In 2016 some dear friends and I participated in the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge. Overall, it was a positive experience, encouraging me to read some truly fabulous books that I otherwise might have skipped. (Who'd have guessed I'd so enjoy a food memoir?) Thought you might like to see the list.
Quick take: So COZY.
(Special thanks to Laura B. for recommending it and to Glenda A. for gifting it!)
Goodreads synopsis: Miss Quinn, who cherishes her privacy, intends to spend Christmas on her own as she likes it. But before the holiday, her brother telephones to tell her that his wife has been rushed to the hospital, and would Miss Quinn come and stay with the children? Miss Quinn's unexpectedly hectic Christmas has a significant effect upon her life.
(Above you see Christmas at Fairacre, an omnibus that includes No Holly for Miss Quinn. Check this Goodreads page for reviews and links to various vendors of the individual novel. Or check here for the omnibus.)
My thoughts: My mom has always loved the novels of Miss Read (a.k.a. Dora Jessie Saint, who died in 2012 at the age of 98). I read one or two of them when I was young, but at that time I didn't have quite such a powerful craving for quiet and cozy books. Well, I do now! And amidst all the madness of late, this book certainly hit the spot.
I thoroughly empathized with Miriam Quinn's preference for quiet and solitude. At the same time, it was great fun to see her thrown in with her brother's somewhat feral brood of children. Oh, the appalling disorder! How satisfying to watch her organize them, and then how delightful to see her loosen up and enjoy various sweet moments of connection with each child. My favorite part involved the two nieces, one of whom knows "the truth" about Father Christmas and is aching to spoil her younger sister. Our Miriam deals with that in a lovely way.
No Holly for Miss Quinn is a quick read brimming with warmth and humor, and even a tiny bit of romance. Chime in if you've read it -- I'd love to hear about your favorite moments!
Related favorite things:
I particularly enjoyed the illustrations by J.S. Goodall, which gave me the same cozy feeling as those of Garth Williams (the Little House books) and Pauline Baynes (the Narnia books).
LOOK AT THIS! I have listened to this Enya CD about a million times, and I never once associated this song with Miss Read. How delightful! Do have a listen.
I tend to make the same treats every year for Christmas, so this time I tried something different: Chocolate-Cherry Snowballs from the Betty Crocker website. Click the link for the recipe, which is pretty straightforward. I will say, however, that next time I'll make the cookies smaller because they really should be bite-sized. (Otherwise, MESS.) Also, I would recommend you wait until they are quite cool before you roll them in the powdered sugar. They need time to set so as not to crumble when you roll, and they get stickier as they cool, which makes the sugar cling nicely. (I learned all this the hard way, of course!) I followed advice given in the comments and used maraschino cherries instead of candied, which worked quite well. (Where does one find candied cherries, anyway?)
The following is my first stab at an exhaustive list of December holiday-themed fiction for adults and kids. Books that I have read and recommend are indicated with an asterisk (*). I've linked each title to Goodreads so that you can see reviews and click through to your vendor of choice. (Amazon is featured most prominently, of course, but if you click "stores" you'll find other vendors.)
I know I've missed so many titles. If you don't see one of your favorites, please list the title in a comment and I'll happily add. (There must be more MG, YA, and adult fiction involving Hanukkah and Kwanzaa, yes?)
To conclude my 2016 "Spooky Films for Halloween" series, I offer suggestions appropriate for younger viewers (and those adults who aren't quite up to the intense horror options I've previously recommended). Please mention your own favorites in the comments, and I will gladly watch. Always looking for options to feature in next year's post!
ParaNorman (2012) -- rated PG A misunderstood boy takes on ghosts, zombies and grown-ups to save his town from a centuries-old curse.
A good choice for young viewers who enjoy potty humor, mild body horror (e.g. zombie arms falling off), and extended chase scenes. The tone takes a more serious turn in the climactic scenes, which are really quite stunning to watch. Watch the trailer. Rent at Amazon. Available on DVD from Netflix. Metascore: 72/100
Frankenweenie (2012) -- rated PG Young Victor conducts a science experiment to bring his beloved dog Sparky back to life, only to face unintended, sometimes monstrous, consequences.
This poignant and suspenseful homage to classic monster movies bogs down just a bit in the middle (in my opinion), but patient viewers will be rewarded when disaster and hilarity ensue! (Is it just me, or does Victor resemble Cillian Murphy?) Watch the trailer. Rent from Amazon. Available on DVD from Netflix. Metascore: 74/100
Coraline (2009) -- rated PG An adventurous girl finds another world that is a strangely idealized version of her frustrating home, but it has sinister secrets.
I loved Neil Gaiman's book, and this adaptation is eerie, odd, and totally endearing. Highly recommended! Watch the trailer. Rent from Amazon. Available on DVD from Netflix. Metascore: 80/100
Also recommended -- two ghostly mini-series from the UK:
From Time to Time (2009) -- rated PG A haunting ghost story spanning two worlds, two centuries apart. When 13 year old Tolly finds he can mysteriously travel between the two, he begins an adventure that unlocks family secrets laid buried for generations.
Julian Fellowes' adaptation of Lucy M. Boston's Chimneys of Green Knowe is more mystery than horror. I love stories involving WWII child evacuees, and the setting of this film is wonderfully Gothic. Gently paced and at times a bit twee, this story will appeal to young fans of historical fiction. Watch the trailer. Available to stream from Netflix. Rent from Amazon.
The Secret of Crickley Hall (2012) -- unrated A year after their son goes missing, a family moves to Crickley Hall. When supernatural events begin to take place, Eve feels the house is somehow connected to her lost son.
I've seen this twice now, and I liked it even better upon second viewing. Caution: It's not for little kids, but I think it might work for family viewing with kids 12-up. Great setting, strong performances, and an interesting mystery. Please keep in mind its emphasis on loss and grief, and understand that there are many scenes involving children in serious peril. Watch the trailer. Rent from Amazon.
The Witch -- Rated R A family in 1630s New England is torn apart by the forces of witchcraft, black magic and possession.
Many fans of mainstream horror have panned this specimen of "cerebral horror" for being slow and hard to follow, but I was caught in its spell. If you have a passing familiarity with early American history and/or the works of Nathaniel Hawthorne, you understand how Puritan paranoia could warp individuals and destroy entire communities. This film imagines the worst Puritan fears actually coming true for a family living in exile. Brilliantly realized, but not easy to watch. Watch the trailer. Available on Amazon (free for Prime members). Metascore: 83/100
The Boy -- Rated PG-13 An American nanny is shocked that her new English family's boy is actually a life-sized doll. After she violates a list of strict rules, disturbing events make her believe that the doll is really alive.
I loved the wacky premise of this film, and the Gothic setting was right up my alley. Lauren Cohan (The Walking Dead) and Rupert Evans (star of The Canal, featured in my last blog post) offer sympathetic performances as their characters negotiate this bizarre situation. In fact, I was quite enjoying the film...until a certain frustrating reveal. As The New York Times said, "It still has enough scary moments to satisfy horror fans, but you're left wondering whether it might have been more disturbing had it stayed on its original path." I will watch this one again. Watch the trailer. Available to rent on Amazon. Metascore: 42/100
Lights Out -- Rated PG-13 When her little brother, Martin, experiences the same events that once tested her sanity, Rebecca works to unlock the truth behind the terror, which brings her face to face with an entity that has an attachment to their mother, Sophie.
I appreciated this film conceptually--light is used in interesting ways, especially in the final showdown. I never really cared about the characters, however, which undermined the tension considerably. (Note to self: backstory is no substitute for real-time character development.) Still worth watching, but I'd wait for the rental. Watch the trailer. Available to purchase from Amazon. Metascore: 58/100.
The Conjuring 2 -- Rated R Lorraine and Ed Warren travel to north London to help a single mother raising four children alone in a house plagued by a malicious spirit.
Argh. I really loved the first Conjuring movie, particularly for its character development and thrilling paranormal investigation sequences. This "sequel" takes another real-life investigation of a haunting and casts the Warrens as saviors, even though they really only spent one day on the case. That wouldn't have mattered to me if this had been a good movie. Unfortunately, it seemed more concerned with showcasing computer-generated ghosts and ghouls. (I swear the Babadook made a couple of guest appearances--so jarring.) That said, I did enjoy most of the scenes involving the children, and young Madison Wolfe was impressive as Janet. Watch the trailer. Rent from Amazon. Metascore: 65/100
[I think you'll find a more nuanced depiction of the Enfield Poltergeist in this UK mini-series starring Timothy Spall and Matthew Macfadyen as paranormal investigators Maurice Grosse and Guy Playfair. Eleanor Worthington-Cox is excellent as Janet.]
Ginger Snaps (2000) Two death-obsessed sisters, outcasts in their suburban neighborhood, must deal with the tragic consequences when one of them is bitten by a deadly werewolf.
How did it take me so long to see this Canadian cult classic? I just LOVE lycanthropy as a metaphor for adolescence, particularly with a female focus. Excellent characterization and conflict, and the horror is tempered by humor in a way that reminds me of American Werewolf in London. This unrated film features adult content and is fairly gory, so perhaps not suited to pre-teen viewers? Watch the trailer. Available on Hulu or rent from Amazon. Metascore: 70/100
The Eclipse (2009) (Rated R) In a seaside Irish town, a widower sparks with a visiting horror novelist while he also begins to believe he is seeing ghosts.
I appreciated this film even more upon my second viewing. The Eclipse is a quiet, character-driven movie featuring a few carefully-timed jump scares that may, at first, seem incongruous. I can't adequately express how wonderful Ciarán Hinds is as the haunted widower. I can say that Aidan Quinn is perfectly awful as a self-involved author, and I mean that as a compliment--he is perfect in his awfulness. Watch the trailer. Available free to Amazon Prime members. (If you buy the DVD, you get a wonderful "Behind the Scenes" documentary.) Metascore: 67/100
Hi there! I'm the author of THE REVENANT (2011), THE DARK BETWEEN (2013), and GHOSTLIGHT (2015), all from Alfred A. Knopf. I blog a little about writing, but more often about reading, travel, TV and movies. Nothing too serious. Check the links below for more places to find me on the web, or click the banner to return to my website.