Nothing with Strings, by Bailey White****

nothing with stringsWith Christmas around the corner, I bought this slender volume for less than five bucks. It brightened my days (and my bathroom) until I finished it.

White has a droll sense of humor, quirky, eccentric, and at times understated enough that if my mind strays to other things even slightly, I find I have missed something funny. My favorites are the title story, which is fall-down-laughing funny, and “What Would They Say in Birmingham”. Here I have to add that White’s protagonists tend to be Caucasian Southerners, and the humor she employs will most likely appeal to the typical NPR audience, which is mostly white liberal Boomers from all over the United States.

Although it’s billed as a collection of Christmas stories, the holiday influence here is minimal. It’s the sort of collection one could read at any time of year without feeling out of place. I like short story collections because they can be tucked into the guest room, where visitors can read a story or two even if they won’t be around long enough to go through the whole book, but this time I dropped it into a Christmas box I was mailing to relatives as a happy extra little surprise.

Recommended to fans of this writer, and to older white folks that like short stories.

Nora Bonesteel’s Christmas Past, by Sharyn McCrumb*****

norabonesteel I‘m a long-time fan of Sharyn McCrumb. Her ballad novels (and now a novella) are sure fire hits. This one is no exception.

We have parallel stories, and the setting is Christmas, of course. The story lines, one of Christmas present, which features Sheriff Arrowroot being ordered to drag an elderly man to jail on Christmas Eve, appears to have a dead-sure predictable ending, except that it doesn’t. That’s all I’m giving away in this case.

The more flavorful thread is Nora Bonesteel’s. The Bonesteel women have “the sight”. Those who have followed McCrumb’s novels already know that, but a reminder doesn’t hurt. Nora is asked out to solve a haunted manse issue for some new-comers. I found this part vastly amusing.

The setting, for those unfamiliar with McCrumb’s work, is in the Appalachian Mountains. It was one of her novels that taught me how to pronounce the word correctly (all soft “a”s). Her love of place comes through on the page, and as much as I love the Pacific Northwest where I have lived for most of my life, while I read this, a part of me positively yearned for the Smoky Mountains, which I only visited once as a (oh the shame) tourist. It’s a rare kind of engagement. You can say she casts a spell over the reader, if you wish.

Ah. But that leads us to the descriptor I read in Net Galley, the fine folks who connected me with her publisher so that I could read her work in advance. It is described there as a “Christian” novella. I confess it gave me pause. There are Christian novels, and there are Christian novels. Some are so heavy handed that they make terrible literature, from a critical viewpoint: we’re racing along, plot-wise, when someone announces that they should go to the Lord with their problem. A page and a half of long-winded prayer follows. Lather, rinse, repeat. I didn’t want to find myself stuck with a book like that, but a strong writer builds a bond of trust with her readers, and my sense was that McCrumb was unlikely to trash her own work in such a manner. I was correct, and the story is great. The single religious reference is central to the plot and is entirely consistent with the setting. Also, sometimes “Christian” is a sort of code to let the reader know there will be no profanity or sweaty sex scenes, and frankly, I was just as glad to be spared those.

To sum up, McCrumb is a master writer, a mystery champ, and a brilliant novelist whose work with Appalachian setting and tradition stands alone in an otherwise crowded field. Pick up a copy in November. You can enjoy it and then pass it around for family and friends to enjoy. The quirky humor and redolent, traditional setting are sure to please anyone who loves Christmas and a good read.