Review: The Holiday Trap by Roan Parrish

Review: The Holiday Trap by Roan ParrishThe Holiday Trap by Roan Parrish
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: F/F romance, Hanukkah romance, holiday romance, M/M romance, romantic comedy
Pages: 312
Published by Sourcebooks Casablanca on September 6, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

For fans of Alexandria Bellefleur and Alexis Hall comes a charming, hilarious, and heartwarming LGBTQIA+ romcom about two separate couples finding love over the holidays from acclaimed author Roan Parrish!
Greta Russakoff loves her tight-knit family and tiny Maine hometown, even if they don't always understand what it's like to be a lesbian living in such a small world. She desperately needs space to figure out who she is.
Truman Belvedere has just had his heart crushed into a million pieces when he learned that his boyfriend of almost a year has a secret life that includes a husband and a daughter. Reeling from this discovery, all he wants is a place to lick his wounds far, far away from New Orleans.
Enter Greta and Truman's mutual friend, Ramona, who facilitates a month-long house swap. Over the winter holidays, each of them will have a chance to try on a new life...and maybe fall in love with the perfect partner of their dreams. But all holidays must come to an end, and eventually Greta and Truman will have to decide whether the love they each found so far from home is worth fighting for.

My Review:

There’s a saying about “blooming where you’re planted”, but with the best will and the most love in the world, that’s not always possible. No matter how much a person may love their hometown or their family or their job or whatever is keeping them in place, the place may not be a great fit for them

And sometimes we need to be kicked out of our not-quite-comfy little pots before they become ruts. Or plots, as in “the only difference between a rut and a grave are the dimensions” kind of plots.

Both Greta Russakoff and Truman Belvedere each need a good, swift kick out of their always slightly squirmy but suddenly seriously uncomfortable pots. Which is where their mutual friend and regular sounding board Ramona comes in.

Greta needs to get away from her close-knit-to-the-point-of-codependency family on teeny, tiny, Owl Island, Maine. Truman needs a getaway from a spectacular failure of a relationship in New Orleans. Ramona suggests a house swap. For the entire month. Of December.

What happens to Greta and Truman is that both of their worlds expand once they transplant themselves. In New Orleans, Greta finds friends and community. She’s able to spread her wings in a place where she’s not literally the only lesbian in town, and where her every single act isn’t discussed ad infinitum, ad nauseum AND reported back to her parents and sisters. She loves them all but finds the extreme insularity of the town and especially her family a strait-jacket.

In New Orleans she can breathe. She can be herself without everyone around her trying to lovingly push her to conform – at least on the outside. And there’s someone she can fall in love with in a place that warms her heart and soul.

Truman is a fish out of water, but a fish that is more than willing to try living on land once he thaws out and gets some warmer clothes. Now that he’s out of his comfort zone, he’s willing to see if he can fit into this new place. And discovers that the townspeople, as curious as they are about Greta’s temporary guest, are more than willing to let him warm himself in their friendship.

Especially Ash, a local boy who managed to leave, but got sucked back to Owl Island as an adult when his mother was diagnosed with dementia. Now Ash is juggling a failing florist shop, his mother’s declining health and the loss of her true self even as he’s with her – and a rapacious land developer who wants to buy the prime downtown real estate where his shop is located. Ash doesn’t have nearly enough spoons to start a relationship with a man who’ll be leaving in a month.

But he does it anyway – then breaks both of their hearts when he can’t cope.

Before the month’s even half over, Greta knows she wants to stay in New Orleans, not just because of her new love, but because it’s where she belongs. She’s a hothouse varietal just like the carnivorous plants she desperately tries to keep alive on Owl Island – a climate for which neither they, nor she, are suited.

Truman wants to stay in Maine, with Ash, in this quirky little town that has healed his heart and shown him that he has more to give than just his overdeveloped sense of order.

All Greta has to do is deal with her smothering family. All Truman has to do is convince Ash that he doesn’t have to let himself be smothered by his responsibilities. That help – and love – are eagerly waiting for him to just let them in. Before their lives take them in directions that all of them will regret. Forever.

Escape Rating A: Part of what makes The Holiday Trap such a fun read is that it is a holiday romance that doesn’t center on the holidays at all. That the holiday that gets more emphasis in this holiday romance is Hanukkah and not Xmas was absolutely the flame that lights all the menorah candles in this story.

But the way the holiday was treated encapsulated the whole point of the story. Because it’s not the holiday, it’s that the tribe gathers for the holiday and the traditions that surround that gathering.

The Russakoffs are the only Jewish family on Owl Island. For her family it has become important to celebrate the holidays with the whole community while at the same time cleaving unto themselves as a tight tribe of their own. Which leads straight into the issues that cause Greta to practically flee into the night.

Because no one in Greta’s family is ever supposed to say what they really want or need. They have been coerced by longstanding tradition to always seek a compromise and to suffer in silence if their needs don’t get considered. It’s all out of love, it’s all done with the best intentions, and the tradition did begin with some excellent reasons as they are a family of six – mom, dad and four daughters – and during the early years there just wasn’t quite enough to go around. Nobody went hungry, no one went without any necessities, but treats, toys and outings all had to be shared, so what got bought or eaten or done was the thing that displeased the least amount of people rather than what was actually desired by anyone.

It’s good for children to learn to compromise, it’s good for all humans and we need a little more of it in the world. But it can easily reach a point where, instead of everyone saying what they do want and meeting in the middle, everyone starts asking for what they think everyone else wants or will accept. It’s can work if everyone accepts that’s the way it works, but if the family brings in an outsider – like a son or daughter in law – or if one of the children leaves the cozy nest and is in a place where they have to stand up for themselves, or if one or more of the grown children is just too different to compromise their entire self all the time in order to get along and not rock the boat, you get the situation Greta finds herself in, where as much as her parents and sisters love her they keep trying to push her to fit into the family codependency and she just can’t. And won’t. And shouldn’t have to.

Truman’s situation is more self-inflicted. He’s both broken-hearted and completely embarrassed and kicking himself from New Orleans to anywhere he can take himself off to because he’s spent a year in a relationship with a douchebag and ignoring all the many, many, red flags that should have told him that he was someone’s dirty secret and not remotely the love of their life. Because they already have one of those and Truman is not it.

I liked Truman’s story, and it made a very nice foil for Greta’s, but I LOVED Greta’s story. It’s not just that she’s Jewish, although that certainly helped because there aren’t nearly enough Hanukkah romances in this world. But when Greta takes herself away from home, she goes to one of the most fascinating cities in the U.S. if not the world and makes a place for herself in it. I’m a sucker for stories set in New Orleans and Greta’s discovery of the city and herself captured me from the very first page.

That Greta’s family strongly resembles one I very nearly became a part of and gave her side of this house swap a whole lot of extra resonance that I wasn’t expecting. At all. But it helped me understand so much of where she was coming from because everyone means so very well, they have so much the best intentions and can be so, so good at laying on the guilt when someone doesn’t conform.

To make a much longer story than I intended a bit short, The Holiday Trap is an excellent holiday romance that puts its emphasis on the romance and the relationships that surround a romance and make a village – big or small – without getting into the religious aspects of any holiday. This could have been set at Thanksgiving and it still would have worked – it just wouldn’t have been nearly long enough.

But speaking of things that were not quite enough, the one person we don’t get nearly enough of is Ramona the almost magical matchmaker. I’d love to see more of her talents in a future story!

Review: The Roguish Baron by Sophie Barnes

Review: The Roguish Baron by Sophie BarnesThe Roguish Baron by Sophie Barnes
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: historical romance, holiday romance, regency romance
Series: Diamonds in the Rough #9
Pages: 180
Published by Sophie Barnes on May 24, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

When a rakish scoundrel decides to pursue the woman he loves in this friends to lovers Regency romance, he risks his father's disapproval...and the consequence this will have on his future.

He had to risk losing her so he would realize how much he loved her...

Jack Lancaster, Baron Hawthorne, hasn't been home in four years. He's been too busy running from his emotions. So when he finally does return and discovers his childhood friend, Sophia Fenmore, has gotten engaged, he's not only shocked, but determined to change her mind and make her his.

Sophia has always known Jack was out of her league. But she valued his friendship, until he broke her heart. Now he's back, as eager to charm her as she is to thwart him.For as much as she'd like to believe Jack has changed, she cannot risk taking a chance on a rogue. Unless of course, he proves himself worthy.

A daring forbidden love romance from a USA Today bestselling author

*Previously published as part of The Rogue Who Stole Christmas anthology*

My Review:

The way that the romances are intertwined and misdirected in this latest book in the Diamonds in the Rough series reads like the kind of convoluted plot that Shakespeare would have loved.

The Lancaster children, Jack, Felicity, and Kaitlin, and the Fenmore siblings, Edward and Sophia, grew up together as one romping tangle of friends. But the Lancasters are the offspring of the Earl of Turner, while the Fenmores are the children of the local vicar. There’s an even larger gap in station between Sophia Fenmore and the others, as Sophia is an orphan who was found wrapped in a blanket in the church that the Fenmores’ father is the vicar of. They raised her as their own, but with her origins obscure at best, she’s not quite the social equal of the others.

A difference that makes no difference when they are all children, but drives a wedge in the close friendship between Jack and Sophia when they reach the cusp of adulthood. Not that either of them cares one whit, they are the best of friends even if Sophia is just beginning to understand that she wants more.

But to Jack’s father the Earl, it matters a great deal. To the point where the Earl threatens to cut off Jack’s inheritance if he marries Sophia. Something that Jack hadn’t even thought of up to that point. (The title and the estate are entailed, Jack will inherit those whatever his father wants. But the money is his father’s own to dispose of as he pleases. Inheriting the estate without the money for the upkeep of the stately pile is a recipe for bankruptcy.)

Jack runs away to London for four years, earning enough money to no longer need anything his father doesn’t want to give. He ALSO earns a well-deserved reputation as a rake as he cuts a wide and smiling swath through the female population of London in an attempt to deny his father’s accusation – that he’s in love with Sophia. Even though he is.

Jack returns home to a mess. Sophia is more beautiful than he remembered, and even more captivating. But she’s also engaged to, of all people, her adopted brother Edward. Who is in love with Jack’s sister Felicity. But Edward and Felicity both believe that their love is doomed, that Felicity’s father would never consent to a match between them.

In other words, everyone is being self-sacrificing – except Jack’s father who is still being an ass.

And just when it seems like they’ve all gotten past all of the roadblocks they’ve put in their own way, the truth about Sophia’s origins finally comes to light. And those roadblocks just get higher.

Escape Rating B: The Diamonds in the Rough series has been charming romantic fluff from the very first book, A Most Unlikely Duke (still my favorite in the series) to this 9th book in the series. And this one feels like the last. Not that it doesn’t stand alone, because it most certainly does, but because all of those Diamonds and their equally happy spouses are guests at the wedding that ends this entry in the series. It felt like closure, although I’ll be happy if I’m proven wrong!

The best part of The Roguish Baron isn’t the Baron. It’s Sophia. What made her interesting was that, in spite of some of her over-the-top descriptions of her feelings, her thoughts and actions were very, very pragmatic. And she wasn’t shy about letting Jack know when he’d stepped in it and on them. She doesn’t cry and expect to be patted and soothed, she speaks up and uses her words very clearly and forthrightly.

Her situation in this story is very much “one down”. She’s female in a time and place where she has no rights and her only hope of a comfortable future is to marry and hope that her husband isn’t a brute or a gambler or a spendthrift. And she may not have a say in who she marries, and then she’ll basically be property in the marriage.

Under those circumstances, her acceptance of Edward’s proposal may not be the best of all possible worlds, but it is far, far, far from the worst. With her origins obscured, it may be the only offer she’ll get, and she knows it. Whatever dreams she might have of marrying Jack, she’s not wrong to think that society will look down upon them both and that his father will not be forgiving. She’s doomed before she starts.

Jack loves her and wants her but takes, not so much convincing as beating about with a clue-by-four to get that if they’re going to untangle the mess their in that there are no half-measures. And that if he can’t commit to this course he needs to leave her alone. Which he has a hard time even imagining, let alone actually doing.

The thing that made this work was the way that Jack was forced to grovel, publicly, for the mess he’d made of his life, and the mess he’d very nearly made of both their lives. Sophia may have forgiven him, but he still had to earn back the respect he’d squandered when he was punishing both himself and his father – who honestly didn’t grovel enough.

That Sophia does learn who she came from was lovely, even though it did seem like a bit of deus ex machina. And I have some mixed feelings about whether that was the right way to solve things.

But this was still a lovely, frothy bit of holiday Regency romance. If this is the end of the series, it provides a charming bit of closure to five years of romantic reads. If it turns out there are still more to come, I’d be happy to watch more of these unconventional couples find their HEAs..

Review: Fire of the Frost by Darynda Jones, Jeffe Kennedy, Grace Draven, Amanda Bouchet

Review: Fire of the Frost by Darynda Jones, Jeffe Kennedy, Grace Draven, Amanda BouchetFire of the Frost: A midwinter holiday fantasy romance anthology by Darynda Jones, Jeffe Kennedy, Grace Draven, Amanda Bouchet
Format: ebook
Source: author
Formats available: ebook
Genres: anthologies, fantasy romance, holiday romance, short stories
Pages: 368
Published by Brightlynx Publishing on December 22nd 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
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A midwinter holiday fantasy romance anthology…

From Darynda Jones, A Wynter Fyre a standalone novella set in a world where vampyres are hunted for sport. The only thing standing between them and total annihilation is Winter, a warrior bred to save them from extinction. Forbidden to fall in love, Winter cares only about her oaths… until she meets the devilish prince of the underworld.

Of Fate and Fire by Amanda Bouchet
The Kingmaker Chronicles meets modern-day New York City! Piers, an exiled warrior from Thalyria, finds himself in the Big Apple just before the holidays. The world and everything in it might be utterly foreign to him, but that won't stop Piers from helping to complete a vital mission for Athena and protect Sophie, a French teacher from Connecticut who's suddenly knee-deep in inexplicable phenomena, danger, and henchmen after an Olympian treasure that should never have ended up in her hands—or remained on Earth after the Greek gods abandoned it.

The King of Hel by Grace Draven
A novella-length expansion of a stand-alone short story in which a cursed mage-king from a frozen kingdom is obligated to marry a woman of high-ranking nobility but meets his soulmate in a lowly scribe.

Familiar Winter Magic by Jeffe Kennedy
It’s holiday time at Convocation Academy, but best friends Han and Iliana are finding it hard to celebrate. As a familiar, Iliana is facing her assignment to a life of servitude to a wizard, very soon. And Han… despite being tested by the oracle daily, he is still uncategorized. As Iliana and Han face being separated forever, they at last find the courage—or desperation—to break the rules and acknowledge their deeper feelings for each other. But it will take more than true love to save them from the laws of the Convocation…

My Review:

This holiday treat dropped into my lap this week and I couldn’t resist starting it immediately! Isn’t that what holiday treats are for? Immediate consumption for the yes! Especially as I’ve received earlier versions of this confection of a collection (Under a Winter Sky, Seasons of Sorcery and Amid the Winter Snow) and they’ve all been wonderful reading treats.

For the most part, this year’s collection of winter fantasy romances was a very sweet treat indeed – with just enough naughty in the mix to give Santa a blush or four.

My absolute favorite story this year was Grace Draven’s The King of Hel, and not just because it’s a standalone story that isn’t set in one of her other worlds. It’s the kind of fantasy romance that didn’t really have to be a fantasy romance. In fact, its real world inspiration was not. Inspired by the real life romance between Madame de Maintenon and Louis XIV of France, this is the story of Doranis, the magic-touched king of Helenrisia and his queen’s best friend, the modestly born Castil il Veras. What made this story so beautiful is the way that Castil’s deep, life-long friendship with Doranis’ queen is not broken by the romance. Rather, Castil is heartbroken when her best friend dies in childbirth yet still honors that friendship. But life goes on, and the queen’s death gives Doranis the freedom to marry the woman who is suited to him in all ways but birth, and lets Castil acknowledge her love for a man who was otherwise twice beyond her touch.

This was just a beautiful winter romance between two strong and surprisingly equal partners and I loved every page of it.

On the other hand, my least favorite story in this collection was Familiar Winter Magic by Jeffe Kennedy. It’s not that it’s not a good story, because it is, and it’s not that it’s not well done, because it is that as well. It’s that the protagonists of the story are fundamentally, by law and custom, absolutely powerless and their powerlessness gets rubbed like salt into their wounds and the reader’s psyche at every turn. This is just one of those cases where I know it’s good and I know there’s an audience for it and I’m just not it.

Of Fate and Fire by Amanda Bouchet was just plain fun, kind of in the way that the first Thor movie was fun. At points, literally in the way that the first Thor movie was fun, a fact that the heroine references more than once during the course of her whirlwind romance while running from bad guys story plays out. Although Piers of Thalyria, an exile from the world of the author’s Kingmaker Chronicles, has no godlike powers, it turns out that his heroine does and he’s been jerked across time and space in order to protect her while she figures out how to either use them or give them back. The story here is kind of a lighthearted romp – in spite of being chased down by evil entrepreneurs and their henchmen at every turn.

Last but not least, my second favorite story in the collection, Darynda Jones’ A Wynter Fyre. The beginning had a bit of an “aliens made them do it” start – not that any of the characters in this story are actually alien to this world. But there’s a common fanfiction trope for series like Stargate and its spinoffs where the characters are compelled by unbridled libidos to have sex because of “alien sex pollen”. The way this story begins, with vampyres biting Wynter in order to infect her with the equivalent of “vampyre sex pollen” had a very similar feel. Particular when the hero fends off the bad vamps in order to woo her for himself, once he’s helped her take the edge off, so to speak.

After that hot, heavy, creepy and slightly rapey beginning the story itself takes a surprising turn. Wynter has been awakened from 70+ years as a statue because her mother the demon (yes, the being she believes is her mother is an actual demon) needs her to rescue a kidnapped vampyre princess.

But it’s all a setup. Not that the princess hasn’t been kidnapped, but it’s all part of the plot to give Wynter the chance to do her job of protecting the vampyres properly – by killing the greatest threat to their existence – her demon mother. That the setup also manages to change the romance from a sex into love story into a second chance at love story is all part of its charm – something this one had absolutely oodles of.

Escape Rating B+: This collection is always a lovely holiday treat. But like any collection, some stories hit the mark with this reader – or any other – while others aren’t quite as close to the bullseye.

If I were giving individual ratings, A Wynter Fyre would get an A; Of Fate and Fire would receive a B; The King of Hel hits the high spot at A+ while Familiar Winter Magic just didn’t work for me at all. Your reading mileage – even through the snowy landscape of these winter tales – will definitely vary.

No matter which stories in the collection tickle your holiday reading fancy, the collection is definitely worth curling up with some hot chocolate and a cozy blanket for a delicious holiday read!

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: Happily this Christmas by Susan Mallery

Review: Happily this Christmas by Susan MalleryHappily This Christmas by Susan Mallery
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, holiday romance, women's fiction
Series: Happily Inc #6
Pages: 336
Published by Hqn on September 29, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Susan Mallery, the #1 New York Times bestselling author of the Fool’s Gold romances, proves there’s no place like Happily Inc for the holidays…

There’s no place like Happily Inc for the holidays…

Wynn Beauchene has a thriving business, a great kid and a mildly embarrassing crush on the guy next door—local cop Garrick McCabe. She’s a strong, independent woman who can’t help dreaming what-if about a man she barely knows. Until he needs her help…
Garrick’s pregnant daughter will be home for Christmas, and his house needs a woman’s touch. Garrick and his little girl were tight once and he’s hoping a small-town Christmas will bring her back to him. But thawing his daughter’s frosty attitude will take more than a few twinkle lights. Maybe sharing the holiday with Wynn and her son will remind her of the joy of family.
As the season works its magic on these wounded souls, Wynn realizes it’s time to stop punishing herself for a painful secret, while Garrick remains haunted by the ghosts of past mistakes. Will he allow Wynn to open the only gift she truly wants—his heart?
Read more in the reader-favorite Happily Inc series:Book 1: You Say It FirstBook 2: Second Chance GirlBook 3: Why Not TonightBook 4: Not Quite Over YouBook 5: Meant to Be YoursBook 6: Happily This Christmas

My Review:

I decided I wanted a happier book in the middle of this week, and it doesn’t get much happier than a trip to Happily, Inc., the little town that makes big wedding dreams come true.

But the situation that opens Happily this Christmas isn’t all that happy. And as much as Garrick McCabe wants it to change, he’s far from sure that it can. Not that he isn’t going to try his level best to make it happen.

His 21-year-old, 8-months pregnant daughter is coming to stay with him in Happily for a few weeks before Christmas, when her baby is due to be born and her husband is scheduled to return from his military deployment in Afghanistan.

Hopefully not in that order.

Garrick’s daughter Joylyn used to be his best girl, his buddy, his partner in crime and the light of his life. And those feelings used to be mutual. But somewhere in the middle of her teenage years Joylyn withdrew from him. Completely, utterly and extremely bitchily into the bargain.

He’s sure he must have done something wrong – but he doesn’t know what that something was. Joylyn refuses to tell him. She also refuses to act like a decent human being in his presence.

This visit is a chance to make things right. Of course, it could also cement the estrangement in stone.

But Garrick has a secret weapon. He enlists the help of his next door neighbor, the single-mother, business-owner and generally put-together Wynn Beauchene to help him welcome Joylyn to Happily and get her visit off to the best start possible.

Only to find himself charmed by Wynn – a feeling that is definitely mutual.

It’s a good thing that Garrick has Wynn and her teenaged son Hunter in his corner, giving Joylyn people to meet, things to do and something to think about besides missing her husband, brooding over her mistakes and continuing to treat her completely confused Dad like he’s the scum of the earth.

Which he definitely isn’t.

Joylyn has a chance to make things right, if only she’s willing to take it. Garrick and Wynn have a chance at the happy ending neither of them ever managed to have – if they’re willing to take a chance on each other – and give themselves a second chance at not just love, but life itself.

Escape Rating B+: I was definitely in the mood for a happy book this week. I’ve read nearly all of the Happily series and really enjoyed them. The portrait of the wedding destination town, all the people who are part of the town’s primary industry, and everything that goes into pulling off those dream weddings has always been good for a smile or ten, along with the HEAs of the individual characters in each book.

So I fell into Happily this Christmas pretty quickly, even if I’m having a hard time wrapping my mind around holiday romances this early in the year. On my other hand, perhaps wishing the rest of this year away is the best idea in the universe. 2020 has been pretty epic on the awful scale.

But this one wasn’t quite as happy as I was expecting. It was fascinating, but not happy. Because for the first half of the story, Joylyn feels like the main character and she is frankly a bitch. And it feels like that’s all on her.

As the story evolves, it turns out it isn’t ALL on her, but a lot of it is. Her reasons for cutting her dad out of her life are only partly her fault. And her current levels of extreme bitchiness are, while not excused, at least understandable as she’s extremely pregnant, her husband is deployed and quite honestly she’s scared about being a new mother.

But she’s also a spoiled, privileged little princess taking all of her problems out on everyone around her. When Wynn contrasts her own young motherhood, single, completely alone and utterly broke but still gamely trying to keep it together, that privilege becomes pretty clear and Joylyn starts to get over herself a bit.

Then the town, through Wynn and all of her friends, starts to take Joylyn to their hearts and her attitude finally gets better. She starts to grow up – and did she ever need to!

For a lot of the story, Joylyn and her issues overshadow the budding romance between Garrick and Wynn. But that’s also part of the story, as between Joylyn, Wynn’s son Hunter, all the holiday preparations and planning for both Thanksgiving AND Xmas, and the circle of friends and family-of-choice that Wynn gets Joylyn involved in, there are a lot of people around ALL of the time, and a lot of busy that needs to be worked through and handled.

While that handling is something that Wynn is very good at, the whole thing turns into the kind of three-ring circus that keeps its central participants, in this case Garrick and Wynn, so busy that they have enough time to acknowledge their attraction to each other, plenty of need to spend time together dealing with stuff, but not a lot of time just being together without at least part of the crowd to see if they have what it takes to turn that attraction into a real relationship.

Of course they do, but it nearly takes a village to help them figure it out.

So this entry in the series was bigger on the family and friendship aspects of living in Happily than it was the romance, but it was still – as always – a lovely read.

Review: Matzah Ball Surprise by Laura Brown

Review: Matzah Ball Surprise by Laura BrownMatzah Ball Surprise by Laura Brown
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: contemporary romance, holiday romance
Pages: 249
Published by Entangled Lovestruck on March 16, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

This Passover is starting to feel like the ten plagues might be coming back to haunt them before the weekend is over...one hilarious misstep after the next.

Gaby Fineberg just wants to get through Passover Seder without her “well meaning” family playing matchmaker. She needs a date, just for one simple meal - that includes singing, the history of her forefathers, and not one bit of yeast. The hot guy at her gym would be perfect. He probably hates bread, anyway, with a body like that. But when she finally works up the nerve to ask him...he doesn’t hear a word she said.

Levi Miller is deaf and happily single. Initially, he doesn’t know why this beautiful woman is talking to him, but it’s clear she needs help - and suddenly so does he. In a very complicated situation, Levi finds a simple solution. Gaby will pretend to be his new girlfriend to bail him out, and he’ll return the favor. But he didn’t bargain for a family dinner quite like this one...

My Review:

Passover starts this evening, which is why this review is scheduled for today. I’d say to just call me Captain Obvious, but a romance wrapped around one of the Jewish holidays isn’t all that obvious at all – or all that common – so I wanted to celebrate that this story exists at the time when it seemed the most germane. Especially since it’s a light and fun romance that is just perfect for this holiday season.

The story in Matzah Ball Surprise is a lovely little romance that combines the ever popular “fake boyfriend” trope with a little bit of insight into living with a disability (the hero is deaf), the celebration of one of the major Jewish holidays and the trials and tribulations that revolve around a large family gathering, particularly a family gathering that occurs in the wake of a family tragedy.

It’s also a story that feels a bit nostalgic right now, as most of us are remembering other holidays with family and friends and wondering how this holiday season (Easter is this coming Sunday) will be when we are all sheltering in place and away from the people we would normally travel to see.

But Gaby Fine is definitely of two minds – if not more – about her imminent trip back home to spend Passover with her family. Because reasons. Lots and lots and LOTS of reasons.

In her early 30s, Gaby is newly unattached after her recent breakup with her latest boyfriend. Tom was basically a judgmental asshole who did his best to ridicule everything Gaby said and did. His whole purpose in the relationship was to sap her self-esteem, and he did an unfortunately good job of it.

But that means that her mother, and the rest of her family, will spend the holidays making extremely unsubtle digs at her unattached state – especially as mom seems to have liked the asshole and blames Gaby for the breakup. Anyone who has ever shown up to a wedding or family function under these circumstances will know all too well just how constant the digs are and how terrible they make a person feel.

So Gaby, with the encouragement of her friend Riley, cooks up the idea of taking a fake date to Passover. When she gets up the nerve to ask the hottie at the gym she’s been eyeing up for months, she’s flummoxed when he tells her that he is deaf, astonished that he agrees, and bowled over by the fact that her need for a fake date meshes with his need to get his pushy ex out of his life and space.

Gaby and Levi Miller come to a mutual accord over an intense round of in-person texting. He’ll come to Passover with her, for two days in Connecticut, giving him the perfect excuse for avoiding his own family gathering that weekend in Maine.

She gets her mother off her back, and he gets the space for his ex-fiance to finally admit to both their parents that their relationship is over.

Of course, nothing is remotely that simple, and neither situation was exactly all that simple to begin with. Because neither Levi nor Gaby expected to fall in love with their “fake date”. And Levi didn’t expect the house of cards he was holding up to collapse in the middle – and all around the edges. And break both of their hearts.

Escape Rating B: For the most part, I really, really liked Matzah Ball Surprise. Especially because I was certainly surprised to see a mainstream romance that was wrapped this much around Jewish holidays and Jewish culture. I really liked Gaby and Levi as characters, and loved watching their relationship blossom.

As much as Gaby’s mother reminded me of my own, and as much as that drove me crazy, I could understand EXACTLY where Gaby was coming from about that whole side of the equation. I don’t have quite the need that Gaby does for things to stay in place, but the unrelenting familial pressure – been there, done that, still have some of the emotional scars.

The struggle that Levi and Gaby went through just to communicate felt like it was right on target. It’s not something I would know but the author certainly would as she herself is hard of hearing and many of her previous books feature characters who face similar challenges to Levi, so she knows whereof she speaks – or writes.

But there was one part of this story that didn’t work for me, and it was enough of an issue that it keeps the story from being an A or even A-. A reason that is wrapped up in all the secrets that Levi is keeping, and the reasons for those secrets.

Levi’s stuck in the middle of a small problem that he makes into a huge dilemma, at least as far as Gaby is concerned. He broke up with his fiance, Monica, but she is sorta/kinda blackmailing him into not revealing that they broke up to their parents because she is trying to get a business loan from her dad and he doesn’t trust her. Multiple problems on that front, because she’s not trustworthy in the truth-telling sense, and hasn’t gone into detail about her business plans, which might actually be trustworthy.

And Monica comes off as a manipulative bitch – only because she is.

Levi promised her he wouldn’t tell ANYONE, which means he appears to be an engaged man cheating on his fiance with Gaby. Or, at least it sure looks that way, especially when their fake date starts to turn real, and he STILL doesn’t reveal what’s going on.

That whole piece of the puzzle felt like one giant, contrived drama-llama. It didn’t seem like a big enough secret to keep under the circumstances – and probably one he shouldn’t have promised in the first place. So the revelation of his lie was appropriately devastating, but the lie itself seemed like small potatoes that should never have been baked in the first place. I’m mixing metaphors but the lie didn’t make enough sense to become that big of a deal.

So come to the seder. Drink the wine and stick around for the family drama. The couple are a terrific match, the romance is lovely, and there aren’t too many bitter herbs mixed into the charoset.

Review: Hanukkah at the Great Greenwich Ice Creamery by Sharon Ibbotson

Review: Hanukkah at the Great Greenwich Ice Creamery by Sharon IbbotsonHanukkah at the Great Greenwich Ice Creamery by Sharon Ibbotson
Format: ebook
Source: author
Formats available: ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, Hanukkah romance, holiday romance
Pages: 210
Published by Choc Lit on December 4, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
Goodreads

A heart-warming Christmas romance with a lovely twist!

Hanukkah days, Christmas nights and strawberry ice cream …

Cohen Ford is a man who could do with a little bit of sweetening up. It’s no surprise that when he walks into The Great Greenwich Ice Creamery on a typically gloomy London day before Christmas, he insists on a black coffee rather than his childhood favourite – strawberry ice cream.

But then he meets River de Luca, the woman behind the flavours. After their first encounter, Cohen begins visiting the ice creamery every Tuesday, gradually learning more about the intriguing River. Could her influence encourage cynical Cohen to become the man who embraces Christmas, Hanukkah and even strawberry ice cream?

My Review:

I picked this book because it was a Hanukkah romance – and there are entirely too few of them. There a oodles of Xmas romances – and they are often quite lovely – but it’s always nice to see oneself and one’s own culture represented in stories.

There wasn’t quite as much Hanukkah as I was hoping for, but there were plenty of the mixed feelings associated with being Jewish in the midst of what feels like the entire universe celebrating an entirely different holiday.

And the romance that begins at the Great Greenwich Ice Creamery is definitely a sweet and delicious scoop of love at first sight – with strawberry ice cream on top..

Cohen Ford comes to the Great Greenwich Ice Creamery not long before the holidays because, frankly, he’s been guilted into it by his mother. But he keeps coming back because he’s fallen in love with the daughter of the proprietor – and can’t keep away no matter how much her mother disapproves, both of him and of any possibility of a relationship between the disappointing son of one of her oldest and dearest friends and her daughter, who is deaf.

Men have taken advantage of River de Luca before, and her mother is determined to prevent it this time. Because she’s heard all about Cohen Ford from his mother and is just certain that her friend’s cold-hearted, self-centered, disappointment of a son is definitely the wrong man for her daughter. Not that she believes that any man is good enough for her daughter.

But Cohen and River fall in love the moment they meet – when she’s bandaging him up because he banged his head on their door. And even through their communication barrier – they manage to convey to each other that they are both on the exact same page – even if they’re both in the middle of scribbling on that page as fast as they can so they can learn everything they need to know about each other. Which is everything.

That Cohen is supposed to leave London in a few short weeks to return to his high-pressure job and empty life in New York is just one more obstacle that they have to overcome.

In the end, Cohen’s choice is easy – and River’s has already been made. Home is where the heart is – and his is with River.

Escape Rating A-: Hanukkah at the Great Greenwich Ice Creamery turned out to be a holiday story with just the right mix of flavors. It’s sweet with just a bit of bitter and salt, like the best dark chocolate with sea salt sprinkles.

The sweet comes from the romance itself. The bitter comes from Cohen, and his memories of his childhood with his feuding and often absent parents. There are deep wounds there that he has to get over before he can move forward with River. The salt is from tears, tears of grief that Cohen never healed his relationship with his father, and tears of joy that he does finally set himself on the road to healing his strained relationship with his mother.

I do feel the need to say OMG – or perhaps oy vey – about the stereotype that is Cohen’s mother. And as much as I want to make negative comments about the stereotyping, she’s a bit too much like my own mother for me to make that claim. I want to and I just can’t. It made a bit of hard reading, but in the end it felt right – and made me wish for things that are no longer possible.

Returning to Cohen and River and their holiday romance. I’m not totally sure this needed to be a holiday romance. Usually the holiday trope is used to compress the time available for the story to move quickly from meeting to loving to HEA. But Cohen’s impending return to New York created that same tension. On the other hand, the Hanukkah season added poignancy to Cohen’s reconciliation with his mother.

In the end, this story has two wonderful threads running through it. One is the holiday romance, which was lovely every step of the way. The way that they reach towards each other and find ways to communicate and to get on the same page in spite of their very real communication issues was very well done.

But the other thread was all Cohen. He comes into the story as Scrooge, cutting himself off from all emotion and living for his well-paid but soul-destroying job. This story is his journey. He needs to grow up and learn what he really wants to be when he grows up. He needs to learn to live his own dream instead of somebody else’s. The spirits don’t do it all in one night. But they do manage it all the same.

Review: An Alaskan Christmas by Jennifer Snow + Excerpt

Review: An Alaskan Christmas by Jennifer Snow + ExcerptAn Alaskan Christmas by Jennifer Snow
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, holiday romance
Series: Wild River #1
Pages: 379
Published by Hqn on September 24, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

In Alaska, it’s always a white Christmas—but the sparks flying between two reunited friends could turn it red-hot…

If there’s one gift Erika Sheraton does not want for Christmas, it’s a vacation. Ordered to take time off, the workaholic surgeon reluctantly trades in her scrubs for a ski suit and heads to Wild River, Alaska. Her friend Cassie owns a tour company that offers adventures to fit every visitor. But nothing compares to the adrenaline rush Erika feels on being reunited with Cassie’s brother, Reed Reynolds.

Gone is the buttoned-up girl Reed remembers. His sister’s best friend has blossomed into a strong, skilled, confident woman. She’s exactly what his search-and-rescue team needs—and everything he didn’t know he craved. The gulf between his life in Wild River and her big-city career is wide. But it’s no match for a desire powerful enough to melt two stubborn hearts…

My Review:

This holiday romance combines a frenemies into lovers romance with a bit of a second chance at love romance, and wraps it all up in a sparkly bow.

A bow that occasionally seems to be pulled in two directions (and tied in a strangled knot) by two strong-willed workaholics, neither of whom are good at stopping to smell the candy canes and hot cocoa. But then, both Ericka and Reed have spent years working all the hours available in order to keep them too busy to let any of their griefs and fears catch up to them even for a second.

Until Ericka is forced to take a two week vacation – and decides to spend it in Wild River where she grew up with her childhood best friend Cassie – and Cassie’s very hot but exceedingly annoying brother Reed. Ericka and Reed have always seen the worst – and brought out the worst – in each other at every turn. But the sudden sexual chemistry between them adds a new and frustrating aspect to their rocky relationship – in more ways than one.

What at first seems to Ericka as an interminable stretch of time to be away from her high-pressure life as a surgeon at one of Anchorage’s big hospitals turns out to be much, much too short as she and Reed manage to get past their stubborn animosity to explore their intense chemistry.

Only to have her two week vacation abruptly cut in half, just as they figure out that under all that heat – was a whole lot more heat along with an emotional connection that neither of them has found with anyone else – not that either of them left much time in their lives for looking.

But once Ericka is back at work – and under the constantly disapproving eye of her emotionally distant father – who also happens to be her boss – Ericka falls back into her old patterns and lets Reed go – no matter how much she misses him, the connection they share and the much more balanced life she discovered in Wild River.

It takes a crisis of epic proportions – and very nearly a re-enactment of that famous Christmas story The Gift of the Magi – to bring Ericka and Reed to their holiday happy ever after – with just a bit of an assist from her dad the Grinch.

Escape Rating B: I picked this book because I lived in Anchorage for three years, leaving me with a fount of Alaska stories that I’m still telling 15 years later and a love for books set in “The Last Frontier” that persists to this day. That love is at least partially fueled by an equally endless need to figure out what matches the Alaska I remember – and what feels as far off the unbeaten path as Cicely was in the TV series Northern Exposure. (There is no Cicely AK, but local collective wisdom decided that Cicely was meant to stand in for Tok.)

So, I have a few quibbles. There is no Alaska General Hospital in Anchorage or anywhere else. The three “general” hospitals in Anchorage are Providence Alaska Medical Center, Alaska Native Medical Center and Alaska Regional Hospital.

Only two rail lines run all winter and one only runs once a month – the other and more likely runs once a week, the Aurora Winter Train, beginning in Anchorage and stopping in Wasilla, Talkeetna, Hurricane Flagstop Area (Chase, Curry, Sherman, Gold Creek, Canyon, Twin Bridges, Chulitna, Hurricane, Denali), Healy, Nenana and Fairbanks. Based on the description of Wild River, it’s likely between Wasilla and Talkeetna – or would be if it existed..

Also, contrary to the blurb, Anchorage is no one’s definition of a big-city, except in Alaskan terms. The current population of Anchorage is 380,000. It’s actually one of the smallest cities I’ve ever lived in. It only seems large compared to places like Wild River because it is the largest relatively “big” place that’s closer than Seattle WA or Vancouver BC which are about 700 miles away – basically a 3.5 hour flight.

Setting all that aside – no matter how much it drove me crazy during the story – An Alaskan Christmas is a lovely holiday romance that has a bit more to it than just the romance.

The romance happens fairly quickly, as is often the case in holiday romances. But it doesn’t feel rushed this time around, as Ericka and Reed had known each other for years – although admittedly they didn’t seem to like each other very much. But they were tied together not just by growing up together, but by an important moment that they shared, and a special bond over their lost parents.

Ericka’s mother died at about the same time when Reed and Cassie’s father disappeared. Ericka’s dad retreated into his work and left 15-year-old Ericka to grieve alone with the help of her friends.

Something else they share is missing fathers. Reed and Cassie’s dad is still missing, and Reed is still searching for him. Ericka’s dad, even though he is her boss – or perhaps especially because he is her boss – is a distant and disapproving figure in her life. She runs herself ragged trying to both please and emulate him – and she fails at every turn. Not because she’s not capable – because she’s actually excellent and any parent would be proud to have her as a daughter – but because the man has become so emotionally disconnected that he’s incapable of approving of anything or anyone but especially his own daughter. It IS his way of coping with the loss of his wife but it’s left Ericka quite literally out in the emotional cold. Ericka’s journey in this holiday tale is to finally figure out what SHE wants out of her own life – before she finds herself trapped in her work just like her father. That part of her story was heartbreaking. Ericka deserved better for herself and a big part of her happy ending is that she finally reached out and grabbed that better with both hands.

And like the Grinch, her dad’s heart did seem to grow three sizes at the end – but he still has a long way to go. Ericka, with Reed’s help, has made it.

Excerpt from AN ALASKAN CHRISTMAS by Jennifer Snow

He tossed the blanket over her quickly and stood. “Okay, so you’re all good?”

She nodded, but her gaze was on his midsection. And her unblinking stare was full of unconcealed attraction. The same way she’d checked out his biceps in the bar.

He glanced down to see that his T-shirt had risen slightly on the right side, exposing his stomach.

Obviously his abs were to her liking.

“Erika.”

“Huh?” Still staring.

“It’s been a while, huh?”

She frowned, finally pulling her gaze back to his. “For what?

“Since you’ve had sex.”

Her mouth gaped.

“I mean, that’s why you’re staring at my stomach like I’m a piece of chocolate.”

“I was not,” she said, but her cheeks flushed. “And I’ll have you know, I have plenty of sex…all the time. Men beating down my door for it…” she mumbled.

That he wouldn’t doubt, except he knew from Cassie that she was a reclusive workaholic and he was willing to bet the only penises she saw were her naked patients.

“And anyway, even if that was the case, you’d be the last guy I’d want to break my dry spell.”

Okay, now he was intrigued. Especially since he’d made no motion to fix his shirt and her eyes were glued on his abs again, betraying her words. He crossed his arms, making sure to flex his biceps for her viewing pleasure, as well. She wasn’t going to get him, but all of a sudden, he wanted her to want him. “Oh yeah, why’s that?”

“Because I don’t think you’d be any good.”

What?

“Hot guys are rarely good in bed. They don’t think they need to be. They are selfish and rarely leave a woman satisfied.”

She’d obviously been with the wrong dudes. “In your expert opinion?”

She nodded. “As a doctor and woman. Yes.”

Damn, he’d like to kiss that smug expression right off her face, but the voice in his head told him to leave her drunk ass alone. “Okay, then. Good night.”

“What? Not even going to try to prove me wrong?”

In two strides, he’d reached her. Pulling back the blanket, he lifted her and, seating himself on the couch, he set her down on his lap. A leg on either side, she straddled him. “You sure you want to eat your words?”

Instead of answering, she gripped his face and kissed him. Hard. His surprise faded fast as his mouth suddenly craved hers. The taste of tequila mingled with her cherry lip gloss and he forgot he was the one teaching her a lesson. Her legs gripped his and she pressed her chest against him, the feel of her breasts beneath the soft cashmere making his heart pound against them.

TLC
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Review: Coming Home for Christmas by RaeAnne Thayne + Giveaway

Review: Coming Home for Christmas by RaeAnne Thayne + GiveawayComing Home for Christmas (Haven Point, #10) by RaeAnne Thayne
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, holiday romance
Series: Haven Point #10
Pages: 336
Published by Hqn on September 24, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Hearts are lighter and wishes burn a little brighter at Christmas…

Elizabeth Hamilton has been lost. Trapped in a tangle of postpartum depression and grief after the death of her beloved parents, she couldn’t quite see the way back to her husband and their two beautiful kids…until a car accident stole away her memories and changed her life. And when she finally remembered the sound of little Cassie’s laugh, the baby powder smell of Bridger and the feel of her husband’s hand in hers, Elizabeth worried that they’d moved on without her. That she’d missed too much. That perhaps she wasn’t the right mother for her kids or wife for Luke, no matter how much she loved them.

But now, seven years later, Luke finds her in a nearby town and brings Elizabeth back home to the family she loves, just in time for Christmas. And being reunited with Luke and her children is better than anything Elizabeth could have imagined. As they all trim the tree and bake cookies, making new holiday memories, Elizabeth and Luke are drawn ever closer. Can the hurt of the past seven years be healed over the course of one Christmas season and bring the Hamiltons the gift of a new beginning?

My Review:

The holiday season has begun. Oh, not the official Xmas season, but the holiday romance season, definitely. It seems as if the first of the holiday romances start hitting the shelves right around the first official week of fall, and here we are.

As the year starts winding down, and the weather starts drawing in – or at least cooling off – it just starts to feel like it’s time to curl up under a cozyblanket, with a cup of hot cocoa or tea, a sleepy cat or two, and a heartwarming holiday romance.

Today’s book, Coming Home for Christmas by RaeAnne Thayne, is a great way to open this year’s holiday reading splurge.

Haven Point is one of those little towns that seem like great places to love. It’s a tight-knit community, people generally get along, and the economy has been looking up throughout the course of the series.

But life, and especially people, are not perfect. And not everyone’s life is going along swimmingly.

That’s where our hero, Luke Hamilton, comes in. Because seven years ago, his wife Elizabeth walked out into a snowstorm, leaving Luke and their two small children behind.

Along with a giant cloud over his head. Elizabeth never came back. Neither was her body ever found. No proof has ever been discovered to implicate Luke in either her disappearance or her presumed death.

But the court of public opinion convicted him long ago. And now the new District Attorney wants to make a name for herself by making it official. She plans to charge him with murder.

So Luke drives out in yet another snowstorm, making the 8 hour drive from Haven Point to the Oregon Coast, because he knows one thing that the DA doesn’t want to hear. Or believe.

His missing wife, Elizabeth Sinclair Hamilton, is living in Oregon under the name of Sonia Davis. And has been for years. She left him, she left their kids, and she never came back to them.

But he refuses to leave his children with no parent at all because his wife is too selfish to come back to them. There’s no way that he’s going to jail, or even on trial, for a murder that he not only didn’t commit, but particularly for the killing of a woman who isn’t even dead – even if she’s dead to him after years of betrayal. Or that’s what he believes.

The truth, well, that’s another matter entirely.

Escape Rating B+: Coming Home for Christmas is a quick read, and makes for a lovely second-chance-at-love holiday romance. Surprisingly so, considering the themes of the story and the underlying heartbreak behind Elizabeth’s actions.

It also reads like perfect fodder for one of those Hallmark Xmas movies – with more than a bit of a soap opera plot – complete with amnesia and reconstructive surgery. And the happy ending wraps up a bit quick and seems a touch contrived.

I’m not saying that this couple couldn’t find their way back to each other, in spite of the past, but it should have taken a bit more time and effort. No one needed to grovel in this one, it’s not that kind of story. But they have a LOT to get over, and doing it over the course of a single week after seven years of separation and justifiably hurt feelings seems like more than a bit of a holiday miracle.

At the same time, there’s a lot of “meat” to this one – and not just the traditional Xmas turkey.

The reason that Elizabeth stayed away from Haven may sound like a soap opera plot, but the reason she left was deadly serious. Suffering from clinical depression compounded by postpartum depression, overwhelmed by her grief, lost in a dark pit of despair, she couldn’t climb out on her own. No one could. And Luke, coping with a baby and a toddler, a business start up that required too much attention but had to succeed to support them all, tired and out of options or support of his own, still dealing with his own emotional issues, couldn’t handle it all.

Elizabeth got sicker and Luke became less able to cope and neither had a support network. Elizabeth left because she was lost in a spiral and was sure her family would be better off without her. And that part of her story happens more frequently than anyone wants to think.

So there is a bit of a holiday miracle in this one. It’s a miracle that would have felt more earned if it had taken a bit more time – but it’s more than enough for a lovely holiday read!

~~~~~~ GIVEAWAY ~~~~~~

I am giving away a copy of Coming Home for Christmas to one very lucky US or Canadian commenter on this tour!

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Review: Zachary’s Christmas by M.L. Buchman

Review: Zachary’s Christmas by M.L. BuchmanZachary's Christmas (Night Stalkers White House #4) by M L Buchman
Format: ebook
Source: publisher
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, holiday romance
Series: Night Stalkers White House #4
Pages: 184
Published by Buchman Bookworks on December 23, 2015
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

-a Night Stalkers White House Christmas romance- NAME: Zachary Thomas JOB: Vice President of the United States FAMILY: A distant two-star general and a self-involved Olympic swimming coach NAME: Melanie Anne Darlington JOB: She hasn't a clue FAMILY: White House Chief of Staff and a powerful Southern legacy Zack's political career thrives-his star shines brightly. The only thing missing? Someone to share it with. Anne's brother embraces the White House career he was born to do. Unfortunately, Anne's own future shines as clearly as a snow globe blizzard on a dark winter's night. This holiday season, each day opens a new window to the vista of their future in Zachary's Christmas.

My Review:

There may not be an actual half-life for reading holiday stories after the season, but for me it feels like anytime after Twelfth Night (January 5) is pushing something. Or just gives me a sense of trying to get one last lick of a candy cane that has dwindled down to nothing – at least until the next fall.

So when I received Zachary’s Christmas from the publisher over the New Year’s weekend in exchange for my usual honest review, it seemed like the time to review this was NOW, especially since this is an older holiday title (albeit one I had not read) from one of my favorite authors.

And it’s short – and this was a day when I needed a short book to review. I fell way too far down the Harry Potter fanfic rabbit hole this holiday. My bad – but it was fun.

About Zachary’s Christmas…

In the fictional universe created in the author’s absolutely awesome Night Stalkers military romance series, Peter Matthews is the current liberal president of the U.S. And yes, I wish this aspect of the series were real. I wish it very, very much.

Moving right along…

Zachary Thomas is Matthews’ Vice-President, and looks to be the next nominee for President from their party. It’s Matthews’ second term, so that talk is timely. But one of the interesting things about Zach Thomas is that he is single, never married, and has still managed to have a successful and scandal-free political career.

Into this walks Anne Darlington, whose brother happens to be the current White House Chief of Staff. Anne comes to DC in chilly December to visit her brother, because she’s at a kind of personal crossroads. She’s been the very successful manager of their family’s ranching and restaurant business back in Tennessee, but she’s discovered that it isn’t for her. She’s good at it, but she doesn’t love it. The job, that it. She loves the ranch just fine but doesn’t want to live there.

Her brother Daniel, on the other hand, lives for the ranch and can’t wait for his White House career to be over so that he can go back and run the place. But that’s his dream for later, because right now he’s doing good and important work and doesn’t want to leave it until the job is done.

(Whether helping to clean things up in Washington DC is a job that is EVER done is an entirely separate question not within the scope of either this book, this series or this review.)

Zach meets Anne in her brother’s office and the chemistry between them is instant. Not just the sexual sparks, of which there are plenty, but the intellectual challenge. They meet on multiple levels, and it’s special for both of them.

So special that Zach asks Anne out that evening to hear the holiday concert at the National Botanical Gardens. And these two people start to open up to each other, reaching out towards each other out of their separate loneliness. That type of painful loneliness that happens when you’re busy and surrounded by people all the time, but where you can’t let anyone in and no one really sees the real you.

Their whirlwind affair gives Zach all the time he needs, and it isn’t much, to figure out that Anne is the one woman for him. But between his work and his increasing happiness, he doesn’t see – and Anne doesn’t show or tell him – the problems that brought her to DC in the first place.

So while he thinks they’re on a path to happy ever after, Anne fears that she’s on a path where she becomes an adjunct of someone powerful but not a person with her own purpose – and that’s just the fate she came to DC to escape.

Whether they can find a way for both their needs to get met is anyone’s guess. But there are plenty of people pushing both idiots in the right direction.

Escape Rating B: There were lots of things that I really liked about this story, and one that felt just a bit incomplete or unfinished – hence the B rating.

The setup was a whole lot of fun. President Peter Matthews has been a tertiary character in several books in the previous series, Night Stalkers and its followup series – plural. He is the childhood friend of Emily Beale, the heroine of the first Night Stalkers book, but it is not necessary to have read any of the previous books in any of the previous series (Night Stalkers, Henderson’s Ranch, Night Stalkers White House, White House Protection Force, etc.) I’ve read most of the Night Stalkers but little of the others so far and still got right into Zachary’s Christmas. Not that this one doesn’t make me WANT to go back and read some of the others that I’ve missed!

I liked the romance between Zach and Anne. It was definitely a fast whirlwind, but it worked for this story. I also felt for Anne and just how bowled over she was by the constant presence of both the Secret Service and the Press. Her family is wealthy and powerful, so she’s used to being in public and giving speeches and having people watch her. But the DC goldfish bowl still feels intimidating to her – understandably so.

While I understood her hesitation about throwing herself to the wolves of the Press, the part of the story that felt incomplete was the depth of her self-doubt. She initially turns down Zach’s proposal because she fears being lost in his shadow. But she doesn’t ever talk to him about the issue, nor does she ever explain what brought her to DC in the first place. While I felt for her dilemma, my feeling for her had way more to do with me projecting my feelings onto her than her actually articulating them.

Also, she doubts herself constantly and continually minimizes her own capabilities and her own accomplishments. While we all have self doubt (as women we generally have buckets of it) hers don’t seem founded. They’re not rooted in anything and they are of a depth that just begs for there to have been a root cause – which just isn’t there.

But those minor reservations aside, I still had a terrific time on my visit to the Matthews’ White House, peeking in on this lovely romance. I look forward to going back for more.