2012 REVIEWS: GENERAL #3

DINNER AT ROSE’S
Author: Danielle Hawkins
Arena RRP $27.99
Review: Monique Mulligan

Dinner at Rose'sTake a healthy dash of wit, a pinch of tears, a good serve of likeable characters, a smidgen of quirkiness and oodles of charm and mix well – there you have the recipe for Danielle Hawkin’s debut novel, Dinner at Rose’s. Food and books have always been a delectable blend to me, and this heart-warming read was completely satisfying.

When Jo Donnelly discovers her live-in boyfriend and best friend are having an affair, she returns to her home town in rural New Zealand for some time out. Before long she has taken up a temporary job as a physiotherapist (assisted by an indifferent nail-painting receptionist), moved in with two new flatmates (one of which is a joyless miser), and re-established her relationship with her eccentric honorary Aunt Rose. And the crush she had on her childhood best friend Matthew? Back with a vengeance. If only he didn’t already have a girlfriend – aka Farmer Barbie.

Rose has always been a big influence on both Jo and Matt, so when cancer strikes their beloved mentor, they make caring for her a priority. But even as Rose gets sicker and sicker, she still wants to play cupid. And who are Jo and Matt to disagree?

What a tasty read Danielle Hawkins has served up those with a heart for romance! Dinner at Rose’s is a thoroughly engaging book full of lovable characters (and some not so lovable, like stalker Bob). An enticing country setting flavoured the novel beautifully, adding just the right amount of heat and spice, without being overwhelmed by urbanity. While there is an element of sadness as Rose succumbs to cancer, the reader is, through Jo and Matt as life goes on, motivated to celebrate Rose’s life, rather than mournfully continue to the end of the book. Hawkin’s covers this issue with sensitivity and realism, conveying the reality of aggressive cancer without lingering on details.

From a characterisation point of view, Hawkins was spot on. Jo was feisty, with a dry, peppery wit that stops short of being too much; Matt is a salt of the earth bloke, a man with strong family values and an admirable work ethic. Together Jo and Matt had a believable chemistry. Rose, bless her, was wonderful. I loved her, from her terrible cooking and insistence on proper pronunciation, to her mischievous manner and wise inner woman. Matt’s younger sister Kim added a refreshing, zesty flavour, as did the cast of minor characters.

All up, Dinner at Rose’s was food for the heart and mind. I’ll be recommending this to friends and family.

Available from good bookstores and Allen & Unwin. This copy was courtesy of Allen & Unwin Australia.


FRIENDSHIP BREAD
Author: Darien Gee
Allen & Unwin $27.99
Review: Monique Mulligan

Friendship BreadDELICIOUSLY different, Friendship Bread tempts the senses and the heart with its delightful premise – a woman reeling from her the loss of her son is given the gift of some Amish Friendship Bread, a sourdough starter and a request to share it with others.

At first Julia dismisses the gift as something akin to a chain letter, but when she shares the starter with two newcomers to her small town, soon everyone is baking the bread.

As the bread makes its rounds around Avalon, friendships are made, new beginnings are forged, relationships are mended and the town unites to help another in need.

And for Julia, it’s time to confront the painful past she shares with her sister – time to forgive, understand and reach out.

A celebration of friendship, sisterhood, life, loss and the power of belonging, Friendship Bread is a warm, comforting treat that would be even better with a slice of the bread itself.

Simply said, I loved it.

It’s a slice of soul food you will want to share with your female friends – maybe with a pack of starter (recipes are included) so they can make the bread and pass it on too.

Available from good bookstores or Allen & Unwin.  This copy was courtesy of Allen & Unwin Australia.


The Inn at Rose Harbor
Author: Debbie Macomber
Bantam RRP $32.95
Review: Monique Mulligan

The Inn at Rose Harbor (Rose Harbor #1)Although more than 150 million copies of Debbie Macomber’s books are in print worldwide, I had never heard of her or read any of her books until The Inn at Rose Harbor. I wasn’t sure what to expect from such a prolific writer, but my overall impression of this book was “nice”, followed by “sweet”; it’s a nice, sweet book. Which is fine, because when I read it, that’s exactly what I was in the mood for; I had enough thinking going on already. I wanted a feel-good, pick-me-up, “There, there, everything will be OK” book and that’s what I got.The inn of the title is in Cedar Cove, apparently the setting of a number of Debbie’s books, and is the place Jo Marie Barlow turns to after the loss of her husband. She takes over an established bed and breakfast business, sensing that it’s where she’s meant to be and that her inn will become a place of refuge for her guests, as it is for her. Her arrival in the town is greeted with offers of friendship that smooth the way for her own journey; this same kindness is extended to her first guests, Joshua Weaver  and Abby. Each have come to Cedar Cove reluctantly for a long weekend; Jo Marie uses her skills of empathy and good old-fashioned home cooking to make their stay a little more pleasant.

Josh and Abby each have a painful history with Cedar Cove. Josh left the town as a teenager after his stepfather threw him out following the death of Josh’s mother. Coming back to look after his terminally-ill stepfather is the last thing Josh wants to do, but his sense of duty – and a desire to collect some of his mother’s treasured items – brings him back. His stepfather is anything but pleased to see Josh, the reminder of the woman he loved and lost, and over the weekend Josh struggles with duty and a desire to run as far away from the man as he can. Abby left the town 15 years earlier (not 20 as it says on the blurb) following a car accident that killed her best friend and in which Abby was the driver. Abby is still tortured by guilt and believes strongly that happiness is not something she deserves. In town for her brother’s wedding, she has to confront the past – which she realises means meeting her friend’s parents face-to-face and visiting her friend’s grave. Over the weekend, both learn about forgiveness and healing (very quickly, I will add) and they are much changed from the people they were when they returned to Cedar Cove.

The story of these three wounded souls is told through the alternating viewpoints of Jo Marie, Josh and Abby. Jo’s viewpoint is told in the first person, while the other two are in the third person. Some may find this confusing; it takes a little getting used to. It does feel a bit formulaic at first, but Debbie mixes up the viewpoints a little more later in the novel. I also expected Jo Marie, as narrator, to play more of a role, yet she tends to hover in the background. I did feel that the plotline involving Spenser – a so-called friend of Jo’s husband – was unnecessary. While it was used to bring another character, handyman Mark, into the Jo Marie’s life a little more, it didn’t work for me; it needed to be red-penned in the edits. I did feel that Josh and Abby’s situations were tied up a bit too simply – it’s very Hallmark or Disney-esque, but then it is a “nice” book.

Overall, The Inn at Rose Harbor is a warm story of forgiveness, letting go, hope and healing. It’s a fast, simple read, just right for when you need a comfort read (or a Hallmark card). Nice.

Available from good bookstores and Random House. This copy was courtesy of Random House.


HOW TO EAT A CUPCAKE
Author: Meg Donohue
William Morrow RRP $19.99
Review: Monique Mulligan

How to Eat a CupcakeI love a good cupcake and I love a good book, so I had high hopes for the temptingly titled How to Eat a Cupcake by Meg DonohueFor some reason, food and books go so well together … and when good writing is folded into quality ingredients, the result is often a real treat.

Set in San Francisco, the story begins when free-spirited pastry chef Annie Quintana returns to the mansion she grew up in – as the housekeeper’s daughter – at the request of Lolly St. Clair. It’s been about ten years since she left following the death of her mother and she’s not particularly comfortable with being back. Her discomfort is abetted by the appearance of sophisticated Julia St. Clair, Annie’s former best friend. Their friendship ended in high school after a life-altering betrayal and Annie is still feeling the sting.

When Julia, who is battling depression and keeping a painful secret from her fiancee, approaches Annie about a joint venture – opening a cupcakery – Annie is reluctant. Can she put aside her problems with Julia for the chance to follow her dream? Or will this venture pour salt on old wounds? With the encouragement of her friend Becca, Annie decides to go for it and Treat is born. Going into business together proves the catalyst for bringing the past to account (in more than one way) and the two women realise that success will mean compromise, compassion and forgiveness.

Told from the alternating points of view of Annie and Julia, the experience of owning a cupcakery does change the characters over the course of the novel. Both characters are forced to rethink their positions on life, each other, family and so on. I didn’t feel really connected to either of them though. Something was missing – some vital element that made me wish I was buddies with one or both of the characters. Maybe it was Annie’s resentment that soured the story a little – a bit too much acidity, perhaps? I think I was hoping for a bit more depth, like the hidden centres in the cupcakes Annie bakes.

That said, I enjoyed the description of baking and eating cupcakes … at times, I wished I was enjoying a cupcake myself (and I wish there were cupcake recipes at the end). I wondered if I was a Julia, who eats cupcakes slowly, biting around the edges, allowing cake to dissolve on her tongue before diving into “that final perfect bite”. Or was I an Annie, who wolfs them down? I decided I was neither … and both. It really depends on the cupcake…and my mood. The two different methods of cupcake eating complement the characters well – Julia is refined, elegant and can afford to take her time, while Annie has to seize opportunities while they are there. The title can be seen as a metaphor for living life – we all have different ways.

Promotional material suggested this book was in the ranks of Joanne Harris’s classic Chocolat (one of my favourite books) and here I disagree. I think How to eat a Cupcake is a worthwhile debut novel, but for me, it fell short of truly satisfying. It’s a light read, a good enough read; but it doesn’t quite make it to true comfort reading.

Available from good bookstores. This copy was courtesy of Harper Collins Publishers Australia.