Friday, 31 July 2015

'My True Love Gave To Me' anthology

My True Love Gave to Me: Twelve Holiday Stories

*This review will contain spoilers!*

'My True Love Gave To Me' is an anthology of YA short stories on the subject of Christmas. I know, I know - it's July, why am I reading Christmas stories now? Well, because the library didn't have the book available last Christmas, and I sure as heck wasn't waiting another six months. Non-seasonal reading can be appropriate, at least when it's a collection of your favourite authors in one!
Overall, I'm giving this anthology four stars, but I'm going to write a small review of each short story, because some of them really disappointed me while a lot of them exceeded my expectations completely.

'Midnights' by Rainbow Rowell - 4 stars
'Midnights', the first short story in the collection, is definitely the longest short story in terms of time - it follows Mags and Noel from their first meeting at a New Year's Eve party to a New Year's Eve party three years later. Mags is madly in love with Noel, despite the fact that he's her best friend, but every time the countdown to midnight starts Noel can be found kissing another girl. At their final New Year's Eve party, it's the year after Noel has gone off to university and the first time Mags has seen him since he left. She's understandably nervous, because they've hardly spoken at all during his time away, but when they hang out it's as though nothing has changed between them, and her feelings are just as strong as ever. As it gets closer to midnight, Mags is sure Noel is going to kiss another girl and feeling unable to cope with that she sneaks off - but when he finds her, they finally get their New Year's kiss.
'Midnights' definitely starts the anthology off on a really high note - Rainbow Rowell's writing style is brilliant and it means you can't help but care for the characters even though you only know them for such a short time. The only reason this one didn't give five stars was because it felt a bit too cliched - the friends magically falling in love at the stroke of midnight - but maybe that's just because I wasn't reading it at a romantic time of year. I also think this one lent itself really well to being part of a longer story; it was a great concept for a short story, but might have been more effective if it was a bit more fleshed out.

'The Lady and the Fox' by Kelly Link - 2 stars
'The Lady and the Fox' tells the story of Miranda, daughter of an imprisoned dressmaker, who is spending Christmas with her upper-class godmother. Miranda feels uncomfortable at the house, as she is obviously out of place, but when she bumps into another outsider - a man wearing a jacket with a fox embroidered on it - she finally feels as though she might have a chance of belonging. However, none of the other guests allude to the gentleman's existence, so Miranda is not quite sure how she met the mysterious man in the fox jacket...
This one did not make an impression on me, hence the fact I actually can't write any more of a synopsis to this one - it just didn't stick in my mind, not one bit. I couldn't connect to the story, because the way Miranda spoke and the scenes she described evoked imagery of an old Victorian age - but the story was actually set in modern times. There was a huge disconnect and I couldn't get past that, so this one was a big struggle for me.

'Angels In The Snow' by Matt de la Pena - 4 stars
Telling the story of Shy and Haley, 'Angels In The Snow' focuses on an apartment block in New York that is completely snowed in. Shy is cat-sitting for his boss when a random knock sounds at his door. He believed that the apartment block was completely vacated - rich New Yorkers genuinely have someplace else to be over Christmas, and he would have been back in Mexico if he could afford the plane ticket - so when he swings open the door and finds Haley on his doorstep, he's pretty shocked. Haley's shower pipes have frozen and because Shy is a gentleman he offers her the use of his shower until her pipes thaw out. Haley finds the idea kind of strange, but proposes a game - every time she goes to his to shower, they will tell each other secrets so that they will feel as though they know each other.
I really enjoyed this one! Shy is a really strong Mexican character, which - as well as being a massive point for diversity - made for interesting reading; some of the things he said, such as 'dire shit' and 'the survival skills I'd picked up back home (how to mug somebody)' demonstrated his self-deprecating attitude and gave him strong characterisation instantly. This combined with his use of Mexican phrases ('mijo' and 'esé' amongst others) really cements who he is, and I loved the depth of his character. Haley was also a really sweet character, even though she didn't really get any deeper than that - the revelation that she'd actually been trying to spend more time with Shy throughout was cute, but it was rather predictable.
The thing that really made this lose a star for me was the inclusion of chapter headings. I know it was just to break the story up a little bit more, but because they hinted towards what would happen on the next page or two it made for a completely anti-climactic feel and took away from the rhythm of the story.

'Polaris Is Where You'll Find Me' by Jenny Han - 2 stars
Set at the North Pole, 'Polaris...' is the story of the only human girl at Santa's factory - his adopted daughter. Natty's mother abandoned her in Santa's sleigh when she was only a baby, and he quickly adapted to the role of father, but this means Natty is pretty lonely all of the time. Surrounded by perfect, 'long and lovely and lean' elves, Natty feels clumsy and unappealing, and the lack of human contact means she seems to feel very self-consciously a lot of the time. Natty has feelings for Flynn, one of the elves, but elf and human relationships can never work out; she watches him in his relationship with Elinor and is filled with a sense of unending despair. However, Flynn finds her the name of the only human boy she's ever come into contact with, giving her a chance at a new life.
It surprised me, how disappointed I felt with this story. The other novels by Jenny Han that I've read have blown me away - I LOVED 'To All The Boys I've Loved Before'! But something just didn't work for me with this story. It might be because of how short it was, coming in at only fourteen pages, or the fact that there were lots of flashbacks and flash-forwards and it was hard to keep track of the timeline. There was just something that didn't settle well with me, and this story fell really flat.

'It's A Yuletide Miracle, Charlie Brown' by Stephanie Perkins - 5 stars
The first five star short story is from the editor herself, queen of contemporary Stephanie Perkins. So far I've only read 'Anna and the French Kiss' out of Stephanie Perkins' companion trilogy, but I enjoyed that novel so much, and this short story is just as good (if not better!). Marigold Moon is an animator and after hearing the voice of one of the local Christmas tree salesmen she's convinced that he is the only possible star for her latest video. Trying to get up the nerves to ask him to help her, she accidentally buys a Christmas tree from him, but there's one small problem - her mother and her haven't been in their new apartment for very long, so they haven't unpacked anything. A montage of moving boxes and re-storing their stuff occurs, ending in a very romantic kiss between North, tree salesman and expert packer, and Marigold.
This one was just so adorable! North's utter contempt at needing to help her so quickly melts away and reveals that he's completely unable to stop helping her, and I thought that the evolution of his character and the progression of his feelings felt completely natural - even though the story was only based in the events of the night. The ending is perfect, closing on a brilliant cliffhanger with Marigold's mother just walking through the door to see the newly tidied apartment, but I thought it was a brilliant choice of ending - it keeps you thinking about the characters and wondering how they would be getting on now, but it also completely wraps up their evening and finishes before the plot would progress on to the next occurrence.

'Your Temporary Santa' by David Levithan - 4 stars
In another super diverse story, 'Your Temporary Santa' is the story of an unnamed guy who dresses up like Santa to help his boyfriend's sister to continue believing after the loss of their father. Connor asks him to dress up like Santa to keep the magic alive for his young sister, and our protagonist obliges because he's majorly in love.
Because we didn't get any information about the main character apart from the fact that he was gay, Jewish, and slightly fat, it was hard to feel connected to him. I found Riley, Connor's younger sister, to be absolutely adorable - she was convinced that Santa didn't exist, but was still optimistic enough to be easily persuaded by his arrival. However, because we didn't know where the children's father had disappeared off to (was he dead? Did he run out on them?) it wasn't as poignant a moment as it could have been. If there had been more information given about the protagonist this story would have probably been much more meaningful - however, I did really enjoy his ruminations on his relationship with Connor, and the ending is filled with hope for the year ahead which meant it finished on a really high note.

'Krampuslauf' by Holly Black - 5 stars
The second five star story of the anthology had to be Holly Black's twisted tale, featuring the Krampus - an evil version of Santa who ensures all bad children get their comeuppance on Christmas night. Hanna's best friend, Penny, has been cheated on by her boyfriend Roth - so their other friend, Wren, decides that they should throw a huge party to be the setting of a showdown between Penny and Roth's new girlfriend. Hanna agrees to host the party in her grandma's trailer, as long as they can have a classy and sophisticated New Year's Eve do. However, on the night of the party Roth shows up and trashes the joint, only for Hanna's fake ex-boyfriend to turn up and magically change him into a donkey (or an ass) for Penny's revenge.
Yeah, as you can tell this story is a rollercoaster ride, but it works because it's so well structured and planned. As well as the lead-up to the party, we get small segments of back story about all three of the girls, and that means that their actions and reactions are all realistic and believable. This means that the sudden appearance of an ex-boyfriend that Hanna made up is completely reasonable and doesn't make you bat an eyelid. Holly Black is a brilliant author because she can craft a world so completely that there's no room for questioning or the thought that it might go against logic, because she makes the logic of her worlds completely foolproof. This story was a rollercoaster ride, but it's one that I'd gladly take every day.

'What The Hell Have You Done, Sophie Roth?' by Gayle Forman - 5 stars
Two five stars in a row? That's just how good this anthology becomes after a few stops and starts towards the beginning. I love Gayle Forman's writing, so I wasn't surprised when I fell head over heels with Sophie Roth and her crazy, put-my-foot-in-it-again personality. Sophie has just moved to a university in the middle of nowhere on a scholarship, because - despite the fact that her dream university accepted her - she couldn't afford to make any other choice. Being a poor city girl surrounded by rich country bumpkins, Sophie struggles to settle in, so when she gets whisked away from a dreadful choir performance by the enigmatic Russell she's in for the most exciting night she's had in a while. Russell takes her to a little diner and after finding out she's Jewish and is missing Hanukkah, he decides to make their own Hanukkah celebration so she doesn't feel as though she's missing home as much.
I love the way that the stereotypical roles were completely reversed for this story, with the rich black guy and the poor white girl. Too often short stories use already established beliefs to make their characterisation and descriptions easier in their lack of space, so I think it was very clever of Gayle Forman to address this and flip the entire scenario on its head. I really enjoyed the scene when they commented on this - Sophie voicing her beliefs that Russell must have been a scholarship student, and him then retaliating with the fact that he'd believed she was rich - and still managing to start a relationship despite the fact that their backgrounds were so completely different. As the old adage goes, opposites attract. However, as well as this I just loved their individual personalities - their sarcasm and the way they bounce off of each other had me laughing out loud, and you really could feel the chemistry coming off of the page.

'Beer Buckets and Baby Jesus' by Myra McEntire - 3 stars
It was the night before Christmas, and all through the house, people were panicking because the barn that hosts the annual Christmas pageant got burnt down and the entire production seems to be falling into a shambles. Yes, after Vaughn accidentally burns down the church barn (hey, he was shooting fireworks at pigeons in an attempt to get them to shit all over his love rivals car, it's allowed, okay?) his community service is to help out with the twentieth annual Christmas performance, and because of the fact that he's burnt down their stage it's a bit of a panic. Sharing a working space with a local bar and rodeo facility, it's much more rednecks and bulls than Christians and a donkey, but it all seems to be working - until the space gets double booked, the director breaks her ankle and it starts to snow, leaving half of the cast members and most of the audience trapped miles away from the performance. Meanwhile, Vaughn is madly in love with the vicar's daughter and decides to do anything to make sure that the show goes ahead without a hitch...
This story all seems a bit too melodramatic for me. The sudden snowstorm leaving cast members stranded was kind of believable, and it's wasn't too much of a stretch for the venue to be double-booked due to someone forgetting to cancel a previously booked show, but the rest of the goings on just seemed to be thrown in willynilly to put a bigger obstacle for Vaughn to conquer. Come on, he already had the odds stacked against him - do we really need limbs being broken and scripts being blown all over the room into a disordered mess?
I liked the relationship between Vaughn and Gracie, though - the fact that they had discussions about good and bad were almost verging on preachy, but just about came across as cute instead. Vaughn had a very troubled back story that could have been explored more, but with all of the Christmassy action going on it was probably for the best that we didn't try to delve any further into his terrible home life - I don't think anyone could have taken any more drama in this short story. Gracie really saved the story for me; the vicar's daughter who falls in love with a bad guy, repeatedly says "ass" and sneaks off to kiss in a corner is the kind of vicar's daughter for me.

'Welcome to Christmas, CA' by Kiersten White - 5 stars
In this third five star story, we follow Maria, a teenage girl who is having a pretty tough time in life. Living in Christmas, a "census-designated place", Maria is in the middle of nowhere, and having to work at a Christmas designed diner all year around for measly tip money is something she can't being to fathom spending the rest of her life doing. All Maria wants is to leave Christmas far behind her; to take her tip money and run. However, when new chef Ben arrives he brings a sense of magic to Christmas that Maria has never experienced before. Ben has a sixth sense about what food will evoke the biggest sense of happiness from customers, so the residents of Christmas are suddenly all cheery, acting like old friends instead of grumpy neighbours, and all of their tips to Maria start going through the roof. So why is it, when escape from Christmas seems possible, that she suddenly feels the desirable urge to stay?
I thought this story was so damn cute. Maria complains constantly about her mother and step-father, Rick, who have been taking all of her paychecks since she started working at the restaurant three years ago. She thinks Rick is stingy and unemotional, labeling all of his food containers with his name to make sure that no one else eats from them, and only ever asking her questions about her inevitable departure from his life. Maria feels unwanted and unnecessary and grows resentful of her family. And this is why I love this story - Kiersten builds it up so brilliantly that you start to hate Maria's family for her, and then throws the truth on you with such a simple announcement; Rick and her mother have actually been saving all of their money and all of her money to go towards her college fund, so that she can finally leave Christmas and have the life she's always wanted.
I will admit, I found myself getting a little choked up at more than one moment throughout this story. There was just such a poignant and emotional feeling surrounding Maria - the fact that she's always wanted to get away from this life, she's never felt good enough and she's never felt appreciated, but the fact that she'd always had all of those things deep down and she'd just overlooked them... It was just beautifully written. The inclusion of Ben, adorable chef extraordinaire, also helped - he was such a little sweetheart, acting like a puppy who had been kicked any time someone didn't enjoy one of his culinary masterpieces. I would happily read more adventures of these two; they're characters that are going to stay with me for a while, I'm sure of it.

'Star of Bethlehem' by Ally Carter - 5 stars
In the most intriguing and mysterious story of the compilation, Ally Carter proves again why she's the queen of YA mystery writing in this brilliantly told short story. Lydia is waiting in an airport to board her plane to New York, when she sees an Icelandic girl in some trouble - her airplane ticket is nonrefundable and nontransferable, but she wants to go to New York to see the man that she loves. Lydia instinctively approaches her and offers to swap her tickets, despite not knowing where the Icelandic girl is heading, because all she wants to do is to get away from her life. Once her plane lands - in Oklahoma, in the middle of nowhere - Lydia starts to make plans: she needs a burner phone, a rental car and a hotel room, stat. But she doesn't bank on the fact that the Icelandic girl, Hulda, would have people waiting for her in Oklahoma; it turns out that she's on an exchange trip for five months, and the family who were hosting her were really excited about her arrival. Cue a montage of happy Christmas activities with a family and a guilt-ridden teenage girl, culminating in the big announcement of her secret past - she's world-renowned pop singer Lidda Chambers.
After reading Embassy Row and some of the Gallagher Girls novels, I was convinced Lydia was going to end up being a spy or an undercover agent of some capacity, so it was actually really exciting when the truth was so much more inspiring and interesting than that. Having a pop star run away because she just didn't want the life of fame and fortune anymore is definitely different for YA - too often the characters are striving for fame and success, whether in a band or as a supermodel, so it was great to see someone striving for an easier and simpler life.
I think I loved this story the most out of all of them because it was just so damn adorable. Aunt Mary had lost her child and husband in a car accident the previous year, so she completely took "Hulda" under her wing. Even after finding out the truth and realising that she'd been lying to them for weeks, Aunt Mary took it on the chin and dealt with it effortlessly, deciding right there and then that she was going to attempt to get custody of this unloved, over-worked, flight risk. It seemed a bit far-fetched, but not too unbelievable, so it really did feel like a Christmas miracle.

'The Girl Who Woke The Dreamer' by Laini Taylor - 4 stars
It's embarrassing to admit, but this short story was actually the first piece of Laini Taylor's writing I've ever read. The 'Daughter of Smoke and Bone' trilogy looks amazing, but I just haven't gotten around to it yet because it's quite long, so is a rather large commitment. I went into this short story unsure on what to expect from her writing style, but I ended up falling into her storytelling.
'The Girl Who Woke The Dreamer' is by far the most fantastical installment of this anthology. Set on the Isle of Feathers, a land that was discovered by sailors hundreds of years ago, we discover that when the island was found there was a large hill covered in oily black feathers. The sailors decided to set fire to this hill, to claim the land as their own, but the smoke from the feathers overwhelmed them and the majority of them died, so when more settlers attempted to inhabit the land they buried the feathers instead.
There's a tradition on the Isle of Feathers; every day of Advent, a gentleman will leave a gift on his beloved's doorstep, and on Christmas Eve they will be betrothed to each other. Neve, our protagonist, is certain that no one will be leaving gifts for her - she's an orphan, the last member of a failed colony from far far away, and she lives in poverty. When the vicar decides to claim her as his wife, she's dismayed, because three of his wives are already dead. She prays to Wisha - the Dreamer - to save her from her poor existence and to give her more of a choice than between the vicar and squalor for the rest of her life. The Dreamer hears her cry and is woken (hence the title of the short story) and he loves her for waking him, for being such a standout character from the rest of the humans, so he leaves gifts for her until they meet on Christmas Eve, where he grants her largest Christmas wish; he gives her a pair of blonde wings, to match the pitch black ones he found buried when he awoke.
This was probably the easiest story to read in July - instead of being super focused on Christmas, there is much more of a focus on the characters hopes, dreams and personalities, and the usage of the Advent presents just seems like an obvious choice for the timings to develop. Neve acted much older than her age at the beginning of the story, commenting on how bitter and disappointed she is with everything, and I adored the progression of her character throughout the story as she grew to become excited about the Dreamer leaving her gifts and their eventual meeting.
After reading this short story, I'm definitely prioritising reading another Laini Taylor book, because her writing is beautiful.

And there you have it! The larger proportion of short stories in this anthology did get five stars, but then is that surprising when you have authors of such high calibre working together? The likelihood is that I will buy this anthology and read it again closer to Christmas - probably not this Christmas, but maybe the next one - and I'm sure it'll be just an evocative and emotional then, if not more so.

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