Friday, 9 March 2018

Emma's Review: Wartime Brides and Wedding Cakes by Amy Miller

Reviewed by Emma Crowley

January, 1941: As Charlie Barton tiptoes silently out of the house one cold winter morning to go off and fight for his country, his wife Audrey is left to run the family bakery on her own.

Times are tougher than ever, but at the Barton Bakery in Bournemouth, Audrey is determined as always to serve the town with love, loaves and cakes, even as the town is reeling from the struggles of the Blitz. 

Audrey’s brother William has returned from battle with serious wounds. His fiancĂ© Elsie is waiting for wedding bells, but William is a changed man, and will her hopes be in vain? 

Bakery helper Maggie has her heart set on dashing officer George. But will George still want to marry her when he discovers the truth about her family? 

And Lily, Audrey’s stepsister, is struggling to raise her illegitimate baby and facing judgement from many in the town. The man who broke her heart returns with an offer, and Lily faces a hard decision about where her future lies. 

When disaster strikes the bakery, Audrey fears that everything she has worked for may be ruined. With her shop threatened and her family in turmoil, can she fight to save everything she holds dear? 

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Many thanks to Bookouture via NetGalley for my copy of Wartime Brides and Wedding Cakes to review and to Sharon for having my review on the blog.

Right from the opening page as Charlie Barton, without even uttering a goodbye, walks away from the bakery on Fisherman's Road in East Bournemouth 'quietly slipping from one life to another' in the dead of night to fulfil the decision he made to sign up for the army during World War Two, I was instantly drawn back into the lives of the Barton family and all their extended friends. It seems like no time at all since I had read book one in the series, Heartaches and Christmas Cakes, and I am glad this was the case as I thoroughly enjoyed my first meeting with the Audrey and co. So I was delighted Amy Miller did not keep eager readers waiting too long for the next instalment Wartime Brides and Wedding Cakes as all these characters had really found a place in my heart.

Combined with the fact there were good solid storylines in book one, and that something different as in the bakery is featured, I found this series to be new and fresh given how many wartime saga books are published every year. The story picks up a little bit from where we left off and we reunite with Audrey at a time when peoples lives are in constant peril. Calamity abounds across the country with the threat of daily air raids, food rations are in firm place and families are worried for their loved ones fighting abroad. But one thing is for sure Audrey Barton will keep her bakery running and do the utmost she can for everyone in her community. She is a shining ray of light, a beacon of hope in a very dark time.

Audrey is one of the best female characters I have read about in a long time in a book of this genre. She is a tower of strength for everybody, a stalwart in the community and the rock that members of her family and friends always turn to when things get even tougher. She is all things to all people, full of simple kindness and common humanity. Her main goal is in 'offering everybody comfort and sustenance in an uncertain tense and dangerous time. She would never let her customers down'. Despite having her life turned upset down I felt nothing but admiration for Audrey because she never gave up even when the worst thing happened to the bakery. She was cheerful and resilient and I suppose one had to be in times of war otherwise you could go down a very dark and dangerous road of which there might not be any return.

Life won't be the same at the bakery now that Charlie has gone away. I did think how selfish was he to abandon his family given that a baker was a reserved occupation and he was not needed to sign up. He seemed so clueless that his family and members of the community depended on him to keep the ovens going and the bread made but still he went ahead with his plan. On further reflection, I think Audrey deeply understood him and she came to know that Charlie was bound by a deep sense of duty to his country, that he couldn't stand back and let other people fight and he remain at home. It was a brave decision to make and one he would not have chosen lightly, still it didn't mean things would be any easier for Audrey. If anything they would be more challenging. 'Their marriage, the bakery and his extended family had plucked her from the lonely road she was travelling, giving her direction and strength without without him, would she fall apart?'.

Audrey desperately longs for a family of her own but so far that wish has not been granted. So instead I felt like she became the mother hen to others, there was this deep urge inside her that she needed to satisfy and she did this by caring for others. I still think she would have had the same attitude even if she had had children of her own but there was this hole she need to fill. I loved how she took in evacuee Mary and treated her like her own flesh and blood. Mary had been through such a traumatic time and needed love, care and attention which Audrey supplied with ease and generosity. Poor Mary did suffer at times in this book because she misunderstood so much. All I wanted for her was to understand that she was loved and would be cared for. Audrey always showed such fortitude and strength when events continued to conspire against her and her family. I enjoyed how we got to further know more of the characters that had popped up in book one and it didn't take me long to re-familiarise myself with their back stories. But for those who are new to this series this book is easily read as a stand alone and the reader is never made to feel like they have missed out.

William, Audrey's brother, does feature more in this book and I can't say I liked him until very near the end. Perhaps I was being too judgemental but the way he treated his family and his fiancée Elsie wasn't the way one would have expected a man to have done. Returning home early from the war due to horrific injuries it takes some time for Audrey, Elsie and the reader to comprehend that William is not the same man that left. He is a shadow of his former shelf, dominated by dark moods, tormented by what he has witnessed and the shell of the man he has become. He feels worthless and that he is not good for nothing or anyone. I did begin to feel for him and how hard it must have been to readjust to civilian life even though the war was still raging on but his actions at times and the way he spoke to those who loved him were they completely justifiable? He tore Elsie's heart apart with his words and she didn't need that given her own personal family situation which in itself was devastating to have to deal with on a daily basis. As one character said 'it was a difficult and complicated thing love in wartime' and for many characters their lives certainly lived up to that statement. William needed help, reassurance and at some points a good talking too. I hoped throughout that Audrey or even Elsie would gain even more strength to do just that.

Lily, Audrey's stepsister, again featured although this time she seemed to have come down to earth with a bang given her experiences with a man in book one which has led to an estrangement of sorts from her family. She has a beautiful baby daughter but sadly she feels like she is not a good mother. 'Fear that she was a complete and utter disappointment to her own baby gnawed at her confidence'. She is drowning and like William needs help but will she have the courage to admit she needs it? Lily believes she is not a natural mother and she is not in any way helping the war effort. I wanted her to feel better about herself, to be able to engage in the love she has for a different man but who is sadly away at war. Clearly Lily had a lot to go through before she would emerge stronger on the other side but also I felt a lot of growing up to do as at times she needed a good shake and needed to snap out of her funk. I know what she was going through but sometimes she did go overboard ever so slightly.

Two other characters worth mentioning were Arthur and Maggie. John is old and not in the best of health but I loved how he battled on to help Audrey and get the bread made each day. He wouldn't stop until he literally dropped and he was like the father figure Audrey needed the most. As for Maggie she works in the bakery and I just knew she was up to something. She had ambitions for herself and despite her background I thought she came across quite haughty taughty. Upon discovery of what she was up to my dislike for her increased but when the bigger picture was revealed my opinion of her swayed to the other side.

Wartime Brides and Wedding Cakes was an excellent follow up to Heartaches and Christmas Cakes, in fact I would go as far to say it was even better. Amy Miller really gets to the heart of the story and conveys such emotion through her writing. Everyone is struggling in the time of war and she doesn't in any way sugar coat this. Yes the men away fighting in Europe are experiencing horrific sights but those at home can't be forgotten either, they too have harsh lives to deal with. How can people cope given just a few short years ago their worlds were perfect in some ways and now death, uncertainty and struggles are a daily feature of life?

But what makes this book so enjoyable is the bakery as the focal point. The warmth of its ovens extends to the care, compassion and nurturing that Audrey shows to all who grace her doors. The residents and friends do appreciate the bakery and Audrey and this is demonstrated when they pull together when tragedy literally falls from the sky. Anyone else would have fallen apart but Audrey battles on as well as given advice and support to those experiencing difficulties around her. 'It was up to her to keep her ramshackle family together and safe throughout the war, and she wasn't about to give up'. But who will be there for Audrey when she needs to let her guard down and let her own emotions regarding Charlie flow. I hoped someone would be and that Audrey too after helping so many others would experience a little glimmer of happiness.

I hope this series will continue to go from strength to strength because so far it has been gripping and I am really eager to see what Amy Miller has next in store for the brilliant characters she has created in the Wartime Bakery series.

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