Book Review: Merry Humbug Christmas

Merry Humbug Christmas
by Sandra D. Bricker

My rating: 4 / 5
Genre: Christmas romance

Joss Snow has had enough of Christmas pageantry, so for the last few years, she and her best friend Reese Pendergrass have skipped the holiday together. But this year, Reese is newly engaged and spending a traditional Christmas with her future in-laws. Joss, left to go on her Bah! Humbug cruise alone, ends up on a 12 Days of Christmas cruise instead and Reese’s trip seems to take every bad turn possible. Will these two friends survive the holiday?

Technically this is written as 2 separate novellas, “Once Upon a Jingle Bell” and “It Came Upon a Midnight Deer,” each following one of the two friends through their holidays. The story is mostly cohesive, though; it simply tells the 2 main characters’ escapades one at a time. Each chapter starts with a line from a “12 Days of Christmas” parody invoking Murphy’s Law, which I liked. And Murphy’s Law comes in heavily, especially in the 2nd story. While normally the “everything that can go wrong will go wrong” trope annoys me, I enjoyed the book and even liked the 2nd novella more than the first.

One great thing about this book is that, even though it’s a Christmas book, it’s not as sappy as Christmas books so often are. On the other hand, it’s billed as a Christian book, but the Christian content is incredibly light. And there’s a lot of emphasis on physical looks in both relationships. If you’re not looking for a faith-filled story, though, this is a nice light-on-the-syrup Christmas read with some romance and fun.

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Book Review: Remembering Christmas

Remembering Christmas
by Dan Walsh

My rating: 3.5 / 5
Genre: Christian, Christmas fiction

Rick Denton likes his life as a high-powered accountant, living how he wants, with very few responsibilities. But when his step-father, who he never much cared for, has a stroke on Thanksgiving weekend, his mother asks him to come to Florida and help out at the bookstore the couple own and run together. Rick agrees out of obligation, not expecting to stay more than a few days…which stretches on past what he expected. Rick isn’t sure he can handle much more of the people who frequent the store, and worse yet, they always seem to have great things to say about his step-father, who Rick always saw as an interloper. Is it possible there’s more going on here than he would have thought?

I kicked off my Christmas-season reading a little late this year, but this was a great book to start it off. The story was a little predictable, as Christmas stories tend to be (especially those that involve romance, which this one does), but it was still sweet. I teared up during a particularly emotional scene with Rick’s mom (Leanne) and step-dad (Art) at the hospital, because it reminded me of being in my dad’s hospital room after his heart attack, while we were waiting for them to be able to do surgery on him. And at other times, I couldn’t help but imagine what it would be like if I were in Leanne’s place, where my husband was the one in the bed. It was well written, with Leanne’s perspective showing what a loving, long-term relationship can look like.

By the end of the book, I had a few issues, the most glaring being the incredible amount of typos and grammatical errors. I can’t believe this book was ever published by a traditional publishing house, as it seems to need a lot of polishing. There was also one moment that made me cringe a little, and later, I was surprised that no one in the story seemed to feel that Rick was trying to buy some of the characters’ love. But those things aside, I enjoyed reading this book; it’s a sweet, warm Christmas read.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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**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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Notebook Collection, part 4

This will be my 4th post about my notebook collection. I planned to put this out several weeks ago, but the holidays got in the way. Of course, I’ve added even more since I realized I had enough to post about. I’m splitting them into 2 posts, but I’ll have to post the 2nd one soon, or I’ll have even more to add to it.

Truthfully, I am trying very hard to cut down on how many I get. The shelf where I keep them is full now, and I’m not exactly using them up quickly. It’s just so difficult when there are so many amazing notebooks out there! It really is an obsession…

Speaking of which, follow these links to see the first, second, and third posts about my collection. And now here are the next 5 additions:

1

I’ve actually had this notebook for years and recently found it on a different shelf. My mother-in-law gave it to me when I was first starting to collect notebooks (before I thought of it as a collection). It’s a cute little journal with a window in the front, inside which are actual dried flowers (well, they might be fake…I haven’t exactly opened it, but the point is that it’s not a 2-dimensional representation, but actual flowers inside).


2

This mini notebook with accompanying pen was a gift from my local library, when I took part in a display at a festival in our town. They had a couple of tables set up for local authors to sell books, promote themselves, and talk to the public about writing or publishing. It was the first time I’d ever done something like this, and paved the way for a slightly larger event at the library in the next city over.


3

My husband got this at a thrift store a month or so before Christmas, and I love the ugly Christmas sweater look. I’m also always happy to add to my collection at a bargain price. It’s a half-sized notebook that is thicker than most of my notebooks of the same size.

 


4a

4bWe have a plethora of places to get cheaply priced notebooks in my area, which I’m afraid is really a problem for me. During the Christmas shopping season, we went to a store that’s only open during that time and sells goods for really cheap. They had several notebooks that caught my eye. I decided to stick to only buying 2 (even though they were super cheap). I chose this one because of the gold fringe and sparkly page edges.


5This is the other notebook I got at the store mentioned above. It’s closer to a normal notebook size and spiral-bound, which will make it easier to write in. I’ve also noticed that I really like notebooks with maps on them, and I do live in Indiana, so it was easy to decide on.

 

 

I’ll have another post next week, and hopefully it will only include 5 notebooks. If there are more than 5, you’ll know how weak I really am…

Book Review: Cape Light

Cape Light
Book #1
by Thomas Kinkade & Katherine Spencer

My rating: 3 / 5
Genre: Christian romance, drama

Cape Light is a small, very connected, and generally religious New England village. In this first book of 20 (so far), we are introduced to some of the inhabitants of the village–the mayor and her family, who are still somewhat reeling from a scandal in the past; the local diner owner who is very set in his ways and has designs on unseating the mayor in the next election; the reverend and his wife, whose joyful news is overshadowed by a wayward family member. Characters are established and at least one romance blooms, in this book that covers a summer in Cape Light.

Though there are a lot of characters to keep straight, I found that it wasn’t as difficult as I thought it would be. I had a few moments that needed clarity, but I followed it well enough. And for the first half of the book, I was interested in the lives and backstories of these people. In fact, I never stopped being interested in that. But what seriously detracted from it was the plight of the main character and her romantic entanglement.

Jessica Warwick, the mayor’s sister, has recently moved back from not-too-far-away Boston, and she intends to return as soon as she can. She’s only in town to help her ailing mother, who is starting to recover well. She has a life back in Boston, and a sort-of boyfriend. Enter Sam Morgan, whom she is immediately taken by, though she refuses to acknowledge it for a long time. But when her boyfriend conveniently gets really busy, she starts dating Sam, even while making it clear that she’s moving back to Boston at the end of the summer. What follows is a ridiculously drama-filled mess that could have easily been solved in multiple ways. I don’t know which of these two irritated me more–the woman who dated a guy in town while knowing that she wasn’t done with the previous boyfriend yet and continued a relationship with a man who was clearly falling hard for her, despite her warning about there being no future, or the man who ignored her warning about there being no future because he held out hope that he could change her mind. Actually, I can safely say it was Jessica who irritated me more, because she was a pretty terrible person in general, and it was clear that her attraction to Sam was mostly physical for a while.

While romance novels are always pretty obvious, in that the two leads are going to end up together, I prefer those that are more in the backdrop to an interesting plot. There was little in the way of plot involving Jessica and Sam that wasn’t directly related to their relationship. The situations that occurred just to make them fall in love and/or add drama to their relationship were so much more obviously contrived than I prefer. By the end, I just wanted the book to be done already, which makes me sad, because I did enjoy unraveling the lives of the others in town.

The Christianity in the book was weirdly both shallow and heavily permeating. Apparently a large amount of the village’s inhabitants go to the same church, and many of them have a strong faith. Several others are seeking, and a lot of the same advice is given by different people. The series starts with 4 not-specifically-holiday books, but apparently by book 5, it continued as a Christmas series, which is what brought it to my attention at this time of year in the first place.

The writing was a bit pedestrian, but it only bothered me at times. I am going to give the series another chance, because just about every plot arc that was started in this book was left hanging, and I really do want to see what happens. Since the main thing that bothered me about this book should take a back seat in the future, I am hopeful about continuing. With proper planning, I can be ready for the first of the Christmas books by November or December.

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