A Lot Like Christmas by Connie Willis is a collection of holiday themed short stories and novellas, each with a distinct fantasy or science fiction flavor. The collection is quite lengthy—it comes in at 545 pages—but because this is a collection and not a novel, many of the stories can be finished in a single sitting. While the overall theme of all the stories is, of course, Christmas, many of the stories focus in on a more granular aspect of the holiday season: Miracle is all about the tradition (and sometimes ridiculousness) of gift-giving; All About Emily mixes in artificial intelligence and the spirit of giving and self-sacrifice; and deck.halls@boughs/holly explores the future of commercialized holiday decorating. Other stories delve into holiday music and what happens when new Christmas movies are released into all-new “mega-theaters.” A Lot Like Christmas covers a lot of holiday ground and, for the most part, does not disappoint.
Willis’s writing style is fairly straightforward. Her prose is concise and informative, with nothing superfluous or, on the opposite side of the scale, inadequate or distracting. The characters are a mixed bunch when it comes to personality and motives, but all with the exception of one or two are relatable, likeable, and even endearing. Where this collection really shines is in the content of the stories themselves. Willis has a deep knowledge of Christmas, which she displays in many of the stories in the form of miniscule details or through the sheer breadth of her knowledge. For example, All Seated on the Ground is a journey through decades of holiday music, with nuanced references to particular passages that relate directly to the story. As for the science fiction angle, you’ll encounter aliens; Ghosts of Christmases Past, Present, and Yet to Come; advanced Christmas decorating technology; and even the biblical parents who risked everything for their unborn child.
While Willis’s holiday knowledge—or at least her ability to research—is impressive, there are times when the magnitude of details piled onto the reader almost becomes a burden and the stories themselves far too long. All Seated on the Ground is, again, a good example. Apart from all other stories in the collection, this one struck me as far too long with an ending which is not very satisfying. At times, it seemed Willis was extending the narrative simply to justify the amount of time she must have spent sifting through holiday verses.
One of the more enjoyable stories was Cat’s Paw, which is a mystery in the spirit of a Hercule Poirot novel. A visit to a country estate where apes and other primates have been given the ability to speak soon turns into a whodunnit murder mystery where it seems everyone in attendance has some motive. Good thing the renowned Inspector Touffet is on the guest list. Soon the game is afoot and a murderer revealed, but only after much intrigue and a series of misdirections lead everyone but Touffet down the wrong path.
If you’re looking for something beyond the traditional Dickens to read this holiday season, A Lot Like Christmas may fit the bill for you. Despite a couple of the stories feeling like duds to me, I’m giving it four rockets because there are many more stories I enjoyed than not, and even a few which stand out as holiday gems that I’d love to read each and every year.