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The Oxford Book of Christmas Stories

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Paperback: 224 pages / Publisher: OUP Oxford / Reissue Edition: 1 Oct 2009

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      29.12.2012 17:18
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      Not suitable for children - or adults.

      I like books that are different. Books are an obsession with me, and we have a massive collection, so I do value a book willing to break the mold and try something new -throw in a few surprises and go against your expectations. This book certainly is different - and not at all what one would expect from the title - but it is not different in a a good way.

      I won this book as part of a collection of Christmas books from Oxford - so perhaps I am being cheeky complaining about a book I received for free. I am just very thankful that I read this book myself before sharing it with my children. It arrived very close to Christmas, so I wanted to skim through and pick out the best tales to read them on Christmas Eve. I had a Christmas anthology as a child and was hoping for something similar - something with warm happy stories to build on the excitement of the holidays. I never would have dreamed such a warm and cheery looking volume would contain so much darkness and despair. In all fairness this book does state that it for older children - but I feel this book is not suitable for children at all - and if you have read my previous reviews you'll know it takes a lot for me to label this book so harshly.

      There are a couple of mildly amusing tales, albeit of a darker nature than one would expect of Christmas collection. I actually did like the story of the evil snowman who is too cold and goes about committing armed robbery to get peoples clothes as it has a somewhat amusing ending. I also liked the story Grandfather Frost, although I am certain I have heard this before. Mt Pickwick on the Ice isn't bad - but nor is it really likely to be of great interest to many children today, and as such short snippet - you have no feel for the characters.

      These are the first three stories in the book, but after these the book takes a terrible turn for the worse, before ending with one final story which isn't too bad. Some stories are simply dull, monotonous, and boring. One is really quite odd. Some however are deeply depressing involving murder, suicide, alcoholism, child neglect, children smoking and more. I also felt there was a slight racist overtone to this volume, however it is is impossible to fully express my objections without giving some spoilers. I will do so at the bottom of this review under a clearly marked warning. If you do not wish to know how any stories end - please quite reading when you reach the spoiler alert.

      I felt the overall tone of this book was of darkness and despair. I wondered if perhaps the intention of the book was to make children see that other children have things much worse - or an attempt to make them grateful for what they have. There were some happier tales such as one of trudging through the snow singing carols, perhaps intended to give children a glimpse of what Christmas was like long ago - but I can't say that these were at all entertaining - or the type of story a child would be likely to read without being forced to do so. I found the overall quality of the writing poor. In fact I have no doubts at all that Dooyoo could produce a Christmas collection 100x better simply by entering Christmas Stories as a creative writing topic and binding the reviews together.

      This is an illustrated volume - so I do feel some mention of illustrations is in order as well. Thumbing through the pictures, it might be hard to guess is this is a Halloween collection or a Christmas collection. There are a few bright and cheery paintings - but also a number of dark and miserable ones, including one of a murder victim dressed as Santa Claus in a pool of blood.

      I would normally include my children's reactions to a child's book - but I will not subject my children to this one. I do not recommend this book to anyone, but if you must read it - read it yourself before giving it to a child. Please be aware that this has many themes parents may feel are unacceptable - and also goes on to thoroughly debunk any beliefs in Santa Claus. There is also a story of the "Brown Baby" which I wasn't to fond of - but this is not the story I based my allegations of racism on. In this tale two children talk of their resentment for the fact that their mother has married a man named Mr Kumumba - who can never be a father to them because "he is very black and we're not" and given birth to a brown baby. They are so upset over this - they will no longer call their mother Mother just as they will not call "Brown Baby" by name. It is a really awful story - but I think it is meant differently.

      **********************SPOILER ALERT**************************

      I hate spoilers in books for adults, but their are times when I feel parents should be informed of how a story ends before sharing a book with a child. This is certainly a book you would not want to pick and read to a child without being aware of the contents. The story I objected to most 'An Assault on Santa Claus', barring Mr Kukumba and the Brown Baby, and two children in school children named as being other races, this book is all about white characters. I haven't a problem with that - but I do have a problem with the fact that the only story to have a black main character has such a horrible one. The story is told in language meant to emphasise the colour of the participants with phrase like "We ain't have no chimney on this house" and " Lord Have Mercy, uh dead, uh dead". The main character is little boy who decides to get more presents than his share, laying in wait and murdering Santa Claus to get the whole bag of presents - but the dead man turns out to be his own kindly grandfather dressed up as Santa. This isn't too much of a spoiler as you can see the dead man in a pool of blood as you read the story anyway.

      I do take the spirit of the times into a story, so my objection to small children smoking in one as not as strong as others might have - but I had a problem with 'A Present for Grannie Fox' simply because their wasn't really anything to the story except the boy getting a cigar for his granny and then being overjoyed to get enough money for 5 ciggies for himself - and smoking every one.

      I can't say as I liked the vampire story at all either. there was definite air of creepiness about it as a rich couple lavish gifts on the local children and one child each year is chosen for an armful of lovely presents. But there is a catch. The poor boy is brought in side and told he must give the couples son a Christmas gift. He objects as "boys don't kiss boys", but goes along with it after all. It turns out the boy is a vampire. I object to this story on so many levels - giving kisses for piles of presents - the fact insinuation that he brought this curse on himself by kissing a boy and more. And if that weren't enough -the story is just plain stupid. He is turned into a vampire like many others, but they all continue to go to school and live normal lives - only venturing up to the cursed house once a month in order to stay alive - and he will apparently lie forever.

      I found the tale of father drinking all the Christmas money and being abusive to his wife a poor choice for Christmas as well - and the horrible realisation of a child that he was meant to care for his mother all of his life and thus have no life of his own. And then we have the child whose parents have died and has no one who wants him. There is no happy ending- it is a tale of pure misery - but he does get a small gift for Christmas from a kindly nurse before she leaves her shift.

      Other stories are just total nonsense - and really nothing to do with Christmas - such a woman who drags home one man after another each Christmas. This year she has a real hero. he might be in the SAS or if not maybe the IRA ( I'll leave this without comment as anything I say is going to be unpleasant). He cleans out the family's pantry leaving the mother in tears before disappearing into a hollow hill in a glow in which he might have been wearing chain mail. he then returns - dumps the bimbo and announces he is off to find another a woman with family near St Albans, York or Chester.

      There is also a graphic description of the pain of childbirth - which I feel makes childbirth sound so much more horrible and terrifying than it really is. It is not a story I would be comfortable at all reading to my children. This is included as a fictionalised account of the birth of Christ - and I can only guess is meant to show how much Mary suffered - but I feel no need for my sons to view childbirth as such a horrid experience - and I think it would be even worse for a girl to read. Why do we feel the need to terrify girls with horror stories of birth? Fear makes things worse, and far too many girls go into childbirth terrified.

      All I can think after reading this book is "What were they thinking"? How was this book ever published, much less republished only 3 years ago? I'm afraid if I were in charge of Oxford the editor who let this book through would be reassigned to making coffee and answering phones. I honestly can not think of a good use for this book. It wouldn't even make good loo paper.

      * Update after a few questions on the original date of these stories I have done some more research. This book was originally published in 1986, however many of the stories are copyrighted from the early 70's. I had assumed the one with a small child of perhaps 8 or 9 smoking would have been much older, but my assumption was wrong.

      I've also had a look at some of the reviews on Amazon - and this isn't the first time I've found reviews from people who obviously have not read the book. Someone really loved the poetry - and I'm not disagreeing because of a difference in taste. It just that there are not any poems at all in this book. Not one.

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