Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Emma's Guest Review: Bella's Christmas Bake Off

Reviewed by Emma Crowley

Bella Bradley is the queen of television baking – a national treasure. Her Christmas specials have been topping the ratings for years and her marriage to Peter ‘Silver Fox’ Bradley is the stuff of Hello magazine specials. 

But this year things are going to be different. 

For Amy Lane, Bella’s best friend from school, life hasn’t held quite the same sparkle. And when Amy’s husband walks out three weeks from Christmas, it seems their lives are further apart than ever. 

Amy has watched Bella’s rise to fame fondly, despite the fact Bella was always a terrible cook. But when she realises that Bella’s latest Christmas book is made up entirely of Amy’s mother’s recipes, the gloves are off… 

After winning a competition to appear on Bella’s TV show, Amy is going to make sure that for Bella and her viewers, this will definitely be a Christmas to remember… 

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Sue Watson is back with her Christmas release for this year - Bella's Christmas Bake Off and it does not disappoint. I had only read one of Sue's books previous to this, last years offering Snow Angels, Secrets and Christmas Cake which was really enjoyable so I was hoping for more of the same - humour, laugh out loud moments and a festive storyline and that is what I got with this new book. You've got to love an author who dedicates her book to her readers recognising though we may come in all shapes and sizes we are all still funny, kind and beautiful. The title for this new story is brilliant as it conjures up images of Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry and their brilliant programme which we all enjoy. The contents page had me laughing as the chapter headings are hilarious and that's without having read a word of the story. Normally I don't bother reading the contents but these ingenious headings caught my eye and from then on I knew I was in for a fun festive read.

Amy Lane has been married for over 20 years to Neil. Her twins have grown up and left for university so the house feels particularly empty but it's nearing Christmas and Amy is looking forward to the holidays and a break from her job as a maths teacher. Whilst icing the annual Christmas cake Neil arrives home and drops a bombshell, he is leaving her for another woman and to be very clichéd about it, it's a woman from the office he works in who has a pole in her house for dancing! Needless to say said Christmas cake does not survive although I would have preferred it to find a better target then where it ended up. Yes the relationship had been hanging by a thread for several years but still the end of anything is life altering and upsetting. I thought this was a brilliant description of how everything changed for Amy. 'In less than thirty minutes my life had melted like snow in hot hands'. 

It really doesn't help that Amy's former friend Bella is on her famous TV programme in the background amidst this jaw dropping news. Bella has the dream lifestyle, a successful cookery programme, a hunky news correspondent for a husband and the most picture perfect house you could wish for. Amy and Bella had been best friends growing up sharing all their secrets and hopes and dreams for the future. Amy's mum had been like a mother to Bella letting her stay at the house when needed and sharing her love of cooking which obviously inspired Bella to reach the dizzying heights of fame her cookery show has brought her. So what exactly went wrong between the two women and why has the estrangement lasted so long? Amy still sends Christmas cards with a recipe enclosed every year but sadly gets no response. I really wanted to know what had happened between the pair to cause such hatred on Bella's part. The author had built up such a picture of happiness and loyal friendship that I couldn't understand what could tear them apart so much that they wouldn't attempt a reconciliation at some stage. Was this going to come about and if so how would the author go about it?

As I have mentioned Amy is a maths teacher and I have to say the scenes set in the school were excellent and had me giggling away at some of the antics of the students not to mention Amy's friend and vice principal Sylvia. Sylvia really was a tonic and the book wouldn’t have been the same without her. So just how do Bella and Amy come to meet again? Well soon Amy realises Bella is presenting some what of a front to her legions of fans, the recipes she uses for the Christmas edition of her cookery show are not hers but in fact Amy's mum's.These are the recipes which Amy has been sending Bella for years. I thought what an absolute cheek, Amy had been using the card and recipes as a peace offering and a way to reconnect with Bella yet she has been deceived and used. So Amy bites the bullet and enters Bella's competition to win Christmas a la Bella. Surprise surprise Amy wins and from here on the storyline really picked up pace as the author brought us to the heart and soul of the matter with plenty of exposes along the way. Amy hopes instead of Bella cooking for her as part of the prize on Christmas Day maybe she will cook for the people who use the local hostel St. Swithin's where herself and Sylvia volunteer after all it's the people who have the least who deserve the most Christmas cheer brought into their lives.

Amy really just wants to see Bella to make her realise what she has done to her and her mother's memory. When she arrives at Bella's palatial home - Dovecote to partake in filming she begins to realise maybe the glamour and indulgence is all just a façade and hiding behind Bella's TV persona is someone who is a lot different than the outside suggests. The descriptions of Dovecote and all its wonderful, glitzy décor were fantastic, not to mention all the food Bella is preparing turkeys, hams, puddings etc. To be honest it was a feast and truly mouthwatering and made me very hungry for some festive food. Admittedly I did feel the scenes in the house went on too long and were drawn out. I understand this was where the revelations would take place and it was done to give us a sense of the life Bella had or maybe endured? 

The reader did get an insight into the world of TV with the make up artists and camera men (one of whom added a dash of romance which to be honest was not needed as the book was more focused on Amy and Bella's relationship or lack of) and the tricks of the cookery trade but it all just felt a bit too much and a change of location would have helped. The scenes just seemed stretched that bit much even if they did go a long way in explaining the reasons behind Bella's cutting off of Amy. I did guess a twist midway through with someone but I thought it was a nice and essential addition to the plot. The big reveal wasn't overly surprising but did explain an awful lot. 

When Bella and Amy first meet again there were fantastic scenes where they really sparred off each other and had me laughing at their antics. It all come together nicely in the end even if it did lose track a bit in the middle. This book  reminded me to never judge a book by its cover that people may present themselves a certain way but deep down there could be an awful lot going on. Give people more time and listen to what they have to say and wait for when the time is right and they are willing to offload and share their challenges and worries. Most important of all no matter what happens and how long you may be apart friends are so vital and will always be there for you through thick and thin despite what may happen to challenge the deep bonds of friendship.

Bella's Christmas Bake Off is a novel where Christmas spirit, forgiveness ,friendship, love and togetherness shine through to help the characters get past their secrets and hurts and embrace and enjoy the hear and now. It's full of important messages but dealt with in a fun and enjoyable way. Bella's TV programme and supposed idyllic lifestyle are way over the top but I suppose the author had to present Bella this way in order for Amy to scratch beneath the surface and pull back the layers to uncover the truth. There's a lot more in this read than what you would expect at first and I'm glad Sue Watson hasn't let her readers forget about those who need a helping hand at Christmas especially as people over indulge and overspend. St Swithin's  and the people who use it was a vital element to the story without which we wouldn't have seen the magic of Christmas work do its job  on the characters. 

This book is perfect for one of those Winter's afternoons in December when it's dark and the wind and rain can be heard outside. Sit down light the fire and grab a box of chocolates or a cake or two and enjoy this wonderful, witty engaging read. Trust me you won't notice the hours fly by.

Many thanks to Bookouture for my copy of Bella's Christmas Bake Off to review via NetGalley and to Sharon for having my review on the blog.

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