Category Archives: book reviews

Remember Customer Service? We do.

Little Bookstore is one of several on a list of second-hand bookslingers who trade ideas and share knowledge–including that there’s such a thing as being TOO local. People can take the approach that you must be in this small town because you couldn’t make it in the big city; I’ve just come back from an economic summit where rural town managers discussed this problem.

Being too local is a problem anytime of year, but at Christmas, people can also eschew specialty businesses because they believe making a mad dash through the discount warehouses will be “cheaper and more convenient.”

(Yeah, and the shortcut is always faster….)

Small Business Saturday and the Christmas season tend to be a special challenge for bookstores because much of our unique charm lies in our handselling technique; a proprietor knows his or her customers, and has developed a relationship of trust, of not trying to just sell, sell, sell but to match. We take pride in matching the correct book to the right person. Trust is the foundation of customer service, trying to help the customer rather than meet an imposed quota.

Everybody sells books at Christmas, but who can greet you by name, ask how your niece liked Divergent, suggest a new detective series because they know you like mysteries themed around food? Or, who can meet you for the first time, listen to a list of the last five books your dad read and what he thought of them, and then suggest the perfect present based on that information? How much time will you save with that kind of service?

That’s what we do, and what our friends in the bookselling business do. Because we are our businesses; we don’t just work for them. We believe in selling you what you want, not what you’ve been told you need. And we believe you are your own person.

Visit your local bookseller this holiday season–be it Paperback Book Exhange in Neenah, Wisconsin; Al’s Books out in Kansas; maybe that sweet little Country Bookshop in North Carolina; or one of the other 2,500-or-so used book shops across America. The coffee will be hot, the chairs comfy, the kittens purring, and the proprietors ready to listen, serve, and smile.

 

 

 

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Filed under animal rescue, Big Stone Gap, book reviews, bookstore management, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, reading, shopsitting, small town USA, VA, Wendy Welch

The Monday Book: FREE GIFT WITH PURCHASE by Jean Godfrey-June

godfreyPublished in 2006, Free Gift with Purchase: my improbable career in magazines and makeup sat on our shelves in the shop awhile. One day I picked it up, realized it was a memoir that had been misfiled in fiction, and headed across the shop floor. But I opened it and read a random section–

–and started laughing. I don’t wear make-up, or move in fashionista circles, but the book drew me in. The fun of reading is living someone else’s life for awhile.

Godfrey has a wicked sense of humor, balanced by a strong grounding in the fact that her life is about something halfway between silly and essential. I loved her opening explanation establishing why beauty is important–war zones doing a roaring trade in black market cosmetics, e.g.–and that everyone has some sort of beauty regime, whether it involves “product” or not. She seems to have a healthy respect for the the American consumer, pointing out that about half of “advice” is really “sales pitch” and it’s up to the purchaser to discern the difference.

Then she just starts telling stories, interspersed with advice. Most of the advice sailed over my head, but I devoured her funny, wise stories, like how networks (and careers) are formed and lost by a single ill-timed giggle. How those glam parties full of celebs are really the trading floor, everyone working hard without daring to sweat into silk OR admit they’re working. (If you look like you’re networking, you’re doing it wrong.) How you need to know yourself before you let anyone at a makeup counter touch you, or you wind up looking like a man in drag, and the woman behind the counter may revel in this because you didn’t buy anything.

This isn’t a cohesive story with a narrative arc, and I liked it for that reason, dipping in of an evening to relax before bed. This is a sweet, alluring book, with a little more depth than expected, if one comes to it with a healthy disrespect for the lines between which Godfrey-June colors. Underneath her writing runs a sense of “we’re not curing cancer, but we’ve made women with cancer feel better by giving them prettiness.”

Spots of name-dropping and elbow-rubbing with the insider crowd decorate her prose (like glitter in eye shadow? teehee) but aren’t the focus. Those with journalism backgrounds might particularly like the “vapid meets intensity” moments when people who write for a living have to come up with something meaningful to say about perfume that doesn’t involve “sweet” or “fruity.”

Not setting the world on fire, but adding a bit of color, this fun, cheerful book.

 

 

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Filed under Big Stone Gap, book reviews, Downton Abbey, humor, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, out of things to read, publishing, reading, Sarah Nelson, small town USA, Uncategorized, VA, Wendy Welch, writing

The Monday Book: THE SILVER TATTOO by Laura Treacy Bentley

tattooDark literary thrillers are not my thing; I got this book in the post from the author who requested consideration for the Monday Book. We like to support regional authors (and she’s in WV) so while prepared to be optimistic, I worried I’d not have much to say about it.

But I totally loved Bentley’s writing. She has a great way with details and scene-setting. Her characters are not driving the plot; the plot drives the plot, specifically the psychotic weirdness of the stalker after her protagonist Leah. Bentley paints the slow, steady suspenseful rise with increasing depictions of violence or madness that pretty much verge on poetic. In the background hover tributes to Irish folklore that add nice atmosphere.

Bentley’s writing reminds me of two fantasy authorities: Ray Bradbury (one of her writing heroes, so it stands to reason) and Stephen King. She has that playful sense of poetry that Bradbury has, and like King she eschews explanation and too-obvious depictions of what’s going on inside the person’s head– a la King’s “he did it because he did it” writing.

This is a scene-by-scene book, and some of the scenes are quite intense. If you like plots that are less twist-and-turn than finely drawn, if you like to figure out for yourself why someone is behaving as they are,  or if you like Irish mythology, you’re going to love The Silver Tattoo.

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Filed under Big Stone Gap, book reviews, folklore and ethnography, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, publishing, reading, Scotland, Uncategorized, VA, Wendy Welch, writing, YA fiction

The Monday Book: WE HAVE ALWAYS LIVED IN THE CASTLE by Shirley Jackson

WeHaveAlwaysLivedInTheCastle“A pretty sight, a lady with a book.” –Shirley Jackson, We Have Always Lived in the Castle

The problem with being a big reader in school is that by the time you get to classes where the teacher is passing out big books (or even big concept stories) you’ve seen that theme/archetype/trope/chestnut already in something else.

Our high school English teacher made us read “The Lottery,” by Shirley Jackson, for Halloween. Lame. And old hat. Ursula LeGuin in “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” or even Tam Lin and the sacrifice to Hell were better deals.

So when I picked up Jackson’s Castle, I wasn’t expecting much.

That’s how the best things happen.

Aside from first learning of the wonderful name MerriCat for Mary Katherine, this is the book that teaches many writers about untrustworthy narrators. The story is basically two sisters, MerriCat and Constance, living alone in an old house, young girls, and slowly but surely you come to find out why. And then everything goes to Hell on the point of a knife, but it’s a good ride. Here’s another quote, just to give you an idea:

“My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all, I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in our family is dead.”

Yeah, she’s a beaut, that Merricat. Jackson’s writing style is so cheerfully prosaic as she pushes out lines of such blood-curdling creepiness, you think, “Who WRITES like this?” For instance, when MerriCat idly comments: “I wonder if I could eat a child if I had the chance.’ ‘I doubt if I could cook one,’ said Constance.”

If you want a post-Halloween scare, read this atmospheric, quirky, Poe-as-a-woman-with-a-semblance-of-feminine-understanding masterpiece.

If you read it before bed, you might want to leave the light on. And stop taking sugar in your tea.

Why this book this week: I read this book years ago, and picked it up again when some bookseller friends and I were discussing online what we were currently reading.

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Filed under between books, Big Stone Gap, book reviews, Downton Abbey, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, publishing, reading, Sarah Nelson, Uncategorized, VA, Wendy Welch, writing

The Monday Book: SUMMON THE KEEPER by Tanya Huff

tanya huffOne of those books that appeared in my bookstore and called to me from the shelf, I took this beat-up paperback to bed one night and stayed up past 2 a.m., giggling.

This book was just plain fun, and then right at the end it has one of the loveliest “didn’t see that coming” moments ever. Which you will not get as a spoiler in this review, because I don’t want you to miss the enjoyment of reading Huff’s sf novel.

Summon the Keeper has a cast of thousands – including Claire, the pragmatic heroine; a lovesick ghost named Jacques; Dean, the gormless hulking guy from Newfoundland; a sarcastic cat (book quote: “No one had ever been able to determine if cats were actually clairvoyant, or merely obnoxious little know-it-alls.”); and a bratty little sister who goes around turning sofas into pygmy hippos (prompting this response from their mother: “If she does call, would you please explain to her that turning the sofa into a pygmy hippo for the afternoon might be a very good transfiguration, but it’s rather hard on the sofa, and it confuses the hippo.”)

There are other characters, too.

Claire is a keeper; she mends holes in the fabric of the universe when people mess it up with bad magic. She gets put in charge of a hotel that has a hole in the basement leading to Hell, which is problematic and must be closed. The book turns on this plot device, but if ever the words “character drives plot” were proven, it is in this fun read. The joy lies not in what, but who and how.

The whole book rollicks along like a sitcom with smart writers behind it, charming and snappy. The best news is that Summon is the first of three books in the KEEPER series. Short enough as a series to keep its zip, but a good satisfying run.

And except for the sprinkled-at-just-the-right-intervals sweet moments when you say, “Awwwwww,” you’re going to giggle all the way.

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The Monday Book: The Paris Wife by Paula McLain

Paula McLain’s novel about Ernest Hemingway’s wife Hadley was one of those books I let go in and out of the shop while it was bestselling, but had on my “as soon as it slows down, I’m taking it downstairs to read” list.

I guess I missed the window. Out of state recently in a thrift store, I found it lying on a neglected shelf of musty, curling books for a quarter. Although we typically eschew buying books for cash, there seemed only one course of action….

I admit that Hemingway’s Missing Suitcase of Work (if you’re not familiar with this cautionary tale, google it) has fascinated me for years, sorta like the Bermuda Triangle. So I anticipated really enjoying this book.

While I liked it, I didn’t love it, and that’s mostly down to how well McLain describes her characters. They don’t come off as nice people, the Stein/Fitzgerald/Anderson glitterati set inhabiting Paris between the wars. They come off as vapid and aggressive. Which means McLean is a really good writer.

She doesn’t try to sound like Hemingway. Hadley, as first person narrator of the book–and Hemingway’s first wife if not his first love–sounds like a lot of women trying to be their own person and also satisfy a guy.

McLain deals well with the added tensions of artistic competitiveness, both within the marriage and between the glittering members of the lit set. If you know a lot about Hemingway’s life, seeing these events from a close-but-not-the-same point of view is interesting–particularly the lost suitcase, a pivotal yet fairly quiet event just after the novel’s middle. It has the feel of just another day in the life, as McLain has written it–a bad day, but not coming out of the writing’s character to trumpet “And from that moment to this….!” There is no literary anachronism in this book.

I am glad I got to read it, but it won’t go down in history as a favorite. It turned out to be more interesting to me in relation to the Paris writing yuppies than as its own work. Which is likely why many people read it. It doesn’t disappoint, and I think it’s odd that the thing that shows what a good writer McLean is, is the thing that consigned the book to “meh” for me: that she shows the character and flawed core of all those literary heroes.

She did such a good job, I didn’t like them, or her book. But I liked her writing. Go figger. :]

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The Monday Book: THE LAST KABBALIST by Richard Zimler

The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon is a BIG book. (I like big….. yes, okay.) It came into our shop years ago and I took it upstairs to read, and became engrossed. Read it in three nights. Then I put it back in the shop, and when I started writing the Monday Book blog, I couldn’t remember the name!

Just yesterday another copy came into the shop, and I recognized it instantly, grabbed it, and wrote this for y’all.

This is a GOOD read if you like historic epics intertwined with realistic characters. Richard Zimler’s story takes place soon after Lisbon’s 1506 massacre of “New Christians,” when the powder keg of Muslim, Christian, Jewish interaction ignited. For those unfamiliar, in the late 1400s a lot of Jews were living in Portugal, which had proved the most tolerant of the countries available to them. But in 1497(ish) Jews were hauled en masse to Christian baptism fonts and pretty much converted against their will to Christianity.

That should have kept them safe, but the world being what it is, it didn’t. Zimler’s epic picks up at the point where rumblings have started again.

The Last Kabbalist is a fascinating depiction of the interaction between not only these BIG categories of religions, but the smaller divisions and hidden links between them. Subsets of Jews and Muslims and Christians act independently within their religions, following the threads of their own lives: desire for knowledge, compassion, anger, vengeance.

And human hearts are never simple anyway. Berekiah is a young illuminator (an illustrator) who finds his uncle murdered– his uncle who apprenticed him and is the sole of religious dignity, dead with a naked girl beside him. So there’s a mystery, but also Berekiah needs to survive the riots, he’s in love with a girl, and he’s kinda trying to hold his family together.

At times awful in its depictions of violence, always insightful into how people have helped and harmed each other since history was recorded, Kabbalist is a gripping read. You felt like you could see, smell, taste, and feel the terror, hope, and desperate planning of those trying to survive.

A word of warning: don’t start Kabbalist unless you have time to read for awhile. You’re not going to put it down easily.

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