(Yes, I know this review is late. But look! It’s almost Easter, and the vernal equinox is upon us. How hard can it be to swap one Pagan-celebration-disguised-as-Christian-mythology for another, eh?)
Short stories are difficult, but romance short stories are well-nigh impossible. In the space of twenty-five to thirty-five thousand words, the author has to show us a couple falling in love, come up with a conflict, resolve the conflict and lead us to happily-ever-after—and make it all believable.
The sticking point is really the process of falling in love. It’s difficult enough for authors to convince me over the space of 380 pages that the characters are not in any danger of slapping restraining orders on each other or appearing on the next episode of COPS. Having to pull off the same feat in the space of 100 or so pages? That’s like the kid’s joke about fitting an elephant into a refrigerator. You open the door, put the elephant in and close the door, but have you actually tried doing this? It’s difficult to do without squashing everything into an unrecognizable glob, including the elephant, and even when you succeed, you still leave huge footprints all over the butter.
I’ve read a good deal of romance short stories in my time, and the only person I know who has consistently managed to fit all her elephants in her fridge (no, I’m not yet tired of this conceit, and I’m going to beat it to death—TO DEATH, you hear me?) is Anne Stuart. I don’t know how that woman does it, but I’ve read several short stories by her, and almost all have them have been a blast. The authors of Santa, Baby…well, I bought the anthology because I’m a diehard Crusie fanatic, but let’s just say she’s not as good at squishing elephants into fridges as Stuart, though she’s a more consistently excellent novelist in general. In fact, a large part of the problem with “Hot Toy” is that Crusie isn’t trying to jam an elephant into the fridge as—well, I’ll go into this later. As for the other two stories: I’ve never read any Lori Foster, and “Christmas Bonus” doesn’t have me running for her backlist. And the Carly Phillips story? If her other works in any way resemble “Naughty Under the Mistletoe,” I’m-a run away from her backlist, shrieking for mercy all the while.
So, on to the brutal savaging that passes for reviews in these here parts!
Hot Toy by Jennifer Crusie
To give this story its due, it’s the only one in the anthology that’s intentionally funny. And Nolan, the hero, is pretty damn hot. And the action is fast and entertaining. But the other bits…ah, therein lies the rub.
The set-up: Woman needs the hottest toy of the season to give her nephew, who’s borne the brunt of one too many disappointments lately for her to let him down. The problem? The toy is beyond sold out, and when she finally digs out an outdated model, she finds herself caught up in an intrigue involving state secrets sequestered in action figures, spies for the Chinese and that really hot assistant prof she briefly dated who may or may not be a double-agent.
The story as a whole suffers from two things:
1. Lack of space. I’ve covered this up above already. There’s a lot going on in this story, between Trudy’s relationships with her sister and her nephew, Trudy’s budding relationship with Nolan, Trudy’s relationship with Christmas and Trudy’s relationship with trust issues in general. Trudy and Nolan have a little bit of a history together, and with romance short stories, this is practically a necessity, because it gives the characters a shared past to work from, so the declaration of luuurrrrve after the space of a few hours or days doesn’t come completely from left field and leave me wondering whether Mama’s Little Codependent really needs an enabler who’s this enable-y. However, Trudy and Nolan don’t have nearly enough of a history to justify Trudy’s reaction towards Nolan.
See, the initial conflict between the two of them stems from Trudy flipping out—and flipping hard—because Nolan didn’t call her back after their third lackluster date a few months before the story begins.
Yup, that’s right. They went out on three dates, Nolan didn’t call, Trudy flips out and feels betrayed.
What. The. Fuck.
I kept wanting to shake Trudy and telling her to get a grip, because seriously: three dates. None of them hot and heavy, even. Look, I’ve been there before, too, and it sucks, but it’s not a big deal. A little coldness towards Nolan? Sure. But Trudy’s reaction is so disproportionate, it’s kind of creepy. I couldn’t help but feel that this could have been set up better. If Trudy and Nolan had had more of a history together, even a history that was only hinted at, I would’ve been much more convinced that Trudy was not, in fact, Utterly Bugfuck.
But that’s not the biggest problem with the story. The main problem with the story is this:
2. Crusie isn’t really squishing an elephant into a fridge. She’s trying to fit a mad-as-hell rhinoceros with a garden hose strapped to its face and deflated tin foil balloons tied to its ears. The rhino occasionally pretends it’s an elephant, but really, it’s not, and mostly it wants out of the fridge. All sorts of things leak into the story, leaving tantalizing hints that just beg to be worked into longer form, like Trudy’s sister and her budding alcoholism, and Trudy’s nephew, and oh my GOD I won’t even go into the incredibly mixed messages this story sends about consumerism and how Owning Stuff can lead you to True Happiness because this review is way, way too long already. Suffice it to say that I finished this story feeling confused and jumbled.
To Crusie’s credit, though? The story ends on a slightly more open-ended note than most romances tend to, and I really, really appreciated it. It was the right ending for the tale, and given how rigid our expectations for romances sometimes are, it took balls. If Trudy and Nolan had declared everlasting, undying love after one night of crazy action, I would’ve…I don’t know, flung this book on the floor and done the hustle on it, and baby, you don’t want to see me do the hustle.
Overall, it was an entertaining story, but it was sub-par for Crusie, and in light of all its problems, deserving of no more than a C.
Christmas Bonus by Lori Foster
Hey, kids, what’s creepier than a dude getting a massive boner every time he’s around his boss’s daughter? I’ll tell you what:
1. When the daughter is ten years younger than he is.
2. And the dude’s giant boners first start popping when she’s barely seventeen years old.
3. And she’s barely graduated college when the story starts.
This story brings to mind a haiku:
Tale tells of squicky
boardroom love. What is this shit?
But other than the massive EEEGAH SQUICK of this story, it’s largely unmemorable. Maggie’s dad owned the company, and when he kicked the bucket, he left the company to Maggie even though his right-hand man, Eric, had been the heir apparent. The two of them have held off on acting on their attraction, but when Eric discovers Maggie’s Supah-Sekrit (and atrociously written) romance novel manuscript, all bets (and pants) are off.
Naughty Under the Mistletoe by Carly Phillips
What can I say about this particular story? I mean, it’s so bad, the only way I was able to finish it was to hand it over to my friend Katie so she could read it in funny voices and we could all collectively give it the Mystery Science Theater 3000 treatment.
What, you want a plot summary? Fine. Lawyer chick is switching jobs and decides she wants to hump one of her soon-to-be-former coworkers, but ends up humping the dude’s hot twin brother instead. And then they somehow fall in love. And then there’s a big misunderstanding. Oh, my shrieks of agony when the goddamn misunderstanding reared its head. And then they get back together.
The timeline of this story? A day. I shit you not. Please refer to my comment up above about Mama’s Little Codependent. Dude, CREEPY. But then this whole anthology is kind of creepy.
I’m not sure I can express how awful “Naughty Under the Mistletoe” is. It wasn’t so much a story as an extended exercise to see how many times Antonia breathes in Max’s everloving masculine scent, and how many times their stomachs and tongues and god knows what other body parts (toes? eyebrow? spleen? corpus callosum?) could curl. No, seriously. Antonia’s stomach wouldn’t stop curling with pleasure, which was just plain bizarre to me, because when my stomach does that, it’s a sign I’m about to hurl. If she’d been a roman shower fetishist, I could’ve at least applauded the story for being kinky, but alas, no. You know what else curled during the course of this story? Many, many, many of my brain cells, right before they proceeded to die a painful, ignominious death.
Silly Interlude: A Series of Totally Awesome Elephant Jokes that Still Make Me Snort-Laugh:
How many elephants can you fit into a yellow Mini Minor?
Five. Two in the front, two in the back, one in the trunk.
How do you put an elephant in your refrigerator?
Simple: open the door, put the elephant in, close the door.
How can you tell there’s an elephant in your refrigerator?
There’s a set of footprints in the butter.
How can you tell there are two elephants in your refrigerator?
There are two sets of footprints in the butter.
How can you tell there are three elephants in your refrigerator?
There are three sets of footprints in the butter.
How can you tell there are four elephants in your refrigerator?
There are four sets of footprints in the butter.
How can you tell there are five elephants in your refrigerator?
There’s a yellow Mini Minor parked in front.
How do you fit a rhinoceros into a yellow Mini Minor?
Open the door, toss one of the elephants out, put the rhinoceros in, close the door.