Scenes From A Holiday Anthology by Lauri Graff, Caren Lissner and Melanie Murray

scenesfromaholiday.jpgWendy:From Wal-Mart to the White House this Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanzaa/New Year’s season has been marked by the “Happy Holidays” v. “Merry Christmas” debate. Red Dress Ink’s seasonal offering, Scenes from a Holiday neatly sidesteps the issue by presenting an anthology that is not solely devoted to any one celebration. Rather, each novella focuses on a particular holiday, hopping from Hanukkah, to New Year’s Eve, to Christmas. The concept is fresh and exciting. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for much of the execution.

In Laurie Graff’s The Eight Dates of Hanukkah a singles’ event coordinator and commitment-phobe, Nicki Heller, falls into a coma after a menorah lands on the back of her head (it could happen) on the first night of Hanukkah.  Physically, Nicki spends the next seven nights lying in a hospital bed surrounded by her family and engagement-ring-toting boyfriend, Mark Baum.  In a dream state, Nicki spends the Festival of Lights in Menorahville where the weeks are eight days long (one for each night of Hanukkah), the currency is gelt (for our goyish friends that’s chocolate wrapped in gold foil to look like coins), and everyone is single.  The catch is none of the nice Jewish singles can leave Menorahville until they find someone to marry. 

With a flat narrative and a conceit that asks too much of the reader, The Eight Dates of Hanukkah is easily dismissible as the weakest offering in this anthology.  However, readers with a passable understanding of Judaism might appreciate Graff’s attempt at a parable.  Nicki’s Menorahville is a less than subtle version of her personal hell—a place where everything that exists in Manhattan exists yet without end (after the eighth day, the first night of Hanukkah begins again) and Nicki is doomed to fail at the very sort of singles’ events she planned outside of Menorahville until, after thoughtful reflection, she sees the error of her marriage-avoiding ways.  Had the parallels between Nicki’s ad infinitum and real life been a little less obvious, the charm here might be clearer.

Carrie Pilby’s New Year’s Resolution by Caren Lissen offers a strong protagonist in Carrie.  However, this short format doesn’t showcase this rich character to the fullest extent possible (such as Lissen’s 2003 single title debut Carrie Pilby did).  At twenty, Carrie is a mentally advanced, but socially inept, Harvard graduate trying to make her way in New York City.  Characters with genius level IQs who rapidly proceed through high school and college have long held authors’ fascination (if the sheer number of these characters written about is any indication).  However, the intelligence and rate at which school is finished are far too often quickly consigned to back story that fails to impact those characters’ current conflicts.  Not so with Carrie Pilby.  For all her brainpower Carrie remains out of step with those around her.  To her credit, she understands her social ineptness and vows, on the eve of the New Year, to break out of her shell and find someone like herself.

Of the three novellas, Carrie’s story has the least to do with the holiday it’s set around.  New Year’s Eve quickly comes and goes with the bulk of the story—the development of Carrie’s social skills and self discovery—in January.  That is a disappointment given the expectations a holiday anthology elicits.   A greater disappointment is the story itself.  Carrie’s resolution and subsequent follow through towards that goal reads more like a novel chapter than a stand alone story, full of internal musings and light on action.  It is perhaps difficult to cast a character as a genius and then back up that assertion through the character’s actions.  Carrie’s ruminations on the difference between green beans and string beans certainly does not impress, but her acute understanding of the meaning of what is said to her—even while she misunderstands the person speaking—is fascinating.  Carrie is unique; this story is not.      

Rounding out the anthology with the most conventional and charming offering is Melanie Murray’s Emma Townsend Saves Christmas.  Emma, a Manhattan-based lawyer, dreads returning to her family’s Vermont Christmas tree farm for Christmas.  She’d rather be in Aspen, where her designer clothes would be appreciated and her boyfriend, Eric, would ask for her hand in marriage.  Once in Vermont, Emma finds her parents—whose love of Christmas has inspired a lack of seasonal joy in Emma and outright embarrassment for their enthusiasm—packed for an island vacation.  Left in her hometown with a populous who disapprove of her leaving for greener pastures to begin with, and who are angry that her parents have defected on their roles in the traditional Christmas Fair, Emma finds an unlikely ally in Tim Latch: the cutest, richest boy from high school who once spurred Emma for being the lowly child of Christmas tree farmers.

Emma’s quest to be Eric’s socialite wife is not the least bit endearing—nor is it intended to be—and Murray plays Eric’s failing to be “The One” with a heavy hand.  Yet, the circumstances that lead Emma to her life choices are compelling and relatable.  Emma spends her youth wanting to escape life on her parent’s farm and live according to what’s important to her.  It isn’t until she’s faced with Christmas without them that she can discover what she wants and what’s important to her.  Emma is a likeable character and it’s easy to root for her reacquaintance with laid-back and all grown up Tim.

While Emma Townsend Saves Christmas buoys Scenes from a Holiday and enables the anthology to close on a higher note than it opens, it isn’t enough to overcome the flawed opening and lackluster middle.  The beauty of a holiday gift is that you never know what you’ll find.  Sometimes you’ll find an orange, sometimes a diamond ring, and on occasion a lump of coal.  Scenes from a Holiday has all three.  Merry Hanukkah-mas to all, and to all a goodnight.

HelenKay:  The theme of this anthology is best summed up as  Women With A Plan.  One heroine makes her living as an event planner.  Another uses New Year’s resolutions to set out her life plan.  The last plans her future while running from her past.  The problem is that all the planning in the world can’t strike a much-needed spark into this uneven anthology.

In Laurie Graff’s The Eight Days of Hanukkah, Nicki Heller spends her life setting up events for singles.  She’s been down the marriage road and watched it end in divorce.  Once burnt, she does not want to travel that path again.  Her boyfriend Mark has other ideas.  She dreads his inevitable marriage proposal and makes up excuses to put him off, assuming he’ll get mad, get over it and come back to her on her terms.  This time she’s wrong.  Mark gets fed up with Nicki’s behavior and breaks it off.  Soon after when she   hears someone banging on her office door, she welcomes the stranger in thinking it is Mark coming back to apologize, just as she knew he would.  Wrong again.  The visitor is a criminal, not her lover.  She tries to fight the guy off but ends up knocking her prized menorah onto her head and slipping into a coma.  As Nicki’s loved ones gather around her hospital bed, Nicki mentally slips into an alternate reality called Menorahville and suffers through an imaginary series of dates, each one worse than the one before it.

The premise here is reminiscent of the series of holiday movies where the naysayer – in this case, the commitment-phobe – is shown how things could be in a different world in order to understand how good they actually are in the real one.  The idea is clever and new.  The problem comes in the execution.  The shifts in point of view are jolting and have the tendency to drag the reader out of the story.  Further, there are portions of the beginning of the book where the point of view plays as if Nicki is talking about herself in the third person.  The result is a confusing with dialog that is hard to follow and a book that becomes too easy to put down.

The juxtaposition of the more serious hospital scenes and lighter feel of Nicki’s time in Menorahville is a difficult combination.  Graff’s skill in juggling is apparent here.  The later scenes flow better and move back and forth with greater ease.  But Nicki’s hard stance against Mark and subsequent change unfold in separate realities and without any relationship to each other.  This disconnect makes Nicki difficult to relate to at the beginning of the book and hard to define at the end.

Caren Lissner’s Carrie Philby’s New Year’s Resolutions follows the story of a twenty-year-old genius and her attempts to fit in and rise above her social misfit status.  Having skipped two years of school, Carrie went to college early and never meshed with her pears.  That continues to be a problem.  She is searching for acceptance and for a life.  She decides to set out a few New Year’s Resolutions to get her life on track or, more accurately, to find a life in the first place.  Carrie joins her friend Kara and helps her babysit an impressive apartment while the owner is on vacation.  The set-up presents the perfect opportunity to meet her goals.  She just needs to find the perfect guy with a similar academic background and she’s ready.

Carrie is your average twenty-something with an above-average brain.  She switches back and forth between confused and condescending.  She thinks she knows what she needs but her priorities are slightly skewed.  She is at times shallow and at others sweet.  She wants to make a connection with a man but really doesn’t know how to make that happen.  In sum, her self doubts are identifiable to anyone who has ever been a twenty-year-old woman. 

The issue here is not with Carrie’s voice or character but, instead, with the lack of a plot and story arc.  This novella reads more like a series of chapters taken out of a bigger book than an actual stand-alone story. The story picks up in the middle of Carrie’s life and leaves at almost the same point.  Carrie is maturing but there is a lack of growth and an even more obvious lack of purpose and sense of what’s next.  If a reader hasn’t followed Carrie’s tale and has no plans to follow her life into the future, it will be difficult to engage with this novella.

Melanie Murray’s Emma Townsend Saves Christmas is the strongest of the three novellas.  With sharp characters, steady pacing, subtle character growth and a satisfying ending, Murray ends the anthology on a solid and enjoyable note. Emma lives in New York City, miles away from her upbringing on a Christmas tree farm in Vermont.  She has spent her life escaping from her past and leading a new life filled with designer clothes, fancy cars and expensive everything.  Christmas is the one time she returns to her parents’ home.  They love the holidays.  In an effort not to disappoint them, she travels to Vermont for a short visit.  She wants to go skiing with her boyfriend and certainly doesn’t want him to see her old life.  She believes a marriage proposal is on the horizon and that she only has a few days to get out of Vermont and back to her "real" life.  Only, when she arrives home, her parents are on their way out of town, the high school crush who dumped her is at the house and the town is depending on her to save the Christmas Faire. 

Emma starts out as unreachable.  She is fun and smart, but her life plan is taking her down a road that sounds more frivolous and shallow than she should have.  Her return home allows her to grow in ways that are believable and entertaining.  The timing of her transition is near perfect. 

Murray does an admirable job of changing how we view the old flame, Tim Latch, by showing how Emma views him.  He goes from oafish to hero.  Murray doesn’t hit the reader over the head with the transition. Rather, she lets the circumstances and Emma’s view of him show the change.  The result is an engaging and sweet romance that blossoms in real time and ticks away at a speed that is perfect for the remainder of the story.

Wendy’s Question:  As a reader, which do you find to be a more effect platform, the single author anthology or the multi-author anthology? 

HelenKay’s Response:  If I had to limit my answer to our last two anthology reviews, I’d say the single author anthology worked and the multi-author anthology faltered.  The differences didn’t have anything to do with the number of authors.  It was a simple question of execution.  On a more global level and as a fan of anthologies, I have to say that I don’t have a preference on single author versus multi-author books.  I read both.  I write both.  One benefit I have found from multi-author anthologies is that they do offer a glimpse at different writing styles.  The reader can get a taste of a new author or an author they have always wanted to try.  The single author anthology, on the other hand, provides more depth.  Both work for me.  Unfortunately, this particular one didn’t.

Wendy’s Final Thought:  Scenes from a Holiday is lifted up by a third novella so charming and seemingly effortless that it’s difficult to understand why the first two aren’t equally good.

HelenKay’s Final Thought:  Melanie Murray’s Emma Townsend Saves Christmas saves this holiday anthology from being forgettable.

You can visit Laurie Graff here, Caren Lissner here, Melanie Murray here and purchase this book here and here.

5 thoughts on “Scenes From A Holiday Anthology by Lauri Graff, Caren Lissner and Melanie Murray

  1. Here is my question (ha!, you thought I was still slothing on the beach, didn’t you?): do you think holiday-themed stories are too forced to be effective? I am speaking from a romance novel perspective only. In my entire reading life, I can only recall one really well-done holiday-themed story (as opposed to a story set in the holiday season), and that was by Judith Arnold. It involved a Jewish character involved in a plane crash who spent Hannukah away from her family (that was, by the way, the world’s worst synopsis).
    Even now, I remember the story because it handled the cutesy aspects of holiday writing with real dignity and originality. This was, by the way, back in the olden days when Harlequin would try adventurous themes. Only one of the three stories in the anthology seems to stretch the boundaries of narrative, yet it failed in execution. Hence my question.
    I find it interesting, given that this was a Red Dress title, that the story you found strongest was the most tradtional. Go figure.

  2. What’s this? You’ve returned from your Hawaiian vacation already? You realize you’re now fair game for HelenKay’s taunting emails? I think she’s somehow managed to get wireless on Waikiki just so she can send tanning reports from the beach to those of us stuck stateside.
    Good question. Based solely on the holiday themes—and prior to reading the anthology—I expected to like the Christmas story the least. As the nine foot Christmas tree in the middle of my living room can attest, I really love Christmas, so it wasn’t a bias against the holiday that had me doubting the likeability of Emma Townsend Saves Christmas. It was simply difficult for me to conceive of the most traditional story capturing my interests. That’s my personal reading preference rearing its head, but to give the most balanced review I put that aside. In the end, I was pretty surprised too.
    Of the eight million or so—slight exaggeration—holiday romances I’ve read, a lot of them have been forced, where the holiday spirit got in the way of strong story construction. One of the things I found so remarkable about The Secret Live of Mrs. Claus (a review from earlier in the month) was that it brushed up against the idea of Christmas magic, but change in the characters’ lives truly came about through growth. Of course that is chicklit and lacks the forced sentimentality that often swamps romance.
    I have a question of my own: how do you feel about stories that are set at holiday time, yet aren’t impacted by the holiday?

  3. Has nothing to do with the review but I’m excited to hear what you guys have to say about The Midnight Work. I had the opportunity to read this a while back, and while I ended up skimming, I did take the time to read the public sex parts. Just to make sure I was understanding the scene correctly, of course.

  4. Yes, I check my email only so that I can then reply and annoy everyone with the fact I am on vacation and they’re not. Unattractive, I know, but I have to take my shots where I can.
    Kassia – Welcome back! And look at you getting right back into the swing of PBR. Aren’t you good? As you can tell from my review, I was disappointed with this anthology. I wanted to love it. Was really excited about it. The last novella worked for me. It did have a traditional holiday theme, but the heroine felt refreshing and modern. She wasn’t perfect. In fact, at the beginning of the book, she’s a bit of a mess. Many holiday romances don’t do much for me because they feel as if they are romances that could fit in any other month but are molded into holiday romance to fit the publishing house’s needs. Seems to me that does a great injustice to the author and the work. If it’s a holiday romance, have it feel like one and let it be original.
    Jay – If you can explain the beginning and end of Midnight Work to me, I’d be grateful. A heroine who kills innocent people, including children, and participates in a mass killing – yeah, didn’t work for me, which was a shame since I liked Sims’ voice.

  5. No can do HK – only stopped to read the sex. 🙂 I only have the barest handle on the plot. I plan on going back to actually read but am bogged down with books that I dont feel compelled to skim at the moment. We’ll see.

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