To Chick Lit or not to Chick Lit?: A review of Poppy’s Recipe for Life by Heidi Swain

I have a confession: I struggle with chick lit. The phrase, “chick lit” grates on me in the first instance, but I’m not sure how to explain my exact feelings about the whole genre. I am drawn to the pretty, cheerful covers with their suggestion of a happy, cosy life in the country – or by the sea – or in a Georgian townhouse, etcetera. And the surety of a happy ending is comforting: with all loose ends tied up and all characters getting what they deserve. Yet, while I seek out feel good stories in films and on T.V., this is not necessarily true with novels. What I find most alluring about a book is the anticipation and materialisation of an adventure, a mystery, a surprise. I like parallel stories, multiple timelines, and a clever twist that I didn’t see coming but totally understand now I know. And while I adore a great love story, it is usually not the reason I pick up a book and start reading. Hence, a chick lit novel  is certainly not my go-to read. I fully admit that I haven’t read many books of this genre, but I have noticed that the description of “lighthearted read” often covers the form as well as the content, and what you get is not only a book with an easy subject matter, but also a book with easy prose – a simple and plain narrative style that leaves readers like me (whatever we are) feel underwhelmed.

I have read absolute stinkers of books, both chick lit and not, so if I sound totally critical of this genre, please forgive me as this is not my intention. My intention is always to take books as they come and read them with fresh eyes and an open mind, and not get bogged down by their genre or label. Most of all, my intention is to enjoy the book. I really want to relish the reading journey of every book I pick up and feel that I have gained something by the time I have turned the last page. Sometimes there is success, sometimes failure, but the will to love every book I have chosen to read is always there.

This brings me onto my actual review of Poppy’s Recipe for Life. I wanted to read one of Heidi Swain’s novels because of their deliciously scrumptious covers coupled with their thumbs up reviews, all pointing to the probability of a positive, life affirming, warm and snuggly reading experience. While I was under the impression this was her first venture out into the world as a novelist, this is in fact Heidi’s eighth book, published this year. As the product of an experienced, published author who knows her fans and audience, Poppy’s Recipe for Life is a great success. It is written with bounds of confidence and expertise. This writer has got the art of her specialism, it seems, down to a tee. 

It’s Heidi and her readers’ second visit to Nightingale Square, a fictional residential part of an unnamed Norfolk town. Twenty-something Poppy of the title, has just realised her long standing dream of moving into the Square and becoming an active part of the tight knit community. Her excitement about moving to Nightingale Square and it’s communal garden, is matched only by her passion for making chutney. She wants and lives a blissfully simple life, delighting in everyday pleasures such as frequenting her local with her friends after work, helping to organise community events, and mucking in with gardening duties. It seems the only unpleasantness in her life is her selfish, uncaring mother, whom she avoids and whom she would gladly have absolutely nothing to do with if it wasn’t for her sixteen year old brother, Ryan. Cue, the dramatic event of the story: the arrival and stay of Ryan at Poppy’s beloved home. Ryan must be the sweetest teenager in fiction, yet Poppy doubts him frequently, which is somewhat annoying. Poppy herself comes across as very pleasant: gentle, kind hearted and quirky. In fact all the characters (with the exception of Poppy and Ryan’s mother) are depicted with positivity, even the grumpy neighbour, Jacob, who eventually gets sucked into the neighbourliness of Nightingale. They are all genuinely nice, easy-going, friendly people. And this is the great pull of Heidi Swain’s book – it’s unwavering positivity: it’s loveliness of place and people. I may have smirked at Poppy’s obsession with creating chutney recipes and dreams of compiling a recipe book with them, but isn’t that want we all want? An obsession and a dream? A simple but fulfilling purpose? A warm and welcoming little space in the world that we can call home? Poppy’s Recipe for Life is like ITV’s Midsomer Murders without the murder: community spirit with a good dose of gossip, seasonable celebrations, summer fetes, garden barbecues with homegrown produce, friendly local independent shops, cute pets and bunting. It’s not out of place on a lazy Sunday evening in front of the fire with a cup of tea and a slice of fruit loaf. 

Heidi Swain has created a comforting little world for her characters and readers. A little haven to escape to that’s a little bit simpler, a little bit sunnier, a little bit friendlier – and a lot more blissful than your own! It’s definitely a cosy read with much humour and a believable sweet and sexy love story.  And, although it may not be my usual recipe for a good book, this is certainly another thumbs up review for Poppy’s Recipe for Life. 


Giovanna and Me: A review of Billy and Me by Giovanna Fletcher

Well, I really wanted this to work out. I wanted to love Giovanna Fletcher’s storytelling and go on to read her other books. I wanted our relationship to blossom and mature. Sadly, it is probably all over for us. Looking back, I should have known we weren’t compatible. There were quite obvious signs. The genre, for one. The ‘chick lit’ label leaves me dismayed – the name is derogatory and it is more than patronising in its implication that there is only one kind of literature that would appeal to women. Yet, the books in this particular group don’t seem to be that *good* – making me think Is that what chick lit means? Not very good? Which makes me quite agitated in all respects.

Billy and Me, whatever it’s labelled, is a mediocre book at best. The subject matter – a ‘plain’, unassuming young woman that meets and falls in love with a famous film star – is cliched and, admittedly, didn’t appeal to me very much at first glance.  The book is far too long for its flat writing style. It lacks description, it lacks meatiness, and it lacks the multi-diamentional characters a book deserves. 

Sophie, the protagonist, is nice enough, but not very unique, nor very interesting, nor very anything, except perhaps annoying in her self deprecation, and even more annoying in her self righteousness. There is one bizzare passage featuring a sex scene that Billy (of the title and Sophie’s famous boyfriend) has to act out with a fellow thespian and ex-girlfriend. It left me questioning Sophie’s – and Giovanna’s – judgement. Such a conservative and prudish attitude seems so outdated now, but more than this, Sophie’s unreasonableness is out of character for her level headedness up to that point. Even more strangely, the narrative doesn’t really question her perspective. Indeed, the whole stance of the book seems stuffy when it comes to sex. The narrative doesn’t refer to Sophie and Billy’s sex life at all, leading me to question Are they really doing it?  This is a silly question because of course they are, but there is no passion in the narration of their relationship, there is no sensuousness in the author’s words, there is no flirtation between the characters, and consequently no flirtation or chemistry with the reader. The tenderness of love is there, yes, but the salaciousness of a physical relationship is not. Is this novel aimed at the young romantic teen? It certainly feels this way in its demure demeanor and uncluttered, unflowery writing style.

Billy and Me disappoints mainly because the picture it paints is not rich or distinct enough. I love a book that makes me disappear into its unique world. I need to be wooed with enchanting and poetic prose. I need to be shown something I have never experienced before, and told something I have never heard before. I need those sweet whispers of promise that the journey I am taking holds excitement or adventure or surprise. Billy may have whisked Sophie away, but Giovanna has left me standing – alone and apathetic, and ready to move on.