Three Christmas Reads

I thought I’d group together short reviews of three books I enjoyed this December.

Expecting Christmas is a 40-day devotional book by multiple authors. I didn’t know any of the author names except one (Jennifer Dukes Lee). It’s put out by New Hope Publishers.

The selections are short, which is appreciated in a month like December. Each began with a verse or two of Scripture, a page and a half to two pages (at least in the Kindle version) of text, then three questions for refection.

The readings cover a variety of Christmas topics, though several deal with light.

A couple of samples: Day 15 talks about how horses in past years were seen as “labor animals, forms of transportation, and even weapons of war” (p. 44). After describing war horses, the writer points out Zechariah 9:9-10: Jesus did not come as an overthrowing conqueror, at least as the kind of conqueror society expected. His second coming will be more like that. But this time, He came humbly on a donkey. The author concludes, “Take time now to thank the Lord for being both just and humble, for bringing salvation instead of condemnation, for riding peacefully on a colt rather than on a warhorse. Ask Him to help you trust Him, especially when you don’t understand His ways. When you find yourself confused by His methods, remember the salvation He brought and the joys of that great gift” (p. 46).

In mediating on Jesus being given “the tongue of the learned” (Isaiah 40:4-5), another writer says, “Jesus didn’t use His deep knowledge and gift for oratory to make a name for Himself or climb social ladders. Rather, as seen in the Gospel accounts of His ministry, Jesus used His words to unburden people, free minds from the lies they had learned from false religions, and draw weary hearts closer to the Living God” (p. 54).

Another points out that people responded differently in praise and worship of the Savior, and that’s okay. “Mary’s response was one of quiet introspection as she treasured the good news of the gospel in her heart. The shepherds, on the other hand, left young Jesus, glorifying God and praising Him with outward enthusiasm and passion. People celebrate the gospel in different ways” (p. 77).

I only wish this book was 25 or 31 days so it would fit within the month of December. I didn’t get started 40 days ahead, so I have a bit yet to finish up. But I wanted to mention it before the month was over. Overall, I enjoyed it.

The second book I mentioned in my top twelve post yesterday. I had never heard of Letters From Father Christmas by J. R. R. Tolkien. I discovered it while looking for a short Christmas audiobook to finish out the year. This fit the bill nicely.

Tolkien sent letters and drawings as if from Father Christmas to his children from 1920 to 1943. He wrote with a shaky script because he was so old, he said (probably also to disguise his handwriting). The letters would comment on happenings in the children’s lives as well as at the North Pole. The North Polar Bear was Father Christmas’s helper and companion, a cheerful but bumbling fellow who unwittingly caused a lot of accidents. Polar Bear adds his own commentaries with a thick script because of his paws. Later an elf named Ilbereth acts as Father Christmas’s secretary. The last few letters mention “this horrible war” (WWII) and the people displaced, the shortage of supplies even at the North Pole, etc.

I got the audiobook superbly narrated by Derek Jacobi as Father Christmas and a couple of others for the infrequent voices of the bear and elf. But when I realized the book had photos of the letters and drawings, I had to get the Kindle version, too.

I thought in passing of Tolkien’s penchant for languages but figured that wouldn’t have a place in this book. But he did come up with a made-up language called Arktic that is spoken at the North Pole, and Polar Bear shares a few lines of it.

He also included some battles with goblins, who at times liked to raid Father Christmas’s supplies.

These letters are wonderfully imaginative. I especially loved the banter between Father Christmas, Polar Bear, and Ilbereth.

My last Christmas book this year is The Ornament Keeper, a contemporary fiction novella by Eva Marie Everson.

It’s Felicia Morgan’s custom to begin decorating the Christmas tree with the special, customized ornaments her husband has given her, one each year except for the last year. Each represented something special about their year: their first Christmas together, their children, her job advancement, etc.

This year, though, Felicia is dragging her feet. She and Jackson have separated after twenty years of marriage. Her daughter convinces Felicia to put up decorations as usual, but the memories are painful.

As Felicia hangs each ornament, we see a flashback to the circumstances surrounding each of them. Felicia’s marriage began with a mistake which has haunted the couple’s twenty years. Though God has redeemed and worked together for good their indiscretion, seeds of resentment and unforgiveness threaten to destroy what they have. Can they find their way back to each other before it’s too late?

I enjoyed the story and the truths brought out. I appreciated that the book wasn’t superficial or treacly.

Have you read any of these? Did you read any Christmas books this year?

The Yuletide Angel

In The Yuletide Angel by Sandra Ardoin, someone mysteriously leaves gifts at the homes of the needy during Christmas season nights in the 1890s. The town dubs the mysterious visitor the Yuletide Angel.

No one knows that the Yuletide Angel is shy, timid Violet Madison.

No one except her neighbor, Hugh Barnes. Hugh had seen Violet on her mission one night, and ever since he has followed her at a discreet distance to protect her.

When Violet learns her brother is planning to marry soon, she begins to worry. Her brother inherited the family home and plans to bring his bride there. They plan for Violet to live with them, but she would feel like she’s intruding on their lives. Her father did not leave her much because he assumed she would marry. But she is plain and not well-spoken, and no one has shown an interest. What could she do to make her own way that would be socially acceptable? She has some ideas of things she could sell in the Hugh the grocer’s shop.

Hugh has been fond of Violet for a long time. He speaks cheerfully to her and tries to gently draw her out. He enthusiastically endorses her plan for selling her baked goods in his store.

Just when it seems their relationship is unfolding well, Hugh’s ne’er-do-well brother, Kit, shows up. When Hugh sees Violet and Kit together, he feels betrayed.

And on top of everything else, an unseen stalker is following Violet on her nightly rounds and stealing her gifts.

This was an enjoyable story. I appreciate that as a Christian author, Sandra is not afraid to deal with Christian issues outright rather than just hinting at them. Yet her style is not heavy or preachy.

As a novella, this was a quick read. But the characters and story arc were well-developed. All in all, a good quick read.

Christmas By the Sea

In A Christmas by the Sea by Melody Carlson, Wendy Harper and her son, Jackson, are in the midst of hard times. Wendy’s husband passed away, and she is left with a mountain of medical bills.

Then she learns that she has inherited her grandparents’ cottage by the sea. She had visited them several summers as she grew up. Though she loves the cottage, she knows she has to sell it to get back on her feet financially. So she and Jackson drive down to spend a few days fixing the cottage up.

Jackson, who has been having a hard time since his father died, is renewed by the town and the cottage. He thinks they are going to stay. Wendy doesn’t want to disappoint him, so she puts off telling him that they have to sell the place.

When Wendy goes shopping for supplies, she meets a helpful man, Caleb, who she takes to be store employee. Later she discovers he is a local craftsman who owns his own store, while his mother owns the tourist shop Wendy remembers from her childhood.

Wendy faces challenges in her renovations, her need to tell Jackson her plans for the house, her deciding what to do next in life, and her growing relationship with Caleb.

I loved the nontraditional setting for a Christmas story. As I’ve mentioned before, I grew up on the coast of southern Texas, so my early Christmases didn’t contain snow and sledding and such.

My one complaint is that the story wrapped up awfully quickly and a bit unrealistically. But otherwise, I thought it was a nice book.

Book Review: Mistletoe and Murder

Mistletoe and Murder: A Christmas Suspense Collection contains ten novellas by different authors. Some are cozy mysteries: some are a bit darker. For some, Christmas just happens to be the time of year the story occurs and doesn’t really figure into the plot. Others depend on the Christmas setting more heavily. Most have Christian characters and undertones, some more than others.

Here’s just a brief description of the types of stories in the book:

Dead of Winter by Mary Alford: A deputy receives a mysterious text from her brother and then finds his cabin empty, his rifle missing, and blood on the door frame.

Death the Halls by Adam Blumer: A woman plans to introduce her boyfriend to the family at their cabin over Christmas. But someone has ransacked the cabin and takes the woman hostage.

Revenge Ignited by Liz Bradford: A Christmas thief is hitting houses in Knoxville. But the person who robs the home of an FBI agent on bereavement leave, taking care of her dead sister’s children, seems different from the rest.

The Marked Witness by Vicki Hinze: A security consultant hears from a woman and her daughter who had previously been placed in witness protection. They have reason to believe they’ve been discovered and are in danger.

Ghost of Christmas Past by Shaen Layle: An unstable man stalks his ex-wife and lures their deaf son away from her.

The Confession of John Doe by Loree Lough: An Amish Good Samaritan comes to the aid of a man thrown from his car and badly injured. When he returns to the hospital to visit the man, he is asked an even bigger favor: to hide the man from the criminals seeking his life.

Killing Christmas by Nancy Mehl: A long-dormant serial killer resurfaces and wants a pastor who writes a weekly column for the newspaper to write his story.

Deadly Drive by Cara Putnam: A woman’s twin brother has been shot, and she’s called to make a positive identification. When her plane arrives, she’s met in the airport by her brother’s roommate . . . only her brother didn’t have a roommate.

Dangerous Christmas by Lynn Shannon: A social worker narrowly escapes an attacker. When a policeman takes her home, her apartment has been broken into and someone has painted an ominous message on her wall. But why?

Yuletide Protector by Virginia Vaughan: A woman had told the police that her ex-boyfriend was stalking and threatening her. But he’s also a policeman, and the officers protected him instead of her. She changed her name and took precautions. But now someone with her same name is killed in a car bomb. Had that bomb been meant for her?

Most of these are stand-alone stories, but a few tie in to an author’s previous series. But enough was explained that I wasn’t left hanging.

I had only read Adam Blumer and Cara Putnam before. I’d heard of Loree Lough and Nancy Mehl. The other authors were completed new to me.

The stories were definitely suspenseful! I enjoyed some more than others. Since they were all set at Christmas, they all turned out well in the end.

In some cases, a novella doesn’t really provide enough time for two people to fall in love, especially if they were strangers beforehand. So some of the romances seemed a little rushed.

There was one spot where the theology was a little wonky, but most of the time the faith element was a clear and vital thread in the story.

Christmastime seems to lend itself to anthologies. But I’ve never read a collection of Christmas novellas with as many as ten stories. That added up to 938 pages—a little long, in my opinion, for a book that’s primarily going to be read in one month. I would have enjoyed it more if it had broken broken up into two books read on subsequent Christmases.

But I did enjoy it, for the most part. And I think anyone who likes mystery, suspense, crime drama, detective stories, and the like would love it.

(Sharing with Carole’s Books You Loved, Booknificent Thursday)

 

 

Literary Christmas Reading Challenge Wrap-up 2019

A Literary Christmas: Reading Challenge // inthebookcase.blogspot.comTarissa of In the Bookcase hosts the Literary Christmas Reading Challenge each year in November and December. The basic idea is to read Christmas books!

I didn’t get to all the books I would have liked, but I enjoyed finished these (titles link back to my reviews):

I started Good Tidings of Great Joy: A Collection of Christmas Sermons by Charles Spurgeon but am only about halfway through. I thought I could read a short section at a time, like a devotional book. I could, but I just didn’t get as much from the sermon until I read each one as a whole. Since they’re a bit long, I’m having to wait til Saturdays when I have a bit more time to read them in one sitting.

I always enjoy reading Christmas books in December. It’s even more fun to do so with this challenge. Than you, Tarissa, for hosting it!

Book Review: Till Morning Is Nigh

Till Morning Is Nigh: A Wortham Family Christmas by Leisha Kelly comes about in the middle of her six-book series about the Wortham family. I finished the series back in September but wanted to save the Christmas story until now.

The Wortham family had been down and out during the Depression. With their last hope of a job fallen through, they hit rock bottom. They took shelter in an abandoned house, then got the idea that perhaps the owners would let them stay there in exchange for fixing up the place. The owner was an elderly woman named Emma who took a chance on the family. She had not been able to live home alone, but the Worthams eventually moved her back into her home with them, and she became a grandmother and mentor to the family. That was back in Book 1, Julia’s Hope.

This story opens several years later. Emma has passed away as has the Wortham’s neighbor, Mrs. Hammond, a mother of ten children. George Hammond had been devastated and unstable after his wife’s death, and the Hammond children often spent as much time at the Wortham’s house as their own.

George had seemed to settle down for a while. But now it’s the first anniversary of his wife’s death, and he’s missing. The older children think perhaps he has drowned his sorrows in a drinking binge, but they fear worse. Some of the middle children are angry. The younger children are just sad and afraid. The Worthams take them all in and try to help. On top of everything else, some of them have the flu.

While nursing the various sick ones, keeping everyone fed, praying and worrying, Samuel and Julia Wortham try to prepare a meager Christmas and discuss what they should do if the worst has happened to George.

When a friend tells Julia, “I don’t know how you do it,” Julia responds, “I don’t. Whatever you think I’m accomplishing, I really can’t manage at all. Nothing but the good Lord could have gotten me through this holiday.”

Someone suggests that they make a Nativity scene out of what materials they have. The project starts out as a diversion but eventually becomes meaningful in various ways to different ones.

This story is a reminder that not all Christmases are giddy parties. Sometimes deep grief and stark need prevent the usual Christmas we’ve come to expect. But joy, love, and light can shine in and touch hearts.

I think this book could be read easily as a stand-alone. Enough of the back story is explained that readers new to the series wouldn’t feel lost. But the story is richer for having read the rest of the Worthams’ books. I enjoyed them all, so I recommend them all to you.

(Sharing with Grace and Truth, Carole’s Books You Loved, Booknificent)

Book Review: I’ll Be Home for Christmas

Home I’ll Be Home For Christmas: Four Inspirational Holiday Novellas by Lenora Worth, Belle Calhoune, Jill Kemerer, and Allie Pleiter contains, as the title suggests, four stories that involve coming “home” in some way.

In A Hope Valley Christmas by Belle Calhoune, Mallory Jefferson is visiting her family over the holidays. The one person she hopes she doesn’t run into is Colton James. She’d had a serious crush on him back in the day, and her youthful exuberance and infatuation had led to some pretty embarrassing attempts to get his attention and show him her feelings. Yet who should walk into her father’s mechanic shop, just when she’s helping out, disheveled, and greasy, but Colton. Her father suggests she give Colton a ride home. As Colton and Mallory talk, Colton tells her his grandfather isn’t doing well. His grandfather wants to see Colton happy and settled with someone he loves. To ease his grandfather’s mind, Colton told him he did have a girlfriend. Then Colton gets the bright idea that Mallory can stand-in as his pretend girlfriend at an upcoming family dinner. Reluctantly, Mallory agrees, and they get to know each other as they are now, and not as they were in their high school memories.

In Sugarplums and Second Chances by Jill Kemerer, Chase McGill is a former NFL star trying to recover from mistakes in his past. In a fit of vengeance he had assaulted his wife’s killer and served time. Now he’s trying to make up for lost time with his son as well as help out another young man. Courtney Trudesta is the widow of his former teammate and wrote him regularly to encourage him while he was in prison. Courtney stops by on her way to a new job to visit with Chase for a few days. As they try to help each other deal with their losses and find their purpose in life, they wonder if those purposes might include each other.

In A Brilliant Christmas by Allie Pleiter, Zoe Walters’ passion is the community arts center that she runs. She has mixed feelings about the new artist-in-residence for the next six weeks: Nigel Langdon, a famous animator who has fallen from Hollywood graces. Besides the fact that he’s not currently popular, his gruffness doesn’t promise good things for his time with “her kids.” His first session does get off to a rocky start. But Zoe begins to fathom the hurt and the heart underneath his crusty exterior, and her devotion to her kids and program opens his eyes.

Seashell Santa by Lenora Worth is a different kind of Christmas in Key West, Florida. Navy Seal Rick Houston‘s beloved grandfather, Pappy, has died and requested that Rick come to his old cabin at Christmas and disperse his ashes. Who else should show up at the cabin but Willa Kincaid, Rick’s ex-girlfriend, who had received the same request. Realizing Pappy’s trick, they decide to put aside their differences to honor his wishes. In the meantime, as their arguing gives way to further discussion, they each realize they didn’t know everything about the other’s motives for their previous actions.

I’m not a fan of romances in general, both because of the silliness of tingling sensations and such, descriptions of kisses, and the end-all of romances being the declaration of true love (when, in real life, that’s just the beginning.) However, I do like when the characters have to learn or overcome something in the process of coming into a relationship, and that happens in each of these stories. Some of the stories have more of a faith element than the others. A couple of them contain characters from the authors’ other series, but the stories were complete enough in themselves that I didn’t feel I was missing pieces.

My favorite was Allie Pleiter‘s Brilliant Christmas. Both the story itself and the writing were refreshingly different. I’ll be looking up more of her work in the future. My favorite line from the book came from her story:

Our job is to bring out whatever talent or self-expression is there. Help them see that picking up a paintbrush might just be more powerful than picking up a knife. Get their emotions out in ways that don’t involve sending each other to the emergency room.

My least favorite line in the book came from Lenora’s story, about a character who “put out feelers to the Big Guy in the sky.” Big Guy in the sky? Seriously?

This collection is not showing up on Amazon anymore, but Sugarplums and Second Chances and A Brilliant Christmas are available individually. I’ve not read any of these authors, but I used to follow a blog that Lenora contributed to, so that’s probably what prompted this purchase. All in all it was a nice Christmas read.

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books, Literary Musing Monday, and Carole’s Books You Loved)

Book Review: Twelve Days at Bleakly Manor

BleaklyTwelve Days at Bleakly Manor by Michelle Griep is the first in her Once Upon a Dickens Christmas series set in Victorian England.

Clara Chapman’s family has lost its fortune, and the person seemingly to blame was her former fiance, Benjamin Lane. Not only did Ben abscond with the family fortune, but he left her at the altar with no explanation. She’s been living with an aunt, trying to survive in reduced circumstances.

Out of the blue Clara receives an invitation from an unnamed host to Bleakly Manor. If Clara can stay the entire twelve days of Christmas, she’ll receive 500 pounds. At her aunt’s urging, Clara accepts the invitation.

Clara finds no host at Bleakly Manor, but she is surprised to see an assortment of people there who have all been promised various rewards if they will stay twelve days. A late and most startling arrival is none other than Ben!

As the participants get to know one another, personalities clash. The host remains absent. And odd occurrences begin happening: one person’s jewels go missing, strange foods are served at mealtimes, accidents happen that turn out not to be accidents. And then the group is informed that only one of them will win what they were promised.

This book started out as a cozy mystery, dragged just a bit in the middle for me, and then took a darker turn as the “accidents” increased in intensity.

I had to look up my review of Dickens’ Bleak House to remind myself of the characters there and see the parallels. This story is not meant to be a point-for-point retelling, but it does contain elements of the plot and some characters.

All in all an enjoyable Christmas read.

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books, Literary Musing Monday, and Carole’s Books You Loved

Two Short Christmas Reviews

In The Great Christmas Bowl by Susan May Warren, Marianne Wallace is an avid football fan, but none of her sons have been interested in playing – until her youngest son’s senior year. She becomes the Big Lake Trouts’ biggest fan. But is she a big enough fan to don the trout costume when the mascot is out for the season? Especially when her husband, thinking she needs some spice in her life, volunteers her to head the hospitality committee with its upcoming Christmas Tea (note to husbands: don’t do this!) and she’s trying to create the perfect Christmas for her family.

The Christmas Tea is a challenge as the older pillar-of-the-church ladies want to keep the tea the same as it has been for eons, but the younger women want to change it up. And as her grown children one by one cancel their plans to come for Christmas, this holiday season is shaping up to be one of the most disappointing and stressful ever.

The story is written in a humorous vein but it still manages to tackles key issues, for instance: is showing another person your love best done the way you think conveys it, or are the unusual and perhaps unorthodox opportunities that arise, that seem like hindrances, actually new opportunities to show love? Another: what’s the nature and focus of traditions and hospitality?

Loved this novella!

The second one also happens to be by Susan May Warren: Evergreen: A Christiansen Winter Novella. The Christiansens are facing their first Christmas with an empty nest. John is excited, planning a surprise trip to Paris to renew their vows at the top of the Eiffel tower. But Ingrid agrees for them to head up the church’s live Nativity, their dog has a major illness, wiping out the savings for the trip and needing their time and attention, and Ingrid’s sister, who is going into rehab after being arrested, asks them to take in her son, a nephew they haven’t seen in years. Their disagreements over these things dredge up past unresolved hurts, driving a wedge between them.

Some quotes from this one:

Even Mary had to let her child go…You have to wonder, as Mary watched Jesus on the cross, did she look back and ask herself if she had made a mistake? God had told her she would be the mother of the Savior. You can’t get more devastated than Mary, watching her Son—the Savior—die…But Jesus’ path wasn’t for Mary to determine. Her greatest ability as a mother was to be His mother. To love Him, nurture Him, care for Him. She embraced her destiny, then let Him go to embrace His. You have to let your children embrace theirs.

She didn’t want to hear it. To see his love in a thousand small ways. Because then she’d have to loose her hold on the ember of bitterness, let God heal her heart.

I should have leaned into God for courage, instead of reacting in fear.

Along with the nature of love and the best ways to show it, this one also discusses protection and fear. Protecting each other is something we’re supposed to do, yet sometimes it can stifle the other.

This was a different tone from the first one, but poignant and quite good. Evidently Susan has a whole series involving the Christiansens.

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books and Carole’s Books You Loved)

Book Review: One Enchanted Christmas: A Novella

Enchanted ChristmasIn One Enchanted Christmas by Melissa Tagg, Maren Grant had one of the best nights of her life one December evening. Her book was about ready to be published, and as she developed a serious crush on Colin Renwycke, the model posing for the cover of her book, he actually asked her out. They had a wonderful, “enchanted” evening going to dinner and then a carriage ride around the city, ending with his issuing an open invitation to come visit his family’s farm, even to stay there and write for a while.

A year later, even though Maren only heard from Colin once, via a postcard reminding her about his open invitation, and at the urging of her best friend, she decided to take Colin up on his offer. She had begun to think of him as her story’s hero, and was stuck in her next novel. She decided seeing Colin’s home and town might provide her with inspiration. She couldn’t reach him, so she decided to just show up. He had told her where to find the key if the family was away, and as she tried to retrieve it, who should arrive but – not Colin, but his brother, Drew, mystified as to why this woman was trying to break into his house.

After much explanation and the fortunate recognition of her by Drew’s niece, Winnie, who had read Maren’s first book, Drew invites her into the home he shares with his sister and niece. He had inherited the family farm and was trying to make a go of it as a haven for his siblings and himself, helping out with their problems the best way he knew how. He and Colin had argued over the inheritance, and Drew had not see his brother since. He begins to entertain the hope that this author might draw Colin back to the farm.

But as Drew shows Maren around town and as she unavoidably gets pulled into some of the family issues, they find they mesh well, her playfulness a complement to his seriousness. He may not want Colin to rediscover Maren after all.

My thoughts:

I had never read Melissa Tagg before, and romances aren’t my favorite genre, but this was a delight. I loved how Maren and Drew interacted, and a quirky narrator popped up occasionally to summarize, give background information, etc. Though the story has something of a romantic comedy feel, there’s drama as well from the family issues and misunderstandings. It’s a little light on the faith element, but otherwise it’s quite an enjoyable Christmas read.

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books and Carole’s Books You Loved)