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REVIEW:  Sleigh Bells in the Snow by Sarah Morgan

REVIEW: Sleigh Bells in the Snow by Sarah Morgan

Dear Sarah Morgan:

It’s no secret around here that I am a big fan of your work, and if there’s any complaint I’ve had with your categories it’s that sometimes they feel too short for the storylines you choose. So when I heard that you were writing a single-title, I was thrilled. I was also nervous, because following authors from one format or subgenre to another is not always a success for the faithful reader. I avoided advance information about the book, wanting to go into it without any expectations besides my previous reading experiences, so all I knew was that it was coming out in the fall and that it was a contemporary.

Sleigh Bells In the Snow Sarah MorganI was so out of the loop that I had to read the title to discover that it was a Christmas story, and when I opened the file and read the first page I was taken aback to see it was set in New York. Wait a minute. Not London? Not Scotland? But then I realized that Kayla, our heroine, is British, and I felt on slightly more familiar ground. I started reading and stopped once, when I had to turn off my electronic device or be removed from the plane. As soon as it was permitted, I started reading again and didn’t stop until I was finished. To give the punchline away at the beginning (for you end-peeking readers), it wasn’t what I was expecting, and I absolutely loved it. Sleigh Bells in the Snow is a holiday story for people who love that time of year, but it is also for people who don’t, and it’s a heroine-centric story, which is something I haven’t seen enough of lately.

The book opens in the offices of the PR firm where Kayla Green works. Everyone else is at the holiday party, but Kayla is hiding away and working furiously in an attempt to ignore the season, as she does every year. A child of divorce who has reduced contact with her family members to the barest minimum (by mutual consent), she derives her self-esteem and her sense of identity from her career, at which she has been very successful. And she enjoys her work a great deal; it’s only at this time of year that her workaholic schedule starts to slow down, because most of the world does manage to take Christmas to New Year’s off, or at least to slow down. When that happens, Kayla’s fallbacks are horror movies and popcorn.

This year, however, a major and unexpected account lands in her lap at just the right time. Jackson O’Neil has given up his lucrative, successful business to come home to Vermont, and he needs a first-rate PR consultant starting yesterday if he’s going to save his family’s 4th-generation holiday resort, Snow Crystal. Kayla leaps at the chance to work her way through the holidays; being on site in the middle of a forest means she’ll be away from the Christmas craziness, or so she thinks. Instead she finds herself enmeshed in the O’Neil family festivities, and remembering that she is Kayla Green, successful adult, not unhappy teenaged Kayla, takes enormous effort. And that effort is complicated by her strong (and mutual) attraction to her client.

Although the plots are quite different, the setting reminded me of the classic film White Christmas. Jackson’s grandfather, the O’Neil patriarch, reminded me of Dean Jagger’s General, and the O’Neil brothers’ banter (as well as their serious efforts to save the resort) recalls Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye. In romance-genre terms, the novel is similar to the short and long series set in small-town worlds; this time last year I was enjoying HelenKay Dimon’s Holloway trilogy, and this has a similar flavor. For readers of Morgan’s categories, Sleigh Bells in the Snow captures the world-building of the Medicals with the characterizations, humor, and heart-tugging backstories we are used to in both her Medicals and her Presents releases.

But enough about how this story is like other stories. It’s also very much its own, original novel. One of my favorite aspects of the book is that it while it is firmly rooted in a small-town, extended family context, it is above all a heroine-centric storyline. We get plenty of Jackson’s POV, and Jackson is a trademark yummy Morgan hero, but it’s Kayla who holds the reader’s interest and who develops the most. Kayla never felt to me like a stock character. Sure, she’s a workaholic who’s avoided having a personal life, but she’s also funny and caring and self-aware. When she loses her cool while giving her initial presentation (she’s in pencil skirt and heels, the O’Neils are sitting at their kitchen table), she’s as concerned about her rudeness to them as she is about her personal failure. Her desire to shut down those parts of life that she can’t control doesn’t keep her from having empathy for those around her, a trait I wish more uptight romance heroines possessed. And when she (inevitably) opens up and becomes more willing to take chances, she saves herself as much as she is saved by the hero or by the family that embodies what she never had.

Like Kayla, Jackson is a character we’ve seen before but who also has enough individuality to be interesting. Yes, he’s successful and handsome and driven. But when he comes back to take over the failing family business, it’s not just because he’s an alpha male and that’s what they do, it’s also because the business he built is related to the family resort, and he brings relevant skills and experience to this challenge. Jackson wants to fix Kayla as much as he wants to fix Snow Crystal, but in both cases he knows that he can’t do it unilaterally and he adjusts his behavior accordingly.

Kayla and Jackson are surrounded by the O’Neil family and other residents of the small town, who all have small and large parts to play. While it’s clear that some of these characters are going to feature in the next two installments, I didn’t feel as if they were only there to set up the next installments of the trilogy. Each of them has an individual backstory, and none of them felt like stereotypes (except maybe the knitting grandmother). There is a scene between Jackson and his grandfather late in the book that gently subverts the usual relationship, and even Jackson’s father, whose death indirectly sets the plot in motion, isn’t quite who I thought he would be.

As I was reading, I was surprised and thrilled to realize that the novel passes the Bechdel test more than once. There is a scene involving the main women characters that sounded just like conversations I’ve had with my women friends and relatives; the back-and-forth between moving, serious movements and leavening humor were pitch-perfect, as I’ve come to expect from this author.

At its heart, this is a Christmas romance, and no one does the double-edged sword of the holidays like Sarah Morgan. She is able to capture the warmth and happiness, but she also remembers those for whom the season is bittersweet. There’s a lovely, poignant scene between Kayla, for whom Christmas is physically painful, and Jackson’s mother Elizabeth, who is navigating her first Christmas as a widow:

Elizabeth smiled. “Why don’t you start hanging those.”

Kayla’s mouth felt dry. “You want me to hang them?”

“Of course. If you’re here with us over the holidays, the least we can do is let you share in our Christmas. I expect you have your own Christmas rituals. All families do.”

Kayla gripped the box. “We had a few.”

Put your stocking by the fire, Kayla. Let’s see what surprise Santa brings you.

There was a hollow, empty feeling in her stomach. She recognized the feeling because she’d lived with it for such a long time.

Loneliness could be felt at any time, of course, but there was something exquisitely painful about the loneliness that came along with Christmas.

She lifted a decoration from the box and stared at it. A moment later it was gently removed from her hand.

“You don’t like this time of year, do you, dear?”

It embarrassed and frustrated her that she still felt this way. That she hadn’t been able to put the past behind her and find the same joy in the holiday season that so many others did. “I find it difficult.”

The box was removed from her hand.

“Leave it. I’ll trim the tree later.”

“I’d like to do it.” She’d spent Christmas alone for the past decade. This time she was alone in the middle of a family. It couldn’t be worse, surely?

The O’Neils don’t magically transform Christmas into a happy one for Kayla, but by the end we know she is on her way to overcoming some of that painful past. And the HEA works in much the same, relatively realistic way: every loose end isn’t tied up, every obstacle isn’t overcome, but Kayla and Jackson will figure something out.

Readers who are used to my reviews know what a curmudgeon I can be; even when an author is an autobuy, all their books aren’t equally good for me. But when I finished this book, I honestly couldn’t think of any major weaknesses that took away from my reading pleasure. I’m sure other readers will find aspects that don’t work for them. But for me, this story combines all the things I love about contemporaries, small-town romances, and holiday stories, and it puts familiar features together in ways that don’t feel run-of-the-mill. Grade: A

~ Sunita

 

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REVIEW:  Life Without Friends by Ellen Emerson White

REVIEW: Life Without Friends by Ellen Emerson White

This is a second in a series of books reviewed by authors.  This is an open invitation for any author to submit reviews of books that get very little attention but that he or she liked very much. In issuing the invitation, I’ve asked the authors to review books authored by people they have no real contact with – they aren’t in the same RWA chapter or they aren’t critique partners. I hope that this is one way we can bring an authorial reviewer voice to Dear Author without the conflicts. So if you are an author, editor, publicist, etc. and there is a book you think deserves more attention, send me a review!

A lot of bad things happened to Beverly last year. Now she’s living a life without friends. It’s a lot easier that way.

Then Derek comes into her life, just by chance. Bit by bit, Beverly opens up to Derek and begins to trust him. She can tell him anything. Or almost anything.

There’s just last year standing between Beverly and Derek – the one thing he said he couldn’t forgive. Maybe it will ruin everything if she talks about it.

And maybe it will ruin everything if she doesn’t.

Every time I try to write about Ellen Emerson White’s Live Without Friends, I feel as if I’m drifting between an Elizabeth Barrett Browning sonnet and one of my daughter’s old bedtime stories (Rossetti-Shustak’s I Love You Through and Through). Derek, how do I love thee, let me count the ways. I love your  jeans jacket and your Red Sox cap, I love your gentle side, your cocky side, I love your nerves when you’re trying to be James Dean cool. I love your jokes about ducks and the crick in your neck from falling asleep on the steps, and your happy smile, and the way your run gets a little clumsy when your “girl”  comes to watch your baseball game. I love your patience, and the way you pet puppies, and the flex in your muscles when you’re trying to get that cute, nerdy girl on the bench to notice you. I admit it, I have it bad: I think I even love the way you say “yo” and “like”. Yes, Derek, I love you through and through.

Life Without Friends, by Ellen Emerson WhiteIt is, in fact, perhaps, just a tad excessive that as a grown woman in Boston for a major academic conference, I ducked out of sessions so that I could go see where Derek and Beverly met in the Public Gardens and find the paddle boats for myself. Heartbreak Hill, Old North Church, the Granary Burying Ground . . . and Derek and Bev.

Because I love Beverly, too. She’s the smart, uptight, alienated teenage girl whose difficult past helps serve as a catharsis for our own sense of not-belonging as a teenager, our own sense of not being good enough or being judged, an embodiment of our classic rite of passage struggles to find our way into society. In YA, of course, these struggles almost always seem to need an event, a past, that dramatizes them, just because literature sometimes needs crutches and excuses to reach at that fragile teenage spot inside of us. As if, without the excuses, everyone will just shrug and say, “Well, get over yourself. I had to.” But while the YA heroine who struggles with issues may represent some of us who really had those issues, for most of us her excuses simply allow our empathy—for her, and through her for ourselves and other people. We may not have had a mother who committed suicide or a boyfriend who murdered two people and beat the crap out of us in the meantime, we may not be internalizing guilt about those things, but her shame and self-loathing and struggles to regain a right to live in her society are ones with which we can identify nevertheless. That’s why rites of passage stories are so powerful.

She’s the us who gets to have Derek, the cute, adorable guy who puts his jeans jacket around us when we’re cold and keeps getting us milkshakes because we’re not eating enough. (Ellen Emerson White’s heroines have chronic intense stomach/eating issues. An ulcer in this case. This and uptight, repressed families with high IQs and almost non-existent EQs—incapable of expressing emotion without significant therapy—are her thing. What I would call her story. It works particularly well in this book when the hero is so patiently and adorably reaching through those barriers of the heroine’s and thus, on both a symbolic and real level, integrating her into life, love, and society.)

A serendipitous conjunction of Jane’s request about doing a guest author review, Kati’s post on comfort reading, and some Twitter conversations with Angie who, it turns out, loves Derek as much as I do, got me re-reading Life Without Friends again for the first time in a few years. And as soon as I was done with the first read, I thought: Ha, I’m reviewing this book, so I get to re-read it right over again. And then, after the second time, well, let’s be thorough and go back through the favorite parts one more time. But there are so many favorite parts that I basically had to re-read the whole book yet again—three times in a weekend.

To me, it is a quintessential comfort read, not only for Derek, but for Beverly, who, for all her sarcasm and hang-ups (or, really, because of them), is an utterly relatable and likeable heroine. I said to Angie on Twitter that this book is the standard, to me, of what YA/NA books could be. It is definitely Ellen Emerson White’s best work. Scenes between Beverly and her family, Beverly and her psychiatrist, and Beverly and Derek are interwoven with such a perfect balance as she comes to terms with what has happened and opens up again, thanks primarily to three people: her stepmother, her psychiatrist, and, of course, Derek. The dialogue is sarcastic, funny, insightful. And I’m always intrigued by a certain spare quality to Ellen Emerson White’s writing. In other books, she often has characters read Hemingway as a shorthand for their intelligence. Despite my impatience with this literary self-consciousness*, I do think we can see her own liking of Hemingway in what can often be the simplicity of her writing. A marshmallow doesn’t swell up in Bev’s throat (as I might say); no, her throat just tightens, or closes. And that’s enough. Reading Ellen Emerson White is a reminder to me of the power of simplicity.

It is, in its way, a very simple story. One I finish every time with a happy smile.

And a sigh because it’s over, wishing for a bit more Derek.

You might say I had to start writing books in the first place because I wanted more Derek.

[*I am impatient because I’ve personally not only read but studied at a graduate level a very broad spectrum of literary classics in four major languages. A colleague here has an international reputation for her work with neuroscience and story, so I’ve gleaned a thing or two from those “neuroscience and the humanities” talks, and I would love to see an MRI throwdown on reading Hemingway versus, say, Laura Kinsale. Without in the least trying to dismiss Hemingway’s quality, my bet for brain activity is on Laura Kinsale. This is not me being flippantly, knee-jerk defensive of romance. Brain activity seems to be based on factors such as reader engagement with/enjoyment of the story as well as coming across new ways of evoking things—an unexpected turn of phrase that captures an emotional reaction or makes us think, for example. So imagining the MRI match-up between Old Man and the Sea and For My Lady’s Heart makes me grin every time.]

 

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 Laura Florand compilation


Laura Florand 
is the award-winning author of the Amour et Chocolat series (The Chocolate Thief, The Chocolate Kiss…), where sexy Parisian chocolatiers woo the women they love with what they love best – romance you can taste. Her books have been translated into seven languages, received the RT Seal of Excellence and starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, and been recommended by USA Today, NPR, The Wall Street Journal, and Dear Author, among others, and twice been selected as Sizzling Book Club Picks by Smart B*, Trashy Books. They’ve even been selected for the infamous (legendary? notorious?) DABWAHA! She was born in Georgia, but the travel bug bit her early. After a Fulbright year in Tahiti, a semester in Spain, and backpacking everywhere from New Zealand to Greece, she ended up living in Paris, where she met and married her own handsome Frenchman, a story told in her first book Blame It on Paris.  Now a lecturer at Duke University, she is very dedicated to her research into French chocolate. For a glimpse behind the scenes of some of that research as well as recommendations for US chocolate, make sure to check out her website: www.lauraflorand.com.