Audiobook Review: The Christmas Surprise by Jenny Colgan

Title: The Christmas Surprise (Rosie Hopkins’ Sweetshop, #3)
Author: Jenny Colgan
Narrator: Pearl Hewitt
Publisher: William Morrow
Publication date: 2014
Print length: 272 pages
Audio length: 8 hours 51 minutes
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Library

Rating: 3 out of 5.

From the New York Times bestselling author of Little Beach Street Bakery and The Bookshop on the Corner comes a delightful holiday tale full of sweetness, love, heartbreak, and happiness—perfect for fans of Debbie Macomber and Elin Hilderbrand.

Rosie Hopkins, newly engaged, is looking forward to an exciting year in the little English sweetshop she owns. But when fate deals Rosie and her boyfriend Stephen a terrible blow, threatening everything they hold dear, it’s going to take all their strength and the support of their families and their friends to hold them together.

After all, don’t they say it takes a village to raise a child?

Perhaps I was pushing my luck with a SECOND Christmas-themed book, but since the books in question are the 2nd and 3rd books in a trilogy featuring characters and a setting I love, it was awfully hard to resist.

Note: Some spoilers ahead, since otherwise I can’t really talk about the book, the series, and why I felt the way I did about this 3rd book.

The Christmas Surprise picks up right after Christmas at Rosie Hopkins’ Sweetshop. Rosie and Stephen are newly engaged and blissfully happy in their little cottage next to the sweetshop in their country village of Lipton. Their close friends are engaged too and planning a fancy wedding, the sweetshop is thriving, Stephen is loving his teaching job at the village school, and Rosie’s great-aunt Lillian is ruling the roost at her senior living home. All is well.

But not for long.

After a surprise pregnancy (about which Rosie and Stephen are elated) ends in miscarriage, Rosie is plunged into despair, especially upon learning that a future pregnancy will be extremely unlikely without intervention such as IVF — way beyond their means.

A surprising email leads them in a new direction. Years earlier, Stephen had volunteered with Doctors Without Borders as a teacher in an African village, and he’s heard from his contact there that the young daughter of a family he became close with is expecting a baby, and the family would like him to be the godfather. Stephen and Rosie begin raising funds for the village and the family within their own small community, but then decide that a trip to visit might be just the thing to break them out of their low times.

It wasn’t a shock by any means to see how this all turned out.

The book of course ends on a happy, jolly note, with just about everyone getting a sweet and happy “ever after”, but it does take some effort to get there. Rosie and Stephen face financial challenges that seem to drive a wedge between them, there’s a major disagreement over medical treatment for their baby, and ongoing difficulty with Stephen’s aristocratic mother’s seeming indifference and coldness toward their new little family.

Naturally, there are also tears of joy, village-wide celebrations that include moments of chaos and comedy and silliness, and plenty of laughs and small-town craziness to go around.

Overall, I enjoyed the book, but felt a bit on edge with the Africa storyline. First off, it’s always just “Africa” — as if the continent is one big entity. Why not identify a country? The descriptions are all generic outsider views — the bustle and color, the heat, the lack of modern amenities in a remote village. Rosie and Stephen swooping in and saving the day smacks of white saviourism, and when a snooty mom back in Lipton refers to Rosie’s actions as “colonial privilege”, I didn’t think she was far off.

I mean, of course it was lovely that they adopted this newborn who was essentially given up on by his birth family, but it felt a little too pat and condescending for my comfort — even though it did result in the happiness that the characters were so desperately in need of.

I’m not sorry I read/listened to this book, since I really do enjoy the characters and the entire town of Lipton, and was happy to see everything wrapped up with a pretty bow by the end. Still, it stretched my tolerance in parts and the ultra-happy ending, while predictable, was also a bit too pat and deliberately joyful for my taste.

Then again, there was simply no way I wasn’t going to finish the trilogy, and ultimately, it’s been a fun, sweet reading and listening experience. I can’t say no to Jenny Colgan books, and I’m glad to have spent time with Rosie and her adorable little sweetshop!

Book Review: Unequal Affection: A Pride and Prejudice Retelling by Lara S. Ormiston

When Elizabeth Bennet first knew Mr. Darcy, she despised him and was sure he felt the same. Angered by his pride and reserve, influenced by the lies of the charming Mr. Wickham, she never troubled herself to believe he was anything other than the worst of men–until, one day, he unexpectedly proposed.Mr. Darcy’s passionate avowal of love causes Elizabeth to reevaluate everything she thought she knew about him. What she knows is that he is rich, handsome, clever, and very much in love with her. She, on the other hand, is poor, and can expect a future of increasing poverty if she does not marry. The incentives for her to accept him are strong, but she is honest enough to tell him that she does not return his affections. He says he can accept that–but will either of them ever be truly happy in a relationship of unequal affection?

Diverging from Jane Austen’s classic novel Pride and Prejudice at the proposal in the Hunsford parsonage, this story explores the kind of man Darcy is, even before his “proper humbling,” and how such a man, so full of pride, so much in love, might have behaved had Elizabeth chosen to accept his original proposal.

While I’m a fan of Pride and Prejudice (and all of Jane Austen’s works), I’ve never read a P&P spin-off or retelling or any of the other hundreds of variations on the story. Somehow, I stumbled across Unequal Affection, and thought the premise was interesting enough to make me want to give it a try. And I’m glad I did.

In a nutshell, what would have happened if Elizabeth Bennet had not refused Mr. Darcy’s initial proposal?

Yes, all the circumstances leading to this moment remain the same as in the original. Elizabeth is stuck on her initial impressions of Darcy, dislikes him, and believes he dislikes her. She’s flabbergasted by his proposal, and insulted by his presentation of it, especially by his statements about how inferior she and her family are to him.

But what if? It’s not unreasonable to think that a young woman in Elizabeth’s situation might actually pause and consider. Here’s a very wealthy, very prominent man, educated and handsome, who says he’s in love with her. He’s offering her a life beyond anything she could imagine. And what’s more, he’s prepared to care for her mother and sisters and provide them with a secure future, rather than the poverty that seems to be lurking just over the horizon.

Now, we know that Elizabeth is an unusual woman for her time. She’s outspoken in her likes and dislikes, and has sworn that she’ll marry for love. But, here is a man who loves her and is offering her a secure life. Is it so farfetched to think she’d at least consider his offer?

In Unequal Affection, she does just that. She asks for time to consider, rather than rejecting him on the spot. She’s stunned to learn of his regard for her, and realizes that she may need to rethink her former opinions of him. From there, the story follows the seven weeks from Darcy’s proposal to the agreed-upon wedding, during which both have time to get to know one another properly and to acknowledge their faulty assumptions and mistreatment of one another.

It’s interesting to see how some familiar scenes play out. Lady Catherine’s visit to Longbourn still takes place, with much the same tone, but with the circumstances rather different. Lydia’s elopement is prevented before it ever happens, because with Darcy as the future brother-in-law, her well-being is now his concern as well. Certain secrets come out much later, so that Wickham’s undermining of Darcy is allowed to continue much longer — but even so, this gives Elizabeth time to start to realize that Wickham’s charm might be a cover for a lack of character.

Overall, Unequal Affection is quite charming and well-written. This clever retelling lets us see familiar events unfold differently, and yet the dialogue and writing style feel very true to the spirit of Jane Austen’s masterpiece. The developing understanding and affection between Elizabeth and Darcy work in light of what we already know about them, and this different path to marriage feels quite natural and plausible.

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this book. I mean, if the original is perfect, why tinker with it? Author Lara Ormiston proves that there can still be something new to say about a classic, and presents an engaging, compelling tale about favorite characters in a brand new way.

And now, a question: For those of you who have read Austen spin-offs, are there any in particular that you consider outstanding and worth checking out? I’ve read three of the Austen Project books, and have Eligible on tap for future reading. How about any others? Recommendations welcome here!


The details:

Title: Unequal Affection
Author: Lara S. Ormiston
Publisher: Skyhorse Publishing
Publication date: January 7, 2014
Length: 352 pages
Genre: Fiction
Source: Purchased







Book Review: All I Love and Know by Judith Frank

All I Love and KnowThis thought-provoking and often moving novel touches on so many of today’s hot-button issues: gay marriage, the AIDS epidemic and its aftermath, Israeli-Palestinian politics, and the complicated results of acts of terror.

For me, though, the strident political preachiness often overwhelmed the human elements of the story, which is a shame. I tried so hard to become immersed in this book, and while I truly felt for some of the characters, sticking with it became a real chore.

Backing up… in All I Love and Know, partners Matthew and Daniel have been happily involved and living together in Northampton, Massachusetts for four years. Matthew fled the New York party scene after the AIDS-related death of his best friend, and Daniel represented to him a calmer, healthier way of loving and living. All that changes when they receive an awful phone call: Daniel’s twin brother Joel and his wife Ilana are dead, victims of a suicide bomber in a Jerusalem cafe. Joel and Ilana leave behind two small children, and it was their wish that if anything were to happen to them, Daniel would have custody of the children and take them away from Israel.

Matthew and Daniel fly to Jerusalem with Daniel’s parents, to mourn and bury their dead, and to face the bureaucracy of the Israeli family courts. Ilana’s parents, Holocaust survivors, want the children also, and even though custody was stipulated in the will, it’s the courts that have the final say. Will they grant custody to a gay American couple against the grandparents’ wishes?

While dealing with the custody issues, Daniel is also deeply in shock and mourning, and he routinely pushes aside all attempts at comfort offered by Matthew. He is so torn up inside that he has no capacity for giving or receiving love or tenderness, and their relationship begins to unravel even as they start a completely new life as the parents of orphaned children.

Let me just stop here for a moment and say that Matthew is an absolute angel who gets the totally rotten end of a sad and difficult situation. He is not Jewish, has no fondness for Israel, never intended to be a parent — and yet he absolutely rises to the occasion, taking these two sad and difficult children into his life and charging full steam ahead into the role of primary caregiver. He does everything for these kids, pours his heart into creating a home for them, providing for them, and loving them. He takes it upon himself, with no encouragement from Daniel, to learn Hebrew, just to make things easier for the kids. And yet, the poor guy is constantly referred to as shallow and vain. He’s apparently incredibly good-looking, but Daniel and the other family members seem to use this against him, treating his looks as a symptom of being all surface.

Matthew is constantly the outsider — in Israel and in the family. For expediency’s sake, Daniel excludes Matthew from the legal process involving the children, and time and time again reminds him that he has no real standing whatsoever. When things blow up in the relationship, Daniel is quick to remind Matthew that his name is not on the mortgage, not on the house title, not on any document related to the children. Matthew is the one who created a home for this makeshift family — but he’s the one who’s kicked to the curb when things go wrong, with no protection or recourse.

While Daniel’s grief is palpable, it’s hard to like him as a character or to sympathize with his behavior toward Matthew. The story feels somewhat unbalanced in this regard, as I found it a real challenge to relate to Daniel’s actions or thoughts. The children, especially 6-year-old Gal, are prickly and difficult and full of pain that comes out in all sorts of hard-to-deal-with ways — but this part of the story is really so very touching. How does a small child understand loss of this magnitude? Gal’s little brother is just one year old at the time of their parents’ death — how does an infant experience bereavement and express sorrow?

While the relationships in the book are well-developed, the plot itself gets a little tangled at times. From the synopsis, you’d expect the custody battle to be the main issue at the heart of the story… but it’s not. Custody is resolved relatively easily about halfway through the book, and then the story moves on, so then what was all the custody drama even about?

Another confusing element is the timeline of the story. It was not clear at the outset, but this book is set in 2003 – 2004, in a political reality, both in the US and in the Middle East, that is somewhat different than today’s. It would have been helpful to know this from the beginning. That said, the time frame of the book absolutely informs the legal challenges faced by Matthew and Daniel, as the book takes place right as Massachusetts became the first state to legalize same-sex marriage.

If this novel had focused solely on the relationships and family dynamics, I probably would have loved it. The aftermath of grief and loss is portrayed in all its various shades and nuances, manifested differently in the bereaved twin and the devastated children. The author’s politics, however, intrude often and loudly, and this ubiquitous, one-sided, and harsh tone is — for me, at any rate — a turn-off that pulled me out of the story time and time again. There’s very little room left for differing viewpoints or shades of grey, and the result is a book that insists that there’s only one stance that’s legitimate, one way of thinking that’s correct.

As I said earlier, I see it as a real shame. I was so turned off by the insistent political statements of the characters that I was often tempted to put the book down. What kept me going was the human element. I cared about these characters, these two lovely men and the two sad children in their care. I wanted to know more, and wanted to see how they came through this terrible ordeal. Ultimately, I’m glad I continued and was pleased overall with the story of the characters and how they and their relationships evolved — but at the same time, I do have a hard time recommending the book wholeheartedly due to the issues I’ve already mentioned.


The details:

Title: All I Love and Know
Author: Judith Frank
Publisher: William Morrow
Publication date: July 15, 2014
Length: 422 pages
Genre: Adult contemporary fiction
Source: Purchased