The New Year Cometh

Monday, December 28, 2015

Another year is on the wane, and like so many, I find it a good time to look back and look forward.

This year I read more books than I blogged about. Most of the ones I skipped writing a full review of were fun but not exceptionally strong or weak reads, unexceptional sequels to books I did review, books outside of my normal genres, or re-reads.

I also quit reading a decent handful of books this year, which is unusual for me. I have become more protective of my time, and I am less willing to waste it on books that don’t grab my attention.

This was a really strong year for comics and graphic novels. Half of the books I rated 5 stars this year were graphic novels; three of those are the first in a new series and one is a prequel:

As far as comic books that I’m collecting in issues, everyone should be reading The Wicked and The Divine and The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl. Also if you like dark fantasy, check out Monstress. Loki: Agent of Asgard wrapped up this summer, and it was very good as well.

I rated four novels 5 stars this year: two in the same series, one classic Hugo winner, and one new release:

In 2016 I plan to continue my read of the Hugo Winners (I only got through three this year), and I’m starting into a section of the list where I’ve read many of the winners before.

I’d also like to be a bit more conscious and methodical in expanding into new authors and genres. I already regularly sprinkle mystery, memoir and some nonfiction into the mix, but I do it haphazardly, when a cheap book catches my eye or I hear about something on a website or a podcast.

I had been thinking about this when I stumbled across the 2016 Book Riot Read Harder Challenge. A lot of sites post year-long challenges in December, but this is the first one that’s really appealed to me. I like the mix of categories, and that for me the range of genres seems neither too hard or too easy. Also I have a huge pile of Kindle and paper books that I purchased over the last few years but have not read. I’m going to fill as many of the Read Harder slots as I can with books I already have, and slow down the accumulation of new stuff until I make some inroads on the existing piles.

This year also saw the release of two books I worked on: A Count of Five and A Tide of Ice. I am really enjoying editing this series: the characters are great and the scale of the world is amazing. Expect book three next fall.

Happy new year, everyone. May your to-read piles be full of unexpected gems.

The Raven in the Foregate (Cadfael Series)

Monday, December 21, 2015

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

Crossposted from Mainlining Christmas

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 read any of the books, or seen the PBS series starring Derek Jacobi, you'll enjoy meeting the down-to-earth herbalist with a knowledge of both early forensics and what drives men's hearts. I understand why for story reasons the reader occasionally follows other characters, but I prefer more straight Cadfael in these books.

One of the plots in this volume pertains to the struggle for power in England at this time between the Empress Matilda and Stephen of Blois. Some basic knowledge of this time, either from reading other books in this series or just from general history, will be helpful in following the motivations of various characters.

The presence of Christmas is strong enough, I think, to give this credit as a Christmas story. The murder is done during the overnight service between Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, as is the first meeting of the young couple. The riddle's solution is discovered on New Year's Day.

This isn't my favorite Cadfael volume I've read, but it is a decent entry in the series, and paints a picture of what Christmas may have been like in both abbey and town in 1141.

3 Stars - A Good Book

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever

Friday, December 18, 2015

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever
Barbara Robinson, 1972

Crossposted for Mainlining Christmas

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 that 'everyone knows', while being open-minded enough to allow for other perspectives or new information. The narrator stays very childlike, though, which I think is key to the appeal. You never feel the hand of the adult author shaping the message. A child, in fact, could probably read this book and not realize how skillfully the message of kindness, charity and wonder is woven in.

I was bothered by the first chapter of the book, when the narrator is unquestioningly describing the Herdman family and the awful things they do. But it's exactly the unthinking way that a child thinks about other children: they must just be born bad, no one blames their father for running off, everyone hates them because they're bullies... while the same description allows for an adult reader to see through to a struggling family where the kids lash out at a society that doesn't care about them. The classism and callousness from the townspeople only gets worse over the course of the story, but because of the narrative voice, I didn’t feel hit over the head with it.

I've seen stories along these themes before, that either directly play with the logic of the nativity story or use parallels to explore the emotion or potential reality behind it. This fall, we've seen this narrative across social media with many pointing out that anyone who would tell a refugee family from a war-torn region that there is 'no room' in our country should really think about whether they can call themselves Christian.

The Herdman children have never encountered the details of the Nativity story before taking over the pageant, so they have lots of practical questions, like why didn't Joseph just box the innkeeper's ears if he was rude enough to leave a pregnant woman outside? They put everything into context in a way the other children and even the adults in the town never thought about, and in the end they bring out all the pathos in the plight of a young couple with no one and nothing to help them.

The style is light and funny enough that it never feels preachy, but I did find the ending quite moving. Which is super weird, for me.

I’ll admit it, this book belongs on all those lists.

The Santa Klaus Murder

Monday, December 14, 2015

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.

Crossposted from Mainlining Christmas

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 told by the constable in charge of solving the case, with a few interlocutions from an assistant.

The main question of opportunity involves a Santa Klaus outfit. One man wears such an outfit to hand out gifts, and someone dressed as Santa hands out crackers that would conveniently mask the sound of a gunshot, and someone dressed as Santa was seen near the study where Sir Osmund is later found dead. Tracking the costume or costumes and the movement of all the people in the house at the time of the murder falls to the constable, but not all of the members of the family are exactly forthcoming about what they were doing and when.

I really enjoyed the style of this book - it has more than a little classic dry British wit - but I found the resolution of the tale a bit dry and unsatisfying.

3 Stars - A Good Book

Christmas with Anne and Other Holiday Stories

Friday, December 11, 2015

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

Crossposted for Mainlining Christmas

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, where an author is asked to write to a specific theme and deadline. Unfortunately, there's a reason most of these magazines had been lost to time.

Thirteen of the fourteen stories can be described with only three plots:
People (usually well-off) learn the joy of the season by sharing what they have with others (Seven stories)
Poor people act kindly toward others and luck into gifts/wealth/good fortune for the holiday (Two)
Estranged family members (in one case, friends) make up, due to some kind of misunderstanding (Four)

The final one is about members of a family missing a relative who died in the year prior to Christmas.

Each story independently is decent enough, but all in a row they become a bit tedious in their interminable goodness and kindness. However, reading it has reminded me to go back and catch up on more of the Anne books, so while I can't recommend the volume for most readers, it wasn't a waste of time.

2 Stars - An Okay Book

Forbidden Fruit (Corinna Chapman Mysteries, Book 5)

Monday, December 7, 2015

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

Crossposted for Mainlining Christmas

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 series, but they are still disturbing in their way. There is a choral group practicing in the building for a holiday performance, and a few of their members might be taking their beliefs about animal rights to a frightening level. Meanwhile, Daniel has been hired to find a missing pregnant teenager. (See where this is going?)

The darkest part of the plot is elided gently, but the teenager has some strange beliefs about how she conceived a child that reveal some horrifying history. I can’t think of another twisted spin on the Nativity quite like this one.

Of course, everything comes out right in the end with a little trickery, assistance from a series of unlikely sources, and a bit of seasonal mummery. I saw the pivotal scenes coming, but they were skillfully pulled off, and the characters were fully cognizant of the parallels.

I really do enjoy these cozy mysteries for their good-natured narration. The plots are interesting, and the characters are fun, but Corrina's voice is what keeps me coming back. This is an enjoyable entry in the series, and I'll keep it in mind the next time I'm in the mood for something warm in December.

4 Stars - A Very Good Book

A Child's Christmas in Wales

Friday, December 4, 2015

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

Crossposted from Mainlining Christmas

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 radio, and I think it's probably better as spoken narration. It might go nicely over some loose animation as a short atmospheric piece.

It's neither as beautifully written or as personally specific as Capote's A Christmas Memory, but it has a certain charm all the same. It's fine for what it is, it's just a bit thin taken as a piece alone.

3 Stars - A Good Book