By Jill Henry:

Hannah's Heart

By Tracy Sumner

Carolina Rose

Christmas Kisses
by Christine Cameron, Jill Henry & Tracy Sumner
(Zebra, $5.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-8217-6299-0
I’ve been reading romance for about seven years now, but Christmas Kisses is the first anthology I’ve read. I don’t know why I’ve never picked one up, because I’ve been curious about them. I’ve wondered about the technique, for one thing -- how an author manages to create characters, set up an interesting story, and resolve it all in such a short space. I’ve also wondered how I would enjoy reading the shorter format. So while I don’t mean for this review to be a critique of all anthologies, reading Christmas Kisses has certainly enlightened me somewhat on the subject.

For one thing, it’s occurred to me that when writing a novella, an author can’t simply take the ingredients for an entire novel and squash them into the smaller space. That’s the basic problem with the first story in this book, “A Highland Christmas.” Christine Cameron tries to rush us though the progression of a relationship that seems far too complicated for 130 pages.

Lady Cassandra MacIntyre, a Scottish clan leader, is being forced by the king to marry an Englishman, Baron Drake Bancroft. Although her first glimpse of him leads her to believe he’s “churlish” and “an ogre,” by page 17 this hot-tempered, independent lass has “lost her heart” to him. When Drake tells her he doesn’t want the marriage and only longs to return home to his beloved estate in England, she inexplicably feels he’s dealt her “a crushing blow.”

The rest of the story progresses on the idea that the two have twelve days -- the twelve days of Christmas (during which Drakes gives Cassandra a different dazzling gift on each day) -- to resolve their differences and find true love together. This seems like a tall order. I mean, just because a story is short doesn’t mean the timeframe has to be short, too. Twelve days isn’t much time for any two people to fall in love, especially when one of them has a traumatic past to overcome that prevents him from giving his heart or getting close to anyone. The complexity of the plot deserved a full-length novel, but since I found Cassandra childish and petulant, and Drake domineering and self-involved, I wasn’t sorry to leave these two behind as quickly as possible.

The second story, “Sara’s Gift,” by Jill Henry, fared much better with me. It’s an appropriately simple story, the characters are likeable and sympathetic, and while the timeframe is even shorter than the one in the first story, the author convinced me that the hero and heroine were actually spending that time getting to know each other and falling in love in a believable way.

Sara Mercer had planned to stop in Moose Creek, Montana, for only a few hours -- a short stopover on her train trip to a new life. A widow, Sara has a seamstress job waiting for her that promises a better life, more money, and possibly the chance to find happiness again with a new husband and a family of her own. But first she must catch just a glimpse of the daughter she had to give away almost five years ago -- only to make sure she’s happy and healthy, not to interfere in her life in any way. But an unexpected blizzard strands the train -- and Sara -- in Moose Creek for several days, where she’s taken in by none other than her daughter’s adoptive father.

Gabe Chapman, sheriff of Moose Creek and now a widower himself, doesn’t recognize Sara since he never knew who his little Mary’s mother was. But he does recognize her goodness, her integrity, and her obvious love for his child. These two resolve their differences in a mostly reasonable, believable way, making for a gentle and sweet love story.

Tracy Sumner’s “When All Through the Night…” is the final story in the anthology, and it also has an uncomplicated plot. Unfortunately, that plot hinges on a Big Misunderstanding and characters too full of pride and self-pity to talk through their differences.

Katherine Peters and Tanner Barkley were lovers almost two years ago, but their relationship ended in heartbreak when Tanner, a newspaperman, authored an article that Kate saw as a betrayal. Tanner has gone to great lengths to try to explain, but Kate has rejected every effort. Now they’re forced to spend time together over the Christmas holidays, but since they spend all of that time either sniping and hissing at each other or having mad, passionate sex instead of actually talking, nothing is resolved.

I didn’t particularly care for these two. They both seem awfully immature, and from the endless references to Kate’s amber eyes and Tanner’s striking blue ones, the impression is they are more in love with each other’s looks than anything else. Furthermore, it struck me as odd that Kate, an antebellum Southern belle of sorts, would enter into a sexual relationship (and boy, is it) with such little regard for her reputation and not one worry about the possibility of pregnancy.

Finally, the contrived insertion of Adam and “Charlie” Chase, characters from a previous book (Carolina Rose>B?), as well as the oblique references to that story, were both distracting and unnecessary. This happy couple didn’t really detract from the story, but they hardly added to it, and I felt like I was missing something since I hadn’t read their book.

So I guess what I’ve learned about anthologies is that novellas are a lot like full-length novels -- some work, and some don’t. I think “Sara’s Gift” is worth reading, but I’m not sure if one worthy but short story merits spending $5.99 for an entire anthology. Based on simple math, however, this collection squeaks by with a three-heart rating.

-- Ellen Hestand

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