Once Upon a Winter Wonderland (Book Review)


This book is part of an anthology, and the first fiction anthology that I have reviewed. For that reason, this review will look a little bit different than usual. I’m going to start with general notes for the collection as a whole, then do some additional story-specific commentary.

What I Liked

Once Upon a Winter Wonderland is an anthology, which is a format I don’t usually read. Based on my understanding of anthologies, I was expecting a collection of short stories or novellas, each set at Christmastime and in the same community (since the title said “Deep Haven”). I was unprepared for, but delighted with, the discovery that the stories are actually closely connected to each other, down to some overlapping interactions that we see happening across more than one stories.

In addition to enjoying the overlap, as a reader, it’s fun to think about how the authors needed to put their heads together to create continuity across the stories. For example, there’s a moment in a coffee shop that we see in the second and fourth stories but reversing the perspectives so that the “stranger” from one story is the main character in another. Although this is my first exposure to Deep Haven, I was able to enjoy making connections as I read the stories, and it was intriguing to see how one character played into another character’s story and how lives overlapped (even with those characters who didn’t get their own novellas).

Scripture Connection

The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.

Isaiah 9:2

“The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).

Matt. 1:23

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.

John 14:27

Spiritual Content

I ended up being very pleased with the Christmas content– and not just the holiday ambiance, which I was expecting to enjoy. In fairness, there were more than one stories where characters “fell in love” ridiculously quickly. However (and this is a big however), I was really impressed with the depth of the spiritual content in each story. Even on those implausible reads, those moments of revelation and insight not only helped to ground a story, but really granted me a connection point. I found these moments to be insightful, relevant, and truly uncovering the heart of Christmas: not only focusing on the Nativity scene, but really embracing the implications, for mankind, of Jesus’ coming to earth. And that is exactly what Christmas is all about. It’s also the reason I’m giving the collection a five star rating. This is something I waffled on, because of the shallowness (or at least the astounding speed) of some of the romances, but the pointing to Jesus… that solidifies the rating for me.

Content Notes (Mild Spoilers)

Mild Spoiler: 2/4 stories include strangers meeting for the first time and “falling in love” in a matter of days. With that said, the kissing came very fast in these stories. There were also quite a few moments, across stories, describing the “taste” of the kiss, which tends to weird me out, a little.

The last story focuses on a married couple that has been married for several decades. In this story, there’s the implication that they are going to enjoy their freedom as man and wife, at the end, though we don’t “see” it happen. There’s also a thread, throughout, about the wife hoping that a bit of romance will help to restore her relationship with her husband (though there’s nothing graphic).

Story-Specific Comments

A Beautiful Sight

While reading the first story in the collection, I decided it would probably be my favorite. I strongly related to Vivien. Although I’ve never planned a wedding, the character felt so real to me as she rushed around, trying to be in control of the situation. That desire for control is what really resonated with me, somehow more deeply than with other characters I have read with the same tendency. It may have been because of all the details associated with wedding-planning. It also may have been how deeply I felt her anxiety regarding being left alone, in marriage. Because I deeply commiserated with the character, the moment of resolution was all the more poignant.

I do think I also enjoyed this story because the plot centered around an existing romantic couple, rather than people who had just met.

We’re Happy Tonight

This is the story where we first meet Gerald, who was one of my favorite characters, throughout the novella. Although Gerald does not get his own story, he is a very sweet and lovable elderly gentleman. I was excited to see him reappear, later on. I also really wanted to drink hot chocolate, because of this story.

I thought Zuri was a sweetheart, though Duke annoyed me. My favorite part was definitely the reminder of the reason for the season. Sass Aleckson’s description was a beautiful encapsulation of why He came.

The Snow is Glistening

As in the second novella, the main characters are meeting for the first time, at the beginning of the story. Warren grapples with the idea of trust, as the protagonists question who is worthy of our trust. I appreciated the statement that no person is completely safe/trustworthy, because the truth is that we are all sinful. Jesus is the One we are completely safe with.

I also felt that the romance was fairly believable, in spite of its short duration, because of how the author handled one part, in particular (I won’t spoil by specifying).

And I liked this quote: “Nothing is a disaster with the Lord” (p. 267).

As with the other stories, the message of Christmas comes through beautifully!

Sleigh Bells Ring

I really liked how this story flowed from the previous one. It was neat to shift from Stella’s perspective to her parents’. I found it impressive that the authors did such a great job of filling in details, and omitting details, between the two stories.

I considered Marilyn to be quite likable and I sympathized with her as she was thwarted in her various efforts to reconnect with her husband. It was also fun to read about her ideas for reconnecting with him (like cooking a romantic meal or going on a sleigh ride).

And again, that Christmas message. Simple, but meaningful!

Recommendation Status

For the most part, the four novellas were light and cute, but what really commends them, to me, is their emphasis on the beautiful hope we have in Jesus, and what Christmas was all about. Light reader discretion advised due to the romantic content.

Published by Stephaniesninthsuitcase

Hi, there! My name is Stephanie and I’m a Fresno, CA native. After studying at Biola University, I received my MLIS (Masters in Library Science) from San Jose State University. I live with my mom, poet Kimberly Vargas Agnese, and serve as her unofficial agent. We reside at MeadowArc, a food forest in its infancy. I am called to, and passionate about, purity. In fact, the name Agnes means “pure.” Before I was born, my mom felt led to include the name Agnes in her name, and in the names of her children. My full, hyphenated name includes 26 letters (but not the whole alphabet).

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