TBR Challenge December 2022 – Festive

As the year winds to a close, we get a prompt to read something “Festive” for the TBR Challenge. I love that the choice of holiday is open-ended. Over the years I’ve read Christmas, Hanukkah, Mardi Gras and more. We both found winning novellas this month, so whether you’re looking for something deeply emotional (Caz’s pick) or fun and sexy (Lynn’s pick), we’ve got you covered. What festive reads are you enjoying?

The Best Gift by Eli Easton

Eli Easton is one of those authors I’ve been aware of for a while but hadn’t yet read – until this year when I read three of her books and was, on the whole, fairly impressed. That made my choice for this month’s festive prompt fairly easy after I found a copy of her 2021 Christmas novella, The Best Gift waiting for me on my Kindle!

The author packs some real emotional heft into the 150-odd pages of this heartwarming age-gap romance between bereaved father and a military veteran. It will bring a tear to the eye, a lump to the throat and will leave you sighing happily at the end.

It’s ten months since Greg Cabot’s nineteen-year-old son Sam was killed in Afghanistan, and Greg is still mired in grief. Bright, breezy, happy-go-lucky Sam was everything to Greg, and the plan was that he’d serve for two years and then come back to run the business with his dad, and eventually take it over and pass it to his own kids. Now, though, that future is gone and Greg is just going through the motions. Without Sam’s light, love and enthusiasm, he just doesn’t have the heart for selling comfort and joy any more, and has decided that this will be his final year of opening Cabot’s for business. He doesn’t know what to do with his life now Sam is gone, and plans to put the land up for sale in January.

Sergeant Robbie Sparks was badly injured in an explosion in Afghanistan and has spent the last ten months in hospital and rehab recovering and learning how to walk again. He’s worked hard to get as far as he has, but, frustratingly, there are pieces of his memory missing he’s never going to get back.

Greg is driving into town in heavy snow when he notices a man limping along the side of the road – a man in uniform with a military green duffel slung over his shoulder. Greg pulls over and offers the man – Robbie – a ride and a bed for the night; it’s what Sam would want, even though Greg would rather be on his own.

The next morning, Robbie gets up and gets his gear together preparing to head out. Greg has thoughtfully left him some breakfast, and as Robbie is clearing up, he watches Greg outside, hauling trees to the baler, arrying them to customer’s cars… it’s hard work, and there’s a big queue of people waiting, so Robbie goes outside and offers a hand, as recompense for Greg’s hospitality. When the rush has died down, Robbie sees the “help wanted” ad in the window of the store, and asks if he can stay on until Christmas. Greg is only too pleased to have him stay on.

The Best Gift is a quiet, but deeply emotional story about two wounded souls falling in love and helping each other to find the direction and meaning in life they’re both lacking. The slow burn romance between Greg and Robbie is superbly done; they both feel a definite spark of attraction at their first meeting, which is kind of a revelation for each of them because grief and trauma have meant that neither man has felt much of anything for quite some time, but the author doesn’t rush it, and takes time to create a genuine connection and understanding between them as they work alongside each other and share meals and spend time together at the end of the day. The setting of the Christmas tree farm adds a lovely festive feel to the story, and in the scenes where Greg shows Robbie around the fields and talks about all the trees and the planting and his grandfather’s vision, you can feel his deep love of the place and how much of a wrench it will be to let it go. But then he begins to see the place afresh through Robbie’s eyes, to re-open his eyes to just how special it is, and to find that all the memories wrapped up in it are no longer quite as painful as they once were. There’s a little twist near the end that eagle-eyed readers will already have guessed, and of course, Greg and Robbie get their own Christmas miracle as they realise they’ve found the best gift of all in each other.

Heartbreaking and uplifting, The Best Gift is a beautiful story about second chances and moving on, about family and traditions, and about hope and love and new beginnings featuring characters who are fully fleshed-out and feel very real. If you’re looking for an emotional story that eschews the sickly sweetness that is found in so many Christmas romances, I heartily recommend this one.

Grade: B+            Sensuality: Warm

~ Caz Owens

Buy it at: Amazon

A Match Made for Thanksgiving by Jackie

I used to say I was a sucker for Christmas romances. However, I’ve realized that I just love holiday romances in general. I simply love getting a window into the joy of people’s celebrations. I was looking for a happy read this month, and A Match Made for Thanksgiving delivered. This was a very fun read indeed.

So many holiday romances feature people in the city moving back to their small towns and marrying the sheriff. Jackie Lau plays with the small-town romance tropes a bit in this story. Her hero, Nick Wong, is perfectly happy to stay in Toronto. While he is going back to Mosquito Bay for Thanksgiving, he isn’t exactly aching to stay there and give up city living.

When Nick gets back for Thanksgiving, he learns a plot is afoot. His family has set him and his three siblings up with dates for Thanksgiving dinner. The pairings are mostly hilariously wrong, but who did Nick’s brother Greg get set up with? None other than Lily Tseng, a one-night stand that Nick just can’t get out of his mind.

Neither Nick nor Lily is looking for a committed relationship, but I loved seeing how they got thrown together in this story. The chemistry is believable, and I liked that they actually try to be honest with each other even when their feelings are all over the place.

If you’re looking for something upbeat for the holidays, the tone of this story is perfect. While there’s strong emotion in this story (including Lily’s grief over her father’s death), there is also a lot of humor woven in. The Thanksgiving dinner itself, when Nick is trying to get through an awkward dinner while fantasizing about his brother’s date, is a great scene. “Conversation was not flowing naturally, ” indeed!

After reading lots of American-focused holiday books, it was fun to vicariously experience Canadian Thanksgiving. My only complaint, if you could call it that, was that there isn’t even more to this story. If you’re looking for a fun, sexy holiday read, I highly recommend this lovely novella.

Grade:          A-     Sensuality: Warm

~ Lynn Spencer

Buy it at: Amazon

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