Gifts to Last and The Christmas Secret

Gifts to Last - Christmas Stories from the Maritimes and Newfoundland, selected by Walter Learning

From the blurb on the back - 

"Christmas a-glitter, Christmas on a shoestring, Christmas wrecked, Christmas salvaged, Christmas in city, village and country, in church and shopping mall and barn - they're all here, in stories by the best writers in the Maritimes and Newfoundland."

Some wonderful reading here, but not always the sweet stories and happy endings you find in many Christmas collections. These are glimpses of real life - a little gritty, sometimes sad, a bit of language here and there - but beautiful and touching in their humanity. I liked it even better this second time through.

The Christmas Secret - An Atlantic Canadian Christmas Reader, edited by Dan Soucoup

Again from the blurb on the back -

"...a wonderful collection featuring twenty tales of Atlantic Christmases of the past and present from some of the region's most beloved writers...Experience the celebrations and preparations of a lighthouse-keeping family on Bon Portage Island; the holiday humour of a Cape Breton coal mining community; the spirit of "old Christmas" in Island Cove, Newfoundland, and plenty more.

These stories are a bit more light-hearted than in the one above. Entertaining, nice reading for the holiday season.

Two Christmas Audio Books

 Lady Osbaldestone's Christmas Goose by Stephanie Laurens

A delightful audio book read by a narrator with the perfect tone and accent for the story. It's a romance of course, but the characters are interesting and there's more to the story than just the romance. 

When all the geese disappear from a farm the village relies on for their Christmas birds, Lady Osbaldestone resolves to find them. Enlisting the help of the three young grandchildren in her care while their parents recover from colds, they set out to save their Christmas dinners and do a bit of matchmaking in the process. 

Their cupid's arrows are aimed at a local Lord recently returned from battle and keeping to himself to hide his facial scarring, and a lovely young woman bearing the burden of responsibility for her younger brother and the havoc he and his school chums create.

The writing was a pleasure to read, or heard read in this case. In the hands of a good writer, the genteel language of the era and the setting of polite society is a style of which I never tire. There's something about it that lifts any story to another level. Christmas stories like this are often a little too sweet to be palatable, but this one, thankfully, wasn't. Though there were parts of the story - children being corrected, and the young brother and his friends being "taught a lesson" - that could have come across as preachy, they were handled with a light enough touch to go down easily.     

The outcome was no surprise, but the journey to it was entertaining. A light-hearted diversion in a hectic season.      

On Christmas Day by Grace S. Richmond

Another audio book, this one with two of the author's stories: On Christmas Day in the Morning and On Christmas Day in the Evening. 

The first begins with an older couple making the best of another lonely Christmas Eve without their children, all busy now with work and families of their own. A wonderful surprise awaits them the next morning when they find all have arrived to celebrate the day together and mend any differences that may have kept them apart. 

In the second book, several years have passed with the family now gathering every year for the holiday. This year they want to re-open the local church and gather a community still at odds with each other over old differences. It won't be easy, but they'll decorate the church, find a preacher, prepare some music, then wait and see what God will do.

 With conclusions a little too good to be true, perhaps, they are still uplifting stories for the season.   

Two More Christmas Stories

To Every Thing There is a Season, A Cape Breton Christmas Story by Alistair MacLeod

A short story in gift book format, beautifully illustrated by Peter Rankin. The story and drawings together create a time and place more real than would seem possible in so few pages. Narrated by an 11 year old boy in Cape Breton, it tells of a family preparing for Christmas and the return of a son who has been away for many months. The joy of his homecoming will be tempered by worry over the change he finds in his father.

This gem of a story takes only a few minutes to read, but it's wonderfully written and it captures completely that particular blend of happiness and melancholy that is Christmas. All I can say is, it's perfect. 


The First Christmas by Stephen Mitchell

This tells the Christmas story from the perspective of the different characters involved. First the Innkeeper tells of his experience, then the Ox, the Shepherds, Maryam (Mary), Yosef (Joseph), the Wise Men, and the Donkey. It concludes with a brief epilogue. 

I've read similar things but found this one more vivid in certain sections. Mary's and Joseph's stories look honestly at the difficult feelings and many doubts they must have had when Mary became pregnant, had to tell Joseph, and then face the social consequences. I found their stories moving. 

Having said that, I probably won't add it to my list of Christmas re-reads. I'm not sure I liked it, though I can't say why exactly. Something seemed off, but it could be I read it too quickly and didn't hear all it had to say.

A Blessed Christmas To You All!


Two Christmas Stories

Miracle in the Wilderness by Paul Gallico

A short Christmas story about a couple and their infant son held captive by a group of people seeking revenge for a loss. On Christmas Eve a miracle occurs, leading to forgiveness on all sides and hope for a peaceful future together. 

As a story it wasn't bad, what there was of it. A longer one with more insight into the characters might have been more memorable. I haven't seen the movie, but tells me there was one made in 1991 with Kris Kristofferson and Kim Cattrall. At an hour and a half long they must have added more to the story than what's in this little book, but sadly I've been unable to find it on any of my streaming services. 

A Redbird Christmas by Fanny Flagg

This is my second reading of A Redbird Christmas and I'm happy to say I liked it better this time, maybe because it was an audio book narrated by the author herself. Her calm voice is perfectly suited to the gentle people of the story and her soft, southern accent made me feel I was right there in the folksy (fictional) town of Lost River, Alabama.  

It isn't very Christmassy, but it is a sweet, if unlikely, story.

The Mistletoe Matchmaker

 The Mistletoe Matchmaker by Felicity Hayes-McCoy

Cassie Fitzgerald's grandparents visit her family in Canada, and Cassie goes back to Ireland with them. Meeting family members and making new friends in Finfarran, she gets involved in community work, joins a group at the library, and starts seeing a man who seems genuinely interested in her. The romance is only a small part of the plot, which mainly focuses on relationships between family and friends. There are enough of them that I needed a list to sort them out, but once I figured out who belonged to who it was easier to keep them straight.

The audio book was narrated by an Irish woman whose lovely lilting accent was positively addictive. She made the characters identifiable by the tone she used for each of them but unfortunately the voice she gave the Canadian girl just sounded weird to this Canadian. The 'r' sound was quite comical and the overall effect was unlike any accent I've ever heard, in Canada or anywhere. The reading of the female character's lines made them sometimes sound a bit silly, an impression I probably wouldn't have gotten from the written book. It made Cassie hard to relate to - or even like - but those musical Irish accents and a fairly good story kept me listening to the end. Still, I wish I'd read it instead of listening.

The story isn't terribly Christmasy and the title is questionable, but the characters come across as authentic for the most part and the plot is more complex than would have I expected. Though part of a series, I found it stood on its own quite well. It was good light reading. Or listening - I'm never sure it's ok to call it reading. 

When you've listened to a book, do you consider yourself to have read it? 

Loch Down Abbey

 Loch Down Abbey by Beth Cowan-Erskine

Listening to the audio version, narrated by Eilidh Beaton, got me through this one. I wasn't drawn into the story for the first hour or so, but her voice and accent were so appealing that I wanted to keep listening, and before long found myself more interested. 

Set in 1930s Scotland in the massive Abbey of Loch Down, it's the story of a wealthy family whose financial future becomes precarious when the head of the household dies. His death leads to a police investigation, and that leads to the uncovering of some uncomfortable family secrets. I think the mystery around his death was meant to be the main story line, but the more memorable story turned out to be the family's financial problems and how to solve them. 

It reminded me of Downtown Abbey in many ways, only this family is far less likeable. Most of them have never done a moment's work in their lives or considered anyone's needs but their own. The supercilious attitudes will have you both laughing and longing to slap faces. You'll like the housekeeper though; she's much like Mrs. Hughes, and the Bulter somewhat like Carson. 

I can't say it was a very good story, but it was mildly entertaining. I enjoyed the setting but I'm not a fan of the wrap-it-all-up-in-a-convenient-package ending. It seemed almost too neat, and rather unlikely. All that said, if you enjoy a mystery - I think it could be called a 'cozy mystery' but that description makes me cringe - set in a fabulous house with a haughty family and sensible staff, you'll probably like Loch Down Abbey.

Breakfast in Burgundy

 Breakfast in Burgundy by Raymond Blake

In this travel memoir, Blake, from Ireland, buys a house in the Burgundy region of France. He writes about the frustrations of getting renovations done, the beauty of the area, the people he meets and the meals they share. In the vein of Peter Mayle's Provence books, but for me not quite as entertaining.

The stories about fixing up his house are great, as are the descriptions of French food and countryside, but a great deal of the book is about wine. The depth of detail he goes into about vineyards and vintages would probably appeal more to someone with a lot more knowledge than I have. 

He's a terrific writer and parts of the book were fun to read, but the sub-title "A Hungry Irishman in the Belly of France" had me hoping for something lighter. It got bogged down in wine talk and lost me about half way through.