Thursday, December 10, 2009

ANTHOLOGY REVIEW: "This Year's Christmas Present," by Nina Bangs, Sandra Hill, Dara Joy

I'm sorry to say I'm nearly nearing the end of my Christmas review. After this, there remains only my Second Chance Challenge review of Nalini Singh's Caressed by Ice.

Now, I have to admit, after the snoozefest of The Holiday Inn, I was a little wary of reading This Year's Christmas Present. It had such a blah, formulaic, cover. I'd never read anything by these authors and had really only heard of one (Nina Bangs). Thankfully, all three stories entertained - even if some did so unintentionally.

"Fever," by Sandra HillAlternate Title: Silver (Cow)Bells

The Chick:
Annie Fallon. She and her family of dairy farmin' Elvis fans are just trying to make a quick buck when a disturbingly handsome Scrooge tries to stop to show - and ends up cracking his head open trying.
The Rub: Stupid sexy Scrooge wants to tear down Memphis' landmark Heartbreak Hotel - maybe if Annie lets him recover at her farmhouse over Christmas, he'll change his mind.
Dream Casting: Emily Deschanel.

The Dude: Clay Jessup III. Learning he unexpectedly inherited a hotel from his late father, he flies from Princeton to Memphis with the intent to raze the building and the adjoining lot to make way for a mall - and ends up falling for a woman just as determined to save it.
The Rub: Can he learn to love a woman who handles cow vagina?
Dream Casting: Michael Muhney.

The Plot:

Annie: *singing* Oh holy niiiight....

Clay: Get off my property! *falls* *cracks skull*

Annie: Crap.

Clay: *dilated pupils* Yerrrrrr preeeeeetty...

Annie: Why don't you spend Christmas with us?

Clay: What is this magical Christmas you speak of?

Annie: It's a holiday where we eat copious amounts of food, listen to Elvis music, and give away our virginity!

Clay: I LOVE Christmas! And I love you!

Annie: Great! One sec ... *artificially inseminates a cow*

Clay: ...

Annie: What? Are you disgusted?

Clay: No - you're just giving me ideas.

Annie: Hooray!

Romance Convention Checklist
1 (Literal) Dairy Maid

1 Poor Little Rich Boy

1 Set of Mommy Issues

4 Inconveniently Dead Parents

1 Traumatic Head Injury

The Word: The first story, while being completely wackadoo, quickly demonstrated that this anthology was not going to match the Everest-level heights of tedium of The Holiday Inn. Yes, this story is nuttier than a Christmas fruitcake, but boring it is not.

When Clay Jessup III arrives in Memphis to see the hotel he unexpectedly inherited from his late father, he's disgusted to discover the Original Heartbreak Hotel boasts a ridiculously tacky Elvis theme (the room based on Elvis' movie Roundabout has a working musical carousel, cotton candy machine, and chilli dog maker in it). He's only too eager to demolish the eyesore as well as the empty lot next door (which he's also inherited).

To his consternation, he spots a farming family using the empty lot to put on an Elvis-themed Nativity scene (involving rhinestone'd Wise Men and a bouffant-haired Virgin Mary) to earn some extra money to aid their struggling dairy farm. In his haste to squash their Christmas cheer underneath his Prada wingtip, he slips on some sheep dung and winds up in the hospital.

While Clay is wacked out on painkillers, Annie decides to take Clay home with her to her farmhouse, thinking she can spend his recovery convincing him to save the hotel while her family continues their Nativity scene uninterrupted. And this, of course, is where Annie and her saintly, Southern-fried, country-bred, darn-tootin' family introduces poor emotionally-starved Clay to the magic of Christmas.

Where do I start? Perhaps the incomprehensible romance should come first. Clay (who looks like a "young Richard Gere") and Annie (who looks like "Julia Roberts," - making this, what? Pretty Cowwoman?) fall in love, have sex, and become engaged within the span of three days, all based on the fact that they feel inexplicably warm around each other, hence the story's title. I'm thinking Clay must have the regular body temperature of Edward Cullen, because only a couple of hot flashes convince this supposedly experienced, ruthless, emotionally contained businessman that he's in love with Annie within twenty-four-hours, despite the fact that he's shared about, oh, an hour's worth of conversation with her, most of which was underneath the influence of painkillers. Annie's not much better - wow, Clay's got great abs. It must be true love!

The characterization's a shame, because one of the points in this story's favour is Hill's details of dairy farming. The Fallon family depends on cows for a living, and it shows in their habits, speech, priorities, and dinner table conversation (in an admittedly funny scene, the Fallon brothers start discussing the state of their prized heifer's vulva over supper, which nearly causes Clay to cough up his grits). Their dedication to farming versus Clay's disgust with it is a legitimate conflict in Clay and Annie's relationship that could have provided real depth - but of course Clay and Annie love each other so much after a week that Annie's fully prepared to give up the occupation she's dedicated her entire life to in order to please him.

Then there's the whole theme that only country folk, who are naturally faultless, saintly, down-to-earth, sensible and unconditionally loving, can truly melt the ice-cold heart of Poor Little Rich Boy Clay, who never got a Christmas, because Rich People in Romance Land (excluding Aristocrat and Ruthless Tycoon heroes, of course) are inevitably neglectful and abusive parents. It seems once a character in Romance Land mints their first gold bar, the first thing they do is whack their impressionable children over the head with it.

This nutty cornball casserole is heavily laced with Elvis-flavoured cheese but light on character development and depth. I give this one a C-.

"The Man with the Golden Bow," by Nina Bangs
Alternate Title: I'm Dreaming...Of a Hot Redhead

The Chick: Jenny Saunders. A buttoned-up accountant, everything in her life goes according to plan - including her bid to get rid of her pesky virginity. Who better to lose it with than her high school crush Sloan Mitello?
The Rub: Of course, all she wants is a fling. Sloan Mitello is way too flakey, wild, and unpredictable to risk a real relationship on.
Dream Casting: Alyson Hannigan.

The Dude: Sloan Mitello. He hasn't seen Jenny in over ten years, but is troubled by how rigidly she's ordered her life, to the point where she doesn't even celebrate Christmas anymore.
The Rub: In an effort to ease her into some holiday cheer, he starts falling for her himself - but will she always see him as only fling material?
Dream Casting: A longer-haired Jake Gyllenhaal.

The Plot:

Jenny: Initiate Loss of Virginity Plan A!

Sloan: Long time no see, Jenny.

Jenny: *in head* Abort! Abort!

Sloan: Come over to my house, I'll make your dreams come true.

Jenny: Dreams are for sissies. *in head* Commence Loss of Virginity Plan B!

Sloan: Slow down, Flame. Let's go see Christmas lights, first! Let's dress up as Santa!

Jenny: Uh, swell. Make love to me already!

Sloan: *grins*

Jenny: Did I say that out loud?

Sloan: Yup. Let's get married!

Jenny: Oh, all right.

Sloan: Hooray!

Romance Convention Checklist

1 Sexy Repressed Accountant

Several Thousand Christmas Lights

1 Special Request on Santa's Lap

1 Guilt-Tripping Butler

1 Basket of Kittens

The Word: Now the anthology really gets going, as Nina Bangs' entry shoves past Sandra Hill's to show us how it's done.

Jenny, our heroine, is an obsessively neat and ordered individual. After a childhood spent in poverty thanks to her father's hopeless get-rich-quick schemes, she's convinced herself that dreams are for losers. Hard practical facts are what bring success and stability - however, her love life is pretty much nonexistent. Her BFF Caroline promises to help by sending over a gift basket from her store labelled "from a secret admirer" - delivered by a hot guy who'll be more than willing to help Jenny, uh, stuff her Christmas stocking.

Jenny gets the shock of her life when her delivery boy turns out to be Sloan Mitello, her high school best friend and secret crush. Not only that, but the 10 years since they've seen each other have been very kind to Sloan. Jenny is too surprised and intimidated to go through with her plan right away, although she quickly decides Sloan would be perfect for a fling - but only a fling. She remembers him as a shiftless dreamer in high school, and she distrusts his current job, heading an admittedly poorly-explained company that provides wish-fulfillment services to their customers.

Sloan is immediately attracted to Jenny upon their reunion but is saddened by how much she's restricted her life. He issues her a challenge: spend a week at his gaudily-decorated and flamboyantly lit mansion, and he'll give her a fling she won't forget.

I really enjoyed this story. Nina Bangs has an engaging and witty writing style that is very funny as well as empathetic. Jenny nearly spends the entire novella complaining - about Christmas lights, about Sloan's house, about colours stronger than ivory - yet she wasn't grating, and you could see how little by little she gave in to Sloan's persuasion. I found it easy to understand Jenny's reasoning - she longs for certainty in an uncertain world. She doesn't want to hitch her wagon to a star that might fall and leave her destitute like her father did. At the beginning of the story, she imagines she'll marry some nine-to-fiver with good stock options - and not once does she consider whether or not she'll be happy with this sort of individual. All she considers is the likelihood for bankruptcy - basing the foundation of her happiness on money and financial security. It's up to Sloan to show her that taking risks can pay off - if not monetarily.

The practical-thinker-vs-artistic-dreamer pair-up isn't uncommon in romances, but Nina Bangs carries it off with style. Jenny obviously is the one who has to transform the most in this story, but we're allowed to understand her foibles from beginning to end - and, let me tell ya, Sloan is a yummy catalyst for her change. He rescues kittens! He fulfills fantasies! He'll slide down a chimney in a Santa suit to satisfy a woman only to get stuck thanks to an inopportune boner!

For being really quite funny, as well as stuffed with Christmas cheer without being treacly, this story gets an A-.

"Santa Reads Romance," by Dara Joy
Alternate Title: Away in a Stranger

The Chick: May Bea, a.k.a. "May Forrester." A romance author struggling with writer's block, she holes herself up for Christmas in a secluded cabin with nothing but a laptop and some frozen dinners, hoping to finish her latest book.
The Rub: When a sexy stranger in a Santa suit shows up at her door, she starts plotting sex scenes that might not be fictional.
Dream Casting: Ginnifer Goodwin.

The Dude: C. Hunter Douglas. A dedicated publisher who's come to Maine to track down a late manuscript, he gets tricked into playing Santa Claus - and winds up stranded with a kooky romance writer in a cabin with diet food, no heat, and only romance novels to read.
The Rub: That romance writer sure is pretty ... and, hey, those kissing books sure give great advice!
Dream Casting: Luke Wilson.

The Plot:
Hunter: Writers! Bah humbug!

May: Eeep! A burglar! *clubs*

Hunter: Great, now I'm stuck. What'll I do?

May: You can read some of my romances!

Hunter: *reading Laura Kinsale* S.T.! ACID! IN THE EAR! Ohmygawwwwwwd! *cries*

May: What are you reading?

Hunter: Nothing. *reads another stack* Huh, well, I don't have fangs, a secret baby, or two penises and a magical orgasm tail, but some of these scenes could come in handy!

May: Wow! When did you become so ruggedly chiselled? So - so dominant and Fabio-ish?

Hunter: Let me plunder your lady cavern with my sword of tenderness.

May: Wow - no more Beatrice Small for you. Otherwise, LET'S GET IT ON RIGHT NOW!

Hunter: Hooray!

Romance Convention Checklist
1 Virgin Romance Writer

1 Drunk-Ass Con Man Santa

1 Relationship-Aiding Pet

1 Traumatic Head Injury

1 Big Misunderstanding

Several Terrible Romance Lines

The Word: Dara Joy rounds out this anthology on a lesser, but still relatively enjoyable note. This is another "kooky" romance but since the plotting and characterization more or less manage to keep their shit together I'm not complaining too much.

C. Hunter Douglas has travelled all the way to Maine to hunt down an unreliable horror writer (very obviously based on Stephen King) who failed to submit his million-dollar manuscript on time, only to find out that "Rex Stevens" (*wink wink*) fled to Sri Lanka to find himself. To make matters even worse, Hunter accidentally hits a pickled Santa impersonator with his truck and is guilted into posing as Jolly Ol' St. Nick to deliver a bag of toys to a group of children.

Meanwhile, May Bea (nom de plume Forrester), is sitting in her primitive cabin where she's hidden herself from the world to finish her novel, when she spots a suspicious-looking Santa coming up her walk. Her hyperactive writer's imagination convinces her he's a serial killer and she knocks him out cold and ties him up - only afterwards recognizing him as big-time publisher C. Hunter Douglas.

When Hunter comes to, it's to find himself trapped in an underheated cabin in the middle of a blizzard, next to an irate romance author. However, as the snow drifts pile up it's apparent neither of them will be leaving the cabin anytime soon, so they'll just have to make do. Hunter's outraged because he's forced to spend his holidays with a writer, a class of people he's come to understand are unreliable, unstable, and crazy. May, meanwhile, jumps to the conclusion that Hunter's here to try and smooth talk her away from her current publisher.

Okay, so Dara Joy lays on the May "the Wa-ha-ha-cky Artist" schtick a bit too thick, and Joy's not too clear in determining what Hunter sees in May other than lust. He seems to go from "I'm trapped in a cabin with a nutcase" to "I'm gonna bang this lady" pretty quickly, which made him seem like one of those tiresome romance heroes who are physically incapable of remaining within the same 100 feet of a woman without having sex with them, whether they actually care about the woman or not (Gabriel from Teresa Medeiros' Yours Until Dawn is another example).

However, the story does make some funny meta-humour as Hunter starts reading May's romance novels to come up with a way to seduce her, and it works, even when he shoots out lines like, "Don't you want to feel the driving thrust of my steely manhood between the petals of your tender femininity?" and May doesn't catch on, even once.

That being said, for an annoying heroine and a little too much "wackiness," I'd rate this story a B-.

So, is this anthology worth it? Eh. None of this stories are new (Hill's is from 1998, and it shows thanks to dated Melrose Place references, Joy's is from 1996, and even Bangs' story is from 2000 - while this anthology was published in 2008). While none are boring, I think I could live without re-reading Hill's and Joy's entries - Bangs', on the other hand, might be work looking for in another, better anthology. The average:


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