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Book Review: Joseph T. Marley

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Joseph T. Marley R. William Bennett, 2011 After my first attempt at reading a Christmas-Carol-adjacent novel led me to a pile of trash masquerading as a book, I just hoped this one would be better. And it was, at least at first. The first half or so of this book was actually pretty good. It creates a plausible backstory for Marley and his relationship with Scrooge that works with the original, while expanding aspects of it. It occasionally flirts with stylish prose without trying too hard. This Scrooge and Marley choose to act greedily within the letter of the law (unlike the mess in the other book), showing that the law is not enough when you don't care about anything but wealth and your own advancement - capitalism without human kindness leads only to exploitation, loneliness, and misery. So far, so good. And if it had ended, as the other book did, with Marley's death, I could give it a cautious recommendation: not a great book or anything brilliant, but a nice little piece o

Book Review: Marley: A Novel

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Marley: A Novel Jon Clinch, 2019 Well, that was a waste of time and energy. This book, obviously, purports to be a backstory for A Christmas Carol . However, it fails on every level. The writing itself is fine for a modern historical novel, but it only occasionally makes a half-hearted attempt at the kind of clever prose that characterizes Dickens' work. The story is a ridiculous mess. It doesn't match up with any of the character relationships as presented in A Christmas Carol, and, in fact, attempts to undermine the very heart of the story. In this novel, Marley is portrayed as a lifelong villain through and through. He is already a liar, extortionist, and forger by the time he meets Scrooge as a child. (Where he picked any of this up is not explained.) His sins only grow from there, including using shell companies to continue to profit from slavery after it is made illegal, extorting favors and money from prostitutes, and paying for the murder of his enemies. He softens a li

Book Review: A Christmas Carol (revisited)

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A Christmas Carol (revisited) Charles Dickens, 1843 In preparation for reading and watching a bunch of things related to A Christmas Carol, I thought I should first refresh my memory of the original.  It continues to be a delight. Looking back, I am somewhat appalled by my casual dismissal of its brilliance in this blog's first year ; I heartily regret that.  When I read it this time, what most delighted me were little details, turns of phrase, and metaphors that I'd either forgotten, overlooked, or not bothered to examine in depth during previous readings. So I thought I'd share a few of those with you now. In the Preface, Dickens makes a pun about his ghost story containing the "Ghost of an idea" and hopes that it might "haunt" the readers "pleasantly, and no one choose to lay it." What a cute and playful way to say: this book has a point; it should bother you; don't ignore it. I'm a sucker for an amusing Shakespeare reference. "

Book Review: The Legend of the Christmas Witch

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The Legend of the Christmas Witch By Dan Murphy, Aubrey Plaza, and Julia Iredale  Not to be confused with the mangled English title of the movie, La Befana Vien di Notte, The Legend of the Christmas Witch is a 2021 children's book. The writing is credited to both Aubrey Plaza and Dan Murphy, but Plaza certainly seems to be the face of the project. I say "project" because this feels like something intended to expand, either through sequels or even by transitioning to some other media. Whether it does or not is anyone's guess: this may have some hurdles to climb, because... This thing's going to piss off some people. Maybe a lot of people. I'll cut to the chase: this is a kid-friendly pagan, feminist deconstruction of Christmas and the patriarchy. It doesn't call out Christianity by name, but the message is hard to miss. On top of all that, the end of the book takes a turn that's pretty dark, or at least ambiguously so. So, at the very least, I certainly

Book Review: The Servant's Tale (Dame Frevisse #2)

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The Servant's Tale (Dame Frevisse #2) Margaret Frazer, 1993 Premise: It's Christmastime at St. Frideswide's Abbey, but after an injured man is rescued by a group of traveling players, the events set in motion lead to murder. This isn't a holiday book I sought out, but one I ran across while reading through a series. I thought about not reviewing it, but I reviewed its spiritual cousin The Raven in the Foregate years ago so I decided it has a place here. The Dame Frevisse mysteries are much like the Cadfael Chronicles - both extensively researched historical mystery series in a British monastic setting. So far though (this is only book 2), the Frevisse stories are a little bit darker. This is mostly due to focusing heavily on female characters and their problems, which in this volume include lack of authority over funds/family, stillbirth, illness, and pervasive sexism. Not to mention the poverty and inherited servitude common across several characters. The Cadfael boo

Book Review: Humbug

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Humbug Amanda Radley, 2021 New Release! A copy of this book was provided by Netgalley for the purpose of review.  Premise: Ellie is in the wrong job, but she figures she can just keep her head down. But when her love of Christmas decorations gets her promoted and tasked with saving the company Christmas party, she'll have to rise to the occasion, despite a debilitating fear of heights and a growing crush on her Christmas-hating new boss.  Oh, this was lovely. It might be one of my favorite Christmas romances I've ever read, in fact.  Ellie's obsession with Christmas is important to the plot, but her heartfelt reasons for it don't step over the line into too schmaltzy. Rosalind's dislike of the holidays is grounded, not extreme or petty, so their eventual compromises seem reasonable. The romance builds steadily and sweetly. They both respect each other's competence, which I love, and work around each other's particular needs gladly. The main obstacles are cir

Book Review: The Mice Before Christmas

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The Mice Before Christmas Anne L. Watson, Wendy Edelson, 2021 New Release! A copy of this book was provided by Netgalley for the purpose of review.  Summary of my review: Awwwwwww! This cute little book posits that those mice who weren't stirring the night before Christmas must have had an awfully busy day. Playful verse and charming illustrations follow a sprawling mouse clan coming together for a massive party. It's a bit reminiscent of the opening of The Nutcracker and dozens of other stories that feature a party in a grand family house.  The writing is sweet, but the art is the real star here. Big illustrations full of tiny details, down to the patterned fabric of tiny mouse frock coats.  In case it isn't already clear, this leans heavily into a prosperous European image of Christmas in which a holiday party features hundreds of participants, multiple courses for dinner, plus live music and dancing. I think the art is adorable, but I wanted to point that out. Many stori

Book Review: A Christmas to Fight For

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A Christmas to Fight For Jessica Frances, 2021 New Release! A copy of this book was provided by Netgalley for the purpose of review. I was amused enough by the premise of this book to request a copy for review: a romance between a krampus and a Santa Claus (both appear to be magical races in this world).  And on reading it, I was amused by the book and overall enjoyed it, but I need to address a couple problems.  First, the author advertises the fact that the book was professionally edited, but the book needs another edit. Or better editors. The copy I read had enough typos and mistakes in the beginning that I almost stopped reading (and likely would have were I not planning to review it for this site). Missing words, incorrect verb tenses, and awkward phrases all abound early on. The errors drop off at some point, although they did appear occasionally all the way to the end. I did get this from Netgalley - maybe this copy wasn't final? However, the file didn't say advance or u

Book Review: In a Holidaze

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In a Holidaze Christina Lauren, 2020 I saw this listed in a few places as THE holiday romance novel of 2020, so I decided to see what all the fuss was about. And ... it was pretty good. Easily as good as a surprisingly high quality made-for-tv movie, maybe a bit better.  The premise is classic: Maelyn Jones is trapped in a holiday time loop until she can fix her life. But the execution is not only charming, it's surprisingly thoughtful. For her entire life, Maelyn and her parents have been getting together for the holidays with a chosen family consisting of her parents' closest friends from college and their assorted partners and kids. Since she was a teenager, she's had a crush on Andrew, one of said kids. Unfortunately, when the book opens, she's just had an unsatisfying drunken makeout session with Andrew's brother Theo. (Maelyn and Theo/Andrew aren't related at all, but I was very confused at the beginning until I figured out they aren't cousins; their p

Book Review: A Boy Called Christmas

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A Boy Called Christmas Matt Haig, 2015 I knew the movie based on this book was coming out this year, so I decided to give it a read first. I'm writing this review before we see the film, or even watch a trailer. Hopefully, the adaptation will decide on a tone. I need to preface this review by admitting that I have never been a fan of Roald Dahl. This book often dips into a very similar style, so if that kind of violence-for-laughs from absurdly cruel or nonsensical characters is something you enjoy, you might enjoy this book, as so many apparently have.  I enjoyed parts of this book, but the tone kept swinging between absurdist children's book, outright farce, mythic/fairytale, and actually serious adventure. Every time I started to really get interested, the story took another weird turn. It's a story about a boy who "believes in magic" and grows up to be Santa, but it's vague and inconsistent in its historical setting. A modern storybook narration sometimes

Book Review: Season of Wonder

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Season of Wonder Various Authors, 2012, edited by Paula Guran I'm always looking for fantasy and sci-fi Christmas content, so I'm stupefied that this short story collection escaped my notice until now.   To be clear, I almost didn't read it this year either - my local library doesn't have it, and I am reluctant to pay money for any book with Orson Scott Card's name prominently on the cover, just on principle. The rest of the book is pretty good, though. Like other holiday short story collections I've reviewed, the introductions range from boring to misleading to outright undermining my enjoyment of the stories, so I tried to skip them when I could.  Reactions to individual stories follow. My favorites are starred. The Best Christmas Ever by James Patrick Kelly This atmospheric/bleak dystopian story is fine, if a bit heavy to open with. The last humans are being cared for by some sort of artificial being which is never actually explained. The nature of the techn

Book Review: A Kiss for Midwinter

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A Kiss for Midwinter Courtney Milan, 2012 To start, a heads-up: this romance novella contains discussion of statutory rape, miscarriage, senility, compulsive behavior, and historically accurate levels of sexism and bad healthcare. Sound Christmassy yet?  You might not think so, but in fact, the Christmas setting isn't just for contrast with the stress the characters are under. It underlines the Dickensian time and tone of the setting - the poverty and strife the characters witness. Also, there are a few humorous asides where the hero looks askance at the "newfangled" tradition of decorating a tree , of all things.  Jonas is a young doctor fresh from school, full of new ideas but also deeply cynical about the world. He is in love with Lydia. However, Lydia is afraid that Jonas will reveal her dark secret: she was briefly pregnant as a teenager.  I really liked how complex each of their flaws were - nothing obvious or easy to move past. She covers her feelings with cheer an

Book Review: Tudor Christmas Tidings

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Tudor Christmas Tidings Blythe Gifford, Jenni Fletcher, Amanda McCabe, 2020 This is a new book, but I did not get a copy through NetGalley for review, because Harlequin's standards for reviewers are apparently higher than this website.  Three holiday-themed historical romance novellas. I decided to give this a try when I saw it was available through my local library. I've been more interested in romance this year than previously, but my time could probably have been better spent.  Christmas at Court by Blythe Gifford I did not expect this to go into history as fast and hard as it did. The novella provided very little background information about the politics of the time, but the plot hinged on those same politics. Eventually, I was driven, ashamed, to Wikipedia to refresh my knowledge of Richard III and Henry Tudor.  The main characters in this one (Alice and John) are heirs to important noble houses, and they are semi-secretly betrothed by their parents to seal an alliance bet

Book Review: The Great Treasury of Christmas Comic Book Stories

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The Great Treasury of Christmas Comic Book Stories Multiple authors, originally printed 1944-1962, editor Craig Yoe, collection released 2018 I stumbled across this ahead of the season this year, and I'm glad I did. Now I can warn you. It's not bad for what it is, but it is not for "children of all ages."  This book is for: Comic strip historians Adults with a specific interest in vintage/historical comic books Adults with a specific interest in vintage illustration/illustrators Grandparents (really, great-grandparents) looking for a gift that their grandchild will neither like nor understand.  It's a fairly wide-ranging collection, but none of it is great. A few of the stories are not bad: one about some polar bears who want to help Santa but keep messing up is fine. One about Santa visiting an animal Christmas party where there is a Santa costume contest is pretty cute. Another stars a gnome and the Easter Bunny and they create ice cream snow to save a magic wea

Book Review: We Are Santa

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We Are Santa Ron Cooper, 2020 New Release! A digital copy of this book was provided by Netgalley for the purpose of review. Wow. WOW WOW WOW. This might be "just" a coffee table book, but it charmed my socks off.  The premise is simple. Photographer Ron Cooper recruited fifty professional Santas (talking to and interviewing even more) and took gorgeous photographs of them both in and out of costume. The book includes quotes, profiles of some Santas, and background information. The additional info is enough to establish some context for readers who might not be familiar with the history of Santa's look or the reality of the professional Santa gig, but it's not tedious even for those of us who know this world fairly well already.  The variety is fantastic. Santas in red but also other colors, in robes and coats and pajamas and kilts and cowboy boots and military camo and a pirate-theme and... Of course, there are lots of lovely fur trimmings, but also Hawaiian shirts, o

Book Review: Ming's Christmas Wishes

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Ming's Christmas Wishes Susan L. Gong, 2020 New Release! A copy of this book was provided by Netgalley for the purpose of review.  I had to read through this children's book twice to understand it, but it definitely grew on me.  This short, beautifully illustrated children's book follows a few days in the life of a young Chinese-American girl in the 1930s. Ming wants a Christmas tree (this is related to a larger desire to fit in at school), but her mother won't hear of it.  The next day, Ming's father takes her to visit some family friends and some places his father took him when he was young. The trip connects her with her heritage, and they even come back with a tree to decorate - not a fir tree to cut down and discard, but a Chinese pine to keep in a pot.  That all sounds simple enough, but there's something distinctive about the way this book is written, and it's somewhat unsettling if you're expecting a standard children's story. For one thing,

Book Review: The Christmas Card Crime and Other Stories

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The Christmas Card Crime and Other Stories Edited by Martin Edwards, compilation 2019 (US release) New Release! I received a copy of this book from NetGalley for the purpose of review. Premise: A new collection of little-known stories with a holiday twist from the classic age of crime fiction from British Library Crime Classics. Like most short fiction collections, this one is hit and miss. Some of these stories are fun, but none of them are exceptional. Several introductions mention that the author rarely wrote short stories or seldom wrote mysteries. Apparently, this is the third collection from this publisher collecting unknown British crime stories on a wintry theme. What I'm trying to say is, they might be scraping the bottom of the barrel at this point. The first story is by Baroness Orczy of Scarlet Pimpernel fame, and the characters are a lot of fun, although the plot is somewhat lacking. Two of the best stories in the volume follow: “By the Sword,” a tale in wh

Toy/Book Review: The Elf on the Shelf (2005)

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To be clear, I honestly thought I was done writing about Christmas-themed toys. I've reviewed quite a few over the years, but something about the experience wasn't as fulfilling as it once was. It's hard to put my finger on the precise issue-- Oh, wait. Now I remember: no one cared about any of those posts. At any rate, I've looked at a variety of holiday action figures , dolls , building sets , playsets , a Batmobile , and... whatever the hell this was ... but there was one thing that always eluded me. And that, of course, was The Elf on the Shelf. Obviously, "elude" is a strong choice of words. I've seen countless of these for sale over the years but it's rare to see them marked down significantly. There were times early in the blog's existence I considered paying the full $30 for a chance to mock these little demons publicly. But before I got around to that, I started seeing them parodied and viciously criticized, and... I don't

Book Review: A Cup of Holiday Fear

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A Cup of Holiday Fear Ellie Alexander, 2019 New Release! I received a copy of this book from NetGalley for the purpose of review. Premise: Jules runs a bakery in charming artistic tourist town Ashland, Oregon, where she is kept busy preparing for the Christmas rush and snooping around after an out-of-towner ends up dead. I've read quite a few Christmas-themed cozy mysteries by now. Most of them are readable but nothing special. It wasn't immediately clear from the publisher's description that this takes place well into a series, but it was obvious from the first page. Backstory and past relationships are recapped at length, even when they have nothing to do with the plot of this book. I have two fairly substantial issues with this book, and in the end, I can't give it a pass. The first is the mystery itself; it's just uninteresting. The killer is the obviously mean character, the victim was a horrible person, and the resolution takes place entirely

We Need to Re-Evaluate L. Frank Baum's "The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus"

Content Warning for discussion of genocide and accounts of severe historical racism. We've reviewed L. Frank Baum's Life and Adventures of Santa Claus in the past, we've written about the Rankin/Bass special, and we've talked it about multiple times. But, in the process of watching the 2000 animated adaptation for the first time, I wanted to go back and revisit the book, as well as its sequels. So I did. I wrote an extremely long article discussing the merits and flaws of the work (some of the writing is pretty but most of it is kind of boring) and how influential it was (it probably created one of Santa's two primary origin stories, it's more or less the basis for all the Rankin/Bass specials, and its sequels, "A Kidnapped Santa Claus" and "How the Woggle-Bug and his Friends Visited Santa Claus," are probably why we have Nightmare Before Christmas). I went through the plots, the characters, all of it. It was a lot of work, and I think