Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Heart of Christmas

Two classic tales from New York Times bestselling author Mary Balogh and Nicola Cornick and a brand new story from Courtney Milan!

A Handful of Gold - A love story from New York Times bestselling author Mary Balogh
Not only is Julian Dare dashing and wealthy, but he's the heir to an earldom. So what do you get a man who has everything? Innocent and comely Verity Ewing plans on giving Julian her heart—the most precious gift of all.

The Season for Suitors - An original romance from Nicola Cornick
After some close encounters with rakes in which she was nearly compromised, heiress Clara Davenport realizes that she needs some expert advice. And who better for the job than Sebastian Fleet, the most notorious rake in town? But the tutelage doesn't go quite as planned, as both Sebastian and Clara find it difficult to remain objective when it comes to lessons of the heart!

This Wicked Gift - An original romance from Courtney Milan
Lavinia Spencer has been saving her hard-earned pennies to provide her family with Christmas dinner. Days before the holiday, her brother is swindled, leaving them owing more than they can ever repay. Until a mysterious benefactor offers to settle the debt. Innocent Lavinia is stunned by what the dashing William White wants in return. Will she exchange a wicked gift for her family's fortune?

Finally an anthology where all three stories are good, strong reads!

I picked this book up last year when it came out and I put a gold star on the inside of the cover, which means that I liked the book and wanted to earmark it for re-reading.  Being short on reading time this Christmas season, I decided to read and enjoy the short stories again this year, which also gives me the opportunity to write a review!  So here we go!  But before we get too far, I've noticed more and more that anthologies, especially Christmas ones, contain short stories that have been reprinted at one time or another.  If you don't have one already, start a book list and note the individual anthology stories so you don't buy the same ones over and over.  The stories by Balogh and Cornick are both reprints, but Courtney Milan's story is new (at least it was in 2009). 

As I do with all anthologies, I rate each story individually as follows: LOVED IT, ENJOYED IT, JUST OK, or DIDN'T LIKE IT. My overall rating for the book will appear at the end of this post.

A Handful of Gold by Mary Balogh - Verity Ewing lives a double life.  To her mother and sister she is companion to Lady Coleman, but to the rest of London she is opera dancer Blanche Heyward.  Verity has no choice but to work if her sister Chastity is going to get the medicine she needs and being an opera dancer pays well but Verity is finding that it's not quite enough.  Several gentleman visit the dressing rooms after the shows and Verity begins to think she may need to accept an offer of becoming somebody's mistress to help provide for her family.  Enter Julian Dare.  He offers Blanche five hundred pounds if she spends Christmas week with him at his friend's county house in Norfolkshire.  Negotiating half payment before the trip, Blanche accepts his offer and reluctantly leaves her family behind to become a fallen woman.

ENJOYED IT.  Verity is a strong woman who basically martyrs herself to provide for her family although the last thing Julian wants is a martyr in his bed.  He doesn't know what to make of Blanche, especially when she stuns the everyone at the country house by deciding to decorate and celebrate Christmas.  She was very bold to start ordering people about in a house that was not hers.  Too bold, I thought.  Naturally, celebrating Christmas was not at all what the men had in mind for this little house party so there were some moments where I felt the story a bit forced, especially when there was no push-back from the other characters.  But things get more interesting when an overturned carriage topples and the passengers seek refuge from the storm.  A reverend and his family staying in a house with two men and their mistresses requires some quick thinking but events continue to unfold that just might create a memorable Christmas for them all.  As I have found with some other Balogh stories, there is a bit of sappiness that seeps through the pages.  The Christmas service Blanche arranges with the reverend was nice, but seemed over the top in the sentimental (dare I say corny?) department.  I think it was because it became another one of those instances that felt forced on the other characters but was made all sparkly and rosy because everyone just went along with it.  I did enjoy this story overall, especially the end as Julian searches and finds out about Verity's true identity, but just be prepared for a fair amount of sap along the way.

The Season for Suitors by Nicola Cornick - Clara Davenport needs help so she contacts the most notorious rake in town, Sebastian Fleet.  Sebastian calls on her and is floored when she asks for advice on how to outwit all the other rakes and scoundrels now that she is an heiress and can't seem to shake all the attention.  Refusing her proposition, he instead offers to protect her from unwanted suitors but when Sebastian sees for himself all the men who are attracted to Clara, jealousy begins to creep onto the scene and Sebastian finds he just might want Clara for himself after all.

ENJOYED IT.  I liked this story because its always fun when characters are fighting their own feelings.  It's interesting though that we learn early on that Clara had at one time proposed to Sebastian and he flatly refused her.  But later when he kisses her at the ball, he can tell that she has never been kissed before.  So, how exactly did the proposal come about originally?  This really had me intrigued.  He told her back then that he was not the marrying kind, but they hadn't, at the very least, even shared a kiss?  I became a tad more confused when I flipped back to when Sebastian first reads Clara's letter at the beginning of the story and he became "aware of rather more pleasure than seemed quite appropriate."  What exactly happened that eighteen months before when they had last seen each other?  We really don't learn any more about their past beyond this tidbit but it's obvious he is attracted to Clara. So, all of this contributes to Sebastian fighting with his own feelings, which is no surprise since we see how much he wants Clara but won't give in to what he feels.  Meanwhile, Clara's feelings for Sebastian, which she thought had diminished over the last year and a half, are back and strong as ever.  Sit back and enjoy the unraveling of this story but be aware that although it was an enjoyable read, there was nothing Christmassy in this story.  Not a Christmas carol, nor a sprig of mistletoe.  Nothing.  The story takes place in the winter season, but that's as close as you get. 

More to come... I'm still reading!

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