Tuesday, March 07, 2017

What we're reading: Librarian fantasy fiction

I finally had time to read something other than teen fiction this weekend, so I picked up The Bookshop on the Corner, by Jenny Colgan from the New Books shelves. I'm usually a fan of books about books and readers, but I wasn't sure I wanted to read this, once I started; Colgan had included a personal preface to the book that was a bit too cute for my taste. But I read a chapter or two, and when the protagonist, who is a librarian, recommended The Knife of Never Letting Go, by Patrick Ness, to one patron and followed it up with a clever Georgette Heyer reference after that, I knew I would like it! It was an unabashedly romantic book, and closer to chick lit than I usually enjoy, BUT...it also contained one of my fondest fantasies brought to life, and I ended up loving it.

Nina the librarian is being put out of her job by the consolidation of her library system in busy Birmingham, England. (That's not the fantasy I am hoping to fulfill!) Two small branches are being closed, and the big one is being turned into a "media center." There are only two jobs available for about 30 employees, and all the rest will be laid off. Nina knows she is doomed to unemployment when, in her interview for one of those jobs, she is asked what she thinks is the most important priority to being a modern library, and she answers honestly according to her own philosophy: "To meet and anticipate the needs of our readers." The interviewers, obviously hoping for a more eclectic approach, look at her pityingly and hire someone else; but to me, too, that is the perfect mission statement for a library. There's nothing wrong with being a community center or offering computer classes or a 3D printing lab, but...we can't forget about our readers' needs in the process. I realized that Nina and I were kindred spirits, hardcore readers' advisors with a soft mushy center for fellow book lovers.

So what does Nina do? (This is the secret fantasy part.) She musters up her timid self, buys a great big "van" (which is not, as an American would picture it, a Volkswagen with three extra seats at the back, but rather something along the lines of a food truck--cavernous enough to hold a chair and a lamp, and some beanbags for children, and shelves all around), scrubs it, paints it, and stocks it with the thousands of books she buys on discount from the closing libraries, and then she drives it around to farmers' market days in a string of remote villages in Scotland, selling books as she goes. Why Scotland? Well, she had to go there to buy the only affordable van she could find, and a series of events leads her to stay, completely changing her lifestyle.

I loved that part of the story unreservedly; I wasn't quite as enamored of Nina's romantic entanglements. It's not that they weren't legitimate and enjoyable parts of the story, it's just that I was enjoying Nina's own coming-out-of-the-shadows moves so much: going to local dances with a bunch of kilt-wearing laddies in the back of a truck; celebrating Midsummer's Night at the village bonfire; or being determined to solve the puzzle of the right book for even the most difficult and taciturn of customers.

I also loved the lyrical descriptions of the countryside of Scotland: the ever-changing sky, the fields of rapeseed, the frolicking lambs, the long summer days and white nights, the aurora borealis, the mist on the hills.

The one and only thing that really irritated me? The title and cover art! It's not a static bookstore made of wood and brick, sitting at the end of a street in some town; it's a bookmobile! How hard is that to get right? Do they not make people read the book before they pick the cover art? The book is called something different in the U.K. version (left), and their cover art matches it nicely. Too bad the American version didn't follow suit. But ignore that and read this delightful story. If you are a book person like I am, you will be a fan.

Burbank Public Library also owns the audio book version of this title.

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