“Deep-versed in books and shallow in himself.” (John Milton)

Well, Milton’s got my number. My shallowness extends to books themselves –against conventional wisdom, I definitely judge by the cover.  Thank goodness I do, otherwise whole publishing marketing teams would be out of business.  This week I’m hoping other people aren’t as shallow as me as I’m starting a new job and I hope they overlook whatever gibbering first impression I make to see the hard-working-team-playing-but-definitely-not-a jobsworth- and-will-never-steal-your-lunch-from-the-fridge colleague within.


I was also thinking about first impressions and book covers following an interesting post by Lady Fancifull a few weeks back, about a marketing campaign which played on this exact bias.  Earlier in the year, I was persuaded by another blogger, Cathy at 746 books, to stop being so shallow when I won a book in her giveaway, encouraged by her great review, although its cover meant I would never have picked it up normally. So in this post I’m going to look at the book I was lucky enough to win, and a book whose cover would have attracted me even if I wasn’t already a fan of the author.

Firstly then, Fallen by Lia Mills (2014). Here’s the cover:


Yuck, right? Curlicues – seriously? I would never have picked this up, thinking it looked like a fluffy romance, which is not my taste at all. But while there is a love affair in Fallen, it is not romanticised. Mills is interested in the fallout from war on both those who served and those who remained behind (often women) and how a generation of young people were irrevocably damaged.

Katie Crilly is living in Dublin in 1915 and trying to find her way in a world where she doesn’t know what she wants, except that she definitely doesn’t want what others expect of her. Then her twin brother Liam announces he’s off to join the war effort.

 “He went into his room and shut the door. The latch clicked like a scold’s tongue, made me wish I’d a more generous heart. The silence on the landing was so deep I heard my own pulse tick.”

Liam dies, and Katie has to cope with profound grief, and the fact that her grief is commonplace:

“We’d heard that, in the Dardanelles, many of the Dublins were put off their boats into water that was too deep for them. Pulled under by the weight of their packs, they drowned, while Turkish bullets and mortar fire tore into their comrades and churned the sea red. The gas unleashed at Ypres, around the time that Liam died, was still claiming lives two months later. Every second person on Sackville Street wore a black armband, or a cuff.”

While all this is happening, the Easter Rising explodes onto the already wrecked population of Dublin. Katie finds herself stranded in the home of friends who are also giving shelter to a wounded soldier, Hubie, who knew Liam. Hubie, his wounds visible and invisible, is furious at the ignorance of those who have remained at home. Katie does not turn her face away from the horrors of war and recognises in Hubie a fellow haunted soul:

 “If you love someone, and that person dies, all that love becomes a burden, a weight accumulating, pooling inside you, with nowhere to go. What do you do with it? … Sometimes it gathered itself into a shape, a shadow, peeled itself off the ground and attached itself to my heel. It followed me and spoke, in Liam’s voice”

Fallen is about an ordinary life caught up in exceptional circumstances. It is about how to find meaning in a world where national events dwarf the individual. Ultimately it is a hopeful book, about how a fractured self can be rebuilt, whole but wholly different.

And it is very much about Dublin: Mills evokes a strong sense of place and Fallen was a perfect choice for Two Cities One Book, in the centenary year of the Easter Rising.

“There was something raw about the morning, as though layers of the city’s skin had rubbed off during the night.”

Secondly, The Nakano Thrift Shop by Hiromi Kawakami (2005, tr. Allison Markin Powell, 2016). I was excited to read this as I’d loved Strange Weather in Tokyo and was disappointed that none of Kawakami’s other work had been translated into English. The Nakano Thrift Shop was translated this year and like Strange Weather, the cover features one of Natsumi Hayashi’s beautiful levitating photographs:

Gorgeous, no? The pictures really capture the vibrancy, unpredictability and humour of Kawakami’s writing.

In The Nakano Thrift Shop, Hitomi takes a job at the eponymous business, uncertain of what she wants from life and hoping that the job will be undemanding:

“With its second-hand goods (not antiques), Mr Nakano’s shop was literally filled to overflowing…Mr Nakano would raise the shop’s shutter and, with a cigarette between his lips, he’d arrange the goods intended to tempt customers outside the front of the store…Sometimes ash from his cigarette fell on the turtle paperweight’s back, and Mr Nakano roughly brushed it off with a corner of the black apron that he always wore”

The owner has several ex-wives and a mistress. Despite his unprepossessing appearance, Mr Nakano has irresistible charm:

“I’d heard the phrase ‘a boyish grin’, but Mr Nakano’s grin was decidedly middle-aged. There was something scruffy about it. And yet, at the same time, it was also a winning smile. I suppose it’s the kind of smile that women, as they age, can’t resist”

Hitomi, Nakano, his artist sister Masayo and the driver Takeo form an unlikely quartet as they are thrown together. And really, very little happens. These four idiosyncratic, wholly believable characters rub along together in their day-to-day lives of triumphs and tragedies, some larger than others, explored through different objects in the shop. Takeo and Hitomi begin a tentative, on-again-off-again relationship that was heart-breaking, real and funny in its tenderness, misunderstanding, affection and frustration:

“I would eat a diet rich in vegetables, seaweed, and legumes, and every day would be sparkling and bright, my life brimming with health and vitality. While imagining this, I was again filled with a general sort of sadness. I definitely wasn’t sad because I was thinking about Takeo. Definitely not.”

This is not the novel to read when you’re in the mood for a heavily plotted, eventful story. Yet Kawakami captures the drama of everyday lives and their meaning. Her writing can also be startling, so while it is concerned with the ordinary it is never banal:

“The skin on Saskiko’s cheeks was glowing with an inner light. Just like the bottom of the gin jug, they reflected a dusky and beautiful radiance.”

The Nakano Thrift Shop is touching and life-affirming, but never sentimental. Fingers crossed for further translations…

To end, some shameless objectification of someone whose outward appearance has been my idea of perfection since 1981:

27 thoughts on ““Deep-versed in books and shallow in himself.” (John Milton)

  1. Fabulouso! I love this post.

    Firstly, congrats on the new job – I’m sure your first day and first impressions will go swimmingly.

    Secondly, I nearly always judge books by their covers. That’s the point of covers, isn’t it?! To seduce you? To hint at what lies beneath? This topic was covered last week in an interesting post titled Book Bait – http://australianwomenwriters.com/2016/11/book-bait-choosing-a-book-by-its-cover/

    Based on the covers above, I would have given Fallen a very wide birth – there is NOTHING about it that appeals. And yet, Thrift Shop, which also features a photograph of people and words arranged on the page is EXACTLY the kind of book that attracts me. And I guess this is why we’re book-buddies (because we both have excellent taste, obvs).

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Kate! First day over, impressions have been made, fingers crossed they were positive…

      Book covers are definitely part of the package – for example, I absolutely hate film tie-in covers and will wait until those copies have disappeared (or buy an old one before the film was made) rather than one of those ugly editions. Looking at the Book Bait post, there were 2 in particular that immediately leapt out as total no-nos, even before I’d really processed the thought. You’ve made me realise that (despite the Kawakami covers) I too have a bias against book covers with people on them – usually yuck.

      Our taste is exquisite in its discernment – I am quite certain of this 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I love those Kawakami covers – they’re so eye-catching! Another of her books (Manazuru) has been translated, but I think it’s quite hard to get hold of these days. Counterpoint published an edition about 5 years, so it’s not part of the Portobello series. Worth seeking out if you can find a copy. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Yes, yes and yes! The cover of ‘fallen’ is soooo bad I’d have to cover it in brown paper before reading it. In fact, a plethora of stickers all over it would be an improvement, and I never thought I’d ever find myself writing that. In contrast, the Kawakami covers are just wonderful. I have to have them,
    and thank you for that perfect little Adam Ant indulgence. It would seem that I still have a perfectly stored muscle memory of all the moves from my intensive practice aged 11, and If I happen to encounter a sweeping staircase today I shall ascend Diana Dors style, flashing my armpits with gusto.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I totally agree – this is one book cover that would be vastly improved by a sticker breakout.

      The Kawakami covers are so striking, aren’t they? I’m hoping they stick with Hayashi’s photography for any further translations.

      I am also hoping *so* much that a sweeping staircase featured in your day today 😀


  4. Oh I DO hope you turn up to your first day dressed in a ball gown. Or at least in Prince Charming gear is the job involves climbing ladders and a long frock is therefore not permitted under Health and Safety rules. Do make sure someone as done a loading test FIRST on any chandeliers before you launch yourself into that grandest of entrances though.

    Very very best wishes for the new job Madame Bibi. I hope your colleagues appreciate the wonderfully stylish, witty and engaging new workmate they are about to meet.

    P.S. – fridge behaviour….excellent ideals…..what if, however, the contents are loose chocolates of finest provenance. Especially wrapped in shiny tempting covers?

    PPS – thanks for that sweet sounding Pingthing

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for your kind words Lady F 🙂

      I’m in a slightly shabby 1960s building, so unfortunately not a chandelier in sight, but I’ll see if I can’t swing from the fluorescent light fittings 😀

      Fridge etiquette on such chocolates.. hmm…I would say *whispers* eat as many as you can safely get away with, and remember to hide the wrappers in your bag for disposal at home. But you didn’t hear it from me…

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Good luck for the new job!

    Gotta admit I wouldn’t be attracted by any of these covers, but Fallen sounds wonderful! Which is why I tend to rely on reviews more than covers. Must dash over to add it to my wishlist…

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Man alive, the Fallen is almost worse than the TV adaptation-depicting book covers! What were they thinking?! I too pass over book that don’t grab me, and I hate it when I order a book and the stock photo in the ad is different to the one that arrives. And always nice to finish with some Adam. I am reading this on a bleak morning and need the 80s to cheer me up, as I fear Teresa may end up making Maggie look tolerant, and Trump will make Regan look intellectually gifted.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Its a truly terrible cover isn’t it? When you think how many people must have had to agree before it got the go ahead!

      I totally agree about receiving a different edition to the one ordered – it drives me mad! One time it worked for me, when I hazarded a guess that it was a Virago green I’d ordered even though it wasn’t the pictured book – I felt smug when that lovely edition arrived.

      I may have 80s pop videos playing on permanent loop now – I’m struggling for ways to cope with the bleak horror of it all. If there was a ‘despair’ emoji i’d finish on that right now…

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Congratulations on the new job! I am sure you will be brilliant. I am starting a new job in a few weeks and I know exactly how you feel trying to make a good first impression (or at least not blow it too badly). I totally agree that Adam is perfection. I wouldn’t have picked up Fallen either, it does look like a romance. Nice that it wasn’t just that. The other books sounds pretty interesting, not really my cuppa, but I am glad to hear you enjoyed it.
    I love your conversational writing, so glad to have found your site!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks very much for your kind comment! This week is the second week of my new job and my colleagues said they were relieved I’d turned out to be normal – so I’ve managed to lull them into a false sense of security 😀

      I commend you on your excellent taste in men 😉 Adam … *sigh*

      They made a huge misjudgment with the cover of Fallen I think – hopefully a new edition will reach ore readers at some point.

      Good luck with your new job – I hope it goes well!


  8. Pingback: Novella a Day in May 2020 #5 | madame bibi lophile recommends

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