I'm not a huge fan of anthologies but I enjoy them when I get great quality and the opportunity to read new stories by some of my favorite authors. That’s exactly the case with Men Under the Mistletoe, a book filled with interesting novellas that have a common theme of second chance at love.
The first story is My True Love Gave to Me by Ava March. Set in 1821 this is the only historical romance in the book. Alexander and Thomas met in Oxford when they were 19, they fell in love and started a relationship that ended badly when Thomas, understandably afraid, got cold feet and escaped to America leaving a brokenhearted Alexander behind. Four years later Thomas is back in London and all he wants to do is make amends with Alexander and win him back. But Alexander was deeply hurt by Thomas and finding forgiveness won’t be as easy.
As I said before the anthology has a common theme of second chance at love, but this is the only novella that actually shows us how these guys where before separating and you could really feel the connection and the hurt between them. Alexander was sure of his feelings from the beginning and he was willing to do anything in order to be with Thomas, he was young, inexperienced, and blinded by love and passion. I think Thomas had it right when he left because he was scared and conflicted and I couldn't see how they were going to make things work. He shouldn't have left in a hurry, but that also makes for great drama.
Four years later they meet again and things are different. Alexander is bitter and Thomas wants to pursue Alexander and ask his forgiveness. So in a way their roles were reversed, now Alexander was skittish and jaded whereas Thomas was willing to do anything for Alexander.
My main issue with this novella was that the key conflict comes from the fact that Thomas left and not because the time period makes it impossible for them to be a couple, there’s no discussion about this, about how they were going to live and maintain a relationship that was punished with death. Would they get married and maintain a fake public façade? They were rich members of the ton and certain things were expected from them, marriage and kids included, but these things were never discussed, so by the end of the story I was sure that they loved each other, but I was afraid that they wouldn’t make it in the long term.
The other problem I had was that the first time they have sex Alexander almost forces Thomas, and he does it to humiliate and punish him and not because he truly wants to be with him. Thomas enjoys the sex, but he feels punished by it, and accepts it as part of his atonement. This is very common in romance novels, but I don’t like it, and it stained an otherwise very sweet love story.
Next we have Winter Knights by Harper Fox. This was probably the most different of all the novellas and the one with the most unexpected ending. It’s a ménage story and the line between reality and fantasy is a bit blurry, but you won’t find how much until you reach the end.
Gavin is in a small town in northern England waiting for his boyfriend Pierce to join him for the holidays. In the meantime he’s doing some research about King Arthur. He has a theory that the love triangle between Arthur, Lancelot and Guinevere wasn’t exactly as portrayed by the common legend because he believes that Arthur and Lancelot were lovers and he hopes to find some evidence to back up his theory. He also hopes that Pierce, a very devout Catholic, has finally managed to come out to his family. But when he calls him to tell him that he didn’t talk to his family, that he won’t join him and that they should break up, Gavin’s plans suddenly change. He decides to go for a walk in the middle of the nigh and maybe investigate some of the places in town. He ends up trapped in a cave, having some weird visions about King Arthur and being rescued by a couple named Art and Lance (get it?), is it coincidence? Gavin is about to find out, and in the meantime he will learn a couple of lessons about sex, self-discovery and forgiveness.
This was the best story in the anthology, it was compelling, surprising and beautiful. I’m not a fan of ménage stories and in this particular case there’s a bit of cheating involved -at least there is to me- but despite that, I was very much drawn to it. I think the reason the book worked was because all the characters were likeable and layered. At first you think that Pierce is the worse person ever when he breaks up with Gavin, but then you learn more about them and their relationship and realize that there are shades of grey and they both have their fair share of issues and blame.
Then we have Art and Lance. We don’t see much about them and they are a bit of a mystery, but what we do see is just great, they have an open relationship and I admit that I don’t understand relationships like that, which is one of the reasons why ménage stories don’t work for me, but they were so likeable that I was able to forget about my hang ups in order to sit and enjoy the story. The cheating aspect I mentioned happens when Gavin falls into bed with them hours after breaking up with Pierce, not everyone might consider this cheating but I do. However, just like everything else in the story (fantasy aspect included), it just works. As I said all the characters are great people with a lot of love and you want them to be happy regardless of the fact that you might not get why they find happiness in such weird places.
All the characters experience some growth and change. Even Art and Lance, secondary characters whose main purpose in the story is to play a part in Gavin’s journey to self-discovery, have their own story and resolution. So it was a very satisfying read, for everyone involved. I won’t mention more about the actual plot and the fantasy aspect of it because there’s a huge plot twist and some unexpected surprises, but that’s another part that works well for the overall feel of this novella.
As usual Ms. Fox’s distinct style is present, that sleepy and almost magical way to tell the story, a style that allows the reader a deeper connection with the characters and setting. Every time I read one of her books I find myself wishing to be there in the small towns where her stories usually take place.
This was probably the best story in the book, although it wasn’t my favorite, not because it wasn’t good but because is not the type of story I usually go for, but I think everyone will love it.
Following Winter Knights we have Lone Star by Josh Lanyon. Twelve years ago Mitch and Web used to be best friends and lovers. Mitch had an abusive and unloving father and was desperate to leave their small town to pursue his dream of being a ballet dancer. Web on the other hand, came from a loving family and wanted to stay put and become a Texas Ranger. When Mitch asked Web to come out and be a real couple Web got scared and they ended up fighting, this put in motion a series of events that ended up with Mitch leaving town without saying goodbye or looking back even once.
All these years latter Mitch is back in town after his father’s death to put everything in order and to lick his wounds after he caught his boyfriend with a woman. He sees Web again and all the old feelings between them come back with a vengeance, but they have very different lives in different parts of the country, so will they be able to make it work this second time? Of course they will, this is a romance novel after all!
This was my favorite story but I admit that it’s the weakest of the bunch. It’s completely predictable in a boring way, it’s full of clichés and the ending is ridiculously easy for such a big conflict. But despite all that, I loved it. I have a soft spot for small town romances, cowboys and ballet dancers, and this one obviously fits the bill.
I admit that the resolution was rushed, the reason they were apart for twelve years was because of a huge miscommunication, and then everything gets magically resolved and they live happily ever after, but I wasn’t bothered by it, it’s a huge weakness of the story and I’m not blind to it, but this one charmed me from page one. You have been warned, this is my heart speaking and not my head, I’m giving Lone Star an undeserving 4 but you might not agree with me, under different circumstances I wouldn’t agree with me either. It takes a talented author to create such a charming story using so many commonplaces.
Grade: 4 (it probably deserves a 3, though)
Last but not least we have The Christmas Proposition by K.A. Mitchell. Mel took charge of his parent’s farm when they left, at first he couldn’t envision doing anything else but after they died in an accident and his responsibilities started piling up, he came to realize that his life was a bit stale. However, there wasn’t much he could do even when Bryce, the owner of a gas extraction company, offered him an escape a couple of years ago. He had to say no because he couldn’t leave the farm, his work and his troubled sister, so Bryce left and never came back.
Two years later Mel’s best friend is getting married in the farm and Bryce is the best man. When they reunite they fall into bed immediately, but Mel’s life is the same, he still has tons of responsibilities and even though Bryce wants to pick up where they left, things are just as complicated.
This novella was sexy, fun and entertaining. I think this was the least serious story of the bunch, not because of the subject but because there was something about the style that made me feel like the author doesn’t take herself to seriously, and so the story deals with serious subjects like drug addiction and self-sacrifice, but it does it in a way that’s uplifting instead of depressing.
The characters were charming, Mel in particular, this is the only story told in first person so there’s a stronger connection with the main character. I found him funny and cynic, one of those grouchy guys that you want to hug just to piss him off. Bryce was more stereotypical, like one of those rich tycoons that populate so many romance novels. He is possessive and proud and wants to convince Mel to be with him. He had some depth to him too, but you have to dig to get to it.
The reason why their love story works was because they knew each other previously, so the fact that they have sex even before they say hello didn’t bother me. And I was pleasantly surprised by the final declaration of love, I won’t spoil it but the humorous undertones made it more authentic.
I think this was a great and light read, perfect if you want to spend some fun time reading during the holidays but don’t have much time and don’t want to concern yourself with a much longer and complicated book. The romance was fun and very satisfactory.
This was a great anthology, probably the best I have read all year. You don’t need to be familiar with the authors or their previous work, the novellas aren’t part of a series, they all stand alone and it doesn’t feel like the anthology is trying to sell you something else. It’s just a group of stories with a common theme that couldn’t be more different from each other even if they tried, so despite reading four novellas about lovers reuniting you won’t get bored, and you won’t feel like you’re reading the same story over, and over.
I recommend this one to fans of m/m novels and of romance in general. All the main characters were likeable, the stories were entertaining and touching, and there’s a lot of hot sex, so what else could you wish for?
NOTE: you can buy the book with all four stories, or you can buy each novella separately, but I think you will enjoy them all even if you are not familiar with some of the authors.
Review by Brie
Baby it's Cold Outside
A man receives the gift of pleasure at the hands of two expert lovers. Boyhood sweethearts get a second chance at romance. Two very proper gentlemen indulge their forbidden desires. And a Christmas tree farmer has an epiphany. It may be cold outside but these four holiday novellas will warm you up.
Carina Press; December 5, 2011.