixes the place up, orders her inventory, and opens her business. Her main nemesis is the local rich lady, Mrs. Gamart, who, some day, planned to use the same property for a center for the arts and begins to put the squeeze on Florence to move out and move on. Never mind that this property has been vacant the last seven years and no move was made before then to do anything with it, or that the entire small village knew for a few months of Florence’s plan to buy and refurbish the place for a bookshop business. Mrs. Gamart is peeved that her pet project has been snatched away from her. Jealousy is the crux of poor Florence’s downfall.

The book is really too short to give much more of the plot without giving every spoiler. I wanted this book to be one of those cozy English village stories where everything works out in the end and this was not that story. However, it was very well- written and had parts that made me laugh out loud. It was charming in many ways and the fact that it didn’t meet my expectations was no fault of the book. It did feel like it skimmed over much of the story and characters because of the short length, so it seemed more novella than novel. I would have like more depth. As a parable for spectacular failure despite one’s optimism in life, it hit its mark.

As I said, it’s a short book. Amazon lists it at 192 pages and the running time on the audio was just under four hours. It was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize back in 1978 when it was first published, but didn’t win. I’ve included this review from Publisher’s Weekly that lauds the book’s bleakness and social message and I found another great review/discussion here. Author Penelope Fitzgerald did win the Booker Prize the next year for her novel Offshore. You can read more about Fitzgerald here.

A movie is due out in August 2018 which I didn’t realize until I finished the book and was doing my research. I’ve included a trailer here. It has already been released in other parts of the world and the reviews for the film are as mixed as reviews for the book. This link is to an article in Variety and I’ve included a few reviews below from Rotten Tomatoes.

I didn’t dislike the book and plan to explore some of Fitzgerald’s other titles. She is a new name to me. I’ll also catch the movie at some point to see how it holds up. I would recommend this book overall, just beware that it’s not what you might expect! Really, though, when is life ever what we expect? And that is the crux of this story.

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Book Based on the Cover

Never judge a book by its cover, right? But we do. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, but we still do it. In this book, they also judge a person based on their cover – tattoos on the skin, to be more exact. An appropriate book for the category, now that I think of it! It’s hard to see the details of the cover in this photo, but it’s flooded with coppery foiled images all over, much like a variety of tattoos. It’s really gorgeous and, honestly, what drew my attention to a book in a genre filled with imaginative covers.

Ink is a young adult dystopian fantasy, a genre I’m already over in so many ways. The protagonist, Leora, has just suffered the loss of her father. She and her mother are grieving but still have to forge their way through everyday life. Leora is about to graduate and has missed quite a bit of school while caring for her dying father. Her best friend, Verity, helps her with her studies and the two graduate with high marks, allowing them to obtain the jobs they’ve dreamed of for so long – Verity in the government, and Leora as an inker (aka tattoo artist in our world).

So, what’s so fancy and important about being a tattoo artist? In the world of Ink, people are marked with tattoos to recognize the events of their lives. Some tattoos are mandatory, like a name at two days old, a family tree on one’s back, lines and other symbols for accolades, accomplishments, or crimes. Other tattoos are self-chosen by individuals to reflect personal events or interests, and the inkers have to be talented and intuitive to bring all of these images together so that one’s life story can be read on the skin. It’s a really unique idea and I like that part a lot.

This is where it gets weird for me and I couldn’t shake the creepy factor for the rest of the book. When a person dies, like Leora’s father, the body is taken to a Flayer. This Flayer removes the tattoos carefully from the body and the skin remnants are stretched and bound like a page, and compiled in a book. So, the family has a book of the life of the deceased person and can remember them through the tattoos on the skin. The book as a whole is judged by the government and, if the person lived a good enough life, the book is placed in a library to be remembered. If the judgement doesn’t come out well, the book is burned and the person is forgotten. Turns out, Leora’s father is not who she thought he was and his book is brought up short in the judging process and burned. Leora finds that many people in her life are not who they seemed and she spends the remainder of the book trying to sort things out.

Because of who Leora’s father turned out to be, certain factions have been waiting for her to grow up and be used as a political pawn. The neighboring “enemy” are the Blanks, a group of people so full of shame and deviousness that they refuse to have anything tattooed on their skin and are surely working at this very moment to take over Leora’s world. So claims the government, anyway. There are the usual tropes of a young girl being plucked from obscurity and used in the name of rebellion and a 1984-style government that has fooled the people into believing everything they say. It’s done to death at this point. While I liked the idea of the ink telling the story of a life, the peeling off of the skin to be preserved in a book is just something I couldn’t get over. The end of the book was also very rushed and jumbled to me, with Leora vacillating very quickly from hating everyone who had deceived her and turning pro-government, to rebuking all of that and landing on the side of the rebellion. I just didn’t buy it and really never got on board for caring for Leora as a character. This is the first in a new series and one that I probably won’t be revisiting.

As always, read it for yourself and make your own conclusions. There are other reviews here, so you can see what others like and dislike about it. I found his link to an interview with Alice Broadway in The Guardian where she discusses her split with her faith that inspired Leora’s story, and another interview here where she discusses her writing process. I’m also including a link to some of the best in he YA dystopian genre. A few of them have been on my radar for awhile, and I’ll probably go ahead and read them despite being burned out on the category. You never know when the next great read will present itself!

Celebrity Memoir

I was flipping channels one night and came across the most delightful episode of a television show. I didn’t know whose it was or what was happening, but I was mesmerized and stayed with it until the end. The setting was the Philippines, at Christmas, and there were cover bands and office parties and booze and the loveliest people you would ever want to meet and right in the middle of it all was this tall white dude calling himself Bob from accounting. That’s how I came to know and be charmed by Anthony Bourdain.

I knew who he was, of course. I knew he was a chef and had a few TV shows and I kind of thought he traveled the world and ate weird stuff like a couple of other television shows that I refused to watch. They seemed to be gross for the sake of being gross. I took a hard pass and hadn’t given poor Tony a chance until I happened upon the above-mentioned episode of Parts Unknown and then I was hooked. I delighted in his smarts and his dark humor, but also in his compassion and his insightful storytelling. He did eat weird stuff, but it wasn’t the focus of the show. He shared his love of food with people around the globe and they, in turn, shared their souls.

At some point, I discovered Bourdain had risen to fame after the publication of Kitchen Confidential, a book that looked behind the curtain and under the tables of the restaurant industry. While it had been on my radar to read at some point, it jumped to the top of the list after Bourdain’s tragic suicide just last week. What else could I find out about this fascinating man who left us way too soon? Celebrity memoirs are a dime a dozen; some shallow, some deep, some inspirational, some funny. Considering Bourdain wasn’t yet a celebrity when the book was published, this choice seemed unique in the genre and would give me some insight to where his journey began.

Kitchen Confidential came into being after the publication of Bourdain’s article, Don’t Eat Before Reading This, was published in The New Yorker. He sent the article unsolicited, and it was published anyway. It’s an eye-opener and has made me rethink every meal I’ve ever ordered! Interest in the article spawned the book and a reluctant star was born. In Kitchen Confidential, Bourdain gives us his earliest memory that starts his love of food and it’s not a shabby one. He and his family were on a trans-Atlantic voyage on the Queen Mary to his father’s home country, France, and a young Bourdain, fresh out of fourth grade, ate vichyssoise. According to Bourdain, it was the first food he “really noticed.” He also recounts the story of a neighbor, once they arrived in France, who took the whole family out in his little boat. Monsieur Saint-Jour, an oyster fisherman, reached into the water and brought up oysters for the family. Bourdain was the only one who, defiantly, would eat a raw oyster, much to his family’s disgust.

This is where Bourdain thinks the spark of his adult persona started all those years ago. “I frequently look back at my life, searching for that fork in the road, trying to figure out where, exactly, I went bad and became a thrill-seeking, pleasure-hungry sensualist, always looking to shock, amuse, terrify and manipulate, seeking to fill that empty spot in my soul with something new. I like to think it was Monsieur Saint-Jour’s fault. But of course, it was me all along.”

From that trip, Bourdain guides us through his early years and to Provincetown, Massachusetts, where he had his first job in a restaurant. The rivalries were fierce, the drinking was hard, and the sex and drugs were plentiful. This was the 70s, after all. Just after the Age of Aquarius and anything goes. His first summer in a restaurant was exhilarating and he was eager to come back again the next year, puffed up with a little experience and a lot of hubris. He was smacked down hard by the new owner and crew at his old restaurant and decided to go to the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) to exact his revenge, to become better and faster and more skilled than these guys in a Provincetown seafood house. We’re all the better for it. Imagine Anthony Bourdain as a Vassar student, wearing nunchucks in a holster around his hip; at the CIA taking advantage of the naïveté of his younger fellow students in card games and drug deals; a CIA graduate with “…field experience, a vocabulary, and a criminal mind”; a young entrepreneur basing his catering prices in relation to the going price for cocaine. It’s all there, every glorious, scurrilous detail.

I’m sorry I waited so long for this one. The writing is fresh and realistic and makes me want to drop everything and join the pirate ships that are restaurant kitchens. Bourdain’s journey is a crooked, blurry line and he takes us through restaurant after restaurant and character after character until the end of the book. It’s a wild ride and, as Bourdain says, “…I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.”

You can watch several seasons of Parts Unknown on Netflix for an extended run. (The Christmas Philippines episode remains my favorite. Watch it for yourself – it will change your life!)

Blogger’s note:

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the haunting mental illness behind the suicides of Bourdain and designer Kate Spade in the same week. I suffer from mental illness, many people I know suffer from mental illness, and probably many more people I know suffer as well but are too afraid or ashamed to mention it. The battle is real and it’s uphill all the way. It’s a tough illness to face and the demons are hard to back down, no matter your lot in life. I can’t give you advice on how to fight your war, but I can assure you that you have allies. You just have to keep looking until you find them. Furthermore, if you know people who have a mental illness, help them find help. Listen to them, don’t shrug it off and tell them to toughen up. We would if we could and, hear me when I say this, depression does not discriminate. Get help or be help. That’s all.

Self-Published Book

Did you play Dungeons & Dragons in high school? Maybe you’ve seen Stranger Things and watched those boys play in the basement? Or you or someone you know has played Pathfinder or any of the numerous other role-playing games out in the tabletop gamer-verse? You and your friends take on the persona of a wizard or a fighter or some other hero, roll a bunch of dice, and do battle with any number of foes in an imaginary theater of the mind. The game is directed by a Game Master (GM) who tells the story, comments on what happens when, and tries to make the playing experience as realistic as possible. You go on quests, gather gold, and sometimes wreak havoc in imaginary towns with imaginary people. When you’re done, you take your dice and go home, leaving the NPCs behind, never giving them another thought until the next time you play.

What are NPCs, you ask? Allow me to explain. Non-player characters or NPCs are key to any good role-playing game but they’re always relegated to the background; not really key to the story but they provide goods and services and the occasional bit of information that helps move a story along. Think of them as extras in a movie or the residents (and old West bad guys) in Westworld. NPCs are the tavern keepers, the merchants, the gate guards, the port workers, the bandits, the stable boys – you get the idea. You interact with them as you need to throughout the story, usually just to get whatever supplies or information you need, and then move on to the next big adventure. The NPCs just kind of … disappear. Or do they? Here’s where we find out!

So, a few guys get together for some gaming one night, don’t listen to the big clues they get from the GM, and end up dead. Really quickly. They die in a tavern from accidentally poisoning themselves. The characters as a group are slumped over the bar, dead. No reviving, no spells to cast – just dead. Did I mention how dead they are? Time to roll new characters and start a new adventure, leaving this scenario behind.

Meanwhile, in the tavern, the bartender, a local guard, the mayor’s daughter, and the tavern owner are stuck with four dead bodies. What to do? These inexperienced adventurers are coming through the town all the blasted time, making a mess, getting killed – when will they learn and what are these four NPCs supposed to do with the bodies? How rude!

That’s where the plot of NPCs takes us. Not with the players, but with the game. The players have moved on, but the NPCs have to clean up the mess. While searching the bodies, the foursome realizes the the dead dudes were on a quest for the king (barely started, but still). Afraid of taking the blame for the inept dead adventurers and incurring the wrath of the king, the four NPCs decide to take up the quest and, at the very least, move the suspicious deaths away from their small village. After all, the writ is for a rogue, a paladin, a wizard, and a barbarian. Nobody has actually met or even knows the names of the dead, so subs can easily be put in place. And so the adventure begins!

*Modest spoilers ahead about things that happen very early on in the story!*

Meet Thistle, a gnome and the tavern owner, who decides to be the rogue because he’s used to making shady deals; Grumph, the half-orc, who bartends and intimidates with his brawn and is so obvious to fill the role of barbarian; Eric, the human guard and the son of a deceased Paladin who takes on that role now; and Gabrielle, a human and the daughter of the mayor who is highly educated and agrees to be the wizard. However, when the first big fight ensues, the devout Thistle sends up a quick prayer to his god as he uses his weapon; Eric, the Paladin, is more clever and agile in fighting without his uncomfortable armor; the brawny half-orc is able to cast spells from a found spell book; and Gabrielle rages into the midst of the battle swinging a mighty axe. Stop, rewind, switch places and our crew fits more comfortably into new roles they never knew they could fill.

I liked the twist on the NPCs starting out in obvious roles but then changing places with each other into roles you wouldn’t normally expect them to play. It happens fairly early in the book, so it’s not a big spoiler. I don’t think people who haven’t played role-playing games will be lost in the story and people who do play will enjoy this immensely. One of the best early gags is that Gabrielle is kidnapped so frequently by goblins as a plot point for adventurers that she has become friends with the kidnappers. They’ve taught her to speak goblin and to hunt and track; they let her bring books along when it’s time to kidnap her again; and they have a particular horse they let her use every time they kidnap her. She looks forward to the “kidnappings” as mini-vacations from her ordinary life! Hilarious!

Again, the part of the book I described is very early on, and there is plenty of additional adventure for our crew. Who knows? It might even spark an interest for your own gaming! Drew Hayes, the author, has quite a few irons in the fire as you can read for yourself on his website. There are more books in the NPCs series, as well as some other works, podcasts, videos, etc. I’ve included an interview with Hayes here on a show called Nerdrotic that I found on YouTube and another interview on a broadcast about Sci-Fi and Fantasy marketing here. Enjoy!

Book You Haven’t Read By An Author You Love

I guess I’m in a mood for legends and lore lately. What with Song of Achilles, Beowulf, Gospel of Loki, and now this one – what’s a girl to do but indulge herself! There’s definitely something to be said for all of these larger than life heroes and heroines and the way they inspired the human race through the years. Aside from storytelling, it’s easy to forget just how much the gods have trickled down into our daily lives. After all, every Thursday is Thor’s Day!

Anyway, Gaiman’s version covers no new ground. It’s very old ground, to be honest, but his rehashing is just as good as anyone else’s. He takes us from creation to Ragnarok and all of the side trips in between. There are always differences in somebody’s version of familiar tales. Tomato, tomahto. Same stories, different days. I don’t have a lot to say about the actual content. All of the usual suspects are here: Odin, Thor, Freya, and Loki, to name a few. Unlike American Gods where Gaiman put old gods (of all kinds), in new, modern adventures and took creative liberty with how they would fit into the 21st century, Norse Mythology is pretty straight forward in the retelling of the Norse legends. Gaiman is entertaining nonetheless. He uses the character commonalities found in other versions to comedic effect in his storytelling – Freya is narcissistic (see what I did there?), Thor is not the brightest bulb on the porch, and Loki is still the conniving trickster everybody loves to hate.

It was an interesting listen, especially right after listening to The Gospel of Loki. You have a point of view from Loki, an unreliable narrator, in one, and, in Norse Mythology, you have Gaiman’s lyrical storytelling from a more neutral POV. Plus, if you listen to the audio, Gaiman reads the text and the experience is sublime!

Gaiman has an intro where he talks about his love for Norse mythology and how it influenced his early years as a reader. He cites Kevin Crossley-Holland, Snorri Sturluson, and Rudolf Simek as his preferred resources for inspiration although he does say he has many, many Norse tales that he loves. Interestingly, Gaiman unwittingly sparked a debate about who actually has final authority in retelling myths since there is difficulty in finding an authentic source for Norse tales in particular. This article from The Atlantic is insightful. The Washington Post article here reviews both Gaiman’s book and The Norse Myths by Carolyne Larrington, sort of a compare and contrast piece. NPR also has an interview with Gaiman here and a more personal interview about other writings and life topics here (from 2015).

This book is a great primer if you’re unfamiliar with the Norse god origins and a refresher for the things you may have forgotten.

Book Recommended By A Friend

It’s the rare book that makes me want to read it again as soon as I finish it, but The Song of Achilles is a rare enough treat that it does exactly that. This tale of Mythological characters is larger than life but reads as intimately as the best of any historical fiction. You do believe that gods and goddesses walk among mortal men, that centaurs are real, and prophecies foretell the tragically inescapable fates of men.

As the title suggests, the story centers on Achilles, the greatest warrior of his generation and arguably the most golden of all of the Greek heroes. If you are shaky on your Greek mythology, Achilles is the son of a mortal, Peleus, and the minor goddess, Thetis. With such parentage, Achilles has destiny weighting him down. This is a story of tragedy, of love, of jealousy, of pride. Would you expect any less of the Greeks?

First, though, we meet 9-year-old Patroclus, an outcast prince who is exiled to the home of Peleus, King of the Myrmidons. Peleus has taken in other such exiles and made a home for them in his land. He feeds them, educates them, and trains them to fight for him. Peleus is not a fool. An exile himself, the fact that Peleus sired a son with a goddess brought him much renown and he was a self-made King, to boot. Patroclus arrives, scared and lonely and angry at the world. His anger centers on one boy in particular – the charming, athletic golden child who is popular with everyone in the kingdom, Prince Achilles. Patroclus has always been an outsider and Achilles is everything he is not. The two boys are the same age, but worlds apart in many ways.

Just when I thought a darker nature of Achilles would come to light, exposing him as a bully and ruffian, the exact opposite is revealed. The young Achilles makes a point to befriend Patroclus and include him in the camaraderie of the other boys. The reader sees an early glimpse of why Achilles is so beloved – his kindness, his warmth, his loyalty, his utter lack of meanness or ulterior motives. His character shines as brightly as his golden hair. The two boys bond and Patroclus becomes the lifelong companion to Achilles.

As the two grow older, Achilles appears comfortable with his destiny, something he doesn’t yet fully comprehend. He only knows that he is and will be the greatest warrior of his time. It’s what he was born to do. We see Achilles through Patroclus, and watch as the two form a strong friendship and an even stronger romantic attraction. Achilles will go nowhere willingly without Patroclus, and Patroclus will tirelessly search out Achilles when twists of fate forcibly remove him.

When the boys are 16, war erupts – a little event you may have heard of called the Trojan War. A guy likes a girl and kidnaps her from her husband and nations destroy each other for honor and glory. The destiny of Achilles has arrived. He is Aristos achaion, the best of the Greeks.

All of the Greek all-stars are there – Odysseus, Ajax, Menelaus, Paris, Helen, Hector, and Agamemnon. It’s a bloody years-long campaign. As Achilles is hailed by the Greeks and their allies and feared by the Trojans, his pride and honor take a toll. Achilles loses his deeper, kinder nature and Patroclus takes on the task of salvaging the shreds of the man he once knew.

I don’t think I’m giving any spoilers by saying the the story doesn’t end well. And, yet, it does. Miller has written an engrossing, captivating account of one man’s journey to heroism and, more interestingly, the journey of his significant other as the hero transforms in front of him. Patroclus knew from an early age that Achilles was destined for greatness, was already great, but his public crowning as hero was bittersweet and Patroclus is both in awe and in fear of what this all means for Achilles.

While not all of the myth surrounding Achilles shows up in the book, Miller interweaves the most logical pieces in her narrative. One glaring omission is Achilles being shot in the heel, his one vulnerable spot. However, her use of his pride as his own Achilles’ Heel is thought-provoking and clever. There is a great interview with Madeline Miller here and see her discuss The Song of Achilleshere.

Book Based On Its Cover

It’s a great cover, this one! It’s bright and eye-catching and full of hints of Spring and renewal. Maybe that’s what really hooked me into buying it. The title isn’t bad either – A Book That Takes Its Time. With the rushing of the world around us and the anxiety and stress that skewer me weekly, I think this just spoke to something in me that needed uplifting. I’m all for anything that will give me those rare moments of peace and contemplation, allowing me to sort out my mind. If only there was a word for that…hmmmm.

Something like…mindfulness.

That’s the crux of the book – mindfulness. Flow Magazine, a mindfulness publication, put this book together with many of their stylized ideas in one volume. With tasks like taking one really memorable picture that you purposefully frame instead of bursts of forgettable shots, or making a list of things that give you energy, or taking 15 minutes from your day to work through the section on self-care exercises, this book gives you small tasks you can focus on for short amounts of time, tasks you can and should fully concentrate on while you’re doing them. Write notes to yourself or others, try new spices, purposefully let shit go. (They don’t actually say that last one – it’s my own interpretation!) Practice kindness, thoughtfulness, and uni-tasking. Take some time to take your time.

It’s hard, this mindfulness concept. Hard to give up multi-tasking, hard to concentrate fully on just one thing. I read an article several years ago about Google making us dumber. The gist of the article is that we as a society no longer have to search and read through volumes of information to get a factoid or a definition, much less larger concepts. Google is now a verb and it’s super quick and easy to get anything we need without thought or concentration. We don’t have to think or filter or research for many, if not all, of our daily needs. We’re used to instant gratification and we pay the price for it.

This book has a really crafty vibe, so that could be a problem if you don’t like crafty things. The idea is to take the time to think about mindfulness and find your own way – it’s still a really useful and attractive book even if you’re all thumbs with paper crafts and glue! Mindfulness as a concept is all the rage in the self-help section, too. If you don’t like this book for yourself, there will surely be something else for you nearby. Titles like The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, The Artist’s Way, any of the books on Danish concepts Lykke or Hygge, the Swedish Lagom, or the innumerable books on adult coloring. Whatever helps you find peace in a hectic life, grab it and hold it close!