I’m beginning to think I paced my reading wrong this year – I’m still a couple of books off my 50 states challenge and I haven’t filled up my journal spread for books from the to-read bookshelf either and I only have a few days to go before the end of the year. The 50 states challenge might be do-able though, so I’ll give it my best shot in the last few days of 2020…
It’s only a few days to go before Christmas now, and so it’s time for my annual Christmas reading post, which as is traditional coming slightly later than I had hoped!
Build Your Own Christmas Movie Romance by Riane Konc
Lets start with something utterly cheesy and frivolous! Remember the old choose your own adventure books that we all used to read, well this is one of those but for Christmas movies and written by some one with a sharp eye on the tropes and stereotypes of the Hallmark Movie genre. Depending on how evil you are depends on how long the story is and where you end up, although there is an overarching story. I got this for Christmas last year and it would make a great gift for the person in your life who’s been watching Christmas movies since the day after Halloween!
In a Holidaze by Christina Lauren
For years Maelyn Jones has spent Christmas in a cabin Utah with a big group of her family’s closest friends. But this year it’s all gone horribly wrong, and even worst it could be the last Christmas at the cabin too. On her way back to the airport, Mae asks the universe to show her what will make her happy. Then tyres screech, metal collides… and she wakes up on the plane on the way to Utah before the holiday has even started. And what happens next is basically Groundhog Day with a romance and Christmas twist, as Mae tries to make her way through the holiday all over again – fixing what went wrong each time to try and break the loop and find her true love. This funny and sweet and it really worked for me – despite the fact that I don’t usually like time travel. I’ve written about Christina Lauren before (most recently about the Honey-Don’t list) and when they work for me, they really work. This is on the right side of the pranks and embarrassment scale for me, as well as being lovely and escapist in what’s been an awful year. The isolated nature of the cabin also means that you don’t really think about how different life in reality at the moment compared to what you’re seeing in the books. Wonderfully escapist.
The Gift of the Magpie by Donna Andrews
I mean honestly it wouldn’t be a Christmas post without a mention of Meg Langslow. Donna Andrews has been on a two book a year schedule with this series for a while, but for the last few years the second book has been a Christmas one. This is the 28th book in the series and sees Meg’s already busy life complicated with the Helping Hands project – matching volunteers up to people who need help with jobs. There’s some one who needs a ramp building for wheelchair access, someone else has a quilt that needs finishing – and then there Harvey the Hoarder who is in danger of losing his home. Meg’s helped him before, so she’s sent in to work her magic again, but after some initial success, he’s found dead in his garage. But who killed him? One of his relatives hoping there’s something valuable in his junk or one of his neighbours who got fed up of living next door to his mess? After last year’s snowed-in murder, this is back in town and has some of the series’ Christmas traditions back in evidence. The mystery is good and I love spending time with the characters. And I think it would just about work for someone who’s never read the series before.
The Trouble with Mistletoe by Jill Shalvis
Willa Davis knew Keane Winters at high school, but when he comes into her pet shop needing someone to look after his aunt’s cranky cat while he’s at work, he doesn’t even remember her. Despite this inauspicious start, the sparks between the two of them just keep flying. But both of them have issues in their childhoods that make them think that relationships are not at thing that will work for them so they’ll have to work together to build trust and break down each others barriers to get to their happy ending. Now I know this doesn’t sound that Christmassy, but the backdrop to all this is the run up to Christmas and the festivities going on in Willa’s shop, so it totally counts and it has mistletoe in the title of course. This is the second book in Shalvis’s Heartbreaker Bay, and although you don’t have to read them in order, you will spot stuff from the other books in the series cropping up or being cued up in it. Perfect reading material for the sofa in the cold weather.
Christmas on 4th Street by Susan Mallery
This book 12.5 in Mallery’s long-runing Fools Gold series (which feels like it has more in between titles than it does “proper” titles) and is actually closer to a novel in length than to a novella. Our heroine is Noelle, who moved to town to open a festive-themed store The Christmas Attic. Army doctor Gabriel is in town to recuperate after an injury and to visit his brother Gideon. Their parents are in town for the holidays too – and both men, but especially Gabriel, have a difficult relationship with their father – a literal drill sergeant. Gabriel doesn’t believe in happily ever afters, but when he ends up spending more time with Noelle to get away from his dad, he starts to reconsider. As an added bonus here, Gideon is the hero of book 11, and so if you’ve read that, this gives you a sort of extended epilogue opportunity with some old friends too.
The Naughty List by Ellie-Mae MacGregor
A bit of a wildcard here. This is a steamy Christmas novella with a single mum who wakes up on her sofa on Christmas night to find Santa is in her house. Santa – aka Nikolai – is lonely and horny and so is Kate. Thus high jinx and sauciness ensue. It’s not long, but it is fun. Don’t read it on the train though, it might make you blush!
How Love Actually Ruined Christmas by Gary Raymond*
And finally – the one I haven’t finished yet: this is Gary Raymond’s response to all the people who think that Love Actually is a perfect Christmas movie. I loved Love Actually when it came out, but as time has gone on, I’m more fond of some of the characters than I am about the whole thing, and there are definitely elements that have not aged well to say the least. Whether I’ll come out of this a convert to the Church of Hating Love Actually I don’t know, but I’m a third of the way through and it’s definitely making me laugh as well as think.
I’ve got some Christmas recommendations coming up tomorrow, but in the meantime, here’s something completely different: a holiday romance set in Florida. Never let it be said that I don’t mix things up!
Assistant principal Tess Dunn is spending part of her summer vacation at a resort in Florida to celebrate her birthday. She’s splitting her time between the beach and planning for the promotion that she wants, but the point is that she went on holiday at all right? One morning, she’s in the sea when a wave takes her bikini top (no laughing matter) and she uses the nearest person as a human shield to protest her modesty. That nearest person is Lucas Karlsson. He’s currently the resort’s tennis pro, but behind his flirty demeanor he’s recovering from the premature end of his top level playing career. In an attempt to match make, Tess’s friend buys her some lessons with Lucas, and the sparks fly. But Tess has just turned 40 and Lucas is 26, and they only have two weeks to get to know each other. Is this just a holiday fling or could it be a long term thing?
I was about to say that I don’t read a lot of age gap romances, except that almost every traditional Regency you’ll ever read features an older man and a fresh out of the school room debutant. So it would be more accurate to say that I don’t read a lot of age gap contemporaries and very few of those feature an older woman. And this made a really nice change. Tess is a fun heroine who knows what she wants and how she’s going to get it, and Lucas’s tennis career means that he’s more mature than perhaps your average 26 year old man. As a pair they are delightful and it was really entertaining watching them get to know each other and break down their defences. It’s funny, it’s flirty, it’s sexy – but it also has a relatable core and deals with some real world issues in a compassionate way.
In the grand scheme of things – and the grand scheme of romance novels, 40-love is very low angst. Lucas is absolutely the polar opposite of the Alpha-hole romance trope. He’s kind, he’s emotionally fluent and I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that there’s no Big Stupid Thing that either of them do to the other. The conflict here is entirely about whether they’re going to work together when they get to know each other – not that one is hiding something big, or has done something dumb. And given the state of the universe at the moment, this is the sort of conflict that I feel emotionally ready to deal with! This isn’t my first Olivia Dade – I read Spoiler Alert a few weeks back, which was also a lot of fun and has some of the same elements of interesting non-typical romance characters – perhaps against expectations given the fact that the hero is the star of a show that I’m going to call Not Game Of Thrones, and there are a couple of references to that in this too which is a nice easter egg to find.
My copy of 40-Love came from the library, but you can buy it now on Kindle or Kobo or as a paperback, but it looks like its a print on demand type situation – although you can get Spoiler Alert from Waterstones much more easily.
A big of week in reading last week, with some Christmas stuff you’ll hear about anon. Or at least I hope you will. Anyway, back to some old school crime this week for my BotW pick.
Sick as a Parrot is the fifth book in Liz Evans’s series featuring somewhat unconventional private investigator and ex-cop Grace Smith. Grace’s latest client is Hannah Conti, a young woman who has recently discovers that she is adopted and that her natural mother was convicted of murder. Hannah wants Grace to clear her mother’s name. And so Grace is drawn into the very messy murder of a school teacher two decades ago that no one wants re-examining. Meanwhile Grace is also pet-sitting a neurotic parrot and despite all her best efforts she also has an incredibly unreconstructed former colleague sleeping in her spare room.
This is the second book in this series that I’ve read (the other one being Who Killed Marilyn Monroe, the first in the series) and they’re both on the edge of gritty with an enjoyable side of black humour. They were written in the mid 2000s and that gives them an enjoyably low tech and low fi edge. Grace is a fun heroine – enjoyably flawed and smart in someways – but not in others. There are some common threads in this book from the first one too which have clearly been developing nicely in the interim which I’d like to go back for. And there’s an interesting romantic thread in this that means I really want to read the sixth and final book in the series.
So this is where it gets tricky. This is an older book which I picked it up secondhand, I think at a National Trust book stall. So you’ll have to hunt for it. But you never know, you might find one of the other books in the series while you’re at it. Some of the series have been republished on Kindle with new titles – you can find the box set of the first three here and some of them are even in Kindle Unlimited, if that’s a thing you have. Who Killed Marilyn Monroe is available on Kobo, but it’s the only one I could find there sadly.
Started some Christmas reading this week – from the to-read bookshelf – and then carried on with a few other bits and bobs from the shelf. It’s been cold and miserable and so it’s been prime curl up on the couch with a book weather really!
Bonus photo: the latest addition to my bookshelves – a copy of Veronica at the Wells in hardback. This was the first of the Wells series that I read back when I was about 11, and is now the last one to finish off my set of hardbacks. I’m so excited.
An * next to a book title indicates that it came from NetGalley. ** indicates it was an advance copy from a source other than NetGalley
As I mentioned yesterday I read a bunch of books last week for my missing states for my Read Across America challenge and today’s Book of the Week was one of them.
Guilty Pleasures is the first in Laurell K Hamilton’s Anita Blake Vampire Hunter series. In a world where vampires have been legalised, Anita is an animator in St Louis, where she raises the dead and she helps kill members of the undead who have gone too far. Then the head of the city’s vampires asks her to solve a series of killings and she’s unable to say no. Soon she’s drawn into a new part of the world of the supernatural.
So, as previously mentioned, I have a mixed record with supernatural stories. I love the first 3 series of Buffy, like the next two and then lose patience with everything except Once More With Feeling and Tabula Rasa after the end of season five*. I raced through the Sookie Stackhouse series (and as I was reading it around the time the final book came out, I didn’t have years to get attached to one particular outcome and so was a rare person who wasn’t angry at the ending) but have struggled to find supernatural series I like outside of Charlaine Harris and Darynda Jones. I think my issues are usually when the series are too dark and angsty and too close to horror. But I do come through with every now and again and try. Grady Hendrix’s The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires was too horror for me. Alice James’s Grave Secrets had a good set up but didn’t do it for me in the execution. But this one was just about in the sweet spot. It was nearly a bit too violent, and didn’t quite have enough relationships/romance but I raced through it and enjoyed it. It doesn’t waste time with any explanations though – it really just does dump you into the world and leave you to work it out. Which is a choice, and obviously massive info dumps are bad, but when I stopped to think about it I wasn’t always quite sure how everything worked. But while I was reading, I didn’t mind!
For all that I’m only reading it now, this is actually 16 years old (just a couple of years younger than the True Blood series) and is still going, with the 28th book in the series due out in early 2021. This seemed like it was definitely setting up a love interest, so I shall probably read at least one or two more to see where it goes, but I’m not sure that I’m ready to commit to another mega long series at the moment.
My copy of Guilty Pleasures came from the library, but you can get hold of it in Kindle and on Kobo, as well as in paperback – bookshop.org.uk seem to have stock, but I don’t know if you’ll find it in stores.
*we’ve recently done a rewatch so I can confirm the accuracy of this.
Another month of this super weird year is over. Just a few weeks now until we can kiss goodbye to 2020 and hopefully 2021 will be better. I mean 2020 has thrown everything at us, so surely there can’t be quite as much going on right? I mean I feel nervous just writing that, because this year has done such a number on everyone! Anyway, a few old friends in this month’s post and some new ideas too.
Vanderbeekers Lost and Found by Karina Yan Glaser
I’ve written about this series before, but Karina Yan Glaser’s Vanderbeeker books continue to be a total delight. This fourth installment sees the gang helping Mr Biederman prepare to run in the New York marathon when they discover that someone is sleeping in the community garden’s shed. When they discover it is someone that they know (and love) they set about trying to fix the problem, in inimitable Vanderbeeker style. This installment also deals with grief and loss as one of the longer running storylines develops in a way that the grownups amongst us have seen coming, but does it in a very sensitive and caring way – as you’d expect – but which also provides a framework for younger readers who might (well almost certainly will) find themselves in a similar situation.
The Sentence is Death by Anthony Horowitz*
So Anthony Horowitz has two very meta series going at the moment. The Moonflower Murders from the other series was a BotW back in August, and if anything this is maybe the weirder – with Horowitz himself featuring as the protagonist, writing a book about Hawthorne, an ex-cop turned private investigator and police consultant. The murder mystery is good, Hawthorne is intriguingly dislikeable and “Anthony” is a good narrator. Horowitz has made himself an endearingly stupid Watson to Hawthorne’s Holmes. I think on balance I prefer the Susan Ryeland series, with their book within a book structure, but these are a good read and I will happily read more of these, if/when they materialise.
Help Yourself by Curtis Sittenfeld
Curtis Sittenfeld is another author that I’ve written about here before and this is three more short stories from her. They look at racism and suburbia, a film crew running into trouble on a shoot in the Mid-West and a squabbling group of aspiring authors waiting to hear who has got the best scholarships on their MA programme. I think they’re all from angles that you wouldn’t quite expect and make you think as well as make you laugh. Would make a lovely stocking filler book for one of the readers in your life.
First World War Poets by Alan Judd and David Crane
A slightly left-field choice for my last pick and another that would make a good stocking filler. I’m not really a poetry person, but the War Poets are the ones that i do like and where I can genuinely believe that the writers really did put in all those layers of meaning that teachers tell you about when you study them (like I did at A Level back in the day). This is a really lovelt little book from the National Portrait Gallery with short biographies of the key figures along with pictures of them from the NPG collection and one of their poems. I have another book from this series about the Bloomsbury Group that I’m looking forward to reading at some point when I’m slightly less behind on my various yearly reading challenges. The Portrait Gallery is my favourite of the London Galleries and as well as museums hing been shut for most of the year the NPG is now closed for refurbishment until 2023, so books like this and the virtual collection are the only way we’re going to be able to enjoy it for a while.