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.

Of Bullfrogs and Snapdragons: Coming Fall 2019

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Hedgehogs, O most faithful of readers, make excellent writing companions.

I would not admit this to anyone but you, for some of my friends would be terribly jealous if they thought that I was choosing favorites. Belinda Munkindot, who I am sure that you remember from my previous letters, would fly into the most ridiculous passion if she so much as suspected that I preferred a hedgehog’s company to her own. But there it is, dearest reader, and I do hope that you will keep my secret.

Since I have taken on the task of chronicles these small adventures for you, I have had many little visitors to my cottage. Lumpkin has come several times. He roams about beneath my desk, tapping on the walls, and occasionally will clamber up to sit on my shoulder, reading the page that I have so carefully inscribed for you and uttering a few complaints if the story happens to be about anyone but himself. Once, I caught him digging through my flour barrel, as if he really did think he would find treasure buried inside. I am afraid that I dusted him off rather roughly and ordered him to go home at once.

He is still sulking.

Belinda, too, has come to see me many times. She flits in and out of my window as she pleases, sometimes resting on my writing hand to get a closer look at what I am saying about her, sometimes tinkling in my ear, and sometimes admiring herself in the mirror I keep on my desk to distract her. Her tinkling is very bothersome, and as she seldom does anything but scold about the stories I’ve chosen to tell—or not tell—about her, I find it very trying to have her with me for long.

Wignilian would be a fine companion, I think, if he wasn’t so easily distracted. He scuttles about, sniffing this and nibbling that, and drives me quite frantic. I have been forced to banish him several times.

In the end, I have found that the only little creature I can stand to have rooting about on my writing desk is a hedgehog.

Actually, if I am to be most entirely honest, it is one hedgehog in particular that has snuffled his way into my good graces.

His name, dear reader, is Lester Winklestep.

Of Bullfrogs and Snapdragons, the sequel to Of Mice and Fairies, is set for release in the fall of 2019. Mark your calendars!

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.”