Sunday, May 7, 2017

Book Review: "Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore" by Matthew Sullivan

How do you select the books you're going to read? Oftentimes I'm drawn to books written by authors I love (and sometimes I decide to give an author another shot), and other times I choose books and/or authors which have been hyped or those about which I've heard good feedback. And then sometimes, it's something intangible, like the cover design catches my eye, so it leads me to read the description, and I'm hooked.

This is the crazy way my mind worked when I decided to read Matthew Sullivan's terrific Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore: I used to work in a bookstore, I love going to bookstores, and I really enjoyed Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore (see my original review), one of the last books I read which took place in a bookstore. The gamble definitely paid off with this one—while it wasn't what I was expected, it was so much more.

Lydia is a bookseller at Denver's Bright Ideas Bookstore. Not only is she excellent at her job because she's well-read and perfectly satisfied to work where she is, she's tremendously patient with a group of people she calls the BookFrogs—the downtrodden, sometimes homeless regulars (most often men) who make the bookstore their surrogate home.

"Lydia's skills as a bookseller came mainly, she believed, from her ability to listen. A raging case of bibliophilia certainly helped, as did limited financial needs, but it was her capacity to be politely trapped by others that really sealed her professional fate. From bus stops to parties to the floors of the store, Lydia was the model of a Good Listener—a sounding board for one and all. Strangers and acquaintances and the occasional friend unloaded on her by the hour..."

One night, just as the store was closing, Lydia finds Joey, the youngest, most sensitive and inquisitive BookFrog, with whom Lydia has struck up a friendship of sorts, has committed suicide on the store's top floor. She knew that Joey had had his problems in the past, but he never seemed desperate enough to consider suicide. When she finds out that Joey has bequeathed Lydia his meager possessions—mostly a few random items and a milk crate full of books, most of which he bought from the store, she is saddened for the path his life took. But as she flips through his books, she discovered that pages in each were defaced, as if he was sending Lydia coded messages of some kind.

As Lydia tries to figure out what Joey was trying to tell her, she also finds among Joey's possessions an item from her own childhood, something she cannot figure out how he would have gotten. You see, Lydia has her own secrets as well, basically a childhood tragedy that has caused her to keep everyone, even her boyfriend, at arm's length, and never let them truly know who she is and what she has been through.

The messages in Joey's books, along with the resurgence of her own memories and insecurities, leave her on edge, a condition further exacerbated by the reappearance of one of her childhood best friends, as well as a dogged police detective and her estranged father. She is determined to find out what Joey was asking of her, and she realizes she needs to get answers to the questions that have haunted her own life since she was younger, even if that means reliving an experience that still chills her.

While this book is billed as a mystery, and there certainly are suspenseful elements of the plot, there is so much more to the story. This is a book about giving people a chance no matter who they are or what their background is. It's a book about friendship, sacrifice, the need to feel wanted and loved, the danger of secrets, the grief we keep hidden inside, and how the love of books can truly be pervasive. I found this book so surprising and so moving—even as I figured out how the plot would unfold I was so invested in Sullivan's characters I couldn't stop reading.

Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore is really a special book, and Sullivan is truly talented as a storyteller. Because it straddles a few genres, I hope it doesn't get lost in the shuffle, because this is a fantastic read—full of emotion, a little suspense, and a lot of heart.

NetGalley and Scribner provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

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