It’s around now that publishers are gearing up to launch their Christmas titles on an eagerly awaiting public. Over the last month or so, I’ve received a lot of proof copies of Christmas romance novels and I’ve spent the the past couple of weeks reading them. I still have two or three to go and I worry that I shouldn’t have swallowed so much tinsel all at once as my reviews seem to be ever increasingly less favourable.
I don’t habitually read Christmas themed romances every year but nor do I avoid them. So I understand that there are conventions for them. However, now I’m beginning to wonder if there’s also a theme each year. Almost all of the books I’ve just read are hung on Christmas films (or perhaps I should say movies); not on a specific film but on the idea of experiencing the season as depicted in Hallmark movies. (No idea about Hallmark movies – maybe related to Hallmark cards? – so please don’t ask!) Some have characters deliberately looking for, or trying to recreate, a Christmas film; some have a secondary character – typically the best friend – teasing the heroine with the idea that she has tumbled into a Christmas rom com; and some unashamedly just use the whole range of Christmas film clichés. One has written a spoof. At least, I hope she has; I do have a niggling worry that I was meant to take it seriously.
I’ve dutifully read all of these books and given my feedback to the publishers. But there’s not one that I’d read again and I do a lot of re-reading. At the very best, they were okay. I understand that the genre is about creating a feelgood emotion for readers and I don’t have any problem with that. I need a good wallow as much as the next person. I don’t even mind that they all end up happily ever after. Again, that’s a characteristic of the genre and it would be foolish to cavil at that. Almost certainly my lack of enthusiasm is a case of ‘it’s not you; it’s me’.
Perhaps I need a bit more depth than these books have given me. And there can be depth in romance novels. Just because they’re positive, they’re not invariably facile. Over the years I’ve read enough to know that the best authors of romantic fiction can create character, place and plot at a high level; they can make you think and empathise and re-assess. So, and even though, this is not really a book blog, I’m going to leave you with a suggestion.
If you want to read a contemporary author this Christmas, try the books of Maxine Morrey. I stumbled across her first novel, Winter’s Fairytale, as a review copy and have gone on to read all of her fiction. It’s not all set at Christmas but that first one is, as is (obviously) The Christmas Project as well as a few others. Izzy and Kate, the leads in these two books, are strong characters, fairly well balanced adults with their lives in passable control. They’re placed in settings and situations that feel real and are surrounded by family, friends and other minor characters who also live off the page. Yes, the adjectives feelgood, heart-warming and charming can be used to describe the books and there are happily-ever-after endings. But not at the expense of fiction you can believe in.