In yesterday’s mail, I received my advance-order copy of Jenny Colgan’s new novel, The Bookshop on the Shore. Although I had just started reading another book, I promptly put it aside, because I was so in the mood for this book. I’d had a difficult week, and Colgan’s signature combination of can-do attitude with gentle romance plus her evocative setting (northern Scotland) were the required remedy.
This novel is not exactly a sequel to my favorite of Colgan’s books—The Bookshop on the Corner—since the protagonist is new. But it is set in the same locale, most of the characters from that book are here in a peripheral role, and Goodreads characterizes it as “Scottish Bookshop #2.”
Zoe is a young mother of a four-year-old son, Hari, who is practically perfect in every way—sweet, loving, smart, well-behaved. The only issue with Hari is that he doesn’t speak. Zoe has taken him to multiple specialists, all of whom conclude that there’s nothing wrong with him, and that he will “probably” speak when he’s ready. This worry is at the top of Zoe’s list, but is by no means the only problem with which she is dealing. She’s living in London in a tiny bed-sit in a bad neighborhood, working at a daycare job inadequate to pay her bills, and her ex-boyfriend, Hari’s father, is a go-with-the-flow kind of guy who’s more interested in making it as a deejay than he is in contributing childcare funds to support his son. When her landlord leaves her a rent hike notice, Zoe knows that she will at that point be truly beyond her means, so she appeals to Jaz for help, not expecting much but ever hopeful. Jaz disappoints, as usual, but fortunately the interaction results in a helping hand from an unexpected source.
Jaz’s sister is Surinder, Nina’s best friend from The Bookshop on the Corner, and she has just received a call from Nina, who is desperate to find someone to take over her business (she travels around rural Scotland selling books from a van converted into a mobile bookshop) during the rest of her pregnancy. Surinder sends her Zoe, with Hari in tow. But working in Nina’s business isn’t enough to keep Zoe afloat and also doesn’t provide her with a home, so Nina finds Zoe an evening-and-weekends job as a
live-in au pair to the local “big house” family.
Zoe approaches her jobs with a will to succeed, but rapidly discovers that both are going to be uphill work. She hasn’t Nina’s gift for matching every customer with the right book, and the bottom line is making that obvious during her first weeks with the book van. And the au pair gig seems like a bigger nightmare than her horrible life in London, with three rude, uncooperative children who ominously refer to her as “Nanny Seven,” and a father who is obviously checked out and not coping. But with little other choice, Zoe has to seize her opportunities and make the best life she can for herself and her silent little son on the admittedly beautiful shores of Loch Ness.
This is a trademark delightful tale from Jenny Colgan that fulfills all the requirements her readers have come to expect. The characters are wonderfully delineated (particularly those of the three miscreant children, the curmudgeonly housekeeper Zoe and Nina refer to as “MacDanvers” after Rebecca, and Zoe’s son Hari), and the setting in rural Scotland is, as always, a major factor enriching the scenario with descriptions of nature that make the city dweller long to catch the next flight to Inverness. Colgan has the skill to engage the reader with the protagonist’s plight such that every challenge and triumph are taken personally. I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and it set me thinking again about whether a retirement in a rural setting would suit me better than my current situation as one of the million citizens of Los Angeles!
The only caveat I have, and I had it with the book’s predecessor, is calling the mobile book van a “bookshop” and depicting it on both covers as a stationary location! Don’t the publishers read their books? There has to be a better title for both books, and better artwork as well. But, I suppose that if you had called this one, for instance, “On the Shore,” where much of the action takes place (both the selling of books and the live-in nannying), it wouldn’t hook in all those readers who want a book about books and readers; and we are a big and focused readership. Oh, well….
In the course of writing my post “Flower power” a couple of weeks ago, I looked at a few lists of novels with flowers as their theme, and decided to expand my repertoire regarding the language of flowers by buying and reading The Flower Arrangement, by Ella Griffin.
In the midst of severe distress over the loss of a much-wanted child, Lara decides to leave her career as a graphic designer and open a shop she calls Blossom and Grow, in the heart of Dublin. Although, as her doubtful husband warns her, the work is backbreaking, the sourcing of the flowers challenging, and the hours long, the venture turns out well, and Lara loves her little jewel of a flower shop with its beautiful pink façade decorated with hand-painted trompe l’oeil ivy.
Like the protagonist in The Language of Flowers, by Vanessa Diffenbaugh, Lara has a special gift for putting together the right flowers with the right person (even when it’s by accident!), and this theme of people buying flowers for an apology, a declaration of love, a sick friend, a marker for a special day, or simply a spontaneous gesture carries the plot forward. Each chapter is titled with a different flower and its meaning, and there are delicately detailed descriptions of all kinds of blooms throughout the story.
This book probably falls into the category of “cozy romance,” or perhaps you could call it relationship fiction? It’s cleverly done, and is definitely the sum of its parts. Yes, I know that’s not the saying, it’s supposed to aspire to be more than the sum of its parts; but in this case it is appropriate and I’m not denigrating it—the parts do come together to make a whole.
I confess, however, that I was a little disappointed by the way the story evolves. In the beginning, I invested quite heavily in Lara’s tale, which is told first, and assumed that the entire book would be about her; instead, it consists of vignettes that, while tangentially connected to her, don’t necessarily reveal or forward her plotline. There is a central cast of characters played by her brother, her father, and other significant relationships, but then we branch out in turn to those characters’ relationships, and also check in on random people who are connected to the flower shop, it’s true, but sometimes by the thinnest of threads. The author does do a good job of weaving them into a cohesive story, but I simply wanted more Lara.
The one thing that tells against this being considered a romance is that you don’t get your traditional (requisite?) HEA (happily ever after) in the end. Although there are some happy tidings for various people, many loose ends are left, and not because there will be a sequel, I don’t think, but because the author simply wanted them that way. I always think I’m okay with open-ended books until I read one, and then, when I get to the last paragraph and realize my ultimate curiosity won’t be satisfied, I sulk. So this book’s ending made me just a little sulky! I don’t mean to say not to read it, however; it’s a charming, engaging story with a lot of heart, decent writing, great characterization, and an interesting story line.
I had two issues with the physical presentation of the novel: The first was the cover, which, while cute, doesn’t match the description of the shop (thus my little painting, above, to recall the theme of pink!). The second was the title of the book! I don’t understand why the author didn’t call it Blossom and Grow, after the shop; not only would it have been a more memorable title than The Flower Arrangement (which is so generic as to be forgettable, and I did several times when people asked me what I was reading!) but it actually better expresses what happens in the course of the story.
Perhaps Ella Griffin will see this and let us in on her reasoning.
There are those authors you discover by reading something they have just written and then, to your delight, you find out that they have been writing for years or even decades before you came across them. You eagerly anticipate exploring their “back list” to soak up every word this newly favorite writer penned, and as you proceed from first book to last, you are so happy to immerse yourself in their stories.
Then there are the authors you discover by reading their most popular work, but when you follow it up by seeking out the back list, yikes! you realize that some writers are on their game from the beginning, while others are definitely a work in progress.
My recent experience with the books of Jenny Colgan was on the median between these two extremes. I began with her delightful wish-fulfillment story, The Little Shop of Happily Ever After, otherwise known in America as The Bookshop on the Corner, published in 2016, and was hooked. What unemployed librarian wouldn’t love a tale about a book-lover who buys a big van, fills it with remaindered books from her now-closed library, and hocks them to the locals all over the wilds of Scotland, all while experiencing a new lifestyle and possibly even falling in love?
I read The Café by the Sea and its two sequels, the books set in the Beach Street Bakery and the ones about the Cupcake Café, and followed those with The Loveliest Chocolate Shop in Paris. All similarly transformative (exchanging dull or stressful lifestyles for long-held dream jobs), all fun, all sweet, all entertaining, all good. Great characters, luminous settings, not-too-cloying love story elements.
Then, while waiting for her new book to come out this summer, I ventured further into the back list, and read her first, Amanda’s Wedding, published in 2000. The plot, when you read the synopsis, isn’t bad: Melanie and Fran, longtime friends who suffered at the hands of their frenemy Amanda throughout their school years, discover that Amanda is about to wed one of the nicest guys they’ve ever met, Fraser McConnell. Apart from such amiability being sacrificed to the nastiest piece of work in London, the friends discover that Amanda is marrying him not for his kindness and sweet nature but because he has just unexpectedly become a Scottish laird, and Amanda is social climbing for all she’s worth. So Fran and Mel decide to try a few acts of sabotage to get poor Fraser out of Amanda’s clutches.
The problem wasn’t with the plot, but with the execution. Colgan portrayed her protagonists in such a way as to make you wonder why anyone would find them either lovable or friend-worthy. Everyone in this book (except Fraser) is mean and snarky, not to mention frivolous, loose, and drunk most of the time. Amanda may have been the villain, but the contrast between her and everyone else in the book wasn’t great enough for anyone to buy it. My response upon finishing it was, “I’m so glad I read some of her later, truly delightful books before I got around to this first one, because I probably would have quit halfway through and never gone back.” It exhibited glimmers of the traits that make her other books winners, but not enough to notice if you weren’t already familiar with those.
After that, I decided to jump forward a few years and try again, with The Boy I Loved Before (2004). Flora, all grown up (she’s 32), in a long-term relationship with a “nice” man named Olly, and working for an accountancy firm, sees the writing on the wall when she attends her best friend Tashy’s wedding, and thinks to herself, Is this all there is? So as Tashy cuts the cake, Flora wishes she could just go back and be 16 again. Part of this has to do with a high school boyfriend who was a couple of years older than she was and walked off without a backward look after a year of being “in love,” but most of it has to do with not wanting the boring life she has chosen.
So she gets her wish; but no self-respecting fan of time travel or swapped bodies stories would put up with the convoluted (and ridiculous) way in which the change is made. The plotting is so inconsistent, inventing things to solve problems as they come up, that the only response you’re left with is “C’mon!” I enjoyed moments here and there, and some of the characterizations were fun, but for me this would be/would have been another “skip it.”
Finally, reminding myself sternly of how much I had enjoyed her later works, I moved up in time again to 2012, and assayed Welcome to Rosie Hopkins’s Sweet Shop of Dreams. It did, after all, have a title similar to those other books I had enjoyed; and I reasoned that Colgan had had eight years of writing other stories to improve, so I took another chance.
This one finally paid off. Rosie is living in London with her lazy and passive but pleasant and familiar boyfriend, Gerard. She’s a charge nurse, but has been laid off from full-time and is working short contracts at the moment. Her mother contacts her to say that Rosie’s great-aunt Lilian is in trouble. Lilian has been the purveyor of sweets from a charming little shop in a small country village for most of her life, and has always been fiercely independent, but now she has aged beyond the point where she can do it alone. Rosie’s mom wants Rosie to go there, sort out the shop, the house, and Lilian, and enact the hard decision to sell the properties and put Lilian in a retirement home. Rosie reluctantly acquiesces to this plan, partly because she feels like a change (and some time away from Gerard) would do her good; but of course, nothing ever works out the way it’s supposed to. Lilian isn’t as compliant about her future as Rosie’s mother had indicated, and the disheveled charm of the shop and its environs gradually work magic on the relationship between the great-aunt and the great-niece.
I thought this was one of Colgan’s best. I liked that it wasn’t the usual sudden life transformation (as happens in most of her books that I have enjoyed) but began as a result of Rosie’s reluctant good deed. I liked that possible love interests weren’t obvious. I really liked the flashbacks into the aunt’s history, and the relationship that evolved between the two women. The sweet shop produced a truly sweet and beguiling book.
So if you have tried the earlier works and decided they weren’t for you, take another look; there are at least a dozen definitely worthy of your time.
I have never thought of myself as a romance reader (apart from Georgette Heyer Regency Romance novels, which stand alone!), but my friend Kim surprised me by referring to these as romances. When I debated her on that, her response was that she thought of these as “cozy reads,” like you find in the mystery genre. In cozy mysteries, the story is as much about the quirky characters (like Maisie Dobbs or the unexpected Mrs. Pollifax) and quaint settings as it is about the murder. I can definitely see what Kim means: The reason I like Colgan’s books is that most of them portray a woman who is in a rut, and who musters her courage to get out of it when she has to choose between safety and risk-taking. All of the books have a romantic element contained within them, but the happily-ever-after isn’t just about finding a mate, it’s about finding a life.
Today, September 19, has been decreed (by two guys in Albany, Oregon) to be Talk Like A Pirate Day. While I enjoy the whimsicality of that, since my mind always goes to books I wondered what books would suit if it were READ Like A Pirate Day. So I decided to explore that idea.
There are, of course, the classics: Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson, and Captain Blood, by Rafael Sabatini. Who doesn’t remember those with fondness? But what books would a modern pirate read?
Perhaps, being a pirate with a somewhat busy lifestyle, he hasn’t had much time for literacy, so starting with a children’s book might be in order until he gets the hang of this reading thing. For instance, How I Became A Pirate, by David Shannon and Melinda Long, could be a great introduction. He might, however, be a vain pirate not fond of a character who claims that all pirates have green teeth. So perhaps moving on to a young adult novel would be wise.
One could find enough reading to ride out the winter in the comfort of the captain’s cabin by perusing the Bloody Jack series, by L. A. Meyer. Jacky Faber is a ship’s boy on board HMS Dolphin. The only initial challenge is to keep the fact that “Jacky” is actually named Mary a secret from the rest of the crew. In a series of wild adventures that include shipwreck, boarding school, slavery, and piracy, Mary “Jacky” Faber spends a 12-book series getting herself and her friends into and out of hot water.
If the pirate wanted a break from sword fights and grog, Daphne du Maurier wrote a gripping romance set in Restoration England in which Lady Dona St. Colomb, sick of her indulgent life with her silly and ineffectual husband, takes the children and retreats to their estate in Cornwall, where the discovery of Frenchman’s Creek sets her on an adventure with a daring French pirate. But what happens when the adventurous have to come back to earth and recognize their responsibilities? Now the pirate is depressed. He needs some derring do, a bit of mayhem to get him out of the glumphs.
The perfect remedy is Empire of Blue Water, whose subtitle could itself take the pirate a day or two to parse: Captain Morgan’s Great Pirate Army, the Epic Battle for the Americas, and the Catastrophe That Ended the Outlaws’ Bloody Reign (whew!), by Stephan Talty. Although no extra description is necessary, let me just add that this is the real story of the pirates of the Caribbean, with terror, devastation, and political intrigue galore, enough to satisfy the most bloodthirsty of readers.
What is your favorite pirate tale? There are many more for the reading: This Goodreads list contains 537!
Get out there today and roll your rrrrrrrrrrrrs!