Pandora's Box

The Night Before Christmas

Victoria Alexander, Sandra Hill, Dara Joy and Nelle McFather
October 2003 reissue of 1996 release, Contemporary Romance
LoveSpell, $6.99, 395 pages, Amazon ASIN 0505523183

Grade: N/A
Sensuality: N/A

There is a staff review of this book as well

This month we read an old favorite of Linda's, The Night Before Christmas. This holiday anthology features stories by Victoria Alexander, Sandra Hill, Dara Joy, and Nellie McFather, all with a Santa theme.

The Alexander story, Promises to Keep, is about an old woman who visits Santa and gets one last chance to correct an old mistake. Sandra Hill's Naughty or Nice features a heroine who holds up a convenience store (in a Santa suit) and takes the hero hostage. He falls in love with her as he sees her good heart and motives.

Santa Reads Romance, by Dara Joy, is a short cabin romance with a hero and heroine snowed in together over the holidays. The hero works in publishing and was sent to deliver gifts to children....or so he thinks. Nellie McFather's A Gift for Santa is a small town Southern romance about a widow and an attractive Yankee who are brought together by Santa Claus.

Blythe:      Linda, I understand that The Night Before Christmas is a yearly re-read for you. I enjoy holiday anthologies, and I read many of them in the mid to late nineties when this was published, but somehow I missed this one until now. I'm glad I got the chance to read it, though. While two of the stories really did nothing for me, I really liked the other two. As anthologies go, that's not too bad.

Time Travel Romance
Linda:      It will be interesting to see if we like the same two stories . The first story in the book, Promises to Keep by Victoria Alexander, has all of the elements I look for in a classic Christmas story.

Blythe:      Well, I loved Promises to Keep and thought it was almost pitch perfect. It's short, sweet and to the point, and manages to be touching without seeming maudlin. And I loved the idea of the heroine getting a chance to relive her life after making one huge mistake.

Linda:      It's perfect for me too. Don't we all have one decision we wish we could go back and change? The whole premise of this anthology is that Santa is real, as are the miracles of Christmas. At its heart the Christmas story is one of miracles and Alexander captures the mood perfectly. This story always leaves me with tears in my eyes and a smile on my face - all one could ask for in a Christmas story.

Blythe:      Well, I couldn't resist the WWII/USO dance setting either. I found the whole premise really romantic, and somehow the Santa angle works here. In her first life, the heroine had resisted the bizarre, impetuous urge to marry a man she just met before he shipped out to war, and her life is cold and empty after that. I loved watching her change her choice - and her life.

Linda:      Yes, it was just marvelous. I loved the image of the rich, successful woman standing in line with all the little kids and sitting on the teenage Santa's lap - just hoping against hope that she could receive the once promised gift.

Blythe:      I did too, and I'm still trying to figure out why it worked here when one of the later stories about Santa really tanked, but we'll discuss that later. I think that Alexander did a really good job of writing a concise, believable story. And the more anthology stories I read, the more I become convinced that writing a good one is really tough.

Contemporary Romance
What did you think of the Sandra Hill's Naughty or Nice?

Linda:      The heroine is so TSTL and the plot is soooo over the top that I found I just couldn't stretch my believability that far. Somehow staging an armed robbery of the local convenience store and then kidnapping one of the customers is just not funny to me.

Blythe:      Well, that was problem number one for me as well. I have a really tough time with romances featuring thieves in general, and I was never convinced that this woman needed to steal money, especially while armed. I agree; this is not even remotely funny, even though it's supposed to be. She starts off saying things like, "This is a stick out!" Ha ha ha! I kept waiting to hear a compelling reason for why she needed to steal, and I'm still waiting. The only way I could have bought it is if she were being coerced, and indeed she kind of acts like she is at first. But nope, it's all her own dumb idea. What an idiot. She needs to get together an go bowling with a couple of Balogh's heroines (the ones who think prostitution is their only choice.)

Linda:      LOL, I can think of several airheads who she could hang out with. I did like the hero though, he was sweet and sexy and was the only saving grace this story had. Hill seems to have thrown everything including Janet Jackson and Bill Gates into this story, but it just didn't work at all for me.

Blythe:      The hero might have been okay, but I was too annoyed at the whole story to notice, and I couldn't understand why he fell in love with her so fast. What did she do to deserve it? Maybe he just had some kind of savior complex. And I hate to say this, but all the underprivileged foster children really got on my nerves. I guess they were there for the comic relief, but like nearly everything else in the story, they weren't funny.

Linda:      I think the foster kids were there to justify the heroine's idiotic actions. You always have a problem with love at first sight, but in this case it is justified - who would fall in love with such an idiot? But, the hero and the carful of fruitcakes were the only things I liked about this story.

Contemporary Romance
Next was Dara Joy's wonderfully light-hearted Santa Reads Romance, I'm glad you liked it as much as I always have.

Blythe:      Remember, I bought the love at first sight in the first story...so sometimes it works for me.

Yes, I really enjoyed Santa Reads Romance. Believe it or not, this is the first thing I've read by Dara Joy; I've never tried any of her other books. In a way, I Santa Reads Romance was what the Hill story wanted to be. It had a hero and heroine snowed in a cabin together (as did Naughty or Nice), but it was both funny and sexy. I absolutely loved how the hero dug into the heroine's romance novel stash (he was a publisher with nothing else to read) and proceeded to use them as a guidebook. Now that's funny.

Linda:      I thought his moment of epiphany was hilarious. He realizes that men have always wanted to know what women wanted and discovered that all the answers were in the romance books on the drugstore racks. What I most love about this story is the couple's playfulness. When Hunter practices sounding 'husky' like the romance heroes, he sounds like he has a frog in his throat - wouldn't most men? And I don't think I have looked at M&M's in the same way, since reading about Hunter stealing May's. I also loved her horror when she caught him drinking the milk from the carton.

Blythe:      I really liked Hunter in general. He had just enough arrogance to make him really appealing, yet he managed to stop short before becoming a total jerk. It can be such a delicate balance. I think what also appealed to me was that he really seemed like a guy; he talked like one and acted like one, and was all around believable. And he wasn't just drinking milk...it was the heroine's precious half and half! I found her funny as well, holing herself up with nothing but diet food (and refusing to admit to the hero that she had intended to buy herself something edible before the storm blew in.)

Linda:      LOL, I thought this couple just a delight. Hunter, a publisher, was horrified to find himself snowbound with a writer and May didn't endear herself to him when she conked him on the head thinking he was a burglar. You're right; Joy gave Hunter just enough arrogance, and he really does talk like a guy. I loved it when he fixed the generator and confessed he watched late night TV and had even learned to cook a "diminutive" Cornish game hen.

Blythe:      I guess we should add that he was in Maine in the first place because he was chasing after a hard-to-find writer who wasn't meeting his deadline. He is schnookered (by Santa) into bringing a bag of gifts to the heroine's cabin, thinking he's delivering them to children. Hilarious antics ensue.

Linda:      I also think we should mention that he washed the velvet Santa suit he was wearing. Wasn't it hilarious how it stood up all on its own afterwards? What a total "guy" thing to do.

Blythe:   Yep, it's cliche, but it rings true to many of us. I think my husband has probably done a total of seven loads of laundry in our 15 years of marriage. I could see him messing up a Santa suit like that.

Here's another puzzler, though...how did Dara Joy actually manage to make him sound sexy when he was wearing the heroine's too-small (on him) sweat pants? Somehow, she did.

Linda:      Before we move on I would like to suggest to those who like this story that they try Joy's High Energy, it has the same tone and is a lot of fun. Santa Reads Romance reminded me how much Joy is missed and I can only hope her legal troubles will get solved this year and she can get back to writing and being published.

Blythe:      I'll have to try High Energy. I think people mention that one and Rejar as Joy books they enjoy, but I've never been tempted to try her until now. So even eight years later, I guess you could say this anthology did its job.

Contemporary Romance

Linda:      The last story A Gift for Santa comes close but somehow just misses for me.

Blythe:      McFather story didn't even come close for me. I found the writing stilted and the story completely sappy and irritating. I can see why this author never really took off.

Linda:      Yes, I would have to agree. The story is a little too saccharine and in the end just falls flat. Although I did like the Gone With The Wind re-enactment - I think I fell in love with Rhett Butler at the age of 15 and the hero did seem to portray him nicely.

I did think it odd, though, that this anthology had two heroes named Hunter. It isn't that common of a name.

Blythe:      I didn't even notice the two Hunters, but then I forget names pretty quickly.

I found the dialogue so stilted that it was hard to really like anything about the book, but in other hands I think the Southern/Yankee thing could have worked. I think the heart-warming chats between the heroine and her daughter were what really did the story in for me. Ugh! Nobody ever talks like that. Or at least we don't at my house. They sounded like the Stepford mom and daughter. It would have been nice to see the daughter even think about getting in trouble, instead of inviting an old homeless man home for milk and cookies after school. Come to think of it, inviting a scary, grumpy stranger into your home probably could bring trouble. My kids better not try it.

Linda:      LOL, yes she just didn't ring true as a child - I've never known one that didn't get into mischief once in a while. Their relationship was just too sugary and you're right, they did seem a bit Stepfordish.

But, all in all I think an anthology that gives you two really good stories is a great find. Although this one came out in 1996, I checked and it is readily available new and used (it's latest reissue was in 2003). Hopefully others will find Promises to Keep a classic they will want to read and re-read and then turn to the witty Santa Reads Romance - the others are forgettable.

Blythe:      Yes, I think the Joy and Alexander stories make the anthology well worth the time and money; they are really buried treasures, IMHO (though I know you have been telling me about them for years! I'm glad we took the time to revisit an old favorite of yours). I'd advise people to skip the other two, unless they have my "must read all the stories in order" anthology compulsion.

I especially enjoy anthologies around the holidays, possibly because the stories are short and sweet and it's a hectic time. I'd also recommend nearly all of Carla Kelly's holiday short stories, and another favorite of mine, Just Curious by Jude Deveraux. She's an author who has long since jumped the shark, but that particular story is really fun. (Just Curious was first published in 1995's A Gift of Love and then again in 1997's A Simple Gift - the latter of which was reissued in 2001.)

Linda:      I liked Deveraux's single title Wishes (1989). Her old stuff really is much better then the new stuff. I have Kelly's Marian's Christmas Wish in my TBR pile and will try to read it this Christmas - I got it because of great online WOM.

Blythe:      Well, I hope you have a wonderful Christmas (your first in your new home, right?) and read some great books over the holidays. Pandora is taking a break for January, but we will be back in February to discuss...something. (I've got to come up with something better than that!)

Linda:      Yes, this is our first Christmas in Nevada. We had a white Thanksgiving and hopefully will get a White Christmas too. Hope this is a Happy Holiday season for you and all of our readers. See you for Valentine's Day.

Blythe Barnhill and Linda Hurst, with assistance from Sandi Morris, for

-- Pandora's Box

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