For the final TBR Challenge of 2018, we get to have some fun with holiday romances. This time around, we both chose Christmas stories from the Harlequin Romance line, though the tones of our picks couldn’t have been more different. Whether you are in the mood for light and dreamy, or deeply emotional and dramatic, it looks like we have you covered with these two winning picks.

Mistletoe Marriage by Jessica Hart

Time constraints meant I needed a quick read for this month’s TBR Challenge, and Jessica Hart’s Mistletoe Marriage (from 2005) proved to be just the thing.  It’s a charming, well-written and absorbing friends-to-lovers story set in the weeks before Christmas featuring a couple of engaging principals and a bit – not too much  – angst. I lapped it up in a couple of sittings one afternoon and came away from it with a happy sigh.

Bram and Sophie have been friends forever and are still besties, even though Sophie now lives and works in London and Bram works his small farm on the North Yorkshire Moors.  Sophie’s parents own a neighbouring farm, and she’s visiting for the weekend – taking the chance to do so knowing her sister Melissa and her new husband, Nick, are away so she won’t run into them.  Sophie and Nick had been engaged before she introduced him to Melissa – and even though she doesn’t resent her sister – or Nick – for falling in love, Sophie hasn’t been able to forget the way she’d felt when she was with Nick or move on. She also finds it difficult to cope with the fact that her conversations with Melissa always end up revolving around her guilt for ‘stealing’ Nick, and usually leave Sophie exhausted from the effort of trying to make her sister feel better.

With Christmas approaching, Sophie’s mother is pressuring Sophie to come home for the festivities and to see Melissa and Nick, whom she hasn’t seen since their wedding.  Sophie never told her parents about Nick, so they have no idea of the truth of the situation, and with it being her father’s seventieth birthday a couple of days before Christmas her mother is really turning the emotional thumbscrews to get Sophie to agree to visit and stay with them. Feeling guilty, tired and miserable, Sophie heads up to Haw Gill Farm to see Bram to pour out her woes. He’s always been easy to talk to, and his steady, dependable presence has never failed to bring her comfort.

During the course of a conversation in which they commiserate about the state of their love-lives (and the lack thereof), Sophie jokingly says she wishes she could marry Bram – and to her shock, he says that it’s not a bad idea.  They know each other better than anyone else, Sophie understands the rhythms of life on a farm and Bram needs help; it might not be a grand passion but they’d have friendship, comfort and companionship and they’d both know where they stand.

Surprised, Sophie finds herself actually considering the idea – before rejecting it, telling Bram he deserves someone “who believes in you and loves you completely for yourself” and that he shouldn’t settle for second best.  Bram can’t disagree with her – but is somewhat taken aback to realise he’s actually disappointed at her refusal.

Not long after this, when Sophie is back in her poky flat in London, she’s on the phone to Melissa, suffering through yet another of her sister’s guilt trips when the conversation turns to Bram and the possibility that he might be seeing an old acquaintance who has recently been dumped by her fiancé – and it’s too much for Sophie.  What with having to try to tiptoe around her sister’s upset and her own strangely conflicting feelings about Bram, she snaps and tells Melissa that she and Bram are getting married.

Oops.

Okay, so this story isn’t going to win any prizes for originality, but it’s a fine example of a fake relationship/friends-to-lovers tale.  The characters are swiftly and skilfully drawn, and the author makes it easy to believe in the long-standing friendship between Bram and Sophie; their affection for one another and deep mutual understanding just leaps off the page. The book does have flaws – Nick is such a prick that it’s difficult to understand exactly why Sophie was so much in love with him, and there’s just a teeny bit of the martyr about Sophie in her tendency to give way to Melissa and believe herself to be somehow second-best – but those are really minor concerns.  The big thing for me in any friends-to-lovers story, is the way the author handles the Key Moment –the one where the friends realise they’re seeing each other as if for the first time and that he/she is gorgeous – and Jessica Hart does a great job with that, showing readers several small moments of realisation and growing attraction, as Bram and Sophie start to realise they’re seeing each other in a new light.  It’s a quiet, character-driven story; there’s no drawn-out Big Mis or unnecessary angst – the tangled relationships between Sophie, Melissa, Nick and Bram (a decade earlier, Bram and Melissa had been briefly engaged and Sophie worries he might still be carrying a torch for her sister) create enough tension to propel the story – and thankfully, Bram and Sophie are sufficiently mature and attuned to each other to not allow their niggling doubts to go unaddressed for too long.

Mistletoe Marriage is a quick, but satisfying read, Bram and Sophie are very likeable principals and their romance is easy to invest in.  It proved to be an excellent way to while away a couple of hours on a cold winter’s afternoon.

Grade: B                        Sensuality: Kisses

Buy it at: Amazon/Apple Books/Barnes & Noble/Kobo

Caz Owens


Christmas Where They Belong by Marion Lennox

Bawling my eyes out doesn’t usually go with “holiday romance” for me as I tend to prefer my Christmas stories a bit more on the fairytale side. However, this year  I picked up something a bit different with Christmas Where They Belong by Marion Lennox (from 2014). Though at times a very difficult read, this ultimately hopeful story really impressed me.

This is ultimately a marriage-in-crisis tale, so if you like that trope, you may want to check this one out. The lead characters, Julie and Rob McDowell, had a very happy marriage and what seemed like a perfect life. They lived in their dream home in the Blue Mountains, enjoyed great professional success and had beautiful children.

The novel opens as Christmas is approaching, and as the backstory gradually unfolds, we learn that the McDowells’ lives essentially fell apart four years previously and that while still legally married, they have been living separate lives in different parts of Australia ever since their great tragedy. Just as with people one gets to know in real life, we don’t get the McDowells’ story in one great infodump. Instead bits and pieces come out throughout the book and we gradually learn about the horrific accident that seriously injured Julie and took their children’s lives. This gradual revelation works quite effectively as the tragedy of the event keeps building in the reader’s mind and can never entirely be dismissed. The author doesn’t wallow in the details or turn melodramatic, but the events are ever present in the story, just as they must be in Rob and Julie’s minds.

Both McDowells had stayed away from their home in the Blue Mountains after the loss of their two children, but an approaching wildfire draws them there for one last Christmas. It appears likely that the home could be destroyed in the blaze and each of them has items they want to retrieve from the home and memories they want to relive one last time. However, the fire approaches the area more quickly than planned, so they end up being trapped on the mountain where they will spend Christmas reckoning with the fire – and each other.

Because of the past history of death, this can be a very difficult story, particularly in the early chapters. As a parent, I had a difficult time even contemplating such a loss and yet I found myself glad I stuck with the story. The author tells the tale well and sympathetically, and one could see something very hopeful in Rob and Julie finding their way back to one another. They have grieved differently and at different paces, but just being together and having to work as a team in their home helps them to see what they loved in one another in the first place as well as to appreciate how the loss of their children has affected each of them.

Despite the heavy baggage of loss, the McDowells’ Christmas has touches of good humor and hope to it. There was something very symbolic about how the story unfolded, and the Christmas celebration marked a moment of starting to look toward the future in a way that the characters hadn’t before. I could find Christmas symbolism in other parts of the story as well, but I don’t want to spoil the plot by elaborating – you’ll just have to read and look for yourself.

If you can handle a far heavier-than-usual Christmas story (and I know this isn’t everyone’s emotional comfort zone), Christmas Where They Belong is a good one. It has a few weaker moments, but I hardly noticed them. Even though it made me go through several tissues, I did enjoy this novel with its tale of love and healing.

Grade:           A-                       Sensuality: Subtle

Buy it at: Amazon/Apple Books/Barnes & Noble/Kobo

Lynn Spencer