The Mure series by Jenny Colgan: The story so far (books 1 – 4)

Jenny Colgan is an absolute favorite go-to author. Her books have heart and depth, but even at their saddest, never leave you feeling down for long. Her best, in my opinion, are the stories set in small communities, where an outsider can make a big difference, or where someone returning home realizes all over again where they truly belong.

Which brings me to the Mure series — books set on the fictional island of Mure, located off the mainland of northern Scotland. Mure is a small, close-knit farming community, where everyone knows everyone else, and their parent and grandparents and all the preceding generations…

I originally read the first book in the series, The Cafe by the Sea, back in 2017. This year, I’ve picked the series back up, revisiting book #1 via audio, then continuing onward through the series. With the 5th book due for release in mid-June 2022, I thought I’d share my thoughts and reactions to the story so far:

Title: The Cafe by the Sea
Published: 2017
Length: 416 pages
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Years ago, Flora fled the quiet Scottish island where she grew up — and she hasn’t looked back. What would she have done on Mure? It’s a place where everyone has known her all her life, where no one will let her forget the past. In bright, bustling London, she can be anonymous, ambitious… and hopelessly in love with her boss.

But when fate brings Flora back to the island, she’s suddenly swept once more into life with her brothers — all strapping, loud, and seemingly incapable of basic housework — and her father. Yet even amid the chaos of their reunion, Flora discovers a passion for cooking — and find herself restoring dusty little pink-fronted shop on the harbour: a café by the sea.

But with the seasons changing, Flora must come to terms with past mistakes — and work out exactly where her future lies…

The Cafe by the Sea introduces us to Flora McKenzie, a hard-working but not particularly happy young woman slaving away in a London office, with a hopeless mad crush on her gorgeous boss and too much sadness associated with her home back in Mure to even consider returning there… until a business deal her firm is engaged to handle forces her back to Mure anyway, in company with her unattainable boss Joel. There, Flora must confront the family she fled years earlier in the wake of shared sorrow that she just couldn’t bear.

The more time she spends on Mure, the more she starts to realize how much she lost by leaving, and that perhaps the only way for her family to heal is to be together.

I love the depiction of life on this Scottish island, the big, loud family Flora reconnects with, and the million small details the author uses to show the personalities and quirks of this tight-knit community. It’s all lovely, and although I had some doubts about the central romance, I still got completely caught up in the sunshine and joy of this sweet story. (Plus! So much good food. And there are even recipes — in this book and each one in the series).

Title: The Endless Beach
Published: 2018
Length: 416 pages
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

When Flora MacKenzie traded her glum career in London for the remote Scottish island of Mure, she never dreamed that Joel—her difficult, adorable boss—would follow. Yet now, not only has Flora been reunited with her family and opened a charming café by the sea, but she and Joel are taking their first faltering steps into romance.

With Joel away on business in New York, Flora is preparing for the next stage in her life. And that would be…? Love? She’s feeling it. Security? In Joel’s arms, sure. Marriage? Not open to discussion.

In the meanwhile, Flora is finding pleasure in a magnificent sight: whales breaking waves off the beaches of Mure. But it also signals something less joyful. According to local superstition, it’s an omen—and a warning that Flora’s future could be as fleeting as the sea-spray… 

Here in book #2, the storytelling and perspectives open up beyond just Flora’s story, and that’s a very, very good thing. Not that Flora’s piece of the tale isn’t interesting or enjoyable! But now, in The Endless Beach, we get to spend more time with the people who’d only existed as background or secondary characters in The Cafe by the Sea, and this helps the overall story feel more encompassing and lived in.

Beyond seeing Flora and Joel’s story progress, as they deal with his emotional fallout from childhood trauma and try to find a way forward together, we also have Flora’s brother Fintan’s romance with the billionaire who’s bought key property on the island and wants to make it his forever home; Saif, the Syrian refugee doctor who’s granted asylum by the UK in exchange for his placement at the clinic in Mure, who yearns for news of his missing boys and wife, yet is also drawn to the island’s kind schoolteacher Lorna; and one of the most adorable characters ever, Flora’s 4-year-old niece Agot (who might, in other author’s hands, come across as annoying, but here is just utterly delightful).

The Endless Beach has an interwoven plot that includes plenty of joy, but also true moments of tragedy and sorrow. We go deeper into the characters’ lives, and Saif’s family’s struggles are particularly sad and emotional.

I won’t say why, but the ending absolutely knocked me sideways with an emotional blow that I did not see coming. While many of the storylines are left with hopeful loose ends by the close of The Endless Beach, there’s one main storyline that can only end with tragedy, and it really upset me (which just shows how invested I’ve become in these characters).

I should add a note there that the audiobooks are a treat to listen to — so highly recommended!

Title: Christmas on the Island
Published: 2018
Length: 352 pages
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Christmas on the remote Scottish island of Mure is bleak, stark — and incredibly beautiful.

It’s a time for hunkering down, getting cosy in front of whisky barrel wood fires, and enjoying a dram with the people you love — unless, of course, you’re accidentally pregnant to your ex-boss, and don’t know how to tell him. In what should be the season of peace and goodwill on earth, will Joel think Flora is a bearer of glad tidings?

Meanwhile Saif, the doctor and refugee from war-torn Syria is trying to enjoy his first western Christmas with his sons — but without his missing wife. Can the little family possibly find comfort and joy?

Travel to the beautiful northern edge of the world and join the welcoming community of Mure for an unforgettable Christmas

The 3rd book in the series picks up just a few months after book #2, with Christmas on its way, but not everyone particularly up for the celebration.

As the synopsis reveals, Flora is pregnant and isn’t sure how the news will go over. Joel isn’t just any man about to hear about an unexpected baby — he’s a damaged soul who grew up in foster care and has a very hard time with emotions and with the concept of family. He loves Flora, but the idea of parenthood is terrifying, and Flora knows there’s a good chance he’ll bolt rather than face the reality of their new lives.

Flora’s brother Fintan married the man of his dreams in the 3rd book, but now faces a huge, devastating loss. To make matters worse, his husband’s long-estranged (and pretty awful) American brother shows up on Mure to make sure the family gets their hands on Colton’s money.

And as Saif settles more into island life with his two boys, the ongoing question of whether his wife survived the terrors of war haunts him deeply. His loyalties are torn, and while the boys seem to finally be adapting to their new home, he wonders if they might not be better off moving to Glasgow and starting over yet again.

The conflicts and crises in Christmas on the Island continue to be deeply emotional, and there are tragedies in store for at least some of the characters. Fortunately, Jenny Colgan’s light touch with her characters means that there are joyful moments as well, and she sprinkles in humor and silliness just often enough to keep the overall tone from becoming completely morose.

I don’t typically read Christmas-themed books, but when it comes to this series, I simply couldn’t not continue. Christmas on the Island is a lovely, engaging read, and at this point, I’m so invested in these characters’ lives that there was zero chance I wouldn’t pick this one up. Given the Christmas title, it’s clear from the start that the holiday spirit will prevail. Not everyone gets a completely happy ending, but they do all get peace and some measure of hope.

Title: Christmas at the Island Hotel
Published: 2020
Length: 352 pages
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Another heartfelt and delightful Christmas tale from the beloved New York Times bestselling author of The Bookshop on the Corner and Christmas on the Island.

New York Times bestselling author Jenny Colgan returns to the setting of Christmas on the Island and Endless Beach for a heartwarming new novel celebrating the season, and Scotland.

On the tiny, beautiful, and remote island of Mure, halfway between Scotland and Norway, a new hotel opening is a big event. New mother Flora MacKenzie and her brother Fintan are working themselves half to death to get it ready in time for Christmas. 

The new hotel’s impressive kitchens throw together two unlikely new friends: Isla Gregor is the hardworking young girl who has been a waitress in the island’s cafe, dreaming of a bigger, better life now that she’s at a proper fancy hotel. Konstantin Pederson is working his way up in the hotel’s kitchens too…but he is also, secretly, the only son of the Duke of Utsire. Konstantin has been sent to learn what it is to work hard for a living, before receiving his inheritance. Although he’s initially resentful, the place grows on him; he has never met anyone quite like Isla and her fellow Murians before. 

As the island’s residents and special VIP guests gather for the hotel’s grand opening gala, Christmas is in the air. But so are more than a few small-town secrets…

Well… by the 4th book of this series, it’s clear that the reason to read it is to spend more time with beloved characters in this cozy, lovely setting.

Not all that much actually happens in Christmas at the Island Hotel. A year has past since the sad events that ended book #3. Flora now has a baby and is supposedly on maternity leave, but she’s actually itching for work and a project. Meanwhile, her boyfriend Joel, initially so reluctant to become a father, is totally besotted by their infant son, and it’s quite adorable.

Other stories progress, and new characters are introduced. As the synopsis indicates, a spoiled Norwegian aristocrat is being punished by this father by being sent off to Mure to learn what it means to actually work and not rely on servants. Konstantin is a petulant brat as the story opens, but of course, his experiences on Mure transform him, especially once he falls for a shy island girl and starts to see the beauty of this strange place he’s landed.

Additionally, the brash French chef who takes on the hotel’s restaurant is arrogant, demanding, and absolutely does not fit in on the island, and yet he ends up being just what they need. Meanwhile, the slow burn love story of Saif and Lorna continues to simmer, with some new developments adding tension and confusion to their already shaky relationship.

I enjoyed the book, but it did feel a little diluted — too much time spent on the new characters and the kitchen shenanigans, not enough on the characters we already know and love. Still, it’s always wonderful to spend time on Mure!

An audiobook note: After loving the narrator of the first three audiobooks (Sarah Barron), it was a little disconcerting to switch to a new narrator for book #4 (Eilidh Beaton). I did get used to her after a while, and ended up liking her narration too — but at the start, it was quite a jolt!

Wrapping it all up…

Jenny Colgan’s books are always a delight. What I love about this series is how completely immersed we become in the life of the island. While Flora is the center of the series, over the course of these books we become involved with her big family as well as her various neighbors, friends, and sometime-rivals.

The island is filled with quirky people whose seemingly simple lives offer entertainment as well as complications. While the 4th book feels more light-weight than the others, with fewer deep emotional moments, it’s still lovely.

Book #5, An Island Wedding, will be released next month (publication date June 21, 2022. And while I have an ARC already, I think I may hold off until the release date so I can listen to the audiobook!

I highly recommend this wonderful, feel-good series. There are laughs and tears… and even recipes!

Book Review: The Vanished Days by Susanna Kearsley

Title: The Vanished Days
Author: Susanna Kearsley
Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark
Publication date: October 5, 2021
Length: 464 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley; hardcover purchased
Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

In the autumn of 1707, old enemies from the Highlands to the Borders are finding common ground as they join to protest the new Union with England. At the same time, the French are preparing to launch an invasion to bring the young exiled Jacobite king back to Scotland to reclaim his throne, and in Edinburgh the streets are filled with discontent and danger.

Queen Anne’s commissioners, seeking to calm the situation, have begun paying out money sent up from London to settle the losses and wages owed to those Scots who took part in the disastrous Darien expedition eight years earlier–an ill-fated venture that left Scotland all but bankrupt.

When the young widow of a Darien sailor comes forward to collect her husband’s wages, her claim is challenged. One of the men assigned to investigate has only days to decide if she’s honest, or if his own feelings are blinding him to the truth.

The Vanished Days is a prequel and companion novel to The Winter Sea, with action that overlaps some of the action in that book. The Vanished Days goes back in time to the 1680s and introduces the reader to the Moray and Graeme families.

I’ve loved every one of Susanna’s books! She has bedrock research and a butterfly’s delicate touch with characters–sure recipe for historical fiction that sucks you in and won’t let go!–DIANA GABALDON, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Outlander

From international bestselling author Susanna Kearsley comes a historical tale of intrigue and revolution in Scotland, where the exile of King James brought plots, machinations, suspicion and untold bravery to light. An investigation of a young widow’s secrets by a man who’s far from objective, leads to a multi-layered tale of adventure, endurance, romance…and the courage to hope.

Susanna Kearsley is a go-to author for me, but sadly The Vanished Days did not quite live up to my expectations.

The Vanished Days loosely connects to the wonderful book The Winter Sea — the timelines of the two books overlap, and some key players from The Winter Sea either appear in The Vanished Days or get a substantial mention. There’s even a quick appearance by the descendant of characters from another of the author’s books, Mariana (which I also loved).

The Vanished Days is narrated by Adam Williamson, a young sergeant temporarily staying at the home of his former captain. The action is centered in Edinburgh in 1707, when Adam is asked to stand in for his friend in carrying out an official inquiry into a woman claiming to be the widow of a man lost during the ill-fated Scottish colonization attempt at Darien (in Central America).

The woman’s name is Lily, and she claims to have been secretly married to a man named Jamie Graeme, descendent of a prestigious, well-known family with suspected Jacobite ties. Lily produces a marriage certificate, but the witnesses to the document are deceased and there are no friends or family members who would have known about the marriage. As Adam begins to investigate, we learn more about Lily’s history through scenes going back to the 1680s, as Lily shares the sad story of her childhood and beyond.

Woven throughout the story as well are political machinations and highly dangerous scheming related to the Jacobite cause, which all contribute to Lily’s current situation — the unraveling of which proves to be much more complicated and potentially dangerous than seemed likely when the investigation first began.

While there are many episodes and elements that I enjoyed about the story, an overall sense of disconnect and overabundance of details made this a confusing read. I had a hard time keeping the historical elements straight, not to mention the lengthy and intricate descriptions of Edinburgh’s neighborhoods and streets and landmarks.

Clearly, the author has done a tremendous amount of research for this book, and her mastery of the time and place is clear. Unfortunately, the piling on of detail doesn’t necessarily make for engaging reading. I never felt that I had a terrific grasp of the characters’ inner lives, and this became especially problematic toward the end of the book, when certain revelations that should have had bigger impacts just left me shrugging. If I’d been more invested or felt like I had a better sense of these characters’ motivations and connections, I suspect I might have been blown away.

Still, there are set-pieces and elements of the story that are more successful than others. A big section of Lily’s younger years has a Dickensian feel to it, as she falls in with a found family composed of a petty criminal and the orphans he adopts to further his criminal pursuits. I liked a lot about this, but still struggled to feel that the overall book represented a cohesive whole.

I do love Susanna Kearsley’s books — I wonder if part of my disconnect with this one has to do with the timeline of the setting. In pretty much every other book of hers that I’ve read, there’s been a dual timeline, with a contemporary story interwoven with a historical one. In The Vanished Days, there are once again two timelines, but both are historical and within a relatively short span from one another. Perhaps because of this, I didn’t feel as strong a connection to the material, maybe because I lacked a more accessible entry point.

I don’t regret reading The Vanished Days by any means — but by comparison, I’ve re-read many of the author’s earlier books, and I can’t see myself returning to this one.

Book Review: The Turn of the Key by Ruth Ware

Title: The Turn of the Key
Author: Ruth Ware
Publisher: Gallery/Scout Press
Publication date: August 6, 2019
Length: 337 pages
Genre: Thriller
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

When she stumbles across the ad, she’s looking for something else completely. But it seems like too good an opportunity to miss—a live-in nannying post, with a staggeringly generous salary. And when Rowan Caine arrives at Heatherbrae House, she is smitten—by the luxurious “smart” home fitted out with all modern conveniences, by the beautiful Scottish Highlands, and by this picture-perfect family.

What she doesn’t know is that she’s stepping into a nightmare—one that will end with a child dead and herself in prison awaiting trial for murder.

Writing to her lawyer from prison, she struggles to explain the unravelling events that led to her incarceration. It wasn’t just the constant surveillance from the cameras installed around the house, or the malfunctioning technology that woke the household with booming music, or turned the lights off at the worst possible time. It wasn’t just the girls, who turned out to be a far cry from the immaculately behaved model children she met at her interview. It wasn’t even the way she was left alone for weeks at a time, with no adults around apart from the enigmatic handyman, Jack Grant.

It was everything.

She knows she’s made mistakes. She admits that she lied to obtain the post, and that her behavior toward the children wasn’t always ideal. She’s not innocent, by any means. But, she maintains, she’s not guilty—at least not of murder. Which means someone else is.

Full of spellbinding menace and told in Ruth Ware’s signature suspenseful style, The Turn of the Key is an unputdownable thriller from the Agatha Christie of our time.

The Turn of the Key is my book group’s pick for November, and I suppose I’m glad to have been “forced” to read it. I’ve been hearing about this book and author Ruth Ware for a while now, so it’s good to know what all the fuss is about!

From the start, we know that there’s something off about the main character. We meet Rowan as she reaches out by letter to a lawyer she’s heard about, one who might be able to turn around her hopeless case. Rowan is in prison, awaiting trial for murdering a child left in her care. And while Rowan admits that she’s done plenty wrong, she insists that she didn’t kill the child.

From here, she relates her strange story, starting with the advertisement for a nanny. A wealthy couple is offering a huge salary for a live-in nanny for their four children at their Scottish estate. To Rowan, this is simply too good to be true. The money involves a huge step up for her, she’s ready for a change, and as we later learn, she has other reasons for wanting the position too.

It’s a weird set-up. The house is a huge, beautiful old Victorian, but the back half has been totally converted into a sleek, glass-walled modern structure. The estate encompasses acres of woods and trails that the children are free to roam about unattended. The children range from toddler to teen, and seem like a handful, but Rowan is enchanted.

Less enchanting is the smart-house design. Everything is run via an app called Happy, that controls all lights, locks and unlocks doors, interfaces with phone calls, replenishes the grocery list, plays music and audiobooks, and so much more. There are cameras everywhere. Creepy!

The parents, Sandra and Bill, are strangely hands-off, to say the least. Upon hiring Rowan, they depart on a business trip the very next day. Suddenly, Rowan is left alone with children who don’t know her (and seem very hostile), a house she doesn’t know how to operate, and only a thick binder left behind by Sandra to offer her instructions on the daily routines and needs of the children.

There are so many red flags that honestly, if I were in Rowan’s shoes, I’d be heading for the hills. Being left alone with children I’ve just met for weeks? Living in an isolated old house? The creaky floors and strange noises? The scary walled garden? The impossible-to-figure-out house app and Sandra’s remote surveillance? No thank you very much.

Still, we also suspect early on that Rowan has secrets. What was her real reason for wanting this job? Why does she hesitate when someone calls her by name? Why does she hide her necklace and just seem so damned awkward all the time?

I had a lot of guesses about Rowan’s secrets, but I was wrong. I was slightly more on target with some of my guesses about the murder — I mean, I got that wrong too, but I figured out some of the “hows” at least!

The ending is pretty abrupt and perhaps a little manipulative, and there’s an ambiguous line thrown in right before the end that has me wondering what happened to Rowan after she finished telling her story.

Overall, I was only partially engaged; hence my 3-star rating. Granted, I’m not a thriller fan in general, so take my responses with a grain of salt. Still, I thought there was something stilted about the set-up, and felt that Rowan’s actions didn’t make enough sense going along. She displays a temper toward the children that made me go in some really dark directions which turned out not to be true — which is a relief, but then why such strong displays of anger? For a childcare professional, Rowan’s anger issues seem really inappropriate and probably should disqualify her from working with children.

Also, it didn’t feel rational to me that a person would show up and take this job in the first place with no adjustment period, and the smart-house aspects are creepy without really adding to the plot. Likewise, the awful garden is in the mix as a danger sign and huge clue… except in the end, it doesn’t really have anything to do with what’s going on, except for being yet one more thing to freak out the main character.

Rowan’s letters from prison make her sound pretty unhinged, so learning that she’s not as unreliable a narrator as we’re led to believe makes me feel like I was being handled, rather than tricked by a clever story.

I don’t know. I was engaged and needed to see how it all turned out, but never particularly connected to any of the characters or cared about them as individuals — not even the children, who didn’t seem particularly realistic.

So yeah, just a 3-star read for me. *Shrug*. Kind of disappointing, considering that I have another book by this author on my shelf. Here’s hoping I have better luck with the next one!

PS – I keep having to stop myself from referring to this book as The Turn of the Screw… and I assume that’s an intentional nod to the classic. New nanny, strange and potentially haunted house, weird children… although the Henry James version doesn’t include invasive smart devices and apps!

Book Review: 500 Miles From You by Jenny Colgan

Title: 500 Miles From You
Author: Jenny Colgan
Publisher: William Morrow
Publication date: June 9, 2020
Print length: 432 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

New York Times bestselling author Jenny Colgan returns to the beloved Scottish Highland town of Kirrinfief, which readers first met in The Bookshop on the Shore, and adds a dash of London’s bustling urban landscape. 

Lissie, is a nurse in a gritty, hectic London neighborhood. Always terribly competent and good at keeping it all together, she’s been suffering quietly with PTSD after helping to save the victim of a shocking crime. Her supervisor quietly arranges for Lissie to spend a few months doing a much less demanding job in the little town of Kirrinfeif in Scottish Highlands, hoping that the change of scenery will help her heal. Lissie will be swapping places with Cormack, an Army veteran who’s Kirrinfeif’s easygoing nurse/paramedic/all-purpose medical man. Lissie’s never experienced small-town life, and Cormack’s never spent more than a day in a big city, but it seems like a swap that would do them both some good.

In London, the gentle Cormack is a fish out of the water; in Kirrinfief, the dynamic Lissie finds it hard to adjust to the quiet. But these two strangers are now in constant contact, taking over each other’s patients, endlessly emailing about anything and everything. Lissie and Cormack discover a new depth of feeling…for their profession and for each other.

But what will happen when Lissie and Cormack finally meet…?

Jenny Colgan is an absolute favorite of mine, so of course I was thrilled to receive an ARC of her new book, 500 Miles From You. This author’s books always make me smile, and her books set in the Scottish Highlands give me a major case of wanderlust each and every time.

In 500 Miles From You, we start by meeting Lissa, a nurse who specializes in follow-up care, spending her days driving around London from patient to patient to make sure they’re following doctor’s orders, taking their medications, and getting the treatment they need. As the story opens, Lissa witnesses a terrible hit and run that’s a deliberate attack, leaving a 15-year-old boy dying on the street.

Side note: The synopsis above, from Goodreads, refers to Lissie and Cormack. In the book, it’s Lissa and Cormac. Just FYI — I don’t want you to think I’m getting the characters’ names wrong!

Lissa is unable to shake off the horror, and finally, her hospital’s HR team strongly urges her to participate in a professional exchange program. She’ll be sent to a rural area to use her skills in a different environment, and a nurse from that area will come take her place in London to gain experience in urban medicine.

It doesn’t seem like an offer Lissa can refuse, and between her new assignment and her required ongoing therapy sessions, the exhange may be her only opportunity to heal and recover before her PTSD completely derails her career and her life.

Meanwhile, Cormac will leave his beloved town of Kirrinfief in the Scottish Highlands — where literally everyone knows your name — to live in Lissa’s nursing quarters in London and take over her set of patients. The two never meet, but they exchange patient notes, and over time, develop an email and text rapport beyond the professional requirements.

In my opinion. Lissa gets the much better end of the deal! As always, Jenny Colgan has me falling in love all over again with her depiction of life in the Highlands — the peace and quiet, the quaint small town, the local busybodies, the sense of connection. And frankly, while Cormac eventually finds reasons to like London, the descriptions of the noise, the dirt, the unfriendliness, the bustle all make it clear why Cormac yearns for home.

Lissa’s PTSD is portrayed sensitively. As a medical professional, she intellectually understands her reactions, but that doesn’t mean that she can instantly deal with it. Her progress is slow, and we see how her London habits keep her from fitting in or being accepted when she arrives in Kirrinfief. Eventually, of course, she opens up to her surroundings and to the way of life in a small village, and finds more than she could have thought possible.

Cormac, a former army medic, carries around with him the memories of Fallujah that eventually make him seek a civilian career. While he can relate to Lissa’s trauma, his own past still remains mostly undisclosed. I finished the book wishing we’d learned a little more about Cormac’s army experiences.

The back and forth between Cormac and Lissa is quite cute, and the book ends with all sorts of mishaps that turn their intended first in-person meetings into a series of catastrophic missed chances. But yes, there’s a happy ending — how could there not be?

The texts and emails between Lissa and Cormac are funny and sweet, and the story is a nice twist on the “two strangers fall in love without ever meeting” trope. Somehow, though, I was left wanting more. I felt that their connection needed more time to grow, and wasn’t given quite enough room to develop and breathe — and I was left wanting to see more of them together once they finally connected, rather than ending with their meeting.

This is the 3rd of Jenny Colgan’s loosely connected stories set in Kirrinfief. Characters from both The Bookshop on the Corner and The Bookshop on the Shore show up here (and become friends with Lissa). It’s lovely to see them all — I just wish they’d actually had bigger roles to play, since I enjoy those characters so much.

Overall, this is another winning romantic tale from a terrific author, balancing tough situations and emotions with lighter, more joyous moments and memorable characters.

And how could I not love a book where this happens:

He was wearing an open-necked white shirt made of heavy cotton and a pale green-and-gray kilt. […]

“Stop there, ” said Lissa, smiling and taking out her phone camera. “I want a pic. You look like you’re in Outlander.”

500 Miles From You can work as a stand-alone, but I’d recommend starting with The Bookshop on the Corner, which is a wonderful introduction to Kirrinfief and its quirky characters. Either way, don’t miss these lovely stories!

Audiobook Review: The Bookshop on the Shore by Jenny Colgan

Title: The Bookshop on the Shore
Author: Jenny Colgan
Narrator: Eilidh Beaton
Publisher: William Morrow
Publication date: June 13, 2019
Print length: 416 pages
Audio length: 13 hours, 11 minutes
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

A grand baronial house on Loch Ness, a quirky small-town bookseller, and a single mom looking for a fresh start all come together in this witty and warm-hearted novel by New York Times bestselling author Jenny Colgan.

Desperate to escape London, single mother Zoe wants to build a new life for herself and her four-year-old son Hari. She can barely afford the crammed studio apartment on a busy street where shouting football fans keep them awake all night, and Hari’s dad, Jaz, a charismatic but perpetually broke DJ, is no help at all. But his sister, Surinder, comes to Zoe’s aid, hooking her up with a job as far away from the urban crush as possible: working at a bookshop on the banks of Loch Ness. And there’s a second job to cover housing: Zoe will be an au pair for three children at a genuine castle in the Scottish Highlands.

But while Scotland is everything Zoe dreamed of — clear skies, brisk fresh air, blessed quiet — everything else is a bit of a mess. The Urquart family castle is grand but crumbling, the children’s mother has abandoned the family, their father is a wreck, and the kids have been kicked ot of school and left to their own devices. Zoe has her work cut out for her and is determined to rise to the challenge, especially when she sees how happily Hari has taken to their new home.

With the help of Nina, the friendly local bookseller, Zoe begins to put down roots in the community. Are books, fresh air, and kindness enough to heal the Urquart family—and her own?

Love, love, love, love, love.

Jenny Colgan’s books have been reliable, sweet escapes for me, and I’ve loved so many of them — but The Bookshop on the Shore just may be my favorite yet!

Zoe is a lovely main character, who starts the book in an awful situation. She’s about to be evicted from her grotty little apartment, she works in a posh nursery that she can’t afford to send her precious boy to, she can’t find help for the fact that Hari seems to be mute by choice, and Hari’s dad is unreliable and offers no support whatsoever.

The opportunity to be an au pair in the Highlands, providing a roof over her head and a small income, and to run a mobile bookselling business during the owner’s maternity leave, is too good to pass up — and frankly, Zoe is completely out of options.

She and Hari pack up and head to the Highlands, where the dark, neglected manor is in disarray and the children are completely wild, snidely referring to Zoe as “Nanny Seven” when she shows up, since she’s likely to be just one more in a string of hopeless caregivers who the bratty kids manage to drive away.

But Zoe is determined and desperate, and simply refuses to fail. She and Hari settle in. Hari is immediately befriended by Patrick, the precocious 5-year-old of the family, although the older children, 9-year-old Mary and 12-year-old Shackleton, are much harder to win over.

Meanwhile, Zoe takes up the bookselling business when the owner Nina is unexpectedly forced into an early bed rest, and combines her love of books with her startlingly good business sense to develop an entirely new clientele — one that Nina might not entirely approve of, but hey, at least Zoe is making money!

The description may make this seem like pretty standard fare, but I promise, this book is something special! The Urquart children are troubled and troublesome, but with good reason, and their behavior isn’t sugar-coated or made cute. Mary especially has some serious issues to contend with, and it’s heartbreaking to see what she experiences.

Zoe does come off a bit like a magical Mary Poppins/Maria from The Sounds of Music combo — swooping in with her good sense and cheery disposition, steeling herself against hurtful comments and making the children eat healthy, go outdoors, clean up, and all sorts of other positive activities, entirely against their will. Still, behind the scenes, we see Zoe’s vulnerability, and this keeps her grounded as a character and keeps her from seeming too super-nanny-ish.

Gradually, the children warm up to Zoe, and her influence lets light and joy back into the lives of this sad family. Naturally, there’s a love story too, and it’s sweet without being saccharine, and feels well developed and well earned.

Zoe’s anxiety over Hari’s well-being feels very real and all too relatable. To her, her boy is perfect, but at the same time, he’s isolated himself from the world in a way that brings him all sorts of negative attention from well-meaning strangers. Seeing the boy becoming close with the adorable Patrick is just one of the pleasures of this novel.

The narration of the audiobook is delightful, keeping the story moving along crisply, giving personality to each of the characters and making them all distinct and vivid. If you can’t tell already, my favorite is little Patrick, whose use of the word “absolutely” in every sentence is just the cutest thing ever.

There’s real heart-ache in this book, and some moments that had me at the edge of my seat, but also a realistic look at the messy business of raising a family, dealing with children who aren’t perfect, and looking for small ways to make things better, even if just a bit at a time.

Just to put this book in context, it’s set in the same world as The Bookshop on the Corner, with some cross-over characters, but I wouldn’t call it a sequel, and it can absolutely (thanks, Patrick!) be read a stand-alone.

Jenny Colgan’s books tend to have certain elements in common — a lonely or sad main character needing a dramatic change, moving to a small, remote community, meeting lots of quirky characters, finding a place for herself, and falling in love. This is all true of The Bookshop on the Shore, but that doesn’t mean that it’s at all formulaic.

I loved the setting, the characters, the investment in the portrayals of the children, and the way Zoe, Hari, and the Urquarts all change one another’s lives for the better.

A bonus is how much all of these characters love to read! In this book as well as The Bookshop on the Corner, the characters talk about books all the time, and listening to the audiobook, I was often tempted to hit the pause button so I could write down the books mentioned. What a treat!

I’ll use Patrick’s favorite word one more time and say that I ABSOLUTELY recommend The Bookshop on the Shore!

Take A Peek Book Review: Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

“Take a Peek” book reviews are short and (possibly) sweet, keeping the commentary brief and providing a little peek at what the book’s about and what I thought.

 

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

No one’s ever told Eleanor that life should be better than fine.

Meet Eleanor Oliphant: She struggles with appropriate social skills and tends to say exactly what she’s thinking. Nothing is missing in her carefully timetabled life of avoiding social interactions, where weekends are punctuated by frozen pizza, vodka, and phone chats with Mummy.

But everything changes when Eleanor meets Raymond, the bumbling and deeply unhygienic IT guy from her office. When she and Raymond together save Sammy, an elderly gentleman who has fallen on the sidewalk, the three become the kinds of friends who rescue one another from the lives of isolation they have each been living. And it is Raymond’s big heart that will ultimately help Eleanor find the way to repair her own profoundly damaged one.

Soon to be a major motion picture produced by Reese Witherspoon, Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine is the smart, warm, and uplifting story of an out-of-the-ordinary heroine whose deadpan weirdness and unconscious wit make for an irresistible journey as she realizes. . .

The only way to survive is to open your heart.

My Thoughts:

I had very wrong expectations when I started this book. Based on the synopsis, I was expecting something quirky, potentially funny, maybe reminiscent of The Rosie Project or something similar. I was shocked to discover just how misleading the synopsis is.

Yes, Eleanor has extreme social awkwardness. She lives a desperately lonely life and expects nothing else. But she’s not merely awkward or an odd duck waiting for her chance to shine — she’s the survivor of terrible childhood trauma that informs every moment of her life and keeps her trapped in her contact-free, isolated life.

Don’t get me wrong — Eleanor Oliphant is a terrific book. It’s deeply moving and horribly sad. Eleanor herself is a memorable lead character, lovable despite her coldness and judgmental nature. We understand early on that there’s something terrible lurking beneath the icy, unfeeling exterior. As we get to know Eleanor better, it’s easier to understand what has made her the way she is, and to cheer her on as she takes the necessary small steps toward recovery.

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine is a lovely, powerful book. Once again, I’m grateful to my book group for picking such a great book to discuss. I’ve had this book on my TBR list for a while now, but having a set date on the calendar is what finally made me pick it up… and once I started, I just couldn’t put it down until I finished it.

A final note: I bought my copy via Book Depository. The UK version has a very different cover, which I believe gives a truer sense of the book:

_________________________________________

The details:

Title: Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine
Author: Gail Honeyman
Publisher: Pamela Dorman Books
Publication date: May 9, 2017
Length: 327 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Purchased

**Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save