Saturday, 4 January 2020

Emma's Review: The Christmas Countdown by Donna Ashcroft

Reviewed by Emma Crowley

Twenty-seven-year-old Holly Devine has just had her heart well and truly broken. Hurt by the two people she loves the most, she flees to her eccentric Aunt Clara’s cosy cottage to hide away over the winter season. But kind, impulsive Aunt Clara has other ideas… She’s not about to see her favourite niece wallowing in sadness during the most wonderful time of the year. So, with the help of her close circle of friends and plenty of gin, she creates a handmade advent calendar for Holly.

Every day in December, Holly opens a new door and has a different task to complete. She soon finds herself asking out a complete stranger – gorgeous, cheeky pub landlord, Finn Jackson. But as handsome Finn gets involved in her festive challenges, Holly’s determination to avoid romance is put to the test. Still, Finn’s far too carefree and single for true love, isn’t he?

As Holly begins to embrace each day – a complete makeover, building the biggest snowman she’s ever seen, singing in a karaoke contest – Finn is there adding fun and laughter to every moment. Holly starts to realise that she can become the person she’s always wanted to be…

But a secret from Finn’s past threatens to turn Holly’s Christmas upside down and makes her question everything she has experienced in the last few weeks. Will Finn open up to Holly in time to show her how he really feels? And will she complete the advent calendar challenges and fall in love this Christmas?

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Many thanks to Bookouture via NetGalley for my copy of The Christmas Countdown to review and to Sharon for having my review on the blog.

Right from the first few pages of Donna Ashcroft's new book The Christmas Countdown I felt instantly at home and enveloped within the story. It was such a welcome return to Sunflower Island and I thoroughly enjoyed every bit of the time I spent reading this wonderful book and yes as the line on the cover suggests this really is the perfect cosy feel good romance and it doesn't disappoint in anyway. Don't worry this isn't a follow on from The Little Guesthouse of New Beginnings and is easily read as a stand alone book. This time our attention turns to a new character Holly Devine - although people we have met in the previous book do make the odd appearance - who has arrived on her Aunt Clara's doorstep in the hopes she can stay with her on the island until at least Christmas.

Holly is fleeing from an embarrassing and indescribable hurt and she hopes time away from a traumatic situation will give her the clarity she needs in order to assess what happened and see how she can move forward with her life. She never realised a family member could cause such heartache. I mean your own flesh and blood are meant to stand with you through thick and think but it seems twin sister Lucinda is callous and self centred and gave scant regard to Holly rather preferring to satisfy her own needs. Lucinda always wants what Holly has and she craves attention. When their mother died they stopped being equals and Holly was pushed aside and there in lies the problem. Holly knows that Clara will provide her with a shoulder to cry on but little does she expect to go on a journey encouraged by Clara and her friends and all because the women who like to gather in Clara's Gin Palace got some inspiration and knew the best way to get Holly back on her feet again.

It's clear from the outset that Holy is lost, hurt and bewildered and she feels she can't make decisions for herself for fear of what the repercussions will be. For too long now since her mother died Holly has been the one keeping things together. She can be relied upon to fix anything that may be broken in her Dad's office or to organise appointments but she just seems to be taken for granted and is viewed as boring. Whereas her father dotes on Lucinda and is always so overprotective of her and can never see that she could do wrong especially when it comes to the latest scenario that lead to Holly fleeing to the island. Holly needs to decide what she wants in life, to no longer be the dogsbody but to do things for herself and to perhaps find someone who will love and treat her the way she deserves to be.

Holly has lost the confidence to push herself into the limelight and to figure out what she is good at and who she wants to be. In steps Clara and her fellow members of the Women's Institute with a very creative and kind idea, they make an Advent calendar of sorts which Holly must open each day. Inside are little tasks which encourage Holly to step outside of her comfort zone, to challenge herself and push herself that little bit further than she has done before. And so this forms the basis of the story as Holly sets about making changes to find herself and takes the step to emerge from Lucinda's shadow.

From asking a stranger on a date, having a makeover, to riding around the island on a motorbike and lots more besides. Each opening of the calendar provides activities which bring Holly out of the shell she had created for herself. I loved the whole concept of this and thought it added such a great, warm feel good atmosphere to the book. Which honestly was already there in abundance as Donna Ashcroft has again recreated that magical feeling about the island as she did with the previous book. There's a real community feeling where everyone looks out for each other but I suppose at the same time this can be a bit daunting in that everyone knows everyone else’s business. The book felt very Christmassy with such glorious descriptions of the snow, the decorations in the village and all the usual Christmas activities and thankfully this was the case because recently I have just been let down too many times with books claiming to be about Christmas and they weren't.

Of course we have to have some romance thrown in and this came in the form of Finn who runs one of the local pubs. Finn was one of the best male characters that I have read about in a long time. Similar to Holly he is experiencing his own aversion to love and romance and when the reason becomes apparent you can totally understand why. He is know as a ladies man and someone who will gladly entertain any woman that comes near but this is all a persona that he has built up and there no signs of any long term commitments and that's all because of what happened in the past. I thought Finn was very vulnerable and was terribly afraid of confronting and trying to get over what happened in the past. As he meets Holly one morning on the beach thanks to an incident with Bernard, Clara's St.Bernard, you can see the spark of attraction between the two and as a reader you would love to see it developing into something more but you just think have they both been too hurt in the past and recently to want to push their fears aside and make a go of it if at all possible?

Finn likes to keep busy and so he helps Holly with some of her tasks and activities. He feels if his mind and body are occupied he won't have time to think about the painful past. I really just wanted Finn to open up and express how he was feeling and why. I'm sure Holly would have offered a shoulder to cry on but Finn has become to used to keep things hidden deep below the surface. He has blocked out his real emotions for too long and created a fake persona but as the Christmas countdown continues will Finn open up and will the boring predictable Holly disappear making way for someone who is ready for excitement and romance?

From start to finish The Christmas Countdown was a joy to read and I really do hope that Donna Ashcroft continues to write books with Sunflower Island as the main setting. There was no messing around setting up the story, with endless pages which told us little or nothing. No, instead we were straight down to business and anything we needed to know we learnt along the way in a paragraph or two which was more than sufficient. Every character, activity, scene and setting was utilised to perfection and the reader easily finds themselves caring deeply for the outcome for the main characters. I think everyone will see a little bit of themselves in Holly but its the way she attempts to claw back her confidence with the support and love of others that really makes this an inspiring, comforting, life affirming and enjoyable read. More like this please Donna Ashcroft as when I want an entertaining, nice, uplifting read with a picturesque and idyllic setting you always deliver.

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