Friday, December 5, 2008

Old Skool Christmas Anthologies: Santa Baby

---Here's Betsy, with Antholopalooza's first guest post---

Not only will I read anything that Jennifer Crusie writes, but I would, if it were possible, smear her writing on crackers and serve it to all of my friends with a nice wine.

Over 21 years of romance novel addiction, I've decided that anthologies are, as Nic points out, an excellent value for the money. They're also one of the ways that I find new writers ... although I think this would be more consistent if the authors were to choose their anthologizing partners, rather than having an editor decide "readers who like Jenny Crusie will like Lori Foster."

Fact: I don't. Other fact: Most of the writers whom Jennifer Crusie has warmly name-checked on her blog have ended up on my bookshelves, too. Writers know who can write. Editors? Meh, mixed bag.

Which brings us to Santa Baby, an extremely uneven three-novella anthology that nonetheless isn't leaving my shelves anytime soon.

And here's why: "Hot Toy," which is Jenny Crusie's contribution, is a 104-page writing workshop in how to quickly develop primary and secondary characters, believable relationships and a fun plot. The jacket copy: "Mayhem ensues under the mistletoe as a determined shopper grabs the very last hot toy action figure off the shelf, only to find herself plunged into the middle of a real-life spy game -- in the arms of a sexy secret agent."

Frankly, the acknowledgements page hooked me harder: "Thank you to Jennifer Enderlin, who asked me to write a Christmas romance novella and then didn't blink when the guns and the gin showed up; Meg Ruley, who turned the birthday paper into Christmas paper; ... and Bob Mayer, who said, "You know, toys are made in China ..." Guns, gin, crafts and Chinese toys? Kapow.

We start with the heroine, who is urgently toy shopping for a gift that her deadbeat ex-brother-in-law promised to get for her sweet nephew. Like most of Crusie's hilarious heroines, she's slightly snarly and is close to the end of her extremely long rope. And then she meets our hero, and it's not cute, but it is funny, and of course you know he's the hero, but you believe the work he's going to have to do to get what he wants (which, in this case, is the toy that our heroine's holding). (For the record, one of the most gratifying parts of this story is that the outcome of that battle is not a foregone conclusion.)

There are also guns, gin, a really lame manicure set, poorly excecuted gingerbread house decorations and a hot kiss or two. Well worth the buy.

And that was a good thing, because Lori Foster and Carly Phillips? Mmm, not so much. I know they have huge followings (and I have at least one Carly Phillips book on the shelf), but they should have taken Ms. Crusie's course in the short-form love story. Instead, they commit a number of sins that make their stories clunk:

1. What do you mean, I don't get to read the first chapter?

In both Foster's "Christmas Bonus" and Phillips' "Naughty Under the Mistletoe," we're dumped into the middle of the action. In romance novels, of course, the relationship is the action; I think readers are shortchanged when many of the fun bits -- the attraction, the WHY of the attraction -- is chopped out. But here we are, in two stories where we are assured that at least half of each couple is already on a slow simmer, warm for the forms of the other half. And, we're told, the other half is absolutely deserving of this regard. (Ahem. I like to be persuaded.)

2. There is no tension.

It's hard to create, develop and resolve a romantic conflict in a short-form story. In this case, it translates into "Oh, goodness, I WONDER if Eric and Maggie will be able to overcome the fact that she's his boss?!?" and "Uh-oh, if Antonia and Maxwell finally get it on after years of raging sexual tension, will he turn out to be her boss at the new branch of the office where she'll be transferred after Christmas?" If you have trouble answering either of those questions, you should definitely pick up the anthology.

If, however, you know where either of those is headed, why don't you join me for a moment in the sad contemplation of the idea that office crush is apparently the last frontier of sexual tension and romance plots?

3. In order to move the plot along, the characters make weird and incredible choices.

F'rex, here's a bit of thought process from "Naughty or Nice":

"The ailing Mr. Corbin had been thrilled when he'd named her the senior associate to work with the as-of-yet unnamed partner who'd run the new office. ... Being naughty had no place on the ladder to success. Neither had coming on to a man she worked alongside.

But having earned her position, she felt free to act on other, impulsive desires. ... If the (Cosmo) article were to be trusted, the cliched adage was true and nice girls finished last. So Toni would just have to be bad."

Does this sound like lawyer logic to anyone? And, OK, lord knows that most romance novels (except, of course, Jenny Crusie's) put a conveniently high gloss on most professions, but this reads like a teenage girl's plot, not an adult woman's.

And that, of course, takes us back to my initial point. It seems strange to pair up Jenny Crusie's screwball, 1940s-snappy-dialogue-and-disaster comedies with two sweet but patently insincere workplace romances.

Kid, I dunno. It's a head scratcher.


Anonymous said...

Jenny Crusie's screwball, 1940s-snappy-dialogue-and-disaster comedies

That's a great description.

"Hot Toy" isn't my favorite Crusie, though I'd like to read more short works by her. She has the chops for it, unlike so many writers. Possibly including Foster and Phillips, because I agree, "Hot Toy" far outclassed the rest of the anthology. Which doesn't make the others bad writers; some authors just don't shine in the short form. Depending on their style, I think writing short can be almost an entirely different talent; the skills don't all transfer.

BTW, I love short stories of all sorts, but haven't read many great ones in romance. I'm eager to see what other anthologies you'll come up with.

Nicola O. said...

I haven't read this anthology, although I have most everything Crusie has written including her handful of category romances (gulp, choke).

I'd like to join you in a moment of snark: really? a high-power lawyer taking career tips from a Cosmo survey? ahahahahaha, oh wait, it's not supposed to be funny like that, is it??

Betsy O'Donovan said...

To be excruciatingly fair, the book just describes it as a women's magazine with personality quizzes and sex and relationship advice. Still, though, it made me engage in serious Rolling Of The Eyes.

Nicola O. said...

Yeah, I'm just starting to wonder what I saw in Carly Philips. I did really like the first, I think, two trilogies I saw from her, but the last couple have been... well. Bad.

Anonymous said...

a high-power lawyer taking career tips from a Cosmo survey?

It does sound as silly as taking a fortune cookie seriously. I really loathe the way so many authors add "humor" by having the heroine act like a dimbulb.


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