Monday, 31 December 2012

Bookish Resolutions for 2013

Now that Father Christmas has visited, the last of the turkey has been eaten in a late-night sandwich and the tin of Quality Street (or Cadbury Roses) has depleted severely, our attention is turning towards the impending New Year. It's a time in which we find ourselves looking back over the past year, reflecting on all that has - or hasn't - happened, and marvelling at how quickly time passes. It's also a time in which we will be forced to make unrealistic promises to ourselves and others, usually relating to health and alcohol consumption and often accompanied by the caress of a swollen stomach, or the clutching of an aching head. In the time-honoured tradition, I have determined that I will make a few book-related resolutions, as writing this blog has made me realise quite a few things about books that I hadn't considered before. So, for all and sundry to see - thus hopefully making me more likely to keep them - here are my Bookish Resolutions.

1. If I start a book, I have to finish it (with one condition...)
Too often I pick up a book and, barely 3 pages in, cast it aside in a disinterested manner. This has actually proven to be a bit of a downfall, as I have effectively delayed several great books from making their way into my life - one such example is Rook, by Daniel O'Malley, which I downloaded in my first Kindle-spree and then ignored for months, except for one or two occasions when I did half-heartedly read a few pages before promptly going back to ignoring it again. Another is the incredible Before I Go To Sleep by S. J. Watson, which again, I had sat on my Kindle for months before I gave it the proper attention it deserved - I then read it all in one day, because it was simply too hard to put down. These titles - and others - have made me realise that I need to trust my own judgement a bit; if at some point I picked it, for whatever reason, I need to follow my instincts and give the book a fair chance, and not just give up a few pages in. I'd like to apply a caveat, however; I reckon that, by about 50 pages in, I'd probably know if I was going to enjoy it or not. So I need to read at least the first 50 pages of a book before I decide whether to keep reading or not. That's fair, right?

2. To take recommendations on board
Several times this year, lovely people have recommended books to me, and I have - for a time - ignored them completely. It hasn't occurred to me that these people might actually know me quite well, and may well know what I might like. So I've snootily - and probably a bit patronisingly - acknowledged their suggestions, and then not done anything about them for ages. Again, this has proved to be to my own detriment, so I'd like to take a moment to thank a few people for their suggestions - sorry if I miss people out but hey, it's been a long year and these are the ones I remember most!
Based on this, I'm going to pay more attention to what people think I will like, and I'm happy to say I've already started on this one - I've recently downloaded The Woman In White by Wilkie Collins, which will be my next read, as a friend very enthusiastically recommended it to me over Christmas.

3. To read more "Classics"
A little while ago, I made a rather rash decision to attempt to work my way through a Top 100 Books list. Needless to say, it hasn't worked out well; I find that, for some books anyway, you need to be in a certain mindset to attempt them, and there's no point trying to force yourself. Nevertheless, it's high time I tried some of these titles, and I thought it might be best if I had a go at limiting myself to a select few, so that I can work my way through in easy chunks. Working on this, below are the first novels I plan to tackle.
  • The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger. Just feel I need to read this one as two people have recommended it to me in the past year, and this will help me achieve resolution number 2.
  • The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri. I've had this sat on my shelf for ages now and it's just starting to bother me.
  • Catch 22 by Joseph Heller. I've attempted this so many times but never got beyond 50 pages, so I need to give this another go.
  • Paradise Lost by John Milton. Having studied books 9 and 10 of this poem at school, I know I quite liked it, so why I've never got past book 2 in a serious attempt is beyond me. Must try harder!

It's only a small list to start with, but I figure if I can get through these tomes, I can get through any!

Hopefully, writing all this down will make it a bit easier for me to follow my own rules - it's like the time I gave up sugar in my tea for Lent, I never would've succeeded if I hadn't told so many people about it and backed myself into a corner. But I am determined to give more literature more respect in 2013, in the hope that, when I write my 'Best of 2013' list next year, I'll have lots and lots more first-reads to choose from.

Happy New Year, everyone!

Friday, 21 December 2012

Topnotch Reads of 2012: Part Three - The Winner!

Well, if you're a regular reader, you'll probably have seen that I have been counting down my top ten reads of 2012 over the past few days, with part one covering numbers ten to six, and part two looking at five down to two. The wait is now over, the fat lady has sung and we have finally arrived at number one - my all time, best read of 2012, the one that I enjoyed the most - and in honour of this, I shall be reviewing the winner in a bit more detail. So stand by, get ready and prepare yourself as I announce the best thing I've read this year.......


1. A Song Of Ice And Fire, by George R. R. Martin.

Okay, yes, I am cheating a bit - anyone who has read A Song Of Ice And Fire will know that it's actually a series of books, currently spanning five titles, with at least two more still to come, so it's not even a finished work. But hear me out, I can explain! See, in the same way you can't really refer to the three volumes of The Lord of The Rings as separate books, these can't be treated as individuals works either, with several storylines playing out across all the books, and many recurring characters who are vital to the various plots. So if I'd come along and said "A Storm Of Swords (incidentally, my favourite so far) is my read of the year", I'd kind of be lying, because there are elements of A Storm Of Swords that wouldn't make sense without knowledge of the previous two volumes. You can't read them in any old order, so that's why they are joint number one.

This is one epic story; so far, the five volumes add up to a total of 4629 pages - that's averaging out at 926 pages a book! Set in a medieval-style era, it follows several different characters in each book as factions war against each other for the Iron Throne, the seat of a fragile monarchy of a continent called Westeros. However, as the lords and knights of Westeros bicker amongst themselves, nearly everyone is oblivious to two threats from external sources; one, the heir to the deposed, mad king of Westeros, currently living in Essos and gaining power every day; the other, a mysterious, ancient fear in the far north known only as the Others or the White Walkers, believed to have been dead for eight millenia but now apparently walking again, and heading south for Westeros. As the series continues, both of these threats grow, whilst the nobility of Westeros continue to tear the continent apart, at the very time when uniting together could be the only source of salvation.

Because it is so long, you'll have to be prepared for the long haul. I myself read pretty quickly, but even then it still took me about 6 weeks to finish the series so far, and that's including a day in which I did hardly anything but read. It's incredibly meticulous, and I don't think comparing it to The Lord Of The Rings is a ridiculous notion; maps are provided at the beginning of each book, so you can trace character's journeys, and each settlement, town or city is described in great detail. The characters themselves are a mixed bunch; some are a bit stereotypical whilst others are far more well-rounded, and naturally the more well-rounded ones are those you're more interested in. There's also a huge number of them - five books into the series, and already there have been over a thousand named characters! Obviously not all of them are important but, as I am discovering on a second read, certain people do crop up a lot earlier in the series before their proper involvement later - a bit like Sirius Black getting a brief mention in Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, only to pop up as a main character in the third book.

The storylines themselves - because there are several - are also very intricate; Martin has clearly decided to give himself the luxury of time with this one, as each plot is very carefully crafted. This, at times, can be a downside; with so many different threads to follow, it can be tricky to re-set your mind to one storyline in Essos, say, when you've spent the past few chapters in Kings Landing (the capital of Westeros). There's also one particular one which, as far as I'm concerned, would lift out entirely - I just can't see what it adds to the series, beyond loads of extra, boring chapters. I shan't say what thread it is because I don't want to cloud your opinion, but in these particular chapters I do tend to either rush through or not pay attention. This isn't helped by the fact that Martin is very descriptive; whilst this isn't necessarily a bad thing, it is when it's the fifth feast in as many chapters where every course has been described in detail; entire passages like this could be lifted out, and would probably reduce the number of pages by about 10 a book. Just sayin'.

I also have to express concern for the fact that, for the time being at least, two more books are scheduled - but I really cannot see how it's going to end; there doesn't appear to be a goal that could be reached, and the number of potential showdowns that could occur mean that there's no conclusive meeting to anticipate. In short, some of the characters seem to be slightly out of control - it's almost, in a slightly creepy way, like they've developed beyond Martin's original plan, and are now creating their own storylines, in a way, which Martin can't quite rein back in. All this does mean that, whilst I'm enjoying the ride, I can't even guess where the end might be, and that makes me a bit anxious.

I wouldn't recommend this book for everyone; that's not a snobby thing, it's a personal-preferences thing. For instance, if you're not one for sweeping epics that take place over several years, then it's not for you. Nor is it for you if you don't like, or have an interest in, politics, because these books are FULL of politics. And if your mind tends to wander, or you don't like violence, then I'd probably avoid these. If, however, none of the above bother you, then you're in for a treat; it's fun, it's intriguing, and there's so many twists and surprises you'll be left reeling. They're not the best books I've ever read, but in terms of my 2012 reads they deserve the top spot - for sheer entertainment value, and longevity. It's not particularly clever in terms of language, or even in the actual storylines, but what can't be ignored is just how cleverly Martin has woven so many stories together. Whilst the endgame might not be in sight just yet, there's still plenty to admire on the way.

Saturday, 15 December 2012

Topnotch Reads of 2012: Part Two

The countdown of my favourite reads from the past year continues on from my previous post, so if you haven't seen numbers 10 through 6 yet, quick! Head over there now and familiarise yourself! Otherwise, stand by, because this time we're on to numbers five through to two. Brace yourselves...

5. The Stepford Wives, by Ira Levin
This has the dubious honour of being the first book I read on my Kindle, and it had quite the tough job. I was a reluctant convert to ereaders, and my first experience with one was not great; for a start, I struggled with getting used to reading off a screen, and secondly, I managed to ruin the big twist of The Stepford Wives because the ereader automatically loaded the foreword as the first page - I started to read the foreword and three lines in, guess what? The big twist was revealed. So I was not happy - which makes it all the more impressive that I enjoyed this book so much, considering I was in such a black mood when I started it. The plot follows the Eberhart family as they move to an idyllic suburb called Stepford. Things seems so perfect at first, but Joanna, the lead character, struggles to find anyone she can connect with, as all the men spend all their time at an exclusive mens-only hunting lodge, whilst nearly all the women are submissive, house-proud dullards. Joanna eventually finds a few like-minded women, but it becomes apparent that not everything in Stepford is as perfect and unspoilt as it looks... It's a chilling story, even if you do know the end already, but also pretty funny in places - the dialogue is witty and I did laugh out loud a few times. Joanna is a great character, a woman who is not a perfect wife or mother but does the best she can, who is frustrated by the lack of potential friends in her new home. There's loads to relate to here - feelings of inadequacy, loneliness in a new town, confusion when faced with a new culture - but as the suspense builds you'll be oblivious to any of that, just because you'll be desperate to find out what really is going on in Stepford.

4. Nineteen Eighty-Four, by George Orwell
I read this purely because it's one of those books that you kind of have to; it's one of those great English novels that never seem to age. However, I did not want to read it; I'd read Animal Farm by the same author a few years back, and it had thoroughly put me off Orwell. Yet the presence of a copy of Nineteen Eighty-Four in my house made it increasingly difficult to ignore, until finally, I bit the bullet and just got on with it. I was delighted to discover that I absolutely loved it. I mean, as much as you can - the story, as told from a man called Winston Smith's view, details a dystopian future in which an organisation called The Party runs the country, with the sinister Big Brother as figurehead. In this future, there is no privacy or secrets, and merely thinking anti-Party thoughts is a punishable crime. It's a terrifying novel to read, but at the same time, it can be surprisingly funny, and that's what I wasn't prepared for; in all I'd heard of Nineteen Eighty-Four, no one had ever mentioned how witty and sharp it was. There were, however, moments when I felt the book lagged a bit; there's a chunk in the middle which is basically a history of how the Party came to power, and whilst I understand it is crucial to the novel, I got quite bored with it, which meant my attention wandered. Once it turned back to Winston, though, I was back on board, and I have to say that I'd definitely recommend this book to anyone - it's bleak, the language is a bit out-dated now and there are some parts that will make you squirm but it'll make you think, and that's the important bit.

3. The Ancient Guide To Modern Life, by Natalie Haynes
This is the only non-fiction title in my list, and as it features pretty high up, I'm sure you can appreciate already that it's a cracking book. Looking at how the ancient cultures of Greece and Rome compare with how life is today, it's a disappointingly short book, humorously covering subjects such as philosophy, politics, entertainment and women's rights (which is in the hilariously titled chapter Frankly, Medea, I Don't Give A Damn. Well, hilarious if you know who Medea is and you're familiar with Gone With The Wind). My favourite part - personally - is when Haynes compares ancient rulers to modern politicians: 'JFK was Titus, loved by the people, but destined to die young. Tony Blair was Augustus, the master of spin. Berlusconi [was] Domitian, running his state amid secrecy and lies. Kim Jong-Il [was] Claudius, disgusing physical weakness... with a streak of war-mongering machismo.' Comparisons like this, between then and now, are peppered throughout the book, making the ancient world appear more relatable and understandable, especially in cases where you only have a basic knowledge, if that, of ancient events - I myself learnt a lot from this. It can be a bit of a drag at times - so many names, so many ending in -ius! - and it's not exactly a book you can curl up with and get lost in, but I enjoyed every page I read, and I was really annoyed when I got to the epilogue and realised there wasn't going to be much more.

2. The Rook, by Daniel O'Malley
I only reviewed this very recently, so I won't go into too much detail - however, as accidental book-findings go, this was a dream. I had downloaded it on to my Kindle when I first got it, then promptly forgot I had it to read. It wasn't until I was overcome with guilt at the fact I had spent money on this book and not even glanced at it that I finally sat down to read it. The plot follows a character called Myfanwy Thomas, a woman who has amnesia, as she struggles to regain some knowledge of the life that was hers before she lost her memory. The twist? Before she lost her memory, the woman she was then knew that at some point she would suffer some incident that would rob her of all knowledge of herself, and so was able to write a series of letters, guiding the amnesia-ridden Myfanwy through life. It sounds like one of those weepy, something-traumatic-has-happened-to-me-but-I-am-a-strong-woman type novels, but it's really, really not. Myfanwy is actually a high-ranking, powerful official in a secret organisation that monitors and controls the supernatural in the UK, and there's something rotten at the core that pre-amnesia-Myfanwy was investigating. And if that wasn't enough, an ancient threat from Europe appears to be making waves in the direction of the UK. There's politics, intrigue, more than enough monsters, and a healthy dash of humour to it, making for a hugely entertaining read that's incredibly difficult to put down.

Friday, 14 December 2012

Topnotch Reads of 2012: Part One

As we all know, it's now that time of year when we all gather together to "enjoy" each others' company, get a bit drunk and reflect on the past year... Yep, that's right, it's awards season once more! And what with all these shortlists emerging, detailing the best flicks, TV shows, comedians, etc of the past year, I thought I'd take the time to talk about my best books of the year. These won't necessarily be new publications from 2012 - rather, just ones I myself have read for the first time this year. Some I might have already reviewed in detail, in which case I'll link 'em so you can have a look if it piques your interest. I'll be counting down my top ten, starting with ten through to six today, and finishing with a proper review for number 1. So, let's get on with it, shall we?

10. The Damned Busters, by Matthew Hughes
I stumbled across this little number during a brief moment of weakness in the summer, when I almost - horror of horrors - caved in and bought a copy of Fifty Shades Of Grey. Luckily, however, I couldn't find a copy, and that little episode was done and dusted. Problem was, though, I'd walked into a bookshop and I am practically incapable of leaving a bookshop without buying something, so I had a bit of a browse and I found... this. As far as impulse purchases go, this turned out pretty well; the story follows a pretty unremarkable man accidentally summoning a demon from hell, refusing to use said demon as he didn't mean to summon him, thus causing hell to go on strike, meaning no bad things happen in the world - which actually turns out to be a pretty bad thing itself. Without greed, the stock markets plummet; without envy, no one is trying to outdo neighbours, meaning everyone becomes lazy - in short, the world stops working. So in order to get everything back to normal, our unremarkable hero strikes a deal with the unionists-from-hell and becomes a superhero - obviously. What I enjoyed about it was that it was a fun piece of escapism, pure and simple; a bit of a silly story which didn't require a lot of concentration, just something entertaining to read when you've got a spare fifteen minutes.

9. The Unlikely Pilgrimage Of Harold Fry, by Rachel Joyce
This one I discovered because it was nominated for the Man Booker prize this year, and wanted to read because I liked the title. It follows Harold Fry - a retired man who lives a comfortable but uninteresting life in a comfortable but uninteresting village - who is trundling along quite nicely until he hears word that a former colleague of his from years ago is terminally ill with cancer. Despite their tentative acquaintance, Harold is greatly affected by the news, to the extent that when he pops out to post a letter one day, he doesn't stop walking. Instead, he embarks on a cross-country journey to visit his old acquaintance, firm in the belief that if he gets to her, he can stop her from dying. It's a beautiful story, covering some of the best aspects of human nature - determination, faith, devotion, friendship, and I'd be fibbing if I said it didn't bring a bit of a tear to my eye from time to time. It's also surprisingly realistic; Joyce has clearly thought about this, covering all aspects of the pains of long-distance walking and sleeping rough. It does drag in parts - a sub-plot involving some 'followers' of Harold does clunk along a bit - but if you focus on the main story of Harold's quest, you'll find that it's one of those books that stays with you after you've finished the last page.

8. The Eyre Affair, by Jasper Fforde
I think I've mentioned this book probably far too many times now, but it's one of the best I've read this year, so there. Nevertheless, I'll keep it short, lest I isolate my regular readers: a literary detective by the name of Thursday Next is roped into investigating the sudden disappearance of Jane Eyre from the classic novel of the same name. Obviously, without Jane, there's not much of a story, resulting in widespread horror and panic in the alternate-universe that Thursday lives in, where the real celebrities are book characters and the real heroes are authors. Thursday's task is to find Jane, and her kidnapper, before she meets the same fate as a poor, unlucky sub-character from Martin Chuzzlewit by Charles Dickens. Fforde weaves a fast-paced, clever plot with loads of witty observations, a few literary in-jokes and some very likeable characters. It's unfortunate that the next few in the series aren't nearly as good, but I'd still recommend this one as a stand-alone novel; it's funny, it's clever and it's well-written, and that's all you need to know.

7. The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins
I stress, by the way, that this refers specifically to the first book in the trilogy; whilst I quite liked the others, I wasn't nearly as impressed by them. Anyway, as I've already reviewed this one, I'll keep it brief: The Hunger Games follows a young heroine, Katniss, who is forced to enter a life-or-death tournament in place of her younger sister, where she will have to kill other children and teenagers, or be killed. Many comparisons have been drawn to Battle Royale by Koushun Takami, which does essentially have the same plot, but there's enough differences to The Hunger Games to make it a really good novel. There's several comparisons to be made with the modern 'talent' shows that still seem to dominate the airwaves, and there's also several scenes that may surprise you with the emotion of them. I also - being a Classics nerd - particularly enjoyed the fact that many of the characters are named after Classical figures, such as Cato, Caesar and Coriolanus. As a young adult book, aimed at the Twilight market, it's not particularly taxing to read, but is gripping; you may find it surprisingly difficult to put down.

6. The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck
I read this purely because I ran out of books to read on holiday, and The Boyfriend had already finished it. I knew it was considered as one of the most important books in American literature, and I had a basic idea of the plot from discussions about it with The Boyfriend whilst he was reading it, but nothing could have prepared me for it. The novel follows the Joad family during the Great Depression, as they embark on an epic journey west in order to build a new life for themselves. It's a pretty bleak novel; most of the time that I was reading it, I was almost crying out for something positive to occur - the few bright spots shone pretty dimly. Yet this was the point of Steinbeck's novel; as he summed up in a powerful, emotional chapter near the end of the story, the brunt of the Great Depression was borne by the poorest, who suffered more than any without sign of respite and little to hope for. Given the current state of affairs, especially with the UK's coalition government making a hash of things, it's a telling sign that a novel written about events eighty years ago can still be relatable now. If you decide to read it, persevere with it; you won't regret the decision. Like The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, it'll stay with you long after you've turned the last page.

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Review: The Rook by Daniel O'Malley

I downloaded this book onto my Kindle about, ooh, 3 months ago, and I've only got around to reading it very recently. This is the curse of the Kindle; when you have access to so many books so quickly, it becomes far too easy for you to download one book with the full intention of reading it soon, only to find that your fickle heart is swayed by a new title. I myself currently have seventeen - yes, SEVENTEEN - books on my Kindle that have remained unread despite download, and all because I have a wandering eye when it comes to books. However, when the Boyfriend pointed out that this was a very uneconomical way to buy books, and certainly not how I would've done it with print copies, I was shamed into picking one of the rejected as my next read, and this turned out to be The Rook.

I can honestly say I have no idea why I downloaded this book. I can remember selecting it for download; I just can't remember why, because when I started reading it, I had absolutely no idea what was going on - blurbs aren't exactly easy-access on ebooks, especially not when you've already downloaded them. (Not that I'm complaining; I like the mystery of a plot where you literally have no inkling of what is coming next, especially as I've recently gone off blurbs. I've recently ploughed my way through A Song Of Ice And Fire by George R. R. Martin, the book series that Game Of Thrones is based on, and I managed to ruin Part 2 of A Dance With Dragons - basically, the last book in the series so far - by reading it's blurb before I'd read Part 1, which managed to ruin a major plot point for myself. But I digress.) It actually turned out to be a supernatural comedy-thriller with a dash of James Bond thrown in for good measure.

The story begins with Myfanwy Thomas, moments after she has woken up in the middle of a park surrounded by bodies with no memory of who she is or how she got there - all she has for a clue is a series of letters, written by herself, to herself, in the months leading up to the memory-loss incident in the park. As Myfanwy attempts to discover the circumstances surrounding her re-birth in the park, who she was before the incident and why she lost her memory in the first place, she has to try to disguise her amnesia from her colleagues in a super-secretive organisation dedicated to the management of supernatural forces in the UK. It's a pretty tough thing to do, so it's lucky that Myfanwy has the letters from her old self to guide her along. Unfortunately, her new persona is a rather bit more... sassy, shall we say, than her previous one, so cracks begin to show in her ruse, just as an ancient threat to the organisation rears it's ugly head.

Whatever I was expecting, this was not it. In fact, the opening line - 'Dear You, the body you are wearing used to be mine...' had me all prepared for some kind of body-snatchers type scenario, involving a conspiracy to put new souls in old bodies. Which, if I'm honest, I'd say is actually quite a good idea, although the first time I started to read this, that notion put me off - I'm not a huge fan of science-fiction, and I got the impression that this is what The Rook was. Once I gave the book a fair go, however, I discovered that it actually falls in with the fantasy genre, something I am a bit more at home with. It's not too clever in this respect, either; unlike most books which deal with a supernatural setting, what O'Malley has preferred to do is simply assimilate the fantastical in with the real world, as opposed to creating an entirely new land, animals and, in some cases, language. It is a bit like Harry Potter or - shudder - Twilight for adults in this sense; there's enough of the familiar to give the uncanny aspects of the novel a bit of a believable edge (not that I believe in vampires or wizards - I learnt that when my Hogwarts letter never arrived). And to make it identifiable as a 'grown-up' novel - rather than a different cover - there's quite a bit more gore, murder and bureaucracy to it than you may encounter in any of it's teenage counterparts.

It's funny, too; I know that sounds like a really stupid thing to say but honestly, it's refreshing to find a book that is not firmly wedged within a certain genre; recently, I've noticed that some of the books that I have been reading have been taking themselves a bit too seriously, and whilst in some that is appropriate, in others I think it's a shame. Admittedly, The Rook hardly deals with serious issues - it's a government organisation dealing with supernatural forces, it's ripe for ridicule - but whilst the plot isn't particularly silly, the main character has enough wit about her to make for entertaining reading. O'Malley also makes excellent use of other characters' confusion about Myfanwy's sudden personality transplant, which again not only amuses the reader but also ties you in with Myfanwy: only you and she know the secret about her identity, which lends her character more of an edge, and also ties you closer to her.

I don't actually usually get too excited about new books I've read - they're either a bit disappointing, or just simply enjoyable, but unremarkable - but every once in a while I do, and this is one of them. It felt like even more of a treat, simply because I discovered it purely by accident. It's a surprisingly refreshing idea, with a sympathetic lead character, and potential for the world O'Malley has created to be expanded. It's also accessible to both men and women; I feel that, previously, books I have reviewed have more often than not been more appealing to girls (which, as I am a girl, kind of makes sense); The Rook, however, has a decent balance of humour, action, suspense, and more than enough cliff-hangers to keep anyone reading well into the night. And best of all? No romance. There's nothing like an unsuitable character pairing midway through a novel to put you off your stride. It's also inspired me to give the rest of the unread seventeen on my Kindle a go, as who knows? Maybe there's another new favourite nestling in there somewhere.

Saturday, 8 December 2012

It's Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas...

That festive time of year is once again upon us, spreading general good will, cheer and a mild sprinkling of increasing panic as everyone suddenly realises that actually, it's coming up pretty darn quickly and oh my god, I haven't bought anything. It's a weird time of year, Christmas; you're forced to go outside shopping in one of the coldest months of the year, expected to send cards to people you haven't contacted since last year's card, and as far as us Brits are concerned, it's the only time of year when we really go all-out on decorating our houses in psychotic lighting. Yet despite all this, Christmas is, for most people, a happy time of year; it's an excuse to get drunk with anyone that you can call an acquaintance, eat as much food as your poor tum will hold, and start indulging in all of those Christmas-only activities - singing Christmas songs, watching Christmas films and, my personal favourite, reading Christmas books. So, if you're not quite in to the festive spirit yet, here's a few of my best Christmas Books to make you feel all warm and cosy inside.

1. The Night Before Christmas by Clement Clarke Moore
"'Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse..." So begins the infamous, sparkling poem that sums up all the wonder, excitement and anticipation that Christmas - especially Christmas Eve - holds for children and the young-at-heart. Even now, when I read Moore's account of a man witnessing the arrival of Father Christmas to his home, I still get a gorgeous tingly feeling up my spine, as I recall how thrilling Christmas Eve was; putting out the mince pie and brandy for Father Christmas (and a carrot for Rudolph), before hanging out my stocking at the end of my bed, then trying so hard to go to sleep even though my heart was near bursting out of my chest as I strained to hear the distant tingling of sleigh bells... Nothing captures that feeling in quite the same way as The Night Before Christmas, which more than adequately explains why this poem has endured for so long, enchanting so many children.

2. Collin's Christmas Treasury, selected by Stephanie Nettell
Don't let the incredibly boring title put you off - this is a cracker (excuse the pun) of a compilation.  Nettell has selected hundreds of poems, short stories and extracts from novels to create a book that holds within it's pages almost every conceivable aspect of Christmas. There's a section dedicated to food and drink, another to the giving of gifts, yet another to the original Christmas story of Mary, Joseph and Jesus... the list goes on. There's also a pretty wide timespan covered here, with diary entries stretching back to pioneers celebrating Christmas during the long trek West, and Samuel Pepys' yuletide extravagances. You'll also see extracts from The Moomins, Ramona and Beezus and A Christmas Carol. My favourites, however, are the poems, and there are dozens of them to go around - an ode to Christmas stockings, Bad King John's plea for a particular present, a donkey's view of Christmas.... Some of them are thought-provoking (one about a father spending Christmas in a homeless hostel always gets me) but others, like Ogden Nash's I Remember Yule, a mild rant at how the values of Christmas have changed, are more light-hearted. It's wonderful to dip in and out of, but just as good to read cover-to-cover.

3. Tosca's Christmas by Anne Mortimer
This is a children's book that I've had for as long as I can remember and my god, do I love it. It's a beautifully-illustrated picture book with a lovely story, featuring the fluffiest-looking tabby cat I've ever seen, who just can't seem to find her place in the mad, mad world of Christmas. The story follows our feline friend as she discovers the human joys of Christmas - she manages to sneak a mince pie from the kitchen, attempts to have a paper chase with someone's wrapping paper, and even has a go at making a wish with the Christmas fairy at the top of the tree, all the while driving her human owners to distraction. Poor old Tosca becomes increasingly dejected with her lack of place in all the fun, until a certain, red-cloaked and bearded someone comes along with something special for Tosca to make Christmas all better... It's just lovely, and even though it's intended for an audience far younger than myself, I don't feel like it's Christmas without reading Tosca's Christmas at least once.

4. Magical Christmas Stories, by Various
I've actually got no idea about where this book came from - I suspect that Christmas elves had something to do with it - but it's another fantastic compliation, this time of original Christmas short stories by childrens' authors including Malorie Blackman and Adele Geras. There are some amazingly Christmassy stories in here; for example, a particular favourite of mine is one about a group of pirates - who are not so fearsome as they would like to think - throwing themselves fully into the spirit of Christmas, decorating their ship, cooking a feast, telling jokes. Then there's one about a boy who wishes that every day was Christmas, only to get his wish and find that it's not quite how it seems... Some of them are a little more sombre in tone, such as the boy who buys Christmas crackers from a strangely-familiar figure, under the belief that they will stop his parents arguing with each other, but in each story the magic of Christmas is a running theme, which is why I re-read it every year; I've found, as I've 'grown up', that I'm starting to realise why my parents find Christmas stressful, so it's good to get back to those childlike feelings of anticipation and excitement that Christmas brings.

5. A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens
Well, there was no way this one was going to avoid a mention, was there? Possibly the most familiar Christmas story of all (with the exception of the original one, featuring Jesus), I think most people of my generation have grown up with the story as told (surprisingly faithfully) by The Muppets. For those of you who have been living under a rock, however, a summary: a miserly old man who detests Christmas is visited by the three spirits of Christmas - Past, Present and Future - in an attempt to teach him the real joy of Christmas, and repent his grouchy ways. My mum always says that you need a good ghost story at Christmas, and, being a complete coward, I disagree. With A Christmas Carol, however, I make an exception; as ghost stories go, it is pretty chilling in places, but for the most part, it's a celebration of what the festive period should be about: family, friends, happiness, spending time with your loved ones. One of the most poignant scences - and also the one featured in Collin's Christmas Treasury - is when Ebenezer Scrooge witnesses his poorly-paid clerk, Bob Cratchit, celebrating with his family as best they can on a meager budget, but as happy together as if they were millionaires. It's the simplicity at the story's heart that makes it such a magical story, and if you haven't read it, I urge you to. I don't blame you if you keep hearing songs from The Muppets' Christmas Carol while you do, though. ("There goes Mr Humbug, there goes Mr Grim...")

I hope you've enjoyed my little Christmas summary, as much as I enjoyed writing it, and if you have any Christmas stories or poems that you love to read every Christmas, please let me know - I can never get enough of a decent Christmas story!

Merry Christmas!