Saturday, December 31, 2011

Book Review: Under The Mistletoe, by Mary Balogh (fourth and last review for The Christmas Spirit Reading Challenge)

This is my fourth and last review for
The Christmas Spirit Reading Challenge,
which runs from November 21, 2011
through January 6, 2012!

Please click on the link in my sidebar
for the rules, as well as
a complete list of participating bloggers.

Title: Under The Mistletoe
Author: Mary Balogh
Format: Mass Market Paperback, 352 pages
Publisher: Signet
Publication Date: October 3, 2006
(first published 2003)
Genres: Christmas Romance, Regency Romance, Historical Romance

Reading a Mary Balogh book, whether a novel or a collection of novellas, is always a great delight!  Her characters are always interesting, passionate, with sprinkles of humor, as well as very realistically depicted.  Her plots and settings, although well within the conventions of romance fiction, are still refreshingly appealing.  In short, I can open any book with her name on the cover, and know, even before reading the first sentence, that I will enjoy the entire book.  It will most likely move me to tears in places, while provoking chuckles in others, as well as an occasional rip-roaring laugh.  One thing for sure -- I will not once be tempted to stop reading.  Instead, I will do everything I possibly can to read said book from cover to cover, with whatever lighting or time restrictions happen to be available at the moment.

This collection of Christmas-themed novellas is definitely a keeper, and I can't recommend it highly enough!  Each story is a beautifully-faceted gem, one not to be missed, but instead savored like the finest coffee, or perhaps the finest English tea, since these stories take place in merry old England.

The first one, "A Family Christmas", deals with an arranged marriage, a rather common practice in the Regency period.  However, the story begins after the couple in question, Elizabeth and Edwin Chambers, have been married for two years.  Since they never got to know each other very well before the ceremony, they have been little more than strangers to each other.  All this changes, however, during one truly magical Christmas, when Edwin Chambers decides to let down his guard, and enter into the full spirit of the season, despite the blatant disapproval of Lady Templar, his curmudgeon of a mother-in-law.  The result is that the "love at first sight" they first experienced bursts into bloom, deepening into a lasting union. 

The second story, "The Star of Bethlehem" has a truly unique plot, although I can detect the influence of that great storyteller, O. Henry, not only in the events described, but also in the personalities of the main characters.  There's also a bit of Dickens thrown in for good measure.  Nevertheless, Balogh tells her own type of tale here, and a very touching one it is, too.  

The story of Estelle and Allan, the Earl and Lady of Lisle, might have ended very differently had they not met Nicky, a young chimney sweep's apprentice, who happens to slide down Estelle's bedroom chimney one night.  The boy's life changes, as well, since Estelle, filled with compassion, persuades her husband to take him in as a hired servant.  Unbeknownst to her, Nicky has 'found' her lost engagement ring...

Needless to say, this marriage, too is rejuvenated during the Christmas season!

Although all of the novellas included in this volume are beautiful and very special, I believe the most beautiful and special one of all is "The Best Gift".   Interestingly, this story is also included in a collection I reviewed recently, titled A Regency Christmas VI, so I won't give the plot details here.  I have already given it five stars in my review of that book.  It is an incredible jewel!

In "Playing House", two childhood friends are reunited, although both have changed, buffeted as they have been by suffering.  Stephen, the Marquess of Bedford, has been very bitter since the death of his father and brother in different European wars.  He is also the veteran of a loveless marriage, which ironically gave him a daughter, Dora, whom he loves as deeply as her late mother detested her. 

Not long before Christmas, Lilias, his childhood friend and teenage sweetheart, now impoverished, visits him for the purpose of requesting that he provide her with three things, in order to settle an old 'debt' owed to her late father.  The three things are a goose for Christmas dinner, a doll for her little sister, Megan, and a silver watch for her little brother, Andrew.  She wants to give them a memorable holiday because they will soon be parted, and might never see each other again...

Of course, events and children alike throw them together a bit too often, and the Christmas spirit does the rest!

The last story, "No Room at the Inn", takes some inspiration from the well-known tale of the birth of the baby Jesus.  However, there are other characters having nothing to do with the main story, who still take center stage.

A group of grumpy travelers is stranded at a nondescript country inn, while rain pours continually outside, making further travel along the muddy roads as impossible as if it had snowed.  All of the travelers, unwilling guests at an inn with rather bad food and worse ale, ceaselessly complain about the unrelenting rain, wishing they were at the merry gatherings of friends and family for the great holiday. 

There's another strained marriage in this story, which is, of course, renovated in the end.  There are also a virginal clergyman's daughter, and a rather cynical, bored rake (this is what a 'playboy' or 'player' was called, in those days), who feel a powerful attraction to each other... There are two unmarried, middle-aged sisters, as well as a rather happy older couple.  And there is someone who is initially known merely as 'the quiet gentleman'.

All these people come to find the true meaning of Christmas in the absence of all the trappings -- the decorations, the food, the gifts, the festive dancing.  And all because, on Christmas Eve, the very night of their arrival at the inn, a young, poor couple arrives, as well.  The young woman is heavy with child, and will soon go into labor.  The young man is looking for work.  They are unmarried, and...there is no room at the inn.  The innkeeper suggests the stable...

I love the way Balogh weaves the theme of the true Christmas spirit into each of these stories!  She does not, as other writers might have, merely use Christmas as a pretty backdrop to these tales.  Instead, she makes it an integral part of each story.  In each one, the characters feel the impact of the holiday's messages of love, hope, peace, and the great joy to be found in giving from the heart.  Each character changes in a major way because of the beauty of these messages.

As I prepare to enter a New Year, I do so with the warmth of these beautiful tales stored in my memory.  I might just read them again next year!  (And who knows?  Maybe before Christmas comes around again!)


Where To Buy:  Amazon, Barnes & Noble

Friday, December 30, 2011

Follow My Book Blog Friday Hop #17

Happy Follow Friday!!

And Happy New Year!!

This weekly feature is hosted by
Rachel at Parajunkee's View 
Alison at Alison Can Read

Rachel not only has fabulous features,
but is a web designer
'par excellence'!!
Alison has a beautiful and very
interesting blog!

You can find the rules at the links above.
Join in the fun and make new blogging friends!!

This week's featured blogs are:


Kristin Can Read!!!!

This week's question is:

The New Year is here — and everyone
wants to know your New Year's
Blogging Resolution!
What are you going to try
to revise, revamp and redo
for 2012 on your blog?

Interesting question!  This is an issue that's been on my back burner for a while now...

I have learned a lot since I first started blogging, which obviously meant some risk-taking on my part, and it's been pretty exciting. However, I don't want to drastically revamp things at this point in time.  That's because I'm no computer geek!  True, I've managed to get this far without major mishaps, but I'm still too scared I might make a huge mistake during "a revamping session", and then all my hard work would go down the drain!  (Hey, I think being honest always pays off in the end, so I'm being very upfront here.)  Therefore, I won't be making any dramatic changes to my blog, such as switching to a new template, or completely re-designing the whole blog.  Besides, I happen to love the current template, with its cosmic blue background!  (And I love the color blue, period.  I'm not contemplating changing my color scheme at all, either.) 

I have been changing my header from time to time, as well as rearranging things in my sidebar.  I'll continue to do that.  I love to change book widgets occasionally, for instance.

One thing I've been mulling over, though, is the possibility of hosting book tours.  I'm researching a couple of tour sites, to see if I'll be able to do this.  Tours would add more variety to my blog, and I know that readers love to hear about new authors, especially if an interview/giveaway package is included!  However, time is a very important factor for me, since I hold down two jobs.  Blogging is so time-consuming!  I do love it, of course, but it does take a lot of time to keep up a blog.  Along with that comes promotion of one's blog, as well as commenting on and following other blogs, etc.  But I am seriously considering the possibility.

In regards to the blogging community, I am fully committed to following back those who follow me, as well as commenting on those blogs whose creators have commented on mine.  So I will continue to do this to the best of my ability, because I believe it's the courteous thing to do.  I will also strive to continue replying to comments made on my posts -- not only here on my blog, but on the commenters' blogs, as well.  Yes, doing this takes up more time, I know, but again, I think it's the courteous thing to do.   It's also important for me to try to comment more often on other blogs, and I will certainly work on this, since I do feel I need to do more of it.

I would also like to host more giveaways, although that, too, can be a problem because of the time factor.  However, I will soon be using Rafflecopter, which will definitely expedite this process! 

Another of my goals for 2012 is to post more reviews!  It's ironic that I would say that, I think, because I've noticed that reviews don't get that many comments.  However, I do enjoy writing them!  In order to do more of them, though, I need to read more books, and I go right back to the time problem...and I'm not a fast reader.  I've never been interested in speed reading courses, either.  Reading more slowly means that one really gets to  savor a book.  But what's a book blog primarily for, if not for posting book reviews?  So I've got to do something about reading a little bit faster...

Yet another possibility is to cook up a couple of new book memes, perhaps combining them with blog hops, although, in my experience, it hasn't been easy to get people interested in joining new book memes/blog hops.

Well, as you've just found out, I'm not planning a drastic re-designing of my blog, although I do want to add some variety to it.  You can look forward to new headers periodically.  (I might revert to an older header every now and then, too, if it's one I'm really fond of.)

I sure do hope my present followers continue to enjoy this blog, and I also hope to attract new ones!

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Waiting On Wednesday #24: Until I Die, by Amy Plum

This is a weekly book meme, hosted by
Jill @  Breaking the Spine,
which features future releases that we book bloggers
are eagerly anticipating!

Here's my pick for this week!!

Hardcover, 320 pages
HarperCollins Publishers
Expected Publication Date:
May 8, 2012
Genre: Paranormal Romance,
Urban Fantasy

From the Goodreads Synopsis

As their romance deepens there’s one question they can’t ignore: How are they supposed to be together if Vincent can’t resist sacrificing himself to save others? Although Vincent promises that he’ll do whatever it takes to lead a normal life with Kate, will that mean letting innocent people die? When a new and surprising enemy reveals itself, Kate realizes that even more may be at stake—and that Vincent’s immortality is in jeopardy.

Until I Die is poised to thrill readers with more heart-pounding suspense, spellbinding romance, and a cliff-hanger ending that will leave them desperate for the third and final novel in the series.

The first novel in this absolutely compelling
new series had me turning pages
just as fast as I could gobble up every fascinating word,
sentence, and paragraph!
The story of Vincent and Kate
is so very beautiful, romantic, and...
totally enchanting...
So of course I want to continue to experience
all the romance, all the danger,
all the incredible events in this most
incredible world created by Amy Plum!

And, oh, my gosh, what a cover!!
Much as I Ioved the first one,
I love this one even more -- simply because...
there's a lot of blue in it!!!
As anyone who has visited this blog even once
is well aware,
blue is my absolutely favorite color!!

Anybody have a little time machine handy?
I want to fast forward to May!!!!! 

Click on this link for my review of

What awesome books
are you all eagerly
anticipating this Wednesday?

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Book Review: Comfort and Joy, by Kristin Hannah (third review for The Christmas Spirit Reading Challenge)

This is my third review for
The Christmas Spirit Reading Challenge,
which runs from November 21, 2011
through January 6, 2012!

Please click on the link in my sidebar
for the rules, as well as
a complete list of participating bloggers.

Title: Comfort and Joy
Author: Kristin Hannah
Format: Hardcover, 272 pages
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Publication Date: Nov. 1, 2005
Genre: Christmas Romance, Urban Fantasy

The main character of this beautiful, magical book has an appropriate name for the Christmas season: Joy Faith Candellaro.  Some readers might point out that the author is 'laying it on too thick', but somehow, it works for this particular novel, just as the title does.  The word "comfort" refers specifically to the Comfort Fishing Lodge, where most of the first part of the book's events take place, while the word "joy" refers to the main character.

I was so happy and pleased when I unexpectedly received this book as a Secret Santa present!  I had been wishing for it, and even mentioned it in one of my Follow Friday hop posts. 

The story starts off on a very depressing note.  Joy is doing her best to resume a normal life after a devastating divorce, which has been finalized less than a year ago.  As anyone who has been through this type of experience knows, it takes some time for one to even begin to feel 'normal'.  Things can never really be normal again, though...especially for Joy.

Her husband's lover is Stacey McAvoy.  She happens to be Joy's sister.

I don't know how I would even begin to handle such a situation.  I can relate to Joy's pain to some extent, since I've gone through one divorce, but fortunately, nothing this horrible.  By this point, in the book's first few pages, I was already hating Stacey.

On the day her school's Christmas vacation (she's a school librarian) begins, Joy reluctantly decides to buy a Christmas tree, and then heads for home.  When she drives up to her house, there's someone standing in the driveway, waiting for her. 

It's Stacey.

Joy is thinking, hoping, that her sister has come over to tell her that everything is over between her and Thom, Joy's ex-husband.  But that's not the news Stacey has for her... Instead, she does two things: gives Joy a wedding invitation, and then...tells her that she's pregnant.

Joy snaps, and does exactly what I would have done.  She gets back in her car, and drives off as fast as she can.  She ends up at the airport, where she impulsively buys a charter plane ticket.  The plane is headed for the town of Hope, in British Columbia, Canada.

Except that it never gets there, because it crashes a short while after takeoff..

This is where the beauty of this book comes in, because, incredibly, Joy not only survives, but, although a little shaky and bleeding from a couple of cuts, she actually walks away from the crash. 

After walking through a forest, and down a country road, she ends up at the Comfort Fishing Lodge, the very place she had been looking at in a travel brochure on the plane.

It's here that she meets Bobby, a small boy who has recently lost his divorced mother, and Daniel, Bobby's father, who is attempting to reach the son he hardly knows.  Joy stays at the lodge as a guest, rapidly becoming attached to Bobby, as well as feeling increasingly attracted to Daniel.

I know this sounds like some schmaltzy romantic slush, except that it works!  Hannah's exquisite, stark prose style has a lot to do with that.  She doesn't sentimentalize, but merely tells her story as simply as she can.  The setting, with all its details, is mystically beautiful, the drama unfolding between Bobby and his dad depicted with gentle, but uncompromising, honesty.

Joy suddenly realizes that she wants to start over, and actually wants to stay with these two hurting strangers.  She forgets her own pain for a while in her efforts to help them heal their own.  Ultimately, however, she realizes that she has to return home, and deal with her own reality...

There's an added, miraculous element that makes this book truly stand out.   The Christmas season is, after all, known as 'the season of miracles', and it's certainly true here.  In addition to the magical elements, there are the elements of forgiveness, of healing wounded hearts, of new beginnings.  All of these ingredients come together in a very unique way here.

The characters are just perfect.  Joy is emotionally vulnerable, yet resilient at the same time.  Daniel mirrors her state of mind, as he tries desperately to connect with his son.  Bobby is totally endearing and lovable, although he's haunted by his mother's death.  Even Stacey ends up coming across as somewhat likable --- she becomes very supportive of Joy when the latter decides to go for that new beginning she's been wanting.

I must admit that I had a hard time suspending my disbelief, during the first part of the novel.  Since I couldn't stand all the emotional upheaval, and wondered how someone surviving a plane crash would simply walk away from it, I did the unthinkable, for any self-respecting bookworm -- I skipped ahead, and read part of the subsequent chapters.  Although this spoiled the surprise, of course, I am very glad I did so, because everything then fell right into place.

Kristin Hannah's Comfort and Joy is not just another 'feel-good' holiday read.  It's a gracefully crafted piece of work, dreamy and mellow, yet richly passionate, and wistfully evocative. 

In spite of all the positive aspects of this novel, I do have to point out a couple of things that I found somewhat unsatisfying.  

First of all, I don't think that the issue of adultery was handled in a realistic manner here.  It's true that this novel has a fantasy element, but still, adultery is a very serious matter.  In this case, it's even more serious, because one woman betrays her very own sister.  Although Stacey is very remorseful, the process of forgiveness and reconciliation should have taken much longer.  Instead, Hannah shifts the reader's attention to Joy's new relationship with Daniel and Bobby O'Shea.  In Hannah's defense, I could say that her focus is on the positive emotional and spiritual atmosphere that Christmas brings, which is sometimes nothing short of miraculous.

The romance between Daniel and Joy lacks depth, which is another unsatisfying aspect of the novel.  This is because of the intrinsic nature of the plot, however.  Although I would have enjoyed a more developed relationship between these two, I don't find this as bothersome as the problem I mentioned above.

Despite these apparent shortcomings, this book is a jewel, one that I know I will come back to next year, when the gentleness and spiritual mellowness of Christmas roll around again!


Where to buy:  Amazon, Barnes & Noble   


Oh, Holy Night

Oh, holy night!
The stars are brightly shining,
it is the night of the dear Savior's birth!
Long lay the world in sin and error pining,
'till He appear'd, and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices,
for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn!

Fall on your knees!
Oh, hear the angel voices!
Oh, night divine!
Oh, night when Christ was born!
Oh, night divine!
Oh, night divine!

Wishing you all a most beautiful
and blessed Christmas!!

Saturday, December 24, 2011

On My Bookshelves #11

My new weekend book meme
highlights the books that I have somehow
never gotten to,
as well as those wonderful books
would love to re-read!!

It's Christmas Eve, so I'd like
to feature
a Christmas book
that's very special to me!

Hispanic American Christmas Stories
Hardcover, 384 pages
Oxford University Press, USA
November 16, 2000
Genre: Christmas Fiction

From the Goodreads Synopsis

Thirty-six inspiring literary selections comprise this enchanting collection of works from Mexican, Colombian, Cuban, and Puerto Rican writers—writers who represent the range of Hispanic minority groups in the United States. Through these stories, traditional tales, songs, and poetry, readers gain a true understanding of the importance of the Christmas holiday within the Hispanic community, and begin to grasp the issues that inform the Hispanic American creative process—issues such as communal identity, patriotism, poverty, assimilation, and religion. With vivid illustrations and original Spanish text for all poetry, this fascinating anthology will inform readers of all cultural backgrounds, and give them the opportunity to celebrate this cherished time with a newly extended family.

This is a beautiful compilation of Christmas stories
from several Hispanic traditions!
I am most interested in those stories by
Cuban authors,
but I must admit that reading about the
Mexican tradition of the posadas
sounds wonderful!

The word "Nochebuena" literally means
"Good Night" in the sense that
it's a night of good tidings!
It's simply another name for Christmas Eve.
The Hispanic community celebrates it
with a special dinner, in which
the whole family participates.
Another component of "Nochebuena",
for Hispanic Catholics,
is the celebration of Midnight Mass,
which meaningfully completes
this very special night!

I'm certainly looking forward to
hopefully reading this book very soon,
perhaps starting tonight,
since today, after all, is December 24th!

Friday, December 23, 2011

Follow My Book Blog Friday Hop #16

Happy Follow Friday!!

This weekly feature is hosted by
Rachel at Parajunkee's View 

Rachel not only has fabulous features,
but is a web designer
'par excellence'!!
Alison has a beautiful and very
interesting blog!

You can find the rules at the links above.
Join in the fun and make new blogging friends!!

This week's featured blogs are:


from the shadows i review!!

This week's question is:

If you had to spend eternity inside
the pages of a book,
which book would you choose,
and why?

Needless to say, I have quite a few books I'd like to spend eternity in!  However, there are two fantasy series in particular that I would have no trouble living in forever!  I really can't choose between the two, so I'm declaring a tie.  The two series are The Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter books.  Both of them depict very compelling worlds, filled with wonderful characters and adventures!

Tolkien's world, for example, has such vivid, believable characters that a reader immediately falls in love with!  I adore Gandalf, Frodo, Aragorn, Legolas, Arwen, Galadriel... I especially love Gandalf, because he's the kind of wise, gentle, yet powerful grandfather I wish I could have had... I would love to have him as a tutor in magic!  Frodo is such a steadfast, loyal, and totally determined character, one with integrity and courage.  What a role model!  Aragorn, of course, is also a role model of courage, as well as true humility.  And Legolas, ah, Legolas!  He's a member of a magical race dedicated to beauty.  I see him as an artist, as well as a courageous warrior.  Arwen is a wonderful counterpart to Aragorn, with her steadfast love, and Galadriel is a truly mystical character.

Of all the beautiful places in Middle Earth, none can compare in beauty and mellow grace with Lothlorien.  That is precisely where I would love to spend eternity!  To hear the wondrous singing of the elves, to bask in the gentle breezes of the magical trees...that would be true happiness for me! 


My other favorite fantasy world is that of the Harry Potter series, whose characters and setting I also love!  My favorite characters are Harry (of course!), Hermione Granger, Dumbledore, and Hagrid.  The place I would love to live in is Hogwarts, naturally.  I wouldn't mind being an eternal student there!  The classes are so wonderful, after all!  I would love to live in the dorm, and try to find my way around the school, with all of its mysterious passageways and tricky ladders, as well as funny, helpful ghosts!  I would love to play Quidditch (even though I'm terrible at sports), and wield my wand!  And what about those neat-looking robes?  I'd love to wear them all the time, except during the summer, of course. 

What can I say about Harry?  He's the classic 'underdog', bullied not only by Snape (the slimy rat!), but Draco Malfoy, too.  Throughout the books, Harry retains his courage and determination, in spite of it all.  He battles not only Voldemort, but his own inner demons, as well.  I greatly admire him!  Hermione is such a smart, totally resourceful character!  She nevers falters in the midst of all the mayhem.  I would have paired her off with Harry, since they're both not only great magicians, but also totally honest people committed to the same goal -- the downfall of Voldemort.  As for Dumbledore, ah, here's anothe surrogate grandfather... Wonderful, wise, gentle Dumbledore...he could be Gandalf's twin, and I'm sure Rowling was inspired by Tolkien's character.  Dumbledore was a great father figure to Harry, and I wish I could have been tutored by him, as well!  As for Hagrid -- he's a rather large guy, but with such a gentle, loving heart...he's been misjudged and unfairly disciplined, as happens too often with those who least deserve it.   I admire and love him for not becoming bitter.  Instead, he remains his gentle, sweet, loving self throughout. 


What magical book or books
would you all
love to spend eternity in?

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Book Review: A Regency Christmas VI (second review for The Christmas Spirit Reading Challenge)

This is my second review for
The Christmas Spirit Reading Challenge,
which runs from November 21, 2011
through January 6, 2012!

Please click on the link in my sidebar
for the rules, as well as
a complete list of participating bloggers.

Title: A Regency Christmas VI
Authors: Mary Balogh, Sandra Heath, Emily Hendrickson, Emma Lange, Sheila Walsh
Format: Mass Market Paperback, 352 pages
Publisher: Signet Books
Publication Date: November 1, 1994
Genres: Christmas Romance, Historical Romance, Regency Romance

Where To Buy: Amazon

This collection of Christmas romances is set in the England of Jane Austen, with all of the beautiful traditions of the time, all the holiday revelry typical of the period.  In spite of the beautiful cover, which depicts a festive holiday spirit, I have to say that this is an uneven collection, at best.

The crowning jewel of this anthology is "The Best Gift" by Mary Balogh, but then, she's my favorite romance writer, bar none!  Her work is always a delight to read!  So I will begin my review with this story, even though it's the third one listed in the book.

The story plot has obvious parallels to my favorite novel, Jane Eyre, but I still enjoyed it immensely!  The female protagonist, Jane Craggs, is a motherless teacher who has never known her father, having lived in a school for girls, located in the town of Bath, England, until the age of seventeen, when she became a teacher at the school.  She has the depressing prospect of yet another lonely Christmas there, when the unexpected occurs -- Warren Nash, the Viscount Buckley, needs a temporary governess for his niece over the Christmas holiday.  The wonderfully heartwarming events that ensue had me crying happy tears! 

Another reason this story is my very favorite is that, of the five, this one is most imbued with the Christmas spirit.  It gave me that warm, happy glow that should accompany this wonderful holiday!


I would have to say that my next favorite story is "Christmas Magic", by Emma Lange, which is the very first one in the book. 

Lady Rebecca Trevor, mother of an adorable baby girl, Katie, is spending the Christmas holiday at the Palladian home of her friends, Lord and Lady Hargrove.  Several of their other friends have also been invited, among them someone Rebecca had fallen in love with in the past, while she was married to the much-older Lord Trevor, through an arrangement common enough at the time -- her brutal father needed the money, and wanted to get rid of her.  Now a widow, Rebecca realizes that she still loves Rob, the Earl of Bedford, although she had fled from him before, so as not to betray her marriage vows.  As the story develops, Rob comes to realize that he loves her desperately enough to abandon his playboy ways (in those days, playboys were known as "rakes").  Although this plot seems too predictable, this story is a very touching one, and also had me crying happy tears, as well as basking in that Christmas warmth!  


The next story, "Christmas Knight", by Emily Hendrickson, is a delightful one, and I like it quite a bit as well. 

The plot concerns a love potion, which I don't see as having much to do with Christmas.  However, this story is full of all the holiday traditions of the time, such as the Yule log, mistletoe, the decorating of all the rooms in the house with holly and other greenery, etc. 

The plot revolves around two teenage sisters, Alisandra and Joan Percy, who live secluded lives in the country, where their father, the Baron, insists on adhering to the old ways, even having them wear medieval garb at all times.  Their brother, Thomas, comes home from Oxford University for the holiday, bringing along two friends -- Maximilian Luttrell, whom the sisters have known all their lives, and Sir William Oldershaw.  Alisandra immediately sets her sights on William, and, with Joan's help, prepares a love potion in order to make him fall for her.  However, it's her childhood friend, Max, who drinks it, with comical, if unsettling results for Alisandra.  Meanwhile, William is less interested in Charlotte, the sisters' rather shallow, mean-spirited cousin, than in Joan...

This story is longer than the others; in fact, it's more of a novella.  I wish it had been expanded into a novel, with the holiday episode being the culmination of it.  I greatly enjoyed the characters and setting.  It would have been nice to get to know this family better!


The next story, "Dinner at Grillion's", by Sandra Heath, is the second one in the collection.   Although it's nice that justice was done in the end, I thought the plot was much too contrived. 

As the story opens, Guy Fitzallen, fourth Lord Lanham, is contemplating divorcing his estranged wife, American Fleur Barrymore.  His aunt, Patience Fitzallen, is his closest living relative, and adamantly opposes these plans, especially since she suspects her hired companion, Imogen, of plotting to separate Guy and his wife, so that she could have him for herself. 

What most bothered me about this story was the fact that Imogen confides all her nefarious deeds to her diary, which she carries everywhere with her.  This is just too obvious.  I would think that someone involved in this kind of thing would be more careful.  And, of course, later on in the story, the diary falls into Patience's hands, with all of its incriminating evidence....

As if this weren't enough, there are three pairs of perfectly-matched couples in this story, Guy and Fleur, Guy's aunt and Fleur's uncle, Gerard, as well as Fleur's maid, and Thomas, a footman at Grillion's, a famed London restaurant. 

All in all, I really couldn't enjoy this story much.


The very last story in the book, while well-plotted, had too much of a Gothic feel to it to be appropriate for Christmas.  "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear" (I found this title too darkly ironic), by Sheila Walsh, deals with another arranged marriage.  Mercedes de Laroche, a beautiful, eighteen-year-old French aristocrat, is to be married to the forty-five-year-old, and sinister-looking, Lord Sheringham, to whom her father, the Vicomte de Laroche, owes a great deal of money.  

Poor Mercedes is terrified of Lord Sheringham, but, like a dutiful daughter, is prepared to go through with the marriage ceremony.  This despite the fact that a certain man has fallen hard for her -- Mr. Vyvian Tremaine, whom her friends, Charles and Beatrice Brampton, have invited to their country home for the Christmas holiday, along with the de Laroches and Lord Sheringham.  

it turns out that there are ghosts in the story, and one in particular is important to the plot.  Only Mercedes can see this ghost, however, so her sanity is in doubt at first.  Tremaine hotly defends her, and, in the end, Mercedes is proven right.

It's true that Dickens's A Christmas Carol set a precedent for having ghosts in Christmas stories, but this tale is much darker than that classic.  I would have enjoyed it more had it been set at a different time of year.

One more thing: what was the author thinking when she gave Mercedes's love interest a woman's name?  I've never heard of a man having the name of "Vyvian"!  True, it's spelled with one 'y', but still! 


It's really too bad that only one story in this collection was good enough to merit five stars.  The quality fo the rest of the stories has brought the overall rating for the book down.  I think that, had all of the stories been penned by Mary Balogh, this would not have been the case.  Incidentally, "The Best Gift" also appears in another collection of Christmas romances, Under The Mistletoe, which is totally dedicated to Balogh stories.  I will have to start on that one as soon as I can.  I'm sure it will receive a five-star rating, hands down!