Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Emma's Guest Review: Amanda Prowse - The Christmas Cafe

Reviewed by Emma Crowley

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...

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The Christmas Café is the fourth book from Amanda Prowse this year and I'm still left wondering where on earth does she find the time to write so much? To write so many books and never lose any substance or depth to her stories is quite an achievement. Having read all her releases this year she is now firmly one of my favourite authors, one of those whom you eagerly await news of each new story to come. You are always guaranteed an emotional read from Amanda as she brings relevant, everyday topics to the forefront of our minds that other authors may be afraid to tackle. 

The Christmas Café is the latest in the No Greater Love series (the three books released already this year come from the No Greater Courage Series) and it has the most beautiful cover that instantly catches your eye and arouses your curiosity and makes you question just why is that girl going into the café with a suitcase and just what kind of story does she have to tell? As a reader you can almost imagine yourself doing your Christmas shopping and needing a breather and stopping off in The Christmas Café to relax and unwind and watch the crowds pass you by as you sit in the window. I think a Christmas Café should be compulsory in every town and city in the weeks leading up to the festive period.

The book opens as Bea Greenstock is saying goodbye to her husband of over 30 years, Peter. His time has come and although she loved him dearly and she will miss him, there is still a deeply hidden longing in her heart for the one she let get away. Well on further reading it seemed she had no choice in this matter. Bea lives in Sydney, Australia and is still only 53 she has to continue on with her life as she has a son Wyatt and grand daughter Flora although her relationship with Wyatt is not always on the best of terms. The past always seems to be haunting them, things left unsaid that really should be out in the open. 

Bea also has her café to run 'The Reservoir Café' which she set up to make people feel like they have a place and family and friends even if they had no one. Bea can't let her staff members Kim and Tait down they, like her customers, rely on the supportive atmosphere the café offers. If Bea were just to give up what would happen? This quote sums up how Bea feels 'Her loss and exhaustion sweeping over her like a wave that left her gulping for air'. I sensed early on that there was a lot more to Bea than first meets the eye, that she had a past that was still very firmly affecting her present and future. Yes she did love Peter but was he a stop gap and a way of bettering her young son's life at a time when she needed every ounce of support she could get both financially and emotionally. One thing I couldn't get over was how young Bea was in the story, she obviously had had Wyatt at a very young age but seeing her referred to as a grandmother by Flora made her seem older at times and I did have to remind myself she really did have an awful lot more living and enjoying of life to do. But what will get her out of her slump and renew bonds that have been left to fray and splinter?

Bea undoubtedly misses Peter and wants to turn and tell him things but yet the guilt is beginning to creep in that maybe her heart had belonged to someone else. She feels vulnerable and lonely but her granddaughter Flora may just be about to take her mind off everything. It was evident for anyone to see that Flora was going through a really tough time, both with her parents and school. Staying with Bea enables her to get away from the situation and have time to think. Tensions and arguments are not doing anything to help the situation and Flora needs her own space to see where things are going wrong. Flora was simply just lost and on the cusp of becoming a teenager and entering womanhood yet still underneath it all a vulnerable young girl who really wanted a shoulder to cry on and support to be given when needed and maybe just that little bit of responsibility taken off her shoulders as she wasn't ready for it. Bea was so supportive to Flora, never telling her what to do or offering her own opinion. Instead through her actions and counsel she slowly leads Flora to make her own decision and to realise she may not have things so bad after all. Bea's own relationship with her son was not that great and as the story unfolds we learn why. Wyatt came across as spoilt, ungrateful and non compassionate. He didn't seem to care his mother was hurting and maybe there was something else eating away at her underneath. I can't say I liked Wyatt at all even in the end his arrogance just didn't endear him to me in the slightest.

So what of The Christmas Café as suggested in the title? Well Bea receives a letter from an Alex McKay living in Edinburgh and running the Christmas Café. Alex has set up an online forum for café owners all over the world to interact and share their stories. Soon with a little help from Flora (who really did grow on me as I saw her transformation begin) Alex and Bea are emailing back and forth with Bea pouring out her innermost feelings to a stranger but it all feels so natural like it was meant to be. Surely Bea will therefore never be embarrassed at some of her deepest confessions being out in the open. Soon Bea and Flora find themselves on their way to Scotland and a trip which will change the course of their lives forever. I'm not going to say much more as here the story really did take off and an awful lot happened. Bea's past does come back to meet her and I loved how it all panned out. I got that moment I was longing for and really Amanda had me fooled right until the reveal moment. I just love to be kept guessing and I think most readers will not uncover the truth, it's original and cleverly done and couldn't have happened any other way. Bea and Flora's adventure in the snowy city of Edinburgh was a life changer but ultimately in a good way.  I think what follows really sums up the heart and soul of this book and is a philosophy we should all live by in our own lives 'How do you know when you've met the love of your life? That's a good question' Bea smiled. I suppose the answer is that you just have to trust your little voice of instinct'.

The Christmas Café is very different from Amanda's previous releases this year. It's not as hard hitting, yes there is emotion but not in the gut wrenching way I experienced in say A Mother's Story or Three and a Half Heartbeats but really there is actually nothing wrong with this at all. After the emotional, heart breaking journey Amanda has taken us over the last few of her books I felt I wanted and needed something lighter yet something that had a lovely message full of hope and strength at its centre and that is what I got with this book. This may sound so clichéd but this really was a heart-warming, enchanting book. Yes the first half was slow to get going but once Flora and Bea head to Edinburgh things really picked up and the magic started to happen. I was there with them as they wandered through and explored the city streets on a cold, dark winters day lost in the sights, sounds, smells and memories of Christmas. I was waiting and waiting for that jaw dropping moment that Amanda usually provides and for once I sadly thought I wasn’t going to get it but then out of nowhere Amanda did it again and I had not seen it coming so cleverly was it done. It made the book even more enjoyable to see such a twist and to prove love and romance will win out over everything else each and every time. This book is a true, genuine romantic story extremely well told with a clear beginning, middle and end and I adored both the story and characters. 

The Christmas Café is the perfect read for the festive season. If you were to wake up on Christmas morning with this delight wrapped up in nice shining paper and a sparkly bow around it trust me you wouldn't be disappointed. My only question remains will Amanda's next release be from the No Greater Love or No Greater Courage series or does she plan to take her readers in a whole new direction. I'll guess we'll have to hang in there until 2016 to find out.

I'd like to thank Julia at Midas PR for sending us an ecopy of The Christmas Cafe for Emma to review.

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