Book Review: Summer at Little Beach Street Bakery by Jenny Colgan

Summer has arrived in the Cornish town of Mount Polbearne and Polly Waterford couldn’t be happier. Because Polly is in love: she’s in love with the beautiful seaside town she calls home, she’s in love with running the bakery on Beach Street, and she’s in love with her boyfriend, Huckle.

And yet there’s something unsettling about the gentle summer breeze that’s floating through town. Selina, recently widowed, hopes that moving to Mount Polbearne will ease her grief, but Polly has a secret that could destroy her friend’s fragile recovery. Responsibilities that Huckle thought he’d left behind are back and Polly finds it hard to cope with his increasingly long periods of absence.

Polly sifts flour, kneads dough and bakes bread, but nothing can calm the storm she knows is coming: is Polly about to lose everything she loves?

Summer at Little Beach Street Bakery is the 2nd in a series of three (which starts with Little Beach Street Bakery, reviewed here). As I mentioned in my review of book #1, Jenny Colgan writes escapist fiction more or less to a formula, but it’s a formula that works: Young woman, beat down by city life, escapes to a remote, quaint location, and discovers joy and meaning in her new life. Plus a dreamy, hot love interest. Quirky locals who embrace the new arrival are an added bonus.

In Summer at Little Beach Street Bakery, Polly is well-established in Mount Polbearne after living there for about a year, running a successful bakery, living with her hot American boyfriend Huckle (who’s utterly devoted to her), and continuing her obsession with the puffin who’s decided he’s her pet. At the end of book #1, Polly and Huckle decided to buy the decrepit town lighthouse and make it their home. Now living in the lighthouse, they love its charm, but it needs a ton of work, and both are decidedly short on cash for anything but the basics.

Polly’s world gets upended when the old woman who owns the bakery passes away, and her sister (who lives far away) decides to put her worthless son in charge of the place. He immediately takes a dislike to Polly and everything she does, not seeing the value in her high-end ingredients and artisanal breads and instead wanting to make everything cheap and efficient. Eventually, he outright fires Polly, throwing her into despair.

To make ends meet and create a fund from which Polly can invest in a new business venture, Huckle decides to go work on the family farm back in America for a short time in order to make some money. (Is farming really that lucrative? This doesn’t seem like the most realistic plan to me.) So now, on top of her bakery woes, Polly is living without Huckle for a while, and is miserable.

Meanwhile, there are further complications. Polly realizes that Neil the puffin should be wild, but has a hard time letting go. The widow of a man she inadvertently had an affair with (he didn’t disclose his marital status) has moved back to town, and Polly befriends her, without telling her what happened with her husband. Polly and Huckle’s new brainstorm is to convert a food truck into a bread truck, which is a challenging venture that the new bakery owner is determined to ruin. And then a storm blows in, bringing danger to Polly and the people she cares about.

Overall, I really enjoyed Summer — it was a perfect choice for a week when I was looking for a low-involvement, fun, sweet escape. Even when there are problems and peril, it’s a totally safe bet that everything will work out okay in the end.

I did have some confusion about Polly’s business model. In the first book, she opened the bakery in an abandoned old storefront and totally transformed it, creating something special that reinfused the town with fresh life. Polly’s arrangement was to pay rent to the woman who owned the property, but the bakery was essentially hers to run as she saw fit. In this book, when the jerky Malcolm gets involved, Polly is treated as a mere employee and then fired. But the place wouldn’t exist without her! At one point, a very rich friend offers to buy the bakery for Polly, but she turns him down because she wants to make it on her own. Time for a reality check! Take the rich friend’s offer, Polly! I mean, she could always pay him back (not that he cares), but isn’t that a better alternative to having the bakery she created ripped away from her?

You don’t read Jenny Colgan books for harsh doses of reality — they’re meant to be light and lovely, and Summer succeeds in being just that. I enjoyed it, even while feeling that Huckle is TOO perfect, that Neil the puffin is TOO ridiculous as a house-bird, and that Polly finds success maybe a bit TOO easily. But that’s okay.

I really like spending time with Polly and all the quirky people (and seabirds) around her, and will definitely be back for more! The third book is Christmas at Little Beach Street Bakery, and I can’t wait to read it.

Side note: These books WILL make you hungry. So much delicious bread! There are even recipes at the end. I need one of Polly’s fresh-made loaves NOW.

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The details:

Title: Summer at Little Beach Street Bakery
Author: Jenny Colgan
Publisher: Sphere
Publication date: February 26, 2015
Length: 396 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Purchased

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Audiobook Review: Only Human by Sylvain Neuvel (The Themis Files, #3)

 

 

In her childhood, Rose Franklin accidentally discovered a giant metal hand buried beneath the ground outside Deadwood, South Dakota. As an adult, Dr. Rose Franklin led the team that uncovered the rest of the body parts which together form Themis: a powerful robot of mysterious alien origin. She, along with linguist Vincent, pilot Kara, and the unnamed Interviewer, protected the Earth from geopolitical conflict and alien invasion alike. Now, after nearly ten years on another world, Rose returns to find her old alliances forfeit and the planet in shambles. And she must pick up the pieces of the Earth Defense Corps as her own friends turn against each other.

I have loved The Themis Files books since day one, so it’s probably no surprise that I really and truly loved this concluding volume as well. In the first two Themis Files books, we see the discovery of a giant robot, which is in truth an alien artifact, leading to an alien invasion that threatens the survival of all humankind. Here, in Only Human, we find out how it all works out.

The previous book, Waking Gods, ends on a cliffhanger. With the immediate threat removed, Vincent, Rose, and Eva are celebrating their victory, when they suddenly realize they’re not on Earth any longer. As Only Human opens, we learn that our Earthlings have been transported to the alien home planet, which finally gets a name – Esat Ekt. And there they stay, learning the Ekt language, culture, and sense of morality, with no means of going home.

The Ekt’s principal code of morality is non-interference. They will not allow themselves to alter the course of any other species’ progress, development, or evolution. If a species is meant to go extinct, the Ekt will not interfere. And if a species, such as the human race, develops in a way that they should not have because of Ekt interference in the past, then all signs of that interference must be eliminated. Of course, the Ekt didn’t mean to commit mass murder, as they did in book #2, and here in book #3, the people of Esat Ekt are deeply embroiled in a reexamination of their non-interference policy after realizing their responsibility for the deaths of tens of millions on Earth.

Meanwhile, back on Earth, in the years following the great battle which concluded in the previous book, human interactions have changed dramatically. One of the giant robots ended up left behind, then seized as property of the United States, which then used it to rewrite the geopolitical lines of the planet. When Rose, Vincent, and Eva return almost a decade later aboard Themis, the Russians want the robot — badly — and will do just about anything to get it and its pilots under their control, in an effort to reshape the world’s balance of power.

As with the earlier books, Only Human is told via interview transcripts and journal entries, with the entries from the humans on Esat Ekt interwoven with the entries from Earth upon the gang’s arrival back on their home planet all those years later. Through these entries, we learn about life on Esat Ekt — the politics, the participatory democracy, the casual bigotry, and the way a free society can have hidden biases and injustices. Meanwhile, we see the ongoing complicated dynamics between the main characters. The highlight is the relationship between Vincent and his daughter Eva. Only 10  years old when they were whisked off to an alien planet, by the start of the action in this book Eva is a 19-year-old young woman who is strong-willed and ready to jump into action to pursue justice, never mind her own safety. Naturally, she and Vincent are on a collision course, and when their conflict finally comes to a head, it’s spectucular.

There are so many memorable characters in these books. An old favorite, Mr. Burns, returns in Only Human, and I also was really fascinated by the American-raised Russian agent Katherine, whose Americanisms and snark hide a truly terrifying ruthless streak.

The audiobook version is amazing, performed by a full cast. In fact, while I had the e-book ARC for some time before the official release date, I chose to wait until the Audible edition became available because I really wanted to experience the story in that way, as I did with the first two books. The voice actors are terrific. I love Vincent, with his French-Canadian accent and excitable nature; Rose’s calm demeanor, Mr. Burns’s humor, and — big treat here — the Ekt characters as well, speaking both a mangled sort of English as well as their own native language. My only complaint is that Eva’s accent has completely changed from the previous book, and it was weird and distracting at first. Oh well. I got over it. As a whole, the audiobook experience is a delight.

Let’s pause here to admire author Sylvain Neuvel’s fantastic use of his linguistics background to create a language for the Ekt that’s weird and alien and sounds just awesome to listen to. I loved the words and phrases, and very much enjoyed learning a yokits swear word in Ekt.

Needless to say, I highly recommend the Themis Files series. If you enjoy audiobooks, absolutely listen to these! The production is top-notch and really added to my enjoyment. But even without the audio, it’s an incredible story, so well written, full of sci-fi adventure and surprises — but even more so, full of human emotion and heart, which are what truly makes this story work.

I really do hope that the author will choose to write more in the Themis-verse… but if not, I’ll still want to read whatever he writes next.

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The details:

Title: Only Human (The Themis Files, #3)
Author: Sylvain Neuvel
Narrator: Full cast production
Publisher: Del Rey
Publication date: May 1, 2018
Length (print): 336 pages
Length (audiobook): 8 hours, 43 minutes
Genre: Science fiction
Source: E-book review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley; audiobook downloaded via Audible

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Audiobook Review: Waking Gods

 

As a child, Rose Franklin made an astonishing discovery: a giant metallic hand, buried deep within the earth. As an adult, she’s dedicated her brilliant scientific career to solving the mystery that began that fateful day: Why was a titanic robot of unknown origin buried in pieces around the world? Years of investigation have produced intriguing answers—and even more perplexing questions. But the truth is closer than ever before when a second robot, more massive than the first, materializes and lashes out with deadly force.

Now humankind faces a nightmare invasion scenario made real, as more colossal machines touch down across the globe. But Rose and her team at the Earth Defense Corps refuse to surrender. They can turn the tide if they can unlock the last secrets of an advanced alien technology. The greatest weapon humanity wields is knowledge in a do-or-die battle to inherit the Earth . . . and maybe even the stars.

Wow. What a ride.

At the advice of the fabulous Bonnie at For the Love of Words, I decide to listen to Waking Gods rather than read a print version. And also thanks to her input, I first listened to book #1 of the Themis Files — Sleeping Giants — as a refresher. (I read — and loved — Sleeping Giants last year. Check out my rave review.)

Waking Gods picks up the story ten years after the ending of Sleeping Giants. Over the course of the intervening decade, the ragtag team of scientists and robot-wranglers has evolved into an organized global force called the EDC (Earth Defense Corps). Dr. Rose Franklin heads up the efforts, under the ever-present guidance of the unnamed man who pulls the strings. Meanwhile, robot pilots Kara and Vincent enjoy their life on the road with Themis, taking the giant robot on a worldwide goodwill tour to promote international cooperation and harmony.

Until… more robots arrive. Now Earth and all its people are threatened by an alien force that they have no hope of overpowering. If Rose and her team can’t come up with solutions, there may be nothing left.

Okay, wow again. Waking Gods is an absolutely stunning and addictive sequel that kept my attention from the very first moment all the way through to the end. As with Sleeping Giants, Waking Gods is told via transcripts of interviews, lab notes, radio broadcasts, and military communications. It works beautifully. Focusing for a moment on the audio listening experience, I was blown away by the intensity of listening rather than reading. While the transcripts work well on the page, it’s another thing entirely to listen to the talented narrators essentially act out each intense moment.

The audiobook is a full cast recording, so that each character has his or her unique voice, full of expression and personality. The unnamed narrator from the first book is back, and his voice in particular is odd but powerful. The rest of the cast is quite good (if you’ve read the books, you’ll be happy to know that Mr. Burns is just perfect), and the listening experience brings a tension and immediacy to the action scenes.

Waking Gods is a thrilling follow-up to Sleeping Giants. I do, however, have one minor complaint. I thought this was a two-book project. I haven’t seen anything anywhere referencing a 3rd. And it seemed as though Waking Gods finished the story (with an awesome climax, I might add)… until the very last moment, which took the concluding scene and turned it into a cliffhanger. So is there a book #3 on the way? So far, I haven’t been able to find a hint of it online.

I highly recommend both Sleeping Giants and Waking Gods — and definitely recommend checking out the audiobook versions, if you’re at all an audio person. Both books make for excellent listening experiences, and I was on the edge of my seat the entire time!

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The details:

Title: Waking Gods (The Themis Files, #2)
Author: Sylvain Neuvel
Publisher: Del Rey
Publication date: April 4, 2017
Length (print): 325 pages
Length (audiobook): 9 hours, 2 minutes
Genre: Science fiction
Source: E-book review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley; audiobook downloaded via Audible

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Book Review: The Boy on the Bridge by M. R. Carey

In the 2014 book The Girl With All the Gifts, author M. R. Carey introduced us to a terrifying world in which humanity has been overrun by “hungries” — humans turned into zombies after being infected by a virulent and unstoppable fungus. At an isolated army base in England, a military and medical crew work with a bunch of young hungries, who seem to be a different sort of species, still drawn to flesh for sustenance but able to speak, think, and feel as humans do. (If you haven’t read The Girl With All the Gifts, you need to check it out! My book review is here. The movie is worth seeing too!)

The new release The Boy on the Bridge is a prequel to The Girl With All the Gifts, set about 10 years earlier. Humanity has already been decimated by the Hungry plague, and the remaining humans in England live in a barricaded settlement called the Beacon. The Beacon sends out a team of scientists and soldiers in an armored vehicle, the Rosalind Franklin, to travel the country, collect samples, and search for some sort of cure or treatment for the plague — likely a hopeless cause.

The crew is an uneasy mix of career soldiers and geeky scientists, plus a gifted teen boy, Stephen Greaves, who is considered by most of the crewmembers to be possibly autistic, definitely odd, and generally a burden. The exception to this is Dr. Samrina Khan – Rina — who insisted on bringing Stephen along for the mission, and who acts as a surrogate mother to the boy. Stephen is brilliant, and Rina considers him to be crucial to any chance of making a scientific breakthrough.

We spend the entire book on the journey aboard Rosie, getting to know the crew as they bump along the countryside in very cramped quarters. There are rivalries and resentments, and the enormous pressure of knowing that they may be humanity’s last hope. The team is constantly in danger as well. Beyond taking samples, they venture outside of Rosie’s safety to do cullings along the way — basically, using their firepower to mow down as many hungries as possible.

The scenes of dormant hungries just standing wherever they happen to be, motionless and inert until triggered by movement or smell, are frightening and creepy. The danger is always present, and the reading experience can be almost as claustrophobic as it must be traveling inside Rosie.

I found the book to be slow at first, as it takes a while to get to know the twelve team members as individuals, and the first half or so of the book occasionally feels like one really unpleasant road trip. However, once the team encounters a group of feral children, the tension and the mystery definitely amp up. Who are these children, and where did they come from? What do they want… and can they be stopped? Meanwhile, Stephen and Rina each have secret agendas, and as the plot moves forward, their struggles become the central focus.

I spent much of the book wondering how this story would connect to The Girl With All the Gifts, and by the end, it becomes clear in a way that’s satisfying. The climax is action-packed and dramatic, and I was happy with the resolution presented in the epilogue.

I wouldn’t rate this one as high as the first book, but I did find it an enjoyable, entertaining read. Needless to say, it’s not for the squeamish — but if you enjoy a good twist on a a zombie apocalypse, check out The Boy on the Bridge.

Side note: The title doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me, and neither does the book’s synopsis as it appears on Goodreads. So ignore those, and just read the book anyway!

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The details:

Title: The Boy on the Bridge
Author: M. R. Carey
Publisher: Orbit
Publication date: May 2, 2017
Length: 392 pages
Genre: Horror
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher

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