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Posts Tagged ‘Sheila Roberts’

noraIs the Honeycutt mansion haunted? The summer people who bought the old mountain place and decided to stay for Christmas are beginning to think so. Their fake pink Christmas tree decorated with sea shell and flamingo ornaments keeps keeling over when no one’s around. Best ask neighbor Nora Bonesteel for help. After all, the old woman has the “sight” — she can foretell deaths and commune with ghosts.

Sharyn McCrumb’s holiday novella Nora Bonesteel’s Christmas Past (Abingdon Press, digital galley), takes place in the same East Tennessee town of her popular Ballad series and brings back several familiar characters. While Nora remembers long-ago holidays — and one young soldier in particular — Sheriff Spencer Arrowood and Deputy Joe LeDonne are driving up the mountain on Christmas Eve. They have to arrest an elderly man charged with the hit-and-run of a politician’s car. Still, a winter storm is coming, and the man won’t leave his wife alone in a cabin with no firewood and a broken window.

McCrumb’s gently humorous tale is replete with nostalgia. Nora vividly remembers simpler times gone by, when people were poorer but rich with friends, family and traditions.

hollyroadSheila Roberts has a knack for warm-hearted holiday tales that are sweet without being sappy. I’m especially fond of The Nine Lives of Christmas, which was made into a Hallmark movie this year. There’s a lot of wishin’ and hopin’ going on in picturesque Icicle Falls, the setting for The Lodge on Holly Road (Harlequin, digital galley).

Single mom Missy Monroe brings her two children to the lodge hoping to give them the kind of traditional Christmas she never had, although she knows she can’t fulfill their wishes for a dog and a grandmother. Enter Santa Claus, sort of — Brook Claussen kidnaps her widowed father, James, from his department store Santa job, hoping that a visit to the lodge will cure his grumpy blues. But she didn’t count on Olivia Wallace, the pretty widow who runs the place with her grown son, Eric. Brook thinks Olivia has designs on her dad, and she’s not wrong. But insufferable Eric scolds her for interfering. Among the other guests are a good-guy accountant who plans to propose to his snooty girlfriend, two old friends with opposite natures, a couple of bored teenagers and a prodigal son. What could possibly go wrong?

Roberts gets everything right in this romance — and even includes a recipe for Olivia’s gumdrop cookies.

jerusalemI always like to reread several holiday books from Christmases past. One year it might be Lee Smith’s The Christmas Letters, or Barbara Robinson’s The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, or Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’ Certain Poor Shepherds. Last year it was Mary Kay Andrews’ Blue Christmas, in preparation for its sequel, Christmas Bliss. This year, I reached back 30 years to Martha Grimes’ mystery Jerusalem Inn, with Richard Jury and Melrose Plant investigating a sudden death in wintry northern England. The atmosphere’s a bit melancholy and a whole lot mysterious, and it’s one of my favorites in the Jury series. I’m a longtime admirer of the Scotland Yard detective with the devastating smile, still single after all these years.

Sweet dreams and happy holidays.

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penthouseYou know how characters in rom-coms meet cute? The likeable threesome in Elinor Lipman’s The View from Penthouse B (Houghton Mifflin, digital galley) live cute. After Margot loses her divorce settlement to Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi-scheme, she asks her widowed sister Gwen-Laura to share expenses in her Greenwich Village penthouse. To economize even further, they then rent out the maid’s room to Anthony, a gay man in his 20s who has lost his job at Lehman Bros. and makes wonderful cupcakes. All three have man trouble: Margot’s ex, a fertility doc who went to prison in an infamously sleazy fraud case, is paroled and moves into a studio in their building; Gwen cautiously re-enters the dating world via online sites with decidedly mixed results; and Anthony’s on the lookout for a good guy after his current boyfriend moves on.  Some of the antics, especially Gwen’s online dating woes, have a been-there, done-that Sex in the City feel, but Lipman’s writing sparkles and her characters charm.

mercycloseI suppose I could include Marian Keyes’ The Mystery of Mercy Close (Viking, digital galley) in a crime fiction column, but the mystery’s just the excuse for Keyes to write another “Walsh sister” tale. (Previous include Rachel’s Holiday, and Anybody Out There?) Helen is the fifth of the five sisters, a pragmatic private detective with a sharp wit and past issues with depression. Now that Ireland’s suffering post-Celtic Tiger blues, Helen’s PI business is on the skids; she’s lost her office and now her flat, and facing more unpaid bills, moves back home at 33 with intrepid Mammy Walsh. Her ex-boyfriend Jay, promoting a reunion concert of the once-famous boy band The Laddz, hires her to find band member Wayne, who has disappeared from his Mercy Close house four days before the concert. Looking for Wayne hither and yon, Helen gets help from her current lovely boyfriend Artie, a divorced cop with three kids, and Harry, a mobster who leaves her cryptic messages. Mammy Walsh is also on hand, especially when Helen tries to get in touch with Decker, the Laddz member who went on to pop star fame and fortune a la Bono. A mostly good time is had by all, even as Helen copes with a depressive cycle that seriously threatens her well-being. All of the Walsh sisters are head cases to a degree, but I think quirky, self-deprecating Helen may be my favorite.

whileAre you and your friends still discussing the fate of poor Matthew on the last episode of Downton Abbey? Then you’ll no doubt identify with the four residents of an historic Atlanta high-rise who star in Wendy Wax’s While We Were Watching Downton Abbey (Berkeley, paperback galley). Concierge Edward arranges the screenings, which bring together married-to-old-money Samantha, blocked writer Claire and unhappy divorcee Brooke. As they mull over the upstairs-downstairs lives of the TV characters during its second season, they face their own troubles with a new resolve. I can’t imagine anyone who doesn’t watch Downton Abbey “getting” this book, but we don’t know any of them, do we?! Fans of Wax’s Ten Beach Road and Ocean Beach know Wax knows what breaks and makes friendships.

tableFriendships and marriages are stressed to the breaking point in Whitney Haskell’s Table for Seven (Random House, digital galley), which follows a supper club from its inception on New Year’s Eve through the next 12 months. Here’s what Haskell does well — the mouth-watering menus at the beginning of each chapter; Will and Fran coping with their rebellious teen daughter; Jaime dealing with her tennis prodigy stepdaughter and her thoughtless husband; and everything about elderly widower Leland. Not-so-well is the predictable off-again-on-again affair between widowed Audrey and sexy bachelor Coop, and Fran’s fantasies of leaving Will for Coop. If my supper group — the Cheese Club of Grater Orlando — was this dysfunctional trying to out-gourmet one another, we wouldn’t have lasted for 15-plus years.

whatshewantsIn Sheila Roberts’ light-hearted What She Wants (Harlequin, digital galley), poker buddies hit on a truly novel idea to improve their love lives. At a library book sale, former high school nerd Jonathan picks up a copy of a best-seller by romance writer Vanessa Valentine, ostensibly for his sister. But peeking at the pages, he discovers good advice for getting high school crush Lissa to pay attention to him at their upcoming reunion. At first, his friends laugh, but soon vertically challenged Kyle and befuddled Adam, whose wife kicked him out, are also reading Vanessa Valentine. Readers of Roberts’ Icicle Falls series (Better than Chocolate), will recognize local landmarks and references to familiar characters, but it’s Roberts channeling Vanessa Valentine that steals the show.

whimseyKaye Wilkinson Barley’s Whimsey: A Novel (self-published, review copy from author) takes its name from a  fictional artists’ colony on a Georgia sea-island founded by the late, legendary Elizabeth Calhoun. Now, her great-niece Emma, an Atlanta  jewelry designer who thinks her talent has deserted her, is resisting her Aunt Zoe’s invitation to become a resident artist at her new upscale gallery on Whimsey. Emma knows going home will mean coming to terms with her childhood best friend Olivia, her girlhood love Eli, and the ghosts of her past, including the opinionated, cigar-smoking Great-Aunt Elizabeth who materializes at both opportune and inappropriate moments. Barley’s fanciful, Southern-flavored tale also includes a chatty imaginary friend named Madeline and a high-heeled pixie named Earlene, which is perhaps two too many supernatural characters.  The imaginative story entertains, but it could use a strong editor.

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Every year, I gather up my favorite holiday books for rereading: Lee Smith’s The Christmas Letters, Mary Kay Andrews’  Blue Christmas (e-book on sale this week for $1.99), Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’ Certain Poor Shepherds and Barbara Robinson’s Best Christmas Pageant Ever. They make me laugh or cry, sometimes both, and they’re nifty stocking stuffers.

This year, I discovered Sheila Roberts’  lighthearted The Nine Lives of Christmas (St. Martins Press), attracted by the orange cat on the cover who bears a striking resemblance to my Giant Peach.

Ambrose, the cover cat, fears his brief  ninth life is about to come to a dead end in the jaws of a nasty dog. Hanging on to the bare branches of a tree for dear life, he strikes a bargain with his creator. If someone will please save him, he’ll  devote the rest of his life to helping the rescuer.

Enter firefighter Zach, who does his best to keep the scruffy stray out of his house, and, when that doesn’t work, vows to find Ambrose’s former owner. But Ambrose has other plans for Zach. The commitment-phobic hunk just thinks he’s happy in a casual relationship with the lovely Pet Palace heiress. But she hates cats, unlike pretty, shy Merilee, who volunteers at the animal shelter and works at Pet Palace, at least until Cruella DeVille takes notice. It’s a cat fight that can only end in Merrilee’s tears.

Ok, pretty standard plot. But Roberts spins an amusing story before the fur falls from the erstwhile lovers’ eyes. Zach has real issues with family, especially his mother, who left his father when he was a kid. Now remarried with two more kids, she wants to be part of Zach’s life again.

Merrilee has a great family, but she feels like the dowdy runner-up to her two glamorous, successful sisters. And when she can’t convince her Scrooge of a landlord to let her keep her cat any longer, she’s really in a pickle. 

Fortunately, Ambrose has wiles aplenty, learned from his eight previous lives. Not the he couldn’t use a little Christmas miracle as well.

Ahh. Here’s to happy endings, smart cats and holiday fluff.

Open Book: I bought the digital copy of The Nine Lives of Christmas after first downloading a sample to my new Nook Tablet. (Note to publishers, samples should include actual pages of the story and not just an overview and blurbs. Are you listening, Random House?!)

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