Christmas Reading, Pt. 2

Yesterday I wrote about some of my favorite Christmas comedies, and now to my favorite redemption stories. A redemption story, in my book, is about a character who has misbehaved quite badly, usually hurting someone dreadfully, and who either knows about this already or comes to realize this in the course of the story, which then is about his either atoning or at least apologizing, and then finding the strength for a new start. Alternately, it is about a lost soul who doesn’t even realize how lost he or she is, and his or her finding love. And somehow, redemption stories fit Christmas like a glove, although from the themes you’d almost expect them to be Easter stories.

I love stories about Joseph – the man who believes his wife is about to bear him a child by another man and how he deals with this. This motif is made quite explicit in a story in this year’s One Candlelit Christmas anthology, The Rake’s Secret Son by Annie Burrows, in which a boy wishes his mother’s husband had acted like Joseph and spared them social ostracism. In Mary Balogh’s The Wassail Bowl (from A Regency Christmas Feast), a husband is confronted by his wife for the first time since he separated from her because he believed she was pregnant with her lover’s child. In both of these stories, great emphasis is placed on the children’s feelings in the face of their parents’ struggles.

There are other Mary Balogh Christmas favorites: The Surprise Party (from A Regency Christmas VII) tells the story of a couple that used to be engaged but were driven apart due to the selfish actions of their siblings. Now they meet again because they find themselves responsible for said siblings’ offspring. The problem here is that the siblings were really awful, but now they are dead, so hero and heroine must let go before they can find happiness again. While the story is about forgiveness, it is not easily achieved. A Christmas Bride tells the romance of a woman who was the villain of an earlier novel (A Precious Jewel). Her transgression was serious, and she caused a great deal of suffering. On the other hand, in this novel is because clear that she has been torturing herself for years, and the hero (a lovely man) needs to woo her with a great deal of patience and some surprises to crack open the shell she’s hiding in.

A hero who suffers due to an earlier transgression can be found in Mary Jo Putney’s Sunshine for Christmas (from A Regency Christmas II), which is not at all Christmas-sy in that it’s set in Naples and does not contain a single item of Christmas decoration. Its hero was one of the villains in The Rake, a man who has paid dearly for some very careless words. In The Rake, he gets the chance to apologize but not to atone, and so he still feels horrible at the start of Sunshine for Christmas. The story is something of a cabin romance, and I adore both its set-up and its setting.

And I have a special soft spot for Diane Farr’s Once Upon a Christmas, which was reissued this year. Its primary romance is delightful, centering on two young people with unhappiness in their pasts who find kindred spirits in each other. I find the secondary romance even more moving, however. It is about a society beauty who has come to realize that all her looks and her breeding count as nothing in the face of the arrogance and lack of warmth she has displayed so far, and thus she feels unloveable. Her suitor is a widower who has learnt the hard way how precious love is, but in spite of still mourning his late wife, he is prepared to open his heart to this lonely woman. This is not for you if you don’t like stories about a second love, but it moves me to tears, literally, each time I read it.

With so many Christmas romances out there, are there any that you love especially? Do you recognize a certain pattern in the holiday romances you love, as I do?

-Rike Horstmann

Christmas Reading, Pt. 1

Now is the time of the year to go to my shelves and pick out a book to curl on the sofa with. Not surprisingly, many of my choices for December are holiday romances. I treat them like I do lebkuchen: If I start consuming them too early (like in September, when they appear on the supermarket shelves), I am satiated by mid-November. If, however, I restrain myself until the beginning of December, they enrich Advent and the Christmas holidays enormously.

My favorite Christmas romances, the ones I pick up again and again, tend to come in two disparate groups- comedies, and redemption stories. Either I want lots of frivolous fun, or stories with such depth of despair and bliss that they move me to tears. Go figure.

Of the comedies, many of my favorites are house party stories. They form the perfect backdrop to flirtations, to games and excursions, to little misunderstandings and reconciliations. Nothing too heavy, though!

Winter Wedding by Joan Smith is such a house party romance, in which a young lady – one of those common-sensical Smith heroines – hopes to meet a former suitor and is horrified when he arrives with another woman on his arm. I am also very fond of Mona Gedney’s Frost Fair Fiancé, which, strictly speaking, is not a Christmas but a winter story. This is a delightful comedy of manners about a young girl who can’t make up her mind whom to fall in love with and finally settles on the most unlikely candidate. Among this year’s new publications there is a true find in The Mistletoe Wager by Christine Merrill, a story of almost Noel Cowardesque charm about four people at hair-raising cross-purposes. My absolute favorite frivolous Christmas story is not a romance proper, but a cozy mystery: Rest You Merry by Charlotte MacLeod. If you ever get annoyed with your neighbor’s wildly colorful Christmas decorations or the muzak from some distant loudspeakers filling the winter air, this is the book for you. It also contains a delightful love story.

And tomorrow, I’ll have more Christmas reading for you – this time from the list of redemption stories. So, what are your favorite light holiday reads and why do you like them so?

-Rike Horstmann