Category Archives: Christmas

Seven books and a smell

For a few panicky seconds on Christmas Eve as the presents were being handed out, I was afraid we were going to do a Mr and Mrs Hilary Mantel thing. I’d read how last year they gave each other the same book. This comes of knowing perfectly well what the other one would like.

At Bookwitch Towers Daughter is good at knowing this (the Resident IT Consultant follows the list given to him), and when I found myself staring at a British Library Christmas crime anthology edited by Martin Edwards, I hurriedly tried to recall what I’d got the Resident IT Consultant. Two collections edited by Martin, but which ones? And how did they differ from the ones last year?

In the end they turned out to be different collections, but Daughter and I had clearly studied the list of crime stories edited by our Mr Edwards, and then made our separate choices. This was a problem I’d not even seen coming!

As you can see I am looking at a varied reading diet for the near future. Eoin Colfer and Shaun Tan were by request, so to speak, while the Literary Almanac was the result of individual thinking by the Resident IT Consultant. So, Silent Nights from Daughter, and also two Mary Westmacotts, chosen without even the prompting of Sophie Hannah’s suggestion in the Guardian during the year. Very perceptive. And at last I have got my Glamorgan sausages back! I’ve been going on about Michael Barry all year, after realising that parting with his cookbooks from the olden days might have been somewhat premature. I just couldn’t find his Glamorgan sausages online. But here they are. Someone paid attention to her mother, and then went secondhand book shopping.

That’s the seven books. The final gift was a scented candle from ‘an author’, smelling of old bookshop. The candle. Not the author. I’d have thought Bookwitch Towers might almost manage that smell on its own, but now we’ll leave nothing to chance.

I wish my hairdresser could see me now. I mean, when I unwrapped my books. Earlier in the week he’d asked if I thought the Resident IT Consultant would surprise me with a really special Christmas present. I’m afraid I laughed. I came home and told the other two, and the Resident IT Consultant said that it really would be a surprise if he were to do that. But I felt fairly safe from any development in that direction.

In return I surprised the hairdresser. Twice. Seven years on he discovered I have a Son. Who is not a scientist. And who does not translate for the police. He’s also into books. Son, I mean. And the hairdresser does read, so I decided to combine the two, and went back a few days later and gave him one of Son’s.

Village Christmas

I don’t know how old this one is. Well, the story itself, Village Christmas, by Miss Read, has a date of 1972. It came as part of a pile of these tiny Penguins – by which I mean books, not birds – which were sitting on Mother-of-Witch’s bookshelves. Having missed these minute, short books I grabbed the whole lot when I left, and when I wanted something to read in the GP’s waiting room recently, I picked this one, because it was Christmassy.

It’s old-fashioned in that nice way us foreigners like. It’s Olde England. Or at least as olde as it got fifty years ago. Because there is one fact in this little story which proves it’s not ‘hundreds’ of years old. Someone wears clothes that would have been right at home in the late 1960s, even if they were rather out of place in this village. At least according to the sisters, Mary and Margaret.

Set in their ways, and very frugal, they are kind and polite, but fail to understand the world as it is today, by which I mean back then, fifty years ago. The younger woman who wears ‘the clothes’ is an outsider, lovely and friendly, but somewhat looked down on by the decent villagers.

This being a Christmas story, it’s quite obvious what must happen to this pregnant wearer of strange clothes. There has to be a Christmas baby.

I’ll leave you to it.

The 2021 mantelpiece

It’s almost as if they had collaborated; my former neighbours and my author friend. That very pink hill really does continue rather nicely from one card to the next. And the owls on the other side match well, even if one has a plant growing out of it. I have other cards too, but like the mantelpiece to have some sort of theme.

Here’s to as decent a Christmas as we can manage, and plenty of hope for 2022.

Cold paint

Discovered to my horror that we’re closer to next Christmas than to the last one. Though why that should be a bad thing I don’t know; presents and seasonal food before ‘too long’.

Have been meaning to mention Daughter’s Christmas present to the Resident IT Consultant. You may recall, but it’s fairly unlikely, that she and I discovered books being sold in the nearby antiques centre. Which is all well and good, had the books not been boxed and intended for ‘decorating with’.

This made us want to liberate a few of them, so we went back after the second lockdown and she bought a box.

The Resident IT Consultant diligently, and pretty immediately, read all seven books by John Creasey. Whom I had never heard of, but when looking him up it seems he not only wrote a lot of books, but he ‘founded the Crime Writers’ Association (CWA) in the UK. The CWA New Blood Dagger is awarded in his memory, for first books by previously unpublished writers; sponsored by BBC Audiobooks, it includes a prize of £1000. This award was known previously as the John Creasey Memorial Dagger’.

Seems the man also had more pseudonyms than you can shake a stick at, so I won’t even try to list them. Basically, he was not completely unheard of, apart from by me.

When asked what they were like, the Resident IT Consultant mentioned that the first one he read featured both the N-word but also a good understanding of how to use buses in London.

Personally I got confused every time I looked at the book on top of the pile, reading the title as Death in Cold Paint. Which I daresay could be quite unpleasant.

Should I read these? Keep them for any ‘unlikely and unexpected’ long periods stuck in the house with too few books? Or take them to Oxfam?

Order, order

I own an old cassette of Christmas songs, sung by Roger Whittaker. I love it. I loved it even more – at first – when I was able to buy the same album as a CD. I mean, I thought I did. Was. Same title, same songs, but fewer songs. Seems a plastic ribbon has more room on it than a shiny disc. But apart from the lack of certain songs, and they were – obviously – some of the ones I loved best, there was a lack of order. It was the wrong order, as far as I was concerned. I’d nearly worn the cassette out, so I knew how I liked my songs. And it was not the CD order of things.

Order matters.

Then I happened upon an article by Dan Brotzel in The Author about ‘working out the best sequence for your story collection’. It seems it’s really quite difficult. Dan mused about his own stories, and also looked at what others have done.

I had actually pondered this before. Whenever I pick up a collection of one author’s stories or read an anthology put together by someone, I wonder how they determined what comes first, what sits in the middle and how to end things. Unless Dan is particularly unskilled at this, it would appear that someone has agonised over this very thing each time I sit there wondering about the why or the what.

And as with Roger Whittaker, some results feel better than others.

Winter

It certainly is. Here and now, but also in Ali Smith’s Winter. Although I’d almost have preferred to call it Christmas. It’s mostly set at Christmas, with flashbacks to older times, summer and winter, like we got in Autumn.

Instead of the seemingly interminable queueing for a passport application to go through, as we had in Autumn, Winter begins with Sophia visiting the optician. Unnamed, but recognisable as one of those High Street ones. I’m glad she was hard on them. But then her bank was hard on Sophia.

This wealthy – or is it formerly wealthy? – sixty-something woman, is seeing things. Even without the help of the optician. It’s a head. No body, just the head.

It’s Christmas Eve and Sophia’s thirty-something son Art is coming to stay, with his partner Charlotte. Except there is a problem. But problems can be dealt with.

There is also Sophia’s kind, but quirky, older sister Iris.

In the background we have the politics of the day, Christmas 2016. It’s only partly Brexit. Now there’s also the election of the 45th President to be concerned about. And the flood of refugees, who are not seen as human beings by our leaders. Iris cares. Sophia less so. And Art is confused. His new Charlotte is great, however, and she truly gets the Brexit conundrum.

Perhaps there is hope. I’d like to think there is.

I’m looking forward to Spring, in more ways than one.

Christmas is Murder

You’re not all done with Christmas, I hope. Although, apart from its title, Val McDermid’s Christmas is Murder isn’t primarily Christmassy. Some of the twelve stories are seasonal, but many are not. Which is fine, as I believe Val was after creating Christmas crime reading like the Norwegians do at Easter (when I suspect not all the murders are egg or chicken related).

I had just about despaired after a couple of good, but too dark [for me] stories, when Val hit me with a traditional style ‘pleasant’ murder, which cheered me up no end. The preceding murders had been of people who didn’t deserve to be killed…

The most interesting story is a Sherlock Holmes one – Holmes For Christmas – which takes the reader in an unexpected direction. Quite fun. But it set me thinking about whether you are allowed to write more of someone else’s stories? With Sherlock Holmes I feel we are always getting new material, be it written or on screen. So I don’t know whether Watson being addressed as James in one instance meant anything, or if it was an unfortunate mistake.

Anyway, once the stories became a little less dark, I enjoyed the collection. And for anyone into same sex relationships, there’s much to discover.

A Surprise for Christmas

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.

Well.

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.

Might have got some things right

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.

Thoughts on Christmas shorts

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.