by Catherine Palmer, Dianna Crawford, Peggy Stoks, and Katherine Chute; historical (1997)
HeartQuest, $9.99, ISBN 0-8423-7775-1
A Victorian Christmas Tea is actually a Western historical anthology so don't be fooled by the title. Actually, this is an inspirational romance anthology but three of these stories could have appealed greatly even to secular old me except for one big problem. I don't know if this is a deliberate cooperative effort from the authors involved to drive me up the wall but every story here has at least one hugely irritating secondary character who does all kinds of stupid things. Two stories have such characters that effectively derail all that is good about the story.
Catherine Palmer's story, Angel In The Attic is the worst story of the four because one of the irritating creatures in question is the heroine. Fara Canaday seems determined to embody every irritating stereotype associated with the very stupid tomboy heroine of the west. The story is also bewildering because I am to believe that Fara's father would write to his friend asking him to get their two kids to marry only to conveniently forget to tell Fara about this before he died. How could anyone neglect to tell the daughter about her future nuptials? Anyway, now Fara is supposedly running her late father's company although in this story all she does is to wave her gun at suitors and generally doing anything other than actually running a business. Our hero Aaron Hyatt is that man who is reluctantly on his way to see this Fara about their fathers wanting them to marry.
While these two claim to be Christian and all, they seem to be blissfully unaware of how ridiculous it is for the two of them to assume the worst of each other on sight unseen. Obviously the part about not judging other people must have been overlooked at Sunday school in favor of Stupidity 101 classes. Fara, receiving news that Aaron is coming, knows that Aaron has to be one of those greedy men who just want her money so she takes off to the cabin in the mountains where she can be free to be herself, et cetera, the usual. Aaron gets roughed up on the way through the jungles so guess who saves him and takes him in to nurse him. Fara is stupid enough to pretend that she's not Fara but Filly and the whole pointless deception begins. Aaron on his part is initially convinced without even meeting Fara that this Fara has to be some spoiled creature who would want to live the evil city when all Aaron wants to do is to stay in the wilderness where he can be free to be himself, et cetera. This story muddles its way through so many pointless deceptions and lies for no good reason at all and the characters come off as being as dumb as rocks, especially Fara who either acts without thinking or thinks and picks the most idiotic decision to carry out. It's a good thing therefore that God loves them, I suppose. Bonus annoyance points for an exaggerated Hispanic housekeeper who seems to be her country's answer to Butterfly McQueen.
Dianna Crawford's A Daddy For Christmas could have been a romantic story about a lighthouse keeper heroine who finds love with the ship captain washed up at her door one stormy night. Tess Winslow is a sensible and very likeable heroine who is throwing an impromptu tea party for her daughters since the storm prevents them from heading out to the church in town when Lovett Keegan shows up at her door. Because her youngest daughter Bitsy has prayed for a father before he shows up, now Bitsy can't get it out of her head that she will make Lovett stay and be her father. I don't find psychotic children cute or adorable so Bitsy makes my skin crawl whenever the author is using Betsy to either deliver over-the-top saccharine lines or act like a monster brat from hell. Bitsy does a lot of bratty things here that can really cross the line into outright unacceptable behavior, like trying to shave off Lovett's moustache when he is asleep or throwing temper tantrums loudly when things don't go her way, and instead of a dressing down that this brat deserves, both adults indulge her and even profess to be amused by her. Tess and Lovett make a good couple and their relationship would have been fun to read if this story doesn't soon mutate into a showcase of Bitsy's horrible antics.
Peggy Stoks' Tea For Marie is another potentially sweet love story of Marie Biggs who has a crush on the pretty boy from a rich family only to fall really in love with the handsome neighbor Harald Hamsun. There is an old-fashioned, quaintly sweet, and chaste tinge to their courtship with some very romantic tender moments as Harald tries to let Marie know that he cares for her. However, there are two hideous monsters in this story: Marie's odious grandmother and Marie's brother Hugh, two who openly mock and even embarrass Marie in public because Marie has a crush on the pretty rich kid. The secondary characters soon take over the story entirely, forcing their machinations on our couple until the relationship between Marie and Harald soon has a forced feel to it. Also, I find it ridiculous that Marie eventually rejects the pretty boy because his parents are against his decision to keep seeing her. Maybe it's a "honor thy family" thing Ms Stoks is laying it thick in this story but when Marie's family doesn't even treat her with respect, I feel a little sad for Marie that she places so much weight on her own family when they make it clear that they will only be nice to her if she does what they want her to do.
Katherine Chute's Going Home has a monster too - the heroine's overperky moronic sister who has a psychotic obsession on matchmaking her sister and also a tendency to do all kinds of stupid things to achieve that aim. Luckily for me, this sister is soon relegated to the background and the main characters are allowed to court without too much distraction from the secondary characters. Confederate soldier Charles Foster Devereaux is coming home at last. He decides to stop by and take a look at his former ancestral home Devereaux only to realize that a family from Philadelpia has moved in and restored his family home. Not only that, the Yankees have renamed the name Jackson Manor. A man with secrets, Charles soon end up working around Jackson Manor and falls in love with the eldest daughter Charlotte. This is easily the best story of the four and not only that, Going Home is actually much better than any of the other three stories. The romance is sweet but heartfelt, Charles is a very well-drawn character for a hero in a short story, Charlotte is sweet and sensible if a little too passive at times, and the monster younger sister is never allowed to run wild and derail the story.
Catherine Palmer's story will really need a divine miracle or a paper shredder to give it a semblance of use but if Ms Crawford and Ms Stoks have reined in themselves and never let their secondary characters run wild and overwhelm their stories with annoying in-your-face overbearing antics of unpleasant people, this A Victorian Christmas Tea anthology could have been a very enjoyable collection of sweet Americana love stories that may very well appeal to readers outside the inspirational subgenre. As it is, this anthology is one of those "God grant me strength and patience" books that is a painful chore to waddle through to get to the one good story towards the end.
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