My favorite read this Christmas season is not a Christmas book at all but a novella-length fairy tale that has one of the most unexpected opening scenes that I’ve encountered in my decades of reading romance fiction. I loved every scene of Eloisa James’s latest gift to her readers, Storming the Castle. That gem of an opening scene is detailed in my reading journal, so the next time someone asks about breaking the rules of romance . . . The ending is a perfect fantasy that reminded me of the fairy tales I read as a child and of the 12th-century lais of Marie de France. Like many of those who read A Kiss at Midnight, I finished the novel longing for an HEA for Jonas Berwick, familiarly known as Wick, the bastard brother of Gabriel, the hero prince of AKAM. It’s not giving anything away to say that in STC Wick gets his HEA with an endearing heroine and Kate and Gabriel and their colicky baby add a note of realism to the concept of happily ever after. If you want a full review, check out PJ’s at The Romance Dish. This is not a review. It’s my announcement that I’ve already received one perfect gift this season from the imagination of one of my favorite authors, and I didn’t have to brave the chilly weather and rampaging shoppers to get STC. I downloaded it from an online retailer for $1.99.
I’m less enthusiastic about a true Christmas book, as opposed to a book read and/or released during the season, from another favorite author. I have loved Lisa Kleypas’s contemporaries as much as her historicals, and I was so eager to read Christmas Eve at Friday Harbor, the first in a new series, that I didn’t even consider waiting to get it from my local library, my usual practice with hardback releases that I am unwilling to delay reading until paperback publication. And I loved much about this book. The setting is as dimensional and gorgeous as the cover suggests, the premise of the story (bachelor uncle becomes father, falls in love with heroine who bonds with his new charge) is one I enjoy, and I found the characters from the H/H to the orphaned niece to the hero’s brothers (one charmer, one brooder) to the heroine’s father (a minor note) interesting and engaging. But I ended up feeling cheated. The story and the characters deserved more than even the gifted Kleypas could give them in just over 200 pages. Mark Nolan’s life was transformed by the death of his sister and the guardianship of his niece, as was the life of Maggie Collins by the slow death of her young husband. These are characters dealing with real issues that resonate with many readers. Whether loss comes in an instant in an accident or over long months of a fearful disease, it is a messy experience with uneven progress toward recovery from grief. Kleypas shows her readers that grief makes Mark and Maggie into different people, but their journeys and the journey of Holly, the little girl who loses her mother, seemed simplistic to me. (Forgive my pedanticism, but I see “simplistic misused so often I feel I must add that calling something “simplistic” is not the same as praising its “simplicity.” The latter can be powerful; the former is oversimplifying something by ignoring complexities.) Christmas Eve at Friday Harbor is not a bad book. I don’t regret reading it, and I look forward to the stories of the other Nolan brothers. But it was less than I expected from this author, and I do wish I’d waited for the library copy.
A Christmas story that did not disappoint was Karina Bliss’s novella in the Harlequin SuperRomance anthology That Christmas Feeling. The other stories in the anthology—Brenda Novak’s “A Dundee Christmas” with an illegal immigrant as a heroine and Kathleen O’Brien’s “We Need a Little Christmas” about an old man, his estranged grandson, and the woman who works to see them reconciled—are warm, feel-good stories, but Bliss’s “Kiss Me, Santa” has the something extra that carries a story to the A level for me. This story too is a story about grief. I don’t think I’ve consciously noted before how many Christmas romances have grief as a theme. Mike Ward sounds the Scroogy note in a community chorus of holiday harmony that manifests itself in elaborate Christmas decorations. A widower who feels responsible for his wife’s death, Mike has come to New Zealand to escape solicitous family and friends, and he has no interest in holiday celebrations. His neighbor Erica Owens and her son Will are grieving the loss of their family. Her ex-husband’s infidelity led her to divorce him, and she’s trying to create a new life for herself and her son. The thing I love most about Bliss’s writing is that she leads me to believe in her characters. I understood Mike’s guilt, however irrational, and I cried with Erica when she put her son on a plane to spend Christmas with his father and went home and surrendered to the pain of the holiday without her child. Because I cared about these characters, I rejoiced to see the relationship between them develop from reluctant attraction to love. It was a moving, heartwarming story.
My favorite Christmas story this year is not a romance but a cozy mystery. Margaret Maron is my favorite mystery writer. Julia Spencer-Fleming is a very close second, but Maron has the advantage of being Southern. Colleton County, North Carolina, the setting of Maron’s Deborah Knott novels, is just closer to home for me, geographically and emotionally, than is Spencer-Fleming’s New England town. Christmas Mourning is Maron’s sixteenth mystery featuring Deborah Knott, district judge and only daughter in a complicated family of twelve siblings. I read Maron’s books as much for the family dynamics and the love story as for the mystery, and Christmas Mourning gave me exactly what I expected. The mystery reiterates the Faulknerian wisdom that in the South the past is never really past, and the larger story offers another look at the extended Knott family, at Deborah and Dwight about to celebrate their first wedding anniversary, and at Christmas in Colleton County.
I also loved Emily March’s A Callahan Carol, downloadable free on her website. It has warmth and sentiment, family ties, and an extraordinary angel—some of the ingredients I love to see in a Christmas story--and it has the added benefit of linking the old and beloved, Geralyn Dawson’s Callahans in Brazos Bend, Texas, with the new and anticipated, Emily March’s characters in Eternity Springs, Colorado.
Of course, I’ve been rereading too—Diane Farr’s Once Upon a Christmas; Jo Beverley’s Winter Fire; the stories of Debbie Macomber’s mischievous angels Shirley, Goodness, and Mercy; the first two books of Marilyn Pappano’s Bethlehem series; Mary Jo Putney’s stories in Christmas Revels; Jeanne Savery’s The Christmas Matchmaker; and more by Mary Balogh, Carla Kelly, Barbara Metzger, and Edith Layton than I can list.
What are your favorite Christmas stories of 2010? Do you reread old favorites at Christmastime?
Whatever holiday you celebrate, may it be bright with laughter, warm with love, and filled with the people and the books that matter most to you.