December’s Big Book Haul- What Was I Reading?

In December my library came up with an amazing selection of books. In Australia where I now live, Christmas can be HOT. It never really feels like Christmas to me. I was brought up in Britain, so escaping to read under the air conditioning is fine. Additionally, I knew it was likely to be a time for reflection due to a death in the family.

A book can be company, comfort or escapism.

Some books were ones I had on request which arrived and others were random picks from the tempting library displays. I hadn’t noticed before how many books do deal with death and grief in some way.

Golden Girl by Elin Hilderbrand.

When Vivian Howe, author of thirteen novels and mother of three grown-up children, is killed in a hit-and-run incident while jogging near her home, she ascends to the Beyond. Because her death was unfair, she is allowed to watch what happens below with her children, her best friend, her ex-husband, and a rival novelist whose book is coming out the same day as Vivi’s.

Vivi is also given the use of three ‘nudges’ so that she can influence the outcome of events in the world of the living. As Vivi discovers her children’s secrets, watches the investigation into her own death and worries about a secret from her youth coming to light, she must decide what she wants to manipulate – and what should be left well alone.

Combining Elin Hilderbrand’s trademark beach scenes, mouth-watering meals and picture-perfect homes with the heartfelt message that the people we lose never really leave us, Golden Girl is a beach book unlike any other from ‘Queen of the Summer Novel’ (People).

Set in Nantucket.

My Review. I had heard of Elin Hilderbrand, but I hadn’t read any of her books until I saw this in the library. It sounded like an intriguing premise, and I was soon involved in the life on Nantucket Island. Of course, it required the suspension of disbelief as Vivi and her guide in the Beyond, negotiate terms as to what she may or may not do. She observes her former life and the choices her children and ex-husband make. Then Vivi has to decide who and what is worthy of using one of her precious ‘nudges.’ I read to the end and was left with the feeling that I hadn’t liked any of the self-absorbed characters.

 The Christmas Swop by Sandy Barker. Chloe, Jules, and Lucy meet at a Maui resort kids’ club, aged 11, forging lifelong friendship spanning two decades and three continents.

Twenty-two years later, they decide to swap Christmases, none of them expecting the hilarity and romantic escapades that will ensue.

Chloe from Melbourne spends her Christmas with Lucy’s mum and dad in a sleepy village in Oxfordshire, England, stunned to the core when she discovers who grew up across the road from Lucy.

Lucy, who has jetted off to snowy Colorado for her dream-come-true white Christmas, is taken into the fold of Jules’s loud and brash family, discovering more about herself in a few short days than she has in years.

And Jules leaves the cold climes of Colorado to spend a balmy ‘Orphan’s Christmas’ with Chloe’s friends in Melbourne, finding that time away from her mundane life is just what she needed.

Join these three lovable women as they each get a Christmas to surpass their wildest dreams. 

My Review. This is easy reading and filled with the joys of each of the alternate Christmases. Of course, having a gorgeous and available male at each location makes each Christmas more memorable. Although all the stories have their appeal, I enjoyed Chloe’s the best for its Love Actually vibe.

 The Kitchen Front by Jennifer Ryan.

In a new World War II-set story from the bestselling author of The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir, four women compete for a spot hosting a wartime cookery program called The Kitchen Front – based on the actual BBC program of the same name – as well as a chance to better their lives.

Two years into WW2, Britain is feeling her losses; the Nazis have won battles, the Blitz has destroyed cities, and U-boats have cut off the supply of food. In an effort to help housewives with food rationing, a BBC radio program called The Kitchen Front is putting on a cooking contest–and the grand prize is a job as the program’s first-ever female co-host. For four very different women, winning the contest presents a crucial chance to change their lives.

For a young widow, it’s a chance to pay off her husband’s debts and keep a roof over her children’s heads. For a kitchen maid, it’s a chance to leave servitude and find freedom. For the lady of the manor, it’s a chance to escape her wealthy husband’s increasingly hostile behavior. And for a trained chef, it’s a chance to challenge the men at the top of her profession.

These four women are giving the competition their all–even if that sometimes means bending the rules. But with so much at stake, will the contest that aims to bring the community together serve only to break it apart?

An insight into the recent past

My Review. I enjoyed this book whilst at the same time marvelling at the ingenuity and privations that happened during the war. It was easy to sympathise with Audrey, the young widow and Nell, the kitchen maid, less so Zelda the trained cook and Gwendoline the lady of the manor. Although, as the story unfolded, I also gained sympathy for them. I was torn as to who I wanted to win the coveted post. There are authentic recipes included for those who wish to try them.

The Last of The Apple Blossom by Mary Lou Stephens.

The fire took everything – except two women’s fighting spirits. A sweeping, big-hearted Australian family saga for readers of Judy Nunn and Victoria Purman

7 February, 1967. Walls of flame reduce much of Tasmania to ash.

Young schoolteacher Catherine Turner rushes to the Huon Valley to find her family’s apple orchard destroyed, her childhood home in ruins and her brother dead. Despite her father’s declaration that a woman will never run the orchard, Catherine resolves to rebuild the family business.

After five sons, Catherine’s friend and neighbour, Annie Pearson, is overjoyed by the birth of a much longed for daughter. As Annie and her husband Dave work to repair the damage to their orchard, Dave’s friend Mark pitches in, despite the fact that Annie wants him gone. Mark has moved his family to the valley to escape his life in Melbourne, but his wife has disappeared leaving chaos in her wake and their young son Charlie in Mark’s care.

Catherine becomes fond of Charlie, whose strange upbringing has left him shy and withdrawn. However, the growing friendship between Mark and Catherine not only scandalises the small community but threatens a secret Annie is desperate to keep hidden.

Through natural disasters, personal calamities and the devastating collapse of the apple industry, Catherine, Annie and those they love battle to save their livelihoods, their families and their secrets.

My Review.

What a gorgeous cover!

A heart-breaking book about struggle and sacrifice. The book is set during and after the devastating fires on Tasmania in 1967 and their aftermath which saw the Apple Island almost cease production of the famed Tasmanian Apples. More than that, it is the story of two women and what they live through and endure.

One More For Christmas by Sarah Morgan.

From the USA TODAY bestselling author of The Christmas Sisters comes this sparkling tale of Christmas redemption. Brimming with Sarah Morgan’s trademark festive cheer, you won’t want to miss it!

For sisters Samantha and Ella Mitchell, Christmas is their most precious time of the year—a time for togetherness, love and celebration. Most of all, it’s about making up for everything their childhood Christmases lacked. But this year, they’ll be buying presents for the most unexpected guest of all—their estranged mother. It’s been five years since they last saw each other. But when their mom calls out of the blue and promises that this Christmas will be different, Samantha and Ella cautiously agree to spend it all together…

Gayle Mitchell is at the top of her career, but her success has come at a price—her relationship with her daughters. She never seemed to say or do the right things. Her tough-love approach was designed to make them stronger, but instead managed to push them away…until a brush with her own mortality forces Gayle to make amends. As the snowflakes fall on their first family celebration in years, the Mitchell women must learn that sometimes facing up to the past is all you need to heal your heart… 

A joyful book.

My Review. This is the perfect book to read over Christmas! It has it all, lush scenery, a luxury location and family dynamics that need repairing. I was drawn into the story as the old hurts of the past resurfaced, and expectations were upended. No, you can’t go back, but you can make a new beginning. It reminded me of the Netflix movie A Castle for Christmas. The book is a new favourite.

Ink and Shadows by Ellery Adams

Controversy erupts in Miracle Springs, North Carolina, when the owner of the local bookstore tries to play peacekeeper—but winds up playing detective instead…

Nora Pennington is known for her window displays, and as Halloween approaches, she decides to showcase fictional heroines like Roald Dahl’s Matilda and Madeline Miller’s Circe. A family-values group disapproves of the magical themes, though, and wastes no time launching a modern-day witch hunt. Suddenly, former friends and customers are targeting not only Nora and Miracle Books, but a new shopkeeper, Celeste, who’s been selling CBD oil products.

Nora and her friends in the Secret, Book, and Scone Society are doing their best to put an end to the strife—but then someone puts an end to a life. Though the death is declared an accident, the ruling can’t explain the old book page covered with strange symbols and disturbing drawings left under Nora’s doormat, a postcard from an anonymous stalker, or multiple cases of vandalism.

The only hope is that Nora can be a heroine herself and lead the Secret, Book, and Scone Society in a successful investigation—before more bodies turn up and the secrets from Celeste’s past come back to haunt them all.

Books about bookshops always appeal to me.

My Review. I picked this book up from the library, as I usually enjoy cosy mysteries and books about bookstores. This is the fourth book in a series, and I hadn’t read the other three, but that didn’t stop my enjoyment of the story. The bookstore Halloween display provokes an over-the-top response, and splits feeling in the town. It all seems relatively harmless until someone is killed, as Nora senses she may be the next target.

The Queen of Wishful Thinking by Milly Johnson.

Love, laughter and friendship from the Sunday Times top five bestselling author.
    When Lewis Cawthorne has a heart attack in his early forties, he takes it as a wake-up call. So, he and his wife Charlotte leave behind life in the fast lane and Lew opens the antique shop he has dreamed of since he was a little boy.


    Bonnie Brookland was brought up in the antiques trade and now works for the man who bought out her father’s business, but she isn’t happy there. So, when she walks into Lew’s shop, she knows this is the place for her.


    As Bonnie and Lew start to work together, they soon realise that there is more to their relationship than thought. But Bonnie is trapped in an unhappy marriage, and Lew and Charlotte have more problems than they care to admit. Each has secrets in their past which are about to be uncovered. Can they find the happiness they both deserve…?

My Review. I felt for Bonnie, trapped in a loveless marriage and in a job that she increasingly has come to hate. All the standards that made her father’s shop appealing have been abandoned by a man who is out to squeeze profit out of everything. He doesn’t respect her knowledge of antiques and treats her like dirt. One comment sees her out of a job.

Lewis is finally living his dream, but if sales don’t pick up, he can’t keep going for very long. Meanwhile, his wife Charlotte is bored and spending as if he still has his high salary and prestigious job.

Two lonely people united by a passion for antiques and maybe something more.

The Book Club by Roisin Meany.

A tragic accident leaves the small seaside town of Fairweather reeling but when Tom McLysaght arrives to the community and joins the local book club, the residents find their lives changing in ways they never could have imagined.
For Tom, his move to Fairweather was to escape his highflying past in London and to put some much needed distance between him and his ex-fiancée but as he begins to open himself to town of Fairweather and the people he meets, including his quiet and reserved neighbour Lil, he discovers that while friendship might be the last thing on his mind, maybe it’s the only thing that will help him move forward.

An appealing cover

My Review Another library pick, influenced by the title. As someone who coordinated a book club for eleven years, I know they can be wonderful places to connect and make friends. Not everyone shares a passion for reading, so it’s good to find those who do.

Tom has moved as far away as he can from his past. The small town of Fairweather is remote enough to give him the anonymity he craves. His landlady seems distant and suspicious and that’s how he likes it. Gradually he starts doing jobs for people and is invited to join the private book club. Over time he is drawn into the community, wanting to learn its secrets, particularly those concerning Lil, the daughter of his landlady. I found this a difficult book to categorise.

All the Ways We Said Goodbye by Beatriz Williams, Lauren Willig and Karen White.

The New York Times bestselling authors of The Glass Ocean and The Forgotten Room return with a glorious historical adventure that moves from the dark days of two World Wars to the turbulent years of the 1960s, in which three women with bruised hearts find refuge at Paris’ legendary Ritz hotel.

The heiress . . .
The Resistance fighter . . .

The widow . . .
Three women whose fates are joined by one splendid hotel

France, 1914. As war breaks out, Aurelie becomes trapped on the wrong side of the front with her father, Comte Sigismund de Courcelles. When the Germans move into their family’s ancestral estate, using it as their headquarters, Aurelie discovers she knows the German Major’s aide de camp, Maximilian Von Sternburg. She and the dashing young officer first met during Aurelie’s debutante days in Paris. Despite their conflicting loyalties, Aurelie and Max’s friendship soon deepens into love, but betrayal will shatter them both, driving Aurelie back to Paris and the Ritz— the home of her estranged American heiress mother, with unexpected consequences.

France, 1942. Raised by her indomitable, free-spirited American grandmother in the glamorous Hotel Ritz, Marguerite “Daisy” Villon remains in Paris with her daughter and husband, a Nazi collaborator, after France falls to Hitler. At first reluctant to put herself and her family at risk to assist her grandmother’s Resistance efforts, Daisy agrees to act as a courier for a skilled English forger known only as Legrand, who creates identity papers for Resistance members and Jewish refugees. But as Daisy is drawn ever deeper into Legrand’s underground network, committing increasingly audacious acts of resistance for the sake of the country—and the man—she holds dear, she uncovers a devastating secret . . . one that will force her to commit the ultimate betrayal, and to confront at last the shocking circumstances of her own family history.

France, 1964. For Barbara “Babs” Langford, her husband, Kit, was the love of her life. Yet their marriage was haunted by a mysterious woman known only as La Fleur. On Kit’s death, American lawyer Andrew “Drew” Bowdoin appears at her door. Hired to find a Resistance fighter turned traitor known as “La Fleur,” the investigation has led to Kit Langford. Curious to know more about the enigmatic La Fleur, Babs joins Drew in his search, a journey of discovery that that takes them to Paris and the Ritz—and to unexpected places of the heart. . .  

My Review.It was interesting to read a book written by three authors, I found that the story and prose flowed seamlessly. Each story underpinned the other and the interrelated events. There was an immediacy about the stories, and it was easy to feel part of the unfolding events. I guessed the identity of ‘La Fleur’, without too much difficulty. For me, the story set in 1942 was the most noteworthy. I enjoyed this book and would happily read another by the same authors.

Christmas at the Island Hotel by Jenny Colgan.

Another heartfelt and delightful Christmas tale from the beloved New York Times bestselling author of The Bookshop on the Corner and Christmas on the Island.

New York Times bestselling author Jenny Colgan returns to the setting of Christmas on the Island and Endless Beach for a heart-warming new novel celebrating the season, and Scotland.

On the tiny, beautiful, and remote island of Mure, halfway between Scotland and Norway, a new hotel opening is a big event. New mother Flora MacKenzie and her brother Fintan are working themselves half to death to get it ready in time for Christmas. 

The new hotel’s impressive kitchens throw together two unlikely new friends: Isla Gregor is the hardworking young girl who has been a waitress in the island’s cafe, dreaming of a bigger, better life now that she’s at a proper fancy hotel. Konstantin Pederson is working his way up in the hotel’s kitchens too…but he is also, secretly, the only son of the Duke of Utsire. Konstantin has been sent to learn what it is to work hard for a living, before receiving his inheritance. Although he’s initially resentful, the place grows on him; he has never met anyone quite like Isla and her fellow Murians before. 

As the island’s residents and special VIP guests gather for the hotel’s grand opening gala, Christmas is in the air. But so are more than a few small-town secrets…

My Review. Once again, I found I was reading a book that was part of a series. The perils of picking up random books in the library! It is number four in the Mure series.  So, I was initially slightly confused as to who some of the characters were. Fortunately, I was able to get into the story and enjoy it. Yes, it was slightly predictable, but somehow that’s what you expect in a Christmas story. I enjoyed reading about Konstantin’s struggles in this reverse Cinderella tale. Isolated the island of Mure sounds magical, if incredibly cold.

The Spies of Shilling Lane by Jennifer Ryan.

Mrs. Braithwaite, self-appointed queen of her English village, finds herself dethroned, despised, and dismissed following her husband’s selfish divorce petition. Never deterred, the threat of a family secret being revealed sets her hot-foot to London to find the only person she has left—her clever daughter Betty, who took work there at the first rumbles of war.
 
But when she arrives, Betty’s landlord, the timid Mr. Norris, informs her that Betty hasn’t been home in days–with the chaos of the bombs, there’s no telling what might have befallen her. Aghast, Mrs. Braithwaite sets her bullish determination to the task of finding her only daughter.

Storming into the London Blitz, Mrs. Braithwaite drags the reluctant Mr. Norris along as an unwitting sidekick as they piece together Betty’s unexpectedly chaotic life. As she is thrown into the midst of danger and death, Mrs. Braithwaite is forced to rethink her old-fashioned notions of status, class, and reputation, and to reconsider the question that’s been puzzling her since her world overturned: How do you measure the success of your life?

My Review. I was able to picture the redoubtable Mrs Braithwaite quite clearly, she looked and sounded a lot like Hyacinth Bouquet from Keeping Up Appearances. What a fabulous character she is! Full of energy and a conviction that she is right, snobbish and determined. Poor Mr Norris is unable to say ‘no’ to her demands.

Their adventures have a surreal quality to them, but with all the conventions of pre-war time broken, can Mrs B adapt? The story moves along in quite a visual way. I found it fascinating how Mrs Braithwaite’s views were changed by her experiences.  So different from The Kitchen Front,  it’s hard to choose which I liked best

Christmas at the Beach Hut by Veronica Henry.

The joyous Christmas novel from the Sunday Times top-ten bestselling author of A Family Recipe and The Beach Hut

‘A glorious story full of hope, heartache and Christmas magic’ Cathy Bramley

‘Wise, insightful, beautiful written and sprinkled with Christmas joy – I adored this book’ Milly Johnson

Everyone adores Christmas . . .

Especially Lizzy Kingham. But this year, she is feeling unloved and under-appreciated by her family. The present-buying, decorating and food shopping have all been left to her. So she wonders … what would happen if she ran away and left them to it?

Lizzy heads to her favourite place: a beach hut on the golden sands of Everdene. There she meets an unlikely collection of new friends, all running away from something. But the spirit of Christmas gets under Lizzy’s skin: soon the fairy lights are twinkling, and the scent of mulled wine mingles with the sea air.

Back at Pepperpot Cottage, her family are desperate to find her. For Christmas isn’t Christmas without Lizzy. Can they track her down in time and convince her she means the world to them, every day of the year?

Bursting with love, hope, forgiveness – and plenty of Christmas cheer – this is the perfect stocking filler!

My Review. For every woman who has ever felt overwhelmed at Christmas. I am sure you will be cheering from the sidelines and wondering if you’d have the nerve to do the same.

Christmas is a magical time of the year, but it also involves a lot of planning and hard work, mostly unseen and unappreciated. We do it because we love them, we want to have a magical Christmas and we ignore the little voice that occasionally says, ‘what about me?’

Lizzy has felt exhausted and unappreciated for quite some time. Her husband Simon’s ex-wife Amanda, seems to call all the shots, altering their plans on a whim. The final straw is when no one comes home to trim the tree, although all have promised faithfully to do so. So, very uncharacteristically Lizzy packs her bags and leaves. A really fun read!

The Once and Future Witches by Alix E Harrow.

In 1893, there’s no such thing as witches. There used to be, in the wild, dark days before the burnings began, but now witching is nothing but tidy charms and nursery rhymes. If the modern woman wants any measure of power, she must find it at the ballot box.

But when the Eastwood sisters–James Juniper, Agnes Amaranth, and Beatrice Belladonna–join the suffragists of New Salem, they begin to pursue the forgotten words and ways that might turn the women’s movement into the witch’s movement. Stalked by shadows and sickness, hunted by forces who will not suffer a witch to vote-and perhaps not even to live-the sisters will need to delve into the oldest magics, draw new alliances, and heal the bond between them if they want to survive.

There’s no such thing as witches. But there will be

My Review. I was intrigued by the title, a reworking of T.H White’s The Once and Future King as well as the premise of the book, it seemed very timely. The concept of women’s work and will and her words, as well her crafts and storytelling being marginalised and ignored. Anyone who steps out of the conformist pattern is a threat and must be pursued and vilified. I think the story will resonate with a lot of women, who have put up with the endless and relentless mansplaining and sexism.

I read the book over two days, and it sustained my interest. At times the prose is almost magical, weaving a spell of its own. Although I felt that some of it could have been compressed without any loss. A modern fable.

I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday by Milly Johnson

It’s nearly Christmas and it’s snowing, hard. Deep in the Yorkshire Moors nestles a tiny hamlet, with a pub at its heart. As the snow falls, the inn will become an unexpected haven for six people forced to seek shelter there…

Mary has been trying to get her boss Jack to notice her for four years, but he can only see the efficient PA she is at work. Will being holed up with him finally give her the chance she has been waiting for?

Bridge and Luke were meeting for five minutes to set their divorce in motion. But will getting trapped with each other reignite too many fond memories – and love?

Charlie and Robin were on their way to a luxury hotel in Scotland for a very special Christmas. But will the inn give them everything they were hoping to find – and much more besides?

A story of knowing when to hold on and when to let go, of pushing limits and acceptance, of friendship, love, laughter, mince pies and the magic of Christmas.

My Review. Milly Johnson has delivered a magical Christmas book. It feels as if you are there inside Figgy Hollow, sharing time with the couples. Mary had so much hope for this weekend, that Jack will finally notice her. Instead of a glamorous evening, they are stuck in an out of the way deserted inn. Charlie and Robin have somehow got lost in Yorkshire on their way to Scotland. For Bridget and Luke, a quick five-minute paperwork handover has turned into a weekend together. These couples will wend their way into your heart, and you hope they will all find their ‘happily ever after.’ Deftly handled, this book is about tolerance, acceptance and love. Another favourite.

The Comfort Book by  Matt Haigh

A manual of reflections for an increasingly stressful world

Nothing is stronger than a small hope that doesn’t give up. 

A collection of little islands of hope, The Comfort Book gathers consolations and stories that give us new ways of seeing ourselves and the world. 

Matt Haig’s mix of philosophy, memoir and self-reflection builds on the wisdom of philosophers and survivors through the ages, from Marcus Aurelius to Nellie Bly, from Emily Dickinson to James Baldwin. 

This is the book to pick up when you need the wisdom of a friend or the comfort of a hug, or just want to celebrate the messy miracle of being alive.

Personally, I wasn’t keen on this cover.

My Review. Having read and enjoyed The Midnight Library, I was interested when I heard about this book. In times like these, I can see it would appeal to a lot of people. What I liked was I knew that Matt Haigh had walked the talk. He wasn’t theorising, he simply said ‘here are some things that have helped me,’ adding ‘they may help you too.’  Some will resonate more than others, but it is a comforting book.

Looking back, I am surprised how many books I did read in December. There is a pattern of reading a serious book and then a lighter book , which I find works quite well for me .I also ignored TV in favour of Netflix, and allowed myself as much Christmas as I could handle. To find two books which I have marked as favourite, about Christmas, when I felt very un Christmassy was a surprise.

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