Review: Lucky Girl by Mary Rickert

Review: Lucky Girl by Mary RickertLucky Girl: How I Became A Horror Writer: A Krampus Story by Mary Rickert
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: holiday fiction, horror
Pages: 112
Published by Tordotcom on September 13, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
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Lucky Girl, How I Became A Horror Writer is a story told across Christmases, rooted in loneliness, horror, and the ever-lurking presence of Krampus written by World Fantasy and Shirley Jackson Award-winning author M. Rickert.
“Smooth and ruthless, Lucky Girl is M. Rickert at her ice-cold best.”—Laird Barron
Ro, a struggling writer, knows all too well the pain and solitude that holiday festivities can awaken. When she meets four people at the local diner—all of them strangers and as lonely as Ro is—she invites them to an impromptu Christmas dinner. And when that party seems in danger of an early end, she suggests they each tell a ghost story. One that’s seasonally appropriate.
But Ro will come to learn that the horrors hidden in a Christmas tale—or one’s past—can never be tamed once unleashed.

My Review:

Once upon a time there was a girl who survived the deaths of her entire family – because she was waiting to meet a boy in a deserted park on Christmas. People called her a “lucky girl” for her survival, but if this was luck it was certainly of the perverse variety. The kind of luck that generally described as “if it wasn’t for bad luck she wouldn’t have any at all.”

Once upon a time there was a college student who met four other lonely students at a diner on Christmas and invited them back to her low-budget student apartment so they could all be lonely together. They ended the evening by telling each other creepy stories that fit the season. She took one of those ghost stories and turned it into her first novel, launching her career as a horror writer.

Considering how difficult it is to make a living as an author, receiving the seed of that story that she turned into a career could certainly be considered “lucky” for some of the better definitions of luck. At least at the time.

But the girl who survived and the student who became the horror writer of the subtitle of this book are the same person. And just as young Ro the survivor is the same person as Goth writer Ro, so too the horror of her family’s murder, and the horror of that story she turned into her first novel turned out to be continuations of all the horrors she had already experienced.

Neither of which was going to EVER be over.

Krampusz és Mikulás (Krampus and Saint Nicholas) ca. 1913

Escape Rating C: Horror is not usually my cuppa. Come to think of it, Christmas isn’t either. So these are not exactly two great tastes that go great together. The combination is a bit more like black licorice and anchovies. There are people who like both, but they are also most definitely, acquired tastes that not everyone manages to acquire. And I can’t imagine combining the two in the same dish, although I’m sure there’s someone out there who has or will try it. Hopefully far away from me.

There are two stories in Lucky Girl that also feel like they don’t quite go together. The first story is the murder of Ro’s entire family after she sneaks out of the house on Christmas to meet a boy who has been leaving her anonymous cards. She doesn’t know who he is, she doesn’t know what he looks like, but she’s a teenager and the whole thing sounds more romantic than it does dangerous.

But it’s not nearly so romantic when he doesn’t show. When she returns to her family home, her family is dead and the house has been consumed in the fire that killed them. Ro doesn’t know whether it was all a horrible coincidence, whether she’s lucky to be alive, and/or whether her mystery suitor planned on kidnapping her for sex trafficking.

Whatever the cause or the intended result, it’s a non-fiction horror that leads her to pursue a career in fictional horror.

The ghost stories that Ro and her impromptu lonely hearts club share that Christmas night at college is supposed to be some of that fake horror. Ghost stories. Just stories. But one has that haunting quality that makes it seem like it might be more.

Still, the two stories, the real-life familicide and the holiday Krampus story, don’t seem like they are part of the same thing. One is all-too-real, while the other can’t possibly be. At least not until they both turn out to be, not just real, but worse than even Ro’s gothic imaginings ever dreamed of.

Because Ro’s origin story was real-world horror, and its denouement managed to be even more horrific real-world horror I can’t help but wonder if that real-ness was intended to make the other story, the ghost story that wasn’t just a story – seem more real as well. To make it seem more real than it could have been.

Ro’s own story, as horrific as it was, creeped me out but didn’t send my willing suspension of disbelief off gibbering into the night. The horror of that story was in its plausibility. The holiday ghost story, the Krampus story, would have been mythic-type horror if told on its own, but the two looped together just didn’t gel into one horrific whole, at least not for this reader. And the combination of the two did give my willing suspension of disbelief a very bad case of the gibbers.

Your reading mileage – quite possibly while in full flight from the gruesomeness – absolutely may vary.

Review: The Secret of Snow by Viola Shipman

Review: The Secret of Snow by Viola ShipmanThe Secret of Snow by Viola Shipman
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: holiday fiction, holiday romance, women's fiction
Pages: 320
Published by Graydon House on October 26, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

As comforting and familiar as a favorite sweater, Viola Shipman's first holiday novel is a promise of heartfelt family traditions, humorously real experience, and the enduring power of love and friendship.
Sonny Dunes, a SoCal meteorologist who knows only sunshine and seventy-two-degree days, is being replaced by an AI meteorologist, which the youthful station manager reasons "will never age, gain weight or renegotiate its contract." The only station willing to give the fifty-year-old another shot is one in a famously nontropical place—her northern Michigan hometown.
Unearthing her carefully laid California roots, Sonny returns home and reacclimates to the painfully long, dark winters dominated by a Michigan phenomenon known as lake-effect snow. But beyond the complete physical shock to her system, she's also forced to confront her past: her new boss, a former journalism classmate and mortal frenemy; more keenly, the death of a younger sister who loved the snow; and the mother who caused Sonny to leave.
To distract herself from the unwelcome memories, Sonny decides to throw herself headfirst into all things winter to woo viewers and reclaim her success. From sledding and ice fishing to skiing and winter festivals, the merrymaking culminates with the town’s famed Winter Ice Sculpture Contest. Running the events is a widowed father and chamber of commerce director, whose genuine love of Michigan, winter and Sonny just might thaw her heart and restart her life in a way she never could have predicted.

My Review:

The Secret of Snow is an “all the feels” kind of story. As in, you will feel all the feels while you are reading it. A handy box of tissues might not be a bad idea, especially at the end.

But before you reach the slightly weepy, sadly fluffy ending, there’s a charming story about the holiday season, second chances, and finally recognizing that you’re going to get rain whether you want the rainbow or not, so you might as well reach for that rainbow since you’re already putting up with the rain.

Even if that rainbow is an icebow arching over a foot – or two or three – of snow.

As the story opens, Palm Beach meteorologist Sonny Dunes seems to have it all. Or at least have all that she wants. She’s at the peak of her career, she lives in beautiful Palm Beach California where the sun always shines, she’s content with her life and her work, has no interest in a romantic relationship – and is far, far away from the dark, frozen, snowy cold of Traverse City Michigan where she grew up.

There may not be any snow in Palm Beach, but into each life a little rain must fall. And Sonny Dunes is about to get deluged.

In what seems like a New York minute, Sonny finds herself out of work, having what appears to be a drunken breakdown on camera, as she’s replaced by an A.I. weatherbabe and she seems to have nowhere to go.

Until she’s rescued. Or tortured. Or both. By the frenemy she left behind in college, who is now the manager of a struggling TV station back home in Traverse City.

A frenemy who can’t wait to bring Sonny back to the brutal winters she left behind, just so that she can get a little payback and maybe rescue her job and her station in the process.

So Sonny finds herself back where she once belonged, facing all the bitter winter memories she left behind. And facing her mother who has been waiting, somewhat impatiently, for her remaining daughter to finally move forward from the loss that froze both their hearts.

Escape Rating B+: I picked this up because I loved the author’s previous book, Clover Girls. I was hoping for more of the same second chances, sad fluff, and utter charm. But I loved that book really hard, and this one didn’t quite reach that same height.

Could have something to do with my own escape from the frozen Midwest to Atlanta. I don’t like winter either, don’t want to live in it again, and wasn’t able to get into Sonny’s eventual paeans to the season of ice and snow.

Although I certainly liked the story of her finally unthawing her heart after living with so much trauma and loss for so very long.

Sonny’s whole adulthood has been about running from and burying her emotions to protect herself from being hurt, while not recognizing the collateral damage she’s inflicting on everyone around her. It made for a bit of a hard read, both in that Sonny’s is resistant to everything for a very long time, and possibly a bit of “pot, meet kettle”.

But I enjoyed the story of Sonny’s second chance, and all the more for her mentoring of Icicle. One of the best parts of the story was the way that Sonny finally embracing her own personal renaissance gives him the inspiration and the confidence to reinvent himself as the person he’s almost ready to be and not as the sad sack we first met.

Although a romance does occur in this story, it’s a bit understated, and that worked. The most important relationship in the story is Sonny’s relationship with her mother. They’ve both loved and lost – and the same people at that. Sonny’s younger sister died in a unfortunate accident when she was just starting her teens. Her father died relatively young of cancer. Sonny was never able to move on from those frozen moments in her life, while her mother became a hospice nurse in order to help others through the grief and loss that she herself experienced.

Sonny has kept life and love at a distance, trying to protect herself. Her mother has embraced life, all too aware that none of us get out of this life alive and that joy and purpose can be found in every moment.

Sonny’s forced reinvention of herself, yet again, lets them finally have the relationship that they’ve been hoping for all along. And that’s the part that had me reaching for the tissues.

You will too.

Review: Tutus and Tinsel by Rhys Ford

Review: Tutus and Tinsel by Rhys FordTutus and Tinsel (Half Moon Bay, #2.5) by Rhys Ford
Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: ebook
Genres: holiday fiction, holiday romance, M/M romance
Series: Half Moon Bay #2.5
Pages: 95
Published by Dreamspinner Press on December 21, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
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Zig Reid-Harris has everything an eleven-year-old girl could ever want: a great home, two fantastic fathers named Deacon Reid and Lang Harris, and all the books she could possible read.

When a school assignment about holiday traditions unexpectedly broadsides her, she discovers burying the past isn’t as easy as it looks, and the stark reality of her life before her adoption sinks in. Ashamed of the bleakness and poverty she came from, Zig struggles with the assignment until an epiphany strikes the whole family—it’s time to start their own traditions.

Zig and her fathers plunge into the insanity of holiday joy, exploring everything the season has to offer and learning how precious family truly is along the way.

My Review:

Tutus and Tinsel is a sweet little “slice of life” story featuring characters that readers of the Half Moon Bay series have come to know and love.

Which means that if you haven’t read at least the first book in the series, Fish Stick Fridays, you won’t really know enough about these people to care about how far they’ve come and how heartwarming this short story is. As the series is marvelous, I highly recommend reading both Fish Stick Fridays and Hanging the Stars before diving into the sparkly pile of tinsel that is Tutus and Tinsel.

But if you are familiar with the characters and the setting, this story has a lot to say under its fluffy exterior about the spirit of the holidays.

And even though the holiday they are celebrating is Christmas, the story doesn’t go into the religious aspect of the holiday – or any of the December holidays. Instead, this is a story about family and family traditions.

It’s also about honoring what you came from while stepping forward to meet your future.

Deacon, Lane and Zig Reid-Harris are a combination of family-of-choice, family-of-blood, and family-of-love, all rolled into one great big sparkly and spiky ball. Deacon and Zig were originally uncle and niece. Deacon got custody of Zig after her mother died of her addictions. Deacon vowed to give Zig a better and more secure life, knowing just where and what she was coming from. His sister, after all, took after their mother entirely too much, so Deacon’s childhood wasn’t much different from Zig’s, without the timely rescue.

When Deacon and Lane got married (that’s part of the story of the series, they adopted Zig. So they are all family now.

But it’s a family that doesn’t have much in the way of family traditions, at least not for the holidays. Fish sticks and macaroni and cheese on Fridays IS a family tradition – but an all-year-round tradition.

So Zig gets thrown for a loop when her teacher assigns the class to do a presentation on the holiday traditions of their families. The families in Half Moon Bay are not wealthy, but are, well, solid compared to Deacon and Zig’s birth family. And there are lot more kids with two parents or two parents plus stepparents or other combinations of love and care than either Deacon or Zig ever experienced.

Lane’s parents may have been shitty, but his grandmother provided love and stability for Lane and his brother West for as long as she lived, giving him more family traditions than Deacon or Zig ever had a chance at.

After Zig’s freak-out about the assignment, she and her two dads come up with an excellent plan. They decide to try out all sorts of holiday traditions to see what works for them – and what occasionally blows up in their faces.

Zig makes her presentation about the journey, from where she started to where they are now, warts and all.

And it’s awesome.

Escape Rating A-: This is short, and that’s right for this little gem. There isn’t really much of a plot, more of a checking in to see how they are now and a whole lot about the meanings of the holidays, and families, and traditions. And what binds people into families, and places, and love.

In addition to telling the story of the Reid-Harris family’s attempts to create, remember and discover family traditions, it will make most readers recall whatever traditions their families have or had over whatever holidays they celebrate at this time of year.

Some of those memories will be bitter, some will be sweet, and some will be distant. But thinking about and celebrating those we love, even those we’ve loved and lost, is also part of this holiday season.

In closing, I’d like to wish you and yours a Happy Holiday Season, whichever holiday or holidays you celebrate this time of year.

Review: Christmas at Little Beach Street Bakery by Jenny Colgan

Review: Christmas at Little Beach Street Bakery by Jenny ColganChristmas at Little Beach Street Bakery by Jenny Colgan
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Series: Little Beach Street Bakery #3
Pages: 320
Published by William Morrow Paperbacks on October 10th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

New York Times-bestselling author Jenny Colgan dishes up another delightful holiday story about the residents in an idyllic Cornish village who must join forces to save Christmas.

In the Cornish coastal village of Mount Polbearne, the Christmas season has arrived. It’s a joyous time for family, friends, and feasting as decorations sparkle along the town’s winding streets and shop windows feature buoyant, festive displays. And in Polly’s Little Beach Street bakery, the aromas of gingerbread cookies and other treats tempt people in from the cold.

Though Polly is busy keeping up with the demands of the season, she still makes time for her beekeeper boyfriend, Huckle. She’s especially happy to be celebrating the holiday this year with him, and can’t wait to cuddle up in front of the fireplace with a cup of eggnog on Christmas Eve.

But holiday bliss soon gives way to panic when a storm cuts the village off from the mainland. Now it will take all of the villagers to work together in order to ensure everyone has a Merry Christmas.

My Review:

I got so wrapped up in this one that I shivered right along with the heroine. It’s COLD on the coast of Cornwall at Christmas!

This is a story about friendship and families and relationships and finding your bliss and not letting the baggage of the past drag you down.

It’s also about a miracle at Christmas. Not that one. But the tiny little miracle that saves both a family and a friendship, even if it’s not exactly deserved. But miracles so seldom are.

Polly and Kerenza are best friends, and have been since they bonded like glue as scholarship students at a posh private school. But their friendship is severely tested when Kerenza confesses to Polly that the baby in her eight months’ pregnant belly might not be her husband’s.

Polly is caught on the horns of multiple dilemmas, So she does what she usually does – she buries herself in her work as the owner of the Little Beach Street Bakery, and tries to push it all away.

She’s pushing a lot.

Part of the problem is that Kerenza’s husband Reuben and Polly’s fiance Huckle are also best friends. Kerenza fears that if Polly tells Huckle her big secret, then Huckle will feel duty-bound to reveal all to Reuben, ending their marriage in a gigantic mess.

Polly and Kerenza were scholarship students way back when because they were both raised by single mothers who did not do well financially – or in Polly’s case, emotionally. Kerenza’s dad is dead, but Polly’s sperm donor is just a missing piece in her life. A missing piece she can’t fill in, because he’s a subject her mother refuses to talk about. And neither Kerenza nor Polly is willing to risk putting Kerenza’s baby into the same life that they both only managed to get through because they had each other. Not if there’s any way on Earth to avoid it – at any cost.

But Polly fears, and rightly so, that keeping a huge secret from Huckle will damage their seemingly perfect relationship. A relationship that is only perfect because they both avoid the subjects that neither of them wants to deal with. Most particularly Polly’s complete unwillingness to talk about their future. They love each other, they believe they are each other’s soul mates – but whenever Huck raises the subject of taking their engagement to its next logical step, Polly freezes, and freezes him out.

It’s more than cold enough in Mount Polbearne without that.

As guilty as Kerenza feels, this is one of those times when confession is not the answer. There’s a very strong possibility that the baby is her husband’s. There’s also a strong possibility that she was so drunk that when she thinks she fell on some random guy’s dick that nothing actually happened. She was too drunk to remember. All Kerenza can do it wait and see.

But Polly is the one who is really stuck. When her sperm donor’s wife contacts her to tell her that her biological father is dying and wants to see her, it’s up to Polly to decide what she needs to do. Not just whether to see him or not, but whether to finally pry open her mother’s memory box of “things we do not discuss”. And then to decide how the revelations of the secrets of her own life will affect her and her future.

So it’s Kerenza’s crisis, but it’s Polly’s journey. With her pet puffin Neil riding along with her, every step of the way. And it’s lovely. (Especially Neil!)

Escape Rating B+: The first quarter of the book I remember thinking that it was interesting and cute but not all that compelling. The mess of Kerenza’s life, and the complete narcissistic selfishness of her husband Reuben did not thrill me as a reader. It did rather seem as if her mess was very much self-inflicted.

But I settled in to read after dinner, and just got hooked. I came up for air after an hour and realized not just how much time had passed, but also just how much story I had absorbed. Once the focus shifted fully into Polly essentially in not-dealing-with-multiple-crises mode, I got sucked in and couldn’t tear myself away until the last page.

One of the interesting themes that plays out over the course of the story is about the damage that secrets can do to a relationship. Kerenza spends much of the story punishing herself for her unremembered indiscretion, holding the secret so tightly (and so necessarily) that she becomes a shadow of herself. And yet, she knows that it is vital for her baby’s future that she keep the secret no matter what.

But requiring Polly to also keep the secret damages her relationship with Huckle, almost irrevocably, even though it is not her secret and, as she tries to convince Huckle, not her secret to tell, either. And that it’s really none of their business. Or at least not enough of their business to risk the consequences to Kerenza and to the baby.

The more damaging secrets are the secrets that Polly’s mother Doreen has kept from her about her biological father and their relationship. Because it seems obvious that whatever happened back then, it has kept Doreen from living her own life and helping Polly to both grow her own wings and fly free. That Polly managed anyway, at least to some extent, is a testament to her own strength. But those buried secrets still hold her back and weigh her down, and she needs to know the truth in order to live her dreams. She can’t let her life be ruled by her fears – especially by proxy. Watching her set herself free is one of the highlights of the story.

That Polly has been adopted by a puffin, or more specifically that Neil has Polly wrapped around his bright little beak, is utterly adorable. And adds a marvelous touch of whimsy at just the right moments. I haven’t read the rest of the Little Beach Street Bakery series, and now I want to, if only to find out how Neil and Polly adopted each other. It must be adorable.

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