‘The Grandest Bookshop in the World’ book review: Magic in an iconic Australian arcade

  • Inspired by Cole’s Book Arcade in Melbourne, Amelia Mellor’s debut is a fantastical adventure
  • The novel is an excellent example of times when you can judge a book by its cover
John Millen |

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The Grandest Bookshop in the World

The Grandest Bookshop in the World

By Amelia Mellor

Published by Affirm Press

ISBN 978 1 9259 7295 5

Reviewed by John Millen

Cole’s Book Arcade was once the biggest bookshop in the world. It was opened in the Australian city of Melbourne by businessman Edward Cole in 1883, and was so popular that police were often needed to handle the crowds wanting to get inside.

The interior of the premises, spread out over three levels, was very grand and the staff were smartly dressed in bright scarlet jackets. It was not only vast, but well stocked; Cole liked to boast that his shop contained more than 2 million books, and customers were encouraged to walk through the arcade, spending as much time as they wanted browsing the volumes.

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The arcade also housed a toy department, a sweet shop, a tropical fern house with monkeys swinging from the giant plants, a perfumery, a tea salon, a stationery shop and a photography studio. A band played every afternoon on the second floor to entertain customers.

The owner even lived with his wife and children in a flat above the arcade.

Cole’s Book Arcade, in other words, was much more than a bookstore.

Australian author Amelia Mellor sets her wonderful novel, The Grandest Bookshop in the World, in the book emporium at the height of its popularity. Mellor’s protagonists are the owner’s six children, with two of the youngest, Pearl and Vally (short for Valentine), as the narrators and main movers of the plot.

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Mellor’s fictional family history makes for a highly original and entertaining novel. The setting is a place of wonder, and the author expertly keeps all the action tightly within its walls.

There is so much going on here and so many exciting possibilities that a talented storyteller has no need to take her story anywhere else. Every day, life in the arcade brings something new and exciting into the lives of Pearl and Vally, what with monkeys in the fernery, talking sweets from the sweet shop and fascinating customers to meet.

One day, Pearl runs into a tall, oddly dressed customer called Magnus Maximillian, who appears to know more about her father and the book arcade than he should. Pearl is suspicious.

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When Pa starts to act out of character and things begin to go wrong in the book arcade, Pearl and Vally discover something very disturbing has been set up between their father and the curious stranger.

Pa Cole has made a deal with Maximillian that risks the very future of the book arcade. Maximillian is an Obscurosmith – an evil magical trickster – and in exchange for the arcade and Cole himself, Maximillian has agreed to perform a dreadful piece of magic that will change the dynamics of the Cole family forever.

Pearl and Vally must do everything they can to save their family and the grandest bookshop in the world. They make their own deal with the Obscurosmith – they will complete a set of tasks he sets. If they succeed, they get the arcade – and their dad – back. If they fail, he’ll be erased from their memories.

There are a so many wonderful things about The Grandest Bookshop in the World – one of those times where judging a book by its cover is entirely appropriate. It is a magical, mysterious stand-out work of fiction for tweens, and any story-loving adult in their orbit.

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