Saturday, November 28, 2009

ANTHOLOGY REVIEW: "The Heart of Christmas," by Mary Balogh, Nicola Cornick, and Courtney Milan

Once again, a Christmas anthology. I have to offer Courtney Milan a big thank-you for this, because I won it from her on Twitter and I'd been looking forward to it for a while. This collection has quite a bit to recommend it - it had a story by one of my all-time favourite authors (Mary Balogh), and stories by two newcomers to explore. Did it measure up? Read on.

"A Handful of Gold," by Mary Balogh.
The Chick: Verity Ewing, a.k.a. "Blanche Heyward." Outwardly a genteel young lady, she moonlights as an opera dancer to support her impoverished family - but the prices of her sister's medical bills keep getting higher.
The Rub: When a handsome, wealthy and jaded rake offers her a princely sum to accompany him on a week of debauchery, can she make the ultimate sacrifice?
Dream Casting: Amy Adams.

The Dude: Julian Dare, Viscount Folingsby. Knowing his father's planning to set him up with a boring bride, Julian decides he'll have one last hurrah before settling down - preferably a hurrah with popular opera dancer Blanche.
The Rub: Blanche turns out to have unexpected spirit - and Christmas spirit. Suddenly, Julian starts wondering what it'd be like to have her the other 364 days of the year.
Dream Casting: Matthew Goode.

The Plot:
Julian: Hey, five hundred pounds says you'll spend some not-so-Silent-nights with me.

"Blanche": ....sure.

Julian: Yay! A whole great week of sex and sex and...

"Blanche": Yay! Christmas! *arranges decorations* *snowball fights**delivers baby*

Julian: *no sex*

Julian: WOW. You're so ... so hot when you're all Christmasy and domestic!

"Blanche": I know, right?

Julian and "Blanche": *sexx0r*

"Blanche": Our love can never be! *escapes*

Julian: *tracks down* You're a moron.

Verity: Oh, well!

Julian: Hooray!

Romance Convention Checklist
1 Jaded Rake

1 Martyr Heroine with a Secret Identity

1 Lusty Yorkshire Ho

1 Surprise! Baby

1 Piece of Christmas Bling

The Word: Julian Dare, young Viscount Folingsby, is having a bit of a pre-life crisis. His dad is pressuring him to settle down, marry, and have an heir and Julian figures this is the year he'll finally get down to it. However, he wants one last blow-out so he accepts an invitation from a BFF to spend the holidays exploring the Twelve Positions of Christmas ("Two Lords A-Laying!") with their honeys at a rustic hunting lodge.

As he has no current mistress, Julian sets his sights on Blanche Heyward, a shapely opera dancer. Unbeknownst to him, "Blanche" is really Verity Ewing, a poor gentlewoman who dances to support her family, particularly her ill sister Chastity who requires expensive medication. Despite her efforts, the bills keep mounting up, and when Julian offers her 500 pounds (250 up front) she figures it would be selfish to refuse when her sister's life is at stake.

She sounds like such a martyr, doesn't she? However, Julian discovers the extent of Verity's innocence once they reach the hunting lodge, and considers martyrdom to be a complete bonerkill. He very grumpily prepares to be the One Unsexed Partridge in a Pear Tree while his friend and his Yorkshire ho get it on. Feeling a little guilty, Verity decides to earn those 500 pounds a different way by providing Christmas cheer.

I enjoyed this story, for the most part. Balogh actually injects a religious element into the story, particularly the theme of the star of Bethlehem, that I really appreciated. I'm a practicing Catholic, but I understand the PC-ness of most of the Christmas narratives on film and in books today that mention Santa and Frosty and Rudolph but never Jesus. However, it was lovely to read a story that entwines the religious symbolism of Christmas into a story without becoming preachy. Still - Verity was a little annoying. I appreciated that her martyrdom is depicted as a flaw, but she just keeps doing it, even at the end when she runs away like a cowardly French Hen. I also didn't buy her return to society at the end and the lack of concern that she might be recognized as Blanche.

So, while I can't help but enjoy everything that Mary Balogh writes, this story only rates a B.

"The Season for Suitors," by Nicola Cornick
The Chick: Clara Davencourt. Shot down 18 months ago by the Duke of Fleet when she proposed marriage, she swears she feels nothing for him now! Nothing!
The Rub: Surprise! She's wrong!
Dream Casting: Alison Lohman.

The Dude: Sebastian Fleet, Duke of Fleet. He loves Clara more than he's ever loved another human being, experiencing physical pain when they're apart.
The Rub: Too bad he can't marry her, cause... he's got guilt, and angst...and stuff.
Dream Casting: A younger Christopher Reeves.

The Plot:
Clara: I HATE YOU, Sebastian! You're a RANK SCOUNDREL!

Sebastian: What? You invited me here!

Clara: I need you to protect me from other rakes and rank scoundrels.

Sebastian: Uh, no. But I'll fondle you at a ball. And in your parlour.

Clara: Does this mean you'll marry me?

Sebastian: Nope. Because of a dark and shady shadowy secret in my past that influences every one of my present actions.

Clara: Is that all? *gets Sebastian drunk*

Sebastian: *shitfaced* Marry me?

Clara: HOORAY!

Romance Convention Checklist
1 Spirited Heiress

1 Angsty Rake with a Dark Past

1 Inconveniently Dead Brother

2 Babies

Several Nosy Servants

The Word: Crazy. That's the word for this story. CRAY-ZAY. This story is just off-the-charts, flat-out, hilariously nonsensical. Our protagonists may seem like run-of-the-mill romance protagonists, and they may spout lines that have been found in romance novels, but there is a complete dearth of motivation, rhyme or reason to this entire piece.

What makes this story unique is that it's so bad it's almost good, in a cheestatic way. Clara Davencourt once proposed marriage to the Duke of Fleet, only to be refused. Now she swears she feels nothing for him - but that doesn't stop her from inviting him over to help her with a problem. Turns out she's inherited quite a bit of cash from a dead (fairy?) godmother and now all sorts of fortune hunters are trying to compromise her. Basically, she wants Rake Lessons to keep from being compromised and who better to give her one than the Duke of Fleet?

Sebastian refuses point-blank and the Rake Lessons plot point is dropped. Oh well. Clara and Sebastian meet again at a party where Clara declares she feels nothing for Sebastian and Sebastian declares that he really likes Clara but he can't marry because of something awful in his past that occurred on Christmas. When he was twelve. Sebastian smooches Clara and Clara insults him and then Sebastian leaves in a huff and then Clara mopes that Sebastian doesn't love her even though five minutes ago she was giving him shit for kissing her. Sebastian shows up at Clara's house in the evening with presents for his godchildren and in another moment they're on the floor and Sebastian gives Clara her first orgasm but then he's all "We mustn't! This is WRONG! MY SECRETLY DARK SHADOWY PAST COMPELS ME!"

Yes, when Sebastian was twelve, his eight-year-old brother fell through some thin ice and since than he's blamed himself. He can't possibly be faithful to a woman because the trauma of losing a brother at 12 makes him a constantly horny Man-Ho. Ohnoez. But then - DOUBLE OHNOEZ! - Clara falls through some ice the next day just like his brother did, right when Sebastian is passing by. The horror! The ANGST! She lives, of course, but figures out that Sebastian loves her, and would totally marry her if only the frozen corpse of his eight-year-old brother didn't constantly hang over him like a gruesome ghostly pinata. Which is when she decides to get him falling-down drunk because that's the only way he'll confess his feelings.

This story is so ridiculous and contrived it nearly veers into parody - particularly the Duke of Fleet, who's like Courage the Cowardly Dog. He's afraid of responsibility, he's afraid of his feelings, he's afraid of babies and skating and quite possibly large spiders, too. He's a big giant whiner with the flimsiest of motivations for refusing marriage but it's quite fun to watch him scurry and cower from the various Plot Devices gunning for his character development. Near the end, he's actually so terrified of the prospect of sexxin' the heroine that he can't get it up right away!

So yeah, this wasn't exactly a slow or boring read - but man, as a serious story it fails on so many levels. The characters are flat and one-dimensional, their motivations and driving forces contrived or non-existent. There is no real connection from scene to scene, no realistic force that carries the characters from one decision to another. The story moves along like a rabid monkey - swinging from weak plot device to weak plot device without ever really touching on something grounded, solid and well-developed. C.

"This Wicked Gift," by Courtney Milan
The Chick: Lavinia Spencer. When her brother not only blows her Christmas money on a scam artist but winds up ten pounds in debt, what's an impoverished but sexy librarian to do?
The Rub: Well, her secret crush will erase her debt if he can have his way with her. What could possibly go wrong?
Dream Casting: Alyson Hannigan.

The Dude: William White. A dirt-poor counting clerk, he's worked himself to the bone, and when his last hope at rising above the poverty line leaves him only a paltry ten pounds instead, he might as well use it to get the girl he's always wanted.
The Rub: Now that he's actually paid to have her, how can he ever get her to forgive him, and learn to forgive himself as well?
Dream Casting: Matthew Macfadyen.

The Plot:
Lavinia: I'm ten pounds in debt!

William: I'm holding your debt! I accept Visa, Mastercard, and sex.

Lavinia and William: *sexx0r*

William: I am an awful human being who has ruined something precious.

Lavinia: Actually you don't owe me anything.

William: I am too poor and hateful for your love!

Lavinia: No, really, I'm fine...

Duplicitous Solicitor: Want to screw over your relations for money?

William: Uh, no.

Future Hero of Proof By Seduction: Want to help me secure financial independence? You're hired!

Lavinia: Huh, guess that scratches both "poor" and "hateful" off your list. Let's get married!

William: Hooray!

Romance Convention Checklist

1 Sexy Librarian

1 Idiot Brother

1 Imaginary Middle Initial

1 Inconvenient Inheritance

1 Duplicitous Solicitor

The Word: Honestly, I didn't quite believe the hype. And there's been a lot of hype about Courtney Milan, she who touted the prettiest bookmarks at RWA 2009 as well as a shitload of promo for a book that wasn't due out for another seven months (Proof By Seduction debuts in January). But holy CATS I believe it now! "This Wicked Gift" is worth the price of this entire anthology and, I feel a little guilty saying, totally kicks Mary Balogh's story's ass.

Our heroine is Lavinia Spencer, a no-nonsense, super-efficient librarian who discovers, to her dismay, that her brother James has fallen for the Regency equivalent of the Nigerian Prince E-Mail scam. He not only lost the money she'd carefully saved to provide a decent Christmas celebration for their impoverished family, but the con artist is now holding a 10-pound debt over her brother's head.

While browsing the shelves, library regular William White overhears their argument. He's even poorer than the Spencers - his father died a ruined man when William was only 14, and he's been slaving away in poverty on his own ever since. Recently, he'd discovered that his father's former business partner (who'd reneged on his promise to provide for William) had died leaving him a puny legacy of ten pounds, destroying any remaining hopes that he might have something other than abject poverty in his future. As he's always held a longing in his heart for the lovely Lavinia, he gets an idea.

Okay, so by this point I was thinking, "Is this going to be a 19th-century Can't Buy Me Love deal?" But it goes so much darker and deeper than that, exploring morality, poverty, and the expectations of love regarding both. Historical romances in general tend to avoid or lessen the threat of poverty as a plot conflict - at least one of the protagonists is already insanely wealthy. Sure, some novels may linger over the poverty of the other protagonist (usually, let's face it, the heroine) but there's always the obvious safety net that the man of her dreams is richer than God. In the case of "This Wicked Gift," both protagonists are poorer than churchmice, and the idea of how love can survive in such a tense environment of financial want isn't swept under the rug (although it is solved, in a very realistic and delightful fashion).

I adored William White. He is a very, very flawed character and Courtney Milan takes a risk with what he does in this story but it pays off in spades. With gorgeous, melodic writing not unlike that of Julie Ann Long, Milan movingly conveys William's despair and hopelessness that motivate his actions, as well as how he eventually comes to rise above his circumstances. Lavinia is an excellent foil - she's much more optimistic and can-do than William, but also controlling and occasionally condescending.

And have I mentioned the writing? I bitched in my review of The Christmas Countess that I felt there was a shortage of beautiful, original writing in romance - a language of rhythm and poetry and evocativeness - well, it's writing like Courtney Milan's (and Julie Anne Long's, and Mary Balogh's, and Laura Kinsale's) that I want to read in romance, the reason I read romance in the first place. Thank you, Courtney Milan, for this truly was a wicked gift. Uh, "wicked" the way the kids say it. A+

Taking the whole anthology into account, we have a solid entry from the ever-dependable Mary Balogh, a crazy-ass story by Nicola Cornick that's fun to giggle over, and a truly magnificent story by Courtney Milan. If you're looking for a wonderful Christmas romance, get The Heart of Christmas for "This Wicked Gift" - with a "Handful of Gold" as a lovely bonus.


  1. OMG, the giggling started with the Balogh review but Nicola's tale launched the hysterical laughter. Which scared my kids, LOL! And I'm especially anxious to read Courtney's story, particularly since I know what a fabulous writer she is.

    Thank you for the excellent review.

  2. I couldn't stand the Balogh story. *Yawn*.

    Isn't Courtney great? Her story was the best out of the three. Love among the books :D

  3. HAHA best description of a book EVER.

  4. Pamala --> You're welcome! I always like original premises in romance - there aren't too many, and while I like me some aristocrats, I kind of enjoyed that her characters weren't peers. There's real tension there.

    Katiebabs --> I read your review. Balogh is one of those writers I automatically like now, but to differing degrees. Really, though I'll admit the story does a REALLY poor job explaining how Verity was never recognized as an opera dancer despite being one of the more popular ones.

    Dannie --> Thanks!

  5. I'm holding your debt! I accept Visa, Mastercard, and sex.


    I really appreciated Milan's specificity w/r/t money in this story. A month after reading it, I can still remember the figures: William was making 18 pounds something a year and aspired to 40 because that was the amount that would make marriage possible. Seventy-five was his idea of eye-popping exorbitance. The author is really doing something right if those details stuck with me.