Title: Billings Better Bookstore and Brasserie
Author: Fin J Ross
Genre: Young Adult Historical Fiction
Publisher: Clan Destine Press
Published: 29th June 2020
Synopsis: Young Fidelia Knight arrives in Melbourne in 1874, alone except for her treasured companion, Samuel Johnson; well, half of him. To escape servitude, Fidelia hides each night in Bourke-street’s renowned Coles Book Arcade. She loves words, you see, and wants to know them all.
What she overhears in Coles sets her on a path that will change the lives of everyone she meets, starting with Jasper Godwin, the hopelessly underqualified manager of the new Billings Better Bookstore.
Fidelia’s thirst for knowledge is contagious. She tutors two orphan boys and two illiterate women, inspiring them to unlock their creativity; and her exploration of colonial Melbourne takes her to some unusual places.
Nothing daunts this diminutive genius, except the mystery of what really happened to her parents on the voyage from England.
When Fidelia arrives in Melbourne, she is escorted of the SS Great Britain by a man named Mr Bartholomew and delivered to a local orphanage. She takes his warning to her about not speaking to everyone to heart, hiding away in gestures, and words when she stumbles upon Coles Book Arcade, and uses her nights to read, and learn. When she hears Jasper Godwin trying to come up with a window advertisement for Billings, she is inspired by Samuel Johnson and the words she knows, using these skills to create alliterative advertisements for each letter of the alphabet.
Once she is taken in by Jasper and his wife, and meets Secret and Joshua, two orphans taken in by Billings and his wife, her life begins to change.
This delightful story begins as a mystery, which is threaded throughout Fidelia’s journey. Small clues are dropped along the way – the missing volume of her dictionary, the lack of information about her parents, things she hears, and the whispers of some of the people around her, and the secrets they keep. These all help in building the light suspense that comes into being in the second half of the novel as Fidelia grows into a young adult.
The novel moves slowly at first, a representation of Fidelia’s new life, and her adjustments to this new place. Yet when she overcomes a hurdle and finds a family with the Godwins, the pace picks up appropriately, and swiftly takes us through the next phase of Fidelia’s life as she makes friends, who are loyal to her and together, they explore the worlds of education, creativity and words.
The themes of family and friends – and the idea that family is what we make of it – are explored through Fidelia’s love of words and the role of creativity, literature and the power of education within our lives. It celebrates a love of words, which all books do, but on a new level and in a new way that brings the dictionary and lexicography to life for all readers who will be interested in this book, aged ten and over. It is for confident readers, and will instil a love of language, linguistics and words in all readers.
I loved this book, and would recommend it to all who love a good yarn, words and a story filled with hope, and girls and women who do not subscribe to the conventions of society, but work within them to change their circumstances and the circumstances of those they want to help. It sits well in its genre, reflects the sentiments and issues of colonial Melbourne, and allows the characters, who sit outside of societal norms, to be themselves, particularly in the second half of the novel, when Fidelia finds her voice and shares her knowledge, finding people who are willing to share this with her and encourage her.
Books that celebrate books and words like this one are favourites of mine. And I’m finding that these books are becoming popular. It is interesting to see how different authors approach this as well, and the role that words have on our daily lives, and where these words originally came from.
A powerful story about family, friends, words and books that will charm and enthral readers.