The Dress Shop of Dreams – Menna Van Praag book review

the-dress-shop-of-dreams-bookcover

This is the second book I have read from this author – she creates such cosy worlds full of kind people. The dress shop in question is magical – when a woman tries on one of the beautiful silk dresses – she is clothed in the confidence and beauty to attain her dreams – which mostly revolve around finding love.

This book is about love and loss and finding your way. It is full of kind hearted people who for many reasons are lost. Cora – a scientist has closed off her heart after the tragic death of her parents – begins to remember what happened that night and decides to get to the bottom of the mystery.

Walt – the owner of the nearby bookstore – makes the most delicious cherry pies – has been in love with Cora all his life – but Cora seems immune to his advances. He reads books on the local radio – and his deep voice draws may admiring letters which Walt has no interest in responding to. Dylan – the radio producer begins to write back to some of the ladies – and finds love.

dress shop of dreams

The shop owner – Etta – who is also Cora’s grandmother – is pining for a lost love years ago – and while she can stitch magic into the dresses that bring out confidence and beauty in every woman – she can’t help herself.

All these lovely broken people – somehow navigate their way through the book to a satisfying ending. This is a tale about love, loss and recovery and finding the courage to love again.

These books are a great escape and enjoyable to read – I intend to read another of her books soon.

Menna Van Praag – Lost Art of Letter writing book review

Menna-blog

I can’t recall how I stumbled across this author, but I am so glad I did, if you enjoyed Chocolat then this author is going to really delight the senses – she writes joyful tales that include just a sprinkling of magic, in the same way that Chocolat does – its believable magic, that hint that somewhere out there is a force for good.

I don’t know about you, but with all that is going on in the world, I find I want to escape into a good book, where people are kind, and there is hope – Menna’s writing is just such an escape and the settings she chooses for her tales are so close to my heart that I find them irresistible.

Letter writing

The Lost Art of Letter Writing begins with a tiny, shop tucked away in the Cambridge, it contains beautiful paper, pens and a magical writing desk. Clara the shop owner walks the streets after closing – observing the inhabitants and then writes them letters of encouragement – these letters give hope or support – what ever she is drawn to write.

However, waiting for her is her own mystery, a discovery of a box of letters that send Clara on an adventure beyond the four walls of the shop. It is not just her story, there is a mix of other stories interwoven – the people Clara sends encouraging letters to – which fragmented the story a little.

However, it is a pleasurable read, one that I could recommend.

 

Book Review – The Taxidermist’s Daughter Kate Mosse

taxidermists-daughter

It is wonderful to read a story set in your own small corner of the world, Kate Mosse is a local writer and this is the first book I’ve read that features many of the local landmarks. I loved hearing the names of places I know well, Chichester and Fishbourne which is where Kate grew up. You can read an article about the house that inspired this tale here.

What Kate does well, is to write evocatively about a place – I loved that about Winter Ghosts and I began this book almost straight after finishing Winter Ghosts, but this tale is darker and more macabre.

Sussex, 1912. In a churchyard, villagers gather on the night when the ghosts of those who will die in the coming year are thought to be seen. Here, where the estuary leads out to the sea, superstitions still hold sway.

Standing alone is the taxidermist’s daughter. At 17, Constantia Gifford lives with her father in a decaying house: it is all that is left of Gifford’s once world-famous museum of taxidermy. The stuffed animals that used to grace every parlour are out of fashion, leaving Gifford a disgraced and bitter man.

The bell begins to toll and all eyes are fixed on the church. No one sees the gloved hand pick up a flint. As the last notes fade into the dark, a woman lies dead.

While the village braces itself against rising waters and the highest tide of the season, Connie struggles to discover who is responsible, but finds herself under suspicion. Is Constantia who she seems – is she the victim of circumstances or are more sinister forces at work? And what is the secret that lies at the heart of Gifford House, hidden among the bell jars of her father’s workshop?

Told over one summer, The Taxidermist’s Daughter is the haunting new novel from the bestselling author of Labyrinth, Sepulchre, Citadel and The Winter Ghosts.

I have to admit the detailed description of the process of taxidermy described early on in the book made me feel slightly squeamish. I can’t say that it endeared me to Connie, I found it took a while to really get into the book. It was like catching glimpses in the mist, the sense of place, the marshes and the ebbing water – play just as big a role in this tale along with the characters.

wash stand Petworth Cottage Museum

The tale unfolds gradually, the lives of Gifford and his daughter resonate strongly with the sense of decay. Their art is no longer sought after or appreciated, but, Kate makes it very clear, it may be macabre but it is an Art of its own. It made me look at taxidermy in a different light – the skill is in preserving life, forever -from the smallest bird to the well loved dog.

It is gruesome in parts, especially the murders – but then it is why this tale hangs together, so reminiscent of Victorian Gothic – you get a sense of chilling in your bones, as the tidal waters rise, the crows circling or roosting in packs, even though it is more Edwardian than Victorian, it is a delightfully suspenseful tale.

01-img_2540

Kate’s sense of  of place is masterly, cosy tap rooms of local Public houses, an austere asylum, chilly carriage rides and living beside the frosty ebbing and flowing estuary mirroring the Giffords’ place in the community. We also have gallantry and just the wisp of romance .. if only the two lovers had a chance.

It’s a good read, one definitely for cold winter nights with a crackling fire – to ward off the chill of the mist and fog, in good gothic style.

If you loved Susan Hill’s The woman in Black, then you’ll enjoy this. (When, dear Susan, will you write another Gothic novel?)

I can’t wait to see what Kate Writes next…

Remarkable Creatures – Tracey Chevalier Book review

47-img_3519

You might imagine Lyme Regis in Dorset on a November day would be rather bleak, but we were blessed with beautiful sunny weather when we visited last November. Lyme was enchanting, there were hardly any other tourists – the beach was empty and it was easy to enjoy a warming latte from one of the cafes on the prom.

13-img_3456

We ambled along the front turning up the high street to discover the most extraordinary Sanctuary Book Shop! It was full of oddities and curios including old black and white photographs and a battered sewing machine. Room after room, crammed in on every surface, books old and new jostled among teddybears and antiques. Classical music drifted around the shop, while we explored – in awe of the odd collections and tableau. If you ever get to Lyme do pop in! it is a cross between museum and book shop they even do Bed and Breakfast!

14-img_3457

On such a glorious day, I could not resist purchasing Tracey Chevalier’s Remarkable Creatures as a way of taking a little bit of Lyme back home with me. Not just a reminder of a perfect day, but the extraordinary bookshop!

Set in Lyme itself, Remarkable Creatures tells the story of Mary Anning – who unearthed many fossils back in the early 19th century and her friendship with Elizabeth Philpot a middle aged spinster.

Had it not been for the fact that the book would be a reminder of a perfect day, I might not have picked this book – because it doesn’t sound all that inspiring, but I had enjoyed Tracey Chevalier’s the last runaway – and what a lovely book it turned out to be!

28-img_3487

I had no idea about the lack of opportunities for middle class ladies, but Chevalier presented the plight of the three Philpot sisters very well – it seemed that women had only a very short time to find a husband and when they did not – they became the fringe of society. I love the way Chevalier weaves a rich story around real life characters. Mary Anning lived in Lyme- born into poverty, but able to survive by unearthing and selling her fossils – to men who took all the credit and the praise.

This is light hearted tale raises a deeper question in my mind, women’s contributions  to science and natural history, seems to be written out of history I wonder how many unsung women there are? What other female contributions are claimed by their male counterparts?  Many of Mary’s discoveries were simply attributed to the men who purchased them, rather than Mary herself. Chevalier also touches lightly on the challenges these creatures created in opposition to religious beliefs at the time. Darwin’s origin of the species is not mentioned, but Elizabeth ponders on how these discoveries fit with ‘God’s plan’.

While the Annings might be poor and the Philpotts rich in comparison, the balance of friendship is one of equality. Elizabeth’s life might not be restricted by poverty, but it is just as confined by circumstances as Mary’s is. Life for all women is not one of equality with men in all levels of society.

It is a light read – the tale is merely 350 pages, but one that I enjoyed and would recommend wholeheartedly, I liked the Philpott’s and would have liked to have spent more time with them in their cosy cottage in Lyme.

48-img_3526

Ghostly tales -Book recommendations for Christmas Reading


December’s bleak weather – drab grey clouds creating a state of perpetual twilight in the short daylight hours contrasts sharply with the twinkling lights of Christmas Decorations. No wonder we all huddle in the warmth and light of our homes, gather together by a crackling fire and read dark brooding tales. Winter weather gives rise to the the gothic novel, Frankenstein was written after a lengthy storm, maybe the tapping of rain against the windows gives us a deep contrast to our cosy nest, that just beyond the walls, something lurks.

It was a Victorian tradition to tell ghost stories on Christmas Eve – maybe created by Charles Dickens Christmas Carol although Shelly’s Modern Promethus better known as Frankinstein was written a good twenty years earlier after a particularly violent storm.    Whatever the tradition, there is nothing nicer than being curled up safe and warm reading brooding gothic tales – I thought I would offer some recommendations as alternatives to the flickering box on the wall.


The Winter Ghosts – by Kate Mosse

Kate is a local author to West Sussex, I was delighted to meet her a few years ago. She has written a number of books but this is an engaging a ghostly tale. Set in France between the wars our protagonist, Freddie is lost; not just on his way to Ax-les-Thermes to spend time with friends but suffering deep grief at his brother’s death.  He is caught up in a blizzard high on a mountain road – crashes his car and wanders towards the nearest village.  In the woods, he hears a woman’s voice calling.

This is a good read – the ghosts are not scary enough to give you sleepless nights. The tale is evocative – the atmosphere definitely one that makes this tale believable. Although you might need to wrap up warm – his wandering in the snow made me gather lots of blankets round me!


The Woman in Black – Susan Hill

This is my favourite gothic novel – one that set me on the road to reading more from this genre. The tale begins with the cosiness of a happy family gathered round the fire on Christmas Eve, where the protagonist, Arthur Kipps, is asked to tell a ghost story by his step children. This evokes terrifying memories for Arthur – of his time spent in the aptly named Eel Marsh House – the memories surface and disturb his peace.  Arthur is unable to rest until he has written his account down on paper.

Unlike the film, this story is darkly plausible – Arthur convinces us that until the visit to Eel Marsh House, he was a man of logic, one not easily given to melodrama and superstition. The Woman in Black is a tale of heartbreak and revenge – whenever she is seen death follows shortly behind, he fears catching sight of her and is always looking over his shoulder. The happiness of his family home, the joy of love and peace that surrounds the house is not able to drive out his fear, instead it casts a shadow on his life – will he escape her clutches or will she get her revenge?


Florence and Giles – John Harding

Set in New England – this tale of innocence, neglect and crumbling mansions has all the elements to create a gothic story. Florence and Giles roam free, while servants go about their business in the absence of the Master of the house and uncle to the children. Florence is forbidden to read, because her uncle was rejected by an educated woman. However Florence is not to be thwarted, she escapes to the library, hides herself away and teaches herself to read, devouring novel after novel in her Uncle’s vast library.

I have been a life long reader – my childhood was spent escaping into books, so I could relate to Florence and felt sympathy with her almost straight away. I loved the way Harding gave Florence a strange way of speaking – creating her own words and phases that were uniquely her own and quite endearing.

However, we are talking gothic novel – where suspense and horror lie. It gathers pace, in a similar way to the Turning of the Screw – layer upon layer  right up to the horrifying conclusion. It left me completely traumatised at the end – with a complete book hangover for several weeks. Read if you dare!

 

 

Outlander Series one and The Witches Daughter – book review

Outlander-TV_series-2014

We bought an Amazon TV stick and have been enjoying some great films; this Series kept on popping up in our feed, so we decided to try it.

The basic story is about an Army Nurse in the 1940’s who is visiting Scotland with her husband after the war. One day she visits a standing stone circle and falls back in time by 200 years.

I really enjoyed the first half of the series, it was great learning about the clan culture and seeing Claire navigate her way in another time. She used her knowledge to heal and earned respect for her skills. She falls in love with one of the characters (I’ll try not to spoil it) but somehow when we reached two thirds of the way in I began to feel my interest waning.  How many times did she ignore advice and get herself in trouble? I find I was getting restless at her inability  to learn from her mistakes.

Beyond episode 11, I was watching it alone, Mr D having lost interest and it was becoming too romantic even for my interest, but the final episode left me frustrated and angry! What began as a promising tale – seemed to take a turn that left me feeling uncomfortable to watch. It seems to me that current box sets seem to desire to push boundaries, but I find it difficult to understand why the last episode would be so dire.

We became sucked into Game of Thrones a few months back – the first series was gripping, but when we reached the end of series five I felt sickened by the sheer violence depicted and refuse to watch any more. (Seriously, seeing someone squeeze a person’s eyeballs out of their sockets is gruesome! a final straw after episode after episode of skinning people alive, cutting off hands, beheading and poisoning, it is not my idea of entertainment)

However, I shall give the second series of Outlander another chance in order to recover the initial enthusiasm, maybe try and see if the books are any better than the TV series, Game of Thrones readers say there is not the same level of violence in the books.

20434557._UY200_

Outlander left me with an interest in time travelling tales: The Witches Daughter was an interesting read. I am not really into witchcraft but I do love the concept of fantasy and adventure.

Bess sees her mother hanged as a witch, with good reason it turns out. She is taught how to cast spells by a warlock called Gideon, who eventually helps her to become immortal. We follow Bess through three lives with Gideon hot on her tail.

It is an entertaining story , Paula Brackston is a talented writer: the story moves quickly and easily to a satisfying conclusion.

A good read I will give it five stars.

What do you think of time travelling tales?

The House at Riverton book review

cvr9781416550532_9781416550532_hr

If you haven’t read the book, don’t worry, you can read this review there is no spoiler. 

Grace Bradley went to work at Riverton House as a servant when she was just a girl, before the First World War. For years her life was inextricably tied up with the Hartford family, most particularly the two daughters, Hannah and Emmeline.
In the summer of 1924, at a glittering society party held at the house, a young poet shot himself. The only witnesses were Hannah and Emmeline and only they—and Grace—know the truth.
In 1999, when Grace is ninety-eight years old and living out her last days in a nursing home, she is visited by a young director who is making a film about the events of that summer. She takes Grace back to Riverton House and reawakens her memories. Told in flashback, this is the story of Grace’s youth during the last days of Edwardian aristocratic privilege shattered by war, of the vibrant twenties, and the changes she witnessed as an entire way of life vanished forever.
The novel is full of secrets—some revealed, others hidden forever, reminiscent of the romantic suspense of Daphne Du Maurier. It is also a meditation on memory, the devastation of war, and a beautifully rendered window into a fascinating time in history.
Originally published to critical acclaim in Australia, already sold in ten countries and a #1 bestseller in England, The House at Riverton is a vivid, page-turning novel of suspense and passion, with characters-and an ending-the reader won’t soon forget.

 

My thoughts:

Kate Morton is a very talented writer, of that there is no doubt… I found this book an engaging read.

It is so beautifully written in places:

I told you about the memories I’ve been having. I told you about the curious sensation that they are becoming more real to me than my own life. The way I slip away without warning, I am disappointed when I open my eyes and see that I am back in 1999. The way the fabric of time is changing, and I am beginning to feel at home in the past and a visitor to the this strange and blanched experience we agree to call the present.

What beautiful observation – simple genius.

There are so many metaphors where the house and the family reflect the wider society. The house personifies the fate of the aristocracy, the family’s decline is a slow painful death, as the dust begins to collect in corners. Class is brushed aside as bankers and business take control, reflecting the change in the wider society, it is the nouveau riche in the guise of Teddy that intend to bring the house back to its former glory.

The incident weaves in and out like a ghost, we catch snatches, we know someone died, we know there were two witnesses but we ebb backwards and forwards in time the story is pieced together like a jigsaw. At one point I was frustrated with the writing, we get closer and closer and then suddenly we are transported away to another time. Perhaps that is what is it is like in old age?

The last piece is not supplied by the narrator but as a recorded epilogue from Grace to her son. To be honest, I felt rather cheated by this, we never really get the story straight, the details are second hand and not fully there – we are left to surmise our own opinion about what happened.

But then so much of the novel is hinted at, Grace’s father, her mother, the game .. the mystery swirls around the story, just like the mist around the house itself.

I am not entirely sure I agree with the publishers that this is reminiscent of Daphne Du Maurier – Rebecca is a novel about a house of ghosts, but the tale has none of the suspense or tension of Rebecca as it  whirls to a crescendo where this tale just fades away.

It was an engaging read, she deserves her place on the best seller lists but I am reluctant to pick up the second book: the Forgotten Garden just now, because I am not really satisfied with the ending – it just simply faded away with Grace’s death and perhaps that was intended by the writer.

I did not mourn its loss which is an indicator of how I feel about books, when I am usually sad to let the characters go. In this instance, it was a peaceful passing!

Ladybird books – The keys to the Kingdom of Reading and the start of a life long love affair with books.

PeterAndJane_1a_PlayWithUs_1964

While I was browsing Pinterest I came across some Ladybird book illustrations that had me all misty eyed in no time! Those little hardback books have such an endearing quality full of joyful memories. This illustration was the first book in the Key Word Reading Scheme the mainstay of primary education in the 1970s. Just looking at the pictures brings back vivid memories of toil as the five year old me tried to decipher the strange squiggles -into words.
Ladybird books

Despite never being read stories and books, once I learned – I became an avid reader -these books were beautifully illustrated – the series depicting family life of the 1950’s that was already seen as old fashioned in the 1970’s but had a profound influence on the children it was educating – including me.

Beauty and the Beast

Ladybird books were the start of my life long love of reading, seeing this picture gave me a tingle of joy – Beauty and the Beast was beyond my reading ability when it was a favourite,  I scoured the pictures to decipher the story and that memory is  vivid forty years later – The slight fear, the ugly monkey in fancy clothes, I could not understand why the girl in the story stayed with him. As an adult I can look upon this and see another underlying message, that beauty comes from within and rich people can make demands!

Rumplestiltskin Ladybird books

Another was Rumplestiltskin – he might have been a rather nasty character but I did feel that he was unfairly treated, by then my reading was much better and I have a clearer idea of the story. Imagine spinning straw into gold.

The Elves and The Shoemaker Ladybird books

Another favourite was the Elves and the Shoemaker (is that where my love of sewing came from?) Those beautiful clothes made for the Elves at the end were so quaint. Ladybird had a love affair with the 17th Century all the stories seemed to be set in that time frame, Cinderella, The Porridge Pot and Sleeping Beauty.

Crafting Ladybird books

Ladybird did not just stick to reading schemes and fairy tales; there was a vast range of Learn about books with subjects covering Crafts, Nature books to Science, History and workplaces. It is why they are such a valuable resource for social history as well as illustrating  the development of technology, the book on space included a trip to the moon long before the moon landings of the 1970s.

ladybird books sewing

I remember thumbing these crafting books desperate to try out some of the projects, only now do I see the dawning of my crafting obsessions! I still collect crafting books that are running into six bookshelves. My love of sewing began with Ladybird.

domestic life as depicted by ladybirdThere has been a great deal of criticism regarding the depiction of traditional White British Middle Class family life and stereotypical gender role models in the reading scheme – which makes me want to leap to their defence.

Idealised family values from Ladybird books

In 1960s versions Jane was shown helping her mother while Peter was helping his father wash the car. The illustrations were updated and altered a lot over the years. It is evidence of the shifting attitudes in society – the 70s was a decade of sexual liberation – shortly followed by racial equality. It is unfair to judge them as outdated and bigoted – they are representations of the society at that time. Values change with every generation but that doesn’t mean to say the past should be papered over.

Domestic life portrayed by Ladybird

The most striking memory when I see these illustrations was an overwhelming sense of being an outsider. My home life was very different, my poor father was working full time, managing a home and bringing up two children on his own while being in a deep and profound state of grief.

Ladybird books domestic life

I had an idealised vision of what family life was like for everyone else – a realisation that there was a big part of family life missing. When we had a new housekeeper, I remember a vague expectation that I would return home to a table laid for tea and that she would be wearing an apron, but it was the 1970s -they shifted in and out my life with no explanations leaving broken promises behind. Oddly enough – when I see these pictures that state of confusion comes to the fore strongly – I knew never to ask questions so spent my childhood in a state of uncertainty. All this surfacing by looking at a few images!

Vintage picnic - ladybird books

That sense of alienation is not the fault of the books, times were very different, single parents were thankfully, rare. Yet I cannot help but wonder if these depictions positively influenced me when I had children of my own:  I wanted to be a home maker, I baked with my children despite never having done it as a child myself and I remember trying to live up to a rather unrealistic ideal – one that still resonates with me after forty years.

Ladybird Books

Can these books be responsible, I wonder, for the growth of the Vintage Movement so popular in our culture today? There are so many women reaching out for the clothing and lifestyles of the 1940’s and 1950’s. Vintage Apron patterns abound and traditional home making skills are popular again – is there a deep seated perception about the past that remains imprinted from these early reading schemes I wonder?

Classic tales from Ladybird
My children loved the Billy-goats Gruff

I ponder if we are any closer to getting the balance right with reading schemes, my children’s books were alienating for them – no familiar domestic family but with Asian characters dressed in jeans and t’shirts called Biff and Chip.  I believe that while politically correct the reading scheme books did not ignite the love of reading in my children. Reading with them became the medicine of our ‘reading time’ I had a sense of unease that my children’s reading was so political. Despite reading some joyful books with them, Dr Dog was a particular favourite neither became an avid reader until they were teenagers with the advent of Harry Potter.

illustration from the Gingerbread Man

What cannot be denied is the enduring appeal – the pictures are so beautifully done. Ladybird employed talented professional artists – Harry Winfield and Martin Aitchison

The Gingerbread Man Ladybird books

I love the movement of the water is depicted in this illustration, and the changing nature of the fox is vivid.

4e2d14697c6cf503e946ef00fefd5efd

Harry Wingfield was an artist who worked for Ladybird up until his death in the 1980s, he illustrated  the nature books and many of the Look and See Series- they are simply beautiful. I have found memories of looking at those beautiful illustrations with awe – there was so much detail to explore

The night sky from Ladybird books

The small bite sized books contained beautifully drawn infographics, making complex subjects accessible to a young audience. There was no sense of dumbing down, science, geography, travel, technology the subject matter was vast.

db6e0ff99e28ede40a8629fa861bdd3b

Ladybird are celebrating their centenary this year as the publishing company was set up in 1915,  you can see some of the illustrations  at the House of Illustration in London until mid September.

c502cbcc24857fb3c6fe77f47bfbac48

I am sure I am not alone in the love of Ladybird – who are still publishing today there are many enthusiasts out there.

Feel free to share your personal memories of these delightful books, I would be thrilled to read how special they are to you.

ttfn x

Summer Reading – Book Reviews

51aAIqt9JqL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

This is the second Lesley Pearce book I have read, I picked this up reluctantly, I wasn’t thrilled about the last one, but was interested in this story and willing to give the author another try.

Coronation Day, 1953.
Molly Heywood has always been a pillar of strength for her local community, so when her friend Cassie fails to attend the Coronation Day party in the village, it is Molly who heads out in the rain to look for her.
But nothing can prepare Molly for what she is going to discover.
Now with Cassie gone and her six-year-old daughter Petal missing, it is up to Molly to head to London to uncover the past Cassie kept so well hidden.
But will Molly discover the truth before it’s too late? Or has Petal disappeared forever?

I found Molly a likeable character from the start, anyone who volunteers to run a children’s party has got to be nice! Cassie’s friendship broadens Molly’s outlook from the small village and she heads to the smoky streets of London not only to get a better life but to uncover what happened to Cassie’s daughter. Molly makes friends and enemies along the way and finally discovers who murdered Cassie.

I was reluctant to read another of Lesley Pearce’s novels because I find her characters a little on dimensional, they are either good or bad, with nothing in-between. I also dislike it when characters are given modern opinions – such as women’s equality and homosexuality. It just irks my sense of authenticity.

That said, this is an interesting tale, the story has its twists and turns, with a rather unexpected twist. Although I found once the mystery had been solved, the story continued along for another chapter – tying up loose ends, but for me it was simply padding.

A good read for a poolside holiday – I would classify it light hearted chic lit.

24909572._UY200_

Stephanie Lam’s stunning debut novel, The Mysterious Affair at Castaway House, is a gripping read laced with mystery, secrets and love.
It’s 1965 and eighteen year-old Rosie Churchill has run away to the beautiful but run-down Castaway House in the seaside town of Helmstone. But when she uncovers a scandal locked away in the walls of the old house, she soon comes to realise that neither her own troubled past nor that of the house will stay buried for long. . .
In 1924 fresh-faced Robert Carver comes to Castaway House to spend a languid summer in the company of his much wealthier cousin, Alec Bray. But the Brays are a damaged family, with damaging secrets. And little does Robert know that his world is about to change for ever.
As Rosie begins to learn more about Robert, the further she is drawn into the mysterious history of the house, and their stories, old and new, entwine.

This was an engaging mystery, I liked the two timelines although Robert’s tale was preferable. There are a number of links that bring the two timelines together, not least the House itself, re-invented in 1965 into small flatlets. The characters were well rounded, both timelines had their twists and turns, and I was drawn into the tale easily finding it difficult to put the book down. This is a great read, I can thoroughly recommend this book for a holiday and hope the writer publishes another soon!

1854160

Since reading the book, the Woman In Black, I have been a huge fan of Susan Hill. She is a superb spinner of gothic ghost stories – don’t confuse the book with the film, which was not a patch on her novel. She weaves a tale in classic gothic tradition mixing cosy libraries and fire lit studies with chilling ghostly shadows. Read the woman in Black, it is one of her best, but these two smaller novelettes are a wonderful introduction to her writing.

The Man in the picture is the story of a haunting tale,  the picture appears to collect victims who are mesmerised by the scene depicted.

In the apartment of Oliver’s old professor at Cambridge, there is a painting on the wall, a mysterious depiction of masked revellers at the Venice carnival. On this cold winter’s night, the old professor has decided to reveal the painting’s eerie secret. The dark art of the Venetian scene, instead of imitating life, has the power to entrap it. To stare into the painting is to play dangerously with the unseen demons it hides, and become the victim of its macabre beauty.

This tale is engaging – I love the contrasts, warm cosiness of college rooms to chilly cold nights, passionate love and black hearted obsession. I love the way her novel time periods are hard to define, but they have such an element of early 20th century when most men were gentlemen – not easily shaken. It is a great tale to read on a long winter’s evening, while the fire softly crackles and settles down.

The-Small-Hand-by-Susan-Hill1

Returning home from a client visit late one evening, Adam Snow takes a wrong turn and stumbles across the derelict old White House. Compelled by curiousity he decides to enter, only to be repelled when he feels the unmistakeable sensation of a small hand creeping onto his own. This is just the beginning of a series of odd experiences.

This has a more modern feel but still a male protagonist – our book dealer is not someone easily spooked, but the many incidents begin to unnerve him. All Susan Hill’s stories appear to revolve around similar characters, and I wonder if this helps us to take the ghostly apparitions seriously, men after all are supposed to be more logical and less emotional. What happens is believable, the mystery is slowly unravelled until we are left with a logical explanation and satisfying sense of justice. Definitely worth settling down for – though not in a rambling old house.

The Little Paris Book Shop – book review

The Little Paris Bookshop

Bear with me, while I enthuse about another wonderful book!

This little delight, called the Little Paris Bookshop is written by phenomenal Nina George and translated from German into English by the talented Simon Pare.

Nina George is a wonderful story teller, there are some sublime pieces of writing that simply stopped me in my tracks; given that this has been translated, I have to admire Simon Pare for being able to translate so beguilingly.

It is different from anything else I have read – but does bear a slight resemblance to Paulo Coelho – in that there is an air of wisdom that simply slips off the page and does your soul some good. However, I found the characters in this book more accessible than Coelho’s; they are more emotional and less remote.

and very, very lovable.

The Little Paris Bookshop-10

If you like the idea of a book apothecary where books can offer solace to the soul for every heartache then this is the book for you.

The Little Paris Bookshop-13

I have peppered this post with quotes from the book, but I could not include all the pencilled highlights and margin notes because there are too many.

This is a book about love, not the falling boy meets girl type of candy floss, but the hard edged, gut wrenching, soul destroying heartache of love’s ending and how to come out the other side alive.

It is also about healing, hope and friendship.

This is not a story to scan in one sitting – this is a book to savour, slow down – read and re-read. I wanted to bask in these pages, in the way that Perdu prescribes a book to one of his customers:

‘This book which you will please read slowly, so you can take occasional break. You’ll do a lot of thinking and probably a bit of crying. For yourself, For the years. But you will feel better afterwards. You’ll know that now you don’t have to die, even if that is how it feels because a guy didn’t treat you well. And you will like yourself again.’

I ended up reading with pencil in hand underscoring and writing in the margins. I rarely keep fiction books, but this one will sit on my shelf and I imagine will be dusted off and fingered through when I need the solace and comfort.

The Little Paris Bookshop-5

I admit here, there was one point in the book that really did hit home. I took a break, cried a little but mostly I felt comforted because I was not the only person to suffer in that way. I felt no longer alone with that small, tiny, heartache. And I felt absolved of blame, that it wasn’t my fault – and it was healing.

The Little Paris Bookshop-9

For all Perdu’s ability to look at a customer and reach into their souls, touch their pain and prescribe the book that will heal them, Perdu is lost, (it took me a while to notice but his name is French for lost!). He cannot heal himself.

When he can’t over come his pain he distracts himself by healing other people in the vain hope it will silence the aching wail inside him. Its like a sort of deal we do with ourselves. We want to avoid feeling or expressing the hurt because we are frightened.  Thus Perdu has been running is book apothecary for twenty years – sending customers off with books that soothe their troubled souls and mend their broken hearts. Only, it is he who needs the healing most of all.

The Little Paris Bookshop-8

At some point in our lives we have to face the heartache inside us, examine and feel it. Overcome the fear that we will drown in our own tears and let our crying begin – only when we have done this can we start to piece ourselves back together.

Perdu faces his pain by reading a letter written by his lover twenty years ago before she left him. He has reduced his life so much, in order to protect himself from any form of human contact. But he is forced to read the letter and the tight constrains he has placed on his life begin to crumble – he runs away.

The Little Paris Bookshop-12

Everyone is carrying some form of pain or other -this book offers hope.  You will discover that your pain is not unique, others suffer the same maladies, just the names, times and places are different.

The Little Paris Bookshop-15
This is also a tale of friendship – not the superficial kind – passing acquaintances that we see regularly – but the true friendship that develops when you are prepared to strip yourself emotionally naked of the culture and masks we wear in society and show another soul our scars. Those are the friendships that matter and not a process we can do with hundreds of people – a handful is too many, if you have one or two then you are blessed.

The Little Paris Bookshop-7
We see this happen with Perdu on his journey south, the fear of expressing his pain had him locked down where only the feint brush of a cat around his leg was the only tender contact he bear without fear of breeching his defences.

‘Habit is a vain and treacherous goddess. She lets nothing disrupt her rule. She smothers one desire after another; the desire to travel, the desire for a better job or a new love. She stops us living as we would like, because habit prevents us from asking ourselves wether we continue to enjoy what we do.’

I think that is a very profound truth, one that we can all do with pondering now and then. I know that fear hides in many of the limitations we place in our lives in order to be ‘safe’. While security is a good thing, a little bit of danger and adventure makes us feel more alive!

Perdu is writing a Great Encyclopaedia of Small Emotions on his journey, collecting different experiences and noting them down. It is our thinking, that frames not just what we believe about ourselves but our world, our experiences and ultimately our lives. Science is already showing the close connection between thoughts and the body, even to the point of suggesting that in order for a disease in the body to begin we activate the messages that send out a trigger. These small emotions, these little heartaches are the things that eat away at us, if we aren’t careful, affects our health.

Perdu begins to participate in life again, no longer hiding in the shadows, but opening himself up to friendship and then to love. He makes peace with his lost love – he firstly begins to say her name eventually, finding forgiveness in his heart not just for her but himself.

With all these quotes it might seem that this book is a hard tome to plough through, but it isn’t.

It is an easy story to read – a canal boat trip with friends at the very least.

The tale gently unfolds, like the pace along the river itself.

The wisdom drifts off the pages like a feather resting gently on your lap – for you to take up if you wish.

The Little Paris Bookshop-14Our experience shapes us forever, the people we meet every day, the interactions, misunderstandings and aggression that is all around us; life does sometimes feel like a battle.

The ultimate anti-dote for stress is reading,  an escape into worlds where usually wrongs are righted, justice prevails and we can all be heroes. For me, they have always been a lifeboat – a place of sanctuary.

I read as a child, taking comfort and adventure from other children’s lives; the famous five, ballet shoes and the Chronicles of Narnia.

Reading preserved my sanity when my children were small, I would take long baths with a book – so I did not get distracted by the housework piling up around me.

What has reading done for you?