Throughout my career as a bookseller, one of my favorite duties was selecting the books to be displayed on the bookstore’s Front Table. Usually just inside the front door, a stack on that table was the best way to tell fellow readers “pick this one next.” Now that I’m retired, I no longer have such a table, but I still love the chance to offer great reads, old or new, to other booklovers. So here’s my virtual Front Table, new titles rotating on monthly…
The first two titles star independent retailers – always great heroes in my book. Rachel Joyce’s The Music Shop (Random House, $27.00) is the unconventional love story of Frank, record shop owner and strict vinyl adherent, and Ilse, a young woman with a mysterious past. Other than an uncanny ability to match the perfect recording to each customer’s needs and desires, Frank’s not very good at people skills. Haunted by the memory of his mother and battling the forces of change, Frank’s attraction to the beautiful Ilse seems doomed from the start. I loved this book’s wonderfully quirky cast of characters – Frank’s fellow business owners on Unity Street – and I especially loved Frank’s rhapsodic descriptions of music, both familiar and not. Great read, plus a great playlist.
Bookseller Lydia Smith has built a tidy little life for herself among her books, her colleagues and the BookFrogs, a motley assortment of loners and misfits who spend their days among the shelves at the Bright Ideas Bookstore. Lydia’s carefully crafted existence is shattered, however, when Joey, one of the BookFrogs, kills himself in the bookstore, and leaves all his worldly possessions to Lydia. What she finds in his meager apartment is as mysterious as it is sad – the books he has left behind are all marked with some sort of code. As Lydia begins to unravel the message Joey has left her in his books, deeply buried memories from her own childhood also begin to surface. Could it be that Joey was trying to warn her about a very real danger from the past? Matthew Sullivan’s Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore, now available in paperback (Scribner, $17.00) is definitely not your run-of-the-mill bookstore cute story; rather it is a taut and clever mystery full of unexpected twists and page-turning suspense.
Another recent paperback reissue, Defectors (Washington Square Press, $17.00) by Joseph Kanon, also offers superior suspense and a smart storyline. Former CIA agent Frank Weeks defected to the Soviet Union in 1948. Twelve years later his estranged brother Simon, an American publisher, is called to Moscow to help Frank prepare his memoirs for U.S. publication. Simon is initially relieved to see that Frank, his adored older brother, has not really changed despite his post-defection career with the KGB. It soon becomes apparent to Simon, however, that Frank’s invitation was far more complicated than he believed. As events spiral out of control, Simon must decide who in the insular defector community of spies and former spies, including his own brother, he can trust. Kanon’s atmospheric writing perfectly portrays the fear and paranoia of life under the Soviet regime, and the compelling twists, turns, crosses and double-crosses kept me hooked right to the very end.
I love historical fiction that offers a new slant on a familiar subject. Bernard Cornwell, an absolute master at bringing history to life, turns his eye to Elizabethan London and a group of players known as The Lord Chamberlain’s Men in Fools and Mortals (Harper, $27.99). Richard Shakespeare, younger brother to playwright and company shareholder William, has escaped a miserable life as apprentice to an abusive carpenter, finding refuge as a minor member of his brother’s troupe. Underpaid and under appreciated – relegated to playing only female roles – Richard finds himself ensnared in a complicated and dangerous situation involving conflicted loyalties, Puritanical henchmen, and the missing manuscript of William’s brilliant new play. Fools and Mortals realistically reproduces the London of 1595, with all its mud and stink, artistic rivalries, political skullduggery, and above all, the absolutely brilliant beginnings of the English theater. Not only is this novel an insightful window into our cultural past, but it’s also a cracking good read – packed with memorable characters, cinematic action, and seasoned with just the right amount of humor.
The last title stacked up on my table this month is something a little different. Tom Miller’s debut novel The Philosopher’s Flight (Simon & Schuster, $26.00) might be categorized as historical fantasy or science fiction, but I was so convinced of Miller’s underlining premise of human flight that I read it as historical science fact. Robert Weekes is a practitioner of empirical philosophy, an arcane and female-dominated branch of science that can summon the winds, heal the injured and take humans into the air without wings or machines. Set in a slightly altered America of the early 20th Century, the Great War raging in Europe, this is the story of an individual struggling against gender stereotypes, determined to prove his talents to his fellow (mostly female) students at Radcliffe College, and attain his dream of joining the elite Sigilry Corp Rescue and Evacuation Department. Robert is fighting more than prejudice, however, as there are those who are bent on insuring that every last philosopher is wiped out. This book is so imaginative, yet feels entirely authentic, a fantastical journey that will have you gazing skyward and thinking “I wonder if I could…” If history didn’t actually happen this way, it certainly should have.
Visit or call your favorite independent bookstore for these books, and check out their Front Table recommendations, too.
Kristine Kaufman is a retired bookseller and forever bibliophile. She was a co-owner of Snow Goose Books and Frames, which was in Stanwood, WA.