Review: Miracle and Other Christmas Stories

Miracle and Other Christmas StoriesConnie Willis, Miracle and Other Christmas Stories

This collection of holiday-themed short stories is, in essence, Connie Willis’ love letter to Christmas. In the introduction she professes her great love for all aspects of the season, and that love is very evident in the eight stories collected here. In “Miracle,” a young woman discovers her heart’s true desire with the help of “Miracle on 34th Street,” “It’s a Wonderful Life,” and the Spirit of Christmas Present. In “Newsletter,” a woman notices that everyone around her is suddenly acting kind and polite. Is it because of the Christmas spirit, or something more sinister? (Hint: the latter.) And in my personal favorite story, “Inn,” an alto in the church choir lets a homeless couple into the church, only to discover that it’s Mary and Joseph, lost in space and time on their way to Bethlehem. The genres in this collection range from romantic comedy to murder mystery, but each story deals with expectations that are turned upside-down, unexplained mysteries, and more than a few miracles.

I’m a big fan of Connie Willis, so I had high expectations for this collection, but I was still pleasantly surprised by how much I loved these stories. I knew I was in for a fun ride when Willis contended that “Miracle on 34th Street” is the best Christmas movie ever made, in defiance of the many lovers of “It’s a Wonderful Life.” I also loved the speculative edge to these stories, which really emphasized the wonder of Christmas to me. I mentioned that “Inn” is my favorite story in the bunch, and it’s because Willis managed to re-present the first Christmas story in a new way. It’s easy for that story to become familiar, comfortable, and even dull; but “Inn” reminded me that it’s actually a shocking tale in many ways. My one quibble with the collection is that Willis claimed all her stories would have happy endings, but at least two of them (“In Coppelius’s Toyshop” and “Cat’s Paw”) are quite dark! Nevertheless, I loved this book and think it’s a perfect December read!

Review: The Devil in Music

Devil in Music, TheKate Ross, The Devil in Music

This final installment of the Julian Kestrel series moves from England to Italy, as Julian encounters a five-year-old mystery while traveling on the Continent. Lodovico Malvezzi, a powerful Milanese nobleman, was murdered in 1821, but because of the unstable political situation at the time, the local officials covered up the true cause of his death. Now, in 1825, the truth has finally come out, and the police are once more searching for Lodovico’s killer. The most likely suspect is a young tenor called Orfeo, whom Lodovico had been training for a career in opera and who disappeared shortly after the murder. But Lodovico had kept the singer’s real name a secret, and no one can give a clear description of him to the police. Meanwhile, Julian suspects that Orfeo may not be the guilty party, and he begins to investigate Lodovico’s family, including his fascinating young widow, Beatrice, and his politically involved brother, Carlo. He soon discovers several motives for Lodovico’s murder — but secrets from Julian’s own past will emerge before he can unmask the killer.

As previously mentioned, this is the last book in the Julian Kestrel series, and I’m heartbroken to have come to the end of it! I absolutely love historical fiction, mysteries, and anything set in the Regency period, so this series is really the perfect fit for me. Plus, I’m a sucker for a dandy who is more than he appears to be, which is definitely the case with Julian! That said, I’m not quite sure how I feel about this book specifically. The different setting was interesting, and I enjoyed the little bits of background about Italian politics and opera that permeate the book. I also liked the resolution of the mystery, although certain aspects of it were very predictable. The book’s pacing is also a little slow, and the focus of the book is much more on Julian’s character development than on the plot. While I was glad to see some more exploration of his character, it didn’t altogether satisfy me. I think my issue is the romance between Julian and Beatrice, which just didn’t ring true for me. Still, this is a good book in a great series, and I really wish there were more Julian Kestrel mysteries!

2014 TBR Pile Challenge Wrap-up

2014 TBR Pile Challenge

At the beginning of last year, I signed up for the 2014 TBR Pile Challenge at Bookish, which asked participants to read books they owned prior to the beginning of 2014. The challenge itself kind of petered out, but I continued to document the books I read from my own shelves. I had originally aimed for 21-30 books, so I’m happy I managed to surpass that goal! Here’s what I read from my TBR pile in 2014, along with the date I acquired each book:

1. Mary Miley — The Impersonator (11/10/13)
2. Julia Quinn — Just Like Heaven (1/1/13)
3. Chris Wooding — Retribution Falls (9/3/11)
4. Emma Newman — Between Two Thorns (4/1/13)
5. Susanna Kearsley — The Shadowy Horses (1/20/13)
6. Charlotte Mosley, ed. — The Letters of Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh (10/22/11)
7. Sarra Manning — Unsticky (12/16/13)
8. Lois McMaster Bujold — Young Miles (12/4/13)
9. Georgette Heyer — The Spanish Bride (4/12/08)
10. P.G. Wodehouse — The World of Jeeves (4/23/10)
11. Caprice Crane — With a Little Luck (8/20/11)
12. Hannah March — The Complaint of the Dove (10/9/13)
13. Frank Baker — Miss Hargreaves (4/8/11)
14. Polly Shulman — The Grimm Legacy (4/20/13)
15. Anne Sexton — Transformations (9/3/11)
16. Sharon Kay Penman — The Sunne in Splendour (8/8/06)
17. Juliet Marillier — Blade of Fortriu (4/28/13)
18. Michael Innes — Death at the President’s Lodging (9/29/13)
19. Elizabeth Wein — Rose Under Fire (9/21/13)
20. E.F. Benson — Mrs. Ames (8/6/13)
21. Ben Macintyre — Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies (6/15/13)
22. M.M. Kaye — Death in the Andamans (6/24/13)
23. Tana French — In the Woods (8/16/10)
24. Georgette Heyer — A Blunt Instrument (4/21/11)
25. Julie James — Love Irresistibly (4/8/13)
26. Richard Stark — The Hunter (9/29/12)
27. Christopher Morley — The Haunted Bookshop (4/28/13)
28. D.E. Stevenson — The Young Clementina (7/4/13)
29. Charlotte Mosley, ed. — In Tearing Haste: Letters Between Deborah Devonshire and Patrick Leigh Fermor (4/28/13)
30. A.A. Milne — The Red House Mystery (4/13/13)
31. Sara Gruen — Water for Elephants (3/16/11)
32. Karin Lowachee — The Gaslight Dogs (5/30/10)
33. Carlos Ruiz Zafón — The Shadow of the Wind (10/2/10)
34. Ada Leverson — Love’s Shadow (9/25/11)
35. Shusaku Endo — Silence (4/28/13)
36. Kate Lord Brown — The Beauty Chorus (4/2/12)
37. Neil Gaiman & Terry Pratchett — Good Omens (1/14/10)
38. Norton Juster — The Phantom Tollbooth (7/28/11)
39. Rachel Ferguson — The Brontës Went to Woolworths (10/2/10)
40. Ben H. Winters — The Last Policeman (9/28/13)
41. D.E. Stevenson — Mrs. Tim of the Regiment (3/16/11)
42. Kate Ross — The Devil in Music (4/23/10)
43. Connie Willis — Miracle and Other Christmas Stories (3/14/12)

For more information about any of the books, check out the Review Index page! Did anyone else do this or a similar challenge? How many of your own books did you manage to read this year?

Review: Mrs. Tim of the Regiment

Mrs. Tim of the RegimentD.E. Stevenson, Mrs. Tim of the Regiment

This novel purports to be the diary of Hester Christie, a young army wife who must juggle her responsibilities to her family, to the regiment, and to the society in which she lives. Lively and popular, Hester has many demands on her time, including mandatory socializing with several disagreeable officers’ wives. But her perpetually busy life becomes even more chaotic when her husband, Tim, is transferred to a regiment in Scotland. Hester is sorry to leave but tries to make the best of it, although it means she will be lonely and friendless while Tim is busy with army duties. However, she soon makes a few friends and is even invited to spend time in the country with one of them. In these beautiful surroundings, with congenial company, Hester becomes more reconciled to her new life — and finds plenty of ways to occupy her time, including assisting several young lovers. Little does she realize, of course, that one of the men she meets is interested in her!

When I want a light, charming comfort read, D.E. Stevenson always fits the bill, and this book is no exception. It’s an interesting mixture of slice-of-life with comedy of manners, as Hester can’t help poking fun at some of her less congenial acquaintances. I thoroughly enjoyed her narrative voice and found her a very likeable character. The biggest flaw in the book, in my opinion, is her husband Tim. He’s not “on page” terribly often, and while it’s obvious that Hester loves him very much, she also can’t help noticing his little foibles. So I was a bit lukewarm on their relationship, especially when Hester’s other suitor, Major Morley, is so much more interesting! Morley actually plays a fairly large role in the book, as he is Tim’s fellow officer and ends up visiting Hester’s hostess in the Scottish countryside. He has an air of cynicism but is also quite sweet to Hester, and I couldn’t help wishing that she was single (and less oblivious) so that they could get together! But aside from that, I enjoyed the book and would be interested in reading the sequels, though I think they might be out of print now.

Review: The Last Policeman

Last Policeman, TheBen H. Winters, The Last Policeman

Hank Palace, a police detective in Concord, New Hampshire, is investigating the death of a man who was found hanged in a McDonald’s bathroom. His fellow police officers are certain it’s a suicide, and with good reason: an asteroid is hurtling towards Earth, and collision is both certain and imminent. As a result, suicides are on the rise, along with a variety of other behaviors. Some people are “bucket listers,” quitting their jobs to chase their lifelong dreams while they still can. Some people turn to religion, others to drugs. In these circumstances, one more dead man — especially one who appears to have hanged himself — doesn’t matter very much to the police. But Hank suspects that there’s something wrong about this suicide, and he’s determined to discover what really happened. He uncovers several more mysteries in his investigation, including a hidden cache of drugs and a beautiful woman who knows more than she’s saying. But the biggest obstacle of all is the widespread indifference to his quest. If the end of the world is imminent, does one potential murder even matter?

This novel is an interesting combination of two popular genres, the police procedural and the apocalyptic novel, and I think it’s a fairly successful one. Hank Palace is a dry, unintentionally funny narrator who manages to retain some of his ideals despite the cynicism of his surroundings. Even though he knows that life is about to change forever (assuming life will continue at all after the asteroid hits), he remains devoted to his job. But the world of this novel is even more interesting than its narrator. I think the various reactions of people in the book to the impending catastrophe are very plausible. And the details Hank lets slip about the new role of government are as realistic as they are chilling. In this world, every crime is punishable by death or life imprisonment. There is no habeas corpus, so anyone suspected of lawbreaking is condemned without trial. The US Constitution is still the law of the land, but it’s impossible to enforce — and most government officials and police officers don’t really care. Overall, I was fascinated by the setting of this novel and will eventually continue with the series to see what happens.

Review: The Brontës Went to Woolworths

Brontes Went to Woolworths, TheRachel Ferguson, The Brontës Went to Woolworths

This book follows the fortunes of three sisters: Katrine is an actress, Deirdre is a journalist, and Sheil is still in the schoolroom. All three girls have very rich imaginations, and they have populated their world with a host of ficitonal friends, some of whom are based on real people. When the girls’ mother acts as a juror in the courtroom of Judge Toddington, the sisters immediately adopt him and his wife into their circle of imaginary friends. They affectionately nickname him “Toddy” and concoct a wealth of details about his life, from the state of his marriage to his favorite foods. But their world of make-believe collides with reality when Deirdre actually meets Judge Toddington’s wife at a charity event. As she and her sisters get to know Toddy in real life, will they be able to cope with the shattering of their illusions? Are they bound to be disappointed by the flesh-and-blood Toddingtons? And what would Toddy and his wife say if they knew the truth?

This is a strange little book, and I’m not quite sure how I feel about it. On the one hand, Deirdre and her sisters are a lot of fun, and their flights of fancy are as entertaining as they are ridiculous. I often got confused about what was actually fantasy versus reality — but then again, I think that’s the point. I also loved the actual characters of Judge Toddington and his wife, as distinct from the girls’ fictional narrative about them. They are both very kind people who actually want to become friends with the girls, and when they realize that they are stepping into a pre-existing narrative, they do their best not to disturb the girls’ fun. On the other hand, I couldn’t help being a little put off by the girls themselves. The reader is clearly supposed to sympathize with their flights of fancy, but I couldn’t help identifying a little bit with Sheil’s governess, who is shocked by the magnitude of their fantasy world. These girls are not practical, and they live a wildly sheltered life; I found them quite irritating at times. Still, the book is very charming overall, and I’d recommend it to anyone who likes the premise.

Review: The Phantom Tollbooth

Phantom Tollbooth, TheNorton Juster, The Phantom Tollbooth

This classic children’s book tells the story of a bored little boy named Milo who comes home one day to find a mysterious package in his bedroom. The package turns out to be a toy tollbooth, and when he assembles it and drives through in his little electric car, he is transported to a new world. Milo visits a variety of unusual places, including the hostile cities of Dictionopolis and Digitopolis and the island of Conclusions (you get there by jumping). He also receives an important mission: to rescue the princesses Rhyme and Reason from where they are imprisoned in a castle in the air. Along the way, Milo encounters many dangers, including the land of Illusion, the Doldrums, and the demons of Ignorance. Luckily, with the help of his friends Tock and Humbug, he is finally able to rescue the princesses and restore them to the Kingdom of Wisdom. Ultimately, he learns that his “boring” life is actually more interesting than he ever imagined.

For some reason, I never read this beloved children’s classic when I was growing up. If I had read it around age 7 or 8, it probably would have been one of my favorite books. But even as an adult reading it for the first time, I found a lot to enjoy and admire. I’m a sucker for puns and wordplay, and this book is chock-full of it, from the watchdog with a clock for a body to King Azaz of Dictionopolis. There’s also a hint of satire, as when the Humbug explains that several family members have occupied prominent positions in history; for example, many kings have been Humbugs. The book is quite didactic, though, which I wasn’t expecting. Nearly every creature and situation Milo encounters is designed to teach him (and the book’s young readers) a lesson. I did find these constant “teaching moments” a little tedious, but luckily the book has a lot of whimsy to make up for them. Overall, I definitely think this is a great book for children, but if you missed it as a kid, it’s not too late to enjoy it as an adult!

Review: Good Omens

Good OmensNeil Gaiman & Terry Pratchett, Good Omens

Since the beginning of the world, the forces of good and evil have been preparing for battle, and now Armageddon is imminent. The Four Horsepersons of the Apocalypse roam the earth, the Antichrist is about to be born, and the end times are at hand. But angel Aziraphale and demon Crowley aren’t terribly enthusiastic about the upcoming war and ensuing destruction of Earth. In fact, they’ve both become rather fond of the planet and the foolish humans who populate it. So unbeknownst to their superiors, they strike a truce: neither one of them will attempt to influence the newborn Antichrist in their favor. Little do they know that, thanks to a mix-up at the hospital, they’ve focused their efforts on the wrong baby! Meanwhile, the Antichrist grows up as a perfectly normal human boy called Adam Young, who knows nothing about his special destiny. But as the signs of the end times become harder to ignore, Aziraphale and Crowley must race against time to prevent Adam from unwittingly using his powers to destroy the world.

This book is a delightful romp through the Book of Revelation and common cultural perceptions regarding the end of the world. It truly has something for everyone, from demons to witchfinders to psychics to aliens, and I lost count of the jokes that made me laugh out loud! I loved the fact that Famine (one of the Horsepersons) was a diet guru, and that one of Crowley’s most notable Hellish accomplishments was the M25 motorway surrounding London. The book’s plot is rather sprawling, and I wasn’t a big fan of every storyline (didn’t care too much about Anathema Device, for example, although I loved Newton Pulsifer — the name alone!). But then again, who cares about plot when there’s such brilliant silliness to enjoy? I do think this book would be best enjoyed by people who are at least somewhat familiar with the Book of Revelation, because otherwise you won’t get all the jokes! But I honestly think that anyone who enjoys British humor will find this book hugely entertaining.

Review: The Beauty Chorus

Beauty Chorus, TheKate Lord Brown, The Beauty Chorus

This novel centers around three female pilots who join the Air Transport Auxiliary, ferrying planes back and forth between Allied bases during World War II. Evie Chase is a headstrong young debutante who enjoys her life of privilege but wants to “do her bit” for the war effort — and escape from her odious stepmother. Stella Grainger is struggling with being separated from her baby boy, whom she’s sent to her husband’s parents in Ireland. And Megan Jones, a 17-year-old Welsh girl, wants nothing more than to keep her family’s farm running and to marry her sweetheart, Bill. These three young women couldn’t be more different, but when they join the ATA and become roommates, they form an extremely close bond. Together they deal with the challenges of flying different aircraft, the discrimination they face for being women in a man’s world, and the joys and sorrows of wartime love affairs. But despite their strength and determination, they can never quite escape the brutal realities of war.

This is a book I really wanted to love. The story has so much going for it — WWII, female pilots, romance, and even a little espionage! — but unfortunately, I was disappointed. The biggest problem for me was the clunky writing style; for example, on one occasion, the author drops a character name into the story before introducing that character. I had to flip backward to make sure I hadn’t somehow missed his entrance, but in fact, it was just a confusing way to introduce the new character. There’s also a lot of head-hopping in the book; not only does the point of view shift between the three girls (which would be understandable), but there are random paragraphs from the perspectives of their suitors and various other minor characters. Finally, while I liked the main characters in theory, they never really rose above clichés. For example, Evie is a typical HF heroine: incredibly beautiful, naturally talented as a flyer, and implausibly far ahead of her time. Overall, while the book certainly wasn’t a slog, I can’t say I’d recommend it either.

Review: Silence

SilenceShusaku Endo, Silence (trans. William Johnston)

This novel is set in 17th-century Japan, at a time when Christianity has been outlawed, and Christians are imprisoned and tortured so that they will renounce their faith. Nevertheless, various missionary groups from Europe, both Catholic and Protestant, continue to arrive in Japan in hopes of spreading the Christian religion there. One such missionary is Sebastian Rodrigues, a Portuguese priest who believes that God is calling him to minister to His church in Japan. Rodrigues also hopes to find his former teacher and mentor, Father Ferreira, who is rumored to have renounced Christianity and adopted a traditional Japanese lifestyle. When Rodrigues arrives in Japan, his enthusiasm for his mission slowly declines as he sees Christian peasants being tortured and executed for their faith. For the first time, he experiences serious doubts in the face of God’s silence: if He exists, why does He allow his faithful disciples to suffer? As Rodrigues struggles with this question, he must eventually decide whether his faith is truly worth defending at any cost.

This book is laser-focused on a single issue: God’s silence in the face of suffering, and the implications of that for a person of faith. If this is an issue that interests you at all, I would definitely recommend this book! The writing style is sparse and direct, enhancing the nature of the stark choice that confronts Sebastian Rodrigues. The character’s struggle really rang true for me, and there are certainly no easy answers in this book. For me the most compelling character was Kichijiro, the Japanese guide who shelters Father Rodrigues and his companions but later betrays them. He is a weak, pathetic, utterly despicable character, yet Rodrigues comments that “Christ did not die for the good and beautiful. It is easy enough to die for the good and beautiful; the hard thing is to die for the miserable and corrupt….” In sum, this book isn’t a particularly fun or quick read, but I think it’s an important one for anyone interested in questions of faith or in the clash between Western religion and Eastern culture.