Thursday, 1 September 2016

Emma's Review: Late Summer in the Vineyard by Jo Thomas

Reviewed by Emma Crowley

Emmy Bridges has always looked out for others. Now it's time to put down roots of her own.

Working for a wine-maker in France is the opportunity of a lifetime for Emmy. Even if she doesn't know a thing about wine - beyond what's on offer at the local supermarket.

There's plenty to get to grips with in the rustic town of Petit Frère. Emmy's new work friends need more than a little winning over. Then there's her infuriatingly brash tutor, Isaac, and the enigmatic Madame Beaumont, tucked away in her vineyard of secrets.

But Emmy will soon realise that in life - just as in wine-making - the best things happen when you let go and trust your instincts. Particularly when there's romance in the air...

Amazon links: Kindle or Paperback

Jo Thomas’s third book Late Summer in the Vineyard is in my opinion her best yet and that’s saying something considering I adored her previous two books. Jo is a natural born storyteller who has such a way with words that you feel as if you are transported to whatever setting she is writing about and that you have known the characters all your life. Whether you have been to that area before or not as in my case by the end of the book you feel like you have taken a holiday in France or Italy and along the way made some really good friends in the characters she has written about. In the notes at the beginning of the book Jo acknowledges she has a deep love for France, right from all the times she was taken there as a child on summer holidays to the days now spends there on writer’s retreats at her friends house. This love is so evident throughout the whole book and she has done such a service to the French countryside and the vineyards that if I had the money I’d love to go and tour the vineyards sampling plenty of wine. 

It’s not just the setting that comes alive here but the characters too as they grow and mature throughout the book and are a vastly different set of people from the foursome that arrive in France from a call centre on a three month training course to where their journey takes them on a personal and professional level. It’s the opportunity of a lifetime and for our main female protagonist Emmy life alters in more ways than she can imagine and what a joy it was to read of a woman gaining strength, courage and confidence and emerging from her shell and all the time using her ‘intuition’ as inspired by Madame Beaumont. Admittedly the book was a slight slow burner for me but I think that was more to do with the mood I was in when I began reading it. The further I got into the story I felt it really picked up and I became so immersed in all the twists and turns and above all the feelings come through of love, friendship, family, togetherness and above all else the motto of never giving up and always trust your inner voice that instinct that is spurring you on to reach your ultimate goal.

Emmy Bridges is 35 and when we first meet her she is arriving home to the house she shares with her father. There are strange noises coming from the house and she is all prepared to confront robbers but this is not the case and Emmy soon discovers she is in a totally different situation. One which she had been oblivious too and she now realises they are in major debt and at risk of losing their house. Emmy is the one keeping this family unit together for as long as she can remember she has put her own personal life on the backburner and everyone else takes priority and this is just another example of where her dreams take a backseat for another few years at least as she must try and find the money to pay off the debts. Her father has been in a daze of sorts and retreated from the world since they lost their mother 16 years ago so it’s Emmy’s job to hold the fort. Her sister Jody has made no contact in four years which Emmy is deeply upset about. Why should she be left to shoulder the burden when her sister is leading the happy family life that Emmy aspires too? But that’s Emmy all over and throughout the book everyone she meets be it close family members, work colleagues or residents of the French village she travels to their needs and problems are sorted first before Emmy even considers herself. The problem is the troubles never seem to end and time for Emmy for her own self and well being is few and far between. An incident with a collection for the office at the call centre where she works leads to Emmy’s final chance or else she is out on her ear. Emmy is desperate she needs the job and the small income it provides to keep the wolf from the door and so she finds herself on a twelve week training course to become part of  the expert sales team on wine for Featherstone’s. At the end of the period someone will be picked as team leader and receive a bonus. Emmy desperately needs this but she is awful at sales and sees no way of winning when in competition with Nick, Gloria and Candy? But as the weeks pass by it becomes less about the call centre and the job of team leader and more about the development of friendships, the healing of families and helping an old lady through a rough patch in her life.

Once the main storyline got going in France I was caught up in everything and spent an enjoyable few hours immersed in all things French and the whole wine making process. Jo Thomas always nails descriptions of whatever place she is writing about and from the moment the group step on to the market square I had clear, vivid pictures in my head of the market stalls, the restaurants, the boulangerie and the surrounding countryside full of endless rows of vines and fields of sunflowers. It all seemed so picture perfect and just an idyllic way of life which many people can only dream of but never realise or see a plan come to fruition. I did think would the story just be about Emmy and co learning about the wine process on the course and then we would see who was victorious in the end but with the introduction of the cold and aloof Madame Beaumont a whole new slant took place and brought the book to another level and made for very interesting reading and the perfect character development for Emmy. She was presented with the challenge she needed, to give her that extra boost in life, almost like that kick she didn't realise she wanted to step out of the shadows and into the spotlight. OK so I did think when we first met her and maybe for a good half of the book that she really was all over the place and rushed from one thing to another taking on the weight of the world on her shoulders but yet she did always have good intentions at her heart and she did face her problems instead of burying her head in the sand. Little did Emmy think when she returned a purse left behind by Madame Beaumont  (a woman who is shunned by the villagers) in the village square that her life would be turned upside down and the call centre would be placed firmly to the back of her mind.

The relationship that developed between Emmy and Madame Beaumont was so encouraging and positive to read about. In a way for Emmy it replaced the gaping hole left behind by her mother. I loved how she was able to get behind that cold exterior Madame had built up (for good reason as we discover) and it allowed for a deep friendship to develop.Madame lets down her barriers slowly but surely and Emmy learn lots about grapes and vines and the wine making process. There was a danger this aspect of the story could have become far too technical and weighed down in wine terminology and therefore the reader would have become confused and the lovely flow to the story would have been lost. But thankfully this wasn't the case instead the information provided proved interesting and only added to the overall story as Emmy faces a challenge that will either make or break her and someone she has grown to call a true friend. Emmy proved deep down what a gutsy person she was taking on so much, that when push comes to shove she was a person who could always be relied upon. Yes there were plenty of scrapes that she got herself into but it all added some humour to the story as it wouldn't have been as enjoyable if everything was all plain sailing. I have to say there was a certain scene with Henri the horse that was so poignant and moving and was written to absolute perfection that even the coldest of hearts would have a tear in their eye. 

So a book of this nature needs some romance right? Well it certainly has that but again like with the technical terms mentioned above it wasn't too in your face and gelled well with the overall storyline. Charlie, manager of Featherstone's Wines, and Issac who travels wherever the smell of wine takes him creating new blends provide the romantic element here. For most of the book Jo Thomas had me fooled and I never quite knew if romance would blossom and with who but I was deeply satisfied with the eventual outcome. As for the fellow participants on Emmy's course they proved their worth too they didn't dominate but stepped in when needed and they too all underwent remarkable transformations. 

Late Summer in the Vineyard right until the last few moments provided plenty of twists and turns that left thr reader guessing and on their toes.It was an uplifting, warm, beautifully crafted read which will earn her many new fans and please fans of old. It has been one of my book highlights of the Summer and cemented Jo Thomas as one of my favourite authors whose books I will always look forward to. I'm sad I have left Emmy and co behind have spotted a gorgeous cover on Amazon entitled Notes from the Northern Lights, a short story, coming from Jo in December so not too long to wait for my next fix of this wonderful author.

I'd like to thank Frances at Headline for sending me a copy of Late Summer in the Vineyard to review and Emma for her fantastic review.

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