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Letters of Note by Shaun Usher

We have gathered all the fantastic reviews our Book Club Members have sent us this month.

Click on each name to read the review. If you would like to become part of the Viking Book Club, sign up here >>

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The Viking Review, by Laura, our Social Media Executive

I fell in love with this book. Reading each letter felt as though I was instantly transported to the time it was written, whether it was a letter from Ancient Egyptian times or the modern ‘Pixar’ era.

Where else can you read personal letters from the Queen, your favourite celebrities or high-profile criminals? The design and layout of the book made the letters easy to read and understand (print next to the originals) and I could not tear myself away. I managed to finish the book in one weekend, sat in the garden in the sun. It’s the perfect bookshelf addition or to look lovely on your coffee table.

A charming read.

Jinty Pyke

This handsome book is a collection of 125 letters which bring together comedic, romantic and pedestrian forms of corresponding. There are letters from history such as Benjamin Franklin lending money or Leonardo da Vinci applying for a job. Also included are letters from film stars Bette Davis and Alec Guinness.

Letters are reproduced as originally penned and with each entry is a paragraph which sets the scene of when and why the letter was written. Some entries are translated as they are in Chinese script or, as from Mary, Queen of Scots in 1587, written in French. Neither are all letters written on paper and these are fascinating. But for me the most interesting correspondence is that from unknown figures. Extremely moving is a letter written to a wife who had died two years before explaining why the writer could not love another. More light-hearted is a boy asking a famous architect to design a dog kennel and included is the follow up correspondence which shows that eventually the request was met.

All in all this is a marvellous compendium of correspondence which can be dipped into at will and every page will compel you to read on.

Ivy James

A remarkable collection of such diverse letters, in the dying art of letter writing in today’s world of technology, a book to be treasured.

No matter what your taste in reading you will find great pleasure in reading these letters which are very thought provoking.

The amazing letter from Jourdon Anderson ‘To My Old Master’, Patrick Henry Anderson, is written with such dignity and quiet remorse, in a very intelligent manner, I wanted to shout with joy and shake the hand of such a man who lived with his family in a state of submission for so many years, while Patrick Anderson thought he and so many people like him thought he had the right to own and to sell another human being.

Letters of happiness, humour, romance, and sadness, a book you will want to keep picking up over the years.

The letter to Our Frank, The Connell Family To The Ciulla Family has personal significance to me, living in the same village as the Connell family and experiencing the shocking event of the Lockerbie air disaster, made this letter all the more poignant to me . The only criticism I have, it would have been of interest to the readers to know how these letters came into the personal hands of the author Shaun Usher.

A book to be treasured.

Thank you for choosing me to review such a great book.

Jo Nuding

What a lovely book. This is not the kind of book I would normally read but I really did enjoy it. A great coffee table book. To pick up and flick through when you have a quick break and do not have the time to read a novel. I found a lot of the letters very interesting. I would certainly recommend this book.

Cyril Noble

This book is not one I would normally purchase or read. Having read, which did not take long, I only found little of interest (the well-known). No doubt it could come in useful as a reference book, but it is not one I could recommend as a good read.

Shelagh Ludbrook

It was quite a shock when the book arrived as it is very big and very heavy and it seemed quite an alarming thought to have to read it all in under 3 weeks. It describes itself as a "museum of letters" which is a great description. There are letters of all types: sad, sweet, funny and serious. The writers are all different types of people: important, ordinary, clever and simple. In many ways it is a history book as some of the letters concern important times from our past.

I haven't actually read it all yet as I realised trying to read it "in one go" was spoiling it for me (although I have got 75% of the way through). It is a book you want to dip into over a cup of coffee and read only a handful of letters at a time. It isn't a book for long reading sessions. Different people will be affected by different letters and will have their own favourites e.g. I found moving the letters such as the one Katherine Hepburn wrote to Spencer Tracy 18 years after his death, or the one Richard Feynman wrote to his late wife after her death. I also enjoyed the responses to the letters sent in to famous people by children e.g. when Grace Bedell wrote to Abraham Lincoln to suggest he should grow a beard, or when Rudyard Kipling responded to a request from a school for him to contribute an article to their magazine and he demanded a payment of 6d. There are many more interesting, poignant or just plain funny letters there for you to choose- I know you will be able to dip in and find many little treasures. I look forward to finding more for myself.

Alan Kendrick

This is a great book for dipping into rather than reading all at once. However all the letters are interesting and give some good insights.

Stephen Chadderton

A hard backed book of 125 letters from both the famous and the infamous, the original letters being accurately reproduced, and translated where necessary. The range is diverse. For example there is a hand written letter from HM Queen Elizabeth 11 to Pres. Dwight D. Eisenhower with a recipe for drop scones; another is from Clyde Barrow (Bonnie and Clyde) to Henry Ford praising his Ford V8. It's a true coffee table book, and I often dip into it during quiet moments. My favourite letter is from a reader of The Times to its editor:

Sir
I have just written you a long letter.
On reading it over, I have thrown it into the waste paper basket.
Hoping this will meet with your approval.
I am
Sir
Your obedient servant.

Wendy Robinson

This is a wonderfully varied collection of letters, beautifully presented. Some are very short, some long. Some are from, or to, people you have heard of, some not. Each has a short introduction to put it into context, many are reproduced in their original form and, where appropriate, there is a transcript for easy reading. It is not, however, a book to take with you on your Viking cruise as it is very large and very heavy! Keep it instead somewhere where you can pick it up occasionally and don't try to read it from cover to cover. Open it at random and find a letter from Elvis Presley, Annie Oakley or Albert Einstein - you're sure to find something amusing or touching.

Pat Sleight

This book is a beautifully presented piece of work, worthy of coffee tables anywhere. However, because of its nature, it is a difficult book to review, it being almost impossible to concentrate for any length of time on its subject matter. Some of the letters reproduced in the book are quite lengthy, whilst others, by virtue of their age, are written in unfamiliar language and style. The shorter letters can be quickly digested but lose their impact when the reader moves on to another letter immediately. This is a book to be picked up occasionally, each letter being savoured individually.

The book may have benefited by grouping the contents by subject matter; letters on war, on death, to or from American Presidents, scientists, writers and children being grouped together for a more coherent presentation. Alternatively, presentation in date order, the earliest first, would give the reader a flavour of the past that Shaun Usher alludes to in his introduction.

Notwithstanding the above, I enjoyed the book enormously. At a time in our history where it appears the art of letter writing is all but dead, it serves as a useful reminder of the power of the written word.

Alison Monro

Letters of Note can best be described as pedestrian.

Of the 125 disparate letters contained within this time, it is submitted that only 30 are of any general interest and, of these, only 15 can be described as “highly readable”.

Among these “highly readable” are, inter alia:

  • the Sun Editor and his take on Santa Claus (he believes) (038);
  • the “illegal” dam builders of Michigan State (beavers) and their brush with petty authority (064);
  • the Delfont rejection of the Monty Python film “Life of Brian” (096) – too rude and blasphemous;
  • the British Ambassador and his Turkish colleague with the rather unfortunate name (106);
  • Mark Twain's prescient letter to Walt Whitman (120)

The main draw-back to the book is the number of turgid missives from America. Not that there is anything wrong with this genre, just that this particular work tends to choose the worst examples of obfuscation and circumlocution.

There is a distinct shortage of letters from European sources. Why no representative works from the likes of Robert Burns (who was a prolific letter writer); William Wordsworth; Conan Doyle, Voltaire et al?

Maybe next time!!

Edie Bell

A very interesting book full of letters from very different people. Here you can read a letter containing a recipe from Queen Elizabeth the second to President Eisenhower, another from Jack the Ripper and Robert Scott’s last letter to his wife entitled "to my widow".

Many of the letters are very moving, the letters to the Foundling hospital and also to a mother superior asking them to look after a child and some of them are amusing. This is a book you dip into whenever you want and you will always find an interesting letter.

Carole Woodcock

This book is utterly compelling. Without doubt it will give the reader an abundance of fascinating reading.

Every page is a historical treasure which will touch the hearts of many readers.

Of the many that reached out to me, was the letter Roald Dahl wrote in reply to 7 year old Amy. It was enchanting, kindly, and surely fired her childlike imagination.

Reading Cricks' important discovery of DNA was absolutely fascinating, and one can only admire such dedication, and brilliance.

I shall read this book for many years to come, and I am sure I will always find something new and exciting.

Wynn Bartlett

The most enjoyable, the most irritating, laugh out loud, tear jerking and frankly totally enjoyable book that I have encountered in a long time.

I read this on holiday with friends and we shared the pleasures of the letters most evenings. What fun to read out loud.

What a joy, thank you for allowing us to revel in such delightful, intriguing and totally entertaining letters.

Such a pickup-able book which will be enjoyed for many years to come, this is without doubt a real treasure.

Thank you Viking for choosing me to review this book.

Robert Nash

A most interesting mixture of letters from past times.

I found the collection amusing at times.

In particular I liked the letter Francis Crick wrote to his son Michael about the structure of DNA.

In the mid-1960s I was a Ph. D. Student working in the field of crystallography so his letter had particular resonance.

Shaun Usher must be congratulated for assembling the collection.

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