Every year I settle in with my holiday comfort reads—Dinah Dean’s The Cockermouth Mail, and the paperback novelization of The Gift of Love (a wonderfully sappy romantic TV movie from the 1970s based on O. Henry’s The Gift of the Magi) and, if I’m not in the middle of writing a book myself, Rosamunde Pilcher’s Winter Solstice. This year, I added a book I’d bought last year and saved as a treat—Happy Christmas, by Daphne du Maurier.
Daphne du Maurier, for me, is a hit-or-miss author. I love some of her novels (Jamaica Inn found me at just the right time in my life) and am meh about others, which adds to the general excitement and anticipation of picking up one of her books. When I stumbled on this second-hand copy of Happy Christmas for sale online, my excitement was high, because here was a book of hers I’d never heard of—a Christmas book! And better yet, it was only a tiny thing, one I could easily fit on my holiday reading list, and one the cover flap promised was “one of the most touching Christmas stories of modern times—as compelling, for men and women of today, as Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.” So I bought it and read it and…well…it was one of her misses, for me, to be honest. It did have touches of her gift for characterization and imagery, like this:
“Mrs. Lawrence had cut bridge for once and was threading lanterns across the drawing room. Actually it was the garden boy who threaded the lanterns, but Mrs. Lawrence stuck little frills of coloured paper round them and handed them to him, and as she was smoking all the time the smoke got in the garden boy’s eyes, but he was too polite to brush it away.”
I genuinely enjoyed those bits. And I fully realize it was published in 1940—her next published story after Rebecca, in fact—and may have struck readers differently within the context of those times (although the theme remains unfortunately relevant today). I’m sure she wrote with a very good intent, trying to, as the book’s cover flap says, reveal “the greatest spiritual cankers in today’s world—intolerance and smug complacency”, but for me, her attempt fell flat. Her parable was sledge-hammer simplistic from page 4, when the self-indulgent Lawrence family learns that they must make space for a Jewish refugee couple on Christmas eve, and chooses not to put them in the house, but in a little-used room over the garage. I mean, what do you think will happen? (Because yes, that’s what does happen). Apart from the predictability—and my personal feeling that Daphne du Maurier undermined her own efforts to show up the racism of others by using stereotypcially racist language to describe the Jewish refugee couple—there’s the disappointing end fact that the Lawrences, unlike Dickens’ Scrooge, don’t change from any part of this. Their lodgers come and go and they learn nothing by it. And the reader sets the book aside without that feel-good, peace on earth, goodwill-towards-men-glow that we are seeking at this time of year. And so, a miss for me. And Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is, in my opinion, safe.
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Am I a Scrooge? Honestly, I don’t feel like a crotchety curmudgeon who has no warm-hearted sentiment for the holidays. I love getting together with family and friends . . . cooking, eating, drinking and enjoying shared laughter and camaderie. That said, I just don’t find myself actively hunting for Christmas stories. Maybe the season itself writes its own unique story each year and that’s enough. Go figure, as I very much enjoy writing Chritsmas stories. That said, when I’m alerted to a lovely tale, I’m happy to jump in. Mary Jo’s latest Christmas story, in Seduction on a Snowy Night, is absolutely delightful. And having had a sneak peak at the Wench recommendations for this post, I’m going to rush and grab Trisha Ashley's Twelve Days of Christmas and Jasmine Guillory's Royal Holiday, which sounds wonderful. So maybe I’m changing my mind.
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I didn't read a lick of Christmas cheer this year. It's all been women waving swords and punching out inhuman monsters bent on destroying the world.
Good in its way and useful and matching my mood, but not exactly a message of peace and love.
So I will think back to other years.
The holiday reads I remember are the books I shared with the kids.
One book, Every Man Heart Lay Down, brings back so many memories. It's told in West African Creole. I was lucky enough to hear a friend from Jamaica read it to his kids and mine one year. It was magical.
Also remembered, Eloise at Christmastime, which can still make me smile.
And here—A Little House Christmas Treasury: Festive Holiday Stories. I didn't have this exact book when the kids were little, but at some time or other we read all these passages. They're Laura Ingalls Wilder's Christmas bits from the Little House series.
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Really, with bushfires and blizzards and volcanoes, not to mention depressing politics, what can one do except curl up with a good book and escape into a happier time and place?
At this time of year I like reading (and rereading) Christmas stories, and a fave I read every year is Trisha Ashley's Twelve Days of Christmas. A cook/house-sitter who doesn't do Christmas takes on a house-sitting job in a remote Lancashire location . . . and finds herself sucked slowly into celebrating Christmas with a bunch of strangers, who become family. No hot-and-heavy sex, but lots of Christmas food and squirty cream — the only vegetables that appear are carrots that go to the horse . . .
Trisha Ashley is known for her Christmas books and I've also read her latest, The Christmas Invitation. It's much the same kind of thing, only this time the heroine is an artist who's never experienced a traditional Christmas. She's invited to paint two portraits in a house where Christmas is the highlight of their year, and discovers more about Christmas—and herself—than she bargained for. Again, an enjoyable read for a busy time of year.
As well, I've reread some of Mary Jo's Christmas stories — in the collections Christmas Candles and also Christmas Revels, as well as Mary Balogh's Christmas Gifts and Christmas Miracles. And yes, I reread some of the stories in the two Wench Christmas anthologies — The Last Chance Christmas Ball, and Mischief and Mistletoe, both of which I bought for my kindle as they're on special. And then I turned to Sarah Morgan, who has written a number of Christmas stories. And there are more. Can you tell I'm a sucker for a Christmas story?
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I have read no Christmas stories lately. I have several favorite collections on my shelves, but at best, I may have an hour in the evening for reading, and I’d rather read something new to me. I’d have to be truly depressed and stressed to reach for a comfort read, and then I’d more likely read something I can sink deeply into. I can’t sink into a short story or novella, so it’s not just Christmas stories I don’t read. I generally read nothing short unless it’s a new collection by a favorite author. If it’s any consolation, I don’t re-watch Christmas specials either. <G> Pat, really enjoying a Mercedes Lackey book with Sherlock Holmes and not a Christmas tree in sight.
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Mary Jo here.
I love a good Christmas story that is overflowing with warmth and sentimentality and good food. <G> Anne Gracie introduced me to Trisha Ashley, who excels at such stories, particularly The Twelve Days of Christmas. (For a link, see above!)
Back in the day, the Signet Regency line produced many wonderful Christmas anthologies, and a lot those authors (including me) have independently released those stories. One such collection is the just released collection of Edith Layton stories, It’s a Wonderful Regency Christmas.
But a fun story by an author new to me is Jasmine Guillory's Royal Holiday. Guillory is an African-American author who writes smart, funny books that I'd classify as somewhere between romance and women's fiction. There is a lot about family and friends, and also work: I really like the fact that her characters have jobs that matter, and they care about that work. But there's definitely romance as well!
Her Wedding Date series is about a group of characters who know each other (which is something else I like) and her book before this one was The Wedding Party, the heroine of which was a high level stylist called Maddie Forest. In Royal Holiday, Maddie has received a last minute request to fly from California to the UK for Christmas with the royal family at Sandringham so she can style clothing for the Duchess. And she asks her mother, Vivian, to come with her.
The Duchess is never named, though it's pretty clear who Guillory had in mind. <G> But the story belongs to Vivian, a hard working hospital social worker, and to Malcolm Hudson, private secretary to the Queen, the first man of color to hold that post. The first time Vivian sees him scrounging for scones in the Duchess's kitchen, she thinks of him as "Hot Chocolate." <G>
He's pretty impressed with her, too, and soon she's outside of her comfort zone on a royal horse, and he's needing her ability to smooth out a tense situation with his cherished nephew. It's a lovely romance of two people in their early '50s who have different nationalities and very different backgrounds, but find something with each other that neither has known before. Now how do they deal with that pesky 8,000 mile distance between them…? Suffice it to say that this is a lovely romance with a satisfying ending–and a lot of Christmas!
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We've given you our answers, now let's hear yours: What Christmas or holiday books have you read lately?