I find it hard to resist a novel that features a librarian or bookseller as the main character. Part of the thrill of reading these books is in finding out whether or not the author has been successful in getting the nitty gritty of working with books exactly right. It’s entirely possible that I won’t identify with the character in the same way that all chefs don’t feel an instant sense of kinship in reading about other chefs. I might not feel like the bibliophile at the centre of the story is someone I could be friends with but I really like seeing similarities in their work life and mine. If the author has done their homework and put some time into making sure that the details are top notch then I love this kind of book more than any other. And I love to put these in the hands of co-workers and library customers. Books about people who love books!? It’s the best kind of reading, I’m certain.
I try to never miss any “books about books” that come across our desks (even those that focus a little less on actual library work like The Librarian and the Spy by Susan Mann, a fun book but not so much cataloguing or reference work) but this summer there were two spectacular choices that rose above many of the other books I read this summer. Both novels were choices that I enjoyed so much I kept talking about them weeks after I read them and purchased copies to give as gifts.
If an author has created a character with a personality and sense of humour that makes me long to have them come alive and join me for lunch then I think they’ve gone beyond crafting a good story, they have created a world that I wish I could inhabit. Not for the rest of my life – I’m not logging off and buying a plane ticket out of here – just a book that is so good I know I’ll read it again and think of those characters when something reminds me of them.
With both of the main characters in these books I felt as if their life choices, friendships, families and work environments were entirely believable and that isn’t something that happens often in ‘domestic fiction’ and even less so if the books are sold with a romantic arc involved. The vibrant colours on the covers and spine and the snappy text chosen by their marketing department might scare you away but I’m telling you that the women inside of these novels are like flesh and blood humans that you will be so glad you got a chance to meet – oh yes.
In the case of The Overdue Life of Amy Byler we encounter our book-loving character just as she has finally gotten into the groove of being a single parent and full-time teacher-librarian in the same school her two children attend in rural Pennsylvania. Her daughter Cori is fifteen and son Joe is eleven and it takes everything she has to get them to school, activities, maintain their aging house and try to make acceptable meals – her social life takes a back seat but she knows she should make it a priority ‘someday’. At least when she isn’t wondering why her husband left them to find himself in Hong Kong several years before (this is how her life becomes ‘overdue’, a truly great pun). When that long absent father/husband decides to reinsert himself into their lives to get to know the kids again she thinks her best plan is to head out of town for a while and, practical person that she is, she finds a library conference in New York City. She will accumulate some professional development hours while she takes a break from the routine at home and visit an old friend at the same time. Amy is so sensible in her choices! Her college friend, Talia, edits a successful fashion magazine and thinks using Amy as a makeover candidate will help rejuvenate her brand. Win-win? This leads to some super Devil Wears Prada fashion montages and great jokes about uncomfortable shoes and outfits. Initially Amy is reluctant to make changes in her clothing, hair, and makeup but agrees to give it a try when Talia and her assistant start sending her out on blind dates as part of their unfortunately named ‘momspringa’ feature articles on the magazine’s website. Author Kelly Harms uses romance in this novel with a light touch and it is more the story of a person trying to decide the direction that their life should go.
With The Bookish Life of Nina Hill the setting could not be more different than Amy Byler’s. Instead of rural Pennsylvania Nina lives in Larchmont, California, a small neighbourhood that she has never wanted to leave (I looked it up – you would never want to leave either) where she works in a small independent bookshop. Nina’s life has been carefully crafted around her interests and the anxiety she has managed since childhood. She plans her day carefully each morning in her planner and knows what will happen today, tomorrow and the days that follow. She is not a spontaneous person but she is always ready for a touch of fun and has an inner monologue of observations about herself and the world around her. She lives with a charming and remarkably funny cat named Phil. One of her weekly activities is a trivia competition with her team named “Book ‘em, Danno” and they have been kicked out of several bars – not for being rowdy – but for winning too often. Her passion and knowledge for literature is prized on the team and through this group of supportive friends she meets her love interest, Tom (I won’t spoil it and tell you what his occupation is – you must read to the end).
Like Kelly Harms does in her novel, author Abbi Waxman doesn’t make Tom the most important part of this story. Nina discovers that she has a large extended family beyond her single mother, a substantial and mysterious inheritance, she learns that the bookstore she loves is in jeopardy, and everything triggers her anxiety – the possibility of romance is often the last thing on her mind. Nina has priorities and reading is often first on the list, or in her planner, she devotes entire Thursday nights to it. Although she is at a much different stage of life from Amy Byler she is also trying to decide on her direction in life and you can’t help but be inspired by the way that finds a way that is right for her quirky, lovable personality.
Books, authors and literary quotes are sprinkled throughout both novels (in the case of Nina’s life it is a weekly occurrence because of her extremely competitive trivia team) and the characters of teacher-librarian and bookseller are letter perfect. When Nina describes the customer who walked up to the counter and asks for a refund on a copy of Pride and Prejudice because she didn’t like it and Nina has to refuse (the customer had read it all the way through before coming to back to the store) I was reminded of a similar experience from my own working days in a bookstore. Nina’s bookstore world, and her sarcastic bookstore manager/owner, are so true to real life. It’s a delight.
Amy Byler is an absolute treat of a bibliophile, as well as a gem of a devoted teacher-librarian, and the experience in that book is multi-layered because her daughter Cori is spending the summer with ‘assigned’ reading from her own mother and her comments (in letter form) are included, so we see the book-loving relationship from all sides. When Amy attends the library conference in New York City she is required to make a presentation about an ongoing project in her school library and the details about this effort are quite interesting, the conversations she has with other professional librarians 100% credible and the books they are discussing absolutely relevant. If I met Amy at a conference I would love to sit down and talk to her – I’d probably have asked for her business card and checked in with her a few weeks later. I’m almost sad that she doesn’t exist. Same thing with Nina but her trivia skills are intimidating… maybe she would let me feed her cat.
Books about librarians and booksellers are always being published – across all genres – vampire librarians, librarian spies, booksellers who solve mysteries, and I read them all with great happiness. This summer has been a particularly good one for newly published titles but I have other favourites from years past that I take from the shelves over and over as a part of my comfort reading. I turn to Mr. Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore when I want a dash of fantasy, I look up Jenny Colgan when I want to be transported to Scotland and I can read about A. J. Fikry and his wonderful shop on Alice Island on any day. The story of how his life changes is absolute perfection and I’m a little nervous to hear that an actor and director have been assigned to the film based on the book – what if they don’t get the details right? What if they are not able to evoke Fikry’s love of Roald Dahl on screen the same way it exists in the novel? Sometimes a book is perfect just the way it is, especially when it is a book about books.
— Penny M.