The Last Bookshop in London by Madeline Martin

“Books are what have brought us together. A love of the stories within, the adventures they take us on, their glorious distraction in a time of strife.”

Published just this past April, The Last Bookshop in London by Madeline Martin is a historical fiction novel set during World War II, offering a candid glimpse into life in London during the Blitz. While I have read several excellent novels in this time period before (as I’m sure you have, too!) , I don’t recall one exclusively focusing on the Blitz in London, so this title was a unique perspective I had not yet afforded!

After losing her mother and essentially being disowned by her uncle in a rural town in England, Grace and her best friend, Viv, journey to London to live with her mother’s best friend. While both women had long dreamed of coming to London, neither expected it to happen forcibly, let alone on the brink of a second great war. While Viv quickly finds a job at the glamorous Harrods, Grace is offered a position at a local bookshop which, as someone who didn’t read, was a less-than-ideal assignment. With the intention of working just six months to gain a letter of recommendation to find a better position, Grace begins working in a disheveled, dusty, and dingy bookstore with a seemingly irritable owner who barely tolerates her presence.

As rumblings of the war draw closer to home, however, Grace slowly finds herself becoming more and more committed and interested in her work at the bookshop. This is in no small part due to George Anderson, a particularly attractive and frequent patron who shares his authentic love of reading with Grace before leaving to serve as a Royal Air Force (RAF) pilot. Although initially doubtful about the impact reading would have on her own life, Grace becomes enraptured with The Count of Monte Cristo (one of George’s recommendations) and quickly becomes a voracious reader herself. With her newly found love of reading, Grace naturally begins to develop special relationships with several patrons, as well as with the owner himself, as she works to make the bookshop as accessible as possible. Not long after this, though, London itself becomes suspended in the throes of war, putting everything Grace loves at risk.

All in all, this is a wonderful story about someone who comes to learn the value of reading and eventually helps others in the community not only survive, but thrive in the stories of others during the unbearably difficult circumstances of wartime; it is truly an ode to the power of literature, and there were many lovely and moving quotes that warmed my heart as a librarian. I also really appreciated reading about a female protagonist who not only immerses herself, but thrives in a wartime position typically reserved for men; on top of working at the bookshop, Grace volunteers as an Air Raid Protection (ARP) warden to help those impacted by the daily bombings that would occur overnight. Lastly, I reveled in the obvious research Martin did on the Blitz to portray a captivating account of life in London during this time in history.

While there were some moments toward the conclusion that seemed to tie up a little too conveniently, I would still highly recommend this novel to anyone looking to dip their toes in a new perspective on WWII or just for a new historical fiction read in general! I would also like to note that, while Martin is a well-known historical romance author, this novel was not primarily focused on romantic themes or aspects.

 

Love, Death & Rare Books

Robert Hellenga’s latest is told from the point of view of Gabe Johnson, the last in a line of booksellers. His grandfather and father operated a Chicago institution, Chas. Johnson & Sons, a bookstore and rare book dealer. If you’re interested in learning arcane details about the physical book – such as binding, end papers, foxing, plates, tooling and watermarks – Love, Death & Rare Books is for you. As is usual with Hellenga’s books, there are a lot of references to the classics. Erudite throwaways about French literature,  Native American rarities, sailing, shipping, the Great Lakes and philosophy abound.

The first part of the book is set in Chicago – from mid-century to the early 2000’s, when independent bookstores were battling chains and then online sellers. It ends on the shores of Lake Michigan, where Gabe starts over in a new venture, adapting to a new way of selling books, a new part of the country, an idiosyncratic house and its previous owner. Throughout, there is rich evocation of the natural world, geographical landmarks, businesses and neighborhoods.

Hellenga is from Galesburg, and it’s fun to pick up on references you’d recognize if you lived in central Illinois, or the Quad Cities. A coffee shop in the town where Gabe eventually settles is named after “Innkeeper’s” (a marvelous cafe and store in Galesburg), and a municipal worker in Gabe’s new town embezzles city funds so she can buy expensive, purebred horses, not unlike a similar occurrence in Dixon.

There are always many layers and levels of enjoyment to be found in Hellenga’s novels, and this one certainly follows in that tradition.

Upstairs at the Strand: Writers in Conversation at the Legendary Bookstore edited by Jessica Strand & Andrea Aguilar

upstairs-at-the-strandLocated at the corner of Broadway and 12th Streets near the East Village in New York City is an independent bookstore called The Strand. Its slogan boasts “18 miles of books.” The third floor of The Strand houses an opulent Rare Book Room. Here, dyads (or in one case, a trio) of writers were invited to sit and share their thoughts about life, work, and the things they love.

Upstairs at The Strand is a written collection of these intimate conversations.

As you read each chapter, you may be compelled to imagine yourself an unseen guest in the upstairs room, listening. If you have ever been to the Strand or are familiar with any of the authors included, you may find it especially easy to imagine.

Renata Adler. Edward Albee. Hilton Als. Paul Auster. Blake Bailey. Alison Bechdel. Tina Chang. Junot Diaz. Deborah Eisenberg. Rivka Galchen. A.M. Homes. Hari Kunzru. Rachel Kushner. Wendy Lesser. D.T. Max. Leigh Newman. Tea Obraht. Robert Pinsky. Katie Roiphe. George Saunders. David Shields. Charles Simic. Tracy K. Smith. Mark Strand. Charles Wright.

If you are not familiar with any of these names, by all means check out this book and acquaint yourself with some talented authors whose work you may enjoy exploring. There is something to be found by each of these authors in the RiverShare library catalog.

 

 

The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend by Katrina Bivald

readersofbrokenwheelI love reading books that take place in Iowa. I find it interesting to see what authors think of my home state.  The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend is set in fictional town Broken Wheel, Iowa.  And this book is unique because the author, Katarina Bivald, lives in Sweden. So, if you are curious as to how someone from Europe views life in the state of Iowa, you should definitely pick up this book.

Sara has traveled all the way from Sweden to meet her pen pal Amy, who lives in Broken Wheel, Iowa.  The plan is that Sara will stay with Amy for two months.  But when Sara arrives in Iowa, she learns that Amy has died.  But the townspeople of Broken Wheel knew that she was coming and they all welcome her to the town.  They tell her to stay in Amy’s house because that is what Amy would have wanted. Sara understandably feels strange staying in the house alone and having people give her food and drinks for free.  She tries to pay her own way but everyone refuses her.

Since she no longer has a hostess, Sara needs to find something to do. And, the town council is trying to think of how they can keep Sara entertained.  Sara and Amy bonded over books.  Both women were avid readers and they even exchanged books in the mail. When Sara ventures into Amy’s bedroom, she finds a room filled with books. Shortly after, Sara learns that Amy owned one of the buildings downtown. Sara decides to clean up the unused store and make it into a new bookstore. Many of the townspeople help her clean and repaint the building. Others find bookshelves and furniture. Soon, the tiny town of Broken Wheel has its own bookstore.

Sara enjoys finding books for the townspeople to read. She is able to match up books with the right person to read it. Soon, people from the neighboring town of Hope come to Broken Wheel to check out the new bookstore. Sara is dismayed to learn that people from Hope look down on people from Broken Wheel. So Sara forms a plan to get the people of townspeople reading. This is when she creates the shelf, “The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend”.

The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend is a very fun book to read. Plus, it has the added bonus of discussing many different book titles throughout the story. Perhaps you will find your next read in the pages of The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend.

Note: If you listen to the audiobook version, you will find the Iowan accent to be very interesting.

 

 

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

mr penumbra's 24 hour bookstoreI’m a cover girl. No, not the makeup kind of CoverGirl, but the type of person who makes her personal book reading choices by whether or not the cover art is saying, “You muussttt reeeaddd meeee,” as I meander the stacks of the library or the book store. That eye-catching cover and blurb is what led me to Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. I was at a conference and saw a poster advertising an author panel that had Robin Sloan, the author of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, and several other authors that I was vaguely aware of also as panelists. I just happened to be right down the hall, the blurb about their panel was interesting, and bonus: you could get a free book signed by the author if you came. So I went.

I’m glad I did. I picked up my signed copy of Sloan’s book after the panel ended and started reading. Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is the story of the mixture of books and technology, the old and the new. The main character, Clay Jannon, was hit by the Great Recession and lost his job as a web-designer in San Francisco. Walking the streets one night, he stumbles upon Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore and manages to land a job working the night shift. Quickly he learns that the patrons of Mr. Penumbra’s store are not like regular bookstore customers. They come and go at odd hours of the day and never buy anything. Instead they find and select somewhat odd and old volumes, books that Clay has been told not to read or touch, through an elaborate and long-standing arrangement with Mr. Penumbra. His curiosity piqued, Clay opens one of those forbidden books and finds them written in code. He decides to bring in some friends to help him solve the mystery of what these people are checking out, as well as the mystery of what exactly is happening in Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore.

This book combines elements of mystery, adventure, fantasy, technology, and friendship to bring about a fascinating story of the conflict between the new and the old. Technology and print seem to battle it out within the pages of this book, as Clay soon realizes that Mr. Penumbra’s sudden disappearance from the bookstore has something to do with the mystery books in the store and the people who come to check them out. Add in a secret society called the Broken Spine, something called the Founder’s Puzzle, and Clay and his friends soon find themselves faced off in a race to solve the mystery before the Broken Spine has the chance. Sloan has woven together a story of global conspiracy that draws on the battle between old and new that will leave readers on the edge of their seats waiting to see who will triumph in the end.

This book is also available as a book on cd and as a playaway.