Secret Santa
by Janelle Denison, Isabel Sharpe, and Jennifer LaBrecque, contemporary (2006)
Harlequin Blaze, $4.99, ISBN 0-373-79296-4

Secret Santa revolves around the silly Christmas event of the same name in the publishing firm that puts out Connoisseur, some food-and-travel magazine. It's a Harlequin Blaze, an unfortunately clichéd example of one in that it features neurotic bimbos acting as if it's a matter of utmost life and death if they allow a penis to come within ten feet of them.

Janelle Denison starts things off with He'd Better Watch Out where Amanda Creighton, the boss' daughter who organizes the event, decides to play some kind of "joke" on the resident office male slut Christian Miller by giving him a tie and sending a message asking him to play bondage games with her using that tie. When Christian discovers who sent that tie to him, he decides to play even if his New Year resolution is to stop shagging people on top of office appliances and furniture until he gets the promotion he craves. We are talking about someone who took two hour lunch breaks in the past to indulge in said fornication on office furniture, so it says a lot about the company, if you ask me, if such a man is considered for promotion while the woman he's caught with in the boardroom resigned.

This tepid and vaguely misogynistic romp could have been forgettable were not for the heroine's unintentionally hilarious mental battles with her good side, which she calls Angelic Angie, and her naughty side, which she calls Devilish Desiree. Poor Amanda comes off in need of medication for her schizophrenia here that the title of this story, He'd Better Watch Out, becomes hilariously accurate for all the wrong reasons.

Next is Isabel Sharpe's The Night Before Christmas. This story is like an overlong episode of Ally McBeal as Cathy Ann Johnson, the photo coordinator, stumbles and trips her way into the bed of the person everyone knows all along is destined to her boyfriend, the "international playboy" and photographer Quinlan Justin Alexander. I have no problems with this story apart from the fact that it is a boring and even tedious exercise to follow Cathy as she wrings her hands and makes so much drama about her love life. Oh, and it is also very irritating when the author constantly have Cathy referring to Quinlan as Quinlan... Jussstin... Alexaaaander, italics and periods and all. Cathy looks stupid enough already without making her hiss and drag out her vowels as if she's a particularly slow person with speech defects.

The last story is the strongest one, but it's so contrived and... well, fake. Jennifer LaBrecque's Mistletoe Madness sees the Secret Santa event bringing together the two rivaling food critics Tatiana Allen and Cole Mitchell. They also have to work together on some "he said, she said" column on the website designed to boost tepid subscription. And here I am thinking that the company has problems because it promotes appliance/furniture-abusing male sluts to positions of power and also because the employees are too busy pretending that they are starring in a spin-off of Ally McBeal-meets-The Office.

This one is not bad at all apart from the hilariously transparent way the author tries to present Cole as a woobie with issues. The last third of this story is pretty much a laundry list of Cole's issues being trotted out one by one so that Tatiana can coo about how Cole is actually someone with "depths". I think Ms LaBrecque is confusing "I have a sad childhood" with "I have a personality" here. At any rate, the way she trots out the cliché baggage of Cole for Tatiana to coo and sigh over makes me laugh because it is too obvious how Ms LaBrecque is trying to get me to view Cole as a sad woobie who just needs a woman's love to feel whole. I wish that the author has been less blatant in her machination because she's really being too obvious here, what with overplaying the woobie-has-issues card and jarring me out of her story as a result.

Also, I doubt straight guys like Cole will use the word "snark" naturally in their conversations. That word has been appropriated by women and gay men online but I doubt an average straight guy, even one working in a magazine like Connoisseur, will use that word the way these women and gay men do. Maybe it's just me, but this is one small aspect of Cole that nonetheless adds to his whole "I'm merely a fictitious character created by a female author to appeal to said female and gay male readers, so don't mind me if I fail to come off as a realistic person" vibe in my opinion.

Secret Santa is a pretty so-so anthology as a whole. The three stories are all pretty standard examples of average offerings from this line, with each also having some kind of fundamental flaws that make them unintentionally amusing to me. The unintentional hilarity is the only thing that makes this one just a little bit more memorable to me than it otherwise would, I'm afraid.

Rating: 56

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