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One From the Archive: ‘Nancy and Plum’ by Betty Macdonald ****

Betty MacDonald’s Nancy and Plum has been republished as part of the Vintage Children’s Classics series, which features such titles as Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle and Little Women by Louisa May Alcott.  The novel includes an afterword by former children’s laureate Jacqueline Wilson, who says that it is her favourite work for younger readers, and charming new illustrations by Catharina Baltas. 9780099583356

Nancy and Plum, which was first published in 1952, begins on Christmas Eve.  MacDonald sets the scene immediately: ‘Big snowflakes fluttered slowly through the air like white feathers and made all of Heavenly Valley smoth and white and quiet and beautiful.  Tall fir trees stood up to their knees in the snow and their outstretched hands were heaped with it.’ The book’s young protagonists are ‘locked up in rotten Mrs Monday’s house, while all the other children have gone home’

Mrs Monday owns the ‘big brick Boarding Home for Children’, in which sisters Nancy and Pamela Remson – the latter who goes by the nickname of Plum – have been placed.  The girls’ parents were killed in a train crash when they were only small, and their guardian, bachelor Uncle John, had no idea what to do with children.  MacDonald exemplifies the differences between the sisters immediately; Nancy is filled with a ‘dreamy gentleness’, and Plum is daring, with a ‘quick humor’.  Her young protagonists have been built so well that they seem to come to life, and one is soon immersed within their tale.  Each child who meets Nancy and Plum is sure to fall in love with them.

The extra material in Vintage’s reprint is thoughtful, and makes a lovely addition to the story.  It includes a biography of American author Betty MacDonald, a quiz, a recipe for Nancy’s dream meal, a glossary of words which may be unfamiliar to younger readers, and a recommended reading list with which to follow the book.  Nancy and Plum is a heartwarming and entertaining novel, which is sure to delight children and parents alike.  It is the perfect choice for a cosy festive read.

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‘Dickens at Christmas’ ****

It is said,’ states the blurb of this book, ‘that Charles Dickens invented Christmas, and within these pages you’ll certainly find all the elements of a traditional Christmas brought to vivid life: snowy rooftops, gleaming shop windows, steaming bowls of punch, plum puddings like speckled cannon balls, sage and onion stuffing, magic, charity and goodwill’. Sounds marvellous, doesn’t it? Thankfully, ‘marvellous’ is an adjective which can be applied in good measure to this lovely book. 9780099573135

Dickens at Christmas contains many extracts from his seasonal writings, some of which are short novellas (‘A Christmas Carol’, which takes pride of place as the second story in the collection, and ‘The Cricket on the Hearth’, for example), and others which number just a few pages. All of Dickens’ Christmas books are included, along with a standalone story from The Pickwick Papers and those from various short story collections.

Dickens’ wit and love of Christmas shine through on each and every page. All of the many elements of this time of year have been presented by the master himself, and encompass both the rich and the poor, the merry and the miserly, the ghostly and the real. The religious aspects are mentioned in some detail, along with the importance of the family dynamic over the Christmas period. Each scene is wonderfully written and beautifully evoked. Only Dickens could write so meticulously and creatively about a rainy day: ‘the cold, damp, clammy wet, that wrapped him up like a moist great-coat… when the rain came slowly, thickly, obstinately down; when the street’s throat, like his own, was choked with mist; when smoking umbrellas passed and repassed, spinning round and round like so many teetotums…’

I cannot write a review of Dickens at Christmas without mentioning how beautiful this edition is. The cover sparkles, and Emily Sutton’s illustrations, both on the cover and before each story, have been wonderfully drawn. It is truly an object of beauty, and is sure to delight many people this Christmas – a perfect gift to show you care, or simply one with which to adorn your own bookshelves.

Dickens at Christmas is wonderful for already established fans of Dickens’ work, but it also provides a lovely introduction to his stories and style of writing. The volume can be easily dipped in and out of, and the stories themselves are so rich in detail that they can be read again and again. Their sheer timelessness makes them suitable Christmas fare for many years to come.

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‘Professor Andersen’s Night’ by Dag Solstad **

Merry Christmas Eve, one and all!  I am wishing you a wonderful day today, whatever you may be doing.

Heralded as ‘Norway’s most distinguished living writer’ by The Sunday Times and as ‘an unflinching explorer of the plight of educated humankind in the inexplicable’ by The Guardian, it seems as though Dag Solstad’s Professor Andersen’s Night will be a treat for readers everywhere.

9780099578420First published in Norway in 1996, this rather short novel was translated into English in 2011. The story begins on Christmas Eve, where readers will instantly recognise his frustrations with the holiday – wrestling with the lights and putting up the tree, for example. The third person narrative voice which Solstad has used throughout is interspersed with Professor Andersen’s muttered thoughts about his Christmas Eve supper – ‘if the crackling isn’t perfect, I’ll be furious, I shall swear out loud, even if it is Christmas Eve’ – and the way in which he finds himself alone at the time of year which is generally celebrated with one’s family. In this way, the loneliness and sense of melancholy which weaves itself through the majority of the book is founded at its outset: ‘He celebrated Christmas mainly because he felt very uneasy at the thought that he might have done the opposite’.

Professor Andersen is a middle-aged literature professor at a university in Oslo. Many questions regarding the man and his lifestyle are present in the minds of the reader almost from the outset. We wonder why he is alone, and why he seems so detached from everything around him. The main thread of the story comes when Professor Andersen, looking out of his window into the Christmas Eve darkness, witnesses a man strangling a woman in one of the flats opposite his. Little emotion is created as he surveys this scene, and the event almost comes across as an everyday occurrence in the way it is told: ‘She flailed her arms about, Professor Andersen noticed, her body jerked, he observed, before she all at once became completely still beneath the man’s hands and went limp’.

Although he feels he should call the police, he does nothing: ‘He went over to the telephone but didn’t lift the receiver… Instead, he stationed himself at the window… and kept watch on the window where he had seen a murder being committed’. Professor Andersen himself is clearly a complex character, but he comes across more often than not as a cowardly oddball, rather than as anything deeper.

With regard to Solstad’s writing style, some of Professor Andersen’s thoughts merely repeat the narrative in parrot fashion. Many of the sentences also seem rather too long and clumsily written, although whether this is merely a translation oversight or if it actually mirrors the author’s original manuscript is difficult to tell. It may perhaps be due to the stream of consciousness style which has been adopted throughout the book, as this does provide some problems of its own. The repetition of phrases is rather common, and it feels rather strange that there are no chapters or even page breaks included throughout. Several of the scenes are more drawn out than is necessary, and we never really get to know any of the characters as the book progresses. They are flat, lifeless creations for the most part, and the continuous paragraphs, which are filled with dialogue exchanges between more than two characters, can be a little confusing at times.

The prose itself is clinical at times, and rather matter-of-fact: ‘The rectangular curtains which covered the whole window, in an extremely compact manner’ and similarly oddly phrased sentences can be found throughout. There are few descriptions throughout, and even fewer scenes which contain any emotion whatsoever for any of the characters involved. Professor Andersen’s Night is not one of the easiest books to read, merely due to the style in which it has been written. Its telling is dull and stolid when it has no reason to be, and as Professor Andersen himself is not the most likeable of characters, a feeling of detachment on behalf of the reader is present throughout, particularly with regard to some of the decisions he makes. Not all of the loose ends are tied up, and although the story itself is interesting, but it could have been told in a much more inviting and literary way.

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One From the Archive: ‘Christmas Pudding’ by Nancy Mitford ****

Time for something seasonal!

In Christmas Pudding, Christmas itself is only a passing event. It is used mainly as an excuse in which to draw all of the characters together. In this way, it can be read at any time of year, and does not merely have to be saved for over Christmas time. The book is set in a rented house in Gloucestershire, which has been commandeered over the Christmas period by ‘sixteen characters in search of an author’. We meet Walter and Sally Monteath who live rather beyond their means, novelist Paul Fotheringay and his fiancee Marcella Bracket – ‘a social climber of the worst kind’ – Bobby Bobbin and his sister Philadelphia… The list goes on.

9781907429590The novel is incredibly amusing from the outset. There are such gems as ‘Philadelphia Bobbin… hoped that death would prove less dull and boring than life’, and Lady Fortescue losing her husband ‘respectably, through his death’. When Sally Monteath is asked about the impending christening of her baby daughter, she says ‘well, if the poor little sweet is still with us then we thought next Tuesday week (suit you?)… I should like the baby a good deal better if she wasn’t the spit image of Walter’s Aunt Lucy’.

The characters are the definite strength of this novel, and what a strength they are. Mitford has a wonderful way of crafting those who people her stories, and the ones she has selected to feature in Christmas Pudding crash together in the most hilarious of ways.

The novel is, overall, entertaining, amusing and relatively light, and certainly one of Mitford’s best. The book itself is a delight. Capuchin Classics refer to it as the ‘jewel in the Mitford crown’, and I wholeheartedly agree with them. Whilst it is perhaps the least well known of Mitford’s novels, it is by far one of the best.

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‘Murder Under the Christmas Tree’, edited by Cecily Gayford ****

When Akylina and I met up in Edinburgh at the end of November, we decided to purchase two copies of Murder Under the Christmas Tree to read together.  With essay deadlines and the like, our collaboration didn’t quite go to plan, but I thought I’d post my review of the book regardless.  I decided to open it on the first of December and read one of the ten stories per day, as a kind of constructive advent treat.

With regard to crime novels, cosy crime is definitely my favourite sub-genre; I adore authors such as Agatha Christie and Edmund Crispin, and will always seek them out over contemporary thrillers (much as I’ll admit that I tend to enjoy these too, I’m generally not that surprised by the plot twists, as I feel that a lot of them follow the same – or at least very similar – guidelines).  Whilst I had heard of a lot of the authors in this collection, there were a couple who were on my radar but whom I was not familiar with, and one (Carter Dickson) whom I hadn’t even heard of before.9781781257913

I feel that the best way in which to approach such a collection is to give a mini review of each tale.  Murder Under the Christmas Tree begins with Dorothy L. Sayers’ ‘The Necklace of Pearls’, a clever tale in which a very rich, and not very well liked, man named Septimus Shale’s daughter has her precious pearl necklace stolen during a holiday gathering.  Lord Peter Wimsey makes an appearance (of course), just happening as he does to be part of the festivities.  The way in which Sayers writes is enjoyable, and she sets the scene perfectly throughout.  The second story in the collection is Edmund Crispin’s ‘The Name on the Window’, which I very much enjoyed.  In this Boxing Day mystery, which centres upon his famous creation of Oxford Don-cum-detective Gervase Fen, a recent murder is investigated.  The locked-room variety of plot which has been used here is clever; not the best Fen story, but its workings and conclusion certainly suited the length of the piece.

Val McDermid’s ‘A Traditional Christmas’ catapults one from past decades to the present, and its opening sentence was reminiscent to me of Daphne du Maurier’s wonderful Rebecca: ‘Last night, I dreamed I went to Amberley’.  This is where our female narrator’s wife was brought up in luxury.  Again, the story deals with a murder.  McDermid’s prose style is rather matter-of-fact at points, but it has flashes of great humour within it, and any oddness which the tale holds is made up by the fact that it has been so well done.  Next comes a classic, Arthur Conan Doyle’s ‘The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle’.  I have read this before on numerous occasions, and still find it wonderfully clever.  For those of you unfamiliar with this particular Sherlock Holmes story, a rare and precious stone – the blue carbuncle of the title – has been placed within a goose, and subsequently lost.

tbr-pile-christopher-fowler

From Waterstones Birmingham’s blog

‘The Invisible Man’ by G.K. Chesterton and ‘Cinders’ by Ian Rankin both have merit.  The tales are very different from one another, but the contrast provided by their placing in the collection is memorable.  In the former, which provided my first taste of Chesterton’s work, a spectre appears, and a mysterious note consequently shows itself upon the window of a shop in Camden Town.  Chesterton’s prose is rich, and stylistically rather original.  This Father Brown story takes on many issues about the perils of the modern world, and is entertaining from start to finish.  In Rankin’s effort, the crux of the problem is immediately shown to the reader: ‘The Fairy Godmother was dead’.  At an Edinburgh pantomime, the body is found, and Rebus is sent to investigate.  The manner of the murder is simple, yet it demonstrates Rankin’s intelligence and clever plot twists, struck as she is by Cinderella’s slipper: ‘Not that it was a glass slipper.  It was Perspex or something.  And it wasn’t the one from the performance.  The production kept two spares.’

‘Death on the Air’ provided my first glimpse into Ngaio Marsh’s work, and I very much enjoyed it.  She immediately sets the scene, and I was reminded a little of Harry Potter: ‘On the 25th of December at 7:30am our Septimus Tonks was found dead beside his wireless set’.  His body is discovered by the under-housemaid, and the investigation comes about when it is found that he was not accidentally electrocuted as first thought.  After Marsh’s crafty tale, we come to ‘Persons or Things Unknown’ by Carter Dickson, which I must admit I didn’t much enjoy.  The new owner of an old house in Sussex is convinced that it is haunted; he then tells a story from the 1660s which supposedly happened on the site.  Whilst Dickson’s story marks a differentiation in the collection in some ways, I did not personally find it immediately interesting or engaging, and could have happily skipped past it. There was a curious distancing and framing here, and the monologue structure makes it rather dull and plodding.

Margery Allingham’s ‘The Case is Altered’ picked up the pace once more; as a penultimate tale, it fits perfectly.  This particular Campion tale is wonderfully crafted, from its initial sentence – ‘Mr Albert Campion, sitting in a first-class smoking compartment, was just reflecting sadly that an atmosphere of stultifying decency could make even Christmas something of a stuffed-owl occasion, when a new hogskin suitcase of distinctive design hit him on the knees’ – to its plot, in which his contemporary, Lance, receives an anonymous letter instructing him to wait in the grounds one night.  True to form, Campion is immediately suspicious.  This is one of the only stories in the collection which does not deal with a murder, and it feels refreshing in consequence.  The final tale, Ellis Peters’ ‘The Price of Light’, was a bit of a letdown in consequence.  It does not feel overly grounded historically, despite the necessity of such a thing, being set in 1135 as it is.  Whilst Peters’ story was well written, I did not find it captivating by any means, and am of the opinion that it jarred the whole collection; it did not fit with anything else within Murder Under the Christmas Tree, aside from the general theme of murder.

To conclude, Murder Under the Christmas Tree would have been utterly fantastic had it consisted solely of festive Golden Age crime fiction.  As it is, the book is enjoyable enough, but a couple of the entries do tend to make the whole feel a touch disjointed.  Regardless, it has finally given me the push I needed to incorporate Ngaio Marsh into my 2017 reading.

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