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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

Book Review: Nothing Lasts Forever, by Roderick Thorp (1979)

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Nothing Lasts Forever is, arguably, the most influential Christmas novel written since A Christmas Carol, and if it's title hadn't been changed when it was adapted into a movie nine years later, I wouldn't have to explain why. That movie, incidentally, was Die Hard. I'm not sure what I expected from the book, but it wasn't this. I knew going in it was a sequel to a novel Thorp wrote in 1966 called The Detective. I've never read that, but I have seen the film adaptation, which starred Frank Sinatra in the lead role. It's pretty obvious from reading Nothing Lasts Forever that Thorp wrote this with Sinatra in mind. The plot. It's exactly the same as the movie's. Also, it's completely different. The book starts with Joe Leland (they changed his name along with the title for the film) being driven to the airport on Christmas Eve. Leland isn't actually a detective anymore: he left that profession at the end of the first book and became a

Book Review: Plum Pudding Murder

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Plum Pudding Murder Joanne Fluke, 2009 I have been known to pick up Christmas-themed books on the cheap pretty often and this is one of those cheap reads. It's another cozy mystery, and this one not only reads like a Hallmark movie, it was turned into a literal Hallmark movie. It's the twelfth book in this series, so while all the backstory and name-checking earlier events and established relationships is boring, it's at least excusable. Okay, I said it was a cozy, right? Let's check off the tropes: Hannah owns a cookie shop, is dating a law enforcement guy, and is known to stumble into murders. I was briefly intrigued by the fact that she is also dating a dentist and all three parties seemed happy enough with their relationships. It seemed like a sympathetic portrayal of people who didn't feel the need to lock down a monogamous heterosexual marriage and were comfortable with that. Of course, later the guys both showed little jealousies, and the narrative cle

Book Review: The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain

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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 Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain, A Fancy for Christmas-Time Charles Dickens, 1848 For the final one of his “Christmas Books,” Dickens returns both to Christmas and firmly to the supernatural. If The Chimes is a morality play, The Cricket on the Hearth is a romantic comedy, and The Battle of Life is a soap opera, The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain is an episode of the Twilight Zone. It’s a well-done, if straightforward, “be careful what you wish for” tale. The story follows Professor Redlaw, who is said to look “haunted.” He was wronged as a young man when a friend married his sister, leading to her death (I think - this part of the plot is fairly vague), and he thinks constantly about this. One year at Christmas, a ph

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

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 mak

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 - u

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 li

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 s

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 o

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 several recent 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, bu