First-novelist Rushforth has a beautiful, if unformed, sliver of a story here; unfortunately, he has bulked it out to short-novel length by lumbering it with a contrived, over-explicit, sentimental network of thematic parallels and literary allusions. That very fine material at the center? Three English boys--16-year-old Corrie, pre-teen Jo, toddler Matthias--are spending Christmas with their German-born grandmother, who was once a great children's-book illustrator; the boys' father (headmaster of the local Quaker school) is away on a trip, the boys' mother is dead (a bystander killed in an Italian-terrorist action); and Corrie, a terrifically talented and bright lad, is growing up fast--especially since he's only just learned that his grandmother is Jewish, a 1930s refugee. Rushforth renders this odd little ""German Christmas"" household splendidly: the precocious but loving repartee between the two older brothers is perfectly captured (conversations ranging from Jo's bedwetting to their mother's death to the trendily spicy novels now written for ""New Adults""), and grandmother Lilli's long-postponed return to painting is genuinely touching. Sadly, however, these intermittent scenes--which admittedly are more the stuff of story than novel--occupy less than half of the book. The rest is an artificial montage of sideshows meant to refract the themes of terrorism, cruelty, and endangered childhood: the family watches TV coverage of children being held hostage by terrorists; Corrie finds the 1930s postcards that German-Jewish parents and children wrote to the Quaker-school headmaster back then, increasingly desperate pleas for help in escaping the Nazis; Corrie remembers a visit to Anne Frank's house (the Frank Diary is quoted); and the whole Hansel & Gretel fairytale (in its grimmest version) is chopped into pieces and distributed throughout the book. Add all that to grandma Lilli's refugee past and the boys' mother's death-by-terrorism--and it's thematic overkill of appalling dimensions. A great pity; because such heavyhanded use of familiar, generalized material takes the focus too much away from Corrie himself. . . and quite buries a special little story that should have been allowed to grow, or at least to speak for itself.