Friday, 29 April 2016

Emma's Review: Summer at the Comfort Food Cafe by Debbie Johnson

Reviewed by Emma Crowley

The Comfort Food Cafe is perched on a windswept clifftop at what feels like the edge of the world, serving up the most delicious cream teas; beautifully baked breads, and carefully crafted cupcakes. For tourists and locals alike, the ramshackle cafe overlooking the beach is a beacon of laughter, companionship, and security – a place like no other; a place that offers friendship as a daily special, and where a hearty welcome is always on the menu.

For widowed mum-of-two Laura Walker, the decision to uproot her teenaged children and make the trek from Manchester to Dorset for the summer isn’t one she takes lightly, and it’s certainly not winning her any awards from her kids, Nate and Lizzie. Even her own parents think she’s gone mad.

But following the death of her beloved husband David two years earlier, Laura knows that it’s time to move on. To find a way to live without him, instead of just surviving. To find her new place in the world, and to fill the gap that he’s left in all their lives.

Her new job at the cafe, and the hilarious people she meets there, give Laura the chance she needs to make new friends; to learn to be herself again, and – just possibly – to learn to love again as well.

For her, the Comfort Food Cafe doesn’t just serve food – it serves a second chance to live her life to the full…

Amazon links: Kindle or Paperback

Last year I discovered Debbie Johnson's writing and read and reviewed Pippa's Cornish Dream which I really enjoyed as it was a light hearted, quick, feel good read. But now along has come Summer at the Comfort Food Café and just completely blown the previous book I had read out of the water. From start to finish this was a truly gorgeous book, a real tonic that truly struck a chord with me. Anyone I know who has read it feels the same, it is just such a brilliant book. Everything is spot on with not one complaint to be made from me. My only quibble may be that it ended far too soon as I was so absorbed in the story of the special café perched high on the hilltop in Budbury, a place which offers solace and comfort and heals those who may have been through a rough time or need that little extra bit of help. It may sound silly saying that about a café but the setting and the people who work there and live in the surrounding area just have that magic touch and Debbie Johnson has made them come alive through her wonderful writing. The characters become so real and approachable almost like you know them in real life and could drop in for a chat and something delicious to eat in the café at any time and someone would be there to lend an ear or offer comfort. The cover for this book has to be one of the best I have seen in recent months, yu really just want to dive straight into that ice cream and indulge. In fact after finishing this story you'll just want to move to Budbury full stop.

Summer at the Comfort Food Café opens with an advertisement from café owner Cherie Moon she is looking for a chef for the six week summer season to come work and live in Budbury. The pay is poor but there is free use of a luxurious cottage. The person selected must be friendly and get on well with people. Laura Walker lives in Manchester with her two children Lizzie 14 and Nate 12. Her life since the death of her beloved husband David at just 33 has come to an abrupt halt and she is just existing not living. They had barely had time together to do everything they wanted to let alone continue to fill the family photo albums of the wonderful holidays they took and of all the fun things they did together. Laura is drowning in her grief and has become a zombie mum to her children just going through the daily motions for their sakes when really she would rather be tucked up under the covers grieving with David's old dressing gown at hand for comfort. When Laura sees the ad from Cherie a tiny spark is ignited and she knows she has an extremely long road ahead of her to get back to the person she once was but for the sake of her kids and the family's overall future she takes the bull by the horns and successfully applies for the job. Soon the trio along with Jimbo the loveable family dog find themselves on the way to Budbury for six weeks which will either make or break them. Lizzie is a typical teenager not willing to leave behind her friends and spends most of the time documenting everything pictorially through Instagram - the good times and bad and the plentiful comic moments which were such an added bonus to the overall plot. 

Laura's grief, pain, hurt and anger just radiates from the pages and it hit me straight in the heart and I must admit to shedding a tear or two which I normally never would. I'm not saying the book is doom and gloom far from it but the writing and explanations of Laura's mindset were superb and real. 'I was with David for so long, most of my life that my entire identity was wrapped up with him. I've never been on my own - I've always been with him. I've never just been Laura'. Right from their arrival in Budbury when they bump into vet Matt fresh out of the pool with just a towel wrapped around him the action never lets up. Laura begins work in the café with Cherie and starts to learn the history of the place and all the quirks and stories associated with its regular customers who have special orders that have remained unchanged for some time. Laura feels out of place, tired and alone but you sense that Cherie and co are unique and can work their magic and make someone feel wanted as the welcoming atmosphere permeates the whole area. 

The location of the café high on the hilltop was beautifully described with it's doggy pen outside and customers enjoying the sunshine and good food. 'It had the look of a building that had been expanding to suit varying purposes over the years, growing organically further and further along it's cliff top location'. The café had the most brilliant, inviting name and such a vibrant atmosphere. The descriptions of the food and drink were mouthwatering and tantalising that I desperately wanted to be a customer. Cherie was a real character, a mother hen figure, who looked out for everybody else particularly Frank the elderly farmer mourning his wife. He was putting on a front but not able to admit just how lonely he was. Cherie herself had a back story which was nicely slotted in as did many other characters. All the mini sub-plots were apt and never took away from Laura and her journey to healing, happiness and fulfillment. I think this quote couldn't sum up the whole concept and themes of the café and its customers and owner any better. 'By the time she lets me go, I am feeling much better not only about my potential employment prospects but about life, the universe and everything. Possibly I think I have inhaled something my system is not quite used to, which seems to have imbued me with a sense of warmth and well being'.

The whole book just had such a positive tone and message to it. You felt no matter your troubles they would be solved and made to disappear. Laura is someone who had the rug taken from underneath her and her life turned upside down with something she thought would never have happened for years and years at least. Now as she grows in confidence and gains a deeper understanding of just how people can help you come to terms with anything. We see her take tentative steps at first and then begin to flourish. Laura blossoms before our eyes as she herself becomes one of the locals as do Lizzie and Nate who immerse themselves in the local teenage culture. What starts as a six week working holiday turns into something an awful lot more as life lessons are learned and a deeper understanding reached coupled with plenty of comedic moments which balanced nicely alongside the more serious issues being explored. 

There is a real depth and emotion that on looking at the cover you wouldn't believe you could find when you first see the delectable ice-cream. The characters had such substance to them which you don't often find in books like this. Debbie Johnson didn't just scratch the surface she really got inside their hearts, minds and souls to create a cast of people who I could identify with and be there with them for every step of their journey. All good books in this genre have to feature a romance element and it was to be found here but done so in the most simplest ways so that it was not the main focus but rather a background story that grew just as Laura's confidence did too. Through making new friends Laura grew stronger and more able to deal with the present and future and not linger in the past so much. I thought this was the most beautiful emotive description of a fledging relationship and really did hope Laura could find happiness once again. ' Something delicate that is trying to grow and bud'.

Debbie Johnson mentioned in the end notes how she wanted to create a place where people felt safe, valued and content. She certainly did that with The Comfort Food Café and provided a story which was captivating and sparkling. There are plenty of little stories ongoing but to mention any more about the book would ruin them. Suffice to say this is one book that should be on every reading list this summer. I was really impressed with the entire story and would love a return visit to the café to see how things are going now and how everything continued to pan out for certain characters. It truly is a place that will stay with me for a while as it proved to be an uplifting, sweet, cosy read that I just wanted to go on and on. There is a lesson and also advice here for everybody to take on board. I can see what the author wanted to achieve with writing this book and she did so with great success. It was clear Debbie enjoyed writing this book as it's strong and believable and that's what a good book should be. Buy this book straight away and bump it to the top of your reading lists pronto it should not be missed.

Many thanks to Harper Impulse for a copy of this book to review and to Sharon for having my review on the blog.

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