Friday Favorites: Cozy Christmas Reads 2017

It’s that time of year when I crave cozy holiday stories! Here are three I enjoyed recently:

For young (and young-at-heart) readers:


Eleven-year-old Nikolas—nicknamed “Christmas”—has received only one toy in his life: a doll carved out of a turnip. But he’s happy with his turnip doll, because it came from his parents, who love him. Then one day his father goes missing, and Nikolas must travel to the North Pole to save him.
Learn more here

This quirky Christmas tale would make for a great bedtime read-aloud, but it’s also perfectly appropriate for independent readers 8 and up. One might even pair it with J.R.R. Tolkien’s Letters from Father Christmas.

Note–there are sequels!

For fans of romance novels (particularly of the Regency variety):


The very wealthy Edgar Downes has promised his aging father to finally take a bride—specifically, to wed a titled lady by Christmas. London is full of pretty, proper, and eligible misses, but it’s the widow Helena, Lady Stapleton, in a shocking red dress, who captures Edgar’s attention. Helena is intrigued by the seductive stranger—but he’s simply not in her class. Marriage, of course, would never do. But in a season of miracles, something wondrous is about to happen.
Learn more here

I stumbled across this title in a 2012 Publisher’s Weekly article recommending holiday romance and was drawn in from the first paragraph. I rather assumed it would be a gentle romance, but it turned out to be quite spicy! (Not in an overwhelming or distasteful way, in my opinion.) The love story still manages to be sweet and cozy, particularly when the cast of characters moves to a snowy country house setting for (Regency appropriate) Christmas festivities.

Note–if you order this edition, you get a bonus Christmas novel!

ETA: I am reading Christmas Beau right now and it is even cozier! Wish I could sit down with a cup of tea and read the day away…

For readers of contemporary fiction:


It’s Christmas, and for the first time in years the entire Birch family will be under one roof. Even Emma and Andrew’s elder daughter—who is usually off saving the world—will be joining them at Weyfield Hall, their aging country estate. But Olivia, a doctor, is only coming home because she has to. Having just returned from treating an epidemic abroad, she’s been told she must stay in quarantine for a week…and so too should her family.
Learn more here

This novel received starred reviews from Booklist and Library Journal and was touted by one reviewer as “perfect for fans of Love Actually and The Family Stone.” I ardently disagree with the comparison to Love Actually — this is not a rom com, nor does the story go as dark, weird, or hopeless as one finds in LA. The comparison to The Family Stone, however, is spot on. This is a humorous family drama, with likable and unlikable characters, but everyone grows in satisfying ways by the end. There is heartache, to be sure, but you won’t fall into despair. I wasn’t surprised to see that the novel has already been optioned for TV in the UK, and I think they should try for Bill Nighy in the role of family patriarch Andrew Birch. 😀

Note–I listened to the audio, but I recommend reading the actual book, especially if you’re American. Jilly Bond gives a solid performance for her English characters, but her American accents are pretty terrible.

See Also:

My own Woefully Incomplete List of Holiday Reads (a work in progress)
Modern Mrs. Darcy’s 9 excellent books for gifting this season
Waterstones’ Christmas Gift Guide
Caroline Starr Rose’s Books to Give the Writer in your Life
Novel Novice’s Five New Holiday Picture Books to Gift and Enjoy and Best Books for Holiday Gifts 2017.
Bustle’s 11 Festive Book Club Books to read this Holiday Season
The Christmas Mystery Book List

[If you know of other helpful holiday reading lists/gift guides, please do share in the comments!]

Also, if you click the “Christmas” tag below or in the sidebar you’ll find book reviews, recipes, and tea recommendations going back several years on this blog.

HAPPY HOLIDAY READING!

Tea with Miss Marple

Over the last several months I re-read (or in some cases read for the first time) Agatha Christie’s novels and short stories featuring Miss Jane Marple. What a delight! In addition I introduced myself to the Joan Hickson TV adaptations (most excellent) and revisited nearly all of the Geraldine McEwan and Julia Mckenzie versions that were canon Miss Marple. Might you indulge me as I share a few favorites?

Favorite book: I keep changing my mind on this one, but at the moment I think it might be A Pocket Full of Rye. Miss Marple has a very personal stake in this one as her former maid Gladys is involved. The pacing is good and the misdirection effective, and I enjoyed the chemistry between Marple and Inspector Peele. That said, I’d also put The Moving Finger, 4:50 from Paddington, and Sleeping Murder close to the top. The beginning of At Bertram’s Hotel is so charming (and I will revisit it even though the mystery itself is rather “meh”), and I quite enjoyed Nemesis for its window into Marple’s sleuthing process.

Favorite short story: The Thirteen Problems was an entertaining story collection and I was pleasantly surprised to find so much Gothic goodness running throughout. The most Gothic of all was “The Idol House of Astarte,” a country house mystery involving a fancy dress party that ends with a deadly accident. Or was it murder? I wish this one could somehow be adapted to television!

Favorite TV adaptation: While the Joan Hickson versions are excellent and much truer to the original texts, I have to admit that my favorite of all the individual adaptations was the Geraldine McEwan version of The Moving Finger. One might say it takes liberties with its blatantly Noir setup and the hero’s PTSD angst, but it also gives more agency to the love interest and effectively reimagines that troubling “makeover” scene. It’s a delightfully cheeky adaptation, and James D’Arcy and Emilia Fox have great chemistry as the Burton siblings.

Favorite Miss Marple quote: “I like living myself — not just being happy and enjoying myself and having a good time. I mean living — waking up and feeling all over me, that I’m there — ticking over.” (from A Murder is Announced).

[My favorite non-Marple quote might be Gina’s description of Stonygates in They Do It With Mirrors: “It’s pretty ghastly, really. A sort of Gothic monstrosity. What Steve calls Best Victorian Lavatory period.”]

And now for tea!

After all the time I spent with Miss Marple, I felt she deserved a celebratory afternoon tea out on the town. Las Vegas actually has several options for proper tea, and for this occasion my husband and I tried the offerings at Rí Rá Irish Pub in Mandalay Bay.

[Did Miss Marple ever take tea at an Irish pub? Probably not. But I certainly can imagine her nephew Raymond coaxing her into a local pub for tea just so he could study the “local color” for one of his novels.]


We found Rí Rá very charming. The server placed us in a comfy little nook near the entrance of the pub — does one call this a “snug”? — and we were fortunate to have it all to ourselves.


Here is a closer look at the cozy china pattern. We both chose the Organic Assam tea, which was perfectly steeped and delicious.


And here you see the tea tray, featuring sandwiches (ham & tomato, egg mayo, cheddar with Ballymaloe relish, cucumber & creme fraiche), raisin scones with cream and black current jam, and a selection of “decadent desserts.” It was the perfect amount for two — we ate almost all of it and didn’t feel too stuffed. (It helped that we took a long walk through the Luxor to Excalibur and back before returning to our car.) I do think Miss Marple would have approved!

Do you have a favorite Marple novel, story, or TV adaptation? If so please share in the comments!

October Reading Recs

For various reasons this has not been my best year for reading, but the situation seems to be improving of late. Today I have two books to recommend, and though they don’t have that much in common, they both celebrate female relationships.

A Secret Sisterhood synopsis: Male literary friendships are the stuff of legend; think Byron and Shelley, Fitzgerald and Hemingway. But the world’s best-loved female authors are usually mythologized as solitary eccentrics or isolated geniuses. Coauthors and real-life friends Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney prove this wrong, thanks to their discovery of a wealth of surprising collaborations: the friendship between Jane Austen and one of the family servants, playwright Anne Sharp; the daring feminist author Mary Taylor, who shaped the work of Charlotte Bronte; the transatlantic friendship of the seemingly aloof George Eliot and Harriet Beecher Stowe; and Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield, most often portrayed as bitter foes, but who, in fact, enjoyed a complex friendship fired by an underlying erotic charge.

Through letters and diaries that have never been published before, A Secret Sisterhood resurrects these forgotten stories of female friendships. They were sometimes scandalous and volatile, sometimes supportive and inspiring, but always–until now–tantalizingly consigned to the shadows.

If you know me at all, you understand how thrilled I was to hear about this book! I was especially delighted to learn that the co-authors have been close friends for years. That said, it took me a little while to sink into their narratives. Part of this stemmed from their “creative” approach — Midorikawa and Sweeney often convey details through reconstructed scenes, which I found a bit jarring at first. (When I reached the footnotes, however, I saw that all these “scenes” were carefully annotated.) Another challenge was balancing my expectations with what I already knew about the featured authors.

For instance, I’m a passionate fan of Jane Austen and feel like I know her characters well, but I haven’t yet read the author’s letters or a detailed biography. (I promise to read Jane Austen’s Letters, edited by Deirdre le Faye, very soon! And doesn’t this book look good?). As I delved into the first chapter, I think I had unrealistic expectations regarding Austen’s friendship with the family governess, Ann Sharpe. As it turned out, their acquaintance was not as enthralling as I’d hoped, perhaps because the facts were a bit sketchy and for the most part originated from the journals of Jane’s young niece, Fanny Knight. I was glad to learn that Jane knew another writer, and of course I’m always interested in governesses — especially those who “scribble” — but for me this was the least fleshed-out friendship in the book.

On the other hand, I already knew a great deal about Charlotte Brontë’s relationships with Ellen Nussey and Mary Taylor from reading biographies and letters (I particularly recommend Juliet Barker’s The Brontës: A Life in Letters), so the details revealed in the second chapter, though compelling, were mostly familiar to me. Your mileage may vary, but for me the first two “Secret Sisterhoods” were entertaining but not particularly revelatory.

That said, I truly enjoyed and learned much from the chapter on George Eliot/Marian Evans’ friendship with Harriet Beecher Stowe. Middlemarch ranks among my very favorite novels, but I never knew that much about its author and now feel compelled to find a good biography. (Perhaps I’ll start with My Life in Middlemarch and see which biography Rebecca Mead recommends?) Stowe was a vivacious personality and, lo and behold, an avid Spiritualist (much to Evans’ dismay). Though I don’t yearn to read her fiction, I think it might be interesting to read more about Stowe’s life.

The authors’ take on Virginia Woolf’s complicated relationship with Katherine Mansfield was perhaps my favorite part of the book. I’ve read To The Lighthouse and A Room of One’s Own and have always felt intimidated by Woolf’s intellect, but Midorikawa and Sweeney presented her in a very accessible way. No longer will I automatically think of her as the tormented genius who drowned herself, for I have replaced that default image with one of a younger Virginia painstakingly setting the type for her Hogarth Press publications. Katherine Mansfield was the least familiar to me of all the published authors featured in the book, but she was such a vivid character in this chapter that I do intend to explore her short stories and perhaps read her letters and journals.

Now I turn to you, dear reader — can you recommend collections of letters or journals by favorite authors? I own and still need to read Dorothy Sayers’ letters, and I know there are multiple volumes of L.M. Montgomery’s journals to be had. What else?

Bonus book recommendation: The War I Finally Won

The sequel to Kimberly Brubaker Bradley’s The War that Saved My Life (which I recommended in this “tea and a book” blog post) was such a joy to read. I don’t want to say too much in case you haven’t read the first book, but the wartime setting is even more compelling in this book, especially because we learn more about Lord and Lady Thornton and are introduced to a new character who boards with Susan, Ada, and Jamie. All the clichés apply: I laughed, I cried, I couldn’t put it down, I didn’t want it to end, and though it all wraps up in a satisfying way I would love to have MORE. Of course, I’m not the only one who feels giddy about the book, for it has received umpteen starred reviews and is an Amazon and NYT bestseller. HOORAY!

Spooky Film Recs for Halloween, part III (2017 edition)

The adventure concludes!

I tend to gravitate toward ghost films, but from time to time other forms of horror tempt me. So if you’re looking for a ghost-free option, here are three films for your consideration:


The Devil’s Candy (2015) — Unrated
A struggling painter is possessed by satanic forces after he and his young family move into their dream home in rural Texas.
After finding this on several “best horror” lists I decided to branch out a little from my usual ghostly fare. Imagine my surprise when I recognized gentle Coyote Bernstein from Grace & Frankie playing the tormented hero! (Can we all get the name of the trainer who prepped Ethan Embry for his shirtless scenes, please?) A man’s struggle with artistic integrity clashes with his obligations as a father, and the way in which the conflict evolves makes for a very tense–at times gut wrenching–viewing experience. (BTW: I happened upon this youtube review and I agree with everything this guy says about The Devil’s Candy. But I can’t decide if I want you to watch the review before or after viewing the film. Maybe it’s better NOT to know too much before watching?) The Devil’s Candy is unrated but I’d give it a strong R for violence, gore, and disturbing content.
Watch the trailer (a bit OTT). Available on Netflix. Metascore: 72


The Girl with All the Gifts (2016) — rated R
A scientist and a teacher living in a dystopian future embark on a journey of survival with a special young girl named Melanie.
I devoured (heh) M.R. Carey’s novel a couple of years ago, so of course I noticed the departures from the text and missed the character development while watching the film. Still, I think it holds up as its own thing, particularly because of the strong performances. (Special thumbs up for Sennia Nanua and the always brilliant Paddy Considine.) If you’re looking for a fresh entry in the post-apocalyptic genre, I recommend this film. And if you like it, please read the book!
Watch the trailer (or don’t — it’s spoils more than I’d prefer). Available on Amazon Prime and on Netflix (DVD only). Metascore: 67


The Invitation (2015) — Unrated
While attending a dinner party at his former home, a man thinks his ex-wife and her new husband have sinister intentions for their guests.
This is one of those films where I think the less I say the better, so this will be brief. Two years after a terrible tragedy, old friends gather. But the hosts have a mysterious agenda, and our protagonist (who bears an uncanny resemblance to Tom Hardy — I’m not complaining!) suspects a dark purpose lurks behind their seductive hospitality. Deliciously eerie and tense! The Invitation is unrated, but I’d give it an R for violence and adult content.
Watch the trailer. Available on Netflix. Metascore: 72

That’s it for this year. Feel free to share your Horror recommendations in the comments. Wishing you heaps of happy horror viewing this Halloween!

AND REMEMBER — if at any point you want to browse my previous spooky film recs (which go all the way back to 2012), simply click the tag “spooky film recs” in the tags list below or in the sidebar! Easy Peasy.

Spooky Film Recs for Halloween, part II (2017 edition)

The adventure continues…


Dark Signal (2016) — Unrated
The spirit of a murdered girl returns with a message for the staff of a local radio station.
Ghostly voices appearing during a radio broadcast? Yes, please! I’m a fan of Welsh actor Gareth David-Lloyd from his days on Torchwood, so of course I had to watch this one. Dark Signal is just as much slasher film as ghost story, and there’s hardly any subtlety to it, but it totally held my attention. Also, it briefly features James Cosmo, who is in every TV show and film you’ve ever loved, so why not give it a try? If there’s such a thing as a “ghostly slasher romp,” this is it. (No rating, but I would give it an “R” for language/violence/gore.)
Watch the Trailer (warning: it is cranked up to eleven!). Available from Netflix and for rent from Amazon. No meta score — see external reviews on imdb here.


Under the Shadow (2016) — PG-13
As a mother and daughter struggle to cope with the terrors of the post-revolution, war-torn Tehran of the 1980s, a mysterious evil begins to haunt their home.
This is the best reviewed film of my 2017 recommendations, and I enjoyed every second of it. A progressive Iranian woman denied the opportunity to continue her medical studies must accustom herself to stay-at-home mothering when her doctor husband is sent to the front lines. The bombing of Tehran grows increasingly violent, but she knows that taking her daughter to her in-laws will mean a loss of freedom. Does her resentment at being left behind (in more ways than one) explain the bad behavior of her daughter? Or is something else going on? Highly recommended, and very possibly an option for family viewing. Filmed in Persian but English subtitles available.
Watch the Trailer. Available from Netflix and for rent at Amazon. Metascore: 84


I Am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House (2016) — Unrated
A young nurse takes care of an elderly author who lives in a haunted house.
This is my favorite of the new-to-me ghost films I’ve watched this year. From the very first line I wondered if this was based on a Shirley Jackson short story. (The title and the protagonist’s voice-over narration both reminded me of We Have Always Lived in the Castle.) But no, this was written and directed by Oz Perkins, son of the late Anthony Perkins, and once I figured that out it all made a certain sort of sense to me. I LOVED it. Warning: people who crave jump scares, gore, and a clear resolution will not like this film. It’s a slow burn of dread punctuated by occasional bursts of horror. Ruth Wilson (so good in Jane Eyre, Luther, and The Affair) offers a quirky and compelling performance. No rating, but solidly PG-13 in content.
Watch the Trailer. Available from Netflix. Metascore: 68

(Perkins’ first horror film, The Blackcoat’s Daughter, features more hallmarks of the genre — demonic possession, lots of blood/gore, surprising twist in the resolution — but I cared less about the characters in that one. RogerEbert.com agrees: “In spite of some compelling performances and a consistent mood, [Blackcoat’s Daughter] fails to ground any of these aesthetic flourishes in story or emotion.” It’s a good film and worth watching, but I am the Pretty Thing was much more to my taste.)

Stay tuned for the final installment of my 2017 film recs, in which I’ll be sharing non-ghostly horror options.

AND REMEMBER — if at any point you want to browse my previous spooky film recs, simply click the tag “spooky film recs” in the tags list below or in the sidebar! Easy Peasy.