Christmas Presents
Grade : B+

It turns out that in spite of what it says in the lyrics to a recently popular song, you can indeed do evil deeds in a small town. At least that is the case in Lisa Unger’s latest novella, Christmas Presents. A tale of two not-so-festive Noels, this story examines what happens when our first love is the worst possible choice we could have made.

Madeline Martin (not the popular author!) just wants to close her store. It’s late, she’s been on her feet for hours and thanks to it being the official Christmas shopping season, The Next Chapter Bookshop has been busy all day. The man currently browsing lackadaisically among the stacks will be her last sale of the evening. If he actually buys something. Which he finally does. It is a popular mystery, not to Madeline’s taste, but she is happy to wrap it beautifully and show him the door

However, he has no intention of letting her show him the door. Harley Granger didn’t come into The Next Chapter Bookshop at closing time for a best-selling thriller. A true crime podcaster, he has built a living from solving cases the police can’t. He doesn’t want to leave until he gets what he really came for - her story, not some silly made-up suspense novel. Ten years earlier, Madeline’s then-boyfriend Evan Hardy allegedly murdered her best friend, Steph, kidnapped two other girls, and left Madeline battered, bleeding, and moments from death on the banks of a frozen river. She was found by another friend, Steve (subsequently referred to by his nickname ‘Badger’), but has only vague recollections of the events surrounding her assault because Evan had drugged her at the start of the evening. While her father, Sheriff James Martin, had continued to search for the missing teens before the stroke that left him immobile and nonverbal six months ago, Madeline has always done her best to put it behind her. But Harley is convinced that somewhere in Madeline’s foggy memories lies the answer to what happened to the missing girls.  He has come to the store seeking Madeline’s input, although he assures her he will go forward with or without it. Madeline firmly tells him it will be without it.

Juxtaposed with Harley and Madeline’s discussion of her adventures in a (not) Winter Wonderland is the story of Lolly, a topless dancer at a local club. She’s getting ready to go home for the holidays and figures she will probably make the move permanent. Dancing at a strip joint was never what she wanted for her future and she needs to get out before it becomes a way of life. When an extremely handsome customer asks her to meet at a local diner after her shift, she thinks why not? It’s only a meal and they will be in a very public place.

When Lolly goes missing, it makes Madeline reconsider what her father had said all along: Evan Hardy might have had a partner. A partner who is still making their idyllic small town his hunting ground. Will Madeline, Harley, and Badger be able to do what the police could not? Will they be able to find the guy who has hidden in the shadows for ten long years?

This is a romantic suspense story and all I can say is that while Lisa Unger writes great mysteries, the romance portion of the tale doesn’t really work. Not only does it go in a direction I didn’t expect, but it’s also tacked on to the ending and, given the resolution to the crime, creepy as all get out.

Fortunately, the investigative portion of the story is interesting; the writing is smooth and the pacing brisk. Since the bulk of the narrative is about the crimes, that means most of the story is actually really good. Madeline and Lulu make excellent dual heroines, both of them women determined to rise above whatever challenges are thrown at them. Madeline fought for her life against Evan and won, and when Lulu goes missing, Madeline is determined to fight for her and win that battle, too. Meanwhile, Lulu is also determined to survive. Which she has a shot at since her captor is pretty much a hapless idiot. In most novels, I would have found that unbelievable but I think this story underlines an interesting point about small-town investigations. It’s hard to believe that people we interact with regularly have a truly dark side, something that winds up crippling the search for the culprit in this tiny community. Evan was handily caught because he had been an outsider preceded by a bad reputation. Our new (or possibly also old) perpetrator, although he is a fool who works in his own backyard so to speak, hasn’t been caught because no one would want him to be guilty.

Another duality between Madeline and Lulu, beyond their strength and intelligence, is the danger women are often put in by seemingly ordinary decisions. Going to a diner or attending a boyfriend’s Christmas party shouldn’t be events fraught with peril but it is often while ladies are doing the ordinary that the extraordinarily horrific happens to them. It’s good to see their rather mundane lives juxtaposed with the evil they encounter while living them.

I liked how Harley is depicted as being both something of an opportunistic slime and yet also a man who works hard to get the job done and give his listeners the true story. There is a very human side to his drive for success that makes him understandable if not always likable.

Coming in at under 300 pages, Christmas Presents will be a nice start to the holiday for the author’s many fans and for those looking for a standalone suspense tale that will make for a quick and easy read amidst the hustle and bustle of the season.

Reviewed by Maggie Boyd
Grade : B+
Book Type: Mystery

Sensuality: Kisses

Review Date : October 26, 2023

Publication Date: 10/2023

Review Tags: Holiday romance

Recent Comments …

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Maggie Boyd

I've been an avid reader since 2nd grade and discovered romance when my cousin lent me Lord of La Pampa by Kay Thorpe in 7th grade. I currently read approximately 150 books a year, comprised of a mix of Young Adult, romance, mystery, women's fiction, and science fiction/fantasy.
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