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Tuesday, August 20, 2013

What I'm Reading: The Bookman's Tale

I think this week is catch up on reviews week on RA for All.  At least that is the plan.  Here we go...

Back at the beginning of July I read a publisher provided ARC of great debut, The Bookman's Tale: A Novel of Obsession by Charlie Lovett.  We also own a copy here at the BPL, but I have been talking up this book so much, it has been continuously checked out all summer. I find that interesting because it did not sell particularly well, but it is a library hit.

My soundbite review of The Bookman's Tale says quite a bit about it-- This is a fast paced historical-mystery combo, perfect for any book lover. Think Agatha Christie meets Geraldine Brooks.

If you have every found yourself ignoring everything in your life around you because of a good book, you will relate to Peter, our protagonist.  Peter, like the author, Lovett, is a rare book collector.  It is 1995 as the book opens.  He is an ex-pat in England, trying to ply his trade in a new country as he is simultaneously struggling with the death of his beloved wife 9 months previously.

But we also have 2 other story lines set on 2 different time lines.  Along with the 1995 timeline of a melancholy Peter, we have the story of how Peter met his now deceased wife Amanda and fell in love with her beginning in 1985 and moving up until just before the novel as a whole begins.  And, finally, we have the mystery of a Shakespeare folio with possible notes by the famous playwright himself which Peter finds in 1995; this timeline also eventually moves up to the present.  We the reader, get to see the provenance of the book from the 1500s to the present in the third storyline as we watch Peter try to piece it all together in the 1995 timeline.

The mystery is the result of a book lover with a secret combined with a centuries' old family feud. And it all comes together in the present in a satisfying fashion.

I realize now that this may all sound confusing, but I was impressed at how all three story lines worked together to create a unified and, quite frankly, fun story. This is a page turner with a book lover's theme. It has just the right amount of history, bittersweet love story, and mystery to sustain your interest.  In fact, at one point in the last third, I started to get worried that Lovett would get a little too cheesy with the mystery causing me to no longer enjoy the book, but just as I started to set nervous, it was as if he also knew it was going too far and he poked fun at himself in a very witty way.  I loved that part, and it came right at the climax. Lovett does not take himself too seriously here and it works.

The pace of this novel is tight and crisp.  The historical detail is just enough to hold your interest, but not enough to bog down the pacing.  Also, the rotating triple time frames keeps you turning the pages. Also, Lovett gives the reader more information than Peter has; another reason the pace moves swiftly. We want to keep reading to see Peter catch up to us.

I should also mention that the promotional material for this book focuses a bit on Amanda's ghost. I think they were trying to get paranormal romance readers here, but I have to say it is not something I would focus on.  Peter thinks he sees Amanda's ghost guiding him make the correct decisions, especially as the mystery heats up and Peter's life is at stake. But these scenes are more about his love for her guiding him than her literal ghost.  Do not read this if you think you will get a ghost story.  It is not.

Also, a note on the mystery. It is pretty clear what is going on fairly early, but the "why" and "how" is not completely realized until the end. As a result, this is not a suggested read for hardcore mystery fans. Rather, this is first and foremost a book for book lovers.  The cozy mystery, bittersweet (and very satisfying) love story between Amanda and Peter, and the historical touches add to its appeal.

This is not the best book I have read this year, but it is probably among the most enjoyable. This will become one of my sure bet options for a "good story."

Three Words That Describe This Book: books about books, fun, cozy historical mystery

Readalikes:  As I said above, this novel knows it has a Miss Marple amatuer detective vibe.  Peter even comments on it toward the end of the book.  So yes, Agatha Christie is a great readalike here. Peter also is just like Flavia de Luce, except Peter is a grown-up. But both have a loss of a loved one propelling them through life, both get caught up in mysteries they should probably stay out of, and both have a unique skill (antiquarian books and chemistry) that adds interest to the mystery.

I also mentioned Geraldine Brooks above.  This novel reminded me specifically of People of the Book.

If you want to follow the mystery of a book in an enjoyable tale I would also suggest The second book in Deborah Harkness' projected trilogy Shadow of Night or The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield. I realize these books are widely different, but I thought of each as I was reading The Bookman's Tale.  Harkness because of the era where the story begins in the past, Shakepearean times. IT is all about tracing a mysterious book from the past into the present.  If this is why you are reading Shadow of Night, it will not matter if you have read the first book.  The Thriteenth Tale, is all about an author and the mystery of her life and works, but it is also very Gothic.  Lovett's work is not explicitly Gothic, but it had that overall feel at times. Untangling a mystery within the lives of writers and book lovers is very important in all three works.  Click on the titles for my detailed reviews of Shadow of Night and The Thirteenth Tale. It is important to note that the Harkness trilogy and The Thirteenth Tale are also go-to titles for me when I am looking for books with a wide appeal to hand to patrons who want a "good story."

I also loved the details in the rare books, college library setting from the q985 timeline. It reminded me of a book I read a long time ago,  The Archivist by Martha Cooley.

The publisher suggests The Bookman's Tale for fans of A. S. Byatt's Possession and Carol Ruiz Zafon's Shadow of the Wind.  While I do not disagree with their similarity, The Bookman's Tale is not as literary as these. It is more fun. You will appreciate it's construction, but there is no hidden meaning or symbolism here that you need to root out in multiple readings.  This is not a bad thing, in fact, when I read Lovett's novel (over the July 4th week) it was the best thing.  But I know the Byatt and Ruiz books have some ardent fans who re-read them.  The Bookman's Tale is a readalike then only if you understand it is a lighter, fun read for fans of these other books.

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