By Deborah Meyler (Gallery Books/Simon & Schuster, 336 pages, $16)
The next best thing to poking around in a used bookstore might be reading about one, and in “The Bookstore,” author Deborah Meyler gets it right. Her novel follows a year in the life of Esme, a young English woman who comes to New York to study art history, and who gets quite unfortunately pregnant by her odious on-again, off-again boyfriend.
Esme takes a job at the Owl, a musty used bookstore “squashed between a Staples and a Gap,” where the quirky staff and even quirkier customers become her surrogate family. The story moves deftly between humorous and heartbreaking, although the boyfriend is so awful — manipulative and supercilious — that you wonder why such a charming, level-headed, intelligent woman would stay with him. (Perhaps because she is carrying his child.) The story, as well as Esme, is sustained by the wonderful bookstore — its smell of old paper and ink, its dusty stacks and precarious piles, its cluttered staircase leading to the rare first editions. Even if you don’t like the plot (though I think you will), you’ll love the setting.
Laurie Hertzel, senior editor/books
By Mario Alberto Zambrano (Harper, 288 pages, $21.99)
Like Los Lobos’ “La Pistola y El Corazón,” this debut novel entwines violence and love in a tough melancholy. Luz Maria Castillo is an 11-year-old girl in the custody of social services following a family tragedy. She is encouraged to talk about her life but resists, wanting neither to incriminate anyone nor to be too quickly “understood.” Instead, she uses lotería cards, a sort of pictorial bingo popular in Mexico, as a starting point for the journal entries in which she recalls episodes of her young life. She’s a tween in more ways than just her age. Growing up on the U.S. side of the border, she knows Spanish but sometimes refuses to speak it. She isn’t yet a beauty like her older sister or mother and identifies strongly with her proud but brutal father. She also senses the tension in a word like “quiero,” which can mean either the selfless “love” or the demanding “want.” Zambrano effectively uses his string of short-story-like entries to make Luz a many-faceted diamond, hardened by life but still filled with light and beauty.
Kathe Connair, copy editor