Skip to content

David Pearce Music Reviews

A Christmas No. 1 Review

One of my bugbears when it comes to Christmas movies is not the movies themselves, but the reviews that they get from professional and non-professional reviewers alike. It seems quite acceptable to sneer at them and point out their faults, real and imagined, as a way to denigrate not just the movie itself, but the whole genre. The same thing happens with Christmas music, where people tend to demonstrate their ‘superior’ taste by parading their dislike of ‘Christmas songs’ as if they are all of equally low musical merit. This isn’t to say I give anything with a Christmas theme a free pass, far from it. However, I am open to the possibility that it will be very good.

In that sense, given that it is a film about Christmas that revolves around Christmas music, it was probably predictable that the new Sky Movies production, A Christmas No. 1, was not going to get many good reviews, but I hope that after you have read my review you will give it a chance. You may not like it, but hopefully that will not be purely down to the fact that it is a Christmas film. 

The Plot

Iwan Rheon plays Blake Cutter, the bassist in a thrash metal band called Scurve. He is also a songwriter whose work is not entirely appreciated by his bandmates. Although he enjoys playing, he and the band seem to be pulling in different directions with the drummer as a kind of uneasy peacemaker – very Abbey Road in a film packed with ‘guess the band/singer’ moments! His niece Nina, played by the amazing Helena Zengel, is a vlogger whose two passions are Christmas and her favourite boyband 5 Together! She is in hospital receiving treatment for cancer and Blake visits her whenever he can. They have a kind of brother/sister relationship full of knockabout humour and often Nina seems to be the more focused and sensible of the two. She asks him to write a song for her. He initially gives her a grindcore howl of anger that does not hit the right note. She tells Blake that she wants a Christmas song, a genre that Blake is extremely cynical about. Nevertheless, he puts his mind to the task and comes up with a song that she films for her vlog. Enter Meghna Rai, played by Freida Pinto who has been ordered, by her ogre of a boss Grainger Cocksmith (played with, perhaps, cathartic zeal by an unrecognisable Alfie Boe) to find a surefire Christmas Number 1 for failing boyband 5 Together. She sees the video, hears the sound of that Christmas Number 1 and decides to ensure that she gets hold of the track by underhand means. Blake is horrified and makes her promise that all the profits will go to cancer charities and that he will be the producer. As the track nears completion the two grow closer, much to Nina’s delight, until the record company reneges on its promise to donate all profits to charity. Can anything be rescued from the situation with Blake seemingly unable to trust her again?

The Cast

Iwan Rheon uses his singing and acting background to excellent effect as Blake Cutter. He is every inch the frustrated pop star looking at a career that never seemed to deliver what it promised. When he is singing or playing you just know that he is having a blast and he has a really good voice on songs ranging from the plaintively gorgeous Christmas Morning to the existential scream of Godkiller written for his band Scurve as a reaction to Nina’s condition. What the two songs have in common is an outpouring of love and fear as he faces the illness that scares him more than it seems to scare Nina. Rheon absolutely inhabits both songs, and a rendition of Christmas Morning near the end of the film is just a beautiful, emotional piece of vocal work. As a romantic lead he is pleasingly off kilter and cynical, but he shows Blake’s tenderness very well indeed and works very well in his pairing with Freida Pinto. His connection with Helena Zengler’s Nina is almost telepathic and the way he combines love, anger, fear and a determination to do everything he can for her, gives the film its emotional core.

Freida Pinto as Meghna Rai has a much less sympathetic character to play. She is cynical, opportunistic, selfish and career focused at the expense of everything and everyone else. She will do anything to get what she wants, including exploiting a sick child, something that Blake calls her out on. We learn that she had a bad experience with a former lover who she used to manage and who she broke up with after finding out that he was sleeping with her best friend. To make matters worse, she became the subject of his next album in its entirety! Although she has been successful, she knows that her job is completely dependent on ensuring that 5 Together remain a success. For all the reasons above, she is determined not to get into any kind of relationship with Blake.

The thread that holds the whole film together is 13 year old Nina Cutter. It is a simply amazing performance by young German actress Helena Zengler. She is the emotional core of the film, with her condition a central preoccupation of the people around her. We know that things are quite bleak, but we hardly ever feel sorry for her because she never feels sorry for herself. Nina is opinionated, passionate and determined to fill the unforgiving minute with 60 seconds worth of distance run. She catches the eye of one of her fellow patients, Harold, played sensitively by Marcos Byrne, who has more in common with Blake musically, but finds his efforts derivative!    

She knows everything there is to know about the theory of writing a great Christmas single and she is only wrong on one thing in my view – the highpoint of the Christmas single was in the 80s not the 70s! 

Alfie Boe, who I didn’t recognise even after seeing his name on the end credits, makes Grainger Cocksmith a completely reprehensible, irredeemable human being! He provides a number of comic moments that perhaps have certain impresarios looking uncomfortably away from the screen. I would just love to know which moguls form the basis for the character, but I would guess it’s a composite of personality traits and incidents from the music industry. Either way, it is clear that he, and the writers, are having a whale of a time skewering certain people who have annoyed them in the past!

Finally I really must give a shout out to the various singers and musicians who fill out the roles in the two main groups so well. Henry Perryment does a great job as Ryan, lead singer of Scurve. He comes across as egotistical, as all frontmen need to be, but when Blake calls on him for help he is right there. It’s a pitch perfect performance in both senses of the word, as Scurve’s version of Christmas Morning shows off his excellent singing. Georgia Small, as lead guitarist Kandy Caine gives a really good performance as the apparently unbothered musician whose insouciance keeps people at arms length, but who gives Blake the support he needs. Finally, peacemaker and drummer Mark played with perhaps a nod to Derek Smalls by Claude Pelletier is a lovely character and clearly holds the band together in the face of the egos around him.

Boyband 5 Together genuinely seem like a real boyband from the first scene – or at least the popular perception of a boyband. Their vacuous but well produced pop borrows its songs and image from Take That, East 17 and Blue, but thanks to the five actors their pretensions and rivalries ring true throughout.  

The music

Any film based on the music industry lives or dies on its soundtrack and this soundtrack is fantastic. Songs written by Guy Chambers are always pretty much on the money, but especially so here. Spanning a huge range of genres, every song is equally effective as a pastiche and as a genuine song. In that sense, it is the best pop movie soundtrack since Music and Lyrics. Iwan Rheon shows his musical chops by having co-writing credits on the gorgeous Christmas Morning which appears on the soundtrack in three versions. It really is an incredibly affecting song, most of all in the version sung by Rheon himself. The boyband songs are of course spot on, and I have a shrewd suspicion that Chambers may have taken some of his knowledge of Robbie Williams’ time in Take That to inspire the music! It’s definitely a soundtrack that will be gracing future Christmases in our house.

Overall

As with any Christmas movie, you have to suspend disbelief and accept that all the elements have an internal logic to them. Director Chris Cottam handles three separate strands with skill to ensure that the film succeeds as a coherent whole. The way he frames Nina through her vlog gives her a unique voice and makes her effectively the narrator of the film. At no point did I feel that the different strands collided with each other and that helped enormously. If you like Christmas films you should enjoy this. If you like music industry satire you should enjoy this. If you like rom coms you should enjoy this, although in many ways this particular aspect is a minor subtext rather than a major strand. Sit down, relax and let this warm seasonal film slip down like the best hot chocolate.

5 Classical and Traditional Christmas Albums 

Now I like a Christmas Pop Song as much as the next person. Oh, all right, full disclosure, I am absolutely hooked on Christmas Pop Songs and play them endlessly from the beginning of December! If I like songs as much as the next person, that person is Noddy Holder after his latest royalty cheque! That said, I also love more traditional Christmas albums that act as a useful palette cleanser when you want it after a diet of Slade, Shaky, Wham and The Wombles. This blog will introduce you to some albums you may not have considered or even heard of, and they can all be tracked down on Amazon, EBay or Discogs if I have whetted your appetite for any of them.

A Classic Christmas – Various Artists

In the early 90s, EMI hit upon a winning formula with the release of 3 highly successful classical music compilations called ‘Classic Experience’. In 1991, they released A Classic Christmas showcasing carols and classical pieces. It is an absolute joy from beginning to end with 20 very well chosen and well played festive favourites. I would like to particularly recommend three of the tracks. Troika will be instantly recognisable as the music from Greg Lake’s I Believe in Father Christmas, but stripped of the words, the real beauty of the tune shines through in this version from the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Sleigh Ride is instantly recognisable and takes you on a magical, invigorating journey thanks to a brilliant performance by the Halle Orchestra who sound as if they are having a whale of a time! The recording of The First Noel comes from the gorgeous A Carol Symphony by Victor Hely Hutchinson, which is well worth tracking down in its entirety. Those of you who know the BBC series Box of Delights will certainly recognise this one.  

Christmas with Canterbury Cathedral Girls’ Choir

This is quite simply marvellous. Choirs of all kinds release Christmas albums because they guarantee decent sales. However, most of them sound pretty similar after a while. The Canterbury Cathedral Girls’ Choir is striking from first note to last. First of all, the sound of their voices is clearly different to that of a boys’ choir and this instantly gives it a different feel. Second, the arrangements by Julian Reynolds breathe new life into old favourites through clever use of the girls’ gorgeous harmonies. Three tracks stand out for me. O Holy Night is a Christmas staple and has been voted as the UK’s favourite Christmas carol for the last few years, but there is a real beauty to this arrangement that reclaims it from the divas of this world and reminds you that this is a song for church not TV talent shows and pop albums. The Carol of the Bells is joyous and infectious. I defy you to listen to this without your heart being lifted by the incredible arrangement and the dizzying pace of the singing. Finally, I would recommend the version of White Christmas on this album, a secular song given a devotional air in a clever arrangement that freshens up this most familiar Christmas classic. They are always the first choir I turn to at Christmas and the amazing voices of these incredibly talented girls never fails to bring joy to the house.

A Charlie Brown Christmas – Vince Guaraldi Trio

A Charlie Brown Christmas is one of the most beloved Christmas Specials in the history of US TV. It may not be quite as familiar to UK viewers, but I would say a fair few Brits will have seen it over the years. The jazz soundtrack performed by the Vince Guaraldi Trio is a masterpiece that was named by the US Library of Congress as being of ‘cultural, historical or aesthetic significance’. It certainly deserves to be preserved with the other important albums in the collection as it has been the first introduction to Jazz for generations of young Americans in the same way as Looney Tunes and Tom and Jerry introduced generations of children to classical music. It is one of those albums that you can put on in the background to great soothing effect, but it definitely rewards concentration as you really start to appreciate what an incredible soundtrack it is. The soft drums and the stripped back piano give a softness and warmth to the tracks that make you feel warm inside and the remixed version of the album from 2012, when it was chosen by the Library of Congress makes the richness of the musicianship clear. This is a soundtrack that could have been dashed off, because it was ‘just’ for children, but infinite care has been taken with every note. My three favourite tracks on this album are Linus and Lucy, Christmas Time is Here and Christmas is Coming which are as warm and comforting as a cup of hot chocolate. A truly gorgeous listening experience throughout.

Dream a Dream – Charlotte Church

Dream a Dream was Charlotte Church’s third album, released in 2000 when she was 14 years old. Her talent was already widely recognised by this point and the album sold over a million copies in the US in the first month of release. You can hear a hint in this album of her maturing voice and her ability to find something different in the most familiar of songs. A great example of this is Winter Wonderland. It has a lightness of touch and an excellent arrangement, but what really sets it apart is the childlike effervescence in Church’s singing that gives the song that real sense of wonder that adult versions somehow lack. Her take on Gabriel’s Message is one of unusual sensitivity and beauty that really communicates a sense of the divine nature of the words. Finally, I can only say that her version of O Holy Night is just spectacular with a power, beauty and control beyond most adult singers let alone a girl of 14. Charlotte Church had a voice that was natural and suited to virtually any kind of music. I thought her Tissues and Issues album that marked her pop phase was an absolutely superb album. Indeed it was one of my favourite albums of the 2000s, but it suffered from the pigeonholing that she experienced of only being a classical artist. Take a listen to it and you will see exactly what I mean.

Australia’s Christmas Spirit – The Australian Girls Choir and The National Boys Choir

In 1998, Qantas produced an advert that became a classic of its kind and a firm Australian favourite. Children from two choirs were filmed around the world at various landmarks singing the dei facto anthem, I Still Call Australia Home. I happened to be in Australia that year and I fell in love with that track, so when Qantas released Australia’s Christmas Spirit with that as the final track I simply had to get the album. As with the Canterbury Cathedral Girls’ Choir, the presence of the female voices gives the album a quality that others don’t have, and here the boys and girls voices blend perfectly. There are three tracks that epitomise the quality of the album. First, an absolutely beautiful arrangement of O Come All Ye Faithful which swaps the bombast of most versions for a subtlety that allows the words to take centre stage. Then Good King Wenceslas, which gives a real pathos to the plight of the poor man and makes the King’s generosity more effective. Finally, a rousing version of Jingle Bells that just explodes with joy, breathing new life into a song I don’t particularly like in any other recorded version.

So, there you have it. Five albums that you can listen to when the constant soundtrack of more modern songs leave you feeling somewhat jaded. It has never happened to me, but I understand it is a possibility! Happy listening.

Back in the land of the hearing!!

Well, it took 8 months, but I finally got my hearing back thanks to 2 attempts at ear syringing and a long overdue hearing test. 

On a superficial level, just being able to listen to my CDs was great, but once more being able to pick up on the subtle nuances of the music was even better. It really reminded me what I’d been missing even though music on the computer with headphones allowed me to continue reviewing. I am working my way through the CD backlog I’ve built up and once I have done that I will set about rediscovering some old favourites.

On a deeper level though, my hearing loss has changed my view of life in many ways. I suppose I had just accepted diminished hearing as a part of getting old, and in a way it crept up on me. The volume on the TV going up by a couple of notches, asking people to say things again more often, not being able to hear conversations in crowded rooms and having to guess what people were saying to me based on context. All of these things were irritating but nothing I couldn’t deal with. Then, when my ‘good ear’ was completely blocked, I was reminded that there was so much I took for granted previously. 

I can hear Albus purring once again, a lovely calming sound. I can hear birds in the garden, bringing me closer to nature whether I am out in the open or in the conservatory. I can hear people through their masks once again, although that is still a little hit and miss. 

The isolation of deafness led me to retreat within myself and restricted interactions with other people to an extent that actually quite shocked me. Without the assistance of headphones and Zoom calls, work would have been virtually impossible, as I found out when I returned to the centre last month. 

Deafness caused me to become angrier when things didn’t go right, more miserable when I couldn’t do things I wanted to and more frustrated with life in general. All of my negative emotions were heightened in ways that made everything more confrontational in my head. I found myself with a much shorter temper and more liable to give up on anything that required concentration, another thing in short supply. 

I now have some insight into what is important to me, outside of family of course. It is my ability to communicate both internally and externally. I think to an extent that I had stopped listening to myself. It has forced me to re-evaluate what I need in terms of my day to day life and it is this that has led me to return to learning. I am reading and taking notes about Popular Culture from John Storey’s excellent book as I start to put into motion my long held intention to do a PhD which I always promised my Dad I would do. Yes, it may be a couple of years or more before I am ready to study full time, for obvious financial reasons, but I now know what area and what subject I want to study. It is huge progress and it is progress I would not have made if the deafness had not concentrated my mind so clearly.

Hearing is a gift which I lost and a gift that I can, and probably will, lose again in the future. While I have this gift I will use it to its fullest. Yes, there will be times when I take it for granted again, but I now know that my time is precious and I need to use that time wisely.

Wish me luck!!

David

Books for Christmas Part 2

In this post we go straight into the Christmas season in a big way! We start off with a fantastic story to share with your younger children that you and they will love reading, then a book for older children that became something of a Christmas tradition in our house. Next we have two romantic comedies that are irresistible, and finally the greatest Christmas book ever written. 

Frog and Toad All Year by Arnold Lobel

Frog and Toad are two amphibian best friends whose lovely adventures are always a delight to read for parents and children alike. In Frog and Toad All Year there are four stories, one for each season, and a fifth called Christmas Eve. The final story is perfect for any night of December, but reading it on Christmas Eve is a perfect prelude to bedtime on the night before Father Christmas arrives. It is a meditation on friendship as the very excitable Frog realises that Toad is late for their Christmas Eve dinner and starts to imagine all sorts of horrible things that may have happened! The whole Frog and Toad collection is quite simply a delight, but this is extra special. It is a reading book that 6 – 8 year olds may be able to read for themselves but one that they can be introduced to far earlier at bedtime.

Merry Christmas Sleepover Club by Sue Mongredien

The Sleepover Club is a series of books about five girls from Cuddington near Leicester who form the club of the title and whose adventures eventually filled over 50 books and served as the inspiration for two series on Australian Television. This book, the only Christmas themed book, is a treat for older and younger children alike. It is based around the school panto that the girls get involved in and has a couple of subplots that revolve around a parent of one of the girls dating again, and the mystery of who is stealing food from donations to the homeless. It is tightly written, entertaining, very funny and even a little sad in places as the five girls get into their usual scrapes. The set piece finale is heartwarming and satisfying as is the resolution of the subplots. It is a perfect book for the middle of December when you don’t really want to read another story about the big day itself. As an introduction to Rosie, Frankie, Kenny, Lyndz and Fliss it is pretty much perfect and the Christmas theme made it my personal favourite. The only word of warning is that if my daughters and my goddaughter are anything to go by you will be scouring the internet and charity shops to fill in the gaps in their collection until you have bought all 54! By the way, the author of this book may be better known to some of you as Lucy Diamond, writer of female centred stories like The Beach Cafe.

Christmas Shopaholic by Sophie Kinsella

It was perhaps inevitable that Becky Bloomwood would have a Christmas book written about her as Christmas is the season where many of us become Shopaholics ourselves! This is one of my favourite books of the entire series with a mixture of drama and some absolutely brilliant comic situations that render this book completely unsuitable for trains! Anyone who has read any of the Shopaholic books will know what to expect as Becky’s spending habits lead her closer and closer to disaster and her family and friends are left alternately picking up the pieces and shaking their heads. My favourite idea from the book is Sprygge which really could catch on! As befits a Christmas book it is a warm hug of a story that eases you into the festive season and warms you like a glass of mulled wine.

Miracle on Regent Street by Ali Harris

This is one of my favourite festive books, one that I’ve read 4 or 5 times over the years. Evie Taylor is a lowly stockroom girl in a store called Hardy’s which has seen better days and is on the verge of a possible takeover. She loves the store as it was the venue for her parents’ whirlwind romance and yearly visits as a young child and has ambitions to be a designer. However, she seems fated to remain unnoticed in a place where hardly any of her colleagues even know her name. That all changes as the store comes under threat and Evie decides she is the only person who can do anything about it. She also has a budding romance with a successful American businessman who doesn’t know her name or what she does, but whose attention gives Evie a glimpse of who she could be. She starts to dress herself and the store in order to get noticed, but is it too late for either of them? This book is consistently funny and consistently engaging as the two plots intertwine at various points, but there are some more reflective moments that make it a wholly satisfying read. 

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

What can I say about one of the most famous and most marvellous books ever written? Well, I have said a lot about it as the writer of an article for h2g2 and I have looked at the background, both historical and literary, thanks to books like The Annotated Christmas Carol with copious notes from Michael Patrick Hearn. It is truly amazing to reflect on the impact it has had over the years since its first appearance in 1843 both culturally and in terms of the very essence of the season itself. It is quite simply one book I will not go through December without reading in one of the five versions I own. If all you know of the story has been filtered through one of its many adaptations then read the original and marvel at the humour, anger, love and passion for humanity itself and the Christmas season in particular.

So there you have it. Part 2 of my Books for Christmas and a selection for all ages. If you do take up any of my suggestions please let me know below, and if you like my blog post please let other people know. Merry Christmas to all of you.

Five Lesser Known Christmas Films and Shows

In this blog post I will introduce you to five of my favourite Christmas films that perhaps have slipped under your radar for one reason or another. All five of them have given me a full measure of Christmas enjoyment in their various ways and have stood up well to repeated viewing.

So, when does Christmas film season start? Well, that is a matter of personal choice, and I know people who will happily watch them all year round. For me, Christmas film season is any time from the beginning of November until the end of December. Whenever your Christmas viewing starts and finishes I hope you find something here to whet your appetite.

5 Alternative Christmas Crackers

Rare Exports 2010

I will start off with the film that will split people right down the middle between those who love it and those who hate it. Rare Exports is a Finnish film that deals with a very different Santa Claus myth. A horror comedy that is pitch black and cynical; it really makes a change from the romantic comedies beloved of film makers at this time of the year. The film starts with an American corporation excavating part of the Finnish wilderness, although it is unclear at first what they are there for. However, whatever it is they are looking for is clearly dangerous, and the young hero at the centre of the film, a gun toting 10-year-old, has a shrewd idea what it is. The ‘home’ of Santa Claus himself definitely go in a very different direction from other origin stories and it is a very engaging and original film if you get on the wavelength of the writer. A couple of warnings. In the UK it has a 15 certificate for violence and nudity, so it definitely isn’t a film to share with your kids, but when you have been force-fed sweetness for 12 days, it is a nice palate cleanser.

Rare Exports 2010

Black Mirror: White Christmas 2014

If you have ever seen Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror series, you will have a shrewd idea of what to expect. It stars Mad Men’s Jon Hamm and the excellent Rafe Spall, who have been together in an Arctic cabin without really talking to each other. Matt Trent (Hamm) decides to get Joe Potter (Spall) to open up to him as it is Christmas.  This is a story with three distinct parts, the first two of which feature Trent’s stories of the outside world and the third told by Potter who has finally opened up to the friendly American. The level of imagination on display, and the way that the ideas teeter on the edge of reality – more so as technology catches up with Black Mirror – is both amusing and unsettling. The payoff is a marvellous piece of storytelling and you may never look at a favourite Christmas song the same way after this! Arguably, this is the finest instalment of the series because you get the sense that Brooker may have a sneaking regard for the Christmas season.

Black Mirror: White Christmas 2014

The Bishop’s Wife 1947

Released the year after It’s a Wonderful Life, The Bishop’s Wife was more critically acclaimed but less successful at the box office on its original release and, in my opinion, is the better film. I know that’s controversial, but the central trio of David Niven, Cary Grant and Loretta Young are simply marvellous in their roles and in their interplay with each other. Niven is the Bishop, Henry Brougham, Grant is an angel called Dudley and Young is Julia Brougham, the Bishop’s wife of the title. The bishop prays for divine guidance and that prayer is answered by Dudley. However, the intention behind the prayer and the guidance that Dudley wishes to give the bishop may be two very different things! The prickly Henry is always second best to the urbane angel with a twinkle in his eye and a quip at the ready. Interestingly, the two parts were cast the other way round at first until the director was changed and Henry Koster decided that the opposite parts played to each actor’s strengths. For the time, the special effects are very good, and every part is cast perfectly. The daughter in the film is played by Karolyn Grimes who also played Zuzu in It’s a Wonderful Life, and the lead chorister of an inner city church is Bobby Anderson, the young George Bailey. It really is the most open-hearted of films and if you see it on a TV channel somewhere pop it on record, you won’t regret it.

A Bishop’s Wife 1947

A Christmas Carol 1971

This 25-minute cartoon, almost impossible to track down until YouTube came along is quite simply the model for presenting the story to a younger audience. I first saw it on television as a child and just adored it. This is no cute version of the story though. Richard Williams, who went on to direct Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, understood Dickens’ original novel and knew that it was the horror and the despair that made the story’s happy ending powerful, so you get a gothic version of the novel that does not downplay the darkness, both figurative and literal. Some of the work is amongst the most striking ever seen in an animation, with the scenes of Scrooge visiting a coalmining community, a lighthouse and a ship at sea staying in my head for over 30 years before I had the chance to see it again. The voice cast is stellar, with Alastair Sim reprising his role from the classic 1951 version as Scrooge with Michael Hordern playing Marley as he did in that film, 6 years before appearing as Scrooge in a BBC production (the only actor to play both roles on camera) and Michael Redgrave as the Narrator. The animation won Best Animated Short at the 1973 Oscars after being briefly released in the cinema to make it eligible. Head over to YouTube to see this amazing piece of work and hope that someone will eventually give it the proper DVD release it so richly deserves.

A Christmas Carol 1971

A Christmas Carol 2000

Anyone from the UK reading this will know Ross Kemp as Grant Mitchell in Eastenders or as the presenter of documentaries from the most dangerous parts of the world. Ross Kemp as Scrooge may be very hard to believe and some people may indeed wonder whether I have taken leave of my senses! However, he is excellent in the role of loan shark Eddie Scrooge in modern London, dialling down the violence and dialling up the menace and coldness very effectively. With excellent supporting turns from comedy legends Warren Mitchell as Eddie’s Dad and Liz Smith as Joyce, the mixture of understated humour and effective chills really brings this close to the feel of the original novel. Most of the updates of the story do not work, but this does, so keep an eye out for it.

A Christmas Carol 2000

I hope you’ve enjoyed delving into the more unfamiliar areas of Christmas viewing and that at least one of my suggestions hits the spot. In my next blog I will look at some Christmas music that won’t drive you crazy before November 30!

Books for Christmas Part 1

Lead up to the festive season

OK, full disclosure. I am a Christmas addict and I don’t care who knows it! I have huge numbers of Music, Films and Books to see me through November and December – although the music always waits until December 1! During the next few weeks I will introduce you to my favourites from each area and also introduce you to some of the many articles I have written about the most wonderful time of the year.

In this first section I will introduce you to 5 books which, although related to December and the Christmas Season, can be read in November without ruining your festive appetite!

My 5 Books for the Lead up to Christmas

We will go clockwise from bottom right so we start with

A Merry Little Christmas by Julia Williams

This is actually the second book in a three book series featuring the idyllic village of Hope Christmas. The first in the trio was Last Christmas and the follow up to this book is Coming Home for Christmas. I picked this book up at my local charity shop because I was amused by the idea of a Christmas book featuring Cat Tinsall, Pippa Holliday and Marianne North! It seemed like a Hallmark movie in book form and, yes, I even love those! However, you know the old saying you can’t judge a book by its cover? Well that is definitely true for this book.

In fact, this is a book that tells the stories of these three central characters, their families, their friends and the villagers of Hope Christmas throughout the course of a year, finishing with Christmas Day itself. All three characters have real challenges as they navigate the problems of life with teenagers, young children, exes and aged parents. I expected to laugh, which I did, but I never expected to find myself with tears in my eyes. I think that the familiarity of the situations makes the sad parts even more hard hitting. This is not a Hallmark movie, but neither is it an EastEnders style misery fest. It is perfectly balanced as it navigates the tricky line between the two. As soon as I was halfway through I ordered Book 3 off of the internet and I will be doing the same with Book 1 in the near future. It is a warm, comforting book with a real sweetness – the reading equivalent of a cup of Hot Chocolate!

Silent Night by Stanley Weintraub

This is an exhaustively researched and brilliantly told history of the Christmas Truce of 1914. The event has gained near mythical status and has been the subject of a brilliant song by The Farm, the video for a Paul McCartney chart topper and, less happily, a Christmas advert by Sainsbury’s. However, as with so many events, the truth is far stranger and more interesting than the fiction.

Weintraub skillfully blends together official records, newspaper accounts and, most effectively, the letters from the soldiers themselves. It paints the picture of an entirely spontaneous resurgence of human nature when they find a common experience of worship and celebration. The British soldiers and the German soldiers find out that the people they have been trained to hate and to kill are actually very similar to themselves. They are not butchers, they are fellow human beings who have been plunged into hell by politicians, not for the first or the last time. It is a superb book that will make you consider your own humanity.

Murder in Midwinter Edited by Cecily Gayford

I have been a huge fan of Cecily Gayford’s crime short stories since reading my first Christmas themed set a few years back. Each book contains 10 short stories, mainly from the golden age of crime fiction. In this one we have stories featuring Campion, Lord Peter Wimsey, Sherlock Holmes and Horace Rumpole in a set of well chosen stories that are sometimes humorous, sometimes chilling but always entertaining.

You may not find every story to your taste, but I guarantee you that you will find more hits than misses as you settle back and let some of the greatest characters in crime fiction wash over you. This is pretty much the perfect bedtime book as you can easily devour one story a night without being concerned about a sleepless interlude. The stories may occasionally be scary, but they are never horrific. Just perfect for a winter evening!

A Week in December by Sebastian Faulks

Quite simply, A Week in December is one of the finest state of the nation novels of the last 20 years. Although it was written in 2009, the stories of seven disparate characters, whose lives intertwine at various points, is just marvellous in highlighting issues that seem to become more relevant and timely as each year passes.

The characters are, a hedge fund manager, a book reviewer, a solicitor, a student being led down a dangerous path, a schoolboy with a fascination for drugs, reality TV and fantasy football, a professional footballer and a tube train driver. What sets this novel apart for me is the superb combination of humour, polemic, humanity, anger and a fascination with what drives us all. I have read this book every year since 2010 and I never tire of it. It is quite simply a masterpiece. The interesting aspect of A Week in December is the fact that Christmas is not mentioned once! This alone makes it quite unusual and gives the book a year round quality.

The Gift by Cecelia Ahern

This will no doubt be the most familiar of the five books for most of you reading this, but it is one that seems to have been somewhat sidelined at Christmas. Like A Week in December, Christmas is not its focus, although it is mentioned. It also shares a love for the human condition with Sebastian Faulks’ book, but where Faulks deals with reality, Ahern deals with fantasy.

The Gift features a very unsympathetic protagonist, the selfish, amoral and uncaring Lou Suffern. We learn very early on that he is a very successful executive who has fallen out of love with his entire family, who he sees as an obstacle to him earning even more money. At the beginning of the story he acts out of character by buying a homeless man called Gabe (or Gabriel?!) a cup of coffee. Gabe somehow worms his way into Lou’s head and becomes a kind of conscience, but most intriguingly he offers Lou the chance to be in two places at once! The Gift is a brilliant lead in to Christmas because it speaks directly to the reader about what really matters in life. Just let the story take you away, park any cynicism and simply enjoy it on its own terms.

Well, there you have it. 5 books for the lead up to Christmas. I hope I have inspired you to pick up at least one of them. Do you have a favourite book for November? If so, let me know in the comments below. I’ll see you for more Christmas themed entertainment next time!