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“Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfills the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.”  ― Winston Churchill

Heating Up the Holidays 3-Story Bundle (Play with Me, Snowfall, and After Midnight): A Loveswept Contemporary Romance

Heating Up the Holidays 3-Story Bundle - Lisa Renee Jones, Serena Bell, Mary Ann Rivers As the title says, three story bundle.

First story: PLAY WITH ME by Lisa Renee Jones. Two stars.

Been there, read that, got the t-shirt years ago. Plucky down-on-her-luck heroine (PDOHLH) magically manages to land a job with hot hunky billionaire businessman (HHBB) despite having no relevant experience. PDOHLH insta-solves mega crisis that is crippling HHBB's corporate empire. PDOHLH and HHBB then have inappropriate sex (or at least, inappropriate according to every HR training seminar I've attended). It's HAWT but hey, he's her boss and sleeping with one's secretary is rather, well, frowned upon by society. HHBB gives PDOHLH a posh new job better suited to her abilities, but she insists on staying on as his assistant because...reasons, I guess. Like it's easier to boink in the boss's office without being interrupted by the secretary when you're the secretary. PDOHLH still manages to do the job she turned down, however, so don't you worry. Because that's how PDOHLH rolls.

At least the author was smart enough to gloss over the thinly manufactured black moment, courtesy of PDOHLH being inexplicably and utterly stupid, as the thinly manufactured opportunity for drama that is was.

As for holidays, I think they mentioned Thanksgiving? And made a vague reference to still being together at Christmas. But calling this a holiday themed story is a loooooooooooooooooooooooong stretch.

Thank the Kindle for the next story, which made up for all the deficiencies in PLAY WITH ME and then some.

SNOWFALL by Mary Ann Rivers. Five stars and extra heaping helping of silver, glittery star-shaped Christmas decorations. Maybe even the Star of Bethlehem for good measure.

This was unlike any other romance novella I've read before. OK, maybe it bore a slight resemblace to THE STORY GUY, also by Ms. Rivers, in that it shared the previous novella's gorgeous, lush language and wholly real, wholly dimensional characters. And made me cry. Ahem.

I'm not going to ruin SNOWFALL by writing a description. Just go and read it. Yes, you can see the big reveal a mile away, but even though I thought I knew where Ms. Rivers was going, she still managed to keep me guessing and wondering how the characters would resolve their relationship(s). Really, really, evocative, wonderful writing that is at once thoughtful, insightful, sad, funny, optimistic yet tinged by jaded realism - I loved it.

As for the holidays, the story is set during the Christmas season, with all its contradictory joys and sorrows. The holiday informs and permeates the story but the day itself is rather incidental. Really nicely done, Ms. Rivers. Bravissima.

AFTER MIDNIGHT by Serena Bell. Four-ish stars. Really more like three and three quarters. But let's round up.

Nora and Miles meet at a New Year's Eve party and share a mind-blowing, senses-awakening, one true love kinda kiss. But they are separated before they can even exchange names. A few months later, thanks to the magic of social media, they hook up again. But Miles has A Big Dark Secret (thankfully, quickly confessed) and Nora has Trust Issues Due to Her Asshole Ex. Despite the explosive sex, they part.

And then it's New Year's Eve again and guess what...

A perfectly fine story that breaks zero new ground and is paper thin when it comes to plot. But Ms. Bell's voice saves this from being the same old, same old. Her characters are engaging, the dialogue witty, and the descriptions fresh and fun to read. A nice way to while away an hour or so reading, even if it has the staying power of cotton candy.

The holiday is obviously New Year's Eve, and the story would have to find another way for the characters to swap spit and discover the love of their life without the New Year's Eve kiss at midnight tradition, so, yeah, it's pretty important. Also, Ms. Bell perfectly describes the ambivalence of the newly single on New Year's Eve, and how everyone scrambles to position themselves for the best kissing partner possible as the clock counts down.

So to sum up: Skip PLAY WITH ME, read AFTER MIDNIGHT if you need to kill some time, and turn off the phone, put the closed sign on the door, and savor SNOWFALL.

Four stars for collection as a whole.