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The Wind in the Willows–endearing children’s classic for all ages

The Wind in the Willows

by Kenneth Grahame

My book club decided to read The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame, a children’s classic written in the early 1900’s by a British author. As a retired educator, I felt like this is one of those books I should have read. I downloaded a free copy from Project Gutenberg. It has some illustrations, but I found I would have liked more. The other readers in my group had various ways of reading this classic tale. One had a particularly beautifully illustrated version that I adore. Another friend listened to an audio version recorded on YouTube. At least one group member expressed disappointment that her version was an adaptation. Regardless of the version, however, we all enjoyed reading it.

The Wind in the Willows is a charming tale of a water rat, mole, badger, otter, and toad. With its exquisite language and intricate descriptions, this book is perfect for reading as a family. It was a staple in A.A. Milne’s family which I consider high praise indeed. The pace moves back and forth between quiet reflection and raucous adventure. The tale has themes of home, friendship and satisfaction. The characters move through life together with commonalities and differences that serve to make the story even more interesting.

Toad is a favorite character with moods ranging from manic to subdued and intentions to reform that often seem genuine, but sometimes are quite insincere. He has a passion for the latest and greatest “toys” and is always on the lookout for a new adventure. Fortunately, he has supportive friends who will do anything for him. He is a source of humor for the reader.

If you have never read The Wind in the Willows, I strongly recommend it, especially if you enjoy beautiful word pictures. I like researching unfamiliar words, but those who don’t will have no problems as the general meaning of words of a botanic nature, Britishisms, and words no longer in common usage are certainly easily understood from context. The Wind in the Willows is a great read, and I am so glad to have added it as part my literary heritage.

Rating: 4/5

Category: Children’s Fiction

Notes: Ages 7-14

Publication: 1908 & 1913—Charles Scribner’s Sons

Memorable Lines:

Toad talked big about all he was going to do in the days to come, while stars grew fuller and larger all around them, and a yellow moon, appearing suddenly and silently from nowhere in particular, came to keep them company and listen to their talk.

He increased his pace, and as the car devoured the street and leapt forth on the high road through the open country, he was only conscious that he was Toad once more, Toad at his best and highest, Toad the terror, the traffic-queller, the Lord of the lone trail, before whom all must give way or be smitten into nothingness and everlasting night.

Toad sat up slowly and dried his eyes. Secrets had an immense attraction for him, because he never could keep one, and he enjoyed the sort of unhallowed thrill he experienced when he went and told another animal, after having faithfully promised not to.

Mistletoe, Moussaka, and Murder–deadly Polar Bear Plunge

Mistletoe, Moussaka, and Murder

by Tina Kashian

As usual, even though this is the fifth book in the Kitchen Kebab Series, author Tina Kashian does a brilliant job of bringing the reader up to date on the characters in the series at the same time that they are taking the Polar Bear Plunge in the little New Jersey town of Ocean Crest. The title of the book, Mistletoe, Moussaka, and Murder, encapsulates the plot—but in reverse order. The frigid swim Lucy Barbarian and her sidekick Katie Watson undertake for charity results, unfortunately, in a drowning, but not one of accidental causes. This death (MURDER) and Lucy’s investigation to clear her friend Susan, a local baker, takes top billing in the story. Mediterranean cuisine (MOUSSAKA) comes in second as Lucy manages her parents’ restaurant; the book features enticing descriptions of food. Romance is also in the air (MISTLETOE) as Lucy plans her wedding to head chef Azad.

This cozy mystery will have you turning pages quickly as Lucy discovers that everyone who had opportunity to commit this crime also had motive. Secrets abound. Some of Lucy’s inquiries edge along dangerous lines, and the local detective discourages her “interference.” Gadoo, Lucy’s adopted cat, and Cupid, her landlady’s shih tzu, learn to tolerate each other, and Gadoo has an exciting major role in this book.

The setting is an ocean beach town that depends for its economic survival on three months of summer tourist trade. This book, however, has a cold Christmas backdrop with a nice mix of mystery and holiday fun.

I would like to extend my thanks to Netgalley and to Kensington Books for giving me the opportunity to read this book in exchange for an honest review.

Rating: 5/5

Category: Mystery

Notes: 1. #5 in the Kitchen Kebab Mystery Series, but works quite well as a standalone.

2. A recipe section is included with 4 recipes ranging from easy to more complicated.

3. There was a small scene where a character did a coffee reading similar to someone telling the future from tea leaves. I do not read books with a paranormal focus, but this coffee reading was an extremely minor part of the book and would not dissuade me from reading more in the series.

Publication:  September 29, 2020—Kensington Books

Memorable Lines:

It was isolated in the evening, and a cold breeze blew from the ocean. A full moon hung like a Roman coin in the velvet sky and illuminated the ocean in an iridescent glow. The sounds of the waves were constant and calming.

The streetlamp cast long shadows on the snow-covered street. Coming from a cheerful and noisy crowd in the park, it was eerily quiet.

The mesmerizing pull of the ocean was Mother Nature’s way of clearing her thoughts.

A Dog’s Perfect Christmas–meeting life’s challenges

A Dog’s Perfect Christmas

by W. Bruce Cameron

I have discovered an author I was unfamiliar with, but now I want to read more of his works. W. Bruce Cameron specializes in dog/people stories and knows how to combine some humor with tough reality. His A Dog’s Perfect Christmas could be labeled as a “feel-good Christmas story,” but it is so much more.

This is the tale of an imperfect family doing their best to survive the everyday struggles and big disasters. By the conclusion of this book, you’ll like all of the characters. Hunter loves his family but devotes himself to his job. His wife Juliana gave up her job to raise their children but struggles with inner conflict about her role. Ello (short for Eloise) is their thirteen year old daughter caught in a hurricane of hormones and middle school relationships. Her two younger brothers are three year old twins who excel in wreaking havoc and rely on Ello to be their translator to the rest of the world. Grandpa Sander is a widower whose beloved wife passed away from cancer. Her care drained their financial resources requiring Sander to move in with his son’s family. Completing the family is Sander’s faithful canine retainer Winstead. 

I devote so much of my review to the characters because the characters and how they interact with each other and meet life’s challenges is the focus of A Dog’s Perfect Christmas. Everyone in this book has specific needs to be met. The family undergoes a major crisis that could have thrown them all into despair, but as they work to stand strong together through the big problem confronting them, there is healing and a renewing of family and spirit.

Dogs play a part in this story that dog lovers will enjoy, especially the thinking process in Winstead’s brain as he reacts to his “daddy” Sander’s moods and actions. If only there were a puppy, this would be a perfect Christmas story…

I would like to extend my thanks to NetGalley and to Forge for giving me the opportunity to read this book in exchange for an honest review.

Rating: 5/5

Category: General Fiction

Publication:   October 10, 2020—Forge

Memorable Lines:

He saw the tidal forces of rage fighting for control of Ello’s face. As a little girl, she had been able to charm her grandfather into reading her one book after another after another. Now, though, she’d morphed into this hideously unpleasant creature, spitting acidic venom.

Winstead and Ruby had already incorporated park visits into their bill of rights, and now gazed at Sander expectantly whenever he stood up out of his chair. They tracked him with eager intensity as he fetched their leashes, then bounded joyfully into the minivan, wrestling all the way to the park.

When Hunter released her, Ruby darted off with crazed energy, racing around the room in celebration, because puppies know how to celebrate everything.

A Very Merry Match–romance with the kindergarten teacher

A Very Merry Match

by Melinda Curtis

What a book I chose to read on Christmas week! Melinda Curtis’ A Very Merry Match is a romance that involves serious threads. Mary Margaret, widowed last year at Christmas, is trying to survive the memories of the season. As a Kindergarten teacher with a strong sense of honor, she has been very disciplined with her finances to try to repay her husband’s debt accrued through shopping therapy at the end of his life. Just when the mountain of debts have been conquered, two unsavory characters show up on her doorstep wanting an obscene amount of money.

You’ll like Mary Margaret. She’s a dedicated and loving teacher always wanting to do the right thing. Sadly, she carries around the physical and emotional scars of childhood abuse. Kevin, the mayor of the little town of Sunshine, has a son in Mary Margaret’s class. His initial dilemma is a decision regarding a development project that has potential positive and negative impacts on the town and is thus quite controversial. He also develops an interest in his son’s teacher.  Along the way we meet Barb, Kevin’s ex-wife, and Edith, Mary Margaret’s supportive and fun-loving grandmother along with the local Widow’s Club whose members are always interested in matching up lonely hearts.

Mary Margaret has, out of financial necessity and a love of dance, a second career as a burlesque dancer, and Kevin is being considered for political office at the state level. Although they are attracted to each other, a serious relationship seems unlikely. Christmas is the backdrop for the fun, romance, and conflict that permeate the plot. This is a clean romance you can enjoy at Christmas…or any time of the year!

I would like to extend my thanks to NetGalley and to Forever (Grand Central Publishing) for giving me the opportunity to read this book in exchange for an honest review.

Rating: 5/5

Category: Romance

Notes: #2 in the Sunshine Valley Series, but I had not read the first book in the series and had no problem jumping right into this book.

Publication:   September 29, 2020—Forever (Grand Central Publishing)

Memorable Lines:

Dancing always loosened up the stress, shook it off, made her feel free, moved her beyond her worries and fears. How could this be wrong?

“I’ll tell you a secret I learned growing up.” Her smile was tentative, as if her secret was sad. “Preacher’s kid wisdom. There’s always someone in a worse situation than you are.”

Doubt crept between his shoulders on spiked cleats.

Dash Away All–dangerous drama on the movie set

Dash Away All

by Christina Freeburn

I was close to frustration with Merry Winters, the main character in Dash Away All by Christina Freeman, when she became frustrated with herself. Finally! Merry has been contracted to create craft items for the backdrop of a Christmas movie featuring a crafter. The job becomes bigger than originally planned when a shed holding many Christmas decorations burns down and Merry is expected to create or round up from the tiny town of Carol Lake, Indiana, the necessary items to fill out the various scenes. For someone so overwhelmingly concerned about the quantity of crafts she is supposed to make, Merry spends a lot of time going down rabbit holes. Some of the trails she follows are legitimate ones to pursue a criminal, but others are self-indulgent like her visit to a toy store. Sometimes she is just plain nosy and involves herself in things that are truly none of her business.

This Christmas movie is being filmed in a hot and humid July, so if you are looking for a Christmassy read, this is not for you. If you want a cozy mystery with red herrings, a plot with twists and turns, some danger, and a tiny splash of romance, you would probably enjoy Dash Away All. An aging and domineering Christmas movie star is making a comeback at the same time she is trying to resolve some personal issues from her past. They happen to coincide with Merry’s current crisis in terms of family. Merry’s long distance business partner Bright is somewhat helpful, but it seems we will never meet her as she, for family reasons, is not able to join Merry in her time of need. I, unfortunately, felt little fondness for the characters in this mystery, and that hampered my enjoyment of the book. Even the role of Ebenezer the Guinea pig seemed contrived.

I would like to extend my thanks to Edelweiss and Henery Press for giving me the opportunity to read this book in exchange for an honest review.

Rating: 3/5

Category: Mystery

Notes: #3 in the Merry and Bright Handcrafted Mystery Series

Publication:   July 7, 2020—Henery Press

Memorable Lines:

“Luna’s three loves in life are acting, trouble, and men, and which takes the top spot changes from day to day.”

A woman who loved to feel needed and felt lost when those who had needed her most—children and mom—either no longer did as they’re venturing out on their own, or because they couldn’t remember her.

It was a simple solution. Why hadn’t I thought of it? I knew exactly why I hadn’t; complicating matters was becoming a new hobby. I was turning back into a teenage girl and morphing everything into a drama of the century.

Marshmallow Malice–wedding complications

Marshmallow Malice

by Amanda Flower

From a chunk of burnt hair to drunken accusations to murder on the doorstep of the church, disasters just keep happening on Juliet Brody’s wedding day, and she is depending on her “possible” future daughter-in-law, Bailey, to help her out. Bailey is a chocolatier who is working in her grandmother’s candy shop in the Amish/Englisch town of Harvest. She is also dating Juliet’s son, Sheriff Deputy Aiden Brody.

Amanda Flower’s Marshmallow Malice is a fun cozy mystery with new problems arising from all directions as Bailey is encouraged by locals to help solve the murder case and act as a go-between for the Amish with the Englisch law enforcement. The humor comes into play with Jethro, Juliet’s adored and adorable polka-dotted pig that gets into lots of mischief. There is also light-hearted teasing between Bailey and her visiting New York friend Cass. At times the plot turns to danger as Bailey advances on moonshiners in Harvest Woods. Serious themes take the forefront with alcoholism, secrets from the past, and hints of domestic violence.

Marshmallow Malice is filled with likable characters. Bailey’s grandmother Clara whom she calls Maami is Amish to her roots and in her everyday living. Although she follows her bishop’s rulings precisely, she is practical and accepting of Bailey’s activities as an Englischer. Cousin Charlotte works with Bailey in the shop, and her life gives the reader insight into the dilemma of the young Amish as they decide whether to join the church or not. Shunning is also explored as the method the Amish use to try to get a member to abandon sin. Flower’s depiction of characters from both cultures is fair in that criminals and those with personal problems are drawn from both Amish and Englisch societies. This is a cozy mystery series with an Englisch main character; it is not an Amish romance. As such, it adds both humor and complications to what might be the basis for a typical Amish story. Don’t label this story as a sweet Amish tale. It is not dark, but it does have depth. It is well-written and leaves me eager for more in the series.

I would like to extend my thanks to Netgalley and to Kensington Books for giving me the opportunity to read this book in exchange for an honest review.

Rating: 5/5

Category: Mystery

Notes: 1. #5 in the Amish Candy Shop Mystery Series. The author throws you right into the storyline, so it would probably be best (and also a delight) to read the first books in sequence.

2. Recipe included for Charlotte’s Easy Marshmallow Sticks

Publication:   May 26, 2020—Kensington Books

Memorable Lines:

“She looks like a cotton candy machine exploded, doesn’t she?”…”Well…” Aiden trailed off as if he was dumbstruck by my appearance. Then he said, “It’s the kind of outfit that makes you believe there just might be unicorns out there.”

“The celebration will be a hit,” I said. “I know it will be,” Margot said. “I won’t allow anything less.” With that, she patted her curls and bustled out the door.

“The Amish look down on pride, but at the heart of it, we are a very proud culture. Our pride doesn’t come from material things. We take pride in how gut we are.”

Christmas at Carly’s Cupcakes–Christmas wedding

Christmas at Carly’s Cupcakes

by Jessica Redland

A sweet holiday tale with some sibling troubles, an upcoming wedding, PTSD, and friends who could be so much more. Those are the threads found in Christmas at Carly’s Cupcakes by Jessica Redland, Carly started a cupcake business four years ago. Her much younger sister Bethany has been working for her, but she is klutzy and prone to mistakes that are costly. Carly and Bethany are both wondering if the cupcake shop is a good place for Bethany, but Carly is driven to take care of her sister who is also second-guessing her upcoming marriage. Meanwhile, Carly starts to realize that her very long-term best friend, Liam, on a tour in Afghanistan, is possibly the love she has been denying herself.

There are several unexpected twists as the countdown to the wedding and Christmas draw closer. You’ll enjoy watching the tangled threads unravel as you read this charming story and root for the likable characters to solve their problems.

I would like to extend my thanks to NetGalley and to Boldwood Books for giving me the opportunity to read this book in exchange for an honest review.

Rating: 4/5

Category: General Fiction (Adult), Women’s Fiction

Publication:   August 13, 2020—Boldwood Books

Memorable Lines:

And there it was—the exact moment I realised I’d been in love with my best friend for years. Nobody else I’d met had held my interest because Liam already held my heart and I’d never even realised it.

As I stepped out of the front door, I inhaled the delicious aroma of chimney smoke. I loved that smell. There was something about real fires that was so intrinsically Christmassy. I paused for a moment to look up at the white lights strung between the shops, like stars in the inky sky. It was the beautiful simplicity that made them so enchanting to look at.

I felt a pang of guilt again that I’d worked beside her for months and had been too busy to notice when the laughter had ceased until it became too late. 

The Study of Secrets–literary mystery

The Study of Secrets

by Cynthia Kuhn

Lila Maclean has devoted her professional career as an English professor to the study of the mysteries of a practically unknown author, Isabella Dare. Taking a sabbatical to finish the books she is writing and with high hopes of achieving tenure, Lila is staying in the guest cottage of the revered author who is known to her childhood chums as Bibi. As Lila’s time in Larkston draws to an end, a murder occurs and Bibi and her friends are implicated in the crime, especially as their past secrets unravel along with the disappearance of an early unpublished manuscript. A cold case is also woven into the current story.

Lila, a likable character, is called on to help discover the identity of the murderer. Although she irritates the local detective with her inquiries and suggestions, she does not step over any legal lines. As she works on the case, several of her friends from her college arrive as well as some surprise visitors. She also finds herself caught between the presidents of two colleges who both want to purchase Bibi’s property. Lila handles everything that arises with aplomb. She even conquers one tricky situation successfully with her “stone-cold teacher stare.”

If you like mysteries, education, and all things bookish, I think you’ll enjoy Cynthia Kuhn’s The Study of Secrets. Although it is not a holiday themed book, it focuses on an annual Christmas event so there are references to the large Victorian house beautifully decorated and set in a backdrop of snow.

I would like to extend my thanks to Edelweiss and Henery Press for giving me the opportunity to read this book in exchange for an honest review.

Rating: 5/5

Category: Mystery

Notes: #5 in the Lila Maclean Academic Mystery Series, but works as a standalone. As the setting is not at Lila’s university, most of the characters are new to the reader anyway. Any crossover characters are introduced and integrated quite well.

Publication:   May 26, 2020—Henery Press

Memorable Lines:

“I enjoy learning new things.”  “I do too. Especially when it involves reading. There is nothing like being plunged into unexpected action, thrilled by a beautiful sentence, or confronted by a new idea that changes your understanding of the the world.”

“…snow was nature’s way of decorating for the season.”

Perhaps it wasn’t that she was uncommonly capable of handling problems. Perhaps she was just gifted at seeming as though they didn’t bother her.”

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever–a Christmas favorite

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever

by Barbara Robinson

Most people enjoy a good Christmas story. For example, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is emblematic for many of the Christmas spirit of generosity that we would like to see year round. Barbara Robinson’s The Best Christmas Pageant Ever is another story that has captured the imagination of readers of all ages. A humorous children’s chapter book, the story tells of the year the Herdmans, “absolutely the worst kids in the history of the world,” decide they want to be a part of a church’s annual Christmas pageant.

The narrator’s mother directs the pageant for the first time, and we experience her determination, kindness, and patience as she explains the story of Jesus to the unchurched Herdmans. We are also treated to a new, unsanitized view of the nativity story. One of the Herdman clan indignantly wants to know why Joseph didn’t tell the innkeeper who Jesus is. Another finds it strange that they tie the baby up in wadded up clothes and put him in a food trough. The Herdmans plot revenge on the wicked Herod; the Angel of the Lord, as played by Gladys, the youngest Herdman, comes down from above like a superhero from a comic book.

Appealing to children and adults alike, The Best Christmas Pageant Ever might well become a Christmas tradition in your family. Parts of it are laugh out loud funny, and other parts will give you pause. It has been made into a movie and a play, but I can’t imagine anything better than cozying up with the family and sharing the book together.

Rating: 5/5

Category: Children’s Fiction

Notes: Interest Level—all ages

Intended Reading Level—Grades 3-7; Ages 8-12 years

Publication:  1972—Scholastic Inc. (Harper Collins)

Memorable Lines:

Most of us spent all week in school being pounded and poked and pushed around by Herdmans, and we looked forward to Sunday as a real day of rest.

Mother said…“Why, it’s going to be the best Christmas pageant we’ve ever had!” Of all the lies she’d told so far, that was the biggest, but you had to admire her. It was like General Custer saying, “Bring on the Indians!”

“I don’t know what’s going to happen. It may be the first Christmas pageant in history where Joseph and the Wise Men get in a fight, and Mary runs away with the baby.”

The Cat Who Played Post Office–mystery in the mansion

The Cat Who Played Post Office

by Lilian Jackson Braun

In an effort to mix things up a bit, my book club chose to read a quick and easy mystery written by Lilian Jackson Braun, famous for her popular The Cat Who series. We rather randomly selected The Cat Who Played Post Office. The choice didn’t matter to me because I had read one in the series decades ago and had not not enjoyed it. After reading our selection, I can only say that clearly my tastes have changed, or I previously chose the one book in the series that was not a good match for me.

I found The Cat Who Played Post Office delightful. The main character Jim Qwilleran has just inherited a lot of money and a large estate. He formerly was a newspaper journalist with a talent for criminal investigations. Equally important to the story are Koko and Yum Yum, his Siamese cats. The book begins in the middle of the tale drawing the reader into who Qwill is and why he is in the hospital. Then the author takes us back and later forward in time—in this case a very effective technique.

As a journalist, Qwill has an extensive vocabulary which Braun puts on full display in a way that doesn’t seem pretentious at all. Qwill uses words like ailurophobe, postprandial, and sybaritic in his conversations and descriptions. Logophiles will enjoy his use of language.

Yum Yum is a typical Siamese, but Koko is extraordinary. He uses his sixth sense to lead Qwill to clues that warn of danger or alert him to important facts. Qwill is honest and good hearted. He has a love interest in this book in the practical Dr. Melinda Goodwinter, and he makes friends easily in his new town where he immediately becomes involved in civic and charitable interests. Koko brings the mysterious disappearance, five years prior, of the free spirited Daisy to Qwill’s attention. As he begins to ask questions about this young lady, dangerous things happen. When mail arrives through the door slot, the cats attack the fluttering envelopes, and Koko selects particular letters to bring to Qwill’s attention which might help him learn more about Daisy and her fate. The characters and setting in this book are interesting, but the mystery remains central.

Rating: 5/5

Category: Mystery

Notes: #6 in The Cat Who series, but I had no problem reading it as a standalone.

Publication:  1987—Penguin (Jove Books)

Memorable Lines:

Koko, as he grew older, was developing a more expressive voice with a gamut of clarion yowling, guttural growling, tenor yodeling, and musical yikking.

They could talk freely. Their booth was an island of privacy in a maelstrom of ear-splitting noise. The animated conversation of happy diners and the excited shrieks of children bounced off the steel girders and concrete walls, and the din was augmented by the Tasty Eats custom of pounding the table with knife handles to express satisfaction with the food.

Qwilleran wondered whether she was listening. He had spent enough time at cocktail parties to know the rhythm of social drinking, and Penelope was exceeding the speed limit. She was also sliding farther down on the slippery sofa.

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