The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry

9781616203214_p0_v2_s260x420Gabriells Zevin’s The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry vicariously fulfills the dream of many readers to own a bookstore in a small town, where being able to read all day and talk about books, trumps profits.  With clever references to familiar books and pithy quotes from favorite authors, Zevin offers a handy resource of good reads along with a quirky love story that will charm you as she follows a recognizable formula for second chances.

Both A.J. and his wife, Nic, are literary beings who have forsaken the grueling years they could have dedicated to writing their dissertations to open a bookstore in a small town off the coast of Massachusetts, accessible only by ferry. After Nic dies in a car accident, A. J.’s life follows the usual pattern of despair – until two seemingly unrelated occurrences change his life forever: his valuable first edition of a rare Edgar Allan Poe book is stolen, and a toddler is abandoned in the stacks of the store’s children’s books.  Zevin follows up with a slow-moving romance connecting A. J. to a publisher’s rep, a plot twist involving his dead wife’s sister, and humorous episodes as A.J. revels in his new role as father to the precocious young girl left in his store.

The story has the pace and flavor of a “Major Pettigrew” or Beginner’s Greek, with characters who don’t fit the mold and a story line that easily moves from slight mystery to poignant moments and satisfying resolution, with lots of bumps along the way.  The ending is contrived and not as happily-ever-after as you are led to expect, but I enjoyed this fast read about redemption through books – a good one for book lovers.

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The Secret Room

9781616089603_p0_v1_s260x420Within the framework of an adventurous fantasy, Antonia Michaelis addresses the heart wrenching sadness of parents losing a child, and the quest of an adopted boy trying to belong, in her book for middle school readers – The Secret Room.

Achim, an eleven year old orphan, is adopted by Paul and Ines whose four-year-old son, Arnim, died seven years earlier.  Achim discovers a secret room in his new home that has kept the dead boy’s spirit a prisoner.  With Achim fighting off an evil powerful monster, the Nameless One, while aided by talking birds, and transforming himself into a brave, fearless fighter who can fly like a bird, the suspense of his quest sustains interest in the adventure.  A young reader might easily attend more to his dramatic feats than to the underlying message that subtly seeps in between the lines.

Michaelis cleverly uses metaphors for the parents’ sadness to frame the images of lives trapped by the horror of an untimely death.  Clearly, only their ability to move on with their lives will free both their son’s memory as well as allow them to continue living in the present.  Achim, their newly adopted son is the key, as he battles his own insecurities and rises to be the hero who saves all, including himself.

I received this book to review from the publisher, and it sat on a pile for over a month.  The book jacket summary did not incline me to rush to read it, but perhaps the timing was fortuitous.  As parents and older siblings are now struggling to cope with the aftermath of the horrific murders of first graders in Connecticut, the message of this book seems timely.  Although Achim defeats the Nameless One in the end, he notes:

“…he would always exist. People would keep dying and other people wouldn’t be able to let them go.”

The book ends happily with Achim finding a new family, new friends, and himself – finally free of the worry that he will be sent back to the orphanage.  The touching moments when Achim’s parents appear as birds to help him will have adults tearing up, and the excitement of defeating the villain will appeal to the middle grade audience.

As a coping vehicle for parents helping children and themselves recover from the death of someone young, this book could also become a valuable resource.