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Bring on the holiday romances

I’m not a huge fan of a lot of aspects of the Halloween-to-New-Year’s marketing and consumption extravaganza. I think Halloween costumes should be left to the under-12 crowd, I prefer to leave the country for Thanksgiving, I haven’t put up a Christmas tree in nearly two decades, and I’m usually asleep before midnight on New Year’s Eve. But I’m not a total Grinch: I love Christmas (and Hanukkah) stories, despite not being either Christian or Jewish. I can’t remember when I developed this affection for them; it might have been the Christmas stories in the Little House series. But Christmas was always a special time of the year for me, even as a child in India. Needless to say, live trees were not easily come by (actually they weren’t possible to come by at all), but my formerly-Catholic mother acquired not one but two over the years. First we had a fake green one, and then the one I remember best: it was silver, and the branches screwed in at almost perfect 90-degree angles. In retrospect it was ridiculous-looking, but I loved it.

Because we lived with my father’s extended family, all of whom were Hindu, and we didn’t celebrate with other families (aside from the endless series of parties my parents went to during the holiday season), Christmas always felt like our private, intimate celebration. My mother took me to Christmas services at the local Catholic church, just to offset the all-Hindu-all-the-time environment I lived in, I think. And so Christmas Mass and caroling were part of the celebration as well. For me they were just part of Christmas culture, not a requirement to be religious. That probably sounds a bit blasphemous, but I didn’t know any differently.

After we came to the US I was exposed to the full glory of the Christmas commercial-I-mean-holiday season. I still remember during our first Christmas season in the US, my father and I went to a local discount store to get tree ornaments. We were stunned at how much variety there was. Even more shocking was the fact that we could buy as much as we wanted, because in India in those days you just bought what they had or what they let you buy; choice wasn’t part of the transaction.

Eventually I got used to Christmas and as it became even more commercial, and as I got older, I retreated from most of the rituals. But there are a lot of non-commercial things about Christmas I still love. Christmas dinner. Christmas cookies. Snow. Little kids opening presents. Good Christmas music. And Christmas romances.

When the holiday-themed books start appearing in October, I groan, because it’s just too early! But by late November I’m totally ready for them. This year on the plane home after Thanksgiving I read three category-romance Christmas stories back to back to back. They were all different and all enjoyable, and one, by Marion Lennox, was a totally OTT yet wonderful fairy tale (there’s a review coming). Sarah Morgan writes lovely holiday stories, full of snow and reunions and holiday emotions. This year’s winner for me was Sleigh Bells in the Snow, but I have keepers from previous years too, especially the Medical duet set in wintry, snowy Cumbria. Harlequin’s Kimani line usually releases a Christmas anthology (I reviewed this one in 2012), and Farrah Rochon released a self-published novella last year called A Perfect Holiday Fling that hit my trifecta: a well-matched couple, a scene-stealing dog, and a Louisiana setting,

The stories I have been reading the longest are the Regency Christmas anthologies that Signet used to publish. Every year I looked forward to seeing which authors were contributing. Carla Kelly was a welcome mainstay, but Mary Balogh, Barbara Metzger, Elisabeth Fairchild, Mary Jo Putney, and Edith Layton wrote some classics as well. Janga has a post over at Heroes & Heartbreakers that talks about her favorites, some of which are my favorites too.

It’s not just Christmas stories, either. Astrid Amara has written some wonderful m/m Hanukkah novellas that I read and reread, starting with Carol of the Bellskis; Jayne reviewed her new one, Sweet and Sour, earlier this month. And Smart Bitch Sarah has a great list of Hanukkah themed romances here.

I think I gravitate toward holiday stories because they tend to emphasize the aspects of the holidays I enjoy. They are pretty secular but not always entirely so, and I’m a sucker for the Christmas miracle story. And I like the Hannukah stories because they make me feel less singular being a non-Christian at the Christian-est time of the year.

I know that not everyone likes holiday stories, though, and some people actively avoid them. I’ve noticed that at least some in this group are readers that are Christian, or care quite a bit about Christmas but for whatever reason the stories don’t work for them.

What about you, DA commentariat? Do you like holiday stories? If so, which ones, and if not, why not?

And happy holidays to everyone; may your holiday travel be smooth and your destinations welcoming!

Sunita has been reading romances since she ran out of Cherry Ames, Student Nurse and Chalet School books and graduated to Mary Stewart and Georgette Heyer. Other old favorites include Mary Burchell, Betty Neels, Elsie Lee, and Edith Layton. Among current writers, she reads and rereads Anne Stuart, Tamara Allen, Jordan Castillo Price, Sarah Morgan, Marion Lennox, Josh Lanyon, and Susanna Kearsley.

34 Comments

  1. Kati
    Dec 17, 2013 @ 10:20:17

    I loathe any holiday themed books or novellas, but last year, Anne Calhoun’s novella, Breath on Embers really moved me. It’s a beautiful, emotionally resonant story and one I’d recommend no matter the time of year.

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  2. Rose
    Dec 17, 2013 @ 10:27:43

    I’m not a fan, but I’d love to see authors set stories during other holidays, whether Christian, Jewish, or those of other religions.

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  3. Amy Kathryn
    Dec 17, 2013 @ 11:00:36

    I think the holiday romances lend themselves particularly well to a short form. I love being able to take a quick break from the hectic activity of the season to read a complete story that usually focuses on peace, love, and family togetherness.

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  4. Leigh
    Dec 17, 2013 @ 11:11:29

    I’ve been reading only holiday romances since Thanksgiving week and I won’t stop until New Year’s. I love then so much! Amy Lane’s Christmas Kitsch has definitely been the best one I’ve read this year, but I’ve found some other great ones too. They’re just (usually) full of so much hope and happiness that it’s hard for me not to adore them.

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  5. Lada
    Dec 17, 2013 @ 11:42:37

    I don’t know why I like them because I tend to enjoy darker romances (maybe that’s why…for the break) but I do gravitate towards story types around the holidays that I don’t read the rest of the year. I haven’t read any historical all year and just finished Mary Balogh’s A Christmas Bride novella which I enjoyed. I followed that with Mary Ann River’s Snowfall which was ok. (Why is 1st person present tense becoming a thing?? Not a fan.)

    Two of my old favorites unfortunately not offered in digital are from the anthology Wish List. Every year I reread Lisa Kleypas’ I Will which is satisfying on so many levels and one of the better blue-blood spinster/rake romances I’ve read. Also there is Lisa Cach’s delightful Puddings, Pastries, and Thou which sort of takes our obsession with food at this time of year and turns it into something funny and sweet.

    I bought Sleigh Bells in the Snow on your recommendation Sunita and am saving it for time off just after Christmas. Happy Holidays however you celebrate.

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  6. Susan
    Dec 17, 2013 @ 12:16:18

    This was a lovely post, Sunita. Thanks for sharing your reminiscences with us.

    I feel as if I ought to like Christmas/holiday-themed stories, so I will usually buy some–but then I rarely feel like reading them. It’s the same thing with Christmas music. I have loads of CDs, but don’t even bother dragging them out. I haven’t decorated or sent out Christmas cards in years. I think the whole bit about outdoor Christmas decorations going up right after Thanksgiving and the radio stations going all Christmas so early (before Thanksgiving this year!) is just too much for me. (What next? Will the Santa/Christmas tree novelty ice creams be available year ’round?) Christmas is a beautiful holiday from either the secular/folk or religious standpoint but, for me, it’s been pretty much ruined. :-(

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  7. Ros
    Dec 17, 2013 @ 12:26:34

    There’s something about this time of year that makes me want to read the same stories every year. My own personal Christmas reading traditions are mostly not romances: Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising, Little Women, Antonia Forest’s Run Away Home. But I have read some lovely Christmas romances too. I tend to prefer the ones with some edge to cut through all the saccharine sweetness. This year, Laura Florand’s Snow-Kissed hit exactly the right note for me, where Sarah Morgan’s Sleigh Bells in the Snow was just a bit too sugar coated. I very much enjoyed Noelle Adams’s Married For Christmas and I’m looking forward to Morgan’s Ripped. But I’m definitely loading up my kindle with a lot of non-Christmas romance reading for next week, too!

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  8. Lynnd
    Dec 17, 2013 @ 12:28:53

    I am generally not a fan of holiday-themed stories, particularly Christmas stories. Since our stores pretty much start all-Christmas, all the time the day after Hallowe’en, I am pretty sick of all the commercialized schmaltz and all of the oveer-stressed angry people in the stores by the time December rolls around. I generally try to avoid the malls from the beginning of November until after Boxing Day. Christmas stories just add to that feeling of over-hype for me. Occasionally, I do see a story that interests me (like Breath on Embers, which I really enjoy), but I will often wait until Christmas is over before I read it – then I can do so in the warm glow of all of the things that I do like about Christmas (family, friends, food etc.).

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  9. SciFigirl1986
    Dec 17, 2013 @ 12:30:26

    I love holiday themed romances, but for some reason I haven’t read any this year. Didn’t Christmas just sneak up on us? I feel like it should still be mid-summer instead of half way through December.

    When I do read holiday romances, I love Debbie Macomber’s novellas, especially The Forgetful Bride and When Christmas Comes (which has apparently been renamed Trading Christmas for the Hallmark Channel movie based on it–the movie sucks). Most years I tend to re-read Holiday in Death by J.D. Robb, which is the opposite of all those sweet romances that come out this time of year, so it is a nice pallet cleanser.

    There was a Brenda Joyce novella that I read years ago and for the life of me I cannot remember its name, but I loved it. It involved a woman, who fled from her arranged wedding and is brought back to her fiance, only to fall head over heels in love with him. There was also the husband’s brother, who had Consumption (I much prefer that term to Tuberculosis) and he also had a romance, which I think was a full length novel released prior to the novella, but happening at the same time as it.

    Christmas Eve in Friday Harbor by Lisa Kleypas was cute, but I think it needed to be longer.

    Finally, there is The Mischief of the Mistletoe by Lauren Willig. This book is so cute and features a cameo from Jane Austen, who is best friends with the heroine. I also love Willig’s Ivy and Intrigue: A Very Selwick Christmas, which is available for free on her website.

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  10. SciFigirl1986
    Dec 17, 2013 @ 12:34:45

    @Susan:

    My birthday was the Friday before Thanksgiving and the Lite station here in NYC started playing non-stop Christmas music that day. It was totally ridiculous and made more so from my cousin’s insistence of listening to it every time she had the chance. I love Christmas music and can listen to it as early as July, but non-stop Christmas music BEFORE Thanksgiving? Nope. Can’t do it. I can barely do it the week before Christmas.

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  11. Cassie Knight
    Dec 17, 2013 @ 12:44:33

    Thanks Sunita, for your post!

    I’m so not a reader of “sappy” romances but this time of the year brings out the need in me to have some ‘sap’ in my life. Which is odder now since I’ve separated from my husband of 22 years. But still, I want the Hallmark channel romance but the fun holiday romance. I’m reading Sleigh Bells in the Snow–or should I say, was reading, but I’m not as hooked as others have been because of something that happened really early in the book. But, I’m still going to finish.

    Anyway, I was thinking the same thing–I’d love to read more before I no longer have the need to read these but I’m looking for:

    Christmas themed
    No kids – dogs/pets okay
    No ex-lovers reunited
    Sweet romance

    Do these even exist anymore? I did pick up A Perfect Holiday Fling (free right now!) and can’t wait to read. Anyone have anything else to recommend like I described? Surely there has to be some out there. I need the sugar-sweetness of these things now.

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  12. mari
    Dec 17, 2013 @ 12:52:38

    I have admit I am tired of the secularization of Christmas in romance novels. Of course it just mirrors the comercial/secular nature of the holiday in popular culture, but still. How many times do I read about the decorating, shopping/cute puppy/ family togetherness, blah blah blah, without any mention of the whole birth of Jesus thingy? If church is mentioned its kind of off to the side, as if its something distasteful or best to be ignored. I’m not looking for preachy or god forbid G-rated, and Christmas miracle stuff without mentioning the incoveniant birth of Jesus just feels strange to me. But a book that kind of gets the awe-ful, splendid miracle of it all, with love at the heart of it, might be something worth reading.

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  13. cleo
    Dec 17, 2013 @ 13:30:49

    I have a lot of holiday romances on my keeper shelf, especially novellas. I have a couple of the Signet Regency anthologies and want more. I don’t usually care for Santa centered stories but I do like a good Christmas miracle.

    Speaking of which, I really love Connie Willis’ anthology Miracles, which is sf/f – most of the stories have low key romances in them but some don’t. It’s both reverent and irreverent – Willis obviously loves Christmas but also pokes fun at some of the excesses and commercialism. And her separate novella, All Seated on the Ground is great too – about a linguist (I think – maybe a scientist) and a choir director who are both trying to communicate with a group of aliens who land at a mall during the holidays.

    @Mari – Mary Balough’s written some novellas that mention the birth of Jesus without being too preachy – they have a low heat level though. I’m thinking of a couple in Under the Mistletoe, an anthology just of Balough novellas – most were prev pubbed.

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  14. cleo
    Dec 17, 2013 @ 13:35:59

    Argh. I just wrote a long comment was either eaten by my phone or the Internet.

    Short version – I love holiday novellas (but not Santa centered stories).

    Highly recommend Miracles by Connie Willis – sf/f anthology with some low key romance and plenty of humor and wonder.

    @Mari – have you tried Mary Balough’s regency novellas? Low heat level but general sense of reverence and occasional mention of Jesus.

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  15. Sunita
    Dec 17, 2013 @ 15:50:07

    @cleo: Found it! No idea why it went to spam. I agree with the Mary Balogh recs for Mari, and I think several of the stories in the Regency anthologies are more explicitly about the religious aspects of Christmas. Carla Kelly is another author who takes the Christ part of Christmas seriously.

    Thanks, everyone, I really enjoyed writing this post and thank you for the book recommendations!

    I think that the blizzard of commercial messages and the stress make it harder to enjoy this time of year (and I always have finals and grading to finish in a very compressed amount of time, usually in the week before the 25th), so that makes it feel anything but festive. I can totally see how that would turn a reader off holiday stories, but for me it works the opposite way; I fall into that world and it reminds me of the good things about the season, the food/family/goodwill parts. I have to get that Lisa Cach book!

    @Cassie Knight: Thanks for the heads up on the Rochon novella being free! It’s free for the next week, according to the author, and here’s the link. It does have a kid in it, but I don’t remember him being too saccharine. One of the Christmas categories I just read (Medical line) is by Alison Roberts and it’s set in Venice and on the Orient Express. No kids and a woman who likes her career! It’s called From Venice With Love.

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  16. Darlene Marshall
    Dec 17, 2013 @ 15:56:03

    I get annoyed with Chanukah stories because they smack of tokenism. I like the miracle and the religious freedom theme, but Chanukah is a post-Biblical festival (not even a holiday) celebrating a bloody civil war that escalated into an unqualified group usurping the Judean monarchy and making way for Rome. Chanukah only gets airtime because of its proximity to other holidays.

    Ponder this: when was the last time we had a good Rosh Hashanna story?

    Anyway, now that I’m done with my Grinchly rant, I did read a Chanukah story this year that I’d recommend, “Eight Tiny Flames” by Christa McHugh. It’s set at a US Army field hospital after D-Day, and has a charming romance about a nurse and a surgeon celebrating the festival during those dark days. It’s very well done, and is found in the anthology A Very Scandalous Holiday.

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  17. Susan
    Dec 17, 2013 @ 16:46:01

    @SciFigirl1986: Same birthday!!

    I, too, like Christmas music, but 6 weeks of Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer is torture.

    And I meant to say the outdoor decorations started going up after Halloween, not Thanksgiving (which is a little more understandable). I LOVE Christmas decorations–and the tackier the better–but I’d like to enjoy each season/holiday in its own time.

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  18. Sunita
    Dec 17, 2013 @ 18:14:56

    @Darlene Marshall: I cannot disagree with you, but I do relate to the frequent theme in Hanukkah novels of being outside the dominant religious culture (while often still being spiritual/religious).

    What we really need, besides romances that talk about other holidays (it would be great to see a romance that unfolds over the High Holy Days, for example): I’d really like one that had the MCs going out for Chinese food and then a movie on Christmas Eve. I’ve done that, and boy did I run into people I knew. ;)

    Thanks so much for the McHugh recommendation, that sounds great.

    @Susan: YES! This is almost worse than the over-commercialization, the fact that Christmas decorations are up before we’ve even had our first frost where I live.

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  19. Janine
    Dec 17, 2013 @ 19:35:21

    @Darlene Marshall: Yes!!! As a Jewish reader I feel starting with Hanukkah is dismissive of Jewish heritage. Bring on Rosh Hashanah stories, absolutely, and what about Passover? How long have we carried on that tradition of remembrance? Why Hanukkah, of all holidays, except that it falls near Christmastime?

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  20. cleo
    Dec 17, 2013 @ 19:57:58

    @Cassie Knight: hmm. Most of the stories without estranged couples or kids that I csn think of are pretty spicey. Shannon Stacey has a couple novellas that might work for you. My favorite is Holiday Sparks.

    @Sunita – thanks!

    The Lisa Cach is available digitally – it looks like she self published an anthology called Mistletoe’d. I’m excited – I like her novellas.

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  21. hapax
    Dec 17, 2013 @ 21:29:33

    I always thought that Purim would be a fabulous setting for spicy adult romance.

    I’ve only read one novel that even touched on the holiday, though, and that wasn’t a romance but a YA novel. It did have an awesome heroine, though, who defiantly dressed up as Queen Vashti.

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  22. Phyllis
    Dec 17, 2013 @ 22:14:31

    I am a huge sucker for Christmas and other holiday stories, especially novellas. I finally wrote one that’s more winter-themed (and ghost-themed) than very Christmassy, but it’s called Christmas Spirit (and is out on Friday. HINT HINT). Anyway, I buy lots of novellas and novels and anthologies every year and a few end up on my keeper shelf – Mischief of the Mistletoe has pride of place these days.

    I think maybe it’s a wish for a much happier Christmas with much less stress than I typically have. I mean, Xmas is usually good for me and my family, but somehow expectations and tempers get high.

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  23. Melanie
    Dec 17, 2013 @ 22:25:22

    Sunita, I really enjoyed this post, and I look forward to reading your review of Marion Lennox’s book; she’s an author I enjoy. And thanks for mentioning the Sarah Morgan medicals; I’ve read a lot of her backlist, but not those, and one of the things I like about category romances this time of year is that I can actually get through a whole, shorter book even with all the holiday craziness going on.

    Like Leigh, I’ve been reading almost all Christmas romances since the beginning of the month, and especially liked Amy Lane’s “Christmas Kitsch.” I love the old Regency anthologies, particularly Carla Kelly’s stories, and I’m going to download her ebook of Christmas stories–all previously published, but there’s one in there that I was never able to find in print–this weekend.

    I third the recommendation for Connie Willis’s “Miracle.” I reread some of those stories every year.

    @Ros, I also love rereading children’s/YA books with a Christmas setting at this time of year, including all the ones you’ve mentioned. “The Dark is Rising” just feels perfect when it’s snowing. And it’s nice to see another Antonia Forest fan!

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  24. Kaetrin
    Dec 17, 2013 @ 22:49:40

    @Janine: M/M author, Dev Bentham has a series which is set over various Jewish holidays. I liked them all but would have preferred them to be longer and the characters to have a little more depth. I keep reading her books because I like her writing style and the stuff about the Jewish holidays is interesting and informative without being info-dumpy.

    The other one I read recently was A Small Miracle Happened by Mari Donne which was reviewed recently here (by Jayne I believe) – that one was set at Hanukkah this year (so, over the US Thankgsgiving holiday) and specific mention is made that Hanukkah is not a particularly significant Jewish holiday, as well as stuff about the Maccabees etc. I wondered if Jewish people would find it as interesting as non-Jews because there is a lot of information in there about the holiday but I liked it.

    I generally like holiday romances just as well as regular romances. I loved Breath on Embers last year, I loved Ripped this year and I always enjoy The Christmas Bride whatever time of year I read it.

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  25. Crista McHugh
    Dec 18, 2013 @ 00:25:09

    I admit I don’t really read too many Xmas stories – too busy getting Chinese food on Xmas and trying to convince my daughter that Santa Claus delivers dreidels – but I do enjoy the ideas of goodwill toward mankind and holiday miracles. It’s probably the reason why I do indulge a little in them during this time of the year.

    And I’ll get working on that Rosh Hashanah story. I can definitely imagine some fun stuff with apples and honey following the Tashlikh. ;-)

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  26. Darlene Marshall
    Dec 18, 2013 @ 07:45:50

    @Christa_McHugh–Think of the fun “sins” they could throw into the water![g]

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  27. cleo
    Dec 18, 2013 @ 08:08:27

    For those who mentioned Amy Lane’s Christmas Kitch – how’s the angst level? I only like her medium and low grade angst books – not the high octane angst fests like Keeping Promise Rock or Chase in Shadow.

    And – forgot to mention Victoria Dahl’s Midnight Assigment in the Midnight Kiss anthology. Never thought I’d sigh over two FDIC agents working on a bank takeover over the holidays – so good.

    The only new holiday story I’ve read this year is Let it Snow by Heidi Cullinan – an mm retelling of Goldilocks – which I enjoyed, although its not my fave HC.

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  28. Stacey T.
    Dec 18, 2013 @ 11:48:46

    I am unabashedly enjoying reading only holiday stories since Thanksgiving weekend. I’ve added almost everything people have suggested here to my list. After working all day and then wrangling with the kids until they go to bed, I sit on the couch with my Christmas tree next to me and escape into something sweet and uncomplicated or even something fun and dark — as long as it has a holiday worked into it. The only genre I was missing was scifi/fantasy, so thank you Cleo for the Connie Willis suggestion!

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  29. Lada
    Dec 18, 2013 @ 12:54:30

    @cleo: Thanks for the info about the Lisa Cach stories! And the reminder of Victoria Dahl’s story which I want to read.

    I forgot to recommend the anthology The Heart of Christmas which includes authors Mary Balogh, Nicola Cornick and Courtney Milan. I especially enjoyed Milan’s story which didn’t have a lord or lady in sight!

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  30. Emily
    Dec 18, 2013 @ 15:42:44

    I really didn’t like Sleigh Bells in the Snow. Too preachy for my taste, although not religious. Their heroine hates Christmas in ways that seemed infantile, but still that’s her choice and then she allows herself to be railroaded by the family into celebrating the holiday. I found her to be a total milktoast heroine lacking a spine or a backbone to defend herself. Where you celebrate and what you believe is up to you. (Although in general adults saying they believe in Santa is always a little what’s wrong with you for me. That in itself was huge problem a hero (in his 30′s) tells a grown woman (28) that Santa is real and she should believe in him is too much for me. (To be fair what she was said “You already have gave me presents.” “Those were from Santa.”) If he had said the presents were from God, would she have to believe that too?) Of course then he goes on to belittle her and everything she’s accomplished in her life.
    I like Christmas and I’m Catholic, but I’m disappointed that Dear Author and Smart Bitches chose to recommend a novel that comes off intolerant of the heroine for Christmas this year.

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  31. Zoe York
    Dec 18, 2013 @ 18:32:51

    I’m sorry, did someone say that Victoria Dahl has a holiday story I haven’t read yet? There goes any writing that I was going to do tonight.

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  32. Sunita
    Dec 19, 2013 @ 12:33:38

    @Emily: I’m sorry the book didn’t work for you. I just want to note that *I* recommended the book, not Dear Author as a whole.

    On the scarcity of religious-themed books set at other times, I think it’s because no other religious day in North America and the UK (where the majority of the English-set books’ authors are based) has a season that goes with it. Even before the “Christmas season” turned into a 3-month marketing opportunity, you had the week between Christmas and New Year as more or less a holiday week, plus from a religious point of view you have the 12 Days of Christmas and Christmas Eve night before that. As I said above, I’d love to see the Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur stretch made the focus of a story, and Passover could definitely work, but for the setting to be analogous you need more than a day, I think.

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  33. A Little Bit of Holiday Book News « All About Romance’s News & Commentary Blog
    Dec 23, 2013 @ 06:41:53

    […] Author Katharine Ashe put a roundup of holiday titles on her blog. And I enjoyed Sunita’s discussion of holiday romances from the perspective of someone who is neither Christian nor […]

  34. A Little Bit of Book News for the Holidays « All About Romance’s News & Commentary Blog
    Dec 24, 2013 @ 11:06:17

    […] reading out there. Author Katharine Ashe put a roundup of holiday titles on her blog. And I enjoyed Sunita‚Äôs discussion of holiday romances from the perspective of someone who is neither Christian nor […]

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