This Week’s Word Is “Christmas”
The holiday season is upon us. I love a book set in and around Christmas; the deep crisp snow (even though around here, we almost never get any), the folklore, family traditions, and the commonality of the idea that being together is better than being apart. I find these themes are often fashioned into glorious stories, richer than Christmas pudding and brandy butter. Equally, however, Santa, Rudolph, and that stable in Bethlehem are sometimes invoked to create horrible sickly, cynical plum duffs. Here then, are some Christmas book reivews. Books that won’t leave you with heartburn.
The Christmas Books by Matt Haig
Last week, GeekDad’s holiday gift guide focused on books. As my choice I included Matt Haig’s Christmas books, a loose series that starts with A Boy Called Christmas. I’ve included them here again because they are exactly what the magic of the festive season should be about. I’m a fully paid-up member of the Matt Haig appreciation society (if you’re looking for a grown-up gift, you won’t go far wrong with one of my favorite ever novels, The Humans). Perhaps I’m biased, but these books are wonderful.
Haig melds modern, secular Christmas tradition and older folklore to great effect in these books. They’re suffused with a warm humor that the whole family can enjoy and are laced with a gentle message on the importance of togetherness and the absurdity of prejudice.
Haig tweeted this week that he wrote the books to cheer himself up, and that’s exactly what they do. I must confess, I’m being slightly disingenuous, because, so far, I’ve read little more than one of the books. In the build-up to last Christmas, we read A Boy Called Christmas, during which time the bedtime story became a full family event. We all loved it. My oldest (then 11) stole it so he could finish it early. A crime for which he’s only just been forgiven.
Yet, a few weeks ago I was in danger of committing the same misdemeanor. Having ordered the second book in the series, The Girl Who Saved Christmas, for our literary advent countdown, I thought I’d take a peek between the covers. Once again, I was quickly drawn into Haig’s quirky engaging take on what Christmas should be about. I had to forcibly stop myself from reading. So for now, the book is back in the cupboard waiting to come out a little closer to the big day.
The third book Father Christmas and Me is still nestled safely in a bookstore somewhere, waiting for next year, when Matt Haig will hopefully help us countdown to Christmas once again. Matt Haig’s Christmas books are on their way to becoming as strong a tradition in our house as pigs in blankets and moaning about my mother. Not that I wish the man ill, but I hope Matt Haig needs to cheer himself a few more times because I want his Christmas books to run and run.
The Dark Is Rising by Susan Cooper
Waiting to read The Girl Who Saved Christmas is not all bad because our current bed-time read is Susan Cooper’s classic, The Dark Is Rising. How it has taken me this long to read the book (published in 1974) is something of a mystery. Indeed, it’s only comparatively recently that I’d even heard of it. And it was only this year, that I saw a tweet (Twitter costs me a fortune in books) that led me to realize the book is set around midwinter, making it a perfect December read.
Will, the book’s central character, has his birthday on the Winter Solstice. After a strange and frightening encounter on the way to pick up his family’s Christmas tree, Will discovers there’s more to the world than he ever imagined.
The Dark is Rising is steeped in folklore tradition and filled with magic and the power of nature. It’s a classic light and dark tale, with echoes of the Hobbit (without the short people with furry feet.) The book’s language is richer than modern fables, I think, but my son (8) has been enthralled. Cooper builds a deep sense of menace without resorting to some of the more overt shock tactics modern author’s might employ.
Being a book fiend I tend to fixate on the new and upcoming, but sometimes it’s great to read and share a classic. December is the perfect time to do this with The Dark is Rising. Nominally it is the second book in a series, but much like The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, it seems to more than stand up on its own.
The Legend of Podkin One-Ear /The Gift of Dark Hollow by Kieran Larwood.
The award-winning Legend of Podkin One-Ear, (featured here in a “Stack Overflow” post) opens on a snowy Bramblemas. The burrow is closed up for the night and an aging storyteller begins to tell a story to its inhabitants, The Legend of Podkin One-Ear.
The tale flits between the old storyteller and the destruction of Podkin’s burrow and his flight from the evil metal clad Gorm. The firelit tale and the Bramblemas celebrations make this a great choice for a winter read.
The story features anthropomorphized rabbits, and comparisons are inevitable with Richard Adams’ classic Watership Down. The stories are different beasts, Podkin being aimed at younger readers and a more slender tome. Whether Larwood’s series will endure like Adams’ remains to be seen, but it has all the makings of a modern classic.
The follow-up novel, The Gift of Dark Hollow, is probably an even better novel than the excellent first. It feels more assured, as though Larwood has grown in confidence by the reception of his first book(or possibly that’s just my imagination). Again, it consists of two stories, one narrated by the storyteller and the other about the storyteller as he moves on from Bramblemas day.
The main narrative picks up Podkin again, a little after his first story. It continues the tale of his battle against the Gorm and the plight of all rabbitkind against the ironclad menace. This second book builds on the mythology created in the first, with the introduction of a collection of magical artifacts. Who doesn’t love a collection of magical artifacts?
The Gift of Dark Hollow addresses the issue the first novel had with the female characters doing most of the work before being overlooked for the glory. Paz (Podkin’s sister) is front and center of this story and receives the recognition she deserves. There’s also the introduction of a great new kick-ass female character, about which I’ll say no more, so you can discover her yourself.
The book is left wide open for a third novel, due out Autumn 2018. The stories are moving away from Bramblemas, so possibly it’s not set to become another great Christmas story, but the theme and folklore of the Podkin books will always give them a festive feel.
There May Be a Castle by Piers Torday
This book opens on Christmas Eve. A busy, stressed mom bundles her children into the car on a snowy winter’s evening. The children are disgruntled and bicker in the back of the car. Mom’s attention is taken off the road to sort out a dispute. The car skids, crashes, and we’re left with a car wreck, miles from anywhere with snow falling thick and fast.
11-year-old Mouse is thrown clear of the car. He finds himself in a fairytale world; one that seems to be powered by his imagination. Meanwhile, his older sister is trapped in the car with their baby sister and unconscious mother.
The May Be a Castle is a remarkable book. The story of Mouse’s quest is bewitching, filled with wonderful characters and scary villains. The language used to describe his exploits is gorgeous and evocative. It’s a wonderful book to read aloud. It’s an incredibly fine piece of storytelling.
But it has a significant problem. It’s a deeply sad book; one that does not have a happy ending. I was tempted not to include it my Christmas round up at all. The finale to this book is in no way festive. Yet, it is such a remarkable book, one filled with imagination and wonder, I had to include it. It’s a book suffused with love and a book that made me cry buckets. I was a gibbering wreck as I read this to my son.
Torday handles things well. The sadness is not overt. My son missed some of the cadence of the book, which on balance is probably a good thing. This is a special book, but one you’ll need to steel yourself to reach the end.
Christmas Days by Jeannette Winterson
One for the grown-ups. I mentioned Christmas Days in last year’s last-minute holiday gift guide, but it’s such a wonderful book, I thought it was worth bringing to your attention again.
The book has 12 stories and 12 autobiographic tales of Winterson’s Christmases, past and modern. It’s hard to say which are better. I loved pretty much all the stories. They borrow heavily from the tradition of a Christmas ghost story. Some of them are deeply creepy. I don’t find fiction scares me very often, but one or two of these are extremely unsettling.
The autobiographical notes are little vignettes of Christmas life, often accompanied by recipes and I loved them. They’re meditations on Christmas traditions, secular and religious, and the importance of family and friends during the holiday season. Winterson is one of the UK’s finest authors and this book is very special. The hardback has a gorgeous binding to match. It’s the perfect gift for anybody who is hard to buy for.
Disclaimer: I received review copies of the Kieran Larwood books, There May Be a Castle and Christmas Days.