The first thing I do to kick off the Christmas season (besides, of course, cranking up the season début of Mariah Carey’s All I Want for Christmas Is You) is get out my old anthologies and read a Carla Kelly Christmas short story. The last thing I do on Christmas Eve before I turn out the lights is also read a Carla Kelly Christmas short story. And during the Thanksgiving-Christmas holiday stretch, when I’m feeling a bit stressed and want to recapture the spirit of the season, what I do is… read a Carla Kelly Christmas short story. To put it bluntly, I need a lot of Carla Kelly Christmas short stories. Therefore, I’m delighted that she has delivered two more classics (along with one less successful story) in this anthology of all-new stories.
The Lasting Gift
Grade: B Sensuality: Kisses
In Plymouth, Mary Ann Poole, soldier’s widow and mother of a young daughter, Beth, has just received notice of her impending dismissal from her post as a lady’s secretary when she receives a mis-delivered package from Sailing Master Thomas Jenkins. Returning the package sets off a chain of events in which Thomas decides to help the Pooles to alleviate his boredom ashore but finds himself falling for Mary Ann instead. This is a lovely, gentle story about sustainable gifts, not just charity (Jenkins wants to find employment for Mary Ann and education for math prodigy Beth), but it’s ‘classic Kelly’ in the sense that I’ve read this sailor-ashore-rescues-virtuous-woman story before. Just off the top of my head, it’s the premise for Christmas Promise and A Christmas in Paradise.
Is that a problem? Well, if you’re reading them all back-to-back like I do, you might feel that they’re repetitive. I also feel that this isn’t her best example of that trope. Thomas fell in love quickly, and I didn’t see a lot of common ground between the couple beyond their joint project of helping Mary Ann and Beth. But mostly, it’s like eating Christmas cookies: it may be the same recipe you made last year, but that’s kind of the point.
Grade: B- Sensuality: Kisses
John McPherson has been faithfully corresponding with Margaret Hamilton since he left Dumfries in Scotland to make his fortune in Canada. Except bratty Margaret only promised to write to John as a prank, so John’s actual correspondent is Sally Wilson, who couldn’t stomach the cruel joke. I liked the fact that this story wasn’t a classic Big Mis, as John has his suspicions about the woman who’s writing to him. What I didn’t like was the fact that Margaret is punished at the end. Since all was well that ended well, I didn’t feel that such an ending was really in the Christmas spirit (in fact, this story didn’t have much of a Christmas feel at all, and could have been set at any time of year.) The story also suffers from being half the length of the other two, and as the courtship happens in letters which we don’t read, I was not as invested in the characters. However, I liked the details introduced about John’s rise to success in the new world, and I enjoyed the trader-adventurer hero as a new type for Kelly.
Lucy’s Bang-up Christmas
Grade: A Sensuality: Kisses
In my favorite story of the anthology, Lucy Danforth’s cousin Miles Bledsoe come to visit as Lucy’s overwhelmed family prepares not only for their first Christmas since Lucy’s mother died, but also for the wedding of Lucy’s older sister. Lucy decides to honor her mother by doing charitable Christmas work, but when the vicar challenges her to save a war widow and her three children, Lucy realizes that more than a holiday basket is called for. Unlike the one-note villainous Margaret in the previous story, the antagonist characters here (like a prickly aunt) are understandable and sympathetic in their own ways – the sort of nuanced portrayal Kelly is so good at. Two of my favorite story themes come together here, as the hero and heroine work as a team and also help each other become better people.
This story also has the strongest and best Christmas message: Lucy’s mother’s dying request that Lucy “do, rather than just be.” While this idea of meaningful, enduring charity work is similar to the idea expressed in the first story, I liked how the giving in Bang-up Christmas is explicitly tied to celebrating Christmas rather than something that happens between the hero and heroine. I liked the equality of Lucy and Miles better than the slightly off-putting blurring of gratitude and attraction between Thomas and Mary Ann. I did notice a few writing glitches (for instance, Lucy is described as “with a full heart” three times in five pages, one time accidentally written as “wit a full heart”).
For my future Christmas reading, I’ll probably skip that short middle story, but the other two are lovely tales which fit right into my annual festive binge. My biggest criticism is the pricey paperback edition, which reflects the larger trade paperback size. It really should have been a standard paperback closer in price to the very affordable $5.95 Kindle edition. But if you’re a Kelly collector like me, it may be worth it to splurge on the paper copy anyway.
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