Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Book Review: The Heart of Christmas, by Mary Balogh, Nicola Cornick, and Courtney Milan

The Heart of Christmas 
Mary Balogh, Nicola Cornick, Courtney Milan
Mass Market Paperback, 
378 pages
HQN Books, Sept. 22, 2009
Anthologies, Christmas Romance, Historical Romance, Holiday Romance, Women's Fiction
Source: Amazon

"A Handful of Gold", by 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. (Previously published in The Gifts of Christmas Anthology)

"The Season for Suitors" (Tallants, #3.5) by 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! (
Previously published in Christmas Keepsakes Anthology)

"This Wicked Gift" (Carhart, #0.5) by 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?


I have discovered, in the course of my reading 'career', that anthologies can contain very uneven offerings for the reader. Such is the case here, unfortunately. Thankfully, the first story is by Mary Balogh, who is, in my humble opinion, the incomparable Queen of Regency Romance. Her stories always make me feel ecstatic that I know the English language, as she uses it in beautiful, well-written prose. Her characterizations are no less masterful; her characters are vivid and real, their challenges interesting, as well as heart-rending at times.

The rest of this volume did not quite live up to the standards set by Balogh. The second story, while cute and humorous, did not contain enough of the Christmas spirit to make me happy, while the third was, to be honest, a total disappointment...... 

Balogh has sometimes been criticized for using well-worn tropes and melodramatic plots. Why, then, do I find her fiction so delightful, so utterly compelling? It could be that I don't mind at all having my emotions stirred to the point of tears. And Balogh is very competent at making this reader cry -- at times with heartfelt sorrow, at others with total joy. So what's wrong with that, I ask? But there's more to it than that. Balogh is very skillful at using predictable plots and breathing new life into them, so that they actually become fresh and new. A book penned by her is an automatic buy for me!

This first story is poignant and touching, and yes, it elicited happy tears from me. Verity Ewing is a wonderful protagonist! She does what she needs to do in order to ensure that her little sister has the medicines she so desperately needs. With great hesitation, Verity decides to step over the line, accepting the handsome Julian Dare's invitation to spend Christmas with him in the country -- for a price. 

Disguising her identity, Verity joins Julian and his friend, who has his own woman with him, at the friend's country home. But events do not flow smoothly, as planned, and Verity becomes a sort of "Christmas muse", as she pulls everyone into the Christmas spirit. 

Julian is a wonderful character in his own right. A confirmed rake, he is gradually transformed by Verity's innocent Christmas joy. His habitual cynical outlook on life gives way to the possibility of real love, instead of simply lust.

In the end, these two find true love together, as well as the real meaning of Christmas. Of course, cynics might scoff. And yet, I found this story to be so magical, so utterly wonderful, so full of the true essence of the Christmas spirit, that I don't hesitate to give it FIVE sparkling stars!!

The second story was of a different sort altogether. It was more of a comedy of errors, in a way. Clara and Sebastian -- especially Sebastian -- stumble their way into love in a series of rather comical, yet endearing events that culminate in wedding preparations. 

The funny thing here is that Sebastian staunchly insists that he is not at all ready for marriage, as he has a scandalous reputation as London's biggest rake. Yet, Clara cunningly and lovingly leads him to the realization that he really does love her, that he really can't live without her. 

What I didn't like about this story was that it could have taken place at any time of year. Aside from several references to snow, not much else in the story was related to Christmas. True, one of the characters gave a Christmas ball at one point, but again, there was very little holiday spirit present. I did like the characterizations and humor in the story, but I will give it FOUR stars because of the lack of Christmas spirit in the plot.

The third story was, in my honest opinion, appalling. There was very little mention of Christmas in this one, too.

This story started out in a deceptively cute way. Lavinia Spencer, who is a librarian at her father's small library, has a crush on one of the patrons -- William White, who frequently comes in to borrow books. I thought I was in for a sweet little Christmas romance......NOT. 

When William finds out that Lavinia's brother has foolishly squandered the money Lavinia was saving for Christmas expenses, and thereby incurred a debt for the family, he does something SO disgusting and repulsive, I could not like the character afterward. What he does is to blackmail Lavinia into having sex with him, telling her that, since he has purchased the debt, he will forgive it if she consents.

Now, the thing is, William does have feelings for Lavinia, as she does for him. But what kind of thing is this to do to a woman a man claims to have feelings for? What he does is to humiliate her, to reduce her to a body he uses for his own pleasure. The fact that he is filled with remorse afterward really doesn't matter to me at all. Also irrelevant to me is the further fact that Lavinia KNEW the debt was invalid, and gave herself to him willingly. This made me even angrier. How could she knowingly have allowed herself to be used by this guy she had such a crush on? And after calling him a "blackguard", too!

The rest of this story was a rather pathetic attempt on the author's part to "redeem" William in the eyes of the reader. There are a couple of events that present him acting in an honorable manner. But the damage was done, in my opinion; I simply could NOT like William after that scene with Lavinia. In fact, I HATED him. And adding to my anger was the fact that Lavinia had a very matter-of-fact attitude toward that sordid scene of COERCED sex. She was not outraged. Nor did she feel depressed afterward. She willingly cooperated with William's scheme, even as she knew that she really didn't have to. Apparently, she did it for love, with the intention of making him see that he DID love her. This is totally ABSURD. 

There was nothing related to Christmas in this story, either, beyond the fact that Lavinia was saving up her pennies for the holiday. The sordid beginning of this story was certainly not fitting for a collection of Christmas stories. I never finished this one, as I was much too disgusted to do so. I know, though, the obligatory "happily ever after" was present at the end, because I did peek. UGH.

I would give this story only ONE star, as it was extremely disappointing. Also, it left a VERY bad taste in my mouth, so to speak.

In short, had it not been for the Balogh story, which was the shining exception, I would have given this collection a much lower rating -- probably one or two stars. Furthermore, I really do wish I could pull the Balogh story out and put the second one in a separate volume. As for the last story, I would really LOVE to throw it right in the trash. It certainly doesn't belong in a collection of Christmas stories!

Since the Balogh story has previously been published in two other anthologies, mentioned in the synopsis, I'm going to check them both out and see if either of those collections is better. If one of them is, then I will be donating The Heart of Christmas (which really does NOT represent what the title states) to my local Goodwill store. And then I will buy one of those two other collections!



  1. Outstanding post as always Maria.

    What you wrote about Balogh is interesting. I think that there is a certain kind of artist that covers well worn material but does so brilliantly. I some extent Anthony Trollope is like that.

    Anthologies are often very uneven. I guess it is in the nature of what they are.

    1. Hi, Brian!

      Thank you so much for the compliment!! :) :)

      I don't know how Balogh does it, but she's somehow able to transform hackneyed plots into something that's just WONDERFUL!! Not all readers will agree with me, though. But heck, I don't care! I LOVE Balogh's writing! And now that I know that Trollope does this sort of thing, I really need to read his novels! Thanks for letting me know!

      Yes, that's the problem with anthologies. I think that's why you don't see many of them reviewed on book blogs. But I would have thought that a Christmas-themed anthology would have had EVERY story revolving more around the theme of the anthology! But only one story in this collection did.....

      Thanks for the great comment!! Hope you have a very nice weekend!! <3 :)


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