Book Review: The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry

Book Review: The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

18293427When I finished reading this book and then went back and looked at the book blurb:

In the spirit of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, Gabrielle Zevin’s enchanting novel is a love letter to the world of books – and booksellers – that changes our lives by giving us the stories that open our hearts and enlighten our minds.

… my first thought was “Damn.” Because in my head, I wanted to say something about this being a love letter to book lovers, and it’s already been said. Double damn.

But really, how can I complain — when I have just read a book that I LOVED so, so much?

The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry is one of those quiet, unassuming books that you think will be sweet and pleasant — and then BAM! It sneaks up on you, grabs you by the heart, and makes you feel so many feels.

A. J. Fikry, when we first meet him, is a sad, lonely man. A. J. owns Island Books, the one and only bookstore on Alice Island, a short ferry ride away from Hyannis, Massachusetts. The store is not doing very well, and neither is A. J. Since his wife’s death almost two years earlier, A. J. is drifting through his life, drinking himself into oblivion once a week, being grumpy to his customers, and just not finding a reason to care.

All that changes when a drunken night during which a valuable Poe manuscript goes missing triggers a bizarre chain of events which leads to the discovery of a toddler abandoned in the bookstore — who soon becomes the center of A. J.’s life.

As A. J. starts waking up to the possibility of a happy future, his business picks up as well, and little by little Island Books becomes the center of bookish activity on the island. My favorite bookish happening is the Chief’s Choice book club, started by the local police chief and consisting of a book group for cops — which no cop really can decline to participate in, since the chief is the one organizing it.

Meanwhile, a very persistent sales rep from a small publishing company seems to make a very large impression on A. J., and their business relationship slowly blooms into something more, with lots of awkwardness and false starts, but always with a shared passion for books.

Can I just say yet again how much I loved this book? Excuse me for gushing, but The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry seems tailor-made for anyone whose life revolves around reading. (Yes, that includes me, and I suspect it includes anyone reading this review!) Amidst the story of A. J.’s personal journey is a meditation on reading and how a life can be shaped and measured by the books read along the way. So much of what I feel about reading is encapsulated here, and it’s simply beautiful to meet so many characters who feel this way too.

The writing is clever without being forced, yet I found myself laughing out loud at various points, such as :

Ismay has stylishly cut, spiky red hair, pale skin and eyes, long, spindly limbs. All her features are a little too large, her gestures a little too animated. Pregnant, she is like a very pretty Gollum.


Lambiase is recently divorced. He had married his high school sweetheart, so it took him a long time to realize that she was not, in fact, a sweetheart or a very nice person at all.

And yet, even with the humorous tone always present beneath the surface, the emotions are real and visceral:

A. J. watches Maya in her pink party dress, and he feels a vaguely familiar, slightly intolerable bubbling inside of him. He wants to laugh out loud or punch a wall. He feels drunk or at least carbonated. Insane. At first, he thinks this is happiness, but then he determines it’s love. Fucking love, he thinks. What a bother. It’s completely gotten in the way of his plan to drink himself to death, to drive his business to ruin. The most annoying thing about it is that once a person gives a shit about one thing, he finds he has to start giving a shit about everything.

Ultimately, though, what I love most about this wonderful book (and yes, I pretty much loved it all) is what is has to say to about readers and their reading passions:

When she told me it was her favorite, it suggested to me strange and wonderful things about her character that I had not guessed, dark places that I might like to visit.

People tell boring lies about politics, God, and love. You know everything you need to know about a person from the answer to the question: What is your favorite book?

Don’t miss out: Read The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry. Filled with beauty and sorrow, love and humor, and an abiding love for books and readers, this book was an unexpected delight for me — and apparently is now one of those books: Books that fill you up with so much emotion and enjoyment that you want to run right out and start putting copies in people’s hands.


The details:

Title: The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry
Author: Gabrielle Zevin
Publisher: Algonquin Books
Publication date: April 1, 2014
Length: 230 pages
Genre: Adult contemporary
Source: Review copy courtesy of Algonquin Books via Netgalley

Wishing & Waiting on Wednesday: The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry

There’s nothing like a Wednesday for thinking about the books we want to read! My Wishing & Waiting on Wednesday post is linking up with two fabulous book memes, Wishlist Wednesday (hosted by Pen to Paper) and Waiting on Wednesday (hosted by Breaking the Spine).

My most wished-for book this week is:


The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin
(Release date: April 1, 2014)

Synopsis via Goodreads:

In the spirit of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, Gabrielle Zevin’s enchanting novel is a love letter to the world of books-and booksellers-that changes our lives by giving us the stories that open our hearts and enlighten our minds.

On the faded Island Books sign hanging over the porch of the Victorian cottage is the motto “No Man Is an Island; Every Book Is a World.” A. J. Fikry, the irascible owner, is about to discover just what that truly means.

A. J. Fikry’s life is not at all what he expected it to be. His wife has died, his bookstore is experiencing the worst sales in its history, and now his prized possession, a rare collection of Poe poems, has been stolen. Slowly but surely, he is isolating himself from all the people of Alice Island-from Lambiase, the well-intentioned police officer who’s always felt kindly toward Fikry; from Ismay, his sister-in-law who is hell-bent on saving him from his dreary self; from Amelia, the lovely and idealistic (if eccentric) Knightley Press sales rep who keeps on taking the ferry over to Alice Island, refusing to be deterred by A.J.’s bad attitude. Even the books in his store have stopped holding pleasure for him. These days, A.J. can only see them as a sign of a world that is changing too rapidly.

And then a mysterious package appears at the bookstore. It’s a small package, but large in weight. It’s that unexpected arrival that gives A. J. Fikry the opportunity to make his life over, the ability to see everything anew. It doesn’t take long for the locals to notice the change overcoming A.J.; or for that determined sales rep, Amelia, to see her curmudgeonly client in a new light; or for the wisdom of all those books to become again the lifeblood of A.J.’s world; or for everything to twist again into a version of his life that he didn’t see coming. As surprising as it is moving, The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry is an unforgettable tale of transformation and second chances, an irresistible affirmation of why we read, and why we love.

Okay, this book sounds like it’s totally full of win. Because a) Gabrielle Zevin and b) bookstore. Sold! Seriously, I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve read by this author so far, and what could be better than a book about books, book lovers, and book sellers?

What are you wishing for this Wednesday?

Looking for some bookish fun on Thursdays and Fridays? Come join me for my regular weekly features, Thursday Quotables and Flashback Friday! You can find out more here — come share the book love!


Do you host a book blog meme? Do you participate in a meme that you really, really love? I’m building a Book Blog Meme Directory, and need your help! If you know of a great meme to include — or if you host one yourself — please drop me a note on my Contact page and I’ll be sure to add your info!

Wishlist Wednesday

Welcome to Wishlist Wednesday!

The concept is to post about one book from our wish lists that we can’t wait to read. Want to play? Here’s how:

  • Follow Pen to Paper as host of the meme.
  • Do a post about one book from your wishlist and why you want to read it.
  • Add your blog to the linky at the bottom of the post at Pen to Paper.
  • Put a link back to Pen to Paper somewhere in your post.
  • Visit the other blogs and enjoy!

My wishlist book this week is:

In the Age of Love and Chocolate (Birthright, #3)

In The Age of Love and Chocolate by Gabrielle Zevin

From Goodreads:

All These Things I’ve Done introduced us to timeless heroine Anya Balanchine, a plucky sixteen year old with the heart of a girl and the responsibilities of a grown woman. Now eighteen, life has been more bitter than sweet for Anya. She has lost her parents and her grandmother, and has spent the better part of her high school years in trouble with the law. Perhaps hardest of all, her decision to open a nightclub with her old nemesis Charles Delacroix has cost Anya her relationship with Win.
Still, it is Anya’s nature to soldier on. She puts the loss of Win behind her and focuses on her work. Against the odds, the nightclub becomes an enormous success, and Anya feels like she is on her way and that nothing will ever go wrong for her again. But after a terrible misjudgment leaves Anya fighting for her life, she is forced to reckon with her choices and to let people help her for the first time in her life.

Why do I want to read this?

In the Age of Love and Chocolate is the 3rd book in Gabrielle Zevin’s very enjoyable Birthright series. Set just slightly in the future, the trilogy takes place in a New York in which chocolate and caffeine are illegal. Anya is heir to the Balanchine Chocolate crime family, and has to figure out where she fits in among the crime lords, the crime fighters, and her teen schoolmates, who’d really like to make it to prom without too much trouble. True, the illegal chocolate concept may not work completely as a parallel for Prohibition, but trust me — despite the occasional odd moments, the Birthright series really delivers.

Gabrielle Zevin is the talented writer of YA hits Elsewhere and Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac. You really can’t go wrong with any of her books — but if you haven’t experienced the Birthright series yet, start with All These Things I’ve Done, then move on to Because It Is My Blood. In the Age of Love and Chocolate comes out in October. I can’t wait to see how it all works out!

Besides — chocolate! Mmmmm.

What’s on your wishlist this week?

So what are you doing on Thursdays and Fridays? Come join me for my regular weekly features, Thursday Quotables and Flashback Friday! You can find out more here — come share the book love!

Book Review: Because It Is My Blood

Book Review: Because It Is My Blood by Gabrielle Zevin

Because It Is My Blood, book 2 in the Birthright series which began in All These Things I’ve Done, continues the story of Anya Balanchine, 17-year-old heiress to the Balanchine Chocolate empire. Unfortunately for Anya, in New York in the year 2083, chocolate and caffeine are illegal under the laws of the Second Prohibition. As a result, the Balanchines are a notorious organized crime family, and as the daughter of the murdered head of the family business, Anya is a prime target for both internecine bloodshed and for the law enforcement agents eager to make a big splash in the press.

On top of all this, Anya must worry about protecting both her genius younger sister and her mentally-impaired older brother — not to mention the more typical teenage worries of boyfriends, best friends, and high school graduation. The fact that Anya is a convicted criminal who has served prison time complicates matters tremendously, and when she is re-jailed on trumped-up charges, an escape seems to be the only answer.

Because It Is My Blood is a serviceable second book, moving the plot along at a mostly fast pace, although several of Anya’s sojourns along the way seem to drag a bit. The heart of the story is somewhat lacking in this installment. All These Things I’ve Done was propelled forward not only by the crime family plotline but by a compelling “star-crossed lovers” romance between Anya and the son of the New York District Attorney. This romance still features in the second book, but doesn’t carry the sense of excitement and passion present in the first. In fact, that sums up the problem that I had with Because It Is My Blood. The book often reads as a recitation of facts and events — jailbreaks, deaths real and faked, meetings with lawyers, meetings with Balanchine family members and associates — but without a sense of burning passion driving the story forward.

This is not to say that Because It Is My Blood isn’t fun to read. I got a real kick out of the familiar New York landmarks reimagined in the setting of a deteriorating city with meager resources and ample crime. The popular nightclub Little Egypt is housed in what was once a museum (i.e., The Metropolitan Museum of Art), and a vacant mess of a property with weird lion statues out front (i.e., The New York Public Library) is described as a place where they used to keep paper books in the old days. Anya is amused by the old-fashioned slang of her grandmother (OMG, for example), and there’s a film festival showing ancient movies including one where a lady crosses a river on a horse (which I can only assume is a reference to Lord of the Rings). Little details like these make the story accessible and bring to life both the setting and the era in ways both entertaining and relatable.

By the end of Because It Is My Blood, the stage has been set for what I believe will be an exciting third installment in the trilogy. Anya has made key decisions and is about to take a bold new step that will impact all the people around her and will have dramatic impact on the family business as well as on the New York political world. The developments are quite promising, and the storyline is left hanging with a tremendous amount of potential for a satisfying conclusion to the series.

As a young adult trilogy, the Birthright series has a lot going for it: a smart, strong female protagonist, an unusual premise that breaks from the ubiquitous dystopian model saturating the YA market, and a clear-eyed look at a girl who has to balance love, family, honor, and her own sense of purpose. Because It Is My Blood is not a stand-along novel, and you wouldn’t want to jump into the series with it. But if this type of story appeals to you, I’d definitely recommend giving the series a try, starting with All These Things I’ve Done. The writing is fresh, funny, and appealing, the characters are not run-of-the-mill YA teens… and who can resist a book about chocolate?

Note: I have two other book 2s in the works this week, and may actually be back with a few astute observations when I’m done. Middle children never have it easy, do they?