The 2010 Dreamspinner Press Advent Calendar Naughty or Nice was released on December 1. December was chock full of short stories full of holiday cheer and romance. This year’s collection had so many great stories that it was no hardship to keep up with the stories as they came in to my inbox each day.
Here are my top five favorites from Naughty or Nice (and it was difficult to pick just five favorites):
#1 – A Trouble Halved by Andy Eisenberg. A tremendous story that covered coming out and finding first love. Allen is a high school senior about to head off for the holidays for the usual visit to the grandparents. Just as he’s leaving he ends up chatting with Greg, a friend he’d grown apart from. Allen comes out to Greg during some back and forth texting. Allen soon discovers that Greg has a crush on him just as he’s had one for Greg. There’s so much good stuff going on in this story including a great, but sad, story from Allen’s grandma, some excellent interactions between Allen and Greg as they get to know each other and some nice holiday cheer too. I hope Eisenberg revisits these characters, I’d love to know what the end of high school and the start of college is like for these two.
#2 – You Can’t Choose Your Family by Zahra Owens. Owens took a different path than most of these stories and focused on a couple that had been together for 20 years rather than looking at new love. Jay and Fran got together in college and built a successful life and business together. Jay’s boisterous family loves the couple while Fran’s are staunch conservatives with his father being a fire and brimstone pastor. After Fran’s father passes away, the two begin make new ties to Fran’s sister (who was already an advocate for the couple) and mother. This is a great story about a modern family and how people can change over time. Owens created great characters with Fran and Jay. You could easily see how these two had been together for so long.
#3 – Enchanted Grounds by Michelle Moore. Enchanted Grounds is in the running as my favorite story in this collection. The bulk of the story takes place in the Enchanted Grounds cafe where the treats, the coffee (or the hot chocolate) are delicious and Kristie knows exactly what everyone needs. Max wanders into the cafe on a stormy afternoon and falls in love with the place. It sparks his creativity, both his drawing and his writing flourish here, and he starts having vivid dreams about a hot man too. I couldn’t read this story fast enough to see how the magical events turned out. Everyone could use an Enchanted Grounds-type place in their life. Perhaps Moore can tell another story about this place sometime.
#4 – GI Joe Holiday by Amberly Smith. Declan is a Navy SEAL in training who is ordered to sit for Mason, an artist who is working on a statue for a military memorial. Declan is gay and not out to anyone. Mason is out and proud. Of course the two are very attracted to each other. Watching these two figure out their feelings was incredible and very well written. Watching Mason freak out because Declan isn’t out was sad and the reason for the freaking was a little heart rending. The ending is sweet, holiday perfection. I’d love to see another story with these two to know how they navigate their relationship with Declan still in the service.
#5 – Pop-Ups by Clare London. London can always be counted on for a good story and this is no exception. Jack is having computer trouble, or so it seems, as a bunch of pop-ups take over his screen. He actually clicks on one of them since he’s curious about the getaway he’s just “won.” He is, of course, skeptical. While he’s dealing with the pop-ups he thinks a lot about his neighbor, friend, IT help and frequent hookup, Henry. That’s all I’m going to say because I don’t want to ruin the fun twists offered in this story. Good job, Clare!
See the reviews for the other 26 stories after the jump…
- The First by Rachel West. Jimmy and Adam broke up over Adam kissing another man. Granted, Adam was drunk and was only drunk because Jimmy had hurt him. This final story in the collection is a satisfying look at how good getting back together can be.
- Thyme by K.R. Foster. I ended up loving this story. But I must admit that the first half was a struggle. Julian Lafayette and Greg Verne were friends forever, so much so they’d become Jules & Verne. When their relationship was about to move to the next level, Jules freaked out and Verne went into the Marines. Six years later Julian gets a call from Greg’s mom that he’s in the hospital and near death after a land mine explosion. On his way to Germany, Julian is tormented by how things got to where they are. This story is so rich and full of emotion. The reason the first half is so tough is because it’s incredible sad. The second half is incredibly cool and catapulted this story into being one of my favorites in the collection.
- Silver Thaw by Nora Catherine Price. A delightful first original story from Price. Ben wakes up with a nasty hangover and no electricity on Christmas morning. In no time his neighbor, Javier, is gathering him and other neighbors together to make the best of the situation. It turns out that Ben and Javier have both been looking for the opportunity to know each other better and this was the perfect time. I loved Ben and Javier as well as the two supporting characters thrown in. I also loved the how the people in the apartment building took care of each other and made Christmas wonderful.
- As the Snow Lay All Around by S. Blaise. I liked this story that went back in time to the Victorian era and spanned a couple decades. From the first time Gerard and Matthias met as children there were sparks, Gerard knew it for sure. Over the years their paths kept crossing but they were separated by class, not to mention the fact that two men taking up with each other would be frowned upon. Watching these two navigate the obstacles to their relationship was a good read. Unfortunately the end came way too fast after pages and pages of set up to finally get them together.
- Christmas Bells by Andi Deacon. This is a great story set inside a large family’s Christmas. Jon comes home from his teaching job and is smitten with the friend his grad student brother brings home. Kim had recently come out to his family and was kicked out so Eric invited him home for the holidays. Eric warns Jon not to come on to Kim, explaining the recent difficulties. But one thing leads to another and the two do get together. Deacon created a wonderful sense of family in this story. I loved reading about the Bell family traditions and watching Kim get integrated into them. I’d love to see another story with Jon, Kim and the Bell clan.
- Sharing Christmas by Shae Connor. This was a nice story centering around a guy who’d recently moved to Atlanta. At Christmas time he meets some of his neighbors and sparks immediately fly. It certainly represented a great way to spend a first Christmas in a new city.
- Christmas with Danny Fit by Amy Lane. I believe this is the longest story of the collection so far and it is among my favorites too. As the story opens Kit is not happy with his life. His mother is mean and unkind, he’s out of shape, he’s closeted. Kit wants change. He starts with his body, going with the DVD workouts from Danny Fit. Along the way he makes a connection with his assistant, a young man named Jesse, who has a few issues of his own. Watching these two get to know each other and watch their relationship grow from friendship into more warmed my heart. Lane’s character development was excellent as was her work showing Kit’s personal growth from shy and reserved to someone with a lot more confidence.
- Batteries Not Included by JL Merrow. Merrow’s second story in this collection was chock full of Christmas magic. Sam’s managed to wake up in bed with a famous pop star, but how did that happen? There’s something crazy going on and it makes for a delightful read. I’m not sure about Sam’s long term future with this guy, but there short term was a lot of fun.
- The Meaning of Vengeance by Jamie Fessenden. Absolutely fantastic! The story whisked me away to Iceland in 967 A.D. into the middle of a blood feud between two families. When it comes down to the last two–Geirr and Ari–the feud stops as the two discover each other. Fessenden vividly created the extreme cold and hard life in the middle of nowhere Iceland while at the same time offered up well drawn, compelling characters. I wish this story lasted longer because it was very enjoyable.
- Christmas Wish by B.G. Thomas. This was a spin on It’s A Wonderful Life with a bear of man wishing to become a muscle god. Of course he gets his wish and the results are nothing close to what the man wanted. It’s a cute take an a routine Christmas story.
- A Reason to Come Home by Justine Currie. Great story about co-workers getting together. Nathan is a workaholic, mostly because he’s trying to get over an old love. He’s sent to Chicago to help out Paul dazzle a client. The two have a spark from the beginning and watching them work together while Nathan tries to figure out if he should pursue Paul or not is a really great read. Currie did a wonderful job of creating her characters. Plus the matchmaking twist at the end was unexpected and very cool.
- Fishbowl by Dawn Kimberly Johnson. Completely cute! Mick earns extra cash by working as a live mannequin in a department store window. Of course, while he’s busy being still life he sees a man that totally captivates him. My only complaint here is that the story felt rushed. I wanted it to be longer so I could get to know the characters more and watch them develop.
- Comfort and Joy by Selina Brody. This was another story about a family coming together. Randy is on his way to India to pick up the child he’s adopting. It’s been a year since his partner, Jason, was killed by a drunk driver and Randy decided to proceed with their adoption. As he meets his son, he also meets Ben, a Peace Corps psychologist working at the orphanage. This was a good story and it was enjoyable to catch a glimpse of the adoption process while also watching Randy fall in love with Ben.
- Making His List by Devon Rhodes. This is a great Christmas story because it looks at the formation of a family. Cory has taken in his sister and her young daughter because his sister is a bit of a flake. He’s also eager to find the right man to settle down and make a family with–he’s even got a crazy list of qualities he’s looking for. His friend-with-benefits Ken want to be more to Cory, but he’s kept at arm’s length. It’s amazing how a little stomach virus can give everyone a great Christmas. Rhodes created great characters here. Sometimes I wanted to shake Cory because he was so stubborn, but Ken needed to be shaken too because he wasn’t speaking his mind. The little girl, Bailey, was a matchmaker even though she had no idea she was helping the two clearly see each other. Cory and Ken’s coming together at the end was so perfectly sweet… I was sad to see the story end because I wanted to see how great Christmas morning would be for the family.
- Revelations of the Heart by Lori C. Hawkins. There was a lot going on in this story and I really enjoyed it. Will floral designer Danny end up with bond trader Sean or lawyer Kent? He’s more attracted to Sean, but Kent does have his eye too. I don’t want to give away anything as there are a lot of twist and turns here but I will say it was a very good read and that the twists in the character development were a nice surprise.
- Hopes and Fears by Rowan Speedwell. This was a wonderful story, and one of the longer shorts of the collection so far. Brian is an ex-journalist who wrote a best selling book and now teaches in Chicago. He meets Jerry when Jerry becomes his physical therapist. While they are attracted to each other, it takes them some time to get together and it turns out that Jerry is exactly what Brian needs to help him get over his past. Brian’s character was interesting to read as he was damaged on so many levels. Speedwell did a great job of peeling back all of Brian’s issues in a very natural way that helped the story flow. I hope she revisits Brian and Jerry at some point.
- The Next Twenty by Margaret Mills. This story took a wonderful path by placing two men together who are 19 years apart in age. Stan is in his 50s and settled in his ways, living a good, rich life in Florida. In comes Jeremy, just retried from a career in the military, looking for his good friend. What Stan doesn’t expect is for Jeremy to declare a long time crush. I enjoyed watching these two go from friends to boyfriends and Stan go from a lifetime of loving women to embrace bisexuality. How these two spend their first Christmas together was a delightfully romantic read.
- The Reason for the Season by Chrissy Munder. Munder’s second story in Naughty or Nice proves just as wonderful as the first. Here college student Adam has been stood up by his friend for a holiday ride home. In the middle of a snowstorm and with campus nearly deserted Adam turns to the ride share board and meets Michael who begrudgingly offers to get Adam home. Once again, Munder creates wonderful characters. The tension as these two strangers meet and their tentative banter as they get to know one another is spot on. There are some touching twists in the story towards the end too that add just the right amount of holiday goodness.
- Dulce et Decorum Est by JL Merrow. This story transports readers to post World War I England. George as a dark secret in his past that has him on the run. He settles into London hoping for anonymity, but he very soon meets the handsome Matthew. Can Matthew love George if he finds out the secret? It was pleasant falling into the slower rhythms of a day gone by and enjoyable getting to know these characters.
- Eternal Flakefall by K.R. Foster: This was positively magical! The god of winter is fed up with humans, especially the adults, because everyone complains about the weather he conjures up. There’s one young man who adores winter and all that comes with it though and the god is smitten with him. As someone who loves cold and snow I found this story to be simply wonderful. It was a great tone change from the seven other stories I’ve read so far.
- Better with Sprinkles by Chrissy Munder: This story started out good and got more awesome as it progressed. Tom is a stressed out undergrad with a master plan for his life… but that means he doesn’t get out much. His roommate, and best friend, Derek is a free-spirit who works to get Tom to lighten up. Derek talks Tom into baking a huge batch of cookies (Tom’s a closet baker) for the campus LGBT center’s bake sale. Tom ends up connecting with a guy he’s crushed on for years and gets a good lesson on life too. I love how Munder worked in great messages about HIV/AIDS testing, the benefits of an LGBT center and about making sure you live your life instead of just getting through it. I’d love to see more with the characters. While the story was quite short the characters were vivid and interesting.
- Mariah the Christmas Moose by Andrew Grey. I am a big fan of Andrew’s and this story was a wonderful Christmas present. Can a moose be a matchmaker? In Alaska that answer would seem to be yes as new-in-town school teacher Kyle meets police officer Russ. This is a delightful quick read that will have you believing in the Christmas Moose!
- All Snug by B.G. Thomas. Elliot and Shawn both want to buy the same antique bed for a Christmas present. Elliot can easily afford it. For Shawn it’s a stretch. Neither wants to give up so they go the route of reality TV and come up with a bunch of challenges to see who can “win” the right to buy the bed. Watching these two come up with and go through the challenges was fun. Watching as the two find out more about each other was simply delightful. Thomas created strong, fragile and compelling characters for this story. There’s a twist that I saw coming, but it didn’t lessen the impact of the story. All Snug is among my very favorite stories of the collection so far.
- The Hanukkah Surprise by Rebecca Lynne Fuller. It can be difficult to spring a surprise on someone who doesn’t like them. Andrew leads a pretty structured life and has surprise trauma in his past. David is more of a free spirit, but has issues of his own. David tries to give Andrew a holiday surprise but it’s one mishap after another. All the mishap makes for a sweet story though as these two make their own happy holiday… with a whole bunch of welcome (and some unwelcome) surprises.
- Ice Around the Edge by Mary Calmes. This was a story of love lost for a decade. Dixon and Evan broke up a decade ago. Dixon comes charging back into Evan’s life because Evan’s in the hospital after a shooting. The story was a great look at someone trying to undo a pretty huge misunderstanding. The banter between Dixon and Evan was fun to read too. You get the sense of their history and how bad they want each other back even if it’s difficult for them to say so sometimes.
- Twinkle Twinkle by Josephine Myles. This was a delightful way to kick off the series. Tom has returned to his home town to practice medicine in the local hospital. Here he ends up treating former classmate Vince, who he was less than nice too. As the two catch up, much is revealed–a school boy crush, a husband lost, a timid life. Watching these two come to terms with their pasts and figure out their future was great. Myles painted a wonderful story of two slightly damaged souls coming together.