Christmas Books

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Christmas is one of my favorite times of the year.

It’s time for Christmas lights, peppermint-flavored everything, Christmas carols, fudge, peanut brittle, and mistletoe. This season can be a hectic one, and my favorite way to counter that craziness is to keep my evenings to myself.

It’s so easy to commit to caroling, numberless Christmas parties at work, and shopping trips with friends, but I prefer wiggle out if I can manage it. Instead, I keep my evenings for quiet moments. Wrapping presents (or making them), baking cookies, or—best of all—reading.

My favorite nights are the ones when I light candles and spend the evening curled up with a cup of peppermint hot chocolate, a fire in my wood stove, and a good book. My kitty will come read with me too, and is there anything better on a cold winter night than a cat purring in your lap?

Choosing books that fit perfectly with a night like this one isn’t easy, but some of my favorites to pair with a roaring fire and a cup of good cocoa are:

A Christmas Carol

This charming classic has been adapted into plays, a million different movies, and episodes of every cartoon you can think of, but have you ever read the original story by Charles Dickens? I hadn’t—at least, not until a few years ago. Then, I was utterly blown away by a story for the ages—and one that fully deserves the notary that it has obtained over the years.

Little House in the Big Woods

Family and Christmas go hand in hand, and I can’t think of a better story than Little House in the Big Woods for both. This sweet book encompasses an entire year of Laura Ingalls life as a very young girl—including Christmas in the big woods. Her descriptions of life in the 1800s and of their Christmas together as a family are vivid and beautiful, a definite addition to any Christmas evening.

Little Women

Comfort books are a must for me during the craziness of the Christmas season, and Little Women is high on that list. The book spans a large number of years in the lives of the March sisters, and their Christmas seasons are simple, heartfelt, and filled with a richness that illustrates the depth of their regard for each other and the community around them.

The Tailor of Gloucester

Beatrix Potter weaves magic with her illustrated stories, and The Tailor of Gloucester is—in my opinion—one of her finest books. This Christmas tale has charm, compassion, a naughty cat, and a lovely, inspiring ending. Her pictures are vivid and heartwarming, and it’s a book I will be reading aloud and to myself for many years to come.

Christmas is a season for wonder and thankfulness, for pausing to reflect, and for appreciating the quiet moments. These books carry a thousand memories of years past, and I will continue to enjoy them for many years to come.

Ranger’s Apprentice

Do you want to know the strangest thing?

I have the hardest time reviewing my most absolute favorite books.

Is that weird? They should be the ones I rave about right? The ones I yell about in the mall and the library and shove in people’s mailboxes so that they’ll read them.

Right?

But, with my favorite books, I have a hard time talking about them.

Strange, right? In some ways, I’m afraid that I won’t do them justice. They’ve meant so much to me over the years that it seems impossible to tell people just how important they are. They’re a part of my childhood, my teen years, and even now I continue to treasure them, and it’s hard to come up with a way to explain to you or anyone else how much these stories have meant to me.

Ranger’s Apprentice, The Ruins Of Gorlan, is one of those books for me.

I started reading this series when I was thirteen or fourteen, and I wasn’t the only one. At least five of my siblings became obsessed with the books at the same time I did. If you’ve never lived in the same home with multiple readers, you will never understand the struggle of taking turns with a book that just arrived in the mail.

It was rough.

But, at the same time, it was also wonderful. Having people to share the magic of an ongoing book series with is a very special thing, and helps to conquer some of the impatience of waiting for the next book to be released.

And, with The Ranger’s Apprentice, that couldn’t happen fast enough for us.

The Ruins Of Gorlan, Flanagan’s first book in his dynamic series, introduces us to Will, an orphan under the guardianship of Baron Arald. But, at fifteen, he’s now too old to be a ward any longer, and he is set to be apprenticed to one of the fief’s Craftmasters.

That is, if any of them are willing to take him.

When Will is placed with Halt, a member of the elusive Ranger Corps, he isn’t sure what to expect. Rangers are renowned as black magicians and sorcerers, men who guard the kingdom and keep law and order within the fiefs, but not people to cross or mingle with.

As Halt’s apprentice, Will finds a very different reality than he expected. Soon he is embroiled in a world that fascinates and entrances him, a world where he finds himself far more accepted than he ever was as a ward in the Baron’s castle. But war is brewing in the kingdom, and as an apprentice Ranger, Will has a far greater role in the impending conflict than he ever would have expected.

“People will think what they want to,” he said quietly. “Never take too much notice of it.”

Beatrix Potter

When I was growing up, my mother took us on Awesome Great Adventures to the library. She brought home laundry baskets full of books from library sales and thrift stores and cruised through garage sales for secondhand books to fill our bookshelves. I was never short of fresh reading material, and since I started reading at four and never stopped, that was quite an accomplishment on her part.

Of all the many, many books that she brought home, I had my favorites. Bill Peet, with his clever rhymes and wacky, colorful pictures, Dr. Seuss, with his dizzying tongue-twisters, and about a hundred others. In the mornings before breakfast, we would crawl into bed with her, and she would read to us from The Biggest Bear, Blueberries for Sal, and We Were Tired of Living in a House. The books she read us then are still vastly important to me, and a few of them have found their way onto my bookshelves in anticipation of the days when I have a few small children climbing into my bed with their books before breakfast.

Several such books are the many sweet adventures of Beatrix Potter.

(Yes, that is indeed me in the picture. And yes, I was reading the book upside down. In my experience it is very important to study life upside down occasionally, in order to gain some much-needed perspective.)

Anyway.

Back to Miss Potter and her lovely, wonderful books.

Peter Rabbit was the first friend I made among her pages. His adventures between the rows of radishes and lettuces in Mr. McGregor’s garden enthralled me, and Miss Potter’s beautiful watercolored pictures drew me straight into the story, just as if I’d been there myself.

A whole string of friends followed after the first. The Tailor of Gloucester, who swore to finish a magnificent coat by Christmas morning and only just managed it with the help of some obliging mice. Jemima Puddle-duck, who really was a particularly foolish duck—and a very lucky one. And of course, last (in my list) but not least, Tom Thumb and Hunca Munca, two of the naughtiest mice that ever stumbled between the pages of a book.

Beatrix Potter’s books remain a treasured part of my childhood, and the stories are carefully tucked away on my shelf with all of my other favorites. Waiting for a rainy day when I need to remember myself, or a lazy morning when I have children of my own to read aloud to before breakfast. Either way, I will be enjoying them for many, many years to come.

So that is the story of the two Bad Mice—but they were not so very very naughty after all, because Tom Thumb paid for everything he broke.

Frankenstein

My sister moved in with me this month.

We’d been planning this for a while. I’ve been living alone in my little cottage for about a year now, and she was ready for a place to live with a real kitchen and a bedroom that didn’t have to be vacated in favor of guests every month or so.

It was time.

So now, my very tiny bedroom has a very tiny bunkbed in it instead of a single mattress, and she’s reading on the couch when I get home. I cook, and she washes the dishes. I chop wood, and she cleans out the fireplace. We drink tea in the evenings, light the candles and our wood-burning stove, read books and pursue our various crafts (she’s an artist, I’m an author), and generally spend a lot of time in very companionable silence. And, when things go bump in the night, I feel better knowing it’s probably her being clumsy instead of a bear trying to eat me.

Since I live in the middle of nowhere, and there have been bears around our property in the past, this is a very comforting thought.

One of my favorite parts about having my sister move in has been watching her read all the books on my shelves. She has a very large, still growing collection of books herself, but we have yet to figure out how to cram them all into my little house. So for now, she is reading my books, and I get to enjoy watching her enjoy all the books I love.

It’s great.

One of the first books she picked up when she moved in was Frankenstein. I read Mary Shelley’s classic some time ago, loved it, and—unfortunately—forgot about it. This happens when your piles and piles of books threaten to bury your house and your TBR pile is taller than your living room ceiling. Books get read, loved, and then set aside in favor of new stories.

Then, my sister picked it up. And she loved it. In a very horrified sort of way. Every so often, while she was reading it, I would hear a scream of frustration from wherever she happened to be in the house, mostly aimed at the narrator of the story and his refusal to take any responsibility for his actions.

Victor Frankenstein, a student of the old sciences and a scorner of the new, is sent away to college following the death of a dearly loved family member. Death, life, and the disproven theories of the men he has spent his life from descend from a passion into an obsession. He forgets classes, his family, the woman he loves, and the rest of the outside world in favor of an experiment that will set him apart from the rest of mankind as a creator, god-like to the being he intends to bring to life.

Life he does create, but the horror it casts over himself and the shadow that falls over his family because of it is far beyond what he could have imagined. The monster he creates is, in many ways, child-like, without the understanding or morality of an adult human. Yet, Victor Frankenstein, for all his horror and remorse at his impetuous deed, shows as little or less judgment and virtue than the ‘monster’ he created, allowing an innocent girl to be accused of his crimes and casting off all responsibility for the atrocities he himself committed. (Thus my sister’s frustrated screaming.)

Frankenstein is a classic for the ages. Mary Shelley’s book is a lasting, brilliant story that continues to send chills down the spines of its readers. I hope you enjoy it as much as I have!

Beware; for I am fearless, and therefore powerful.

Mattimeo

I love reading aloud.

Not reading aloud like in school, while everyone is looking at you and the teacher is waiting to pounce if you have the audacity to mispronounce a hard word like ‘anxiety’ or ‘quinoa’. (Hint: neither of those words sound the way they are spelled. You have been warned.)

No, I mean reading aloud at night next to a wood fire, with candles burning and a few select people listening. There’s something magical about an evening like that.

 

Once or twice a week, I invite my younger siblings to my house for just this sort of night. They bring drawing supplies, sewing materials, or letters they are writing, and we curl up in my living room while I read aloud one of my favorite books to them.

Mattimeo, picture by A.R. Geiger

Right now, we are reading Mattimeo, one of Brian Jacques’s many, many brilliant novels. This English author has been one of my absolute favorites since I was in my preteens. He was one of the first authors I dreamed of meeting, and when I found out that he died in 2011, I was devastated.

His books all revolve around Redwall, a mythic abbey buried deep in Mossflower woods. Its inhabitants—squirrels, mice, moles, badgers, and otters—live within its dusky, sandstone walls, farming the orchards and grounds and keeping their peace with the trackless forest that surrounds them. The characters change book to book, but the feel of peace in the abbey and the promise of an action-packed, thrilling storyline is always the same.

In Mattimeo, the summer feasts are upon Redwall, and the excitement of the celebration is high. But when their young ones are stolen away by a slave band from the south, the air of celebration turns to one of grief and thoughts of vengeance. Matthias, the warrior of Redwall and the father of one of the missing young ones, leads an expedition to return their missing children to Redwall.

Meanwhile, Mattimeo, the son of Redwall’s warrior, finds that the leader of the slaver’s band, a disfigured fox known as Slagar the Cruel, has a long, very bitter, past with his father. His desire for revenge on his hated enemy incites a string of cruelty against the young mouse, and he quickly finds himself fighting for survival on the long journey toward an unknown, and very dangerous, destination.

Book Picture A.R. Geiger

Brian Jacques writing is beautiful, descriptive, and fast-paced, a difficult combination to find. My younger siblings are already enthralled by the story we are experiencing together, and whenever I pause for breath or to rest my voice, they are always impatient for me to continue.

Reading aloud together is one of my favorite ways to maintain relationships. I still associate several books with my father, because he read them aloud to us when I was small. They continue to be some of my favorite books, because of the many memories packed away inside them.

“Weapons may be carried by creatures who are evil, dishonest, violent or lazy. The true warrior is good, gentle, and honest. His bravery comes from within himself; he learns to conquer his own fears and misdeeds.”

Miss Honey

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Today’s post is not a book review.

Well . . . it is, but it’s not.

If you take my meaning.

You see, I’ve already written a review about Matilda, by Roald Dahl. Quite a long time ago, in fact. And it would be very odd to review the same book twice on the same blog. After all, there are so many brilliant, wonderful books that I haven’t even mentioned to you yet.

So please, don’t take this as a sign that I have run out of books.

I haven’t.

Still, today’s post is not a book review. It’s a character review. Because I think this particular character is worth raving about, despite the fact that in my previous review I didn’t have time to praise her at all.

I am talking, of course, about Miss Honey.

Miss Honey, for those of you that are not familiar with Roald Dahl’s classic, is Matilda’s teacher. She is the second person to recognize what an extraordinary child Matilda is, and the only one to do anything about it. Upon realizing that Matilda is much too advanced for her regular class, she immediately appeals to the school’s headmistress to have her bumped up to another level.

When the school’s headmistress, Miss Trunchbull, refuses to listen, Miss Honey immediately marches on to Matilda’s parents to open their eyes to the wonder that is their daughter.

Naturally, they also fail to listen.

What follows is an example of how powerful teachers can be in the lives of their students. Miss Honey, despite being told repeatedly to treat Matilda just the same as all of the other children, allows her the space and the resources she needs to continue growing. Books, time to herself, and, eventually, a positive, nurturing friendship that is unlike anything Matilda has experienced anywhere else. In short, she becomes Matilda’s saving grace, because no matter how smart a child is or how many books they have read, they cannot get along without someone to champion them.

Matilda is, of course, the heroine of this story, but I believe that Jennifer Honey doesn’t get enough recognition or acknowledgment, and I am going to tell you why. Besides being an exemplary teacher, Miss Honey has her own set of problems. A dead father, a legacy—and a paycheck—that is stolen week by week, and an abusive aunt that doubles as her immediate boss. She has been trampled on and hurt and, as of the moment when Matilda appears, she has no way out of the situation.

And yet, for all her trouble, Miss Honey continues to weather her storm with an amazing amount of quiet strength. She doesn’t lash out at her abuser as today’s heroines are wont to do in fits of anger. She is kind and patient with everyone that she meets, from her bitter and constantly angry aunt to the smallest child in her class. Instead of folding to her situation and allowing the abuse, she seeks out her own solution—despite having to live on an almost nonexistent paycheck—and removes herself from it, establishing what boundaries she is capable of. (A very, very hard thing to do for someone who has been consistently battered from childhood.) She scrimps and goes without, living mostly on the school lunches so that she has the freedom to make her own choices. And yet, in the midst of all of this, she is still able to see past her own problems and be a comfort and support for Matilda.

Amazing.

Roald Dahl’s masterpiece is very much a children’s book, with a child’s heart behind it, but looking at it through the eyes of an adult, I found the character of Miss Honey to be incredibly true-to-life and inspiring. Her sacrifices and immense strength took this beautiful book from an interesting and lasting read to a classic for me. If you haven’t picked it up, I would absolutely recommend it to you, no matter your age.

“There is little point in teaching anything backwards. The whole object of life, Headmistress, is to go forwards.”

Night Festival

I do not review books by request on this blog.

Ever.

It’s just not something that I do. The books I post about are the ones that belong on my shelves, the ones that broke my heart and soothed my soul. These posts are about chronicling my own journey as a reader, highlighting the books that have moved me and built me, and offering my bookshelves to other readers searching for their own collections.

Not giving two stars to a book I only picked up because someone sent me an email.

dLOao6VAAnd yet, the most amazing books can sometimes drop into your lap in the oddest of ways. An email or a short message can be exactly the relief that is needed in days with too much stress and too many hard things happening. For me, that is exactly what Ms. Simpson’s note was. So this time—this ONE time—I am making an exception to my rule, simply because this book touched my soul, and I wanted to share it with you.

Night Festival is a wordless picture book created by illustrator Michelle Simpson. It has not been released yet, but her Kickstarter for the project is located here, and I would highly, highly recommend going over to check it out. You won’t be disappointed.

I certainly wasn’t.

Ms. Simpson’s simple, yet incredibly creative illustrations are heartwarming and beautifully expressive, telling a story that will speak to the youngest child and the most cynical adult. When I read the book, I had just finished an especially difficult and nerve-wracking job interview and needed, more than anything in the world, an escape. A place to hide, a place to recover, and a place to find myself again.

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Night Festival was that place for me. The magic in this sweet book, the beautiful imagery, and the story that will immediately reach out to anyone who has ever felt lost or displaced in unfamiliar surroundings captivated me, and helped so much to relieve some of the anxiety that comes from new job opportunities, new situations, and working really hard to smile and talk normally whilst still post-surgery swollen.

In other words, this book managed to work a miracle. For that, I am deeply grateful.

Night Festival is not Ms. Simpson’s only book, for those of you disappointed by its absence on the general market. She has another for sale here, called Monsters In My House, and while I have not read it yet (I fully intend to), it looks every bit as charming and sweet as Night Festival. May you enjoy her enchanting work as much as I have!

Jurassic Park

Sometimes, it is really hard to pick a favorite book.

I don’t mean that I have a shortage of books that I absolutely love. If anything, I have too many. (A fact that did not stop me from buying ten more just a few days ago.) No, I have plenty of books that I love and adore with all of my heart. The problem is deciding which one to talk about.

You’ve had that happen, right? Someone tells you to choose your very favorite book and suddenly—your mind is a blank. You’ve never read a book in your life. You have no favorites. What are they talking about??

This happens to me quite frequently. Generally, I panic and name the first book that pops into my head, hoping that the person asking will not take my answer as gospel or quote me on it at a later date. (They usually don’t. Thank goodness.) But, if the question doesn’t happen to be about books, I can occasionally answer reasonably. For example?

My favorite season is autumn.

My favorite animal is any kind of cat—even the bald ones. Or the huge ones that eat you.

And my favorite movie is—and always will be—Jurassic Park.

Which brings me to this review . . . because I have spent years declaring that I love the Jurassic Park movies and insisting that I will never—never, ever, ever—read the books.

They scared me.

I picked one up in a thrift store once, flipped it open, and somehow, by an incredible amount of bad luck, managed to land on a page where someone was being devoured by a raptor.

Very messily.

Nope.

So for years, I avoided Michael Crichton’s, Jurassic Park. I loved the movies, celebrated with everyone else when Jurassic World appeared and went to the theater alone at night to watch Fallen Kingdom a few days after it came out. Finally, my wonderful, beautiful editor convinced me that I was crazy and I needed to give the book version of Jurassic Park a try. So, very hesitantly, I did.

And I loved it.

Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park is very different from the movie version. The characters are different, parts of the plot, even some of the world building is completely opposite to what it was in the movie. Usually, I resent movies that don’t follow the book, but this one time, I was excited. I had a new Jurassic Park adventure, and I had no idea what was going to happen.

Michael Crichton is best known for his suspenseful, action-packed writing, and Jurassic Park is one of his best works. The island with its mysterious inhabitants, the scientists who had gone too far with their experiments, and the living, breathing relics of the past combined together beautifully to create a fast-paced, breath-snatching novel that entranced me. The scientific side of the creation of the dinosaurs is emphasized in these books, as well as the cutthroat industrial side of things that was so ignored in the movies. These dinosaurs were worth millions of dollars to the men who managed to present them to the world in a safe package, and the struggle to do that is infinitely more ruthless than the movies let on.

Jurassic Park has always pulled me in with its prehistoric feel and the wonder of what John Hammond and his scientists had done, and the book multiplied that wonder and made it real for me. New stories, new dinosaurs and threats, and—in some ways—new characters were opened up to me in these books, and I devoured them. I would highly recommend the books to anyone looking for more of Jurassic Park.

The planet has survived everything, in its time. It will certainly survive us.

A Wrinkle In Time

I love fall.

Seriously. It’s my favorite season. The cozy sweaters, the hot drinks, early mornings with frost on the ground, pumpkins, candles, and, of course, Halloween. Does it get any better than that? The days are shorter, the summer allergies are gone, and everyone is either buying or being annoyed about pumpkin spice lattes.

Bliss.

Since I have never actually tried a pumpkin spice latte, and, oddly enough, I don’t usually dress up for Halloween, I have my own fall rituals that I like to honor. Many of them include chopping a ridiculous amount of wood to heat my tiny house and collecting fallen acorns to store in my fridge through the winter. (I know what you’re thinking, but it is NOT weird. It’s actually very cool, as you can see here.)

Another reason I love fall is the rainy, misty days with nothing to do but light a fire in the wood stove and curl up on the couch with a cup of tea and a good book. I have a list of books that are my favorites to pull out during the fall. Most of them are detective stories, a few horror novels, and of course, A Wrinkle in Time.

This book has been one of my favorites for a long, long time. Meg Murry and her wild moods, her glasses, and her mouth full of braces was, to me, a reflection of myself. I ran across this book at much that same awkward age, and found someone who felt as passionately as I did, and yet struggled to express it properly, exactly as I did.

Immediately, I was hooked.

Meg and her brother Charles Wallace are the centerpieces of this story, both of them whisked into an adventure that neither of them, despite being the prodigy children of two famous scientists, really understands. The story begins with their father, a physicist who was working on a classified project for the government—just before he disappeared. Meg’s whole family is caught in the backlash of gossip and rumors about her absent parent, but she refuses to believe that he is dead, or that he abandoned them. He’ll return.

She just doesn’t know when.

Then, one dark and stormy night, an old woman appears—quite from nowhere—on their doorstep, and informs Mrs. Murry over a tuna fish sandwich that there is such a thing as a tesseract.

These unaccountable words set in motion an incredible journey across space and time, a journey that will test Meg’s mind and heart beyond what she imagines they are capable of. And—despite the intelligence and otherworldly powers of her companions—it is Meg’s heart and her love for her father, her brother, Charles Wallace, and her own discovery of herself that will pave the path home.

A Wrinkle in Time is a powerful and spellbinding masterpiece. I would recommend it to readers of every age, especially as summer ends and autumn blows in. I hope you enjoy it every bit as much as I did!

“Wild nights are my glory,” Mrs. Whatsit said. “I just got caught in a down draft and blown off course.”

Bleak House

I have a To-Be-Read pile.

That means that I have a long list of all the books I am supposed to read. In theory, they are organized in order according to when I bought them. The older books are read first and the books I impulse buy at various thrift stores, Barnes and Noble outlets, or order off of Amazon have to wait until the ones I bought two years ago have had their turn.

In theory, this system works.

In theory.

However, every once in a while (Okay, every single time I buy books) I find a book that I simply cannot resist.

An especially fat, wonderful book that absolutely begs me to slip between the pages and lose myself in the magic of its story.

I am not known for being particularly good at refusing these pleas. So my To-Be-Read pile grows longer and books that I bought three years ago and still very much intend to read continue to wait their turn.

I’ll get around to them.

Eventually.

I bought one such book a few weeks ago, right after my birthday. Bleak House, by Charles Dickens, had always seemed a rather dry and overly long story that didn’t appeal to me much when I saw it in the bookstore. On a whim, I bought it, thinking I would give it a chance to turn out better than I anticipated.

Or be dry as dust.

Either way.

To my surprise, it was one of the best books that I have read in a long time. Bleak House is the chronicle of the ill-fated Jarndyce and Jarndyce lawsuit, a court case revolving around a disputed will that has dragged on for decades, sucking the money and the life out of its victims. The story begins by introducing us to a sweet, even-tempered child of uncertain lineage. Esther Summerson. She is brought to Bleak House by its master and her guardian, John Jarndyce, a man who has been so plagued by the court case that he has sworn off of it entirely, declaring it nothing but a blight on his family’s name. When he welcomes Esther to Bleak House, he introduces her to two other relations of his, both orphaned and left in his care. Richard and Ada.

Between the three of them, Bleak House is transformed into a home filled with light and laughter. The affection between them grows, and Esther is delighted when she detects something more than friendship between Ada and Richard.

But Jarndyce and Jarndyce, and the promise of a possible fortune at his fingertips, draws Richard away from the happy family, and the poison of the law courts changes him more than Esther or Ada would have ever anticipated.

Bleak House is a whirlwind of fascinating characters, gorgeous imagery, and intriguing mysteries. This was one of only a few books in my lifetime that has made me shut the book so that I could calm down. It was charming, it was witty, and it was so intriguing with its mysteries, scandals, and twisted relationships that I didn’t at all mind its enormous size. Truly one of Charles Dickens’ greatest works, and one that I will be recommending to people for years to come.

“Do you know the relief that my disappearance will be? Have you forgotten the stain and blot upon this place, and where it is, and who it is?”