For my December TBR Challenge, I dug into my stash of holiday anthologies and picked out a Christmas historical anthology from 2009. With one Western romance and one Americana romance, I was hopeful for a little holiday cheer. As it turns out, one story delivered and the other really did not.
The first novella, Janet Tronstad’s Christmas Bells for Dry Creek, takes readers to the Montana Territory in 1880. Virginia Parker is in for an anxious year, as we see from the story’s opening. Following the death of her father, Virginia headed west to live with her brother. The brother died not long after her arrival, and in desperation Virginia has been working in the kitchen and playing piano in one of the town saloons. Her position is a precarious one and she has no family left to help her.
As the story opens, Virginia fears that her boss, Colter Wells, is about to fire her. Instead she is told that Colton has recently learned of his illegitimate daughter whom the child’s mother has demanded he take in to allow the mother can move on to California and start over. Colter wants Virginia to manage his property while he’s gone.
The tale picks up eleven months later, as Colter returns with the young daughter. Christmas is approaching, and much of this story focuses on Virginia and Colter’s adjustment to change around the business as well as their growing feelings for one another. And then there’s the matter of the suitor that started courting Virginia while Colter was gone. There’s definitely attraction and deepening love between Colter and Virginia, but in many ways this is the story of a small band of outcasts coming together to form a family. It’s achingly sweet but without being saccharine, and for that, I really enjoyed it. There are some plot points tacked on that felt extraneous to the story, but even with that, I still liked this novella. I’d give this tale a solid B.
The Christmas Secret, on the other hand, is a horse of a different color. This Christmas tale by Sara Mitchell is set in Canterbury, Virginia in 1895. Not to put too fine a point on it, but by the end I was irritated with the entire cast of this ensemble and just wanted to slap them all into next Tuesday.
As a Virginia native, I found the location of the story a tad confusing. The town of Canterbury is described as a quaint small(and rather upscale-sounding) town about an hour outside of Washington, DC. From the descriptions, it sounded somewhat like the well-heeled town of Middleburg. However, the real Canterbury, Virginia is located in Culpeper County. It is both further from Washington DC and far less affluent than the town of the story. Artistic license, I suppose.
Be that as it may, we learn at the opening of the story that one Dr. Ethan Harcourt, a former US Congressman has been widowed and has moved to Canterbury. This news excites Clara Penrose, a shy and somewhat eccentric daughter of an elite local family. She had encountered Ethan at a party in the city, and has entertained something of a crush on him.
The story starts off well enough but starts downhill early on and just keeps going. For starters, the background of the story is rather hazily developed. I found myself kind of wondering what was going on. Why were the Penroses so prominent? Why did Ethan Harcourt decide to settle in Canterbury even though he had no connection to the place? Did he just love small Virginia towns? This is where his carriage broke down, maybe? Readers can accept a fair amount of coincidence and wacky happenings, but the worldbuilding and context need to be there to lead us along.
The story settles into a very familiar tale of a sheltered eccentric woman from a wealthy family catching the eye and winning the heart of a worldly and desirable man. Powerful fantasy, but the characters in this book just felt flat. Clara never really came to life, and Ethan was just a standard issue good guy. Also, the author chose to portray his late wife as such a nasty Other Woman in his life that not only did it not elevate the heroine in comparison but it jsut made me wonder about this guy’s taste in women. Oh, and just for funsies, there is an absolutely ridiculous mystery with an overly neat, sugary ending. Good times. Not quite bad enough to fail, but this one is definitely a D.