REVIEW: You Had Me At Christmas anthology
Sunita and I decided to tag team on this one and divvy up the novellas between us.
Kaetrin & Sunita
Play by Karina Bliss
Play is book 2 in your Rock Solid series (I have the first book, Rise, on my TBR still). It’s a marriage in trouble story – a trope I think really suits the word count in a novella. Jared Walker, married his high school sweetheart, Kayla, young. They’ve been together since they were 16. After seven years of marriage and with two children under five, Jared and Kayla have hit a rough patch. The previous year Jared won a reality TV competition to become the new bass player for a massively popular band, Rage. The stardom and rock ‘n roll lifestyle went to his head. He didn’t think about how all the changes in his life would affect Kayla and how difficult it would be to move away from family and friends, nor did he consider the toll long months of touring would take on her and how isolated she would feel.
Jared invited Kayla and their children, Madison and baby, Rocco, on the last leg of their European tour with them to try and glean more time together, but things went pear-shaped and Kayla and the kids left early.
Two months after coming home, things are still strained between the pair. Jared has had an epiphany. He realises he’s been a dick and he has decided he’s done with that. Nothing matters more to him than Kayla (and the children) and he is determined to prove it to her. Kayla is also suffering from a crisis of confidence – she hasn’t lost all the baby weight and hearing herself referred to as “the starter wife” while on tour cut her deeply.
Jared asks Kayla out on a date where they will pretend to be strangers. They can connect without their baggage and hopefully rekindle their romantic spark. As “Bob” and “Betty” they find they can talk about their feelings at something of a remove and this helps to break down the wall which has grown between them.
Both Jared and Kayla make decisions which put their marriage firmly on the priority list. Jared took responsibility for all his previous mistakes and demonstrates to Kayla (and the reader) that he’s a changed man. It can be hard to pull off the feat of making me believe such a change is permanent but Karina Bliss did it here. I felt Jared had a “come to Jesus” moment and he realised what he needed to do to fix things and he was 100% committed. Kayla, for her part, realised she had been too passive in her response to all the changes in their lives and she decides to stop going with the flow and take charge instead. While it is always nice to read a good grovel/apology from a hero, the fact that Kayla took responsibility for some things also gave me confidence that this couple would continue to grow together rather than apart.
She and Jared had been so good at navigating failure, they’d never considered success would also require a skill-set.
The novella’s depiction of parenting rang very true and made me chuckle.
Jared woke with a groan when a small foot kicked him in the kidneys and nearly sent him over the mattress edge, where he’d clung most of the night. Reaching behind him, he moved the foot and turned over. Kayla wasn’t on the other side of their bed, probably driven out by the never-still, four-year-old, bed-hogging dominatrix. How the hell could someone three feet tall take over a king-size bed?
(I’ve so been there Jared.)
The sexual chemistry between Kayla and Jared leapt off the page and I enjoyed their non-sexual connection too. I also really liked that Jared challenged Kayla on her body image issues. Extra bonus points that Kayla was an everyday beautiful woman – she wore shapewear. I could relate to Kayla on a number of levels.
I read Play in one sitting and enjoyed it very much. Grade: B
One Naughty Little Christmas by Stephanie Doyle
40-something Kate is alone at Christmas. She’s a workaholic (she owns her own software business which employs 120 people) and earlier that year her mother died, so this Christmas is particularly hard for her. They had been very close and the holiday is something she’d like to wish away. Kate’s happily married assistant downloaded a dating app for people over 40 to Kate’s phone and encouraged her to use it. On Christmas night, Kate has had just enough wine to give the app a go. She ends up connecting with John and they have some hot SMS sex. I enjoyed the messages quite a bit – their flirty banter was fun and sexy.
Tell me more.
Kate read the last message and struggled with what to say.
Anything. More about your work, your life, your shoe size. I want to know it all.
I’m a size seven and a half, although I’m convinced my one foot is slightly bigger than the other. I’ve never told anyone that before.
Excellent. That’s exactly what I want to know. Okay, you have rabbit cheeks and a distorted foot. Left or right?
Right. And it’s not distorted, it’s just slightly, ever so slightly, bigger. Now you tell me something.
Sorry. I don’t have any deformities. No animal parts or strangely sized appendages.
Kate took a sip of her wine and could feel the warmth of it in her cheeks now. Talk about having liquid courage.
Really? You’re a man and you admitted you don’t have any large appendages? That’s really brave of you.
Oh CRAP! One. One VERY large appendage
The next day, Kate decides to take a risk and actually meet John for a drink and dinner. Up until this point the story was mostly working but things started to wobble for me here. Perhaps because the novella had so much ground to cover in a short word count, there didn’t seem to be enough time given to settling in before things went to custard. Within 10 minutes of meeting, John is walking out because he’s not good enough for Kate. The swift change of heart didn’t exactly fill me with confidence that John’s emotional maturity and judgement were in good working order. And Kate did similar during the course of the novella as well. There was a lot of stop/start and push/pull but not quite enough of the start and the pull to really keep me engaged. It wasn’t horrible but it didn’t wow me either.
For the novella length page count, it had a lot of work to do in unpacking John’s feelings about his previous relationship and his time in prison. And for Kate, there were abandonment issues and her singular focus on her business up until now. I did like that John’s time in jail was portrayed as uneventful and mostly boring – it struck me as somewhat unusual, at least within my reading. Even so, I felt these issues needed more page time to really draw me in.
When Kate and John weren’t at odds, there were glimpses of a growing chemistry – I’d have liked to see more of what, apart from physical attraction, John and Kate had in common. The transitions felt jerky and some of the abrupt changes in tone gave me a bit of mental whiplash. Perhaps if the story had been fleshed out a little more I’d have felt more connected to the characters but as it was, this one was a story that worked better in concept than in reality for me.
Twelve Kisses Until Christmas by Jennifer Lohmann
Marc is a 25 year old tech-whiz who has just made millions by selling an app he co-developed. He is at loose ends now and having trouble letting go of “Terry” (his name for the SMS messaging encryption app which uses regular cell service). He’s decided to take some time for himself and drive around (through?) the Rocky Mountains, seeing the sights and doing some skiiing. His travels lead him to a small diner in Athol, Idaho and a waitress there, Selina.
Selina is working hard to get out of Athol. She is taking community college courses and working at Babe’s Diner. Her dream is to work in an art gallery but her more practical side tells her to pursue a nursing degree. Her mother works most nights and her stepdad is an abusive drunk with his eyes firmly set on Selina. Matters come to a head when the evil stepdad breaks down her door intending to force himself on her and Selina escapes out the window.
As Selina and Marc get to talking over the course of a couple of encounters in a single day, Marc comes to appreciate Selina’s difficulties and he offers her a way out. He invites her to join him on the trip to Salt Lake City where he will ski and she can look for work. Selina takes a risk and says yes. Given what Selina was running from, Jennifer Lohmann does manages to make this a decision which has some thought put into it and which isn’t as reckless as it appears to be.
Marc is geeky and a little shy but he’s an honourable man too and it is quickly apparent to Selina that he can be trusted. Marc continues to demonstrate that dependability as they travel together.
While the story started off at what felt like the right pace for their relationship, things jerked forward quickly from time to time, with not enough setup. For example, when Selena decides to have sex with Marc, it is hot on the heels of an argument (with a pretty and genuine apology from Marc, but still) and after Selena has reaffirmed her decision not to begin a physical relationship with Marc.
And, speaking of arguments, Marc can be a real jerk when he’s angry. He lashes out and says some hurtful things. Even though he apologised and took responsibility for his poor behaviour, I didn’t get to see enough of him to be 100% confident he wouldn’t do it again when things don’t go his way. By the end of the story, his main stressor was gone, so I was maybe …80% sure of him but I’d have preferred to be completely confident.
There was a significant power differential between Marc and Selina. I was concerned her feelings for him stemmed from gratitude for his rescue of her from Athol but Selina refuses to be a sponge and she realises that:
…falling in love with a white knight was a bad idea. Better to come to a man as an equal than for him to know that he’d rescued you because you were unable to rescue yourself.
I was very glad about that. The story ends on a happy for now, optimistic note that suited the length of the story and where both Marc and Selina are excited for their future outside of their relationship as well.
Snow-Kissed by Laura Florand (previously published as part of the Snow Queen series)
I reviewed Snow-Kissed when it was originally released – an excerpt from that review is below.
When you offered me this book for review, you warned me that it might be a bit too angsty for me, given my preferences. And Snow-Kissed was definitely an angsty read. But despite that, I found myself engaged by the characters and the story, and I read the novella in one sitting. I can’t say the book worked for me on an emotional level (with one exception), but I thought it was well executed and largely succeeded at what it was trying to do.
The first couple of pages, with their lush, expressive prose, told me I was in for an emotional ride, and I was pretty sure I wasn’t the right reader/reviewer. But despite my instinctive withdrawal from the intense emotional atmosphere, I kept reading, because even though I felt outside the target audience, the book was drawing me in. Kai’s voice was compelling, and when Kurt showed up, I had to read on. It’s an odd sensation to read a romance book from the outside, so to speak, because of all the genres, romance is the one where emotional engagement seems the most important. But I didn’t want to DNF the book, even though I wasn’t entirely sure why.
The food-related scenes and metaphors that set the stage were a little too plentiful for me, but I think that readers who enjoy impassioned atmosphere will find them compelling. Once Kai and Kurt started interacting, I settled into a reading groove. Kurt is very much in the style of Florand’s other heroes, not a copycat of any of his predecessors, but clearly related. The way he controlled and restrained his unhappiness made a great foil for Kai and helped provide balance for me as I read.
And the sex scenes? Oh, they are something. They were uncomfortable to read at times, because you know these two have a long, hard road to even an HFN, and sex between people who love each other but aren’t sure they can be together is so wrenching and bittersweet. I blogged a little while ago about closed-door romances and how I hope they aren’t going away, but this story is Exhibit A for what we missed when those were the norm. I’m not sure that what is communicated in these scenes, and the way the plot and relationship develop, could have been conveyed without them.
The novella is intensely focused on Kai and Kurt, which works well both in terms of the story development and the word count constraints. Kurt’s mother Anne, plays an important off-page role, and I really liked the way Florand integrated her role as mother and mother-in-law. She starts out sounding like Martha Stewart but the context in which her actions take place add an unexpectedly rich dimension to the story and remind us how often intimate tragedies extend beyond the immediate people who go through them.
I said that this was mostly a head-focused reading experience for me, but I also mentioned there was an exception, so here’s the heart part of my review: I haven’t been in either Kai or Kurt’s position, but I know what it’s like to be a couple’s only child by default and bad fortune rather than by choice. Coming at it from that history and experience, many years later, this book really rang true for me. Grade: B+
Twelve Kisses Until Christmas by Jennifer Lohmann
This was Kaetrin and my overlap story. Kaetrin, I agree with you that the setup and the first part flowed more smoothly than the second half of the story. I really liked the way we were introduced to Selina; she was in trouble but she got herself out of it and moved on. Same with Marc and his three phones and his inability to let go of his business even after he sold it. Marc was a convincing workaholic to me, and I thought Lohmann did a good job of finding him a way out that would allow him to be a worthy partner to Selina. I also thought the setting was effective, with Athol feeling both small-town oppressive and a place where Selina had some support.
I wasn’t as bothered by the power differential as you. I agree there was one, but I never got the feeling that Selina was that dazzled by Marc’s success and money. She seemed to see pretty clearly that he didn’t have his act together and reminded herself of her own ambitions even as she was falling for him. Of course at the end Marc was able to play fairy godfather and lover, but it’s a Christmas fairy tale so I went with that. And I agree that the optimistic HFN worked well for the story. This is my second short story by Lohmann and I think she does them well, especially in how she depicts strangers getting to know and fall in love with each other. Grade: B
Christmas Eve: A Love Story by M. O’Keefe (previously published in the Sweet Dreams anthology benefiting Diabetes research)
Amazingly, this is my first Molly O’Keefe story. She’s a favorite of several readers and reviewers at DA, and I definitely have some of her novels in my TBR. I went into this story knowing nothing about it and couldn’t stop reading once I started. The story takes place over a dozen years, with different chapters narrating different Christmas Eve events.
Trina and Dean are childhood friends whose parents are at loggerheads over their adjacent land holdings in the mountains of Wyoming. When we meet them they are in their last year of high school. Trina is getting far away from Dusk Falls by going to college at Stanford, while Dean is staying in the state to study land management. They’re almost but not quite more than friends, and I wondered if this would be a Romeo and Juliet story, where young love is thwarted by family rivalries. But it turns out to be more complicated than that. Yes, their family situations come between them, but as they grow older, so do the consequences of their own decisions.
They meet on Christmas Eve over the years, sometimes on purpose, sometimes by accident, and their friendship is tested in a variety of ways, but it endures. O’Keefe’s writing is compact, verging on elliptical, but she deftly communicates why Trina and Dean mean so much to each other:
“I didn’t want to wake you up.” She looked down at her boots, like getting them perfectly tight was all that mattered.
The tone of his voice made her head snap toward him. Still laughing, but now there was an edge to it. He was sitting up on his mattress, blankets pooled around his waist. His bright blue eyes were lined with dark lashes, and they saw right through her crap.
They always saw right through her crap. From the minute she discovered her own crap—he was seeing through it.
“If you’re going to run away, at least have the guts to say it.”
He quirked his eyebrow, and there was no point in trying to lie to him.
“Okay, I was running away.”
I don’t want to give away too much of the plot, because half of the pleasure in reading this story is watching it unfold. Being lovers turns out to be as wonderful as they thought it would be, but it’s not enough. Both of them still need to figure out their own lives and parental issues before they can be together and trust the future.
It took me a chapter or two to get used to the style, because you’re plunged into each scene without any setup, but it wound up making the story more immersive. There’s so much the reader isn’t directly told, but that doesn’t matter because you learn all the important things from Trina and Dean’s thoughts and words. I felt as if I knew this couple better after reading their short story than couples with full-length novels. It’s a lovely holiday tale. Grade: A-