Due to my seasonal-related workload, I’m one of those people who gets bummed when the thermometer starts to rise. Summer means stress. Thus, I often get tempted in May and June to find some sort of chilly escape. This year, I read through the short story collection My True Love Gave to Me, which is a series of twelve wintry young adult stories.
It’s a nice enough read, though I came to realize that twelve consecutive stories of similar premise and theme can be fatiguing. None of the stories are truly bad, and only a few are exceptionally good. In the spirit of our Year of 100 Lists, I decided to rank and write mini-reviews for each of the twelve stories:
12. “Welcome to Christmas, CA” by Kiersten White
My perception of “Welcome to Christmas, CA” was undeniably hurt by the fact that it comes right around the point in the collection when the repetitive rhythm of the collection started to grate on me. But the matter stands: I did not find myself charmed by White’s story.
Protagonist Maria is well-defined and interesting, but the other lead, Ben, comes across as a cardboard-flat manic pixie dream boy. I couldn’t figure out how such an interesting girl would be drawn to such a dull boy. Considering their romance is the main thrust of the story, I grew bored before the end rolled around.
Much more interesting to me was White’s relationship with her mom and step-father. If that had been more the focus of the story — not Ben and the magic he brings to the one-note side characters of Maria’s town — I’d have bought in a bit more.
11. “Star of Bethlehem” by Ally Carter
This one has a very cool premise with a few neat twists, but never pays off in a way that really excited me. We’ve all fantasized about swapping lives with someone else, and the protagonist of this story actually gets the chance, trading plane tickets with Icelandic “Hulda” and adopting her life.
Carter never convinced me of the bond between New Hulda and Ethan, and the “small town charm” angle is pushed much too hard. There are some cool moments in the story, and Carter’s prose is clean and readable, but I felt a bit let down by the middle and ending after such a promising start.
10. “The Lady and the Fox” by Kelly Link
I don’t often read stories like “The Lady and the Fox” — i.e. supernatural romance — and this story didn’t make me particularly eager to jump aboard that genre train. Link’s prose is rhythmic and interesting, the characters vivid, but I was ready for the story of Miranda and her crush on a centuries old ghost named Fennick to be over long before it was.
I’m mostly going to chalk it up to me not being Link’s target audience, because there were several things I liked in her story. The setting and prose are unique and flavorful.
9. “It’s a Yuletide Miracle, Charlie Brown” by Stephanie Perkins
Perkins can definitely write. I’ve never read her novels, but you can tell this type of story is her sweet spot. The setting is perfectly rendered, the characters fully formed and interesting. The thematic backbone is strong, and there’s just the right amount of darkness on the edges.
So why do I have it ranked in the book’s lower half? Perkins actually goes too far crafting compatible characters. It’s almost eye-roll inducing: She has a quirky haircut and nerdy hobby (animation) and her mom owns a cool vegan restaurant? He’s a hunky lumberjack-type who really has a soft, artistic heart and a quick wit? They’re both beautiful and young and single? If only I could guess where this will be going…
The fact that the characters were so hip and perfect and drawn to each other drained the conflict out of the story, which is a problem for one of the longer stories in the book.
9. “The Girl Who Woke the Dreamer” by Laini Taylor
Again, I’m not sure that I’m the target audience here, but I could dig the Laini Taylor’s book-closing story well enough. Reading almost like a fairy tale, “The Girl Who Woke the Dreamer” hits some beats that will be familiar to those of dystopian teen stories — e.g. a rejection of patriarchal coming-of-age rituals, a controlled, insular setting — but is still fairly original.
Perhaps I was just worn out on the collection by the time I rolled to the end of the collection, but I found myself glancing at the page count, looking for the end, rather than truly absorbed by the story, fine though it is.
7. “Polaris is Where You’ll Find Me” by Jenny Han
I’ve read one book by Han, and I did not like it. But I actually found myself enamored her story here. A lot of the style and characterization was similar to what I’d seen from her in The Summer I Turned Pretty — the protagonist is still self-absorbed but lovable, for example — but the story here is so short and unique that the elements that bothered me at novel length didn’t bother me at all in short story.
Natalie, aka “Natty,” is a human girl adopted by Santa Claus living among elves. She’s fallen in love with one of the elves who resists her advances because… well, they’re different species, I guess. It’s left somewhat ambiguous in an interesting way. The story is brisk and well-written as we learn more about Natty.
6. “Your Temporary Santa” by David Levithan
Levithan can be a bit of mixed bag for me. I love his wry, realistic stories, though I thought his collaboration with John Green (Will Grayson Will Grayson) highlighted his less appealing writing traits. On the other side of the spectrum is his novel Every Day, one of the best YA books of the past decade.
“Your Temporary Santa” is a fine story of a boy in love with another boy, who addresses the cynicism of growing up as he sneaks into his boyfriend’s house pretending to be Santa Claus. It’s the shortest story in the book, I think, but it still leaves an impact.
5. “Krampuslauf” by Holly Black
Black weaves mystical realism into the ending of her story of a Christmas party that goes sour, which gives the romantic conclusion a strange flavor. And even stranger, in my mind, is the cold, dark turn the story takes as the story’s villain (a dickish high school guy dating two girls) is turned into a literal jackass. Still, Black imbues her characters with distinct personalities, making you instantly curious about what’s coming next.
I also dug that the story leaned on a darker, more obscure bit of Christmas mythology. Seriously, why aren’t there more holiday stories centered around the Krampus? (Count Gauntly’s not withstanding.)
4. “What the Hell Have You Done, Sophie Roth?” by Gayle Forman
I noticed that many of the best stories in My True Love Gave to Me are its least likely love stories — characters drawn quite differently, but who somehow find a way to be pulled toward each other. In general, the less likely the story’s romance seemed, the more intrigued I was.
So it’s little surprise that Forman’s story called to me. Narrator Sophie is a sarcastic urbanite stuck among simpleton country folk — at least, that’s her perception. Her notions are challenged when she strikes up an unlikely bond with someone just as unusual (and easy to judge) as Sophie.
As compared to, say, Stephanie Perkins’ story, I felt glued to the page in spite of guessing the characters would end up together. The characters bounce off each other and mismatch in compelling ways, making their romantic tension intriguing… even if it is built around a Ned Flanders reference.
3. “Angels in the Snow” by Matt De La Pena
Pena’s story involves characters who seem to be incompatible and rough around the edges, giving the story genuine dramatic heft about how their relationship might evolve. This pair of college kids — one poor and hungry, the other bored and self-absorbed — struck me as honest, flawed character sketches.
It culminates in an awkward, drunk hookup that leaves their feelings unresolved. This seemed to me the most authentic and emotionally interesting thread perhaps in the entire collection. I’ll have to look out for a Pena novel, because this story seems to indicate that he knows how to write young adults well.
2. “Midnights” by Rainbow Rowell
Breakout author Rowell (most famous for YA darling Eleanor and Park) is probably the biggest name contributing the collection. And she delivers the goods in a way that almost feels effortless. “Midnights” is an absolutely charming opener for My True Love Gave to Me, and the collection struggles to reach its level again.
Told through a series of New Years Eve parties over several years as Mags ages through high school and into college, “Midnights” isn’t just a sweet little love story; it’s a brief meditation on how rapidly our identities change during late adolescence. Great stuff.
1. “Beer Buckets and Baby Jesus” by Myra McEntire
I’ve read a bunch of reviews of My True Love Gave to Me, and most of them are somewhat “meh” on “Beer Buckets and Baby Jesus.” Not me: Myra McEntire’s entry was by far my favorite story in the collection. McEntire not only fills her story with biting, clever dialogue, but she absolutely nails the protagonist, a self-defeating troublemaker who feels unworthy of the kindness he receives. Start to end, this was a delightful little story with great characters. I didn’t want it to be over. I would absolutely read a whole novel about Vaughn and his shenanigans.
I was so enthralled I looked up McEntire, who I’d never previously heard of. Unfortunately, I don’t see any full-length YA contemporary novels by her, otherwise I’d hunt it down. Her main work is a sci-fi trilogy about time travel that seems quite Whovian. She also released a fantasy novel for free on the web site Storybird, has shared on her blog some powerful reflections on her struggle with depression, and is fairly active on social media. Very cool.
The discovery of McEntire and Pena were my big takeaways from My True Love Gave to Me, but, on the whole, it was a worthy way for me to (mentally) cool down from a busy summer.