Ornamental Graces, by Carolyn Astfalk

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 If you enjoy emotional rollercoasters,Ornamental Graces by Carolyn Astfalk is your book.

Among the author’s many gifts is her ability to conjure up fictional characters in many shades of human decency. Imagine, if you will, Dan Malone. He has let himself go; his business teeters on the brink of failure, and he has lost Kristen, his girlfriend. He struggles to prop up his sinking prospects but hasn’t exactly gotten his act together.

The voluptuous Kristen is a masterwork: pampered, pouty, petulant, a manipulative genius–one of Astfalk’s most impressive creations. Although Kristen and Dan have broken up, she still haunts his existence.

The novel opens with Dan sitting in a freezing shack surrounded by Christmas trees. While his landscaping business hibernates, Dan is selling the trees to make ends meet. Enter the pretty, perky, and pure Emily Kowalski—the polar opposite of Kristen. Dan is attracted but feels that he’d never be good enough for her. Nevertheless, Emily gives him a chance.

Dan’s incredible blunders push their relationship to the breaking point and beyond.  Although his clumsiness damages his chance with Emily, Kristen deliberately interferes, so she embarrasses Dan and demeans Emily. There’s also a stalker—not merely a nuisance, but an actual threat to Emily, Dan and any chance they may have as a couple.

On the positive side, Dan’s grandmother and her cooking comfort him, especially whenever he blows another chance with Emily. Grandma is a cross between a matchmaker and Dan’s guardian angel.  Emily’s brother, sister-in-law, and their kids also raise the general level of stability and hopefulness. Beneath the surface of each example of human solace is the fact that Dan, Emily, and their families connect through the power of their shared religious faith. They have to believe in miracles because there’s no way they would make it without God’s blessings and guidance.

Ornamental Graces is a wonderful Christmas and year-round romance that keeps the reader engaged from beginning to end.

Other romances by Carolyn Astfalk—again with fascinating characters and engaging plots—include Stay With Me (2015) and Rightfully Ours, scheduled for publication in April of 2017.

Carolyn Astfalk and I belong to the Catholic Writers Guild Fiction Critique Group. As one of her critique partners, I received a copy of each chapter as she wrote Ornamental Graces, Stay With Me and Rightfully Ours.

Christmas Grace, by Leslie Lynch

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Leslie Lynch breaks new ground in her second Christmas novella. Although she invites us to spend Christmas on the other side of Louisville, Kentucky, she warns us to steer clear of Gertie, Ella and Natalie—three generations of brokenhearted women who dread the holidays.

Recently widowed, awash in grief, and stumbling through the shambles of her life, Gertie, 74, gathers more grief than consolation from her daughter. She avoids the domineering Ella, 50, during the holidays.

Mason, Ella’s husband, bemoans the fortunes of his slumping law firm. He sees Ella more as a convenience than a consort. He expects her to drop her own plans to exhibit her ceramic creations in order to arrange the “traditional,” client-wooing Christmas gala.

Pregnant with Ella’s and Mason’s grandchild, Natalie, twenty-something, plans to ignore the holidays. They remind her of her husband, Connor, deployed to a war zone. She tells her mother, “I’m sorry, I won’t be able to help you…No Christmas for me…. I’ve just turned into a Grinch.” She cherishes her moments on Skype when she can almost touch Connor through her laptop screen.

Gertie proves the most imaginative, if reckless, in mending her broken heart, plunging into an extreme makeover, planning a sky-dive, and taking up with a guy on a turquoise motorcycle, she sparkles as she weaves and crashes through the story line.

The bulk of the novella measures the accumulated weight as each family emergency presses against Ella’s shoulders and forces her resentment to bubble to the surface. Obsessed with his declining client base, Mason ignores Ella’s plight. While squeezing the “Merry” out of “Christmas,” he snuffs out the embers of Ella’s love for him. He not only stifles his family-life but the flexibility essential for his company’s survival. Much to his dismay, Ella decides to dig in her heels.

Can Leslie Lynch, the award-winning romance author, snatch these harried “chestnuts roasting on an open fire,” before they go up in smoke? There’s no easy fix. Those who anticipate their own hectic holiday appreciate the pain of apparently insoluble family situations. Christmas Grace offers them hope, adjusts their frame of mind, and revives the meaning of the words Christmas, family and holiday.