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The Christmas Calendar Girls–an advent calendar that helps others

The Christmas Calendar Girls

by Samantha Tonge

The Christmas Calendar GirlsFern, Davina, and Cara bond over children who attend the same school in Birchwood Estate. With different personalities and strengths they value each other rather than hold jealousies. In The Christmas Calendar Girls by Samantha Tonge, the ladies work together to save the food bank that is a lifeline for so many in the community, from the addict to the unemployed parent struggling to provide.

It’s the busy Christmas season and late to begin a project to raise money, but Fern has an idea to save the food bank and engender community spirit and good will. Her friends jump on board to help.

All is not smooth sailing, however, with the project and its changing deadlines or in the “calendar girls’ ” personal lives. Fern is a widowed journalist trying to find a new normal for herself and her daughter Lily. Perhaps she is ready to have a relationship again. Kit, a former client of the food bank, stirs her heart, but is he ready for romance? Davina has always been close to her twin boys, but the more sensitive of the two begins pulling away and the pair get into a fight at school. Cara is fantastic with food, very creative, and a doting, stay-at-home mom. Suddenly she seems to have lost it all as she burns foods, uses the wrong ingredients, and  forgets school notices and weather appropriate clothing for her kids. She fears the onset of early dementia.

Watching these characters grow as they lean on each other and gradually reveal their secrets and rooting for them as they try to help those less fortunate, makes for a gentle, interesting, and inspiring story. Birchwood Estate will never be the same.

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

Rating: 5/5

Category: Romance, Women’s Fiction

Publication:   October 3, 2019—Aria

Memorable Lines:

That’s what Cara’s homely place was like…If it was a person it would have been a welcoming aunt, who always had your favorite biscuits in and never forgot to send birthday money.

“Bringing everyone together, friends and family, over food and drink, with the purpose of helping people facing difficult times…your idea really does encapsulate everything that the festive season should be about.”

Sometimes I worried I’d never meet another man. I didn’t need one to look after myself and Lily. But I wanted the company. The closeness. I missed that.

The Snow Bear–the old ways are disappearing

The Snow Bear

by Holly Webb

Illustrated by Artful Doodlers

The Snow BearDo you want to share information about the Arctic with the children in your life in an engaging way? The Snow Bear by Holly Webb is a great way to do it. Sara goes to visit her grandfather who lives on a cliffside in Canada. As it snows, he talks with Sara about going to the Arctic when he was a boy with his father to record the life and customs of the Inuits living in the Arctic as Sara’s great-grandfather could already see the old ways disappearing.

When Sara goes to bed that night, she dreams herself into the stories Grandpa told her and has her own experiences which bring the Arctic to life for her. She rescues a cub, falls into a crevasse, and shares a warming Inuit soup.

The Snow Bear is a chapter book. I think children would benefit from reading this with an adult as they look at a map of the Arctic and discuss the terms used. An Internet search of corresponding images for items such as “Arctic tern” and “quilliq” would be helpful too. Although the story is fictional, there is much information included.

I would like to extend my thanks to netgalley.com and to Myrick Books/Tiger Tales for giving me the opportunity to read this book in exchange for an honest review.

Rating:  5/5

Category: Children’s Fiction

Notes:  1. The illustrations did not show up well in my Advanced Reader Copy, but the sample line drawings shown on Amazon were perfect for this story.

  2. This is the first book I have read by Holly Webb, but I discovered she is a prolific children’s author with books suitable for all the various ages. 

  3. I also learned that Artful Doodlers is responsible for many of the illustrations that children’s book lovers cherish.

  4. This book is part of a Wintry Tales Series.

Publication:   October 1, 2019— Myrick Books/Tiger Tales

Memorable Lines:

“That’s why we went. We wanted to record it all, before it changed forever.”

…the nearest dog, who was curled up in the snow, with his tail wrapped tightly around his nose and his paws. Sara had never seen a dog curl up so small—he looked almost like a cat. “They can sleep through a blizzard like that. And they have to stay out—they’re our guard dogs, too. They let us know if there’s a polar bear around.”

“We always share what we have,” Alignak said, sounding almost surprised. “Food belongs to everyone who needs it.”

Let It Snow–love, snow, and family

Let It Snow

by Sue Moorcroft

Let It SnowCome along for a peek at a British view of Christmas and snow with side trips to Switzerland where Lily and the Middletones, a motley crew of adults and teens, really experience snow with accumulated depth. They embark on a trip that displays the musical talents of the informal singing group as well as Lily’s work as an exhibition artist at a Swiss Christmas Market in Sue Moorcroft’s Let It Snow.

There are lots of complex relationships to watch develop. The back story is critical as Lily and Zinnia are sisters with two “mums,” Patsie and Roma, a situation that caused them grief from classmates as children and later from other adults. Zinnia’s biological father was an anonymous sperm donor, but Lily discovers as an adult that her conception was the result of a heterosexual affair between her mother and a much older man. Her desire to meet her other family upsets both her mothers and her sister, and she is fearful of how her brothers will respond to meeting her. Lily’s family situation gets tied into the pub she works at part time and her business endeavors in Switzerland. Lily has a romantic entanglement with Isaac, the temporary manager of the pub. Their relationship gets complicated when Isaac’s ex re-enters the picture.

I enjoyed watching the intermingling of lives and surprising conflicts that prove to make the story even more interesting. Moorcroft is a master of enticement with setting and mood. I really wanted to be at that Swiss Christmas Market with expensive cuckoo clocks and chocolates. I had visions of hot chocolate, bratwurst, and fondue (but not all at the same time) transferring to my tastebuds. When Lily stood up for herself, I was proud. When she was in physical or emotional pain, I felt for her. Lots of good outcomes make for a happy conclusion, but this tale is close enough to life that not everyone experiences a fairytale ending.

An added bonus to this story is the inclusion of some excitable kids—it is Christmas, after all. An equally enthusiastic Dalmatian named Doggo  accompanies his humans to Switzerland and is quite accommodating to whatever adventures come his way.

I would like to extend my thanks to netgalley.com and to Avon Books (U.K.) 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:   September 26, 2019—Avon Books (U.K.)

Memorable Lines:

Feelings don’t always take account of right or logic or justice. They come from inside and sometimes they’re all that matter.

As they reached the car park, fresh flakes of snow began, stinging skin like love bites from the Snow Queen.

‘Pretty,’ Lily breathed, eyes reflecting the thousand lights suspended like stars in the night sky above rows of stalls like little red chalets with snow on the roofs. Each stall glittered with stars and lanterns so the entire market seemed luminous.

Pinot Red or Dead–who is messing with the wineries?

Pinot Red or Dead

by J. C. Eaton

Pinot Red or DeadDon’t you love it when a cozy mystery is as fun as you expected? Pinot Red or Dead by the husband/wife author team known as J.C. Eaton maintained my interest, kept me guessing, and put a smile on my face all the way through.

In the third mystery in this series, Norrie, a screenplay writer who is temporarily in charge of the family winery, becomes involved in yet another murder mystery as problems beset the Lake-to-Lake Wine Distributors which distributes wine for Norrie’s winery as well as the other wineries that surround Seneca Lake. Norrie is determined to discover the identity of the murderer. Is it the same person who is trying to drive prices of Pinot Noir sky high? In the process she gets to know Godfrey Klein, an entomologist. She tours a convent with him, ostensibly to observe his methods to eradicate through natural means an infestation of stinkbugs, but she has an ulterior motive. Her friends Don and Theo, owners of the neighboring Grey Egret Winery, play pivotal roles in this mystery. Look for theft, sabotage, and a very surprising ending.

I would like to extend my thanks to netgalley.com and to Lyrical Underground (Kensington Press) for giving me the opportunity to read this book in exchange for an honest review.

Rating: 5/5

Category: Mystery

Notes: #3 in the Wine Trail Mysteries, but works well as a standalone

Publication:   March 26, 2019—Kensington (Lyrical Underground)

Memorable Lines:

And then the tears again. And the sobs. People handled grief differently and they went through all sorts of stages, but watching Lavettia Lawrence was like having a front seat at Wimbledon.

Delving into social media was like falling into a never-ending pit, but what choice did I have? If I could focus on Miller and Lavettia and not get sidetracked by cute kittens or craft projects I’d never make, I’d be okay.

In my mind, I was the epitome of “grace under pressure,” but Theo, who caught sight of me on his way to the restroom, later told me I looked like Hermione Granger after she fought off the troll.

The Christmas Company–modern-day Scrooge

The Christmas Company

by Alys Murray

The Christmas CompanyI really wanted to like The Christmas Company by Alys Murray. I anticipated a spectacular Christmas read. This book is a modern day version of Dicken’s A Christmas Carol, the quintessential Christmas tale for many. It is published by Hallmark; how could it be less than a really good Christmas romance?

A whole town’s livelihood is built around Christmas until its benefactor passes away leaving his company in the hands of a Scrooge-like nephew.  Kate has volunteered or worked for the Christmas Company since she was seven years old. With no mother and an alcoholic father, the Christmas Company became Kate’s family, and Christmas became part of her being. When Clark Woodward shuts down the festivities the day before Christmas Eve, Kate makes it her mission to get him to change his mind. 

Alys Murray has a good setup for her plot. This book never captured my imagination, however. I didn’t find the characters particularly appealing. The timeline of events was confusing, as was the way the decorations were taken down, moved, and put back up by people who had just been told they were fired. Why didn’t anyone appeal to Clark’s business sense? The town had spent a year and a lot of money preparing for the Christmas events. This was their opportunity to make at least some of it back for the company. Why waste the time and money already put into the event when there could be some return on the investment if the festivities could proceed for three more days? What happened to visitors who were surely expected to participate?

Clark and Kate fall in and out of love several times during the three days we observe them. Kate’s best friends, Emily and Michael, make efforts to help her, but they seem half-hearted and not very effective. My favorite scene involves an accident at the river. It is an action scene and helps develop the characters.

The Christmas Company is a satisfactory read if you are a fan of A Christmas Carol and are looking for a Christmasy diversion. If you are expecting a world changing book or the next classic to share around the tree each year, you will be disappointed.

I would like to extend my thanks to netgalley.com and to Hallmark Publishing for giving me the opportunity to read this book in exchange for an honest review.

Rating: 3/5

Category: Romance

Notes: Usually the book is better than the movie, but I wonder if a good producer/director might be able to turn this around with a visual production that improves on the characters and has a good timeline.

Publication:  October 16, 2018—Hallmark Publishing

Memorable Lines:

It was clear He’d fallen out of love with Christmas—Kate didn’t believe anyone naturally disliked the holiday—because it’d been too long since he’d had a wonderful one.

Christmas was there to celebrate the birth of Christ, of course. The name said as much, but because of that, not in spite of it, Christmas had to also embody all of the goodness of humanity.

“I keep Christmas with me all year long. It’s the one time of year when I find it impossible to think the worst in people. If I pretend every day is Christmas, it makes life so much easier to live. And people so much easier to love.”

Our Gift-Giving God: A Devotional

Our Gift-Giving God: A Devotional

 by Andrea Levin Kim

Our Gift-Giving GodIn Our Gift-Giving God, Andrea Levin Kim centers the devotional around eight gifts from God to us, each paired with a traditional Christmas symbol. The author suggests beginning on the first day of December and learning about and meditating on each gift for three days. Each gift and supporting Bible verses are followed by questions and a prayer. The book concludes with the gift of Christmas. Alternate schedules are provided for those who would like to associate the gifts with Hanukkah or with the use of particular Christmas symbols throughout the season. Regardless of how you choose to use Our Gift-Giving God, you will be blessed as you prepare for Christmas by studying Scriptures that focus your thoughts on the role of Jesus in your life, not only as a child in a manger or a humble miracle-working man, but as the Savior of the world who sacrificed his own life so that you can have eternal life.

Our Gift-Giving God is sweetly illustrated by Carissa Robertson with simple line with watercolor pictures. The symbols are traditional for Christmas but may be associated with a gift you might not have anticipated. For example, a decked out fireplace is paired with new beginnings and angels with the concept of mercy. Andrea Levin Kim makes her points quite well, and you will come away with a deeper understanding of God’s love, provision, and sacrifice. I recommend this book for a scripturally based devotional with a fresh approach to the Advent season.

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

Rating: 5/5

Category: Christian, Religious

Notes: 1. The purpose of this book is not to address the historical origins of various Christmas symbols, but to help prepare the reader’s heart for a celebration of the birth of Christ.

  2. The suggested timelines for reading the book are truly only suggestions. I worked my reading of it into my schedule and was blessed by it.

Publication:  November 19, 2018—Lucid Books

Memorable Lines:

Accepting this gospel gift of approval humbles us and fills us with a deeper desire to love and serve the Giver with all our heart, soul, and mind, and to love others out of that secure place of the covering of His approval. He will never love you less and He cannot love you more because His love and approval are perfect…

God’s words about real joy are like notes that together sing of the truth of a gospel gift that cannot be drowned out, that never lies, that is never upstaged or outshined by an emotion or circumstance, a song that never gets old or outdated but invites us to dance in step with Him. His word reveals a joy that is not only catchy, but catching, not only memorable, but lasting; not only uplifting, but a reminder that the Savior raises us up and seats us with Him.

The secret ingredient of the Lord’s gift of joy is the Lord Himself—God with us, Immanuel. It’s not what He can do for us or the multitude of blessings He delivers, although they are certainly good.

A Midwinter’s Tale–love the dogs as characters!

A Midwinter’s Tail

by Bethany Blake

A Midwinter's TailDaphne Templeton, owner of Lucky Paws Pet Sitting Service and of Flour Power, a bakery specializing in pet treats, is surrounded by four-legged friends in A Midwinter’s Tail. Bethany Blake brings her readers quickly up to date on her series’ background as Daphne finds herself in the middle of a murder investigation. CeeCee French wants to return to her hometown, which caters to pets, bringing her flagship mega pet store with her. The potential for destroying the local pet-related businesses looms large. CeeCee was also involved in conflict going all the way back to high school. Are these threats related to current issues or metaphorical ghosts of the past? 

You will either love the way this story is told or you won’t. Each of the animals is truly a character in this tale. My favorite is the Basset hound Socrates. Rarely aroused, he is Daphne’s patient, laid-back sidekick. He expresses his emotions and opinions subtly, but Daphne can interpret them easily. Other characters include Snowdrop, a fashionable trained poodle; Tiny Tim, a mischievous pug; Tinkleston, a disdainful feline; and my least favorite, Sebastian, her friend Moxie’s white rat. Each one is truly a developed character and plays an important role in the story. The dogs accompany Daphne almost everywhere she goes and contribute in many ways to the story, including acting as a sounding board for Daphne. I think this way of telling the story works well in the Lucky Paws Petsitting Mystery Series. I have particular fondness for Basset hounds, and so I particularly enjoy the character of Sebastian. Although perhaps the effect is slightly exaggerated, Sebastian is portrayed fairly accurately for a Basset. It is almost impossible not to attribute feelings and thoughts to Basset hounds as they are so responsive to human emotions.

Clues abound and the spotlight shines on a variety of characters, some more likable than others. The plot has twists and turns but is never dull. Grab this cozy with a Christmas setting for an entertaining evening of mystery with a little romance thrown in.

I would like to extend my thanks to netgalley.com 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. #4 in the Lucky Paws Petsitting Mystery Series, but the author does a fantastic job with background so it works well as a standalone.

2. Pet treat recipes are included in the back of the book.

Publication:   November 27, 2018—Kensington Books

Memorable Lines:

Piper looked like she wanted to thunk her head against something, while Socrates lay down, whined, and placed his paws over his muzzle. Snowdrop, who was unfamiliar with Fidelia—but who had barked with disapproval at the accountant’s droopy cardigan—appeared confused.

Her tone was so vitriolic that Snowdrop stood up and backed nervously away on her delicate white paws. Socrates rose, too, stepping gallantly between the poodle and the woman who continued to glower at her.

The heart of the storm had passed overnight, leaving Sylvan Creek glittering like a town in a softly swirling snow globe, and I went to the French doors to look down at Market Street, where icicles dripped like jewels from the storefronts and the Bijoux’s marquee was glowing.

In Peppermint Peril–tea and mysteries

In Peppermint Peril

by Joy Avon

In Peppermint PerilWe’ve got a new cozy mystery series for Christmas and to start out the new year. Joy Avon brings her heroine, Callie Aspen, back from a busy career as a tour guide traveling the world to her hometown of Heart’s Harbor where her Aunt Iphy runs the Book Tea Shop, a delightful place for a cup of something hot and an edible treat containing a book related clue.

Although there are lots of interesting characters, the plot’s the thing as this mystery evolves from a tea party hosted by ninety-three year old Dorothea Finster, mistress at Haywood Hall. Everyone who attends has different expectations and some result in criminal mayhem. There are romances and friendships old and new, a cake with several layers of mystery, a cute rescue dog, and political and financial shenanigans.

Usually I can take or leave recipes at the end of a cozy mystery. In Peppermint Peril doesn’t have any, but in this case I would have enjoyed a recipe for a creation that Aunt Iphy calls “The Duel” because it has “two pastries vying to be the tastiest” on the same plate. Both feature chocolate! One has a light brown base and a beige mousse that incorporates salted caramel. It is topped with a chocolate chip cookie and roasted nuts; is is soft and crispy at the same time. The other has a dark chocolate foundation and fresh raspberries topped with white chocolate. It sounds like a delicious masterpiece of culinary creativity just made for the person who wants a taste of more than one dessert on the menu.

Callie does a lot of talking to ferret out the criminal, and she works in conjunction with local Deputy Falk. He shares more about the case than he should to try to deter her from the dangerous investigation, but Callie just becomes more determined to solve the mystery and refuses to stay out of harm’s way.

I would like to extend my thanks to netgalley.com and to Crooked Lane Books for giving me the opportunity to read this book in exchange for an honest review.

Rating: 5/5

Category: Mystery

Notes: #1 in the Book Tea Shop Mystery Series

Publication:  November 23, 2018—Crooked Lane Books

Memorable Lines:

The world around her looked like it had come straight out of a fairy tale illustration; trees laced with frost; every stem of grass, every branch and bramble powdered with the snow that had fallen last night and had been scattered by the strong wind.

Still single herself and uncertain whether she’d ever have a family, Callie could relate to the feeling. At times she felt perfectly happy with her life, and then suddenly she felt something missing and wanted to change everything.

Tick-tock. The relentless rhythm of time. Reminding them of a lot of years that had slipped away and all the time that had not been spent with people it could have been spent with.

Murder with All the Trimmings–catering mystery with a focus on dancers

Murder with All the Trimmings

by Shawn Reilly Simmons

Murder with All the TrimmingsOne of the appealing things about the Red Carpet Catering Mystery Series is that as a caterer associated with a movie star, Penelope Sutherland works in a variety of settings, each with its own catering problems. This setup allows the author, Shawn Reilly Simmons, opportunities for exploring  various kinds of offenses without the main character seeming to follow or be followed by crime. In Murder with All the Trimmings, the setting is the old Vitrine Theater where the Big Apple Dancers perform a show that is a holiday tradition for many locals and a big attraction for tourists. Trouble plagues the show with murder and accidents. Penelope herself is endangered as she tries to get to the bottom of this mystery which involves a missing girl, a neighboring homeless shelter, fraud, and a dine and dash artist.

Murder with All the Trimmings has a complicated plot with lots of interesting threads. In spite of my having lots of interruptions due to travel, I enjoyed this book and had no problem picking up where I left off each time. Although the action occurs at Christmas time, it doesn’t have any warm and fuzzy Christmas connections, but it is a good mystery.

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

Rating: 5/5

Category: Mystery

Notes: # 6 in the Red Carpet Catering Mystery Series, but acceptable as a standalone.

Publication:  November 13, 2018—Henery Press

‘Twas the Knife Before Christmas–a Christmas cozy mystery

’Twas the Knife Before Christmas

by Jacqueline Frost

'Twas the Knife Before ChristmasI have to applaud Jacqueline Frost for ’Twas the Knife Before Christmas, the second book in her Christmas Tree Farm Mysteries. Full of the Christmas spirit, it is a fun read and a delightful cozy mystery. The story begins with an introduction to the engaging town of Mistletoe, the main character Holly, and the setting of Reindeer Games which is Holly’s family’s Christmas tree farm. Unfortunately, a murder is discovered at a very Christmasy unveiling. Holly is determined to find the murderer who is also trying to frame Holly’s friend Caroline. Sheriff Evan Gray is equally determined to keep Holly alive despite her dangerous investigative efforts.

’Twas the Knife Before Christmas is a solid mystery with interesting and well-developed characters. The plot has twists and turns, some romance, and a little Christmas magic, making it a cozy mystery you won’t want to miss this Christmas season.

I would like to extend my thanks to netgalley.com and to Crooked Lane Books for giving me the opportunity to read this book in exchange for an honest review.

Rating: 5/5

Category: Mystery

Notes: #2 in the Christmas Tree Farm Mystery Series but works well as a standalone.

Publication:  November 13, 2018—Crooked Lane Books

Memorable Lines:

…she’d taught me to love art the way she loved life: voraciously and with spirit.

Unfortunately, Mom and I also shared a soft personality. We were bleeding hearts, givers of fifteenth chances, and avid avoiders of conflict, at least when the problem only concerned ourselves. Basically, we’d fight black bears with our hands for someone else, then let the bear eat us if we thought he was hungry.

The homes in Derek’s neighborhood were oversized and overpriced. It was the kind of place where people with four-car attached garages parked outside all summer just to show off their vehicles and further inflate their already out-of-control egos.

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