This one’s inevitable, isn’t it. What reader can resist a novel about other readers, or if you’re an old bookseller like me, about booksellers? They’re an anorak’s delight. There’s a librarian in the mix, too, albeit it a rather eccentric one. Here are five books about books, then, the first two with links to a longer review.
Set in the near future, Robin Sloan’s Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore playfully meshes the old reading world with new technology in a quirky edge-of-your-seat story of bookish folk. Clay Jannon works the night shift at the eponymous book store, logging its few customers, most of them oddly attired and in an urgent, distracted state. Curiosity aroused, Clay sets about unravelling the puzzle of the Broken Spine, the society to which all the shop’s customers belong, in a story that encompasses a fifteenth-century sage, extreme Google geekiness, the search for immortality and a bit of consternation about cassettes (remember them?) all served up with a good deal of humour. I loved it.
Charlie Hill’s Books lampoons everyone in the book trade, adding a swipe at performance artists for good measure. It begins in Corfu where Lauren, a professor of neurology, and Richard, an independent bookseller, both witness the sudden death of a woman reading a manuscript by bestselling author Gary Sayles. As Spontaneous Neural Atrophy Syndrome spreads, Lauren seeks Richard’s help in investigating it. Meanwhile, preparing for the launch of his new novel, Sayles is suckered by two performance artists and the People’s Literature Tour is born. Liberally scattered with book titles, authors’ names and in-jokes, Books combines the humour and pace of Jasper Fforde’s fiction with the satire of Channel 4’s Black Books.
I’m sure some of you will remember Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind, a bestseller set in Barcelona’s ‘cemetery for lost books’ where, aged ten, Daniel finds the book that will intrigue him, bedevil him and ultimately shape his life – The Shadow of the Wind by Julián Carfax. On his sixteenth birthday, Daniel sees a stranger smoking a cigarette from his balcony, instantly recognising a scene from Carfax’s novel. I read this for work expecting to grit my teeth as it was a much-hyped flavour of that particular month but I loved it. Both gripping and very atmospheric.
Delving back into reading past, Sheridan Hay’s The Secret of Lost Things is a booky highlight. It’s set in the Arcade, a rambling New York bookshop – suspiciously like the legendary Strand – staffed by a bunch of eccentrics who are joined by eighteen-year-old Rosemary, fresh from Tasmania. When she opens a letter offering a ‘lost’ Melville manuscript the fun begins. Hay’s novel is an appealing, enjoyable yarn of thwarted love and literary detection. Not a literary triumph, but it had me engrossed.
And now to that librarian. She’s the protagonist of Sophie Divry’s The Library of Unrequited Love who finds a young man locked in the library overnight – surely a bibliophile’s dream – and treats him to a passionate, if slightly scolding, soliloquy about her colleagues, the Dewey Decimal system and bookish conspiracies while unwittingly spilling the beans about her yearning for a young researcher. A thoroughly entertaining, if quirky, read which led me to Divry’s much more conventional Madame Bovary of the Suburbs.
Any novels about books you’d like to recommend?