Which is not a phrase you encounter that often on the Ramblings, as I do have a tendency to read older works. However, a couple of review volumes have come my way recently, wrenching me slightly out of my comfort zone; but nevertheless, the experience has been quite rewarding!

Gutenberg’s Apprentice by Alix Christie

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I was quite excited to receive one of a limited number of proofs from Bookbridgr of this new novel – particularly as its subject matter is the art of printing itself! The premise is fascinating, telling the story of the birth of print through the eyes of an apprentice to the great Gutenberg himself. The story is fascinating, covering the conflict between advocates of the printed word against lovers of beautiful writing, and how the two can be reconciled in the use of decorative fonts; clashes over the financing of the enterprise; and the difficultly of dealing with the priests who think this is a kind of blasphemy. And Christie writes well, and certainly knows her stuff. However, if I’m honest I struggled with this book a little for a couple of reasons. Firstly, in certain parts she slipped between present and past tense, which was a very uncomfortable literary device and one I didn’t really like. Secondly, I didn’t really feel that the characters came alive enough for me, never developing quite enough depth. There was a little repetition and the book could have been slimmed down a bit, reducing the endless amount of typesetting that was going on (yes, I know the book is about just that, but once it’s established it doesn’t need to be endlessly reprised). I ended up feeling that with her obvious knowledge of the subject, Christie might have been better off writing a non-fiction book about the coming of printed books, rather than wrapping all this up in a fiction that I found it hard to engage with. Nevertheless, I did learn quite a lot from the book and it may be that others will enjoy the story more than me – wrong book at wrong time, perhaps, and I’ll give it another try when the mood feels right!

2 A.M. at The Cat’s Pajamas by Marie-Helen Bertino

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This seems to be have been popping up everywhere online recently, and then I read quite an interesting little piece online by the author here. I was intrigued enough to seek out a copy from the publishers (many thanks!) and I did enjoy this book more of the two. “2 A.M.” is a very cleverly constructed book, which all takes place on Christmas Eve Eve starting at 7 a.m. that day and going through in real-time to the title location and beyond. It tells the story of Madeleine Altimari, a sassy 9-year-old who can sing jazz like a dream; Sarina Greene, her teacher at St. Anthony of the Immaculate Heart school; and Lorca, owner of The Cat’s Pajamas jazz club in Philadelphia, where this is set. All three are dealing with a kind of crisis during the day, and all three stories will come to intertwine.

Madeleine has recently lost her mother, and her father is not coping; so the girl is being kept together, body and soul, by a number of agencies and people, but only just. Mrs. Santiago, who runs the nearby cafe, is feeding her and generally keeping an eye on her (while trying to keep her dog Pedro under control). And when Madeleine needs things during the story, it’s mostly taken care of by local people who knew her mother – there’s quite a community feel in the area. But all Madeleine wants to do is sing jazz, and she’s not even allowed to sing at school, where she has a bad reputation for cursing and not conforming – and it doesn’t help that the school principal knew her mother for years and they didn’t get on.

Meanwhile, Sarina has gone through a divorce and runs into her old flame and prom date Ben. The prom did not go well, but she still loves him and he still loves her. It appears that his marriage is also failing – so how will the day go for them? And Lorca and his club are also in trouble, from numerous violations to various local laws and their friendly local copy who turned a blind eye has been promoted. Can he pay the fine and save his club, while also mending his bad relationship with his teenage son.

Alongside these main strands are a horde of other characters and plots (including the life of Pedro the dog!) and this is where perhaps a slight criticism could be made – there are *too* many side issues that don’t get developed or resolved, and if they’d been pruned a little it would have allowed for more focus on the rest. Madeleine herself is a wonderful character – alive and lively, feisty and very believable in her attempts to cope with life and deal with a father who’s basically zoned out from all responsibility. That element of the plot worried me a little, because I thought that surely some kind of outside agency would have been intervening at that point, but let’s just suspend disbelief for a while. Sarina and Ben were sweet, and Lorca and his jazz club cronies great fun. And Bertino’s command of the material was quite brilliant, particularly in the way she developed all the strands and drew them together. I don’t usually favour books written in the present tense, but this worked for a tale taking place in real-time, and in fact there were a couple of places where she went into flashback that threw me a little because it wasn’t initially clear what was happening.

In the end, all the plots come together and there’s a kind of resolution for all of sorts, and a feel-good time for Madeleine. However, I was rather taken aback by the concluding pages which, without giving any spoilers, suddenly went off into a totally unexpected place and really threw me. I’ve seen other readers comment on this and wonder whether maybe this element, which I didn’t see hinted at earlier, really worked in the context of the book. If the author intended us to read “2 A.M.” as that particular kind of tale, I didn’t, so it was unexpected – I’ll say no more and let others make up their own minds!

I enjoyed “2 A.M.” very much in the end – it’s funny, poignant and very entertaining, and a good read for the evenings as the colder weather draws in!

(Review copies provided by Bookbridgr and Picador, for which many thanks!)

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