I’m a fan of second chance stories, and I don’t think it is a coincidence that my five favorites from among the twenty or so contemporary Christmas stories I’ve read this year all focus on characters who, after knowing real unhappiness, get another chance, not just for a happy Christmas but for a happy life. The lovely gifts in “Grown-up Christmas List” are realized in these books. “And love would never end . . .” That’s my kind of Christmas.
Christmas in Snowflake Canyon by RaeAnne Thayne
Genevieve Beaumont, Hope’s Crossing’s spoiled princess and former Bridezilla, and Dylan Caine, war hero who left a few missing parts in Afghanistan, have only two things in common. They both ended up at drinking at the Speckled Lizard on the Friday after Thanksgiving and they both really dislike the Christmas carols some patron with lousy taste in music keeps playing on the digital jukebox. When Genevieve decides to make her objections to the music known, she ends up in an altercation with a redhead with a fondness for Christmas carols and a job as assistant district attorney. The altercation turns physical, and when the redhead’s obnoxious male companion gets involved, Dylan can’t sit there and watch him manhandle Genevieve, even if she is a spoiled brat. By evening’s end, they have something else in common: they are handcuffed together in a squad car on their way to the police station.
Genevieve and Dylan are not likeable characters. Dylan, of course, is a hero, and he sacrificed enormously in service of his country. It is impossible not to feel sympathy for him, but it’s also difficult to really like him when he is all wounded animal snarling and tearing at his loving family who are brokenhearted over his losses but whose gratitude that Dylan’s life has been spared is even greater. However, with Dylan, readers familiar with the series recognize from the opening scene that his psychological healing has begun, albeit in infinitesimal increments. The Dylan of earlier books would never have agreed to meet his brother Jamie at the Lizard.
No mitigating factors exist for Genevieve. She was a snob, and still is, though less of a one than readers might have supposed. She did behave horribly to some of Hope’s Crossing’s most noble characters. But Thayne shows her readers the family forces that have molded Genevieve into the pampered, petulant beauty she appears to be; she shows us that there is something worthwhile in Genevieve. She may be ill-equipped for transformation, but from the moment she has an epiphany that allows her to see herself as “small, selfish, and stupid,” she begins a journey that will bring her, the Hope’s Crossing community, and readers to the understanding that she can be great-hearted, giving, and smart in all the ways that matter most. This may be the best contemporary heroine redemption story since Susan Elizabeth Phillips gave the world Sugar Beth.
Sleigh Bells in the Snow by Sarah Morgan
Jackson O’Neil has left his own highly successful business, a chain of European luxury hotels specializing in winter sports, to concentrate on the family business, the Snow Crystal Resort and Spa in Vermont. His father’s death eighteen months ago in an automobile accident left the family reeling and the business that had been in the family for four generations on the edge of disaster. Jackson is astute enough to know that the only way to save the business is to make some changes, but his eighty-year-old grandfather is fighting him every step of the way. He thinks Jackson’s decision to build luxury cabins and to add the spa was foolish, and he is furious when Jackson announces that he has hired a public relations genius from a New York firm to help them sell the attractions of the resort to a larger audience.
Kayla Green is the public relations whiz. A British import, she is winning accolades from her clients and her boss for her innovative, commercially appealing work. She’s delighted when she learns that she is being given a new account to work on—first, because she’s a workaholic who is always happy to have more work and second, because anything that helps her avoid the excess of seasonal cheer that seems to be everywhere is good. When Jackson makes clear that he expects her to spend a week at the resort, Kayla is horrified at the idea of taking a full week out of her busy schedule, but then she recalls his mention of secluded cabins and decides that since she can’t make Christmas disappear, the next best thing is spending it in seclusion in Vermont where no one will drape her in tinsel or demand that she visit Santa Claus. What she gets is a messy, marvelous family who makes her a part of them, a sigh-worthy hero who has her reassembling her dreams, and enough love to stretch her heart more sizes than the Grinch’s.
This was my first Sarah Morgan book, and everything I’ve heard about her writing is true. This is an almost perfect contemporary Christmas romance. It isn’t that Morgan does anything astonishingly new but that she does so many usual things so superlatively well and with just enough of a twist to make them fresh. Morgan gives her readers a traditional Christmas, but she also shows the season as a time of loneliness and heartbreak. One especially poignant line stayed with me: “Loneliness could be felt at any time, of course, but there was something exquisitely painful about the loneliness that came along with Christmas.”
Christmas on 4th Street by Susan Mallery
Noelle Perkins may be a newcomer to Fool’s Gold, but she’s already in love with her life in the California town. She has loyal friends, a successful business, and a deep appreciation of all the little things that give her reason to rejoice every day. Her past has taught her never to take life’s bounty for granted, and it is a lesson she never allows herself to forget. In fact, the only things that are keeping her life from being pretty close to perfect are her lack of skill in dealing with frozen precipitation (for which her childhood in Florida and her years working in L. A. failed to prepare her), her college student employees who take off for the ski slopes without warning, and the absence of a man in her life who will give her the look of a woman well loved that is unmistakable in the expressions of her three best friends.
A hand injury that left Gabriel Boylan unable to continue his usual practice of volunteering to work through the holidays has sent the trauma surgeon to Fool’s Gold to spend Christmas with his fraternal twin, Gideon, Gideon’s fiancé and recently discovered son, and the Boylan parents. It’s the first Christmas Gabe has spent with all of his family in more than fifteen years, and he’s not looking forward to it. His bond with his brother is deep if rarely expressed, but lifelong tensions with his drill sergeant father who never understood Gabe’s preference for books over ballgames or his refusal to follow the family tradition of becoming a soldier have not been resolved by time and distance.
This really is a Christmas book, not just a book set in December that could as easily have been set in March or August. The seasonal rituals of the town, the genuine sentiment that the holidays evoke among families and friends, and the joy and love that are the very definition of the season are all part of what makes this book special. Some readers may find it kitschy, but I even liked the Christmas associations of the protagonists’ names. “Heartwarming” is a word I find overused and too readily applied to every book with sentimental appeal, but I think Christmas on 4th Street truly deserves to be termed “heartwarming” because it is indeed emotionally uplifting, sustaining, heartening, and encouraging. It’s also sexy, and it offers the gift of a wonderfully satisfying, sigh-evoking ending.
Candlelight Christmas by Susan Wiggs
Fans of the Lakeshores Chronicles series who watched Logan O’ Donnell grow from a wild teenager rebelling against his controlling father into a young man determined to accept the responsibilities of fatherhood and who felt sorry for him (even if you belonged to team Julian) when his marriage to Daisy fell apart will be especially pleased to see Logan come into his own as the hero who finds his own HEA. Wiggs provides enough details of Logan’s past for readers who have not read the earlier books to understand the stages Logan has moved through to get where he is and to root for his happiness.
Darcy Fitzgerald is also a likeable character, and from the beginning, it’s easy to see that she is perfect for Logan. Not only do they both understand what it means for the stable world they thought they had created to crumble, but they also share a love for sports that have an element of risk. Even more important, Darcy is the catalyst who reminds Logan of who he really is and gives him the courage to choose something he is passionate about for his life’s work, risks and all. And Logan provides the motivation Darcy needs to take emotional risks and claim the life she was meant to have.
Wiggs supplies enough warm, fuzzy moments and thematic threads concerning love and giving to satisfy even rabid Christmas celebrants. For example, there is a poignant subplot involving two children for whom Logan assumes temporary responsibility. And for the true romantics, there is a wonderful scene where Darcy and Logan sneak out in a snowstorm to hang lights on an outside tree so that Santa will have a runway for landing. In short, Candlelight Christmas succeeds as a holiday story and as a small-town contemporary romance.
Take Me Home for Christmas by Brenda Novak
Sophia DeBussi was the meanest girl in Eureka High School fourteen years ago, the one who stole boyfriends, manipulated swains, and looked down on those less powerful and popular. Most of Whiskey Creek held her responsible for the death of a popular athlete in a drunk driving accident, and everyone knew she had broken the heart of Ted Dixon. None of it seemed to touch Sophia. Beautiful, wealthy, and living a life of conspicuous consumption, she seemed to have everything. No one saw the darkness—the physical and emotional abuse from her controlling husband and Sophia’s drinking that was out of control until she spent thirty days in rehab. No one knew that she felt a secret relief when Skip disappeared, but her relief turns to fear when Skip’s secrets are revealed. It seems Skip cheated investors, including a significant number of the citizens of Whiskey Creek, out of sixty million dollars. And the feds suspect Sophia may have been involved.
Ted Dixon, a successful novelist, has chosen to settle in Whiskey Creek, the town where he grew up. One of the perks of remaining in his hometown is the opportunity to still enjoy the friendships that have been an important part of his life since grade school. But as much as his friends mean to him and as much as he usually looks forward to their Friday morning coffee at Black Gold, he is not eager to hear all the speculation about the DeBussi scandal. He tells himself Sophia is getting what she deserves. He surprises even himself when he offers Sophia a job as his housekeeper/assistant. Neither he nor Sophia has ever forgotten all they once shared, and they are about to discover that the surface never reveals the full story
Small-town books are typically comfort reads filled with warmth and coziness, but Novak shows readers that small towns can harbor the narrowness, the hypocrisies, and the outright meanness that human nature everywhere can exhibit. The greatest joy in this book is watching the redemption of Sophia, a woman who accepts the responsibility for her mistakes, becomes a stronger, better person than she ever dreamed she could be, and realizes that she can get by with a little help from her friends, her child, and an old love grown new. Take Me Home for Christmas lacks the sweetness and light of more conventional Christmas books, but the truths it hones fit right in with the season.
Janga spent decades teaching literature and writing to groups ranging from twelve-year-olds to college students. She is currently a freelance writer, who sometimes writes about romance fiction, and an aspiring writer of contemporary romance, who sometimes thinks of writing an American historical romance. She can be found at her blog Just Janga and tweeting obscure bits about writers as @Janga724.