The Rec League: Books in Our Holiday Stress Kit

November 28, 2019

The Rec League - heart shaped chocolate resting on the edge of a very old bookThis idea came from one of our new reviewers, Lara! We thought it was so great that it deserved a Rec League!

Lara: What about a mash-up of a book first aid kit and the holidays. For example, if you don’t enjoy holidays and would like a December romance that has nothing to do with family, then read: X.

What’s in your “book first aid kit” (no more than 1 or 2 books per person) for upcoming holiday stress?

Sarah: I love this question. For a holiday novella, Holiday Sparks by Shannon Stacey, ( A | BN | K | G | AB ) and for a novel, not a holiday one, I can re-read Act Like It by Lucy Parker any time, any place.

And I’m embarrassed to say, my own writing works on me, and I’ve re-read my own novella a few times ( A | BN | K | G | AB ) when I needed something soothing. But then, I wrote my own catnip on purpose so I’m glad it worked!

SORRY THAT WAS THREE so feel free to leave off my own recommendation of myself!

The Viscount’s Tempting Minx
A | BN | K | AB

Amanda: I HATE the holidays and holiday romances. I wrote about why for the site, but I recently read a holiday novella I enjoyed: The Viscount’s Tempting Minx by Erica Ridley. It’s a little short, but wasn’t overly focused on Christmas. Instead, the very smart and capable heroine is figuratively trying to herd a bunch of cats to throw a holiday party on a tight deadline.

For an anytime read, I can’t recommend Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen enough. It’s on my Keeper Shelf and is my go-to read when I need to fully dive into a book that’ll make me feel warm and fuzzy.

Tara: I read a really cute f/f one recently called Tinsel by Kris Bryant. ( A ) Super grumpy person who’s just had a breakup finds a cat, which leads to finding a veterinarian. Grumpy person then grumps at the vet, who doesn’t care. I’ll probably be reading that one each year around this time. Please ignore the cover, though.

Aarya: Hm. This is a hard request and y’all know that I read many holiday romances.
If the idea of real-life holidays is unappealing but you still want that wintry feel… why not go in a PNR/fantasy direction? I adore fantasy romances that focus on fictional wintry solstice-y traditions. And I would argue these still have a December “feel” because of the snow and celebrations (without any emotional baggage of stressful real-life holidays!)

A | BN | K | AB

I recommend Stephanie Burgis’s Snowspelled, a charming second-chance novella set in a fantasy regency AU (“Angland,” not England). The aristocracy, clothes, and hierarchical society are similar to a regency romance but the norms are completely different. Women form the political class and are expected to make leadership decisions while men are expected to study magic. Our heroine Cassandra is a magician who has gone against society’s dictates and resisted her mother’s pleas to show political ambition.

Unfortunately, a dreadful accident has prevented Cassandra from ever wielding magic again. As a result of her shame, she broke off things with her fiancé. The novella has a snowbound house party, an infuriating ex who won’t leave the past alone, and a magical mission to complete before the solstice celebrations. It’s a perfect way to read a wintry holiday romance without being stressed out by reality (unless you’re concerned about elf lords trying to kill you in real life!).

My second rec will be going in a contemporary direction and it’s Therese Beharrie’s A Wedding One Christmas. ( A | BN | K | G | AB ) It’s the first book in her “we meet and fall in love in 24 hours” series (okay, it’s officially called the One Day to Forever series). Set in South Africa, it both follows and deviates from the rec request. I’m not sure if Lara is okay with discussions of family (while not seeing family on-page). Both Ezra and Angie are returning home for the holidays and nervous for Reasons (they’re not exactly on the best of terms with family due to past events and grief). It’s an interesting book. They talk through their pasts with each other, but we never see the family reunions or Christmas Day on-page. It’s a wild 24-hour-period that includes several Christmas-y shenanigans. I wouldn’t call it a dark book, but it’s definitely not fluffy with “Oh, isn’t Christmas the most wonderful time of the year?” vibes.

A Kiss for Midwinter
A | BN | K | AB

Again, there’s discussion of familial conflicts (which deeply affects the characters’ personalities and nervousness about returning home) but the family never appears on-page. There’s very little external plot; it’s just about the MCs and almost entirely dialogue.

Lara: Living in South Africa, my Christmases are usually beach-focused and/or aircon-focused (of which there is very little – we are a nation of single-glazing and open windows) so I’m either in a dark lounge with a fan going watching every single Hallmark movie and/or Elf (which is my comfort viewing, for sure) or I am reading a gold star romance like Cross Stitch by Diana Gabaldon.

Charlotte: Courtney Milan’s A Kiss for Midwinter is one of my holiday favorites and is great if you’re stuck in a house with your aunt who who wants to shut down Planned Parenthood. The hero is a crusading Victorian gynecologist who believes women need better sex education. The heroine is someone he helped when she was a young, victimized teenage girl and he was a trainee doctor. So good.

A | BN | K | AB

Shana: One of my favorite Christmas-themed novellas is Rebekah Weatherspoon’s Wrapped. I read it whenever I need a little cheering up. It’s about a divorced bakery owner who gets matched on a dating app with her former coworker (& crush). It has delicious descriptions of cupcakes, a cheering squad of woman friends, and Christmassy dates with a gooey and gorgeous hero. I’d recommend it for when you want fictional chosen family time, and no family drama.

If winter holidays means trying to ignore your family’s drama, trauma, or persistent hatred of Obama, the first thing I’d recommend isn’t a romance, it’s Crazy Rich Asians. ( A | BN | K | G | AB ) I’m usually seeking maximum escapism when trying to hide out from family via a book. Nothing puts my family in perspective like that crew, and there’s even a HEA.

EllenM: Grace Dravens’ novella from the Amid the Winter Snow anthology, “In the Darkest Midnight,” ( A | BN | K | AB ) was really heartwarming and I think a good pick for someone who wants something that’s winter-festive, but not associated with any real-world religious holiday.

The Shadow Warrior
A | BN | K | AB

Also, iirc books three and four in the Ars Numina series by Ann Aguirre both feature the main couple getting stranded in snowstorms or poor weather. Number four, The Shadow Warrior, is an especially good choice if the way you like to deal with the holidays is escaping into something kinky!!

Catherine: Like Lara, I’m in the southern hemisphere – Australia, where, yes, basically half the country is on fire (though my corner is currently cold and windy with bonus hail, yay Melbourne) (though last week it was 40°C, so honestly who even knows what season it is), so I’m always torn between wanting the most wintry Christmas stories I can and being all excited when I find one where it’s the sort of Christmas I recognise.

I think I’ll go wintry this time, because that’s an excuse for a lovely Laura Florand novel called The Chocolate Kiss, ( A | BN | K | G | AB | Scribd ) which isn’t Christmas-centric but is definitely Christmas adjacent. It has this wonderful, magical chocolate shop called La Maison des Sorcières (the house of witches), and a perfect snow day, when the restaurants and shops can’t open and so the rival chocolatiers set up this rather wonderful street party to use up all the ingredients they won’t be able to use later, and everyone gets to play in the pâtisserie kitchen and there is hot chocolate that you can positively taste and which warms you up just reading about it, and it’s basically my winter fantasy come to life.

Strong Poison
A | BN | K | AB

As for books with which to forget about family drama… well, if Act Like It is taken, what about going with something completely different, like Strong Poison by Dorothy Sayers? I love a good mystery novel when I want distraction and something nothing like my life, and Strong Poison is wonderful, with judges who have Strong Opinions about the right way to eat an omelette, a little old lady impersonating a fake medium for the forces of good, a respectable middle aged lady learning how to pick locks from a reformed burglar, and a feminist artists’ collective in 1930s London.

For added zest, it’s really fun to read Dorothy Sayers’ letters and realise that the unpleasant former lover of Harriet Vane who meets his death by arsenic before the story begins is strongly modelled on a pretty obnoxious guy whom Sayers had been in love with and who treated her poorly. Revenge by literature FTW.

(Also, then you can just keep on going and read Gaudy Night, because why wouldn’t you?)

Sneezy: Oooh man. I feel this hard! Okay, so I think anthologies can be great as an escape hatch for people who are stuck dealing with family members who don’t understand or respect boundaries. It’s definitely frustrating trying to sink back into a story every time someone forcibly intrudes on your time and space. Shorter stories mean less to hold in your head, which can feel like the story is demanding less of you. Plus there’s more feel-good rushes of finishing stories!

The Coyote Road
A | BN | K | AB

My first rec would be A Knot in the Grain by Robin McKinley. ( A | BN | K | G | AB | Scribd ) I found her works after I started uni, and I can definitively say she is the CHILDHOOD I SHOULD HAVE HAD!!!! It has a fairy tale-esque, dreamy tone that’s somehow simultaneously grounded and tangible, which I loved for giving all the comfort of a fairy tale, the novelty of new stories, and plenty for me to grip onto when constructing my Haven Bubble. I found there’s plenty of room to dig as much or as little into her stories, like poetry that you can enjoy as just a nifty rhyme or sink into like a kaleidoscope of fairy lights.

My second pick is The Coyote Road. As the name indicates, it’s a collection of stories and poems that draws inspiration from the tricksters in the lore of many different cultures. Twenty six authors contributed to this anthology, and with the wide variety in style, mood, and tricksters in this bejeweled box of chocolates, it can feel like you’ve a tiny trickster elf of your own slipping around in the pages of this book. Many of the clever and sly characters in here cheered me up not only with their antics, but also with the reminder that life can surprise you, and things always change.

Which books would go into your emergency holiday stress kit?

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