The Rec League: Books in Our Holiday Stress Kit

The Rec League - heart shaped chocolate resting on the edge of a very old bookThis idea came from one of our new reviewers, Lara! We thought it was so great that it deserved a Rec League!

Lara: What about a mash-up of a book first aid kit and the holidays. For example, if you don’t enjoy holidays and would like a December romance that has nothing to do with family, then read: X.

What’s in your “book first aid kit” (no more than 1 or 2 books per person) for upcoming holiday stress?

Sarah: I love this question. For a holiday novella, Holiday Sparks by Shannon Stacey, ( A | BN | K | G | AB ) and for a novel, not a holiday one, I can re-read Act Like It by Lucy Parker any time, any place.

And I’m embarrassed to say, my own writing works on me, and I’ve re-read my own novella a few times ( A | BN | K | G | AB ) when I needed something soothing. But then, I wrote my own catnip on purpose so I’m glad it worked!

SORRY THAT WAS THREE so feel free to leave off my own recommendation of myself!

The Viscount’s Tempting Minx
A | BN | K | AB
Amanda: I HATE the holidays and holiday romances. I wrote about why for the site, but I recently read a holiday novella I enjoyed: The Viscount’s Tempting Minx by Erica Ridley. It’s a little short, but wasn’t overly focused on Christmas. Instead, the very smart and capable heroine is figuratively trying to herd a bunch of cats to throw a holiday party on a tight deadline.

For an anytime read, I can’t recommend Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen enough. It’s on my Keeper Shelf and is my go-to read when I need to fully dive into a book that’ll make me feel warm and fuzzy.

Tara: I read a really cute f/f one recently called Tinsel by Kris Bryant. ( A ) Super grumpy person who’s just had a breakup finds a cat, which leads to finding a veterinarian. Grumpy person then grumps at the vet, who doesn’t care. I’ll probably be reading that one each year around this time. Please ignore the cover, though.

Aarya: Hm. This is a hard request and y’all know that I read many holiday romances.
If the idea of real-life holidays is unappealing but you still want that wintry feel… why not go in a PNR/fantasy direction? I adore fantasy romances that focus on fictional wintry solstice-y traditions. And I would argue these still have a December “feel” because of the snow and celebrations (without any emotional baggage of stressful real-life holidays!)

A | BN | K | AB
I recommend Stephanie Burgis’s Snowspelled, a charming second-chance novella set in a fantasy regency AU (“Angland,” not England). The aristocracy, clothes, and hierarchical society are similar to a regency romance but the norms are completely different. Women form the political class and are expected to make leadership decisions while men are expected to study magic. Our heroine Cassandra is a magician who has gone against society’s dictates and resisted her mother’s pleas to show political ambition.

Unfortunately, a dreadful accident has prevented Cassandra from ever wielding magic again. As a result of her shame, she broke off things with her fiancé. The novella has a snowbound house party, an infuriating ex who won’t leave the past alone, and a magical mission to complete before the solstice celebrations. It’s a perfect way to read a wintry holiday romance without being stressed out by reality (unless you’re concerned about elf lords trying to kill you in real life!).

My second rec will be going in a contemporary direction and it’s Therese Beharrie’s A Wedding One Christmas. ( A | BN | K | G | AB ) It’s the first book in her “we meet and fall in love in 24 hours” series (okay, it’s officially called the One Day to Forever series). Set in South Africa, it both follows and deviates from the rec request. I’m not sure if Lara is okay with discussions of family (while not seeing family on-page). Both Ezra and Angie are returning home for the holidays and nervous for Reasons (they’re not exactly on the best of terms with family due to past events and grief). It’s an interesting book. They talk through their pasts with each other, but we never see the family reunions or Christmas Day on-page. It’s a wild 24-hour-period that includes several Christmas-y shenanigans. I wouldn’t call it a dark book, but it’s definitely not fluffy with “Oh, isn’t Christmas the most wonderful time of the year?” vibes.

A Kiss for Midwinter
A | BN | K | AB
Again, there’s discussion of familial conflicts (which deeply affects the characters’ personalities and nervousness about returning home) but the family never appears on-page. There’s very little external plot; it’s just about the MCs and almost entirely dialogue.

Lara: Living in South Africa, my Christmases are usually beach-focused and/or aircon-focused (of which there is very little – we are a nation of single-glazing and open windows) so I’m either in a dark lounge with a fan going watching every single Hallmark movie and/or Elf (which is my comfort viewing, for sure) or I am reading a gold star romance like Cross Stitch by Diana Gabaldon.

Charlotte: Courtney Milan’s A Kiss for Midwinter is one of my holiday favorites and is great if you’re stuck in a house with your aunt who who wants to shut down Planned Parenthood. The hero is a crusading Victorian gynecologist who believes women need better sex education. The heroine is someone he helped when she was a young, victimized teenage girl and he was a trainee doctor. So good.

A | BN | K | AB
Shana: One of my favorite Christmas-themed novellas is Rebekah Weatherspoon’s Wrapped. I read it whenever I need a little cheering up. It’s about a divorced bakery owner who gets matched on a dating app with her former coworker (& crush). It has delicious descriptions of cupcakes, a cheering squad of woman friends, and Christmassy dates with a gooey and gorgeous hero. I’d recommend it for when you want fictional chosen family time, and no family drama.

If winter holidays means trying to ignore your family’s drama, trauma, or persistent hatred of Obama, the first thing I’d recommend isn’t a romance, it’s Crazy Rich Asians. ( A | BN | K | G | AB ) I’m usually seeking maximum escapism when trying to hide out from family via a book. Nothing puts my family in perspective like that crew, and there’s even a HEA.

EllenM: Grace Dravens’ novella from the Amid the Winter Snow anthology, “In the Darkest Midnight,” ( A | BN | K | AB ) was really heartwarming and I think a good pick for someone who wants something that’s winter-festive, but not associated with any real-world religious holiday.

The Shadow Warrior
A | BN | K | AB
Also, iirc books three and four in the Ars Numina series by Ann Aguirre both feature the main couple getting stranded in snowstorms or poor weather. Number four, The Shadow Warrior, is an especially good choice if the way you like to deal with the holidays is escaping into something kinky!!

Catherine: Like Lara, I’m in the southern hemisphere – Australia, where, yes, basically half the country is on fire (though my corner is currently cold and windy with bonus hail, yay Melbourne) (though last week it was 40°C, so honestly who even knows what season it is), so I’m always torn between wanting the most wintry Christmas stories I can and being all excited when I find one where it’s the sort of Christmas I recognise.

I think I’ll go wintry this time, because that’s an excuse for a lovely Laura Florand novel called The Chocolate Kiss, ( A | BN | K | G | AB | Scribd ) which isn’t Christmas-centric but is definitely Christmas adjacent. It has this wonderful, magical chocolate shop called La Maison des Sorcières (the house of witches), and a perfect snow day, when the restaurants and shops can’t open and so the rival chocolatiers set up this rather wonderful street party to use up all the ingredients they won’t be able to use later, and everyone gets to play in the pâtisserie kitchen and there is hot chocolate that you can positively taste and which warms you up just reading about it, and it’s basically my winter fantasy come to life.

Strong Poison
A | BN | K | AB
As for books with which to forget about family drama… well, if Act Like It is taken, what about going with something completely different, like Strong Poison by Dorothy Sayers? I love a good mystery novel when I want distraction and something nothing like my life, and Strong Poison is wonderful, with judges who have Strong Opinions about the right way to eat an omelette, a little old lady impersonating a fake medium for the forces of good, a respectable middle aged lady learning how to pick locks from a reformed burglar, and a feminist artists’ collective in 1930s London.

For added zest, it’s really fun to read Dorothy Sayers’ letters and realise that the unpleasant former lover of Harriet Vane who meets his death by arsenic before the story begins is strongly modelled on a pretty obnoxious guy whom Sayers had been in love with and who treated her poorly. Revenge by literature FTW.

(Also, then you can just keep on going and read Gaudy Night, because why wouldn’t you?)

Sneezy: Oooh man. I feel this hard! Okay, so I think anthologies can be great as an escape hatch for people who are stuck dealing with family members who don’t understand or respect boundaries. It’s definitely frustrating trying to sink back into a story every time someone forcibly intrudes on your time and space. Shorter stories mean less to hold in your head, which can feel like the story is demanding less of you. Plus there’s more feel-good rushes of finishing stories!

The Coyote Road
A | BN | K | AB
My first rec would be A Knot in the Grain by Robin McKinley. ( A | BN | K | G | AB | Scribd ) I found her works after I started uni, and I can definitively say she is the CHILDHOOD I SHOULD HAVE HAD!!!! It has a fairy tale-esque, dreamy tone that’s somehow simultaneously grounded and tangible, which I loved for giving all the comfort of a fairy tale, the novelty of new stories, and plenty for me to grip onto when constructing my Haven Bubble. I found there’s plenty of room to dig as much or as little into her stories, like poetry that you can enjoy as just a nifty rhyme or sink into like a kaleidoscope of fairy lights.

My second pick is The Coyote Road. As the name indicates, it’s a collection of stories and poems that draws inspiration from the tricksters in the lore of many different cultures. Twenty six authors contributed to this anthology, and with the wide variety in style, mood, and tricksters in this bejeweled box of chocolates, it can feel like you’ve a tiny trickster elf of your own slipping around in the pages of this book. Many of the clever and sly characters in here cheered me up not only with their antics, but also with the reminder that life can surprise you, and things always change.

Which books would go into your emergency holiday stress kit?

Comments are Closed

  1. 1
    MirandaB says:

    I like Jane and the Twelve Days of Christmas by Stephanie Barron. Jane and her sister give their niece a doll the first day, and each of the rest of the days, they give her a new outfit for the doll. There’s also a murder. I find this very relaxing.

    The 12 Clues of Christmas by Rhys Bowen is kind of fun too. Georgie Rannoch hosts an elaborate Christmas house party and (obviously) there’s a murder. This one is fun for all the descriptions of food.

  2. 2
    Escapeologist says:

    One Bed for Christmas by Jackie Lau is great – h/h get snowbound in the city, so no twee small town and no family. Just two consenting adults keeping each other warm. Mmm.

    Not romance – middle grade fantasy -Greenglass House by Kate Milford is very wintery, there’s a mystery that unfolds leading up to Christmas with strangers snowbound together in a cozy inn. Sort of like the Westing Game with fantasy? It’s sweet and escapist and I’m bad at summarizing why I love it, I’ve reread it dozens of times. The author wrote it as a love letter to her adopted child while waiting years for international adoption, and it hits me right in my feels as a parent trying to give my kid a better childhood than the one I had.

    Antidote to “perfect holiday” expectations- the song “Merry Christmas from the family” by Robert Earl Keen. I heard it on a podcast, NPR’s Ask Me Another, which is reliably entertaining with jokes, trivia and music.

  3. 3
    DiscoDollyDeb says:

    I don’t care what time of year it is, my romance reading has to be emotional/angsty with a splash of melancholy for it to really work for me. I’m a Kati Wilde fan girl and she has three Christmas-themed novellas that hit the sweet spot for me: ALL HE WANTS FOR CHRISTMAS, THE WEDDING NIGHT (aka, THE WEDDING NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS), and my all-the-feels favorite, SECRET SANTA. Lots of angsty misunderstandings and really hot sexy-times. (Also, THE WEDDING NIGHT has a neuro-atypical heroine.) I just did my first reread marathon of the three and I daresay I’ll read them all a couple more times before December 25.

    If you’re not interested in Christmas stories, but want the cold, wintry feel, Kati’s fantasy novel, THE MIDWINTER MAIL-ORDER BRIDE might fit the bill.

    I know I’m cheating by suggesting one more book—and this one is both incredibly emotional and has CW/TW for miscarriage and depression, but I just read Laura Florand’s SNOW-KISSED about a separated couple who find themselves stranded in a (very upscale) snow-bound cabin on Christmas Eve. It was a beautifully-written, melancholy (I cried a couple of times), but ultimately uplifting story of moving on from grief and loss. It made me think of Camus’s famous assertion: “Happiness too is inevitable.”

    Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

  4. 4
    HeatherT says:

    For a not-really-a-romance winter book, Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik is the ticket.

  5. 5
    Viktória says:

    I second Courtney Milan’s A Kiss for Midwinter , I’ve read and loved it this summer.

    I loved One Day in December by Josie Silver last year, it has multiple Christmases in it and the ending connects back to the holidays too, but all in all it has scenes playing out over 10 years (if I remember correctly), so it is not just confined to the holidays. I would recommend it for a warm hug, for me it was a great read.

    Also from the Fly Me to the Moon series, A Midnight Clear is a Christmas novella. It gives the warm and fuzzy feels, although wasn’t my catnip. That series is pure gold so I would recommend trying it out.

  6. 6
    Empress of Blandings says:

    Not especially wintery, but every stressy moment I’ve spent with extended family has been marked by the purchase of a Genevieve McMaster Bujold Book. I recommend Shards of Honour, and A Civil Campaign particularly.

  7. 7
    Cyranetta says:

    Lauren Willig’s The Mischief of the Mistletoe: A Pink Carnation Christmas is delightful, and in the non-romance, but delightfully humorous, Charlotte McLeod’s Rest You Merry: A Peter Shandy Mystery and Donna Andrews usually introduces a Christmas mystery in her antic “bird” series every year – Owl Be Home for Christmas, Lark the Herald Angels Sing, How the Finch Stole Christmas, six Geese A-Slaying, The Nightingale Before Christmas, Duck the Halls. I like the relief of laughter to counteract the stresses of the holiday season.

  8. 8
    LauraL says:

    This week, I had to break the news to my team that we may have to push through a big project and lose our usual down time at the end of December. I’ll be reaching for comfort reads, for sure, this holiday season and Cecilia Grant’s A Christmas Gone Perfectly Wrong will be right there. It has been a yearly re-read for me and I remember a few others in the Bitchery saying the same over the past few years.

    @ Amanda – I’ll have to search out the The Viscount’s Tempting Minx as reading about Regency-era problems at the holidays is more fun than 21st century stress. I see the book is currently free at Amazon.

    Having survived three moves and a flood, Maeve Binchy’s This Year Will Be Different is a go-to book here when the going gets tough. I’ll pick one or two of the short stories and sit by the fire with a cup of coffee for a little Christmas visit to 1990s Ireland.

    Happy Thanksgiving to all who are celebrating!

  9. 9
    MaryK says:

    I love Charlotte McLeod’s Rest You Merry, and if you continue with the series a romance does develop in the background. I love all her mystery series, actually. I’ve only read a few of the Grub and Stakers series. I may pull those out for some cozy reading during my holidays.

    I recently read and enjoyed Beauty and the Clockwork Beast by Nancy Campbell Allen. It’s a sweet steampunk romance. It’s not holiday related but is set during the winter. Definitely escapism material there and low angst.

  10. 10
    Lora says:

    Ditto on Garden Spells and First Frost–they are go-to for comfort and cozy reading.
    The Princess Deception (Really all of the royal romances series–loads of hilarious banter and sexy heroes–but Phillip is all my catnip in this book) by Molly Jameson
    The Corinna Chapman series

  11. 11
    Lace says:

    Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor, or Lois McMaster Bujold’s The Curse of Chalion, or Georgette Heyer’s Cotillion. Good is not weak.

  12. 12
    mel burns says:

    I always read Carla Kelly’s MRS DREW PLAYS HER HAND during the holidays, it’s one of my favourites.
    Ilona Andrews’ Kate Daniels and Innkeeper, I’m mad about Kate and Maud.
    Heyer is always good for keeping me calm and I will often pick up TAM LIN by Pamela Dean and THE RETURN OF THE KING which is an amazing piece of literature.

  13. 13
    sweetfa says:

    Another vote for Lois McMaster Bujold. I started reading the first in the Vorkosigan series nearly 20 years ago in between ITU visits to my partner, who was critically ill after an accident (he survived, I married him). I read my way through the series every few years, often starting at times of stress. A couple of the books still keep me reading all night, even though I KNOW it all works out happily in the end. They always lift my spirits, somehow.
    Hmmm… the family are all descending on us for Christmas this year….

  14. 14
    Kareni says:

    I second @Lace’s suggestion of Katherine Addison’s fantasy The Goblin Emperor. It has a genuinely kind hero who I find uplifting. The book does contain a winter celebration.

    I’ll also recommend SK Dunstall’s Linesman science fiction series which contains the slightest hint of romance over the three books.

    These are two of my favorites of the past few years. If I can sneak in a third recommendation, try Lyn Gala’s Claiming series which is a male/male alien romance series.

  15. 15
    SusanH says:

    Seconding A Christmas Gone Perfectly Wrong for holiday reading. It’s not sappy, the hero and heroine are good people, and they both grow a bit over the course of the story.

    For non-holiday comfort reading, I’d go with Agnes and the Hitman by Jennifer Crusie. It’s set in the summer with a wedding, so completely the opposite of Christmas. There’s a big focus on food and the importance of found family. Also, the difficult relative problems are unlikely to remind you of your own situation, unless you secretly suspect your mother killed your mafia father and hid the body.

  16. 16
    Scifgirl1986 says:

    I almost always reread Holiday in Death by JD Robb. It is my favorite type of Christmas-y book—one filled with murder and serial killers. Also good for this is Edge of Darkness by Karen Rose. It takes place at Christmas, but the holiday is not the focus.

    For more traditional Christmas romances, I love Trading Christmas by Debbie MacComber. It is so cute and 100% better than the Hallmark Christmas movie made based on it.

  17. 17
    mel burns says:

    Holiday in Death is crazy! I do enjoy Eve and Roarke’s holiday parties. Good recommendation.

  18. 18
    KB says:

    Second the recommendation of Spinning Silver, it’s got a great wintry feeling without being holiday related in any way. I usually go back to old favorites for comfort rereads, maybe the first few Black Dagger Brotherhood books or About Last Night by Ruthie Knox. Or I will go way back to books I read when I was younger. Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, and old Anne McCaffrey can almost always distract me from whatever else might be going on.

  19. 19
    TB says:

    Carla Kelly’s Marian’s Christmas Wish. Wonderful cast of characters.

    And The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson.

    and a short… The Gift of the Magi by O.Henry.

  20. 20
    RND says:

    The Blue Castle by LM Montgomery. It is one of my all-time favorite comfort reads and never fails to make me smile.

  21. 21
    MK says:

    Mine are “Christmas Candles” and “Christmas Revels” by Mary Jo Putney. They are both collections of novellas. My absolute favorite within that collection is “The Christmas Cuckoo.”

    That said, I can understand that holiday stories just don’t work for some, and that the holidays can be painful. The linked post about that subject drives home how important it is for adults to provide warmth and stability for kids.

    Our ten year old niece is experiencing a lot of chaos and disruption in her life right now, so we’re doing what we can to be shelter from the storm. I hope so dearly that in years to come she views the holidays as the time when she found sanctuary at our home.

  22. 22
    Reetta R says:

    Not necessary Christmasy stories but my comfort reads are any Ilona Andrews books, especially the Hidden Legacy trilogy and the Innkeeper books. In Hidden Legacy book 2 there is snowy frolicking at one point and a ferret heist. And in the third Innkeeper book they celebrate Christmas. It is stressful but end well, all well.

    I second also LM Montgomery’s books. I love the Emily of New Moon series. Also Little Women and Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson (I think). These all were childhood favourites and re-reading them is a shot of nostalgia. The world was much simpler back then.

    If you’re into BDSM and kink, Tiffany Reisz just published a collection of her holiday short stories featuring her Original Sinner series characters. Most have been published for free over the years but there was at least one new story too.

  23. 23
    Vicki Soloniuk says:

    My brother and I, both prolific readers, were talking about how this fall all we are doing is comfort reads. We ended up swapping recommendations. He just finished Barb Hendee’s Dark Glass series (SB recommendation) and says they were what he needed. He is now starting Nora Robert’s The Search. I also recommended Joe Hill’s Heart-Shaped Box to him.

    He recommended The Paper Magician by Charlie N Holmberg, The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold, and Quillifer by WalterJohn Williams. My brother was a bit of a boy genius; he was teaching programming at the local college when he was 14 and his reading interests seem to be science/sci fi so I am looking forward to seeing what these are like.

  24. 24
    EJ says:

    Strong Poison is fantastic. I love Lord Peter and Harriet and I love her introductory plot.

    A Kiss for Midwinter is really sweet. I love the Brothers Sinister universe, but this novella features working class characters instead of nobility, which is refreshing.

    Act Like It always cheers me up.

    My comfort read that is not set during the holidays is Truly by Ruthie Knox about a nice Wisconsin girl who gets stranded in NYC with a grumpy chef. They’re both rabid Packers fans, she goes shopping and has a mini makeover, they eat a lot. It’s the best.

  25. 25
    Allison R-B says:

    My winter holiday comfort reads don’t yet include a romance, so I enjoyed the recommendations in this post a lot. Thanks, Bitchery!

    I re-read Hogfather by Terry Pratchet in December, or re-listen to the audiobook. It’s so satisfying!

    101 Dalmatians isn’t a romance, but Pongo & Missis rescuing their puppies are a wonderful couple. And it’s a holiday classic.

  26. 26
    Ellie says:

    I will always and forever have A Week to be Wicked in my holiday or any time stress kit. Traveling with Colin and Minerva is always fun. There are also two Spindle Cove novellas–Once Upon a Winter’s Eve and Lord Dashwood Missed Out that give us a chance to reunite with friends from other books.

  27. 27
    Bagel says:

    @Allison R-B: Yes, Hogfather by Terry Pratchett is one of my favorite non-Christmas Christmas reads.

    The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper is another favorite.

    Miracle and Other Christmas Stories by Connie Willis (short stories) is another favorite, and many of her other books have winter or Christmas themes.

  28. 28
    AmandaG says:

    My anytime comfort read is anything by Ilona Andrews. Lately it’s been the Hidden Legacy series I’ve re-read.

    Every winter for the last several years I’ve re-read (well listened is more like it) to Suzanne Brockmann’s Into the Storm from the Troubleshooters series. It’s not holiday-ish but they end up stuck in the worst winter storm ever while hunting a serial killer. The main h/h aren’t my favs but I love all the side characters.

  29. 29
    Qualisign says:

    @Kareni You hit one of my favorite reads of the year, “The Goblin Emperor,” so I tried the first two of the Lyn Gala Claiming series. (I will probably buy the second two today, since I can’t get them from the library.) Wow! As an anthropologist with a specialization in linguistics, I rarely find authors getting things so right. Gala apparently teaches history. She’s about the first author I’d love to sit down and talk with in person. I read “Nina Hill’s Bookish Life” this week and found it okay until I hit the ridiculous error in the kinship chart(ing) taught to her by her nephew who is supposedly an anthropology professor. Arrgh. When I read Gala’s books, it was an incredible treat to read about real cross-cultural communication issues, with proper linguistic terms used. And it wasn’t the PhD in xenolinguistics who got that right! So,so happy to read these books! And to show a strong, intelligent sub where it wasn’t all about sex was fabulous. Thanks so much for the suggestions!

  30. 30
    DiscoDollyDeb says:

    Ok—I know I’m returning very very late to the party and I’m not sure how many of you will see this, but the three Kati Wilde Christmas-themed novellas that I talked about in Comment #3 above have been packaged as a set called THREE NIGHTS BEFORE CHRISTMAS. (The set is also available in KU.)

  31. 31
    Kareni says:

    @Qualisign, I’m so glad I saw your post today and delighted that you enjoyed the first two Lyn Gala books. Books three and four continue to focus on Liam and Ondry; I’ve read those four books a number of times. (The fifth book in the series was published recently; it focuses on two different characters and did not have the same appeal to me though I will read on.)

    The Linesman books by SK Dunstall are totally different from the above but certainly number amongst my favorite books. Should you try them, I hope you’ll enjoy them.

  32. 32
    Kareni says:

    @DDD, thanks for your post about the Kati Wilde novellas. I’m off to download a sample.

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