Book: The Last Bookshop In London
Author: Madeline Martin
Narrator: Saskia Maarleveld
BECHDEL TEST: Pass-Grace and Viv talk about their war work.
Content Warnings: War, bombing depictions, death, grief, mentions of loss of a parent, loss of a child, misogyny, blood, discovery of bodies (not graphic), mentions of the Nazis
It’s very rare since becoming a blogger that I come across books that I’ve not heard much about before, but that’s exactly what happened with this one. I saw it on someone’s Top Ten Tuesday list a few months back, and it sounded right up my alley (bookshops, historical fiction, all very Jo) and it turned out the narrator who did The Rose Code & The Alice Network also narrated this one so I jumped on the chance to read it. It was a really lovely surprise, a very heart-warming story about the resilience of the human spirit, and in a change of speed for me, focused on the home front during the Blitz. Here is a short synopsis of the book:
Inspired by the true World War II history of the few bookshops to survive the Blitz, ‘THE LAST BOOKSHOP IN LONDON’ is a timeless story of wartime loss, love and the enduring power of literature.
August 1939: London prepares for war as Hitler’s forces sweep across Europe. Grace Bennett has always dreamed of moving to the city, but the bunkers and blackout curtains that she finds on her arrival were not what she expected. And she certainly never imagined she’d wind up working at Primrose Hill, a dusty old bookshop nestled in the heart of London.
Through blackouts and air raids as the Blitz intensifies, Grace discovers the power of storytelling to unite her community in ways she never dreamed – a force that triumphs over even the darkest nights of the war.
As I said at the top of the review, one of the reasons I was so excited to read this one was because of the narrator. I’ve mentioned before when reviewing The Rose Code and The Alice Network that Saskia Maarleveld is a wonderful narrator, and naturally the same is true here, she is such an impressive performer and really brings life into every book she reads, every character is so easily differentiated, her accents are on point and she kept me so engaged throughout. I know I’m going to be constantly looking for more audiobooks read by her because she’s one of my favourite narrators now!
It was nice to read a WWII book focused around ordinary people just doing what they could to get through. I love reading WWII books about spies and pilots and soldiers, don’t get me wrong, but the contributions of people not directly fighting on the frontlines in the wars were just as important, and it was nice seeing people just trying to muddle through as best they could. Also for all the fiction I’ve read on WWII, I think this was the first one I’ve ever read set during the Blitz, most WWII fiction I’ve read tends to focus more on the latter years of the war, so it was nice to see that different focus here.
I really liked the main character Grace, she was smart and brave, and so caring about the people in her community, so I found it really easy to root for her. I loved that her name was an obvious nod to Pride and Prejudice as well, that was a nice touch for a book all about books. Honestly, I actually realised after reading that she reminded me a lot of Liesel Meminger from The Book Thief, obviously Grace is quite a bit older than Liesel, but they have a lot of similarities: they both discover a love for reading after initially being non-readers, they’re both orphans and develop a surrogate father-daughter type relationship with an older male figure in their life, they both use their love of books to help their community during bombing raids (the scene with Grace reading in the train station reminded me of a very similar moment from The Book Thief) and Liesel is one of my favourite fictional characters, so I think those similarities definitely endeared Grace to me even more.
I loved that this book showed a younger protagonist with strong friendships with older characters, it’s something I’ve definitely noticed seeing more in books I’ve read in the last couple of years, which is nice, especially as older characters tend not to be seen as much in fiction. Grace’s relationship with Mr Bennett in particular was really endearing, I loved seeing him go from not really wanting her around, and then slowly through the book, seeing them develop this father-daughter type of bond. I also really loved her relationship with Mrs Weatherford, it was lovely how much the two cared for each other, and how the helped each other with their grief over their respective losses.
Community was such an important part of this book, and I really loved that, seeing everyone coming together and helping out after bombings, picking up the pieces after their neighbours had suffered tragedies, that sense of collective spirit was really lovely to read about.
Primrose Hill Books sounded like such a charming shop, I wish it was a real place that I could visit, because I could definitely see myself getting lost in there. I didn’t realise until I was writing up my notes for this review and came across an interview with Madeline Martin that she’d based the story on the real life bombing of Paternoster Row, which was at the time the centre for publishing in London (I clearly only skimmed the synopsis for the book!). I didn’t realise that bookshops in London were so badly affected by the bombings in the Blitz, apparently an estimated 5 million books were destroyed in the bombing Martin describes in the book. One of the things I love about WWII fiction, is despite the fact that it does seem like the market is overloaded by it at times, I always come out of every book learning something about some event in the war that I’d never heard of before.
I loved seeing Grace fall in love with reading, it was great to see someone of a similar age to me (Grace is around 23), who hasn’t been a reader their whole life, learning to love books, it just goes to show that you can find reading at any age, you don’t have to be a child to fall in love with books. I also really liked that Martin did it through her finding a particular book that caught her attention, and made her want to read more, because I think that’s something every reader can relate to, no matter when you found books. This whole story was a real love letter to books and reading, and of course, I loved that.
I even, surprisingly for me, liked Grace and George’s romance. It’s fairly low key and doesn’t take up much page time, but to be honest, that’s probably why I liked it! They were very sweet together and I loved seeing them bond over books, but it didn’t overpower the main narrative.
Martin’s writing style is simple, but effective. I liked that it wasn’t overly descriptive, but still really managed to capture the emotions of the characters and the tragedies they faced. For all the heart-warming moments in this book, and there are many, it is still a war and there’s obviously a lot of incredibly emotional moments, and Martin’s writing with Maarleveld’s narration conveyed these in a soul-crushing way.
It was a very quick read, clocking in at just over eight hours, and I never felt bored. One of the downsides of this though, was that some of the characters and their relationships did lack depth. Viv is probably the most prime example of this, she’s basically just Grace’s “wild” best friend (“wild” here meaning wears red lipstick) and doesn’t really get much development in her own right. I really wish we’d got to see more of their friendship, as Viv disappears fairly early on to contribute to the war effort. This is one of very few books I actually do think could have benefitted with being slightly longer, as the last few chapters, plus the epilogue felt a little rushed, and whilst I appreciate it was mainly focusing on a small section of the war, I think if it had been slightly longer, some of the characters might have had a bit more time to breathe and develop.
There is a cat in this book. Just so you all know in advance, THE CAT IS FINE. THE CAT SURVIVES.
Mrs Nesbit, the rather nasty rival bookshop owner who comes to blows with Grace, really got on my nerves for a lot of the book, I would not have been as nice to her as Grace was. It was good to see her coming around by the end of the book though.
I will say that this falls into the same trap as a lot of historical fiction, in that the cast of characters are very white and heteronormative. I’m not taking the it’s historical fiction excuse anymore, the past was way more diverse than we give it credit for, especially in big cities like London, so there was no reason for Martin’s book to be filled with just white, straight people.
I did feel that the ending was a little too sickly sweet and neatly wrapped up for me. Though the whole book is definitely going for a cosier feel than most WWII fiction, it definitely felt very, let’s tie a neat bow on everything and that’s just not my preferred kind of ending. It’s a very personal preference thing though, and I’m sure a lot of readers, especially romance readers, will like it.
Overall, this was a really lovely little book, and I’m so glad I came across it on someone’s blog because I’m not sure I would have found it on my own! Madeline Martin’s next WWII book is about American library spies and I’m so excited for it now, I can definitely see myself reading her historical fiction for years to come!
My Rating: 3.5/5
My next review will be of my final August audiobook, Sky Breaker, the sequel to Night Spinner, by Addie Thorley. I’m really getting up there with my backlog now, only four more reviews to go!