Tuesday, December 26, 2017

In the Bookcase: A Literary Christmas Challenge 2017 Part VI

A Literary Christmas: 2017 Reading Challenge // inthebookcase.blogspot.com

Epiphany with TeaEpiphany with Tea by Renata McMann--Austenesque Short Story

After 10 years of marriage, Mr. Darcy knows his Elizabeth very well and knows she is about to win this argument. Elizabeth wants to bring her late sister's child into their home. Mr. Darcy refuses to have the son of George Wickham in his home but as he reflects on the day Elizabeth agreed to become his wife, he realizes being with Elizabeth has changed him.

This is a Pride and Prejudice variation that deviates a LOT from the paths Jane Austen chose for her characters. I do not like that. The original works because of the way the story unfolds. However, the author seems like a skilled writer and if I ignore the characters as eponymous Jane Austen creations and just go with the flow, I really like the story! It's very sweet and charming. It's also very unrealistic given the time period. I know most readers just want the characters to talk about their feelings instead of a BIG MISUNDERSTANDING but in Jane Austen's day, ladies and gentlemen didn't discuss things like feelings, hence the plot of the original novel. Anyway, this is a sweet little short story that doesn't have anything to do with Christmas but is rather heartwarming just the same.

In the Bookcase: A Literary Christmas Challenge 2017 Part IV

A Literary Christmas: 2017 Reading Challenge // inthebookcase.blogspot.com

A Regency Christmas IVA Regency Christmas IV by Mary Jo Putney, Sandra Heath, Mary Balogh, Marjorie Ferrell, Emma Lange

The Christmas Tart by Mary Jo Putney features a down-on-her-luck heroine and a nobleman with too many cares. When dressmaker Nicole Chambord is fired through no actual fault of her own, she’s kicked out on the streets on Christmas. With only a gaudy cloak and a few coins her in pocket, how will she survive? Sir Philip Selbourne has been working too hard since his father’s death. His friends decide he needs some Christmas cheer in the form of a woman warming his bed. When Nicole is propositioned by Philip’s friends, she weighs the offer. Can she go through with it? Philip wants nothing more than peace and quiet before he returns to work. When he finds a woman in his bed, the offer is tempting but is all what it seems?

The very beginning of this story sounded so familiar but none of the rest of it did! It was predictable but I liked it. Despite the premise, this is a clean story with only kisses and very mild sensuality. Philip is a saintly, swoony sort of hero. He loves his family and respects women. Nicole is admirable. I can’t imagine going through all the tough situations she’s been through in her life. She’s a very strong young woman and I really liked her.

In A Seasonal Stratagem by Sandra Heath, Leon, Earl of Holmwood, bets his friend he can seduce a kiss from the lovely Miss Rosalind Faraday, niece of a very respectable matron. The usual complications ensue. This story is pretty standard in the Regency canon. I’m not fond of heroes who try to seduce unsuspecting females –especially those who do it for a wager. Leon is no exception. The misunderstanding was typical and the ending predictable.

The Porcelain Madonna by Mary Balogh features a Christmas-hating hero, Darcy Austin (yes really, she went there), Earl of Kevern and a shabby genteel heroine, Julie Bevan. When the Earl spies the lovely young woman staring at the porcelain Madonna and Child figure in the window of the jewelers, he is enchanted. He is thrust into her company when he stops a young would-be pickpocket from stealing her reticule. Instead of allowing him to thrash the boy, Julie takes pity on the poor boy who surely must have a great need to steal. It is Charlie who continues to bring these lonely souls together again and again during the Christmas season. As they await a Christmas miracle, the Earl makes a startling discovery about himself.

This is by far the best story in the collection. It’s a real Christmas story about helping others, forgiveness and joy. There were lots of feels and I even teared up a little towards the end. I’m not sure about the historical accuracy of the figure and I really don’t think an Earl would do some of the things he does in the story, but it’s a sweet story. I really liked how the hero’s backstory wasn’t revealed until the end. I had already guessed what it must be but it still came as a revelation. This wounded gentleman captured my heart. Julie is an angel. She’s a little too saintly for my taste yet I did feel the same way she did about Charlie. She’s a Dickensian sort of heroine! This is a sweet, kisses only romance for Christmas.

The next story Christmas Rose by Marjorie Ferrell is a long tale about a couple who are unable to conceive and have grown apart. When Lord Holford returns home from Christmas revels, he discovers a woman leaving a basket on a doorstep. He is horrified to discover the basket contains a young baby! The mother claims she can’t keep the baby because her lover is on his way home from the Continent and she is desperate to keep him and his love. If he finds out there is a child, their relationship will be over. Lord Holford comes up with an ingenious plan, but will it work? His wife will need to think it was all her own idea if it is to succeed.

The first chapter was very sweet. Failure to conceive and adoption are not common subjects in Regency romances so it was refreshing to read about a different plot. However, the rest of the story derails from there. The misunderstanding is so annoying! Lady Lanford is an idiot. She obviously doesn’t know or trust her husband. They should just TALK to each other. He is a very nice gentleman and trying hard to please his wife. It breaks his heart that she is so depressed from her perceived inability to become pregnant. She repays his gift to her by behaving childishly and even her parents think she behaved badly. The story goes on too long and is too improbable. Give this one a miss if you don’t like silly wives and misunderstandings.

Warning: semi-graphic love scenes with the emphasis on how the characters feel.

The final story The Best Gift of All by Emma Lange seems to be based on Georgette Heyer’s A Civil Contract. (and shows why Georgette Heyer is the master of her craft). Newlyweds Philip and Megan Lindsay, Earl and Countess of Westphal have grown apart after only one week together. Philip resents his father and elder brother dying with deep debts that forced him to marry a cit’s daughter. While Philip has been with his mistress in London, Megan is back at the estate overseeing repairs. She both dreads and longs for her husband to return to her and to her bed. The memories of that week together make her blush furiously! When Philip returns, he brings a party of stranded travelers, including one who makes his family raise their eyebrows. He feels captivated by his fresh, youthful bride and knows he can easily seduce her. Is that enough?

UGH! I did not like this story. I hated this Philip. He’s a selfish, immature rat turd who doesn’t deserve a nice girl like Megan. I can see why he would fall in love with her but other than seeing him riding in the park, she doesn’t know him well enough to love him. Where Georgette Heyer paints a realistic portrait of a couple learning to live together and come together as a couple, this story features a randy hero and his equally lustful bride who continually think about going to bed together. That isn’t much to base a relationship on. I did enjoy the Christmas festivities and the lively, loving family but that was about all.

Warning: Graphic love scenes.

In the Bookcase A Literary Christmas Challenge 2017 Part III

A Literary Christmas: 2017 Reading Challenge // inthebookcase.blogspot.com

Christmas Bells
Christmas Bells by Jennifer Chiaverini-- Historical Fiction/Contemporary Fiction/Contemporary Romance

In 1860, Henry Wordsworth Longfellow is more successful than ever. His poem about Paul Revere is about to be published and he delights in the comfort of his lovely home and family. His wife Fanny is the love of his life and his children, especially the little girls, are a delight. However, with the growing tensions over slavery and President Buchanan's inaction, the country may soon be headed to war. Henry fervently prays and hopes it will never come to that. Though he is an abolitionist, he is also a dedicated pacifist. As the world heads towards war, Henry's life will be shattered in more ways than one. As he plunges into depression, it seems nothing can bring him out-that is-until he hears the bells ringing on Christmas Day. In present day Massachusetts, Sophia is a public school music teacher in an underprivileged school. She is passionate about music and about helping children discover their own passion. Unfortunately budget cuts are looming and Sophia is about to be out of a job. She still has a position as choir director for St. Margaret's Catholic Church, which she loves. Lucas, the accompanist, is passionate about urban renewal and architectural design. His love brought him to St. Margaret's. He loves working with the kids, but mostly he loves being with Sophia. His love for her has endured years of friendship and relationship drama on both ends. His timing is always bad. He's worried she can never feel for him what he feels for her. Should he declare his feelings at last? Choirboy Alex Moran is thrilled to have a solo in the upcoming Christmas concert. If only his dad could see him sing. Mr. Moran is in Afghanistan and Alex misses his dad like crazy. The internet has been broken for a month and Alex hasn't spoken with his dad since before Thanksgiving. Alex's sister Charlotte, a brilliant straight-A student has her own worries. She worries about school and worries her mom is keeping secrets from her. Is the Army's internet really broken or did something happen to her dad? Laurie, Mrs. Moran, doesn't know what has happened to her husband. She fears the worst and can't bring herself to ruin the holiday season for the kids. Camille Barrett, wife of the late senator Paul Barrett knows how it feels to grieve a lost loved one. She was as devoted to her husband as her and they shared a passion for helping the people of Boston. Their shared passion for philanthropy and music led them to donate Paul's piano to the church. She loves to hear the children's choir singing and the piano playing. If only Paul were beside her still. Father Ryan is praying for his parishioners having a tough time this holiday season, especially Jason Moran. Jason is not just a parishioner, but Ryan's best friend from college. Will this holiday season be a happy one? Only Sister Winifred, who hears directly from God, believes it will be.

I have mixed feelings for this novel. The multiple points of view is a unique style that I haven't seen before, however, it bogs down the story and prevents the central plot from really shining. I didn't need to read backstories for the modern characters or know too many details about their problems. I wanted the story to focus on Sophia and Lucas and parallel Henry and Fanny's love story. I get that the story of the Morans loosely parallels the Longfellows as does the Barretts (more closely) and that's nice but unnecessary. There's just too much going on. The multiple points-of-view also make the story repetitive. We already know what happened so why repeat it? Why not pick up where the story left off? I expected the story to alternate between what drove Henry to write Christmas Bells and the modern love story. The conclusion to Sophia and Lucas' story and to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's story were both unsatisfactory because it took so long to get there.

This author also has a problem with "telling". She starts off great in 1860, sharing lovely details about the Longfellow home in Cambridge and their lives there. There are moments of greatness in the beginning and middle but I skimmed a lot of the war news because that was too much telling. I did want to know what happened to the soldiers in the story and stayed up too late reading to find out. I ended up skipping to the end to try to find out.

I really like Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. I loved his poetry when I was growing up-(what New England kid doesn't know "The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere"?) -but didn't know a lot about him until I read Forever and Forever: The Courtship of Henry Longfellow and Fanny Appleton. Authors can draw on his journals and letters to make Henry come alive. He seemed to have been a kind and sensitive man who loved deeply and felt sorrow keenly. His love story is a true romance and a true tragedy. However, I felt Henry was a little overly sensitive and overprotective of his son. Having been a wannabe rebellious teen, I know how Charley felt and what he was going to do, even without consulting the historical record. Charley made some very valid points. I'm sure I would feel the same way as Henry though if I were a parent during the Civil War. The war was so horrendous I can't even imagine living through it.

The Longfellow family seemed like a charming, lively bunch. Fanny is portrayed as sensible but sweet and loving. I wonder how much time she actually spent with the children? Henry seems to have spent a lot of time with them but the story mentions the girls' governess frequently. My heart broke for Alice but I enjoyed learning more about what happened to her as an adult and I need to look her up. Annie's confession broke my heart and who knows what actually happened? I wonder if she had PTSD for the rest of her life?

The modern characters are hit or miss. There's only one chapter from Sophia's POV in the beginning. She seems like a modern day Fanny Longfellow-intelligent, kind and caring. Her feelings for Lucas seemed fairly obvious and since it's the 21st century, I don't know why she didn't talk to him about his feelings! He is a modern day Henry-sensitive, deeply caring and unsure of himself. I liked him a lot but again, I felt like he was ignoring the obvious and wringing his hands too much.

The story spends more time with the Morans. Alex is such a typical 10 year old boy. He has to be modeled after someone because he reminded me so much of my downstairs neighbor-also 10 with ADHD! The novelist never says Alex has ADHD but I'm betting he would be diagnosed with it in real life. Charlotte reminded me a lot of myself. I liked the siblings rivalry. It felt real to me. The lengthy backstory of Laurie and Jason is sweet but not at all necessary. He's a lot of fun and she's down-to-earth. I liked them but I didn't need to spend so much time with them to be eager to find out what happens to Jason!

I love Father Ryan! I never thought I'd say that about a priest, being a historian and feeling the same way as Liam. He's fun and lively and I get the sense he was a ladies' man in college. He is devoted to the community and helping the people. I did not need to read the theological debate about sports-boring and unnecessary to the overall plot! Who cares if God wants the Bruins or Penguins to win? (Go Bruins, obviously!) Also not necessary was his family drama.

Camille and Paul's story is all telling and no showing aside from the scenes where she is going through his office. Stop right there! Call an archivist! Those papers belong in the state archive! The details were wonderful and I felt Camille's grief. She serves as a catalyst for the final action but is otherwise not important to the plot. Paul, while a wonderful man and a uniquely caring politician, was also not needed. The piano was donated by a local son made good is enough.

I don't regret reading this novel but it was long and rambling. Tightened up and without the obvious deus ex machina, it would be a better story.

I wish I had an audio of this story. The Madison Children's Choir that inspired the novel doesn't have a video of them singing this song online. I found some but they weren't quite as described in the novel.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

In the Bookcase A Literary Christmas Challenge 2017 Part II

 A Literary Christmas: 2017 Reading Challenge // inthebookcase.blogspot.com

Mrs. Jeffries and the Three Wise Women (Mrs. Jeffries #36)Mrs. Jeffries and the Three Wise Women by Emily Brightwell--historical cozy mystery

Abigail Chase is furious with her husband's business associate Christopher Gilhaney for ruining her Guy Fawkes Night dinner party. He managed to insult every single one of her guests, all of whom left very early. As Gilhaney walks home through the mews he hears the noise of the fireworks and worries about drunken revelers. Little does he know he has a bigger problem! A mysterious masked person manages to shoot the cautious and street-wise Gilhaney through the heart! Inspector Nivens manages to convince Chief Inspector Barrows that the killing was a simple robbery gone wrong and he'll be able to solve the mystery in no time. Unfortunately for Nivens, it's not so simple and with the Home Office pressuring the police to solve the murder, Nivens is taken off the case. Witherspoon is now on the case. Witherspoon and the servants are upset their Christmas plans are about to be ruined. Mrs. Goodge, Luty Belle and Lady Canonberry notice no one else's hearts seem to be in the case. They can't let Inspector Witherspoon down. He doesn't deserve a black mark on his record despite the incompetence of Inspector Nivens. Can they convince everyone else to put aside their own selfish desires and help their dear Inspector crack the case?

I am so amazed at the author's ability to keep this series fresh. This mystery was so complicated and had so many suspects, I never figured out who the actual killer was. I was on the right track as to why but who could have been anyone. It did seem obvious in hindsight but it took Mrs. Jeffries quite a long time to get there! My big complaint with this novel is the length. There's a little too much of nothing to report and a bit too much repetition.

As always, the characters are a delight. I love Mrs. Goodge and her network of sources. They're very colorful. Luty Belle the stereotype annoys me but she has a heart of gold and I can't help but enjoy her. Lady Canonberry is so admirable. I liked what she said about fighting for what she believes in and I love how her relationship with Inspector Witherspoon is moving forward. They're very sweet together. The rest of the characters are annoying-on purpose. They behave selfishly, which is understandable, but as they are reminded-justice doesn't take a holiday. They do owe Witherspoon for their positions and for the kindness he gives them! HE doesn't want to work over Christmas any more than they do. I am impressed with the Inspector. He has come a long way in this series. He's more shrewd and less naive than he was when he started though still oblivious to the help he's given! I think even without the help, he could have figured it out eventually.

New characters are numerous. Let's start with the victim-Christopher Gilhaney. He seems like a very unpleasant, unlikable sort of man in the beginning. Then the reports about him get conflicting. He sounds like a complicated person. I admire him for his good qualities and how he was able to overcome his childhood circumstances. The Chases seem like a typical upper class married couple. They tolerate each other -he with good humor for the most part. She seems a bit irritating and bullying though. Mr. and Mrs. Bruce, on the other hand, barely tolerate each other. He married her for her money and their relationship shows just how that works out! I found them a bit over-the-top and unrealistic though, like characters in a movie. Miss Holter came as a bit of a surprise. She seems to be a soul sister of Miss Havisham! Mr. Webster was also a surprise. I suspected something different about him. Mr. Newton seems a bit too kind and conscientious to be realistic for the time. I'm not sure what to make of him, if he is a villain or not. The others are rather forgettable and I kept getting confused as to who was who.

If you like this series, you will enjoy this book a lot. If you're just beginning the series, this book works fine as a stand alone, though I would backtrack several books and not start here. Overall, a fun holiday read.

In the Bookcase A Literary Christmas Challenge 2017 Part I

A Literary Christmas: 2017 Reading Challenge // inthebookcase.blogspot.com

Christmas at Little Beach Street BakeryChristmas at Little Beach Street Bakery by Jenny Colgan--Women's Fiction

The description on the back of the book is so wrong and misleading! Here's the best summary I can give without spoilers. Christmas is coming to Mount Polbearne and business is booming for Polly's bakery. She's been so busy she hasn't had a chance to connect with Kerensa in awhile. Polly and Huckle are looking forward to a quiet Christmas together snuggled up under the covers, drinking hot chocolate and watching movies (with Neil of course). The village has other ideas. Not only is Polly expected to donate her baked goods to the village fair on top of regular holiday baking, Ruben wants Polly to cater his Christmas party. Cater for a bunch of demanding rich people? Um no! Then Polly learns some things that make her reconsider the offer while Huckle is urging her to step back, relax, take some time to work on their relationship-perhaps get married and/or start a family. Ghosts from Polly's past creep up until she's forced to confront her demons head on.

Jenny Colgan has a formula and if you like her formula, you'll enjoy this book. As with the others in the series, I had a problem with the relationship drama. I could have done without all that. I was expected a nice holiday story about a village coming together in a storm with some cute Puffin drama thrown in for good measure. This story is set at Christmas and has a theme of forgiveness but lacks Christmas charm. The drama went on longer than necessary and involves marital infidelity, pregnancy and Polly's past. I was interested in Polly's history and her parents' story but thought she was awful to Huckle, who is the world's best boyfriend. There isn't enough Neil in the story to please me. His eeps and antics are what makes this series my favorite of all Colgan's books.

Polly is super annoying in this book. She's over analytical, takes too much on herself and isn't a good friend and girlfriend. She gets guilted into being a good friend through something that is in no way her fault. Kerensa has always annoyed me and here she reminds me too much of Bridget Jones. Ruben is more than a putz. He's a self-centered, rich, selfish jerk and I don't see why everyone loves him so much. Huckle is the best character in this book. I love him! He's the sweetest and the best boyfriend to Polly.

New characters include Ruben's family who are all just awful. Polly's mom plays a big role too. I felt bad for her. She seems to have depression and anxiety that have held her back and given Polly a lot of issues.

It was nice to catch up with the gang and see what is happening in the village but this isn't my favorite of Colgan's books or even the series.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

In the Bookcase A Literary Christmas Challenge: Christmas Picture Books Part 1

A Literary Christmas: 2017 Reading Challenge // inthebookcase.blogspot.com

Christmas Picture Books 

An Alcott Family ChristmasAn Alcott Family Christmas by Alexandra Wallner

This book retells the first chapter of Little Women making it about the Alcott family. The moral of the story is kindness counts. Christmas presents come from the heart not from the store. Being an avid fan of Louisa May Alcott, I had to get this book for my nieces from the library before we head to Concord to do some Christmas shopping. I wasn't crazy about the plot or the illustrations. The plot is too sappy and I'm not certain it's even true. I appreciate the moral but in this instance, I found it a bit too much. In Little Women it's a bit less rosy.

I didn't care much for the illustrations. I think they're supposed to be folk art style but they look a little weird to me. May looks lumpy and what color is her hair supposed to be? Bronson is depicted as an old man with stark white hair. While this is probably accurate, it may be confusing for children. Why does the Daddy look like a grandpa or great-grandpa?

A brief bio33graphy of Louisa and a list of her best known books are at the end.

My nieces haven't read this yet.

A Little Women ChristmasA Little Women Christmas by Heather Vogel Frederick

This is an excellent adaptation of the section of Little Women following Beth's illness. If you know the story, you know what happens. Even so, this part of the book never fails to move me. The picture book author uses actual dialogue from the novel to pass on the lesson instead of hammering it home in her own words. I appreciated the more subtle approach and of course, any adaptation that uses original dialogue gets extra credit from me. My only quibble is that Beth is not the youngest daughter but the middle. It's an easy thing to misremember but if I was going to adapt such a beloved classic novel, I'd make sure of the details before I did it.

The illustrations are the real stand out. They look so realistic! The illustrations could almost be photographs. The clothing and hairstyles look appropriate to the time period and characters, for the most part. I do question Beth's ringlets but perhaps Meg styled Beth's hair for Christmas. Jo bears more of a resemblance to Winona Ryder than Louisa May Alcott but that's the illustrator's vision. I especially like how careworn the faces of Marmee and Father are without making them look elderly. Father looks like he's been to war and been ill, as is explained in the text. Orchard House stands in for the little brown house where the March family lives-everyone assumes Orchard House is the March family home because that's the museum. True fans know the Alcotts lived at The Wayside next door when the girls were the ages of their literary counterparts in the first part of the novel. (Minor quibble). I am excited to give my nieces a visual cue for Orchard House though so when they see the actual house, they recognize it as the March family home.

This is a must for introduction younger readers to the classic novel. 

Strega Nona's GiftStrega Nona's Gift by Tomie dePaola

This book doesn't have the usual charm of a Strega Nonna story. Half the book is an overview of Christmas customs in Italy. Most of them haven't crossed the Atlantic with our ancestors! (We just celebrate La Vigilia). Then the story really begins and it ends quickly. Big Anthony always means well but this time he was told something and did what he was not supposed to do for selfish reasons. Strega Nonna never finds out. I didn't like her gift. It seemed a little cruel though everyone seemed to enjoy it.

The Snowman and the SnowdogThe Snowman and the Snowdog by Joanna Harrison

A boy moves into a new home and in his eagerness to explore, he discovers an old hat, a scarf, a shriveled tangerine and some coal hidden in his new room, along with a photo of a boy and a snowman. The boy builds his own snowman just like the one in the photo. For good measure, he adds a snowdog. The snow duo come to life in a magical adventure.

Warning! The dog dies on page 2! This story has words to go with the pictures and therefore kind of lacks the simple charm of the original. The story is magical and fantastical-more so than the original. It is a sweet homage though. The pictures are more rounded and cutesy than Raymond Briggs' original illustrations but they're charming and cute.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017