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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

'Twas the Night Before Christmas (1974)

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Yes, we're embarrassed about this one. What about it? After being sure we'd done every Rankin/Bass Christmas special, we're still discovering that some slipped through the cracks. It only added to the surreality that while watching this, both Erin and I became convinced that we'd seen this at some point in our lives. I guess it just wasn't in the last 13 years. This isn't a stop-motion special, rather it's traditional animation in the Rankin/Bass style. The voice cast does good work, the dialogue isn't bad, the songs are pretty catchy. So why is this holiday special on the more obscure end? Maybe because the story is just a bit... odd. It starts out late on Christmas Eve with the first eight lines of Clement Clarke Moore's "A Visit from Saint Nicholas," of course, as recited/experienced by Joshua Trundle, a clockmaker. Then the story is taken up by a father mouse living in the wall of that house who is decidedly stirring. He tells us that e

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. "

Christmas Camp (2018)

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It has been a few years since we've done more than a smattering of Hallmark Christmas movies, so this year we're taking a relatively random sample to see what's been going on in the most generically inoffensive place on earth.  This movie has a predictably bonkers premise, although the execution was surprisingly low-key. I can't decide whether or not that was better than the alternative.  The movie centers on Haley, your stereotypical workaholic go-getter. (In the opening scenes she literally tells her assistant that she's canceling a date because she wants to concentrate on work.) She works in branding/marketing, and she wants to land a new account with a big toy company - part of her plan to land a big promotion. Her boss, however, says that the toy company is all about holiday traditions and Haley doesn't understand those, so she sends Haley to "Christmas Camp."  Christmas Camp, it turns out, is a one-week special event run by an inn in Western Mass

Shaun the Sheep: The Flight Before Christmas (2021)

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TWO Aardman holiday specials this year? Woo! While Robin Robin featured a slightly different look and style for the studio, Shaun the Sheep is right in their comfort zone: hilarious comedy done with extremely professional stop-motion animation. If you've never seen any Shaun the Sheep, you can jump in at any time. There's a television series, two films, and multiple specials. All of them feature roughly the same premise: Shaun and his sheep pals live on a farm. Shaun is much more intelligent than the farmer knows (as are the other sheep, if less so), and comedy ensues. The farmer (who is an idiot) and the farmer's loyal dog often come up with plans to improve the farm, which often come into conflict with capers run by the sheep and other animals.  And it's all wordless. There's no dialogue in Shaun the Sheep, only mumbles and expressive animal noises. The simplicity lends itself to brilliantly outlandish physical comedy.  This special might be the funniest entry I&#

Angela's Christmas Wish [Angela's Christmas 2] (2020)

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A few years ago, we were surprised and delighted by Angela's Christmas , which was a joy in basically every way. I actually remember seeing that this sequel existed last year, but I was hesitant about it. No more source material plus a lot of good press for the first one could easily lead to something rushed and poorly written. And even in the best-case scenario, what could possibly live up to the first special?  Well, not this, but it's still very good. Funny, charming, adorable, uplifting, and really grounded in ways that animation often isn't. It's just not, you know, transformative children's media. If you liked the first one, I recommend you check this out. If you didn't see the first one, go watch that! Angela's Christmas Wish (also marketed as Angela's Chrismas 2) starts with an introduction that takes place before the events of the first movie, in which we see Angela's dad get on a boat for a job in Australia. (Reminder that this all takes pl

Blown Away: Christmas (2021)

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Netflix had been pushing this on me for a while, and I thought, well, I haven't watched any mediocre reality competition shows this year yet, why not? And that's more or less what I got: a mediocre reality competition show with some pretty art and a few weird, possibly unpleasant quirks. Apparently there have been two seasons of this glass-blowing competition show before this, and this holiday event invited five previous competitors to come back for another shot - so far, so normal for a special (or in this case, a special short season). The host for these four episodes is Bobby Berk of Queer Eye, while professor Katherine Gray is the judge.  The first thing I want to say is that, despite the show's attempts to sneak in little captions or asides that explain specific techniques or tools, I found the footage of the actual glass blowing surprisingly boring. I didn't see enough of any one piece to be able to follow it from inception to completion, and the pieces in progres

Pepper Ann: A Kosher Christmas (1999)

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This episode has actually been on my radar for a while. I have vaguely positive memories of the show being around, even though I was in high school when it premiered, and we're always looking for ways to build up our archive of Hanukkah content. So when I saw that the show landed on Disney+ this year, I sought it out.  Unfortunately, this is just a boring episode of what (judging only by this episode) was a mediocre example of animation in the 90s. In fact, between the fashions, the inline skates in the opening, and the character dynamics and stereotypes on display - this is aggressively 90s content.  The only thing I remembered about the show was the absolute earworm of a theme song, but the animation of the song opens with a few seconds of a dream sequence where the main character is fighting off some... racist caricatures of native people? Yikes. So it's obvious from the beginning that not everything has aged well about this series.  On the other hand, some brief research te

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

The Fairies: Christmas Wishes in Fairyland (aka Christmas Carols in Fairyland, 2009)

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Wow. It took us a surprisingly long time to confirm the information in that title. Another from our stash of random DVDs bought from clearance bins, this... film? Extended episode? DVD special? is part of an Australian children's franchise that apparently started with some direct-to-video specials, then got recast, rewritten, and prettied up (by WETA) to launch a full television series, a longer series of direct-to-DVD movies, a program for ballet schools, and probably some stuff I'm missing.  Both generations of this property did a Christmas movie, but this is the later one with more professional production values. The fact that we weren't sure about that until after some thorough research tells you something about what a low bar "more professional" is in this case.  I don't love to hate on low-budget kids' stuff, but this is very strange, and not really in a good way. The actors are giving it a lot of energy and drive, even though they all seem like peop

LazyTown: "LazyTown's Surprise Santa" (2005) and "The Holiday Spirit" (2013)

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These days, we watch almost everything on streaming services, but early in the life of this site, we frequently picked up holiday-themed DVDs from clearance bins. That's how we ended up with a few of the more unusual selections we're planning to cover this year.  Prior to watching these episodes, I was only vaguely aware of the existence of this show and I knew nothing about it. My first impression after a few minutes was confusion that it didn't seem to be dubbed. There's something hard to define about the writing, some mix of absurdism and quirky word rhythm, plus physical comedy that feels a little like commedia dell'arte pantomime, that immediately said to me "not made in the U.S." Sure enough, LazyTown is an Icelandic production. It was intended to combat childhood obesity, although very little in the two holiday episodes we watched is directly about that. There are three characters played by humans: Stephanie, a young chipper audience stand-in, Robbi

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

A Castle for Christmas (2021)

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So you're here. That probably means one of the following things is true: You're curious about this movie You've seen it and want someone to confirm or challenge your opinion of it You're one of the handful of friends who still read every article (Hi!) You enjoy our often-sardonic over-the-top reviews/takedowns of rom-coms If you're in the final category, I should warn you that, unlike Erin, I didn't...hate...this one. Now, that doesn't mean it wasn't bad. Because it was. It was badly written, bizarrely shot (although we postulated while watching that some of that may have been pandemic-related), and overall mediocre.  You already know if you're the kind of person who likes these movies. If painfully obvious tropes don't give you stress headaches, and you don't give a fig for linguistic or cultural accuracy as long as there are two reasonably charming characters and a happily ever after, then you've probably already seen it.  I, myself, a

Robin Robin (2021)

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Has animation ever looked this cuddly before? I know there has been other stop-motion work in felt, but this is simply exceptional. A new musical holiday special from Aardman Animations and Netflix, Robin Robin is available on Netflix, and it's just so dang adorable! The whole thing is animated with fluffy soft felted characters, and the artistry on display is amazing. The premise is simple: a robin has been raised by mice. The business of mice is to sneak into human houses to steal food. During the first of many delightful songs, it quickly becomes clear that Robin's chirpy, fluttery nature doesn't lend itself to sneaking, but she doesn't understand why it goes wrong for her.  This is a sweet special. There isn't anything unexpected about the resolution, but the humor and music ensure that the ride is thoroughly enjoyable. I'm going to sum up the rest of the plot below, but if you like stop-motion animation or musicals or all-ages media (or all three, like me),

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

Stash Holiday Teas

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As soon as the weather started to get wet and cold around here, I started thinking more about tea. On a whim, I picked up a six-flavor assortment from Stash Tea Company called "Holidays Are Here." The six flavors include two caffeinated black tea blends and four decaf herbal teas. This is this year's selection, although it seems that the company has offered slightly different combinations of flavors in other years.  Cranberry Pomegranate This has a nice fruity smell, similar to other berry teas I've had. It was a bit more tart than I expected from the smell, but it grew on me. I did find the flavor a little thin alone, but a touch of honey balanced it nicely. Cinnamon Vanilla The tea bag smelled strongly of cinnamon, although mostly I tasted the rooibos tea base. Happily, I like rooibos. It is a nice blend with a mildly spiced aftertaste, although definitely not much vanilla at first. The flavors deepened as the tea cooled, which I found to be the case with most flavo

Dance Dreams: The Hot Chocolate Nutcracker (2020)

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We've watched a lot of Nutcrackers over the years, but nothing like Debbie Allen's Hot Chocolate Nutcracker.  Created as a showcase and fundraiser for the Debbie Allen Dance Academy (DADA), the Hot Chocolate Nutcracker appears to follow the rough outlines of the traditional ballet (girl gets toy at party, toy breaks, magic happens, crazy tour through fantastical realms), but replaces the standard dance and music with dialogue, comedy, and a vast and ever-evolving variety of musical and dance styles.  I say "appears to" because this documentary follows the rehearsal and backstage information about the show. It's not a recording of a full performance, so we only get to see snippets.  Interspersed with clips of rehearsal and interviews with young performers, we also get basic background on Allen's career, the founding of DADA, and some of the ongoing barriers facing Black dancers, particularly in ballet.  I felt the film was fairly well-balanced between showing t

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