Chestnuts roasting on an open fire and Jack Frost nipping at your nose make the holidays, and curling up with a good book, all the better. The same goes for romances; there is always the hope that holiday themed romances will deliver a seasonal magic and the burden of disbelief will be lessen in the season of miracles. Or, at least, that’s the wish. In the case of Sugar and Spice – an anthology featuring Christmas themed romances from Fern Michaels, Beverly Barton, Joanne Fluke and Shirley Jump – that’s not entirely the case.
In Fern Michaels’ “The Christmas Stocking,” principles Amy Baran and Guss Moss have relationships with their parents (dad for Guss, mom for Amy) that are strained at best. Childhood hurts, adult misunderstandings and life-long missteps have left each parent and child with little to say to each other and wide bridges to cross when both Amy and Guss go home (separately) to straighten out their parents’ lives. What follows isn’t a romance between Amy and Guss so much as it is the tale of a daughter mending a relationship with her mother and a son doing the same with his dad. That Amy and Guss meet along the way is coincidental rather than the story’s focus; a point made all the more salient by the fact that Amy and Guss don’t meet until page 59 of a 115 page story. By whatever loose definition there is of romance, “The Christmas Stocking” does not fill it.
“The Ghost of Christmas Past” by Beverly Barton isn’t only about Christmases past, but also the ghosts of romance past. There is an old fashioned romance (circa 1980s) feel to this that isn’t retro chic or hip as much as it is a testament to why romance has – and must – continually evolve. When Katie Hadley wrecks her car on an icy mountain road, she is rescued by don’t-call-me-a-hero retired solider Mack MacKinnon. Thanks to a well timed storm, Katie and Mack spend the days leading to Christmas stuck in Mack’s remote cabin. That ever-the-good-girl widow Katie and angry-for-no-reason Mack manage to fall in love shouldn’t be a surprise…despite the fact that Katie still loves her dead husband and that the only break in Mack’s anger is to utter skin crawling sexual come-ons. On their first night together, for instance, Mack suggests: You could do a striptease for me then we could get hot and sweaty. Mack’s come-ons are not only inappropriate, the swift transitions from resentment to innuendo are jarring. On occasion, under skillful guidance, these stock elements can come together and create magic. “The Ghost of Christmas Past” isn’t one of those occasions. There’s no Christmas magic here.
Joanne Fluke’s Sugar and Spice entry “The Twelve Desserts of Christmas” is something of a Hannah Swensen Mystery adjunct – Hannah is there, but without the requisite murder, or anything else to do. This is yet another novella in the collection that stretches the definition of romance paper-thin. The story is, ostensibly, about Julie Jensen and Matt Sherwood, two private school teachers who stay at school over Christmas break to watch over the children who don’t have anywhere to go for the holiday (as if one kid in a romance weren’t bad enough, this story has six). At story’s opening Julie and Matt are already hot and heavy with one another so there aren’t a lot of places their tale could go. What plays out, then, is mostly a cookbook (those would be Hannah’s scenes in which she bakes for the kids), heavy doses of kids plotting against adults, and conflictless forgone conclusion romance, which, perhaps mercifully, gets the least page time of all. In the end, the novella raises the question of why Fluke doesn’t just write cookbooks and be done with it.
If there is a bright spot here (or maybe just brighter in relation to what precedes it), it’s Shirley Jump’s “Twelve Days” wherein coworkers Natalie Harris and Jake Lyons play Secret Santas to one another and a group of homeless children. Their story focuses in on the fits and starts of their romance, is rife with conflict (Jake is one of Natalie’s bosses, a notorious playboy and Natalie is shy to the point of stuttering in Jake’s presence), all the while being somewhat marred by flip-flopping of the characters (one moment they are gung-ho for each other and the next they are pulling back with head spinning quickness). What’s nice is the sense of investment here that is lacking in the three previous novellas, and the willingness to stretch – even if that’s just a bit – beyond the expected. “Twelve Days” is adequate, not fantastic, and not memorable, yet still the best offering of this anthology.
Sugar and Spice is, overall, an opportunity lost. This anthology could have been the sort of holiday read perfect to enjoy by the glow of Christmas lights. Instead, the collection’s focus is misplaced on recipes and the 3D ornament gift from the authors and the publisher (a giveaway bonus inserted in the middle of the book) . A better gift would have been solid, holiday-themed fiction.
You can visit Fern here, Beverly here, Joanne here, Shirley here, and purchase this book here and here.