Review: Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore by Matthew J. Sullivan

Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore★★★

I went into this book pretty blind. I wasn’t totally sure what it was about…maybe a bookstore called Bright Ideas? Something to do with suicide? But it kept popping up on my feed, and when a mystery novel has “bookstore” right in the title, how can a genre-lover like me resist? Plus, that cover! Come on!

It’s not often that I go into a book without a clear idea of what I’m about to read. I can be pretty particular in my reading criteria, so I’m not necessarily good at the whole “oh, just surprise me!” thing. My personal levels of neurosis start to kick in when I hear words like go with the flow or spontaneity.

This novel starts immediately. Not dicking around. And I was pretty hopeful that meant I was buckling in for a cozy little thriller with a side of dark sass.

Bookseller Lydia is closing up shop at the Bright Ideas Bookstore. She goes to look for regular “BookFrog” Joseph Molina, who hasn’t left the store yet. She finds him hanging. Suicide. She can’t figure out why Joseph would choose to commit suicide in her shop. But even more curious is why he died with a picture from her 10th birthday in his pocket. The mystery becomes too much to ignore when she inherits Joseph’s belongings and finds coded messages for her inside his books.

Lydia’s attempt to unravel the mystery of just what was going on with Joseph leading up to his death, and what the hell she has to do with it, forces her to reexamine a tragedy from her childhood – a household massacre that only she survived.

Marketed as a “twisted mystery” and a “page-turner” with “compelling characters,” I can’t say it is any of those things.

It felt a little bit typical in formula – a girl who survived a dark past, her boring boyfriend, her cool friend, a present day mystery that requires her to examine her personal cold case to solve it the present mystery.

I guess something like this just hasn’t been set around the general vicinity of a bookstore before?

Problem was, it was slow, favouring a more contemporary pace to that of a thriller, which kind of sucked the life out of the mystery elements for me. I forgot to be intrigued. I forgot to be in suspense. I remembered to be pretty bored though.

I wanted to love it. It had all the flashy aesthetic hooks that brought me this far, but unfortunately I found the guts of this to be pretty lackluster.Lackluster and depressing.

This was a snail’s pace examination of depressing shit. Depressing and dark, but also be boring between the few moments that piqued my interest. An interesting direction to take a book, but it did not work for me. Even the weather was constantly rainy and grey and winter-y, and there didn’t seem to be a single character that wore clothing in a colour, any colour. The whole plot was wrapped in details that created a non-stop ride of bleakness and dismal slowness.

And even going in mostly blind, that’s just not what I was expecting from this novel. Perhaps it was my disjointed expectations that left me feeling disconnected from the story. And where I did connect with it, the tone was too sad and getting stuck in that place within yourself for too long can start to feel shitty. By the time I finished this I was looking for something, anything, that was lighthearted, to reset my brain and my emotions…so I ended up binge watching the last two seasons of South Park.

Look, this is in no way a “bad” book. The writing was ok, almost poetic at times, which I felt matched the bleakness quite well. In other instances, it was bland. The dialogue left something to be desired – coming across as wooden at certain times, and unrealistic at others. However, the threads of family dynamics were created with honesty and realism. It didn’t feel ridiculous, but it wasn’t boring either. This line was walked perfectly. In terms of characters, I found them all to be uninspiring and tame, hardly unique. More cardboard.

What I want out of a female protagonist is to feel a connection, a sense of “YAS QUEEN!” as she gets things done and solves shit. I didn’t get any of that here.

The revelations to the crime were done well, and I did find the ending to be surprising, save for the underwhelming motive. But I also found it to be super rushed. It takes forever to work through this dismal story with Lydia, only to have everything wrapped up within 3 chapters. I hate that impatience. It comes across like bad plotting, bad timing.

This is a first novel for this author, and truly it does feel that way. Certain writing elements are quite rough, while others are more polished. It’s a bit all over the place, a mixed-bag. Truly mediocre. But, you can see the potential here – enough that I would read this author’s next book.

Bottom Line: Don’t let the bookish appearance fool you – this isn’t for everyone. If you’re looking for a cozy bibliophile mystery, look elsewhere. But if you like a more contemporary novel that takes it’s time with sadness, pick it up.

 

*migrated review, originally posted on Goodreads in November 2017

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Back of the Book:

When a bookshop patron commits suicide, his favorite store clerk must unravel the puzzle he left behind. 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 Joey Molina, a young, beguiling BookFrog, kills himself in the bookstore’s upper room, 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 flips 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, as she soon discovers, never completely left.

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