Monday, October 17, 2016

Review - - You Had Me at Christmas

You Had Me at Christmas
By Karina Bliss, Stephanie Doyle, Laura Florand,
Jennifer Lohmann, and Molly O’Keefe
Publisher: Self-Published
Release Date: October 17, 2016

Anthologies of Christmas novellas have become common since the marriage of romance fiction and digital media, but there is nothing common about this anthology. It is an extraordinary collection by five talented authors of contemporary romance.

It gets off to a strong start with Karina Bliss’s “Play,” following Rise, the first novel in her Rock Solid series. Jared and Kayla Walker are high school sweethearts who married young. Kayla believes in Jared’s talent and encourages his dreams. When Jared won a spot in Zander Freedman’s resurrection of the band that made him famous with a new group of musicians, the resulting fame and all that accompanied it put a strain on the Walkers’ marriage. Having Kayla and the children join the tour was an attempt to relieve the tensions, but it backfired, putting their marriage in real jeopardy.

After the scandal surrounding Zander’s lip syncing in an appearance and the scare about the star’s throat, no one is sure what is going to happen to the band. Jared is home, making a desperate effort to repair the damage to his relationship with Kayla. She is no less committed to the relationship, but her confidence in herself and in Jared’s love for her have been undermined by her experiences on the tour. Her doubts about their future as a couple cannot be easily addressed. Christmas is approaching with all the attendant pressures of excited kids and family gatherings, and Kayla and Jared find it difficult to find time for the two of them. Can they find their way back to each other despite the difficulties?

Karina Bliss is brilliant at creating characters who hook me head and heart, and her prose is always superb. These qualities have made her one of my auto-buy authors. Rise was my top contemporary romance of 2015, even though I was initially skeptical about Zander Freedman as a hero. I have been eager for more of Jared and Kayla’s story since I turned the last page of that book. I was a bit disappointed that it was a novella, but Bliss, who first gained attention as a category author, knows how to pack a lot of story in fewer pages. “Play” was all I hoped it would be.

It is obvious that Jared and Kayla are deeply in love with one another and want to salvage their marriage, but their problems are significant. There is nothing trite about the obstacles they face. Jared is no self-destructive rocker seeking absolution for his betrayals, but fame has changed him and the way he lives his life. Bliss wisely avoids the simplistic and makes the marriage in trouble a problem that requires both partners to grow in understanding of self and one another if their reunion story is to have an HEA. The story has humor (including a very funny sex scene) and poignance, appealing kids and marital passion, and the real feel of a family preparing for Christmas. I loved it! “Play” alone is worth purchasing the anthology.

It is not necessary to have read Rise to enjoy this novella, but having read the earlier book will enhance the reading of the novella. The second novel in the series, Fall (the story of Zander’s PA Dimity Graham and Rage drummer Seth Curran), is scheduled for release in next month. I can’t wait.


Stephanie Doyle’s “One Naughty Little Christmas” is the second story. Alone on Christmas night and counting the hours to December 26 when life will once again be filled with the demands of work, Kate McCullen passes the lonely hours with a little wine and consideration of a new app her assistant had downloaded to her phone: “a dating app specifically for people over forty. A more serious, more mature group of single people looking to find each other.”  Tentatively, Kate opens the app and, after a few misses, sees a picture of a man that intrigues her. The two connect—cyberly, emotionally, and, in a move out of character for both of them, sexually. Kate never expected that her lonely Christmas evening would end with Internet sex.

Moving the relationship from the virtual world to the real one is more complicated. Regardless of their instant connection via the dating app, Kate and John are very different, and they have their share of baggage. Both have known loss, and both know that the real is riskier, scarier than a fantasy. Can they overcome their fears and give the love they have unexpectedly found a chance?

I love the developing trend of older heroines and heroes, so I was predisposed to like this one. I found Kate, a woman who had devoted two decades to building a successful career and is now questioning if it is enough, a particularly sympathetic heroine. The cross-class romance is one of my favorite tropes, and this was an interesting take on that one. For readers who like highly sensual romances, this one has some sizzling scenes. My one complaint is the title. To me, it suggests a rom-com rather than the considerably more substantive story Doyle gives her readers.


Jennifer Lohmann is up third with "Twelve Kisses Until Christmas." Selina Lumina's dreams of leaving her small Idaho town to pursue a career in the art world have turned to desperation with the increasingly insistent drunken attentions of her abusive stepfather. With little money left from her waitressing job at the local diner after paying for one college course per semester and many of the bills at her mother and stepfather's home and no emotional support coming from her mother, Selina sees no way out of her dilemma. Her future looks bleak...until the morning a stranger walks into the diner and offers her the chance of a lifetime.

Recently selling the app he created with his good friend for millions of dollars, twenty-five year old technology whiz kid, Marc Murcowski is determined to enjoy his new-found wealth, driving around the country, exploring out the way places and every ski run he can find. Except, it's not fulfilling him like he'd anticipated. He's bored, lonely, and can't stop thinking about the sold app that he's confident he can still make better. The only bright spot in his currently dreary life is the cute but weary - and wary - waitress in the small Idaho diner where he's stopped to eat. An impulsive decision leads him to offer her a ride to Salt Lake City where she can pursue her dreams if she'll agree to explore the out of the way tourist attractions with him along the way. The offer is strictly platonic but as they slowly come to know one another on the trip will it stay that way? And once they reach Salt Lake City, will they be willing to say good-bye or will they have found new dreams to explore together?

Selina and Marc are both young but no less complex for their ages and experience or lack thereof. Selina, in particular, is wise beyond her years, no doubt due to having to mature quickly because of her family situation.  Marc, while the elder and more successful of the two, has more maturing to do, a fact that Selina recognizes even if Marc doesn't. At least, not at first. Lohmann does a good job of keeping the characters and their journey true to their age and experience, especially with the ending which I found very satisfying. This was my first story by Jennifer Lohmann. I enjoyed her writing and plan to seek out more.


I discovered Laura Florand earlier this year and she has quickly become one of my favorite contemporary authors. "Snow-Kissed," the fourth novella in this anthology, brilliantly showcases why all contemporary romance readers should have Ms. Florand on their reading list. This novella was previously published September 1, 2013 as the first story in Florand's Snow Queen duo.

Kai had once been a woman full of joy who was head over heels in love with her husband. She taught him how to smile, how to have fun. He was her world, as she was his, and then it all fell apart. Overcome with grief, unable to function any longer in her everyday life or find forgiveness, for either of them, Kai turned her back on Kurt and their marriage and escaped to his mother's cabin in the mountains. It had been 18 months since she walked out on their marriage and her soul was still as cold as the snow falling outside the cabin window when Kurt arrived at the cabin. She wasn't ready to see him; wasn't sure if she would ever be ready, knowing how she had ruined the love they once had.

Kurt had never stopped loving Kai during the long months they were apart. He knew he hadn't been there for her in the way she needed when her world fell apart but he didn't know what else he could have done. She retreated into her grief and guilt to a place he couldn't reach, didn't fully understand. When they are snowed in at the cabin, Kurt knows it could be his last chance to break through the wall she's erected around her heart, heal the rift in their marriage, and rediscover the joy they once shared.

In "Snow-Kissed," Laura Florand has created an exquisitely written, heart-wrenching tale of love, loss, grief, hope, forgiveness, healing, and reconciliation. It's one of the best, if not the best, second-chance love stories I've ever read. I was held spellbound by the imagery, the language, the fragility of these characters, the deep anger and feelings of helplessness, the tenuous hope as they cautiously reach out to one another, the gentle care and sensuous desire. The intimacy and emotional depth of this story is incredible. I didn't so much read it as I absorbed it at a gut level. It was as if I knew these characters, knew their pain, their anguish, and ached with them. In my opinion, "Snow-Kissed" is as close to perfection as a story can get. It has my highest recommendation.

A couple words of caution...
You probably don't want to read this novella on a crowded airplane (yes, I did and it wasn't pretty) and I strongly encourage you to have a full pack of tissues handy before you begin. There's a reason "Snow-Kissed" was voted Biggest Tearjerker of the Year in the annual AAR reader poll.


Molly O’Keefe’s “Christmas Eve: A Love Story” concludes the collection. This is a reissue; the novella was briefly available in Sweet Talk, the limited edition collection released in May 2015 by Brenda Novak's Online Auction for Diabetes Research.

Trina Crawford and Dean McKenzie grew up on neighboring spreads in Dusk Falls, Wyoming. Best friends, they spent every Christmas Eve at the annual Christmas party thrown by Dean’s wealthy parents. Part of the tradition was the playing of Christmas carols by Trina on piano and Dean on guitar. That tradition, along with the Crawfords presence at the party, ended when Roy Crawford and Eugene McKenzie clashed over the ownership of a piece of land at the boundary of their properties, but even feuding fathers could not stop Trina and Dean’s friendship. Dean was there on the Christmas Eve when Trina’s mother left Dusk Falls forever, leaving Trina with her silent, drunken father. Dean understood Trina’s determination to escape Dusk Falls and her father. He too had plans to leave the town and the father he could never please.

The ties of friendship stretched but never broke as Trina left for college and law school and Dean studied land management in Laramie. If they each dreamed that there was more than friendship between them, the time never seemed right to speak of those dreams—not until as adults they found themselves back in Dusk Falls. But their idyll and their friendship were shattered by a double betrayal. It will take a Christmas Eve miracle of forgiveness to bring true reunion and an HEA.

Molly O’Keefe’s newest novels have been erotic romance, not a subgenre I read, so I loved this reread of a story that is a combination of sweetness and substance and characters so real I wanted to give them a hug. Friends-to-lovers and reunion stories are my favorite tropes, and this novella is a bit of both. I don’t rank this one quite as highly as O’Keefe’s Rita-winning Christmas novella “The Christmas Eve Promise” (2009), one of my perennial Christmas rereads, but it is a wonderful story and a sigh-worthy end to this excellent anthology.


Have you read any of the authors in this anthology?

Do you enjoy Christmas themed romances? Do you like them light and comedic or deeply emotional?

Two randomly chosen people leaving a comment on today's post will receive an e-book copy of You Had Me at Christmas. (winner's choice of epub or mobi format)


  1. Love Christmas Theme Romances. You Has Me at Christmas is putting a new, fresh spin on Christmas and Romance. Many of the authors in the anthology are new to me. Thank you for the chance to win a copy. Good luck everyone!

  2. I always enjoy reading Christmas anthologies.

  3. I like emotional Christmas romances especially with a snowed in them (epub)

  4. I have read books by all except Jennifer Lohmann. I enjoy reading all kinds of Christmas books from the sweet, sexy to the funny.

  5. I enjoy Christmas romances. I believe I've read two of the authors in this featured anthology. I like a mix of comedic and heartwarming/emotional.


  6. I do like Christmas themed stories--there's so much magic to Christmas anyway that falling in love just adds another level. I loved Jill Barnett's contributions to a Christmas themed anthology. :)

  7. I love Christmas themed stories - and often anthologies are perfect length for the holiday months. As for light and funny vs serious, it honestly depends on my mood for which type of book I pick up at any given time. (One reason I'm often reading more than one book at a time...)

  8. I have read all of Laura Florand's books & novellas, including the one in this anthology. Love her work!

  9. I'm so excited you reviewed this anthology. I had forgotten that I pre-ordered it and was pleasantly surprised when I found it on my Kindle this morning (you can take me out of the drawing). I basically bought it for the Karina Bliss novella but am excited about the others now too. I love Christmas themed romances!

  10. I happily read them year round!!! Who doesn't love Christmas??

  11. I enjoy reading Christmas stories all year round, especially novellas. Most of the ones I've read tend toward the lighter side, but I am intrigued by the emotional weight you've described in some of these stories. Thanks for the post and giveaway.