Book Review: Cupcakes for Christmas

Cupcakes for Christmas
Return to Willoughby Close #1
by Kate Hewitt

My rating: 3.5 / 5
Genre: Christmas romance

Olivia has been living in the English village of Wychwood-on-Lea for a couple of years now, taking over her mom’s tea shop and bakery. She’s content in her single life, but with her friends all recently starting new families, when a friendly stranger begins to show up at the shop now and then, Olivia starts to wonder if she’s ready for a new chapter in her life. However, Simon is quite the enigma–buying cupcakes from her “12 Days of Cupcakes” promotion and not eating them, showing up places with a woman and child that may or may not be his wife and son, and simply disappearing for days at a time. He may be hiding some kind of secret, but he’s also funny, compassionate, and is there when she really needs someone, as her mom begins to show signs of health problems. What does Christmas have in store for Olivia?

As sweet, novella-length Christmas romances go, this one was decent. There were some things that happened that I found strange and weren’t really explained, and it was a little slow overall, but not in a way that bothered me. I began to suspect Simon’s big secret before it was revealed, but it turned out to be a lot worse and more involved than I thought.

There was a whole cast of side characters that I believe were all stars in their own romances in a series the author had previously written. I hadn’t read any of that, and I don’t think it’s necessary, though I’m sure readers of the Willoughby Close series will enjoy seeing these people. The big downside to me is that there are a lot of these ladies/families, and they basically all blended together without distinct personalities, at least in the space of this story. So it was a whole aspect to the story that fell flat.

If you’re looking for a light, fluffy Christmas story, this really isn’t it. There were some dark moments and difficult subjects, which the author did handle well. It was a bit heavy for the story length, but in the end, I appreciated what both Olivia and Simon were going through and the connection it helped forge between them. If you don’t mind some heaviness in your romance, whether at Christmas time or not, consider checking out this book.

Find out more about Cupcakes for Christmas

See what I’m reading next.

If you’ve read this book, or read it in the future, feel free to let me know what you think!

Book Review: Joy to the World

Joy to the World
by Carolyn Miller, Amanda Barratt, & Erica Vetsch

My rating: 4 / 5
Genre: Christmas-themed short stories, Christian historical romance

Joy to the World contains three novellas from three different authors, each in the genre of Regency romance, perfect for the Christmas season. My overall rating for the book is an average of my ratings for each story, shown below. Below the ratings are brief (as much as possible) reviews for each story.

“Heaven and Nature Sing” by Carolyn Miller2 / 5
“Far as the Curse Is Found” by Amanda Barratt5 / 5
“Wonders of His Love” by Erica Vetsch5 / 5

“Heaven and Nature Sing” is the tale of 2 people who were close to engagement a year past, but are now estranged and are thrust together during the holidays, which certainly allows for a romance to develop in a short time period. There’s history there. But strangely, the only way the author seemed to be able to inject romance was related to kissing. Everything was about finding ways to put them under a kissing ball (mistletoe) or thrust them into some other awkward situation with physical closeness, before they’d even had a chance to try to work out their issues from the past.

Other things happened that made me dislike the characters or made me scratch my head, like Edith (female lead) allowing the other young adults to set George (male lead) up to mock propose to her, and then Edith actually blaming George for the situation! She also spends at least half of the story thinking about George and then mentally berating herself for doing that…and then she gets angry at him for saving her from a falling tree branch. I also noted a bit of dialog in which George asks Edith if she wants him to “kiss it better” in a story filled with flowery, old-fashioned language both in the dialog and surrounding it. Sadly, this story did not go over well with me. 

“Far as the Curse is Found” is the tale of two very broken people, albeit in different ways, who help each other out of the darkness. The connection between them is fast, but not in an unbelievable way. I think that Jenny’s background and brokenness are dealt with less than Dwight’s, and if the story had been longer, I would have liked to see more of how she had to overcome the trauma she’d gone through. It’s not treated frivolously, though, and she’s shown to be a strong character throughout.

Dwight undergoes the largest transformation, and I really like him every step of the way. Again, things may be a bit too quick, but it was explored well in the space the author had. The curse angle is a really nice glue for the story and ties into the story’s title and the book’s theme very well. Other reviewers have compared this story to Beauty and the Beast, which I can’t comment on, never having seen any version of it, but I can see some possible allusions. That aside, in case it’s not obvious, I loved this story! 

“Wonders of His Love” is the tale of a Scottish portrait painter trying to make a name for himself in England and the picture-perfect young widow that feels as displaced as he does. Cilla had married the future Duke of Haverly, who then died before he inherited the title. She’s left in limbo, having practically become a servant to her very demanding and prissy mother-in-law. She reminds me a lot of me–defaulting to a spot in the background, wondering if this will be her entire life. Even when she starts to make strides forward, she still falls back on old, “easy” habits. If the story had been novel-length, there would have been a lot more room to explore that, I think, but on the other hand, it might have started to get tiring, too.

Hamish is a different kind of character than I’ve read in this genre in the past (not that I have a very long history reading Regency romance), and I really liked that. I liked him in a lot of different ways, including the fact that the author didn’t dwell so much on him being tall and ridiculously handsome as every romantic hero seems to be. His talent and compulsion for sketching scenes, coupled with his ability to bring out the truth of  a subject, were all really interesting facets to his character. That’s a lot of why I would have loved to see a particular sketch Hamish had made come to fruition, and I’m not sure if the author simply ran out of space or forgot about it.

This third story was my favorite of the three by a very slim margin. I’ll admit right now, though, that what pushed it over the top was most likely the inclusion of characters from two of Erica Vetsch’s other novels. As soon as I realized who the female lead in this story was, I was so excited. And sure enough, both the Haverlys from The Gentleman Spy and the Whitelocks from The Lost Lieutenant were in the story (the Haverlys moreso, which makes sense, given that Cilla is the duke’s sister-in-law). Both of these books I read just recently and loved, but if you haven’t read them, don’t let that put you off from reading this story. You don’t need to know their stories to still follow and enjoy this novella.

Final thoughts on the whole book: Overall, it’s a wonderful collection of Christmas-related Regency romance stories. I do think plenty of others will like the first story, based on large differences in personal preferences, and I recommend the entire book to fans of the genres mentioned above, or even those looking for good Christian romance in general. I have a feeling I’ll re-read this during a future Christmas season and will even give the first story another chance.

Thank you to Netgalley and Kregel Publications for providing me a copy of this book to review.

Find out more about Joy to the World

See what I’m reading next.

If you’ve read this book, or read it in the future, feel free to let me know what you think!

Book Review: The Old Lace Shop

The Old Lace Shop
Once Upon a Dickens Christmas #3
by Michelle Griep
read by Nan McNamara

My rating: 4 / 5
Genre: Christian historical romance, Christmas fiction

Recently widowed Bella White spent almost a decade with a man who frightened and abused her. Now that he’s gone, she’s free to make her own path. Keeping one of the businesses her husband owned, Bella decides to help run the lace factory. Her business partner, though, who owns 49% of the business and is used to running it alone, is not so pleased. And since that partner is Edmund Archer, who was once Bella’s beau, things are quite awkward when Bella arrives to help run the factory. And the lace manufacturing business is a lot more cut-throat than Bella expected.

After the disappointment of book #2 in this series, I was glad to be able to enjoy this one more. I applauded Bella’s desire to earn her own money, rather than just live on what her husband left her. And her heart for local women who’d gone blind working in the lace factories was a really nice side plot. The overall story was decent, if not a little too cluttered for a short novel.

Right off the bat, it was strange going into this book after reading the first two in the series, because they were both told in 3rd person past tense, while this one is in 1st person present tense. This is an odd choice for a book with alternating POVs, and I’ll admit to being a little confused a few times when I’d forget whose perspective we were in at the time. Also, there’s more pressure to make sure both characters’ voices are unique, since they’re obviously not the exact same person, and that wasn’t necessarily done well enough here. It didn’t help that I listened to the audiobook though, which I’ve now decided to avoid for romances if at all possible. And that may have been why the romance in this story felt a little weak, or it may have been the story itself, but I don’t think I can say for sure.

The epilogue of this story was about the 2nd-chance coin that shows up in all 3 books. This is a shame, because I wasn’t as connected to that coin as I could have been, and so the epilogue mostly fell flat for me. Be that as it may, I still liked the story in general, and I do recommend this book for anyone looking for a quick Christmas read, or for a historical and/or Christian romance.

Find out more about The Old Lace Shop
**As far as I can tell, this story is not available in any format by itself. It is only available as the third story in the collection titled Once Upon a Dickens Christmas, which contains all three stories in this series.

See what I’m reading next.

If you’ve read this book, or read it in the future, feel free to let me know what you think!

Book Review: A Christmas Star

A Christmas Star
Cape Light #9
by Thomas Kinkade & Katherine Spencer

My rating: 4 / 5
Genre: Christmas drama, romance

Spoiler notice: The following review may contain some spoilers for the previous books in the series, starting with Cape Light.

Jack Sawyer, recent hermit after the loss of his wife 2 years past, awkwardly takes in a single mother and her young daughter when their car breaks down near his house in the country. Before long, he’s as much in need of Julie’s help as she is of his. At the same time, Sam & Jessica Morgan lose their beloved house to a devastating fire. Their marriage is tested in this difficult time, as rebuilding won’t be as easy as they hope.

Of the books in the Cape Light series I’ve read, this was my favorite. The story of Jack and Julie was much more interesting to me than the saga of Sam and Jessica Morgan’s tragedy. I don’t think that’s necessarily because I didn’t like the plot arc about the fire, but because I really liked the arc with Jack and Julie. Even moreso, I liked the arc with Jack and Julie’s daughter, Kate.

What I found most endearing was that this was not just the development of a relationship between a widower and a single mom, but also the development of a relationship between a father whose son has been estranged for two years and a little girl who steals the not-so-old man’s heart. Jack could get a second chance at being both a husband and a father, and it’s very sweet. The culmination of that storyline made the entire book worth it.

As for Sam and Jessica, they almost killed my interest in the series in the first book. Fortunately, we’re past most of the drama I disliked with them, but I will say some of their annoying quirks reared their heads again. Still, I found the difficulties they go through in this book sadly all too realistic. And while the end of their story might bother some, I think it makes sense within the context of this series.

After reading the first 4 books in the series and averaging 3.5 stars, I decided not to continue with it (which becomes a series of Christmas novels after the first 4 non-holiday books). But I already owned this one, so figured I’d give it a try. I’m glad I did, as I liked it more than the first 4. I’m not sure if I’ll read more or not, though. Maybe I’ll go back to book #5 if I have time left in the holiday season after I’ve read all of the Christmas-themed books I have planned. We’ll see.

Find out more about A Christmas Star

See what I’m reading next.

If you’ve read this book, or read it in the future, feel free to let me know what you think!

Book Review: An Ivy Hill Christmas

An Ivy Hill Christmas
by Julie Klassen

My rating: 5 / 5
Genre: Christian historical romance, Christmas fiction

Coerced home from London during the Christmas season by his mother, Richard Brockwell is focused on staying away from any marriageable young ladies and returning to London as soon as he can. But his time at home brings up a lot of regrets and bad memories from his past, places a needy orphan in his path, and taunts him with a young woman who wants to be paired with him even less than he wants to be paired with her. That woman is Arabella Awdry, who is determined to forgo romance for a life of helping the less fortunate. Besides that, she knows all too well what sort of man Richard Brockwell is, and it isn’t the sort of man she wants anything to do with.

I saw this book here and there over the last month or so, passing it by for various reasons. Then I read another book by Julie Klassen recently and loved it, so as soon as I realized this was by the same author, I immediately added it to my Christmas-season reading list. I’m so glad I did! Though I haven’t read any of the other Ivy Hill books, and I could see that some characters were part of a larger story, I didn’t have any issues reading this. And it hit so many sweet spots for me. I loved the characters, that the romance was just one part of the story, that some common tropes of the genre were avoided.

I really liked Arabella early in the story; she endeared herself to me as soon as she put Richard in his place for his rudeness regarding her family. Richard was flawed in such a real way, and I think the author did a great job with his backstory. I’ll admit that Arabella’s stubbornness wore on me a bit by the end, but not as a flaw in the book, because it didn’t feel forced or unrealistic.

A Christmas romance is even more likely to feel contrived than any other romance story, at least in my experience, but I loved the fact that it wasn’t the only purpose of the story at all. There was a lot going on, especially for Richard, and the ending didn’t feel too easy or frivolous. Everything had to really be worked for. Though when I reached the end of the book with only the epilogue left, my heart almost stopped. I am not sure that was the best pacing idea. But it’s a minor complaint, really (not saying more to avoid spoilers).

Overall, I found this short novel to be refreshing and liked how, though some of the same types of silly parlor games were played as I’ve started to get used to in other novels of the same genre, they weren’t so groan-inducing in this story as I’ve come to expect. I loved it, and if you’ve seen many of my reviews, you might know that I don’t give 5 stars very often, so let that tell you something. I definitely recommend this book for any fans of Christian historical romance, especially if you’re looking for a warm Christmas read. I’m definitely adding the Tales from Ivy Hill books to my reading list now!

Thank you to Netgalley and Bethany House for providing me a copy of this book to review.

Find out more about An Ivy Hill Christmas

See what I’m reading next.

If you’ve read this book, or read it in the future, feel free to let me know what you think!

Book Review: A Tale of Two Hearts

A Tale of Two Hearts
Once Upon a Dickens Christmas #2
by Michelle Griep
read by Nan McNamara

My rating: 2 / 5
Genre: Christian historical romance, Christmas fiction

When William Barlow, the man Mina Scott has a huge crush on, asks her to pretend to be his wife so that he can remain in the running to be chosen as his uncle’s heir, she jumps at the chance. But things get complicated when Uncle Barlow puts off the decision, William’s rival and cousin starts to play dirty, and Mina begins to regret deceiving the kind uncle.

I really liked the previous book in this series, 12 Days at Bleakly Manor, so I was excited to start off my Christmas-season reading by continuing the series. Unfortunately, I didn’t like this one nearly as much. There were some tropes and cliches that I’m a little tired of, I don’t think I liked any of the bigger characters, and the plot was pure contrivance. Obviously any plot is going to be full of contrivances–they are made up by the author, after all. But it felt so much more like it was only a vehicle for the romance this time, and a lot of it seemed unrealistic.

One of the things that bugged me most while reading this book was the amount of times that William and Mina decided to tell Uncle Barlow the truth, and even started to, but couldn’t follow through for some reason. Frankly…they didn’t try very hard. Especially one moment in particular, when the uncle was up late and having a conversation with a woman who knew about the lie and knew they were looking to tell him the truth…rather than say he needed to have a moment alone with his uncle, at which point the woman in question would likely have agreed to leave, William just left. And on it went, dragging the plot on. And it turned out there were other secrets that were even worse for the uncle to have dropped on him.

Overall, I think what I really saw is that the story lacked much heart. Characters paid lip service to their morals and values, but didn’t follow through very well. And Mina’s dad was really hard to get a handle on. I listened to the audiobook, and the narrator’s voice took me some time to get used to, but in the end, I think it was the characters themselves, along with the plot, that made this book a bust for me. I plan to listen to the third book in the series later this month, and I have high hopes that it recaptures the charm of the first book in the series.

Find out more about A Tale of Two Hearts

See what I’m reading next.

If you’ve read this book, or read it in the future, feel free to let me know what you think!

Book Review: 12 Days at Bleakly Manor

12 Days at Bleakly Manor
Once Upon a Dickens Christmas
#1
by Michelle Griep

My rating: 4 / 5
Genre: Christian historical mystery, romance, Christmas fiction

With Christmas 2 days away, this will be my last Christmas review for the year! So sad, and yet, I had so much fun focusing on holiday-related fiction and will definitely do it again next year! Now, onto the review!

When seven people are invited to spent the 12 days of Christmas at Bleakly Manor and offered some sort of reward for staying the entire time, the clash of personalities, not to mention the lack of food and heat, provide the backdrop for the re-igniting of a relationship. Clara Chapman is offered enough money to save her from the poor house. Her ex-fiance Ben Lane is offered his freedom from a prison sentence that he doesn’t deserve. They’ll have the chance to discover the truth behind what broke them up, but only if they can survive the other guests–especially after the revelation that only one of the guests can get the prize.

This is a nice Christmas-adjacent mystery with some romance, set in 1850. I enjoyed the way the guests interacted, for the most part, and while the mystery elements were fairly predictable, I still liked the way it all came together at the end. I liked the atmosphere that was built both with the descriptions and in the writing itself.

One of my biggest disappointments with this book was the way both Ben & Clara were so quick to assume the worst of each other. Even when they began to understand their misconceptions, they still took longer to let go of them than I thought they should. I know that 9 months of believing the worst of someone else can sour the mind, but…in the end, 9 months isn’t really all that long. And even later, without spoiling anything, both of them had opportunity to trust in the other after they have had a chance to get past their issues, and both failed, at least to some degree. It’s not the most solid basis for a relationship.

There was one particular guest that I really didn’t like–both his personality and how he acted, but also how he was described and portrayed in the text. And in the end, he was barely involved in much and left without making much of an impact. There were a few other things here or there that never ended up making much sense for the story, but they were mostly minor things.

Overall, it was a fun read, short and sweet. I liked the old-fashioned traditions involving Christmas that were shown, and there was one particular thing that was revealed at the end that I felt like I should have guessed, and think many would, but I didn’t, which made it better for me. It definitely has some Christian elements scattered throughout, and the romance is clean (there are some physical desires brought up, but not acted upon). I recommend this book for anyone looking for a quick Christmas read, for a historical book with mystery elements, or for a Christian romance.

Find out more about 12 Days at Bleakly Manor

See what I’m reading next.

If you’ve read this book, or read it in the future, feel free to let me know what you think!

Book Review: A Plain and Simple Christmas

A Plain and Simple Christmas
by Amy Clipston

My rating: 2 / 5
Genre: Christmas drama

Anna Mae has been out of the Amish community for 3 years, shunned by her family for marrying an “Englisher” (non-Amish). Expecting her first child at Christmas time, she reaches out to her sister-in-law Kathryn in the hopes that she might be able to return home for Christmas. Though it won’t be easy, Anna Mae and Kathryn hatch a plot that ends in a way neither of them expected.

A quick read, this novella left me with a lot of problems. I didn’t care for most of the characters, felt that very little happened overall, and found the plot to be all too predictable.

I’ll start with that last one first, because the synopsis for this book literally says that this story is “an inspiring page-turner that will keep you guessing what happens next…right to the very last page.” That is a tall order for any story, be it book, movie, or television show. Christmas stories especially tend to be a bit more predictable, generally speaking, because we expect them to end on a good note. And this book in particular…well, I can’t really think of anything that happened that I couldn’t predict. Maybe one thing:

Though Anna Mae is the one wishing for a family Christmas, I’d say Kathryn really becomes the main character, as she was Anna Mae’s contact in the Amish community, and her partner-in-crime, so to speak. Not that there was anything criminal about it. And in fact, I have to go on a tangent here and explain that I know little to nothing about Amish ways, but this book eventually explained that those who are shunned were, indeed, allowed to visit, but simply had to stay apart from the others during meals and church services. Yet Anna Mae’s dad, bishop of the community, treated her as if shunning meant she didn’t exist at all. It was harsh and yet explained and dissolved all too easily.

Now back to Kathryn…she grated on my nerves. For one thing, the narration tells us that she’s not a proud person, but we sure do see a lot of her thinking how Anna Mae’s family will have her to thank for their reunion. Plus, her husband–Anna Mae’s brother–insists that she not bring Anna Mae there for Christmas for various legitimate reasons, but she does it anyway, betraying his trust and involving other family members, including her own daughter. For a Christian family, and moreso, one where it’s clear the man is usually the head of the household, it really bugged me that in the end, she was seen to be right, and there were no real consequences to their relationship. I also disliked Anna Mae’s father and strongly disagreed with some of his beliefs and traditions.

And finally, what made this short novel really drag on for me was that everything that happened in the book was basically repeated. By this I mean that we’d see something happen, and then the next scene would be a character recounting what had just happened for another character. But where most of us would condense that with a line like, “She explained the events to her mother,” we see the entire conversation rehashing the event we’d just seen happen. This happened multiple times, which led me to start scanning to get through it more quickly.

I know that Amish fiction is an entire sub-genre within the genre of Christian fiction, and I’ve wondered what the appeal is for a long time. I realize that this might not have been the example to base my opinion on, but there were some things that came up that weren’t part of what I didn’t like about this particular book that lead me to think it won’t be my cup of tea as a whole. I don’t really think I could recommend this book to readers of Amish fiction either though. It just didn’t have much substance.

Find out more about A Plain and Simple Christmas

See what’s coming up.

If you’ve read this book, or read it in the future, feel free to let me know what you think!

Book Review: The Christmas Box

The Christmas Box
by Richard Paul Evans

My rating: 3.5 / 5
Genre: Christmas drama

A young family of 3 move into a mansion to be companion and helper to an elderly widow named MaryAnne. As the Christmas season progresses, the narrator–husband & father Richard–uncovers MaryAnne’s painful secret, and in turn, is reminded of what is truly important in life, and what Christmas is really about.

I read this in about an hour and a half, and it was a decent read. The writing was clear and simple. The characters weren’t very fleshed-out, but for a story of this length, I wouldn’t expect them to be, so it didn’t bother me. The plot developed in a way that made it seem like I was meant to be surprised by some reveals near the end, but it all seemed pretty obvious to me.

The message about why it’s important to spend time with your loved one while you can was portrayed clearly, if not a little heavy-handedly. I must admit, though, that the Christmas box itself seemed like a much smaller element than I would have expected. There are also some pseudo-supernatural elements that weren’t explained.

The thing that confused me the most is that apparently the book is set in the late 1940s, but it’s almost like it was a secret. The only way I realized it is by doing some math from some passing comments and a date shown on a letter.

The book is the first in a trilogy, which are all included in the collection copy that I have. The later 2 books are apparently both prequels to the first one. And each installment basically doubles the size of the previous. I think this first book would be enjoyed by those who are looking for a poignant book about love, loss, and the importance of family. 

Find out more about The Christmas Box

See what I’m reading next.

If you’ve read this book, or read it in the future, feel free to let me know what you think!

Book Review: Skipping Christmas

Skipping Christmas
by John Grisham

My rating: 3.5 / 5
Genre: Christmas farce

With their adult daughter gone for a year near the beginning of the Christmas season, Luther and Nora Krank get it into their minds that they don’t need to do Christmas this year. Instead, they plan a Caribbean cruise, set to leave on Christmas day. But they find out that it’s not so easy to remove themselves from all of the trappings of Christmas and will have a difficult time making it to their cruise without giving in to at least some of the seasonal traditions.

This was a quick, easy read that was mostly enjoyable. I can’t really say I connected with the main characters, but I did identify with them in some areas. There were some parts near the end that I didn’t predict, though I suspect many would, and one thing that I saw coming a mile away. Probably the most frustrating thing about the book is how unrealistic it seems.

To be fair, I can’t personally judge how realistic some parts of the book are, because the Kranks live in a type of neighborhood that I’ve never been part of, and run in circles the likes of which are foreign to me. However, much of what happened seemed quite over the top. But where that was a huge problem for others, I took it as a farce. Even if it is exaggerated, I think a lot of this might not be far from how a family (one that normally celebrates Christmas) would be treated if they tried to completely skip the holiday. There were also some things that the Kranks did in their quest to completely cut out all things Christmas that I felt were a bit ridiculous. However, I also agree with some of the commentary this book offers on how commercial Christmas has gotten, and how people seem to think that they can push certain boundaries during this season, just because it’s Christmas.

In the end, I am glad I read the book. The ending made me smile, even while I knew that it was trite and a bit too easy. There were some heartfelt moments in there. I do recommend this to anyone who wants a decent Christmas-themed read, especially for those who want to avoid the romance and sap of the more prevalent stories. I plan to watch the movie that was based on this book, Christmas with the Kranks, with my husband soon, and to be honest, I think he’s going to hate it. But who knows.

Find out more about Skipping Christmas

See what I’m reading next.

If you’ve read this book, or read it in the future, feel free to let me know what you think!