Nora Bonesteel’s Christmas Past by Sharyn McCrumb

Nora Bonesteels Christmas Past Sharyn McCrumb is a name I remember from about fifteen years ago when I read two of the books in her Ballad mystery series, She Walks These Hills and The Ballad of Frankie Silver, both set in the Appalachian Mountains and steeped in history and folklore. I know that I enjoyed those two books, but the details have faded from my mind now, so when I saw this new novella available on NetGalley I couldn’t wait to read it and reacquaint myself with Sharyn McCrumb’s work. I hadn’t even realised that she had been continuing to write Ballad novels and that there are ten in the series now!

Nora Bonesteel’s Christmas Past is described as a novella, but it’s really two separate short stories which alternate with each other throughout the book. In the first, we join Sheriff Spencer Arrowood and his deputy Joe LeDonne who have been given the unwelcome task of arresting a man on Christmas Eve. Arriving at the alleged criminal’s home – a remote mountain farm – they encounter problems they had never expected and end up spending Christmas Eve in a very unusual way.

Meanwhile, Nora Bonesteel, an elderly woman with the gift of ‘the Sight’, is being visited by her new neighbour, Shirley Haverty, who has moved into the house Nora still thinks of as ‘the old Honeycutt place’. The Havertys have bought the house as a summer home but have decided to stay on this year and experience a traditional Christmas in the mountains. After a few unexplained mishaps Shirley has become convinced that the house is haunted…and that the ghost doesn’t seem to approve of their bright pink artificial Christmas tree! Can Nora use her psychic abilities and her memories of the house in days gone by to lay the ghost to rest?

This is a short book and could easily be read in one or two sittings (though I didn’t manage that due to choosing a busy time to start reading it). It’s not necessary to have read any of Sharyn McCrumb’s previous books, though I did remember the characters of the Sheriff, Joe LeDonne and Nora Bonesteel.

The two stories in the book are, as I’ve said, completely independent of each other and never come together at all, not even at the end. I found this a bit disappointing and I think it might have been better if they had been presented as two entirely separate stories rather than giving us a few pages of one followed by a few of the other. What the stories do have in common is the Appalachian setting and the fact that they both deal with the subjects of Christmas traditions and the mountain lifestyle.

Nora Bonesteel’s Christmas Past doesn’t have the depth or complexity of the longer novels in the Ballad series and unlike the full-length books there’s no mystery to be solved, but it’s an enjoyable, undemanding read and perfect for the Christmas season.

And now I’m going to end this post on an appropriate note by wishing everyone a Merry Christmas! I should be back between Christmas and New Year with another winter-themed review and my end-of-year lists.

Memories of A Christmas Carol: a Classics Club meme

The Classics Club monthly meme question for December asks us for our thoughts and memories of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens:

What is your favorite memory of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol? Have you ever read it? If not, will you? Why should others read it rather than relying on the film adaptations?

A Christmas Carol I was given a copy of A Christmas Carol as a Christmas present when I was a child, though I don’t know exactly how old I was. I can’t remember who gave it to me either, but I suspect it was probably an aunt or uncle. I remember taking the book with me to my grandmother’s a few days after Christmas and reading those famous opening lines for the first time:

Marley was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that.

The last time I re-read the book was in 2009, shortly after I started blogging, and it was still a pleasure to read – both the story itself and this particular edition. It’s a beautiful hardback book with colour illustrations and black and white line drawings by Arthur Rackham. Reading a book that looks and feels beautiful can really enhance the experience! Rackham’s twelve colour plates, originally published in 1915, can be seen here. I’ve always liked the one of Bob Cratchit sliding down the icy street.

I received a different edition of the book a few years later from another family member (again I’ve forgotten who it was). I’m not sure where I’ve put this one, though I know I must still have it somewhere. After a lot of searching online – which wasn’t easy, as there are literally hundreds of different versions of A Christmas Carol and I couldn’t recall the names of either the illustrators or the publisher – I managed to find a picture of the front cover for you:

A Christmas Carol - Peter Fluck and Roger Law This edition, which I’ve discovered was published by Viking, was illustrated by Peter Fluck and Roger Law (who were also the creators of Spitting Image) with pictures of grotesque puppet-like caricatures, like the one of Scrooge pictured on the cover.

There have been so many adaptations of A Christmas Carol, but although the story and the sentiment might be the same, if you only watch them instead of reading the novel you will be missing out on so much. As I said in my 2009 post on the book, even if you already know the story it’s still worth reading it for the richness and humour of Dickens’ writing and for his wonderful descriptions and imagery.

You can see how other Classics Club members responded to this month’s meme here.

Have a great Christmas and I’ll be back later in the week with my Best Books of 2012!

Envious Casca by Georgette Heyer

Envious Casca “Joseph, having lived for so many years abroad, hankered wistfully after a real English Christmas. Nathaniel, regarding him with a contemptuous eye, said that a real English Christmas meant, in his experience, a series of quarrels between inimical persons bound to one another only by the accident of relationship, and thrown together by a worn-out convention which decreed that at Christmas families should forgather.”

It’s Christmas Eve and at Lexham Manor the family and friends of Nathaniel Herriard are gathering for a Christmas party arranged by the old man’s brother, Joseph. The guests include Nat’s nephew Stephen and his fiancée Valerie, his niece Paula and her playwright friend Willoughby Roydon, a distant cousin, Mathilda Clare, and a business partner, Edgar Mottisfont. Putting up decorations as the snow falls outside, Joseph is looking forward to a good old-fashioned family Christmas. Unfortunately Nat doesn’t like the festive season, doesn’t want to have a party, and finds himself arguing with almost everyone present – which means that when he is found stabbed to death in his room later that evening there are plenty of suspects, all with motives for wanting him dead. The problem, as Inspector Hemingway quickly discovers, is that Nat’s door was locked from the inside. How could the murderer have entered a locked room? What happened to the murder weapon? And where could Aunt Maud’s library book, The Life of the Empress of Austria, have disappeared to?

I have read some of Heyer’s historical novels and loved most of them, but this is the first of her contemporary mysteries I’ve read (contemporary for the time in which they were published, that is – 1941 in this case). I had no idea which one to start with, but when I came across Envious Casca in the library and saw that it was set at Christmas, it seemed the perfect choice for a December read.

I wasn’t sure I was going to like this book at first. It took me a while to really get into the story and it didn’t help that most of the characters were completely unsympathetic. I have rarely read a novel with so many nasty, rude, unpleasant characters and I couldn’t think of anything worse than being a guest at the Herriards’ party, even without a murder taking place! From the obnoxious, sarcastic Stephen and the haughty butler Sturry to the cantankerous, bad-tempered Nathaniel, they were all so annoying I was surprised only one murder was committed. I did understand, though, that it was vital to the plot that the group of people gathered at the house disliked each other and that there had been so much friction and conflict directly before the murder. The clashing personalities did lead to some very funny conversations and situations too – the scene where everyone assembles in the drawing room to listen to Roydon read his play, for example.

The story really picked up for me after Inspector Hemingway was called in from Scotland Yard. I didn’t find Hemingway a very interesting character in comparison to other fictional detectives and I felt I never really got to know him or anything about his background, but I still enjoyed following his investigations and his discussions with his assistant, Sergeant Ware. I was quite proud of myself because I worked out how the murder was committed long before Hemingway did and my suspicion as to the identity of the murderer was proved to be right too. Luckily this didn’t take away any of the pleasure of reading the book and it was still fun looking out for more clues that might confirm I had the right solution. As a classic locked-room mystery with lots of suspects, red herrings and an English country house setting, it was maybe not a very original novel but the plot was well constructed and interesting. I liked the way the title of the book cleverly relates to the story too (if you don’t know what it means, wait until you’ve read the book before looking it up).

As my first introduction to Heyer’s mysteries, I enjoyed this one and am looking forward to reading the others.

I am Half-Sick of Shadows by Alan Bradley

I hope everyone had a great Christmas! I don’t usually read a lot of Christmas-themed books but the one I’m posting about today, I am Half-Sick of Shadows, was a perfect seasonal read.

I know not everyone will be familiar with Alan Bradley’s books, so for those of you who need some background information I can tell you that I am Half-Sick of Shadows is the fourth in a series of mystery novels set in the 1950s and featuring eleven-year-old amateur detective and chemistry genius, Flavia de Luce. Flavia lives with her father and her two older sisters Ophelia (Feely) and Daphne (Daffy), at Buckshaw, their family estate near the small English village of Bishop’s Lacey. Other recurring characters include the de Luces’ two servants, Mrs Mullet and Dogger, as well as the local vicar, the doctor, Inspector Hewitt and several more of the villagers.

At the beginning of this fourth instalment, Flavia’s father is having financial difficulties and in an attempt to bring in some money, he allows the cast and crew of Ilium Films to move into Buckshaw to do some filming over the Christmas period. While the snow falls outside, the people of Bishop’s Lacey gather at Buckshaw to watch the two stars, Phyllis Wyvern and Desmond Duncan, give a special charity performance of Romeo and Juliet. Things go badly wrong, however, and a murder takes place. With the de Luce family and all their neighbours snowed in overnight, there’s a long list of suspects. Flavia begins to investigate, but before she can concentrate on identifying the murderer she needs to finish working on a special project of her own: a trap to catch Santa Claus on his way down the chimney!

I have enjoyed all three of the previous books in this series, but I think I am Half-Sick of Shadows could possibly be my favourite so far. It took a long time (almost half the book) before the murder took place and the actual mystery began – and it was probably the weakest mystery in the series too – but that wasn’t a problem for me at all. I don’t read these books for the murder mystery plots; I read them because I love Flavia and love reading about her adventures.

As well as being shorter than usual, this book has a different feel to the first three because it is set entirely within the confines of Buckshaw. This means we get to see more of Flavia’s interactions with her family members and we also have the chance to learn more about Dogger, one of the most interesting characters in the series. I’ve mentioned before that I was starting to get impatient with Feely’s and Daffy’s nastiness towards their younger sister, but there seemed to be a slight change in Daffy’s relationship with Flavia in this book and I almost liked her at times! There was also a hint that maybe Feely didn’t really hate Flavia and that there might be another reason for her cruel behaviour. I’m still hopeful that the three of them will be friends by the end of the series, but we’ll have to wait and see – I’m already looking forward to the fifth book to find out if there are any further developments.

I’m glad I was able to find time to read this book last week as it really was perfect for the Christmas season. Oh, and in case you’re wondering, the title comes from the poem by Tennyson, The Lady of Shalott.

Review: The Christmas Mystery by Jostein Gaarder

“They were going to Bethlehem, to Bethlehem- because that’s where the Christ-child was born.”

The Christmas Mystery begins in Norway on 30th November when a boy named Joachim discovers a hand-made Advent calendar in a book shop. The next day, when Joachim opens the first door, he finds a tiny piece of paper telling the story of a little girl called Elisabet who spots a lamb in a department store. The lamb begins to run away, but Elisabet is determined to stroke it and chases after it. The lamb leads her outside and into the woods where she meets the angel Ephiriel, who explains to her that she is now part of a very special pilgrimage to Bethlehem – not only will they be travelling across land, they will also be travelling back through time to the day when Jesus was born.

As Elisabet, Ephiriel and the lamb move closer to Bethlehem and further back in time, they are joined by an assortment of other Biblical characters including shepherds and Wise Men. A little more of their story is revealed every day through the pieces of paper hidden in Joachim’s advent calendar, but as the tale of Elisabet’s journey unfolds, Joachim and his parents become involved in another mystery: the mystery of John, the mysterious flower-seller who made the magic Advent calendar and the real-life Elisabet who disappeared on Christmas Eve in 1948.

The book is divided into 24 chapters, with each chapter representing one door on the Advent calendar. If you have children, the structure of the book would make it perfect for reading aloud, one chapter per day in the weeks leading up to Christmas. This is not really a ‘children’s book’ though – it’s one of those books that can be enjoyed on different levels by people of all ages. As with all of Jostein Gaarder’s books the story introduces us to a large number of philosophical ideas. We also learn some interesting historical and geographical facts about the countries Elisabet passes through on her way to Bethlehem.
Although this is not as good as some of Gaarder’s other books such as Sophie’s World or The Solitaire Mystery, it has to be one of the most unusual and imaginative Christmas stories I’ve ever read.

Genre: General Fiction/Pages: 247/Publisher: Phoenix – Translated by Elizabeth Rokkan & Illustrated by Rosemary Wells/Year: 1996/Source: Bought new

Review: A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

“Men’s courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if perservered in, they must lead,” said Scrooge. “But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change…”

A Christmas Carol is the one classic that almost everyone knows, even if they’ve never read the book. It’s the story of an old, money-obsessed miser called Ebenezer Scrooge who is given the chance of redemption one Christmas Eve when he is visited by the ghost of his deceased business partner, Jacob Marley. Marley warns Scrooge that unless he changes his ways, he will end up like Marley himself, doomed to wander the earth bound by heavy chains of his own making. During the night Scrooge is visited by three more spirits – the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Christmas Present and Christmas Yet to Come – who help him to understand that there are more important things in life than money: things such as generosity, compassion and kindness. The scenes Scrooge witnesses that Christmas Eve are to change his life forever and transform him into a different person.

A Christmas Carol is shorter and easier to read than most of Dickens’ other books and really is suitable for people of all ages. I loved it as a child and after re-reading it this week for the first time in years, I loved it as an adult too. No matter how many movies, cartoons or TV adaptations you may have seen, it’s still worth reading the book for the richness and humour of Dickens’ writing and for his wonderful descriptions and imagery. For example when describing the location of Scrooge’s home, hidden away in a gloomy yard, he says:

 “…one could scarcely help fancying it must have run there when it was a young house, playing at hide-and-seek with other houses, and have forgotten the way out again”.

There are great lines like this one throughout the entire book. I also loved his portrayal of a Victorian Christmas in 19th century London.

Although some readers might find it too sentimental at times, it’s easy to see why this book has become a timeless classic, as it is everything a good Christmas story should be – heartwarming, inspirational and with an important message for us all.


Genre: Classics/Pages: 147/Publisher: Chancellor Press/Year: 1985 (originally published 1843)/Illustrations by Arthur Rackham/Source: My own copy