Up until recently I’ve avoided short stories. I wanted a nice, full novel to sink my teeth into and take my time with. But now I have a full-time job with a long commute and reading full novels becomes a bit more challenging. So with that, now I love short stories, which brings me to Gingerbread Hearts by a multitude of authors.
“Holiday Outing by” Alison Grey
Susanne plans to come out to her family while they’re all together for the holidays. Her sister has her back, but saying a few simple words turns out to be harder than she thought. Plus, she has to navigate each family member and their quirks throughout the night leading up to the reveal.
This was a fun little snippet. I wish I had gone on longer, it felt like the ending was only the beginning. The family was realistic and each person had their own personality that was fun to get to know.
“It’s in the Pudding” by Emma Weimann
Ida’s family has a Christmas tradition that whoever finds the almond in the pudding gets to make a wish. Ida’s wish was to let go and find love by next Christmas, not to go to the dentist when the almond disagrees with her filling. But when the dentist turns out to be someone from Ida’s past, she thinks maybe the almond wasn’t so wrong.
This was a great meet-cute that I didn’t see coming. Ida and her family, especially her friendship with her sister-in-law, had a nice and fun dynamic that was engaging to read. There were also clear sparks between her and the dentist, Theresa, that leapt off the page.
However, this story had a few fatphobic comments that were not needed or entertaining.
“Devgo” by Corinna Behrens
Rebecca has rejected and isolated herself from her friends and family, broken up with her girlfriend, and surrounded herself in her wealth and power. Now, a being both from heaven and hell, Devgo, visits her on Christmas to give her a last chance.
This was another really short one that I thought could have been expanded more. It felt like an introduction to a longer story I would really like to have read. The introduction of Devgo was interesting and believable. Rebecca was clearly a horrible person, but the author does a good job of still making her engaging as a character despite that
“A Magical Christmas” RJ Nolan
Erin’s ex-husband broke a promise to their kids right before Christmas, leading her girlfriend Kris to plan a surprise getaway for the family. But both Erin and Kris have things to work through and obstacles to work through together to make this Christmas theirs.
This was my favorite story! Erin and Kris, their relationship, and dynamics with the kids felt real and wonderful. I could really believe they had been together for a while, and that they had some real issues to work through. At the same time, it was still romantic and fun. I wish I could read more about them.
“The Christmas Grump” and “Kissing Ms. Santa Claus” by Jae
These two stories are in the same universe with the same characters, so I put them together.
In “The Christmas Grump”, Rachel is a mall security guard during the worst time of the year to be working at a mall. Last year she has a terrible Christmas, and now she’s anything but in the holly jolly spirit. Then she meets Tyler and his single mother, who has a reason to not be in the Christmas spirit.
In “Kissing Ms. Santa Claus” it’s been a year since their first Christmas together, and Rachel and Lillian are happy. But Rachel doesn’t know what to get Lillian, and she doesn’t know exactly what Lillian wants with her in the long term.
These two were my second favorite in the collection. Jae does a great job of slowly building the characters, the world and the relationships. I feel like I could have read a whole book about these people. Rachel and Lillian have a sweet and romance dynamic. Tyler is also a great child characters, which can be hard to do, especially in the length and time constraints of a short story.
Overall, I really enjoyed this Christmas short story collection and recommend it to anyone looking for a chance to get in the holiday spirit. You can download the e-book for free directly from Ylva’ Publishing’s website.
I loved the story of Luke and Nora in Backwards to Oregon by Jae, in which a woman in disguise as a man marries another woman in what starts as a fake relationship to help each other on the long Oregon trial, turns into a romantic, slow burn favorite of mine. You can find my review for that here. Hidden Truths is the sequel set 17 years later and focuses more on Luke and Nora’s eldest daughter Amy and her romance with newcomer to the horse ranch, Rika. Amy has grown up under the love of her parents and given much more freedom than most women in her age. She also feels an attraction to women that she struggles with but is able to keep locked down – that is until she meets Rika. Rika comes to Oregon pretending to be her her dead friend to be a mail order bride to a man who works on the farm. Along with all of that, Luke still hasn’t revealed to her two daughters that she is a woman, despite them both being old enough to keep the secret.
Hidden identity is a theme I love and here it was explored so well. Luke is hiding her gender, Rika is hiding her name and history, and Amy is hiding her sexuality. All of these conflicts and storylines weave together and build off of each other. Each character moves the other forward in their arc and development. Everyone gets a moment to shine, which I’m glad for as I was worried when I saw how big the cast is.
The romance between Amy and Rika was very engaging. I could really believe who they slowly took time to get to know each other, then to trust one another, and then to slowly fall in love. At the same time both are struggling with secrets they have from each other.
However, the romance isn’t the only plot. Luke takes some of his horses to another state to sell them and Amy is left in charge of the ranch. She has to deal with men not wanting to follow her command in an era where women were nothing more than wives.
I also really appreciated the world building and the clear expansive amount of research the author had put in. I love historical fiction and nothing can ruin a story more for me than feeling plots points and character movements are out of place for the era. At the same time, it can be just as damning to have too much exposition on the world and the time period. Jae masterfully weaves in the information with the characters and their stories.
Overall, this was a great read I recommend to anyone who likes historical fiction and/or stories with hidden identity. This is a sequel, but I think it stands very well on its own if you want to start here instead of Backwards to Oregon (but I do highly recommend that one as well).
This book was every trope and every plot device I ever wanted all rolled into one. This is one of those books that you put down and it stays with you for days afterward. I immediately purchased the sequel and the short story collection that is in this same series.
Nora works in a brothel to survive and provide for her child, Amy. One day her friend that brothel’s madam, Tess, has her take a special customer, Luke. He won’t touch her though, won’t do anything with her, and there’s something strange about him. A few days later she meets him again when he saves Amy from the anger of the man running the stables. He offers her marriage and a journey on the Oregon trail–a chance at a better life not only for herself but also for Amy.
Luke has disguised herself as a man since she was 12 not only in order to survive but in order to have the life she would not otherwise be able to have. When she meets Nora and Amy, she can’t help but offer them a chance at a better life–an arrangement that will also help her better conceal her identity in the close proximity to other people in their wagon train.
Luke and Nora agree that this will marriage will be a business agreement and there doesn’t need to be anything else to it. However, when dangerous challenges befall them on the Oregon trail, they can’t help but grow close and sparks fly.
The characters really made this story come alive. In some romances it can be hard to imagine the characters outside their relationship, but here I could easily see Luke and Nora with their own stories. There was also a good amount of side characters that felt equally real and interesting to the main characters, which I always appreciate. Tess was really interesting, and I’m looking forward to reading one of her stories in the short story collection. Other families on the Oregon trail were also really engaging. There was Nora’s friend Bernice who helped her learn how to be a pioneer woman and her husband who becomes a good friend of Luke’s. There was Emmeline, who’s husband is abusive.
This is also a serious slow-burn romance, and it’s done so achingly well. Both Luke and Nora have baggage and issues that need to be worked before they can begin to open up to each other. They take their sweet time with it, but it’s so satisfying in the end. This also made it much more believable and engaging as their relationship progressed.
Another thing I really appreciated was how clearly well researched this was. The setting and historical time period really felt like it came alive.
Overall, I highly recommend this book to anyone who likes stories about hidden identities, westerns, or just a good old slow-burn romance.
When pop star Jenna Blake gets a call from her mom saying her dad has had a stroke, she returns home to her small hometown of Fair Oaks, Missouri for the first time in five years, and goes back to being Leontyne Blake once more. As she works on rebuilding her relationship with her parents, she begins to evaluate what exactly she wants from life–all while getting closer and closer to Holly, her former high school classmate and her dad’s stay-at-home nurse (small-town life, y’all). On her end, Holly goes from thinking Leo is a self-absorbed jerk, to counting her as a friend, then maybe more–but first she wants to make sure Leo knows that while she is romantically attracted to women, she is asexual.
It took me a while to get into Perfect Rhythm, but once I did, I was hooked. In part, it takes the novel a while to find its own perfect rhythm: some aspects of the plot and description seem clumsy, especially towards the beginning. Leo’s attraction towards Holly (and her body) seems over-the-top and heavy-handed: there are many descriptions of Leo noticing Holly’s “feminine curves” or doing things like accidentally resting a hand on Holly’s “nicely curved hips,” coupled with Leo spending an inordinate amount of time noticing the fact that Holly is not noticing her (or her body). I’m assuming this is supposed to be tied in with Holly’s asexuality, to contrast how they feel about each other, but it often doesn’t feel authentic (and, at times, Leo’s attitude towards Holly’s body even feels a little gross). The plot in general can also feel a little trite, with regards to how it follows the age-old rom-com story of a big star falling for a small-town girl’s down-to-earth attitude towards fame.
But ultimately I totally fell for the characters, and ended up falling for the plot too, after a bit of a rocky start: that rom-com trope is rejuvenated with a homoromantic asexual woman as half of the (queer!) pairing. The novel does an excellent job showcasing what intimacy and sensuality can look like without being attached to sex, while also depicting what sex can look like for an asexual person and an allosexual person (this particular chapter has a warning for readers who might want to skip a graphic sex scene). And the characters are excellent at modeling how partners with different expectations and needs can make a relationship work–regularly talking things out, stating what they need, being explicit about their boundaries (and accepting of their partner’s boundaries).
One of my romance novel pet peeves is characters who just can’t seem to talk to each other, but still somehow fall for one another and ride off into the sunset: once Holly and Leo stop operating off of their assumptions and spend time talking and listening to one another, they have a beautiful relationship that feels so very real to me. The story centers itself for the most part on Leo’s perspective, so Holly’s character is not quite as fleshed out, but Leo’s journey is absolutely moving and satisfying.
The plot of Perfect Rhythm is also pleasantly multifaceted: the main focus is on Leo’s growing relationship with Holly, and the associated obstacles along the way, but Jae depicts other facets of Leo’s life: her relationship with her family and small-town Fair Oaks, her unhappiness with her life of stardom, her father’s infirmity (and eventual death). It’s also a story of a queer woman coming back to her small hometown and finding more acceptance and happiness there that she could have thought possible, rewriting a common narrative that so often depicts the opposite, much like Rachel Spangler’s The Long Way Home (another excellent romance novel).
Perfect Rhythm is a sweet romance novel that, despite a perhaps shaky beginning, ultimately captivates the reader and showcases the blooming of a delightful relationship. It’s definitely worth a read, especially if you’re into romances that showcase not only a beautiful romance and lead-up to a relationship, but also the thoughtful communication that keeps relationships going. Swoon!
If ever there were a lesson to be learned in distinguishing between the intentions of the author and those of her protagonist, it would be within Jae’s short story, “The Morning After,” which recounts the Valentine’s Day misadventures of actress Amanda Clark. Whereas I assumed the role of the indignant reader on my first pass, pinning Amanda’s tendency to stereotype on the author herself, I found myself remorseful for my misunderstanding on the second. To my chagrin, what Jae accomplishes within the piece is the very dismantling of her protagonist’s stereotypes with a subtlety and profundity that is nothing less than masterful.
Having barely made it to the entree before ditching her dinner companion who had begun planning their future together in the midst of their first date, Amanda decides to pop in on an Anti-Valentine’s Day party, advertised on a flyer that had been placed beneath the wiper blades of her car, for a quick drink before heading home. What she doesn’t anticipate is the effect of the first “Mind Eraser” the bartender hands her or those to follow, which land her in a state of undress upon awakening the next morning in a complete stranger’s bed.
As much as I appreciated the tone and pacing of the story overall, the handling of the “morning after” was what I found to be most impressively executed. It’s as though the reader rises alongside Amanda, desperately trying to deduce where she is and how she got there. The detailed description of her surroundings — the smell of masculine cologne, the man’s watch on the nightstand — bring the story so vividly to life.
However, if one were to remain mired within the smug displeasure to which I initially clung, all of the strengths exhibited within the tale would surely be overshadowed by Amanda’s references to the person who rescued her the evening before as “the butch,” expressing surprise that she knows how to cook and just so happens to enjoy the company of children. Over the course of the morning, Amanda does begin to question her assumptions but not to a degree anywhere near true acceptance. And there we have what is known as damn good (and realistic) character development.
Initially, I was befuddled as to how Jae could have broached Amanda’s lack of respect and misguided assumptions in a way that might prove less alienating. Then, I allowed Amanda the freedom to be precisely who she is, in spite of her biases, which stuck so firmly in my craw. Although it remained a challenge to cut Amanda slack, her character arc revealed promise, which is, indeed, something.
It’s my understanding that Amanda and “the butch” appear once again in Jae’s novel, Departure from the Script, which I will no doubt purchase. Jae’s narrative is just that engaging. Thus, I am willing to give her characters the benefit of the doubt, banking on the hope that they will evolve in a manner that allows them deeper insight into themselves and one another, so they might ultimately enjoy all that resides beyond the scope of their own limited worldview.
Coming out stories are nothing new to the lesbian romance genre; and, if you are anything like me, you may approach such fictional accounts with a healthy dose of skepticism and relatively low expectations. After all, we’ve all been burned a time or two in attempting to invest ourselves in stories that ended up being clumsily crafted or just plain over-the-top. At last, I am pleased to offer my most heartfelt recommendation of Something in the Wine, one of the most skillfully written narratives of a woman’s coming to terms with her sexuality that I have encountered to date.
Annie Prideaux, senior accountant at Cargill & Jones, asks for little more out of life than to conduct her career successfully, enjoy her books and avoid the incessant barrage of practical jokes of her party-boy brother, Jake. In her thirty years, she has yet to figure out how to escape falling victim to his pranks; however, when he sets her up with Drew Corbin, an old college buddy who just so happens to be female, the two women devise a plan to teach Jake a lesson by convincing him that his matchmaking has worked so well that his straight-laced sister has fallen head-over-heels for Drew.
I’ll admit, the premise is a bit contrived and requires some suspension of disbelief, but the enjoyment of the novel is well worth the humble effort. Plus, who could resist Drew? Having taken over her family’s vineyard and winery, she produces exquisite varietals from the rolling hills of her lakeside estate. Her hands are stained with tannin, and her thighs are strong from tending the vines. She is smart, funny, patient, intuitive, a good listener and comfortable in her own skin. If I were to agree to a blind date, as Annie did, I could only pray that such a woman would be awaiting my arrival.
In the process of rehearsing the loving gestures intended for Jake’s benefit, Annie gradually becomes more at ease with proximity to Drew and a friendship based on mutual caring and respect develops between them. Just as Annie nurses Drew through illness, Drew encourages Annie to speak up, set boundaries and develop a healthier sense of herself. Although Annie is initially uncomfortable sharing emotion, Drew cultivates a sense of trust within their friendship that allows for the sharing of histories and the revealing of emotional wounds.
In spite of their best efforts, Jake doesn’t buy a bit of their charade. (Is their connection a charade or something more?) Thus, Annie and Drew set their sites on the Thanksgiving holiday, when Drew is to accompany Annie to her family’s celebration. Concluding that their affectionate rapport has been too subtle for Jake, they decide upon a more obvious approach, planning to bring Annie and Jake’s emotionally unavailable parents in on the joke. What transpires around the table sets the stage for what is by far the most satisfying scene of the novel.
Given that I’ve never been shy about my sexuality, Something in the Wine provided me with an understanding of the challenges that some women may face in the process of coming out. Annie’s discomfort with the feelings that arise within her, the anxiety she experiences on the cusp of closeness, her self-judgment and her fear of the judgement of others allowed me to grasp the gravity of reaching a point where hiding from one’s truth is no longer an option. The finesse with which Jae handles Annie’s inner-landscape illuminates a sensitivity within the author that contributes to the depth of the novel as a whole.
Something in the Wine is the entire package when it comes to romance. Drew and Annie became so real to me that I felt a tugging at my heartstrings at nearly every turn. The dialogue flowed naturally and believably; and, there was a consistency in the dynamics among the characters, accompanied by supporting nuances. The novel held my interest and kept me entertained while providing insight into experiences not my own. Last but certainly not least, the images of Drew Corbin’s stained hands and muscular thighs are sure to inspire my imagination long after the final page has been turned.
Jae’s new book, “Something in the Wine,” is a nice little page-turner that develops and delivers a satisfying story. The story follows Annie, an accountant whose life is so boring she doesn’t realize it, and Drew, a lonely vintner. The two team up to masquerade as lovers to play the ultimate trick on Annie’s prankster brother. Of course, Annie enters this situation only wanting revenge on her brother, but, in classic lesbian-in-love-with-a-straight-girl fashion, Drew is more interested in spending time with Annie.
The premise is well set-up and does a good job of pulling us into the story, but Jae ultimately leans too hard on a flimsy conceit. The plot to trick Annie’s brother justifies the increasing amount of time the two spend together as they both ignore their feelings. Annie begins to doubt her heterosexuality and they both start to overstep boundaries. Here is one of several instances that Jae sets up fairly high stakes of manipulation for the characters, both of themselves and each other, and doesn’t follow through. Both characters become increasingly dependent on the trick instead confronting how they actually feel, and for me there came a time when the story’s conceit couldn’t sustain that dependency. Jae does a really nice job with her characters, they’re interesting, intelligent and likable, and I felt this development hindered her plot. I couldn’t believe that characters that intelligent and caring could go on manipulating each other to the degree they achieve in this story. I wanted more from the characters, I wanted them to act on the stakes set out for them
Of course, there are things aiding the mutual denial. Annie is plagued by painfully well-developed internalized homophobia and Drew is held back by a somewhat debilitating sense decency. But despite her on fears and anxieties, there is very little external homophobic conflict. Because of that Annie’s perception of her world and its prejudices didn’t seem to match its reality and I was curious about the source of that difference. In the same vein, Annie’s parents are so distracted by their own lives that they have mostly forgotten their daughter. Once again, Jae does a great job creating the scenario and watching the interplay between parents and child is moving and painful, but I felt there was more opportunity for exploration of the great stakes she created.
There’s a lot working for this book. Jae does a good job building the elements of her story, but doesn’t let them percolate together. Elements seem pushed together instead of coming to their natural conclusions. And while I enjoyed the ending and found it very heartfelt, it ultimately wasn’t satisfying because of how much baggage I knew the characters still carried.