Jacquelyn Mitchard, . . HarperCollins, $14.95 (132pp) ISBN 978-0-06-056557-2

No heartstring goes untugged in this slim but moving Christmas story from award-winning journalist, screenwriter, bestselling novelist and children's book author Mitchard (Twelve Times Blessed ; The Rest of Us ; The Most Wanted ). It's December 23, and Elliott Banner and his wife, Laura, are celebrating their 14th wedding anniversary with a romantic dinner at a good Italian restaurant and a performance of the Cirque du Soleil. Soon after the show, their car breaks down in a Boston tunnel, and Elliott's beloved is stricken with a crippling headache that sends them to a nearby hospital. After a physical exam and an MRI, compassionate, fatherly Dr. Campanile advises them to call the family together; Laura has a brain hemorrhage. "Now, how can I say this? It is too late. She will die, and I am sorry beyond an ability to tell you." Laura has 24 hours to live, which takes them to Christmas Eve. The clan gathers: Laura and Elliott's three young daughters, Annie, Rory and Amelia; Laura's mother, Miranda; her two sisters, Suzanne and Angela; and her feckless brother, Stephen. After a loving recap of a life well lived (including a surprise secret), everyone gets a final hug and a kiss from Laura. What could easily have become a quicksand of sentimentality is saved by Mitchard's straightforward writing, which is poignant rather than mawkish, sometimes mordant and, despite the theme of the story, surprisingly humorous. Laura does die, something the reader knows will happen from the very beginning. Her death is undeniably sad, but a final chapter offers the bereft Elliott and his three daughters the Christmas present Laura promised would be theirs: hope for the future. (Nov.)

Forecast: Mitchard's books are usually bestsellers, and though there is competition from other uplifting Christmas tales (Richard Paul Evans's A Perfect Day [Forecasts, Aug. 25]; Eric Jerome Dickey's Naughty or Nice [Forecasts, Oct. 6]), her fans will likely buy enough of these for gift giving to boost it onto some lists at least for the holiday season.