The lights are laced through the branches of the Christmas tree – the same lights that have adorned our tree for twenty Christmases past. The bulbs are old, thick; they do not sparkle so much as glow deep colors over the evergreen needles.

A plastic crown tilts on the reaching topmost branch, a token of the King. Wooden sleds dangle among wooden angels, which still keep most of their gold and white glitter. One branch bends, tugged down by a ceramic Noah’s Ark. Another lightly bears a candy cane of pipe cleaners twisted together.

High among the branches hangs a white, gold-edged cross. The only ornament that matches it is a gilded dove, halfway down and on the other side of the tree. Nothing matches Larry the Cucumber, sporting pajamas and a nightcap as he stands perkily in front of his own Christmas tree. It’s plastic, but so is he.

Yarn Christmas wreaths are scattered high and low – red and white, green and white. One Christmas wreath is thin metal, golden once and tarnished now; a long-ago year is imprinted on it. Other ornaments have that touch – etched with names or dates, marked by family and friends.

Candy canes are hooked on the branches – decoration today, candy again as soon as Christmas Day is past. Tinsel icicles are draped on the branches; even the bent strands shine with every bit of light they snatch. Two or three ornaments are paper, made in some barely recalled Sunday school.

A quilted rug wraps around the tree stand, its red and green patches saluting the season. White squares are sewn in, and rocking horses seesaw over them. They remind me of another rocking horse, a real one back in my childhood, that was made by the hands that made the quilt.

For the currency bartered for a Christmas tree like this is not money but time. Years and people go on their way, and leave things to be put on a Christmas tree.

(Christmas) Movie Review: Rise of the Guardians

Jack Frost was nimble, Jack Frost was quick; Jack Frost froze the world with his stick.

Yes, I know: It’s a mixing of disparate bits of culture and childhood lore, kind of catchy and not quite right. And in that, it’s like Rise of the Guardians.

Rise of the Guardians was released into theaters around Thanksgiving, and released onto DVD just before Easter. It is, indeed, another holiday movie, and like so many holiday movies, Santa is a character. But this is a Russian Santa. With Yetis. And the movie is not really about him anyway.

It’s about Jack Frost. Free, irresponsible, spreading fun, spreading mischief, leaving messes in his wake, always unseen; nobody believes in Jack Frost. The Guardians know he exists, but they don’t really know who he is. To be fair, he has only a poor idea himself.

I must say this about the movie: It was nice to experience a story about Jack Frost. I had never before seen Jack Frost slated any role, let alone that of hero. To me the idea was fresh, and they made him a character both charming and touching. His style is in vogue: cool, ironic, an edge of bitterness. But from the beginning there’s a palpable yearning, and a certain warmth toward the children he leads on wild snow days. Backstory often fails to live up to its own foreshadowing, but Jack’s doesn’t. It is pitch-perfect, full of emotion without angst, and it truly makes sense of what Jack is and why.

Rise of the Guardians has two great strengths. The first is their ability to unite different pieces of childhood stories and so cast a new light on all of them. To create a story with Santa Claus, the Easter bunny, the tooth fairy, and the boogeyman is to create a world large enough to contain them.

The second strength is the personalities of the Guardians and their delinquents, Pitch-Black and Jack Frost. Pitch is, essentially, an inversion of the Guardians – an interesting and softly menacing character. (A lot of the credit for this goes to the actor, who played him like velvet – soft and black.) The Guardians, though all abundantly well-meaning, are a little … wonky, somewhere between offbeat and mildly neurotic.

Despite all that it does right, Rise of the Guardians is hobbled by a sense of not being quite big enough. This comes partially from the oddly limited way in which the Guardians responded to the boogeyman. They showed no degree of strategy and – energetically but, on consideration, unjustifiably – ran around plugging up leaks where they should have been thinking how to dam the river.

The story’s conception of the Guardians, like its use of them, was sometimes limited, and this also fostered a hazy sense of smallness. Most of what the makers did with the Easter Bunny and Santa rise guardiansClaus and so forth was fun, and the way they brought these childhood legends together was coherent and interesting. But it wasn’t grand. The story had one piece of really excellent mythos; what it did with the Man on the Moon was mythical, worthy of a fairytale. The makers, however, failed to expand this piece of mythos. The movie as a whole would have been elevated if some of the generic “belief” had been replaced with the mystery and purpose of the Man on the Moon.

Rise of the Guardians missed some of its opportunities, but it is still a good movie. The animation and the acting were both superbly done, the characters were creative and endearing, the story held interest and humor and even heart. And the value of Rise of the Guardians is even greater when you remember that a good movie is hard to find.

CSFF Blog Tour: The Shock of Night

Willet Dura has survived a great deal – war, years of pursuing criminals, and (most impressively) the Darkwater Forest. It all helps to explain his uncanny interest in death, but it doesn’t quite excuse it. As the king’s reeve, he is called to investigate murders in the royal city of Bunard; sometimes he arrives at the scene of the murder before he is called. And there he does the one thing no other reeve in the city does, or has ever done: He questions the dead victim. What do you see?

Happily, there is never any answer.

The Shock of Night, written by Patrick W. Carr, is the first book of the Darkwater Saga. The novel is fantasy, and its world-building is particularly elaborate. From the treacherous world of the nobility, with all its grand constructions; to the ancient church, divided into four orders and weighted with history and tradition; to the almost superhuman “gifts” that divide mankind into classes, to the poor quarter and the urchins and the royal city itself – this is an unusually intricate world, and it’s not mere scenery. These are not only elements of the world but of the story itself.

That is to Patrick Carr’s credit, but it necessitates a slower pace and a more elaborate style than is normal in modern novels. In another aspect, however, the novel’s style is very modern: It switches off between a first-person and a third-person viewpoint, with the first-person narrator sometimes appearing in the third-person sections. I have known other modern authors to do this, and I have always regarded it as a kind of cheating – an unsportmanslike attempt to dodge the limitations all narrative styles necessarily bring. The stark combination of two different styles breaks the unity of the narrative and can create dissonance for the reader, though many readers doubtless rise above.

This novel boasts a large cast of characters, realistic and handled with a human touch. Willet Dura, the protagonist, is intriguing from the start, a genuine hero with an indefinable dark side. There is something wrong with him, but we aren’t sure what. And neither is he. Toward the end he began to verge on the unlikeable, as he passed judgment where he had no right to and condemned people without realizing they were much like himself.

Having read Carr’s previous trilogy, I can see in his newest book his continuing maturation as a writer. I regard The Shock of Night as his finest novel yet, holding onto the strengths of his earlier books and allaying the weaknesses. I did not, of course, find the novel perfect. I thought the characters showed a remarkable lack of zeal in questioning their one eyewitness to a murder they were so eager to solve.

Worse, it puzzled and eventually annoyed me to watch one character shift his loyalty from the Vigil to Dura. Admittedly, the Vigil did some things that were … difficult. But that is from the reader’s viewpoint. From the character’s viewpoint, he had watched the Vigil do such things for many years, and served them faithfully through it, and evidently approved, or at least accepted, all of it. I saw no reason why he should have suddenly taken offense, especially for Dura’s sake. I enjoyed Dura as a character in a book. But as an individual in the real world, I would not let him loose on the streets.

The fantasy concepts of The Shock of Night – the Darkwater, the Vigil, the gifts, mental “scrolls” – are fascinating and well-handled. The world of the story is complex and convincing, and the style of the book matches it. The Shock of Night is a worthy fantasy novel, and I am glad to see Patrick Carr back on the scene.


In conjunction with the CSFF Blog Tour, I received a free copy of this book from the publisher. 

CSFF Blog Tour: Bolt

Some time ago – I forget, exactly, how much, or even vaguely how much – the CSFF blog tour reviewed the entire Staff and Sword trilogy, written by Patrick W. Carr. Now Patrick Carr is back, and so are we. His new book is called The Shock of Night, and it is the beginning of the Darkwater Saga.

Question: Does “saga” mean it will have more than three books? Answer: Probably, but you never know for sure. Even though a three-book series is by definition a “trilogy”, we cannot rule out it being labeled a “saga”. Sometimes authors just want to sound cool.

There is one element of this book that I would like to bring up here, because I will probably be too busy making real points in my review to bring it up there. One character – a very tough character, a character who can kill men almost faster than the eye can follow – is named Bolt. This name did not really work for me, because it is the name of the eponymous hero of the movie Bolt, who was – as you may recall, and I certainly do – a dog who lived in a Hollywood-created delusion that he had superpowers. When I read “Bolt” on the pages of Patrick Carr’s book, quite often the voice of Mittens (a companion of the other Bolt) echoed in my head: “Bolt!” And this in a New York accent.

Let me know if you experienced the same thing, or even thought of the movie Bolt. I want to know if I’m the only person making this association.

Now for the links:

The Shock of Night on Amazon;
The Shock of Night on Goodreads;
the website of author Patrick Carr, who evidently never saw Bolt;
and finally, our intrepid reviewers:

Thomas Clayton Booher
Keanan Brand
Beckie Burnham
Carol Bruce Collett
Carol Gehringer
Victor Gentile
Rani Grant
Rebekah Gyger
Bruce Hennigan
Janeen Ippolito
Carol Keen
Rebekah Loper
Jennette Mbewe
Shannon McDermott
Meagan @ Blooming with Books
Rebecca LuElla Miller
Joan Nienhuis
Audrey Sauble
Chawna Schroeder
Jessica Thomas
Robert Treskillard
Shane Werlinger
Phyllis Wheeler
Nicole White