Few things please me more than discovering a wee gem by a writer I've never come across before. United States author Gabrielle Zevin has written several novels for adults and teenagers but her latest, The Collected Works Of AJ Fikry (Hachette) is the first I've read. It's a lovely story, quietly charming, fairly eccentric, poignant and very amusing.
AJ Fikry owns a slowly failing bookshop on an island off the Massachusetts coast. The rest of his life is a mess too. His wife died in a car accident; his only real asset, a valuable first edition, has been stolen - and he's dealing with it all by isolating himself and drinking his way through depression.
To compound his problems a mother abandons a toddler named Maya in his bookstore, leaving a note saying she can't look after the child and wants her to grow up in a place with books.
Learning the woman has drowned herself in the icy waters surrounding the island, AJ can't bear to hand over the little girl to social workers and so he keeps her.
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When sales rep Amelia Loman appears at the shop she's hoping to get this cranky but adorable bookseller interested in her publishing company's winter releases. Instead, AJ delivers a very funny diatribe about the sorts of books he dislikes (which pretty much covers all of them) then sends her on her way.
Amelia can't be dispatched so easily however. She has to turn up three times a year to run through her company's hottest new titles and AJ finds himself warming to her. In fact, he develops a little crush.
This is more than a simple love story. It's about how people can come into a life and change it in unexpected ways, bringing with them second chances and the potential for redemption. It's also about how we define ourselves by the books we read and how, even if you don't think you're a reader at all, there's the perfect novel out there somewhere that will change your mind. The book-world setting is quite delicious, with literary jokes and references aplenty and a witty take on the whole business of writing, publishing and selling them.
But there was one thing that almost put me off right at the beginning. Often I struggle with novels written entirely in the present tense. Rather than giving the prose immediacy, I find they can be awkward and self-conscious.
But Zevin is an adroit writer and within the first few beautifully put together paragraphs I knew she'd pulled it off. "Every word the right one and exactly where it should be," says AJ at one point about a book he has enjoyed. The same could just as easily describe The Collected Works Of AJ Fikry. It's a complete joy to read, even if it is liberally laced with tragedy. A treat for anyone who loves books about books.