The Mix-Up by Holly McCulloch – an honest and funny account of a young woman’s tricky life.

The Mix – Up by Holly McCulloch

This is a fascinating account written with humour and real skill of a young woman who is in a bit of a muddle. Paige makes wedding cakes, mixing up sponges and coming up with ideas which will make a particular design a memorable part of a couple’s big day. It has given her a focus as she comes to terms with her Nan’s death, the one person from her family who supported her through some dark days. Being self-employed is risky – it means that she must embrace marketing and creating an air of confidence so that people feel that she can be trusted, despite the fact that she is really quaking with fear. She has been hurt by her family and crucially her boyfriend, so when her ex turns up with his fiancee to choose their wedding cake, she is completely thrown. Narrated in her own voice, she explains that she forces herself to go to a party, asking the host for a distraction. The confusion which she suffers means that she has the confidence to approach a stranger who she believes certain things about, and plunges into a relationship. Cakes, self image and friendship are themes which run throughout this enjoyable book. I was pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this very personal and honest book with its relatable themes. 

The book opens with an admission by Paige.”Well, this is awkward. And surprising. And extremely mortifying”. She has just realised that the prospective customers for a cake who have arrived in her workshop are her ex boyfriend Chris and his new fiancee Pippa. He immediately takes over the situation , leaving her to wonder about her residual feelings for him. Being, she admits “a natural people pleaser” and frankly needing the business, she adopts her usual patter and provides her usual selection. It is only to her special friend Sara she can reveal her true feelings, but there is part of even the understanding mother who does not follow why Paige is behaving with so much uncertainty. An appalling date with a frustrated comedian follows, and Paige adds to her list of disappointing relationships. It is a rather funny tale, because of Paige’s honest voice. This is a very contemporary novel in that Paige can spend hours looking through social media to see the details of Chris and Pippa’s seemingly perfect life. The combination of her lack of social life and lack of demand for her bespoke cakes is sufficiently depressing to send her off to a party held by her friend, the high powered Mika. Milka recommends that she approach a man wearing a black top, an ex boyfriend who is an excellent source of temporary distraction, who does not want a long term relationship. As Paige feels that she does not long deserve a long term commitment, he sounds ideal. The only problem is, there appears to be two men wearing black tops, so Paige must make an educated guess. It is in this way she becomes involved with Noah, and begins to realise that he may have more attractions than Milka led her to believe.   

This book is so well written, detailing the daily life of a young woman who has some bad memories, but whose honesty makes her an appealing character. Her family is well depicted, especially her horrible mother for whom she is never the favoured child. McCulloch writes so honestly from Paige’s point of view that we are on her side throughout, even when she struggles and fails. I learnt something of the problems of making one off cakes, and there is a charming and very funny episode where she sets up a cake with help, even when it is a difficult situation. I recommend this to anyone who enjoys a contemporary romance novel with deeper elements, and is certainly not straightforward.     

Just Friends by Holly McCulloch – Can friends ever be anything else?

Just Friends by Holly McCulloch

Bea is fed up with her life. A wedding brings it home to her that everyone else has someone to love. Her job is unfulfilling, even her hobby is just moving along. She has a good male friend, Peter, but he is such a perfect friend that she cannot bear to risk losing him, especially as her record of dating is disasterous. This contemporary story of love, work and more is funny, endearing and engaging, as one young woman admits that life is not awful and tragic, just going nowhere in particular. Bea is the sort of accident prone heroine that anyone can relate to, even if they are no longer in her age group. Her relationships with colleagues at work, friends and her mother are so well described, especially in dialogue that is full of life and humour. The characters are well written, including the long term friends Mia and of course Peter, while Bea’s attempts to improve her dating chances are warmly funny. This is a good read for dark days, when gossip and humour are needed, and I was pleased to have the opportunity to read and review it.

After an eighteen month build up it is Mia’s wedding day, and though Bea is determined to enjoy it, careless comments by men at the reception just make her angry. As it is New Year’s Eve, there is the obligatory fuss at midnight, but despite everything she does not want a full on kiss from Peter, desperate as she is to hold on to him as a friend rather than risk their relationship in yet another failed attempt at romance. Bowing to pressure from friends she attempts online dating, with funny but disastrous results. The regular Games Night with friends means that she keeps in contact with others, especially Peter, but she despairs of any deeper relationships. Her mother (and over friendly dog Hugo) are a diversion, but a troublesome one in many ways. Her second occupation, making cards for sale at a couple of shops, overtakes her flat on occasion,  but she wonders if she will ever really put the effort into it to achieve real success. Can words of advice from Mia ever push her into doing something about Peter, who is so firmly in the friend zone that he can never be anything more?

A book like this is often dependent on the consistency of the voice recounting events, reactions, and down to earth questions. The author has kept the narrative lively, realistic and often very funny, especially the medical appointment episode. This is not a book of huge drama, but Bea’s heartfelt account has a ring of genuine feeling, especially in the little things, such as her mother’s reaction to misguided packet opening, and Mia’s first thoughts on receiving big news. It is a well paced and engaging book, full of characters that are consistent. The fear of losing a friend in a romantic entanglement is based on an experience which has had a genuine impact on Bea, and she is a sympathetic, if accident prone, character and narrator. A funny, engaging read which is well paced and enjoyable, this is a good read full of contemporary humour and life.