Dec 12 2012 2:30pm

Plenty of Room on the Bookshelf: A Carla Kelly Christmas

Carla Kelly’s Christmas CollectionIf I were headed for a desert island and were allowed to take only one Christmas romance, I’d take one by Carla Kelly. The problem would be choosing just one. Of course, I could take Carla Kelly’s Christmas Collection, published last year by Cedar Fort. It includes four of her novellas previously published in the Signet Regency Christmas anthologies: “The Christmas Ornament” (A Regency Christmas, 1998), probably the most light-hearted of Kelly’s stories, with an Oxford scholar as hero and a pair of matchmaking fathers; “Make a Joyful Noise” (A Regency Christmas Carol, 1997), with a hero who finds his heroine when his mother gives him the task of recruiting new voices for a choral competition; “An Object of Charity” (A Regency Christmas Present, 1999), with a ship’s captain who’s coming home to an estranged family and the niece and nephew of his first mate, killed in action, for whom the captain feels responsible; and “The Three Kings” (A Regency Christmas II, 1990), in which the hero and heroine travel through war-torn Spain.

Each of these stories is a gem—not one is trite or predictable. But the collection doesn’t include my favorite Kelly novellas: “No Room at the Inn” (A Regency Christmas IX, 2002) in which a heroine named Mary takes shelter from a storm in the home of Joseph Shepard and finds a house filled with love (all in the midst of class issues and family dynamics), and “Let Nothing You Dismay” (Regency Christmas Wishes, 2003), in which a solicitor known as “the patron saint of lost causes” goes home for Christmas and finds healing and love with an unlikely heroine.

Marian’s Christmas Wish by Carla KellyHow can I resist the generationally linked stories of  Coming Home for Christmas (Harlequin, 2011): “A Christmas in Paradise,” set in California in 1812, with a Navy surgeon as hero and the daughter of an embezzler as heroine; “O Christmas Tree,” in which the heroine, a nurse in the Crimean War, is the daughter of the lead characters from the first story and a shy hero who totally stole my heart; and “No Crib for a Bed,” a Western that features another military doctor, the grandson of the doctor in the first story and the son of the nurse in the second story, and the down-to-earth heroine who saves him from what would have been a disastrous marriage. In typical Carla Kelly fashion, all of these characters are ordinary people captured in stories that reveal how extraordinary they are. That all of this is accomplished with Christmas meanings threaded throughout the stories makes them all the more treasured.

As wonderful as these stories are, however, I wonder if I could bear not rereading Marian’s Christmas Wish (Signet, 1989; Cedar Fort, 2011). Like all of Carla Kelly’s romances, this one is filled with flawed, human characters who come alive for the reader. Marian is young, not yet seventeen, with a candor that makes her seem even younger at times. But she has intelligence, a loving heart, and an irrepressible sense of humor. Gilbert Collinwood, Earl of Ingrahamis a wonderful hero—understanding, great-hearted, and surprisingly unlordly for an aristocrat of such high rank—and with all the appeal of a man who combines tenderness with an understated charm. Despite their differences in age and fortune, I can imagine these two growing old together, celebrating Christmas through the years.

Mrs. Drew Plays Her Hand by Carla KellyBut after a final consideration, none of these, beloved as each is, would my choice of a single Carla Kelly book for that island trip. I couldn’t leave behind Mrs. Drew Plays Her Hand (Signet, 1994; Signet, with Miss Grimsley’s Oxford Career, 2003; Cedar Fort, 2012). Some might argue that it’s not a Christmas book, but it opens not long before Christmas, the hero and heroine marry on Christmas, and it ends with an invitation for a Christmas visit from the happy couple. Moreover, the book is packed with themes like giving and forgiving and restoration that are at the heart of Christmas. Roxanna Drew, a beauty whose physical charms are surpassed by the loveliness of her character, is one of my all-time favorite romance heroines. She is a loving wife, a devoted mother, a passionate lover, and a human being with faults, dreams, memories, a rich interior life, and a well-developed moral compass. Fletcher Rand is another of Kelly’s heroic former soldiers who has been shaped by the horrors of war and yet maintains a sense of humor, an abiding kindness, and a willingness to do what needs to be done. I’ve read Mrs. Drew Plays Her Hand at least half a dozen times since I first read it during Christmas 1995, and each reading reveals something new I love about the book.

I’m happy that I don’t have to choose only one of Carla Kelly’s Christmas stories. I’m sure I’ll reread them all sometime this month, and I’m equally sure that I’ll finish each one with a deep satisfaction and a sense that I have truly celebrated Christmas. I’ll feel much like Captain Michael Lynch, the hero of “An Object of Charity,” who at that story’s end wishes the heroine a happy Christmas as “good will settled around him like a benediction.”


Janga spent decades teaching literature and writing to groups ranging from twelve-year-olds to college students. She is currently a freelance writer, who sometimes writes about romance fiction, and an aspiring writer of contemporary romance, who sometimes thinks of writing an American historical romance. She can be found at her blog Just Janga and tweeting obscure bits about writers as @Janga724.

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Megan Frampton
1. MFrampton
I LOVE Carla Kelly's Christmas stories as much as any of her full-length books, which is saying a lot. I vow to re-read them this year, I've been snapping them up for my e-reader as they get re-released.
Susan Scherzlein
2. Susan Scherzlein
In the pantheon of authors I love, Carla Kelly is close to #1 if not #1. Her books and stories are never predictable and always heartwarming.
3. Janga
Megan, rereading favorite Christmas stories is one of the holiday traditions I cherish most, and I always reread Carla Kelly's stories. Since I love reading on my Kindle, I've happily bought e-copies of all the Carla Kelly Christmas stories I could find. I wish she'd do a second collection with those that were not included in the first. I'd like to see a second Balogh collection too.
4. Janga
Susan, what I love most is that her heroes and heroines are so often characters that we'd never see as protagonists in more conventional books. I really do think she is unequaled at writing about the extraordinary that is present in seemingly ordinary lives.
Myretta Robens
5. Myretta
It will probably come as no surprise to you, Janga, that I agree with all of this and I, too, would choose Mrs. Drew Plays Her Hand as my dessert island Carla Kelly, although I do love many of her shorter Christmas stories (particularly "Make a Joyful Noise" and "The Christmas Ornament").

But Mary Balogh's Christmas stories are right up there with Carla Kelly on my list of holiday rereads. I think MB writes children particularly well and I always love the children in her Christmas novellas. One I always go back to is "The Surprise Party".
6. Janga
Myretta, Mrs. Drew is actually #2 on my list of favorite Carla Kelly novels if I'm not thinking Christmas. Reforming Lord Ragsdale is my favorite. Every time I reread it I marvel anew that CK actually makes me believe in the HEA.

I love Balogh too and have already reread lots of Balogh this year. "The Best Gift" is one I always read at this season.
7. Shinjinee
These are two of my favorite authors - I used to collect the Regency Christmas and Valentines just for the Carla Kelly and Mary Balogh stories. I had A Christmas Promise which was one of the first Baloghs I read, and regret that I sold it on (to an eager reader in South Korea!). I'm glad that anthologies have been reissued, allowing the fans to collect the Christmas stories. Someday, I hope that a complete collection will be issued, rather than just four or five in one volume.

As for favorite Christmas stories -
1) Mary Balogh - A Christmas Promise (sort-of A Civil Contract, with a much happier ending)

2) Carla Kelly - Mrs Drew Plays Her Hand

I love other 1990s stories (Signets) by both authors, but right now, I can't remember which ones are set in or around Christmas.... I avidly collected all Carla Kelly books, but missed Marian's Christmas Wish.

I don't read Regency romances these days (apart from the odd Heyer re-read), but I would happily re-read any Kelly or Balogh Signet regency. Also highly recommended - the late Edith Layton's Signets (I loved the covers), Emma Jensen... and Sheila Bishop (whose plotlines were quite unconventional as well).

8. Kareni
Yes, I know it's April, but I'm reading for the first time and enjoying
Coming Home for Christmas.
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