A Snowy Little Christmas
I adore Christmas, which might seem odd considering my family doesn’t celebrate the holiday. I have no connection to the religious aspect, but the reason I love Christmas so much is because I felt isolated and miserable when I first moved to the United States as a child. Seattle seemed gloomy, dark, and wet compared to Singapore, and I hated everything about the city. Until December, when the city suddenly transformed into a magical place with pretty lights, irresistible music, and mouthwatering treats (I love peppermint and gingerbread. I don’t know why everyone gets so excited about pumpkin spice lattes when the Starbucks holiday drinks menu is clearly superior). The holiday, despite how commercialized it is, still inspires fuzzy and nostalgic feelings about being the first thing that I loved about the U.S.
It comes as no surprise, then, that I start reading Christmas novellas in July. The holiday is a terrific setting in romance:
- It can summon grief or happiness (depending on who is or isn’t around to celebrate)
- It brings out the worst (and best!) in family (meddling relatives are a balm to my soul)
- It’s tropetastic. Need someone to come to your family’s celebration? Embark on a fake-dating scheme. Back at your childhood home for the first time in a decade? Odds are that you’ll run into your high-school sweetheart, nemesis, or friend. Is snow on the horizon? Flee to the nearest shelter and prepare to be snowbound for a week.
With promises of forced proximity via snowstorm, A Snowy Little Christmas seemed like the perfect Christmas anthology to sink my teeth into. I’d never read Fern Michaels or Tara Sheets before, but I loved Kate Clayborn’s Chance of a Lifetime series. The good news: Kate Clayborn’s novella lived up to ridiculously high expectations. The bad news: the other two stories didn’t work as well for me. One out of three isn’t terrible for an anthology, but I’m still bummed that I didn’t love the novellas as much as I wanted to.
Starry Night by Fern Michaels is my least favorite story in the anthology, and I DNFed it after three chapters.
As the host of a radio program for the lovelorn in Chicago, Jessie Richmond is surprisingly lonely, especially with the holidays approaching. So she decides to make the trek to her uncle’s bookstore in rural New York state and hold a speed dating event—only to find herself snowed in—with one very special single . . .
I can’t say anything about Starry Night’s plot that the blurb doesn’t already convey. I try not to DNF to-be-reviewed books, but in this case I simply couldn’t stick around long enough to find out if I liked the romance. It is difficult to explain why authorial voice doesn’t work, but I can categorically say that Fern Michaels’s writing style isn’t for me. Let me break down exactly what happens in the first three chapters:
Chapter 1: A character history of heroine Jessie Richmond. The only pertinent information is that 1) Jessie dispenses love advice in a radio segment and 2) her uncle left her a bookstore and she intends to visit it during Christmas. The rest includes a recitation of Jessie’s life up to this point, including her college and career history.
Jessie was a striking-looking woman, with almond-shaped eyes and olive skin she’d inherited from her Italian maternal grandmother, along with the green eyes, high cheekbones, and straight blond hair from her father’s Dutch side of the family.
Blessed with a lean five-foot-ten-inch frame, she was a natural athlete. After earning second-team all-American honors her last two years at Penn State, she had earned a place on the Olympic volleyball team, but the practices were long and grueling. During one practice, a photographer took special interest in her and encouraged her to pursue a modeling career. While she didn’t mind the fierce competition among the women, volleyball could get rough, and she decided that a fresh French manicure was much more attractive than the swollen knuckles everyone had from digging balls off the floor.
Even though she was only twenty-two at the time, she knew it was rather late to begin a career in modeling, but the photographer’s charm won out. She quit the team and moved to Philadelphia, where he convinced her he could land her a lot of jobs. She was forced to admit that she had been a bit naïve, especially after almost a year with very few paying gigs. She lived month to month, with two, sometimes three roommates, one of whom was her photographer-boyfriend. But Jessie had a strong resolve. She would figure it out—whatever “it” was.
While at an interview for a modeling job, Marjorie Leland, who owned an ad agency, hired her for some print and cable work for a local car dealership. Marjorie knew full well that getting modeling jobs was not easy for most women, however good-looking they might be. But Jessie was attractive, bright, and had a quick wit, and Marjorie took a liking to her. Marjorie saw her potential and offered her a position as her assistant, encouraging her to do some modeling on the side. Over time, however, Jessie became less interested in the runway and much more fascinated by life on the other side of the camera. She began to coordinate photo shoots for clients of the agency. Being a quick study, by the time she was thirty she had worked her way up to account executive.
Jessie had a charisma that attracted the attention of almost anyone who entered the doors of Leland and Burrows. Her alluring smile and the sparkle in her eyes made her instantly likable. She was warm and open to all those with whom she came into contact. It didn’t matter who they were or where they came from. As far as she was concerned, everyone deserved respect—until they screwed up.
There’s a lot more, but I’m not going to quote the entire chapter. Nearly five-hundred words and we haven’t even reached the part where Jessie explains how she got her current radio gig and what her love life is like. It’s boring. It’s unnecessary. It lacks emotional resonance. I understand the need for some character description (preferably conveyed in an interesting manner), but this frustrated me.
Chapter 2: Jessie drives to Upstate NY to inspect the bookstore. She meets the contractor hero and they have, as I saw someone say recently, the chemistry of uneven carpet trimmings. Jessie spends 90% of her mental processes on his attractiveness and how relieved she is that he’s unmarried.
If I thought the mind-numbing description was over, I was wrong. Here’s how Chapter 2 starts (emphasis mine).
The weekend after Halloween, Jessie made the drive from her apartment in Philadelphia to New York. It took just under three hours. She was able to beat the commuter traffic and enjoy the Palisades Interstate Parkway as, high among the cliffs, it weaved its way along the Hudson River. New Jersey had some beautiful spots, including the beaches in the east, Kittatinny Mountain in the north, and Buttermilk Falls and Crater Lake Loop Trail in the west. The state always got a bad rap, and that idiotic show Jersey Shore had set the Garden State back a few decades. Make that centuries. Jessie shook her head, thinking about how much the entertainment industry was becoming a cultural calamity. It was the equivalent of junk food. No wonder so many people were depressed.
The next two pages describe what she sees during the drive: the new Tappan Zee Bridge (apparently it resembles bridges in Charleston and Oakland!), the town of Tarrytown (home of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”), and Cortlandt Manor (she used to attend the Great Jack O’Lantern Blaze every Halloween).
It reads like a travel guide. There is nothing wrong with travel guides; I just don’t want to read one in a romance! After she reaches her destination, there is a lengthy description about the bookstore she inherited from her uncle. By the time another woman arrived to provide some sorely-needed but uninteresting dialogue, I was exhausted.
I bolded Jessie’s feelings re: Jersey Shore because it’s such a weird and off-putting tangent. Putting aside the problematic assumption that the entertainment industry is responsible for depression, Jessie is nearly thirty-five. Do her opinions sound like a thirty-five woman or someone twice that age? I vote the latter.
Chapter 3: Exactly like Chapter 1’s character history description, but with the hero instead (I can’t even remember his name. This is how zoned out I was by Chapter 3). I DNFed after this chapter.
Perhaps I’m being too harsh and more dialogue would’ve eventually replaced the eye-glazing description. But after three chapters, I was having such a miserable experience. Everything about the novella was excruciating, and I had no faith in the romance because their scene together didn’t hook me. If you’re a Fern Michaels fan and this is her usual writing style, then you might like Starry Night. All I know is that my reading time and happiness are precious, so I chose to stop something that wasn’t sparking joy. I am a firm believer that we should apply Marie Kondo’s philosophies to DNFing books. DNF.
Mistletoe and Mimosas by Tara Sheets has lovely writing but failed to convince me of the HEA, and I give it a C-.
After years of hard work, real estate agent Layla Gentry has her dream home on Pine Cove Island. She’s perfectly content to be on her own. Until her childhood nemesis, Sebastian, comes to town. When a snowstorm and a stranded kitten bring them together on Christmas Eve, Layla discovers he’s all grown up—and she may have one more dream left . . .
Mistletoe and Mimosas is difficult to grade because my feelings are mixed. I liked the writing style, the adorable kitten that brought the couple together, and even the characters. But all the promising aspects were irrelevant by the end because the romantic storyline didn’t convince me of their HEA.
The blurb is misleading: they’re not childhood nemeses. Layla was a child from the “wrong side of the tracks” while Sebastian was from a privileged and wealthy background. Sebastian’s friends were cruel bullies who made Layla’s life a living hell. Sebastian never participated in active bullying, but he did screw Layla over because 1) there is a mysterious bullying incident that Layla keeps alluding to and 1) he was hot and cold to her (one day he’d be nice, the next he’d act like she didn’t exist).
Sebastian — now a good-hearted veterinarian who regrets his behavior — attributes his treatment of Layla to his rotten home life (his family fought constantly and he spent nights at friends’ houses). In high school, he was drawn to Layla because of her light and happiness. He claims that he unintentionally took out his darkness on Layla. The majority of the novella is Layla being wary of Sebastian’s motives and Sebastian trying to woo her with kindness. Sounds good, right?
The problem is this: I am not against a redemption narrative for Sebastian, but the timeline for forgiveness and declarations of love is bewildering. There are constant references to one mysterious bullying incident that traumatized Layla. We don’t learn about this incident until the end of the novella. Here is the relevant passage:
Layla stared down at her hands in her lap. She twisted her fingers together, remembering the shame she’d felt when his friends started making fun of her hand-me-down clothes. Her shoes with the broken heel she’d glued back together that never stayed stuck. Her sweater with the hole in the sleeve that kept unraveling. Her thrift-store backpack with someone else’s last name scribbled out in Sharpie pen. Keith grabbed her backpack and tossed it in the garbage can. They jeered and said it was a piece of trash. Then they said she was trailer trash, and she belonged in the garbage, too.
The memory of her intense shame welled up inside her. And the whole time his friends were bothering her, Sebastian just stood there glowering at the ground. His hands had been balled into fists, and she’d never seen him so angry. It was like his body was there, but his mind was far away. He never said a thing to defend her. Then one of the guys dragged the trash can over to her and acted like he was going to toss her in, too. That’s when Sebastian snapped out of his daze. He started yelling at the kid. But by then, her friend Jordan saw what was happening. He came running up to defend her.
Jordan started punching Sebastian and his friends, and soon a full-fledged fight had broken out in front of the school. Kids started gathering around making bets and cheering. At one point, Sebastian shoved Jordan off him and Jordan fell against a broken chain-link fence. A piece of jagged wire gouged Jordan in the face, and he still had a visible scar from it.
Layla just remembered standing there in horror as one of her only friends bled on the pavement. By then, the principal came out to break things up, and he hauled the boys off to his office. When she finally pulled her backpack out of the garbage, she’d been so embarrassed with all those kids standing around watching her. She’d never forget that silent bus ride home. How she’d clutched her filthy backpack to her chest like a security blanket, crushed beneath everyone’s stares and whispers about her being that “trash girl.”
Days later in the hall, Sebastian had tried to approach her, but she never spoke to him again. If she saw him walking toward her, she turned and went the other way. Once, she found a note in her locker, a hastily scribbled apology from him, but she never acknowledged it.
Sebastian’s explanation for his (lack of) actions is that he had just found out about his parents’ divorce. Fine. But Layla immediately rushes to forgive him and says that she understands about the extenuating circumstances. Perhaps Layla, who knew about the incident all along, really does feel this way.
But I, the reader, did not know the specifics and it left a bad taste in my mouth. I wasn’t ready to forgive Sebastian, as sympathetic and sweet as he seemed earlier, because this was brand-new information that I hadn’t yet processed. The worst part: moments later, they exchange declarations of love (despite barely knowing each other for a week and going on one date that ended badly!). The story ends after an epilogue, and I was left dissatisfied and irritated.
I needed more time. More time for Layla and Sebastian to date before exchanging I-love-you’s, more time to come to terms with the bullying, more time for Sebastian to actively disown his high school buddies and put them in their place (he says he doesn’t like them, but he’s friendly to the adult bullies during their interactions). I liked the characters and the writing, but ultimately I couldn’t believe the HEA. C-.
Missing Christmas by Kate Clayborn is worth the anthology’s sticker price, and I give it an A.
It’s all work and no play for two longtime friends-turned-business-partners Kristen and Jasper—until an unexpected kiss turns things personal. Will it mean the end of something, or the beginning? With a major contract in the balance, Christmas around the corner, and a lot of unspoken feelings, it may take an unpredictable blizzard in New England to seal the deal . . .
I forced myself not to devour Missing Christmas immediately and my patience was rewarded. If you already love Kate Clayborn, then you’ll love this novella. If you haven’t tried the author yet and would like to dip your toes in a shorter work, Missing Christmas works as a standalone even though it features familiar characters from a previous book.
Note: the novella is written in alternating chapters of first person present tense (e.g., the heroine and hero switch narration every other chapter). I know this is a sticking point for people who dislike present tense. Try a sample if you’re unsure that the tense will work for you.
Missing Christmas made me so happy (I’m not prone to flowery praise, but I was tempted to say something ridiculous like “it made my heart flutter and hum.” Clearly I haven’t descended from Cloud 9 yet). One of my frequent complaints about shorter works of fiction is that declarations of love seem unconvincing when the couple barely know each other. Missing Christmas neatly steps over that potential roadblock because Jasper and Kristen have been friends for six years. There is deliciously angsty and unrequited (or so they think!) pining, so much so that my heart was breaking apart after one page.
It’s not how I would’ve pictured it, my first kiss with her. That’s probably because the only way I’ve ever allowed myself to picture it, in my weakest moments, is in scenarios that would never actually happen: Me and her, under a blanket of starlight, nothing fluorescent or LED or otherwise unnatural. The clothes between us soft and comfortable, easy to pull off—none of the tiny, tyrannical enforcers usually kept between us, belts and buttons and zippers. No phones ringing or computers pinging, no appointments or negotiations or closings.
Nowhere to be but with each other.
Y’all. This is the first page. The hero is fantasizing and kissing the heroine on the first page after years of yearning. I can only handle so much, but I also couldn’t die of elation on the spot because I needed to finish the story (let it not be said that I don’t have priorities!). It only gets better from there.
There are many reasons to read romance, but I primarily read the genre for the emotions it inspires. In Missing Christmas, the palatable longing that Kristen and Jasper emanate floated from the pages and into my heart (and my eyes. They were getting suspiciously misty at times). The biggest compliment I can give is that how much I felt the entire time: anxious that their business is threatened by a broken contract, concerned that they wouldn’t be able to renegotiate their relationship to include a romance, impatient for them to kiss again (the wait between the first and second kiss is excruciating), and swooning when Christmas-hating Jasper embraces holiday traditions to help Kristen celebrate after they’re unexpectedly snowbound. My emotional levels were dialed up to the maximum setting; frankly, I need a break now to recalibrate. I loved every second of Missing Christmas and highly recommend it to anyone looking for a short but delightful Christmas novella. A.
Ending the anthology on a high note, unfortunately, didn’t improve my memories of the first two novellas. In this case, grading is difficult because I’m unsure how to incorporate the DNF into the calculation. Ignoring the Fern Michaels contribution, the collection would average out to a B. However, I can’t exclude the DNF entirely: a B doesn’t seem accurate considering I disliked two out of three stories. I’m going to go with C, but I’d encourage you to check out Missing Christmas if it sounds appealing.