Reviewed by Emma Crowley
Given a back-room computer job when the beloved Birmingham library she works in turns into a downsized retail complex, Nina misses her old role terribly - dealing with people, greeting her regulars, making sure everyone gets the right books for their needs. Then a new business nobody else wants catches her eye: owning a tiny little bookshop bus up in the Scottish highlands. No computers. Shortages. Out all hours in the freezing cold; driving with a tiny stock of books... not to mention how the little community is going to take to her, particularly when she stalls the bus on a level crossing...
Having been slightly disappointed there was no Christmas release from Jenny Colgan I was delighted to see the cover pop up on the net for this gorgeous new book - The Little Shop of Happy Ever After. What made me even more happy to have a new novel from Jenny was the fact that this story would feature a female protagonist who having worked as a librarian finds herself jobless but still utterly, hopelessly devoted to books. This plot seemed fabulous and would provide endless scope for exploration into a bookworms world. A golden opportunity presents itself in the form of a rusty van languishing in the streets of a tiny Scottish village, a small community who have seen books all but disappear due to book shop and library closures. Nina ponders her situation for a while and weighs up the pros and cons as her personality is one of sensibility and routine so a huge change would be life altering for her. Nina after initial hesitation grabs the opportunity with open arms. Will this be the start of a brand new life or will an unusual job in the totally different way of life in the Highlands prove too much for a city born girl?
What more could a bookworm want than a novel featuring a bookshop on a bus? It's certainly my ideal read and even more so when it comes from an author who has consistently delivered brilliant, heart-warming books for the past number of years. Jenny Colgan has the knack when it comes to writing a book that you will devour in a number of hours and once complete will leave you with a nice gooey feeling inside. Although I had worried Jenny may have exhausted herself in this genre she has established herself in as she has covered the sweet shop, the bakery and the cafe. Where could she take her readers next? In my opinion her book The Christmas Surprise lacked a little of the magic conjured up in the previous books but The Little Shop of Happy Ever After is a brilliant return to form and recreates all the elements I have come to know and love in Jenny's books. Not even having completed the first chapter I was on Twitter shouting out my love for this book. It is just utterly brilliant and I loved every minute of it. Previous to reading this I had just finished Katie Fforde's A Summer at Sea which had a similar theme and with Scotland as the setting so I was interested to see how they would compare. Both are brilliant books but Jenny's just pips the post for me.
I loved Jenny's introduction and how the book is dedicated to all her readers and not just one person -'Because this book is about reading and books and how these things can change your life always'. Before you even begin the story proper you find yourself nodding along in agreement with Jenny's tips about where people read. I admit I always have a book specifically ready for when I am drying my hair similar to Jenny! As a book lover I firmly believe a reading opportunity should never be wasted. But like Jenny and many others will agree, a warm cosy room with a candle lighting, curtains closed on a dark night and curled up on the couch is the perfect reading spot for me. That's exactly where I quickly became engrossed in the wonderful feel good story of Nina Redmond and her journey to find the ultimate happiness both professionally and personally. Nina has a dream which many of us would love to fulfil in reality. 'The problem with good things that happen is that very often they disguise themselves as awful things'. This quote couldn't have summed up Nina's journey more perfectly.
Nina finds herself out on her ear jobless and more or less homeless as friend Surinder can no longer cope with the amount of books engulfing her home. The terraced house is under pressure from the sheer weight of everything. I don't think I have gotten to that stage yet but I do have books in every room of my house. Nina is faced with a turning point in her life – the role of the librarian is changing, smaller libraries are closing and becoming absorbed into large city libraries with a focus on modern technology. Where has the community feel gone? Has people's love of books and reading diminished in favour of modern technology and games ? Nina thinks so and after a course she is forced to go on with her colleagues Nina decides maybe this is not the root she wants to go down. There is something else book related that she has always wanted to do. So she grabs the bull by the horns and buys a van from a man in the small village of Kirrinfief in the Scottish Highlands. So begins an adventure which sees Nina become the person she has always wanted to be and I was with her every second enjoying seeing a timid, shy girl who was often unsure of herself transform in to a confident young woman who makes a go of a business whilst indulging her passion for books.
It wasn't all plain sailing for Nina, initially she did come up against some opposition when she wanted to buy the van but once the villagers gave her a helping hand and she could acquire books from libraries that were shutting down there was no stopping her. The fresh clean air and scenic countryside of Scotland really suits Nina and she feels as if she has come home in this village and this is where she is meant to be.'She felt suddenly as if she hadn't been breathing, not properly, for a long time. It was as if her entire body was exhaling'. Nina rents the most beautiful cottage from Lennox a sheep farmer. It had been left idle but decorated to the highest standard by his former wife who upped and left with the interior designer. At first I thought Lennox was just an old farmer stuck in his ways and didn't pay much attention to him but then later in the book it's mentioned that he is in his 30's. He came across as gruff and ill tempered and best to kept away from but as we get beneath his grim exterior there is a lot more waiting to be discovered. There are numerous characters who make an appearance some more so than others but Marek and Jim who drive the overnight train from Scotland to London delivering various goods were essential to the plot. When Nina finds herself staring death in the face an unusual friendship/relationship is formed and the most beautiful courtship unfolds. The book tree is the most inventive, romantic idea. Wouldn't it be lovely if these sprung up in the most unexpected places be it city or country?
I can't fail to mention Ainslee and her little brother Ben. Initially I did wonder why there seemed to be a specific focus on a young girl and her brother but it became apparent they had some issues. Nina's caring, kind nature came to the fore and this aspect of the plot was handled with care and sensitivity and slotted nicely into the overall themes of the book. Surinder was a great foil to the serious side of Nina and a best friend that anyone would wish for. She was funny, smart, full of wise cracks and life and love advice. When the pair were together in the village their night out at the farmers dance was hilarious. Jenny did a great job of showcasing the Highlands in all their glory and the Midsummer's festival was a prime example of that. As for the romantic element for once I genuinely didn't have a clue as to how it would all pan out and that's the way a book should be and I was pleasantly surprised with how everything unfolded. 'Reading is like being in stuff. You plug straight into the writer's brain.It's just you and them. You experience what they experience'. This really couldn't have summed up this book more for me.
Not since I have read The Great Village Show by Alex Brown last year have I been this excited about a book in this genre. I loved everything in the story - the themes, characters, setting and romance. There is not one fault I can find within its pages. It's like Jenny Colgan has only been teasing us up to now with the previous series she has written (although I adored most of them). This story full of a book loving heroine seemed to be the story Jenny always wanted to write. She really must have enjoyed writing the book slipping in lots of lovely quotes and book references. I admit I did google to see if the St.Swithin's series and Up on the Rooftops were genuine books. She allowed her devotion to books and the happiness they bring to so many people to shine through in her writing. To witness the transformation of Nina as a character was a pure joy to read as she goes on an adventure one which many of us only wish we had the guts to undertake. Please make sure you buy this book on publication day it is utterly fabulous and I will be raving about it for months to come. Will there be more from Nina or maybe a character who played only a mirror role in this book? I truly hope there will be.
I'd like to thank Emma for reviewing The Little Shop of Happy Ever After which we received from the publisher via NetGalley.