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The Twelve Reads of Christmas
‘Does one desire the Yule-tide spirit, sir?’ ‘Certainly one does. I am all for it.’
A bit of a change for the newsletter now that the festive season is upon us. Next week I’m going to give you a run down of all the books I’ve read in 2022, and this week I’m going to focus on some suggestions for what to read this Christmas.
One of the problems with making recommendations for what to read now is that some of these books/stories are hard to track down, so you might have to resign yourself to waiting until Christmas 2023. With that proviso, here are a dozen suggestions to enjoy…
The Box of Delights by John Masefield
This is one I reread every year. Technically it’s a sequel, but while it’s good to have read The Midnight Folk first, it’s certainly not essential. There’s plenty of snow, magic, and very mysterious time travel as Kay Harker returns home from boarding school for the Christmas holidays and finds himself up against baddies out to spoil a major Christmas event. Technically a children’s book, but like Alan Garner’s works, really for anybody who likes excellent storytelling. You may remember the BBC version from the 1980s. If you can, try and get an edition with the beautiful illustrations and endpapers by Masefield’s daughter Judith, pictured above.
The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper
Similarly, officially a children’s book but one for big people too, rather more dark indeed than the Masefield. It’s set around the Winter Solstice and Christmas, and like early Garner it’s about a clash between opposing magics in which young Will Stanton gets caught up. Plenty of folklore and a welcome outing for Herne the Hunter. If you don’t believe me, Robert MacFarlane might persuade you in this article for The Guardian. Happily, it’s also on BBC radio this Christmas in a 12-part adaption on the World Service from 20 December, and on Radio 4 from 26 December, each episode corresponding to the ‘real time’ of the novel’s unfolding, and featuring Toby Jones and Harriet Walter.
British Library Crime Classics
The British Library [full disclosure, the BL publish several of my books] has had astonishing success with its sereis of reprints of crime stories from the 20th century, many of which were largely forgotten except by collectors. There are plenty to choose from with a yuletide theme including The White Priory Murders: A Mystery for Christmas, A Surprise for Christmas: And Other Seasonal Mysteries, The Christmas Egg: A Seasonal Mystery, The Santa Klaus Murder, Silent Nights, and Portrait of a Murderer.
Mystery in White: A Christmas Crime Story J. Jefferson Farjeon is indicative of the kind of thing to expect. It opens on Christmas Eve as heavy snow forces a group of train passengers to search for shelter, eventually finding their way to a deserted house in the countryside, where nobody is around but the table has been laid for tea and fires have been lit in the hearths. And then a murderer makes his move…
A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
Not much needs to be said about this other than I’m surprised how many people have seen the various film versions but not actually read it. It’s not only a marvellous read, it’s short too. If you can, get an edition with the original John Leech illustrations, his Mr Fezziwig’s Ball pictured above. If you’d like an audio version, the actor Vincent Franklin (my co-author on Menus That Made History) has recorded it very nicely.
Father Christmas by Raymond Briggs
Ditto all the above. Apart from Leech and Vincent.
A Child’s Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas
Superbly evocative and again short enough to read over a coffee or to a young person at bedtime. My favourite editions have the Edward Ardizzone illustrations (see below) but Peter Bailey has also provided really lovely imagery for it too.
Village Christmas: And Other Notes on the English Year by Laurie Lee
Most of these short pieces by the author of Cider with Rosie are actually about all four seasons of the year, but the standout piece is the titular one set at Christmas and ‘A Cold Christmas Walk in the Country’. How factual they are hardly matters, it’s just really atmospheric festive writing.
Jeeves and the Yule-tide Spirit by P. G. Wodehouse
Short seasonal story featuring Bertie, Jeeves, and regular favorites Tuppy Glossop, his uncle Sir Roderick, and ‘Bobbie’ Wickham. It’s in various compilations of his stories as well as Very Good, Jeeves.
Christmas Days by Jeanette Winterson
Short stories interspersed with recipes and short essays. I’m a fan of Winterson’s work, but actually I like the memoir-ish non-fiction bits the best.
The Bishop’s Wife by Robert Nathan
You might well be familiar with the lovely David Niven and Cary Grant film version about an angel and a bishop and the bishop’s family (or the remake with Denzel Washington and Whitney Houston called The Preacher’s Wife). You’re almost certainly not familiar with the original story which inspired it. Tricky to find a copy now as it’s out of print and usually commands bonkers prices secondhand, but worth keeping an eye out just in case. The film takes quite a lot of liberties with the original story, but it’s still worth reading.
Crisp New bills for Mr Teagle by Frank Sullivan
A short story that first appeared in the New Yorker in 1935 and is occasionally anthologised. A heartwarming story about a chap who discovers how much people appreciate him at Christmas. Unless you have a New Yorker subscription, tricky to get hold of but you can hear it here read by Barbara McIntyre (note: variable recording quality).
Ivor the Engine: Snowdrifts by Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin
Not strictly set at Christmas, but there’s a huge amount of snow involved so I’m counting it. A charming story. There is actually an Ivor story set at Christmas called Bluebell’s Christmas Mission which was produced some years ago for the animal charity SPANA but it’s impossible to get hold of. Instead, you can listen/watch here read by Postgate’s son, Daniel.
Next week, the final newsletter of the year, with my version of John Peel’s Festive Fifty. Except they’re books. And it’s not 50 of them.