I’ve been on quite a spree of holiday novellas lately. Short and sweet has suited my mood; real life is challenging enough, and with enough sadness, that I haven’t wanted to feel strong negative emotions in my reading. Many favorite authors produced holiday romances this year — I highly recommend Christmas In Duke Street by Carolyn Jewel, Miranda Neville, Grace Burrowes and Shana Galen. And the TBR held a collection of Carla Kelly Christmas stories, published a few years ago, entitled simply Carla Kelly’s Christmas Collection.
Kelly’s traditional Regency romances are comfort reads for me. Her central characters are reliably good people, but they aren’t always nobles (and are rarely of the highest echelons). Her stories often feature children, and finding companionship and making a family are featured highly in her happy endings. There isn’t explicit sex, but sexual attraction is acknowledged and valued within the context of the other characteristics of committed love. And there is humor, blessed humor.
“The Christmas Ornament” tells the story of an Oxford don who is encouraged by an old family friend to court his “bookish” youngest daughter. James knew Olivia as a child, and he thinks he is ready to be married, so he is amenable. But Olivia is much more than he expects, and he finds that involvement with an intelligent woman is both more challenging and more rewarding than he expected. To win her, he has to learn to see her as his equal. I liked that a lot.
“Make a Joyful Noise” is the story of a widower who is raising two children with the help of his mother and farming the family estate after military service in India. In his efforts to recruit good voices for the local church choir, he befriends a young Welsh woman, a pregnant widow who is living unhappily with her resentful in-laws. I liked the humor in this story surrounding the choir competition, and I liked how the main characters dealt with the issues of each other’s children, focusing on creating happy family.
“An Object of Charity” was not as good as the first two, in my opinion. All three stories are dominated by the hero’s point of view, but Kelly balances that better in the others. In this one, the young woman is much less distinctive and serves largely as a placeholder. Captain Lynch has a three-month break in his Navy service while his ship is being refitted, and Sally is the orphaned niece of a man who died in service on his ship. Lynch is estranged from his family, due to circumstances that felt rather far-fetched to me. He impulsively decides to take Sally and her brother to spend Christmas with the mother he’s had no contact with for many years, and to see his brother, the cause of his estrangement. It’s a bit too much story to fit in this length, so some things feel implausible while others feel rushed. I never really got to know Sally, or to understand why she was in love — except that Lynch has money and social position, while she is essentially destitute. I’m not comfortable with large power imbalances in romance, and I didn’t get the character development to convince me that Sally had real agency here. (Also, there are some similarities between this story and Kelly’s new full-length novel, Do No Harm, which I loved. This story suffered from the comparison.)
“The Three Kings,” in contrast, is told from the woman’s point of view. Sarah is in Spain with the British army, where she was working with her brother to find some lost records of Christopher Columbus’s voyages to the New World. Her brother has been killed, so she has to take the papers back to England through Portugal; this is no easy feat, given the unrest of the countryside and the danger posed by the French army. Sarah’s hero is a Spanish colonel, who agrees to escort her part way and ends up rescuing her from the French. He is trying to get home to spend Christmas with his motherless daughters. They face dangerous circumstances and close calls together, but I found the story hard to follow and the character/relationship development choppy.
I’m glad I read this collection, even though the quality was uneven. Weak Carla Kelly is still better than some things I’ve seen praised in historical romance lately.