As far as this reviewer is concerned, all ebook novella anthologies should be published the way that Carina Press has published their three Christmas collections. I know the whole point of a collection is to get readers to try an author they haven’t tried before. And novellas just aren’t long enough to print by themselves, so in the print world, grouping them made sense. But this isn’t the print world. Grouping them at a discount as an incentive to try new authors, and giving readers the option to buy just the one story they want if, say, they only want the one by Josh Lanyon in this collection, that’s the freedom of ebook publishing.
Now about those stories…
The stories in Men Under the Mistletoe are all about second chances. Not just second chances at love, but second chances at love with the one that got away. In every story, past lovers re-unite to try one last time in an attempt to re-kindle the spark between them during the Christmas season. Will they succeed? Let’s see.
My True Love Gave to Me by Ava March is the only historical in this collection. Set during the Regency period, this story concerns two very young men who are just not ready for the consequences of loving each other in a world where discovery means not just social censure, but possibly prison. At 19, they are both too young to deal with maintaining the multiple layers of identity required to be homosexuals in the ton and still keep their families unaware. Alexander Norton can handle that part, what he can’t handle is Thomas Bennett’s rejection of their first chance to spend a night together. Thomas doesn’t just run from Alexander, he runs away to America. When he returns four years later, neither of them is the same as they were. Can they find a way back to each other?
Escape Rating C: This was the weakest story in the collection. There was too much teenage angst and not enough story. If the author is going to spend most of the story in someone’s head, I want to know what they’re doing, not just what they’re thinking.
Winter Knights by Harper Fox gave me chills. Think of it as Dickens’ A Christmas Carol meeting Camelot, only spookier, and you’ll get the idea. Gavin Lowden is a historian. He is in Northumberland for Christmas, researching the origins of the Arthurian legends. He hopes to find the factual basis for those legends, that Arthur really existed, as a historic leader just after the Romans bugged out of England. He also hopes to find evidence that the bond between Arthur and Lancelot was romantic, not just brothers-in-arms. And, he hopes that his own lover will finally tell his very conservative Catholic family that he is gay. The night he spends under the hollow hill gives him more than he could have ever dreamed, but not in any way Gavin could ever have imagined.
Escape Rating B: This story relies on a lot of myths to make it work. The Arthur myth, the spirit of Christmas, and a certain willing suspension of disbelief. I’m not sure it would work at any time other than Christmas. And it’s a ghost story, I just liked it, but then, I’m a sucker for King Arthur stories, and this kind of is one.
Lone Star by Josh Lanyon is a story that would work any time of the year. Mitchell Evans’ always dreamed of becoming a great dancer with a major ballet company. In order to achieve his dream, he needed to leave the rural Texas town he grew up in. Web Eisley always wanted to be a Texas Ranger. He could achieve his dream right where he grew up. Web and Mitch were each other’s first loves, but their dreams took them 1,800 miles apart. When Mitch returns home for Christmas 12 years after he left, can they find a way back to each other? Can they find a way to reconcile their dreams?
Escape Rating A: This is simply good storytelling. And the theme is universal, which is part of what makes it so good. Mitch’s dreams demand that he leave, and Web is solidly rooted in their Texas hometown. He would be miserable in New York, where Mitch has to go to get the training he needs. They have to part, although Mitch didn’t have to run away. There’s some anger to get past, but this is what happens to people. But the situation is what it is. Can they find a way to be together now? Great story.
The Christmas Proposition by K.A. Mitchell was a tree farm story. (There was one in the Holiday Kisses collection too). This story is better. Mel Halner runs his family’s Christmas tree farm in Epiphany, PA. He also works shifts at a local diner to make ends meet. The Christmas tree farm business isn’t all that great. He’s supposed to be taking a two week vacation in the Caribbean to watch his sister get married, but he gets a phone call. The wedding planner ran off with everyone’s money. Can Tiffany have the wedding at the farm? Of course she can. Mel is not just disappointed about losing his family’s money, and his lost vacation, and his sister’s wedding disaster. There’s more. His ex, Bryce Campion, is his soon-to-be-brother-in-law’s best man. Mel was hoping to see Bryce after they got to St. Thomas, when he could pretend to be tanned and devil-may-care about the whole thing. Instead he would still be in Epiphany, covered in slush and surrounded by reminders of why he should have escaped his small town with the rich and handsome gas company owner. Three years ago, Mel and Bryce let each other get away. Can they catch each other this time?
Escape Rating B+: The description of this story doesn’t do it justice. The story is much better and deeper than the description. This isn’t about Bryce making Mel see what he missed out by passing on the high-life his riches can offer. Instead Mel makes Bryce see what Bryce misses by not being part of a family and having roots in a community. They meet in the middle and make a true partnership.