Hey all! I’ve missed doing this column so much…time to bring it back with a Christmas twofer!
What Erin’s Reading
Thack Lane has his hands full. For the past seven years, he’s been struggling to move on from his wife’s tragic death and raise a daughter all by his lonesome. He doesn’t have time for himself, much less a cheerful new neighbor with a smile that can light up the ranch.
Christmas spirit? Bah, humbug.
With Christmas right around the corner, Summer Shaw is searching for somewhere to belong. When her neighbor’s young daughter takes a shine to her, she is thrilled. But Thack is something else altogether. He’s got walls around his heart that no amount of holiday wishes can scale. Yet as joy comes creeping back to the lonely homestead, Summer and Thack may just find their happily ever after before the last of the Christmas miracles are through…
I love romance novels. And True Blue Cowboy Christmas is one of those books that reminds me yet again why I love this genre so much. This is going to be a hard book for me to review, because it comes down to “This book has all of the stuff I like in it and none of the stuff I don’t” and “I just really like it, okay!! Read it!!” It’s hard to pin down what I like so much about Helm’s writing, but I will try.
I think for me, it’s that you see a lot of these books, with cowboys and kids and a big Christmas ending…like, there are approximately 100,000 of them on sale at Amazon right now, and I’ve read a lot of them, and they’re often kind of forgettable. (Not a slam on cowboy books specifically, but you know what I mean. Those lighter, small-town contemporaries with lots of tropes.) Nicole Helm has become an auto-buy author for me, because she does sweet without being simple or trite, and writes about small towns without glamorizing or hand-waving the hard work it takes to survive in a rural area. Her small towns feel like small towns, not some romanticized version of a perfectly supportive and quirky little community. There’s a moment in True Blue Cowboy Christmas where someone repeats gossip that’s incredibly painful, twisted just outside of the truth, and it’s because everyone in town knows everyone’s damn business.
This isn’t a dark book, though. Awful things have happened to both Thack and Summer. Truly awful, horrible things. But this book is about what happens after the horrible things happen. How do you let go of the anxieties and impulses that you cultivate as a response to awfulness? And how do you trust enough to start to hope?
I like how Helm takes tropes and makes them feel real, with characters who feel real, who think and act and talk in the way a real person would. Summer is a hippie girl who does yoga and lives in a caravan and woos the stern, grumpy cowboy by bringing laughter to his life. This could so easily be a manic pixie dream girl scenario, but it’s not. Summer has her own motivations and frustrations. She’s far from perfect, and she doesn’t exist to change Thack’s life.
The dialogue is funny and fast, but not unrealistic. The kid seems like a real kid, and I really enjoyed seeing the other characters from the previous books in the series. Highly recommend!
The celebration of Christmas is a magical time for love. A new anthology filled with America’s rich history and Christmas traditions from four of your favorite historical romance authors.
This anthology has a lot of impressive authors who I love in it. Unfortunately, the anthology itself left me a bit flat, except for one story. I never call out typos or editing errors in books I review, because I get uncorrected ARCs and I never know what editing processes the book might go through after I get it. But this book had so many typos and formatting errors, it was hard to read at times. I will add that, if it wasn’t for those errors, I’d also be raving about Piper Huguely’s story – her characters are so, so lovely. Normally, I wouldn’t review a book I couldn’t entirely read, but one of the stories was such a standout, I wanted to talk about it.
“Miracle on Ladies’ Mile” by Joanna Shupe
New York, 1895 – After losing his beloved wife, department store owner Alexander Armstrong seems incapable of anything other thanork, despite his ache to be a better father to his daughter. When the pair encounters Grace, a charming shop girl designing the store’s Christmas window displays, he struggles to accept that perhaps miracles do happen in the most unlikely of places…
I looooved this story. Loved it. It did not have the aforementioned editing issues, for one, but other than that, it was a gem of a story. The setup is actually quite similar to True Blue Cowboy Christmas, with the stern, hard working dad and the adorable daughter who desperately reaches out for a sweet, younger woman to act as a mother figure. And again, Shupe gives Grace enough determination and agency to prevent her from being two-dimensional. Shupe deals in alpha heroes and Alex is no exception. He’s rich and powerful and is used to getting what he wants, when he wants it. Unlike Thack, the hero in Cowboy, Alex has pushed away his young daughter in his grief over losing his wife, leaving her to be raised by nannies and servants.
Grace is an aspiring dress designer, working at Alex’s department store to set up the Christmas window displays. She lives in a boardinghouse and is determined to make something of herself in New York. She and Alex meet when he stops by late at night and helps her with the window. She doesn’t know who he is, and he likes being just plain Alex for a while. They meet every night, building magical Christmas fairy tale displays in the store’s front windows. She meets Alex’s daughter separately, forming a relationship with her while she’s wandering the store, bored. Of course, this all comes to a head when she discovers who Alex really is.
Where this story excels, and where Shupe excels as an author, is in building up the world of Gilded Age New York. In such a short story, she creates a full, beautiful, realized world. She captures the excitement of the era, with the department store as a microcosm of wonders, the feeling of possibility, the idea that you can do anything, be anything in America at this time. From the department store to the dance hall, to Grace’s boardinghouse, to Alex’s mansion, she packs an entire universe in a small story. The romance is sweet and sweeps you along. Is it realistic? No, it’s a fairy tale, and it’s exactly the kind of joyous, romantic, satisfying story I want to read for the holidays.
Erin is a full time contributor to Binge on Books. She is a voracious reader and reviewer who has been been reading romances since she stole them from under her neighbor’s mom’s bed while she was at work. You can read all her reviews here.
Connect with Erin on Twitter: @booksandjoe