I’m delighted to be joining Bookouture‘s Books-on-tour again today, this time sharing my review of Hidden Secrets at the Little Village Church by Tracy Rees: published yesterday (7th May), it’s now available via Amazon for kindle, in paperback and as an audiobook, and also via Apple, for Kobo and through Google. My thanks to Bookouture for inviting me to join the tour and for my advance reading e-copy (provided via netgalley), and to Sarah Hardy for her ongoing support.
I’ve just taken a look back, searching for my other reviews of Tracy Rees’s books – and I was astonished to find there are none. Her books have always looked like ones I’d love – I’ve purchased every one, and they’re all on my kindle. But I do remember reading and thoroughly enjoying The Love Note – and because I was part of a judging panel for a book award, I wasn’t able to share my review. So I’m really delighted that the time has finally come… something a little different from her usual historical novels, and I was SO looking forward to this one…
‘This may just have saved my life…’ The hurried scribble in the dusty church visitors’ book catches Gwen’s eye. Just like that, she is drawn into a mystery at the heart of the pretty village of Hopley, but nothing is what is seems…
When tragedy strikes, twenty-six-year-old Gwen Stanley finds herself suddenly jobless and heartbroken. With nowhere to turn, she retreats to Hopley, a crumbling little village deep in the heart of the English countryside. Wandering the winding lanes and daydreaming about what could have been, Gwen feels lost for the first time in her life.
Until one day she pushes through the creaking doors of a tiny stone church at the edge of the village, empty and forgotten by nearly everyone. There she stumbles on a book full of local secrets and is instantly drawn into the mystery of who could have left them there, and why.
When she’s unexpectedly joined by handsome local artist Jarvis, Gwen is caught off-guard. He seems just as fascinated by what’s in the book as she is… but why? Can she trust Jarvis’s motives really are what he says they are? And are the butterfly flutters she feels whenever they’re together because she’s one step closer to learning the book’s secrets… or might the little village church actually hold the key to healing Gwen’s poor, trampled heart?
An utterly unputdownable story – pure joy from the first page to the last. Perfect for fans of Jenny Colgan, Lucy Diamond and Heidi Swain, and anybody longing for the ultimate feel-good escapist read!
St Domneva’s church has been at the centre of village life in Hopley since the twelfth century – but the community is disintegrating, the congregation is dwindling, and the end of the road is nigh unless Vicar Dave can raise the money to repair the roof before the door is locked for the last time.
When he comes up with the idea of using the visitors’ book for some last chance fundraising – his excitement isn’t shared by his congregation – two distinctly unpromising volunteers step forward. Gwen has forgotten what happiness feels like – painfully shy, hiding behind her curtain of hair, life with her aunt since losing her parents has so little joy about it, and church on a Sunday has become one of her few moments of escape. And she’s always loved the visitors’ book and the glimpses it gives into the lives of others – so much more interesting than her own. When Jarvis volunteers, it’s a surprise to everyone (even him) – his life is every bit as directionless as Gwen’s, his usual milieu the village pub rather than the church, and the only reason he goes to church is to keep his mum happy. But he has his own reasons for being particularly interested in the book – a moment he let slip a few years ago, and the chance of finding someone who’s been in his thoughts ever since.
The dynamics when these two unlikely volunteers come together are just wonderful – Gwen with her notebook and plate of Bourbon biscuits, ready to approach the task slowly and methodically, hoping to lose herself in the lives the book reveals. Until Jarvis rolls up, late and hungover, producing a bottle of beer from the pocket of his hoodie – her peace is disrupted, and it looks unlikely that they’re ever going to be able to work together. But what follows is sheer magic – the unlikely pair do indeed work together and, as we see them become allies and friends and their lives begin to change, we find out more about the people who’ve visited the church over the years, and all the many stories behind the messages in the visitors’ book.
I have to say that I absolutely adored this book – while the initial premise might not have looked too promising, and neither of the two main characters particularly inspiring, the way the story unfolds is an absolute joy. As Gwen and Jarvis work together and achieve their little wins, their relationship changes – they bring out the best in each other, we find out more about the reasons why their lives have rather fallen apart, and start to see a real possibility that things could become rather different. And, while falling in love with them both and urging them on, we also find out about the lives of all the individuals they’re able to track down from the words they’ve left on the pages of the book. It’s quite beautifully done – some characters are just touched upon, others taking an increasing part, every individual with their own story about why St Dom’s played a part in their lives. Some are easy to find, some are more of a challenge – but slowly Gwen is able to colour in the squares on the church tower on her beloved wall chart (drawn by artist Jarvis – her artistic attempt was rather less successful), and the unachievable target looks like an increasing possibility.
Every single character in this book is just so beautifully and perfectly drawn – Vicar Dave has challenges of his own at home, we get to know Gwen’s difficult aunt rather better than we could ever want to, and the warmth of Jarvis’ family life is a great counterpoint to Gwen’s solitary existence. But it’s not just the main characters – every contact they make has their own story and leaps into life on the pages, together with all the many bit players from within the community. The writing is simply wonderful – at times it’s very funny indeed, the humour perfectly judged, but balanced with a poignancy and sadness that sometimes makes your heart ache. It’s a book full of moments and small details that I simply loved. So many themes emerge that I don’t know where to start in telling you about them, but it’s essentially a book about people, their diversity and their complex lives, and I found it entirely enchanting.
I really mustn’t tell you about the ending – whether the church is saved, whether Gwen and Jarvis really do manage to turn their lives around. You do find yourself wondering whether the romance you find yourself rather hoping for will develop – when, for all sorts of reasons, it looks increasingly unlikely. But as endings go, this one was simply perfect, heartwarming and uplifting, and everything I wanted it to be. And, of course, it’s not really the ending – because I’m delighted to see that the author will be taking us back to Hopley for two more books. I really can’t wait – this book was something very special indeed, and I loved every moment.
About the author
Tracy Rees was the winner of the Richard and Judy ‘Search for a Bestseller’ Competition and her books are paperback, ebook and audio bestsellers. A Cambridge graduate, she had a successful eight-year career in nonfiction publishing and a second career practising and teaching humanistic counselling before becoming a writer. She lives in Wales.