The Lost Art of Letter Writing, by Menna Van Praag

This book was another library find. It just sort of fell off the shelf and into my hands. I’ll be totally honest; this is not the kind of book I would usually read. After reading the blurb, I had already made my mind up that this novel would be a light and fluffy read, possibly even Chick Lit. However, its title and the premise of the book intrigued me, as I love writing letters (and always have) and I feel that letter writing is becoming a dying art. I simply had to read it to re-evoke the nostalgic feelings I have about letters.

In a forgotten nook of Cambridge, there is a shop dedicated to letter writing. Its shelves are stacked with hundreds and thousands of sheets of note paper and exquisitely beautiful sets of stationery and pens just waiting to be selected by a customer. Clara Cohen runs this shop, and encourages her customers to write letters to express the multitude of emotions and feelings that they may be feeling. Clara’s customers write to correspondents, alive, estranged or dead. They allow their thoughts and feelings to tumble from the inner depths of their souls onto the paper, revealing secrets, declarations of love, hope and despair.

As part of the service, Clara will take the sealed letters from her customers and either post them on their behalf, or keep them in a safe place in her shop. Clara loves her job, and it makes her happy to keep the magic of letter writing alive.

Clara is fully aware of the power a letter can have; how words scrawled on a page can pierce your heart and turn your life upside down. When she finds a suitcase full of wartime love letters stashed away in her loft, she is taken on a profound journey of her own, as the letters are concerning members of her own family, revealing a past Clara knew nothing about.

Clara is also writing letters of her own, to the people living in the houses she walks past on her way home from work. She knows nothing about these people, but Clara possesses a magical ability, and somehow her heart tells her the words that need to be written. The words flow from her pen onto the page. There is one particular man to whom she writes to more than once, a man who is grieving for the wife he has lost, and doing the best he can to hold everything together and bring up his teenage daughter.

This is a wonderfully whimsical tale of love, and the letters in this novel blend the past and present together to tell a story. There is a supernatural element to this novel, and I wasn’t sure that I found this believable. This aside, it was an enjoyable read; the perfect book to curl up with by the fire, and it made me want to pick up my own pen and write letters to my friends and family.

Letter writing has always been a huge part of my life. As a child, I was always encouraged to write thank you letters to my friends and family for the birthday and Christmas presents I received. I wrote letters to Santa, letters to Blue Peter and Jim’ll Fix It. I also wrote letters to my cousin who moved house to live in Warwickshire. It was a fun way to keep in touch and I looked forward to her letters arriving, usually addressed to me in glitter pen and covered in stickers. In my last year of secondary school, we were taught by an Australian teacher, who paired the children in our class up with children in the class he used to teach in Australia. I began writing to Lisa, and 25 years later we are still writing. We have shared everything in our lives. We even got married in the same year, and we both have two sons each of similar ages. How I loved to receive her letters (and still do) decorated with Australian stamps and an Airmail sticker. Lisa’s letters were, and still are, quite often stuffed with photos and told stories of her life in Oz, which is so very different from mine. This year, I was fortunate enough to win a writing competition, the prize being a trip to Australia, and I finally got to meet my lovely friend, who knew pretty much everything there was to know about me through our years of writing each other letters. How magical is that?

There is nothing nicer than receiving a handwritten letter on your doormat. When someone writes you a letter, it takes time and effort. There has to be a choice of stationery, (don’t even get me started on my love of stationery!), and each letter is written by hand in real ink (not from a printer toner cartridge). The words written are thought about carefully and sentences artfully constructed. The envelope is sealed and a stamp carefully placed in the top right hand corner. The letter may smell of the person who has written it; the paper scented with their perfume or the smell of the roast dinner cooking in the oven whilst they wrote it. The envelope is posted in a red postbox and finds itself in the postman’s sack, ready to be delivered to your door, no matter what the weather.

When it finally completes its journey and lands on your doormat, (a little dishevelled perhaps), you might make a cup of tea and read it slowly, savouring the words on the page. The letter is a gift of time; it can be read over and over again. The words may make you laugh or cry.

There is something magical about letter writing, something old fashioned and romantic. I have stacks of letters in boxes that I will always treasure dearly. They make up a little part of history.

So, why not try it? Why not make someone’s day and put pen to paper? You never know what you might receive back.

When We Collided, by Emery Lord

Every now and then I like to read YA (young adult) fiction. I work in a library and I like to keep on top of what the teens are reading and recommend books that I think they will love.

This book caught my eye simply because of its gorgeously pretty front cover, and it really does sum up the book perfectly, but you’ll have to read it to find out why!

It is a book that I would definitely recommend to everyone; young and old. It’s an important novel for so many reasons. It is a story about family, love, grief, and most importantly – mental health, a subject that I care deeply about and want to learn more about.

The novel is set in Verona Cove – a secluded town in California. I was transported to this pretty, homely little town where everybody knows each other and nobody wants to leave. Heck, I wanted to move to Verona Cove after reading this book. I totally forgot about where I was and all of my problems whilst reading this book.

The characters literally leap off the page and dazzle you with their uniqueness. First we meet seventeen year old Vivi Alexander who is staying in Verona Cove for thr summer. How can I sum up Vivi? She us artistic, beautiful, outgoing, and a whirlwind of vibrancy and colour. She wears vintage clothes and retro make up, and has an admirable zest for life. It appears that Vivi is happy and wild and carefree, but we soon realise that there is more to Vivi than meets the eye and that she has a painful past.

Jonah Daniels is a Townie, he has lived in Verona Cove all of his life and been extremely happy, until his Dad died unexpectedly of a heart attack. Jonah’s mother has found it difficult to get over losing her husband, and is suffering from depression. She hides in her bedroom all day leaving Jonah to care for his five siblings and work shifts at his father’s restaurant. Jonah’s family are wonderful, well rounded characters and I loved each and every one of them. My heart also broke for the family and what they were going through.

Viv bursts into Jonah’s life, but does she turn out to be what he needs? Viv and Jonah are so very different, and they are both dealing with their own pain and heartache. We learn that Vivi suffers from bipolar disorder, and at the time of meeting Jonah, she has stopped taking her medication.

As expected, the pair fall helplessly in love and their relationship is a beautiful one to be a part of. I adored both Vivi and Jonah and I desperately wanted them both to be happy.

However, we all know that life has its hurdles, and Vivi’s illness is a huge obstacle for them. I don’t want to spoil the ending for you, but I will say that it is bittersweet.

This was a fantastic read and I loved it. Jonah and Vivi have captured a little piece of my heart and I am still thinking about them long after closing the book.

The Music Shop by Rachel Joyce

the music shop

Having thoroughly enjoyed reading ‘The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry’ and ‘The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessey’ I quickly bunged ‘The Music Shop’ into my Amazon shopping basket and waited for it’s arrival whilst rubbing my palms together in glee and anticipation.

The book is set in 1988, and is centred around a man called Frank, who owns a Music Shop on Unity Street. Frank’s neighbours include Maud, the Tattooist, Father Anthony, who runs a religious shop, Mr Novak, the baker, and the William Brothers who run a funeral parlour. So far, so good. Already, without reading any further, I am intrigued by the characters and the premise of the book.

How I would love a music shop like Frank’s to exist! Frank has a gift for healing people with music. Somehow, he knows just what kind of music they need in their lives at the right time. It is never explained how, but we believe it. Frank’s mother, Peg, was the one who taught him everything there is to know about music. Their relationship is referred to throughout the book, and it seemed that Frank didn’t have a typical childhood. Peg was not at all maternal, although they did manage to connect with each other through music.

One day, a mysterious German woman in a green coat walks through the doors of the music shop. Her name is Ilse Brauchmann, and over the next few weeks she walks in and out of Frank’s music shop, and his life. As a reader, we are hoping for a romantic interlude, the beginning of a love story – but their love never seems to bloom. We wonder if Frank’s odd relationship with his mother is the reason for his reluctance towards admitting his feelings for Ilse? We wonder what Ilse’s story is. There are times when I wanted to shake them both. I especially wanted to shake Frank.

As the story progresses, we meet each of the characters on Unity Street and find out more about each of them and their personal tragedies. There is a real sense of community on Unity Street – something that I really miss about life today. The shopkeepers discover that a local development company wishes to demolish the shops on the street in order to build a housing development. Frank also encounters a battle with his record company supplier because he refuses to supply CD’s in his shop. This causes worry amongst the shopkeepers, and they pull together, supporting each other.

I wanted to care so much about Frank and his journey, but I found him frustratingly flaky! I found it difficult to connect with the characters like I connected with Harold and Queenie, but maybe this was half of the problem.

What is wonderful about this book is it’s reference to music. Rachel Joyce is obviously passionate and knowledgeable about music and this shines through. There are stories about composers and musicians such as Beethoven, Vivaldi and Purcell, Aretha Franklin and the Sex Pistols. I also managed to download the playlist for this book (from Spotify and available on Joyce’s facebook page), and this helped me to picture and imagine the Music Shop and the characters in the book.

I’m not sure how I felt when I closed the book. I was satisfied by the ending, but I wanted to feel more for the characters. I wanted to root for them more than I did. Since finishing the story, I don’t find myself thinking about Frank and Ilse in the same way that I think about Harold and Queenie, but I hope that everything turned out well for them, and I will be interested to see what Rachel Joyce writes next.

I am, I am, I am : Seventeen Brushes with Death: A Memoir, by Maggie O’Farrell

maggie i am iam

I first discovered Maggie O’ Farrell in the same year that I met my husband: the year 2000.  I still think about her first book: ‘After You’d Gone’ all of the time, and I don’t think I will ever forget it.  I believe that books find you when you need them most, and ‘After You’d Gone’ certainly found me at the time when I needed it.  it is a book about falling in love, about knowing when you have found the person with whom you want to spend the rest of your life, and when I read that book I could resonate with so much of it.  I felt everything that Alice felt when she met John.  Luckily for me, our story did not end like Alice and John’s, but their story broke my heart because I could only imagine what it must have felt like to lose the person that you thought you would be with forever.  ‘After You’d Gone’ is also about so many other issues; family being one of them, and it really deserves a book review of its own.  (I will put it on my list!).

Since I found Maggie, I have read everything that she has ever written, and with the exception of one or two of her books, I have enjoyed every single one.  I was surprised when she decided to write a memoir, as usually she writes fiction, and of course I was intrigued to read her latest work: I am, I am, I am : Seventeen Brushes with Death.  The title is taken from The Bell Jar, written by Sylvia Plath.  In the book, Maggie writes about the times in her life when she has closely encountered death.  These include a close encounter with a potentially dangerous man, a miscarriage, a haemorrhage during childbirth, childhood encephalitis, and a leap from a harbour wall into the sea, (just to name a few).  Maggie’s brushes with death forced me to think of my own near death experiences.  I struggled, but maybe I have faced death in the face but not realised it fully at the time?

As a teenager, I did some pretty wild things, like ride on the back of a motorbike driven by a random guy I met in a club (without a helmet).  I stayed the night at strangers houses.  A few years back whilst driving down a country lane, I skidded on ice and crashed into bushes.  When in labour with my eldest son, I was taken in for an emergency caesarean under general anaesthetic and lost a lot of blood.  When I really think about it, I suppose there have been a handful of times when I could have easily died.  How therapeutic would it be to write about those experiences?

Maggie’s memoir reads like a novel.  Like everything she has written, her prose is stunning, her sentences are strung together like a beautiful tapestry.  Each chapter is titled with one of her body parts, referring to the part of her body that was under threat with each brush of death.  The memoir is not written chronologically, the chapters skip across time and decades, and we fit Maggie’s life together like puzzle pieces.  Maggie writes about her experiences as a teenager, a student, a daughter, a mother, a wife and a traveller.  By the end of the book, we feel we know much more about her life.

In the final chapter, Maggie writes about her daughter and the severe immune disorder that she suffers from.  Maggie’s daughter can experience between twelve and fifteen severe allergic reactions a year, and Maggie’s face has become very familiar at their local hospital.    It is because of her daughter that Maggie has written this book, almost to make her feel like she is not alone.

With so many near death experiences under her belt, the reader wonders how such trauma and tragedy can change a person.  Does it make you more cautious about the things you do, about the risks you take?  Does it make you sadder, more solemn? Who decides if you live or die?  Is it down to luck? Fate?  Is there someone watching over us when we enter dangerous situations, or is it just luck of the draw?

This was a really thought provoking book, and it encouraged me to look at life in a different way.  I wonder if you will too?

My Name is Leon, Kit de Waal

my name is leon

Without question, this is now one of my FAVOURITE BOOKS EVER, and I am already waiting eagerly for the next offering by Kit de Waal.

I have always had a real interest in fostering and adoption, which was why this book appealed to me. If had a house with enough bedrooms (and providing my family were on board) I would definitely be fostering children. There are so many lost souls out there who deserve a warm, loving home and a reliable person to help them through difficult times in their lives. I’m not saying it would be easy (and there is so much more I would like to know about the process) but it is something I have considered.

This fictional story is told from the point of view of eight (nearly nine) year old Leon, and as I read his story, I wanted to dive right into this book, scoop him out and bring him home to my house. This would also mean going back in time, as the book is set in the 1980’s, the decade I was born.

The novel begins with the birth of Leon’s baby brother (half brother) Jake. From the minute that Leon sees Jake, he loves him with every single piece of his heart. We discover that Leon and Jake have two different fathers, and that Leon is of mixed race and Jake is white. We also realise that Leon and Jake’s mother is not in a good place.

Leon’s father, Byron, is in prison, and Jake’s father, Tony, has rejected Carol and Jake and wants nothing more to do with them. The three of them live in a flat, and Tony visits occasionally. There are arguments, tears, and Carol begs Tony to help her, to love her and his son. She is sad, desperate.

It is a situation that we have all seen happen, time and time again, and I really felt for Leon, who had to witness some awful situations. Carol then has a breakdown. She can’t cope on her own, despite help and support from a friendly neighbour. Leon is left to pick up the pieces. He changes Jake’s nappies, feeds him, rocks him to sleep. Leon has the weight of the world on his shoulders.

The two brothers are eventually fostered by a well-meaning lady called Maureen. It takes Leon time to adjust to his new surroundings and he has lost so much, his home, his toys, and his mother. Despite the way his mother has been behaving, he loves her unconditionally, just as all children love their parents. However, an even more devastating blow is about to hit Leon. His brother Jake is being adopted by another family, and they do not want Leon.

Understandably, Leon is suffering, and begins to have issues at school. He starts stealing and getting into trouble. There are times when I thought that Maureen would give up on Leon; that he would be packed off to another foster home, or placed in care.

Every day Leon goes off riding on his bike and begins to hang about at the allotments. We begin to fear for Leon once again when he meets a group of men, including Tufty, who takes Leon under his wing and teaches him how to grow fruit and vegetables. He also tells Leon about the cause of the riots that are happening around him.

Leon has regular contact sessions with his mother, Carol, but it is obvious that she is mentally ill and fails to turn up at most of the sessions. Leon hopes and prays that he will one day be reconciled with his mother. These scenes were very emotional and reduced me to tears. I wanted to shake Carol, to help her, to make her well again for both her sake and Leon’s.

I liked Leon’s foster carer, Maureen, although she is also a flawed character. I suppose we are all flawed to a certain degree. The men at the allotment are good for Leon, they become his friends and as a reader I began to respect and trust them for helping Leon. It is uplifting to see the goodness in humans to witness kindness in the world.

I rooted for Leon the whole way through the book and I hoped and prayed for him. I found myself thinking about Leon as I went about my day, and I desperately hoped that the ending of this story was a happy one – as much as it could be under the circumstances.

I still wonder now if Leon was ever reconciled with his brother, Jake, and how he turned out as an adult. I wonder if ‘hope’ was enough for Leon and that everything turned out for the best. I wonder if Kit de Waal will ever write a sequel. I really hope she does.

The Museum of You and A Song for Issy Bradley, by Carys Bray

Carys Bray is an author whom I discovered by accident. I needed to buy my mum (also a book lover) a birthday present and had left it to the last minute. I dashed madly to my local supermarket and found ‘A Song for Issy Bradley’ staring at me from the shelves of the book section. Hastily, I scanned the blurb, grabbed the book and wrapped it up for my mum. It was only when she handed it back to me a few weeks later and told me that I ‘absolutely had to read it’ that I did, and discovered another author who can write beautiful prose and turn ordinary characters into everyday situations into something quite magical.

Carys Bray has written two novels; both of them brilliant, and I couldn’t not review both of them (although I will try to keep each review short and sweet). ‘The Museum of You is her most recent work, so we’ll start with that.

The Museum of You

Clover Quinn’s mother died when she was six weeks old. Her dad, Darren, a bus driver, is doing his best to bring up his daughter, but is clearly struggling, and is still trying to cope with the enormous grief of losing his wife. Clover’s dad doesn’t talk about her mum, Becky, and she finds that she knows nothing about her mother’s past, or the kind of person she was. Clover misses her mum dreadfully, and is left alone to deal with life changing events, such as getting her first period.

Following a school trip to the Merseyside Maritime Museum, Clover forms an idea in her mind. She will create a museum all about her mum! The only thing is, she will have to keep it a secret from her dad, as it might upset and rehash the emotions and feelings that he finds so difficult to confront.

Whilst Clover’s dad is busy working, Clover spends her summer unpacking the boxes of her mums belongings kept hidden in the spare room, and each item reveals a little bit more of her mother’s personality and the truth about her past. Clover also befriends an unusual little girl called Dagmar, the girl who nobody talks to at school, and together they visit the allotments and slowly get to know each other. The two girls form a lovely friendship, and support each other during a time which is difficult for each of them for different reasons. I really wanted to read more about Clover and Dagmar, and when I’d finished the book I found myself wondering about Dagmar too. How had things turned out for her?

The book alternates between Clover’s point of view and Darren’s, and as the summer progresses, Clover begins to find out the answers to the questions she has about her mother and her family, and Darren finds out a lot about himself too.

Beautifully written and unflinchingly raw, I loved this book about love and loss.

A Song for Issy Bradley

Out of the two novels written by Carys, this one is my favourite. Am I supposed to have favourites?!

This is a tragic story of a family torn apart by grief, and their journey to piecing everything back together again.

The Bradley’s are a Mormon family. Carys herself grew up in a Mormon family, and the novel is an intriguing insight into a life I knew nothing about before opening this book.

When Claire met Ian, she converted to the Mormon faith before she married him. This is a decision she has questioned since, especially after losing her daughter, Issy. There are many aspects of the faith that frustrate and anger Claire, and their remaining three children sometimes struggle to accept the Mormon faith too, for many different reasons.

The novel is alternately told from the perspective of each member of the family and their thoughts and feelings following the death of Issy, who sadly died of meningitis at the age of four. We meet Zippy, a teenage girl who is falling in love for the first time and struggling with the church’s tenets in sex and the role of women, football crazy, Alma, who is fourteen, and ridden with guilt for being mean to his sister before she died, and seven year old Jacob, who because of his faith believes that one day a miracle will happen and Issy will be ressurected.

As well as dealing with her grief, mother Claire is also laden with guilt. As a busy mum of four, and with Ian ‘sacrificing’ so much of what should be family time to his faith she is still beating herself up over the fact that she failed to detect that her daughter was ill because she was too busy single handedly organising Jacob’s birthday party to notice.

This novel is a moving, honest portrayal of family and although the subject matter is dark, there is humour sprinkled throughout the book. I grew to love the Bradley’s and although it was a sad story I finished it feeling hopeful.

Carys Bray writes so accurately and compassionately about grief and loss. I can only imagine that she knows only too well the pain caused by losing someone you love.

If Carys is planning a third book, (and I hope she is), I want to be first in the queue!

Everything I Never Told You, Celeste Ng

Everything I never Told You

I picked up ‘Everything I Never Told You’ by Celeste Ng (Ng pronounced Ing!) from a hotel book swap shelf whilst on holiday in Cyprus in August.  I had packed three books in my suitcase, devoured them all, and still had two days left of my holiday left (and the journey home).  If you are as obsessed with books and reading as I am, you will understand that I NEEDED another book to fill that time, and this one screamed out at me amongst a shelf crammed with Crime Fiction (not really my preferred genre) and books written in German.

As soon as I read the first paragraph, I knew that I was about to fall head over heels in love with this novelist’s writing style, and that I was in for a cracking good read.  Once my husband and children had torn themselves away from the water park and realised that I was truly lost between the pages of this book and immersed in the world of the ‘Lee Family’, they knew that they wouldn’t get a great deal of sense or conversation out of me for the remaining days of the holiday and the flight home!

From the very first line of this book, we learn that sixteen year old Lydia Lee, is dead.  It is a normal morning in the Lee household, until Lydia’s mother realises that she is not in her bedroom, and that in actual fact, Lydia has gone missing.  We then discover that Lydia has drowned in a lake near their home, and faced with this devastating news, the Lee family try to deal with their sadness and grief, and contemplate the reasons why this may have happened to Lydia.  The story is told by the multiple points of view of each member of the family, and as the book progresses, we discover more about the family, about Lydia, and the events leading up to her death.

The Lee family are of mixed race (Chinese-American) and this book is set in 1977, at a time when a family like this would not have been easily accepted into society.  Lydia’s mother, Marilyn Lee, married James Lee (who is Chinese) when she was very young.  Her dream was to be a doctor, but she fell pregnant with Lydia before she was able to achieve her dream.  She planned to go back to University and finish her training, but two other children came along; Nathan, (who dreams of becoming an astronaut) and Hannah (the youngest, who sees and hears more than the rest of the family realise).

Lydia is bright, clever, and capable of achieving wonderful things in life.  Marilyn knows this, and pushes and encourages Lydia to do well at school.  Marilyn believes that Lydia can achieve all of the things that she did not, including becoming a doctor.  Her only wish in life is to see Lydia go to medical school.  James Lee has struggled all of his life to fit in.  His only dream for his daughter is to be popular amongst the American girls at school, to be happy and not feel isolated from everyone else, like he did.

Lydia does everything she can to satisfy her parents.  She works hard at school, she tries to partake in social events.  But is Lydia really happy?  The only person who really spent a lot of time with Lydia before she died is Jack, the next door neighbour.  Lydia’s brother, Nath, has suspicions that Jack was involved in Lydia’s death somehow, and is determined to find out the truth catch him out.

As the family deal with the loss of Lydia, they are all forced to face up to their own demons, and as the book progresses, their secrets begin to emerge.

This book is exquisitely written and the story is beautifully told.  I shed a few tears whilst reading it, but the book also uplifted me, because although the story is sad it also contains a powerful message; a message I cannot reveal without spoiling the ending for you.  It is a story about family, about hopes and dreams, about trying to please the people you love.

As a mother, this book taught me to love my children for who they are, and not to try and live my life through them.  It has taught me not to put too much pressure on my loved ones to perform and to succeed, but just to be happy , to accept who they are and do what they love and  be grateful for what they have.  It has taught me to hug my children every day and look into their eyes when they are speaking and actually LISTEN because what they are telling me is important and they need to know that I am on their side.

Celeste Ng is currently a very much talked about author, and her new novel: Little Fires Everywhere is being released in the UK on the 9th November.  I have pre-ordered this one and very much look forward to reviewing it!