“The Earth Hums in B Flat” by Mari Strachan

Gwenni Morgan is growing up in a 1950s Welsh town, and she has a special gift – she can fly in her sleep. She flies over the town, occasionally over the sea, and watches the world from above – at least, that’s when her sister isn’t disturbing her sleep by invading Gwenni’s side of the bed. This gift makes Gwenni inquisitive, and when a neighbour disappears, she’s determined to help bring him back to his family. But what else will she uncover along the way?

On the inside cover, this is described as “a magical novel that will transport you to another time and place”, and I have to agree – it is a magical book and as you experience the story through Gwenni’s first person narrative, you will indeed feel transported to the small town Welsh community and into the Morgan’s family home. Gwenni’s naivety means that while she doesn’t initially comprehend the significance of her observations, as a reader I was one or two steps ahead of her and able to piece together the truth for myself; this does not, however, take away anything from the reading experience and enjoyment of the book.

I really loved the brevity of the writing. That’s not to say it’s a short book, or has a sparse style, but Strachan doesn’t describe any of the characters in much detail, and yet the brief glimpses of physical features make all the people feel very real and genuine, and I had a vivid picture of each of them in my head. The details of the period are also only ever hinted at, with occasional vague references or gently interlaced details of the time, but there is never a specific description of the setting, merely enough to give a feeling of the period.

I became completely engrossed in Gwenni’s life and her journey to understanding her own family as well as the world around her. There is no sentimentality or mawkishness about this tale, merely lovely, and at times, moving, storytelling. Very impressive for a debut novel.

“The Post Office Girl” by Stefan Zweig

In the bleak years following World War One, Christine is one of the lucky few with a job in an economically destroyed Austria; she’s a civil servant working in a provincial post office in a safe government job. At 28, she’s working full time, both at the post office and at home, where she’s caring for her sick mother, and has no prospects or expectations for the future. One day, Christine receives a telegram from an American aunt, inviting her to join her aunt and uncle in a resort in the Swiss Alps. A few days later, she arrives at the hotel and is immediately transported into a care-free world of wealth and luxury, and her transformation begins. Abruptly, rumours and jealousy cast a shadow over her, and the dream of a different life is cut short, sending her back to the post office, but with a new outlook on life.

The manuscript for this novel was found amongst the authors papers after he’d died in 1942, and was published posthumously. I’m not sure exactly when he wrote it, but I’m guessing in the 1930’s, and what I find incredible, is how modern the book feels. Although this is a modern translation, I can’t imagine any translator would attempt to alter the style or language of the original work, so I’m assuming this is a true representation of the authors manuscript, and as such it is a great piece of writing. I felt as though the story and characters could be transplanted into a modern day setting, and would still be just as relevant as the post-WWI Austria and Switzerland Zweig has represented.

Christine’s story reveals an emotional journey from resignation, to the awakening to hope and joy, through confusion and embarrassment, and finally the anger and despair of a young woman who has glimpsed the wonders that the world can hold, only to have it all snatched away. It is the transition of a young woman who has never had the opportunity to fulfil her potential, whose naivety and joy is a breath of fresh air amongst the wealth and riches of the hotel guests, but is her downfall as jealousy rears its ugly head, and she is plunged back into her old life with little hope of an escape back to the colourful, care-free world she knows is out there.

The way the author writes from Christine’s point of view feels very real, and the emotional rollercoaster we are taken on is the heart of this book, while it always has an eye on the sociological issues of the period as the backdrop to the story. Christine’s thought processes, drifting fluidly or flitting quickly, are written with clarity and feel very honest.

As the book was not submitted as a finished manuscript by the author himself, we can’t be sure if this was the completed book he’d planned. The denouement of the book concludes in a very abrupt manner, but I hope it was how the author intended it to end. It doesn’t try to end the story and leaves the reader to decide how they think the lives of the characters will continue, yet instead of leaving me wanting more, wanting to know what happened next, I thought the single world last sentence was the most satisfying ending to a book I’ve read in recent times.

“The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop” by Lewis Buzbee

The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop is a memoir from reader, book seller, author, but most importantly book lover, Lewis Buzbee, who takes us through his introduction to the world of books and his love of book stores, and incorporates the history of the book and the development of the book trade.

For anyone who loves the the very tactile nature of books, this gem is a must. The author has worked in bookshops as well as a publisher’s sales representative from an early age, and has spent a lifetime enveloping himself in the world of books.

He describes how the first spark the stated his fascination with books, the bookshops that inspired his choice of career, and the current state of the book industry. But more than this, he tells the history of the book itself, as well as the education he received from others on the make up of the book, with facts about books and bindings casually mixed with tales of how he learned the information himself. There is more of an emphasis on the constantly changing face of book selling in the last thirty of so years, and the effect of the internet and technology in the current publishing industry, and a look to where the future may take books.

After learning an important lesson as a young man about judging people by they read, there is no prejudice or elitism about readers or books, or about independent bookshops, multi-national chain stores, or even internet sellers, just an account of one persons continued love of books.

For all book lovers, as well as book shop addicts, this book is a must, although it should come with a warning, as it will make you want to hunt out every bookshop in every place you ever go!

“Chocolat” and “The Lollipop Shoes” by Joanne Harris

Chocolat begins with the exotic Vianne Rocher arriving on the wind in a small village in rural France, Lansquenet. Before long she has opened a chocolate boutique which sees the start of a battle with the local priest, Father Reynaud, trying to make his parishoners observe the rituals of Lent by denouncing the newcomer and her sinful confections. Who will win the war between church and chocolate?

I first read this book when it was published in 1999, and I’ve just read it again, as I wanted to remind myself of the story before reading the sequel The Lollipop Shoes, and I’ve seen the film adaptation too many times to remember what the original story was (as the film is a very different story from the book). The story feels like a fairy tale for adults, with the mysterious, mystical Vianne, with her talent for being able to tell what everyone’s favourite chocolate is, up against the religious, righteous Father Reynaud, with his own secrets of the past which have made him the overzealous, overbearing representative of the church.

I love the characters of this book, who are all believable, each with their own idiosyncrasies and faults, and who all contribute to the story. What I also like about Vianne is the ambiguity of her magical abilities. Can she really perform magic? I’m not so sure. I think it’s more about the situation and intuition and coincidence, but the alchemy of making perfect chocolates and confection is beguiling.

The story is supposed to have been contemporary at the time, and yet the village has an out of period quality about it, and I think that’s why the filmmakers decided to set it in the 1950s, allowing the correlation of the old-fashioned attitudes of the characters to a era of self-restraint and deference to the church. In fact, the period of the story is the only thing that I find slightly jarring in the book, as it doesn’t sit well with modern life, even in the small village location of rural France.

Overall, a very entertaining and indulgent read.

The Lollipop Shoes is the continuation of Vianne’s story, and after leaving Lansequenet, a few troubled moves later, has reinvented herself as Yanne, and settled into a quiet, invisible life in Montmatre, Paris. Her daughter, Anouk, is now Annie, and they have an addition to the family, Rosette, a second daughter for Yanne. When the bohemian Zozie arrives as a whirlwind, she’s everything that Anouk remembers her mother, Vianne Rocher, to be, and nothing like the woman, Yanne, she has become. But Zozie, also steals identities and lives, and has set her sights on the family for her next theft.

I started the book, with low expectations, as I have tried to read other Joanne Harris books since Chocolat but have never found them as satisfying, and had stopped bothering, but couldn’t resist trying The Lollipop Shoes and finding out more about the tale of Vianne Rocher. The opening chapters of the book were very good, and I was intrigued as to where the story was going, so I was pleasantly surprised. However, as I mentioned above, the thing I enjoyed about Chocolat was the ambiguity about the magic performed by Vianne, but in The Lollipop Shoes there was no question about it – the characters were performing spells and incantations. I did enjoy the gradually emerging story of what had happened to Vianne and Anouk in the intervening years, but by the end of the book, the story became too fantastical for my liking, and wasn’t worthy of the characters. I was also disappointed by the ensemble of characters, who weren’t really necessary, and weren’t as well drawn as those of Chocolat.

I did manage to at least read to the end of the book, but an unsatisfying conclusion meant I didn’t enjoy it anywhere near as much as Chocolat.