The Kind Hearts at Christmas anthology is published in support of HIV/AIDS charities. The spark for the idea is explained in the preface and dedication written by author Liam Livings, who also writes a story in the anthology. The stories range from 22 pages to 86 pages and include many favorite tropes, such as snowed in, found family, and only one bed, to name just a few. There are 13 stories set around winter or the holiday season, with plenty of variety. While we’re not reviewing every story here, we’ve included a range to give readers an idea about what’s included. The anthology will only be available until February 28, 2023, with profits benefiting the Terrence Higgins Trust and AIDS United. It’s the perfect time to get your copy and support two dedicated charities.
My Christmas Nemesis by Sue Brown—4 stars
After a last minute shift change, Laurence is stuck working Christmas Eve, despite thinking he’d have it off. What’s worse is that when he shows up, his archnemesis is also working. For the past 18 months, ever since Laurence overheard a conversation, he’s believed that Aaron thinks he’s a loser. Laurence’s crush on Aaron died that day and he’s harbored a grudge ever since. But Aaron is not all he seems, and a sweet gesture and kind and open conversation go a long way to brightening up Laurence’s Christmas.
This is a short and sweet story that hits a lot of the right notes. I wouldn’t exactly call Laurence and Aaron enemies, because Aaron doesn’t even know Laurence has beef with him, let alone that they there’s animosity coming from Laurence. Laurence has done his best to avoid Aaron since that conversation he overheard. But it strikes a nice balance between Laurence’s disappointment and hurt with Aaron’s sweet gesture, demeanor, confession, and communication.
The story is told solely through Laurence’s POV and Brown does a great job of fleshing out his character. Unfortunately, we don’t get to know Aaron that well because of this, so it was harder for me to understand why he liked Laurence. Not that Laurence isn’t likable, because he definitely is. But we don’t get to see any of the MCs’ interaction before the night this story takes place, and so for me, it was harder to get behind their connection.
I enjoyed this story, but I would have liked to see it be just a touch longer, or perhaps have both MCs’ POVs for it to really hit home with me. It was sweet and, at times, heartfelt though, and the magic of Christmas hits just the right note.
The Most Wonderful Time of the Year by Joanna Chambers—4.5 Stars
Jordan doesn’t fit in. As much as he likes his coding job, he feels like a misfit. And though Glasgow is similar in a lot of ways to his hometown of Liverpool, it’s still different enough to keep him out of sorts. He doesn’t even fit in with the guys at work, though Harrison, at least, keeps trying to be nice. The big man is cute and sweet, but Jordan thinks his crush can’t go anywhere.
A few days before Christmas, Jordan is having the worst of bad days. Running late for work, and with an important meeting looming, disaster strikes. Harrison comes to his rescue, and though Jordan is grateful, he has trouble finding the opportunity to say thank you. Drinks out with the work team has Jordan thinking he’ll finally get his chance, but he messes that up too. A little friendly intervention finally sets Jordan on the path to Harrison, with a little Christmas cheer to help him out.
This delightful story is the epitome of opposites attract. Jordan is an introverted nerd on the edge of being misanthropic; Harrison is a bright, confident jock. There are a series of mishaps that plague Jordan on this big day career-wise that are amusing, while also being frustrating. And Harrison’s timely intervention saves the day. It showcases both these characters well, though the story is only told from Jordan’s POV, and sets the tone for the story.
I adored both characters, but Jordan was particularly endearing and relatable for me. I wanted nothing more than these two to finally get on the same page. And when they do, it’s wholly satisfying. Christmas sets a lovely backdrop to the story, and adds and extra bit of cheer. This story was a winner for me through and through.
Ethan Gold Feels Like Home by Suki Fleet—4 stars
Ethan Gold is living out of his car after being thrown out by his aunt. With nowhere else to go, he finds himself drawn to Black Rock Forest. The forest is a place not many people dare go, and Ethan’s mind wanders back to the boy he knew in school who disappeared. When Ethan rescues a naked and freezing man named Win in a snowstorm, he knows he needs to get him help fast. However, Win is terrified of going to a hospital, the roads are impassable, and wolves have surrounded the car. But Win reminds Ethan of that lost boy and he knows he has to help him.
Win instinctively knows he needs to survive the next 24 hours. But he’s so cold and nothing will warm him and he knows stealing Ethan’s warmth will kill Ethan. But Win only wants to be with Ethan because when he thinks of home, he thinks of Ethan. Win knows he has to break the curse upon him and he will do everything to protect Ethan and his home.
Suki Fleet’s stories are usually harrowing in some way, but her words here are melodic and always speak to me. This story pulls in a fantasy vibe as Win has a story and pieces are added to complete his picture. The guys have a past bond already, although it’s one Win is not permitted to speak of.
The story takes Ethan and Win through Win having to survive the insurmountable cold emanating from him, and it’s a somewhat common theme as Fleet’s characters are often freezing from one book to the next. The guys have a strong bond that carries through and it’s easy to see how they want to be together and change their circumstances. The ending went a little sideways for me with both of their stories, and the final pieces felt rushed and not fully evolved. Still, there isn’t a Suki Fleet story I will pass up and the anthology is worth a look for this story alone.
Kissing the Winter Wizard by Amber Kell—3 stars
Sam is doing the best he can for his deceased sister’s child, but he can’t get custody with Maddy’s abusive father holding the reins. However, Sam spends as much time with Maddy as he can, and when he takes the eleven-year old on a picnic in a secret park, he bows to the child’s pestering and kisses the statue. Sam never imagined that with that one act, his entire life would change. Because now he has a self-proclaimed soulmate with a fanciful story about magic and Maddy is in dire straits.
This story is pretty short and it barely scratches the surface. There are some pretty heavy themes, including abuse of a child, which, while playing an important role in the story, are barely explored. The story takes a turn with the introduction of magic, but that too is barely touched upon. In fact, it’s hard to believe that Sam feels a connection with his new soulmate, Allard, at all. Though he says he does, it’s not shown. Then more trauma happens, magic fixes it, and all is well in the world. The world building is nonexistent, and with the lack of depth, I found I had a hard time really becoming invested in this story at all.
For a quick read, it’s fine, but only if you don’t expect more than a bird’s eye view without any real depth.
A Night to Remember by Susan Mac Nicol – 3 stars
Milas is a university student just getting by and the one bright spot of his day is when he gets to see Teddy. Milas hasn’t gotten up the courage to speak to Teddy yet and has taken to following him sometimes to find out more about him. When they hear a homeless man playing on the street, they are captivated by the music and each other. A spark of an idea has the men arranging a Christmas Eve concert to benefit the homeless and, while it’s cold outside, the warmth of the holiday spirit brings new adventures.
This story is one of the shortest in the anthology with only two short chapters. It starts out cute, with Milas trying to figure out how to get Teddy to notice him. The thing is that Teddy has already noticed him and is waiting for Milas to make his move. The men have one brief conversation before the entire story gets turned over to the street concert they plan.
While touching on important topics such as the 1980s AIDS crisis, homelessness, and family ties, many of the topics in the story felt forced in. There is a lot of talk about Christmas, but then it is revealed that Teddy is Jewish and that also felt like it was another box to check off with no background to that, which was unfortunate. The men develop a relationship that is almost entirely off page and this story’s primary focus is on the street concert depicted in the title. It started off promising, but slides away from me by the end as it needed more development.
The Christmas Pony by Jackie North—4 stars
Ty’s last job for the trucking company is to deliver a pony and despite the raging blizzard he probably shouldn’t drive through, he’s determined to make a little girl’s Christmas exactly what it was meant to be. Besides, considering he’s out of a job at the end of the year and he’s got no family left, what else he is going to do on Christmas? But what Ty finds at the Farthingdale ranch is much more than just a girl excited for her new pony. It’s a second chance and a new lease on life.
Two notes about this story right off the bat. This story is not a romance, but instead about a man who feels very lost finding kindness from strangers and exactly what he didn’t know he needed. And this is part of the author’s Farthingdale Ranch series. It mostly works as a standalone, though I did feel that not having the background on the secondary characters worked against the story for me. I did feel a little lost at times, trying to figure out all the connections between the characters, especially because there wasn’t a lot to go on here considering the short word count.
Ty is a broken man. He’s lost a lot recently; first his father and then his job. Come the end of the year, he doesn’t know what he’s going to do next. North hits a lot of poignant notes in this story. Ty is introspective and thoughtful, sad but empathetic, caring and kind, and it’s clear he has a huge heart. On top of that, it’s easy to see how connected he feels to the ranch from the moment he arrives, and the way the people there take him in and open their hearts to him is really nice to see. This is the kind of quiet story that embodies what the season should be about.