I’ll be back after Christmas with a whole host of posts: My Books of the Year, Disappointments, Great Finds and the Annual Stats I have so much fun with.  I shall leave you for now with a Christmas quotation, guaranteed to get you in the mood…



Eight of us set out that night. There was Sixpence the Tanner, who had never sung in his life (he just worked his mouth in church); the brothers Horace and Boney, who were always fighting everybody and always getting the worst of it; Clergy Green, the preaching maniac; Walt the bully, and my two brothers. As we went down the lane the other boys, from other villages, were already about the hills, bawling ‘Kingwenslush’, and shouting through keyholes ‘Knock on the knocker! Ring the Bell! Give us a penny for singing so well!’ They weren’t an approved charity, as we were, the Choir; but competition was in the air.

jam jar lantern


From the chapter Winter and Summer in Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee (1959).

The boys light their way home, after their carol-singing trek through deep snow, with candles in jam jars.




Christmas at Shiny New Books

If you’re a regular visitor here, it can’t have escaped your notice that the link in my sidebar to Shiny New Books recently sprouted a holly sprig!

hollyYes, I’m delighted to direct you to head over there to experience our Shiny New Books Issue 3 Inbetweeny. Over thirty new reviews and articles to give you reading (and gift) inspiration in the run up to Christmas and into the New Year. We’ll be back with Issue 4 in late January.  There are no prizes, but do have a go at the Shiny Advent Quiz – test your knowledge of Christmas in literature.  Hope you enjoy it.

Catching up … plus more stocking fillers

It’s been so busy this past week and weekend, I didn’t have time to post or read much.

  • I’ve been preparing new pages for the Shiny New Books Christmas Inbetweenie issue – there are some goodies! (Coming to you on Thursday December 4th – click on the picture in the sidebar to sign up for the newsletter).
  • Mary BerryOn Saturday, I was helping out at my daughter’s school Christmas fair where they had managed to get Mary Berry to come for the morning to sign books! I didn’t get to talk to her at all – As fast as I could unpack boxes of Mary’s books they sold! I did manage to send my daughter up with my copy of her autobiography to get signed. She must have signed steadily for about three hours – and then she went off to be a special guest in the audience on Strictly (Wasn’t BM’s ‘duet’ with Satchmo excruciating on the results show!).
  • Then it’s the school where I work’s turn this weekend – and with the boys’ stalls tending to have moving parts to win huge amounts of Haribos – the boy version of Whack-a-mole is always popular for instance! – there’s a lot of Health & Safety to double-check (part of my role).
  • We’re also at the start of party season, and I had my first pre-Christmas outing last Friday – Yay! A school staff social – we all went to a big pub in the middle of nowhere (relatively – the nearest habitation must be at least ten minutes walk), and had a great Thai meal! This Oxfordshire pub has a Thai chef and it was only £15. Strangely, on the corner of the lane up to the pub was a lonely kebab van – again in the middle of nowhere. After the meal on our way back (not even late), there was a crowd of people hanging out there … we didn’t stop.

However, I have managed to find some more bookish stocking fillers for you…

kurieshiFirst is A Theft: My Con Man – a little pocket-sized essay from Hanif Kureishi which recounts the true story of how Kureishi was robbed of his life savings by a con man accountant. He uses his own experience to comment on the value of money and his opinions of the financial world.

It’s £4.99 – so not cheap for 48 pages, but I couldn’t resist – it’s fascinating stuff and new out last week. Buy at Amazon UK.

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lotteryPublished back in June, Penguin Modern Classics brought out an edition of one of Shirley Jackson’s most iconic and terrifying short stories – The Lottery – as a pamphlet. If you can find it, it’s £0.99 but with P&P added it becomes rather over-priced for 16 pages. It would fit in with a Christmas card though…

Instead, you might prefer to give an anthology with other Shirley Jackson stories in as well – try this one, again from Penguin Modern Classics: The Lottery and Other Stories by Shirley Jackson – buy at Amazon UK.

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Listellany is a little hardback that has grown out of John Rentoul’s column in the Independent newspaper in which he compiles top tens based on suggestions and contributions from his readers and twitter.

The lists, which cover such topics as ‘Upbeat songs that tell a sad story’ (cue Girlfriend in a Coma by The Smiths and many more), the most beautiful railway journeys in the UK, and words which used to mean their opposites, are pure opinion – but great for post-postprandial debate – Just start with the list of the Worst Beatles songs and go from there!

I got sent a copy of this book by the publisher, but being a trivia fan have enjoyed flicking through it.

Pub October 2014 by Elliot and Thompson. Hardback 128 pages. Listellany: A Miscellany of Very British Top Tens, from Politics to Pop – Buy on Amazon UK

Short but not so sweet – The Galley Beggar Ghosts

I know it’s not quite December, but I am busy Christmas shopping – and between review posts for the next couple of weeks, I shall be recommending some books and bookish things that make ideal Christmas presents and stocking fillers. We’ll start with some stocking fillers…


Galley Beggar Ghosts

galley-beggar-ghosts-mulitpackThose lovely people at Galley Beggar Press in Norwich sent me one of their little series of single short stories all about ghosts, as a thank you for using their on-line shop earlier this year.

The four pocket-sized little paperbacks are beautifully produced with stiff card covers. They cost £3.50 each – available on-line or in good bookshops.  On-line, you can also buy the fourpack for £12. (+P&P)

There are four to choose from:
The Eyes by Edith Wharton
Honeysuckle Cottage by P.G.Wodehouse
The Body Snatcher by Robert Louis Stevenson
Lost Journey by A.L.Barker

I got sent Lost Journey by A.L.Barker – an English novelist who was new to me, but apparently her novel John Brown’s Body was short-listed for the Booker prize in 1970; she died in 2002. She wrote many short story collections from the late 1940s through to the end of the twentieth century.

Having polished off and much enjoyed this creepy little number in bed this morning, I’d be very keen to read some more of her, especially after seeing this quote by Rebecca West:

“I am a fanatical admirer of A. L. Barker. If you cannot read her it is your fault. You should ask your vet to put you down if you do not admire The Middling or An Occasion for Embarrassment.”

Lost journey is about a young (one assumes) man who takes pity on a voluptuous young woman pushing a cart up the hill in which sits a legless (no legs, not drunk) old woman. Gerda claims to the cousin of Robert Dudley, lover of Elizabeth I, and she wants to die. With the help of Lalla and the narrator, the cruel old crone might be able to enact her plan…

GBP_Packaging_STICKERS_DU_LOSTGEN-500x345For more literary stocking fillers, see their sets of postcards – there are several designs to pick from and they come neatly packaged in a wallet. £3.50 per set of 6 (+P&P).

The postcards are what I bought loads of for my blog’s 6th birthday giveaway.


Although I received a free book from them, I have no connection with Galley Beggar Press other than previously having been a satisfied customer!


What the new Hoffmann addict read on Christmas Day …

The Nutcracker & The Strange Child by E.T.A. Hoffmann, translated by Anthea Bell


My mum was a huge ballet fan, and it was a much-anticipated Christmas treat to be taken to London to the ballet to see The Nutcracker, preferably at the Royal Opera House for a grander experience and better tree (see below). It was my favourite of the Christmas ballets; although I got to see bigger ballet stars in Cinderella or The Sleeping Beauty in other years, I loved The Nutcracker the best.

I had two favourite bits – The Russian Dance in Act II for the music and dancing, but for the real WOW! moment – it’s got to be when everyone’s gone to bed except Clara and Drosselmeier, and the Christmas tree grows.

See this clip from the 2008 production at the ROH – That’s how to do the tree properly!

I was thinking of this as I read the original story of The Nutcracker this Christmas, another classic fairy tale by German Romantic author ETA Hoffmann, whom I discovered a couple of weeks ago for the first time when I read The Sandman, (reviewed here).  Needless to say the ballet is based upon a dumbed-down version written for children by Alexandre Dumas (père), and Hoffmann’s original is much darker.

It is a family Christmas, and Fritz and Marie (Clara in the ballet) are enjoying the presents brought by their Godfather Drosselmeier who makes automata and clockwork toys.

Legal Councillor Drosselmeier ws not a handsome man; he was small and thin, with a wrinkled face, and he had a big black patch over his right eye. He was bald, so he wore a very fine white wig made of glass, a most ingenious piece of work. Councillor Drosselmeier was a very ingenious man himself. He knew all about clocks, and could even make them. So if one of the fine clocks in the Stahmbaums’ house went wrong, and its chimes failed to ring out, Godfather Drosselmeier came to call, took off his glass wig, removed his yellow coat, tied a blue apron around his waist and poked at the insides of the clockwork with various pointed instruments. …

When Councillor Drosselmeier came visiting he always had something pretty for the children in his bag, sometimes a little manikin that could roll its eyes and bow – that was a comical sight – sometimes a box with a little bird that hopped out of it, sometimes another toy. But at Christmas he had always made them something that was particularly elaborate and had meant a great deal of work for him, and once he had given it to the children their parents put it away and took care of it.

Tiring of the toys, Drosselmeier produces a nutcracker in the shape of a man who cracks nuts with his teeth. It is not a pretty toy, but Marie is drawn to it – Fritz grabs it and breaks it, and Marie nurses the toy.  Fritz had been taunting Marie earlier about mice in the skirting boards, and when she falls asleep the toys come to life and the toy soldiers fight the Mouse King who has seven heads. Her Godfather Drosselmeier appears as an evil owl on the mice’s side. Overwhelmed, the Nutcracker seems doomed so Marie throws her shoe at the Mouse King saving him.

She awakes to find it all a dream – or was it?  Godfather Drosselmeier tells the children the story of Princess Pirlipat and the hardest nut to crack, which explains why nutcrackers are ugly. Marie loves the Nutcracker doll, and at night the Mouse King returns and together they defeat him and the Nutcracker is revealed to be an enchanted Prince. He takes Marie to the Kingdom of Toys where all the lands are named after candies and they are betrothed in due course.

Hoffmann obviously had an interest about mechanical toys and automata – indeed the brief notes at the end of the volume confirm this . Toys coming to life have long been the stuff of nightmares (especially in films like Magic and the ones with that Chucky doll in). I liked that the toys in The Nutcracker’s case were on the side of good as in Toy Story, and the evil monsters came from the ‘real’ world. It was perfect Christmas reading.

This edition from Pushkin Press paired The Nutcracker with a lesser known tale from Hoffmann – The Strange Child. This is the tale of two children who live in the country and have a wonderful life running wild in the woods. One day their rich relatives come to visit from the city, bringing gifts of toys. and tell their parents that they will send a schoolmaster for the children.  Meanwhile, the children abandon their new toys in the woods, preferring natural pursuits, when they meet a strange child who becomes their new playmate.  When their new evil tutor arrives, the children are banned from the woods, confining them to the stuffy schoolroom and the tutor scares them stiff, buzzing around them like a fly. I won’t say how it ends, except that it’s suitably Gothic and moralistic.

I adored the Nutcracker, and enjoyed the much darker Strange Child too, my reading enhanced by the lovely quality of the Pushkin Press edition.  I’m going to get some more tales of Hoffmann, and revisit some of his contemporaries, notably the Brothers Grimm, too to compare the style.

So another Hit from Hoffmann! (9/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Nutcracker The Strange Child (Pushkin Collection) by ETA Hoffmann, Pushkin Press 2010 translated by Anthea Bell, 206 pages.

A seasonal quotation …

Christmas Holiday

With a journey before him, Charley Mason’s mother was anxious that he should make a good breakfast, but he was too excited to eat. It was Christmas Eve and he was going to Paris.

This morning, I found this book in one of my bookcases (yes, I was ‘playing’ with my books again), but couldn’t resist sharing the festive quote of the opening lines with you. Somehow, I feel that that Charley will find the dark underbelly of the City of Light in Maugham’s 1939 novel. I hope to read on and find out.

Meanwhile, let me wish you all A VERY MERRY CHRISTMAS!

Moviewatch – Arthur Christmas

“So what would you like to see?”, I asked my daughter. “What’s on?”, she replied.
I reeled off the list at the multiplex fully expecting her to pick ‘Alvin & the Chipmunks 3’, but secretly hoping that the one I really wanted to see might be acceptable. (My choice was Martin Scorsese’s ‘Hugo’ – which sounds as good as the book, which I reviewed here.)

She didn’t pick either of those, plumping for the latest creation from the wonderful Aardman stable – Arthur Christmas. A great compromise …

How can Father Christmas deliver everyone’s presents in one night?
What happens if you don’t have a chimney?

These are just two of the questions that every child asks and this fun film shows how it can be done.  The Christmas dynasty has been delivering the presents for hundreds of years.  The current Santa is getting old, and his oldest son Steve masterminds the operation, running things with ultra high-tech military precision from a huge control centre built under the North Pole. There’s no more need for a traditional sleigh, fairy dust and reindeer, instead the S1 spaceship (sled-shaped but straight out of Star Trek) warps around the world, with crack SWAT-like teams of elves delivering the majority of the the presents, leaving Santa as a figurehead who just makes a few symbolic deliveries.

It all goes like clockwork, until one child gets missed – Gasp! Horror!  Steve is unconcerned – his stats are wonderful. But for his younger brother Arthur, who is gawky and clumsy, and works in the letters department, this is unacceptable.  He vows to deliver the present, and together with Grandsanta and a stowaway elf called Bryony, they set out on Grandsanta’s mothballed sleigh for the character-building adventure of a … night-time to save the day.

It was a lovely film. It totally reinforced all the messages about Father Christmas, and that Christmas is for children, that technology isn’t everything and there’s a place for tradition.

It did get lost slightly (literally) in the middle, when Grandsanta took them to Africa with his old maps, but found its way again with ease, only for a silly UFO side-plot to get in the way during the last reel. These are minor quibbles though.

There were tons of in-jokes and references for grown-ups as you’d expect from Aardman, and the British cast of voices was top-notch.  The chameleon voiced James McAvoy was Arthur, Hugh Lawrie was a great Steve, the ever-wonderful Bill Nighy was a brilliant and crotchety Grandsanta, and then there’s Jim Broadbent – well I couldn’t pick anyone better to play Santa.

The whole looked great and the 3D had some good moments, and you left the cinema with a smile.  An ideal family Christmas movie. (7.5/10)

Book Bloggers Holiday Swap!

I’d honestly forgotten that I signed up again for the bookblogger’s holiday swap this year, and the e-mail telling me about my swapee got submerged in pages of junk, (I can assure my swappee that their gift from me is now on its way, but I can’t quite guarantee it’ll get there before Christmas – sorry!).

It was thus a big surprise when a parcel arrived from Italy a couple of days ago, containing a lovely Christmas gift from Scribacchina – which I understand is Italian for pen-pusher. Scribacchina prefers to keep her public life as a translator separate from her blogging one.   Grazie mille. Scribacchina.

What did I receive?  Well the items in the parcel can be found in the foreground of this picture …

I received a hardback of Umberto Eco’s latest ‘The Prague Cemetery‘ chosen from my wishlist as an Italian author, and a Christmassy book-bag, which will come in very handy for visiting with prezzies this Noel.  Thank you once more, Scribacchina.

 Buon Natale e un Felice Anno Nuovo

Hope you like my festive fireplace with the Advent candle burning. At the moment we can’t have the fire on (although it would have been nice the past couple of days), as the Lego advent calendar is in the way – this is rather fab. You get a pack of bits every day behind the windows and they build up a snowy scene – with Christmas tree, Eskimo fishing, snowball catapult and a winter cops and robbers caper!  It’s not instead of a ‘traditional’ sweetie one though!

Ho! Ho! Ho!

Just in case the jokes in your crackers are awful, here’s some more …

Q: What is an ig?
A: An Eskimo house without a loo

Q: What’s orange and smells of carrots?
A: Rabbit sick

Q: What’s yellow and stupid?
A: Thick custard

Q: What do you call a girl with a shrimp on her head?
A: Barbie!

Q: What do you call a donkey with only 3 legs?
A: A wonky donkey

Q: What do you call a donkey with only 3 legs and 1 eye?
A: A winky wonky donkey.

Enough! … Ed