Be still my beating heart. I now know how Daughter felt when I unintentionally kept interrupting her while reading the longest of the short stories in the Christmas anthology A Surprise for Christmas. Or I think I do. I’m all shaky and disturbed and that adrenaline is pumping.
This will no doubt be because these stories are extremely well chosen. Martin Edwards as the editor of the series clearly knows what he’s doing, down to getting the order of the stories right. The ‘long one’ was the antepenultimate story, and it was followed by two more that didn’t calm me down quite as much as I would have liked.
There was not a single dud in this collection. You’d think at some point editors would run out of material from which to choose. But not yet. It looks like many of them originally were published in papers and magazines, just before Christmas, and when I think of it, it’s obvious that this would have been a big market. Good for writers to have short stories published and good for magazine editors to have suitable entertainment for their readers.
I’m not sure, but I suspect this market is no longer as big. Or it could be I don’t read the right publications, or not enough of them.
But here they are all collected for me, and I can see I will not only become a serial user of anthologies, but some of the hitherto unknown [to me] authors are calling to me to look out for their crime novels as well. I will need a lot of time to read. And preferably nerves of steel. Anthony Gilbert’s Give Me a Ring (aka the ‘long one’) scared me as much as Philip Pullman’s Tiger in the Well did.
It was preceded by [more comfortable] stories from Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh and countless others. Have a go yourself, unless the lack of Christmas stops you. Or save it for next November/December.
Or an unmitigated success.
It’s been what, four or five days since the Christmas presents were handed out? The Resident IT Consultant has reported two (of mine) book presents read and seemingly enjoyed. And there have been so many wrong books in the past.
The first one was Antonia Hodgson’s The Devil in the Marshalsea. I only worried about that one because there was something a little bit familiar about the title and I considered the possibility that he’d read it before. Or that I’d already given it to him on an earlier occasion…
But it’s fine, and it’s now on my tbr shelf.
The White Stag Adventure by Rennie McOwan followed quickly, presumably because it’s a shortish children’s book. It’s the sequel to Light on Dumyat, which has long been a family favourite. Being a bit local in its setting, it tickled the recipient’s sense for working out where the characters might be having their adventure. I suppose there could even be a walk from that.
These two successes are of course only adding to my own future reading burden.
For her birthday I got Daughter a Christmas crime anthology, edited by Martin Edwards. (How that man manages to fit so much into his time, I will never know!) I reckoned she’d enjoy reading about gruesomeness at Christmas, or rather, in the run-up to that peaceful time. In the snow. She did. She hinted she wanted more (because the clever publisher listed further reading suggestions at the back of the book).
I had calculated on this success, so had obviously bought her a second collection, also edited by Martin. We just had to wait for Christmas to come. And after watching the event with Val McDermid last month, Daughter felt that Val’s new Christmas murder story anthology would also be essential for her happiness.
I shopped some more.
Now I have started reading the first one, the birthday gift, and it’s very promising. The trouble is, I feel these stories really are best consumed during the month, or so, around Christmas. And I’m running out of time here. Once the sprouts have been cooked and the dishwasher’s been seen to, and a few other chores, I appear to have very little time left.
Other people watch endless television and go for walks and do jigsaw puzzles and even read books. (You should have seen me watch the other two do a jigsaw. I might have managed to put about 25 pieces in their places, but they were left to find the other 975. I did the green bits. There were not many green bits at all.)
At this rate I’ll be saving the anthologies for December 2021.
When the time came to hand out the Christmas presents, I barely noticed that the Resident IT Consultant slipped away for a brief time. (No, he did not don a red outfit and long white beard.) He suggested that if I checked my emails, I might find a Kindle book email there. I did. And I did. Apparently this is the way. You buy and the recipient takes delivery almost instantly.
It wasn’t wrapped, though. I have to say that.
*It* was the complete works by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Apparently ‘why buy one book when you can buy them all?’ is the reigning idea. Indeed. My thanks to Amanda Craig, whose Guardian article Books to Bring Cheer caused a bit of book buying at Bookwitch Towers. Rather craftily I asked for some books for me, and then divided things up by giving the Resident IT Consultant one I wanted to read too. What’s his is mine, or some such thing.
Whereas Daughter can think up ideas by herself, for us. Everything I’ve happened to mention gets noted. Which accounts for the Tom Stoppard collection. And my craving for codewords to solve has now received a real challenge. One for every day! What I want to know is whether I will be allowed to solve the one for, say, 13th May on a later date in May?
A grown-up Eva Ibbotson and a new book by Sally Nicholls complete my book presents.
My other pile of books supported the family Christmas gathering. We had a Boxing Day worldwide party, starting in Texas and ending in Moscow. As with everything else in 2020 it was on Zoom, and I was determined to get my chins under control. Hence the lifting of the laptop with the help of literature.
It was nice. People who didn’t often see each other, even before lockdowns became widespread, were able to join in. Before the day was over there had even been an online crossword for one new recruit. Otherwise we’d all spent the day on the Hungarian Accountant’s Russian quiz. (I know. He’s moved.) It was quite a devious one, and I seem to have outwitted the Resident IT Consultant. (There was a trick question. Or two.)
It’s been a string-light kind of year. And the elk said he’d been ignored for too long. So there is that. The books are a Christmas-Winter combo. Hoping to read some more seasonal murder stories.
And some thoughts. There were three best books last year. One went on to win the Carnegie. I have good taste. One has been shortlisted for the Scottish Teenage Book Prize 2021. And one is here on the pile, to remind you that Sally Gardner’s book is the perfect Christmas read. With a bit of luck it won’t be too late to get your hands on a copy.
Wishing you a Safe Christmas and a Better 2021.
In Philip Caveney’s new book, The Sins of Allie Lawrence, 16-year-old Allie storms out of her home and gets offered a lift by a handsome young man. Which she accepts. (Don’t do this!)
Nick, as he calls himself, offers to make her [theatre] dreams come true, and Allie finds this far too tempting to say no. (Always say no!)
She signs a contract with Nick and he takes her to Edinburgh, where in fact, her dreams do come true. But as with everything that comes too easily, it’s perhaps less satisfying than Allie had hoped for. And Nick, well, he’s rather devilish, isn’t he?
This last thing was a relief to me. I’d have been far more worried about Allie, had Nick been a normal pervert preying on young girls.
However, as we got close to the end, I could see no obvious way out for Allie and had to deduce that maybe she’d have to be sacrificed in order to show readers what not to do. Once you’re in with the devil, there really is no way out.
This is another great story from Philip, written in his usual strong style, and showing us what the world of theatre in Edinburgh might be like. Luxury flats and rave reviews. That sort of thing.
Read and learn. And enjoy, obviously.
If there were to be more books for 2020 mentioned, these two would be the ones:
Michael Rosen, The Missing, and Tom Palmer, After the War. They both made me cry.
Michael’s book is definitely not fiction, though, as it’s about his search to find out what happened to a couple of his father’s uncles in WWII. It is the most touching of tales.
And Tom, well, maybe his book is fiction, but being based on the real stories of children rescued after WWII and brought to Britain, his book reads more like non-fiction as well.
As you can see, they have the war in common, as does Elizabeth Wein’s The Enigma Game. So that’s three out of four. The war really does continue to have much influence over what we read.
How do you know that your favourite author will remain your favourite? And I don’t mean that they will suddenly become a really bad author, but what if you want to/need to replace them, or add to your – potentially growing – collection of favourites?
Relax. That hasn’t happened. But it was a thought that struck me some years ago. Meg Rosoff stepped up on that pedestal (?) in 2004. And about eight years later she was joined in close second place by Elizabeth Wein.
There is, of course, a difference between the author and their books. But let’s not delve too deeply into this.
What I’m really waffling about is the best of 2020. What a year.
When the time came to decide, I ‘discovered’ I had read rather fewer books this year, and many of them did not qualify, being adult or published before 2020. But before I had time to sink into depths of despair over my reading, I quickly came to the happy conclusion that there was no contest at all about the best books.
The authors of my first and second favourite novels have both had new books this year. If they were horses, they’d have arrived at the finishing line in the same split second. Although, I suppose they don’t have to be horses to do that…
So, anyway, here they are, the Bookwitch winners of 2020:
The Great Godden, by Meg Rosoff and The Enigma Game by Elizabeth Wein. If you haven’t read them, may I respectfully suggest you now know what to do over Christmas? It’s not as if you’ll be seeing Grandma, is it?
I left Philip Caveney’s characters having lunch – an odd sort of lunch – in Harvey Nicks in Edinburgh. They are nice characters. No, they are not, really, but they are interesting characters and the book is an easy and fun read. Really. Because those are the kind of books Philip writes.
But history repeats itself. I should have known. I am down to Not Reading. After roughly 25 years, I am succumbing to stress and doing the Not Reading. I don’t recommend it. Everyone feels better for reading. Especially me. So why am I not doing it?
The last time it was due to toddlers in the house. Motherhood stress and all that.
Now, well. I never had the urge to bake sourdough bread. I did that 35 years ago and have no need to do it again. The house is in a worse state than it was last February. And the reading; well, first it changed, slowed down a little and moved sideways into more crime, more adult crime.
But here I am in Harvey Nicks, ‘drinking’ too much and lunching with the devil.
I manage magazines all right. And most of the two and a half newspapers that come my way every week. I mean, I read the headlines. It’s quite enough.
Somehow I need to get myself out of Harvey Nicks. Surely there is an elevator or something?
Mine at last.
And believe me, a lot of swearing went into this book.