Continuing our exploration of books published years ago—some many years ago—but not discovered by some of us until now, in our hour of need: Here are some bewitching fantasies sure to capture your imagination and attention, should you deign to read them…
The first is a series within a series, but then, the majority of Sir Terry Pratchett‘s books fall into that category, I think—Discworld is all-enveloping. But this series is specific to itself as well, and delightful in all ways. It’s the set of five Tiffany Aching books, beginning with The Wee Free Men and ending with The Shepherd’s Crown, which also happens to be Terry’s last book.
In the beginning, it’s young Tiffany Aching, armed only with a frying pan and her enormous common sense, who stands between the monsters of Fairyland and the Chalk country that is her home. Her beloved grandmother, the Witch of the Chalk, has died, and now it’s up to Tiffany, young and unprepared as she is, to take over. When her brother is kidnapped by a fairy and Tiffany has to enter Fairyland to find him and get him back, Tiffany discovers some unusual allies, the Nac Mac Feegle, or Wee Free Men. They are a clan of sheep-stealing, sword-fighting, six-inch-high blue men with proper kilts and Scottish accents, who may be small but are definitely fierce enough to make up for it. Together Tiffany and the Feegle must confront the cruel Queen of the Elves.
In the second book, A Hat Full of Sky, Tiffany’s exploits in retrieving her brother have brought her to the notice of witches, under the leadership of Granny Weatherwax. They arrange for her to be apprenticed to Miss Level, from whom she learns that there’s little magic involved in witchcraft—it’s more a case of midwifery, hospice, herbal lore, and the settling of village disputes. Tiffany scorns much of this, acting like a typical angsty teenager…but this is unlike the usually practical girl. It seems that something more sinister is at work, a malign influence that took hold when Tiffany learned the trick of hopping out of her body for a bit and leaving an “open house.”
In the third book, Tiffany confronts the Wintersmith; in the fourth, I Shall Wear Midnight, she has completed her training and has returned home to become the Witch of the Chalk, only to encounter the seeds of great evil taking over the world; and in the final book, The Shepherd’s Crown, she stands with all the witches against the fairy hordes wanting to overrun her land. It’s a great series, enlivened by dark humor, profound pronouncements, a few bad puns, and of course by the little blue men with their equally blue vocabulary.
All you Miyazaki fans out there have probably long since discovered his animé of Howl’s Moving Castle, by Dianna Wynne Jones, but have you ever read the original source material? If not, you are in for a treat; the movie greatly abridged and “adjusted” the plot, which is so delightful that it deserves to be visited or revisited, depending.
It has one of those first lines that I love:
“In the land of Ingary, where such things as seven-league boots and cloaks of invisibility really exist, it is quite a misfortune to be born the eldest of three.”
This misfortune falls to 18-year-old Sophie Hatter, who is turned by the Witch of the Waste into an old woman. In search of a cure, Sophie tracks down and confronts the local wizard, who travels about the countryside in a castle that moves of its own accord, courtesy of its resident fire demon. Sophie has to figure out how to outwit Howl, employ the fire demon, and overcome the Witch of the Waste to regain her youth. But along the way, what an adventure it will be!
Totally original and delightful, this book will appeal to all ages and genders. Don’t be fooled by its allocation into middle school book lists, this is a fantasy for everyone. Castle in the Air and House of Many Ways are the two sequels.
Another writer with a body of work that mostly connects between all books (like those of Ursula K. LeGuin’s from another recent post) is urban fantasy writer Charles de Lint. If you are a fan of books that seem to be set in the contemporary world but have another, parallel world connected through whose gates the faery folk and Native American archetypes slip from time to time, you must check out his Newford books. They number in excess of 20 by now, but although he has numbered them sequentially, you don’t necessarily have to read them in a particular order. While it is true that characters who reappear will be minor in one and the main protagonist of another, you don’t miss much by jumping in wherever you feel like it. Also, a fair number of the books consist of short stories that bring you up to date about individual people and story lines, should you wish to seek them out.
My favorite two books of his are Memory and Dream, and Trader, which are actually #2 and #4. The first book is written partly in the present, partly in the past, and I am reluctant to reveal too much, because the book is specifically designed for you to discover its surprises as you go along. It begins in 1992, with successful but reclusive abstract artist Isabelle Copley having two jarring experiences on the same day: She receives a letter from her best friend, who has been dead for five years, and is then contacted by another friend, a publisher who wants Isabelle to illustrate an anthology of her dead friend’s short stories. But Isabelle has sworn an oath to never again paint realistically…. Then the book jumps back to 1973, when Izzy is living a bohemian lifestyle with her two best friends (the writer and the publisher) in the city of Newford, studying art under the formidable Vincent Rushkin. One of the greatest living painters and know for his eccentricities, he agrees to take Isabelle on as an apprentice…but despite the miraculous painting techniques she is learning from him, Izzy doesn’t know how much longer she can put up with his controlling and abusive behavior….
The book explores a number of ideas, on a variety of levels, from the nature of art to the knowledge of the people in our lives, to what we are willing to put up with in order to learn the things we want to know. It’s dramatic, magical, and beautifully written.
Trader is a somewhat familiar story—a body swap—that is nonetheless fresh and arresting in the hands of fantasist de Lint. Johnny, an unemployed, womanizing, hard-drinking wastrel, falls asleep wishing for a different life, one with money and advantages, in which people appreciate him. His dream, influenced by the Native American artifact he clutches in his hand as he sleeps, intersects with the discontented, weary spirit of Max, whose existence has become about little more than his work, and who has lost his initial joy in his trade as a musician and guitar maker. They wake up in each others’ bodies, and while Johnny gleefully adapts to Max’s comfortable lifestyle, Max is left penniless, homeless, and with enemies seeking him, and has to figure out what has become of the real Max Trader. Their journeys intersect in both worldly and other-worldly ways, abetted and hindered by friends and foes both human and, well, not.
Some other fantasy duos, trilogies, and series that might appeal to you as long and involving reads:
Strange the Dreamer and Muse of Nightmares, by Laini Taylor
The Shades of Magic books, by V. E. Schwab
Seraphina and Shadow Scale, by Rachel Hartman
The Lumatere Chronicles, by Melina Marchetta (three enormous volumes)
Mary Stewart’s Arthurian saga, beginning with The Crystal Cave
If you read any of the books discussed here, I’d love to hear what you thought of them—did you enjoy them, and did they meet your expectations based on these book-talks?
I tried to think of one word to describe the Ruth Galloway series of archaeological mysteries by Elly Griffiths, and there you see it in the title: Uneven.
The series first started with The Crossing Places, and that book was gripping if only because of its novelty: The plot conceit is that the skeleton of a little girl is discovered and the police, represented by Detective Inspector Harry Nelson, call in Ruth Galloway, a 30-something forensic archaeologist who lives near the fens in Norfolk, to inspect the bones and verify whether it is a modern or an ancient murder. Then a contemporary girl goes missing, and Inspector Nelson begins receiving letters—taunting clues that remind him of the unsolved case of a lost girl from a decade before.
Book #11, The Stone Circle, is virtually identical in plot, to the point where I had a real experience of déja vu the entire time I was reading it. Bones are found, then more bones are found, letters are received, then a child is abducted…. Out of the 11 books in the Ruth Galloway series, they pretty much fall into one of two categories—either gripping or dull on an almost every-other-one basis. This one, I’m sad to say, was dull as well as repetitive. In addition to mimicking the formula of a cold case that heats up when a new body is found, it even produces the son of a controversial character from the first book to serve as a mostly irritating red herring. This book almost seemed like a place-holder until Griffiths had a better idea.
I was already waffling over continuing this series: After reading the last book, which was at least original in plot and took us away from the fens to Italy, I was so annoyed by the soap opera of the personal relationships that remained bollixed up that I was ready to give up. People kept doing the same things and expecting different results. This book made that frustration even worse.
It was almost a relief, at the end of this derivative story, to conclude that it was time to quit reading…but then I saw a synopsis of the newest (which will release in July) and finally, something has changed significantly: Ruth has a new job, a new home away from Norfolk, and a new PARTNER. Intriguing. Okay, maybe I will read just one more…
Meanwhile, to those who read #10, The Dark Angel, I would say, get someone who already read #11 to give you the few details on the personal relationships that you need to bring you up to date (you can email me if you want!), but by all means skip reading The Stone Circle and go directly to #12 when it becomes available!
There are those authors such as Louise Penny, Michael Connelly, Robert Crais (mystery writers), or Maggie Stiefvater, Leigh Bardugo, Sarah J. Maas (young adult fantasy) who reliably turn out books in their ongoing series year after year. You can almost set your clock by Penny at this point. I know that every August, I will be reading another book about Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, and I am happier for it.
At the opposite end of the spectrum are authors who start with good intentions but for various reasons fail to deliver, sometimes for years or even decades. If you love their writing, you have to be willing to wait. You can’t hurry them; their process is their process, and it’s not going to go faster because a lot of fans are being petulant and demanding. So you have to love their writing so much that you are willing to re-read what you have, sometimes multiple times, until the next book finally appears.
One that comes to mind is The Queen’s Thief series, by Megan Whelan Turner, in which she wrote the first book (1996), we waited four years for the second, six years for the third, four more years for the fourth, and seven years for the most recent, which came out in 2017. Turner is promising #6 (which may be the final volume) for 2020, but given her track record, I am not holding my breath. But when it arrives, it will be greeted with cries of joy, and I will re-read the series for what, the fourth time? to celebrate its completion, because it is just that good.
Another is the dystopian fantasy known as The Obernewtyn Chronicles, by Australian writer Isobelle Carmody. She started the series while she was in high school. She finished it in 2015. She was 57 years old.
I loved that series so much that when the final book was published in Australia a year before it was due to come out here, I did a trade with a young Aussie friend on Goodreads. She wanted Cornelia Funke‘s third book in the Mirrorworld series, which was not released in Australia (and speaking of which, wondering when there will be a book #4?), and I wanted The Red Queen, so we traded addresses and mailed them to one another.
Finally, there are writers who start a series, go like gangbusters for the first few volumes, and then…nothing. The subject of this blog post is one of these, and it’s not to make any particular point but simply because it’s an amusing anecdote.
In the internet age, it’s a lot easier to make a personal connection with an author, and because of the ease of contact, it’s also more likely they will get back to you. Imagine being able to type a few lines on your computer keyboard instead of hand- or type-writing your response on actual paper, putting it in an envelope, addressing it, scrounging up a stamp…no wonder fan letters didn’t get such frequent responses!
Recently I was moved to make one such contact, due to some extenuating circumstances, and here below are the results.
The email was to Jasper Fforde, author of the series The Last Dragonslayer. Book #1 came out in 2010, book #2 in 2011, book #3 in 2014, and then…nothing. A listing on Goodreads with a potential title and no book cover was the best one could find for the subsequent 5+ years.
TO: Jasper Fforde
FROM: A Fforde reader
Dude. Are you EVER going to write the last book in The Last Dragonslayer series??? Because in addition to needing to oblige this elderly librarian fan, you now have 14 English literature students in CHINA eagerly awaiting results.
One of my former book club kids at the library went on to study languages at Berkeley and then got a job teaching English literature to Chinese students in China. He wasn’t having a lot of luck raising their reading skills, so I told him to dump the classics and give them something to read that they would actually ENJOY, and recommended The Last Dragonslayer by you. I checked in with him today on Facebook and asked him if his students had liked the book. Here is his reply:
my literature students loved the book
they quote it often
and they are in the middle of writing an essay on it
i’m proud of them.
one student now refers to himself as the mighty shandar
As you can see, it is absolutely imperative that you get that one done. International relations depend upon it.
Adjunct professor, UCLA MLIS
Teen librarian (retired)
Two weeks later, he replied:
Dude, yes I am (and thanks for calling me dude).
It’s the book I’m working on now, and will probably be called something like: “Trolls v. Humans, a titanic struggle of good against evil, with ample breaks for tea and cake.”
So panic not.
I wrote him back:
I live in California, where it is required by law that you “dude” someone at least once in the course of an acquaintance. I like to get it out of the way up front.
I am supremely happy to receive this news. I will at once reassure the Chinese that they can expect it forthwith, and I promise a review on my blog of the new book plus the entire quarky series, once Trolls v. Humans lands among us.
Sincerely and with great joy,
Have YOU ever exchanged correspondence with an author? Tell your story in the comments…
Sometimes reading Kate Atkinson’s books make you feel like you’re meeting your cousin for coffee.
She sits down and, before you can pick a topic of conversation, she launches into a long narrative about her friend Janey. Now, you have met Janey a few times, but you don’t know any of the other players, who include Janey’s ex-husband and his exploits with the new wife, her two sons, one of whom has made her proud and the other who has gone AWOL, and her formerly drug-addicted daughter for whom childbirth was transformative and who is now out looking for real estate with her shiny new hubby. As you listen, you think, I know that these intimate details of Janey’s life are interesting to someone, but why would you think they would be interesting to me? Could we address subjects that are applicable to us both, please?
If you have a relationship with your cousin such that you could actually say something like that (instead of just listening interminably and politely), your cousin might then say, Oh, I’m telling you all this with a purpose, I come into the story later, just wait for it. So you wait…and you wait…and you wait. And while you are waiting, you are thinking to yourself, Gee, I hope the eventual point of this story is worth it.
Most of the time, when reading Kate Atkinson, it IS worth it. But sometimes you do feel like Doubting Thomas and just want to poke someone!
Big Sky, which is Jackson Brodie book #5, is the epitome of Brodie’s favorite saying, which is,
“A coincidence is just an explanation waiting to happen.”
Although Jackson himself is involved with a fairly mundane set of clients—a woman whose spouse is cheating on her, an entrapment plan regarding a guy on the internet trying to lure young girls—the stuff going on around him, to which he is largely oblivious until it is thrust under his nose and he has to pay attention, is pretty major. There is a scandal from the past that has resurfaced with the imminent release from prison of one of the perpetrators; there is a current drama that only emerges as its links with the past bring the protagonists to the fore; and there’s a whole lot of interpersonal stuff going on. All of this is positively rife with coincidence.
It’s been 10 years since Atkinson wrote her last Brodie book, and she chose to age everyone to the appropriate point, from Jackson’s son, Nathan, now a sulky teen, and his daughter, Marlee, about to embark on marriage, to various others from his past, including the wonderful Reggie Chase, last encountered at age 16 but now a Detective Constable in Yorkshire.
Reggie and her partner, Ronnie (equally diminutive but fierce), have been tasked with following up on some details from a supposedly closed case, a vast pedophile ring that encompassed businessmen, politicians, and power brokers in its “magic circle” of depravity. But as they poke at the case, with many of the original players long dead, it becomes clear that something else has emerged from that old association, equally as sinister in its own way, run by the hangers-on from back in the day, who are equally adamant about keeping their secrets. Brodie, typically clueless, somehow bumbles into and out of association with most of the people involved, with sometimes tragic and sometimes comedic effect. The best characters to emerge from this scrum, in terms of reader interest, are definitely Crystal Holroyd and her stepson, Harry.
As I read, I thought that the fact that Atkinson had waited 10 years to bring Brodie back, coupled with the reintroduction of so many characters from the previous novels, would surely signify a satisfying ending to this long adventure, but no. Things between Jackson and Louise are still dangling; we don’t know what happened to Tracy and Courtney; and while the details of this particular outing are mostly resolved, there are a few loose ends that could be tidied, should Atkinson choose to do so. I’m thinking there may be another book in Brodie’s future.
If I’m honest, I’m glad there isn’t another one right now, though; I think my next read is going to be something “fluffy,” with a limited number of characters and relationships and a story told all in one perfectly straight line….
For those who appreciate a lengthier read, I have attempted to round up some novels with Christmas themes or settings and, in doing so, not make you doubt my good taste!
For ’tis true, ’tis true that a plethora of Christmas tales exist, but whether you want to read any of them is the question. I have, therefore, found a few I would consider a bit more literary, and a bunch that are connected to some genre series, since much may be forgiven your favorite authors when they sell out, er, decide to delight you with a Christmas-related chapter.
First off, consider two short, sparkling comedies set at Christmas-time by Nancy Mitford, the writer later known for Love in a Cold Climate. Christmas Pudding and Pigeon Pie are Oscar Wilde-ish “great house” stories with a cast of ridiculous upper-crust characters rivaled only by those depicted by E. F. Benson and P. G. Wodehouse.
Next, there’s Wishin’ and Hopin’, a Christmas story by Wally Lamb, which focuses on a feisty parochial school boy named Felix Funicello—a distant cousin of the iconic Annette.
In a similar humorous vein, check out comedian Dave Barry’s The Shepherd, the Angel, and Walter the Christmas Miracle Dog. Or, on a more sympathetic note, Frank McCourt’s Angela and the Baby Jesus, relating the story of when his mother Angela was six years old and felt sorry for the Baby Jesus, out in the cold in the Christmas crib at St. Joseph’s Church….
The Christmas Train, by David Baldacci, is not a book I have read, but it sounds like a perfect storm of circumstances guaranteed to be entertaining, landing a former journalist on a train over the Christmas holidays with his current girlfriend, his former love, and a sneak thief, all headed towards an avalanche in the midst of an historic blizzard.
Skipping Christmas, by John Grisham, follows the fate of Luther and Nora Krank, who decide that, just this once, they will forego the tree-trimming, the annual Christmas Eve bash, and the fruitcakes in favor of a Caribbean cruise.
One of my personal favorites to re-read this time of year is Winter Solstice, by Rosamunde Pilcher. It is sentimental without being mawkish, and brings together an unusual cast of characters in an interesting situation bound to produce results.
Now we enter the realm of franchise genre fare with a nod to Christmas:
The Christmas Scorpion is a Jack Reacher story (e-book only) by Lee Child, in which Jack’s intention to spend the holidays in warm temperatures surrounded by the palm trees of California somehow lands him instead in the midst of a blizzard facing a threat from the world’s deadliest assassin.
There are many in the mystery category, from Agatha Christie to Murder Club to baked goods-filled cozies:
In Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, by Agatha Christie, a curmudgeonly father turns up dead after telling all four of his sons, home for Christmas, that he is cutting off their allowances and changing his will. Poirot suspends his own festivities to solve the murder.
James Patterson has a couple of entries: The 19th Christmas, a Women’s Murder Club book, and Merry Christmas, Alex Cross, starring his popular detective trying to make it back alive for the most sacred of family days.
Charlaine Harris’s unconventional pseudo-cozy series about housekeeper and body builder Lily Bard features Shakespeare’s Christmas, in which Lily solves a four-year-old kidnapping case while at home for her sister’s Christmas wedding.
In a similar manner (though with quite different affect!), Rhys Bowen’s Irish lass Molly Murphy attends an elegant house party at a mansion on the Hudson in The Ghost of Christmas Past, and tries to fathom the reappearance of a girl who disappeared 10 years ago.
Anne Perry, known for her historical fiction featuring the Pitts (Charlotte and Thomas) and the rather darker William Monk, has written 16 Victorian Christmas mysteries to date, the latest being A Christmas Revelation (2018).
Cozy mystery writer and baker Joanne Fluke has written at least four full-length books plus some short stories enticingly evoking Christmas cake, sugar cookies, plum pudding, candy canes, and gingerbread cookies, all with the word “Murder” appended.
And Ellen Byron continues her hijinks in Bayou country with Maggie Crozat in A Cajun Christmas Killing, complete with recipes.
In the Western genre, you can find A Colorado Christmas, by William W. and J. A. Johnstone, in which one family’s Christmas gathering turns into a gunslinging fight for survival, and A Lawman’s Christmas, by Linda Lael Miller, a combination of love story and western set in 1900s Blue River, Texas.
One writer of whom I am fond, in the “relationship fiction” category, is Jenny Colgan, and she has made the most of her Christmas opportunities. The only problem with them is, each and every one is a sequel to one of her other books, so without reading the first, you will be somewhat lost inside the Christmas special. She has written four “Christmas at” or “Christmas on” books to date, set in the previously detailed locales of Rosie Hopkins’ Sweetshop, the Cupcake Café, the Island, and the Little Beach Street Bakery. But if you want some enjoyable, lighthearted fare a step beyond a simple romance, you may want to read the first books and come back for the Christmas ones.
In straightforward and utterly enjoyable chick lit, we have Christmas Shopaholic, by Sophie Kinsella, an ode to shopping with a Christmas theme for her popular heroine, Becky Bloomwood Brandon.
And then we hit the high tower of paperbacks that is the romance genre. I’m not even going to try to name all the books written within the environs of romance series, I’ll just give you a list of authors, and if you see a familiar one, go look her up on Goodreads with the word “Christmas” appended to her name:
Mary Kay Andrews, Jennifer Chiaverini, Janet Dailey, Johanna Lindsey, Debbie Macomber, Fern Michaels, Linda Lael Miller, Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, Nancy Thayer, Sherryl Woods…and so on. There are PAGES of titles.
Finally, if you are a nonfiction kinda person, I’m tagging on a couple for you, too:
In I’m Dreaming of a Black Christmas, comedian Lewis Black says humbug to everything that makes Christmas memorable, in his own engaging, curmudgeonly style.
In their quest to provide mathematical proof for the existence of Santa, the authors of The Indisputable Existence of Santa Claus: The Mathematics of Christmas, by Dr. Hannah Fry and Dr. Thomas Oléron Evans painstakingly analyze every activity, from wrapping presents to cooking a turkey to setting up a mathematically perfect Secret Santa. Lighthearted and diverting, with Christmassy diagrams, sketches and graphs, Markov chains, and matrices.
If you can’t find something to read and enjoy from THIS list, I wish you a slightly exasperated Joyous Yule, and hope to find you something non-holiday-related to read in the New Year! —The Book Adept
For those of you who are emphatically not schmaltzy and sentimental at Christmas, let us move past the classic Christmas stories to something a bit more tart than sweet.
You may not want to read these around the fire, for fear of offending the more traditional of your number…but then again, you may! There’s everything from the paranormal to the extraterrestrial, also featuring talking pigs, superior valets, and murder most festive.
Wolfsbane and Mistletoe,
edited by Charlaine Harris and Toni L. P. Keiner
The promotional copy says it all: “Whether wolfing down a holiday feast (use your imagination) or craving some hair of the dog on New Year’s morning, the werewolves in these frighteningly original stories will surprise, delight, amuse, and scare the pants off readers who love a little wolfsbane with their mistletoe.”
The Christmas Pig: A Fable, by Kinky Friedman
A king decides to hire an artist to paint a nativity scene for Christmas. His assistant suggests a 10-year-old autistic boy, Benjamin, who is a talented painter, and Benjamin retreats to a barn to begin painting the king’s commission. There, he befriends Valerie, a talking pig who brings Benjamin out of his shell. Ben wants to paint his new best friend into the scene, but pigs don’t appear in the biblical story. The description of the book ends with some fateful words: “The ending is the saddest thing since Old Yeller.” I’m kind of afraid to read it. You do it and tell me about it.
A Lot Like Christmas, by Connie Willis
If you know Connie Willis, the Hugo and Nebula award-winning science fiction author, you will realize that although this is a book of Christmas stories, they will be the opposite of “twee,” and will put a speculative spin on the holiday.
The rest of these offerings are also to be chalked up to Connie, who, at the end of her first collection of Christmas stories (Miracle), offered a list of a dozen more that she herself appreciates. I have a feeling that many of us will, too. I only included the ones for which I could find a source, since some are both ancient and obscure!
The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, by Barbara Robinson
The Herdman kids are the worst—they lie, steal swear, smoke, you name it. Who would have thought they would decide to come to church one Sunday to take over the production of the annual Christmas pageant? None of the Herdmans has ever even heard the Christmas story before! It will definitely be the most unusual pageant in history… (This is a children’s book, still readily obtainable.)
“The Santa Claus Compromise” appears in a short story collection called The Man Who Had No Idea, by Thomas M. Disch. The extension of full civil liberties to children leads to some stunning “revelations” about Jolly Old St. Nick as two intrepid six-year-old reporters expose a shocking scandal. (You can find this book used online from Alibris, AbeBooks, and other used book vendors.)
“The Tree That Didn’t Get Trimmed,” by Christopher Morley.
Only read this story if you want a heaping cup of depression substituted for your eggnog! Written in the spirit of “The Little Match Girl” by Hans Christian Andersen, this is told from the viewpoint of a sapling who was cut too soon, thus not achieving that perfection of tapered shape and even foliage desired by everyone looking for a Christmas tree. And so he leans, day after day, against the wall of the green-grocer’s shop, unchosen, and thinks back to how wonderful it was when he lived in the forest and his roots reached down into the earth. It reminded me of the Friends episode when Phoebe goes to the Christmas tree lot with Joey and discovers the purpose of the chipper. Don’t worry, though—the story is nearly impossible to locate!
“Rumpole and the Spirit of Christmas,” by John Mortimer.
Horace Rumpole (quoter of Wordsworth and Shakespeare, smoker of smelly cigars, defender of the innocent, solver of mysteries) isn’t particularly fond of Christmas Day—he finds it has a horrible habit of dragging on as She Who Must Be Obeyed leads him through the usual rituals. But at least the criminal fraternity rarely takes a holiday. (Found in Regina v. Rumpole. There are five more stories to go with it in a separate volume called A Rumpole Christmas: Stories.)
“Jeeves and the Yuletide Spirit,” by P. G. Wodehouse.
Please tell me you are familiar with the amiable but dimwitted man-about-town Bertie Wooster and his inimitable valet, Jeeves? (From the short story collection, Very Good, Jeeves.) Also check out “Another Christmas Carol,” in Wodehouse’s The World of Mr. Mulliner.
And finally, a discovery I made while searching for Willis’s favorites:
How Fear Departed the Long Gallery:
A Ghost Story for Christmas,
by E. F. Benson
I would go to great lengths to find a Christmas story conceived of by the brilliantly catty creator of Queen Lucia and Miss Mapp. Turns out all I had to do was spend 99 cents on a Kindle version. This book is part of an extensive series of Christmas ghost stories illustrated by Seth (Canadian artist Greg Gallant), by such famous names as Edith Wharton, Algernon Blackwood, Frank Cowper, Walter de la Mare, and more. They are all now available on Kindle. Search “Christmas ghost stories by Seth” on Amazon for a list.
One more Christmas list still to come, for those who want something novel-length…
I am currently obsessed with the Icelandic Christmas tradition of jólabókaflóð, which roughly translates as “Yule Book Flood.”
Those Icelanders are a literate bunch, and their idea of the best time ever is to gift one another with a new book on Christmas Eve and then (get this), retire to their beds with said book and a cup of hot cocoa to read away the night!
Unfortunately, this tradition wouldn’t go over big with my family. Some of us are readers, and some of us are not, and even those who have the reading bug want to be reading what they want to read and not what someone else prescribes for them. One year, my cousin Kirsten and I tried to introduce a new Christmas Eve tradition of reading aloud one of the Christmas classics, in between dinner and gifts, but we unwisely began with a story both too long and too complex to go over well (A Christmas Memory, by Truman Capote), and after reading for 10 minutes or so, there were howls of “let’s get on with it!” from the children and the irreverent, so we never tried that again. (Singing around the piano likewise met with derision.)
This is not to say that I have given up the dream, however. Now that I have a reading blog, how about if I foist that dream onto you? Here is a list of Christmas classics—short stories, novellas, and books—that might adapt well to a read-aloud around your winter fire.
The Cricket on the Hearth, by Charles Dickens
A sentimental story centered around two families (the Peerybingles and the Plummers) and the wealthy toy merchant Mr. Takleton who attempts to thwart them. The story features love, jealousy, suspicion, deceit, and a happy ending couched in domestic happiness. The cricket of the title is the guardian angel of the Peerybingle family, lending a touch of magic to the tale. Currently less well known than Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, this was the more beloved of his Christmas tales at time of publication.
“The Gift of the Magi,”
by O. Henry
A classic short story written in 1905, Magi relates the dilemma of a young couple poor in possessions but rich in love, and the sacrifices each must make to buy the other a gift for Christmas.
by Glendon Swarthout
Written for Doubleday in 1977, this book was turned into a film called A Christmas to Remember, starring Joanne Woodward, the following year. St. Martin’s Press re-released the book in 1992 under the title A Christmas Gift. It is a sweet tale of growing up on a Michigan farm during the Great Depression of the 1930s. A middle-aged man remembers a Christmas Eve miracle of his childhood, involving an antique pump organ (melodeon), a 1928 Rumely OilPull tractor, and a strange cavalryman in a blue uniform.
Once Upon A Christmas, by Pearl S. Buck
Buck wrote stories each year for her family and put them together in this book of Christmas reminiscences. While focused on the many manifestations of the Christmas spirit, some are felt to be too depressing, but all are insights into Buck’s life and times, some with the interesting twist of being set in China or Vietnam.
An Irish Christmas Feast: The Best of John B. Keane,
by John Brendan Keane
An omnibus collection of more than 50 stories that draw on the rich folk culture of County Kerry, Ireland, with as much squabbling, toasting, poaching, and praying as anyone could wish for from country people during the Christmas season.
A Christmas Memory, by Truman Capote
The touching auto-biographical story of seven-year-old Buddy and his cousin, the sixty-something Sook, and their yearly quest, despite their poverty, to gather all the ingredients necessary to bake fruitcake for everyone of their acquaintance.
The Ariel Poems: Illustrated Poems for Christmas, by T. S. Eliot
Six poems Eliot wrote for a Christmas collection of pamphlets featuring multiple authors, published between 1927 and 1931.
From this selection, you are certain to find a story that resonates with you and possibly with others who will appreciate it with you this Christmas.
The mail brought me a delightful surprise this past week: Deborah Crombie’s latest in her Kincaid/Duncan mystery series. (I had forgotten that I had excitedly pre-ordered it a few months back.) It’s one of the British police procedural series that I follow religiously, but patience is required for this one, because Crombie is not a speedy writer. This is #18 in the series, and #17 was published in February of 2017, so it’s been a long 31 months in between.
In A Bitter Feast, Scotland Yard Detective Superintendent Duncan Kincaid and his wife, Detective Inspector Gemma James, have been invited for a relaxing weekend in the Cotswolds countryside at Beck House, as guests of the family of Melody Talbot, Gemma’s detective sergeant. The Talbots are wealthy and somewhat notorious as the publishers of one of Britain’s major newspapers, and except for Duncan and Gemma and her friend Doug, Melody has been completely silent about the family connection so as not to influence her co-workers (for good or ill) due to her prominent family connections.
The weekend for which they have been invited is to feature a charity luncheon hosted at the Talbots’ home and catered by chef Viv Holland, whose current position as co-owner of a local pub doesn’t reflect her illustrious background as a Michelin chef. Lady Addie Talbot, always mindful of her own influence and desirous of helping her friends and protégés, sees this luncheon as an opportunity to increase the usually self-effacing Viv’s fame, and accordingly invites national food bloggers and restaurant critics; but this action sets some unexpected events into motion that will scar the day with tragedy and provoke additional crimes to cover someone’s tracks.
This was a somewhat subdued book in the series. That’s not to say it wasn’t thoroughly enjoyable, but it was a bit different in that Duncan and Gemma weren’t the principal cops on the case. You just knew, when the book opened with the prospect of an idyllic country weekend away for the entire Kincaid/James clan, that it was too good to be true, and sure enough a car accident puts Kincaid out of the picture before he can even arrive at the Talbot estate. When the investigation of the two people in the car that hit him turns up a finding of suspicious death, Gemma and Duncan both become involved in the solution of this and another, later crime; but because it’s not their turf, the lead is taken by a local inspector, and they are demoted to the role of helpers. Additionally, because of Duncan’s injuries he’s not his usual competent and capable self, distinctly shaken by the accident and its aftermath.
The mystery is a good one; I enjoyed the past-and-present details of the life of Chef Viv Holland, including all the delectable descriptions of the food she was producing, the cast of characters inhabiting her restaurants (Ibby, Jack, Antonia, Bea, and the charismatic but volatile Irishman, Fergus O’Reilly), and the complications of her personal life. Likewise, the disclosures about Melody Talbot’s parents, Ivan and Lady Addie, the picturing of their beautiful home with its Gertrude Jekyll-inspired gardens, and the sleepy autumnal setting of the golden Cotswolds is compelling and lends additional charm.
One thing that put me off a little: The book became particularly busy, with too much back-and-forth trading off of cars, duties, and childcare, because of the presence of the entire family. Although son Kit plays a somewhat pivotal role in this book, the constant need for Gemma or Duncan to find someone to watch Toby and Charlotte so they could go off and solve crimes added a lot of unnecessary detail, as did all the descriptions of places and activities pursued specifically to entertain the children, from zoos to ice creams to croquet. The story might have been less cluttered if the kids had all gone to the grandparents for the weekend, leaving Gemma and Duncan to enjoy their holiday unfettered and (later) to pursue their sleuthing. Of course, life is messy and cluttered and busy, so perhaps I am just reacting from the perspective of a single person without too much patience for this kind of thing!
Although this is not my favorite of Crombie’s series, it certainly stands up as a worthy participant, and is well worth the time. I just wish she were a faster writer; it’s a long time between books, and I miss Duncan and Gemma while they’re gone!
READERS’ ADVISORY NOTES: This is a great series for dedicated mystery readers whose preference is for detectives with whom they can become familiar and develop continuity and relationship. Both the personal and professional lives of these two are intriguing, and even more so for being lived together. Crombie’s usual habit (not seen in this one) of alternating the lead in each book between Kincaid and James keeps the series fresh. The mysteries are usually satisfyingly complex and mystifying, and maintain attention throughout. And for those whose preference is specifically the British mystery, you can’t beat Crombie, her surprising nationality as a Texan notwithstanding.
It was such an interesting experience for me to pick up the book Snobs, by Julian Fellowes. I have to confess that I am one of the few people on the planet who has never watched a single episode of Downton Abbey; a couple of weeks ago, however, I was scrolling around Amazon Prime looking to be entertained, and encountered a four-part miniseries based on a book by Anthony Trollope, from his Chronicles of Barsetshire series. “Julian Fellowes presents Doctor Thorne” popped up after I had watched a few other BBC productions, and although it is based on a Trollope book and set far earlier than the events of Fellowes’s book Snobs, there was an eerie similarity to the satirical tone set by Fellowes.
On the surface, this is a regular story about a woman who marries a man, regrets her choice, and looks around her for something else to alleviate the boredom. Edith Lavery, caught between eras, is the child of a socially ambitious middle class mother who hopes, through an advantageous marriage for Edith, to make it into the top echelon of British society. Edith, an attractive girl without any particular passions, life ambitions, or schooling, is drifting along, working in a low-paying clerical job and living in a frumpy apartment in the City. Despite being a young woman of 1980s and ’90s London, she wasn’t raised to believe she needed to be her own person or support herself indefinitely, and she cringes at the thought of a continued existence as a single woman of no means.
Then, a weekend stay in the country and a tourist’s visit to a “stately home” brings her to the attention of Charles, Earl Broughton, and suddenly she catches a whiff of what it would be like to step into the life of the future Marquess of Uckfield, with family estates in Sussex and Norfolk. To know all the “right” people and to be acknowledged by them, invited into their homes, accepted as one of them. Charles, while being a rather dull dog fixated on managing his estates and having his yearly shooting parties, is considered by society to be quite the eligible bachelor, and Edith carefully makes her play to ensnare this rather stodgy but not unappealing young aristocrat.
Four months later, having quickly exhausted all her inner resources (which were, admittedly, few) by playing Lady Bountiful to the surrounding tenants, running committees, and dutifully embracing the country life alongside her sharp-eyed mother-in-law, Lady Uckfield, and her kind but deeply stupid father-in-law, the Marquess, Edith’s eye is caught by a man completely different to her husband—handsome, flirtatious, sexually provocative, and flatteringly attentive—and she begins to consider whether she has made a disastrous mistake.
The thing is, though, this book is not entirely or even mostly about the surface story. Although the elements of a marriage made for all the wrong reasons are its ostensible reason for existing, the tale is a much more compelling one; the events of Edith’s and Charles’s lives are used as a primer for an explanation of the minute yet deadly intricacies of the upper echelons of English society. The narrator, an anomaly himself as an actor who has emerged from the aristocratic upper class and thus moves freely amongst multiple cliques, does a masterful job of seeing and explaining the nuances of each move made by the pertinent characters, from Edith and Charles to each of the true aristocrats and desperate social climbers involved in the story.
The one thing that irritated me about “Julian Fellowes presents Doctor Thorne” when I watched it was the bracketing remarks made by Fellowes, which, although they followed in the footsteps of Masterpiece Theater’s introductions by the eminent Alastair Cooke, came across as pedantic rather than creating a pleasant framework for each episode. Surprisingly, however, although the unnamed narrator of Snobs serves much the same function in breaking down and analyzing the manners and motives of all its characters, I didn’t have the same reaction to him, and in fact enjoyed and looked forward to his digressions.
This book had much the same effect, although longer and far more complex, as did Alan Bennett’s commentary on the Queen’s new addiction in his novella, The Uncommon Reader. Fellowes’s witty, sometimes acerbic take on social protocols among the British elite was spot-on. Anyone who has rank has status, and with status comes singular mannerisms, language and social morés far too subtle for the commoner to comprehend. But as someone who springs from the bosom of this class, Fellowes (and his narrator) are completely capable of subtle but devastating mockery alongside good-natured kindness and empathy, and their revelations intrigued me.