Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Under the Mistletoe

(Clipped snippets from the back cover letter to readers...)

A Family Christmas brings together a couple estranged since just after their arranged marriage the year before, and gives them the perfect chance to start over.

The Star of Bethlehem features one betrothal ring lost but three that are mysteriously found as a broken marriage is abundantly mended.

The Best Gift is the tale of a teacher who has never known family, love, or Christmas--then finds all three when asked to chaperon one of her pupils over the holiday.

In Playing House, a lonely aristocrat and his daughter are drawn to an impoverished young woman and her siblings, who are celebrating their last Christmas together with brave gaiety.

An assortment of unhappy travelers stranded by bad weather at an inn on Christmas Eve encounter love after a young couple arrives to that there is No Room at the Inn just as their child is about to be born.

Christmassy romance all around...

I picked this up at a used bookstore during my summer travels this year and looked forward to November 1st, which is when my Christmas reading officially began.  I selected this book in particular because I was in the mood for some short stories and since there are five in this book, I knew I would be assured of some light, quickie Christmassy reads.

Now, this book was published in 2006... nothing wrong there, but be warned... if you enjoy and read a lot of Balogh, you may have already read these stories.  A Family Christmas was the only new story to this book at the time of printing.  Ms. Balogh refers to the other four novellas as classic stories that were merely reprinted together to make this collection.  So don't run out to buy this before checking your booklist.  I know you have one, right?  ;)

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 is at the end of this post.  Let's begin!

A Family Christmas - Elizabeth and Edwin Chambers have been estranged since two weeks after their marriage, one year ago.  An agreement between Edwin's father and Elizabeth's parents unfolded into an arranged marriage where resentment and misunderstandings stand in the way of their relationship becoming anything warmer than a snowball.  While Edwin lives in London, Elizabeth's home is Wyldwood Hall where her parents have overstayed their welcome since the birth of her son.  Lady Templar, Elizabeth's mother, is a crabby, high and mighty, overbearing stick-in-the-mud who belittles Elizabeth at every turn.  But now that Edwin has decided to visit for Christmas, Lady Templar's plans for a large family Christmas gathering begin to crumble as Edwin takes the reigns and tries to show the family a fun and memorable Christmas.  Soon shared smiles and laughter emerge, showing Elizabeth and Edwin that perhaps something warmer could come of their marriage after all. 

ENJOYED IT.  Elizabeth is a sweet, nurturing new mother who just wants to be loved and looks to her infant son to take away her loneliness.  Edwin just didn't seem to know what to do with Elizabeth after they married so he sticks her in the country and visits twice a year.  But Lady Templar didn't (and still doesn't) help matters and we quickly see that she is an absolute ogre.  I was rooting for Elizabeth when she summoned the backbone needed to put her mother in her place to support Edwin, even with the emotional distance that lay between them.  Lord Templar doesn't say much in this story, but the words he does speak are a hoot!  This was a sweet Christmas story, but I found it parallelled a lot with Balogh's full-length novel A Christmas Promise.  Unfortunately, I had just finished reading A Christmas Promise a few days prior to reading this novella, so for me this story lost a lot of its oomph.  But overall, I did enjoy it! 

The Star of Bethlehem - Allan, the Earl of Lisle has a problem.  His wife.  Something has to change so he tells Estelle that after the obligatory family Christmas gathering, she will go to live with her parents for a while.  Perhaps the time away from each other will help since she doesn't seem to care at all about their marriage, nor is she discreet with her flirtations with other men.  How can she care about their marriage if she could add insult to injury and care less about losing the beautiful betrothal ring he gave her two years ago?  But a small boy named Nicky may help bring Estelle and Allan closer than they've ever been.  And with Christmas just around the corner, the holiday spirit works overtime to bring happiness and joy into their lives.

ENJOYED IT.  This was a story about a boy who helped save a marriage.  Estelle and Allan's marriage had been arranged but Allan's chilly personality has done little to warm Estelle up to him.  Nicky challenges Allan to soften his heart which gives Estelle a glimpse of a warmer, compassionate side of her husband, a side she wishes she could see more often.  In the midst of all this is the beautiful diamond and sapphire betrothal ring.  With its whereabouts unknown, Estelle and Allan end up with a Christmas filled with much more than they bargained for.

The Best Gift - Viscount Buckley reluctantly claims his niece, Deborah, from Miss Phillpotts' school for girls in order to bring her to his country home in Hampshire for Christmas.  With neither party happy with the plan, the viscount feels the need to have a companion for Deborah so he doesn't have to keep her entertained.  Caught completely off-guard is Jane, a young woman who has lived a solitary life, first in an orphanage, then as a student and now a teacher at the school.  Faced with the opportunity for a holiday away from the confines of the school, she packs a valise and joins her student.  But Viscount Buckley finds more than what he bargained for when he brings Jane and Deborah home.  And when another guest shows up to spend Christmas with the Viscount, it seems that plans need to be changed and a few priorities rearranged.

LOVED IT.  This was a really sweet story that centers around Jane, known simply as 'Craggs' to her students.  Jane has never known the wonders and magic of Christmas because she's never had a family to love or be loved by in return.  So when the opportunity to spend Christmas with anyone is presented, she leaps at it.  But upon arrival at the viscount's home, they find his young daughter sitting in the hall, abandoned by her mother.  Jane immediately goes into maternal mode and helps the girl feel welcomed and cared for in her new situation.  But the viscount isn't sure that Jane's suggestion to decorate and celebrate Christmas is the best of ideas, although it seems logical it could lift everyone's spirits.  Smiles begin to emerge as the halls become decked and snow begins to fall.  And Viscount Buckley, Jane, Veronica and Deborah learn that Christmas is the most magical season of all.

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

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