The Christmas Bookshop review

James Walton 7 December 2021

A cosy Christmas read is on the cards for our December fiction pick

Whatever else proves in short supply this Christmas, it won’t be the kind of festive romantic fiction designed to be a winter warmer for its primarily female readership. By my perhaps conservative reckoning, there are approximately 50 new novels around in this category.

Nonetheless, it’s hard to imagine any doing a better job than The Christmas Bookshop—where, once again, Jenny Colgan manages the neat trick of staying utterly faithful to the conventions of the genre, while also smuggling in some sharp comedy and social observation.

Carmen, like many a romcom heroine, is approaching 30 and not feeling good about herself. Single and working a dead-end job in a dying Scottish town, she keeps hearing from her mother about how well her sister Sofia is doing as a high-flying (and thin) Edinburgh lawyer with three children.

Worse, when that dead-end job finally goes, it’s Sofia who comes to the rescue. Reluctantly, Carmen moves into her sister’s gorgeous house and starts the job Sofia has arranged for her in a second-hand bookshop. The shop has potential but, as chaotically run by its owner, will close if Carmen can’t turn it around by Christmas, now a matter of weeks away. So what could possibly go right?

"Carmen, like many a romcom heroine, is approaching 30 and not feeling good about herself"

The answer, naturally, is quite a lot—especially once a handsome Brazilian bloke shows up. Yet, while there’s never huge doubt about where we’re heading, Colgan provides enough twists to make it a highly satisfying relief when we get there.

Meanwhile, she gives us plenty of other things to enjoy. The book has much mischievous fun with Sofia’s perky blonde New-Age nanny Skylar (real name, Janet). It has even more with a narcissistic self-help author whose gleaming teeth reduce middle-class mums to jelly, and whose bestselling books have titles like Your Child’s Calm Wellness in Five Minutes a Day. As the chip falls from Carmen’s shoulder, The Christmas Bookshop also becomes a touching love letter to Edinburgh.

Add in a large supporting cast—all deftly portrayed, particularly Sofia’s children—plus walk-on parts for some much-loved characters from her previous books, and Colgan’s mission here is triumphantly accomplished.

The Christmas Bookshop by Jenny Colgan is published by Sphere, £14.99
 
Reader’s Digest Recommended Read: The King and The Christmas Tree by A N Wilson

Every December, Trafalgar Square is famously dominated by a Christmas tree donated by Norway in gratitude for Britain’s help during the war. Indeed, it’s become such a familiar sight that the poignant and stirring story behind it is often forgotten. Now, the ever-prolific A N Wilson’s latest book—aimed at “young and old alike”—gives that story its full due. 

He begins on the night of April 8-9, 1940 when Germany launched a surprise invasion of neutral Norway, firmly expecting that it would do the same as other invaded countries: agree to terms that gave the Nazis full control.

Things didn’t, however, work out that way. King Haakon VII and the Norwegian government managed to escape to Britain (Haakon’s English wife Maud was George VI’s aunt). They took with them not just Norway’s gold reserves to fund anti-German resistance but, as Wilson puts it, the idea of Norway itself. Their country’s merchant navy helped keep the Allies fed during the Battle of the Atlantic. Norwegian commandos fought on too—most spectacularly by destroying a heavy-water plant that threatened to lead to a Nazi atom bomb.

Wilson tells the tales of derring-do—including the king’s escape with the Germans in hot pursuit—in a suitably exhilarating way. But he also fills in the fascinating historical background to Haakon’s reign, which began in 1905 when Norway became independent from Sweden and established itself as an unusually committed liberal democracy. 

"Wilson tells the tales of derring-do—including the king’s escape with the Germans in hot pursuit—in a suitably exhilarating way"

The book does acknowledge that not all Norwegians approved of Haakon’s refusal to surrender—among them the country’s would-be Fuhrer, Vidkun Quisling. At heart, though, this is a moving study in heroism, from both monarch and people.    

And as for how that Christmas-tree tradition began…

"When Haakon reached his 70th birthday in August 1942, there was an outpouring of affection and admiration, from Norwegians in Norway, in Britain and all over the world. The exiled Prime Minister, Johan Nygaardsvold, broadcast in Norwegian from the BBC, ‘I believe we must go back far in time before we find—if we do—a Norwegian king who stood so high in the esteem of the entire Norwegian people as Haakon VII does today.’ 

It was a particularly gruesome year of the war, with the Barbarossa Campaign causing tens of thousands of Russian and German deaths, the battle for North Africa at its fiercest. In February, Singapore had surrendered to Japanese forces, ‘the worst disaster in British history’, according to Churchill. 

On the Burma-Thailand Railway, British prisoners of war were compelled to work as slaves of their Japanese conquerors.

This year of horrors was a very dark time world-wide, but towards the end there occurred one of those seemingly small events which shone a light in the darkness. A brave Norwegian resistance fighter, Mons Urangsvåg, was taking part in a commando raid on the tiny island of Hisøy. In the 1890s Dr Christian Heitmann had come here and established an arboretum, so it is a densely forested place, today popular as a bathing resort. Urangsvåg cut down a Norwegian pine, intending it as a gift to his exiled King. It was taken on board a tanker and transported to the British Isles. 

"This year of horrors was a very dark time world-wide, but towards the end there occurred one of those seemingly small events which shone a light in the darkness"

The King’s decision, taken jointly with his Government, that a free Norway still existed, in defiance of the miserable observable realities at home, had at the time been regarded as a defiance of common sense. 
The sensible thing, as he was told by the King of Sweden, was simply to give up. But the story of the Second World War is one where doing the sensible thing usually led to disaster. France did the sensible thing in the summer of 1940 and gave up on the struggle. The British, utterly routed in Northern France, and with no powerful allies, defied common sense and refused to stop fighting. 

Mons Urangsvåg’s Norwegian pine was not a sensible thing. It was, however, a palpable, organic part of Norway. It had grown out of Norwegian soil and was now making its way to Norway’s King, the man who had demonstrated the unconquerable potency of not doing the sensible thing. 

The tree was taken to Foliejon Park [in Berkshire] where the King was now living. George VI remarked, ‘I so wish dear Auntie Maud could have lived to see this beautiful tree, which seems, in a strange way, a symbol of all our hopes in these dark days.’ 

It was Haakon who thought, after taking appropriate consultations from the British Government and the Greater London Council, of passing the tree on to Londoners. So it was first erected in Trafalgar Square in the middle of the war. No electric lights—there was still a blackout—but evergreen with defiant hope."

The King and the Christmas Tree by A N Wilson is published by Manilla Press at £9.99

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