This book has 4 of Mary Balogh's old novellas and a new one.
In the new story, A Family Christmas, a young couple who have been married for a year and estranged for more than eleven months meet again at a family Christmas and are given the chance to start over.
In The Star of Bethlehem a betrothal ring is first broken and then lost. It symbolizes a broken marriage, about to be ended. But along comes a child in the form of a little chimney sweep, and along comes Christmas, the time for gift-giving, and soon there is hope for both the ring and the marriage.
In The Best Gift, three ill-assorted, lonely adults—na aristocrat, his niece, and a teacher hired as her chaperone--are brought together for a Christmas two of them are determined not to enjoy. But then a child is foisted upon them, and somehow the magic of the Season begins to Wrap itself about all of them.
In Playing House an aristocrat and his daughter, who seem to have everything, become unwillingly involved with a young woman and her young siblings, who seem to have nothing. But as Christmas draws near, it becomes less clear which family is rich and which is impoverished.
In No Room at the Inn an assortment of unhappy travelers are stranded by rain and mud at an inferior inn on Christmas Eve. But love finds them there after a young couple arrives just as their baby is about to be born--and are put in the stable because there are no rooms left.
I usually don't enjoy reading novellas, I always found them lacking in depth – after all, how can you describe well the developing of a relation in just 70 pages? And how can it be possible to make a story so short believable? I don't think I have read from beginning to finish more than 3 anthologies in my entire life.
Saying that, I chose this anthology because IT IS Christmas and because it's Mary Balogh, my favorite author in this genre. Apparently, only the first novella is new, all the others have already been published in different anthologies. Since Balogh has written quite a lot Christmas short stories, I suppose these 4 must be the best of the best – after all, they've been chosen for this special anthology. And I have to say now, after I've read them, that they were not a disappointment, I even enjoyed reading them. I couldn't say how good they were, I don't have many to compare with, but they passed as believable, and they also succeeded in bringing the warmth and special joy a Christmas book should bring.
Now, what makes them believable in my opinion?! When I read a book, I need to believe that what happens there, can somehow have a chance at happening in reality. And to my delight, I discovered these short stories to pass muster. Three of these books deal with couples that have already had a history together, with the major problem of lack of communication. So they are surprised in a moment when, because of the spirit of Christmas, they lower their guard and really talk with each other, and discover their true feelings. It's quite simple when you think of it, but even a simple story can become rich and entertaining when written with a skillful hand.
The first, “A family Christmas” is the story of a young couple with a little baby – she from an aristocrat family, he from a merchant family. They've been apart for almost a year, and now they are together for Christmas, among her relatives. This is the only story with a villain – a villainess in this case, the heroine's mother, who encourages their separation. The spirit of Christmas brings them together and they begin to know each other better, and of course, they start loving in earnest.
The second, “The star of Bethlehem” is another with a young couple that also because of misunderstandings and lack of communication, has grown to quite dislike each other. They are brought together by the care of a child who arrives in their house as a chimney sweeper.
“The best gift” is my favorite – the story of a school teacher who is for the first time celebrating Christmas, a viscount, and his natural daughter.
“Playing house” is another where the hero and heroine has known each other when they were younger, have been separated by circumstances, and now, at Christmas, they are brought together again, and surrounded by 3 children, they discover their feelings once again.
The last story is a little more special, with not the usual Christmas entrappings – like mistletoe, pine boughts, Christmas puddings and geese, etc. The author just tries to recreate the original Christmas as a setting for another love story. And she does a really good job, let me tell you.
In the end, it was really a good book, and worth reading during Christmas time, with the smell of pine in the air and listening to traditional songs...
Ana T.'s review:
The new one is A Family Christmas. This is a story about a couple already married and I usually like those. And I liked this story, it had all the good ingredients of a christmas story - a family house party, greenery gathering, snow ball fights, caroling - but the main characters were a bit cold. They do resolve their differences in the end but I wished they would have done it sooner. They were being kept apart but the heroine's mother who believes the hero, a cit, is beneath her. Grade: 4/5.
The Star of Bethlehem is another story about a married couple and I must say this was my least favourite. The heroine was too childish and the hero to stiff and jealous. They seemed to be screaming most of the time. Also the child being a thief didn't help, I know it's probably closer to how things really happened but since the main couple didn't really work for me to have this sad part of reality showing up annoyed me more than moved me. Grade: 3.5/5
The Best Gift was a story I quite liked. I think that happened because it's mostly about the heroine and what her dreams and desires were. Some people might say that a viscount marrying an illegitimate girld would be very unlikely but for me it worked as the ultimate fairy tale. To bring happiness and love to someone who has none!
The heroine is an orphan who has lived first in an orphanage and then at a ladies school and is now a teacher. She is invited by the hero to spend the holiday season at his house to be his niece's chaperone. Grade: 4/5.
Playing House disappointed me a bit because I felt the hero was too bitter and desilusioned. It took him a long time to see the heroine in a positive light and by the time he did I just wanted him to get over it. Poor Lilias was actually a really nice person and he just kept seeing her a scheming and mercenary woman. Grade: 3.5/5.
I quite liked of No Room at The Inn about the miracle that the birth of a child at christmas can do for a group of total strangers who are stuck in a country inn for Christmas. Since there are so many characters in it none of the romantic stories are well developed... so I just took it as a Christmas story, not as a straight romance because then I would have wanted to know more. Grade: 4/5.
Anthology grade: 4/5