This is quite a personal motto of mine, actually. The best things in my life (my college education, my career and most importantly, my husband of 20 years) have happened because I took a huge risk – just stepped forward into the air like the scene from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade where Indy has to trust that he can cross the chasm and get the chalice to save his dying father. It’s scary as hell while you are doing it, but it’s also exhilarating. Setting standards and making sure that you and others live up to them is hard but incredibly important, and I firmly believe that it’s one of the keys to happiness.
Imagine how thrilled I was to see this personal theme laced through one of Carina Press’ holiday anthologies, namely All I’m Asking For: A Contemporary Christmas Anthology. Let’s take a close up look at each of the stories in this anthology for further analysis, shall we?
Keep in mind that you can buy the entire anthology (see above links in the text or caption of the cover) but editor Angela James and Carina Press are nothing if not accommodating, so if you feel that it’s just one or two stories you desire, you can purchase them as stand-alones as well. The below links in each review and next to the individual book cover will take you right to that story on Amazon.
Tinsel My Heart by Christi Barth
Right off the bat, I’m wondering about the order of the authors on the cover of the anthology. If Christi Barth‘s story is first, which it is, why is she not listed first? It’s not alphabetical order either, so is it some kind of Carina Press “whoever was published first” seniority? I swear, these kind of questions keep me up at night. I remembered enjoying Barth’s Christmas story last year, and the premise of Tinsel My Heart was intriguing.
Becca Heglund gave up her dreams to leave Minneapolis and pursue a career in the theater in New York in order to stay home and care for her dying grandmother. She’s watched her two former best friends, Tyler Peterson and Jack Whittaker form a highly successful business partnership and even win an Oscar for Best Director and she’s happy for them. But Ty promised to film her theater company’s Christmas production and the pre-sales to the DVD could save the organization, but not if Ty doesn’t show. Considering he just entered a Malibu rehab facility for his drug problem, she’s up a creek and looking for a paddle.
Yet her secret high school crush, Jack Whittaker, appears on the theater’s doorstep looking none too pleased about being home in Minnesota but stating he’s here to fulfill Ty’s obligation. He’s a lifesaver even if he is being a total grouch and hearing that he hates Christmas means that taping the Christmas production is going to be no cakewalk with this particular Grinch. Yet amid the live goats and chopping down Christmas trees, hot, stolen kisses become something much more (the car scene at the tree farm, WOW!), yet they both know that Jack can’t wait to get out of Minnesota again and Becca is going to be left behind.
Rich in detail (I adored the fried cheese curds and “you betchas”), I instantly loved the competent, loyal Becca and her determination to embrace any opportunity to save the theater group and the production. Jack is afflicted with dickishness between his brusque manner and hating Christmas, but once you understand how he was treated growing up and also how betrayed he feels by his best friend screwing him and all their employees with his recurring drug problem, you understand where he is coming from. Tyler is revealed as always having been a user and while it’s not stated, you can easily see that a young Becca and Jack didn’t see the signs that their friend was already an addict before he even graduated.
I was startled by two pieces of this story. The first was how we had a fade out from the first dinner together to the following morning. Purportedly there was a pretty hot couch make out session, something that was repeated four or five times according to the text and I didn’t get to see one of them. That sat funny with me – not only did I want in on the chemistry, but these two people are hiding their long-standing attraction to one another. How did that play out in their initial physical intimacy? How and why did Jack call a halt to not going past 2nd base and why on earth did Becca not lay it all on the table and order him into her bed? I felt like I was being left out of the loop even while I was loving the rest of the story.
The second piece that took me aback was the very ending. Becca announces her plans and Jack steps up to declare himself. Big “awwwww” moment with the ornament (loved that!) but never once does Becca worry that a career move at the same time she’s becoming a couple with an Oscar-winning movie director might give the appearance of using him to climb the professional ladder. I know she’s not doing it for that reason, but I wondered that neither she nor Jack had the thought flit through their mind. And it seemed like a big decision – if they had been together before I think it would have felt a little more understandable, but while they knew one another as friends, they didn’t as lovers and I’m still sitting here worried that it’s going to be far from smooth sailing when they move to New York City. Jack’s a bigwig there with hordes of women he’s “dated” around every corner, he’ll be hugely busy for months on end with movie projects, blah, blah. Can it work? I’m freaking out a little. Good luck, Jack and Becca – I’m pulling for you!
Season of Second Chances by Brighton Walsh
I really hate second chance stories (I think it’s my firm belief that people rarely change that makes me not read them), but this story was part of the anthology and since I never read any Brighton Walsh before I figured I would gird my heart for emotional agony and simply try and get a sense of her writing. I was so impressed. I loved the story but plan on reading other Walsh novels as Season of Second Chances was excellent, combining believability with strong emotion.
Californian Claire Hanlin is stuck in Chicago’s O’Hare Airport during a snowstorm. If that doesn’t suck enough, it’s also her birthday, the day before Christmas, and the city reminds her all too painfully that she left here two years ago when she broke up with her fiancee, Logan Dawes, the man who promised her forever and instead put work first. While desperately trying to find a hotel room, an all too familiar voice greets her. Yep. It’s Logan in the flesh with an all-too-intriguing offer.
Logan cannot believe that the woman he let get away is standing before him in the terminal, even more beautiful than he remembered. He’s had two years to wallow in the fact that he screwed up his chance at happiness. He’s tried to reform his work habits, making more room in his life for his little daughter Sophie who missed Claire being in her life as well, and this snowstorm might be just the chance he needs to show Claire that things could be different. When the two of them give into the heat between them, Logan knows that he desperately needs to get this right, yet a promise to Claire that he has to break again means that he’s never going to hold onto this incredible woman.
It’s always a good sign when a novella can put your heart in your throat praying that everything will work out, even when you believe it can’t. It’s hard not to understand and empathize with both Claire and Logan since we understand their choices even when it’s hard to agree with Logan’s. The writing is terrific, with truly three-dimensional characters, enough backstory to ground us beautifully yet not so much that it takes away from the action in the present, and a movie-worthy conclusion and epilogue. I know have a couple of Walsh’s books on my to-read list and I’m really looking forward to it!
Mine Under the Mistletoe by Kat Latham
Ever since I raved about Kat Latham’s terrific book, Knowing the Score, I knew I’d pre-order anything she wrote, and that’s actually why I purchased this anthology (and in further support of her, the individual copy of Mine Under the Mistletoe as well!).
Ashley Turner is horrified to be jarred awake by a naked man climbing into her borrowed bed, having swapped her apartment in San Diego with a guy in London in order to have the storybook Christmas she’s always wanted. While her two roommates couldn’t make it, called away by holiday obligations, Ashley is determined to live her mother’s lifelong wish and she’s brought everything she needs to make this happen. The bonus of her absentee host appearing might be just the local touch she needed, particularly since he so handsome albeit a little Grinchy about the holiday.
Oliver Stansfield couldn’t wait to get out of London and away from his past. His recent loss of his disabled sister festers in him, especially since she adored the Christmas season and this is his first holiday without her. Finding a gorgeous Christmas angel in his bed comes as shock since his grueling day at Heathrow Airport ended with all flights cancelled due to the snow and ice descending on the city. He literally forgot he had swapped houses, but one look at the beautiful blond with her nightshirt slipping off her shoulder and he’s wondering if the holiday doesn’t have a silver lining.
Watching these two people not only acknowledge the incredible chemistry between them but also begin to find common ground despite their disparate approaches to the holiday is so sweet that I feel this novella is the best of the entire anthology. Latham writes the disconnect between Americans and the English incredibly well (each protagonist’s bafflement at certain turns of phrase or traditions is adorable) and her sex scenes are hot and delicious – believe me, you’ll be pricing flights to London after reading them!
For anyone with dreams of visiting England or giving themselves a magical European Christmas (and perhaps finding love along the way), this novella is a Christmas wish fulfilled. Laced with humor (Ashely’s astonishment that Ollie is so polite while naked and holding a pillow in front of himself after she nailed him between the legs is going to bring a smile to your face), the story is also understandably emotional. While these two people move quickly into love, it’s completely believable as they are two people who are already experts at loving – Ashley with her mother, students and friends and Ollie having loved his sister with all his might after their parents abandoned her to his care.
One of the best aspects of the story which builds your affection while reading it is the contrast between the two characters. While this strong contrast brings out the best in characters, with Ashley’s intrepid attitude and sheer joy in the context of her past forcing Ollie to face his demons, the similarity between them is that they both are lonely with the loss of a relative they loved binding them together in their particular brand of loneliness. These are two people truly destined for each other and I adored the epilogue!
All I’m Asking For is an excellent holiday anthology combining the efforts of three talented writers, and is one I would heartily recommend to any contemporary romance reader. At just over $5 the entire anthology is an excellent value, with individual stories (if that’s your preference) priced around $2.50. If you haven’t had an opportunity to sample these three authors, this is an outstanding introduction.
Happy reading! :-)