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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…

Book Review: A Big Sky Christmas

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A Big Sky Christmas
William W. Johnstone* and J.A. Johnstone, 2013

(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.)

*As I discovered at the end of the book, this was one of many books written from notes/unfinished manuscripts by another after this author’s death.

Premise: Famous frontiersman Jamie McCallister hadn’t intended to get involved, but someone had to get the pilgrims to Montana by Christmas.

I told Erin I read a Western. I said it was boring. He said, “Yup, then it’s a Western.”

This book wasn’t terribly written, I guess, but I found it quite dull. All the characters are either good or evil. All the evil characters end up dead, mostly after surprisingly short, not-very-tense action scenes. All the obvious plot hooks are followed up with almost no surprises.

It must be odd, to write a Western today. If someone’s just writing a straight W…

Book Review: Murder in Christmas River

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Murder in Christmas River
Meg Muldoon, 2012

(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: Cinnamon Peters is determined to win this year’s gingerbread house competition. It’s good press for her pie shop, and showing up her rival is just icing on the proverbial cake. But when one of the judges turns up dead behind her shop and an old flame cruises back into town, she’ll have more than a contest to worry about.

This is one of those cozy mysteries that’s closer to the romance end of the spectrum, but I think it works.

Cinnamon is a likable protagonist: emotional without being too sappy, short-tempered at times, snarky but overall kind. Other characters include her friend Kara, her grandfather she’s looking after, her rival in the competition, her new/old crush, her jerk ex-husband, and other townsfolk. They are each interesting without be…

Book Review: Ho-Ho-Homicide

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Ho-Ho-Homicide
Kaitlyn Dunnett, 2014

(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: When Liss’ old friend Gina blows into town with a request concerning an inherited Christmas tree farm, Liss thinks it’s a good opportunity for a casual vacation. It’s been years since she stumbled into a murder investigation, after all.

This is a perfectly serviceable mystery novel. The characters are fine, the writing is good, the plot is interesting even though the villains are too obvious.

The best part is the fact that it is set on a Christmas tree farm.

It actually takes place in late November, and Liss and her husband are tasked with figuring out whether Gina can turn a profit that year, and eventually with figuring out what happened to the previous owner and an unknown man killed on the property years ago. Some of the minutia of growing and sell…

Christmas vs. Fourth of July (Book, 1908)

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I wish I were about to tell you about an obscure mystic war between the forces of winter and summer, but instead this is a little message book about injured children and giving to the poor.

The intended message from author Asenath Carver Coolidge seems to be that both holidays should be less about buying things, but that the Fourth of July especially shouldn’t be about buying fireworks.

This book appears to be a Christmas tie-in for the author’s pet issue: preventing injuries from fireworks and firearms. She wrote multiple books on the subject.

While the Fourth of July is still a common time for injuries today, regulation has brought the numbers down from the time that Coolidge was writing. Time Magazine reports that at the height, according to the book Fireworks, Picnics, and Flags: The Story of the Fourth of July Symbols, “Over the course of five consecutive Fourths, from 1903 to 1907, 1,153 people were killed and 21,520 more were injured.”

But let’s run through the book.

We open o…

Misadventures in Romance Reading (Christmas in July)

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When we decided to tackle more Christmas in July media, I did a search for books. The main one that came up when I searched was a romance: Christmas in July (A Christmas, Colorado, Novel: Book 2) by Debbie Mason.

Romance isn’t a preferred genre for me, but sometimes I like it, and this book was available through my local library, so I decided to dive in.

At the beginning, I was intrigued. The book (and, I imagine, the series) takes place in a town called Christmas. The main character, Grace, is a baker. Her signature dessert is a Sugar Plum Cake with a “wish” hidden in the decorations. Her husband, Jack, was in the army, but he’s been MIA for over a year, and she’s finally decided to move on.

So far, a nice dash of holiday theme and an interesting premise.

Of course, this is the moment when her husband and his crew are found alive.

But he has amnesia, and doesn’t remember her, and he’s been attracted to this other woman in the meantime. And all of that could actually have been an …

Book Review: The Raven in the Foregate (Cadfael Series)

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The Raven in the Foregate (Cadfael Series)
Ellis Peters, 1986

This is book number twelve in the Cadfael series, but I jumped ahead to it because it's set explicitly at Christmas.

Premise: In 1141, a new priest comes to the town outside the abbey. He is harsh with the people and quickly makes enemies. The woman and young man who came into town with Father Ailnoth are not who they say they are, and all mysteries must come to light after a violent death on Christmas Eve.

I've very much enjoyed all of the Cadfael books I have read, although this one seems to retread some ground. Cadfael's friendship with and patronage of the young couple particularly, is a repeated thread in more than one of these stories. It's still an enjoyable yarn, with the final solution to the mystery held secret to the end, despite how steadily pieces are revealed.

Cadfael, as usual, keeps his own counsel and works only for what he thinks is the best outcome for all concerned. If you haven't rea…

Book Review: The Best Christmas Pageant Ever

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The Best Christmas Pageant Ever
Barbara Robinson, 1972

I have been seeing this book on lists of favorite Christmas books since we started the Mainlining project. But reading the back cover blurb made it sound entirely like a cheese-fest, overly religious, or otherwise sanctimonious, so I'd been putting it off.

I have to admit, though, for an eighty-page book written for young readers, this is impressively subversive. Although, it probably seemed less so in 1972.

The plot regards a group of unruly siblings who take over the Christmas pageant in a small town. In doing so, they force the townspeople to confront the reality behind the rote recitation of the myth. This may come as close as any religious-ish story ever has of evoking actual emotion in my cold, dead soul.

The most interesting thing is the narrator. The story is told in the first person, by a young girl. Her opinions and asides add color, humor and context.

The narrator is observant enough to report on all the things th…

Book Review: The Santa Klaus Murder

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The Santa Klaus Murder
Mavis Doriel Hay, 1936, ebook reprint 2015

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

Premise:Part of the British Library Crime Classic series of reprints. Sir Osmund Melbury has gathered his fractured family for the holiday. There’s a lot of money at stake for remaining in Sir Osmund's good graces, so naturally he ends up dead, and everyone has a motive.

I liked the first half of this book much more than the end and resolution. I don’t know whether it dragged on too long, or I just lost track of who said what to who when. But I did like the first half quite a bit.

The book explicitly switches between perspective, especially in the first few chapters. These chapters each take the form of a narrative of events written after the fact by one of the characters. You learn a lot about what the characters think of each other and their descriptions are often amusingly snide. The main body of the narrative after the murder is …

Book Review: Christmas with Anne and Other Holiday Stories

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Christmas with Anne and Other Holiday Stories
L. M. Montgomery, edited by Rea Wilmshurst
Collection 1995, Stories originally published 1899 - 1910

Premise: A collection of holiday tales by L. M. Montgomery.

They can't all be winners. This volume occupies a weird space between light holiday collection and academic archive only of interest to scholars. There isn’t any scholarly commentary, but I can't imagine anyone reading this entire book who isn't either writing this review or looking for common themes in pieces from the time period for a research project.

Because oh, are there common themes.

The strongest pieces in the collection are the two excerpts from the Anne books: a chapter from Anne of Green Gables and one from Anne of Windy Poplars. Both of these have charm, whimsy and warmth in equal portion.

The introduction explains that the other stories were among many written by Montgomery in these years for various magazines - mostly what we would now call work-for-hire, …

Book Review: Forbidden Fruit

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Forbidden Fruit (Corinna Chapman Mysteries, Book 5)
Kerry Greenwood, 2009

Premise: It's Christmas with the staff of Heavenly Pleasures and the inhabitants of Insula. Time for heat waves, bands of roving hippies, and a family with a lost daughter and a very dark secret… (Previously reviewed: Book One)

I’ve read all of this series. Yes, I only reviewed the first one until now, (although ironically, the first one was probably the weakest) but I had to come back to blog for Christmas! It's funny, but for all the different media we've consumed for the mainlining Christmas project, this year might be the first time we’ve done anything conspicuously set in the southern hemisphere. Australia is hot at Christmastime, and yet the holiday comes on all the same, with all the crowds and obnoxious music and such. Corinna’s commentary on the holiday season is especially fun.

The two plots Corrina and her friends are investigating this time around are not as high stakes as some in this ser…

Book Review: A Child's Christmas in Wales

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A Child's Christmas in Wales
Dylan Thomas, 1950-1955 (depending on how you count)

I have seen this book on lists of classic Christmas stories for years now, but it just kept falling to the bottom of the to-read list.

It probably could have stayed there.

There's nothing wrong with it. It's a short story's worth of words poetically describing the activities and feelings of the holiday at a very particular place and time. It's pretty, especially the version I had with big color illustrations. But there's just not much to it other than nostalgia and pretty phrases. There are some very pretty phrases, admittedly.

There's food, and weather, and an amusing story about a fire scare fought with snowballs, and a brief interlude where young boys sing carols outside a creepy house. Whether the narrator is speaking to a general audience or one person was unclear; it seemed to shift without clear demarcation of any sort.

It comes from a piece originally written for radi…

Book review: Silent Nights

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Silent Nights
Edited by Martin Edwards, ebook release 2015

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

Premise: Another collection of Christmas Mystery stories, this one from the British Library Crime Classics series. Fifteen tales of murder and thievery at the holidays.

I know, you'd think I would be sick of short mysteries after last year's lengthy read of the Big Book of Christmas Mysteries. However, in this book I discovered a well-balanced selection that was enjoyable overall . I think I may be giving extra credit for being of a manageable length, though.

Here's what you'll find, with stories that I've read previously noted:

The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle (repeat) by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
A classic, I would never fault anyone for adding this to a Christmas compilation. It remains charming on whatever number re-read this is.

Parlour Tricks by Ralph Plummer
A cute, simple story of a man amusing a group of …

Book Review: The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries (Part Eight)

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This year, I am taking on The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries, a 674 page tome containing 59 individual stories about the Christmas season. Conveniently, it’s broken up into blog-post sized sections. This is post eight, section ten, the end!

A Classic Little Christmas

The Flying Stars, G. K. Chesterton - Oh, I actually quite liked this.Christmas Party, Rex Stout - Really good except for the unfortunate racism.The Raffles Relics, E. W. Hornung - Unlike others starring a ‘classic character’, it makes me want to read more about the character.The Price of Light, Ellis Peters - Definitely a favorite in this book. Classic Cadfael: just lovely and sweet and Christmassy.A Present for Santa Sahib, H.R.F. Keating - Odd. I guess it could be charming in some lights. Not sure about the dialect..The Christmas Train, Will Scott - A charming crook fools the police. Not amazing but decent.Markheim, Robert Louis Stevenson - Huh. takes a while to get going and the language is thick, but actually its pre…

Book Review: The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries (Part Seven)

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This year, I am taking on The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries, a 674 page tome containing 59 individual stories about the Christmas season. Conveniently, it’s broken up into blog-post sized sections. Here’s the seventh post, section nine.

A Puzzling Little Christmas

Sister Bessie, Cyril Hare - Not bad. Not awesome. Somewhat expected tragic twist.That’s the Ticket, Mary Higgins Clark - Ha. Not a bad little story, cute resolution.Death on the Air, Ngaio Marsh - Fine resolution, pace was a bit off.The Thirteenth Day of Christmas, Isaac Asimov - Super cute bit of fluff.The Christmas Kitten, Ed Gorman - A lot of buildup for not much substance.The Santa Claus Club, Julian Symons - *snurk* the butler did it, naturally.

These were a little bit of a let down after the last section, but most of these stories were still pretty decent. Similar to the “Surprising” section, all of these stories had at least a bit of a twist or a reveal near the end.

“Sister Bessie” follows a man who’s being blackmai…

Book Review: The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries (Part Six)

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This year, I am taking on The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries, a 674 page tome containing 59 individual stories about the Christmas season. Conveniently, it’s broken up into blog-post sized sections. For today I’ve read sections seven and eight. (Section 123 & 45)

A Surprising Little Christmas

Noel, Noel, Barry Perowne - The long build up was kind of dull for the okay punchline.Death on Christmas Eve, Stanley Ellin - A more interesting twist here, it colors the whole story before.The Chinese Apple, Joseph Shearing - Fine, a bit obvious.

These three stories each end in what amounts to a punch line. "Noel, Noel" is told by a man learning the story of what his good-for-nothing brother, Noel, did with his life. It’s fine. Not really a mystery. "The Chinese Apple" has a twist that I saw coming a mile off.

"Death on Christmas Eve" was a bit more interesting. It follows a lawyer called to a house. A brother and sister live there, and the brother is conv…

Book Review: Walt Disney's Christmas Classics

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Walt Disney's Christmas Classics
Various, 2009 (comics mostly originally from 1940’s)

Well, nuts. I was looking forward to this one, because I’ve had good luck with classic Disney comics in the past. Unfortunately, this book is a real mixed lot.

This collection contains 9 stories, ranging from just 2 pages to 8-16 each. The best one by far is “Santa’s Stormy Visit”, a Donald Duck story by Carl Barks. This story from 1946 follows the misadventures of Donald as he tries to give his nephews a nice Christmas, although they’re living in a lighthouse and can’t get to shore in time to buy presents. It’s funny and sweet.

Also notable is “Christmas on Bear Mountain”, another Carl Barks story from 1947. This story is historically important as the first appearance of Scrooge McDuck. Scrooge decides to test Donald’s bravery by letting him use a cabin for Christmas that he claims is in bear country, while he plans to dress up as a bear to scare them. However, in the meantime, actual bears get…

Book Review: The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries (Part Five)

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This year, I am taking on The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries, a 674 page tome containing 59 individual stories about the Christmas season. Conveniently, it’s broken up into blog-post sized sections. Here’s section six.
(Section 1, 2, 3 & 4, 5)

A Scary Little Christmas

The Carol Singers, Josephine Bell - A well told tale. I liked the extensive picture of the victim before the real plot.Waxworks, Ethel Lina White - Creepy. I liked it, except for a hint of period-typical sexism.Cambric Tea, Marjorie Bowen - Weird pacing, weird ending, a bit deus ex machina.The 74th Tale, Jonathan Santlofer - First piece of true horror.The Uninnocent, Bradford Morrow - Decent tone, but unsatisfying. A bit ‘mystery for it’s own sake’.Blue Christmas, Peter Robinson - Nice vignette of melancholy and hope.

There’s a bit of everything in this section. The two that didn’t really work for me were "Cambric Tea" and "The Uninnocent". "Cambric Tea" is about a doctor called to the …