Music in the Hills (Dering Family #2)

by D. E. Stevenson

The view down the valley was wide and free; the winding river, the rounded, rolling hills. The air sparkled so that it was a positive joy to breathe . . . and over the whole place there was a stillness, a peaceful sort of feeling; it was like the feeling one has when the words of a benediction have been uttered and have died away.

Rhoda had quite a good brain (and knew it), but even she found the sermon “a bit stiff,” for Mr. Sim’s theme was the ethical interpretations of history and the varying interactions of the temporal and spiritual powers. As Rhoda looked round at her fellow-worshippers she could not help wondering whether they were taking it all in or whether their rapt expressions were due to pre-occupation with domestic affairs.

“So, Becky, What are you reading?”
Music in the Hills by D.E. Stevenson.”
“What’s it about?”
“It’s about a young Englishman, disappointed in love, who goes to Scotland and learns to be a sheep farmer. In the 1950’s”
“Oh.”

Whenever I finish a D.E. Stevenson novel, half the time, it seems like I am declaring it the best I have read yet. Music in the Hills is the second in a trilogy begun with Vittoria Cottage, and it has supplanted Katherine Wentworth as my favorite so far (other than the Miss Buncle books). After proposing to Rhoda, the strong-minded and captivating artist we met briefly in the first book, and being turned down, James Dering, the beloved son of Caroline, the heroine of Vittoria Cottage, goes to live with her sister and her husband’s Scottish estate and sheep farm, Mureth. He has his mind and heart set on being a farmer after being stationed in Malaya during the war. James is one of D.E. Stevenson’s strong, upstanding, handsome, and kind heroes. He was lovely, although on at least two occasions I wanted to slap him silly.

We meet lots of interesting characters at Mureth and the environs. The main characters, self-deprecating, vague, but wise Mamie, strong and straight Jock, pretty vivacious Holly, fairy-like Eleanor, Daniel the shepherd, and community and duty-obsessed Lady Shaw, would all take pages or at least paragraphs to describe satisfactorily. Even the ones who put in the briefest of appearances have something distinctive about them for good or bad. The ones we are meant to scorn, I disliked intensely (narcissistic bully Sir Andrew, Lady Shaw’s husband, and the self-important entitled Londoner who buys a neighboring estate. He doesn’t understand his house, the people, or the land and doesn’t care to.)

There are quite a few plot threads to keep things interesting. Lady Shaw’s conniving niece Holly’s pursuit of James, for one. We know she is not right for him right away.

You don’t *like* London do you?”
“No, of course not. I’m really a country person.” She did not look like a country person. Even James, who knew very little about women’s clothes, had a feeling that Holly’s green frock was a town rather than a country garment and her shoes had been made to walk upon London pavements rather than in country lanes. He took her hand to help her down the uneven steps.

It takes James, naive in the ways and wiles of women quite some time for the light to fully dawn. We fear for him. When the vibrant unconventional Rhoda tears up on her motorcycle and knocks on Mureth’s door, we breathe a sigh of relief. We also fear for Eleanor, Lady Shaw’s young daughter. Though surrounded by family, she is virtually alone in the world with her books, dreaming her life away. James takes to her immediately and enlists reluctant Mamie to help rescue her. What will happen when sweet and timid Mamie gets up the gall to talk to the self-important human steamroller who is Lady Shaw about her parenting? I was on the edge of my seat. Meanwhile, someone is rustling the Mureth sheep. Suspicion falls on a likable character we know has got to be innocent. What is going on? James gets on the bad side of the powerful new neighbor who unbelievably shoots at a sheepdog. When he throws a citified party to introduce himself to his country neighbors, danger lurks everywhere. By the end, the good and strong are set apart from the bad or weak. Then we have the petty feuds and rivalries, Lizzie the housekeeper and her detachment from her children, the gossip, a country party that almost leads to disaster, stalking sheep rustlers, hunting, fishing, and traipsing through the hills. I for sure started to cringe at the direction the James and Eleanor relationship seemed to be briefly going, but it didn’t. What was he thinking?

Despite the fact that I had another book waiting to be read, I had to pivot and go right on to the sequel, Winter and Rough Weather. It was too soon to leave the world of Mureth and its people. I had to keep accompanying them on their journeys for a little while longer. I hope we see Eleanor completely sorted in book #3.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Artistic License

by Elle Pierson (Lucy Parker)

“Well, you will make mistakes. And people will get hurt. Unfortunately, that’s life. But that doesn’t automatically negate all the good stuff. And it doesn’t mean that you should make some sort of pre-emptive strike against taking the risk in the first place.” Sophy let out a sigh, examining the toes of her shoes as they scuffed in the gravel. “You’re a wise woman, Ma,” she said lightly after a moment. “I think so,” agreed Marion serenely. “Did you get that last bit from Oprah?” “A magazine at the hair salon.”

**4 1/2 stars.** For what it is, a light harlequin-style romance this was excellent. This was Lucy Parker’s first book, and it was self-published under what I assume is her real name. I’m used to her glittery sophisticated London-based books revolving around the theatre and other rarefied venues. Her ability to drop the reader right in the middle of her world has been part of her appeal for me. This one is set in New Zealand, and I was impressed that this setting seemed as authentic as her London milieu. I was surprised but not surprised to find she is a native New-Zealander, when all this time, based on her books, I thought she was a native Londoner.

This is an unapologetic romance with a bit of mystery thrown in to keep things moving. Sophy is very shy to the point that she suffers from debilitating social anxiety. With people she knows she is smart, funny, and cute. With people she doesn’t, she “shrinks in both size and personality” like a “spooked turtle.” An artist, she meets the very large, muscular, and very dangerous-looking Mick, a security specialist, while he is in charge at an art exhibit.

And look at them, for Christ’s sake. It was as if someone had mixed up the casting calls for a flowery chick flick and Terminator 5. He felt three times larger and at least twice as ugly as he actually was just standing near her. The chances of her reciprocating anything other than wary reluctance seemed to hover around zero.

When she finds herself in the middle of a domestic terrorist incident, Mick rushes to her aid when she is knocked down and has an asthma attack. Despite his reserve with women due to his looks (not attractive) and her shyness, it’s basically love at first sight.

This started off slow. At one point, I was going to temporarily put it down to start a book I was anxious to read. I gave it 20 more minutes and it came through for me. We learn that Mick does not like his family and that he comes from a very wealthy and privileged background. Interesting. Then Sophy starts getting anonymous gifts from someone who knows her tastes. It starts to get creepy. Hmmm. I loved Sophy’s family, whom we spend a day with. The Lucy Parker wit and sparkling banter seemed to get better and better as the book went on. Some of the humor is based on her talent for including apt cultural references. There were several engrossing scenes including Sophy meeting Mick’s heinous family. I liked that Sophy’s and Mick’s characters were true and consistent throughout. I enjoyed their warm and tender relationship. He was protective but respected her and didn’t try to “fix” her. I dreaded the point where Mick or Sophy’s hang-ups would endanger their relationship but the bump in the road was understandable based on their firmly established characters and was nipped in the bud quickly. The secondary characters were engaging. And it had a great ending. Really couldn’t ask for more from a light romance and it’s just what I was in the mood for.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Vittoria Cottage

By D. E. Stevenson

We don’t stand still, thought Robert. We are travellers upon the path of life. No traveller can bathe twice in the same stream. He bathes and goes on his way and, if the road is dusty and hot, he may look back longingly and think of the clear cool water with regret … but presently he may come upon another stream, different of course, but equally delightful to bathe in.”

This is a quintessential D.E. Stevenson novel which means I really liked it. It features a little family headed by a young widow living in a charming abode in the English countryside. Wandlebury, home to Miss Buncle, or rather, Mrs. Abbott, is frequently mentioned as in the vicinity. Caroline Dering is very nice, very capable, and the mother of three children. James, her oldest and the child most like her, is serving in Malaya. Leda takes after her petulant late husband and is beautiful, selfish, and entitled. Bobbie, the youngest, is lively, tomboyish, and just a good kid.

The story centers around Caroline’s friendship with a newcomer to the village, an attractive widower she had coincidentally had a pleasant encounter with on her honeymoon with the habitually peevish and thankfully now-dead Arnold. Robert, a spy, was imprisoned in Germany and is still recovering from the aftereffects of both that and the tragic death of his wife during the blitzkrieg. They fall in like and are smoothly transitioning to love until things are shaken up by Caroline’s younger sister, famous actress Harriet Fane, who comes for an extended visit. She sets her cap at Robert, and what man, Caroline thinks, could resist? Harriet is my favorite character. She is worldly, amusing, and speaks her mind without fear or favor. She and Caroline are devoted to each other.

The other main focus is Leda’s engagement to the lazy and weak Derek, the son and heir of the leading family in their community. If possible, he is even more unlikable than Leda. Both Caroline and his father, the Admiral and local squire, are in favor of a long engagement because Derek is still at University and they have no means of support. Derek and Leda are not happy. Both are foolish and immature, though Leda, thanks to her raising, is slightly more sensible.

The fates of both romances reach a crisis and form the conclusion of the novel. On the way we have Caroline’s visit to London, James’ return home from Malaya, his nascent romance with Derek’s likable independent sister, painful news from Robert’s young son in America, a few medical crises, a few parties, and various encounters with well-drawn townspeople and neighbors. Particularly noteworthy is the fate of Comfort, Caroline’s lovable housekeeper who worships the ground Caroline walks on, but is dangerously overweight.

The protagonists are so “pro” and the antagonists so “anti” that you just want the book to go on forever so you don’t have to leave their world. Instead, it ends very abruptly with a lot of loose ends, which brought my rating down. It was read by Lesley Mackie who was simply perfection. I am so happy that this is only the first in a trilogy. Even though the next book follows lovely James to faraway Scotland, I hope we hear a lot more about our friends in and around Vittoria Cottage.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

A Country Wedding and The Perfect Catch

A Reassessment

Withdrawal from my routine of watching then reviewing the new Hallmark (and occasionally other) Christmas movies led me to re-watch two old Hallmarks from 2015 and 2017. These are ones that I have rated but never reviewed. A Country Wedding, I originally rated as a 7, and The Perfect Catch I rated as a 6. A Country Wedding is a favorite with Hallmarkies with glowing reviews on IMDb and is frequently included in “All-time Favorite, Best of” type lists. Also, it stars one of my favorites, Autumn Reeser.  I anticipated going up in my rating as is usual with movies that I originally rated long ago. With due respect for their recent first-rate efforts, I have sadly had to adjust my standards downwards for Hallmarks in the last few years. At the end, it remained a 7. The Perfect Catch stars a favorite duo:  Nikki Deloach and Andrew Walker. I bumped this one up to a 7 when I finished with it.

I was pretty disappointed in A Country Wedding given my expectations.  Autumn as the owner of a struggling horse rescue ranch was great of course, and Jesse Metcalfe as a country music star was a good match for her.  Also good was Laura Mennell in a ropy blond wig as Jesse’s movie star fiance as was Lauren Holly as her henchwoman/manager. Jesse leaves  Lauren in Hollywood while he cuts ties with his past by finally selling his dead family’s old farm. While there in the country he gets re-acquainted with his old childhood best friend and next-door neighbor, played by Autumn.

There were two main reasons why this one did not impress me as much as I thought it would. First, the southern accents were way over the top and really got on my nerves. Related is the SOP of stereotyping southern small-town people. More importantly, were the characters of the two leads. Autumn was smart and strong. Jesse was dumb and weak. What was he doing engaged to that shallow self-centered Hollywood thing to begin with?  But worse, he persists in stubbornly deceiving himself that he lu-u-u-vs her and continues planning the wedding in the face of huge red flags, not to mention his growing love for Autumn. She is helping him plan the wedding as he had the fine idea to get married there in a barn instead of in Hollywood. When he kisses her in front of everyone on a crowded dance floor, Autumn wisely realizes she is getting in over her head with an engaged man and backs off. Jesse won’t let her alone and follows her around like a puppy dog. He doesn’t get it. Since he won’t take the hint, Autumn is forced to lay it all on the table with no kidding around, even telling him that he does not love his fiance because he doesn’t even know her.  This straightforward honesty is rare in a Hallmark. But instead of seeing the light, he ignores the good advice and ends up apologizing for the kiss explaining that he just got “lost in the moment” and was carried away. It takes the spectacular arrival of his fiance and a lot more hits with the clue stick before he finally finally finally wises up. Autumn takes him back at the end, the fact that he bought her ranch (without knowing it!) having nothing to do with it, of course.

A Perfect Catch met my expectations of impressing me more now than it did originally. It deserved to be bumped up a notch. First of all the easy rapport between Nikki Deloach and Andrew Walker was very enjoyable as usual. Andrew plays a star pitcher who hasn’t been able to find a new team after giving up a grand slam in the World Series. He returns to his hometown and his Mom and Dad to lay low while waiting on his agent to bring him some good news. He meets his old girlfriend, Nikki, who owns a struggling diner in town. She is a divorced single mother of a son who loves baseball but is awful at it.  While he coaches her son he starts to feel more and more at home in the small town and with Nikki. Meanwhile, he repairs the strained relationship with his Dad and encourages Nikki in her brave idea for boosting the diner’s profile and sales. Even though she is in debt and against the advice of her stick-in-the-mud risk-averse accountant boyfriend, she buys a food truck. Her standing her ground against her boyfriend and giving him the heave-ho in a timely and decisive manner is definitely cheer-worthy. And the food truck is a massive success! Yay! Andrew retires from pitching but gets a great position in  MLB that allows him to stay with Nikki and her son! Yay! Plus he will coach at the local school! Yay! And the kid hits a home run! Yay! Totally predictable but very satisfying with an especially neatly resolved and very happy ending for everyone involved. And a special shout out to Lisa Durupt, Hallmark sister/supportive friend/ second fiddle extraordinaire who gives another cute and charming performance. Also liked Andrew’s haircut. He should go back to that floppy-hair look.

Rating: 7 out of 10.

The House Across the Lake

By Riley Sager

Wow, this one sure took a turn. I thought it was one kind of book, and then it turned into another!

It is a dual-timeline story. In the “Before”, We meet Casey who is staying by herself in her family cottage on Lake Greene in Vermont. She is a well-known stage actress, who is recovering from the tragic drowning death of her beloved husband, a successful screenwriter, which took place at the same lake. She was fired from her last gig because of her drunken behavior and the ensuing bad press. She had been in despair since her husband died and has continued with her heavy drinking. The lake is very secluded, and her only neighbors are few. There is the newcomer Boone, an ex-cop and recovering alcoholic whose own wife died a while back. Directly across the lake are the Royces, who live in a modern house with lots of windows. He is a successful tech entrepreneur and she is a famous model. Next door to them is 70-year-old Eli, a longtime resident and family friend. He is the one who keeps her in alcohol (why?). Casey spends her days on her deck with a pair of binoculars surveying the lake, watching the doings of the Royces across the water, and drinking to excess. She really likes Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window. One day, she sees someone struggling in the water, rows out, and ends up saving Katherine Royce’s life. They become friendly. The more she gets to know Katherine and the more she guiltily continues to spy on them with her binoculars, the more concerned she gets for her friend’s well-being. Then one day, Katherine disappears. Meanwhile, she has gotten to know Boone, who has reason to have the same concerns about Katherine’s welfare. They team up together to investigate and hopefully find Katherine, or at least find out what happened to her.

Interspersed are the “Now” sections, in which it becomes clear that Casey has someone secretly imprisoned and tied down in one of her upstairs bedrooms and is trying to force them into revealing what became of her friend. Sometime between “Before” and “Now”, the police have become involved.

Right about in the middle of this book, I thought I had the twist figured out. Since I was so smart, my sense of urgency to turn the pages faded a bit. It was still a very well-written book, and there were still other mysteries to uncover, so I continued with it happily. I was invested in the fates of Katherine and Casey, despite Casey’s constant drunkenness, which got on my nerves. I feel there were way too many references to her struggles with alcohol. Especially when Katherine’s fate, if she wasn’t already dead, may have depended on Casey’s ability to think and function. She was consuming so much booze that I honestly didn’t see how she could get out of bed every day. She was so committed to helping Katherine (if it wasn’t too late,) that her prioritizing drinking over even trying to remain lucid didn’t make sense and was frustrating. I felt this aspect of Casey really wasn’t even necessary and has become a cliche for the genre, so it brought the book down a bit for me.

I had one small sliver of the twist correct, but nothing could have prepared me for the full truth of what was going on with the Royces, and unnamed others. After the first twist, the shocks continue to come thick and fast. Some were so incredible, that I had to look back and review to make sure the author had played fair and didn’t lie to us. But he did play fair. I could see no plot holes. I did have a few questions at the end, but the author did a great job of tying everything together. So great that I was willing to ignore some aspects.

This book is a wild ride, and part of Sager’s talent is getting the reader, me anyway, to be willing to jump on the crazy train and hang on.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

The Dog Lover’s Guide to Dating

Bad Doggy!

Based on the lively previews, I was looking forward to this first Hallmark offering of 2023. I’m sorry to say that it was very disappointing. Especially considering the sometimes stellar parade of Christmas movies. The first scene with a dog getting away from Corey Sevier and creating havoc among picnickers in a park was entertaining and amusing, but it went downhill from there. Plot and character-wise, it ended up dull and mediocre throughout, although the script had some semi-clever lines, occasionally.

Corey Sevier plays an advertising guy who is trying to get together with a beautiful model turned designer, We know she is meant to be shallow and “not worthy”  by her valley girl inflections and vocal fry. Her dog is a hindrance to the insipient romance as he is badly behaved and doesn’t like Corey. After Corey is rescued by our dog-trainer heroine from the ruckus in the park, he hires her to train the dog or help him train the dog, or train him to handle the dog, or something.

I didn’t like her. Her character has been stunted by her father’s abandonment of her and her sister when they were young girls. She refuses to be open to a relationship with a human man because of course she expects every man to be unreliable and to abandon her as her father did. Instead, she showers all her love on her dog while still acting flirty with the two main men. Dogs are famously loyal and reliable, as we are reminded throughout. We know this girl needs therapy when in the first scene we see her fixing an elaborate breakfast complete with a cheese omelet, bacon, hashbrowns, fresh sliced tomatoes, and garnished with parsley. For her dog. Meanwhile, she eats a power bar. I guess this was supposed to be cute and endearing but to me, it just came across as silly, stupid, and very unhealthy for her pet. This wasn’t just a treat. This is every morning. And from someone who either should have known better or just doesn’t care. Despite her likable and sensible sister’s advice and counseling, she remains stuck throughout the whole movie, causing her to be very annoying. There was no growth. She just finally listens to her sister and changes her mind at the end. The actress was a fresh face and had talent. She even kind of had a Julia Roberts thing going on with her hair down. It wasn’t her fault.

Besides my dislike of the heroine, I found Corey Sevier’s performance in this one a little off as well. Can’t quite put my finger on it, I have liked him in the past and he did have a couple of good scenes in this. I found the vet who was his rival for the dog trainer’s affections a little creepy and vaguely sinister. The subplot of “save the dog shelter” is the excuse for Corey and dog girl to spend time together. It also serves to keep the rivals for the couple’s affections in the picture. Presumably amping up the tension and suspense. What a laugh. The scheme they came up with was unbelievable and contrived. He is putting his talents to work by throwing an exclusive gala and silent auction to scrape up the money for the shelter’s owner to buy the building which is being sold out from under her. They didn’t even try to make any aspect of this scheme even vaguely credible. So unlikable and uninteresting characters, a silly plot, not enough humor, and irresponsible pet ownership. Not good.

Rating: 4 out of 10.

The Talking Snowman (Judy Bolton #3.5)

By Margaret Sutton and Linda Joy Singleton

The Talking Snowman by Linda Joy Singleton is an addition to the Judy Bolton canon based on an unfinished manuscript by Margaret Sutton. It was completed as a gift to the Judy Bolton author, who included some revisions when she was sent the first manuscript draft. Chronologically, It takes place at Christmas time between the third book and the fourth, so it is book number 3.5.

Judy is mystified when her snowman that she just built along with Honey and Peter Dobbs says hello to her father and tips his hat as he comes up the sidewalk. Later, the snowman repeats his unusual talent to Judy and Horace by telling them to go to the clothespin factory. There are no footprints in the snow to indicate someone is hiding behind the snowman. It is a good little problem. I know I was baffled. If it was a hidden walkie-talkie, how did he tip his hat? Meanwhile, there is some trouble brewing in town between two rival gangs, one from the blue-collar Industrial High, and the other from the more well-off and privileged Boy’s High School. It started off as a snowball fight, but things start getting really serious when rocks start to get thrown as well as snowballs. Benny, one of the Industrial High boys and a friend of Judy’s high-strung friend Irene, is arrested. When Judy’s mother is found knocked unconscious in a ditch and ends up in the hospital, it gets personal for Judy.

By the end of the book, the talking snowman is credibly explained, and the two groups of boys make friends when the truth comes out about who was responsible for the rocks and the feud getting started to begin with.

There was a lot to like in this. I liked the real hometown mystery rather than the FBI stuff of the later Judy Boltons. The local problem of rich boys and poor boys not getting along escalating to an actual riot was true to life and high stakes. The resolution made sense and was even exciting. Judy was smart and did some real detective work.

Part of the story concerning Mrs. Bolton had a lot to say about children taking their mothers for granted and even feeling a sense of ownership of them. A couple of times in the story Judy gets upset and concerned when she thinks her mother is hiding something from her or appears somewhere where she didn’t expect to see her. As if her mother didn’t have a right to be her own person. At one point, Mrs. Bolton flat-out tells her to mind her own business. It is only when Mrs. Bolton accuses her of treating her like a criminal that Judy realizes how out of line she is.

Many of Judy’s friends put in an appearance and their personalities and characteristics are on point. It nicely foreshadows her relationship with Peter. I found this just as good as the best of the Margaret Sutton-authored Judys.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Together, Again

by Milly Johnson

In a way, this book returns us to Milly’s often-used foundation of three women whose lives intertwine and whose relationship supports one or more of them escaping from a desperate situation and the others finding happiness and fulfillment.

Three sisters born seven years apart meet at their family home upon the death of Eleanor, their mother. And I use that “mother” term loosely. Maybe I should instead say “the woman who gave birth to them.” The two older sisters (around 38 and 45)have only seen each other sporadically and perfunctorily. Neither has seen or heard from the youngest (31) for 15 years since she ran away at age 16. They hardly know each other and aren’t particularly fond of what they do know. Jolene, the oldest, is married to a very bad man and is very unhappy in her marriage. She is also a very successful romance novelist who seems to write the same type of books Milly herself does. Also, they are both on their 20th book. And I hope that’s all their lives have in common, but I suspect not.

Later, in bed, Annis didn’t go to sleep immediately but sat up reading one of Jolene’s books, the only one she hadn’t read. It was about a well-to-do woman who left an abusive husband and had to build up her life from scratch. Jolene wrote a lot about women in need of a renaissance and she wrote about them too well. Annis had met women like them in her own life, so she could sense the ring of truth in her stories and her characters.

Marsha is the owner of a thriving company and is very well-off. She is single and has never had a successful long-term relationship thanks to having unresolved issues from her girlhood platonic affair with the family priest. (It is funny that she apparently once went on a blind date with the same crazy loser that Juliet in An Autumn Crush did!-I love these little threads to her other books Milly always includes.) Annis is something of a mystery, except we know she has had a very rough life. At first homeless, hungry, and going from pillar to post, for the last 7 years she has at least been relatively safe and befriended by a somewhat mysterious group of women who work at a cocktail bar and maybe something else. She is very wise, thanks to her experiences, and is the catalyst for Jolene and Marsha to find their paths forward.

There are a lot of mysteries and questions that run through this book. Why did Annis run away at 16? Why did her parents apparently not try to find her? Why, even when most desperate, did she not ever try to make contact with her family? Especially her sisters? Why does Jolene stay with such a vile man? Exactly how vile is he? Why did Eleanor leave the bulk of her fortune to Annis of all people? What’s with Sally and her extreme reaction to reading “the letter” Eleanor entrusted her to deliver after her death? Eleanor’s letter is revealed bit by bit to the reader throughout the book. The answer to the first question is telegraphed pretty clearly before it is spelled out, others are revealed at various points, and some come only at the end.

Most of the questions and drama involve Annis and Jolene. The three sisters forge strong loving bonds with each other as the book progresses, and each of their lives and challenges are explored. Two of the three sisters are in hopeful romantic relationships by the end of the book. And the other finds freedom. So yes, it has much in common with many of Milly’s books, but it does forge some new ground. It has plenty of funny observations and commentary, but not as much comedy as many of her earlier books. A lot of comedy would be out of place in this one. It deals with some serious and disturbing issues and people. Usually, Milly’s villains are despicable human beings, but they fall short of being mentally ill. In this one, we have 3 really sick people and one that comes pretty darn close. I admire Milly for bravely breaking new ground and forging new paths with each novel, especially lately. But I also love that she is keeping true to many of the aspects that I love and that really work. It’s probably one of her best books, but it’s not a personal favorite. **Spoiler**

I wasn’t too enthralled with either romance. I just could not understand Jolene’s choices even given her childhood. It is certainly not the first time Milly has had a “wet lettuce” as one of her main characters, this one seemed to be less understandable. I felt that the reveal of her husband’s perfidy was a little handy. I would have preferred for her to break free without needing that extra impetus. Sally’s enlightenment seemed to come out of nowhere. I do miss the comedy and although the ending was satisfying, I didn’t find myself wanting to cheer.**End spoiler** 

 Oh well. No book is perfect, and my bar has probably become too high for Milly. I guess that’s on me.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

The Hidden Clue (Judy Bolton #35)

“Dad’s right,” Judy’s brother Horace put in. “Don’t you remember the Prophet’s words to the woman with the baby?” He said, “Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life’s Longing for itself. “They come–

“You and your quotations!” Judy interrupted before her brother could finish. “I suppose you’re going to tell me they come trailing clouds of glory.

“No, that’s Wordsworth.

This is # 35 of the original 38-book Judy Bolton series and things are winding down. The Hidden Clue piggybacks on the former book, The Puzzle in the Pond in which Judy, Peter, and the rest of the community take in orphans displaced due to a fire at an orphanage. In Judy’s temporary care at Dry Brook Hollow are 4 or 5-year-old “Sister” and her baby brother. No one knows their names or history because they were just dumped on the orphanage’s doorstep one day.  When anyone tries to question Sister, she is very vague and her answers don’t make sense. One day, Judy buys a doll for her but leaves it at the toy store which used to be a drugstore. When she goes back to get it, it has turned back into a drugstore again and all of the dolls she saw in the window are gone. The clerk denies everything and acts suspiciously. While in town, she takes Sister to the Library where Maud Wheatley who we met a while back in a former book is the librarian. Sister runs to her thinking, for some reason, that Maud is her real mother. Maud does not handle it well and ends up lying to the child, agreeing that she is her mother (when she is not).

As things unfold, Sister lets some things slip about her past, Including that she once had a “Winnie” doll, a not-too-nice woman called ‘Auntie Grumble” who was supposed to take care of her, a chess board, a group of men in a truck, and her old house burning down. Unfortunately, Judy does not know which of these disclosures to take seriously.  She writes all these clues down, and from there Peter and the FBI get involved. Peter and Judy pursue the clues to Chicago where the mystery is solved and Sister and the baby happily end up with a family.

This is not a favorite, but It is certainly far from the worst in the series. I love that it is mentioned that Judy and Peter go to visit Roberta. A lot of things did not make sense, some situations are very hard to swallow, and Judy is kind of obtuse about some things. And a little whiny. The biggest reason for not being too fond of this one is that Sister got on my nerves, and I didn’t like the way Maud behaved around her. She came across in a negative way that I don’t think was intended by the author. But maybe it was. It’s true that Margaret Sutton’s characters are multilayered and many are neither all good nor all bad. What surprised me, in this book about orphans and “real parents” versus adopted parents was Judy’s insensitivity to Peter’s being an orphan until he was adopted by his grandparents. And her friend and sister Honey’s very troubled background before being adopted. In her zeal and focus on finding Sister’s “real parents” it’s like she forgot her own family’s history. She remains oblivious even with Dr. Bolton’s disapproval and broad hints to check herself. The clue-stick finally makes contact in the end. In addition, the big case of transporting stolen baby dolls across state lines was underwhelming. Couldn’t we at least have had them stuffed with drugs or firearms?

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Merry and Bright

Candy Canes Incorporated

I came upon this older Hallmark Christmas movie by chance a couple of minutes in and up popped Andrew Walker and in walked Jodie Sweetin. I looked it up and not only had I not reviewed this, I had not even seen it. Since I am not reviewing GAC or GAF or whatever they are calling themselves these days anymore, I had caught up with all the movies I had on my DVR.  As I have mentioned, while Jodie has not always been a favorite, she has grown on me in the last 2 years. Her acting and looks always give a down-to-earth relatable aspect to the characters she plays. And she has a killer smile. Andrew is always good, and with the right partner, he can be great. I came in at the “meet cute”. Jodie’s mother (the talented and award-winning Sharon Lawrence) is always trying to fix her up, and Jodie thinks Andrew is a prospective date sent by her mother rather than an important business associate. The misunderstanding results in some pretty amusing back and forth.

Jodie has taken over her grandmother’s candy cane business after her death. It is the family legacy and it is struggling. How successful can a business be with a product you can only sell for 4 or 5 months a year? She knows what she is doing as she has an MBA and gave up a good career in California to take over. The investors or the board of Merry and Bright, the name of the company, have called in a consultant (Andrew Walker) to figure out how to generate more profit for the business. He is Christmas and small-town averse and doesn’t want to be there as much as Jodie doesn’t want him there. They butt heads as Jodie wants to do things her way. This could have been a lot more frustrating than it was, but luckily Jodie is a smart businesswoman and already knows they have to expand their product line.

As Andrew and Jodie work together they soon begin to like and respect each other. Can romance be far behind? That was a rhetorical question. Meanwhile, Sharon has a nice, funny, but heartwarming storyline. I can see why she took this part. She is not a dog person, but a dog at a shelter has caught Jodie’s eye, and Mom reluctantly adopts it for Jodie a week before Christmas as a surprise. Her antics in trying to hide it but not having the heart to leave it alone in the house is cute and sweet. Adorable dogs always elevate a Hallmark movie or any movie, for that matter. Unless the dog is in danger. The final solution to the business problem is clever and sensible. And Jodie lets her Mom keep the dog when she sees how attached they have grown to each other.

This perfectly enjoyable story is capped off by a nice epilogue where we see the renewed success of the business and Andrew getting down on one knee to propose marriage. That is an increasingly rare conclusion to the romance end of these shows these days, and it was refreshing.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.