I love that this year’s TBR Challenge for December is not entirely Christmas. We just have to be “festive” and there are so many ways to do that. This year, Caz went for a magical Christmas story, while Lynn sank into a sweet Hanukkah romance she’s been wanted to read for a while. Both were winners, and we hope you find some good reads, too. Happy holidays!

The Winter Spirit by Indra Vaughn

I’m not the Bah!Humbug! type, but I’m also not one to seek out Christmassy romances just because they’re set in and around the festive season, although  if I like the sound of a story and it happens to be set around Christmas then I might give it a go.  And if I do pick up a Christmas story, then I don’t want one that could be set at any time of the year, I want one that makes good use of the wintry setting and that maybe has just a little bit of Christmas magic – and Indra Vaughn’s The Winter Spirit does just that.  This little gem clocks in at under 100 pages, but it hit me right in the feels in the best possible way.

When Nathaniel O’Donnelly inherited his uncle’s worse-for-wear hotel in rural Michigan twelve years earlier, he also inherited its resident ghost, Gabriel Wickfield, who can only be seen in mirrors or highly polished surfaces, and who takes delight in needling Nate and causing mischief.  After making extensive renovations to the place, Nate re-opened it as a B&B which he now runs with the help of his long-time friend and employee Elisa Brown. With Christmas approaching, things are fairly quiet; there are only two guests staying currently, but Nate is expecting a third, who happens to be an old school friend – and Nate’s first crush – Owen Ashurst.  He and Nate haven’t kept in touch so Nate has no idea of how Owen’s life has turned out, but he can’t deny he’s just a little bit excited at the idea of seeing Owen again. He’s not looking to start something (well, not really) although he can’t deny he’s just a teeny bit interested in seeing if there might be the potential for something between them.

When Owen arrives, he’s as good-looking and charming he ever was, and he’s pleased to see Nate, too.  They talk, they share a meal and Owen makes clear his interest in Nate, but Nate isn’t feeling it – although he’s not best pleased later that night when Gabriel appears and tells him he doesn’t like Owen and doesn’t think he’s being completely honest.

The next night when Nate returns to his room, it’s to find Gabriel actually sitting in one of the rocking chairs by the window.  Gabriel has never manifested like this before – as a solid, living (and gorgeous) man – and he quietly explains to Nate that he’s able to appear outside the mirrors for short periods of time around this time of year – but doesn’t tell him any more.  Nate finds himself looking for Gabriel and wanting to spend time with him at every opportunity, and with only a couple of days left until Christmas and with what lies beyond it uncertain, Nate realises that, unlikely though it may be, he’s fallen in love with a ghost – and that he’s loved in return.  Will a once-a-year thing be enough for them, if it’s even possible?  Or is Gabriel running out of time?

The author packs quite an emotional punch into the short page-count – I freely admit to several sniffles when all seemed lost – and even though there were a few things I wish had been more detailed, I was completely captivated by the characters, the gentle humour and the intense longing that permeates the romance.  (I’m a sucker for well-done pining!)  Nate is a lovely guy who had a crappy childhood, but who has risen above that to make a good life and run a successful business. He’s a decent, kind, hard-working man possessed of an attractive quiet strength, but he’s lonely, and worries that perhaps he’s destined to remain that way.  He’s over thirty, a bit overweight (and self-conscious about it), and hasn’t had many – if any – opportunities for love and romance come his way.  He’s so very real and relatable, and it’s easy to root for him to find the love and happiness he richly deserves.  As Nate is the sole narrator we only see Gabriel through his eyes, but I enjoyed his humour and the author does a great job of showing us his obvious love for Nate.  His backstory is truly heart-breaking.

It’s hard to talk about the things I wanted more of without giving away spoilers, so instead, I’ll just say that there’s a fair bit of hand-waving at the end and no real explanation for how it works out – BUT I was so invested in the characters and their relationship that I was able to go with ‘eh, magic’ and ignore that little bit of frustration at not having all the pieces to put together.  I also didn’t quite see the need for the Owen plotline – it didn’t really serve to galvanise Nate or Gabriel into realising how they felt about each other, and I wish the page-count devoted to it had been spent developing the ending and epilogue a bit more.

But I loved the story despite its flaws – any author who can make me run the gamut of emotions in a matter of eighty-one pages deserves all the kudos.  The Winter Spirit is charming and tender and poignant and magical… and just lovely.

Grade: B+                    Sensuality: Warm

~ Caz Owens

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Miracles and Menorahs by Stacey Agdern

I’m always up for a holiday romance. I’m definitely in the “love it” camp for Christmas romances, which tend to have both passionate fans and die-hard avoiders. However, I love reading about other holidays as well, whether from traditions I share or not. In my case, part of my family is Jewish I’ve enjoyed finding more romances featuring Hanukkah and other holidays. I have several on my digital TBR, and I decided to pull out Miracles and Menorahs this year because I’ve been wanting to read it.

Miracles and Menorahs is a sweet story with a very slow burn romance. I could see this one making an excellent feel-good Hallmark movie. Can Sarah Goldman save the Hollowville Hanukkah Festival? Will she and that sexy sculptor ever get together?

Sarah loves her town’s Hanukkah festival and she has thrown herself into helping organize it just as her father did before her. This year, though, the festival’s time may have run out. A new councilman wants to replace it with a more generic ‘holiday’ festival that would be more Christmas-centric. This stereotypically drawn new councilman practically sneers every time he is on the page. From the opening chapters, Sarah and her friends appear likeable and the reader will want them to be able to save the Hanukkah festival even if their opponent is a heavy-handed caricature.

Since the big issue seems to be revenue from the festival, Sarah and her committee determine to show everyone that Hollowville IS Hanukkah. They come up with a branding idea, and decide to approach artists about sculpting a large menorah for the town. One of the town’s residents has a grandson, Isaac, who is a noted sculptor in the city.

There’s just one problem: Isaac loves the Hanukkah holiday but he doesn’t want to see it commercialized. He has no interest taking on a commission which he believes will help do just that. Sarah tries to show him the importance of the festival to her, to his beloved grandmother and to the town, but it’s a hard sell. For most of the book, we see Sarah and Isaac becoming friends (albeit friends with building romantic tension), but not much progress on the menorah front.

The storyline in this book is very sweet, and I enjoyed getting to know Sarah and Hollowville. At times the middle portion of the book seemed to drag just a bit because the romance was very slow to get started. In addition, while I liked the exploration of over-commercialized holidays, the tension over that issue seemed to go on far too long in the story, so then the ultimate resolution got hurried up a bit.

However, even with those quibbles over pacing, I really liked Miracles and Menorahs. After going through the past couple of years, I needed something gentle and sweet. And this book delivers warm coziness in spades.

Grade:    B+            Sensuality: Kisses

~ Lynn Spencer

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I enjoy spending as much time as I can between the covers of a book, traveling through time and around the world. When I'm not having adventures with fictional characters, I'm an attorney in Virginia and I love just hanging out with my husband, little man, and the cat who rules our house.