Christmas Past: A Ghostly Winter Tale

By: John Alcox

Thank you to NetGalley and The Story Plant for the eARC in return for an honest review. 

The winter holiday season is a time for gifts and music, for snow and miracles, and for family and going home. For Jessie Malone, it’s a time for sorrow.

Jessie is a graduate student living in London, where she hopes to be one of the first folklorists ever to trace an urban legend back to its original source. She’s also a grieving young widow unable to heal from the agony of her life-shattering loss.

In the bleak midwinter, Jessie learns of an urban legend about a lonely, wandering ghost, a British sailor named Sam who promised his bride that he’d be home for Christmas. The legends say he’s been trying to make it back to her since World War II.

As she investigates, Jessie learns that Sam’s story defies the patterns of how urban legends are supposed to work. It’s a puzzle she can’t let go. To solve the mystery, she must confront the impossible and, just perhaps, discover a miracle of Christmas love that survives beyond the grave.

A story that will engage all your emotions, Christmas Past bursts with wonder, enigma, romance, and the unquenchable spirit that comes from promises that must be kept.

This book was a DNF for me. I tried several times to pick it up and read it and just couldn’t get into it. I really loved the concept of chasing down older Ghost stories or legends to see where they originated from. Unfortunately, that’s where the magic ended for me. 

The character didn’t have much emotional output for me. The main character didn’t interest me at all. I really felt nothing for her at all. It annoyed me how many times she reminded us that she cannot get distracted from her main purpose of writing her dissertation. Her memories were lovely but again, no emotional reaction from me.

The imagery didn’t strike a cord either. I couldn’t feel London or Paris around me at all.

I did love the ghost stories and how the legends were relayed. It’s such an interesting concept of how a legend is born and how it travels from place to place. I also enjoyed reading about the effect each story has on folks as it gets passed down from generation to generation. The stories were stories of kindness and humans going out of their way for those in need. This is a theme much needed in today’s world so I was glad to see it.  

I wish I could have loved this but I didn’t.

⭐ ⭐

The Resting Place

By Camilla Sten

The medical term is prosopagnosia. The average person calls it face blindness—the inability to recognize a familiar person’s face, even the faces of those closest to you.

When Eleanor walked in on the scene of her capriciously cruel grandmother, Vivianne’s, murder, she came face to face with the killer—a maddening expression that means nothing to someone like her. With each passing day, her anxiety mounts. The dark feelings of having brushed by a killer, yet not know who could do this—or if they’d be back—overtakes both her dreams and her waking moments, thwarting her perception of reality.

Then a lawyer calls. Vivianne has left her a house—a looming estate tucked away in the Swedish woods. The place her grandfather died, suddenly. A place that has housed a dark past for over fifty years.

Eleanor. Her steadfast boyfriend, Sebastian. Her reckless aunt, Veronika. The lawyer. All will go to this house of secrets, looking for answers. But as they get closer to bringing the truth to light, they’ll wish they had never come to disturb what rests there.

A heart-thumping, relentless thriller that will shake you to your core, The Resting Place is an unforgettable novel of horror and suspense. 

Note – Thanks to Netgalley and Minotaur Books for an eARC in exchange for an honest review. 

This is the second Camilla Sten book I’ve read. I read The Lost Village last month and it was a decent read. I wanted to give her another try. 

In truth – I didn’t love it. It started out all mysterious and eerie. The timelines flipped back and forth from the past to present and back again. In the beginning, it was hard to know who was who – I got a little lost in the introduction of the character Anushka. 

The spooky atmosphere starts to build immediately as Eleanor and her boyfriend, Sebastian, reach Solhoga, the abandoned family mansion in the woods. Floorboards creak, a dumb waiter has a mind of its own, shadows appear in the woods and doors open by themselves. The main character has prosopagnosia (face blindness) which adds to the intensity of the story. You can clearly see the two storylines racings heading towards an intersection. Clearly, the author wants us to think the house is haunted and tries to write it as a character on its own. 

Unfortunately, it fell a little flat to me. The storm that cuts Eleanor and her party off from all civilization seems a little contrived. The characters were uninteresting and over-dramatic. There were a few loose ends that left me with question – like Vivianne’s background. It’s hinted at but never really explained. The relationship between her and Anushka is weird and unexplainable. The family dynamic was really disjointed. Sebastian was condescending and commonplace. I didn’t buy that he cared even a little for Eleanor. 

The macabre ending was predictable and uninteresting.

I will say that Sten’s writing style, her use of vocabulary is stunning. She’s descriptive and fluid. She’s detailed without losing you in the detail and is adept at creating a tangible atmosphere.  

Overall, I wanted to love this but I didn’t. However, I’m still a fan of Camilla Sten and eagerly await what she’s got in store for us next.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐

The Bright Side Running Club

By Josie Lloyd

When Keira first receives her breast cancer diagnosis, she never expects to end up joining a running group with three women she’s only just met. Totally blind-sided, all she can think about is how she doesn’t want to tell her family or step back from work. Nor does she want to be part of a group of fellow cancer patients. Cancer is not her club.

And yet it’s running – hot, sweaty, lycra-clad running in the company of brilliant, funny women all going through treatment – that unexpectedly gives Keira the hope she so urgently needs. Because Keira will not be defined by the C-word. And now, with the Cancer Ladies’ Running Club cheering her on, she is going to reclaim everything: her family, her identity, and her life.

One step at a time.

Moving, uplifting and full of hope, this is a beautifully crafted novel about love, family and the power of finding your tribe.

Note – Thank you to Netgalley and Alcove Press for an eARC in exchange for an honest review. 

Trying to be strong in the face of a cancer diagnosis – could I do it? This is the question I asked myself over and over as I read this book. This story is heartwarming, maddening, thrilling, thought-provoking and resolute in its endeavor to describe the journey one woman goes on after she is diagnosed with breast cancer. It’s a powerful story centering on the strength of women and yet doesn’t get bogged down overpowering feminist themes.

Although not written as an autobiography, the author infuses her own cancer journey into Keira’s story, giving the reader an inside view into what happens when one is catapulted into Cancer World. For me, this was a highly emotional journey even though I’ve never lost anyone to cancer. All five stages of grief are skillfully woven throughout the story as Keira navigates this diagnosis. We see the effect not only on her and her mental state but also on those around her. We see her break and fall, fail and flail and get back up using the support and love of those around her. She even leans on those who use her illness to try to destroy her. 

While Lloyd keeps our attention and focus on Keira, she also gives us a glimpse into what’s going on in the lives of those around her. Her husband, Tom, is maddening at times and seems unsupportive yet cannot overcome the deep, intense love he has for his wife. Her children, Tilly, Jacob and Bea each define their new roles within their home unit with all the difficulty and rebellion and fierce love for their mum appropriate to their ages. We see how the members of the Bright Side Running Club all cope with cancer in their way – choosing or not choosing to talk with those closest to them about their illness. And finally, we see her business partner attempt to use the opportunity for their own selfish gain – which is frustrating in the very least but it lends to Keira’s mental and emotional state as she sees how cancer changes her. 

The end is a bittersweet triumph of sacrifice, love and tenacity as these women are determined to overcome. I absolutely cried, laughed and cheered. I was on the edge of my seat as the final showdown came between Keira and Lorna and Pierre. I rejoiced with these women and wished them well as I closed the book, having finished it one box of tissues later. 

One does not need to be intimately acquainted with cancer in order to get something out of this story. The emotional attachment will be instant and immediate. I highly recommend this book and now am off to see what other books of Josie Lloyd’s I can find. 

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

The Bookbinder’s Daughter

By Jessica Thorne

When Sophie is offered a job at the Ayredale Library – the finest collection of rare books in the world, and the last place her bookbinder mother was seen when Sophie was just a teenager – she leaps at the chance. 

Taking in the endless shelves of antique books, the soaring stained-glass windows, and the grand sweeping staircase, usually shy Sophie feels strangely at home, and is welcomed by her eccentric fellow binders. But why is the Keeper of the Library so reluctant to speak about Sophie’s mother? And why is Sophie the only person who can read the strange spells in the oldest books on display, written in a forgotten language nobody else understands?

The mysteries of the library only deepen when Sophie stumbles upon an elaborately carved door. The pattern exactly matches the pendant her mother left behind years ago, engraved with a delicate leaf. As the door swings open at her touch, Sophie gasps at the incredible sight: an enormous tree, impossibly growing higher than the library itself, its gently falling golden leaves somehow resembling the pages of a book. Amidst their rustling, Sophie hears a familiar whisper…

‘There you are, my Sophie. I knew you’d come back for me.’

There are several things to love about this book. 

First, the language used is intricate, delicate and beautiful. Jessica Thorne has a such a mastery over vocabulary which she uses skillfully and without alienating her reader with a lot of “high-falooty mambo jumbo”. It’s simply exquisite. She uses words like a carver would use their tools to carefully craft a world-behind-the-world creating such detail and a stunning backdrop for this story. I fell in love with the library as though it was a living, breathing entity. Due to this, it can take a while for the actual story to unfold however, if you just stay with it, it’ll be worth it!

Next, the story itself. The idea of books and magic housed under the roof of a library isn’t one unfamilier to us readers. Books are magic, transporting, creating, and allowing escape from our everyday lives – even if we’re escaping to live the everyday life of a book character. We meet it, crave it and thrill to it as we let the magic of a good book envelope us and take us where the author wants us to go. Outside of God and all I feel and know through my faith, books are literally the next best ‘high’ one can get. 

I always love when an inanimate object suddenly becomes a character. There are two of those in this book; one is the library and one is the tree. They both have words, feelings, personalities and ebb and flow with the heroine flawlessly as she seeks out their secrets and unravels their mysteries. The library moans and groans under threat of evil. The tree dispels its leaves which, in turn, become pages for the bookbinder to create into a book. 

There’s a nice symbiotic relationship here as the library cannot survive without the tree, which gives of itself to the library yet the tree cannot exist without the library; the library is its home. 

The main character of Sophie is lost, alone and confused and all for the right reasons, having survived an emotionally abusive relationship and much loss. She flees to be with an estranged uncle as she takes on a job as the bookbinder at Ayredale’s library. She meets up with friends, old and new. There is a love interest in the form of Will and we struggle along with her to find out his connection to the library. 

There is an evil presence and I often found myself wondering who were the good guys and who were the bag guys with the exception of Sophie, our heroine. There is a nice character development as we watch Sophie’s internal struggle to find out what happened to her mom but also to free herself from the bondage of her abusive relationship. 

Lastly, I love that this story is almost told like a bit of folklore. It’s like a story you’d tell your kids at night, around a fire while sipping hot chocolate. It’s simply lovely! 

My rating ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

Dancing With the Dead

By S.A. Dunphy

She had taken only one step towards the hotel when she heard the car door opening, and then something had her by the shoulders in a grip like steel. Penny tried to fight, but it was no good. The last thing she heard as consciousness drifted away was the whisper of a familiar song…

In a small town on Ireland’s west coast, a young woman named Penelope O’Dwyer leaves a restaurant. It should take five minutes to walk back to where she’s staying. In those five minutes she disappears without a trace.

It’s a few days before the tape arrives. The kidnapper’s face is masked, his voice distorted, but no one doubts for a second he will follow through on his threat: a ritual murder at the end of October – and after that, many more murders to come. Penelope has two weeks to live. And the police don’t have a single lead.

This was a first read for me by this author. I opened the book yesterday morning and didn’t stop reading until I was finished. This doesn’t happen for me very often. I just HAD to know how it ended! 

While I’m not a huge fan of crime/serial killer stories, this book sucked me in. It gave me a lot of Joy Ellis vibes (and I am a huge fan of hers). The camaraderie and friendship between Jessie, Seamus and Terri reminded me a lot of Jackman and Evans. They’re easy characters to care about. I loved how each one was introduced. We get a bit of each of their backstories without leaving the path of the story. Each backstory is introduced just at the right time and is essential to the story. 

This book also gave me a few CJ Tudor feels, with the folklore added to the storyline. I love Celtic folklore. It was weaved brilliantly into the story and mixed well with the modern day mystery. 

I don’t want to give away any spoilers so I won’t but reading this book was like putting together a huge puzzle. Mr. Dunphy put each corner together first giving us a glimpse of what the whole picture would like. Then, he skillfully connects each little completed piece to give us the whole picture, like a fuzzy image coming slowly into a clear view. And yet, even with all that, we’re still left wanting more with a bit of something left over for the next book. 

My recommendation is READ THIS!! Set aside a day and start in the morning because once you start, you will not want to put this book down. Personally, I cannot wait to virtually go to Ireland and visit Jessie, Seamus and Terri again. I’m so curious to see what the future holds for all of them! 

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐