The Christmas Cafe

christmas cafe

The Christmas Cafe
by Amanda Prowse

Bea does not believe in second chances.

A widow at fifty-three, Bea knows she must accept that she will be alone forever. She buries her grief in hard work, and soon the deli she runs in Surry Hills has a reputation for the best carrot cake in Sydney.

But then an email from a cafe-owner in Edinburgh leads her to take a trip to Scotland in the depths of winter. There, transported by the twinkling lights and falling snow of a traditional Christmas, Bea is drawn back to a secret past – and a secret love – that she has long ago tried to forget…

The book opens with Bea saying goodbye to her husband of nearly thirty years and facing up to life alone at only 53. But we find out from Bea’s memories that the marriage wasn’t totally conventional, with hurt and heartbreak being a part of Bea’s life from an early age.

During the following year Bea turns her attention to making a success of her cafe. When she receives an email from a fellow cafe owner in Scotland a chain of events is set in motion culminating in her granddaughter, Flora, coming to stay with her because of problems at home and at school.

The two make the decision to go on holiday and decide on Scotland for a traditional pre-Christmas and to visit Bea’s new friend in the Christmas Cafe.

I love the all the characters in this book, but especially Bea and Flora who have such a strong bond between them and it’s lovely to see them grow ever closer as the novel goes on. But even the smaller characters, like Mr Giraldi, are brought to life so well and give the novel an extra depth.

Amanda Prowse is excellent on place setting and you get a really strong feel for, firstly, the heat of Australia and then the wintry feel of of a Christmas Edinburgh with blazing hearths just wraps itself around you.

As all the different strands of the story come together you find yourself smiling and crying at the same time; no mean feat.

The Christmas Cafe is a really good story from a really good author.
****

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Billy And The Devil

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Billy And The Devil
by Dean Lilleyman

Billy and the Devil is a shocking, compelling and intimate portrayal of isolation, sexual misadventure, and addiction. Told in a series of brilliantly rendered observations and episodes from Billy’s life, this controversial story charts an all-too real descent into alcoholism. It is an unflinchingly vivid journey to a place of no return, where love is lost in the darkest of woods – a boy, who becomes a man, who becomes his own worst devil. But ultimately, what choice does Billy have?

Billy And The Devil gives us a dark, stark, sordid insight into the life of an alcoholic. Billy’s grandfather was an alcoholic who stabbed his wife and ended up in prison. Billy’s father, who he never knew until adulthood had major problems with alcohol. Nature or nurture? Some would say the die was already cast.

We see Billy as a small boy enjoying watching tv with his Nannan, as any small grandson would. By his teenage years he’s already drinking heavily both in school and out. And this sets the tone for the rest of his life.

Watching Billy’s descent into alcoholism is like watching a car smash. He lives his life with no meaning, no control, no off-switch. Boundary after boundary comes crashing down until there really is nothing left.

The story is told in vignettes, some are fairly long, some told as a play and some just a few words long:
DOOR LOCKED.
Key hidden.
Throw clotheshorse at her.
Leave by kitchen window
Pub.

The story is so dark and sordid but the writing soars, it gives a tenderness to the story that is totally unexpected.

There are some incredibly sad moments in the book, particularly with Billy’s wife Grace and their children Scarlett and Joe; and his Mum, who your heart would break for. But also with Billy who, like all alcoholics, cannot or will not see the damage they are doing, the devastation they are wreaking and the hurt they are causing.

This book is a must read for anyone who wants a picture painting of what happens to an ordinary life when the booze takes over. However it is extremely graphic and real horror, but in my opinion it is also a masterpiece.
*****

What Happens At Christmas

what happens at christmas

What Happens At Christmas
by T. A. Williams


When career-girl Holly Brice learns that her estranged father has died, she decides to take a trip down memory lane and find out about the man she never knew.

Arriving in the sleepy little Dartmoor village, she’s shocked to discover that she’s inherited the cosy little cottage she remembers so fondly, a whole load of money – and her father’s adorable dog, too!

And as the first snowflakes begin to fall and Holly bumps into her gorgeous neighbour, Jack Nelson, life gets even more complicated! Men have always been off the cards for high-flying Holly, but there’s something about mysterious writer Jack that has her re-thinking her three-date rule…

When Holly’s estranged father dies, she goes to stay in the cottage she has inherited to clear it out ready for selling. It is situated in a delightful village in Dartmoor and comes complete with a lovely black labrador.

Holly soon comes to realise that there was more to her father than she had been led to believe.

It is Holly’s journey to discovering her father and also discovering herself that is at the heart of this story. The hurt she has carried with her throughout her childhood to the present day has left her cold and emotionless when it comes to her own relationships. Can she find it in herself to forgive, move on and find love herself?

This is Holly’s story but she has a great supporting cast of characters. Her friend Julia, who keeps her smiling and is always there for her. The three men who become important in her life: Jack, the handsome neighbour; Justin, the sophisticated guy who has his own problems; Howard, the seventy year old man with an eye for the ladies.

But the best character by far, the one who totally steals the limelight, is Stirling the black labrador who Holly inherits from her father. He is a bouncing loveable dog who will do anything for a walk, but he is also attuned into Holly’s moods and comforts her when the going gets tough. She quickly comes to realise she can’t live without him. Stirling is a triumph!

The descriptions of the cottage and the snow-covered village are extremely inviting and make you wish you could spend Christmas there.

This is the first T. A. Williams book that I have read and my first Christmas book of the season and it doesn’t disappoint. It is a light and easy read but with a good story behind it. What’s not to like?

Many thanks to Netgalley for sending me a copy.

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The Chessman

chessman

The Chessman
by Dolores Gordon-Smith

The message consisted of one neatly typewritten line: I am killing you slowly. You are going to die. The Chessman.

Isabelle Stanton and Sue Castradon always arranged the flowers in the village church on Fridays. But Sue was glad to escape the church that morning. She had rowed over breakfast with her husband Ned, who bitterly resented her association – however fleeting – with the handsome Simon Vardon. Sue didn’t think things could get worse – until she opened the cupboard…

When a mutilated corpse is discovered in the sleepy village of Croxton Ferriers, Jack Haldean finds an odd clue at the scene of the crime: a black marble chess knight with crystal eyes. Is murder just a game? It could be – to a killer who calls himself The Chessman.

A mutilated body is found in a cupboard in the local church, his identity and how someone has managed to gain access to the locked church are just two of the questions that need answering. Another one is how a lunatic is managing to live unknown in the cosy village of Croxton Ferriers.

As the body count rises and the self-styled ‘Chessman’ gets more daring, leaving notes and clues behind at each murder, it falls to amateur detective Jack Haldean and local Inspector Ashley to solve the mystery.

For all the high body count, this is not a blood and gore novel, more a cosy English murder/mystery in the style of Agatha Christie or Dorothy L. Sayers. It is set in the 1920s not long after the Great War. The War still has a hold over the country and many of the characters are deeply affected by it.

I loved the setting and the author brings the time and place to life brilliantly well, she gets inside the characters’ mindset of the time superbly.

The book is full of twists and turns and even though there are relatively few suspects, I was kept guessing to the end, due to the very cleverly constructed plot which had lots of twists and turns.

This is the 9th in the Jack Haldean series, but the first I have read and is easily read as a standalone. Although I will definitely be going back to look up the other books.
****

My thanks to the author for providing me with a copy.

Talk of the Toun

talk of the toun

Talk of the Toun
by Helen MacKinven

An uplifting black comedy of love, family life and friendship, Talk of the Toun is a bittersweet coming-of-age tale set in the summer of 1985, in working class, central belt Scotland.

Lifelong friends Angela and Lorraine are two very different girls, with a growing divide in their aspirations and ambitions putting their friendship under increasing strain.

Artistically gifted Angela has her sights set on art school, but lassies like Angela, from a small town council scheme, are expected to settle for a nice wee secretarial job at the local factory. Her only ally is her gallus gran, Senga, the pet psychic, who firmly believes that her granddaughter can be whatever she wants.

Though Lorraine’s ambitions are focused closer to home Angela has plans for her too, and a caravan holiday to Filey with Angela’s family tests the dynamics of their relationship and has lifelong consequences for them both.

Effortlessly capturing the religious and social intricacies of 1980s Scotland, Talk of the Toun is the perfect mix of pathos and humour as the two girls wrestle with the complications of growing up and exploring who they really are.

Talk of the Toun is a coming-of-age tale, seen through the eyes of 17 year old Angela McMenemy. Her life revolves around her friend Lorraine and trying to persuade her family that she should be allowed to go to Art school.

Set on a council housing scheme in working class Scotland, Angela’s lifelong friendship with Lorraine seems to be falling apart and she can’t work out why; nor is she ready to let go. Whilst sitting in a cafe with Lorraine, Angela makes a decision that has wide repercussions for both girls, leading them to a caravan site in Filey and terrible consequences.

This book is absolutely jam-packed with observational humour, much of it in the local Scots dialect (which I loved). It will make you chuckle and laugh out loud, but it will also make you cringe and gag. The author misses nothing and if you are of a certain age it is a fantastic memory trip.

The characters are brilliant, very well-drawn. Angela, present throughout, is a hugely complex character, seemingly confident but in reality wracked with self-esteem issues and hiding behind Lorraine’s friendship. As the novel goes on she becomes more and more dislikeable and you have to decide whether she is just not a very nice person or whether it’s her lack of maturity. The author portrays her brilliantly. Those middle teenage years when everything you have known and relied on begins to change, people take different directions and you’re trying to work out where you belong. This is Angela, a mass of contradictions; she feels superior to Lorraine and certain that she needs her to survive but in reality Lorraine is maturing faster than Angela.

Angela’s family are well portrayed, again amidst observational humour mixed with pathos, that takes your breath away. The relationship between Angela and her gran is one of the best things in the book, she is Angela’s greatest supporter but also understands her better than she understands herself and knows just when to rein her in.

I really enjoyed this book, Helen MacKinven interweaves the background of working class Scotland soaked in religous bigotry with a story of friendships and family all wrapped up in that ‘salt-of-the-earth’ humour. I would highly recommend.
****1/2

Many thanks to the author and Thunderpoint Publishing for sending me a copy.