Thursday, September 10, 2009

Review of A Christmas Ball by Jennifer Ashley, Emily Bryan and Alissa Johnson

A Christmas Ball by Jennifer Ashley, Emily Bryan, and Alissa Johnson

Right off the bat, let me just say....I have a thing about Christmas romantic fiction. As soon as the weather cools and the apples are ripe for picking, I rush to the nearest bookstore (or my handy Amazon website) to check out all of the new Christmas romance novels. I love long ones. I love short ones. I love paranormal, historical, contemporary, etc. etc. I LOVE Christmas anthologies. Among my favorites are Mary Balogh's Under the Mistletoe (I adore the story A Family Christmas) and Christine Feehan's Dark Celebration. In fact, I love Christmas romantic fiction so much, that I decided to write one myself, and it's being released December 2 (Sweet Inspiration). 

So, I was super excited to see that two of my favorite authors, Emily Bryan and Jennifer Ashley, were part of a Christmas anthology coming out in 2009. Yippee! And I was lucky enough to get ahold of an advanced copy for review. I did something with this book that I have not done in a long time. I read it totally fresh, without reading any blurbs, reviews, etc. I had no idea what the story was about. There is something wonderful about diving in with no preconceptions whatsoever. 

I started out with Emily Bryan's My Lady Below Stairs. I got hooked on this story immediately and was extremely curious about how it would play out. I really did not know if Jane and Ian would end up together. Would Lord Eddleton be cool or an ass? Maybe he was her true love? 

The best thing about this story is all of the unexpected surprises. Giovanni, the impassioned artist, is not who he seems. Sybil, the spoiled daughter, is not as shallow as we think. Ian, the head groom, is more clever, determined and madly in love than we could imagine. Bryan weaves a multitude of threads together in this story, and as the threads come together, you know that you're in for a wonderful surprise. I LOVE stories that weave together a bunch of different POVs. Usually, you can figure out what's about to happen far in advance. But Emily Bryan really surprised me at the end with all of the revelations about the characters. I adored the final scene in the library, written with all of the wit and humor that is characteristic of this author. It borders on a historical farce, which is one of my favorite things!

It is extremely difficult to write a novella. Some authors are able to "capture the magic" with 50,000 words or less, and some aren't. (Stephanie Laurens crashed and burned with one of her novellas--badly. Emma Holly wrote a brilliant novella in the anthology Hot Blooded, called The Night Owl, which is one of my favorite stories of all time!). Bryan totally nails it. This story has all the things I love about her longer's beautifully written, has lusty love scenes, wonderful humor, and a very satisfying ending. 

This story is truly like an unexpected Christmas gift...I opened the package having no expectations, and I found a real treasure. Thank you, Emily, for this sweet Christmas story.

Next up was Jennifer Ashley's The Longest Night. Before I go any further, let me just say that I thought The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie was brilliant. Brilliant! It totally blew me out of the water. So, I had very high expectations about this story. Unfortunately, Ashley did something that really irritates me with novellas. She obviously was writing about characters introduced in another book. I have not read her other works, but I have heard great things about them. However, when I read an anthology, I want them to be stand-alone stories. There was clearly a large history going on with the families involved, and as a newcomer to this paranormal historical world, I was feeling a bit out to sea. Having said that, I still enjoyed The Longest Night, and was quite intrigued about the "logosh" concept--a demon/shapeshifter? Valentin is a great hero, with a lot of potential. I would like to see him in a longer novel.

There were several other concerns about this story. One, the introduction of the paranormal aspect was rather jarring. I assumed that this story was also a regular historical, and the fact that there was a shape-shifter involved was totally unexpected. (Typically, anthologies have all of the novellas within the same sub-genre...historical, paranormal, etc. The fact that 2 of these stories are straight up historicals, and one is a paranormal historical, is a bit strange. But I digress.) Also, there is a disturbing background story about Valentin's sister that really bothered me. Christmas stories should be light-hearted, sweet, and well, Christmas-y. I don't want to hear about someone being brutalized. My take on Ashley's story is a stand-alone Christmas-y novella, it fails. If she is trying to get new readers to try her other books, then it works. I was sufficiently intrigued about the logosh legend and the country of "Nvengaria" to check out her other titles.

After reading this story, it became apparent that the Christmas angle for this anthology is that the characters are attending the same ball. As far as gimmicks go, it's a cute idea. But I was expecting some overlap with the characters. More of a Christmas "theme" going on. Ashley's book mostly takes place at another location, and the ball seems pretty unnecessary. Both Bryan's and Ashley's novellas could have been set in the summertime at a ball, and it wouldn't have made much of a difference. 

Finally, I read the last story, Traditions by Alissa Johnson, a totally new author to me. Oh my goodness! Utterly delicious!! As delicious as a Buche de Noel. As delicious as creamy cup of hot chocolate. As delicious as a platter of rich, chewy gingerbread men. I adored this final story of A Christmas Ball! Johnson focuses on what is most important...the characters. They are wonderfully real and fully formed within this short novel, which is a very difficult thing to do. I love anal retentive heroes (like my own Nicholas in Sweet Inspiration!) who learn a life lesson about enjoying the spontaneity of life. I adore heroines with glasses with a few hidden quirks (like stuffing an entire piece of cake into her mouth! awesome!). Patience and William are an adorable couple, and this story really captures the essence of what a Christmas romance should be. The importance of family is a wonderful and touching Christmas theme, and Johnson does a marvelous job weaving a magical, sweet and satisfying tale with Traditions. Bravo!

I am very excited to be hosting Emily Bryan for an interview on Wednesday, Sept. 30. Please stop by and leave a comment for Emily, and you might win one of her back titles! (what a nice xmas gift!). 

Overall Grade: A- 

Happy Happy Holidays,