Tag Archives: Holiday

Home, Sweet Home: A Review of Christmas at Crownthorn Manor

Christmas at Crowthorn Manor - a Yuletide Ghost Story by Chris McGurk book cover. Image on cover shows a black and white photo of snow falling heavily on a cottage in the woods. There is a white car parked in front of the cottage.Title: Christmas at Crownthorn Manor – A Yuletide Ghost Story

Author: Chris McGurk

Publisher: Self-Published

Publication Date: December 19, 2019

Genres: Young Adult, Holiday, Paranormal, Contemporary

Length: 27 pages

Source: I received a free copy from the author.

Rating: 3 Stars

Blurb:

Three brothers travelling home for Christmas become waylaid in a fierce snowstorm. Pulling up at an old manor house, they think they are in luck when the owners let them stay the night. But all is not as it seems at Crowthorn Manor on Christmas Eve… Reviving the much-loved tradition of the Christmas ghost story, Christmas at Crowthorn Manor will send shivers down your spine on your journey back home.

Review:

Content Warning: 1918 influenza pandemic, grief, death of children, World War I, prejudice, and suicide. I will mention the 1918 flu and Covid-19 in my review.

Christmas is supposed to be a happy time spent with loved ones. What happens to a Christmas that doesn’t meet these goals?

The 1918 flu is something I’ve been interested in since I was a kid, so I’m always happy to see it pop up in fiction. After the current pandemic began, I understood better why previous generations were often so reticent to discuss such things even years later. It can be painful to remember tragic stories about death, disability, grief, and suffering, and yet I think there’s something to be said for commemorating these topics in fiction when it’s appropriate to do so. Remembering the past is a way to honour the dead and to hopefully guide the decisions we make today to help everyone’s futures be healthier ones. The author sensitively included the societal, emotional, and medical effects of the 1918 flu here. They had excellent reasons for doing so that other readers should discover for themselves. These were some of my favorite passages in this short story, and I would have happily read more of them.

I did find myself wishing that more attention had been paid to how and when the author used the tropes of this genre. Anyone who is familiar with tales about characters who get lost on a snowy night and find themselves seeking shelter at a mysterious, old mansion will be able to figure out just about everything that is to come by the time they finish the first page. Yes, I know this was written for teenagers, but even with that taken into consideration I thought another round of editing would have made a difference. Tropes are good – or at least neutral – things in and of themselves, but they were utilized so heavily here that it negatively affected things like the character and plot development. I so badly wanted to give this a higher rating, and yet the predictability of it all was too much for me to do so.

With that being said, I loved the way the author incorporated modern technology and tools like cell phones, the Internet, and Google Maps into the storyline. It’s trickier for characters to get lost in believable ways these days due to all of the navigation and communication options we have in our phones when a road doesn’t lead to the place we thought it should, but these problems were all solved in logical ways here that worked well with the storyline and with what we already knew about the personalities of the main characters. This is something I always enjoy finding in fiction, and it has encouraged me to keep an eye out for what this author may write in the future.

Christmas at Crownthorn Manor – A Yuletide Ghost Story was a quick and spooky read.

 

Better Days to Come: A Review of The Merry Christmas Ghost

The Merry Christmas Ghost - a Happy Holidays Horror Story by Dennis Warren book cover. Image on cover shows a closeup of a Christmas tree covered in tinsel and various Christmas ornaments. Title: The Merry Christmas Ghost

Author: Dennis Warren

Publisher: Self-Published

Publication Date: December 22, 2019

Genres: Horror, Paranormal, Holiday

Length: 10 pages

Source: I received a free copy from the author.

Rating: 3 Stars

Blurb:

A haunted apartment. A very lonely woman. A violent criminal. All three have one thing in common: The Merry Christmas Ghost! Get into the Christmas spirit with this haunting tale of holiday cheer!

Review:

Content Warning: robbery, assault, battery, and loneliness.

Even horror can be wholesome during the Christmas season.

The holidays can be difficult for all sorts of different reasons, so I wasn’t surprised to see things begin on such a dour note. The protagonist had recently found permanent housing after being homeless, but it wasn’t a particularly safe or welcoming place for a single, vulnerable woman to live in. She had no money, friends, family, or hope for a cheerful Christmas. These details alone were enough for me to wish that her luck would turn around very soon, especially once she began showing the audience glimpses of her kind and gentle personality. I think it’s important to take note of why some people struggle even more than usual during the holiday season, and Mr. Warren certainly accomplished that with this character.

This story would have benefited from including more details in it. For example, I would have loved to know the main character’s name and more details about why she’d been homeless before she moved into her shabby apartment. Sharing information like this would have also made it easier on me when the narrators were switched as all of the pronouns that weren’t attached to specific names were confusing at times. With another round of editing and more clarification, I would have happily added at least another star to my final rating.

I loved the messages this tale had to share about the importance of families of all shapes and sizes and of remaining hopeful no matter what one’s circumstances may be. This family was no doubt a little unusual, but the love that shone through it made me smile. These aren’t themes one typically finds in the horror genre, so it was refreshing to be surprised by them here. It’s always nice to see an author take risks with what they write about, especially when they seem to understand why they’re doing so and how it will affect their characters. Good job to the author for doing just that. I look forward to reading more from him in the future.

The Merry Christmas Ghost was a creative take on holiday horror.

 

Looking Back, Moving Forward: A Review of Ghost Stories for Christmas

Ghost Stories for Christmas by Shane Brown Book cover. image on cover shows a painting of a small, rural community in the 1800s. There is a thick layer of snow on the dirt road with two brown tracks through it. A church and some houses in the distance are snow-covered, too, and people are walking on the snowy sidewalk all bundled up as well. Title: Ghost Stories for Christmas

Author: Shane Brown

Publisher: Self-Published

Publication Date: December 3, 2021

Genres: Paranormal, Holiday, Historical, Contemporary

Length: 105 pages

Source: I received a free copy from the author.

Rating: 4 Stars

Blurb:

Five ghost stories set during the Christmas period to add an extra chill to the festive season! In “Houses Never Forget,” a man returns to the village he grew up in, only to find that a house hasn’t forgiven him for something he did as a boy. “The Philatelist” tells the story of two brothers, one good and one bad – but even the good might want revenge from beyond the grave. “Breaking Up is Hard to Do” is the tale of a man who is forced to repeat a tragic evening from his student days every year, but what happens when he tries to break the cycle? A university professor rents a remote cottage on the grounds of a former school in order to write up his research in “The Stranger in the Snow,” but, when the snow falls, he finds he’s not alone. Finally, “The Gift” is the heart-warming tale of an old man who is given an unusual gift by a department store Father Christmas. From the author of “The Pied Piper,” “The School Bell,” and “The Successor.” 

Review:

Content Warning: arson, death of parents, hypothermia, possession, grief, widowerhood, infertility, homophobia, mental illness, someone getting beat up, car accident, murder, and references to the Covid-19 pandemic. One minor character died of Covid-19 before the tale they were in began. I will not discuss these topics in my review.

Christmas is the perfect time to reflect on the past for the living and the dead alike.

Here’s an interesting tidbit of information for you as I get this review started: all of these stories are set in the same village, Brandley. Keep that in mind as you read them.

The unnamed protagonist in “Houses Never Forget” was someone who rarely thought about his rash childhood decision that that angered the house in his village so much. I can’t go into a lot of detail about what he did without giving away spoilers, but I thought this was an intelligent sketch of a character who would be easy to villanize but whose decision was also one that many other folks make every single day without realizing just how corrosive small town gossip can be.

Joshua, the bad son in ”The Philatelist,” was a violent troublemaker who never showed signs of empathy for anyone. I was intrigued by how the adults around him reacted to him when he destroyed property and physically harmed others. He was the sort of person I’d never want to cross paths with, and yet I couldn’t help but to wonder what had made him behave the way he did and why he enjoyed bullying his younger brother so much. It would have been helpful if the narrator had explained the origins of his behaviour because of how erratic and violent he was, but I also recognize that there are people like him walking around in real life whose decisions are just as difficult to understand. The plot of this one was straightforward, so I was glad to have some character development to ponder while I read.

After the heaviness of the previous story, “Breaking Up Is Hard to Do” was a nice change of pace. I think we all probably have at least one thing in our pasts we wish we could go back and change. When that isn’t possible and there’s a ghost involved who insists on repeating the same evening over again on the anniversary of her death every December, what’s the next best option? Other readers should discover the answer to that question for themselves, but I thought this was a thought-provoking look at the unhelpful patterns people can find themselves in when they’re unwilling to face their pasts. If only the narrator had dove more deeply into the topic. There seemed even more that could have been said about it, and I would have gone for a full five-star rating if a few minor things like this had been adjusted in this collection.  The final scene made me wish for a sequel, too, given all of the hints in it about what was about to happen to the main character next.

Everyone needs peace and quiet sometimes. Paul thought he’d found it in “The Stranger in the Snow” until the snowstorm hit. His compassionate response to the visitor who appeared after it had been snowing for a while told me everything I needed to know about him. I enjoyed seeing how they interacted and quietly waited for an explanation of why someone would be out in a snowstorm alone without enough layers to keep them warm. The ending, too, was my favourite of all of the endings in this collection. I held my breath as it was announced and wished I could dive back into the opening scene to warn Paul about what was to come.

”The Gift“ had such a cynical beginning that I honesty wasn’t sure what to think of that protagonist. Was Arnold this grumpy about everything, or was it only Christmas that he thought had been irrevocably ruined? Luckily, I didn’t have to wait long to get my answer, and when it arrived it softened my opinion of him immediately.  One never knows what others are quietly struggling with, and I wiped away a few tears as Arnold slowly shared more of his past with the audience. This was such a beautiful and heartwarming way to close off this collection.

Ghost Stories for Christmas made me smile.

A Review of Vespasian Moon’s Fabulous Autumn Carnival

Vespasian Moon’s Fabulous Autumn Carnival - A Long Short Story by Berthold Gambrel book cover. Image on cover is a drawing of a large yellow full moon with a black bat flying near the top of it in the sky. There are two jack o lanterns at the bottom of the cover near the title. Title: Vespasian Moon’s Fabulous Autumn Carnival – A Long Short Story

Author: Berthold Gambrel

Publisher: Self-Published

Publication Date: October 18, 2019

Genres: Paranormal, Mystery, Romance, Holiday, Humour

Length: 54 pages

Source: I received a free copy from the author.

Rating: 5 Stars

Blurb:

Federal Agent Jane Raczyck is tired of her job. So is Sheriff Sixtus Davis, the head law enforcement officer in the town of Turpin’s Gulch. But when Raczyck’s agency sends her to work with Davis on combating the drug epidemic in the small Appalachian hamlet, the two are compelled to investigate the local carnival and its mysterious impresario… even though they’d much rather be doing other things together.

Review:

Content Warning: References to drug abuse, multi-generational poverty, and some of the negative consequences of living in an insular community like prejudice against and a deep distrust of outsiders. I won’t discuss these subjects in my review, and they were a minor part of an otherwise pretty lighthearted plot.

Small towns are supposed to be sleepy, peaceful little places where nothing weird ever happens….right?

The main characters were a hoot. Neither of them seemed all that emotionally invested in carrying out the roles in society that they were supposed to be fulfilling. Even when Jane behaved like a federal agent and Davis took his job as head law enforcement officer in Turpin’s Gulch seriously, there was still always an faint undercurrent of restlessness and snark in their personalities that always made me wonder how they’d break the unwritten rules of how they were supposed to act next based on their occupations and gender identities. This was exactly what the setting needed in order to thrive, and it made me wish I’d ignored my overflowing to be read list and jumped ahead to this tale when it first came out.

I loved seeing how the narrator broke the fourth wall and spoke directly to the audience when necessary. For example, this was how Jane was described: “Now, because standards of beauty vary greatly, let me simply say that she had whatever you consider to be the most attractive hair color and style, atop whatever you think is the ideal face shape, with skin colored in the precise shade of pigment you like the best,” and it made me laugh out loud when I read it. Of course the audience’s preconceptions and tastes matter when describing a beautiful woman, and it tickled my funny bone to see that addressed so openly.  Do keep an eye out for other unexpected moments like this while reading because i can’t possibly list them all in this review.

The paranormal elements of the plot were beautifully understated. Many of these scenes that included them could be explained away with rational alternatives to what some characters assumed was happening there. I love ambigious stuff like that, especially when it’s followed up with scenes that gently nudge the reader in the particular direction the author wants you go while still leaving room for other interpretations for those who wish to hang onto their own ideas about the origins of previous spooky moments. Yes, I’m being vague in this paragraph on purpose. If you want to know more, you’ll have to read this book!

While no prior knowledge of Appalachian culture is required to understand the storyline, readers who are from that culture or who have knowledge of it in other ways will find some gems here. I nodded and chuckled as I read certain passages because of how much they reminded me of certain people I knew when I was a kid or of cultural references that I rarely see mentioned in fiction.

Vespasian Moon’s Fabulous Autumn Carnival was everything I was hoping it would be and more.

No Space of Regret: A Review of A Covid Christmas Carol

Book cover for A Covid Christmas Carol by Evan Sykes. image on cover shows a Christmas tree wearing a mask and some googly eyes. Title: A Covid Christmas Carol

Author: Evan Sykes

Publisher: Junco Books (Self-Published)

Publication Date: December 19, 2020

Genres: Fantasy, Holiday, Paranormal, Retelling, Contemporary

Length: 88 pages

Source: I received a free copy from the author.

Rating: 5 Stars

Blurb:

 

The 2020 Holiday Season might have been cancelled by this year’s super-villain, Covid-19, but fear not! Good cheer is at hand in this hilarious, satirical retelling of one of the season’s most loved stories: A Covid Christmas Carol.

Mr. Anatole Gasper and Dickens’ Scrooge have a lot in common: Both their business partners are dead; both are curmudgeonly, solitary and mean; and both get their wake-up call in a series of wild, haunted dreams on Christmas Eve. For Gasper—as the year is 2020—these dreams include a huge, orange, Covid-spreading turkey that tweets, a doddering phantom riding a decrepit blue donkey without direction, and Santa, of course, whose red-nosed reindeers for once shed an unwelcome light over the festivities.

There’s nothing more heartening than seeing a dyed-in-the-wool grouch change into a merry, old soul, and Gasper’s ghostly dreams promise to do just that.

So, while this Holiday Season might be like no other, spend an hour in the company of this modern Scrooge and let the festive cheer flow!

Review:

Content Warning: Heart attack and Covid-19.

Don’t let the cover of this book fool you. This is just as much a Thanksgiving tale as it is a Christmas one, and the lessons in it can be applied to many other winter holidays as well!

I appreciated the author’s light touch on the social messages he included in this tale. Mr. Dickens writing style worked well for the nineteenth century, but the modern approach to gently nudging readers in certain directions in this retelling was perfect for the twenty-first century. Mr. Sykes’ decision to write it this way was an excellent one. While this wasn’t my only reason for choosing a five-star rating, it certainly influenced it heavily.

It’s rare for me to come across speculative fiction stories that occur during Thanksgiving, so I was excited to read this one. Some of my favourite scenes were the ones that showed what Thanksgiving was like for Gasper when he was a child. They went a long way in explaining how and why he’d become such a greedy and socially isolated man as an adult. I simultaneously wanted to hug the person he was as a child and encourage his adult self to seek professional help for his often dysfunctional behaviour. The mixture of emotions he stirred up in me made me want to learn more about him, too. He was a complex and interesting character for sure.

I loved the way the author included Covid-19 in the storyline as well. While I can’t go into much detail about that without giving away spoilers, it felt perfectly natural. The foreshadowing for it was subtle and well done. It had a timeless feeling to it as well. This could have been set at nearly any time during the pandemic due to how carefully it was written, and I think it will also age nicely over the next few years at bare minimum, too.

The writing style was descriptive but never flowery. It gave me the exact right amount of details about the characters and settings. I could picture all of them clearly in my mind, but the formation of them never interrupted the fast-paced storyline. Once again, the author’s homage to Mr. Dickens style was undeniable, and his attempt to modernize such a familiar old tale couldn’t have been done any better. I was quite impressed by all of the work Mr. Sykes put into this and will be keeping an eye out for more of his stories in the future.

A Covid Christmas Carol was a thought-provoking read that is as relevant today as it was in 2020. I will end this review with a quote from both the original Christmas Carol as well as this retelling of it: “no space of regret can make amends for one life’s opportunity missed.”

Too Old for Santa: A Review of Christmas Presence

Title: Christmas Presence Author: Tony Bertauski Publisher: Self-Published Publication Date: October 31, 2019 Genres: Science Fiction, Fantasy, Young Adult, Holiday Length: 25 pages Source: I received a free copy from the author Rating: 3 Stars Blurb: Worst Christmas ever. Christmas was about traditions. Currently, Zay and her mom had about five traditions, things like gingerbread… Read More