{Review} The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

August 22, 2014 Review 3 ★★★★★

{Review} The Thirteenth Tale by Diane SetterfieldThe Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield
Published by Anchor Canada on June 18, 2013
Genres: Adult, Contemporary, Historical Fiction
Pages: 416
Format: Paperback
Source: Gift
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Biographer Margaret Lea returns one night to her apartment above her father's antiquarian bookshop. On her steps she finds a letter. It is a hand-written request from one of Britain's most prolific and well-loved novelists. Vida Winter, gravely ill, wants to recount her life story before it is too late, and she wants Margaret to be the one to capture her history. The request takes Margaret by surprise - she doesn't know the author, nor has she read any of Miss Winter's dozens of novels.

Late one night, while pondering whether to accept the task of recording Miss Winter's personal story, Margaret begins to read her father's rare copy of Miss Winter's Thirteen Tales of Change and Desperation. She is spellbound by the stories and confused when she realizes the book only contains twelve stories. Where is the thirteenth tale? Intrigued, Margaret agrees to meet Miss Winter and act as her biographer.

As Vida Winter unfolds her story, she shares with Margaret the dark family secrets that she has long kept hidden as she remembers her days at Angelfield, the now burnt-out estate that was her childhood home. Margaret carefully records Miss Winter's account and finds herself more and more deeply immersed in the strange and troubling story. In the end, both women have to confront their pasts and the weight of family secrets. As well as the ghosts that haunt them still.

My Expectations

I distinctly remember one of my high school friends, Chelsea, telling me that I had to read this book, and another friend vehemently echoed her. Why I didn’t immediately jump on the bandwagon is beyond me, and I can’t believe it’s been approximately five years since that initial recommendation. At any rate, this was an impulse pick at the bookstore that my father kindly got for me.

My Thoughts

My initial reaction to this book was that it reminded me a lot of Kate Morton. I have been a fan of her work for years, though I haven’t reviewed any here, and she has a way of writing mysteries that is thrilling and all-consuming. The Thirteenth Tale is much the same; Setterfield sets up a historical mystery early on and continually weaves separate threads of the story.

I absolutely love this kind of historical fiction with a mystery element. I adore historical fiction, but even more than that, I love deep, dark family secrets. (I’m not sure why… my family has none that I know of!) The Thirteenth Tale is about two women, Margaret Lea and Vida Winter, and both have a dark, twisty past that makes for riveting reading. There are twins: multiple sets of twins. There are ghosts. There is a wicked governess. There are sadistic, mentally deranged parents. It is something out of a Gothic novel; more to the point, The Thirteenth Tale is almost entirely convincing as a Gothic novel itself.

I wish I could take more about the plot because THIS BOOK IS EVERYTHING I WANT IN A BOOK but I truly believe this is best read without too much given away. I don’t think you should know more than the back cover will tell you. So I have to leave it there.

Not only is Setterfield’s grasp on the conventions of mystery telling above par, she also has a knack for getting at the root of human emotion. She captures brilliantly the essence of our feelings and her characters are always relatable, I think perhaps because she describes human emotion as something that is unique, yet at the same time is equally raw and present for each of us. I particularly love the following passage, in which the doctor comforts Margaret during a difficult moment:

“‘I know,’ he said, ‘I know.’ He didn’t know, of course. Not really. And yet that was what he said and I was soothed to hear it. For I knew what he meant. We all have our sorrows, and although the exact delineaments, the weight and the dimensions of grief are different for everyone, the colour of grief is common to us all. ‘I know,’ he said, because he was human, and therefore, in a way, he did.”

I’m such a sucker for these dark emotional reads that this kind of writing is an instant hit with me. That being said, I don’t know how anyone could not appreciate the simplicity and care with which Setterfield is able to draw away the pretensions we, as a culture, use to hide our emotions.

The historical element and Setterfield’s beautiful writing already made The Thirteenth Tale an instant favourite for me, but the fact that it appeals to avid readers in a major way made it even better. You may remember that I love books on books. It’s just something that has always appealed to me. Margaret Lea is a voracious bookworm, and the way Setterfield writes about Margaret’s love for writing is instantly relatable. Check out some of my favourite quotations I’ve included at the bottom of the post to see what I mean.

While I did love Margaret – especially because she is such a passionate reader – my favourite character by far was Aurelius Love. Margaret befriends him fairly early on in the book and he becomes a part of the central mystery/storyline in a really interesting way. He is jovial and friendly, and reminded me of the kind uncle who’s always helping you out. (Though I believe he is Margaret’s age.) It is hard to pinpoint exactly why Aurelius is so likable but I think his tragic involvement in the mystery has a lot to do with it.

Finally, a note about the conclusion: Setterfield brings it full circle, and I didn’t notice how exquisitely she does this until I thought about the book at length. At the beginning of the book Margaret says that she prefers fulfilling endings that are closed and leave little doubt behind, whereas her father values uncertainty:

“Contemporary literature is a world I know little of. My father had taken me to task on this topic many times during our daily talks about books. He reads as much as I do, but more widely, and I have great respect for his opinions. He has described in precise, measured words the beautiful desolation he feels at the close of novels where the message is that there is no end to human suffering, only endurance. He has spoken of endings that are muted, but which echo longer in the memory than louder, more explosive denouements. He has explained why it is that ambiguity touches his heart more nearly than the death and marriage style of finish that I prefer.”

This book ends both ways. I’m like Margaret’s father, and as I read that last sentence – “And that is all.” – I almost didn’t want to continue. Ambiguity is something I love in endings. Setterfield also includes a short “Post Scriptum,” however, that answers questions that were left hanging. It fulfills both parts of me as a reader: I’m left with some ambiguity, but all my questions about random characters and plot points were addressed.

I highly, highly recommend this, especially if you are a fan of historical fiction. This is a new favourite for me and one that I can see myself rereading and rereading in years to come.

Collected Quotations

“How long did I sit on the stairs after reading the letter? I don’t know. For I was spellbound. There is something about words. In expert hands, manipulated deftly, they take you prisoner. Wind themselves around your limbs like spider silk, and when you are so enthralled you cannot move, they pierce your skin, enter your blood, numb your thoughts. Inside you they work their magic. When I at last woke up to myself, I could only guess what had been going on in the darkness of my unconsciousness.”

“Contemporary literature is a world I know little of. My father had taken me to task on this topic many times during our daily talks about books. He reads as much as I do, but more widely, and I have great respect for his opinions. He has described in precise, measured words the beautiful desolation he feels at the close of novels where the message is that there is no end to human suffering, only endurance. He has spoken of endings that are muted, but which echo longer in the memory than louder, more explosive denouements. He has explained why it is that ambiguity touches his heart more nearly than the death and marriage style of finish that I prefer.”

“All children mythologise their birth. It is a universal trait. You want to know someone? Heart, mind and soul? Ask him to tell you about when he was born. What you get won’t be the truth: it will be a story. And nothing is more telling than a story.”

“I have always been a reader; I have read at every stage of my life and there has never been a time when reading was not my greatest joy. And yet I cannot pretend that the reading I have done in my adult years matches in its impact on my soul the reading I did as a child. I still believe in stories. I still forget myself when I am in the middle of a good book. Yet it is not the same. Books are for me, it must be said, the most important thing; what I cannot forget is that there was a time when they were at once more banal and more essential than that. When I was a child books were everything. And so there is in me, always, a nostalgic yearning for the lost pleasure of books. It is not a yearning that one ever expects to be fulfilled.”

“All morning I struggled with the sensation of stray wisps of one world seeping through the cracks of another. Do you know the feeling when you start reading a new book before the membrane of the last one has had time to close behind you? You leave the previous book with ideas and themes – characters even – caught in the fibres of your clothes, and when you open the new book they are still with you.”

“I am human. Like all humans, I do not remember my birth. By the time we wake up to ourselves, we are little children, and our advent is something that happened an eternity ago, at the beginning of time. We live like latecomers at the theatre: we must catch up as best we can, divining the beginning from the shape of later events. How many times have I gone back to the border of memory and peered into the darkness beyond? But it is not only memories that hover on the border there. There are all sorts of phantasmagoria that inhabit that realm. The nightmares of a lonely child. Fairytales appropriated by a mind hungry for story. The fantasies of an imaginative little girl anxious to explain to herself the inexplicable. Whatever story I may have discovered on the frontier of forgetting, I do not pretend to myself that it is the truth.”

“I opened a window, climbed out into the whiteness and walked across the snow. All the grief I had kept at bay for years by means of books and bookcases approached me now. On a bench sheltered by a tall hedge of yew I abandoned myself to a sorrow that was wide and deep as the snow itself, and as untainted. . . . Mostly, and most terribly, I cried for myself. My grief was that of the infant, newly severed from her other half; of the child bent over an old tin, making sudden, shocking sense of a few pieces of paper; and of a grown woman, sitting crying on a bench in the hallucinatory light and silence of the snow.”

“People disappear when they die. Their voice, their laughter, the warmth of their breath. Their flesh. Eventually their bones. All living memory of them ceases. This is both dreadful and natural. Yet for some there is an exception to this annihilation. For in the books they write they continue to exist. We can rediscover them. Their humor, their tone of voice, their moods. Through the written word they can anger you or make you happy. They can comfort you. They can perplex you. They can alter you. All this, even though they are dead. Like flies in amber, like corpses frozen in the ice, that which according to the laws of nature should pass away is, by the miracle of ink on paper, preserved. It is a kind of magic.”

Join the Convo!

Have you read The Thirteenth Tale? What did you think? Did you love the bookish references as much as I did? Who was your favourite character? If you have read The Thirteenth Tale, do you have any recommendations for similar books? I would love something else like this!

5 Stars

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{Review} Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

August 20, 2014 Review 4 ★★★★½

{Review} Life After Life by Kate AtkinsonLife After Life by Kate Atkinson
Published by Anchor Canada on January 7, 2014
Genres: Adult, Historical Fiction
Pages: 496
Format: Paperback
Source: Purchased
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What if you had the chance to live your life again and again, until you finally got it right?

During a snowstorm in England in 1910, a baby is born and dies before she can take her first breath.

During a snowstorm in England in 1910, the same baby is born and lives to tell the tale.

What if there were second chances? And third chances? In fact an infinite number of chances to live your life? Would you eventually be able to save the world from its own inevitable destiny? And would you even want to?

Life After Life follows Ursula Todd as she lives through the turbulent events of the last century again and again. With wit and compassion, she finds warmth even in life's bleakest moments, and shows an extraordinary ability to evoke the past. Here is Kate Atkinson at her most profound and inventive, in a novel that celebrates the best and worst of ourselves.

This. Book. Is. Sublime. I don’t know if I can do it justice – in fact I know I can’t – but I will try, because this book is a must read. For everyone. Now. Seriously. Go read it!!!

My Expectations

Life After Life is a book I’ve had vaguely in the recesses of my mind for a while now. I picked it up as a treat to myself after I finished my undergraduate exams. Going in, all I really knew was that it is about reincarnation, and not much more than that. Needless to say, expectations were pretty much nonexistent.

Cover Talk

I love the cover for this; I think it’s gorgeous. The texture is really glossy and cool, too. The fox and rabbit are symbolic, and after reading the book, they felt even more important. Ursula’s childhood home is named Fox Corner and they see a lot of foxes. The rabbits are also frequent visitors at Fox Corner. Throughout the course of several childhood reincarnations, they become symbolic of Ursula’s overall journey through life.

My Thoughts

Life After Life is set (mostly) during WWII and the main character, Ursula, gets reincarnated many times throughout the course of her existence, but always as the same person with the same family. The synopsis doesn’t give a lot away about the logistics of reincarnation, but I think it’s done in a pretty unique way I think. (I can’t tell you more than that – part of the joy of Life After Life is in discovering and puzzling out the plot!) It’s written as fragments of the lives Ursula has lead – basically kind of like different possibilities of the same life. For example, she dies at one point, but then is reincarnated and the story picks up at her last death. It’s a challenging concept because the author presents reincarnation in a very complex way. It took me about 40 pages to understand the pattern. It becomes even more interesting when Ursula grows up a little bit – old enough to have clear memories. Sometimes she remembers things clearly but most often she has hazy half-recollections. This book is an exploration of humanity at its core; it’s not really about “getting it right” (although each time she avoids a poor decision she had made in the past), it’s more about an individual’s possible paths, about family, about history, about war.

The book is set up in life cycles – she dies multiple times but is essentially living out the same story with each life. Then the narrative will move on, beginning a new cycle of deaths and rebirths. Some lives go nowhere, but that’s realistic: it’s a sad fact of life that not everyone’s life is long.

And Ursula. Oh, Ursula. She is seriously the best narrator ever. Meeting Ursula so many times made me feel like I know her intimately; when one of her lives turned out to be horrible and depressing, my heart ached for her. I read some reviews that said it was boring spending so much time in Ursula’s head experiencing such similar events, but I found it uniquely rewarding. Atkinson also repeats phrases and images throughout Ursula’s lives, which gives each life a sense of poignancy and bittersweetness. In one instance, she repeats the image of “a black cat, a rhinestone for an eye”, and each time I was reminded of the horribly sad circumstances in which the image first appeared.

At the heart of it all, though, this book is not sentimental or frenzied. There is such a sense of Englishness about the book. This sums up what I mean perfectly: “‘No point in thinking,’ she said briskly, ‘you just have to get on with life. We only have one after all, we should try and do our best. We can never get it right, but we must try.'” It is uplifting, but also steel-faced in the midst of a horrible wartime. Even the small details – tea in the city, the summer countryside, etc. are perfectly done:

“She found Frieda slipping in and out of delirium and lay down beside her on the mattress on the floor. Stroking her damp hair, she talked in a low voice to her about another world. She told her about the bluebells in spring in the wood near Fox Corner, about the flowers that grew in the meadow beyond the copse – flax and larkspur, buttercups, corn poppies, red campion and ox-eye daisies. She told her about the smell of new-mown grass from an English summer lawn, the scent of Sylvie’s roses, the sour-sweet taste of the apples in the orchard. She talked of the oak trees in the lane, and the yews in the graveyard and the beech in the garden at Fox Corner. She talked about the foxes, the rabbits, the pheasants, the hares, the cows and the big plough horses. About the sun beaming his friendly rays on fields of corn and fields of green. The bright song of the blackbird, the lyrical lark, the soft coo of the wood pigeons, the hoot of the owl in the dark.”

Atkinson’s writing style is really unique too – and it kind of has to be to fit the unique concept. Each chapter’s title is a date, and most chapters are only a few pages long (although others are lengthy). Atkinson uses a lot of sentence fragments, which I find can work beautifully, especially with a concept that is so philosophical.

As I’m sure you can tell, there are so many elements that were so important for Atkinson to get right. What is so impressive to realize, after having finished reading, is how much work she put into Life After Life. So much thought. So many plot lines to keep straight. So many tiny details to make sure are perfect. Every aspect of this book was carefully considered and carefully written. Even the smallest supporting roles – which are so often dismissed easily – have been given such life and spark that they feel as important and real as Ursula herself.

Life After Life is the epitome of good taste, good writing, good thinking. I don’t care what your favourite genre is or what you normally read, this is a must-read for any reader. It is one of the most beautiful and accurate expressions of human life I have ever read. Felicitations, Ms. Atkinson.

Collected Quotes

“Do not tell secrets to those whose faith and silence you have not already tested.”

“An icy rush of air, a freezing slipstream on the newly exposed skin. She is, with no warning, outside the inside and the familiar wet, tropical world has suddenly evaporated. Exposed to the elements. A prawn peeled, a nut shelled.
No breath. All the world come down to this. One breath.
Little lungs, like dragonfly wings failing to inflate in the foreign atmosphere. No wind in the strangled pipe. The buzzing of a thousand bees in the tiny curled pearl of an ear.
Panic. The drowning girl, the falling bird.”

“Ursula craved solitude but she hated loneliness, a conundrum that she couldn’t even begin to solve.”

“‘I don’t suppose the dead care about anything much,’ Teddy said. ‘I think when you’re dead you’re dead. I don’t believe there’s anything beyond, do you?’
‘I might have done before the war,’ Ursula said, ‘before I saw a lot of dead bodies. But they just look like so much rubbish, thrown away.’ (She thought of Hugh saying, ‘Just put me out with the dustbin.’) ‘It doesn’t seem as though their souls have flown.'”

“‘My heart is split in two. I loved him so much. Love him so much. I don’t know why I use the past tense. It’s not as if love dies with the beloved.'”

“She allowed the hum and buzz of the park to lullaby her. Life wasn’t about becoming, was it? It was about being. Dr Kellet would have approved this thought. And everything was ephemeral, yet everything was eternal, she thought sleepily.”

“What if we had a chance to do it again and again, until we finally did get it right? Wouldn’t that be wonderful?”

“She thought of Dr Kellet and Pindar. Become such as you are, having learned what that is. She knew what that was now. She was Ursula Beresford Todd and she was a witness. She opened her arms to the black bat and they flew to each other, embracing the air like long-lost souls. This is love, Ursula thought. And the practice of it makes it perfect.”

Join the Convo!

Have you read Life After Life? What did you think? Were you a fan of her experimental style and unique premise, or did you find it fanciful? If you’ve read Life After Life, do you have any recommendations for similar work I can try?

4.5 Stars

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{Review} Nowhere But Home by Liza Palmer

August 8, 2014 Review 3 ★★★★★

{Review} Nowhere But Home by Liza PalmerNowhere But Home Published by William Morrow on April 2, 2013
Genres: Adult, Contemporary
Pages: 384
Format: Paperback
Source: Purchased
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Queenie Wake has just been fired from her job as a chef for not allowing a customer to use ketchup . . . again. Now the only place she has to go is North Star, Texas, the hometown she left in disgrace. Maybe things will be different this time around. After all, her mother - notorious for stealing your man, your car, and your rent money - has been dead for years. And Queenie's sister, once the local teenage harlot who fooled around with the town golden boy, is now the mother of the high school football captain.

Queenie's new job, cooking last meals at the nearby prison, is going well . . . at least the inmates don't complain! But apparently small-town Texas has a long memory for bad reputations. And when Queenie bumps into Everett Coburn, the high school sweetheart who broke her heart, she wishes her own memory was a little spottier. But before Queenie takes another chance on love, she'll have to take an even bigger risk: finding a place to call home once and for all.

Cover Talk

I love this colour – the scene is so cute and the cover model’s clothing is quirky and fun, just like this book. It deserves an A in my book!

Expectations

I first heard of Nowhere But Home via a recommendation from Hannah from So Obsessed With, and once I saw that Ellice from Paper Riot and Asheley from Into the Hall of Books also read and loved it, I knew I had to get to it.

My Thoughts

The impressions I had of Nowhere But Home from reviews were that there were many similarities to Friday Night Lights, as well as a mouth watering emphasis on Southern food. While these seemed like great aspects of the story to me, they weren’t attention grabbing. I think I’m quintessentially Canadian in that football holds little interest (at least compared to many Americans), and I’ve never tasted Southern cooking. I was still drawn to it though, and I am so glad I took a chance on this book.

Here are ten reasons why you NEED to read this ASAP:

1. The Cooking

While a book about a prison cook doesn’t necessarily sound like high quality literature, IT IS. This book is so moving, and in such unexpected ways. Queenie’s reluctance to work at the prison is understandable, but ultimately she jumps in with both feet and gives it her all. The scenes with her and her two assistant prisoners are incredibly emotional at times and are very revealing. Queenie denies so much to herself, but in these raw moments where she is cooking it becomes clear who she really is.

I’m not sure that I would have ever said that how a writer describes food is important or revealing, but after reading Nowhere But Home I think my idea about food in literature has changed. Reading this book felt like my favourite comfort foods, and I think it’s because Palmer spends a good portion of the book placing her characters in situations involving wholesome, delicious meals. Palmer starts the beginning of every chapter with a description of the food that Queenie eats in the following pages (e.g.: “Croque monsieur on country white bread, potato leek soup, a giant class of cold water, and an old-fashioned doughnut”). The characters and the reader are always closely connected to food and I found that surprisingly comforting.

[Side Note: Thinking about food in novels, I was reminded how awesome the food always was in the Harry Potter novels. Remember those start of school feasts? Amazing.]

2. Queenie

As the main character of the story, Queenie is the star of the show – and does she ever deliver! Queenie is so humble and so real. I related to her a lot… her lack of self-confidence and her heaping helpings of self-deprecation really echoed with me. As Asheley wrote in her review, “Queenie has been all over the place in an effort to avoid going home, back to North Star, because that’s where both her heart and her heartache lies.” She is someone who has struggled a lot in life and Nowhere But Home chronicles her journey of healing and self-discovery. As cheesy as that sounds, it’s something I can relate to completely, and I think many others will, too.

She’s also really funny, which is the perfect comedic relief to her tough problems. One of my favourite lines from her is something she says to her sister, Merry Carole: “Maybe I was going to point out the tragedy of One-Minute Wes being your only sexual experience. I mean, what kind of whore are you?” Queenie is fun because she’s someone you can laugh at and with, while still appreciating her softer vulnerable side.

3. Everett

The biggest issue with the romance was there wasn’t enough. I loved both Everett and Queenie and I loved them together. Their high school romance was of the “wrong side of the tracks” variety, and it was at once gratifying and heartbreaking to watch them try to come back together later in life. At times I feared they would never be able to make it work:

“I gather myself, take a deep breath, and run and run and run. I need to flush the grief I feel for what Everett and I had. That sweetness I just saw with Arrow was what I always loved about him. It’s not as if I understood in the beginning what it meant to fall in love with someone. I knew love didn’t mean that things were going to work out or made people nice. Love, to me, even at a young age, was complicated. I knew it didn’t stop people from leaving or from hurting you. Love seemed to give people a free pass to treat you poorly.”

Everett’s struggle to come to terms with the fact that he would have to defy his parents’ expectations was so realistic – the entire romance felt incredibly real, not like something from a “bodice ripper” – and I loved how they both refused to give up on each other.

4. Merry Carole

All of the characters really came to life; Palmer spent time with each one carefully crafting larger than life personalities for them. Merry Carole and Queenie, sisters that love each other to bits but also have a lot of negative feelings between them, are real and relatable, especially for anyone who has a sister. There is unconditional love there, but the best part of the relationship between these two characters is their quiet attempts to fix their mistakes. As I mentioned before, Nowhere But Home is about healing, and Queenie’s relationship with her sister is definitely one that needs a little TLC.

5. Palmer’s Writing

Part of what made this book so beautiful was Palmer’s gorgeous writing. It isn’t a fast-paced novel and it’s not plot-driven; the focus is on the characters and their inner growth (which is something I typically prefer). Palmer’s style is authentic: everything from the food to the characters to the setting to the emotional highs and lows feels completely accurate. My one tiny complaint is that I felt the dialogue could be stilted at times, but Palmer’s hard work in the character development department and her flair for description more than made up for it.

6. Small Town Setting

I love small towns and I love reading about them, so North Star, Texas was a lot of fun for me. Palmer writes, “I’ve been coming to this parade my entire life. It’s one of those things your hometown does that you think is ridiculous and yet you wouldn’t miss it for the world. The entire town shuts down and everyone just has fun.” It’s the sense of community and belonging that people tend to feel in small towns that makes them see so idyllic to me. (And, as I’m from one, reading about them always reminds me of home.)

On the other hand, small towns really have their dark sides. Queenie has always felt like an outsider because of her mother’s bad reputation, which both her and her sister inherited. It’s a place that, in a lot of ways, still feels like high school. The community is focused on secrets, gossip, and drama, and when something rocks the boat it sets the whole town on fire. I loved how Palmer incorporated both the good and bad aspects of small-town Texas; it’s all the more realistic for that. (Speaking of which, Kacey Musgrave‘s music just reminds me so much of North Star.)

7. Football

Fairly early on in the novel Palmer writes, “However you praise the Lord, be it Baptist, Methodist, or Catholic, the true religion of Texas is football.” And boy, does Palmer sure prove that. North Star bleeds football through and through. Best of all is reading about Cal Wake, Merry Carole’s son who becomes starting quarterback as a freshman. (Even I know this is a big deal and I don’t watch football!) He is such a sweet kid, and watching him work so hard towards his dreams despite all the naysayers is inspiring. I think I get why Friday Night Lights is so popular now!

8. Second Chances

Queenie returns home with her tail between her legs and from that point on, second chances becomes a major theme. While Nowhere But Home is obviously about coming home, it’s also about moving forward. It’s all about Queenie coming to terms with her past and facing some dormant problems head on, while finding out what she really wants from life. Queenie says, “I’ve lived my life based on what ‘they’ think. Who are they? They don’t love me. They don’t know me. And they sure as shit don’t care about what happens to me. Yet every decision involves thinking about what the judgmental and anonymous ‘they’ would think. What would they do if I stopped caring what they think?” In a lot of ways I personally can get hung up when I feel like I’ve blown my chances with something, but Nowhere But Home shows that it’s never too late and it’s always worth a second (or third, or fourth) shot.

9. Social Class

Class divisions are a BIG deal in North Star – they’re what separated Queenie and Everett, and Queenie feels they forced her out of town. As Queenie says, “North Star has always been about appearances. Without the Wakes, who knows who they’d feed on? They might have to take a look at their own pillars of society.” I loved Palmer’s realistic approach at how different segregations of society can rip on one another. By the end of the novel, Palmer shows that there is no “bad guy”, and that everyone has problems. Getting Queenie to realize that she alone is responsible for her decisions and her self-worth is a job and a half, but watching her figure it out is a lot of fun.

10. Grief

In a sense, a lot of the issues Queenie works through in Nowhere But Home concern her dead mother and the unresolved feelings she has there. The grieving process is hard no matter what, but Queenie’s position seems impossible at times. It’s hard to know how to cope when you miss a person you hated. It’s heartbreaking at times to read, but seeing Queenie come through it for the better is so rewarding, and the role her job at the prison plays in it is surprising, heartwarming, and thought provoking.

I wholeheartedly recommend Nowhere But Home (as you can probably tell from this over-the-top review…) and it’s a book I think so many readers will enjoy. Its Southern elements will appeal to those who love the states under the Mason-Dixon Line, but it’s a character-driven story that is equally touching and uplifting. As Hannah wrote in her review, “It’s funny, but not fluffy. It’s sad, but not depressing. It’s Southern, but not a stereotype. It’s this perfect blend – like mixing sweet tea and lemonade – that resulted in a read I won’t ever forget.” In other words, it’s a must-read, and you need to give it a chance!

Collected Quotes

“I can’t be the only one faking it. I’m not the only lonely small-town girl drowning in this big city. I’m not the only refugee feeling invisible and alone. I’m not the only one who wants to scream, ‘NOTICE ME! I MATTER!’ Maybe everyone is faking it. Maybe they’re just better at it than I am. People walk around me on the street as if I’m not even there. It’s quite something. I left North Star because I was tired of every move I made being tracked and judged by a cabal of gossiping ladies. I oftentimes wished I could go unnoticed as I move through my life in that tiny town and now here I am. Utterly invisible. Dreams do come true, kids.”

“It wasn’t until I grew up a bit that I realized real love is more about the beauty of the everyday. It’s not an accident that every love story seems to end with the couple walking off into the sunset together. I think about Everett and Arrow walking the Paragon land every morning and how I had no idea he did that. I know things about Everett only the most intimate connections yield and yet have no idea how he spends his mornings.”

5 Stars

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{Review} Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore

August 5, 2014 Review 1 ★★★★★

{Review} Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour BookstoreMr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan
Published by HarperCollins on September 9, 2013
Genres: Adult, Contemporary
Pages: 256
Format: Paperback
Source: Purchased
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The Great Recession has shuffled Clay Jannon out of his life as a San Francisco web-design drone, and serendipity, sheer curiosity and the ability to climb a ladder like a monkey have landed him a new gig working the night shift at Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore. But after just a few days on the job, Clay begins to realize that this store is even more curious than the name suggests. There are only a few customers, but they come in repeatedly and never seem to actually buy anything, instead "checking out" impossibly obscure volumes from strange corners of the store, all according to some elaborate, long-standing arrangement with gnomic Mr. Penumbra. The store must be a front for something larger, Clay concludes, and soon he has embarked on a complex analysis of the customers' behaviour and roped his friends into helping him figure out just what's going on. But once they bring their findings to Mr. Penumbra, they discover the secrets extend far beyond the walls of the bookstore.

With irresistible brio and dazzling intelligence, Robin Sloan has crafted a literary adventure story for the 21st century. Evoking both the fairy tale charm of Haruki Murakami and the enthusiastic novel-of-ideas wizardry of Neal Stephenson or a young Umberto Eco, but with a unique and feisty sensibility that's rare to the world of literary fiction, Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore is exactly what it sounds like: an establishment you have to enter and will never want to leave, a modern-day cabinet of wonders ready to give a jolt of energy to every curious reader, no matter what the time of day.

Cover Talk

Any book with books on its cover is sure to draw me in, and Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is no exception. Plus, it kind of reminds me of Mr. Ollivander’s shop in Diagon Alley from Harry Potter… which is an immediate win in my books.

Expectations

You may have noticed by now that I am a sucker for books about books. (Remember Ex Libris and The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry?) So it should be no surprise that Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore had great appeal for me. It’s about a young man who starts working in a mysteriously secretive bookstore, owned by a Mr. Penumbra. Everything about Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore – right down to its delightfully bookish cover – just screams “Katy.”

My Thoughts

Essentially, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore chronicles Clay’s discovery of a cult-like society that centres on books. It’s an incredibly exciting story that reads like an adventure novel; one of my favourite Booktubers, Ariel Bissett, called it “National Treasure for book lovers.” It’s happy and uplifting and fun.

One thing I absolutely loved was the randomness of the book. Part of it is Clay’s hunt to find the answers about Penumbra’s secret society: each step of the way he has to figure out or learn something new. But more than that, Sloan is always introducing such random concepts to the storyline, which makes it so fresh and fun. You’ll never know what to expect when you turn the page.

You know how sometimes people say that setting is just another character? Well, Robin Sloan definitely got the memo on that one. Of course, Penumbra’s bookstore is out of this world awesome:

“Inside: imagine the shape and volume of a normal bookstore turned up on its side. This place was absurdly narrow and dizzyingly tall, and the shelves went all the way up – three stories of books, maybe more. I craned my neck back (why do bookstores always make you do uncomfortable things with your neck?) and the shelves faded smoothly into the shadows in a way that suggested they might just go on forever. The shelves were packed close together, and it felt like I was standing at the border of a forest – not a friendly Californian forest either, but an old Transylvanian forest, a forest full of wolves and witches and dagger-wielding bandits all waiting just beyond moonlight’s reach. There were ladders that clung to the shelves and rolled side to side. Usually those seem charming, but here, stretching up into the gloom, they were ominous. They whispered rumours of accidents in the dark.”

Even though the bookstore sounds like the best place ever, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore isn’t all old-timey bookstores and leather-bound books. Google plays an important role in the plot and it also is a significant setting. The combination of Hogwarts-esque bookstore + super-modern computer headquarters makes for a really interesting backdrop.

The old vs. new setting isn’t the only way that Sloan makes a big contrast. There’s also older people and younger people, old technology and new technology, old ways of thinking and new ways of thinking. I love the way that Sloan intertwines different technologies and ways of life without making it seemed forced or unrealistic. There were many points that had potential for sci-fi or fantasy elements, but Sloan kept it genuine and modern, which I love. I think it’s more fun to imagine a place like Mr. Penumbra’s Bookstore in real life, when it actually seems realistic. It’s the perfect blending of old and new, which makes it the perfect book for someone like me, who loves history and speculative fiction pretty much equally.

I also have to mention how great Clay Jannon is. He is funny, geeky, earnest, resourceful, and smart in a relatable way – he’s not a genius or pretentious, he’s just a very bright, regular kind of way. He doesn’t know a lot about anything at the beginning of the book, but he is constantly teaching himself things and learning about new methods throughout the entire novel. It’s so much fun, because as the reader, you’re probably clueless too – so you get to accompany Clay on his journey to book cult wisdom. He is a fantastic narrator, and his personality really makes Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore come alive. (Mr. Penumbra is probably equally fascinating, but part of his charm is his mystery so I have to keep mum on that.)

For readers who like mystery, technology, history, adventure, or anything smart and witty, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is a must-read. This one is a new all-time favourite that will definitely be read and reread many times in the years to come.

Collected Quotations

“San Francisco’s architectural style didn’t really make inroads anywhere else in the country, and even when you live here and you’re used to it, it lends the vistas a strangeness: all the tall narrow houses, the windows like eyes and teeth, the wedding-cake filigree.”

“He has the strangest expression on his face – the emotional equivalent of 404 PAGE NOT FOUND.”

“After that, the book will fade, the way all books fade in your mind. But I hope you will remember this: A man walking fast down a dark lonely street. Quick steps and hard breathing, all wonder and need. A bell above a door and the tinkle it makes. A clerk and a ladder and warm golden light, and then: the right book exactly, at exactly the right time.”

“The nature of immortality is a mystery . . . But everything I know of writing and reading tells me that this is true. I have felt it in these shelves and in others. Walking the stacks in a library, dragging your fingers across the spines – it’s hard not to feel the presence of sleeping spirits.”

“When you read a book, the story definitely happens inside your head. When you listen, it seems to happen in a little cloud all around it, like a fuzzy knit cap pulled down over your eyes.”

“There is no immortality that is not built on friendship and work done with care. All the secrets in the world worth knowing are hiding in plain sight. . . . Your life must be an open city, with all sorts of ways to wander in.”

Join the Convo!

Have you read The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry? Is it on your TBR list? Have you enjoyed any other of Gabrielle Zevin’s novels? Do you tend to like books about books?

5 Stars

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{Review} The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

July 23, 2014 Review 4 ★★★★★

{Review} The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle ZevinThe Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin
Published by Thorndike Press on April 4, 2014
Genres: Adult, Contemporary
Pages: 260 pages
Format: Hardcover
Source: Library
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In the spirit of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, Gabrielle Zevin's enchanting novel is a love letter to the world of books - and booksellers - that changes our lives by giving us the stories that open our hearts and enlighten our minds. On the faded Island Books sign hanging over the porch of the Victorian cottage is the motto "No Man Is an Island; Every Book Is a World." A. J. Fikry, the irascible owner, is about to discover just what that truly means. A. J. Fikry's life is not at all what he expected it to be. His wife has died, his bookstore is experiencing the worst sales in its history, and now his prized possession, a rare collection of Poe poems, has been stolen. Slowly but surely, he is isolating himself from all the people of Alice Island - from Lambiase, the well-intentioned police officer who's always felt kindly toward Fikry; from Ismay, his sister-in-law who is hell-bent on saving him from his dreary self; from Amelia, the lovely and idealistic (if eccentric) Knightley Press sales rep who keeps on taking the ferry over to Alice Island, refusing to be deterred by A.J.'s bad attitude. Even the books in his store have stopped holding pleasure for him. These days, A.J. can only see them as a sign of a world that is changing too rapidly. And then a mysterious package appears at the bookstore. It's a small package, but large in weight. It's that unexpected arrival that gives A.J. Fikry the opportunity to make his life over, the ability to see everything anew. It doesn't take long for the locals to notice the change overcoming A.J.; or for that determined sales rep, Amelia, to see her curmudgeonly client in a new light; or for the wisdom of all those books to become again the lifeblood of A.J.'s world; or for everything to twist again into a version of his life that he didn't see coming. As surprising as it is moving, The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry is an unforgettable tale of transformation and second chances, an irresistible affirmation of why we read, and why we love.
COVER TALK

The cover of the copy I read (see above) is not really a favourite. I like the iconography and the font, but it seems a little bland to me. I think this cover is actually the American cover, so I’m not sure why my Canadian library has it. However, I LOVE the Canadian cover, and this one which is very similar (I can’t figure out which country it is though… Australia maybe?). I think the Canadian one is a lot prettier and less jumbled.

EXPECTATIONS

I had heard a lot of “buzz” about this novel, but all I really knew was that it is being marketed as a book for book lovers. I knew an old guy owned a bookstore in it, but that’s it. When it came in at the library, I picked it up and started reading without even glancing at the jacket copy. I’ll be up front and say I loved this book – and I’m not surprised, given that Gabrielle Zevin also wrote Elsewhere, a book that has stayed with me for many years.

MY THOUGHTS

This book is one of those ones that I loved so much, that it becomes difficult to explain. Honestly, I feel that reading this book without knowing a whole lot about it was part of its charm… so, I’m not going to tell you a whole lot about it. The essential premise is revolves around A.J. Fikry, the owner of a bookstore on a small New England island (and he’s middle-aged, not “old”). Garth Stein wrote that “The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry reminds us of what saves us all from a life of loneliness and isolation: our sense of empathy; our ability to love and be loved; our willingness to care and be cared for.” That’s basically the fundamental themes of this book, and Zevin explores them so beautifully. A.J. Fikry is a character who I immediately hated, then began to root for… and by the end of the story, I was brokenhearted to see him suffer. This book is definitely character-driven, and if you love the exploration of people and what makes them tick, you will love this book.

At first it seems pretentious. A.J. Fikry is a bit of a literary snob in the opening chapters. As I said, I kind of hated him at first. (Okay, not “kind of”… I really did.) But by the end of the book, all kinds of books are celebrated – from children’s picture books to YA to genre crime fiction. I love how Zevin incorporates so much variety into this book… everything from the types of books sold and read to the cast of characters to the setting are quirky and colourful. Zevin writes setting masterfully; Alice Island Books is another character just as full of life as the living, breathing ones.

One of my favourite back cover blurbs for this book sums up the best parts of it: “This novel has humor, romance, a touch of suspense, but most of all love – love of books and bookish people and, really, all of humanity in its imperfect glory” (Eowyn Ivey, The Snow Child). While The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry is definitely a book for bookish people – and thus involves a bookstore, several avid readers, and lots and lots of books – there are also other non-bookish things to love: a mystery, a baby, the lives of non-readers. I really enjoyed how this wasn’t just about books… while I love reading and I like reading about books, having such diversity in both characters and plot makes the book come alive.

There was one thing that bugged me about this book, but I have to be vague because it would be a major spoiler otherwise. The ending is… unexpected. At first I was very unhappy with it. I read one review on Chapters that said: “Ending ruins the whole book, waste of time reading it and I would not recommend it to anyone. The story falls apart and is a huge disappointment. Not worth the read at all. Wish I never read it.” While this was strongly worded for even my initial disappointment, after sitting with this book for a few days after reading, the ending is kind of fitting. It’s not a typical happily ever after, but it definitely fits with the themes of the book and Zevin’s message becomes even clearer. So, while it is a hard ending to love, I do think it is the right ending for The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry.

Finally, this book left me with a recommendation that I have to mention. In the acknowledgments (which I have taken to reading lately and usually really enjoy), Zevin writes, “Lambiase and the first Ms. Fikry speak variations on the phrase, ‘A town isn’t a town without a bookstore.’ Surely, they both must have read American Gods by Neil Gaiman.'” I love this, because I completely agree with Lambiase and Ms. Fikry. I have never read anything by Neil Gaiman but have been meaning to for so long… have any of you read American Gods? Did you like it?

Ultimately, if you are reading this blog I urge you to read this book – I wish I could buy a copy and push it into your hands myself! It’s a book for any kind of reader that any book lover will be able to love and appreciate.

JOIN THE CONVO!

Have you read The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry? Is it on your TBR list? Have you enjoyed any other of Gabrielle Zevin’s novels? Do you tend to like books about books?

5 Stars

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