Hello all, and welcome back to Weekly Reads!
This week, I broke my own rule of reading variously to read two YA short story anthologies back to back. So you are forewarned: because I’ve just read a lot of holiday shorts for this blog, it is time for me to share a few holiday anecdotes. Ostensibly, I read these all at once to give y’all some idea of what’s worthwhile to read pre-holiday. But also I am really trying to push myself to be in the holiday spirit this year.
I used to love the holidays as a kid, and I can attribute a lot of that to being in an Italian-Canadian family. Gifts aside (and when you’re Italian-Canadian, gifts can often mean “cash handed to you by overly generous uncles, which you must ritually protest before accepting”), there was a lot to make it magical.
Big extended family visits with ridiculous amounts of food out! My nonna making those fried potato donut things! (For the first time in history, I have found a recipe for these online, although of course, my family uses a different name and recipe.) Also my nonna’s ridiculously mismatched nativity scene, with a lamb as big as Mary! Avoiding fish and hymns on Christmas Eve to hang out with my heathen dad! (My dad is not Italian at all. Our familial traditions involve eating meat and falling asleep on the couch watching TV.) Boxing day shopping with my mom and aunt and favourite cousin! (This lost some excitement the year I ate an entire bag of ketchup chips Christmas night and threw up pink in the mall garbage cans, but you get the idea. Unless you’re American and just had to Google “ketchup chips.” I swear they’re really good if you haven’t had that traumatic experience.)
I stopped feeling religious or believing in Santa at a pretty young age, but I still always loved the holidays for the family traditions we had. It changes as you grow up, though, I think. Not just because things seem less magical when you’re not a kid, but I think the expectations change, too. Holidays when you’re older start to be more about romance. Which makes the holidays pretty tense when your love life is a messy prospect! I’ve only been single for a couple of holiday seasons since I started dating due to terminally serial monogamy in my teens/early twenties, but my existence was never rife with cute mistletoe and hot cocoa moments. It was chock full of romantic trainwrecks.
During one holiday season, a boyfriend dumped me before a New Year’s party we were going to together, at which my other ex-boyfriend was trying to take advantage of my distraught state. So naturally I went to hang out with another guy who was hiding in a closet; he turned out to be crushing on me and freaking because his girlfriend had cheated on him. Obviously, we hooked up. If this sounds convoluted and disastrous, it’s because it completely was. I was a teen, okay. Rebounding with the next cute, non-creepy, friend-person warm body was absolutely a thing. (And I did a lot of making out with new people at New Year’s parties in my youth.)
So when I say that I know a lot about the the romantic melodrama (and despair) that can accompany the holidays, I 100% mean it. I had a holiday anthology kind of surreal love life. I, too, was an outsider in high school and as a new adult. (Do any young adult authors write about “insiders” without making them sound like awful people who need redeeming or like their lives are horrible because secret trauma? Let me know if this is a thing.) I have basically memorized Love Actually in all its strengths and weaknesses. I am so overqualified to review these books. This job description was written with my name in it.
Let it snow
To tl;dr this review: This anthology was a cool idea with lacklustre execution.
Said cool idea is a short-ish story anthology (three long short stories) in one setting, where the stories can intertwine a bit. Essentially, a huge blizzard sweeps in and snows in a place called Gracetown. One girl, stuck on a last-minute-change-of-plans train to Florida to visit her grandparents, ventures out into town and meets a boy. Another boy, whose parents are snowed in elsewhere, has a Christmas Eve adventure with his two best friends, one of whom happens to be a girl. Another girl, devastated by her pre-holiday breakup, is desperate to get back together with a boy who hasn’t texted back.
All of these storylines to some extent intersect, but in superficial enough ways that it feels not that interesting or useful to further each plot. The intertwining aspect is an interesting idea, but it ultimately doesn’t contribute meaningfully to the collection; the characters from other stories cameo in the current story, but so fleetingly that they have no real impact on that story’s plot. That makes them feel shoehorned in or forced at times, at the expense of the current piece.
It’s like a pop culture reference that’s just a pop culture reference: it doesn’t help you perfectly understand a situation or a character, but it’s a moment of inside-jokery that’s fun if you pick up on it and meh if you don’t. The best pop culture references drop in seamlessly and give you a sense of not only a character/narrator’s taste, but feel relevant to the situation and emotionally grounded, somehow. The show Sense8, for example, uses Conan the Barbarian to create a meaningful emotional connection between two best friends and comment on the situations they’re in. This book uses references to characters in other stories to…refer to characters in other stories, mostly.
The other disappointing aspect of this: Okay, I could complain about how each story is incredibly predictable because it’s obvious who every protagonist will hook up with, and that that’s the main crux of the story. But I mean, they’re holiday romances, so we all knew that was happening. The actual disappointing thing was that I wasn’t as moved by these hookups as I should’ve been, and given that each romance had a third of a book to develop and was the focus of its piece, there’s no real excuse for this. Also, two of the stories relied on forms of instalove—one in the form of a rebound (which happens, but doesn’t feel that romantic to read, really) and one in the form of very suddenly realizing a friend is cute (where it would’ve been 1000% more interesting to read from the perspective of the love interest). The third relies on us feeling the tension of a reconciliation that we know will happen. (Or relies on us believing a teen girl is self-centred and needs to learn better, which given we don’t know her character very well and this is such a common, gendered criticism of teen girls…)
Also, did I mention there’s a lot of “not like other girls” and dislike of cheerleaders in this book? Sigh. I mean, there’s some quirky humour in each, and John Green can definitely write epic evenings of adventure. But this book falls pretty flat because it just can’t get me invested in the romances or justify its own gimmick.
So, tl;dr? Cool idea. Bad execution.
Let it Snow:
My True Love Gave to Me
The idea of this collection is less novel; it’s just a bunch of unrelated actually-short stories about holiday romance. But there are advantages to that.
Even though Let it Snow was only three stories, it felt a bit repetitive because predictable plotlines were all playing out in the same place during the same few days. This collection doesn’t confine us to a place or modern-day Christmas Eve/Christmas Day, so it feels like there’s more room to breathe—even though the majority of these stories are still within the pattern “boy and girl hook up over the holidays.” (There’s also boy and boy established couple—thanks, David Levithan—and some girl and mythical being-type boy action.)
The stories here are also, for the most part, better executed. And none of them have nearly as long to build a romance, so it feels like this anthology mops the floor with the first one, although the book overall is pleasant, not stunning.
Weak spots, in my opinion, were “Beer Buckets and Baby Jesus,” which just hands a prankster guy everything he wants in one night without any sense of stakes, and “Star of Bethlehem,” which is an excellent fanfiction plot premise but gave the protagonist and her love interest less than nothing in terms of personality. I wasn’t very into David Levithan’s story (“Your Temporary Santa”), either? Which is a shame because it was the only not-hetero one in the bunch and I loved the dialogue in it, but he often defaults to reaching for the profound and poetic—and while it works over the course of a book coming out of the mouths of, say, a chorus of dead queer men, it’s a little awkward coming out of the head of some kid trying to do a cute favour for his boyfriend’s little sister.
The rest of the stories were more solid. None of them absolutely stunned me, but there were definitely cute moments. If I had to pick a favourite, I’d probably go with “Midnights,” a New Year’s Eve tale, but I also like how much fairy tale magic was oozing out of some of these (“The Lady and the Fox,” for example) and I found myself really enjoying the style of a few of the writers, even when their stories stumbled a bit. For example, Laini Taylor’s switches perspectives and consequently glosses over the wonder we could’ve experienced with the protagonist, which I can only assume was necessary to shorten the story, since it’s definitely the weaker narrative choice. Otherwise, though, I liked her writing style in the story quite a bit.
This was an overall enjoyable read on a winter’s evening, and definitely a good sampler if you’re looking to decide on a young adult author to read next, but I’m not 100% sure I’ll keep it.
My True Love Gave to Me:
Thank you for surviving this many-worded post about and including holiday stories, and let me know if you have any holiday essential reading!