The Hidden Cottage (by Erica James)

I've been reading novels by Erica James for many years now. I found the earlier ones a bit nondescript, although with something that made me keep reading, and I absolutely loved some of her later books, although not all of them. I'm always pleased when a new book of hers comes out, although I wait for the paperback edition; I had this on my wishlist for a while but eventually bought it myself, used, from Play.com.

'The Hidden Cottage' is a village saga, starring the middle-aged Mia. She has three likeable adult children - Jensen, Eliza and Dairy - and a somewhat obnoxious husband, Jeff. However, the story starts when the wealthy Owen arrives in the village, drawn by memories of his childhood when he escaped from an abusive father to learn music from two sweet old ladies. Owen is an interesting person, haunted by the past, hoping to find somewhere to settle down long-term.

It's a character-based book, with a fairly light plot, at least for the first half. I found it a bit slow-moving, and found some of the people a little over-caricatured, but it was pleasant enough and made good bedtime reading. I had no problem remembering the fairly large cast: well-chosen names and characteristics helped me distinguish and remember them from day to day. I very much liked Owen, and also nine-year-old Madison. Erica James has quite a talent with creating believable children, and also pleasant heroes, but I feel that she struggles a lot more with the bad guys. Jeff isn't bad, exactly, but he's somewhat bad tempered, and very controlling; yet considers himself an excellent husband and father. I understood this, but mostly from other people's thoughts about him, and their worries and eggshell-treading around him. He never felt entirely believable to me.

The viewpoint changes rather too often for my tastes, but it's handled well, on the whole, and it's a good way of ensuring that we see a lot of different peoples' viewpoints. Having said that, I felt that some editing would have helped: there's rather a lot of introspection, and some generalisations that don't add to the story, particularly those that tell us, yet again, how controlling Jeff can be.

Then drama strikes in a way that felt somewhat unnecessary, pitchforking the family into recriminations, anger, grief, and some difficult decisions. Perhaps there was no other way to move the story forward - and it certainly made the last part more of a page-turner. Yet although I was eager to find out what happened, I didn't find my emotions much moved, though I felt that they should have been. The ending was not unexpected, and reasonably satisfying, but overall I didn't think that this was one of Erica James' best.

Still, it would make good holiday reading. The language is mostly clean, and there's nothing explicit. Available in Kindle form as well as paperback.

Review by Sue F copyright 2014 Sue's Book Reviews

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