Tag Archives: Christmas

Two Christmases by Suleena Bibra

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Two Christmases by Suleena Bibra

Bibra, Suleena. Two Christmases. Carina Press & Carina Adores (Harlequin), Carina Press, 2022. pp. ISBN 9780369718792 $4.99

**

While the premise is fun and has Hallmark-movie esque bones, with a native New York auction house employee falling for a southern cowboy client, it was a push to get through. Sonia, who dreams of interior design over the art auction house business, is up for a furniture promotion she isn’t sure she wants, and Beau, looking to outfit the offices of his green business venture to appeal to clients with money, is looking for guidance when they meet and Sonia uses his need to feed her desires. The attraction is strong, they debate over where Christmas is best, the city or country, and she takes him to her favorite haunts, including a 170-stall holiday shopping bazaar, a theatre running Christmas episodes of television shows, multiple Christmas parties and more. Hot chocolate is running through their veins.

They consummate their relationship early and with fairly mechanical precision, little variation or dialogue, and zero of the awkwardness or consent conversations that punctuate real-life encounters. She defines what I’d consider pedestrian as the best sex of her life. He calls her Baby Girl with great affection, which I personally found disturbing. Relationship-phobic Sonia dreads the ease with which they come together and tries to set boundaries–she KNOWS he’s going back home–and fails. His invitation to visit on his turf shouldn’t take her by surprise. She agrees to go and experience a country Christmas.

The writing is disappointingly amatuer. Descriptions are detailed, but not sensory, mostly just visual observations. Indian culture is nicely integrated with names, family dynamics and specific Hindi definitions, references to chai and cookies and Indian soap operas. Adverbs are over(ly) used and the writing it repetitive. Sonia smacks Beau on the ass on their way into the LEGO store, and he –her client–doesn’t react. She insults him throughout the first quarter of the book, calling him variations of “Old MacDonald.” These behaviors are unattractive and rude, and the character is not developed enough and the writing is not good enough to pass it off as flirtation or banter. I pushed through the predictable ending.

I received a free advance reader’s review copy of #TwoChristmases from #NetGalley

A Merry Little Meet Cute by Julie Murphy and Sierra Simone

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A Merry Little Meet Cute by Julie  Murphy and Sierra Simone

Murphy, Julie and Sierra Simone. A Merry Little Meet Cute. Avon, 2022. 432 pp. ISBN 978-0063222571. $21.99

*****

When plus-sized adult film star Bianca von Honey and former bad-boy Nolan Shaw, a boy band member turned actor, get cast opposite one another in a Hallmark movie-esque time travel rom com, she’s under orders to not reveal her porn industry connection, and he’s under orders to maintain a squeaky-clean image for rebranding. Bee keeps her composure when she meets the fantasy-inspiring man whose photos are still taped all over the walls and ceiling of her childhood bedroom, and Nolan pretends not to recognize Bee as the alt-porn star who has been not only feeding his spank bank for three years, but hides his super-fan top-tier support of her members-only ClosedDoor (think OnlyFans) account. The chemistry seems to be there, but she thinks the funny look on his face when they meet is because he thinks she’s fat (he doesn’t).

No one except Bee knows Teddy Ray Fletcher, producer of the film under the newly minted Fletcher Productions, is also Uncle Ray Ray, budget porn mogul. Due to an unfortunate accident that takes out several original crew members, Teddy substitutes behind the scenes crew members gleaned from the adult film industry for hair, wardrobe, and gaffer. Mums the word, because no one can know the streams have been crossed, or the family-friendly Hope network will drop the Duke the Halls project and Teddy will be out a lot of much needed cash.

BrillIantly plotted, inclusive, diverse, sweet and raunchy, the narrative is fucking hilarious and full of quick comebacks, racy references, cultural allusions and laugh-out-loud funny moments. It’s entirely likely authors Murphy and Simone alternated the chapters as Bee and Nolan, but the voices and narrative, while different, are cohesive. I have sense that Murphy brings along the YA drama and angsty, pop culture allusions and movie-making know how, while Simone adds in the romance and historical aspects to create a really seamless whole; when Bee and Nolan are arguing over which BBQ reigns supreme (Texas or Kansas), the authors might be making their own preferences known, but it works.

Characters were multifaceted and diverse in background, ethnicity and sexuality, all normalized and embraced. Most of the Christmas romances I read exist in a vacuum of other religions and cultures not existing, but A Merry Little Meet cute references multiple Jewish-adjacent characters, which was refreshing and affirming. This holiday romance novel also deals positively with mental illness, sex work and slut-shaming, body positivity and fat shaming and feminism.

I received a free advance reader’s review copy of #MerryLittleMeetCute from #NetGalley.

Once Upon a December by Amy E. Reichert

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Once Upon a December by Amy E. Reichert

Amy E. Reichert. Once Upon a December. Berkley, 2022. 336 pp. ISBN 9780593197790. $17.00

**1/2

The concept of this fantastical romance: Brigadoon, but a magickal Christmas village instead of an idyllic Scottish one (and the female lead is the one who stumbles into the land set apart from time) is sweet and well-developed. Astra Noel Snow thinks there is something vaguely familiar about the hottie that sells her the most delicious cherry almond kringle pastry and can’t quite place him… but Jack Clausen knows she has stopped by almost every time the Julemarked (Yule Market) appears in Milwaukee. When he finally gets up the nerve to ask her name, their chemistry is off the charts, but Jack isn’t able to communicate his time restrictions, and Astra is disappointed to return from Christmas in Florida with her parents to find a brick wall where the Julemarked used to be, and her friend’s memories of it are fuzzy at best.

She spends the year fighting with her ex-husband about shared custody of Bernie (their dog) and dreaming of Jack. The next December first, Astra’s waiting to confront Jack when the Julemarked reappears, demanding an confirmation of her suspicions. They now have three and a half weeks to court while Astra has to decide if she wants to trade her library job, two parents, three best friends, and four seasons for a future and a family with Jack; it seems out of the question that he would leave the Julemarked when it’s so perfect and his work is so fulfilling.

It turns out the Julemarked has no currency, no WiFi, and a slow, peaceful pace. Hidden from sight like 12 Grimmauld Place and resembling a holiday Diagon Alley, the market appears from Dec 1-through midnight on Christmas Eve, popping up annually in a new spot each time, selling handmade items–toys, sweaters, pottery, baked goods–that the locals purchase as holiday gifts. The residents get a break through New Years… and then the Julemarked pops up somewhere else (a year later in real time but only a week later, for them) and it’s Christmas, again.

Strong in Danish culture and rooted in place, the library job details felt a little like pandering and unrealistic. The female friendships are strong but the relationships don’t pass the Bechdel test. The sexual tension is rich but the sex is behind closed doors. The worldbuilding is very complete and highly sensory: you can almost smell the hot cocoa and caramelized potatoes, and hear the clock striking. The structure is well-executed, with past encounters filling in the fifteen years of backstory from Jack’s point of view. Berkley has produced some stellar romance novels, and I appreciate the branching out into a fantasy holiday romance, but the narrative sometimes reflects from poor editing, with words or phrases repeated multiple times, sometimes within a few pages of one another, such as descriptions of Ronnie, Steph and Cassie which also suffer from the dreaded telling instead of showing. There are 14 religious holidays celebrated in December, and only Christmas gets a mention. The cast is not diverse. I didn’t find the public drinking or binge drinking or Astra’s tactics to get her dog above board. The ending was not entirely predictable;I might have even teared up a little! but I felt a little emotionally manipulated with Astra’ (Reichert’s?) choices.

I wavered between 2/12 and 3 stars. This was charming, but another pass by an editor might have made for a stronger book. Still, I could see it cinematically while I read, and Once Upon A December would make a great Hallmark movie. It will find its audience.

Bonus half star for the Hans Christian Anderson allusions and biographical details.

I received a free advance reader’s review copy of #OnceUponADecember from #NetGalley.

Once Upon A Royal Christmas by Teri Wilson

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Once Upon A Royal Christmas by Teri Wilson

Wilson,Teri. Once Upon A Royal Christmas. Hallmark, 2022. 228 ISBN 978-1952210754. $15.99.

**

Even though I converted to Judaism a few years ago, the magic of the holiday season isn’t lost on me, and a spent enough hours watching Hallmark Christmas movies with my mother to appreciate and groan (at the same time!) at them. This seasonal romance direct from Hallmark publishing reads a bit like a script turned to a novel and has so much descriptive detail it reads like it’s intended for a set decorator and prop master.

Grumpy Prince Nikolas will do anything to save his tiny country and bring in dollars and goes along with his family’s contest to augment their holiday tourism business. Gracie, a party princess who dresses up for sick children and birthday parties, is the winner of the contest, the grand prize of which is just enough money to move her business from her home to an office and provide benefits for her staff of princesses for hire. An identity mix-up ensues, where Grace assumes Nik is the hired fake prince, and he assumes she is a real princess brought in to see if she is marriage material. Lots of wintery events, hot cocoa and so!much!glitter! follow. Some depth is added with Gracie’s vocal trauma to overcome, and color with supporting characters, like Nik’s cool little sister and best friend/staff member.

The romance is sweet and clean and I will be shocked if it’s not already in production for this year or next. If you have skipped decorative gourd and pumpkin spice season and your tree is already up, this is a book for you–it was not my cup of cocoa, er, tea.

I received a free advance reader’s review copy of #OnceUponARoyalChristmas from #NetGalley.

Kiss Her Once for Me by Alison Cochrun

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Kiss Her Once for Me by Alison Cochrun

Cochrun, Alison. Kiss Her Once for Me. 368 pp. Atria Books, 2022. ISBN 978-1982191139 $17.99

*****

I feel the same about LGBTQIA+ romance as I do about science fiction novels: as long as the plot is engaging, the setting is strong, the characters compelling (and their names pronounceable), I’m in, even though I don’t self-identify as a science fiction fanatic or queer. I selected this from NetGalley’s offerings months ago, tugged in by the twisty premise of demisexual girl gets fake engaged for money to her ex’s brother. I felt like I just wasn’t in the mood for a queer romance, or a holiday story, and avoiding cracking open my ARC until there were only about three days left on the ticking clock of the review window. I could not put this one down and finished it just in time.

Told in flashbacks that describe a webcomic series based on a perfect romantic snow day with a mysterious Jack one a year ago, and Ellie’s present day dilemma (should she confess the terms of the engagement to Jack? Disclose to Andrew Jack is the manic pixie dream butch from last Christmas?), the only thing that could make this more perfect is if the described comic sections were actual panels…or if the entire book was a graphic novel, hint, hint, @SimonAndSchuster, get on it already!

Ellie is an empathetic character. An animation school grad who got her dream job and then got let go for not being able to cut it, she landed at a coffee-shop with a terrible boss where Instagramming foam creations on lattes is her artistic outlet. Denied a promotion and facing eviction because her terrible! mother is exhorting her as payback for RAISING her, a wealthy investment banker/hedge fund type overhears her plight, takes her on a date, and suggests they catch two birds with one stone and get engaged to solve her financial troubles and allow him access to his inheritance that will only be unlocked if he marries. Ellie drunkenly agrees, and Andrew whisks her off to spend the holidays at his family’s cabin (read: mansion) to introduce her to his relatives and solidify the relationship. His sister Jacqueline/Jack turns out to be the beautiful butch baker from last year’s Powell’s excursion. In a side plot, her best friend–trans tattooed kindergarten teacher Dylan–was Andrew’s super-sekrit hookup last year when Jack was skipping the family festivities and hooking up with Ellie.

The characters are three-dimensional and pop off the page, and they are also delightfully messy and unexpected. Andrew and Jack’s Korean-Americanism is a subtle undercurrent. The rich widowed grandmothers are best buds with an it’s five o’clock somewhere attitude, and in spite of their imbibing, are more astute than they initially let on. Only Andrew and Jack’s father is stereotypical, with a piece on the side and outdated, unsupportive, critical attitudes. Pop culture is a strong secondary character in the novel, with Alexa playlists popping up to provide the perfect pop music soundtrack. Cochrun pays homage to Taylor Swift, Celine Dion, Fun Home, and While You Were Sleeping. Portland has a life of its, with its lack of snow planning, coffee culture, and queer pride.

It’s difficult not to contrast Kiss Her Once for Me with Not The Plan, which I read in the same week. Both couples have a keyword that means time to tell the truth; “honesty game?” works for Jack and Ellie in a way “blunt, honest?” does not for Isa and Karim. The slow burn and careful respect is hot with Jack and Ellie, and plodding and wooden with Isa and Karim. The detailed sex scenes in Kiss Her Once For Me incorporate sensory detail and delicacy, emotion and acceptance, and make unsexy parts sexy, instead of focusing just on erogenous zones. Bodies in Not The Plan are described in gym-honed terms, firm and perfect, while in Kiss Her Once for Me the imperfections are adualated: stretch marks and soft bellies and hairy legs are celebrated as “so fucking perfect.”

Ironically, what makes Kiss Her Once for Me a 5 star (perfect!) book is how it celebrates messy, looking at failures as falls you can pick yourself back up after. “It’s not a failure to let people see you imperfections, it’s vulnerability,” says the best friend who seems to have her shit together but failed her bar exam. Words to take to heart.

I received a free advance reader’s review copy of #KissHerOnceForMe from #NetGalley

The Gift by Cecelia Ahern

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The Gift by Cecelia Ahern

Ahern, Cecelia. The Gift. Harper Collins, 2008. ISBN 978-0007284979 pp. $

**

This story within a story opens with a teen being arrested for tossing a frozen turkey through the window of his father’s–and stepmother’s–home on Thanksgiving. While waiting for the boy’s mother to pick him up, the arresting officer weaves a tale about a workaholic man named Lou who befriends a homeless man named Gabe that slowly insinuates himself into Lou’s life. Lou is given opportunity after opportunity to spend time with his family, but he’d rather take a “headache pill” (provided by Gabe) that conveniently clones him.

Characters are stereotyped and very black and white. The writing is nothing notable, the plot didactic and ending, predictable. The message about time being a precious gift and making the most of your relationships is obvious and heavy handed in a Richard Paul Evans way.

Where’s Prancer? by Syd Hoff

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Where’s Prancer? by Syd Hoff

Hoff, Syd. Where’s Prancer? Harper Collins, 2007 (reprint). ISBN  978-0060276003 32 pp. $

****

Cheerful and charming illustrations pair with a simple story about a missing reindeer to create this amusing and touching picture book. The cadence of the text works well with the humorous dialogue, and the ending has a warm and fuzzy feeling. The topical references to the City of Brotherly Love don’t limit the audience, although the book may have special appeal for Philadelphia natives. Very young children may not get the humor, but will still enjoy the story and illustrations. Pair with “Olive, the Other Reindeer” by J. Otto Seibold and Vivian Walsh for a quirky reindeer storytime for the older preschool set.