Boxing day reads: Festive chick lit reading, round robin letters and the Moomins

 

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The Independent Culture

Katie Fforde's short-story collection A Christmas Feast (Arrow, £6.99) makes for easy-going festive chick-lit reading. Four frothy tales of romance sandwiched between some rather flimsy super-short tidbits clearly supposed to whet and then sate your appetite (as the title suggests, the book is structured around the various courses of a Christmas feast, from "champagne and canapés" to "coffee and chocolate truffles"). I can't say I was at all impressed by Fforde's picture-perfect, and ultimately rather sexist world, where the woman always gets her man, who's inevitably older, wiser and more successful than she is, but as a Sunday Times bestselling author she must be doing something right.

The cynicism and mockery of Simon Hoggart's The Round Robin Letters (Atlantic, £9.99) was more up my street. Hoggart's collection of unwanted annual round-robin letters initially made it from his Guardian column (readers sent theirs into him, hence all quoted are genuine) to the first two volumes (The Cat that Could Open the Fridge and The Hamster that Loved Puccini) and now they've been published together in one bumper edition. Anyone who's ever received one of these pointless missives will get the joke, and the late Hoggart did a good sideline in snide put-downs as he picks out the gems for us. From boasting about one's children's musical accomplishments, colonoscopies to casual affairs, DIY disasters to nightmare holidays, the "new set of knives" a family is saving up for, to a particularly memorable "chronic bottleneck at the junction of the M5/M6", no detail is too insignificant or off limits. If I hadn't suffered a handful of these sleep/laughter-inducing epistles in my time, I'd have sworn I was reading a parody.

Another aptly seasonal offering is P L Travers' Aunt Sass Christmas Stories (Virago, £9.99): three short stories originally written by the Mary Poppins author to be given as Christmas gifts to her friends – "Aunt Sass", "Ah Wong", and "Johnny Delaney". They weave elements of autobiography (they're set in Australia, where Travers herself spent her childhood) and fiction (elements of Aunt Sass, "stern and tender, secret and proud, anonymous and loving," can, as Travers confesses at the end of the tale, be found in the pages of Mary Poppins). Although definitely now a little dated, it's a beautiful and charming little stocking filler of a volume; perfect for any Mary Poppins fans out there.

Not particularly festive, but nevertheless another perfect stocking filler, is Jill Sinclair's The Art of Being Ill (Freight Books, £9.99). The book is sensibly prefaced with a disclaimer that it's not intended for "someone critically ill or in need of urgent medical attention," but it has been authorised by a practising GP and thus the information therein, while lighthearted, is also "pragmatic and sound": from advice on how best to treat minor illnesses and ailments, how to prepare for a day on crutches (a bumbag comes highly recommended), convalescence etiquette ("Don't show your visitors anything that has come out of your body, from any orifice"), to a whole section 'In Praise of Vinegar (really, the uses are surprisingly endless).

Tuula Karjalainen's biography Tove Jansson: Work and Love (Particular Books, £20, trans. by David McDuff) would make a wonderful Christmas present for any Moomin fans out there. It's a beautiful book, densely packed with high-quality photos and illustrations, and provides fascinating context for the work of an artist/writer loved the world over for her timeless children's classics. Books, we learn, that were conceived against a backdrop of war, from the Finnish civil war Jannson grew up in the shadow of, to the rise of Nazism – the anti-Nazi pacifist drew her first Moomin while staying in Germany in 1934.

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