Read Down 2020: YA Binge

So the world is weird right now, and we all know it.  Even those who aren’t lucky enough to be able to stay out of the fray know it’s a weird world.

I had the good luck to have planned time off this past week, a rare commodity because I work in healthcare.  I don’t know when that will happen again so I spent it teaching Psycho Mommy Homeschool complete with Bribery Friday, posted dating profiles for my chickens on Facebook, started and restarted and restarted a complicated lace scarf, read one of the comps I am using for my  novel, worked on my query letter, researched agents, and harassed my husband into making a coop and a run.

AND I read down my YA so I could be completely intimidated by these authors, trying to throw my book into the same pool as these.  The books I am reviewing today are stunning.  They take real world, contemporary settings and bring them to life with teen voices.

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The Sky is Everywhere, Jandy Nelson

Lennon, a gifted teenage musician, loses her sister in a tragic unexpected death that turns her and the world of her family around.  She is drawn to her sister’s last boyfriend because he is the only one who sees her in her grief, but also meets a boy who is a ray of sun who falls hopelessly in love with her. She is caught between being close to her sister through the first boy and barreling into her first true love through the second, but even as she does so she feels guilty for this happiness to come at this time, and sad that she doesn’t have her sister to share it with.

Jandy Nelson is an artistic genius.  This book is not super heavy on plot. It has enough to move things along, but what it has is gorgeous amounts of characterization, voice, and emotions.  Relatable emotions from a child drowning in her feelings of loss. Lenny writes poems and leaves them all over to sum up where she is in her grief process through the book and this opens chapters. This is a love triangle, there is no magic in it, save for the magic that is her surviving family.  This does a regular teen in the regular world in a regular time and she makes it completely magical with her writing. Wow. Even though this book was hard to get through in spots, with the sad and hopeless parts of it, it’s beautiful. I would love to be able to write like Ms. Nelson, with that much heart, that much humor and voice, and ability to breathe fresh life into a common plot (love triangle) and setting. 

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I’ll Give You the Sun, Jandy Nelson

Twins Noah and Jude lose their twin thing as they get to be teenagers, competing for their parents’ love and mounting secrets against the other that threaten to tear them apart.  Relationship threatening assumptions get made. One gets into a coveted school that the other wanted, each is clearly favored by parents in a dissolving marriage, and you wonder the whole time, as the story spins out and before it all gets pulled back together, how everything got to be such a mess.

Jandy Nelson is like, the master of voice in YA.  One of the masters. I can’t say better than John Green, so I would say right up there. This story is so intriguing with so many layers and unexpected moments, I alternated between being sucked in and needing a break.  I know what lit agents mean when they want stories full of voice: they want something like this. These smart and funny kids who do and don’t fit in and who make hilarious observations. It’s so good. It comes full circle.  Wow. I am glad I am reading down my YA stories. This has more actually happening in it than The Sky is Everywhere, and grief is only a part of it.  Nelson does well with a contemporary story in a non fantasy setting and making it something dimensional and special.

Seriously, who has the balls to try to query into this genre when it will be in the same section as these books?

Does anyone else find themselves wondering how they will feel after such strange times?  If they will want to go back to participating in regular life?  I haven’t minded the way things have slowed down in some aspects.  My son is more willing to walk the dog and do things other than his ipad on his downtime at home, because he is home more. Not that I don’t refuse him the Ipad, because I do, but it isn’t as hard to get him to involve himself with us.  I have a beautiful home and I have enjoyed being here. I’m one of the so lucky ones.

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Social Distancing Reads

Unprecedented times.  That’s what we are living in.  Hunkered down in our homes if we can afford the luxury of isolation/distancing, keeping our children close, we need solitary and distracting activities in order to not kill each other while this wave of illness has a chance to play out and die on its own. Hopefully not overwhelming our resources and really making it feel like the end of the world in the process.

I have always thought of reading as the ultimate boredom survival tool.  Even as my own brain has chosen different ways to read while I keep my hands busy, I can travel to places in books at any time, no matter where I am.  So even though I am reading through some of my YA to help with my writing goals I have decided on a special edition post of the reads I recommend to anyone trying to survive something immobilizing for indeterminate periods of time.

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The Red Tent, Anita Diamant

I read this years ago, like college age, at the behest of my mother, who always at the time knew the hottest books going.  I think this skill was partly due to her following Oprah’s book club.  It tells the story of Dinah, a minor character in the book of Genesis, and the world of women in the Biblical time in history.  We women have always been survivors and do best sticking together no matter what, even in our world of men, and this book reminds us of that.  This book stays with me and is always one of the first titles that falls from my mouth when people want book recommendations.

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The Luminaries, Eleanor Catton

This one is less of a sweeping success than The Red Tent.  It is less universally appealing, and I will start with that.  This is set in 1866 New Zealand, and a single man arrives seeking his fortune and instead gets wrapped up in a mystery involving a treasure, an attempted suicide, and a missing man.  Now, I am not going to pretend that I caught everything in this 848 page doorstop, but I found myself taken along for the ride in these interwoven tales of people living on the edge of the known world.  Allegedly this is a funny satire but I don’t think I have enough context to have found it funny. I reviewed it years back from being a snow read that had always intrigued me but I had been intimidated to try.  I would recommend you at least try to get into it, see where it takes you.  You have time, right?

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Sarah Addison Allen

I am just popping this author up there to recommend something lighter to read but still completely magical.  I have read almost everything she has done, and I have reviewed her on here not too long ago.  These stories are magical realist tales of people’s lives and fates.  Finding love.  Living in every day worlds of magical happenings.  I ate her books like candy.  I didn’t have to work for it, and after recommending a book where you generally do gotta work for it, at least a little, I felt I needed to have something listed here that is more instant gratification but you still could respect yourself.  Although self respect is overrated, especially when it comes to survival reading.

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All Souls Trilogy, Deborah Harkness

So if you really think you’re going to need to occupy lots of time, and you like magic, paranormal creatures, and historical fiction, and you want to work for it, this one is worth a whirl.  It tops out just under 1700 pages.  It’s a transporting time eater.  And now that all three are out, you can read them back to back instead of forgetting plot points before the next one comes out, like I did.  So complex.  So many interesting times in history discussed and shown.  So worth it to spend time in this world instead of ours.

I am hopeful these crazy times will pass soon.  I am hopeful that together we will flatten the curve and contain this as much as possible.  I live in New York, so there is a lot going on up here with the virus, and I work in healthcare so I am sitting in on daily meetings and might end up having to help out in other departments. But until then there are always books.  There will always be books.

Stay safe.

 

Long TBR hangers, Both Good

Thank you, February, for packing up and leaving.  You have made me extra grateful for summer, so it’s time to go, and make a sloshy melting mud mess (ooo, alliteration) for Spring to come through.

I might get serious this year about Easter decorations.  Because, you know, I love the bunnies and pastels in addition to the poking flowers and the days that are like 40 degrees but at this time of year feel like mid-summer.

I have been working on my writing more.  Truly.  Actually going to participate in pitch madness this week on Twitter and am taking an online thing on refining my pitch!

So I have fewer reads but I still have this drive to categorize them, group them, in some way when I am putting my reviews out into the world.  This can be difficult when I am not following categories or chewing down a bunch by one author, as I spent the opening of the year doing.

So these two are books that I got forever ago and, like I have said for all my hangers-on, other books got in the way of their getting read.

 

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The Medea Complex, Rachel Florence Roberts

A society woman finds herself unexpectedly confined to an inpatient psychiatric unit in the year 1885 with no memory of how she got there or why.  Told from the perspectives of her husband, her father, and the lead psychiatrist of the hospital as well as her own (and a few others) a story unfolds about the untimely death of an infant and a man looking to entrap a woman to get his hands on her estate.  This was researched to be historically accurate, with the treatments and attitudes of psychiatric care as well as the attitudes toward criminals and the insane. There are also characters in here that are in keeping with real historical people and events.

So I bought this book when I didn’t quite understand the self published thing, and before self published authors were careful about editing and formatting.  Once I was burned on a tiny handful of books that looked SO COOL but ended up being a mess (that I will not name of course) I noticed that this one, in the cover I had it in, was probably self pub too so as cool as it looked, it was passed over. 

Let me tell you now, it was as cool as I thought when I bought it. This current cover is not the one I have for it, so I don’t know what has happened to it since I got mine or if it actually was self pub, but now there’s an audible version, and I was hooked through it. I didn’t even get the audio version of this, I was so hooked. I wanted to know the scandal and I always like something well researched and based on real people, which I didn’t expect it to be.  The narrator kept me guessing about what the rest of story was going to be and what the intrigue was under all of it. I definitely recommend this one, especially if you have an interest in Victorian England’s social issues.  I’m somewhat not sure why I do, because I know that it was truly only a good time for rich white men.  I mean, they made ostentatious grieving into an art form, but at the root of it, it was about rich white dudes.

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Sandman Slim, Richard Kadrey

A man returns to Earth after an eleven year stint in hell, bent on getting revenge on the circle of magician friends who banished him there and killed his girlfriend.  He ends up saving the world and the cosmos in a way only he can, and not always with the cleanest of motivations. 

This book is hilarious and gripping.  It doesn’t surprise me in the least that it is a breakout novel, because I can see where any agent or publisher would get on the hilarious language, the likeable antihero and the slow drawing out of the plot and why he is the unlikely hero he turns out to be.  I have always been drawn in by the premise. It was an audiobook I got forever ago when I was just getting into audiobooks and I wasn’t as neck deep in the reading and audiobook world as I am now. I can reach back enough to remember when I first got on audible and wasn’t sure what was good out there, but it’s becoming a rapidly fading memory.  I have some around on that list and I want to get through those, too. But this is hilarious, an absolute recommend. Especially if you like good metaphors and some funny, edgy fast talking.

This is also, not surprisingly, the beginning of a series.  So after the world saving and the big twist, you can get more of his shenanigans.

So, good luck to me in my pitch madness this week, honing my pitch to agents, crossing my fingers that it catches someone’s eye, although learning through the online course is probably even more valuable than scrolling twitter for an entire day looking for validation.

Reading still happens, though, so stay tuned in two weeks as I talk about some DNF’s that got, well, F’ed.  In a good way.  The best way possible.

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Final Reads to Christmas!

We have arrived at the week of Christmas!  I took this week off of work, which I have not done in years.  Usually I stick around because it was important to other staff to have the days to travel or be with children.  Now I have a child who wants Mom home for some of the time with him, especially since there are two full weeks off this year from school, and I don’t have the heart to throw him in care the entire time, and I am privileged enough to have that choice.  And I want to get him started with playing with his Christmas gifts, which I always select as a little above his age so he has more time enjoying them.  If I let him choose his gifts the house would be filled with even more wheeled vehicles that he ignores.  Maybe some toy food that he also will never play with.  Drives me crazy.  But the trade off is I have to spend time orienting him to playing with them and giving him some ideas to start with.  So I’ll do that on my Christmas week off with my sweet not so baby boy.

I usually take time off to spend time to myself, so I hope I get a chance to rest, too.  I’ve been a little burned out this year, going through the motions a little bit to keep to the traditions, but not making myself nutty on doing every Christmas thing I see for children on my Facebook feed.  It is too easy these days to feel you have to do ALL OF IT, even though my son has enjoyed the small town Christmas traditions here just fine, without my having to drive hours and spend lots of money and valuable, oh so valuable, energy.  He’s plenty happy and looking forward to Santa.  He’s not asking why we have not made it to the alpaca farm an hour away for Christmas celebrations.  Although it looks super cute and I want to make it up there some year.

These are the last two books of the Christmas Reads post.  I kind of crapped out on Christmas books, like, ten days ago and I have been back to reading ghost stories, which I have done before at Christmas and now I’m seeing was a thing anyway back in the day, and getting a jump on my next year’s goals, which I will talk about in a later post.  I have other neglected Christmas reads sitting in my audio and books that will get their turn next year.

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Christmas on the Island, Jenny Colgan

A small community on a tiny Scottish island have a Christmas filled with love, misunderstandings, some family reconciliation and some letting go.  A woman with an unexpected pregnancy, a refugee doctor serving on the island, and a dying man who has long turned away from his rejecting family comprise three plotlines in the darkness leading up to Christmas on the cold, dark, close knit island where everyone knows everyone’s business. It reads like it probably follows other stories with this setting and this cast of characters.  The audio was shorter than eight hours but it packed a lot into those hours!

So, this was not to be counted under my lighthearted romances posted a few weeks back.  No, sir. I bought this over the summer with Amazon birthday money because of my dearth of Christmas audio last year and then looking at my prospective reads with those heavy plotlines I was like dude did I just find this appealing because it has to do with a place I’ve always wanted to visit?  These are not lighthearted misunderstandings. This is not Holly Martin. Why didn’t I get Holly? I’m not saying I didn’t wonder this occasionally as I talked myself into starting this. It’s been slow getting myself into Christmas this year despite my reads and all the dang snow and I did end up enjoying the story and the people and getting sucked in, I know I always say that, and the heavy themes were well done.  They were not overdone, maudlin or brushed over. It’s the realities of people’s Christmases, and that has worth too. I have Christmases ahead of me dealing with the losses I haven’t had to experience yet.

Also, the narration is with a Scottish accent, which is so excellent, that even in a bad part where there’s swearing I can’t get enough of the accent swearing.  It adds so much to this book. I find that books that take place in the British Isles just have to be done in audio:  Royal Spyness, Milkman, theScottish historical shorts I read last year, they all need to be done in the appropriate narration. Just have to be.

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Christmas Jars, Jason Wright

A newspaper reporter, adopted and alone in the world after her mother passes, stumbles on a story about anonymously given jars of money given to those in need at Christmas.  She is torn between keeping the story anonymous, as are the wishes of the family who started the tradition and who have become a second family to her, and hitting it big with this story for her newspaper career.

This is not a long story, which given my Christmas story/season burnout is a good thing.  It’s a diverting story, going between some depressing pieces and then the sweeter, almost saccharine parts, with the family that she finds and how she becomes part of them.  The tension over her decision to out the family’s Christmas tradition isn’t overwhelming, and there is a lot of telling of a story, rather than showing.  This book is for people who want something short and heartwarming for the holiday.  I can see it being the kind of book that people would return to annually for a Christmas reading to catch the spirit of the season.  So, after the heaviness of the previous read, it was a good way to finish up my reads for the season.  Even though I didn’t know I was finishing my reads, I didn’t know that I would read more of the MR James collection I dabble in when I am between books or not in the mood for audio rather than putting on another Christmas read.  It happens.

At least one more post this year!  I have to decide if I am tossing in the book of poetry I read for BookRiot in an end of year post, or if I do do a specific end of year post, which I don’t even know what that will be about, maybe what I liked reading this year, but as my readers know often doesn’t follow publishing trends so can be random.  Maybe something I liked especially out of BookRiot.

New Year’s reading goals will, of course, be saved for the first post in the new decade.  Just try to contain yourselves until then (she said with great sarcasm).

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Christmas Reads! Christmas Past

So, I feel like Christmas came with a bit of an explosion with the snowstorm two weeks ago now that gave us over a foot of snow to make it look like a holiday.  And then it’s been cold, too, so at least there’s a big holiday coming up to ease the crash in of winter.   I am writing by the lights of the Christmas tree, always a favorite for the end of the year posts!

Also, yesterday was the local school breakfast, tree lighting and parade for my local town.  I took my son to see a local musical production of Elf last weekend and he loved it, and we went sledding in some additional snowfall together.  He loved it.  Christmas tempts to me to over mom, but then I have a perfectly happy boy just doing what we do.

I decided to stay home with him Christmas week because he asked this year.  Two full weeks of break is a long time for him to be at the Y and if I stay home and get him started playing with his Christmas toys, those will be the memories he will look back on. I hope.

But Christmas reads!  I noticed my views have definitely gone down this month.  I don’t have as many readers interested in Christmas reads, or this time of year gets too busy?  Feel free to let me know.  I try not to focus on stats, but as a Psychologist I rarely see a trend without asking why.  I’d love feedback.

This week is Christmases that took place in the past!  Not exactly ghosts of Christmas past, but past holidays.  And two authors, interestingly, that I have long been meaning to read.

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Christmas Bells, Jennifer Chiaverini

Different Christmas plotlines converge on a point:  the Christmas eve concert in a Boston church, as well as a historical plotline of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem, Christmas Bells.  The plots involve a family waiting to hear from a missing soldier, a teacher who will be laid off at the end of the school year, a man wanting to tell a long time friend about his true feelings for her, a Senator’s wife dealing with the death of her husband.  Longfellow deals with the strife of living in Civil War America with a son anxious to serve the Union. Things end up okay for everyone, because this is a Christmas book, after all. 

Chiaverini is one of my hoarded authors because she does the historical fiction, which I love, but it’s the first one of hers that I have actually read.  This book is about how hope and the spirit of the season don’t change through time. Even the darkest of times. I like interwoven plots and hearing the stories of the characters, shifting around when one plot becomes intense, and of course, the stories converged beautifully.  I didn’t know if the Wadsworth plot line would more directly connect with the modern line, other than Wadsworth being local Boston, but it still worked. I’m looking forward to reading more of hers.

Do I need to say that this was not one of the lighthearted reads I also review?  And it isn’t a romance novel. But it’s about Christmas and I love that.

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Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, Agatha Christie

A family long estranged from one another gets together at the behest of the family patriarch at Christmas.  When the unlikeable man is murdered with everyone in the house, it is up to Hercule to use his powers of deduction to determine whodunnnit.

Now the only thing Christmas about this book is that it takes place on the days around Christmas and the holiday is the pretense for the gathering.  It’s really for the victim to have a chance to anger all his children in one place one last time. That’s the only thing Christmas about it.  Not even the cover is Christmas.

It’s surprising that this ended up being my first Agatha Christie novel, as I have read most, if not all Nero Wolfes and she’s a pretty classic writer.  And I try to get the classic authors in. But also last year was my first time reading James Patterson and David Baldacci, through their Christmas reads. It wasn’t unexpected, a bunch of people getting together and telling parts of the story and then Hercule using his magic of deduction and noticing detail to get to the culprit.  I listened to it because the library had it on audio while driving to see my friends after Thanksgiving and I tried to hang on to the details but they are so subtle I never saw the end coming. Which I suppose is part of Christie’s artistry, but I also don’t typically guess mystery novel outcomes. Nero never got predictable. He has at least one Christmas short that I have read and that’s much more Christmas themed.  I should find it and revisit it for Christmas reads! Because Rex Stout branches much more into the yule theme than Agatha Christie does.

Next week is one more helping of the Christmas reads, with Santa coming midweek, and then it’s the end of the year and I actually have one BookRiot category left to post on.  Believe it or not, and then it’s into my different goals for the upcoming year.  Not BookRiot this time.  Even though I have looked over the 2020 list. Hint:  it has to do with getting back to my joy.

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Christmas Reads! Short and not always sweet

These two reads for today have been sitting on the TBR since, like, 2015. The ones waiting last week were bought in 2018 but these two have languished for years!  I don’t know why.  Neither of them have audio, of course, so that could have something to do it.  And they aren’t light, which has its place, but we also know how much I’m willing to do not light reads.  Thankfully, both are short.

They are heartwarming but you really have to work for it in a big way.  So get ready to work for it!

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Comfort & Joy, Kristin Hannah

A woman betrayed by her husband and sister impulsively decides to go on a trip for Christmas.  Her plane crashes, leading her on a series of events that lead her to her true home.

There’s a decent twist in this one so my synopsis is short.  I didn’t read much about this book so I didn’t even know there was going to be a plane crash, and that part was pretty intense. There were periods in this book where it felt slow.  I was like okay, where is this really all headed? And I almost lost steam completely before she tosses in the twist that kept me going. I read Firefly Lane by Kristin Hannah, and I wasn’t that impressed, feeling that could be slow in parts, too.  Even though it was slow, I do still find myself thinking about parts of it, so it did make an impact, even if in the moment I didn’t know that it would. I see now that she has two books that have really taken off, The Nightingale and The Great Alone, and I do at least want to get to The Nightingale.   Anyway.  I had this book for a few years, and I was glad I got to it, although it has themes that are really larger than the Christmas holiday.  It is a romance, and there is falling in love at the holiday, but the love is built on something larger than the holiday and the main character goes through more drastic and notable change than can sometimes be found in romances.  Plus romances don’t usually involve graphic airplane crashes, at least not in the ones I have read. 

I had issues last year wanting to sit and read, largely preferring audio, and that’s why this one kept getting missed. This year my compulsive reading has left me time to read a few of them, so I have been working through the backlog quite nicely.  It’s been a good year for reading.

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An Angel’s Touch, Heather Graham

A childless couple dies in an accident on Christmas eve and must perform three miracles by midnight in order to be allowed to be angels.

So this is terrible quickly and is terrible a few times.  I almost didn’t want to do it, but it’s only 221 pages and I got traction with it rather quickly.  The momentum carried me through.  It went from a book I almost put down to something I did in about 24 hours, which I think speaks to the credit of the book that I wanted to turn away and then couldn’t.  I didn’t think it was predictable but I also wasn’t trying to figure out the end as I went.  A classic story of redemption at Christmas. And what is Christmas about, if not light and redemption?

More Christmas reads next week.  It will be the weekend the small town I live in does their parade and their Santa breakfast at the elementary school and their tree lighting and my son gets to be part of decorating the tree.  Christmas explosion in my life.  People have been hanging lights since before Thanksgiving outside which I absolutely love in the dark drives home from work.

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Christmas Reads! Heartwarming Romances

So the Thanksgiving has passed enough for Christmas to start to happen.  No more statute of limitations. The tree is probably on its way up at my house today while we are waiting for Snowmaggedon and I’ll be making chex mix.  I kind of want to get me a bottle of sweet local wine to get through the day but I don’t know if the store opens before the heavens do.  Looks like they may happen at the same points in time.

It’s a great day to post on heartwarming Christmas romances from England. These two sat on the TBR last year because I wanted to listen rather than read, so now they need their time.

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The Christmas Wish, Tilly Tennant

Esme, a young woman in the throes of an emotionally abusive relationship, decides to go against her boyfriend’s wishes to go on a vacation to Lapland that she was planning to take with her grandmother before the grandmother’s unexpected death.  Her trip changes her life in all the best ways possible, and as with anything marketed as a heartwarming Christmas romance, you can rest assured that the right man is duly located in the course of the story.  

So, I definitely got sucked into Esme’s story trying to find who she is and be true to that person and even though I knew she eventually had to ditch the jerk boyfriend, I wanted to know how it was going to play out and the secret that the man she is interested in seems to be withholding the whole time.  I liked her and I wanted her to be okay. I related to trying to find and stay true to oneself. The ending was gratifying and I loved the creativity of the trip to Lapland. I love how heartwarming romances incorporate elements of wish fulfillment that don’t have to do with romance: creative jobs, cool trips and settings, fun friends. Those things said, there were some slow pieces in this book that were redundant, could have been expressed in dialogue, and reduced.  Places were we were being shown enough where I didn’t think we needed quite as much telling. It’s good for light, distracting fun and to get you in the mood for the magic of the holiday.

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Snowy Nights at the Lonely Hearts Hotel, Karen King

A single young woman, Saffy, is prevailed upon by her older sister to throw a big Christmas party for singles at Christmas in her absence.  When she goes out to do this, she meets Logan, a handsome single father and a neighbor of her sister’s with his own heartbreak and disappointments.  This is a romance so you can figure out the end of the story, yes? It takes place in England, too, so there are the little word differences too.

This was definitely fun and lighthearted.  There was the usual romantic conflict, but nothing too intense and the parts that have you chewing your fingernails are not drawn out to the point of torture.  I have read enough romances to see differences in how much the author is willing to put you through before they give you what you want. This one has the drama but wants to keep it light and I appreciated that.  

I think the characters were the strongest part, especially her best friends in the middle of a romantic conflict themselves that didn’t torture too much.  And they made the party working out more feasible. It helped that Saffy was in her late twenties, and even though she was career focused and spent a lot of time out with friends, her friends were also moving into more serious relationships, so it helped set the stage for her getting more responsibility.  It would have been cringey to me to have her be the first one of her party friends to leave that world behind and be younger, as I didn’t move into a more settled life until I was close to 30. It was one of the low priced kindle reads and I have a hard time resisting, and it sat unread for a year because I really focused on what was available on audio last year.  It’s worth picking up for the Christmas spirit.

Are you warming up for the season?  My husband is trying to get the plow truck to work before the tree goes up.  And my son is resenting me for telling him to make Christmas cards for some grandparents so I have time to send them out.

Next week the Christmas reads may not be so light of heart.  Higher on the drama.

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