Barb’s guide to surviving Christmahannukwanzadan Solstice….You’re welcome
#6: The Office Party. (here)
#5: Waiting in lines. (here)
#4: Visiting Santa.
I have no idea how they tell that the holiday gift-buying season has officially arrived in the UK. In the States, it comes in two clearly defined steps. Step One is the lead-up, which starts in July and consists of everyone bitching piously about how stores now seem to take down the bathing suits and swim toys and start decorating for Christmas and it’s not like when they were kids and the Holidays Meant Something. Step One finishes with Thanksgiving Day, the signal for American men to validate their testosterone by blanketing their entire house and yard with blinking lights and any decoration that lights up and (preferably) moves. (The one who uses the most electricity wins.)
That ushers in Step Two: Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade, in which Santa arrives in every single Mall in America to terrorize small children. Parents—who would normally call the police if a paunchy, oddly-dressed old guy with a beard picked up their children and started offering them candy and presents—urge their kids to suck it up and smile at the Camera Elf, who already suckered them out of a $19.95 photo commemorating this special moment. Yes, it’s the official harbinger of the season: the traditional heartwarming picture of children screaming in panic on Santa’s lap.
I remember the first time I attempted this yuletide assault. My daughter was almost a year old, and she had finally agreed to sit on Santa’s knee so she could get a closer look at the fluffy little balls of pompoms and jingle bells dangling invitingly from the end of his hat. She got a firm grip and began to pull.
One of Santa’s camera-toting Elfs started to scream. “She’s pulling Santa’s little balls off!” Santa had to go feed his reindeer immediately.
But Santa certainly got his revenge many times over. There was the turtle superhero accessory, “The Wacky Action Toilet Taxi” which boasted the detachable bowl blaster, toilet paper mud flaps, a (sanitized) sewer toilet seat, an emergency flush switch, and a siren that could wake people who’d been dead a week. Although the Taxi’s life was brief (thanks to a stealth mercy-killing by my husband armed with needle-nose pliers), it was by no means the worst toy “Santa” and his helpers [cough-grandparents-cough] inflicted.
There were dolls whose main functions seemed to be to convince their little owners to become serial baby killers. For example (and I’m NOT making this up) we were gifted with Baby Uh-Oh, whose PR said something like “Give baby a drink and uh-oh! After you feed her, she wets her diaper and a diaper rash appears!” Or poor little failure-to-thrive Baby Shivers—”Your love will keep her warm!”. Or Baby Tiny Tears—”She cries real tears when you squeeze her little hand.”
Then there was the Doll from Hell, a chilling reminder of the danger of letting microchip technology fall into the wrong hands. She screamed in a voice so obnoxious that nearby alley cats were phoning in nuisance reports. The screeching could only be stopped by stuffing her pacifier down her throat, an educational touch designed to prepare the doll’s owners for future roles as parents or perhaps porn stars.
Each of these toys from some demonic version of Christmas Hell arrived because Santa, the sadistic redcoat bastard, nodded and smiled and assured my children that they would be on their way. Personally, I think he had it in for me ever since that time I let my son ride the merry-go-round before we went to visit Santa, and he threw up the moment he was lifted onto Santa’s furry red knee. Who knew Santa was a grudge holder?
But Santa did redeem himself. For all the nightmare toys he dropped off at our house, he also brought peace offerings in the form of children’s books, both those read aloud and those they read themselves as time went on. Favorite lines from some of them entered our everyday lives and became part of our family language. One that had great staying power was “Beats me, Claude.”
I was visiting my daughter following the birth of UMAG (Universe’s Most Adorable Grandbaby), and I noticed that her wifi network was named “Beats Me Claude“. I asked my daughters what they remembered about the books, and they recited together,
‘Any reason why you can’t make a regular bubbly, spicy, oozy apple pie like other folks?’ Claude asked.
Shirley shrugged. ‘Beats me, Claude,’ she said.
I put that phrase into Amazon for a search. And there they were, the covers for the utterly charming series written by Joan Lowery Nixon and perfectly illustrated by Tracey Campbell Pearson—the perfect Christmas gift for the UMAG.
So there you have it. Taking your kids to visit Santa is one of the worst parts about Christmas, unless he buys forgiveness with books.
One new book that I can’t recommend enough is the recent western, Marta’s Ride, the latest Christmas present from Gordon Rottman. It will take you far away from the holiday stresses, and your reward will be nonstop excitement, gritty humor, and a visit with one of the most compelling heroines ever.
[NOTE FROM BARB: Please come back over the next few days for the other reasons that the holiday season sucks. Ho Ho.]
BLURB: Marta’s Ride by Gordon L. Rottman
A USA TODAY and Amazon bestseller, author Gordon L. Rottman has finally given fans of The Hardest Ride and Ride Harder their beloved heroine Marta’s own tale, and in a way, her own voice.
The brutal 1886 winter on the Texas-Mexico border is a terrible time for a mute sixteen-year-old Mexican girl and her familia, who roam the trails and towns of the frontier, searching for work and struggling to survive. When her parents and siblings are murdered before her eyes, Marta is faced with a stark reality. Completely alone in the harsh Texas backlands, she realizes her own time in this world will be short, lonely, and possibly end in blood.
Marta has not lived and thrived in her hardscrabble life thus far to give up without a fight. And the arrival of an out of work cowboy from whom she grudgingly accepts help and protection gives her a sliver of hope. Besides she reasons, Güero—Blondie—as she’s named him, would be lost without her care, guidance, and decent meals. Despite the chasm between Mexicans and Anglos in this harsh age, the loner cowpoke and mute Mexican girl tentatively build a fragile trust.
Finding work on a welcoming ranch, the couple bonds, and their future appears brighter. But a raid by vicious bandits takes Marta, another Mexican girl, and the rancher’s two daughters on a journey into hell. Marta tells us a harrowing tale of terror and anguish as the women struggle to stay alive and hang on to their sanity. Her faith in Güero coming to their rescue rises and diminishes day-to-day as their circumstances change. In the end, there is a great deal more to Marta than we ever realized.
My Review: 5 stars out of 5 for Marta’s Ride by Gordon L. Rottman
In my review of Ride Harder, the sequel to the first book in this series, I started with a confession: I don’t usually like westerns. I didn’t like the Louis L’Amour paperbacks my father hid under his engineering journals. I didn’t like the beautiful edition of The Virginian that my grandmother gave me for my ninth birthday. I couldn’t see what my mother liked about John Wayne, Gunsmoke, or Bonanza. I sniggered at Spaghetti Westerns (except the ones with Clint Eastwood, because… Clint Eastwood).
But I absolutely loved The Hardest Ride, the first book in this series. It was firmly in the Wild West Show part of the genre, and author Gordon Rottman systematically checked off just about every trope and expectation and then proceeded to play straight with readers even as he subverted almost every trope. Cowboys, horses, guns, bank robbers, trains—all are in these books. And none are quite what I was expecting.
The Hardest Ride is a gritty, non-PC coming of age story for protagonist Bud Eugen. But the character who captures most readers as well as Bud’s heart (even as he realizes he’ll always be a step behind her) is Marta, the mute sixteen-year-old Mexican girl he reluctantly rescues. Readers who followed Bud and the others who made the ride to rescue Marta and the three other girls kidnapped with her will remember the violent, graphic, and often darkly humorous events that shaped Bud’s transition from boy to man.
But what about Marta? What did the same events mean to her? In a Rashoman-like switch, author Gordon Rottman takes us back to the beginning to tell the story from Marta’s view. We meet her as she’s starting the worst day of her life.
The morning my familia was killed began as a very fine day.
It’s a low bar. A “very fine day” was one in which her family—nomads who lived on the roads of the Texas-Mexico border in 1886, sleeping on the ground and performing the most menial of work where they could find it—didn’t freeze, die of starvation, or get killed by bandits, indians, outlaws, or almost anyone else they met. This wasn’t to be one of those days. Marta’s job in the family is to scout ahead, coming back to warn them if anyone other than other nomad families is on the roads. So she’s too far away to do anything other than hide when she hears the horrifying sounds of her parents and small brother and sister being murdered. Unable even to bury her slaughtered family, Marta heads back to the road and its dangers.
Despite the fact that she knows her chances of survival are slim and at best might include becoming a whore, Marta isn’t willing to give up. She once convinced a rancher that she could split shingles and was able to prove herself, earning desperately-needed money for her family. Now she hopes that perhaps she could find a way to support herself again.
When Marta and Bud meet up on the road, those who’ve read The Hardest Ride know what that meeting was like from Bud’s point of view. Now we experience Marta’s version. Bud doesn’t think of himself as kind, or generous, and certainly not as a protector of mute young girls. But from the moment Marta gets him to help her mount his burro (despite the fact that both are perfectly sure she could do it on her own), we realize that Bud will never again be in charge. Marta might be the one who can’t speak, but she has very little problem communicating, unlike the diffident Bud.
Marta and Bud slowly grow closer, first working for a sympathetic hotel owner and finally at the welcoming DeWit ranch near the border. Then in a horrifying raid, Marta, her friend Inés, and the rancher’s two young daughters are kidnapped. What follows is graphic and disturbing as the girls are brutally assaulted and raped. This isn’t my father’s western, where women save their last bullet to use on themselves rather than submit to a ‘fate worse than death’. These girls have no other option, as their lives, bodies, and very sanity are under constant assault.
Through it all, the one thing that keeps Marta alive is her bedrock belief that Bud, her protector, will rescue her. As the brutal events play out, even that conviction wavers until all she has left is the conviction that her only reason for existing is to kill the leader of the bandits, El Xiuhcoatl.
If Bud’s journey is one from boy to man, Marta’s is far more elemental. She is already a woman, her time on the road with her family has seen to her early maturity. But she slowly sheds the gentle humble teachings of her family and their religion. For her survival, she reaches back to the earlier gods of the Aztecs, seeking their aid. By the end of the book, Bud’s quest to save the girl he loves has become something far simpler for Marta. It is a fight between primal forces of good and evil. She sees El Xiuhcoatl quite simply as the devil, and herself as the killer, the one to send him back to hell.
In all this, Marta becomes Bud’s protector, finally with his life in her hands. Their commitment to each other grows rapidly, but believably. I wasn’t quite so sure about Marta’s ability to compartmentalize the brutality she’s experienced, but one explosive scene near the end clearly shows that she hasn’t forgotten or somehow made peace with it.
I loved the first books in this series. But Gordon Rottman’s decision to show us the same story from Marta’s point of view—incorporating her Mexican and Indian heritage, her background, and her inimitable spirit—is nothing less than a tour de force. I think it’s the finest work so far from one of the best western writers of our time. I recommend that you read all of them, but most of all, that you give yourself the present of getting to know Marta.
**I received this book from the publisher or author to facilitate an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.**
- Book Title: Marta’s Ride
- Author: Gordon L. Rottman
- Genre: Western
- Publisher: Hartwood Publishing (November 14, 2017)
- Pages: 262
Amazon (Click on link for previews, reviews, and buy links)
What was your best (or worst) Christmas present ever?