This year, the Hannah’s Bookshelf Christmas Special on North Manchester FM was on Saturday 22nd December. As is now tradition, I devoted this show to a little selection of festive fiction to accompany your mulled wine and mince pies. 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…
I began today’s show with as sweet a Christmas romance as I could find. Christmas at Little Beach Street Bakery is the third in Colgan’s Little Beach Street Bakery series, and features characters who will be familiar to readers of the previous two books – and there’s an author note at the beginning of the novel to catch up readers who aren’t. Set on the Cornish tidal island of Mount Polbearne, the series features Polly Waterford, who runs the eponymous bakery and lives in an old lighthouse with her American boyfriend Huckle and their pet puffin Neil. This third instalment also features Polly’s ‘blond and sophisticated’ friend Kerensa and her American husband Reuben (who is also Huckle’s best friend). The story begins with Kerensa and Reuben’s relationship getting into trouble, as the result of a terrible mistake Kerensa made back in the Spring, but it really gets going properly five weeks before Christmas, as Polly faces the various stresses of the festive season. And it’s not just the pressures of running the bakery – Polly and Huckle face crisis after crisis in their personal lives, as well as the stress of dealing with Kerensa and Reuben’s problems. Just when it seems like nothing else can go wrong, a storm cuts Mount Polbearne off from the mainland… can our plucky confectioner pull off a magical Christmas?
Colgan’s novel is a sweet romance – in more ways than one. While this isn’t my usual genre of choice, I do like Colgan’s conversational writing style. And it’s definitely a book that wears its Christmas credentials on its sleeve. This seemed like a good way to kick off my fourth Hannah’s Bookshelf Christmas Special.
The next book on my list seems at first glance to be a lot less festive than the first. But, actually, I think Streeter’s book conjures up something of the magic of Christmas in a real heart-warming way. George Barton Baxter is the CEO of a New York textile business, and he’s sick of the Christmas preparations. He thinks about the holiday in economic terms and worries about its financial impact – he also thinks about the Christmas presents he wants (impossible dreams) and the ones he’ll get (unwanted disappointments). In an attempt to reduce the financial black hole, he makes his wife set a ‘Christmas Budget’, but the more he tries, the more expensive Christmas becomes. Things get worse and worse, as if the season itself is conspiring against Mr Baxter’s thrift.
The book has four sections – ‘October’, ‘November’, ‘December’ and ‘Christmas Eve’ – and is filled with vivid depictions of 1950s New York with a hefty dose of seasonal cynicism. Edward Streeter is probably now best known as the author of Father of the Bride, on which the 1950 Spencer Tracy film was based (remade in 1991 with Steve Martin). The character of Mr Baxter is recognizably cut from the same cloth as Stanley Banks (George Banks in the remake). He’s a man who loves his family, but who is powerless against a tidal wave of demands.
A little bit of bite-sized festive creepiness now… John Updike’s short prose pieces originally appeared in the New Yorker in 1992, but the following year were put together with illustrations by Edward Gorey, an American artist known for his creepy and off-kilter pen-and-ink-drawings, for a book publication. The twelve pieces included in the book address the inherent unsavouriness of the shopping mall Santa, the fear of returning unwanted goods, and the unsettling reality of elves. It’s a neat little package of weirdness with Updike’s prose working really well with Gorey’s characteristic illustrations. My favourite piece is ‘O Tannenbaum’, which simply offers a description of a Christmas tree – and its ‘many-limbed paralysis’ – but it’s a description that might make you rethink your decoration choices next year.
Well… it wouldn’t be the Hannah’s Bookshelf Christmas Special without a bit of Golden Age detective fiction, would it? I’m not sure why this next book hasn’t been on one of my previous lists, but I’m very happy to be putting that right now. Christie’s novel sees her little Belgian detective called in to investigate the mysterious death of Simeon Lee, an unlikable millionaire who has made his money from African diamond mines (side note: does Agatha Christie have any likable characters who have made their money from diamond mines?). Simeon Lee had called his family together at Christmas – more from mischievous malice than seasonal cheer. His sons Harry, George, Alfred and David were there with their wives. Two other guests were also present: Stephen Farr (the son of Lee’s business partner in South Africa) and Pilar Estravados (Lee’s orphaned granddaughter). After dinner on Christmas Eve, Lee retired to his room – only to be gruesomely murdered in a locked room!
Hercule Poirot’s Christmas isn’t always considered one of the best Poirot novels. But I love it – and not just because it’s festive. It plays a game with the readers that is very characteristic of Agatha Christie. It’s perhaps not the most devious game she’ll ever play, but it’s up there. If you – like me – are planning to read a load of Golden Age detective fiction over Christmas, this one should definitely be on your list.
Something a little bit different now… Holiday on Ice is a collection of essays and stories – some previously published elsewhere, some written for the collection – giving Sedaris’s darkly humorous take on the season. The best know of the pieces is probably ‘The SantaLand Diaries’, which recounts Sedaris’s experiences working as an elf at Macy’s department store. Perhaps my favourite, though, is ‘Season’s Greetings to our Friends and Family!!!’, a round-robin Christmas letter from the Dunbar family, which details Mrs Dunbar’s attempts (and failure) to cope with the bad things that have happened to her family in the manically cheery tone expected of a holiday letter. The other stories in the collection are ‘Dinah, the Christmas Whore’, ‘Front Row Center with Thaddeus Bristol’, ‘Based on a True Story’ and ‘Christmas Means Giving’. On the whole, reviewers have tended to decide that the first three (previously published) essays are stronger than the new pieces, but there really is quite a variety in the book so readers may disagree with this critical view.
Holidays on Ice was republished in 2008 with six additional stories: ‘Us and Them’, ‘Jesus Shaves’, ‘Let It Snow’, ‘Six to Eight Black Men’, ‘The Monster Mash’, and ‘Cow and Turkey’.
I ended the show with something rather sombre – sorry for killing the festive mood. ‘Christmas Day in the Workhouse’ is a dramatic monologue in ballad form written by George Robert Sims. Sims was a campaigning journalist interested in social reform, and he was also a satirist and playwright. ‘Christmas Day in the Workhouse’ was perhaps his most popular work. It’s unashamedly melodramatic, and it got some criticism from supporters of the workhouse system (mostly because they claimed its comment on ‘out relief’ was inaccurate. It has also been much parodied over the years. I decided that, rather than talk about this monologue, the best way for listeners to experience it would be if I performed it in full. If you missed my dramatic rendition of this Christmas tale, then you’ll have to give the show a listen on the player below!
To hear my performance of ‘Christmas Day in the Workhouse’, and to find out more about all of these books and about my reasons for choosing them, you can listen to the Hannah’s Bookshelf Christmas Special here: