Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Short Takes: A Handful of Harlequin Holiday Reviews


Rescuing Christmas 
By Vicki Lewis Thompson, Catherine Mann, and Kathie DeNosky
Publisher: Harlequin
Release Date: October 30, 2012

This anthology includes three Christmas stories—“Holiday Haven” by Thompson, “Home for Christmas” by Mann, and “A Puppy for Will by DeNosky—linked by their connection to the Haven, a no-kill animal shelter and featuring one or more of the animals from the shelter. 

Thompson’s “Holiday Haven” introduces readers to the shelter and to Tansy Dexter, its director. Tansy loves her job and she’s passionate about finding the right home for the animals. She meets she’s cameraman Ben Rhodes when she’s on a local TV show to plug her holiday adopt-a-pet campaign. She thinks she’s found a kindred spirit when Ben volunteers to take pictures of the animals for the Haven’s web site, especially when a grumpy cat who is not a people person bonds with him. But Ben, whose childhood was a troubled one, has had his heart broken by the loss of a beloved pet long ago and has refused to have a pet since. Despite the chemistry between them, Tansy can’t imagine a relationship with someone who’s afraid to even love a pet. Can Ben find the courage to take a risk?

Mann’s “Home for Christmas” is a marriage-in-trouble tale that combines a returning soldier and a trio of adorable dogs. Shelby Dawson-Conrad knows that her marriage is over even if the legal formalities have yet to be completed. Infertility, miscarriages, and a husband who volunteered for combat duty rather than deal with the problems in his marriage have ended her dreams of happily ever after, but she’s still determined her husband Alex will not return home for Christmas with no one to greet him. Shelby, a volunteer at the Haven, has committed to transporting three dogs from the shelter to their new families in time for Christmas. She and Alex are both surprised when he agrees to go with her, dropping the animals with their new owners and joining Shelby’s father and step-mother for Christmas. Despite the presence of a cameraman, Alex and Shelby begin to communicate in a way they never have before. But is it in time to save their marriage?

DeNosky’s “A Puppy for Will” is a romantic comedy with some laugh-out-loud moments. Will Parker’s grandmother has convince the game designer to foster Harley, a five-month-old Saint Bernard and Bernese Mountain mixed breed puppy from the Haven, for the Christmas holidays. Harley is responsible for Will’s meeting Macie Fairbanks, a writer who has sworn off men since her former fiancé dumped her during the holidays a year ago. But Will is hot enough to melt Macie’s firm intentions, and Macie and Harley are claiming spaces in the heart that Will had marked “No Entrance.”

This anthology was one of my favorite Christmas reads. The animals are an addition guaranteed to win the hearts of pet lovers. The three couples are all appealing characters, and the authors create stories that have common ground but are distinctive in style and tone. I enjoyed all three stories and am especially pleased to have discovered DeNosky, a new-to-me writer whose backlist I will definitely check out.

A Snowglobe Christmas
By Linda Goodnight and Lissa Manley
Publisher: Harlequin (Love Inspired)
Release Date: November 1, 2012

This is a duet of Christmas stories set in a town called Snowglobe, Montana. In “Yuletide Homecoming” by Rita-winner Linda Goodnight, Amy Caldwell, with marketing degree and experience in Spokane in hand, has returned home prepared to gradually take over her mother’s gift shop. However, she had not counted on Rafe Westfield, her former fiancé, having returned to Snowglobe as well. Rafe broke Amy’s heart when he chose a career in the Marines over marriage to her. There’s no avoiding him. Friends, family, and church make sure the two are constantly being thrown together, and their insistence that the only thing linking them is their past fools no one.  But Amy’s fear of abandonment runs deep, with its roots in her father’s leaving when she was a child. Will her faith in God and her love for Rafe be enough to allow her to trust in their future together?

“A Family’s Christmas Wish” by Lissa Manley features single parents Sara Kincaid, owner of the Snowglobe Bed and Breakfast, and Owen Larsen, contractor. Both Sara, whose husband left her when she was eight months pregnant, and Owen, who was widowed a year ago, have three-year-old daughters. A friendship develops when they agree to exchange Owen’s completing some much needed repairs on the inn for Sara’s home cooking and babysitting services. As they spend time together, the children bond and Sara and Owen begin to fall in love. But can these two wounded people find a happy ending when Sara can’t leave Snowglobe and Owen is convinced God is leading him to another town?

The stories are linked by setting and theme, and they are both sweet stories in which the religious faith of the characters is central.  Character development is slight, and conflict is resolved quickly and simplistically. I didn’t dislike these stories, but I wanted them to have more substance. I’ve read other stories by Goodnight that I thought had more heft to them. These are like Christmas ornaments that look pretty but are too fragile to survive close examination.

A Cold Creek Noel 
By RaeAnne Thayne
Publisher: Harlequin (Special Edition)
Release Date: November 13, 2012

Caidy Bowman is the youngest of the four Bowman siblings whose parents were murdered in a home invasion a few days before Christmas eleven years ago. The murders changed Caidy’s life forever. She gave up her dream of becoming a veterinarian and settled for staying close to home on the family ranch, she stopped singing, and she lost the joy in Christmas.

Ben Caldwell, a widower, is the new vet in Pine Gulch, Idaho, having moved there from California in search of a more peaceful life for himself and his two young children. He hopes Idaho is far enough from his former in-laws to limit their influence over his children, especially his nine-year-old daughter who has adopted some of her grandmother’s less pleasant attitudes.

Caidy meets Ben when a bull gores one of the ranch dogs. After some initial misunderstanding, the two gain a respect for one another. By their second meeting, it’s clear that the chemistry between them is potentially explosive. But Ben still has issues concerning the diabetes-related death of his wife, and Caidy blames herself for her parents’ deaths. Both of them have to resolve their pasts before they are ready for a new life.  

This is the eleventh book in Thayne’s Cowboys of Cold Creek, a series that has yielded three earlier Christmas books with a fifth one, the story of the fourth Bowman sibling, scheduled for 2013. Although I prefer Thayne’s non-category books because I like a longer, more developed story, she has a gift for creating characters that I care about. I’ve read most of the Cold Creek books and found them engaging. This one is no exception. It’s a heartwarming story of two wounded people, two believable kids, a generous serving of extended family, and lots of dogs. Add the touches of Christmas, and it’s a satisfying holiday read.

The Spirit of Christmas  
By Liz Talley  
Publisher: Harlequin (Superromance)  
Release Date: November 27, 2012
Mary Paige Gentry may be late for a family Christmas party, but even so she can’t ignore the homeless tramp she discovers outside a convenience store. She intends to give him only a cup of coffee, but when she realizes he’s barefooted, she gives him the novelty Christmas socks she’s just purchased as a white-elephant gift for the party. Her giving spirit changes Mary Paige’s life because the tramp is actually Malcolm Henry, Jr., a post-transformation Scrooge who rewards her act of genuine selflessness with a check for two million and a request that she become the public face of Henry Department Stores’ Spirit of Christmas Campaign to make New Orleans aware of the true spirit of Christmas.
Brennan Henry is a younger, still unrepentant Scrooge. He loves his grandfather, but he hears that all the changes that have occurred in the old man since a heart attack six months ago, especially his determination to give away money, are signs that he’s had a stroke or is suffering from senility. He reluctantly goes along with his grandfather’s spirit of Christmas idea because the old man is still in charge after all and because he is persuaded the campaign will prove good for the bottom line, his major concern.
Mary Paige and Brennan are opposites in every way. They recognize their differences, they are convinced they are all wrong for each other, but there is an attraction between them that can’t be denied. Brennan is intrigued by Mary Paige and the kindness and empathy that are so much a part of who she is, but he’s a cynic when it comes to Christmas. It will take something out of the ordinary to persuade him that life is more that the satisfaction of seeing the dollars rolling in.
The elder Henry and his romance were my favorite part of the story. It’s a nice Christmas tale, but it’s predictable, another variation on a story often retold. Just in case you miss the parallels to Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, there are ample reminders such as this one:
 “Remember the children beneath the robes?”  

“Ignorance and Want,” Brennan said to himself, his mind clicking as he grasped the implications.”

“Don’t let them win.”
It’s a lesson that bears repeating, and it’s sweetly seasoned with romance. Not a bad choice for reading beside a Christmas tree with a cup of hot chocolate or a glass of wine.


Countdown to First Night (an anthology)
By Jillian Hart, Margaret Daly, and Brenda Minton
Publisher: Harlequin
Release Date: January 2, 2013

This holiday anthology celebrates New Year’s rather than Christmas. The three stories are set in Snow Falls, Colorado, as the town readies for First Night, its annual countdown to the New Year.

“Winter’s Heart” by Jillian Heart is the story of Shelby Craig, a young, down-on-her-luck widow who returns with her two children to Snow Falls. Her grandmother offers her sanctuary while Shelby searches for a new job that will allow her to support her small family. But an unexpected meeting with Ronan Winters, a friend from her childhood, leads not only to a new job but also to the possibility of a new life for the new year.

“Snowbound at New Year” by Ellie Summer features Ellie Summers, author of a series of children’s books who has come to Snow Falls to meet with her new illustrator. Brody Kincaid was recommended by her former illustrator with whom Ellie had enjoyed perfect understanding, but things aren’t going so well with the new guy. Ellie hopes a face-to-face meeting will improve their communication. Brody, a widower, has retreated with his twin daughters to an isolated home atop a mountain outside Snow Falls, convinced there is no room in his heart for anything other than his love for his children and his memories of his wife. That face-to-face meeting brings a connection neither author nor illustrator anticipates.

“A Kiss at Midnight” by Brenda Minton offers the tale of Jolie Goodwin and Jake Wild, natives of Snow Falls with a history between them. Jolie is the daughter of an alcoholic who stole from Jake. Jake is the son of shallow mother who almost destroyed his legacy from his father. They are both weighed down by their pasts and wary of trusting the feelings that spark between them.  And neither can forget the kiss they shared last New Year’s Eve? Do they dare go for a replay at the ball that is the culmination of First Night festivities?

These are all sweet second-chance stories with kids as secondary characters. They are conventional stories with no surprises, but they are heartwarming and the New Year’s connection makes them a bit different.

Are you still reading holiday stories? Or have you had you fill until 2013? 


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