Thursday, March 20, 2014

Greater Than the Sum of Its Short Stories

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

A.J. Fikry happily abandoned his PhD in American Literature to open the first bookstore on Alice Island, the place his wife Nic grew up and always wanted to return to. But since the car accident that killed both her and their unborn baby, this New England summer tourist trap has become a year-round prison of memories and loss. He's now determined to bankrupt his business and then sell his only rare, first-edition book so he can retire and drink himself to death. It doesn't help that his favorite book rep from Knightly Publishers has died and he only finds this out when his replacement, Amelia Lohman shows up pushing their winter list. Then his book is stolen and on the same day, he finds Maya, a 25 month old baby girl, abandoned by her mother in his shop, who she left especially for him. Everything that happens after Maya's mother's body is washed ashore helps A.J. Fikry to slowly understand the sign that adorns the Island Books' shop: “No Man is an Island; Every Book is a World.”

The blurb that said this novel is "In the spirit of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry," should have turned me off immediately. Why? Because much like our titular character, I hate it when publishers do something as gimmicky as take two beloved books and try to convince me that I'll love this one by comparing this one to them. However, what I couldn't resist was a novel about a book store in what sounded like a very charming, if isolated place. You see, I believe that anyone who adores books as much as I do, but then tells you that they haven't even once dreamed about making their living totally surrounded by them, is a bald-faced liar. So of course I was drawn to this book, and I cannot thank the publishers enough for letting me read it.

There are several reasons why this book has already become a favorite of mine. To begin with, I truly appreciated the originality of how Zevin prefaced each chapter with a short blurb, critique or comment by Fikry about different short stories. These are each followed by a chapter in Fikry's life that, in one way or another, relates to the same short story. In fact, the first part of the book almost felt like a collection of well-related short stories. But even a collection of the best well-related short stories do not make a novel. However, Zevin overcame this by slowly transforming this unique-feeling format into a fully, solid and cohesive work. I can't say exactly when this happened; it just does. When you realize this, you'll also understand why you've stop wanting to put the novel down.

Of course, any story is only as good as its characters, and Zevin gives us just the right sized slew of them that go from charming to appalling us. Of course, our main protagonist is the titular book store owner. Despite his curmudgeonly attitude at the onset of the book, we watch him morph into someone we care deeply about as the story progresses. The empathy for A.J. is, of course, essential to the overall story, as is his relationship with his adopted daughter Maya. Zevin also gives us A.J.'s sister-in-law Ismay (Nic's sister), who is married to the philandering author (of one-hit and several misses) Daniel Parish. Then there is Lambiase, Alice Island's Chief of Police, who A.J. ends up going to with each of his emergencies, which leads to their friendship. Finally, as any good playwright knows, you can't show a gun in the first act and not have it go off by act three; Amelia Loman from the first chapter reappears to take on a major role later in the book. Each and every character is imperfectly human, and utterly believable.

Speaking of that "gun in the first act," I was happy to see how Zevin included her veritable gun from early on in the book into one of the last acts. Remember, this is coming from someone who doesn't always want everything to be tied up neatly at the end of every novel. But in this case, despite the slightly more than usual convenience of it, I have to say it worked very well. In fact, if there is anything people might criticize about this novel, it will be this handy coincidence being just a bit too expedient. However, I didn't find it overly so, and considering the power of how the novel ends, including the unexpected twists along the way, I can't say this detracted at all from the overall work.

It will be no surprise that I'm giving this novel a full five stars out of five. It is perfectly written, interestingly constructed, has sympathetic characters (including the ones you won't like), and makes for an all-round compelling read with its well formed plot. I can't think of anything else that anyone could ask for, except to tell you to read this book - you won't regret it.

"The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry" by Gabrielle Zevin, released by Algonquin Books on April 1, 2014, is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon CA, Barnes & Noble, Kobo (for other eReader formats), iTunes (iBook and audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris and Better World Books, or from an IndieBound store near you. My thanks to the publishers for a review copy of this book via NetGalley. This review also appears on my Times of Israel blog.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Unseen Visions, Hiding in Plain Sight

The Moon Sisters by Therese Walsh

Beth Moon is gone, and it may have been suicide. Her two daughters, Jazz and Olivia, are in as much disagreement with how to handle it as are their personalities. Jazz wants to put it all behind her and begin a real-life job. Olivia wants to take her mother's remaining ashes to the cranberry glades in hopes of finally seeing the will-o-the-wisp her mother dreamt about for the novel she never finished writing. When the almost blind Olivia runs off after her fantasy, Jazz has no option but to be the responsible one and become her reluctant companion on an impossible quest. Together they follow a path where the secrets between them, and those they end up traveling with, are as elusive as the mythical ghost lights of their grandmother's Slovakian folk tales.

The things that take this story beyond your every-day mundane road-trip/coming of age story are the inclusion of a few unique elements. For instance, there's mother Beth's obvious - but unnamed - manic-depression. There's also her estrangement from her father, and the letters she writes him but never sends, since she believes he'll only forgive her after she finishes her novel. We also get some other characters when Olivia hops a train to get to the cranberry glades. The two main ones are the tattoo-covered Hobbs, and his dark secret, and the older man Red Grass, who can't seem to leave Hobbs alone. On the surface, the subplot of Hobbs and Red Grass seems to be more of an extraneous vehicle, put there only to further the tension between Olivia and Jazz. However, with the progress of the action, this ends up being almost a parallel story. Thankfully, this falls just short of overtaking the main plot, despite threatening to do so in some spots.

But the really unique thing about this novel was Walsh's giving Olivia a condition called Synesthesia. This is where the senses get mixed up and people with the condition can taste, smell and/or see colors in things that don't have those attributes - like letters, words, days of the week or even sounds and people. For instance, one of the first descriptions of this is "… the way thunder filled the air with a mustard-gold fog". By including this in the story, Walsh was able to infuse this novel with a level of poetry that would have otherwise felt very pretentious. And since Olivia has mostly blinded herself, these exceptional sensing of the things she encounters are all the more heightened, and become vivid in a way that she actually doesn't need to see them clearly. It then became believable that Olivia was used her affliction to sense the emotions and intentions behind the words people were saying, since she couldn't see their faces or body language to gauge those things. In this way, Olivia became one of the most fascinatingly special characters I've ever experienced.

In fact, I enjoyed Olivia and her poetic observations so much that there were times when I felt that other parts of the story distracted me from her and her amazing world. Yes, I know you can't have a whole story just based on that, and that there has to be some plot vehicle to use around these passages. I just felt that some of those aspects weren't as strong as the character of Olivia herself. I also felt that the parts of the story that were told from Jazz's perspective were weaker than those told from Olivia's. The only other problem I had with this book was how the character of Hobbs seemed far older than we later find out he is, and I'm not sure Walsh should have made him that young.

But these are mostly minor niggles, and I have to say that on the whole, I really liked this novel, how it developed and the fascinating characters portrayed here. Walsh's talent is truly apparent here, and now I'm interested in reading her debut novel, which sounds equally as creative as having Synesthesia. There's no doubt in my mind that this book will help Walsh's popularity, and I heartily recommend it with a solid four out of five stars. 

"The Moon Sisters" by Therese Walsh was published by Crown (Penguin Random House) and released on March 4, 2014 is available from, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (for other eReader formats), iTunes, The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris or Better World Books as well as from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for giving me an advance copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

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