Books

Twelve Books for Christmas: Book Twelve: The Clockwork Crow, Catherine Fisher

As many readers will know, I work at Hatchards Bookshop as The Shop Scribe. In December I revert to my original position in the shop and go back to being a children’s bookseller. This is a delightful time of year in the shop and I have the pleasure of ensuring that as many children as possible wake up on Christmas morning with the books I like (Emma Chichester Clark, Bears Don’t Read, Quentin Blake, Cockatoos, Anna James, Tilly & the Bookwanderers and Philip Pullman, His Dark Materials trilogy, since you asked). The Clockwork Crow was in a pile of books to put away and I realised I hadn’t seen it before. Nothing particularly surprising in that as I’m only in the shop one day a week for most of the year but I was captivated by the jacket – yes, of course I judge a book by its cover.

The story opens on a deserted railway station, with a layer of frost covering everything and a distinctly Victorian feel. A solitary girl waits for a train. I was captivated. The train is meant to be taking her to a wonderful new life in Wales with her godfather Captain James, his wife Lady Mair and their son Tomas, far away from the (slightly predictable) orphanage. The story continues and she is given a mysterious parcel and arrives at the house to find that all is not well. As I read, much seemed reminiscent of other books – the atmosphere in the house was straight from The Secret Garden, the Clockwork Crow was so like the Phoenix from The Phoenix and the Carpet that they could have been cousins, the housekeeper belonged in The Wolves of Willoughby Chase and even the parcel and the railway station had echoes of The Box of Delights. That said, this is a very good story, and none of the similarities really annoyed me; perhaps there are only seven plots and everything else has to be recycled. There was a perfect balance of magic, mystery and adventure and, if you liked E. Nesbit’s Phoenix or Wizard Howl from Diana Wynne Jones’ Howl’s Moving Castle, you’ll love the Crow. I leave you with this delightful image as Seren, our heroine, creeps through the house at night: ‘Snow-glimmer lit ceilings and odd corners with a reflected whiteness; the clocks seemed to tick louder and the eyes in the portraits on the walls watched them pass beneath. She felt as if the books and the furniture and the mirrors were all alive and interested’. And just in case you are wondering, it earns its place on this list because the action takes place on the night of Christmas Eve.

Jane

As always we would like you to buy this book. Also, as always, we would like you to buy it from your local bookshop. Without your support it might not survive.

Twelve Books for Christmas: Book Eleven: The Unknown Unknown, Mark Forsyth

Today’s book was originally going to be The Chimes by Charles Dickens. Then, reading more of his Christmas stories, I thought about A Christmas Dinner or A Christmas Tree as they aren’t so well known.  But perhaps one can have too much Dickens. Lauren St John’s The Snow Angel was the next possibility, as it has a recommendation by Katherine Rundell and includes Scottish mountains and a ‘sparkling fox’, but I’d like to read it at a civilised pace and this post goes up tomorrow morning. I had started A Light in the Dark, a Winter Journal but it was too much Horatio Clare and not enough winter. Noel Streatfeild’s Christmas Stories looked enticing, well the jacket did, but again, I want to read them slowly. They were originally written for magazines and radio and this is the first time they have appeared in book form. Then a friend told me she had been to see A Box of Delights at Wilton’s Music Hall. She’d never read the original book by John Masefield, so I waxed lyrical about how good the story was and how it was the perfect book to read at Christmas. Unfortunately once I started it (for probably the umpteenth time) I remembered just how good it is and that meant I wanted to read it properly rather than just skim through to remind myself of the basics. So still no book.

In Hatchards we have little books displayed in front of every till. They are balanced precariously on plastic stands and get knocked off several times each day but we choose the ones we like and they are usually interesting and a bit quirky – things the potential customer might not have seen before and, ideally, will be tempted by. As I walked briskly through Fiction, in search of something entirely different, I nearly sent this little book flying. Automatically straightening its stand with one hand, barely breaking my stride, my attention was caught: interesting title, even more interesting subtitle, small (only 23 pages, so truly pocket-sized) and attractive. I scooped a copy up and carried on my way. 

The Unknown Unknown of the title refers to a book that you didn’t know you wanted until you chanced upon it in a bookshop. Exactly what happened to me. This was published in 2014 so for four years it has been a book I didn’t know I wanted. This chance discovery can only happen in a real bookshop; the internet either produces exactly what we want or something so different as to be totally useless. ‘If you like that……’ or ‘Other customers also bought………’ usually appear but these are not the same as discovering something for yourself (and they are usually way off the mark anyway). Twenty-three pages in praise of bookshops and chance discoveries; what more could one want?

Jane

As always we would like you to buy this book. Also, as always, we would like you to buy it from your local bookshop. Without your support it might not survive.

Twelve Books for Christmas: Book Ten: The Best of Times, Michael Morpurgo, illustrated by Emma Chichester Clark

This charming little picture book opens with an idyllic scene: a castle upon a hill, lush green fields, delicate butterflies and, of course, a Prince and Princess, deeply in love. But then a sorrow descended on the Princess. All the Christmas presents money could buy failed cheer her and even when spring arrived she remained as sad as ever. The following Christmas the Prince carried her down to the Great Hall where everyone was assembled in an attempt to make her smile. Help comes from a group of puppeteers and a goose. This is an unusual Christmas story but it has the necessary seasonal happy ending with Michael Morpurgo’s words and Emma Chichester Clark’s illustrations matching perfectly.

Jane

As always we would like you to buy this book. 

Also, as always we would like you to buy it from your local bookshop

Without your support it might not survive.  

Twelve Books for Christmas: Book Nine: The Christmas Diaries, Nigel Slater

I would be the first to admit that I have too many books. Also I probably have too many unread books, not books I don’t want to read but ones which I am intending to read ‘very soon’. The problem is that ‘very soon’ can stretch to years, with some books remaining in situ long enough to be dusted. Last year Nigel Slater wrote The Christmas Chronicles. I was very excited as I love his writing as much as his recipes. It was arranged by date, starting in early November and going through to Candlemas on 2nd February. It immediately appealed to me as I use Candlemas to mark the end of the Christmas season too – January can be a grim month and a few fairy lights make it a little brighter. In the days when I lived in a small and cluttered flat, my tiny tree often remained up until then too, becoming a temporary winter ornament.

His selection of dates meant the book covered just over three months. Surely I would manage to read daily entries for such a short period? The book has sat on my kitchen table for just over a year, the bookmark sticking out accusingly on the entry for 7th November. This year I moved it to a more inconvenient place on the table and resolved to read it. I have, and it is wonderful – why did I wait a whole year?

Nigel Slater loves winter, relishing its arrival in the same way that many people welcome summer. I now like all seasons. When I was young I loved winter: Christmas and snow (yes, I’m old enough to remember reasonably reliable snow at roughly the correct time) and summer – the long (and always sunny) freedom of the summer holidays. Spring and autumn largely passed me by apart from jumping clumps of daffodils on a pretend pony (sadly accompanied by my pretend dog), walking through deep layers of crisp leaves and playing conkers.  That has all changed, mainly through gardening, and I now appreciate each season for its particular joys.

When does winter start? Officially in Britain 21st December, the Winter Solstice, is the first day of winter. This I cannot agree with. For me the Winter Solstice, with its shortest day, marks the turning point towards spring and light – from then on it is (almost) downhill all the way to light spring mornings and long summer evenings. In all my books I mark 1st December as the beginning of winter, not because I particularly regard November as part of autumn but because I cannot think of February as spring (working on the assumption that each season lasts three months). Nigel Slater’s winter begins on 1st November but before that the book has a delightful twenty-five pages of general wintery writing. Pictures in winter gardening books annoy me as, almost without exception, they show gardens covered in a crisp white frost or atmospherically clothed in a romantic mist, whilst the reality of most winter days is a sort of murk somewhere between the two. Nigel Slater’s winter manages to encompass all the best of winter without becoming unrealistically rosy-eyed about it. Yes, I know these photos are ridiculously romantically rosy-eyed but I have to remember that even London is, on occasion, deep and crisp and even. 

So far the recipes look delicious and most are his trademark easy preparation: a New Toad-in-the Hole involving marmalade, Crumble-Topped Mince Pies and Sweet Potato and Kale Bubble & Squeak. Lentils and Basil sounds a wonderful combination (particularly with added cream and mushrooms) but surely this is a dish for late summer or autumn? My basil plants would not allow me to take ‘a good handful of leaves’ in November, although perhaps it would be a fitting way to say farewell to the plant and eat the lot rather than trying to nurse it through to spring on a chilly windowsill.

The book also includes wintery musings: Christmas markets, the story of the Magi and a mass of fascinating information about candles, including the fact that in winter he writes by candlelight! I am enchanted; this will be my New Year’s resolution. I write everything first in fountain pen and have often thought that using a quill pen might be even better. This may be the first step towards that.  

Looking slightly ahead, to Christmas Day I see that, unlike Delia (see Book Six) Nigel recommends the following for mid-morning: ‘May I suggest that you sit down and take it all in, as I do. Collect your thoughts – there is still much to do – but also take in the scene . . . . Five minutes in which to settle your spirit.’  So far I have followed this book date-for-date, rather like a literary advent calendar. I have every intention of continuing to 2nd February.  

Jane

As always we would like you to buy this book. Also, as always, we would like you to buy it from your local bookshop. Without your support it might not survive.

Twelve Books for Christmas: Book Eight: Winter in Madrid, C. J. Sansom

This is a departure for C. J. Sansom, most of whose other books feature Dr Matthew Shardlake, a deformed and slightly vulnerable, but also charismatic and brilliant, Tudor lawyer. Here C. J. Sansom moves forward to the twentieth century, between Britain and Spain: the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War. Harry Brett, Bernie Piper and Sandy Forsyth were all at school together but thereafter their paths followed very different routes. When the book opens Bernie, who went to fight in the Spanish Civil War, is missing, presumed dead and Sandy, who had been expelled from school, is in Madrid, wealthy as the result of clearly shady dealings. Harry, recovering from the trauma of Dunkirk, is sent by the British government to investigate Sandy’s business but he is neither a spy nor particularly happy with his new posting. The three men are linked by Barbara, a former Red Cross nurse, and it is this link that forms the heart of the book. Exciting and romantic, the novel has brilliantly atmospheric descriptions of war-time Spain and characters you really care about. This is the second time I have read it and, if anything, it improves with time.   

Jane

As always we would like you to buy this book. Also, as always, we would like you to buy it from your local bookshop. Without your support it might not survive.

Twelve Books for Christmas: Book Seven: Melrose and Croc, Together at Christmas, Emma Chichester Clark

Melrose is a golden labrador who drives a delightful red vintage car and Croc is a small green crocodile who wears a red scarf. The story opens on the day before Christmas Eve with Melrose feeling lonely in his new flat and Croc arriving in town, excited at the prospect of seeing Father Christmas the next day. Things don’t go according to plan and it looks as if each will have a miserable Christmas until they crash into each other on the skating rink. Tea and the purchase of a huge tree follow and the two drive to Melrose’s now not so lonely flat, decorate the tree and have dinner. And, of course, they do see Father Christmas, flying past the window with his reindeer and sacks of presents. As later books show they lived together, happily ever after.

Jane

As always, we would like you to buy this book. Also, as always, we would like you to buy it from your local bookshop. Without your support it might not survive. 

Twelve Books for Christmas: Book Six: Delia Smith’s Christmas

This is obviously a brilliant book. The Parmesan-Baked Parsnips are the only way to cook parsnips, the Caramelised Cheese and Onion Tartlets are recommended as party nibbles for vegetarians but are far too good not to be made (in huge quantities) for everyone and the Truffle Torte is, as it says in the book, the best chocolate dessert. All that said, this book is actually included in this list because it makes me laugh. There is a chapter called The Last 36 Hours in which the reader is calmly taken though the run-up to the Main Meal. So far so good, the instructions have probably saved many Christmas Days from disaster. What makes me laugh is the entry for 8.55am: the turkey is in the oven, the bread sauce made and the frazzled cook is allowed to ‘take a break’. Everything should be under control and Delia suggests you ‘help the kids unwrap their presents, have a coffee or TIDY THE HOUSE’!!!!! Who tidies the house on Christmas Day – surely part of the fun is that every surface should be littered with wrapping paper, ribbon, chocolates, half-written thank-you letter lists and wine glasses? And one final quibble; her timings make no allowance for the Queen’s Christmas Message, unless one eats lunch very quickly.

Jane

As always we would like you to buy this book. Also, as always, we would like you to buy it from your local bookshop. Without your support it might not survive.

Twelve Books for Christmas: Book Five: Christmas in Exeter Street, Diana Hendry, illustrated by John Lawrence

The house in Exeter Street is a large, welcoming building with sash windows that appear golden from the light inside, a snow-covered roof and charming pointy red chimney pots. It is the day before Christmas Eve and the guests are just starting to arrive. Each page of this delightful picture book sees more and more people coming to the house, some expected, others a surprise, but all welcome. In the end the vicar and his wife sleep in the bath, five thin aunts sleep on the shelves of the dresser and a family whose car has broken down squash onto the (luckily wide) window sills. Father Christmas has to use his fingers and toes to count all the stockings. The small black cat, who crept in unnoticed, decides it is so lovely he’ll stay till next Christmas.

Jane

As always we would like you to buy this book. Also, as always, we would like you to buy it from your local bookshop. Without your support it might not survive.

Twelve Books for Christmas: Book Four: Roast Figs and Sugar Snow, Diana Henry

Wintery food is so much more inviting than summery fare. Admittedly summer has scones with cream and jam sitting on the lawn, ice cream on a beach and chilled white wine (that is food, isn’t it?) but I can’t, at the moment, think of much else. Winter has luscious, rich, recipes and this book contains the very best. Sadly, I’ve never been able to make my favourite recipe in this collection: Sugar-on-Snow. This is a kind of toffee which appears in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House in the Big Woods. It is very simple – all you do is heat maple syrup and butter to the required temperature, which you test by spooning the mixture onto snow. If it sets and forms a web of toffee, it’s ready. Apparently in New England they have parties with dill pickles (this I’m not sure I like the sound of), mulled apple juice and doughnuts.

The book also contains Tartiflette; the most ridiculously over-the-top concoction of potatoes, bacon, onion, Reblochon and crème fraiche, Pumpkin Tarts with spinach and gorgonzola (which taste even better heated up the next day), and the delightfully-named Peasant Girls in a Mist (softened apples layered with sugary-cinnamony breadcrumbs and topped with thick lemony cream).  Even the salads look tempting (which is high praise from me) with cured ham and potatoes, a farmer’s salad helpfully topped with fried eggs and a Friulian Winter Salad with chestnuts, pancetta, spicy Italian sausage, walnuts and pomegranate, oh, and a few leaves to justify the name. Writing this, I realise that this is one of my most-used cookery books. I just wish I could make the toffee. Perhaps this year.  

Jane

As always we would like you to buy this book. Also, as always, we would like you to buy it from your local bookshop. Without your support it might not survive.

Twelve Books for Christmas: Book Three: A Guinea Pig Christmas Carol

This is my third book connected to A Christmas Carol and the fifth in this delightful series. Previous titles include Oliver Twist, Romeo and Juliet, Pride and Prejudice and The Nativity. Opinion is divided as to whether these little books are utterly charming or indescribably naff but I was enchanted the moment I saw a small grey Mr Darcy in  top hat propose to a ginger and white Elizabeth Bennet. In later books ‘Elizabeth Bennet’ reappeared as the second shepherd and ‘Mr Darcy’ made a particularly intimidating King Herod. Each book contains an assurance that none of the animals were harmed or placed under any stress but I should imagine the reverse was true. We had a guinea pig a school and I looked after him for one holiday; he was a gregarious little creature and would have loved to have been involved in this sort of project. As it was he had to be content with the intricate obstacle courses I built for him.

In this volume Scrooge is a wonderful long-haired guinea pig called Beverlie-Anne, who looks particularly fetching in reading glasses and a nightcap. His nephew Fred is a dashing ginger and Marley’s ghost is positively scary. There is a portrait of Charles Dickens unlike any other.

Jane

As always we would like you to buy this book. Also, as always, we would like you to buy it from your local bookshop. Without your support it might not survive.