The Imaginary Realms of
Gilbert M. Stack





The Christmas Spirit by Debbie Macomber

Debbie Macomber appears to be the master of the Christmas story having a great many on her resume. This one is a cute “trading places” tale. Two old friends, one a minister and one a bartender, spend an evening telling the other one how easy his job is and end up deciding to prove each other wrong by trading places in the week before Christmas. Thrown into the tale are two women who are destined to become the romantic partners of both men. There are absolutely no surprises here. This is Hallmark romance all the way—a sweet and enjoyable tale.

So, while the minister-turned-bartender is trying to keep Hell’s Angels-like bikers from turning him into a human dartboard, the bartender-turned-minister is discovering that his friend does not have a one-hour-a-week on Sundays job. Again, nothing shocking in the story. There’s never any real sense of danger or threat—that isn’t the point. The point is that Christmas is coming, and a lot of people are feeling left out of it. At the same time, fresh perspectives let the two old friends solve some of the minor problems in each other’s lives.

The ending struck me as inspired by The Best Christmas Pageant Ever as, predicably, a lot goes wrong on Christmas Eve which weirdly enough makes a lot of things go right.

Once Upon a Christmas Carol by Karen Schaler

This is a fast-moving cheerful romp through a lot of Christmas Carols loosely tied together by a “come home for the holidays” storyline. There’s little meat her, it’s all sweet Christmas candy that will make you smile. At the heart of the story is a woman losing her job because 1) she can’t write good songs anymore, and 2) the public thinks that the famous writer of Christmas songs actually hates Christmas. As she tries to work through this crisis, she starts receiving Christmas cards from a mysterious person which lead her around her hometown and make her fall in love with it and the holiday again. As I said, a fully dramatized, very sweet tale with no surprises and a lot of Christmas music from the cast.

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The Break Up Artist by Erin Clark and Lauren Lovely

In many ways this is a completely traditional and predictable romance. Woman meets man, they get interested, they grow romantic, a secret causes a rift, but loves wins out in the end. And on that level, it is really nothing to write home about. But the twist that makes this novel more interesting is that the sideline of the heroine, Zelda, as an anonymous internet personality who helps people who don’t know how to get out of their relationships. She’s “The Break Up Artist." Desperately unhappy people write to her with a list of everything that is wrong with the person they want to kick out of their lives, and Zelda writes a snappy email back that they can put their name on to sever the relationship. Many people, it turns out, just forward her letter complete with her signature, “The Break Up Artist,” so she is becoming a little bit infamous. There is also the impression that she is making money off of this, which is strange, since it’s basically a word-of-mouth business that started with a few flyers and she doesn’t charge.

Zelda seems to do this because she finds writing the letters cathartic and believes she is helping people. In a life that is basically falling apart, writing a break up letter or two each night reenergizes her. Her mother has just died and within a year her father married a former classmate of Zelda’s and unfortunately, there is lot of evidence that they have sex all the time. (And isn’t that a little creepy to think your parent is having sex with someone your age.) Her work situation for a marketing firm is unrewarding with her boss taking her ideas but refusing to give her any credit. And apparently the first thing every guy who takes her on a date wants to know is can she still have sex since she needs a wheelchair to get around.

So, her life sucks, and then she meets a wonderful guy whom she learns was the recipient of one of her breakup letters. I never really understood why this was a potential problem. After all, she only put into words what the ex-girlfriend told her. I think that on date number two, if I was Zelda I would have brought a printout of both the ex-girlfriend’s email and the breakup response and given them to Jake with a little explanation of how she got into doing this and then I think they would have quickly moved on. But there is no drama in my solution so of course she holds off until the ex-girlfriend decides she wants her ex-boyfriend back so she can spend his recent inheritance money. (That’s not really a spoiler. It was obvious it was going to happen right from the beginning.)

But Zelda isn’t me and she can’t solve things that easily (although she does solve her problems with her new “stepmom” pretty easily—and I think unrealistically). So we get a little drama which frankly makes the book more fun even if I think the idea embraced by so many in the book that the Break Up Artist is somehow evil was more than a little crazy.

Upside Down Christmas by Kate Forster

I really don’t think this was a Christmas story except as an accident of timing. It’s actually the tale of a woman who is humiliated by her boyfriend and then tricked into noticing that a longtime friend is better suited to her and deeply in love with her. Honestly, it took them both a little too long to get to that “I love you” stage, but it works out in the end. There’s also a very nice subplot involving an ill friend that really lets them see each other shine that probably was the best part of the story.

Along Came Holly by Codi Hall

This is a sweet Christmas romance, apparently the third in a series. A holiday loving extrovert (Holly) crosses (figurative) swords with an apparently Scrooge-esq introvert (Declan). No one doubts from moment one that the two will end up together, it’s just a matter of how Hall will get us there and she chooses a very good path.

The novel starts off with a very cute “prank war” between Holly and Declan in which each strives to get the better of the other in what are truly good-natured holiday pranks. Somewhere in the midst of the war everyone around the two realize that despite their protestations to the contrary, Holly and Declan are interested in each other. But it takes a lot more of the book for them to start giving into their feelings. Part of the problem is that Declan’s parents have screwed him up and stolen his dreams and he needs to come to grips with what his relationship with them before he’s ready to open up with Holly.

This is a light and fluffy holiday romance that will help to cultivate your Christmas spirit.

You Can Thank Me Later by Kelly Harms

If you’re looking to get into the mood for Thanksgiving this year, this short novel by Kelly Harms is a great way to start. It traces a family through several Thanksgiving dinners, moving from tragedy to anger and finally to healing. The great strength is that Harms has created a family you will feel that you know. They’re instantly likable and very empathetic—which is important since you’re about to spend three Thanksgiving dinners with them.

The tragedy of the novel is the death by cancer of the protagonist/narrator’s best friend, who also happens to be her sister-in-law. When her brother begins to move on, the narrator is not ready to let him do so. This must have been the toughest part of the book to write because the new girlfriend (who admittedly has a laundry basket full of problems) is clearly trying hard to make a good impression and everything she does becomes another stroke against her in the eyes of our heroine.

Rather than make things come to an easy conclusion, Harms ratchets up the tension considerably, even as she cleverly lays the groundwork for the eventual coming together of the once-happy clan. It’s quite likely I’ll read this book again next November.

Perfect Timing by Brenda Jackson

This was a genuinely interesting romance novel which, after a slow middle, dealt with some serious issues in the latter part of the story. The book is nominally about two best friends, Maxi and Maya, who drifted apart after high school, leading the reader to think that getting the two back together will be a major subplot of the story. (It wasn’t. It took one chapter and probably wasn’t worth mentioning in the blurb.) What was more interesting is that Maxi’s life has fallen apart after the death of her fiancé while Maya’s marriage to her high-school-sweetheart-turned-NFL-player is threatening to hit the rocks. Their troubles seem to be reaching a crescendo when they both agree to go on a high school reunion cruise.

That cruise was the weakest part of the story and takes up most of the first half of the book. Maxi is accidentally put in the same cabin as her high school crush, Christopher, who happens to have the same last name as her. This happened because they both, separately, ordered single cabins and the cruise line decided on its own that they must be married because they have the same last name so they would put them together. Then the cruise line refused to fix the problem arguing that since they had been in high school together it must be okay. For the record, this is totally unbelievable and was equally unnecessary to the story. The only thing it accomplished was to make it easier for the author to continually thrust these two together. Unsurprisingly in a novel with so much sex in it, there is a lot of thrusting in that cabin.

The only other thing the cruise accomplishes is to bring Maxi and Maya back together—something a phone call should have accomplished ten years earlier—and to drive home the fact (made before the cruise started) that Christopher was not respected in high school (and of course no one knows he is now super successful and super wealthy). It also leads Christopher, who has extraordinary commitment issues, to offer to father the child Maxi desperately wants before she has to get a hysterectomy.

Okay, so the book has a lot in common with some of the crazier soap operas, but stick with it because there’s a lot of good too. When Maya and Maxi get back to their lives, things continue to fall apart for them—and it’s in dealing with these problems that Jackson shows her strength as an author.

In the first plot, Maxi wants Christopher’s child, but she’s frustrated that he’s not part of the deal—as in marriage. Of course, he’s around for making the baby. (And yes, the sex is too good for them to seriously consider invitro fertilization.) Christopher clearly wants her too, but there are those very profound commitment issues.

In the second plot, Maya’s husband has strayed—not completely, but enough that any self-respecting person would be hugely upset by his actions. This is really the strongest storyline in the novel because it is the easiest for readers to imagine themselves having to deal with similar problems. There is a lot of pressure on Maya to simply forgive her husband including from her minister, but she’s upset enough that I couldn’t predict how the story would end.

The minister brings up another subtle strength of this story. These are people for whom religion and prayer is an important part of their lives. They are not preachy in your face zealots. They are everyday Americans who believe that God and religion have a place in their families. I thought this was a very well-done aspect of the story.

The narration was also very well done. Leon Nixon reads a good book, but I must admit to being surprised that a man was chosen as narrator when two of the three POVs were female. It makes me wonder if for the author, the Christopher storyline was the most important.

And I think that’s the key to why I liked this book so much, even though I have poked a bit of fun at it in this review. As I listened, it made me think—not deep profound thoughts—but about what was going to happen and whether I could imagine my high school class doing things like this. And when I am wondering that much about what a character should do, it tells me I’m really enjoying the book. I think you will too.

Christmas After All by Cece Louise

This is a cute romance that actually make the enemies-turned-lovers idea work. The reason it works is that the “enemies” moment comes when the two are just teenagers. Melissa is a cheerleader who just got back together with her cheating boyfriend (she refuses to believe he was cheating) when Tucker, a geeky kid in her class, gets on the football game announcer system and sings her a song he wrote asking her to go to prom with him. She is embarrassed and publicly rejects him. A year later, he becomes a country music star based on the popularity of a song he wrote about the incident, unintentionally humiliating her back. The novel focuses upon the two ten years later and it’s really a very sweet story.

Tucker comes home to his small town as a country music sensation and Melissa’s life has gone to hell. He’s buying the place she works and she’s finding the situation untenable, and things only start getting worse when circumstances force them together. Yet Tucker still has a crush on Melissa and she has learned a lot of humility in the last ten years. And because both of them have grown up, it gives them a chance to decide if they would like to try that relationship they didn’t get as high school students. It’s a lovely holiday tale.

When Christmas Comes by Debbie Macomber

Families—they can be a joy and they can be a pain and holidays like Christmas bring out the best and worst in them. That’s really what this story is about. Emily lives on the west coast and wants desperately to spend Christmas with Heather, her college-student daughter, so when Heather says she can’t come home because she has to work, Emily swaps houses with a Harvard professor for the holiday and goes to be with her daughter instead. As you’ve already guessed, Heather isn’t working, she’s hanging out with her bad-news boyfriend road-tripping to Florida. Meanwhile, Charles, the Harvard professor Emily swapped houses with, is seeking to get away from his mother so he can enjoy some peace and quiet for a holiday filled with bad memories, but Mom isn’t going to let him get away with it. When she phones his house and a strange woman answers, she bullies her bachelor son into going up to Boston to find out what’s happened to her little Charles. I bet you caught the adjective “bachelor” in front of “son” and yes, it's obvious from moment one that he isn’t going to be a bachelor by New Years.

While all of this is happening, Emily’s best friend Faith has decided to drop everything and go to visit Emily in her west coast home—but Emily isn’t there, is she? No, Charles who hates Christmas is there and Faith can’t find a hotel room or get a flight back out to go home so we can all guess that those two aren’t going to be single very much longer either.

And less we forget, Heather is still off with her biker bad-boy boyfriend and it isn’t going so well. That’s really the only question in this novel—what the heck is going to happen to Heather?

So, you have three relationships (plus Charles’ mom) waiting for the Christmas spirit to turn them into Christmas romances (or Christmas sanity, in the case of Heather) and it’s frankly a tremendous amount of fun. Very little in the way of surprises, but it’s got all the makings of a Hallmark Christmas special. Can our various players find true happiness in each other’s arms? Can Heather dump her bad boy boyfriend? And can Charles possibly learn to love Christmas again?

I wrote the first draft of this review before I was halfway through the story and I already knew the answer to all of those questions would be a resounding “yes”. The point to a book like this is not the solution, it’s the journey. And this madcap, wild, slay ride will put you in the Christmas spirit.

Let Me Be Your Motivation by Tay Mo'Nae

Let me start out by saying that I know that I'm not the target audience for this novel. Yet, the blurb about a woman (Jordyn) finding out at the altar that her fiancé (Mason) is already married and his wife is pregnant was such an emotionally powerful premise that I decided I had to read it. I think we can all imagine that scene playing out in a half dozen ways and I really wanted to see how Mo'Nae handled it.

The answer--it was all right--not great, but all right. Mason (the already-married-dirt-bag) is looking uncomfortable as the minister guides them through the ceremony and then his wife stands up and--you guessed it--gets mad at the poor woman he's just made a fool of, not him.

Unfortunately, I find that believable. I would have preferred a little more build up and I was shocked to find out that Mason had married the other woman only two weeks before, but the scene definitely succeeded in creating the emotionally damaged heroine that Mo'Nae needed for the rest of her story--but it's that story that really makes me question this author's idea of the perfect man.

Jordyn, our heroine, reeling from this horrible betrayal and being humiliated in front of family and friends, goes on her honeymoon without Mason where the very first night she gets blackout drunk. She's not a drinker to begin with and she's staggering when the "perfect man", professional wide receiver, Amir, encounters her, and feeds her more drinks. He then brings her back to his room where she sprawls her signature on a nondisclosure agreement she never reads, has very graphic sex with him, and then wakes up in the morning not remembering who Amir is or how she got there or really anything except drinking the night before.

She flees from the perfect man in shame. Wait a minute? The perfect man? The perfect man takes advantage of totally drunk women? I don't think that fits most of our definitions of perfection.

Jordyn, of course, ends up having sex with him again, and I feared that this novel was going to go the route of good sex equals fantastic relationship, but Mo'Nae finally got her author's feet beneath her and started developing a nice vacation-relationship with give and take between woman and man and some genuinely fun times. It was good to read and actually worked to make me believe that this couple had a chance despite tremendous differences in personality.

Then the two exes (Amir had just broken up with his longtime girlfriend) reenter the picture to cause more trouble. I thought that Amir's ex was well handled, but frankly I did not for a moment find Mason (Jordyn's ex) credible at all and can't understand why Mo’Nae didn't embrace the fact that she had successfully sold him to the reader as a Grade A Jerk. Trying to make him nice in the end was jarring, not credible, and not needed.

Overall, I think this story could have been truly great, but only comes out being okay.

A Will and a Way by Nora Roberts

I’ve read at least a dozen of Nora Roberts novels over the years, some of which were quite good (especially her J.D. Robb novels). So when I heard this one was on a list of her top seven stories, I thought I’d give it a try. It’s a quick and enjoyable tale, but I didn’t think it was extraordinary. In fact, the basic ideas seemed a bit used to me and this one wasn’t a particularly fresh take—but it may have been fresh when it was written. I just don’t know the field well enough to make that determination.

The basic plot is that a beloved relative tries a little matchmaking when he dies by making a niece and a relative by marriage (i.e. not a blood relation) live in his mansion together for six months to gain their inheritance. Since neither cares about money, he threatens to give the inheritance to their worthless relatives if they fail to do as he asks. In doing so, he sets up two problems—enemies to lovers, and, of course, the villainous relative willing to do anything to get the millions.

Now I think the whole “I don’t care about money” character trait was an easy cop out. They don’t have to be greedy jerks to be able to recognize that inheriting a few million would be nice, but they actually looked bad to me pretending that money was not a factor in their thinking but not wanting their “horrible” relatives to inherit the dough. I also find the “enemies to friends” idea to be a tired motif that Roberts used a lot. (I seem to recall that several of her books start with the guy humiliating the heroine, which I have always thought was a terrible way to start a romance. But since Nora Roberts has sold tens of millions or more books, she probably knows more about it than me.)

Now all of this makes it sound like a terrible book, but it’s not. It’s a quick and enjoyable story. It just didn’t feel very fresh or believable.

The Boyfriend Project by Farrah Rochon

I picked up this book because of the teaser in the blurb. Three women discover that they are all dating the same man and their breakup with him is filmed and goes viral on social media. It’s an excellent scenario and Rochon handles it with skill and flair. I was pulled in immediately and even though she didn’t maintain that high level of excitement for the rest of the novel, her basic plot kept my interest. There are two major points of action occurring. Samiah is trying to navigate a critical moment in her career while managing a new romance and dealing with a backstabbing colleague, while her new romantic interest is secretly pursuing an undercover investigation into money laundering at her firm. Naturally, as a romance novel, the part about romantic interest gets the most attention, and Rochon easily succeeds in showing the growing attraction between her couple. Unfortunately, I thought the romantic interest functioned more as a subplot, complicating Samiah’s new career and her boyfriend’s investigation, and it was the investigation that really kept most of my interest. (By the way, give Rochon extra credit here. I settled on a culprit very early and I was absolutely wrong.)

Overall, I enjoyed this book. Rochon builds solid and interesting characters and gave me enough details on both Samiah’s job and her boyfriend’s investigation that I totally bought into both of them. She also provided a fun and flirty romance that developed despite hesitations on the part of both Samiah and her love interest. Perhaps the nicest part of the book, however, was the friendship that the three women at the start of the story forged with each other after learning they were all dating the same man—and that friendship was ultimately the best part of the story.

The Dating Playbook by Farrah Rachon

I didn’t actually plan to read this book when I got it out of the library. I only wanted to learn what Taylor got stuck in jail for at the end of the previous book, The Boyfriend Project. (By the way, the reason was totally lame.) But while working through the first couple of chapters toward that information, I got hooked on the storyline. Taylor is a fitness instructor who is on the verge of bankruptcy, desperate for a job that won’t let her parents continue to drive home the point of what a great disappointment she is to them. She ends up connecting with an injured NFL player who is trying to get back in shape to play again. And for somewhat complicated reasons, he doesn’t want anyone else to know he’s trying to make a comeback. So when he brings Taylor to a situation that any idiot would have suspected would “out” him, she covers for him by pretending they are dating. Again, this is crazy, because her big rule is that she doesn’t date clients but here’s she’s in the classic pretend dating situation with a client.

This is a much-used plot device, but Rachon makes it works and I liked it. It is no surprise that they are going to get together. The real questions revolves around Taylor’s problems with self-esteem and whether or not her boyfriend’s knee injury is so severe that he really can’t return to professional play. It’s a good story.

Dial A for Aunties by Jessie Q. Sutanto

On the surface, this is a fast paced, quirky novel about a young woman whose family gets her into a very serious problem and then stumbles through hilarious situation after hilarious situation to get her out again. But dig just a little bit deeper and you have a delightful story about cultural confusion and language barriers within a loving (but still incredibly quirky) extended family. Both tales are great and combined they made for an intensely funny book that really ought to be made into a movie.

The problems start when Meddy’s mother decides to resolve the unfortunately single status of her daughter by impersonating her on social media and setting her up a blind date. Meddy is bullied by her mother and aunts into keeping the date where, after a lackluster dinner, the date attempts to force Meddy to have sex with him. She uses her taser to defend herself without considering what might happen if you shock the driver of a fast-moving vehicle into unconsciousness.

When Meddy wakes up she’s in a crashed car beside a dead date and she makes the questionable decision not to report what has happened to the police, but to put the body into her trunk and drive home to get the family’s advice on how to resolve her problem. What ensues is nonstop hilarity, such as the discovery that her mother was not actually holding a respectful social media conversation with the young man she was setting up with her daughter, but one charged with barely veiled sexual innuendoes that she didn’t understand because English is her second or third language.

Now the coincidences start and don’t ever end. The aunts need to stash the body somewhere while they figure out how to permanently dispose of it. They choose a large cooler at one of the aunt’s businesses, but the cooler gets brought to the site of a major upscale wedding that the aunts and Meddy and her mother are all working at. (Meddy is a photographer). The wedding is also for a relative and just about every bizarre coincidence you can imagine (including Meddy’s ex managing the hotel and her now dead date having a connection to the wedding) begin to happen.

The body is misplaced and keeps showing up everywhere as many unrelated problems occur and complicate life for Meddy and her family. It’s quite simply hilarious and anyone who enjoys laughing should read the book to see how Meddy is going to get out of her many problems.

The Paid Bridesmaid by Sariah Wilson

Rachel runs a business in which she manages a bride’s wedding for her, playing the role of bridesmaid, and generally making certain that every part of the wedding celebration goes as planned. She’s a sweet, dedicated, and a very hard-working woman who has developed a few rules to keep men from interfering in her business. Since she works all the time, that means her rules keep men out of her life.

While managing a wedding for a bigtime social influencer, she finds herself very attracted to Camden, the groom’s best man. Camden also seems to be super interested in Rachel (although the blurb gives away the fact that he actually fears she’s a corporate spy), but his many questions threaten the confidentiality clause in her contract with the bride—the clause in which she must keep the fact that she and the bride are not actually best friends a secret. This leads to a metaphorical dance in which Rachel has to fend off both Camden’s interest and her own developing feelings for him.

If that was all the novel was it would have been a lot of fun, but Wilson has created a cast with quite a lot of depth and their little quirks and secrets add an extra layer of interest to the story. I’d also be willing to bet that Wilson has been to a very large number of weddings because she has figured out absolutely everything that can go wrong from jealous sisters and alcoholic mothers to evil ex-girlfriends and…that’s really just the beginning.

This is a very sweet tale as a romance should be. For my taste, Rachel was losing her self-control a bit quickly (chapter one) but within a few chapters she and Camden have had enough interaction to make the banter and the second guessing feel natural. If you like a feelgood book with a lot of humor, you ought to give The Paid Bridesmaid a chance.