The Santa Suit

The Santa SuitThe Santa Suit
by Mary Kay Andrews
Rating: ★★★½
isbn: 9781250279316
Publication Date: September 28, 2021
Pages: 210
Genre: Fiction
Publisher: St. Martin's Press

When newly-divorced Ivy Perkins buys an old farmhouse sight unseen, she is definitely looking for a change in her life. The Four Roses, as the farmhouse is called, is a labor of love—but Ivy didn't bargain on just how much labor. The previous family left so much furniture and so much junk, that it's a full-time job sorting through all of it.

At the top of a closet, Ivy finds an old Santa suit—beautifully made and decades old. In the pocket of a suit she finds a note written in a childish hand: it's from a little girl who has one Christmas wish, and that is for her father to return home from the war. This discovery sets Ivy off on a mission. Who wrote the note? Did the man ever come home? What mysteries did the Rose family hold?

Ivy's quest brings her into the community, at a time when all she wanted to do was be left alone and nurse her wounds. But the magic of Christmas makes miracles happen, and Ivy just might find more than she ever thought possible: a welcoming town, a family reunited, a mystery solved, and a second chance at love.


 

This book had a dubious beginning with a main character that was flat and wooden, a romantic interest that was a little bit too forward at the start, and a charming house, dog, fabulous Christmas decorations, and lovely small-town friendliness holding it together.

At just over 50%, Ivy finally started acting like a human being.  I kept expecting some big reveal about her childhood that would explain her complete lack of emotion about anything and everything, but it never happened.  This is one of those rare times when a little introspection on the part of the MC might have helped the reader develop some empathy and understanding, but without it, I just really didn’t connect with Ivy, with one exception: her scenes with Lawrence felt sincere and were the only times when it seemed Ivy came alive to any degree.

Phoebe’s side story with Cody worked out pretty much exactly the way I thought it would, although their meet-cute was a nice touch.

I’d have liked to have a seen a little more resolution concerning her relationship with the woman who owned the candy company – that felt unfinished to me.

The romantic ending of the story felt pretty rushed and awfully optimistic, (this coming from someone who’s relationship could be accused of being rushed and optimistic) but it’s a Christmas novella, so I guess I’m meant to just go with it.

But most of all, and the reason I ended up giving this story 3.5 stars instead of 3, I loved the back story about Bob and Betty Rae.  I love how they never lost their joy around the holidays, how they made such a quiet impact on the town during their lifetimes, and above all, I loved that they were Jewish.  NOT because of any religious nonsense, but because they were able to be the bright spark of the Christmas season for this small town without compromising their own faith.  I like reading stories about people coming together in the middle, rather than having to be one way or the other, and about being able to celebrate lots of different traditions without the stigma of turning your back on your own.  It was an unexpected twist I enjoyed, and let’s face it, I totally fell for all the talk about vintage ornaments and bubble lights.

For a story that started off with so little potential, it ended up being a sweet and somewhat charming holiday tale.

Jane and the Twelve Days of Christmas

Jane and the Twelve Days of ChristmasJane and the Twelve Days of Christmas
by Stephanie Barron
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9781616954239
Series: Jane Austen Mystery #12
Publication Date: October 1, 2014
Pages: 329
Genre: Fiction, Historical, Mystery
Publisher: Soho Press

Christmas Eve, 1814: Jane Austen has been invited to spend the holiday with family and friends at The Vyne, the gorgeous ancestral home of the wealthy and politically prominent Chute family. As the year fades and friends begin to gather beneath the mistletoe for the twelve days of Christmas festivities, Jane and her circle are in a celebratory mood: Mansfield Park is selling nicely; Napoleon has been banished to Elba; British forces have seized Washington, DC; and on Christmas Eve, John Quincy Adams signs the Treaty of Ghent, which will end a war nobody in England really wanted.

Jane, however, discovers holiday cheer is fleeting. One of the Yuletide dies in a tragic accident whose circumstances Jane immediately views with suspicion. If the accident was in fact murder, the killer is one of Jane’s fellow snow-bound guests. With clues scattered amidst cleverly-crafted charades, dark secrets coming to light during parlor games, and old friendships returning to haunt the Christmas parties, whom can Jane trust to help her discover the truth and stop the killer from striking again?


 

My first Christmas read of 2021, and a library loan that was the most reluctant of my choices that day.  I’m wary of books that use real historical figures as the main characters of their novels – they rarely turn out well – and a mystery series involving Jane Austen solving murders felt almost blasphemous, as well as an attempt to cash in on Austen’s popularity.

It was actually pretty good!  I know next to nothing about Austen’s life beyond the basics, so I can’t say her voice was accurate, but it’s definitely an accurate representation of many of her characters’ voices, which could be argued to be, in part, small pieces of herself as well as her observations of others.  There were lines in this book that felt like re-constructions of dialogue straight from Austen’s novels – not quotes or rip-offs, but the author definitely nailed the style, probably from deconstructing dialog from the books.

What I found really intriguing were footnotes in the text – probably not more than 1 or 2 per chapter – from the editor, clarifying historic events, or offering small amounts of historical background, for places, characters and events used in the plot.  I’ve never seen this meld of fiction and non-fiction before and I really appreciated the extra information, and that it was offered judiciously.

The mystery itself was average; the setup was good and the flow of clues and information worked well, it’s just that the murderer, in spite of being very well hidden beneath all the family secrets and political intrigues, was obvious to me from the start, as was at least one familial intrigue.

So, even though the mystery itself was a bit predictable, I ended up thoroughly enjoying the read.  This isn’t the first book in the series – it looks like there are quite a few before this one – but I had no trouble at all following along.  Two allusions were made about previous exploits, and these were footnoted with the titles they came from – the only two footnotes not about historical references.

I’m not sure if my library has any of the others, but I’m definitely interested in reading more of them.

The Good Luck Girls of Shipwreck Lane

The Good Luck Girls Of Shipwreck LaneThe Good Luck Girls Of Shipwreck Lane
by Kelly Harms
Rating: ★★★½
isbn: 9781250011381
Publication Date: January 1, 2013
Pages: 290
Genre: Fiction
Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books

The HomeSweetHome Network has just announced this year's lucky winner of a brand-new, fully loaded dream home: Janine Brown of Cedar Falls, Iowa.

For Janine "Janey" Brown, hearing her name called on the TV has the hallmarks of one of her aunt Midge's harebrained plans designed to bring Janey into a world outside the one she once shared with her fiance. Janey, however, is reluctant to give up the safety and sanctity she finds in her tiny kitchen, submerging her anxiety and grief in the pursuit of the perfect pot-au-feu.

Meanwhile, across town, Janine "Nean" Brown just knows that this house is her destiny. Good fortune took its sweet time showing up in her life, but better late than never. And now that it's here, the house promises an escape from the latest in her revolving door of crappy jobs and drunk boyfriends. This house will turn her into someone the world sees, instead of the bedraggled girl who others look past without a thought.

Both Janine Browns head for Christmas Cove, Maine, to claim the prize they both rightfully think is theirs. When their lives and personalities intersect, however, they discover that more than just a million-dollar dream home awaits them at the water's edge. These three women (oh yes, Aunt Midge comes along for the ride ) arrive at their newfound mansion only to uncover what exactly it means to truly be "home."


 

This is one of those books that I almost didn’t make it through, but picked up considerably towards the end and made the effort worthwhile.

It’s a gross over-simplification, but I don’t like anti-heroes, or any characterisation that comes close to such a definition.  One of the Janine Brown’s that make up the main characters of this book is a drifter, which in and of itself isn’t any problem.  She starts off strong, in my book, when she knocks her abusive boyfriend unconscious with a coffee mug.  But then she proceeds to lie, cheat, steal and string along the ‘other’ Janine Brown and her Great-aunt, and I don’t really care why or how sad her story is (and it is, by the way).  I don’t care that I know that the trope virtually requires that the character is going to regret their actions, and find redemption, either.  I just don’t like the trope, so I was pretty close to DNF’ing this one, but inertia, if nothing else, kept me reading it.

I still have problems with the premise as it relates to the above, and I was left dissatisfied with the weak explanations for why the ‘other’ Janine Brown retreated so completely into dysfunctional shyness after the death of her fiancé, but Great-aunt Midge managed to pull it altogether and make the story into something far more interesting and touching.  The men were … meh.  Necessary, I suppose but not central to the plot; this is definitely a story of a friendship forged under unusual circumstances.

Better than I expected, but not as good as the other book of hers I’ve read, The Matchmakers of Minnow Bay.

Death in Brittany (Brittany Mystery, #1)

Death in BrittanyDeath in Brittany
by Jean-Luc Bannalec
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9781250088437
Series: Brittany Mystery #1
Publication Date: May 31, 2016
Pages: 318
Genre: Fiction, Mystery
Publisher: Minotaur Books

Commissaire Georges Dupin, a cantankerous, Parisian-born caffeine junkie recently relocated from the glamour of Paris to the remote (if picturesque) Breton coast, is dragged from his morning croissant and coffee to the scene of a curious murder. The local village of Pont-Aven—a sleepy community by the sea where everyone knows one other and nothing much seems to happen—is in shock. The legendary ninety-one-year-old hotelier Pierre-Louis Pennec, owner of the Central Hotel, has been found dead.

A picture-perfect seaside village that played host to Gaugin in the nineteenth century, Pont-Aven is at the height of its tourist season and is immediately thrown into uproar. As Dupin delves into the lives of the victim and the suspects, he uncovers a web of secrecy and silence that belies the village's quaint image.


 

I’m pretty sure I have one of the books in this series floating around a TBR pile somewhere, but I couldn’t remember which one, and I was pretty sure it wasn’t the first one, so I checked it out from the library.  If I do have one of the series (and I didn’t give it away) it’s one that I’ve picked up and put right back down again for ages, but the titles always appeal to me, so I made myself read this one.

It was pretty good!  Not great, but entertaining, and a pretty solid mystery.  The writing style (3rd person) reminds me a little of the Provence mystery series written by M.L. Longworth, although I suspect that’s more just the power of suggestion (one series set in Provence, the other in Brittany) than any actual resemblance.  But I’d class these as traditional mysteries, not cozy; they’re all about the mystery plots and very little about the characters, although the descriptions of the countryside were a little eye glazing.

The main character of the book is an obvious tip of the hat to Poe, as his name is Dupin.  To my everlasting relief, however, he is as unlike his classic namesake as can be.  There’s no expounding, or soapbox monologues; the mystery plot spans 4 days and every one of them is non-stop showing and almost no telling.  A Gaugin masterpiece is at the centre of the murder plot, and mysteries about art are catnip for me, so when it felt slow going, the art kept me reading.  I say slow going, but that’s not really accurate; the book isn’t divided into chapters, but the 4 days of the investigation, and if you’re a stop-at-the-end-of-a-chapter reader like I am, discovering the first ‘chapter’ is 97 pages long makes it feel like it’s taking forever.  Once I figured that out, I adjusted my habits and the book and I got along much better.

I’m definitely interested in the rest of the series.  I need to figure out if I do, indeed, have a book and which one it is, and whether or not my library has the entire series or is going to torture me with random entries.  No matter though, I definitely have a new series to look forward to.

One Fine Fae (Mystic Bayou novella, #4.5)

One Fine FaeOne Fine Fae
by Molly Harper
Rating: ★★★★
Series: Mystic Bayou #4.5
Publication Date: January 1, 2020
Genre: Fantasy
Publisher: Audible Originals

Charlotte McBee knows she’s in for a challenge when she accepts a job as midwife for a dragon and a phoenix shifter. Being a fairy herself, it isn’t the supernatural world that scares her. It’s the thought of delivering a giant metal dragon’s egg, which has her gritting her teeth in pain for poor Jillian, the anxious mother-to-be.

While preparing for the big event, a handsome town resident catches her eye. Leonard is kind, charming, and a little bit mysterious. He’s also suffering from a highly unusual condition brought on by an ancient fairy curse, and he’s too wary of Charlotte to allow her to get close.

Will love overcome fear before the end of her assignment?


 

So I thought I’d closed my Audible account last year, but it turns out, nope, I didn’t.  One of their emails got through the spam filter last week and informed me that I had 12 credits sitting there.  Of course, I had to use them all before I shut the account for good, so I went on a bit of a spree and bought a bunch of titles, and I made sure Molly Harper’s books accounted for at least a few.

One Fine Fae is, really, not a 4 star read – it’s closer to a 3.5 star, but I think Amanda Ronconi does such a fabulous job with the narration of these that she gets the .5 star bump.  Jonathan Davis narrates the male POV and I rather wish he didn’t.  He reads awkwardly, often mangling sentences with his oddly placed pauses, and he’s terrible at female voices.

The story itself is about what you’d expect from a novella: short and shallow, relying on established characters for any real depth while the newbies have their meet cute and establish a relationship.  There’s no tension, or plot, other than the birth of Gillian’s daughter, who is half dragon and half phoenix, and that wasn’t at all tense.

All in all, just a light and amusing way to kill a few hours while driving and ironing.

The Sugar Queen

The Sugar QueenThe Sugar Queen
by Sarah Addison Allen
Rating: ★★★½
isbn: 9780553905243
Publication Date: May 20, 2008
Pages: 210
Genre: Magical Realism
Publisher: Penguin Books

Josey Cirrini is sure of three things: winter is her favorite season, she’s a sorry excuse for a Southern belle, and sweets are best eaten in the privacy of her closet. For while Josey has settled into an uneventful life in her mother’s house, her one consolation is the stockpile of sugary treats and paperback romances she escapes to each night. . . . Until she finds her closet harboring Della Lee Baker, a local waitress who is one part nemesis—and two parts fairy godmother.

With Della Lee’s tough love, Josey’s narrow existence quickly expands. She even bonds with Chloe Finley, a young woman who is hounded by books that inexplicably appear when she needs them—and who has a close connection to Josey’s longtime crush. Soon Josey is living in a world where the color red has startling powers, and passion can make eggs fry in their cartons. And that’s just for starters.


 

The last of Sarah Addison Allen’s books (to date) that I’ve read, it’s also the one I like the least.  Which is what I expected, and why I waited so long to read it in the first place.  Something about the whole secret addiction to sugar turns  me off, which is ironic, really, since I used to go to great lengths as a child to sneak and hoard sweets.  But then again, I was a child, and Josey is an adult.

What I loved was Chloe’s ‘affliction’.  If one is going to be saddled with an affliction, having the books you need at that moment not just show up, but follow you around, seems like a pretty good one to be saddled with.  Embarrassing, maybe, but definitely one I could cope happily with.

There’s a plot twist involving Della Lee that was obvious to me from their first conversation.  It seemed so obvious to me that I was sure I was going to be proven wrong, so I guess that kept me reading.  I thought the entire story line with Julian superfluous and detracted from the story line, rather than added to it.

Overall, an easy read I was able to complete in a day, and perfect for what I needed it for that day.

A Bookshop in Algiers

A Bookshop in AlgiersA Bookshop in Algiers
by Kaouther Adimi
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9781788164696
Publication Date: June 1, 2020
Pages: 146
Genre: Fiction
Publisher: Allen & Unwin

A Bookshop in Algiers celebrates quixotic devotion and the love of books in the person of Edmond Charlot, who at the age of twenty founded Les Vraies Richesses (Our True Wealth), the famous Algerian bookstore/publishing house/lending library. He more than fulfilled its motto 'by the young, for the young', discovering the twenty-four-year-old Albert Camus in 1937. His entire archive was twice destroyed by the French colonial forces, but despite financial difficulties and the vicissitudes of wars and revolutions, Charlot carried forward Les Vraies Richesses as a cultural hub of Algiers.

A Bookshop in Algiers interweaves Charlot's story with that of another twenty-year-old, Ryad, who is dispatched to the old shop in 2017 to empty it of books and repaint it. Ryad's no booklover, but old Abdallah, the bookshop's self-appointed, nearly illiterate guardian, opens the young man's mind.

Cutting brilliantly from Charlot to Ryad, from the 1930s to current times, from WWII to the bloody 1961 Free Algeria demonstrations in Paris, Adimi delicately packs a monumental history of intense political drama into her swift and poignant novel. But most of all, it's a hymn to the book and to the love of books.


 

Apparently I was in the mood to challenge myself when I went to the library.  I’ve moved now from South Africa to North, to Algeria, and again find myself waffling between 4. and 4.5 stars.

Translated from the French, the writing via translation is beautiful, or, at least, beautifully engaging.  The story is divided into flashbacks in the form of journal entries, written by the Edmund Charlot, the original owner of the Les Vraies Richesses (the Bookstore at the center of the story), a present-day timeline told in the third person, and a third that I don’t know how to describe; something akin to a transitional voice-over; NPR calls it a communal third person.

Over the course of this small book, the reader travels with Algeria and the bookstore through pre-war French colonialism, WWII, and Algeria’s war for independence, coming out into the present day in a city that feels like it’s in stasis (although there are early references to the economy suffering because Algeria’s oil reserves have dried up), and the people are holding their breath, waiting to see what happens next. Edmund Charlot comes across and a wonderful man; kind, generous, and someone who followed a vocation rather than a profession, and  while I worried about his naiveté at the start of his career, and felt for him when things were so impossible in post-war Paris, I mourned with him at the senseless destruction that ultimately took him out of Algeria.

I ended up going with 4 stars because the ending did my head in.  I really feel like I got a taste of Algiers, and I definitely felt Abdallah’s pain as the bookstore was slowly dismantled with so little feeling by the young intern, Ryad, sent to “throw everything away”.  But the end … the end left me flipping pages and saying “what the hell?” to myself.  I really want to be able to ask the author to explain herself.  What was her motivation with this ending?  Or perhaps I missed some nuance, some metaphor; perhaps I took then ending to literally.  Either way, it was abrupt.

In spite of this, the book is the kind that will stay with me for some time to come, and I’ll “see” it in my memory as if it was something I experienced, rather than just read.  I just have to forget about that ending.

Recipes for Love and Murder (Tannie Maria Mystery, #1)

Recipes for Love and MurderRecipes for Love and Murder
by Sally Andrew
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9781925240092
Series: Tannie Maria Mystery #1
Publication Date: September 23, 2015
Pages: 378
Genre: Fiction, Mystery
Publisher: Text Publishing

Tannie Maria used to write a recipe column for the Klein Karoo Gazette. Then Head Office decided they wanted an advice column instead, so now she gives advice. In the form of recipes. Because, as she says, she may not know much about love, but food—that’s her life.

Everything has been going well. A tongue-tied mechanic wins his girl with text messages and Welsh rarebit. A frightened teenager gets some much-needed sex ed with her chocolate-coated bananas.

But then there is a letter from Martine, whose husband beats her, and Tannie Maria feels a pang of recognition and dread. This may be a problem that cooking can’t solve…


 

I found this at my local library and the synopsis had me excited to read it.  About 25% of the way in, I wasn’t sure I was going to get through it; at the end, I’m eager to get to the library and check out the second book, and likely buy them for my personal library.

The biggest hurdle for me with this book is my almost total ignorance about South Africa.  I know it’s in Africa; I know it’s in the south; I know it was colonised by the Dutch, and I know about apartheid and Nelson Mandela.  Oh, and they (and the rest of Africa) are tied with Australia for coolest animals.  Beyond that, I got nuthin’.  That made a lot of the cultural references a mystery to me and there was a time or two where I struggled to understand.  The list of things I need to research to cure just a tiny fraction of my ignorance is long.  I was helped a bit by a familiarity with Dutch, which allowed me to decipher some of the Afrikaans vocabulary that is liberally sprinkled throughout the text.

The other hurdle I initially had with the book was understanding the MC, Tannie Maria.  I just couldn’t get a handle on what kind of character she was meant to be; a time or two she came across as slow of mind, but she’s not.  She’s got a tragic background she survived, but she has this kind of passive strength and spirit that frankly leaves me confused.  This could be fallout from my cultural ignorance in the same way that my BFF’s husband sometimes leaves me confused (he’s Dutch) and a few Aussies too.  Different environments influence different personalities.  I liked her; I just didn’t understand her.

I really waffled between 4 and 4.5 stars, but ultimately settled on 4 because of the above and because there was a bit too much sentiment about the power of love towards the end.  It’s beautifully written, but not the kind of thing that resonates with me.  The mystery itself was pretty good, though I’d argue it’s not strictly a fair-play plot.  The style is what I’d call a ‘gritty cozy’ if forced to describe it.  There’s a dark side to the crimes and spousal abuse is a strong theme, but the characters and mood are uplifting, with food playing a major role in the story.  There’s a side story that almost stole the show for me at the end, and there’s a low-key romance brewing between the mc and the detective that I have a hard time getting excited about because, frankly, he has a handlebar moustache and those things creep me out.

But what really makes the book is the atmosphere; the author brings the veldt to life on the pages in a way that kept me glued to the story when the language and cultural references left me floundering.  When I wasn’t sure I cared about the characters, the Klein Karoo kept me coming back for more.  By the end, it was the characters, the writing and the Karoo that makes me want to pick up the next book in the series, The Satanic Mechanic.

The Good, The Bad, and the Undead (The Hollows, #2)

The Good The Bad And The UndeadThe Good The Bad And The Undead
by Kim Harrison
Rating: ★★★½
isbn: 9780061744518
Series: The Hollows #2
Publication Date: October 13, 2009
Pages: 464
Genre: Urban Fantasy
Publisher: HarperCollins

To save herself and her vampire roommate, former bounty hunter Rachel Morgan must confront six feet of sheer supernatural seduction—the vampire master—and dark secrets she’s hidden even from herself.


 

This is a better written book than the first one – a tighter plot, a (slightly) more likeable MC.  But I’m still giving it 3.5 stars because I find the whole situation with Ivy deeply disturbing and the author hasn’t justified it to my satisfaction.  I don’t dislike Ivy, but the dynamic – even with the story-line geared toward engendering sympathy – just feels really exploitative.

Rachel’s personality, while improved, still failed to click with me.  I have to believe, still, that future books are better; there’s an “Extras” at the end of this ebook (from the library) that had two “articles” written by Rachel Morgan about vampires and fairies/pixies, and her voice in these – dry, funny, a little snarky – is what I expect her voice to be in the books, and so far, it’s definitely not.

In both books so far, Rachel is rather strident about the line between white and black magic and her morals appeared to be set in stone, but when the rubber hit the road in this one, she crossed that line in order to achieve a greater good.  But boy, she caved quick; she didn’t waste any time offering and accepting a rather dark deal. View Spoiler »  She has a massive fear of ley line magic, but once she figures out she can do it, she starts playing with it in a scene with the pixies that was great, but didn’t do a lot to establish her creditability or integrity as the heroine.

None of this is to say I didn’t enjoy the book; as I said at the start, it’s a much better story.  I just haven’t found my groove with the characters yet, and I’m definitely up for book 3.  I continue to see hints that future books are going to be more my jam.  But I’m glad I can get them at my library; if I’d bought these first two, I’m not sure I’d be willing to go further.

Dead Witch Walking (The Hollows, #1)

Dead Witch WalkingDead Witch Walking
by Kim Harrison
Rating: ★★★½
Series: The Hollows #1
Publication Date: October 13, 2009
Pages: 432
Genre: Urban Fantasy
Publisher: HarperCollins

Vampires rule the darkness in a predator-eat-predator world rife with dangers beyond imagining—and it's Rachel Morgan's job to keep that world civilized.

A bounty hunter and a witch with serious sex appeal and an attitude, she'll bring 'em back alive, dead . . . or undead.


 

I remember starting to read this years ago, and I wasn’t able to finish it – I was bored before I got much beyond the 3rd chapter.  Speaking to my sister the other day, she mentioned that it had taken her 3 tries to get through the first book, but after that got hooked on the series.  So I figured I’d give it another try, since the ongoing UF series’ I enjoy are getting thin on the ground, and I checked it out from my library.

I got through it this time but as a first book, it’s weaker than most.  Ultimately, it’s enjoyable, but Harrison makes you work for it by introducing an MC that’s supposed to be a badass witch, but is so timid it boggles the mind she survived her job as long as she did.  She goes out on her own and partners with a living-vampire named Ivy and the two spend the book hovering in this weird quasi-sexual-assault dynamic that was chewing on my last nerve before the half-way mark.  Hard to really get on-board with a heroine that acts like she’s about to suffer the vapours for most of the book.  Jenks the pixie, was, as least, a consistent and delightful character and I was charmed by his entire family.

Things did pick up right towards the end, when Rachel finally found some spirit, but honestly I was on the fence about whether or not I’d read book 2 until I read a sneak peak at the end, for a book much further into the series, containing enough mini-spoilers to actually get me seriously interested in continuing the series.  Guess that sneak peak paid for itself in this case.