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The Last Chance Library

The Last Chance Library

by Freya Sampson


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A Library Reads Pick

June Jones emerges from her shell to fight for her beloved local library, and through the efforts and support of an eclectic group of library patrons, she discovers life-changing friendships along the way.

Lonely librarian June Jones has never left the sleepy English village where she grew up. Shy and reclusive, the thirty-year-old would rather spend her time buried in books than venture out into the world. But when her library is threatened with closure, June is forced to emerge from behind the shelves to save the heart of her community and the place that holds the dearest memories of her mother.

Joining a band of eccentric yet dedicated locals in a campaign to keep the library, June opens herself up to other people for the first time since her mother died. It just so happens that her old school friend Alex Chen is back in town and willing to lend a helping hand. The kindhearted lawyer's feelings for her are obvious to everyone but June, who won't believe that anyone could ever care for her in that way.

To save the place and the books that mean so much to her, June must finally make some changes to her life. For once, she's determined not to go down without a fight. And maybe, in fighting for her cherished library, June can save herself, too.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780593201381
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 08/31/2021
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 18,002
Product dimensions: 7.80(w) x 5.00(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Freya Sampson works in television as a creator and Executive Producer. Her credits include two documentary series for the BBC about the British Royal Family, and a number of factual and entertainment series. She studied History at Cambridge University and in 2018 was shortlisted for the Exeter Novel Prize. She lives in London with her husband, two young children and an antisocial cat. The Last Chance Library is her debut novel.

Read an Excerpt


You can tell a lot about a person from the library books they borrow.

June liked to play a game when things were quiet at work. She'd pick a patron and make up their life story based on the books they read. Today she'd chosen a middle-aged lady who took out two Danielle Steel novels and The Rough Guide to Iceland. After some consideration, June decided that the woman was trapped in a loveless marriage, perhaps with a boorish, aggressive husband. She was planning to run away to Reykjav’k, where she'd fall in love with a rugged, bearded local. But just as she thought she'd found true happiness, her husband would track her down and announce-

"Well, that was a pile of shit."

June was snapped out of her daydream by Mrs. Bransworth, who was standing in front of the desk waving a book in her face. It was Kazuo Ishiguro's Remains of the Day.

"What a pointless load of rubbish. Masters and servants? Capitalist propaganda more like. I could write better than this."

Mrs. B came into the library several times a week, wearing an ancient Afghan coat and fingerless gloves, even in the height of summer. She chose her books seemingly at random; one day it would be a manual on plumbing, the next a volume by a Nobel Prize-winning author. But whatever she borrowed, it always had the same outcome.

"I'm thinking of handing my library card back in protest."

"I'm sorry, Mrs. Bransworth. You can have first pick of the new stock if you like?"

"Probably all crap," Mrs. B said, and she stormed off toward the Sports shelf, leaving a faint smell of wet goat lingering at the desk.

June finished loading up the ancient returns trolley and began to navigate it around the room. Chalcot Library occupied what had once been the village school, a drafty redbrick building erected in the 1870s. It had been converted into a library eighty years later but had retained many of its original features, including a slate roof that leaked in heavy rain, floorboards that creaked underfoot, and a family of persistent mice who were eating their way through the boxes of archives stored in the loft. The council had last redecorated the library sometime in the nineties, with strip lighting and institutional green carpet. But June still liked to imagine what it must have been like in its earliest incarnation, when grubby-faced children sat in rows of desks where the shelves now stood, learning to write their letters on dusty slates like a scene from Jane Eyre.

As she pushed the trolley toward the front of the room, June saw her boss marching toward her, a copy of Mrs. Dalloway poking out of her handbag.

"I need to see you in my office. Now."

Marjorie Spencer was the library manager, a title she wore pinned to her blouse like a war medal. She claimed to only read highbrow literary novels, but June knew she'd renewed Fifty Shades of Grey at least three times.

June followed her boss into the office. It was actually a stock cupboard-cum-staff room, but Marjorie had put in a desk years ago and had even hung a name plaque on the door. There was no space for any other chairs, so June perched on a stack of printer paper.

"This is strictly entre nous, but I've just had a call from the council," Marjorie said, fiddling with the string of pearls around her neck. "They want me to go in on Monday for an urgent meeting. In the boardroom." She paused to check that June was suitably impressed with this information. "You'll have to manage on your own while I'm gone."

"Okay, that's fine."

"It's too short notice to cancel Rhyme Time, so I'll need you to take it for me too."

June felt her chest tightening. "Actually, I'm sorry, I forgot, but Alan has a-"

"No buts. Besides, it will be good practice for you-once I retire at Christmas, my replacement may want you to take over the sessions anyway."

June's stomach dropped at the thought. "Marjorie, you know I can't-"

"For goodness' sake, June, it's children's nursery rhymes, not Songs of Praise."

June opened her mouth to argue, but Marjorie had turned to her computer in a manner that said Do Not Disturb.

June left the office, trying to ignore the tightening in her chest. It was almost five o'clock, so she began the closing-down routine. As she tidied up the abandoned books and newspapers, she pictured all the expectant faces at Rhyme Time, the children and parents watching her impatiently, waiting for her to speak. June let out an involuntary shudder and dropped a pile of newspapers on the floor.

"Do you need a hand, my dear?" Stanley Phelps was sitting in his chair, watching her.

"Thanks, but I'm fine," she said, picking up the scattered pages. "It's five o'clock now. I'm afraid it's time to go home."

"May I request your assistance first? 'Organize liaison to prevent this.' Nine letters, first letter i."

June thought for a moment, breaking the clue down in her mind like he'd taught her. "Could it be 'isolation'?"


Stanley Phelps, who enjoyed historical fiction set in the Second World War, had come to the library almost every day since June started working there ten years ago. He wore a tweed jacket and spoke like a character from a P. G. Wodehouse novel, and she pictured him living in faded grandeur, sleeping in silk pajamas and eating kippers for breakfast. The Telegraph crossword was one of his daily rituals.

"Now, before I leave, I have a little something for you." Stanley reached into a crumpled old bag and pulled out a small bunch of wilting flowers held together by a piece of string. "Happy birthday, June."

"Oh, Stanley, you didn't have to," June said, feeling herself blush. She never discussed her private life with anyone at the library, but years ago Stanley had somehow discovered her birthday, and he'd never once forgotten it since.

"Are you doing anything special tonight?" he said.

"I'm just seeing some old friends."

"Well, I hope you have fun. You deserve a grand celebration."

"Thank you," June said, staring down at the flowers so she didn't have to look him in the eye.

At five thirty, June stepped outside into the warm early-summer evening. She locked the heavy library door and made her way down the Parade, past the village shop, the pub with Union Jack bunting fluttering over the door, the old bakery where she and her mum had bought jam doughnuts every Saturday. A couple of library patrons were standing outside the post office, and June nodded a silent hello as she turned down the hill, past the village green and the Golden Dragon takeaway, and left into the Willowmead estate. Built in the 1960s, it was a rabbit warren of identical semidetached houses with boxy gardens and wheelie bins sitting in front driveways. It was here that June had lived since she was four years old, in a house with a green front door and faded red curtains.

"I'm home!"

June took off her cardigan, left her shoes on the rack, ready for Monday morning, and went through into the lounge. One of the picture frames was crooked and June straightened it, frowning at the frizzy-haired, braces-wearing teenager staring back at her. Thankfully the braces were long gone, although she was still stuck with that crazy mass of brown curls, now tamed every day in a tight bun. With the picture back as it should be, June crossed the living room to the large bookcase that filled the left-hand wall, crammed with neat rows of spines. Adichie, C.; Alcott, L. M.; Angelou, M. She found the one she wanted and carried it through to the kitchen, where she put a frozen lasagna in the microwave and poured herself a glass of wine.

There was no sign of life, the house still, apart from the faint noise of a TV from next door. June picked up this morning's post: a flyer about bin collections and a copy of the Dunningshire Gazette. She checked inside the paper in case any birthday cards had got caught up inside, but there was nothing. A small sigh escaped June's mouth and she took a gulp of wine.

The microwave pinged, making her jump. She fetched the lasagna and spooned it onto a plate, adding a few slices of cucumber as a garnish. Sitting down, she picked up her book. It was battered and worn from years of reading, the words Pride and Prejudice on the front cover barely legible now. Carefully, she opened it to read the inscription: 18th June 2005. To my darling Junebug. Happiest of twelfth birthdays. You are never alone when you have a good book. All my love, Mum xx

June ate a mouthful of food, turned to the first page, and began to read.


"Alan Bennett, where the hell are you?"

It was Saturday morning and June couldn't find him anywhere. She'd searched the house and the shed and had even checked in the loft in case he'd gone up there looking for something, but to no avail.

"Come on, Alan, the joke's over," she called, but the house answered with willful silence.

June put a piece of bread in the toaster and switched on the kettle. She listened to the slow hiss of water boiling and tried to ignore the simmering sensation in her stomach. The weekend stretched ahead of her, long and gloriously empty. But while the prospect of all those hours of solitary reading time usually filled her with joy, this morning June felt jumpy. In her decade working at the library, she'd always managed to avoid taking Rhyme Time, or indeed any activity where she had to speak in front of a group of people. And now, on Monday, she'd have to stand up in front of dozens of children and their carers, talking and singing songs and entertaining them like . . .

June took a mouthful of toast but it felt like cardboard in her mouth, and she pushed her plate aside.

Five minutes later, she sat down on the sofa with a thick, dog-eared copy of War and Peace. It was a novel that June had tried and failed to read several times before, but at more than one thousand pages it was the perfect project to distract her this weekend. Besides, it was a book that her mum had loved, and for that reason June had always felt guilty that she'd never managed to finish it. She lifted up the paperback and held it to her nose, inhaling the reassuring aroma of aged paper and dust. But there was another scent there too, a base note of soap and the faintest hint of smoke. June closed her eyes and allowed herself to imagine her mum sitting next to her, legs tucked under her body in the way she'd always liked to curl up, the book on her lap and an ashtray balanced on the arm of the sofa. The two of them had spent hundreds of weekends like this, side by side in contented silence, interrupted occasionally by her mother's throaty laugh at something within the pages. The memory of it made June's chest ache with longing, and she opened the book and started to read.

She was about thirty pages in when the doorbell rang. For a brief moment June wondered if it was the postman delivering a pile of birthday cards that had been forgotten yesterday, but she told herself off for even entertaining such a ridiculous thought.

As June opened the front door, she was confronted by the sight of her next-door neighbor, Linda, wearing a fuchsia dress and a huge pair of gold earrings. Linda was obsessed with Barbara Cartland novels and always dressed as if some dashing duke was about to turn up and whisk her away from Chalcot, even at nine in the morning. In her arms was an indignant-looking Alan Bennett.

"Look who I found hiding in my airing cupboard, the sneaky little bugger."

Alan let out a hiss of rage and sprang from Linda's grip.

"I'm so sorry, Linda. I've been looking everywhere for him."

"No bother. You're not busy, are you?" Before June could reply, Linda had bustled in through the door and made her way into the living room, calling back, "No milk for me-I'm doing Slimming World."

June made tea in two chipped mugs and carried them through, where she found Linda sprawled on the sofa, leafing through War and Peace.

"Jesus, love, why do you put yourself through this?" Linda said, casting the book onto the floor in disgust.

"It was one of Mum's favorites."

"She always did have terrible taste in books. You know I gave her loads of Barbara Cartlands and she never read one?" Linda's heavily penciled eyebrows shot up in horror and June laughed.

"I have to admit, this one's a bit tough, even for me."

"It's a good thing your mum also loved gin and a gossip; otherwise we'd never have been friends." Linda took a swig from her mug. "I was thinking yesterday, do you remember your seventh birthday when we made you that Charlie and the Chocolate Factory cake? We tried to make a great glass elevator, only we ended up getting a bit tipsy and the whole thing was skew-whiff like the Leaning Tower of Pisa." She let out a loud guffaw, splashing hot tea on the sofa.

"You guys always made me the best birthday cakes," June said, smiling. For her sixth birthday, her mum and Linda had baked her a giant spider and a luminous pink pig for Charlotte's Web, and for her tenth birthday they'd tried to make Hermione and Hagrid out of sugar fondant, although it had ended up looking like something out of a horror movie.

"Why couldn't you have just had a princess cake like other girls your age?" Linda said, rolling her eyes in mock irritation. "Anyway, how was your birthday? Did you see friends?"

"It was good, thanks."

"Hmm . . ." Something in Linda's tone suggested she knew all too well that the only friends June had spent it with were Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy. "Well, I got you a little something."

Linda produced a rectangular parcel from her handbag, which June opened with some trepidation. Linda's birthday presents always stuck to a certain theme: last year it had been a book called How to Make Anyone Fall in Love with You and the year before that it was How to Stop Worrying and Start Living. Now June pulled the wrapping paper off to reveal Now What? 90 Days to a New Life Direction.

"I saw it in the charity shop and thought of you," Linda said with obvious pride.

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