06 January 2015

Over by Christmas

The Walnut Tree, Charles Todd
This is a "holiday novel" by a very loose thread only, when a beautiful thing happens on Christmas Eve, so it was appropriate for the end of the Christmas season. In this one-off novel from Todd as not part of the Bess Crawford or Ian Rutledge series, Lady Elspeth Douglas is in France with her good friend Madeleine when the Great War breaks out. Elspeth has been brought up in great wealth, but when she sees hordes of thirsty soldiers in Paris and tries to help them, she is called to serve as she has never been called before. Having an "understanding" with her best friend's brother, she is disconcerted when she is attracted to the Army officer who makes it possible for her to get out of England. Defying her guardian, she trains as a nurse and goes back to the front, where she discovers a purpose for her life, but a dilemma for her heart.

This is a short, sweet wartime romance about a wealthy girl who finds her true self and her inner strength in serving on the battlefield. She experiences mud and misery and terror, grief and love, kindness and loyalty, with her nerve and her dignity intact. While the end may seem a bit pat for modern audiences, the events narrated did happen in real life. I enjoyed all the characters and the brief look at the nursing sisters' experience at the front and with the wounded, and the stubborn resolve of the men determined that their cause was the right one. And the holiday event brings to mind a beautiful image that will stay with me.

05 January 2015

So Many Nights Before Christmas

The Annotated Night Before Christmas, Martin Gardner
Clement C. Moore's "A Visit from St. Nicholas" forms the basis of this book that features not just an annotated version of the poem—otherwise the book would be about six pages—but as many of the parodies and similarly-metered poems that have been written in the succeeding years. (Incidentally, the first thing Gardner says in his introduction is "I hope no one imagines that I regard the selections in this book as good poetry," which makes him sound incredibly snobby right off the bat. But, truly, there is much doggerel in this book.) It also opens with a brief biography of Moore and his estate, which gave the New York City neighborhood "Chelsea" its name, Christmas in Moore's time, and the history of St. Nicholas, before descending into homage and parody, the earliest which was written only a scarce dozen years after the original. (Most of the earliest "sequels" are 19th century polemics against gluttony and greed.) There are alcoholic versions, one portraying an exhausted salesgirl, fairy tale incursions, even a collection of "MAD" magazine versions and a Sherlock Holmes pastiche, plus various ethnic versions (Cajun, hillbilly, etc.) in excruciating dialect.

Near the end there's a "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" chapter, since the original Rudolph story (not the Rankin-Bass classic) was written in the same meter, as well as its lost sequel, Rudolph's Second Christmas.

For Moore fans everywhere. To be read slowly, however, over several nights, or else the poems read one after the other become frankly annoying.

03 January 2015

In Time for Christmas Pudding

Mrs. Jeffries and the Merry Gentlemen, Emily Brightwell
This is a long-running mystery series (this is book 20-something) about the household staff of Inspector Witherspoon, a Scotland Yard detective with an impressive record of solved crimes. What his superiors don't know, of course, is that his housekeeper, the titular Mrs. Jeffries, and the rest of the household staff have formed an investigative team of their own. They go where Witherspoon isn't trusted, among other servants, or to the shopkeepers, and gather clues which they bring back to the clever Mrs. Jeffries, who sits down with her employer each evening and manages to subtly feed him the clues until he comes to the inevitable solution.

In this story, one of the members of an investment club called "the Merry Gentlemen" is murdered, and Witherspoon (and of course his unknown compatriots in service) must find out whodunnit quickly, or his Christmas holidays will be ruined.

The readers of 20-plus books in this series can't be wrong, so I feel a bit guilty about being so diffident about it. It's not a bad book, I just have so many series I like better that I wouldn't involve myself in this one. The characters are appealing and the stories remind one of the plotlines and protagonists in the Pennyfoot Hotel mysteries. If you're looking for a Victorian cozy, this is a good one to try (well, starting at the beginning, anyway).

02 January 2015

The Greatest Gift...Freedom

Christmas in the Big House, Christmas in the Quarters, Patricia McKissack and Frederick McKissack
This is a picture book for children about slavery just before the Civil War, portraying the two different celebrations on a Southern plantation: the opulent world of the planter and his family and the poor living conditions of their slaves. While Christmas means the slaves are given extra privileges and more food and a chance to also celebrate the holiday, the comparison between the revelries of the planter's families and the simple celebrations of the slaves make the point of the story all the more powerful.

This is a simple way of introducing children to the injustices that existed during the time of slavery, with beautiful illustrations that bring the dreams of freedom of the enslaved men and women alive.

01 January 2015

Christmas in New Amsterdam

Santa and Pete: A Novel of Christmas Present and Past, Christopher Moore and Pamela Johnson
First, this is not the Christopher Moore of snark. The gentleman who wrote this little book is relating some of his own family history in writing the story. While ostensibly it is the story of how St. Nicholas and his assistant Peter (known as "Black Peter" in the Netherlands) met, began to travel, and migrated to the new world in time to avert war between the Dutch and the Native people, it is the framing narrative that is the meat of the tale. Young Terence's grandfather, who drives a New York City bus the length of Manhattan, is lonely after the death of his wife, and Terence's parents wish him to learn something of his heritage and his grandfather rather than being self-absorbed, so every Saturday a rather resentful Terence is placed on his grandfather's bus to follow him on his route. Gradually Terence becomes entranced with Grandpa Mann's historical tales and the regulars who take his bus.

There are some liberties taken with the Nicholas/Peter story, since originally the pair delivered gifts on December 5, both in the Netherlands and in New Amsterdam; however it would take away from the narrative to have to divert to explain the date change. While the description says it's the tale of Santa and Pete, it's really the story between Terence and his grandfather and their friends on the bus that carry this sweet story.