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Holiday

REVIEW:  Married for Christmas by Noelle Adams

REVIEW: Married for Christmas by Noelle Adams

Dear Ms. Adams,

Other readers might glance at the blurb and think, “A hero who’s a preacher? Really?”

I, on the other hand, thought, “Sexy pastor, bring it on. A contemporary marriage of convenience? Yeah, right. Whatever. Good luck with that.”

Married for Christmas by Noelle AdamsAfter years of dreaming, Jessica is finally getting married, but the marriage isn’t exactly what she thought.

Daniel is her best friend, and she’s known him all her life, but he’s never gotten over losing his wife two years ago. His dream is to become the pastor of the church in their hometown, but the small-town congregation keeps balking over calling an unmarried minister. Since Daniel needs a wife and Jessica wants a husband and family, she proposes an arrangement that benefits both of them.

They can get married. They can build a life together. They can celebrate Christmas as a couple. It’s fine that he doesn’t love her. And it’s fine that she’s not exactly suited to be a small-town pastor’s wife. And it’s fine that she’s more attracted to her sexy, brooding husband every day.

Jessica can be practical about this marriage. She knows what she’s getting into, after all…

I apologize for my unvoiced and uninformed snark. This was by far the best contemporary marriage of convenience romance I’ve read, and it’s a helluva Christmas story too. (Is that blasphemous? I did my penance with all those tear-stained tissues, right?)

Married for Christmas isn’t perfect, but I didn’t even notice until about the third or fourth reading, because I was rooting for Jess and Daniel from very first chapter. Friends-to-lovers. Strong but vulnerable heroine. Quietly sexy beta hero. Angst-o-rama unrequited love resolved by Grand Gesture Groveling. Big slobbery dog. All buttons pushed.

On the surface, heroine Jessica is a bit of a mess. She sees herself as utterly ordinary (“average, forgettable, no frills”), and the few lackluster dates she’s had over the years have reinforced her belief that romance and passion are out of her league. In reality, Jess is strong and smart – she’s brilliant at her job as a web designer – but she’s so quietly capable and unwilling to draw attention to herself that she’s overlooked by nearly everyone.

The one exception to her desperate loneliness is her childhood friend (and unrequited love) Daniel. He’s a widowed pastor who longs to return to his hometown congregation, but his age and marital status are red flags to the stodgy church elders – which sets the scene for the marriage of convenience.

What makes this story work is the constant negotiation that takes over their formerly lighthearted friendship. In the first scene, he steals food off her plate and she snipes at him for rebuffing her beloved pet (“Her name is Bear. Not ‘the dog.’”) and refuses to let him try to fix her car. But once The Proposal is out there, the boundaries are completely reset – all the inherent trust of their shared history is overwhelmed by the over-analysis of every word and action. Jessica consciously rationalizes everything, refusing to acknowledge her emotions because she doesn’t want Daniel to feel obligated.

And in all its awkwardness, the negotiating continues into the bedroom. I was really impressed with how the heroine’s virginity was treated as a simple fact and not a major plot point – and how the wedding night scene evolved from hesitant suggestion…

“You can read, if you’d rather…”

“If I’d rather read than what?”

Her cheeks warmed, but she was determined to be adult and mature about this topic. “Well, I was thinking we might…we might have sex. But we really don’t have to.”

“I didn’t know if you’d want to right away.” He placed the book on the nightstand, which was an immense relief. At least he didn’t prefer Bonheoffer to having sex with her.

…to teasing banter:

“So we got all this worked out then?”

“Yeah, I think so.”

“So sex tonight?”

He nodded, a warm look in his eyes that made her shiver. “Sex tonight.”

While all that negotiating is great at showing the reader how Jess and Daniel rebuild their relationship, it’s also the source of some rather extreme emotional whiplash – hence the bump down on the letter grade. For each step forward, there’s an immediate step back. Every breakthrough is followed by a clueless remark that kills the fleeting rays of hope. It might be realistic, but both Jessica and the reader need a chance to enjoy a bit of momentum before the next crash of misunderstanding.

So – the Sexy Pastor thing. Yes, Daniel is a pastor. He writes sermons and reads Bonhoeffer in bed and wrestles with his faith. And ohhhh, yes, he’s sexy. Scruffy, brainy, beta sexy. Let’s just say he’s not a celibate priest.

Does Daniel’s profession make Married for Christmas an inspirational romance? Yes and no. According to the author’s note in the front matter:

The point of this story is not to present any sort of religious message, but because faith is important to these characters, the plot and their development turns on their spiritual condition as much as anything else. In writing a story like this, there’s likely to be too much religion for some readers and too little for others. I don’t know if I’ve navigated this challenge successfully, but I do believe it’s worth the attempt.

Goal achieved. The characters’ beliefs are an integral part of their daily lives and their relationship, but their “spiritual condition” is never beaten into the reader’s brain with self-righteous preaching or Magical Bible Verses.

Could this story have worked if Daniel was a Billionaire CEO With A Tragic Past or Navy SEAL With PTSD or some other romance hero archetype? I don’t think so. We would have gotten the requisite internal struggles over self-doubt and trust, but Daniel’s unique and highly visible role in their small community, and Jessica’s ambivalence about being the “perfect pastor’s wife,” is a much-needed source of external conflict (and humor) that keeps the story from turning into just another predictable Plain-Jane-Redeems-Manly-Man trope.

And, of course, the Sexy Pastor thing allows us to get that Gloriously Groveling Grand Gesture ending:

“Why are you panting?” she asked stupidly.

“I…ran…home.”

 Pass the tissues, please. I’m a little weepy again.

Grade: B+

~ Kelly

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REVIEW:  Sweet and Sour  by Astrid Amara

REVIEW: Sweet and Sour by Astrid Amara

Right now this novella is on sale at Loose-Id. Sorry, looks like the sale is over.

sweet-and-sour

Miles thought he and Itai would make a great team, despite the infidelities haunting their past. After all, Itai is smoking hot, they’re both driven entrepreneurs, and they love each other. What else did a person need? Well, a lot more, apparently, because not only are they no longer passionate, they don’t even share the same passions. Like people, affections change, but Miles wonders if a relationship this broken is truly worth repairing.

Itai’s business launch with his ex-boyfriend isn’t helping. And Miles himself has a new business to grow over a busy few weeks where Thanksgiving and Hanukkah collide to form either the best holiday season ever, or a kosher caterer’s worst nightmare. But help comes in the unexpected, ruggedly handsome form of Detective Dominic Delbene, a pickle aficionado with his own ghosts, who stakes out the deli to capture a dangerous drug dealer.

As Hanukkah’s eight days and Miles and Itai’s relationship comes to an end, Miles discovers that Nic is not only good with pickling; he’s good at everything.

Dear Ms. Amara,

At this time of the year we’re inundated with holiday stories but for the most part, those stories are about Christmas. When I see a submission for Hanukkah, I perk up and take notice. Since this is a 40,552 word count novella, I figured I had nothing to lose by giving it a shot. I’m glad I did.

Miles runs a kosher vegetarian deli, Itai is a computer wonk while Nic is a cop. Little details of their jobs and careers – much more so in the case of Miles – are a major part of the story. I love this since I believe if you’re going to give a character an interesting job, make it count and be part of the whole. There’s enough description about the scrumptious sounding food Miles serves up to have made me hungry almost the whole time I was reading this! But it’s not just the finished products here – we see Miles prepping, planning, buying, experimenting, catering … in other words doing what a working deli owner would do.

Since the story is mainly told from Miles’s POV and he know – and cares – little about computers, it makes sense that the details there would be sketchy but I appreciate the fact that Itai isn’t just a cardboard cutout computer guy. His job also plays into the story as does Nic’s background. As the reason for him to be at the deli, we need to know what’s brought Nic into Miles’s orbit and as a draw between him and Miles, his childhood working in a deli is also important. Nic’s appreciation of Miles’s food is another nice touch. Miles cooking is his passion so for someone to notice, appreciate it and care about food means a lot to him. The fact that Nic knows his way around a commercial kitchen is the cherry on Miles’s cake – and damn sexy at the same time.

I also like that these men are real. Sometimes they’re happy, sometimes they’re sad, a few times one will be pouty or feeling slightly pissy and mad at the world. But they act appropriately for the situation and act realistically.

Since it’s a novella and tells the breakup of one relationship at the same time as the beginning of another, there’s a lot to pack into the word count. I find the telling believable since there have been rumblings in the old relationship and Miles and Nic have so much in common at the start of theirs. I liked the little details that highlighted how Miles and Itai have been and are drifting apart. There’s no sudden, volcanic break but rather a slow breakdown. Meanwhile, Nic knows how to flirt and be sexy around a guy he’s interested in and it’s like watching a parched plant soak up water to see Miles respond. Nic notices how Miles likes his coffee!

For readers who want it, there’s sex. Hot and raunchy sex, slow and by rote sex – another show of how the old relationship is fizzling – and then there’s the “wanton, senseless, graphic intercourse” that Miles and Nic both want but that Miles is too honorable to engage in before officially breaking up with Itai. Miles is a stand up guy and I don’t mean that in only a sexual manner. That tells me a lot about this character and makes me pull for the two of them. They’re both keepers.

The ending might be a little dramatic but is balanced by how Miles helps breakup the crime take down going on. And then we get the full-on, dirty sex that Miles has been craving. His Hanukkah gift to Nic is fantastic as is his way of announcing it. The final resolution of the deli tells me that these two are made for each other – after all, how many people would find the smell of vinegar to be a turn on? B+

~Jayne

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