Published in ebook : 1 November 2016
The last thing Harriet Westmoreland wants is Christmas away from home, particularly when skiing, snow, heights and freezing her backside off are on the menu. While her own family, together with her best friend Grace’s, are soon whizzing down ridiculously high and scary mountains in the fashionable Italian resort of Cortina d’Ampezzo, Harriet is stuck in the remedial class on the nursery slopes unable, it seems, to remain vertical.
Tired of trying to stay upright in the dunces’ class, Harriet decides to overcome her fear of heights and take her bruised body off to explore the refugios in the magnificent Dolomites above Cortina. And maybe catch a glance of George Clooney, rumoured to be in town… But what happens next triggers a totally unexpected avalanche of events which proves that, for friends Harriet and Grace and all their families, Christmas really is a time for little miracles…
As I’m trying to get into the Christmas spirit, I’ve added a few Christmas books to my current reading list. Today’s post features a Christmas novella, An Off-Piste Christmas. Author Julie Houston has very kindly agreed to take part in a Christmas themed Q&A and I have a short review at the end.
Please tell us a little about an Off-Piste Christmas and why you decided to continue the story of the Westmorelands in a Christmas novella
Because my first two novels, GOODNESS, GRACE AND ME and THE ONE SAVING GRACE are both about Harriet Westmoreland and best friend Grace, my agent (Anne Williams at KHLA) suggested I continue their story in a novella for Christmas. I wanted the girls, plus their ever-expanding families, to be somewhere exciting for the festive period and because I love Italy (my great-grandfather was from Naples) I decided to set it in the Italian Alps. There are a couple of chapters in THE ONE SAVING GRACE which describe Harriet and Grace enjoying (to some degree!!!) Christmas at home here in England, so I decided this year to give them a treat and whizz them off on a ski trip instead.
Why the Italian location? Are you a skier?
I hate skiing with a passion!! I first tried it in the Southern Alps when I was living in New Zealand and I couldn’t even stand up. Because my husband adores the sport I agreed to have another go at it and we took the children when they were just six and nine to Courcheval in France. I was just as hopeless and, like Harriet, gave up mid-week while the rest of my lot whizzed past me. The three of them are all now superb skiers and go at least twice a year leaving me to entertain myself (yay!) somewhere warm with a book in one hand and a rather lovely cocktail in the other. We have agreed to disagree on the subject!!
Describe a typical Christmas in the Houston household and do you have any family traditions?
Because I love cooking and having people round I have done Christmas lunch ever since we were married. We have a mixture of family and friends round and I am always open to anyone having their feet under the table. This year we are up to fourteen. My mother-in-law always does the smoked salmon starter and I do the rest. Because my husband has a promotional gift company there is always a surfeit of table gifts, crackers and hats to hand. Boxing day is often a long walk with up to twenty or so friends and back to us for sausage and mash and Christmas pudding ice cream.
You can travel anywhere in the world – where would be your ideal place to spend Christmas?
Probably Barbados. Been there a couple of times for the New Year and absolutely love it. I spent one Christmas in Australia in Surfers’ Paradise and that was amazing. I’d been teaching in New Zealand and three of us flew to Sydney and then up to the Gold Coast for Christmas. Wonderful!
Who puts up the Christmas decorations in your house?
Always my husband and my daughter. It has become a total tradition that they do it together. I was sacked from the job many years ago: my husband is a perfectionist and it was my job to make sure the tree was at 90 degrees. I was more than happy with anything from 70 – 100 degrees and while I got the giggles following his directions – right a bit, left a bit etc, – my husband just got cross. I think it’s the one thing we always fell out about. I’d just sling a few decorations at the tree and hope for the best, but husband and daughter make sure all is symmetrical. Life’s too short to have a perpendicular Christmas tree!!
Do you have an all-time favourite Christmas book?
Yes, totally!! Every year out comes A SMALL MIRACLE by Peter Collington. (dragonfly books) It is a book with no words but beautiful drawings and tells the story of an old traveller woman who one Christmas Eve leaves her caravan to trudge through the snow into the town to sell her beloved accordion as she has no money for food or heating. She is mugged of the money and follows the mugger through the snow to the church where not only has he helped himself to the Nativity collection money, but has desecrated the nativity models as well. She sets the figures back in the stable and then trudges back towards home without any money or food but collapses in the snow. Over the hill come the figures from the Nativity and carry her home, put her to bed and then go into the town to get her accordion back and into Sainsbury’s to buy turkey, pud etc. Mary organises Joseph, the shepherds and wise men to cook Christmas lunch. I’ve entertained classes of children with the book and every year it always makes me cry. (“Are you crying, Mrs Houston…?”)
What is the best and worst Christmas present you have ever received?
The best is ‘Kenny’ my all singing and dancing Kenwood Mixer that my husbands reckons I love more than him. It’s silver, shiny, very sexy and is always at my bidding…!
The worst is probably the china ornament of two cats on top of each other given to me by one of my nine-year-olds. What they were up to is anyone’s guess!!
Quick fire questions:
Xmas Tree – real or artificial: Real
Favourite Christmas song: BENJAMIN BRITTEN’S ‘THIS LITTLE BABE’ we used to sing every year, and were famous for, at my girls’ grammar school carol service. Still sends shivers down my spine when I hear it.
Favourite Christmas film: Love Actually
Paper Christmas cards or e-cards: E-Cards (hangs head in shame)
Xmas pudding or plum pudding and Cream or brandy butter: Christmas Pudding with Rum Sauce
Twiglets or pringles: Pringles
Queen’s speech or DVD: Neither, have probably collapsed at that point!
This is the second book I’ve read by Julie Houston featuring the antics of the Westmoreland family (the first being Goodness, Grace and Me) (you can see my review here) and this was just as funny and engaging.
Set in the period between Christmas and New Year, Harriet and her family, together with friends Grace, Amanda Henderson (I use the term ‘friend’ loosely in respect of Amanda as she is just as snobbish and overbearing as ever!) and their respective families fly out for a luxury skiing holiday to the Italian Dolomites as the lucky guests of a rich company contact. I have yet to catch up on book 2, (The One Saving Grace) and it seems that an awful lot has happened to Harriet and her best friend Grace in the meantime. Each family relationship has become more complicated and it took a short while to get my head around who was with who. But, it didn’t take long to get back into the swing of the family dynamics and what followed was a lot of snorting and chuckling on my part (I soon realised from the odd looks I was getting that it was a mistake to read this book on my train commute!)
One of the things I love about Julie’s writing (apart from her wicked sense of humour) is that she makes her characters seem so believable. I actually want to be friends with Harriet as she seems such fun to be with – (I also share her dislike of skiing and the two of us could sit with a hot chocolate and cake!). However, none of them are without their flaws, least of all Harriet and one aspect in particular in this story follows on from book 2 which came as quite a surprise to me and has now made me even keener to catch up and find out exactly what went on. The ensuing fallout from this previous storyline is dealt with sensitively and ensures that there is a more serious level of depth to the story.
Quite often novellas, by their very nature, leave me feeling shortchanged and disappointed. I certainly didn’t get that feeling with this one. The storyline is perfectly paced, it didn’t feel rushed and even the minor characters had enough personality to make them memorable. including moody teenagers and bossy adults. The youngest members of the family were just as funny and endearing as the elders and Harriet’s daughter India, at just 10 years old, was a delight. Despite the luxurious surroundings, not everyone is in the holiday mood and as you can probably imagine, mishaps and misunderstandings all add to the fun and drama of the story.
I thoroughly enjoyed An Off Piste Christmas and definitely recommend this for a little bit of winter cheer. I really must find the One Saving Grace on my Kindle and catch up properly with the family’s shenanigans. If you haven’t read either of the other books before, don’t worry, this one can be be read on its own.
Source: my own purchased copy. At the time of writing this post, it can be downloaded from Amazon UK for £1.99.
About the author:
Julie Houston is the author of four novels – The One Saving Grace, Goodness, Grace and Me, Looking for Lucy and just published, An Off-Piste Christmas.
Julie Houston is Yorkshire born and bred. She lives in Huddersfield where her novels are set and her only claims to fame are that she taught at ‘Bridget Jones’ author Helen Fielding’s old school and she was rescued by Frank Bough when, many years ago, she was ‘working as a waitress in a cocktail bar’ at the Kensington Hilton in London.
After University, where she studied Education and English Literature, she taught for many years as a junior school teacher. As a newly qualified teacher, broke and paying off her first mortgage, she would spend every long summer holiday working on different Kibbutzim in Israel. After teaching for a few years she decided to go to New Zealand to work and taught in Auckland for a year before coming back to this country.
She now teaches just a couple of days a week but still loves the buzz of teaching junior-aged children. She has been a magistrate for the last fifteen years, and, when not distracted by ebay, geneology (so time consuming but so interesting – she recently discovered her husband is descended from the poet Shelley and the Duke of Milan!!) and crosswords, she spends much of her time writing.
Julie is married, has a twenty-one-year-old son and eighteen-year-old daughter and a mad cockapoo called Lincoln. She runs and swims because she’s been told it’s good for her, but would really prefer a glass of wine, a sun lounger and a jolly good book.