A Christmas Party

Monday, December 26, 2016

A Christmas Party (originally published as Envious Casca)
Georgette Heyer, 1941

Crossposted from Mainlining Christmas

Premise: When the far-flung Herriard clan comes together for Christmas, sparks fly. It's a classic locked-room mystery with the death of a wealthy patriarch and a house full of suspects.

Even though this felt like deja vu, (how many times have I read/seen this plot?) I enjoyed it thoroughly, mostly because the characters were so interesting.

The characters are more colorful and complex than I've found in many mysteries of this style. Joseph the affable aging actor who's masterminding the party, his stolid wife Maud and her obsession with reading biographies, Paula and the aspiring playwright she drags to the party. We spend the most time shadowing cousin Mathilde who's stylish and practical, down-to-earth and gently sardonic in the face of ludicrous situations.

I spotted the murderer right away, (seriously, have I read this story before?) but there was enough fun in watching the characters play out their suspicions and the police piece everything together. There were a few subtleties I missed that had good reveals.

Recurring themes (beside money and the inheritance thereof) include theatricality/acting, with multiple characters with experience on the stage, and marriage/gender roles. Stephen, the heir, is engaged to a woman he doesn't much like, who doesn't much like him; Paula, his sister, invited a man to the party who she insists that she is not romantically interested in; and no one understands the emotional Joseph's long marriage to the quiet, dull Maud.

Overall, it could have been trimmed back to be a little shorter, but it was a mostly satisfying read.

4 Stars - A Very Good Book

Jingle Belle - The Whole Package

Monday, December 19, 2016

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 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 backfires.

The supporting cast that comes and goes includes rivals and friends, including magical animals, elves of various types, and other magically inclined teenage girls.

The art styles vary wildly through the book, as at a quick glance almost twenty different artists worked on these twenty-eight stories. The writing varies as well: sometimes it’s funny and satirical, sometimes full of adventure and heart, sometimes… sometimes it’s boring.

Same thing with the art, really. I was prepared going in for cheesecake in these designs, and I was generally able to look past it. Unfortunately, there were a few stories that even when I knew it was part of the joke (there’s one where JB tries to make money by replacing street-corner Santas with women in skimpy outfits), I found it unpleasant to read.

Overall there were more hits than misses, though. Highlights include a story where Jingle convinces the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come to fill in for a department store Santa and one late in the book where she finds Frankenstein’s monster frozen in the Arctic and bring him back to the North Pole. The story with Krampus is really solid, and some of the frenemy-rivalry between Jingle and Tashi the (anthropomorphic) snow leopard is fun.

This volume is a bit much for a casual reader (it took me a long time to get through it), although the short story format means you can read it off and on. However, the lack of page numbers on the contents page makes it hard to find any specific story.

3 Stars - A Good Book

Silent Night (A Raine Stockton Dog Mystery)

Monday, December 12, 2016

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 search dog is helpful for the small-town police.

A lot more of the book concerns Raine and her well-off boyfriend moving to the next level, including Raine befriending his daughter (after several false starts).

Most of the Christmas connections here concern giving presents, and a real baby abandoned in a nativity scene. It was a fine popcorn read, but I’m not going to be hunting down more by this author in a hurry.

2 Stars - An Okay Book

A Big Sky Christmas

Friday, December 9, 2016

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 Western, I wonder how many are caught in the weird space like this one -- the language and philosophy has to be somewhat dated or you’ll never make it through a plot with a bunch of characters going out to “settle” land where people live. But it can’t be too dated, you need a female character with spark (but she’s still a good girl, just an adventure-seeker) and some supporting characters who are Native American and Jewish, so that the white male main characters can prove how open-minded they are.

As I said, all the characters who are straight-up villains turn up one after another to be killed by the unstoppable skills of the main character. None of these characters seem to have any motive other than “be a one-note villain.” All the characters who are more just nasty (bigoted, sexist) end up dead as well, but by other hands. Technically we don’t know whether all the Native people who end up dead after fighting with the characters were villains, because unlike the white villains, they didn’t get any point-of-view passages.

I started reading faster and faster in the middle, as I realized that I didn’t really care whether any of the characters lived or died, or got where they were going. I did make it to the end, though, so I can report that the wagon train is saved from a fire by a Christmas Eve snowstorm. Also, earlier there’s a bit where a Jewish rabbi and a Cheyenne medicine man understand each other sort of because religion is magic.

Again, it’s not bad on a technical writing level, but it was really, REALLY not for me.

1 Star - Didn’t Like It.

Murder in Christmas River

Monday, December 5, 2016

Murder in Christmas River
Meg Muldoon, 2012

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: 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 likeable 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 being too unbelievable.

Is this great literature? Of course not, but it has what I’m generally looking for in a cozy mystery: a good-hearted but realistic protagonist who stands up for herself and others, a mystery which is solved by the end in a satisfying manner, a cute setting, and a happy ending.

As I said above, this one is heavier on the romance and the interpersonal relationships and lighter on the mystery. I did really like Cinnamon’s relationship with the ultimate villain; she was able to see the other person’s position and sympathize in a way that humanized the whole story.

The very end is heavier on the sappiness, but it wasn’t too bad.

It’s harmless fluff, but enjoyable enough that if I see more of this author’s work on sale, I’ll probably pick some up. It’s a perfect commuting read, or a comforting brain break from holiday stress.

3 Stars - A Good Book

Also, this author is supposedly coming out with an even more explicitly Christmas cozy mystery soon, so I’ll definitely be on the lookout for that.

NorthStars Volume 1: Welcome to Snowville

Friday, December 2, 2016

NorthStars Volume 1: Welcome to Snowville
Jim Shelley, Haigen Shelley, Anna Liisa Jones, 2016

Premise: Santa’s daughter and the princess of the yetis go on an afternoon adventure to save Christmas.

This sweet comic book from Action Lab Comics is a digital-first release this year, planned to be a gift-ready hardcover next year.

The story isn’t anything more than it appears to be, but it’s a cute, well-done tale. The art is clean and bright and the writing is clever. Some of the little details and tweaks on holiday lore were things I’d never seen before and quite liked.

Holly Claus meets Frostina under parental pressure, but they hit it off immediately. During a quick tour of Santa’s workshop, they run into a goblin who reports (in crayon-drawing speech bubbles representing a language barrier) that Krampus is interfering with the goblins who prepare the Christmas coal.

The girls travel under Snowville to investigate, facing harvest-themed straw men and a snow dragon on the way. The adventure never feels particularly dangerous, but that fits the story and the writing is charming and funny.

Good triumphs, of course, and the girls return to the workshop for a snack. I recommend this little holiday tale for fans of quality all ages media (while not quite as subversive as Action Lab’s most well-known title, Princeless, this is in a similar adventure/humor vein) and kids who like fantasy humor.

4 Stars - A Very Good Book