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Book Review: On Her Majesty's Secret Service

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On Her Majesty's Secret Service
Ian Fleming, 1963

So when we were researching Christmas espionage for the podcast, I realized I never wrote a review of this novel. And that was an oversight that could not stand.

I need to start by saying that I enjoy the Bond books. They are dated. They are sometimes awful. But I love the style, and I love how much more complex they are than the films.

For one thing, the series, taken as a whole, is the story of a man who has a thankless, terrible job that forces him to be a heartless weapon. The books very seldom glamorize the life of a spy.

In On Her Majesty's Secret Service, Bond is tired of it all. He's ready to chuck the whole career in the bin, and he grasps at his whirlwind romance with Tracy as one bright thing, a light at the end of the tunnel. When we meet her, she's traumatized and suicidal after being abandoned by a husband and the death of a child. Bond is drawn to her need for rescue, but we never see whether the relation…

Book Review: The Battle of Life

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We all know A Christmas Carol was a great success, but what about the stories that tried to follow it? Dickens released four more special Christmas volumes following the publication of A Christmas Carol. I'm reading through them all this year.


The Battle of Life: A Love Story
Charles Dickens, 1846

This third novella wasn’t as unfocused and odd as The Chimes or as charming as The Cricket on the Hearth. It was just sort of... there.

If anything, it’s even less Christmassy, as one important scene takes place at “the Christmas season” and the rest is vague, but probably not in winter.

The story takes place in a village that sits on the site of an ancient battle. Many characters make reference to the history, and the primary thematic conflict is between the older men who believe that in contrast to the past, life is “too easy” or “a joke,” and the young people, who believe that everyone is struggling in their ways, and just because their battles are of the heart does not make them less …

Book Review: In Peppermint Peril

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In Peppermint Peril
Joy Avon, 2018

New Release! I received a copy of this book from NetGalley for the purpose of review.

I almost didn’t write a review for this book, because I sort of felt bad. Unless it’s a new pseudonym (completely possible) this is the first book by a new author. And it’s not horrible, it’s just sort of broken. It’s a mishmash of mystery tropes that doesn’t recognize why some work together and others don’t.

It’s a holiday mystery that has little to do with the holiday. It has Agatha Christie elements but only sometimes. It has many, many side elements that read like references to previous books (that don’t exist). Worst of all, it’s a cozy mystery with a boring main character.

Cozy mysteries live and die by their leads. Almost always female, commonly bakers or small business owners, most modern cozy leads have romantic plots with happy endings or they have husbands who endorse their part-time mystery solving. Not every mystery lead has to be a winner - usually you …

Book Review: The Cricket on the Hearth

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We all know A Christmas Carol was a great success, but what about the stories that tried to follow it? Dickens released four more special Christmas volumes following the publication of A Christmas Carol. I'm reading through them all this year.


The Cricket on the Hearth: A Fairy Tale of Home
Charles Dickens, 1845

This is the only one of these stories that I had heard the title of before doing any research. Like The Chimes, it’s not explicitly a Christmas story (it’s set in early January), but it was released in December as part of Dickens’ sequence of illustrated holiday novellas. Unlike The Chimes, there’s a lot to enjoy about this one.

The Cricket on the Hearth is sort of like if Dickens wrote a romcom. There’s a little supernatural stuff and a little moralizing, but most of it is just delightful character studies and misunderstandings that get resolved to everyone’s happiness at the end.

The story starts with Dot Peerybingle, a young woman happy in her home and her life with her …

Book Review: The Chimes

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We all know A Christmas Carol was a great success, but what about the stories that tried to follow it? Dickens released four more special Christmas volumes following the publication of A Christmas Carol. I'm reading through them all this year.


The Chimes: A Goblin Story of Some Bells that Rang an Old Year Out and a New Year In
Charles Dickens, 1844

Wow. I wasn't really expecting greatness with these, but I am surprised how much this actually feels like a knock-off of A Christmas Carol. Dickens saw so much success from Carol that it makes sense that he would try to recreate that magic, but this piece just... doesn't work.

It follows Trotty, a poor elderly man who scrapes together a living running errands for people and is easily swayed by other people's opinions. His daughter brings him a lunch treat on New Year's Eve with the news that she and her sweetheart are getting married. Then some rich jerks see them and lay down a bunch of relatively nonsensical shaming - t…

Book Review: The Santa Claus Man: The Rise and Fall of a Jazz Age Con Man

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The Santa Claus Man: The Rise and Fall of a Jazz Age Con Man and the Invention of Christmas in New York
Alex Palmer, 2015

Premise: In the early 1900s, more children began to write letters to Santa, and the Post Office asked for help. Enter John Duval Gluck Jr. and his creation: The Santa Claus Association.

This was an interesting book overall, although the payoff is smaller than I would have preferred.

The book paints a complex and intriguing picture of New York in the first few decades of the twentieth century, particularly around Christmas. The specific story of Gluck and his various "charities" is only the largest thread; the book also explores early influences on the image of Santa, how various staples of Christmas (public tree-lightings, parades, etc.) started or became notable in New York City.

I actually thought the information about how children came to write to Santa in the first place and how it was affected by the spread of efficient mail service was one of the mo…

Book Review: Krampusnacht: Twelve Nights of Krampus

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Krampusnacht: Twelve Nights of Krampus
Edited by Kate Wolford, 2014

Premise: Twelve short stories about Krampus. Variously known as the Christmas demon, the punisher of naughty children, and the star of severalrecent horror movies, Krampus has been having a bit of a moment recently.

Anthologies are generally hit and miss, and in attempting to please many tastes, this one definitely had some misses for me.

It starts fairly strong. "Prodigious" by Elizabeth Twist straddles myth and contemporary fiction tropes decently with a young man who plays Krampus at a toy store. "The Wicked Child" by Elise Forier Edie follows with something akin to a fairy tale, blending aspects of St Nicholas and Black Peter.

"Marching Krampus" by Jill Corddry was not short or funny enough for its thin "bratty sibling revenge" concept.

"Peppermint Sticks" by Colleen H. Robbins has some strong ideas about a darker interpretation of Christmas elves, but I didn't …

Book Review: The Silence of the Elves

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The Silence of the Elves
Meg Muldoon, 2016

Premise: Holly's been demoted right out of the North Pole through no fault of her own, but she'll need more than hope to get her life back on track.

You may recall that I kind of liked another one of Meg Muldoon's holiday-themed cozy mysteries, so when I saw she had a new series that was explicitly about Christmas elves, I had to try it.

Unfortunately, I feel that this book was the author attempting to move outside her personal formula and failing. It's a bit like a palette swap. Nothing about the Christmas-elf premise felt committed to or explored fully, just pasted on.

There's a thin veneer of elf-ness: Holly mentions her elf instincts to be cheerful, kind, and festive, but we never really see this play out to a greater extent than it would with a naturally cheerful person. The elves are basically indistinguishable from humans, and while Santa, Mrs. Claus, and some extended relations are characters, they are indistinguis…

The Mensch on a Bench Hanukkah Activity Kit

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In addition to the crappy doll I've already reviewed, The Mensch on a Bench brand has expanded to infect numerous products. I've seen ads for toy animals, and more dolls. And, of course, the activity kit I'm looking at today.

Do I even need to specify I found this on clearance? I got it at Michael's for 70% off the original price, which was still $2.99 I'm never going to see again.


Among the lies I found on the packaging were that there were eight Hanukkah card inside - mine only included SEVEN. Also, this claims the book includes "10 Fun Activities," when none of the activities were fun.


Setting that aside for a moment, let's look at what's included. There are the aforementioned eight (seven) identical Hanukkah cards and envelopes, six crayons, four markers, two sticker sheets, and the activity book. The cards are ugly, the crayons and markers are cheap, and the stickers are... well, they're stickers - not much to say there. Almost everythin…

The Mensch on a Bench

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While I haven't actually gotten my hands on an Elf on the Shelf yet, I've heard a great deal about it. And from that, I suspect The Mensch on a Bench may be just as good an idea as the Elf.

If you think that's a compliment, you probably don't know much about Elf on a Shelf.

The "Mensch on a Bench" was introduced to the world on Shark Tank. Sadly, they gave it an influx of cash and some publicity instead of letting it die there.

Like the product this is clearly ripping off, The Mensch on a Bench includes a book and stuffed doll. Also, it sits in your house, sleepless and ever watchful, judging your children.


You also get a removable cardboard bench, because "mensch" doesn't rhyme with "shelf." The doll is fine, if unremarkable. I doubt he'd stay on his bench without being tethered to it, though.

The story of the Mensch on a Bench is essentially the story of Hanukkah with all the interesting war stuff excised. Instead, Moshe the Men…

Book Review: Holidays on Ice

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Holidays on Ice
David Sedaris, 2008

I haven't been subjected to this unpleasant an attempt at "humor" in some time.

I thought I knew what I was getting into with this, and I expected it to be mixed. Erin spoke in the past about how much he disliked most of the Sedaris segments on This American Life.

The first story is the most famous: the author's lightly fictionalized account of working in Macy's Santaland. It's not bad, I guess. Aspects of it are amusing. However, I have a certain personal affection for the hardworking Macy's elves, the flagship store itself, and the young aspiring theater folk of New York, so I found the author's "ironic" cynicism unamusing and tedious.

The narrators in the four stories that follow are universally unlikable. Even though the point is often for the reader to therefore feel superior to the humorless adult who misses the point of a children's play or the murderous, racist grandmother, that doesn't act…

Book Review: Dreaming of a White Wolf Christmas

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Dreaming of a White Wolf Christmas
Terry Spear, 2017

New Release! I received a copy of this book from NetGalley for the purpose of review.


I sort of hate that I'm spending any more time and energy on this godforsaken turd of a book.

The heroine starts out on a camping trip, where she's bitten by what honestly sounds like a fluffy puppy. After some terrible description and confusion on my part, I guess that must have been a wolf because now she's a werewolf. She sees a mysterious wolf across a river. And that's the set-up.

Two years later, she has abandoned her friends and family to live alone and write paranormal romance. The author spends endless pages introducing the male lead by recapping what sounds like at least a dozen earlier books, none of which have any bearing on the events of THIS book.

The male lead is a PI who's been hired to find her because her adoptive parents died and left her money. It's mentioned a few times that the heroine is adopted, which…

Book Review: If the Fates Allow

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If the Fates Allow
Edited by Annie Harper, 2017

New Release! I received a copy of this book from NetGalley for the purpose of review.

Premise: Five stories of love, hope, and forgiveness at the holidays.

Do you need some warm and fuzzy holiday cheer? Do you love love?

This new collection features five LGBTQ holiday romances that make your heart feel full of sugarplums. I smiled and sighed and giggled. It's seriously sweet, without being too sweet.

The first author, Killian Brewer, starts off strong with "Gracious Living Magazine Says It Must Be a Live Tree." Marcus wants his first Christmas with his boyfriend to be perfect, and his grandmother's friends are there to help.

"True North" by Pene Henson follows a WNBA star who goes home for the holidays with a friend, only to navigate her family's misguided assumptions and her high school crush.

Erin Finnegan brings us "Last Call at the Casa Blanca Bar & Grill," in which a young political advise…

Book Review: Murder, She Wrote: Manhattans and Murder (1994) and Murder, She Wrote: A Little Yuletide Murder (1998)

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Murder, She Wrote: Manhattans and Murder (1994) and Murder, She Wrote: A Little Yuletide Murder (1998)

By Donald Bain

The Christmas episode of the show was fairly lackluster, so I suppose it's fair that the novels match. These two brief books are part of a long-running spin-off series that apparently someone will continue to write until society crumbles. (Seriously, Book 47 is available for preorder.)

The two books have a few things in common. The author can write passable lines of dialogue and narration, but there's no build from scene to scene and the story as a whole is utterly forgettable.

Both books seem determined to raise but refuse to sensitively address social issues (drug addiction and teenage pregnancy, respectively).

Most bizarrely, both books feature a minor subplot about someone asking Jessica to write a true-crime novel about the events going on. Unless this was a running gag in all the books, it seems strange not to reference the first event, given the other sup…

Book Review: The Man Who Invented Christmas

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The Man Who Invented Christmas: How Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol Rescued His Career and Revived Our Holidays Spirits
Les Standiford, 2008

Premise: The story behind the story of A Christmas Carol.

This historical Christmas book included both some really interesting parts and a few things that I've read a dozen times by now. Overall it was pretty enjoyable. If you are a literary type and you want to read only one Christmas history, this would be a great choice.

The best parts were Dickens' personal and professional history, including the details of the development of the story and the publication business of the time. There are some details about attempted plagiarism that were especially entertaining.

I enjoyed the portrayal of Dickens' attitudes about Christmas and the impact of A Christmas Carol. The author's affection for both the book and the history is very clear, and the writing maintains a good balance between compelling writing and educational material.

Book Review: Santa's Husband

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Santa's Husband is a children's book where the Plump Jolly Old Elf is portrayed as a black man who's so busy, his white husband fills in for him at the mall, leading to some confusion as to his identity. If that premise doesn't intrigue you, you're reading the wrong blog.

I stumbled across a link to an interview with the writer, Daniel Kibblesmith, that included some shots of AP Quach's artwork. Between those and the description, I was sold.


The book is thirty-two pages, and there's no real plot or story. It's more a series of kid-friendly pictures coupled with text introducing you to Mr. Claus, Santa's husband. Like a lot of children's books, it reads like a series of comic vignettes.

It's a fantastic reimagining of Santa and his operation, and the relationship between Santa and Mr. Claus is sweet and touching. Towards the end, it offers a brief introduction to multicultural holiday traditions that's refreshingly diverse.

The writer ant…

Book Review: A Christmas Party (originally published as Envious Casca)

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A Christmas Party (originally published as Envious Casca)
Georgette Heyer, 1941

Premise: When the far-flung Herriard clan comes together for Christmas, sparks fly. It's a classic locked-room mystery with the death of a wealthy patriarch and a house full of suspects.

Even though this felt like deja vu, (how many times have I read/seen this plot?) I enjoyed it thoroughly, mostly because the characters were so interesting.

The characters are more colorful and complex than I've found in many mysteries of this style. Joseph the affable aging actor who's masterminding the party, his stolid wife Maud and her obsession with reading biographies, Paula and the aspiring playwright she drags to the party. We spend the most time shadowing cousin Mathilde who's stylish and practical, down-to-earth and gently sardonic in the face of ludicrous situations.

I spotted the murderer right away, (seriously, have I read this story before?) but there was enough fun in watching the characters p…

Book Review: St. Nicholas and the Valley Beyond: A Christmas Legend

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We bought this on clearance at a used bookstore, mainly because it was pretty, shoved it in a box for a few years, then came across it while unpacking. I finally sat down and read it, and...

...I already mentioned the art was pretty, didn't I? Because it is. Really nice fantasy artwork in an large picture book (about 15 inches tall) designed to invoke illuminated manuscripts or something. Pretty.

There's also a story inside, written by Ellen Kushner.

Once more, the artwork is quite pretty.

Ugh. Let's talk plot. There was none, and the art was pretty. Okay, that's an overstatement. There was less than no plot. There was, in fact, negative plot.

The story opens with a poor, cold, hungry orphan named Nicholas following mysterious voices that lure him into a magic valley. He finds a party, goes in, magically transforms into a grown man, meets a woman, and gets married.


They get to know everyone in the valley - they're all artisans (toy makers, mostly) - and none of th…

Book Review: Jingle Belle - The Whole Package

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Jingle Belle - The Whole Package
Paul Dini, et al., 2016

Premise: Santa’s got a daughter, and she’s been a rebellious teenager for longer than most humans live.

Apparently Paul Dini has been writing short comic adventures starring Jingle Belle, Santa’s spoiled teenage daughter, off and on since 1999. This thick volume collects nearly all of them: 28 short pieces according to the credits pages.

I was actually pleasantly surprised by some of the early stories - despite being very slapstick on the surface, Jingle’s mix of anger, mischief, caring and defiance often felt like a fairly honest representation of a teenage girl.

Jingle’s been a teenager for a long time, too. Her mother is queen of the elves and her father is Santa, so she’s been “sixteen” for many years. She doesn’t have patience for holiday sappiness, and she’s usually lazy, thoughtless and out for herself. She’s eternally frustrated that no one in the world at large knows about her. When she does try to be “good,” it often…

Book Review: Silent Night (A Raine Stockton Dog Mystery)

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Silent Night (A Raine Stockton Dog Mystery)
Donna Ball, 2011

Christmas crossposting!

(Note: Many of the Christmas books I am reading this year have one notable thing in common -- they were all cheap or free on Kindle some time in the last few years. No other qualifications.)

Premise: Raine Stockton runs an obedience school, or she would if the contractors would finish upgrading her facility. She trains dogs, keeps dogs, and sometimes that means she follows their noses right into trouble.

This is another cozy mystery that’s more what I would call romantic slice-of-life with a pinch of mystery. Raine’s friends, job, and trouble with men are, if not interchangeable with others I’ve read, certainly of a type.

The mystery isn’t much of the story - someone is stealing nativity Jesuses and some puppies are abandoned. Also a teenager’s abusive father turns up mysteriously dead, but Raine and company only briefly feel like they are in any danger, and she only gets involved because her trained sea…