WARNING DO NOT READ ON AN EMPTY STOMACH!!! (Cookie recipes included)
The Sugar Cookie Sweetheart Swap is an anthology, but it isn't like any other I've read--all three novellas involve the same characters and unfold at the exact same time. Three friends from the small town of Pine Mountain are on the verge of big life changes--changes that start all because of the annual Christmas Cookie Swap. But they don't know that.
Where There's Smoke by Donna Kauffman:
Clara (no not that Clara, my time-wimey friends) is in a real fix. She used to be the relationship advice columnist for the Pine Mountain newspaper. Used to be. That is until her boss witnessed Clara's lasted relationship debacle. Now, Clara's got less than two weeks to convince her boss not to completely fire her. The only way to do that is to write a cookie column for the paper. The Problem? Clara can't bake. In fact, she's a dangerous person to have in the kitchen. With the help of old friend (and sexy fireman), Will Mason, Clara is able to make it through Christmas without completely burning her life to the ground.
I do really like Ms. Kauffman's writing. She creates characters that are likable and more importantly relatable. Clara is totally uncomfortable in her skin--she's tall, flat chested, and has red hair. Plus, she's a klutz, so it is hard to hide when she's bumbling around, tearing apart bookstores. Put together, none of those things help her confidence, so when Will comes back into her life, she's certain that he couldn't be attracted to her. Every single woman I have ever met has felt this way at some point in their lives.
The thing is that at times Clara's klutziness comes off as cartoonish. That example of tearing apart a bookstore? Yeah, that actually happens to her in the story. Believe me, I know klutzy people. (My mom has the worst record with breaking things or hurting herself--she once broke a plastic Coca Cola bottle and she still has no idea how. Another time, she was peeling potatoes and peeled her finger. How do you even do that? Then, there's my cousin, Nicole, who walks into doorframes, cut off the tip of her finger when she was trying to make French Fries, and forgot to put her hands down while doing a dance move during her recital, which happened to be on my high school's stage, so of course I made sure to tell her that there was a dent in the wood from where she hit her head on it.) None of them have ever caused a scene like was described in this. It was like Ms. Kauffman threw a bunch of the most buffoonish characteristics of Sandra Bullock characters and made them into one person. For one scene. No, Clara is not suddenly graceful for the rest of the story, but she doesn't get all slapstick again, either. It was a weird moment. I think Ms. Kauffman was going for a meet-cute, but I don't think it worked.
The biggest problem I had was that the story just ended. If it wasn't for the fact that there was a recipe right below it, I would have thought that the copy of the ebook that I bought was missing a chapter. It was weird and totally disconcerting. One minute, Clara and Will are basking in their post-coital bliss and the next it was all over. Yes, all the stories were intertwined, but they each featured a different couple with their own stories to tell. Neither of the other felt unfinished. Just this one. Up until this point, I was really enjoying the story and was wrapped up in what was going to happen. At one point, Clara and Will talked about getting a decorating a Christmas tree, but that never happened and I was disappointed. That would have been fun and cute. Oh, well. 3.5 Stars
The Gingerbread Man by Kate Angell
Lander Reynolds was just passing through Pine Mountain, stopping to buy some cookies and get directions to Philadelphia. What he hadn't expected was to find X-rated Gingerbread Men when he opened to box to try them out. He definitely didn't expect the accident he got into when taking his eyes off the road to gawk at them.
Abby Denton didn't expect a gorgeous stranger to bid $100 for her erect Gingerbread Men. She also didn't expect to find that same stranger nearly unconscious inside of his wrecked car. After getting him to the safety of her cabin, the two spend several days together, snowed in, but the most unexpected thing to happen to them was how quickly they fell for each other.
I'm not usually the type for insta-love or insta-lust, but whatever Ms. Angell did here had me singing her praises (get it, singing her praises? Her name is spelled similarly to the word angel?). Not only did I not mind the insta-love her characters found themselves in, but I fell immediately in love with them too. These were people I wanted together in the worst way and even though I knew they'd end up happily ensconced together I couldn't help wondering how it was going to work. For most of the story, we have no idea what it is that Lander does--come to think of it, I don't think we ever found out--all we know is that he has money and lives in Philly. Abby is happily living in her grandmother's mountain cabin and can't see herself living anywhere else. I was afraid that this would be a big problem in the end, but was delighted to find out this was not the case.
I did take slight issue with the fact that we didn't see Abby rescuing Lander, but are told about it within the narrative. I would have loved the see that actually play out instead of told through dialog. Show not tell. That's a big thing in fiction writing and something that I struggle with, myself. I think it would have been better had we read along as she managed to get him out of his car, up a snowy ravine, and into her house all by herself.
My only other issue (and it is a small one) is that the ending was fairly predictable. I honestly don't know how Abby hadn't figured it out herself. It didn't play out exactly how I thought, but it was close enough that I wondered if Abby was a bit dim. 4.5 Stars
Sugar and Spice by Kimberly Kincaid
Lily Callahan is mostly a self-taught baker and when her friend Clara suggests entering the Pine Mountain Resort's Cookie Competition, she immediately realizes that the $10,000 prize would go a long way to getting a storefront for her online bakery. Her main competition? Pete Mancuso, a classically trained chef who works at an upscale restaurant in Philadelphia.
To Pete, the cash prize doesn't matter. All he wants is the PR that would come from being in the competition, hoping to land a better job at a more prestigious restaurant. He doesn't count on the attraction he feels for Lily or how much he comes to care for her. Suddenly, the competition isn't just about his reputation and he's not sure how to handle that.
This was by far my favorite novella in this anthology. The characters are fun and their chemistry sizzles like my mom's sausages. The thing that stood out for me about them is that they actually change each other. Lily is anal (get your head out of the gutter--I'm talking Freudian, psychosexually, not sexually). She's organized and has to plan everything out (so much so that both Clara and Abby mention the fact that she's spent the entire month since entering the contest perfecting her cookies, despite not know the type of cookies she'd have to make in the competition). She wouldn't know a risk if one bit her in the ass. Pete, on the other hand, is a rule-breaker. As a matter of fact, we meet him breaking into his restaurant's liquor storage room so he can make a decadent desert for the next day, knowing that his boss would not approve. He's also a bit self centered and a lot self-concious about his past. He thinks that revealing the shitty details of his past will make him less qualified somehow. In the end, Lily finds herself being a bit more flexible and Pete is able to open up about who he really is. Okay, his transformation is bigger, but she did change somewhat.
Another thing that I really liked about Sugar and Spice was that its cookie competition is structured like the baking shows on The Food Network. I love those shows and was watching the latest installment of Holiday Baking Championship as I was reading this (why did they have to eliminate Haley?! They obviously preferred her desert to the soggy mess that Maeve made. Plus, Maeve is annoying as hell with that stick up her ass.) 5 Stars
All three novellas fit together really well and if it wasn't for the slight differences in writing styles I'd think they were all written by one person instead of three. There is a cohesiveness here that surprised me. It was obvious that these women worked together to some extent and it shows. I was originally going to do a straight average of the scores for each novella (4.3333), but the fact that they all fit together nicely makes me want to bump up the Overall Score. 5 Stars