With the holidays quickly approaching, what better kind of anthology to read than one about romances during Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years? The holiday season is the perfect setting for romances; it is a time where we are surrounded by loved ones and good cheer. In the Heating Up The Holidays anthology, authors Lisa Renee Jones, Mary Ann Rivers, and Serena Bell celebrate the spirit of the holidays with some good old-fashioned romance. Reading bestie Kelly (of Reading With Analysis) joined me for another of our dueling reviews!
As leftover turkey and stuffing give way to stockings and little black dresses, this tantalizingly sexy eBook bundle offers up holiday-themed novellas from a trio of beloved romance authors. Lisa Renee Jones gives a dedicated reporter and a powerful businessman a chance to count their Thanksgiving blessings in Play with Me; Mary Ann Rivers presents Snowfall, the story of a woman who confronts a life-changing event—hopefully with a special man by her side—just in time for Christmas; and in Serena Bell’s After Midnight, an explosive New Year’s kiss leaves two strangers wondering whether they’ll ever see each other again.
PLAY WITH ME by Lisa Renee Jones
Kali Miller has spent three years reporting fluff stories, waiting for the article that will launch her career to new heights. When she suddenly finds herself forced to take a job as an executive secretary at a Vegas casino, Kali meets the subject of what will surely be a shocking exposé: her boss, Damion Ward, the arrogant and undeniably sexy CEO. But after Damion invites her to help him plan a Thanksgiving charity event, Kali begins to see another side of the man. And when she surrenders to the exhilarating tension simmering between them, Kali hopes her story will have a happy ending.
SNOWFALL by Mary Ann Rivers
Jenny Wright can’t get enough of her erotic conversations with someone she knows only as “C.” Flirting online helps Jenny temporarily escape confronting the changes to her life as she slowly loses her vision. Jenny’s occupational therapist, Evan Carlisle-Ford, is helping her prepare for the challenges ahead, but the forthright, trustworthy man can no longer ignore his growing attraction to his fiercely intelligent client. Now Jenny must choose between the safe, anonymous “C”—or the flesh-and-blood Evan, whose heated kisses can melt snow faster than it can fall.
AFTER MIDNIGHT by Serena Bell
The clock is ticking down to midnight on New Year’s Eve, and all Nora Hart and Miles Shephard can think about is kissing each other—even though they met just minutes before. Then, as fast as Miles enters Nora’s life, he’s gone . . . and she never even gets the name of the man she thinks might just be “the one.” One year later, Nora and Miles are reunited. The chemistry between them is just as strong as they remember. But Miles broke her heart once before—and this time around, Nora’s not sure whether she can give love a second chance.
Play With Me:
Kim: Almost as soon as I started reading Play With Me I got a funny feeling I wasn’t going to like the story. The interactions between the two main characters, Kali and Damion, were strange and honestly never gelled. Even after I finished the story I asked myself, “What attracted them to each other?”
Kelly: I think the writing contributes to the strangeness. The story is told in a funky first-person, present tense narrative that just feels awkward. From the first page: “‘Ms. Williams’ charges down a narrow hallway and I chase after her, just as I did for the reporting job at the Vegas Heat that fell through before I ever started to work. She disappears into an office and I follow, swiping at a strand of my long blond hair, which suddenly feels as disheveled as the new life I’ve gambled on.” Maybe it’s the infodumping — I don’t know — but the narrative feels about as comfortable as a pair of burlap yoga pants.
Kim: Not only is the writing strange, but the entire timeline of the book is completely unbelievable. We’re expected to believe that Damion, who is dealing with a massive cyber threat to his company, knows after 5 minutes of meeting Kali that she has no part in it? (Even though we find out ::SPOILER ALERT:: later that it’s people who have been with his company for years. And that he considers to be good friends with? It’s obvious from THAT that he doesn’t have the best judgement of people.)
Not even that, but how is there some weird storyline about the mob and homeless shelters that gets shoved into this love story that goes from first introductions to marriage proposals in less than a week? Oh did I mention that they started living together less than a week after their initial introduction?
Kelly: Wait. I’m just going to butt in for a moment. Full disclosure: I didn’t finish this story. On the first go, I got to the beginning of chapter four and just dropped it with an eyeroll. But, just now, I started reading again where I’d left off, and… UGG. So it’s our intrepid heroine’s first day on the job, and she spends the morning stuck in HR. At some point, she gets rescued from ignominy by a phone call from Damion, who then yells at the HR lady and forces her to explain herself to Kali: it’s just that time of the month.
UGGGGGGG. I dunno, Kim. Are you ready for final thoughts?
Kim: Hell yes. Having finished the whole book, it’s sad that this was the story chosen to open it up. The other two stories in the anthology don’t even belong in the same stratosphere as this one. The other two authors and stories completely blow this out of the water.
Kelly: Ain’t that the truth. I stopped reading this book because I got a weird sexual harassment vibe from it, and I just didn’t feel like taking the time away from the other two stories. It’s possible I’ve never made a better decision in my entire life.
Kelly: I’m having a difficult time corralling my thoughts about this story. I mean, the bottom line is that I loved it more than peanut butter, but my thoughts and my feels are still all mixed up. I should start with the writing, though, because this book immediately follows Play With Me and because it’s also written in a first person present-tense narrative. In Snowfall, however, that narrative works (as opposed to Play With Me) and it really feels like Jenny is telling the story.
Kim: I completely agree with you about how difficult it is to put thoughts and feels on paper for Snowfall. Let me say this at least: Mary Ann Rivers was put on this Earth to be a writer. She is a writer that possesses the rare skill of making their storytelling seem effortless. Kelly will tell you that after we finished her debut novella, The Story Guy, we were ruined trying to write our thoughts about it, let alone read anything else. There weren’t words to express our feelings and nobody else could match up to the beauty present in her story. Snowfall is that all over again.
Kelly: I described The Story Guy as effortlessly deliberate, and Snowfall is, too. With so much of the story focusing on Jenny’s narrowing field of vision, it was lovely how Rivers used such vibrant language, rich with imagery, to develop Jenny’s world and to demonstrate just how much Jenny is losing with her sight. For this story, the first person narrative is perfect, because it enables the reader to get deeply involved with Jenny, to feel emotionally invested in her struggle, and to enjoy the mystery of the story.
Kim: I remember when I finished I said, “For a character going blind, her vision and sense of the world around her is stronger and more poignant than most.” Like sighted people – she sees and senses everything despite her disability. This is a person who is truly absorbing the world around her.
Kelly: It’s often difficult (apparently) for writers to craft believably brilliant characters, but Jenny is exactly that. Rivers doesn’t have to tell us that Jenny is a smarty mcsmarty pants; it’s obvious from the turn of Jenny’s mind and the amount of perception and observation Jenny employs (and her stories about stressed out e. coli help, too.) Further, while Jenny’s off-the-charts intelligent, she’s still accessible — certainly emotionally accessible — as a character. Her intelligence is a facet of her character, not a trait that renders her an otherworldly being (in contrast to our common perception of geniuses in general and scientists in particular). I loved that Jenny could be all these things: a scientist, a woman, a daughter, a difficult patient, an anonymous Internet acquaintance, a fuckup, and a person dealing with grief and fear and change.
And Evan? Wow. Sometimes it’s difficult in a first-person narrative to connect with the other characters because readers are shown only one POV, but Evan manages to shine through.
Kim: Her characters completely speak for themselves. Between their conversations and actions they become real people. There is no question whatsoever at you (the reader) getting attached and invested in their lives. Rivers’ characters are some of the most beautifully complex creations I’ve ever read. If she wrote a story about two characters reading a grocery list I’d read it. Because somehow, while those characters were reading that grocery list, we’d be treated to an amazing story about two people and their way of finding beauty in the world, themselves, and each other.
Kelly: I want to talk about the contrasts between the first and second stories. Both use the same narrative format but to very different ends. Both feature seemingly difficult relationships that push the bounds of what’s appropriate… Boss and employee… occupational therapist and patient… (!!!) But the difference seems to be that Rivers actually thought through those things and anticipated the reactions of reasonable readers. Also, her writing is a thing of beauty.
Kim: I totally agree with you. Evan goes through a whole inner conflict about what’s appropriate in his feelings for Jenny as her OT. That’s actually a major part of the story and the way that Rivers chose to deal with that issue shows both professionalism and poise.
Kelly and I think she’s a great lady, so we wrote her a note to share our affection.
Kelly: Dear Mary Ann, please publish a novella anthology in which you are the sole author.
Kim: Because there is no way on Earth anyone else’s stories can even compare to yours. Also, you write so well that we literally cannot speak about your works appropriately.
Kelly and Kim
Kelly: P.S. Please write all the things.
Kim: So this was my first Serena Bell read and I have to say I was super impressed. The romance genre is so large that I find it hard to find those “gem” authors. These authors write romances, but underneath the romance teach us about life, relationships, and ourselves in the process. In After Midnight we get to see two people who are filled with self-doubt and confidence issues stemming from previous breakups.
Kelly: I loved how Bell turned a rebound romance story into something more. I’ll admit, when I read about these characters fresh from disastrous breakups, I was a little concerned about how it was all going to play out, especially when I considered the extent of Miles’ issues. But this character-driven story shows — rather concisely — these two characters healing from the past and learning to embrace a future.
Kim: I felt that their individual journeys were completely realistic. I did an air fist bump to Bell for making them deal with their shit on their own. So many times authors write romances where everything is magically ok once a character finds love. Unfortunately real life doesn’t work like that. If you’re not “together” as an individual, you aren’t going to be “together” in a relationship. The inner journeys that Miles and Nora take are completely necessary for their individual happiness.
Kelly: The first scene with Miles and Nora does an excellent job of establishing their characters and hinting at where they’ll go, but then they part ways and there’s a time-lapse. You know, time lapses can be rough, and I worried that the characters’ development towards each other would seem choppy or badly paced, but it never felt that way. I think that’s because the story covers pretty much all the time that the characters are interacting and lapses only when they’re not in contact. It gives the story an episodic feel — in a good way — and enables the characters to get to know one another again and again and to note how they’ve changed.
Kim: Can I also say how much I loved that Bell made their first interactions after a year a bit awkward? Again, realistic. You meet someone for the first time ever, never catch their name, yet have strong feelings for them. A year later you reconnect. Wouldn’t you be slightly nervous and awkward too? I know I would. That’s probably my biggest compliment to give Bell’s writing. Her story is based in a realistic world, with realistic people, realistic problems, and realistic solutions. It’s refreshing to have characters that aren’t developed by using tragic pasts of abuse or rape. They’re developed with everyday situations and issues.
Kelly: Tangent: isn’t it sad that it’s refreshing to have an author take the trouble to create character development apart from tragedy and violence? I’m with you… I loved this story all the better because of its reality and accessibility.
:Spoiler alert: One thing that ever so slightly bothered me about this story is that Nora was set up almost from the beginning to be the one to make geographical concessions, and the gravity of those concessions was never mentioned in the story. It’s a big deal to move all your things and find a new job in a new city just to be closer to someone, and I really wanted the narrative to acknowledge that sacrifice. Instead, it felt like the narrative downplayed it by making Nora less tied to any geographical area.
Kim: Final thoughts on the story? Great introduction to Bell’s writing. She’s definitely an author I’m going to start following for new releases (especially since she wrote about New Haven pizza in After Midnight. Clearly the girl’s got some awesome taste when it comes to picking places to write about!)
Kelly: I loved this story, and I’m glad it introduced me to Serena Bell’s writing. I’m looking forward to more great stories from her.
Kelly’s Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars
Kim’s Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars
Heating Up The Holidays by Lisa Renee Jones, Mary Ann Rivers, & Serena Bell
eBook: 378 pages
Special thanks to Loveswept for our review copies via Netgalley!