Christmas Special: Season of Wonder

Thursday, December 17, 2020

Crossposted from MainliningChristmas.com

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 technology isn't the point, but the vagueness still bothered me.

Go Toward the Light by Harlan Ellison

This one's okay. It's a science-fictional explanation for long-burning Hanukkah oil involving time travel. 

If Dragon’s Mass Eve Be Cold and Clear by Ken Scholes

Why is this a genre story? It was an okay, if meandering, story about a woman in a mining town on the edge of a war, but the fantasy elements were too confusing, felt purposeless, and didn't enhance the story.

*Pal o’ Mine by Charles de Lint

A poignant little piece of magical realism about a person who lost a friend. Very much in this author's style. 

*The Nutcracker Coup by Janet Kagan

One of the best by a lot. This is a sci-fi tale about diplomats on an alien world sharing holiday traditions and the unintended consequences thereof. It was a ton of fun, a lot of content well packed into a short form without feeling rushed or underexplained. 

How the Bishop Sailed to Inniskeen by Gene Wolfe 

I could barely follow this horror/ghost story, and I don't know what the point was. 

Dulce Domum by Ellen Kushner

I'm not sure I liked this, but I think it's well done. Creepy surreal combination of sex and death and references to children's literature. 

Julian: A Christmas Story by Robert Charles Wilson

My enjoyment of this story suffered significantly from the timing. First, because it's set in a future after the fall of our civilization. I had to stop reading a few times because of elements that were probably intended when written to be troubling... but not horrifying and nightmare-inducing. Second, because I just re-read Spin by this author, and the stories have the exact same core: a normal/good narrator caught in the orbit of (perceived) greatness. The ending of it was pretty good when I finally got there.

Loop by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

A not-bad spin on Christmas Carol and time travel, but not exceptional. One of those stories that's better on reflection than while you're reading.

The Christmas Witch by M. Rickert

This story follows a young girl who moves to a spooky town where the children secretly collect bones and the adults could be witches. It's extremely evocative, but I'm left not quite knowing the point. 

Wise Men by Orson Scott Card

This trying-too-hard story about alien Wise Men told from a demon's perspective might almost be decent if it wasn't so weirdly Mormon.

*The Night Things Changed by Dana Cameron

This is a super cute paranormal story about a werewolf and vampire who fight evil; surprisingly wholesome for the subgenre.

*Home for Christmas by Nina Kiriki Hoffman

Oh, I really liked this bit of magical realism. It follows an ambiguously gendered person who can talk to inanimate things and an unexpected holiday friendship. Lovely character work, subtle and poignant.

A Christmas Story by Sarban

This story is the oldest in the collection, but feels like a pastiche of even older works. It's a bit roundabout, a tale within a tale about a pair of lost Russians coming upon a mysterious animal in the frozen north. 

A Woman’s Best Friend by Robert Reed

This story that mashes up It's a Wonderful Life with quantum multiple worlds has a better sci-fi angel twist than others I've seen. However, the cute gimmick gets old fast. I had to double-check the date on this one (2008, so semi-recent) because there were some asides in the middle that felt modern but the ending felt unpleasantly and strangely dated when the mysterious woman who's been talking to the main character and explaining everything decides to randomly have sex with him. 

*Christmas at Hostage Canyon by James Stoddard

I like this one that follows a young boy who witnesses something creepy stalking the edge of his family's vacation and (spoiler) features Santa as humanity's defender against the fae. 

The Winter Solstice by Von Jocks

This one is about a Wiccan who stumbles into a scary situation involving Solstice magic. Well done, although the ending is a bit lackluster.

*Newsletter by Connie Willis

This was the best story in the collection of Willis' fiction that I read a few years back, and it's still a lot of fun. Pod people attack for the holidays. 


Overall: Nothing terrible, a few really good stories. That's not bad for a collection. 

Christmas Special: A Kiss for Midwinter

Monday, December 14, 2020

Crossposted from MainliningChristmas.com

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 and surface camaraderie but has never dealt with the trauma in her past. Because of this, she isn't close with many people, and she deeply distrusts her own feelings of attraction. Jonas, meanwhile, is blunt and pragmatic and uses sardonic dark humor to say honest or emotional things without truly appearing vulnerable. 

I wanted to love this book, (I've loved the other books by this author I've read this year. 2020 has driven me to become more of a romance reader) but I only liked it. 

My main problem can be traced back to: in an early chapter from Lydia's point of view, she is convinced Jonas is cruelly mocking her. It was so well done that I was convinced he was a jerk as well, and that took me a while to untangle. (He doesn't actually mean anything bad by the things he says because he doesn't ascribe to society's assumptions about most things, but she doesn't know that yet).

Once they both had more time to establish their characters, I went back and understood the scene a bit more, but it still means that the story isn't a slam-dunk for me. 

I did really enjoy Jonas's commentary about the bad, sometimes dangerous, medicine being practiced by many older doctors, and his attempts to be better, even when that meant saying things that were socially unpalatable or doing things that other people found foolish. Lydia's unwillingness to listen to her own instincts because she had been gullible and taken advantage of in the past was very believable and very sad. The descriptions of her earlier tragic Christmas will definitely stay with me. 

Overall this is a great book, but it took time to grow on me. 

Christmas Special: Tudor Christmas Tidings

Thursday, December 10, 2020

Crossposted from MainliningChristmas.com

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 between their families in the movement to overthrow Richard III. The story takes place over three successive Christmases as the political situation changes around them. 

Unfortunately, this story was hampered by unconvincing lust-at-first-sight and far too much... how shall I put this... faffing about. Alice and John are in love, now they aren't, now Alice doesn't trust John's family, now John doesn't trust Alice, now they're back to trusting each other, now they aren't. It just felt like running in circles, and I never cared about what was happening. 


Secrets of the Queen's Lady by Jenni Fletcher

This story, set in a time I know a bit better (Henry VIII), had better characters and a more compelling romance. 

Lady Philippa is a recent widow who is struggling to recover from how terrible her marriage was when she reconnects at a Christmas celebration with a younger man she met in passing years before. Her emotional trauma is compelling, and her occasionally dumb decisions (I simply must push this loving man who I desire away for his own good!) are at least understandable given her backstory.

Her suitor Sir Christopher, on the other hand, is a much less complex character. His insistence that his obsession with her dates back to their first brief meeting seems a bit too far fetched. The romance was much less important than Philippa finding her own self and strength.


His Mistletoe Lady by Amanda McCabe

The title for this one is weird. There is mistletoe, but it doesn't play a huge role. 

Catherine's father has been imprisoned for acting against the crown, and Catherine and her mother go to court at Christmas to see what can be done. Catherine is immediately taken with the courtier Diego de Vasquez (just arrived from Spain), and the feeling is mutual. 

Oh, if only her father weren't a traitor, and if only Diego weren't surely mourning the death of his wife! Good news, Catherine, neither of those things are true. Your father is secretly an informant for the crown, and Diego didn't love his dead wife. 

The build on the romance for this one isn't badly done, but I kept rolling my eyes at the fact that literally every apparent problem in the path of the happy couple wasn't actually a problem. In the end, they've foiled a plot and plan to live in Spain (Catherine's mother is Spanish as well). Given that they're Catholic and the ruler they just worked so hard for is Mary I, it's probably just as well for them to get out of Britain before her short reign ends. 


None of these stories were bad, although the first was the most boring. However, none of them were all that great either. This is just another interchangeable bit of romantic fluff to pass the time. 

Christmas Special: The Great Treasury of Christmas Comic Book Stories

Monday, December 7, 2020

Crossposted from MainliningChristmas.com

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 weather machine. It doesn't make much more sense in context, but it's sweet and fun. 

There's a very compressed but adequate adaptation of A Christmas Carol, but there are tons of good adaptations out there. Also an okay illustrated version of 'Twas the Night Before Christmas.

However, a lot of the stories are either extremely surreal, weirdly dated, or both. 

Sometimes the weirdness is at least interesting - I don't think the story of a bunch of elves that look like naked toddlers creating Santa's suit out of a friendly giant's coat is actually good, but it is bizarre enough to be intriguing. More often they are disjointed stories where the story is haphazard or nonexistent and doesn't seem to have a point. 

There's one where the punchline is about army surplus rockets - probably made more sense in 1947. I believe the comic historians when they tell me "Lil' Tomboy" was important at the time, but her whole deal seems like it would need too much explanation for a modern kid to easily enjoy. 

There's one that's almost good about a tiny deer who wants to pull a sleigh, but it's marred by the plot hinging on a toy for a "lame boy" who we never actually see or find out more about. Awkward. 

Most of the stories fall in this mediocre-to-boring middle ground, but a few are just plain bad. There's a parody of 'Twas the Night Before Christmas starring a character called "Atomic Mouse." The writing (and forced rhyming) on that one is painful. There are a couple that follow kids on a "maybe it was a dream" adventures, but they're full of baffling plot twists and dated character tropes and situations. 

There's a surprisingly violent story set in Toyland where the resolution makes no sense. And there's an actual illustrated bit of the Bible at the end, which is mostly hilarious because of all the blond white people. 

Fans of classic cartooning and vintage illustration could probably find a lot to like in the art here - they even maintain original printing and coloring errors. But no one should read this for the writing.

Christmas Special: We Are Santa

Thursday, December 3, 2020

Crossposted from MainliningChristmas.com

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, one in a red velvet top hat, and one in a full Bishop of Myra getup.

The focus is the big beautiful photos and the lush costumes and beards galore, but the book is also peppered with personal profiles that provide more depth for some Santas - why or how they started as Santa, favorite memories, and poignant anecdotes. 

There are two black Santas, one Mrs. Claus, at least one Jewish Santa, and two young Santas in the book. I would have liked a little more diversity in those directions if possible, but maybe that's another book.

Overall this is just lovely and joyful, and I recommend it to anyone interested in the holiday aesthetic or in need of a visual hug. Plus, proceeds are going to Children's Hospital of Chicago. 

The only hard thing about reading this book was realizing that in-person Santa visits are not happening for most kids this year. Here at Mainlining Christmas, we hope all Santas are doing okay out there. 

4 Stars