Book Review: Words In Deep Blue by Cath Crowley

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Star Ratings:

Characters: ***** (5 stars)

Writing:**** (4 stars)

Plot: **** (4 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

(Be it known that I read an advanced reader’s copy of this book and some things may change before publication.)

I liked this book.  It’s realistic, somewhat romantic, somewhat nerdy YA.  It’s Australian, so the seasons were confusing. It’s about the ocean.

Words In Deep Blue was nice and distracting after I devoured Jessica Mitford’s (also delightful) Hons and Rebels, which got me a little worked up about politics and history repeating itself, etc.  Cath Crowley’s book was entirely amusing and touching without weighing too heavily on my mind.

Rachel’s brother drowned.  That’s the beginning.  Her brother Cal drowned and now she can’t go near the ocean, even though the ocean had always been her favorite place, the thing she loved most.  This book has a lot of love in it.  Siblings who want each other to be happy.  Parents who don’t know how to help, but will do whatever they can, even when their own lives are in shambles.  Parents who kind of drop the ball but there’s love there, too.  Love for literature, for Dickens, for Borges, for classics mixed with Zombies, for books about fish.  Nearly half the story takes place in a second hand bookshop, where customers leave letters between their favorite pages.

If that’s not romantic enough for you,there’s a love story between young people, too.  Several pairs of love stories, really.  Rachel and Henry, who used to be best friends, who stopped speaking after a miscommunication that wasn’t quite so tragic as Tess Durbyfield’s letter-under-the-door incident, but isn’t too far away from it, either.  The two of them were very perfect for each other, but he was in love with Amy, beautiful and inconsistent. Henry never replied to Rachel’s love letter when she and Cal moved to the shore, so she decided they weren’t meant to be together, not even as friends.

So now that Rachel has returned to town, and is even working at Howling books, owned by Henry’s family, things are…tense between them.  She’s hostile and rude.  He’s clueless.  She hasn’t told any of her old friends that Cal died, but it’s keeping her from finding joy in anything.  Poor Henry is just confused because Amy dumped him and his heart’s broken and his separated parents might sell the bookshop and his best friend came back after over a year but she’s practically a different person. “Poor Henry,” I thought to myself every twenty pages or so, reading Words In Deep Blue in the Dublin Airport.  Poor young man who loves T.S. Eliot and loves his family and isn’t very good at dealing with girls.  But man, poor Rachel, who doesn’t even believe in ghosts but dreams of her brother and finds his handwriting in the letter library at Howling Books.  That girl has had it rough.

Then there are the fun entanglements, the courtship between endearing Martin and Henry’s gothy sister George, thrown together at the bookshop, butting heads.  Amy and her dickhead new boyfriend, who truly deserve each other, even while Henry thinks he would do anything to get her back.  Rachel and Henry’s friend Lola, whose band mate might be moving on without her, is a supporting character straight out of all the best romantic comedies – she has the answers to everyone’s mistakes except for her own.

The book is funny and sweet even while it’s full of grief.  The “deep blue” of the title strikes me as a reference to the darker parts of the ocean, the unknown parts of the earth that so fascinated Cal.  Rachel and Cal loved learning about the ocean.  Before she failed out of year 12, she earned excellent grades and wanted to study marine biology.  But her passion and drive abandoned her when Cal died, and the loss of those loves along with the obvious love of a little brother makes her grief so pointed and sympathetic.

We are the books we read and the things we love.  Cal is the ocean and the letters he left.  Our ghosts hide in the things we leave behind.” (p. 258 of galley.)

I’m sure there are several Big Ideas you could take away from Words In Deep Blue.  Support your goddamn local independent bookshop, for one!  Tell people how you feel about them because no one can wait forever to find out.  But the barb that has stuck most solidly into my heart is this: you can re-join the living without forgetting who you lost.

Safety Tips For Last-Minute Holiday Shoppers: Independent Bookshops

Have you left your gift-getting merriment until the last days before Christmas? Has your usually ungenerous spirit been inspired by songs of holiday cheer and familial pressure to scramble around looking for the perfect gift? Have you decided that everyone’s getting books this year because, screw it, they can just go read quietly for an hour or two and maybe leave you in peace? First of all, thanks for coming to your locally-owned independent bookshop! We love you for thinking of us, because if you want to live in or visit the sort of town that has a bookshop, you need to buy your books there. Otherwise, it will go away.

Most days of the year, we book-selling elves want nothing more than to guide you to the perfect book which will delight the recipient or provide you with hours of blessed relief from reality. Come browse in October, and you’ll get plenty of advice about which spooky books to get the beloved children in your life, and which terrifying books to give to those kids who have always kind of pissed you off. Come in Spring and we’ll be happy to hunt down the most obscure book about gnomes for you, even if your only specifications are, “It was about gnomes and I saw it here four years ago.” We will gladly accept that challenge in March or April. We like to recommend books, we like to sell books, we especially like to hear how much you love bookshops. But see that calender? No, not the one in our sadly depleted calender section, which is in such a state of disarray after so many picky dog-lovers have pawed through it looking for that one special golden retriever monstrosity. The one on the wall. It’s the double digits of December. There’s an endless sea of customers crushing into our shop at all times. Everyone wants books and everyone wants attention and we poor book-selling elves have only so many books and so much attention to give. This is my official storm warning for bookshops everywhere until January. But, with some helpful safety tips, we might all make it through this season alive and without too many paper cuts.

1. If you expect any book-selling elf to have read every book in the shop then you’d best stay home, for you won’t get out of that store intact. Have you tried every single variety of baking soda in your supermarket? Have you personally eaten off every plate in the department store where you work? Shelf-elves are too busy fending off rabid customers with thesauruses to even read the books that have been on their lists for years. They probably don’t have an opinion on which guide to fixing your racing bike is the most riveting read. But they will happily spin you a big old lie which directs you towards the most expensive option. Save yourself some unwarranted frustration and only ask for opinions if you’re ok with hearing, “I have no idea. But I hear The Goldfinch is bloody fantastic.”

2. Decide which books you want to purchase before you get to the till. Have those books in your hands. Don’t run to the opposite end of the shop “just for a second” once your chosen books have been entered into the all knowing and unforgiving register system. Yes, that photo book of soggy canaries was just too adorable for words. Yes, your daughter-in-law’s cousin’s boyfriend would probably love it. No, there is no time for you to go deliberate over adding it to your pile. Once your money is in the hands of the cashier, you’re done shopping. Once those books are in a bag, they’re yours. It’s just as binding as making a deal with the devil, but book-selling elves have absolutely no interest in your soul, and our forced smiles aren’t quite as convincing.

3. It’s also vitally important that you have money to pay for your books. Pieces of highly-valued paper or imaginary numbers on a plastic square are equally acceptable, but do have them on your person. Being unprepared puts other shoppers at risk of waiting a whole minute more for their turn, and that can get violent very quickly. And a violence spreads quickly amongst the shelves. Don’t be the cause of a bloodbath in the poetry section just because – silly you! – all your money is in Cincinnati.

4. Know at least one thing about the person for whom you are buying a book. If you only know their age and gender, you’re in very real danger of giving a terrible Christmas gift. Each customer is allotted roughly two minutes of shelf-elf attention at Christmastime. Use your two minutes wisely. Rationing might be the only way to save your family. Those who survive this season tend to know some very important specifications when asking for a recommendation: age, general interests, a book they have recently enjoyed, particular dislikes, and reading abilities. A note for doting grandparents: your special little snowflake might not be as smart as you think they are. Roald Dahl was correct in Matilda; the children in your lives might be vapid idiots, you just can’t see it. Give an example of what they’re reading and you won’t insult them by giving something too difficult or too babyish.

5. If your nine year old is easily terrified and still has to sleep in your bedroom after reading something scary, do mention that before someone sells you The Graveyard Book or Outside Over There. Even if a book has won awards and is considered a classic, it might still scare the stockings off your cowardly offspring. Don’t blame authors, librarians, or booksellers if you’re kept all night. Read a few pages of the damn book before buying it. Know your child.

6. I’m just going to say it again: KNOW YOUR CHILD! I have never met your child. I can’t promise they will like a book! I can tell you what I would have liked if I shared your child’s reading preferences. I can say what other children have enjoyed. If you don’t know what your kid wants to read, how can you expect other people to do any better? We’re not psychics, we’re just well-read and practiced liars.

7. It’s a suicide mission to telephone a bookshop on December 21st and try to sell your credit card software/ office supplies/ self-published collection of poetry to the frazzled and helpless soul on the end of the line. Not only will you certainly crash and burn, but you might find yourself caught in the cross-fire and riddled with angry words which said phone-answerer isn’t allowed to direct towards the paying customers. On that note, if you think that Black Friday is a good time to do cold calls in a busy shopping town to try and sell your paper products, you are not cut out for the job and should quit before you’re crucified. All salesmen shall be executed on sight.

8. If you don’t have an advent calender by the second week of December then there’s no real point in looking for one. Give up. Get comfortable in your advent-calender-less den of loneliness. That’s no one’s problem but yours.

9. Bring a whistle and a light if you intend to wander into the depths of the bargain book corner all alone. Avalanches from the travel section may spill over and smother you, or enormous coffee table books – heavy with photos of artistic gardens and/or unhappy musicians – might crush your toes and leave you stranded, starving, with only books about weaving (discounted up to 75%) to keep you company in your last hours. It’s futile to ask any booksellers who might be dashing by on an urgent errand for help navigating the dark labyrinth of bargain books. They aren’t in our computer system, they don’t appear on any maps, and you might come across some nameless long-forgotten monster under the table. Blow the whistle if you need to be extracted.

10. Don’t tell the exhausted bookseller behind the desk that they should really get outside / read this book / enjoy the sunlight. They probably haven’t been outside in daylight since November. This particular book elf wakes up before sunrise and gets home long after dark, and she spends her daytime hours trying hard not to bite off the heads of people who are lucky enough to have time to shop and read and breathe fresh air. Meaning well gets you nowhere in December Book Land. Recommending anything religious or trying to start a political discussion will spell your certain doom, too, so perhaps it’s best to just keep one’s opinions to one’s self until you’re safely outside in the reportedly-cheerful winter air again.

11. If you think you’re disappointed that the UPS and FedEx shipments haven’t arrived with your book, imagine how much the bookshop is suffering. Do not poke the angry dragon with your tiny but aggravating sword.

12. There are magic words which can be employed to get cheerful service, and none of those words are “You need to gift wrap this.” Try, “please,” or, “if it’s not too much trouble,” or, “when you get the chance.” Polite customers get nicely wrapped books. Insufferable hoverers who expect instant Martha Stewart get shapeless lumps of paper and curses.

13. Books are not for skating. If a child steps on a book, you can kiss that cute little baby foot goodbye.

BONUS TIP: If you buy hundreds of dollars worth of Middle Grade and Young Adult books for the older kids who often get ignored by Toys For Tots and other such organizations, the blessings of book-selling elves will fall down upon you like loving paper snowflakes. If you let a particular elf who loves those books pick out her favorites, and if you listen enthusiastically to recommendations, your health will be toasted so very warmly at closing time, after most other shoppers have been either forgotten or blighted. You are what Christmas is all about.

Buy books for kids in need. Be patient with the exhausted people helping you. Don’t be picky, rude, or entitled. That’s the only way to get out alive.

Short Review: The Isle of Youth by Laura Van Den Berg

This is just a tiny review excerpted from my blog post Birthday, Books, Bedtime over at The Bookshelf Pirate.  I read The Isle of Youth because it got some good press and I like having new short stories to recommend at the bookshop.  Now that it’s the holiday shopping frenzy, I find that collections and anthologies are getting popular as gifts.  Short story collections are often a little hit-or-miss for me, but I was intrigued by this unassuming little volume and bought it on a whim. The Isle of Youth is a collection of several short stories by Laura Van Den Berg, all of which tend to focus on displaced women struggling to understand how they relate to their surroundings and to the people in their lives.

Source.

Characters: *** 3/5 stars

Writing: *** 3/5 stars

Plots: **1/2 (2 1/2 stars out of 5, because some were great but others bored me.)

About half of the stories really interested me, while others slipped from my memory almost immediately.  The title story came at the very end of the collection and it was one of my favorites, probably because it was about a woman’s relationship with her volatile sister and I thought that the characters were entertaining and complex.  I find the dynamics between siblings and friends so much more interesting than romantic situations (or, in the case of The Isle of Youth, quiet romantic implosions and disasters).  The story “Lessons”, about a band of young bank robbers, was another favorite. In my opinion, there aren’t nearly enough stories about teenaged cousins and siblings on crime sprees!  That was another one which gave wacky backgrounds and intense motivations to a cast of characters, despite the short time we get to spend with them. I could have read a whole novel about that family.  I also enjoyed the dreary, beer-stained story about a girl who works unhappily with her mother in a cheap magic show.

Though some Van Den Berg’s pieces bled together into an indistinguishable examination of relationships and unspecified discontentment, certain details were vivid and fresh.  For example – and this was of particular interest to me though the story itself wasn’t one of my favorites – there was one which mostly took place in Antarctica, but one character had been kidnapped and held hostage in the very towns where I work/have worked.  It’s really unnerving to read a fictional account of a girl your age being snatched at knife point mere meters away from where you’re taking your lunch break.  So that was cool.  One story, which took place in Paris, started out slow but quickly grabbed my interest when acrobats and masquerades came into play.  Unfortunately, that particular story suffered from a rushed and inconclusive ending which snatched the magical feeling away in a puff of smoke.   There was a lot about marriage, siblings, memory, and ambiguous desires in The Isle Of Youth.  Very few of the endings gave us any solid resolutions, but that’s ok because the style was mostly realistic and real life rarely follows any sort of literary structure.  Occasionally, characters became too paralyzed by introspection to keep me interested – Van Den Berg’s ladies do like to wallow in their own thoughts – but that might be more a problem of personal preference.

I’d probably give The Isle of Youth 3/5 stars because the individual stories might do better in anthologies than in a collection all by the same author.  I got a little tired of their theme after a while and felt a little deflated while I was reading.  There’s no denying that Laura Van Den Berg is talented, though, and she clearly put a lot of thought into her characters and their situations.  Her writing digs into some deceptively simple parts of life to show how being an adult is confusing for everyone.  Reading these stories made me want to try being a little more understanding of the people I encounter every day.  The collection is not too long and the stories tend to be of easily digestible lengths.  It would be a good gift for someone who doesn’t have too much time to read but who likes to have meaningful conversations at parties, or with themselves.