Eternity Leave by Simon Kettlewell -the joys and challenges of looking after four children

Eternity Leave by Simon Kettlewell

Many people have looked after children as their main task in life, but in this book Simon Kettlewell takes it to extremes with humour and a nicely judged sense of drama. It is a fictionalised account of a man being in charge of four children, the first three being born really close together so that he was looking after three children under two when his partner Bridgit had twin girls. He makes the point that what he is doing is what so many women do, but he finds the problems of being the only male child carer in the village a strain. It is a funny and almost surreal look at the problems of being left with small children while one’s partner works long hours in a high pressure job. He is keen to comment on how most fathers do not concern themselves with working full time and missing out on their children,while he is aware how much Brigit feels she is missing out. Kettlewell’s assumed character is keen to stress that he is not just looking after his children with the aid of a copy of “The Complete Guide to Childcare”. He has great dreams to be a novelist, if he ever gets time and space to write. He admires and is desperate to emulate Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, with a small holding and self sufficiency. Unfortunately he discovers that there is a huge difference between the theory and practice as with many things. This is a lively and entertaining book, and I was pleased to have the opportunity to read and review it. 

The second chapter begins with a memory of being young and seeing a film which makes him think about having a family and living in a house. He decides that Brigit is the woman that he wants to be with, and it is nineteen years later that he realises how far they have come. Chloe is his oldest daughter and they find themselves in India, and he realises that she is an effective adult in her own right. His twin daughters Ruby and Emma are awkward teenagers both determined to drive the car. Ollie is a younger child, with issues surrounding the internet and computer games. This is the point at which he is looking back, remembering his sense of panic when Brigit went back to work leaving him in sole charge of a small child. Partly because he feels inadequate in a woman’s world, and partly because he honestly cannot see how any one person can cope. When twin girls appear he is even more at sea, as the physical problems of amusing and caring for them all threatens to defeat him. There are some very funny set pieces involving buying chickens, and caring for animals. They culminate in a very funny party where all the birds, pigs and other animals escape and chase the children. The narrator spends a lot of time bemoaning the fact that he is the only man in many meetings and groups – he even gets to know Marlon the music man as a rare male interloper. 

This is an unusual book in that it represents a person trying to get along with life and those around him as best he can. He is an honest and thoughtful narrator, seeing the best in people as well as quietly revelling in the gossip of a small village. I really enjoyed the way he looked back on what seemed at the time to be so difficult, but was really the best, when he loved being with the children. This is a well written book of contemporary life, with an appreciation of the different roles people play and the joys of bringing up children with all the challenges.     

The Draftsman by Laurel Lindstrom – a man who finds a house and much more in a perceptive novel

The Draftsman by Laurel Lindstrom

This is a book about Martin, a single-minded genius in some ways, but with only the faintest glimmerings of understanding of other people’s and indeed his own life. It is also the story of the ghost of a house, Shadowhurst Hall, that was demolished years before in the physical sense, but comes to represent a past that Martin wants to understand. The characterless  house in the grounds now standing in the grounds is only of interest to Martin initially because it reflects his peculiar lifestyle; six bedrooms for him to have a different bed every night, grounds that he has stocked with sheep to improve the view. This is a subtle novel of a mind which is damaged and a way of seeing that brings wealth but little understanding what to do with it. The other characters in the book, including his capable sister, his vain but thoughtful friend Joshua and the stalwart Bill are remarkable for their forbearance and their choices in regard to a man who only sees the world to calculate it, seeing the lines and spaces, the shapes of the world. Damaged, lacking understanding and therefore vulnerable, Martin is a man who has sustained much, but brings unique perspective to a half-remembered house which dominated the past and may hold secrets for the present and future. I found this a fascinating novel and was pleased to have the opportunity to read and review a book which offers such dreamlike insights.

The book opens with Martin arriving in the house, his house, bought six months before as an investment but now readied for his arrival by his sister Alison. They both hope that it marks a new beginning “He wanted to change, he had to change, had to move on, but he wasn’t sure why or to what.” He has driven to the house in a brand new, expensive car, the first time he had driven since passing his test, worried by its power, unaware that it was so indicative of a wealth he had little clue how to enjoy. Alison has worked hard to furnish and equip the house to his specification, even providing cans of tuna and sorting out a gardener/handyman and a cleaner. She is aware of his apartment in London, a huge single room despoiled by food, cigarette ends and the detritus of a man who simply left things to fall to the ground, seemingly unaware of the squalor around him. It transpires that their shared childhood was a strange one of obedience to a mother who may have been abusive, of a father proud of his son but totally baffled about his choices. Martin becomes a young man of rigid habits, compulsively calculating the world around him. He discovers in the house and grounds a challenge, the swans that fascinate him but represent the curves that he cannot control, a glimpse of a life that he cannot quantify, a past that he needs to find out more about.

This is not an easy book to describe, but it has a lyrical quality that transcends the need for a complex plot. It is a work of real insight and subtly marks a change in a life that was rigid and vaguely shameful, a collection of people who genuinely want the best for Martin, whose conspiracy is to help him, and in the process learn a little more about themselves. It is about a house of memories and more. I recommend it as an unusual but satisfying read which raises many questions.

Sew on the Go by Mary Jane Baxter – A Maker’s Journey of sewing and more!

For those of us who love to see an expert making something, even if we could never dream of producing an object as well or under similar circumstances, this sounds as if it is going to be a brilliant read. Mary Jane Baxter’s stories of being on the road with her sewing van is published on 27th May – an unusual and possibly inspiring treat! Here is an extract which reveals how it all began…

Sew on the Go – A Maker’s Journey by Mary Jane Baxter

You know the score. You’re sitting at your desk thinking for the millionth time about leaving the rat race behind. It’s just you, your rucksack and a rough plan on a piece of paper. There are no e-mails to answer, no deadlines to meet, no daily commute, no people vying for your attention. Just the freedom of the open road stretching before you. Then the phone rings and you get back to work with a sigh.

Of course there are many reasons why most of us can’t make our dreams come true most of the time. There are debts to pay off, family commitments to keep us at home, jobs to hold down and health issues to cope with – all the difficult stuff of life that means we can get stuck in a rut. But what if for a few brief, glorious months nothing was actually preventing you from breaking free? Would you do it? Would you dare quit the day job and take the risk? It’s sometimes very easy to find reasons for avoiding challenges, and frightening to embrace the uncertainty of saying ‘I do’.

This had certainly been my story. For many years I’d combined several different jobs. Whilst working as a BBC correspondent I’d also trained as a hat maker. I worked for two years with milliner-to-the-stars Stephen Jones, sold my first hat collection to Harvey Nichols in Knightsbridge and ran creative workshops for the likes of Liberty and Topshop. Somehow I’d even managed to squeeze in a series about ‘make-do and mend’ for BBC Newsnight, two weeks in Paris working for Marc Jacobs and a part-time teaching job in London. After a while I began to feel I was spreading myself too thin. I was juggling too many different balls and felt in danger of dropping them all.

Around this time my Godfather died and generously left me some money. I immediately decided to spend part of my inheritance on an old campervan. I fantasized about doing it up and filling it with all the materials I needed to make beautiful things as I journeyed. I’d create the perfect travelling craft studio and then set off around Europe exploring French fleamarkets, swimming in rivers and meeting a clutch of colourful creative characters. My van of choice wasn’t a trendy VW (too expensive) or a quirky Citroen H van (too heavy on the steering) but something of a plain Jane – a boxy Bedford Bambi in need of some TLC. Once purchased, I drove it back to South East London and parked it on the street outside my little flat. It didn’t matter to me that Bambi’s top speed was 60 mph, that the interior electrics didn’t work or that the fridge was broken. Bambi would be my bolthole, my crafty retreat from the world – my very own Mobile Makery.

Whenever I had the chance I’d spend a few hours working on Bambi. It felt like I was building an escape-pod outside my front door. First I papered her interior with the pages of a 1950’s dressmaking book and then started reupholstering the seats with a mixture of funky fabrics and souvenir tea towels. I changed the curtains and added over-the-top trims spending many happy hours hunting down enamel mugs and crochet blankets to cosy up the space. The dream of having a Mobile Makery kept me going through the dark winter nights and the long shifts working in the BBC newsroom.

My neighbours watched my upcycling activity with mild amusement and a certain amount of cynicism. But when I started découpaging the outside of the van with posh wallpaper foraged from a Brighton skip they decided I’d completely lost the plot. To me however, it seemed like a perfectly sensible idea. I couldn’t afford a state-of-the-art vinyl wrap, so why not just do-it-myself? It was extremely therapeutic. Once I’d finished, I coated the design with several layers of outdoor varnish and hey presto! My Bambi had been transformed into a Magical Mobile Makery complete with a travelling craft library and a mini gas stove – essential for fry-ups on the go…

A Thousand Goodbyes by Ruth Graham – The Surprising Life of a Funeral Celebrant

A Thousand Goodbyes by Ruth Graham

There are some jobs and occupations that mean seeing a lot of life, and being a funeral celebrant is one of those jobs. Meeting the families and friends of those who have recently suffered a loss can be daunting, but in Ruth’s hands it becomes vivid and even life affirming. Having endured mixed receptions as a stand up comedian, she has encountered tough audiences, unhelpful comments and startling circumstances before; in this book at least people are usually willing to listen, but there is still a large element of the unknown. I have taken a couple of funerals myself, my Vicar husband has taken hundreds, and yes, I have been that family a few times. Ruth manages to take this most basic of urges, to say goodbye, and makes something of it, when the family is fulsome or reticent, providing few details about the deceased beyond the fact that “she liked ironing”. This account is lively and not full of sadness; instead it reflects on the things that can go wrong in a time when the writer is ‘on show’, the human, mechanical and other slip ups that could ruin an event, when the group of people present often do not comment but merely look shocked. Like all books which reflect on a person’s profession there will be points of recognition for common experiences, and sometimes a wince of shared pain. It is not only a solo recitation of varied experiences as Ruth includes short stories by other celebrants of their significant memories, and they are certainly different! This is a memorable book – in the right sense- and I was very interested to read and review it.

One of the many interesting things about this book is to discover that funeral celebrants like Ruth are not necessarily humanists who will not allow any hint of religion in the service. Her abiding rule is that it is for the family to decide what goes into the service. Her job is to take what she is told, even if it proves to be fictional as on one occasion, and make it into a positive experience if at all possible. It does make life difficult when the family or friends have little material to offer, or want to offer tributes that simply take up too much time in a crematorium where each service has its slot which must not be exceeded. There are touching stories of where a family has few material resources to pay for the farewell, as well as those who have the money but not the will to actually spend it. There are funny stories, entertaining tales of the simple logistics of going into family homes where a range of human and pet behaviours come to the fore. It is not a depressing read, if only because of Ruth’s willingness to tell a story, even if it is against herself.

Ruth is keen to point out that having an “ordinary” life is not the point. “In fact, the more funerals I do, the more staggering stories of bravery, evil, hardship, generosity and love, I see. Lives full of drama that you couldn’t make up. It’s the stuff of best sellers!”. For a book with this subject it is a positive book, an admission that while doing her best, and working hard, things may not go quite to plan.

The events of the last months are tackled in the final section. Admitting the difficulty of taking a funeral with a tiny number of people, Ruth points out that she says to families that it is not a show, but an opportunity to mark a loss together without “the eyes of others upon them”. Her final encouragement is “to live your life to the full…and we will find the words.” This is a book that is full of finding the words to describe the most difficult of days, but with a lot of dedication.   

The End is Where We Begin by Maria Goodin – when memories, the present and the future collide

The End is Where We Begin by Maria Goodin

Jay Lewis is struggling. In this intense novel of twists and turns memories come to the fore, causing some pain and confusion. On the positive side he is the single father of a reasonably well balanced teenager with a group of friends and some family who have formed a mutual support network. He works hard and achieves a reasonable standard of living. He struggles with relationships, but bringing up a son has given him a focus. He has hit a rough patch just now, when Josh is beginning to test boundaries. The memories of a life changing evening are coming back, and there is someone else from whom he wants forgiveness, and there are times when it is all a bit overwhelming. This complex book switches between memories and the present, as themes and images leap forward, as Jay struggles to come to terms with new realisations. Fortunately the author is able to balance them, give clues and elements that soon establish what is happening, where and when, and it becomes a compelling read. The dialogue between the characters is so well written, as teenage boys tease and gently torment each other as a group, as older people try to express their deepest feelings and their current issues, as a son and his father try to reshape their relationship. Jay knows he wants forgiveness for the evening that shaped his life, but also wants to find a woman whose love he has never forgotten. This is a perceptive and remarkable novel for its construction and audacity, and I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this contemporary novel of life and love.

The book begins with Jay hosting his son Josh’s fifteenth birthday party. As with any parent, despite the fact that Jay is a remarkably young father, he is a bit confused by the assembled group’s obsessions and references, but he is also overwhelmed by memories of his friendship group at the same age, when mentions of a knife had other connotations. His son and their group depart, but he is trying to cope with the vivid memories of an evening when “I remember it was my fault we were running late”, a time when his group were confronted with a terrible sight. His focus then sweeps to a memory of a first kiss, sweets and Libby, a girl who lived on a boat. The focus then goes to the birth of a baby and all the conflicting emotions that caused, of the news that he has a son. Throughout the book the focus switches, giving information to the reader so that they want to find out more. The presence of brilliant and troubled Michael, an older sister who seemed to want different things, a mother who tried to explain.

This writer shows a real skill at making the complex understandable, pressing the reader onwards to link up the disparate elements of the book. I think that Goodin manages it by focusing on Jay, keeping him as a constant throughout what could be a complicated narrative. I really enjoyed piecing together what happened, what he and others felt, how the various situations would resolve themselves. Using such techniques such as attempts at messages, honest and sometimes stumbling conversations, a limited but well described range of settings, this is a book of what feels like life. A truly involving read, this book is a reflection of one person’s struggles to come to terms with the past, cope with the present, and look, however hesitantly, to the future.   

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.   

Trobairitz the Storyteller by Celia Micklefield – a novel that contains a story and shines a light on strong women

Trobairitz the Storyteller by Celia Micklefield

This is a novel with a story inside it. The trobairitz were female troubadours who used songs to comment on love and much more. They were common in the twelfth and thirteen century. This is a novel featuring a twenty first century trobairitz , a female truck driver who does not share personal details, but tells a story of a village, with some memorable characters who live there. I found it an intriguing idea, especially as the story weaves in and out of the truck driver’s ongoing life story. She rejoices in the name of “Weed”, having rejected her mother’s choice of Fleur, and lives a life where she travels across Europe, driving a top of the range truck. This is a sensitively written book which depicts the small issues in a working life, the people she meets, the places she travels to, the ways she attempts to relax. I learnt a lot about truck driving across places like France, the sort of work involved, and the details of the cabs. The long story that she embarks on, apparently to deflect too much interest in her own life, is not greatly historical; this is not a “time – slip” novel but one that tells a story that is virtually contemporary. It is a story that in other circumstances could form the basis of a novel on its own. It features life in a small French village, where the job of mayor is nearly hereditary, and yet women are the life force of many of the events. This is a multi layered story where the themes are not always immediately evident, even though important. I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this memorable book. 

The book begins with Weed arriving at a service station and shocking the working girls  who approach the queue of trucks by being a woman jumping out of her truck, as she says “I’ve got the full complement of European expletives”. When she goes into the restaurant of the next services she meets several truck drivers who begin to ask questions of her, seeing that she has a top of the range truck and are intrigued to see that she drives the routes alone. To divert their attention and to avoid a potentially embarrassing attraction to one of the drivers herself, she begins to tell her story. 

The story is of Madame Catherine Joubert, an older woman of apparently independent means who lives in a grand but faded house in a small French village. It seems she has a mysterious past, and isn object of mystery in a small French village where people love to know one another’s secrets. In particular there appears to be tension between her and the town’s mayor Henri-Claude Noilly. The baker, the butcher and the publican all have a view, and it immediately appears that there are many potential developments.

The book reveals Weed’s story, her origins, her life away from driving. Driving a truck is not as straightforward as I thought, especially in emergency circumstances. Weed’s voice echoes through the book, confident and able, but with one or two weaknesses. I found this a very compelling and engaging read, and just as the other truck drivers, I was keen to find out more about the village and its inhabitants. Weed is a very interesting character, determined to get the job done. The narration, through Weed, is a strong one, and this is altogether a fascinating novel. It speaks well of the possibilities of travelling across Europe, and the power of story telling. I recommend it as a book that works on many levels, with many interesting and engaging themes.     

Coming Home to Maple Cottage by Holly Martin – a perfect autumn winter escapist read

Coming Home to Maple Cottage by Holly Martin

Coming Home to Maple Cottage by Holly Martin

This is a charming autumn/winter book, with events happening throughout the seasons. Holly Martin has created some vibrant and realistic characters dealing with less than perfect situations, complex family issues and challenges along with romance. Sandcastle Bay is a coastal village where the story is set and some of the characters have appeared in other books, but this is very much a standalone book which I enjoyed (and read quite fast!). Isla Rosewood lives in a cottage with her nephew Elliot following her brother Matthew’s death. Elliot’s mother effectively disappeared before the tragedy, so Isla has given up her flat, career and life in London to look after the little boy. She has support from her family, but the real involvement in their lives comes from Leo Jackson, Matthew’s best friend and Elliot’s godfather. Leo has a difficult history in the village, and Isla knows him well enough to be wary of him, but his care for Elliot is transforming, and she begins to wonder. A series of challenges makes for difficult decisions, and much is discovered about people, their feelings and more in this book which shows real insight into village life and contemporary relationships.

The book opens with Isla and Leo meeting four years before the main narrative of the book, on the evening before Elliot’s christening. Their encounter that night is memorable, but Leo’s behaviour drives Isla back to London. The book properly begins with Isla and Elliot living in Hot Chocolate cottage, and Leo visiting nearly every day. Having been let down previously, and knowing Leo’s reputation, Isla resolves to keep him at arm’s length as far as romance is concerned, though acknowledging that he is a positive element in Elliot’s life. This is difficult to understand for family members in the village, and those who take a great deal of interest in the affairs of others. A very funny scene in a local café shows how people are keen to know exactly what is going on, despite Isla’s reservations. As activities continue in the village, Isla, Elliot and Leo are drawn together. Her confusion is not helped by her two enormous concerns. She is not earning any money as she has been living off proceeds of her London flat sale, but it is now running out. The cottage’s mortgage is paid off, but Sadie’s, Elliot’s absent birth mother, name is still on the title deeds. Isla has been granted guardianship of Elliot, but full adoption has been difficult to achieve as no one has been able to discover Sadie’s whereabouts, though she is suspected to be somewhere exotic. With an ongoing job search and the background concern about Elliot’s future, Isla has little time to spend on considering a romantic future with the dangerously attractive Leo.

This is an enjoyable book with consistent and well-drawn characters who reflect very real life concerns. Even minor characters have their contributions to make to this frequently funny book, especially when the frank and talkative Elliot asks some awkward questions. When Isla experiences challenges and Leo faces difficulties with his past, they are evidently part of a close and enviable community. This is a well written book which has a strong romance at its heart, but also looks at real life problems. I recommend it as a contemporary escapist read which has some fascinating twists and turns.

The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman – a humourous look at murder, investigation and later life

The Thursday Murder Club: The Record-Breaking Sunday Times Number One  Bestseller: Osman, Richard: 9780241425442: Books

The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman

This book is probably worth the hype. It gives a positive view of older people, seemingly retired in a community for the elderly, but with the determination, persistence and bravery normally only allocated to the young in fiction. This is a book of mystery, murder and notably, things that happened a long time before it began, as integrated and complicated like real lire. Nothing is straightforward, which is how most of the characters like it. Each of the characters has great depth and a backstory, even if it is never explained in this first book of what promises to be a successful series. Contrasting ways of life adds to the charm, even if more than one murder is the theme. The humour is understated and very based on the individuals concerned, and emerges in the dialogue and in one case the pages of a diary. Expectations for how people should behave and think is pleasantly upset, and there are many twists and turns. I found it really enjoyable, packed with red herrings and surprises, and a thoroughly readable novel.

At the beginning of the novel, which begins with the title “Meet New People and Try New Things”, Joyce reveals her introduction to the Thursday Murder Club in pages of her diary. Elizabeth asks her, during lunch, about knife wounds. Being an ex nurse, Joyce was able to supply the information, gaining the approval not only of Elizabeth, but also Ibrahim, who she is yet to meet properly. PC Donna De Freitas turns up to do her Practical Home Security talk, though bored with the relaxed attitude to policing in the quiet area of Fairhaven. Poised to talk about window locks and identification, she soon discovers that the residents of Coopers Chase Retirement Village expect something more, even though one wistfully observes “I’d welcome a burglar. It would be nice to have a visitor”. Elizabeth introduces herself and Joyce, Ron and Ibrahim, as not friends but a group which comes together to discuss crimes. Donna is quietly taken with the group, which is fortunate as when a murder takes place which is firmly connected with the Village. Donna is desperate to get involved in the investigation, and there is a subtle way that it is achieved with the connivance of the group, who continue to work alongside the police in somewhat unusual ways. Not that anyone has any idea where the whole project is headed; even the controlling, free thinking and ubiquitous Elizabeth takes chances on things that baffle and bewilder others. 

This is an often lighthearted, sometimes touching book, which deals with death in a respectful way without undue sentimentality. Murder is involved, but is never brutal in the eyes of those investigating in either an official or unofficial way. I found it a well written and plotted book, which reveals the human side of both police, those involved in crime. The characters are well written, consistent and interesting, who often reveal hidden depths. This book strongly argues for older people enjoying a certain black humour, and different life views based on long experience and practical expediency. Elizabeth is a cleverly written character, letting slip details of a mysterious and exciting past. This is a good read, full of in-jokes, moving asides and understandable emotions. I recommend it as a cosy mystery in some ways, a humourous read, and an incisive book about attitudes to later life.  

Sowing Secrets by Trisha Ashley – a story of love, roses and diets

Sowing Secrets: Ashley, Trisha: 9781847560117: Books

Sowing Seeds by Trisha Ashley

While the new books by this established author are wonderful reads, this older book is also an excellent glimpse into the world of a woman having to cope with difficult situations. Fran is an artist who lives in a small Welsh village, with a fascination for roses which she plants in her cottage garden. She has a daughter, Rosie, who is usually away at university. Her husband Mal is not Rosie’s father; Fran believes that her daughter is the product of a one night stand. One of her problems is that she is uncertain as to the attractive, distinctive young man’s identity having been drunk, on the rebound from her long term boyfriend, and acted out of character. Her beloved Ma has always supported her, as have her local friends. Her problems begin at Christmas, when Rosie demands to know about her father, Mal is being more distant, and Fran is being nagged by him about her weight. This novel is narrated by Fran, as she considers her friends, family members and life in the village, with the usual humour and brilliant characterisation which typifies Ashley’s books. Food, roses and so much more abound in this book which contains humour and romance, all from Fran’s point of view.

The book opens at Christmas, with Rosie at home and asking questions about who her father is, knowing that Mal did not appear on the scene until well after she was born. Indeed Rosie and Mal argue frequently, often about his attitude to Fran. Mal is frequently away for work, and while he is away she works hard at her illustrations and cartoons, and plants roses even beyond the boundaries of Mal’s regulated garden. The neighbours seem to resent her, and apparently report to Mal on her activities. She has her friends, including Nia, who is a potter, and Carrie who has teashop known for her wonderful cakes. Another friend is Rhodri, newly divorced and owner of a large house and estate called Plas Gwyn, which he is intending to open to the public and as an events venue. Nia decides to organise him, and they become involved in a bid to get a celebrity restoration gardener to come and sort out the gardens for a television series. It is an excellent plan, until Fran recognises the celebrity gardener, Gabriel Weston, as someone from her past. To add to her confusion, her ex boyfriend Tom seems determined to attract her attention, as well as invite Rosie to learn to surf. Mal, however, seems increasingly distant, and a tragedy forces her to review her thoughts about her marriage, Gabriel and everything else in her life.

This is an extremely lively and enjoyable book. Fran’s attempts to diet at her husband’s insistence forms a running joke in some ways, and his impossibly high standards make him thoroughly annoying. Fran’s thoughts and panics, highs and lows are really interesting and well depicted, and her life is punctuated with some realistic incidents. I always enjoy the way Ashley’s  female lead characters tell their story, detail her friends and those who are difficult, and cope with challenges that would finish off other people.  This is a very entertaining book, with underlying themes of marriage problems, past loves and village life. There is  a lot of humour in this book, some of it quite dark, but all of it vivid. I recommend this book to Ashley’s fans, and would argue it should help make many more.