Monday, January 25, 2016

What I Read in April 2015 Part V

What I Read in April 2015 Part V ...

Meet Me at the Cupcake Cafe: A Novel with Recipes
Meet Me at the Cupcake Cafe by Jenny Colgan -- Contemporary Romance/Women's Fiction

The only thing Issy Randall really enjoys about her job in real estate administration is bringing freshly baked cupcakes to work. She loves experimenting with new recipes and trying them out in her perfect pink kitchen with her roommate Helena. Though she's dating Graeme, who is technically her boss, he prefers to keep the relationship quiet so they don't even live together. Issy likes cooking dinner for Graeme and soothing him after a long day. So when she's laid off from her job, she's shocked. She's lost her job and her boyfriend in one fell swoop. The only thing she's left with is cupcakes. When a haughty blond woman plans to turn a local empty shop front into a healthy foods cafe, Issy feels it would be a tragedy. The building with all it's quaint charm would make a lovely bakery. With her generous severance pay, Issy jumps in with both feet opening the Cupcake Cafe. The only person who believes in Issy is her beloved Gramps, a former baker now dying of dementia. Secretly, her banker, Austin, wants her to succeed for some reason. Perhaps because he can sense her passion, something he lacks in his own job since becoming "dad" to his younger brother Darny. Issy's employee Pearl, a single mother from the projects, needs the cafe to succeed. Her son's future depends on it. With eternal optimism Issy sets out to accomplish her dreams.

The plot of this book moves fairly slowly. I thought it should have been done about halfway through. I wasn't fully engaged in the story until some plot twists 3/4 of the way through. Then I couldn't wait to find out what happened next. I loved the bakery and the recipes included. They make me want to try them. As a romance this novel fell flat. There's very little romance or even love involved. It's mostly about the bakery and the secondary characters' romance. There is some mention and hints of sex and some swearing but no actual sex appears on page. I disliked the fact this book was told from multiple points-of-view. It was jarring to go from Issy's thoughts to someone else's on the same page. It doesn't really add to the story to get inside the heads of secondary characters. It complicated the story and bogged the plot down.

I disliked Issy. I wanted to like her and was rooting for her to succeed but she is annoyingly naive and too fixated on wanting a baby. Her desire for children clouds her judgement and makes her too stupid. What's with Jenny Colgan's characters having absentee mothers? I wasn't crazy about Austin either. He's a terrible father-figure for Darny. He's stuck in a job he hates and never disciplines the kid. They're just existing without living. Plus his interest in Issy's bakery is motivated by his interest in her. I also did not really like Pearl. She had a huge chip on her shoulder and worried too much about how others saw her and her child when she should have been motivated by doing what was best for her son. She exhibited some nice character growth by the end but like Issy, she's stupid when it comes to matters of the heart. I loathed Graeme. Everything about him screamed sleaze and yet Issy didn't listen to her friends. He needed his mother and not a girlfriend/wife, much like the boyfriend in the last book I read by this author. Caroline, though excessively annoying in a sort of Caroline Bingley way, actually ended up growing on me. As her character experiences change she experiences growth and I liked that. The only characters I really liked were Helena and Gramps. Helena is a woman who knows what she wants and doesn't dwell on future plans. She tells it like it is and people respect her. She's full-figured but happy with herself and I found her much easier to tolerate than Issy. Gramps sounds like a special guy. He meant everything to Issy and it's sad to watch her lose him. I expected to cry but I didn't really. I'm not sure dementia actually works that way or if the author has read/seen The Notebook one too many times. My grandmother never remembered where she was and she was happy just existing and having people around her. If prompted, she would remember things from her distant past but she never was lucid then confused like Gramps. Anyway, I liked his story a lot, especially his devotion to Issy and her grandmother.

Read this if you love cupcakes and like Sophie Kinsella.

The Loveliest Chocolate Shop in ParisThe Loveliest Chocolate Shop in Paris by Jenny Colgan-- Contemporary Romance/Women's Fiction

After an accident in the chocolate factory where she worked, Anna Trent developed a super bug in the hospital. When she wakes up in the hospital she discovers she's lost a couple of toes. While recovering, she reconnects with her high school French teacher Claire Shawcourt, who is in for cancer treatment. To pass the time, they practice French together. Claire sees potential in Anna and wants Anna to make the best of her life. She also sees Anna as being much like her younger self and decides to make sure Anna pushes herself to reach her full potential. It is Claire who arranges for Anna to work with a premier chocolatier in Paris, an old friend and flame, Thierry Girard. Nothing in Paris is what Anna expected. She can't understand a word, she lives in a tiny garret room with an omnisexual, bohemian giant and working at Le Chapeau Chocolat is vastly different from the mass-produced chocolate factory in England. In France, chocolates are individually and carefully handmade, flavored with just the right combination of ingredients to keep locals and tourists begging for more. A shocking event forces Anna into a tough spot to rise to the occasion and show what she can do. She enlists the aid of Laurent, Thierry's headstrong son, who is estranged from his father. Anna feels an attraction to Laurent but he remains elusively out of reach. When Claire learns the news, she insists on returning to Paris, where she hasn't been in 40 years. Back then she was a shy, naive school girl, until she met Thierry. He taught her to live, love and enjoy life and best of all, she inspired him for one glorious summer.

This story seems to be an homage to La bohème. I've never seen the original but I've seen Moulin Rouge and part of Rent. If you're not familiar with those stories, grab a box of tissues before you read this book. "Come What May" kept running through my head ... "I will love you til my dying day!" At the very heart of this novel is bohemian Paris. A slice of life most tourists do not get to see. Bohemian Paris lives at night, in garrets and small theaters. It is colorful, loud and eccentric. Paris is very much a character in the novel, specifically Île de la Cité,. The author lives in France and so the scenery feels very realistic. The plot is well paced. I couldn't put it down. I was more interested in Claire than Anna and what had happened to her up to this point and how her story would end. This is where you will need the tissues, especially if someone you know has cancer or died from cancer. Anna's romantic plot is a little lacking in emotional impact. It starts and stops too much and is overshadowed by Claire and Thierry and other events. Claire's past was revealed in bits and pieces, making me eager for more. I had to know what happened. The ending works well and the Epilogue wraps up everything nicely. I would have liked a little more action before that though and not just a summary of what happened next. There's a big reveal towards the end that really surprised me. It brought the narrative full circle and wrapped up some loose ends. Break out the tissues again because you'll need them from that point on.

The characters in this novel are largely memorable. Anna is the least developed of them all. I liked her character growth from scared, small-town girl to confident woman but a lot of it was summarized and told to us in the Epilogue. We do get to see her grow in confidence bit by bit but I felt that a lot of her growth was just explained in passing and Claire's character development was more important. They deserved equal treatment. Claire's story was excellent in the beginning. The plow shows her transition from school girl to woman but again a lot is summarized and most of her character growth is shown in present day when it should be the opposite. The dual narrative maybe wasn't the best way of telling the story.

Thierry is larger than life, charming and full of fun but also very driven and very stubborn. He is so intently focused on chocolate and the enjoyment of life's simple pleasures that he ignores everything else. His son is almost exactly like him but the difference is Laurent shows growth and change over time. It happens very suddenly when I think it should have been developed more but it worked for me. He recognizes his character defects and how he can change. He does something incredibly sweet for Anna and Claire which probably makes him different from his father. His back story is a bit confusing. He was counting backwards at one point and then later when he told his story it didn't add up to the earlier math he was doing in his head.

The minor characters are good too. Alice was a character who could have used some back story or been eliminated all together. I don't really know what her purpose was. The absolute best character was Sami, Anna's bohemian roommate. He belongs in the movie Moulin Rouge. He's a lot of fun and adds some comic relief to the story and really forces Anna to become French rather than sit in her room eating Ramen noodles and moping.

This is the best of the three books I've read by this author so far.

The romances reference making love but nothing is shown on the page. Because of the bohemian nature of Paris, some of the characters and references are not what some people would label clean (cross-dressing, drinking, smoking, cursing, references to sex with both women and men).

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