Thursday, 18 August 2016

Food & Drink Month Review: Secrets at Maple Syrup Farm by Rebecca Raisin

Reviewed by Emma Crowley

Maple sugar kisses

Lucy would do anything for her mom…but she never expected to end up promising to leave her. After her mom got sick, Lucy dropped everything to take care of her, working all hours in a greasy diner just to make ends meet and spending every spare moments she had by her mom’s hospital bedside.

Now, Lucy is faced with a whole year of living by her own rules, starting by taking the first bus out of town to anywhere…

Except she didn’t expect to find her next big adventure just around the corner! Especially when on her first day in town she bumps into grumpy, but oh-so-delicious Clay amidst the maple trees. Surrounded by the magic of Ashford, Lucy has the chance to change her life forever and finally discover a life she wants to live!

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Secrets at Maple Syrup Farm is the first book I have read from an author who I know is hugely popular and one whom I have heard nothing but good things about. As I am new to the writing of Rebecca Raisin I was keen to discover would she live up to all the hype and the expectations I had before beginning this book? The title slotted in perfectly with Food and Drink month and there were endless tasty descriptions of treats baked and cooked in the Gingerbread Café not to mention all the delicious meals that could be made using  the maple syrup as mentioned in the title. 

The book takes the readers back to a setting and characters that have featured in Rebecca's previous books but I was assured that this story could be read as a stand alone. After finishing the book on reflection I did think it could be read without reading the previous books in the series but always at the back of my mind was this feeling that I was slightly missing out on what had gone before. It was very easy to guess which characters had featured before and to fill in the gaps in their back stories but still that niggling feeling never really left me but I think that was more to do with the fact that I sensed I had missed out on some very special stories and characters. Apart from this issue which was purely my own fault I thoroughly enjoyed my introduction to the writing of Rebecca Raisin and flew through this book in two sittings. She has nailed the setting in Ashford and the characters all have such great depth to them that you feel you really get inside their heads and understand how they feel and the ways in which they act.
Our main female protagonist is 28 year old Lucy who lives in Detroit with her mother. She works as many shifts as possible in a run down diner to earn enough to pay the bills and care for her mother Crystal who has a long term illness. We don't discover the exact nature of the illness until near the end of the book but it was very apt considering the attention said illness gained on social media a year or two ago. Right from the outset I identified with Lucy and wished nothing but the best for her. She was kind, caring and would do anything to make life as easy for her mother as possible sacrificing her own personal needs and ambitions. Their lives had been spent on the road wandering from place to place, broadening their horizons and experiencing all the world had to offer but that life was curtailed once Crystal fell ill. 

Crystal was a very selfless person and the reader could see the deep love she had for her daughter. She wanted Lucy to continue to spread her wings and indulge her love of art and painting and not be curtailed by having to be by her mother's side all the time. Crystal presents Lucy with a challenge – go away for a year, travel and live your life, take time for yourself and apply for the Van Gough Institute in Paris at the end of the time and hopefully she would get in. Of course this all comes out of the blue for Lucy and she is torn in two. How can she leave her mother in the hands of an Aunt who until now has been estranged and wanted nothing to do with them? Travelling has always been with her mum, they were a pair, a unit with an unbreakable bond. How can she venture out solo into the unknown? Well if Lucy hadn't we wouldn't have had any story to read so I am glad she did even though it must have been gut wrenching leaving behind her mother with her being so ill? But truly Crystal was a wise woman and knew her plan needed to be acted upon. 'Goodbyes... surely are difficult. But sometimes you gotta take the plunge.Life is for living'.

Right from the moment Lucy arrives In Ashford the community spirit and the themes of friendship shone from the novel. Warmth was evident from the beginning of the book but it grew in its intensity throughout as the feel good factor got bigger and bigger as Lucy settled into life in a small town where every one knows everyone else’s business but at the same time never intrudes unless someone is willing to open up. There were lots of characters introduced but I had no trouble figuring out who was who and what may have happened to them before. I loved CeeCee and Lil from the Gingerbread Café who became confidants of Lucy's as she takes on work at the maple syrup farm inherited by loner Clay. The women were like mother hens looking after Lucy and teaching her to bake in the early mornings. They weren't fussy or overpowering instead they were wise and knew when to offer advice or else just to step back and let nature take it's course. They became the mother figure Lucy needed in the absence of her own as Lucy battled both with Clay and her own internal emotions that she was finding hard to let go off and to just enjoy and live in the moment. 'Maybe it was time for me to stop worrying about anything other than living in the moment. I was missing out on so much, standing on the edge of life waiting for something that might never happen'. Rose from Begonia B n'B and Becca from the salon were also nice additions too.

Of course every book of this nature needs a leading man and in this case we have Clay who keeps himself to himself out on the maple syrup farm trying to renovate it and bring the farm up to scratch. He purposely keeps away from everybody else and despite Ashford being so small he hasn't integrated into the community in the way Lucy so quickly did. As Lucy needed work badly she was brave enough to ask Clay and although they don't have the smoothest of starts she is determined and keeps going and slogs away on the farm whilst at the same time wanting to know more about him. Clay was a closed book, he came across as arrogant and a person who only spoke when he needed to. He had built a tough exterior around himself and no one was going to pull that wall down. But I think he was so impressed by the determination and tenacity shown by Lucy that a chink began ever so slowly to appear in his armour. I felt from the beginning with Clay it was all an act and that deep down he wanted love and someone he could talk to and explain all his problems and worries. I had a sneaking suspicion as to what could have caused him to appear the way he does for the majority of the book but I was only partly correct. Both Lucy and Clay had their weaknesses and faults but they seemed to be a pair that once barriers could be broken down and misunderstandings resolved they could potentially be very happy together. It was lovely to witness Clay open up and become less cold hearted and himself and Lucy looked like they would be really good for each other. But nothing ever runs smoothly and I enjoyed reading of the ups and downs they experienced both personally and professionally in terms of making the maple syrup harvest a success. The town and its residents showed just how special they were and how coming together and working as one can benefit many.

Lucy was a character who needed to gain more confidence in herself and to also learn to put herself first and it was enjoyable to see her growth and development throughout the book. As I mentioned previously I felt I would have loved this story even more if I had read the series from the beginning. I caught glimpses as to why people rave about the setting and the characters. I can compare it to my love for Alex Brown's Tindledale series and with time I know I would feel the same about Ashford. Rebecca Raisin is a very talented author, there were numerous lines that would make you stop and think or nod your head in agreement. She goes beyond the basic storyline and showcases her characters traits to perfection and in Lucy, CeeCee and co has created instantly likeable characters who you wish you could call your friends in real life.

I was beginning to wonder where the secrets as mentioned in the title would come into play but it was nicely done by the author and slotted in well to the overall plot of the story. It provided some tension and created questions but yet never detracted from the emotional side of things and I liked its resolution. Secrets at Maple Syrup Farm was a lovely introduction to the writing of Rebecca Raisin and I'm ashamed I left it so long to wait and read a book by her. Already there is news of a new series just in time for Christmas – Cedarwood Lodge - with three stories for us to enjoy. I'll make sure they are on my Christmas reading list this year. Meanwhile do enjoy your trip to Ashford and try not to drool as you read of all things maple syrup.

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