Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Christmas Camp by Karen Schaler

I had my doubts about this one when I started reading it. It's so much like a Hallmark Christmas story that I thought surely the "soon to be a major tv movie" blurb on the cover meant for sure it was on Hallmark. But it's not. I've checked Karen Schaler's website and scoured the internet and while it is going to be a TV movie, there's no date and no telling which network will air it. And interestingly enough, the movie was written and produced, then the novel was written--just in time for a holiday release in bookstores. 

I ended up enjoying this novel for a few different reasons. At first, I wasn't connecting much with Haley Hanson, the main character. She's risen in the advertising world, and now is just one step away from becoming partner in her Boston advertising agency. She works round the clock, and has been very successful. Her Christmas holiday involves taking her parents to the Caribbean for a week of no Christmas, just sun, sand, and beach. That's been their tradition for years. Getting promoted at work means Haley can help her parents financially; their large Victorian home needs a lot of work to turn it into a B&B and it seems to be a never-ending money pit. 

Haley's chance at getting that promotion rests on a new ad campaign for Tyler Toys, but one other employee has been tapped to produce a prospective ad campaign for it. Haley's boss reluctantly agrees to give her a shot, but only if she spends a week at Christmas Camp, in order to rediscover her Christmas spirit. 

Reluctantly, Haley travels to Christmas Camp, which is a lovely Inn run by Ben. A group of people attend a week of camp, where each day they focus on finding their lost Christmas spirit. Haley plans on working every moment she can, completing camp early, and heading back to Boston to create her ad campaign. She's in for a rude awakening, however. Phones and computers are taken away each day and only given back at night, so clients can focus on camp. She's stuck in a bedroom where angels are the theme, and the Christmas Camp dog Max follows her everywhere, and demands she take him for early morning walks. 

There's Jeff, the son of the owner. He's also from Boston; an architect who wants his father to sell Christmas Camp and move to Boston. He's a cutie, and there's a definite spark between Haley and Jeff--but neither has the time for a relationship. 

Will Haley's week at Christmas Camp reset her spirit and attitude? Will she win the ad campaign, and make partner? She's a bit of a scrooge, but slowly, very slowly, things change. You get to understand that Haley isn't anti-Christmas for any bad reasons, but simply because her parents were poor, and as a child, they didn't have Christmas. They made do, and Haley made sure she didn't show her disappointment or sadness at their lack of Christmas so her parents wouldn't feel any worse than they already did. I have to say, finding this out about Haley made her much more of a likable character. She simply didn't know what it was like to have a full-blown Christmas. Taking her parents to the Caribbean every year was a way to protect them from the memories of past Christmases where they didn't have much and still, after all those years, felt bad about it. 

There is a little bit of a surprise twist at the end, and I was happy with the ending. It was a better story than I expected, and captured the magic of the season without becoming too darn cheesy. I'll probably watch the tv movie when it finally shows up! 

Rating: 4/6 for a quick read that helps remind us of all the fun traditions we create to celebrate a special time of year. In our busy world, we need to shut off the electronics and concentrate on baking cookies, snowball fights, and spending time with loved ones face to face. An enjoyable read that will put you in the holiday spirit!

Available in paperback and ebook. 

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Christmas Under a Cranberry Sky by Holly Martin

Still on my holiday reading groove! I have to admit I've begun reading a few non-holiday novels just to balance out the sweet. I found this author at my local Barnes & Noble and I must confess I immediately bought every book of hers they had on the shelf, and ordered a few more. I know most of her novels are available as ebooks, but since my e-reader is out of commission, that's not an option. 

Holly Martin is a British author, in the genre of Jenny Colgan chick-lit type novels. I was astounded at everything she's written! Needless to say, she doesn't just cover the Christmas season, but you've got a chance to enjoy her novels all year round. Check out her extensive title list on Goodreads. Some are available in paperback in the U.S., but many more are available as ebooks. 

Christmas Under a Cranberry Sky is a full on holiday experience. Set on Juniper Island, a island north of Scotland, the folks of that tiny island have partnered with the owner of the Stardust Lake Hotel to create a winter wonderland for tourists. They're pretty isolated, so it's either create a place where they can earn a living and live, or move off the island and away from their homes. Piper Chesterfield is on her way to the island to review Stardust Lake Hotel. She's a traveling hotel reviewer and hasn't had a place to call home in years. After this assignment, she's taking a 6 month break, renting an apartment in London, and figuring out where she wants life to take her. Traveling non-stop, living out of a suitcase has become weary, and she needs a change. 

Everything about Juniper Island and the hotel is magical. Most importantly, to Piper's surprise, the owner of the hotel is none other than her teenage love, Gabe Whitaker. They haven't seen each other for twelve years, after the tragic accident that changed both of their lives and drove them apart. Shocked to see each other, the spark is still there, but now Gabe has a little girl-Wren-and the heartbreak Piper caused is battling with his desire to begin a new relationship with Piper. And there's the sticky situation of Gabe not knowing Piper is there to review his hotel...

Juniper Island and the hotel are places I'd like to go, if they existed. A winter wonderland full of wild ponies, epic scenery, ocean views, and igloos designed for overnight guests to experience the Northern Lights from a warm, cozy bed; a town with shops, friendly people, and everything decorated for the Christmas season. It's hard not to want to stay there; even in the warm months, it remains a popular tourist destination. This is Gabe's big project, and while he owns other hotels in big cities, this is closest to his heart. Will his rekindled love for Piper win out over years of distrust, hurt, and angst?

You'll meet a supporting cast of characters that will round out the whole experience of Juniper Island, and I certainly had a very clear vision in my head of everyone and everything. Some of Gabe and Piper's angst got a little old for me, but other than that, it was a fun novel to read, and I can't wait to read more of Holly's novels in 2019. Maybe I'll squeeze another one in before the end of 2018--who knows?

Rating:  3/6 for a magical setting, where the author thought of every detail, but leaves enough to your imagination to help you create your own Juniper Island. Cast of characters are solid; romance is steamy, and it's a fun read for December. 

Available in paperback and ebook.

Monday, December 3, 2018

Holiday Read: One Day in December by Josie Silver

There's nothing quite like a holiday romance set in London. This novel is sure to be a must-read for anyone who loves the movie Love, Actually. 

I had a chance to spend Sunday at home, Christmas tree lights twinkling, snowflakes slowly drifting in the air outside. Perfect day to stay home and read, and that's exactly what I did!

Laurie is on a crowded bus, on her way home to her flat after a long day working as a hotel receptionist. At a bus stop, she sees a handsome young man sitting, reading a book. Somehow, someway, he sees her, and BAM! It's love at first sight. Does she get off the bus, or does he get on the bus? 

NEITHER. Off the bus goes, and Laurie spends the next year looking for "bus boy", along with her best friend Sarah in every bar and every place she goes. Finally, after a year, she's given up ever finding him. At their annual holiday bash for friends, Sarah finally introduces Laurie to her new boyfriend. Yep. It's bus boy. Jack is his name, and he's in radio. Stunned, Laurie pretends she's never seen him before. Devastated, she keeps her mouth shut, since it's obvious her best friend is completely bonkers over Jack. Jack also recognizes Laurie, but pretends, too. Neither acknowledges that special, life-changing glance. Poor Laurie. 

The novel moves over the next ten years, as Jack and Sarah, and Laurie form a close friendship. Laurie still yearns for Jack, but knows it will never, ever happen. She makes a big change in her life, and meets a man who sweeps her off her feet, is easy to fall in love with, and wants to build a life together. 

Meanwhile, Jack and Sarah's relationship has highs and lows, and it's hard to dislike Sarah at all, she's such a gem of a friend. Jack is a good guy, too, but has some issues. And the backdrop to all of this is the quiet yearning of unrequited love between Jack and Laurie. Will they ever get together, of will they both be the one that got away? Do you take the person who's 90% of what you want, or do you keep looking for that 100% person?

This was a great holiday read. It spans ten years, but I think that's necessary, in order to see each of the characters grow from college graduates into their 30's; loving, losing, and experiencing those growing pains we all have as we grow up and figure out what makes us happy. There is some heartbreak, for sure, and some pretty tense moments, but I don't want to give them away so you'll have to read to find out. 

This would make a great gift for anyone who loves British rom-coms, holiday novels, and contemporary love stories. It's reminiscent of Jojo Moyes and reads quickly. I enjoyed reading from Jack's perspective, and Laurie's, too. 

Rating:  4/6 for a really good read. I was pleasantly surprised at the serious issues addressed, the solid friendship between Laurie and Sarah, and that dangling carrot of Jack and Laurie--will they have a happy ending? Oh--and the wine. These ladies love to drink wine!! Have a glass or two and enjoy this book. 🍷🍷🍷

Available in paperback, ebook, and audio. 

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Christmas Wishes and Mistletoe Kisses by Jenny Hale

Well, here's number 2 of my holiday reads, and the cheese factor on this one was pretty high. 

Abby is a single mom who has a natural talent for interior decorating, but chose the practical career of nursing to be able to provide a steady income for herself and her son Max. Caring for an elderly woman as a private nurse, she's given the chance of a lifetime: decorating a mansion for millionaire Nick Sinclair, the grandson of her client. Nick's rich, a workaholic, and very alone in his sparsely filled home. His family is coming to his home for Christmas, so he's got to have it decorated ASAP. Based on his grandmother's recommendation, he gives Abby the job, his credit card, and the opportunity to do whatever she wants to his home. He also pays her a tidy sum, one that will help her provide for her ailing Grandfather and provide a Christmas for her son that she's never been able to do. 

Of course Nick is handsome, and plays a mean piano. He also writes his own compositions, but never shares his passion, and instead focuses on keeping his late father's business growing and prospering.  He's a guy with tons of money who has no one to spend it on. One thing I thought was weird was his nonchalance in spending huge sums of money on whatever, but then telling Abby that he couldn't just stop working so hard because he had to make a lot of money. Huh? How about not tossing money around?! 

Anyway, Abby is beautiful, talented, and able to break through Nick's busy work world to slowly get him to realize there's more to life than working. They both fall for each other, but Nick's determined to move to New York (they live in Richmond, VA) and sell his home after Christmas. Can they have a future together? How will this all work out?

It is a very Cinderella-like story, for sure. There's no hot sex; it's full of longing looks and "Oh darn I'm falling in love" moments.  It is a Hallmark movie, for sure. But, if you're looking for a feel-good holiday tale, with a happy ending, this is the one for you. The issues facing Abby and Nick didn't even give me a moment's angst that they wouldn't be worked out. No emotional rollercoaster here, just a steady story that's really a modern fairy-tale with a happy ending.

Rating:  3/6 for a holiday romance that is picture perfect in every way. Suitable for fans of Debbie Macomber or folks who adore Hallmark holiday movies. 

Available in paperback and ebook.   

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Holiday Picture Books: I Want Them All!

I was looking for a picture book to buy for my little nephew Elliott's first birthday, and I gravitated towards the holiday picture books, naturally. I love to read holiday picture books; there's something about them that brings back memories of past Christmas anticipation and looking at our Christmas tree all lit up and sparking at night. I did pick out one book for Elliott, but I also spent some time reading a few others.  

This is a classic, and the message is wonderful. A too-tall Christmas tree is trimmed, and each succeeding new tree is trimmed, all the way down to the smallest recipient.

Why won't the fox eat this tasty gingerbread boy?  Why is he such a tough cookie?  Funny illustrations, and a sweet surprise.

Jan Brett's illustrations never cease to amaze me. You can't help but linger over each page. Who is the mysterious Santa who is leaving presents for the animals? Can you guess?

Elliott got The Animal's Santa for his birthday gift. He's a budding book lover, and I hope this picture book becomes a favorite one for him every Christmas. 

Elliott enjoying his birthday cake

Monday, November 26, 2018

Mutts and Mistletoe by Natalie Cox

Holiday reads have begun!  If you follow the Bookalicious Babe on Facebook, you've seen my previews of some of the holiday books I'll be reading this month. Who can resist dogs on a book cover? Not me. This may be my favorite holiday book cover.

Charlie lives in London, and just broke up with her cheating boyfriend. She plans on spending the week of Christmas hunkered down in her apartment watching her favorite movies and drinking wine. Her plans are drastically changed when a neighbor has a gas explosion; Charlie's apartment is damaged, and she has a concussion. Jez, Charlie's cousin, arrives to whisk her away to the countryside, to stay at Cozy Canine Cottages for a few days, watching over Charlie while she mends. 

Charlie is not a fan of dogs. Or the countryside. And horrors, Jez doesn't have a T.V. Jez's long distance budding relationship with a scientist stationed in Lapland revs up with an opportunity to spend two weeks together. When help to run the doggy daycare falls through, Jez begs Charlie to do it. With just a few dogs to take care of, it will be a snap. Charlie gives in, and decides to stay and be in charge. After all, how hard can it be? Dogs just eat, sleep, and poop, right?

Charlie is charmingly awkward. She's got no clothes with her, so she has to continuously raid her cousin's closet. She's ordered a TV to be delivered so she can watch her planned movies, and stocked the kitchen with frozen pizza and chardonnay. But there is that pesky problem of annoying the local vet Cal (who Charlie calls Bovine Cal), who has blazing blue eyes and really sexy forearms. Charlie just can't seem to get anything right with Cal, who appears randomly at Cozy Canine Cottages and always seems to catch Charlie at her worst moments. 

Jez flies off, and after only one day alone with the dogs Charlie's already taking on more than she should, with sometimes disastrous results. But she's also figuring out that her London life isn't so grand and maybe, just maybe, dogs aren't so bad to be around. 

The dogs in this novel are darling, and all with distinct personalities. I don't want to tell you about them, because I want you to have the delight of discovering these dogs and let them worm their way into your heart like they did mine. I'm a dog lover, and even though I haven't had a dog since my teen years, I hope some day to have one again.  

This is a delightful quick read, with a cast of characters that are charming, and a setting that is not your typical Christmas setting. Sometimes it takes removing yourself from the usual to reveal what really makes you happy. Charlie, Cal, and the doggies of Cozy Canine Cottage get a thumbs up from me!

Rating: 4/6 for a charming holiday novel about being out of your element and finding that's exactly where you want to be. Full of quirky, sweet dogs with personalities ready to melt your heart.You don't have to be a dog lover to enjoy this holiday novel. 

Available in paperback and ebook

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

I have spent the last week furiously reading Pachinko for two book groups that meet on Tuesday. It's a big chunk of a novel; clocking in at almost 500 pages. I've finally finished it this Sunday morning, and even though I haven't given myself a lot of time to process it, I'm writing my review with my first impressions. 

First of all, I find the cover to be absolutely stunning. Every time I look at it, I find myself taken aback by the beauty of it. I see Sunja and her sons, and my heart breaks for all they will go through. This is definitely a book worthy of discussion, and I can't wait to talk about it on Tuesday with my book groups. 

In a nutshell, this novel is about four generations of Koreans living in Japan during the 1920's-through 1990. I confess to be completely ignorant of the Korean-Japanese tension, and totally in the dark about the discrimination and awful treatment of Koreans who were forced to flee Korea and settle in Japan as political conflicts, World War 2, and the division of Korea into North and South took place. The novel starts in Korea, in the small fishing  village of Yeongdo and the family of Hoonie, his wife Yangjin, and their only child, Sunja. Japan has annexed Korea, and the economy is terrible. Hoonie dies, leaving Yangjin and teenaged Sunja to run a boardinghouse to makes ends meet. Hard working women; so hard working I feel a bit ashamed at how easy my day to day life is, and how blessed I am to have enough food to eat, clothes to wear, and the money to pay for lights, water, and heat. 

Sonja meets wealthy businessman Hansu while going to market one day. He's drawn to her, and they begin a friendship that leads to an affair. Sunja is very young (15), and finds herself pregnant. Hansu is married to a wealthy Japanese woman, and cannot and will not marry Sunja. He is very pleased she's pregnant, hoping for a boy after having three daughters with his wife. Sunja rejects his offer of being his "Korean wife", and sends him away. Being young, and pregnant, Sunja has very few options, and her condition will bring shame to her family name and her mother. Isak, a young man who is staying at their boardinghouse, decides to marry Sunja and take on the responsibility of being husband and father to her unborn child. Isak is on his way to Japan to work as a pastor at a church. His health is very poor, but his desire to help Sunja overrides  everything. 

Isak and Sunja arrive in Japan and are stunned at the treatment of Koreans living there. Subjected to harassment, living in slums and extremely filthy conditions, Koreans are seen as dirt. Isak and Sunja, living with Yoseb and Kyunghee (Isak's brother and sis-in-law), struggle to make ends meet and strive to survive daily life. Life takes turns that are tragic and heartbreaking, and as the years go by, the family stays together and endures strife that strengthens them rather than tears them down. 

Hansu is still around, however. He is powerful, and rich, and keeps tabs on Sunja and Noa, his son. I found Hansu to be a very compelling character. A man who is torn between two families, trying to do what is right, and still, after all those years, loves Sunja and won't give up. The relationship between Sunja and Hansu was one of the best parts of this novel. 

There's so much more to this generational saga. I am so grateful for reading this novel, and learning about the Korean-Japanese strife that continues on today. I had no idea. Family, identity, self-worth, hard work, sacrifice, national identity, and love are all huge themes that run throughout the pages of this novel. It's definitely an epic, multi-generational novel that will leave you breathless when you finish the last page. 

Available in hardcover, paperback, audio, and ebook. 

Rating: 5/6 for a look at a corner of the world and a history that I was not familiar with at all. The layers of history, emotion, and political strife that echo through generations of family are hard-hitting and incredibly moving. Sunja is one of the most memorable characters I've come across this year.