That Summer at the Seahorse Hotel by Adrienne Vaughan

Mia Flanagan has never been told who her father is and aged ten, stopped asking.

Haunted by this, she remains a dutiful daughter who would never do anything to bring scandal or shame on her beautiful and famously single mother.

So when Archie Fitzgerald, one of Hollywood’s favourite actors, decides to leave Mia his Irish estate, she asks herself – is he her father after all?

That Summer at the Seahorse Hotel is a tale of passion, jealousy and betrayal – and the ghost of a secret love that binds this colourful cast yet still threatens, after all these years, to tear each of them apart.

 

The cover sets the tone for this book. A young woman, her back to us, drifts along a beautiful beach, evoking the image of a dream, or perhaps a memory …

Memories play a huge part in this story. Something happened at The Seahorse Hotel. Something that no one involved in the event will talk about, even to each other, and certainly not to Mia. Mia knows that the people she grew up with know the truth about her father, but she has stopped asking. Instead, she contents herself with her “family”: her mother, glamorous actress, Fenella; her mother’s childhood friend, Bernice; housekeeper/friend/mystic Leela; and, above all, Archie – Fenella’s dear friend, actor, playwright, brother to Bernice, and all-round gorgeous human being. Rumour has it that Archie might – just might – be her father. Mia has often wondered herself, and when she discovers that Archie plans to leave her his estate in his will, she has even more cause to ponder on the truth about her parentage.

Galty House, codename The Seahorse Hotel, is Archie’s beloved home on the Irish coast. A safe haven from the world, no one ever says goodbye there, because they all know they will see each other again. But Archie’s time is running out – a sad fact that brings the Galty House family together again. Fenella is desperate to know that Archie won’t break his promise to her, and reveal her secrets to her daughter. Bernice is desperate to know the contents of her brother’s will. The Seahorse Hotel is her home, and she has no intention of handing it over to anyone else – even the young woman she has loved, almost like a daughter, since the day she was born.

As the family spend their days with Archie, making the most of the time they have left with him, they are joined by two newcomers to the area. American hotel owner and businessman, Ross Power, and his young niece, Pearl, find themselves drawn to the flamboyant and unusual people at Galty House, and their lives become entwined. Ross has business worries that are wearing him down, and Pearl is feeling insecure and unsure. Discovering Mia on the beach, she becomes convinced that her new friend is a mermaid, and the two of them form a bond. Mia can relate to the little girl who has no relationship with her father and rarely sees her mother.

The days of summer are spent as much as possible at The Seahorse Hotel, revelling in Archie’s company, sailing his grand new boat, and visiting the island that lies just off the coast – abandoned, mysterious, nursing its own secrets.

By summer’s end, there will be partings, reunions, and revelations, as The Seahorse Hotel and its occupants finally begin to let go of the past and open up to the future, with all its glorious possibilities.

I’ve loved all of Adrienne Vaughan’s books so far. She has a way of drawing you into a story, wrapping you in glorious scenery, fabulous characters, and a delicious narrative. Sometimes, it seems there are so many people you wonder how you keep track of them all, but somehow you do. With great assuredness, Adrienne Vaughan weaves her spell and leads you, like some bewitching spirit guide, through the tangled threads of her tale, making sure you are never left behind and always enticing you on, so all you can do is follow the path, desperate to see where it leads next. Much like the girl on the cover, you want to go where she goes, find out where she’s heading, what’s going to happen.

Adrienne never lets you down. The pace never slackens, the spell never fades. I loved Mia, who was a wonderful protagonist. I adored Pearl, and I absolutely one hundred per cent fell for Ross. But Archie – ah, my heart belongs to Archie. What a character! What a fabulous story.

This is, without doubt, my favourite of Adrienne’s books so far. Her  gift for storytelling just seems to get better with each one, and I’m kind of sad that I’ve finished That Summer at the Seahorse Hotel. I hope it won’t be too long before there’s another of her books to read! Just wonderful. 5/5

You can buy That Summer at the Seahorse Hotel here.

The Eliza Doll by Tracey Scott-Townsend

Ellie can’t work out whether she’s running away from the past or towards a future she always felt she should have had. She left university and had baby after baby without even meaning to. But it was her third child she blamed for ruining her life.

Now her children have grown and Ellie is on her own. She shocks everybody by selling her home and moving into a converted van to travel the country selling handmade dolls at craft fairs.

It can be lonely on the road. Ellie has two companions: her dog, Jack, and the mysterious
Eliza who turns up in the most unexpected places. At every encounter with Eliza, Ellie feels as if she’s standing again in the aching cold of a waterfall in Iceland, the sound of crashing water filling her with dread.

Ellie can’t change the past. But is it really too late to rectify the bad thing she did when Eliza was a baby?

Just … Wow! I’ve read two of Tracey Scott-Townsend’s novels – The Last Time We Saw Marion and Another Rebecca, and loved them both. This one just completely took my breath away, and I think it might well be her best yet.

It’s the story of Ellie – daughter, sister, wife, aunt, friend, and mother of five. A woman who seems to be defined by her relationships to other people. She spends her life putting their needs first, doing what’s best for them, working out what they want, keeping their secrets. Ellie’s life is all about compromise and sacrifice, and how she puts aside her own wants and needs to care for the people around her. She is, in effect, a faceless doll.

When the story opens, Ellie is living in a camper van with her dog, Jack. She is fifty years old, and the story flashes between her present-day life, her days as a young wife and mother, and her journey to Iceland with Jonah – where they are going to meet up with their third child, Eliza. Although Ellie’s life is told in a disjointed fashion, out of sequence, each scene is dated, so we know exactly where on Ellie’s timeline we are, and we’re also told whose eyes we are looking through, so it’s not difficult to follow.

Ellie becomes a mother far too young, and way before she’s ready. Her partner, Jonah, isn’t ready either. In fact, he’s even less prepared than Ellie is, and when baby Rosie arrives, he fails to adapt to parenthood. Jonah’s focus is on his music career, and he spends his days smoking cannabis, hanging out with his bandmates, working on his songs and dreaming of stardom. Always chasing that elusive record deal which is always “just around the corner”, Jonah neglects his daughter, and neglects his wife. Ellie devotes herself to her baby and tries to convince herself that things will be okay. She has little support from her own family to fall back on. Her father is a distant and rather menacing figure. Her mother is brittle and disapproving. Her sister is openly hostile and resentful, and doesn’t appear to want any kind of relationship with Ellie.

Jonah and Ellie move to a commune at Pottersea. Pottersea is a remote village on the East Yorkshire coast – sitting between the river and the sea. The location is beautifully drawn, and as someone who has visited the real life “Pottersea”, I could picture Ellie’s home and way of life so well. I haven’t been for many years, but this book made me want to go back there and look at it again with different eyes. I really loved reading about life in the commune and how Ellie and Rosie find their place there. There are lots of characters to get to know, but they are all interesting and relevant.

Ellie’s relationship with Jonah is not a good one, yet they are drawn together at intervals, rediscovering each other before drifting apart again. Unfortunately, each time they find each other again, Ellie finds herself with another baby to care for. She is horrified to discover baby number three is on the way, and tries to deny her pregnancy for many months. Before long, though, she is forced to accept it, and her life is altered. She and Jonah have to set out on a new path together, and move back to Hull where their third child is born. Eliza is a difficult little girl, and Ellie initially struggles to bond with her. Her eldest daughter, Rosie, is resentful of the attention Eliza gets, and a distance grows between Ellie and her first-born child.

Throughout the story, there’s a strong sense of something hidden from us. A kind of menacing feeling grows, and we know that we’re heading somewhere dark. Something huge has happened in Ellie’s life, and we, the readers, are led slowly down a winding path to the events that have resulted in Ellie making this strange new life for herself – giving up her home, her marriage, and spending her days in a van, making dolls to sell at markets and craft fairs.

The pace is unhurried, and the story unfolds gently, but the writing is so beautiful that the story seems to zip along just the same. There are no lulls in the narrative. No bits that I was tempted to skim over. Every sentence was precious, and I couldn’t put the book down until I finished it. When the story ended, I clutched the Kindle to me and took a deep breath. It felt as if I was emerging from deep Icelandic waters myself. But then, Tracey Scott-Townsend’s books always have that effect on me. It’s as if they take over and haunt me. This author really does have an exceptional talent, and I can’t recommend her books highly enough.

I don’t want to give anything more of the story away, so I’ll leave it there. The Eliza Doll is gripping, moving, haunting, devastating, beautiful … just read it for yourself and you’ll see.

 

You can buy The Eliza Doll here.

A Little Christmas Faith by Kathryn Freeman

Is it time to love Christmas again?
Faith Watkins loves Christmas, which is why she’s thrilled that her new hotel in the Lake District will be open in time for the festive season. And Faith has gone all out; huge Christmas tree, fairy lights, an entire family of decorative reindeer. Now all she needs are the guests … 
But what she didn’t bank on was her first paying customer being someone like Adam Hunter. Rugged, powerfully built and with a deep sadness in his eyes, Adam is a man that Faith is immediately drawn to – but unfortunately he also has an intense hatred of all things Christmassy.
As the countdown to the big day begins, Faith can’t seem to keep away from her mysterious guest, but still finds herself with more questions than answers: just what happened to Adam Hunter? And why does he hate Christmas?

I’m slowly catching up on my Christmas reading – having been too busy to read all those festive novels before the big day. I may even have read them all by Easter, who knows? Anyway, this week it was the turn of A Little Christmas Faith, a book with a gorgeous cover that really made me want to investigate further. I’m very glad I did, because I really enjoyed this novel.

Faith is a big fan of Christmas, and her new hotel in the Lake District is practically Christmas Hotel. She’s decorated it to within an inch of its life, and she’s looking forward to sharing the big day with her loving family – her very supportive mum and dad, her two sisters, Hope and Charity (yes, really!) and their husbands, and her beautiful baby nephew, as well as teenage niece, Chloe.

Chloe has been roped in to help out at the hotel in the run-up to Christmas, as her mum is worried about her recent attitude and hopes that a bit of hard work will sort her daughter out. Unfortunately, Chloe’s attitude continues to cause problems for Faith, as she is hardly the most welcoming face on the reception desk, and she makes a very bad impression on the hotel’s first paying guest, Adam Hunter.

Adam is the opposite to Faith. He hates Christmas and is determined to spend it alone. No big, happy family for Adam. Just a hotel room and some solitude. He is appalled by the over-the-top decorating scheme at the hotel, and seems fixed on ignoring the festive period entirely, his entire focus being on keeping fit at the gym. Sadly, even the hotel gym fails to please him, and he is forced to go further afield to continue his training.

Despite their obvious differences, there is a huge attraction between Adam and Faith. Sparks positively fly whenever they are together. But Adam is only staying until just after Christmas, so Faith can’t risk getting involved with him. And Adam is so solitary it’s a wonder he’s not wearing a big “Keep Off” sign around his neck.

Against all odds, Faith and Adam are drawn together, and, much to their own surprise, find they are falling for each other. But Adam is clearly carrying a huge burden, and he is unwilling to share it with Faith. His past – shrouded in mystery – is ruining his present, and threatening his future. Faith, it seems, has no choice but to accept their relationship for what it is – strictly temporary. Christmas will soon be over, and so will her relationship with Adam.

Or maybe the two of them just need a little Christmas faith …

This is a lovely festive story. There’s lots of sizzling passion between Adam and Faith, a beautiful setting, a gorgeous hotel, plenty of romance and some mystery, too. The secondary characters are well-drawn. I particularly loved the storyline about Chloe, and really took to the troubled teen.

Christmas may be over for another year, but I’d still recommend this book to give you a much-needed shot of festive cheer. Just the thing to help you cope with a dismal January!

You can buy A Little Christmas Faith here.

Christmas at the Little Village School by Jane Lovering

A teacher’s life is never easy … especially at Christmas!
Working at a tiny village school in rural Yorkshire has its own unique set of challenges – but when teachers Lydia Knight and Jake Immingham are tasked with getting the children to put on a Christmas play for the local elderly people’s home, they know they’re in for a tricky term! 

But in between choreographing sugar plum dance routines, reindeer costume malfunctions and trying to contain Rory Scott’s wannabe rap star aspirations, Lydia realises that, even as a teacher, she isn’t past being taught a couple of things – and one of those things is a much-needed lesson in Christmas spirit. 

 

 

I always enjoy Jane Lovering’s books, and this was no exception. The setting is just gorgeous – a North Yorkshire rural village, deep in snow as Christmas approaches. Perfection.

The story centres around a little school – the clue’s in the title, I suppose! Lydia is a teacher at the school, and she’s charged with putting on a Christmas play to entertain the residents of the local nursing home. Luckily, she has fellow teacher, new arrival Jake, to help her. Or is that, unluckily? Because Lydia is quite smitten with Jake, and that’s bad news for her, since she doesn’t date men. Or make friends with them, come to that. Or even make civilised conversation, most of the time. Men are strictly out of bounds, because Lydia has a self-defence system that ensures they keep well away from her. Except, it doesn’t seem to be working on Jake. He just keeps coming back for more. He’s clearly determined that the two of them will work well together and will be friends. For confused Lydia, that’s what she wants more than anything, and also what she wants least of all.

I really enjoyed the way we only discovered the reason for Lydia’s behaviour halfway through the book. By that time, I’d already got to know her and care about her, and maybe (shamefully) I’d have had a different view of her if I’d realised at the beginning. As it was, by the time her reasons were revealed, I was totally with Jake, and felt pretty much as he did. I don’t want to say any more about that, because I don’t want to give away the twist.

As always with Jane’s books, there’s lots of humour, and I loved the classroom stuff, with the preparations for the play, and the “telling it like it is”, and the fun of the dodgy costumes and wangling for more lines – and that’s just Jake.

This is a fairly short book, easy to read, and a real treat that you can devour quicker than a box of Christmas chocolates – unless you’re like me, in which case you could probably eat the chocolates much faster. But at least there are no calories in this, and it will leave you feeling all happy and festive and contented, whereas the chocolates will just leave you feeling guilty and probably a little bit nauseous. So ditch the chocs and buy this fabulous little book instead. It’s another winner from Jane.  5/5

You can buy Christmas at the Little Village School here.

Lies, Mistakes and Misunderstandings (A Vintage Mystery) by Katharine Johnson

It’s 1931. 

Nothing much has gone right for Jack since he graduated last year. His career has failed to take off, his fiancée has ditched him for someone with better prospects and now he’s received an invitation to their wedding. He dreads going to the wedding alone, surrounded by his high-achieving friends, so when he meets a beautiful girl who offers to accompany him he jumps at the chance. 

But by accepting her invitation he finds himself drawn into a world of intrigue and murder.

 

I bought this book after hearing from a friend how much she was enjoying it. I duly downloaded (or is it uploaded?) it to my Kindle and decided I’d read the first couple of chapters before bed.

Fast forward to half past three in the morning, and I finally switched off the Kindle, having finished the entire book. I couldn’t put it down. No matter how tired I got, I had to keep reading, because this book had me intrigued from the start.

I have to say, I think the cover and title don’t really do the book justice. If I hadn’t trusted the word of my friend, I wouldn’t have been drawn to this novel at all, but I’m so glad I found it. I absolutely loved the style of writing. It was similar, in some ways, to a Daphne du Maurier novel. As I read it, I was never quite sure who was telling the truth, whose version of events was correct, who to believe …

The protagonist, Jack, meets Giselle on a train, and his entire life changes. But who is Giselle? What does she want? Where did she come from and where is she going? As his life becomes unexpectedly entangled with hers, an obsession begins that will endure through the years, affecting his other relationships,  leading him into danger, and driving him to despair and distraction.

The mystery of Giselle drives him on, possessing his mind as he tries to put the past behind him and make a new life for himself. Her shadow is constantly hanging over him, as he tries to discover the truth about her. But who can he believe? Does anyone really know who this woman truly is?

I was completely gripped by this story, desperate to uncover the secret of Giselle and find out how Jack’s life would turn out. There were so many twists and turns that I was never quite sure where we were heading, and I had no idea what to expect, which was quite thrilling. There are layers galore to peel away, and some shocks and surprises lurking beneath, which send the story in a completely new direction and ensures you just can’t stop reading until the tale is told.

I really hope this book gets the audience it deserves, because I truly think it’s quite amazing. I look forward to reading more from this author. 5/5

You can buy Lies, Mistakes and Misunderstandings here.

Dying Breath by Helen Phifer

The woman’s face was pale and waxy. Her milky, partially open eyes stared into the distance. There were drag marks in the grass; she’d been placed here and posed. Who did this to you and why have they left you like this?

When a woman’s body is found on a lonely patch of scrubland, Detective Lucy Harwin is called to the scene. The victim’s clothes have been wrenched to expose her, and her feet are bare. 

Lucy and her team have only just started investigating who could have wanted local mother Melanie Benson dead, when a young woman is discovered strangled in a dark alley. As more bodies appear in the run-down seaside town, the small community is gripped by fear, and the pressure to solve the case becomes unbearable. But with each victim dying in a different way, Lucy struggles to find a link between the murders. Are these random killings, or part of the same plan? 

Just as she thinks she’s getting close, Lucy starts to suspect the killer is watching her. Can she find the murderer before they strike again, or will she be next?

Welcome to my first book review of 2018. I’m absolutely determined to try to fit in more reviews this year, and what better way to start, than with a writer who is always guaranteed to have me gripping the Kindle tightly, heart thumping, as I try to work out whodunnit, and if the dastardly fiend is going to get away with it. Truthfully, with Helen Phifer’s fabulous female detectives on the case, it’s guaranteed that the murderer will be caught, but things don’t always go according to plan …

Dying Breath is the second in the DI Lucy Harwin series. I read and loved the first, Dark House, back when it was named The Lost Children (you can read that review here) but I honestly think that Dying Breath is even better.

We’re thrown into the action immediately, with the brutal murder of a woman. Before long, it becomes very clear that the killer has no intention of stopping at one victim. What I love about Helen Phifer’s books is that we always get to see inside the murderer’s mind. It’s quite chilling to read how twisted his thoughts are, and the weird kind of logic he applies to the crimes he commits. It’s also very unnerving to realise how much he enjoys the chase, the plotting, the setting up of the murder. How he chooses his victims and why, what delight it gives him to stalk them, devise their manner of death, the excitement each body’s discovery brings him. It’s morbidly fascinating to follow his thought processes, even though it does make you feel sick with horror.

Lucy Harwin is a great character, with a strong work ethic and passion for her job that sometimes battles with her home life. She’s a devoted mother, but she’s also separated from her husband, the love of her life, and struggles with that failure. Her on-off relationship with a hospital doctor is currently more off than on. She has a great working relationship with her colleague, Mattie, and there’s clearly a great bond there, although that hasn’t (yet) tipped over into a romantic relationship. Lucy is highly respected at work, and she doesn’t suffer fools gladly, which sometimes causes her to clash with other members of the investigating team. But her determination and dedication have made her many friends, too, and she certainly has her admirers.

The setting of a slightly rundown seaside town is well-drawn, and there is a great sense of authenticity in the police procedural scenes. You really feel as if you’re watching a real police team; it becomes clear that police work isn’t at all glamorous and exciting. There’s an awful lot of hard work and painstaking tasks involved, and quite a lot of frustration at the red tape and box ticking that has to be done. But you also get to see the bond that forms between the colleagues who are working together to solve the case. Real friendships develop, and there’s a good sense of comradeship and looking out for each other.

Throughout the course of the book, I changed my mind several times about the killer’s identity. The author very cleverly leads the reader down several false trails and it was only towards the end that light began to dawn in my mind. When it did, I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough, as Lucy finally confronts the serial killer in a highly dramatic finale.

I won’t say any more about the story, because I’m desperately trying not to give anything away! I’ll just finish by saying that Dying Breath is a cracking crime novel, and I’m looking forward to the next book in the series. 5/5

You can buy Dying Breath here.

Away for Christmas by Jan Ruth

Jonathan Jones has written a novel. Losing his job a few days before Christmas means the pressure is on for his book to become a bestseller, but when his partner drops her own bombshell, the festive holiday looks set to be a disaster.
When he’s bequeathed a failing bookshop in their seaside town, it seems that some of his prayers have been answered, but his publishing company turn out to be not what they seem, and when his ex-wife suddenly declares her romantic intent, another Christmas looks set to be complicated.
Is everything lost, or can the true meaning of words, a dog called Frodo, and the sheer magic of Christmas be enough to save Jonathan’s book, and his skin?

This book was an impulse buy, bought after reading a glowing review on Anne Williams’ fabulous blog, Being Anne. It sounded just my cup of tea, and so I rushed over to Amazon and downloaded it. The very next day, full of cold and feeling a bit sorry for myself, I settled down on the sofa, switched on my Kindle and began reading.

Oh, how I loved this book! It was exactly what I needed to take me out of myself for a few hours. It’s definitely festive, without being overloaded with sugary sweet seasonal gushings.

Jonathan Jones is hardly usual hero material. In fact, at first, it was hard to like him, as much as I could sympathise with him. That, however, added to the pleasure of the story. Jonathan is flawed. He’s quite self-obsessed and selfish, and seems oblivious to the needs of the people around him who love him, and deserve his attention.

Jonathan is a writer. I can just imagine my husband rolling his eyes and saying ’nuff said. I confess, there was a part of me that prickled with unease, as I read about Jonathan’s total preoccupation with his imaginary world, and his habit of opening his laptop or checking Facebook on his mobile phone when he really should be paying attention to the people around him. Sorry, family!

The thing about Jonathan is, he’s just secured a three-book publishing deal with Tangerine Press, and he’s convinced that fame and acclaim are just around the corner. His books are going to fly, and he will be hailed as a literary genius, thanks to the wonderful crime fiction that he spends every waking moment either working on or thinking about.

He’s so absorbed in his own little world that he doesn’t notice that his relationship with his live-in partner, Catherine, is being badly affected, and he doesn’t dwell too long on the dismal state of his long-distance relationship with daughter, Lizzie, who lives with his ex-wife and her rich and successful second husband in London.

Everything not connected with writing is a chore to Jonathan, and even losing his job as an accountant doesn’t bother him too much, although he decides it’s probably best to keep that news from Catherine until after Christmas. Then Catherine drops her own little bombshell, and Jonathan’s life starts to unravel …

Told over three Christmases, this novel explores the harsh realities of the writing life and the publishing world, with such compassion and humour that, slowly, I started to feel sorry for Jonathan, whose idealism is soon crushed as he awakens to the fact that maybe Tangerine Press aren’t going to help him fulfil his literary dreams after all.

Against a backdrop of the slightly sad, faded Welsh seaside town of Rhos-on-Sea, we follow Jonathan as he comes to terms, not just with his failing writing career, but with his realisation that other things in life matter just as much, if not far more, and that it’s time he stopped neglecting them and began to focus on what really matters.

I loved everything about this story. The touching plot about Catherine’s grandparents, with Gwilym’s dementia and how that impacts on Jonathan’s future, is lovely. The setting of Beachside Books is inspired. I could picture the failing bookshop so clearly in my mind, and I loved the way the shop reflected Jonathan’s life as a whole, beginning as an empty building that no one cared about, and ending with a packed room, full of people who care, promising a hopeful future. I really enjoyed the image of the cosy Christmas window display, complete with fairy lights and a rocking horse, that the author painted. The arrival of little dog, Frodo, is a bonus. He’s quite a character, and gives added warmth to Jonathan’s story, showing another side to the man. I especially loved the relationship between Jonathan and his daughter, Lizzie. Lizzie wasn’t at all what I was expecting, and I found her to be a charming character.

Mostly, I think I enjoyed the fact that, although this story has love and romance running through its pages, it’s far from conventional.  Throughout the book, I was never certain how the story was going to end, and who Jonathan would end up with. The finale was thoroughly satisfying, and left me feeling really contented and thrilled for everyone concerned. It proved that Jonathan had been on a huge journey, and had finally realised what mattered most of all. He deserved his happy ending!

This is quite a short book, but it’s certainly not rushed, and the story plays out at just the right pace. It brightened my morning, and I definitely want to read more books by Jan Ruth. 5/5

You can buy Away for Christmas here 

The Christmas Shop at Central Park by Jo Bartlett

Libby Cooper hasn’t celebrated Christmas for four years. How can she when the most important people in her life are no longer around to enjoy the festivities – because of her? 

Hiding out in her grandparents’ failing micro-pub, she wants to forget that the season of goodwill even exists; but her grandmother has other ideas. It’s time for Libby to face her fears – and Christmas – head on. And what better way to immerse herself in the celebrations, than working in her great aunt’s Christmas shop, just a few blocks from Central Park?

Making new friends is the easy bit, but leaving the past behind proves much more difficult. The only way Libby can cope is by taking long walks in Central Park and joining an art therapy group to help her express her emotions.

Harry Stanwick is a Central Park Ranger, who’s as beautiful on the inside as he is on the outside. He seems to know instinctively when Libby wants to talk and when she just needs to be left alone.

Working with Harry and the rest of her new friends to save an old off-Broadway theatre and community centre from closure, Libby finally starts to remember the magic of Christmas. But she can’t stop questioning her right to be happy when her parents are gone.

Can Harry convince Libby that she deserves her own Christmas miracle, or will she leave her heart -and her chance of happiness – in the Christmas shop at Central Park?

Every time I read one of Jo Bartlett’s books, I decide it’s my new favourite of her novels. The Christmas Shop at Central Park was no exception. When I finished this book, I felt as if I’d been well and truly hugged by someone I loved very much, and all was well with the world again.

Libby is struggling. She’s almost broken by grief, heartbreak, and a persistent gnawing guilt that just won’t leave her alone, meaning she’s unable to fully live in the present and enjoy her life. The two people Libby loved most in the world are gone, and, as far as she’s concerned, that’s all her fault. Despite the love, support and reassurances of her grandparents, Libby can’t shake off the negativity that is ruining her life.

Hiding away, working in her grandparents’ micro-brewery, Libby lives a half-life. Until, one Christmas, her grandmother decides that enough is enough, and sends Libby off to help her great aunt, who runs a Christmas shop. Not just any old Christmas shop, though. This is the Christmas shop at Central Park, and in New York, Libby just might find exactly what she needs to heal her wounds, and learn to live – and love – again.

This is a truly gorgeous story, full of hope and love and friendship, and all things Christmassy. There’s a fabulous cast of supporting characters, such as her lovely Great Aunt Dottie, with her penchant for crazy hair. Then there’s the rather gorgeous ranger Harry, who is possibly the kindest and most intuitive man in New York – if not the world! Not forgetting my own personal favourite, the fantastic Paula, who, in spite of her own challenges, is the beating heart of the community – bringing healing light to the emotionally wounded through her art therapy classes, and rallying the troops when action is needed to save a much-loved and much-needed theatre from demolition. Paula never gives up, and her fighting spirit is an inspiration to all around her, not least Libby, who begins to believe that, just maybe, there’s light at the end of the tunnel, after all.

There’s a bit of a mystery, a whole lot of inspiration, some laughs, and a touching romance to savour in this book. And, of course, there’s Central Park itself, where the little plaques on the benches, dedicated to lost loved ones, demonstrate its own history and romance – a true fact which gives added depth and flavour to The Christmas Shop at Central Park, making it  pull even tighter on the heartstrings, as every good festive tale should.

Jo Bartlett really knows how to tell a good story, and with this book, she’s surpassed herself. With Christmas just around the corner, let this lovely novel take you by the hand and show you the wonders of real friendship, extraordinary determination, true love, and the magic of this wonderful season, all set against the gloriously festive setting of New York’s Central Park. What more could you possibly want for Christmas? 5/5

You can buy The Christmas Shop at Central Park here.

Warwick’s Mermaid by Ellie Gray

Having escaped an abusive relationship, Chloe MacGregor is determined to put the past behind her. The little cottage high up on the cliffs overlooking the beautiful North Yorkshire town of Whitby is her safe haven, somewhere she is free to be herself.

When the arrival of her new neighbour and boss, Luke Warwick, threatens her peaceful, sheltered life, Chloe is forced to confront her past and to re-evaluate who she really is. Falling in love with Luke is not part of her plan but, to her surprise, Luke is falling for her too. The only thing preventing their happy ever after is Chloe herself. Will she ever truly learn to leave the past where it belongs?

I’ve loved both of Ellie’s previous two novels, Beauty and the Recluse and Love on the Nile, and I had high hopes for this one. After all, it’s set in one of my favourite places, Whitby in North Yorkshire, a place I’ve visited on many occasions.

Luckily, Warwick’s Mermaid lived up to my expectations. Like Ellie’s other books, it’s unashamedly romantic, sweeping the reader along on a tide of passion, drama and sexual tension.

Chloe, the heroine, is undoubtedly damaged. She’s had a terrible time with her ex-boyfriend, putting up with dreadful abuse – both mental and physical. Breaking free from him, she is still a prisoner of her own low self-esteem – held there, in part, by the drip drip of negative comments she has endured from her own mother all her life. Chloe’s mum has suffered at the hands of a man, and she’s determined that Chloe won’t have the same fate. Unfortunately, all her efforts to convince her daughter to stay away from men have ensured that Chloe is a mass of insecurities and doubts.

When she meets Luke, Chloe experiences an overwhelming attraction that astounds and scares her. But with her heart telling her one thing, and her head another, she is paralysed to move forward with her life and take a chance on this handsome man who has come to her rescue.

For Luke, his feelings for Chloe are a bolt from the blue, and she’s not the only one who’s scared. Falling in love was not part of his plans, and he tries his best to stay away from this intriguing creature, who seems very prone to getting herself into bother.

But when the two of them are thrown together, sparks fly and there is no denying their feelings for each other. With troubled pasts and a mutual suspicion of relationships, can they ever put aside their fears and make a fresh start together?

Warwick’s Mermaid is a passionate love story that will carry you along on waves of emotion as you follow Chloe’s and Luke’s journey back to happiness. Ellie has written another winner here, and I’m looking forward to seeing what she comes up with next. 5/5

You can buy Warwick’s Mermaid here.

Charlee and the Chocolate Shop by Jessica Redland

It’s impossible not to be drawn to this book, just by the title and the gorgeous cover. It’s Christmas, and it’s chocolate! Win-win.

When we first meet Charlee, the heroine of this story, she’s at a low ebb, having recently lost her beloved nanna – the woman who raised her after her mother left her. Charlee has inherited Nanna’s house, but she feels uncomfortable living there, especially with amorous boyfriend Darren. Darren’s got a new job, and is heading off to Whitsborough Bay, and he wants Charlee to sell up and come with him. But Charlee has her best friend, Jodie, to think about, and her job working with master chocolatier Pierre.

As events take an unexpected turn, Charlee finds herself heading to Whitsborough Bay after all, and is soon on the hunt for premises. Because Charlee has decided to open her own chocolate shop, and she soon finds the perfect location – Castle Street, home of many of the little businesses readers of Jessica Redland’s previous books will already have become acquainted with, such as Flowers and Gifts, Bear with Me and Carly’s Cupcakes.

As Charlee settles in to her new life, she throws herself into preparing her chocolate shop, ready for business, and tries not to dwell on the fact that Darren is about as useful as a chocolate teapot. When a catastrophe occurs, it’s lucky for Charlee that Matt the plumber is on hand to rescue her. Not that Charlee’s interested in him. Of course not. She’s happy with Darren. Isn’t she?

Suffice it to say, Christmas for Charlee that year is hardly something to celebrate, despite her new home and new business. Charlee can hardly imagine being happy again.

As Christmas comes around again, the following year, can Charlee make it the time when all her dreams finally come true, or will it be another lonely Christmas?

This is a lovely story of two Christmases, and what can happen in one year. It’s a tale of friendship, love, and hope. With a subplot involving Charlee’s errant mother, and the truth about her birth and childhood, it’s also more than just a frothy seasonal story.

Sometimes, we don’t realise who really matters to us, even when the truth is sitting right in front of our eyes, and this story reminds us that families come in all different shapes and sizes, but it’s the love at the core of them that makes them real, not blood or birth certificates.

As the year comes to a close, Charlee discovers that she’s not so alone, after all, and she never has been …

This is a really gorgeous festive novel, full of Christmas spirit and lots of chocolate. You will get hungry though. The chocolate is so well described and the images the author creates are enough to make your mouth water. If you’re on a diet, you may need to save some extra calories for when you read this!  5/5

You can buy Charlee and the Chocolate Shop here