Thursday, 20 October 2016

Emma's Review: Christmas at Little Beach Street Bakery by Jenny Colgan

Reviewed by Emma Crowley

It's Christmas in the Cornish coastal village of Mount Polbearne - a time for family, friends and feasting.

Polly Waterford loves running the Little Beach Street Bakery. She's at her happiest when she's creating delicious, doughy treats and the festive season always inspires her to bake and knead something extra special for the village residents. In fact, the only thing she loves more than her bakery is curling up with her gorgeous boyfriend, Huckle. She's determined that this Christmas is going to be their best one yet, but life doesn't always work out as planned...

When Polly's best friend Kerensa turns up with a secret that threatens the life Polly and Huckle have built together, the future begins to look uncertain. And then a face from Polly's past reappears and things become even more complicated. Polly can usually find solace in baking but she has a feeling that's not going to be enough this time. Can she get things back on track so that everyone has a merry Christmas?

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Jenny Colgan has said in her introductory pages to Christmas at Little Beach Street Bakery that this is probably the last in the series featuring the special little bakery on a small island. Despite my love for these books I had wondered maybe was she stretching it a bit as I felt the last of the books in the Rosie Hopkins series just felt out of place and was written for the sake of it and it was quite dragged out. Having said all that, Mount Polbearne the tiny island setting linked to the mainland by a causeway that appears and disappears with the tide is the perfect location to return to in the run to Christmas. It feels like forever since we were last with Polly Waterford as she continues to enjoy running her little island bakery even if her financial situation may not be the best. The bakery sells all manner of delectable breads and delicacies and throughout the book your mouth will be watering at the descriptions. Yet the bakery is not the sole focus of this story as other events in the characters lives come to the fore. I wondered whether Polly and her American boyfriend Huckle were still revelling in their life at the lighthouse or is there more to come just around the corner as Christmas approaches? After all as enjoyable as Christmas can be a very testing time for many people.

Of course this book wouldn't be the same without the cute, mischievous puffin Neil who has been a constant companion to Polly since she first arrived on the island after her business and relationship went down the plughole. Neil has endeared himself to so many readers (myself included) that now he even has his own children’s book. It may sound ridiculous to rave about an animal in a book let alone a puffin but Jenny Colgan has weaved some magic and the series wouldn't be the same without the inclusion of Neil. Thankfully he is still alive and well and he appears throughout the book at the most apt time that just makes you go awww. He provides plenty of humour and laugh out loud moments but also solace, comfort and warmth when Polly needs it the most. He is so intuitive. Basically this series for me so far has been a pure joy to read and gives me all those feel good feelings that I have come to expect from this genre. Jenny has said 'If I can convey even a fraction of the happiness Cornwall has brought to me in my life through my books - well I'd be absolutely delighted'. Well she certainly did that for me and I have never even been to Cornwall. 

The story begins in the springtime and takes us back to a night when Kerensa, a friend of Polly's who is married to Huckle's friend Reuben, goes on a night out and it results in some surprises. This surprise will only make itself known much later on but will be a very important aspect of the book. We then move forward to the period five weeks before Christmas and from then on it was like there had never been a significant gap at all since I read about these characters. It was simply revisiting and catching up with old friends. Life is still challenging for the residents of the island as there are many inconveniences living on a tidal island. Polly is worried the way of life mightn't last for much longer but there are plans afoot to inject more life in to the island and to reopen the school if possible. Polly wants to 'keep alive their little corner of the world, with its inconvenient access, winding roads, inclement weather, terrible broadband and lack of home delivery service'. Polly seemed to be very happy with her life. She is engaged to Huckle and thrives on her baking even if the early mornings can be a killer. Life in the lighthouse is very cold and expensive but she wouldn't have it any other way, well except for a huge cash flow injection. The only problem with Polly was she wasn't willing to take the next step and actually marry Huckle. This became one of the plots of the book and truthfully I found Polly's indecision very frustrating. It was clear she loved Huckle from the bottom of her heart and they had weathered many testing times together so why couldn't she cement their relationship? I know some people are happy to go through life the way they are but this pair seemed destined for long term marriage, babies and happiness so why the delay in committing? 'Polly loved him so much she thought her heart would explode, she was terrified by how much she loved him. It was just everything that came next scared the life out of her'. I can see she was torn in two but I felt Huckle had such love for her and he just wanted to strengthen their bond and relationship even further. I thought Polly's actions  towards Huckle made him become distant at times and we never really got inside Huckle's head and to hear his viewpoint until a bit too late in the book for my liking. 

Polly is a person who always puts everyone else before herself as she has done for the last two books and knowing this would be the last time I read about these characters I wanted her to put her own well being first and foremost but this wasn't the case. She works herself to the bone and worries about everybody else that her own personal problems are put on the back burner. This really was an avoidance tactic on her part and it made me wonder just what was she so fearful of that she couldn't face up to what she really wanted. I felt if she continued like that she would only push people away. It was interesting to see how Jenny would let this aspect of the story play out and when it finally came to the forefront it was surprising but made complete sense. Despite my minor issues with the way Polly was handling her personal life no one could complain that she wasn't there for her friends and the residents of the island especially Kerensa who is faced with a tricky, life changing situation. Kerensa is married to Reuben and I hate saying this but he really is the worst character but I think no reader is supposed to thoroughly enjoy him and that's the way he was written. He is rich beyond your wildest dreams thanks to success with a company he established. Reuben seems to think throwing money at any problem is the quick fix solution. He is loud, overbearing and  god the way he spoke to Kerensa was just rude and horrible. It was OTT to the extreme. I'm not saying they didn't love each other but he really was too much for my liking and he put unbearable pressure on Kerensa despite the fact her mind was in turmoil over what was unfolding.

As I have said this story was like reuniting with old friends and I enjoyed seeing how Jayden - Polly's assistant in the bakery was getting on and even Serena who lived in the flat above the bakery was having success with her jewellery business. Even the puffin sanctuary got a mention, it was like Jenny knew she had loose ends to tie up but it was never contrived or rushed but slipped in nicely. Often I find in books the tying up is rushed and thrown in towards the end of the book instead this story had such a lovely flow to it and there was even greater character development than in the previous two books. I didn't mind in the slightest that the bakery wasn't the sole focus as this had had its time and now the characters had stories and problems that needed to be shared. We gained deeper insights into certain characters back stories and an awful lot became more clear and made me re-evaluate what I had thought about certain people. My earlier question as to whether a third book may be stretching things was quickly quashed as I became ever more involved in what was going on and I hoped that everyone involved would find the happy ending they so deserved. I'm not saying this book was serious the entire time, it wasn't, it struck a nice balance and it is light women's fiction and looking at the cover one wouldn't wanted something overly deep.

I adored Christmas at  Little Beach Street Bakery from start to finish, I savoured every page as I knew I wouldn't encounter these wonderful characters again. You can tell Jenny enjoyed writing this story as much as I did reading it as the characters, settings and events come alive on the page. You'll devour this excellent read in one sitting curled up on the couch on a cold winters day. Readers need have no worries if they haven't read the previous two books as all the backstory is neatly filled in although it would complement your reading nicely when finished this festive treat by discovering just how Polly came to live in Mount Polbearne and establishing the bakery by looking out for books one and two. This was a sweet, cosy, uplifting read based around Christmas time and only reaffirmed why I love these characters and series so much. I am sad to see them go but I believe the ending was just perfect and it had such a beautiful twist. February 2017 sees the publication of The Summer Seaside Kitchen and I can't wait to see where Jenny will take us next.

Many thanks to Little Brown UK via NetGalley for my copy of Christmas at the Little Beach Street Bakery to review and to Sharon for having my review on the blog.

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