REVIEW: Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore, Matthew J. Sullivan

Monday, 27 November 2017

When a bookshop patron commits suicide, it’s his favorite store clerk who must unravel the puzzle he left behind in this fiendishly clever debut novel from an award-winning short story writer.
Lydia Smith lives her life hiding in plain sight. A clerk at the Bright Ideas bookstore, she keeps a meticulously crafted existence among her beloved books, eccentric colleagues, and the 'BookFrogs'—the lost and lonely regulars who spend every day marauding the store’s overwhelmed shelves.
But when youngest BookFrog Joey Molina kills himself in the bookstore’s upper level, Lydia’s life comes unglued. Always Joey’s favorite bookseller, Lydia has been bequeathed his meager worldly possessions: Trinkets and books, the detritus of a lonely, uncared-for man. But when Lydia pages through his books, she finds them defaced in ways both disturbing and inexplicable. They reveal the psyche of a young man on the verge of an emotional reckoning. And they seem to contain a hidden message. What did Joey know? And what does it have to do with Lydia?
As Lydia untangles the mystery of Joey’s suicide, she unearths a long buried memory from her own violent childhood. Details from that one bloody night begin to circle back. Her distant father returns to the fold, along with an obsessive local cop and the Hammerman, a murderer who came into Lydia’s life long ago—and never completely left, as she discovers. 

I don’t know how I feel about Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore. I mean, on one hand, it was a definite page-turner and one that I whizzed through and almost couldn’t put down, but is that down to the fact that it was a good book, or that I’m just a nosey bugger who can’t bear not knowing the ending? I have found myself in a similar situation with many other mysteries this year - The Naturalist, Last Lullaby and My Sister’s Grave to name just a disappointing few - and I can’t say that I have come out of any of them pleased with the experience or the conclusion… Maybe I’ve just got high standards, but the mystery genre is the one in which books have to try the hardest to impress me, and a majority have fallen flat on their faces.
Going into this book, it seemingly had an advantage as instead of just including one mystery, Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore slides in an additional one, focussing on both the suicide of a regular customer in the upstairs of a bookshop in present day, and the murder twenty-years ago of an entire family. Linking these seemingly-unconnected events together is our protagonist, Lydia, who is both an employee of said-bookshop and a witness and sole survivor of the murders. 
While this seems that it will turn the narrative of non-stop intrigue and mystery, the book fails in making either of the mysteries particularly compelling. The suicide is more so, primarily because he eventually turns into somewhat of a fully-formed character, but I still had to force myself to continue caring. Even though I still don’t understand why people were allowed to sit in-store and read all day - it’s a bookshop, not a library! In my opinion, it’s just not a good business-model and I don’t really understand how the business is still afloat.
The other? I couldn’t care even if I wanted to. You’d think that someone killing a mother, father and their ten-year-old daughter would stir up a little empathy in me - and maybe I’m just dead inside - but only two of the three characters were given any sort of characterisation (and even then just barely), and neither of them were particularly nice people or ones that I felt anything for.
In fact, Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore is filled with the brim with unpleasant, awful characters and this links to a rather odd part of the book that really felt a little off to me - the way that sexual attraction was written. Throughout the novel, no matter whose point of view a particular example of aesthetic description came from, there was just an undercurrent of creepiness that came alongside of it. Honestly, I am still confused as to whether it was intentional on the writer’s part, although I am becoming more and more certain that it wasn’t - primarily because of the writing of Raj and him being a designated good character, so surely he wasn’t meant to come off as a bit of a lech? No idea.
This is primarily tied to way that men interact with, and respond to, Lydia. Even in the most inappropriate situations, every single man insists on ogling her - even a government official who begs her to go to his high school reunion with him, I mean, seriously? 
Just do your job, dude. 
Her boyfriend is quickly deemed irrelevant and unnecessary by the book’s narration once it establishes Lydia’s attempts to move on from the trauma of her childhood, and the book’s eyes immediately turn to wanting her to cheat on him. I mean, she’s still together with him so why is that the next logical step? To be honest, cheating is seen, by seemingly every goddamn person in this book, as the most logical and normal thing for anyone (this not being limited to just Lydia) to do. At one point, a friend sees Lydia with a man who is not her boyfriend and says something along the lines of ‘you haven’t cheated with him yet but you’re going to’…. They haven’t even spoken to him? They literally saw them together for like, two minutes? I mean, what if he was gay? Why is that never considered? 
Frankly, my lasting impression from this book is, that if everyone kept their knickers on, they wouldn't have half as many problems. God, I feel like Jeremy Kyle.
Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for sending me a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

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