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REVIEW:  Sweetshop of Dreams by Jenny Colgan

REVIEW: Sweetshop of Dreams by Jenny Colgan

Sweetshop

Are you a licorice or peppermint fan? Melt-in-your-mouth caramel or sticky saltwater taffy? Nothing invokes nostalgia like an old-fashioned candy shop. But nostalgia isn’t really Rosie Hopkins’s thing—not with her busy London life that includes fantastic friends and her boyfriend, Gerard. Even so, Rosie does her Aunt Lilian a favor and takes a job in her small village sweetshop. As Aunt Lilian struggles with the idea that it might finally be time to retire from the business, a long-kept family secret makes life in the sweetshop a lot more interesting than Rosie had anticipated…

Dear Ms. Colgan,

I enjoyed “The Loveliest Chocolate Shop in Paris” earlier this year so much that I jumped at the chance to try another one of your books. And it’s about sweets and chocolate as well, albeit from the English side of the channel. I don’t think you can go too far wrong with a book with lots of chocolate in it.

The openings to each chapter are a lovely, funny trip through British sweetie-dom. It makes me want to try each one – work my way through a sweet shop as it were. I take it these are from the astringent, no nonsense point of view of Aunt Lilian. I loved Aunt Lilian and took to “hearing” her in my head as voiced by Eileen Atkins. Lilian is a hoot. Dry humor abounds through the book as seen in her sarcasm. I also like her lifelong friendship with Hetty and how the Lady is shown as slightly down at the heel with holey jumpers, aged vehicle, dog and drafty great country house.

Yet it’s not all acerbic wit from Lilian as her sweet, sad youthful love story shows. Mixed in with the present day action, it presents the quiet life in the village during the war years and how many things haven’t changed that much in the intervening decades. One thing that stood out to me about Lilian’s lifetime there running the sweet shop is how she knows everyone’s favorite treats and has remained so beloved by all there.

The other story here is that of Rosie and it’s chick-lit but not. Rosie actually likes her nursing profession, has a boyfriend and no intention of staying in Derbyshire longer than is needed to help Lilian get back on her feet, clean the sweetshop and sell it. But then – and I enjoyed seeing this too – country life starts to grow on her, so to speak, despite her initial reservations and the drenching she seems to get when she can’t anticipate the weather.

You switched things around on me with the ultimate hero. I was all set thinking we were going one way when I began to get the hint that there would be a change in direction. Initially I enjoyed Rosie’s encounters with the hero. There were definite sparks flying and they didn’t start out romantically. But, here’s the thing. Once Rosie realizes who her Prince Charming is, he looses his charm, and even his snark. He becomes less than who I think Rosie deserves and never does offer up an apology that I think she also deserves.

Too many things get wrapped up too neatly in the last pages of the book. Villains and neglectful mums get told off. Lilian faces down a long time rival after settling into the perfect place and Hero gets back into Rosie’s good graces too easily. I adored the first half of the book but the second half just didn’t live up to it. B-

~Jayne

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REVIEW:  The Loveliest Chocolate Shop in Paris by Jenny Colgan

REVIEW: The Loveliest Chocolate Shop in Paris by Jenny Colgan

Loveliest-Chocolate-Shop-in-Paris

As dawn breaks over the Pont Neuf, and the cobbled alleyways of Paris come to life, Anna Trent is already awake and at work, mixing and stirring the finest, smoothest, richest chocolate; made entirely by hand, it is sold to the grande dames of Paris.

It’s a huge shift from the chocolate factory she worked in at home in the north of England. But when an accident changed everything, Anna was thrown back in touch with her French teacher, Claire, who offered her the chance of a lifetime — to work in Paris with Claire’s former sweetheart, Thierry, a master chocolatier.

With old wounds about to be uncovered and healed, Anna is set to discover more about real chocolate — and herself — than she ever dreamed.

Dear Ms. Colgan,

When I started this book, I wasn’t at all sure I was going to continue with it. The opening scene is rather confusing – something about a terrible accident where Anna Trent works then her drug hazed, dream state in hospital before she finally learns what happened to her. It’s an injury which isn’t immediately obvious but one which throws Anna off balance, literally and figuratively. Then Anna’s former French teacher in school is introduced to the story. Suffering from (terminal) cancer, Claire sees in coaching Anna’s French language skills a way for them both to pass the time while being treated. I sat, thinking, where’s Paris? Where’s the chocolate? Where’s the romance? I had to wait a bit but soon things began to unfold.

This isn’t exactly a chick lit book and it’s not a straight romance either but rather a blending of the two. It’s told mainly from Anna’s first person point of view with briefer bits as told by Claire both in the present and in third person from her past in Paris as a young woman. In Anna we get a sorta chick lit heroine who has been in a low end job, doesn’t have a great love life, has some body issues but who then gets a chance to start over – in another fetch and carry job.

No Anna’s not immediately put to work in Paris creating mouth watering confections. It’s pot scrubbing and cleaning as she gets her language feet under her and begins to see the difference between the industrial, mass market chocolate churned out by the gross she’s been used to making and the hand crafted, ethereal, made by a master artisan, to be sold that only that day creations of Thierry Girard.

Between Thierry’s lunch excursions to out of the way restaurants and her flamboyant roommate Sami’s nighttime forays to Parisian hotspots, Anna begins to learn the city in a way the tourists never will. She also meets Laurent, Thierry’s estranged son, gets to know her two coworkers and dodges Alice, Thierry’s witchy English wife.

But in Claire’s story, the book departs from fluffy mode and gets layered with a touch of women’s fiction. Claire was also a young Englishwoman who ventured to Paris and found love. She then lost it and has spent a married lifetime wondering what went wrong. She sees in Anna a way to gently probe for answers before her time runs out. When I started reading the sections about Claire, I was bracing for depression yet this is handled so delicately that I was glued to the page to discover What Happened Next.

Yes, it’s bittersweet and an exercise in What Might Have Been but by the end of the book, Claire sees what becomes obvious to the reader – perhaps her life did unfold the way it was meant to. Maybe she had a better marriage than she would have had others not interfered. Just possibly making a life with someone who commands center stage and needs all eyes on him 24/7 is an exhausting business. I like the way this all revealed without Claire or Thierry becoming the fall guy or being turned into a nasty piece of work. And one character even gets some redemption by the end.

The romance of the book is divided between the two sets of lovers. In the first half, there is the beginning of Claire and Thierry’s instant attraction which burgeons into their lifelong, though thwarted, love. It’s not until the second half of the book that Laurent and Anna begin to get past their prickly introduction and the issues which initially divide them. I would have wished for more time to be spent on them but, as with fine chocolate, less is more. Plus they do see each other at less than their best and under trying circumstances so all their flaws are laid bare, understood and accepted.

I would be remiss without mentioning the other love affair here – that with the city of Paris itself. The descriptions of Paris are lush and loving but also honest about her shortcomings. Paris won’t always work well for everyone and the key seems to be in the way that you approach your time there. Anna and Claire are both willing to slip into the joy and magic of the City of Light and in doing so, the reader is just as seduced as they are. By the time I finished, I was in total agreement with the view of the French expressed by Anna’s coworker who questions “why accept a bunch of mediocre when you can have a bit of divine?”

“The Loveliest Chocolate Shop in Paris” is a tale of two Englishwomen in Paris, of love lost and found, of reaching for the best instead of settling for what you can get, of acceptance and making peace with the past. If the threads of the story are a bit neatly tied up at the end, the tying is gently and lovingly done. B

~Jayne

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