Hannah Kate

poet, short story writer and editor based in Manchester

Happy Christmas! Some Festive Book Recommendations

This year, the Hannah’s Bookshelf Christmas Special on North Manchester FM was on Saturday 21st December. As is now tradition, I devoted this show to a little selection of festive fiction to enjoy with your stollen. You can listen to the show again on the player below, but, as promised, here are the books that I featured on this year’s festive list…

Mistletoe by Alison Littlewood (2019)

I thought it would be good to start this year’s list with a recently published title. Littlewood’s novel came out just in time for Halloween, though it’s really a Christmas book (as the title suggests). Mistletoe is a ghost story – and unashamedly so – with lots of the ingredients that make for a compelling festive read.

Grieving the deaths of her husband and son, Leah moves from Manchester to a remote farm in Yorkshire. Maitland Farm is dilapidated and remote, but it has a family connection for Leah. However, as soon as she moves in, she’s beset by a series of creepy and unsettling incidents that suggest something supernatural may be afoot. The story entwines the troubled history of Maitland Farm (which has a mystery at its heart) with Leah’s own issues, and the past and present begin to blend in sometimes disturbing ways. Mistletoe is a Gothic Christmas tale – full of snow and folklore – with the eponymous plant working as an important symbol throughout the narrative. Leah moves to Maitland Farm, in part, to avoid Christmas, but it seems that some aspects of the season simply refuse to be ignored.

With Our Blessing by Jo Spain (2015)

Another evocative tale now, which also uses elements of the Gothic to conjure up a pretty creepy Christmas story (though in a different genre to Mistletoe). Spain’s debut novel, With Our Blessing, is a crime novel set in Ireland.

The story is set in 2010 and begins with the discovery of the body of an elderly woman in a Dublin Park. The woman’s body has been mutilated and displayed. It doesn’t take long for the police to discover that the woman was a nun – which puts a different complexion on the case. The book actually begins with a prologue, set in 1975, in which a baby is removed forcibly from its mother. This prologue, along with the discovery of the nun’s body, sets the stage for a story about a dark feature of Ireland’s history – the Magdalene Laundries. D.I. Tom Reynolds is brought onto the case, and he travels to an isolated convent with his team to investigate. The fact that it’s the run-up to Christmas, and that the convent gets snowed in shortly after the Gardaí arrive, makes for a very atmospheric story. And Spain’s characterization – particularly of Reynolds and his team – combines with this atmosphere to create a very compelling novel.

With Our Blessings is the first in Spain’s D.I. Reynolds series. It was followed by Beneath the Surface (2016), Sleeping Beauties (2017), The Darkest Place (2018) and The Boy Who Fell (2019).

The Tailor of Gloucester by Beatrix Potter (1903)

Another book set in the run-up to Christmas (though one that is mercifully free of gruesome murders and ghosts). For many years, Potter claimed that The Tailor of Gloucester was her personal favourite of her illustrated books – and, surprisingly, it was based on a real-life occurence.

The eponymous tailor has been asked to make a waistcoat for the Mayor of Gloucester, who will be getting married on Christmas Day. One bitterly cold day, the tailor sends his cat Simpkin out to do some shopping (which is perfectly normal thing to do in a Beatrix Potter book!), including getting a twist of silk to finish off the waistcoat. While Simpkin is out, the tailor discovers that the cat has been trapping mice under teacups, and he frees them all (thus thwarting some intended gruesome murders, one assumes). Simpkin is angry about losing his mice, and so hides the twist of silk. And then, the tailor falls ill! However will he finish the Mayor’s waistcoat in time for Christmas?

Potter’s inspiration appears to have been the story of John Prichard, a Gloucester tailor and a contemporary of Beatrix Potter. Prichard was commissioned to make a suit for the new Mayor of Gloucester, and got a little help from some friends to do so. However, just as in Potter’s book, the suit was unfinished, because there was ‘no more twist’!

Cuckoo by Sophie Draper (2018)

There seems to be a bit of a pattern emerging with this year’s festive selections… here’s another book where the main character gets snowed in at a remote location in the run-up to Christmas! (Although, in this one, we do actually get to see some Christmas celebrations!)

Draper’s novel is a thriller. It has shades of domestic noir and a touch of Gothic-inflection, but it essentially a thriller at heart. Caro Crowther moves back to Derbyshire (in the run-up to Christmas!) after the death of her stepmother, Elizabeth. Caro’s father died when she was a child and, due to the terms of his will, Caro has inherited his estate on Elizabeth’s death. Reluctantly – Caro didn’t have a happy childhood – she returns to the home she shared with a stepmother who hated her. And it seems she’s not particularly welcome in the village. Much of Cuckoo revolves around Caro remembering long-buried incidents from her childhood, including the cruel punishments meted out to her by Elizabeth (the most notable of which involved a ‘Pear Drum’ and a disturbing fairy tale). But there is something else going on in the present. As the snow falls, and Caro is cut off from the rest of the world, a series of strange incidents and disturbances unsettle her. In some ways, Cuckoo shares common ground with Littlewood’s Mistletoe, but the revelations that come in Draper’s book are really quite different. Cuckoo‘s a real page-turner, with great atmosphere and an ending that’ll have you pondering for a while after you finish reading.

Christmas Pudding by Nancy Mitford (1932)

Something a bit different now… Mitford’s Christmas Pudding is a rather light-hearted comedic book about Gloria, Lady Bobbin and the Christmas house party she throws at Compton Bobbin in the Cotswolds. This is a book that is set in a very distinct milieu, thought it is peppered with acid criticisms and satire of the upper classes and their silly mores (of course, coming from Nancy Mitford, this is more self-deprecation than class warfare!).

Present for the festivities at Compton Bobbin are Paul Fotheringay (a writer whose recent tragedy has been disappointingly dubbed the ‘funniest book of the year); Lord Lewes (a stuffy man who begins the book in love with one visitor, but soon falls for Lady Bobbins’s daughter); and Lady Bobbins’s children, Philadelphia and Roderick. In Mulberrie Cottage, close to Compton Bobbin, rich ‘courtesan’ Amabelle Fortescue is spending Christmas with her friends Sally and Walter Monteath (characters who also appeared in Mitford’s earlier novel Highland Fling). Suffice to say, there’s plenty of gossip from Bright Young Things, disappointment at the cancelling of the hunt, and people falling in love with each other with worring alacrity. Christmas Pudding is a book that is very much of its time and of its type – but it has a certain festive charm about it that makes it a fun read during the Christmas season.

Festive Spirits: Three Christmas Stories by Kate Atkinson (2019)

Today’s list ends with a little collection of short stories from highly regarded (including by me) author Kate Atkinson, which was published in the autumn. I’m going to avoid saying too much about the content of this one, as the stories are quite short (it’s a real bite-sized book) and so it’s hard to introduce them without giving too much away. Suffice to say, it’s the perfect size for reading while you’re waiting for your Christmas dinner.

The three stories in the collection are very much in Atkinson’s distinctive voice, and offer slightly skewed perspectives on the festive season. The pain of Christmas-time (particularly when you’ve had a tough time and just want to avoid festivities) is explored here, as well as the melancholy feeling that comes with the impending end of a year. Are these stories festive? Do stories have to be cheerful to be festive?

Not according to today’s list they don’t! It’s kind of fitting to end with Atkinson’s collection, as it does feature someone who is trying to avoid Christmas, which takes us right back to where we started today!

To find out more about these books, and my reasons for choosing them, you can listen to the Hannah’s Bookshelf Christmas Special here:


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