Book Review: The Silver Shadow

The Silver Shadow
True Colors #11
by Liz Tolsma

My rating: 2 / 5
Genre: Historical Christian romance, crime

When a series of attacks on women begin to seem connected, Denver newspaper reporter Polly Blythe and police detective Edwin Price work together to catch the criminal responsible. Both are hindered by bosses whose priorities are skewed, but when Polly catches the madman’s attention, they will have to work extra hard to apprehend the perpetrator while also keeping Polly safe.

At its core, this is the story of 3 individuals who are all haunted by something terrible from their past. Each of them is trying to find a way to deal with that past, none of them is going about it the right way, and not all of them will learn that lesson by the end of the book. Whether this connection between the characters was intentional or not, I couldn’t tell you, because I don’t think the author capitalized on it much at all. It did lead to a lot of repetition, though. I struggled all the way through this book with not feeling connected to the two main characters or to the relationship they were building along the way. The writing seemed kind of shallow and the dialog was often strange, confusing, or stilted.

There was one thing Edwin did part way through the book that appalled me and was just waved away, leaving me feeling very unsettled. Polly is said to be smart and careful, yet constantly goes out alone after dark for one reason or another. Guessing at the identity of the murderer, not even knowing if it would be someone we’d met in the story or not, was something that kept me interested, but that’s probably all that kept me moving through the book quickly. The overall plot and many of the specific events that happened were interesting and could have made for an exciting story, but it just all felt so rushed and shallow. Maybe that’s due to the length of the book, I don’t know.

I’ve had my ups and downs with this series of stand-alone true crime books, but this one is a miss for me. It’s a completely clean romance, though doesn’t have a particularly strong Christian message throughout, if  you’re looking for that. I’ve not read all of the other True Colors books, nor even all of Liz Tolsma’s contributions, but I did really like one of her others, The Green Dress. As for this one, please be sure to check out other reviews for the book if you’re interested, because many others liked it more than I did.

Thank you to Netgalley and Barbour Publishing, Inc. for providing me a copy of this book to review.

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Publication date: May 1, 2021

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Book Review: The Spice King

The Spice King
Hope & Glory #1
by Elizabeth Camden

My rating: 4.5 / 5
Genre: Historical Christian romance

When Annabelle Larking is tasked with getting access to the plant collection of the Delacroix spice company, she is rebuffed by the man in charge, Gray Delacroix. Success in this endeavor is the only way that Annabelle can assure a long-term position at the Smithsonian, though, which is crucial to her own future, as well as the future of her family back in Kansas. She won’t give up easily. But neither will Gray, who is determined to keep his secrets under lock and key. He has his own family to worry about–a brother who seems to only want to float through life doing nothing productive and a sister who knows how to spend money. Enemies are everywhere, but Gray is ready to trust someone. He’s just not sure if Annabelle is that person.

This is my favorite kind of romance book–one that’s not just about the romance. There’s so much more going on than the synopsis shows. It seemed at first that Annabelle would be more of the focal point of the story, but really it was Gray. His family, his empire, his desire to stop traveling and settle down, and the way that so much of that gets thwarted, I really got caught up in his story. But that doesn’t leave Annabelle on the sidelines. She’s in Washington with her blind sister, helping her navigate the streets and life, and I loved how that side of the story went too.

This is the first book of 3 in the series, and it sets up what appears to be a plot running through all three when a scandal in Gray’s family is exposed. While that could have been a downfall for the story, this grand plot that isn’t very connected to or even resolved in this book, that’s not the case at all. It works, and rather than leaving me disappointed at the lack of resolution, it made me look forward to seeing it all play out.

While at times, the dialog was a bit too modern, it didn’t bother me much. My biggest issue is with a small spot of theology that could imply that one must work to earn salvation. However, I couldn’t quite tell if that was the message there, or if it was more that the person in question was working toward the surrender needed in order to accept the gift of salvation from Jesus, but hadn’t taken the final step yet. It was brief and vaguely expressed. I’ll have to keep an eye out for that as I continue this series, because I do not endorse a works-based salvation. With that in mind, I do recommend this book for all fans of Christian or historical romance.

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Book Review: The Purple Nightgown

The Purple Nightgown
by A.D. Lawrence

My rating: 4 / 5
Genre: Historical Christian romance, crime

Stella Burke, heir to a clothing company and accompanying fortune left when her father died, suffers from near-daily debilitating migraines. When the latest suggested treatment doesn’t work, she comes across a book called Fasting for the Cure of Disease by Linda Burfield Hazzard and then discovers that the doctor has a health spa not too far away. Desperate for anything to ease her pain, she insists that her family chauffeur take her to the spa. Henry is more than just her chauffeur, a close friend and confidante who has been part of her life since they were both kids. He doesn’t trust the doctor’s methods and definitely doesn’t easily agree to take Stella to the spa. When the spa turns into a prison and Hazzard’s methods prove even worse than Henry imagined, can Stella find a way to escape, or will she die alone as one of Hazzard’s walking skeletons?

A solid entry to the True Colors series, which focuses on different true crimes from history, with real historical facts melded with fictional characters and situations. I liked it more than most of the others I’ve read in the series, mostly due to the fact that the crime part of the story was more a focal point than the romance. Though the two main characters’ thoughts about how they feel about each other was brought up at a couple of random or wildly irrelevant times, it was not overly pervasive. Stella’s struggles at the spa, with the treatment, with her uncertainty about whether or not she should stay, and then with her futile attempts to escape, were a well-written driving force.

Adding to that is a sub-plot with Henry and his dream to start a children’s home, which gave the story somewhere to go to avoid a slow, plodding narrative of Stella wasting away. It also allowed a light in the darkness of Stella’s story. I really liked the culmination of all of that at the end of the story. I also appreciated that we weren’t expected to just accept that these two people liked each other simply because we were told they did. They fit together well, had a history, and even had flaws that the other had to be willing to accept.

If I hadn’t known that this woman and her spa were historical fact, I would have had a difficult time believing anyone would go to her for treatments. But I think the author did a good job trying to imagine a scenario in which someone of sound mind would be desperate enough to place themselves in such danger for the hope of relief–not that the victims expected such danger when they checked into the spa. It had a few dark moments as Stella saw things she wasn’t meant to see, the truth about what was going on at the spa; they didn’t bother me, but it seems good to mention it for those who prefer to avoid dead bodies and other things related to that in their reading (it’s a small amount, really).

There was a particular Chekov’s gun-style “prop” that I really expected to come into play more near the end of the book. I’m not sure that’s a fault of the author’s, as the prop definitely had its uses, but I still expected something in the way of even a minor twist involving it. However, overall, I enjoyed the book. It’s not too pushy in its inclusion of Christianity. Stella has to realize that she’s not very good at being still and letting God be in control, but she really doesn’t even come to the place where she “sits still” and turns to him until she’s literally forced to not move for a while. It’s a shallow theme of God’s will being best, but it’s there. I think anyone who enjoys clean romance, especially historical romance, and especially those who like crime or darker content in novels, will like this book.

Thank you to Netgalley and Barbour Publishing, Inc. for providing me a copy of this book to review.

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Book Review: Jo & Laurie

Jo & Laurie
by Margaret Stohl & Melissa de la Cruz

My rating: 3.5 / 5
Genre: Romantic retelling, YA historical fiction

If you’ve ever read Little Women and wondered what could have been between Jo and Laurie, if the author had allowed it, this book might be for you (or even if you haven’t). It’s a bit meta and can be difficult to fully understand, but the authors are not so much rewriting the second half of Little Women as they are imagining that the book that we know was itself written by another fictional Jo March (and it was, within the context of the book), and that the second half (originally published as a sequel novel titled Good Wives) was more of a departure from her real life than the first half was.

I’d say the primary audience for this book is those who really wish Jo and Laurie had ended up together. However, I think there’s still a place for the rest of us to read it, out of curiosity if nothing else. Or for die-hard fans of Little Women who want to revisit that world in a way. (Though those seem to be the strongest opponents to this retelling.) As for myself, I only really read this book to see if it’s something I’m okay with my 10-year-old daughter reading. We read the Great Illustrated Classic version of Little Women together just over a year ago, and the little romantic that she is, she was quite unhappy that Jo and Laurie both married other people. I’ve since read the original book, and personally have no problems with the way the whole thing worked out.

My rating on this book, however, is wholly unrelated to the re-imagining of fictional-author Jo’s life and love, but based on the book itself. I think the authors did a pretty good job with the historical fiction feel to the book, and even with making it feel similar to the source material (though understand I’ve only read it once, so I’m not exactly an expert). However, to me, it seemed repetitive and a bit slow through most of it. Jo rehashed her confusion about how she felt about Laurie so many times. And for being a feminist and bucking against the way women are treated in her time, Jo doesn’t have the slightest problem seeing a woman she doesn’t care for only as a pair of bosoms. That really bugged me.

In the end, I did like the culmination of the romance, which itself was fairly unromantic most of the time (though even that is true to who Jo is). I think that Laurie himself reflects the reaction a lot of readers would have, especially those that I mentioned above, who read Little Women and really wished Jo and Laurie had married each other. The book is listed as young adult, though I do think it’s good for readers of all ages.

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Book Review: The Orchard House

The Orchard House
by Heidi Chiavaroli

My rating: 3.5 / 5
Genre: Christian drama

After a difficult childhood, Taylor is adopted by her best friend’s parents. But sisterhood is not all it’s cracked up to be, and Taylor ends up leaving home at 21 with the determination to never see her family again. However, when informed 18 years later that her adopted mother is going through treatment for cancer, she returns home. But what starts as a brief visit turns into something more as old wounds are re-opened and this make-shift family struggles to make sense of present struggles. That’s when Taylor and her sister stumble across a story that captivates them and helps distract from real life. In the 1860s, the death of a soldier sparked a friendship between the soldier’s sister, Johanna, and Little Women author Louisa May Alcott. This friendship, and the life and marriage of Johanna, were hidden away for 150 years, to be discovered by Taylor and Victoria just when the story could most affect their lives.

I spent the first half of this book uncertain about a lot of it. Two different storylines had to be established–both the past and the present–and the present one covered several years in a few chapters. Even when the story slowed down and started unfolding in the present day, I struggled to get into it. Taylor’s adolescence had turned her into a confused, broken woman, and she essentially second-guessed her decisions, thoughts, emotions, and reactions every step of the way. And I questioned often what the past storyline had to do with the present one. It was a slow build, to be sure. It did pick up in the second half, but for a while, all I could think about was how terrible each of the characters seemed to be, in one way or the other.

The main thing that I really liked about the story was the way the Christian message was presented. While some reviewers found it “too religious,” I spent at least half the book wondering how on earth this had been labeled as Christian. But the slow build I mentioned earlier can also be applied to the way the main characters learned to first believe in and then trust in Someone bigger than themselves. Though in the end, I felt the “conversions” and overall Christian message were a little light, I still liked the way they shaped up.

There were some things in the book that confused me, and I re-read some passages more than once trying to understand. As an example, Louisa was said to have 2 sisters, but over the course of time 3 were mentioned–Anna, Nan, and Amy. However, Anna and Nan were the same person, and while the author did seem to realize we needed that explanation (I certainly did), it didn’t come until after the sister was referred to by both names at least once. There are other things that confused me too, but fortunately there was less of this in the second half too.

I think that people who love Louisa May Alcott’s books, or at least have read one or more of them, might enjoy this book. Though Louisa herself is only a small part of the story, her books and lasting effect on future fans are prevalent themes. I’ll admit to having a different view of a particular aspect of Little Women than the author (or at least than the main character), but as fiction, it’s certainly open to interpretation. If you’re looking for a light Christian read, this is not it. It’s full of drama and covers some dark topics such as abandonment, abuse (both physical and emotional), and betrayal. If you like time-split novels and stories about finding “home” or families trying to piece themselves back together, you might enjoy this book.

Thank you to Netgalley and Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. for providing me a copy of this book to review.

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Book Review: When Twilight Breaks

When Twilight Breaks
by Sarah Sundin

My rating: 4 / 5
Genre: Christian historical romance

Americans living in Germany in the late 1930s had front-row seats as the country sped toward war. Evelyn Brand is a foreign war correspondent living in Munich, her hands tied as a woman in a man’s world. Or maybe there’s more than just her gender causing her boss to edit her stories to death. Peter Lang is a graduate student working on his dissertation and teaching American students how to speak the German language more fluently. He sees the benefits of the current German regime, as he values the order it brings to a country once chaotic and destitute. But he soon learns the price that this order demands.

I really wanted to give this book 5 stars while I was reading it. For the story alone, it’s worth 5–the characters are engaging, the romance well-done, and the suspense is pulse-pounding. I sped through the book compared to my normal speed, wanting to see what the outcome would be. And the ending did not disappoint, wrapping up all storylines satisfactorily. But I had a few issues while reading it, and I felt they were worth a point detraction and that others should know about some of them.

The book made me a little uncomfortable or caused me to blush a few times in the second half with descriptions of physical or visual contact between the main characters. Nothing graphic by normal standards, really just skirting the line of what I am okay with in a Christian book, but I think there are some who would prefer to be aware of this in advance. The romance was overall well done and while certainly a big part of the story, not so in-your-face like most with the tag of romance. I liked it, but it was just a little descriptive here and there.

There were a few issues with perspective–in a book like this that has established the alternating perspectives between two characters, only changing when there is a scene or chapter break, a couple of times the perspective changed from one to the other mid-scene, which was jarring. Also, characters were speaking German, while we were reading it in English, yet the author continually sprinkled German phrases into the dialog. They were never more than I could understand from my years of German in high school and a little in college (except a few times that were also basically translated for us), but they were unnecessary given the context. Maybe they were just supposed to remind us that the characters were speaking German without having to constantly state it in the narration, but I personally would have preferred the simple reminder now and then.

Back to the positives, because I so loved the characters and story, I found Peter’s starting viewpoint about the Nazi regime enlightening, as it shows how it’s possible for intelligent, moral people to be pulled in by a bad ideology. His history, both personal and as it relates to Germany, as well as his position in the country at this time, allow him to see the positives…at least for a while. I also loved some of the side characters, the way the Americans’ lives overlapped with the Germans’, and the fact that the bad guys weren’t only the Germans.

All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Even with the few issues that I noted, I kept coming back to it in the last half, unable to put it down more than necessary. I’d previously read the Sunrise at Normandy trilogy by Sarah Sundin and loved it, so I’d say Sundin is effectively on my instant-read list. I definitely recommend this book to anyone who likes historical fiction from this time period in the Christian romance genre.

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

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Book Review: All Through the Night

All Through the Night
by Tara Johnson

My rating: 4 / 5
Genre: Christian historical romance

When war between the states breaks out, Cadence Piper wants to help in some way, thereby also helping her family regain some of the honor brought on by her brother who ran away after their mother died. But she’s not allowed to be a nurse, because she’s young, pretty, and unmarried. Her beautiful voice, though, opens doors when the wounded soldiers begin to ask for her songs. In the hospital, she meets Dr. Joshua Ivy, a surgeon, who knows Cadence doesn’t belong there and kicks her out. But when Cadence stumbles onto his clandestine activities, the two eventually become linked in ways neither would have wanted or expected.

Overall, I enjoyed this book. I had some ups and downs, especially as the story went on for a little while. But I did like the characters and several of the different plots presented. Both Cadence and Joshua were quite spirited, and it definitely caused some issues. But it also has a lot to do with how they got into the situations they got into. I liked the time period and the realism involved in Joshua’s work with the soldiers (heartbreaking, but real), as well as his “other” work.

Most of what bothered me about the book came in the second half or later. I think the story has a little too much packed into it, and that with some trimming, it might have been a 5-star read for me. Don’t get me wrong, 4 stars is still great! Still, there is one arc that never goes anywhere, and another arc that is resolved far too easily for my taste. Both of these probably could have been cut out. There are also a few things that happen that really bug me and make characters seem incompetent or insensitive, when they aren’t otherwise shown to be that way, but I can’t go into detail due to spoilers.

I did like the cameo by Fanny Crosby, which made this Psalty-loving girl really happy. In the end, I liked the book quite a bit, and I would recommend it to fans of Christian historical romance.

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

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Publication date: January 5, 2020

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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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