2020 has been a very long year for all of us. Finding something “festive” for TBR Challenge sounded like quite a challenge indeed. However, we dug into our respective piles of books and came up with an emotional m/m romance and an adventure-filled Tudor Christmas tale. One is a 2015 release, the other is 2016, and both were successful finds. We hope you have enjoyed our searches through the TBR pile and we will plan to see you again with more TBR reading in 2021!
Winter Oranges by Marie Sexton
Marie Sexton is one of those authors who’s been on my radar for a while but whose books I haven’t yet read, so I was pleased when I found something on my Kindle that would fit this month’s TBR Challenge prompt. Winter Oranges is an emotional but impossible love story that kept me guessing – right up to the end – as to how on earth the author was going to give this star-crossed couple a believable HEA.
Former child star turned teen heart-throb turned B-list movie actor Jason Walker is at something of a crossroads. Tired of only being offered crappy parts, of the unrequited love he feels for his best friend and fuckbuddy Dylan, and of continually dodging the attention he still gets from the media (especially after being forcibly outed eight months earlier) he leaves Hollywood and buys a house in a remote location in Idaho, looking forward to a bit of privacy and seclusion.
On his first night in the house, Jason is shocked when he sees a face at the window of the apartment above the garage. When Jason looks again, the face is gone, but the next day it appears again, and now he can see it belongs to a young man with pale skin and a shock of dark hair; a young man who seems to be delighted to see him, his lips moving and hands waving excitedly. Jason rushes back inside and immediately calls the local sheriff – but when she arrives and goes into the apartment to investigate, she finds nothing and no-one there.
Still spooked, Jason realises he has to accept that either he’s hallucinating… or his house is haunted.
After trying to ignore his ‘ghost’ for two days, Jason gives in and goes up to the apartment himself – and there he is, the man he’d seen at the window, dressed in old-fashioned, baggy clothes and old boots… and he’s translucent. As Jason recovers from the shock of seeing an actual ghost, he realises that although the man is talking rapidly, he can’t hear him – and on saying so, the other man immediately deflates, crestfallen.
Communicating through a mixture of lip reading and gestures, Jason learns that the man – Ben – was born in 1840 and that he lives IN the old snow globe he directs Jason to find on the shelf, and that what Jason is seeing is not his spirit but a kind of ‘projection’. Jason struggles to take it all in – but after a few days (during which he’s seen no sign of Ben) he returns to the apartment and takes the globe with him into the house. When Ben appears, they still can’t communicate easily – until Jason realises the globe is a music box, winds it, and discovers he can actually hear Ben, who is overjoyed and immediately bombards Jason with questions (I had to laugh when one of the first things he asked was “Who killed J.R?”). He tells Jason how his sister Sarah had somehow “put” him into the snow globe back in 1861 in order to stop him going off to join the Confederate Army, but that she’d never given him any instructions as to how to get out, as she hadn’t intended him to be there for long. Unfortunately though, the globe was stolen and has changed hands many times over the years until it eventually ended up in the garage apartment.
After this, Jason and Ben spend every day together. Ben’s enthusiasm for and enjoyment of everything around him is infectious – and incredibly endearing – and Jason can’t help getting swept up in it, realising he feels happy for the first time in ages. A genuine and loving friendship develops between the pair, and as the weeks pass, that friendship becomes underpinned by a slowly building attraction, their connection growing deeper and turning into something much more. Watching these two lonely men falling for each other was captivating and sigh-worthy… and heartbreaking at the same time, their inability to touch each other ramping up the tension and frustration, the longing between them so palpable it leaps off the page.
Of course, this being a romance novel, obstacles are overcome – although not easily or without cost, and the HEA is delightful and well-deserved.
Jason and Ben are likeable, well-drawn characters who find, in each other, someone to fill the voids in their lives. When the story opens, Jason is feeling hopeless and disillusioned with just about everything in his life, but Ben, with his enthusiasm for the simplest things, brings back the light and joy Jason has lost and teaches him to appreciate the simple things, too. And Ben, who has been deprived of human contact for a hundred and fifty years, is just so grateful to be able to interact and experience the world around him in a way he hasn’t been able to for so long, that he completely charms Jason – and us – with his childlike innocence and zest for every new experience.
With a touch of magic, a lot of romance, and a lovely wintry setting, Winter Oranges is a charming, poignant and heartbreaking slow-burn love story that made me sad, made me smile and gave me all the feels. If you’re looking for a seasonal tale with depth and emotion that’s just a little bit different, this one should definitely be on your radar.
Grade: B+ Sensuality: Warm
Buy it at Amazon, Audible or your local independent retailer
The Queen’s Christmas Summons by Amanda McCabe
Some of my favorite Christmas romances have a blend of darkness and light running through them. In The Queen’s Christmas Summons, Amanda McCabe does this very well. This book is filled with adventure and intrigue and yet, among all the plot action, we can still see her characters’ emotions shining through.
The destruction of the Spanish Armada is not the most common setting for a holiday romance, but the author uses it to great effect here. Alys Drury is the daughter of a English nobleman and a Spanish aristocrat. For his marriage to a Spanish Catholic, Alys’ father found himself exiled to a remote Irish keep where he serves the queen in isolation.
Alys herself is fairly content in Ireland, though she lacks for company beyond the household staff. The main dark clouds on her existence come from missing her beloved mother, who died when Alys was eleven, and her growing awareness of her father’s advancing age and isolation. Alys’ world changes in 1588 with the arrival of the Spanish Armada. Following their defeat at the hands of the English, Alys sees some of the ruined ships that wash up on the nearby beach, and she is horrified by the brutality with which the survivors are received.
It is against this background that Alys meets the mysterious captain Juan. Like Alys, he is (or at least claims to be) both Spanish and English by background. While Alys is undoubtedly loyal to Queen and country, the author does a great job of laying the groundwork to show why she might be sympathetic to a wounded Spanish sailor. The rapport between Alys and Juan is not instalove, but instead grows a bit more gradually. From the very beginning, their time together is fraught both with tension from knowing their different positions in life as well as a growing romantic tension.
When Juan and Alys find themselves suddenly separated and then unexpectedly thrown together for a royal Christmas, the story takes quite a turn as they realize that they have quite a lot to figure out about one another. The mood in Ireland had been quiet, pensive and sometimes somber. Once in England, the festivities of the Christmas season play a prominent role in the book. Yet, while this story is clearly taking a happy turn, there are still threads of intrigue running through it. The characters’ emotions are all over the place for quite obvious reasons, and I have to admit that I was very much here for all that messiness.
The Queen’s Christmas Summons is not one of those stories where the leads have a petty misunderstanding that could have been solved with one conversation as opposed to chapters of curl tossing, flouncing, and despondent drinking/gambling/faux debauchery. Political circumstances, family history, and all manner of larger issues must be dealt with, and Alys and Juan must often calculate whether it would be better for them to face their various challenges together or separately.
While not overtly religious and definitely not evangelical, Christmas traditions do lend this book a festive air and a distinctly seasonal tone. While I did have occasional quibbles such as, ‘What’s with everyone being part-Spanish in this book?’, I enjoyed this read very much overall. If you’re looking for a Christmas historical set somewhere outside nineteenth century England, definitely track this 2016 release down.
Grade: B+ Sensuality: Warm