As I have mentioned before on this blog, I am a huge fan of fantasy writer Robin McKinley. I reviewed my two favorite books of hers, The Hero and the Crown and The Blue Sword, here. I think she has inventive ideas, compelling characters, and amazing world-building. A friend and I recently discussed, however, how unpredictable she can be—we have loved some of her books, hated others, and been bored to catatonia by at least one of them. Shadows, one of her lesser-known books, is one that I like.
But how to describe this book? In a weird way, it’s a dystopia, because something happened a couple of generations back that changed the world and put a bunch of scary bureaucrats in charge of it. But it’s also a fantasy, because it’s all about magic and its banning from the world of science, and how it leaks and creeps back in again.
Maggie and her mom and little brother lost their dad/husband awhile back (car accident), and it’s been tough going. But now her mom has found someone new to love, and although Maggie would like to be glad for her, Val creeps her out on so many levels that she just can’t deal. There’s his wardrobe, and his weird accent, and his fairly unattractive exterior, but that’s the least of it: Val has too many shadows, which seem to loom and dart and rise up higher and create a stranger outline behind him on the wall than anybody’s shadow should, and Maggie is apparently the only one who can see them. I found it a little unbelievable how long she managed to ignore them and avoid him, rather than just coming out and asking, but on the other hand, if you put this behavior in the context of people in “science world” being jumpy about anything that smacks of magic, it made sense. And that’s where you have to “suspend disbelief” and be willing to go with it because you love McKinley.
As I said, in Newworld, where Maggie lives, there are regulations in place designed to keep people away from magic and magic away from people. In fact, there is a whole bureaucracy set up to defend against “cohesion breaks,” or cobeys, which are apparently alternate worlds or magical worlds (?) trying to push their way through to this one (or suck people out of it). It’s a crime to own magical artifacts, or to practice magic, or to BE magical, and this is a big source of Maggie’s worry about Val (who emigrated from Oldworld, where they still practice magic), because now that he’s living in their house, he puts them all at risk, even though he’s shown no obvious signs (other than the shadows) of risky behavior. Maggie’s family has a history of magic-wielders, but supposedly that gene was surgically removed from everyone awhile back—or was it?
Things I loved about this book: all the characters—her mom, her friends, Jill and Taks, her love interest, Casimir, the animals (she has a dog and also works at a shelter), the evolution of the plot. Things that frustrated me: Well, because it was McKinley I was willing to go with it, but the world-building is weird—incomplete and random, with lots of assumptions, confusing lingo, truncated history, tantalizing and infuriating hints that you could know more if only she would tell you! You are set down in the middle of a work in progress that you have to figure out as you go along, and I didn’t feel like I had completely understood it even by the end of the book—but I didn’t care all that much, because I was enjoying myself and the story.
The book ended satisfactorily, but it was more like the end of a chapter in this alternate history than the end of a world; it definitely left itself open for a sequel, but whether there will ever be one is anybody’s guess, since McKinley mostly doesn’t do sequels. I hope so, because I grew fond of these characters.
So–would I recommend it? Yes. But judging from the ratings on Goodreads, which range from one star to five, you definitely have to be a certain sort of reader to like it.
I’m tagging this with the YA Fiction category because it reads as if it could have been written specifically for teens; but as with most fantasy out there, if you are a fantasy reader you don’t discriminate between teen and adult fantasy, it’s all just fantasy!
This is Mystery Week on Goodreads (or maybe it was last week, but the feature story is still up, so…), but the recommended mysteries featured there are some of them rather shallow and cookie-cutter-like. You know what I mean, that list of bestsellers that everybody is reading because everybody is reading them, books with the word “Girl” in their title. In the interest of giving you some more intriguing choices, here are mysteries (many of them series) to plunge you thoroughly into P-I or D-I (private investigator or Detective Inspector) mode. I have, according to my Goodreads notes, read 322 mysteries in the past decade, so let me share some of my favorites…
SHARON J. BOLTON writes smart, sophisticated, complex, and more than slightly creepy stand-alones with unique protagonists in interesting and unusual settings, including Sacrifice, Blood Harvest, Awakening, Little Black Lies, and (my favorite, I think) Dead Woman Walking. She also penned a four-book series (so far) about Detective Constable Lacey Flint,
a young, reckless, and relentless policewoman risking her life in London law enforcement. Great plots, intriguing characters, “killer” mysteries to solve. If you like the series, don’t miss the short stories/novellas you can only get on Kindle.
ROBERT CRAIS is best known for his long-running series about private investigator Elvis Cole, of the Hawaiian shirts and insouciant good cheer, and his dark, silent, and violent sometime partner Joe Pike. This is a great series, equal parts serious and fun just like its two protagonists, and it’s been going long enough that if you start at book #1 (The Monkey’s Raincoat), it will take up a lot of your time. But my preference is Crais’s several stand-alone books: Demolition Angel, about the toughest woman ever to work the Los Angeles bomb squad; The Two-Minute Rule, in which a former bank robber tries to solve the murder of his cop son; and Hostage, in which a group of teenagers on the run from robbing a convenience store hide out in the suburbs by holding a family for ransom (made into a pretty enthralling movie starring Bruce Willis, fyi).
If your preference is for the quintessential British mystery, I have quite a few favorites in that area: DEBORAH CROMBIE writes a series starring two detectives who start out separate and end up together—Scotland Yard Superintendent Duncan Kincaid, and Sergeant Gemma James. One of the things I like about this series is that Crombie alternates the lead, so that Kincaid is the protagonist of one, and James is the protagonist of the next. The other thing I like is the complications of their personal lives as they intersect and mingle. Crombie is a slow writer, sometimes not coming out with a book for as much as three years, but the series is now 18 books long, so you can take your time to catch up.
ELIZABETH GEORGE, while being herself an American, writes convincingly in the Brit genre with her greatly mismatched partners, the impeccable Scotland Yard Inspector Thomas Lynley (a lordship in his private life) and his “woman of the people” partner, Detective Sergeant Barbara Havers, solving crimes in sweat pants and clogs. Her first book is A Great Deliverance, and the series goes on well into double digits.
CYNTHIA HARROD-EAGLES writes the Bill Slider series, and while Slider is also a Detective Inspector, it’s much more of a series about plodding police work enlivened by flashes of brilliance and accompanied by a cast of characters both engaging and amusing. It’s not quite like any other British detective series I’ve read, and I’ve loved most of it.
If you are NOT a fan of stories from across the Pond, try something completely different by reading CRAIG JOHNSON‘s Walt Longmire series. Walt is a county sheriff in the vast windswept state of Wyoming, and has to deal with everything from cattle rustling to drug dealing to murder, as well as maintaining an uneasy interface with the law on the adjacent Cheyenne reservation. He has an ally in his childhood friend, Henry Standing Bear, and an ever-changing roster of deputies to get him into troubled waters. The series is currently up to 15 volumes; the past few have been a little uneven, but the first dozen are solid. I also enjoyed the TV series, Longmire, based on the character in the book but quickly diverging from the written series’ story lines.
if you’re looking for something more than a little quirky (read that “paranormal”), with a mystery a part of but not necessarily the main theme of the story, read CHARLAINE HARRIS‘s “Midnight, Texas” books. They are a spin-off in some ways from a four-book series I have previously mentioned—the Harper Connelly books—in which their protagonist, Manfred Bernardo, was a major character. Bernardo, a psychic, is just looking for a home where he can find both mental and actual peace and quiet, and ends up gravitating to a “bump in the road” two-block almost ghost town in Texas, only to discover that its other inhabitants are, shall we say, as unusual as he is (or more so). There are currently three books.
Finally, if your taste trends more towards dark and violent, check out DUANE SWIERCZYNSKI‘s noir fiction. I have read two of the three Charlie Hardie books, but a friend who is a big fan assures me that they are all equally immersive. My personal favorite of his is actually billed as a “new adult” (a step older than “young adult”) book, called Canary, with multiple points of view done well, lots of twisty turns in the plot, and a stellar ending. Some of his stuff is just too dark for me, but Canary was a winner.
I hope this gives you some ideas for reading to pursue during the next few weeks of solitude! Between this and my other three fresh looks at old books, you should be set. But if you have questions, please ask!
Continuing our exploration of books published years ago—some many years ago—but not discovered by some of us until now, in our hour of need: Here are some bewitching fantasies sure to capture your imagination and attention, should you deign to read them…
The first is a series within a series, but then, the majority of Sir Terry Pratchett‘s books fall into that category, I think—Discworld is all-enveloping. But this series is specific to itself as well, and delightful in all ways. It’s the set of five Tiffany Aching books, beginning with The Wee Free Men and ending with The Shepherd’s Crown, which also happens to be Terry’s last book.
In the beginning, it’s young Tiffany Aching, armed only with a frying pan and her enormous common sense, who stands between the monsters of Fairyland and the Chalk country that is her home. Her beloved grandmother, the Witch of the Chalk, has died, and now it’s up to Tiffany, young and unprepared as she is, to take over. When her brother is kidnapped by a fairy and Tiffany has to enter Fairyland to find him and get him back, Tiffany discovers some unusual allies, the Nac Mac Feegle, or Wee Free Men. They are a clan of sheep-stealing, sword-fighting, six-inch-high blue men with proper kilts and Scottish accents, who may be small but are definitely fierce enough to make up for it. Together Tiffany and the Feegle must confront the cruel Queen of the Elves.
In the second book, A Hat Full of Sky, Tiffany’s exploits in retrieving her brother have brought her to the notice of witches, under the leadership of Granny Weatherwax. They arrange for her to be apprenticed to Miss Level, from whom she learns that there’s little magic involved in witchcraft—it’s more a case of midwifery, hospice, herbal lore, and the settling of village disputes. Tiffany scorns much of this, acting like a typical angsty teenager…but this is unlike the usually practical girl. It seems that something more sinister is at work, a malign influence that took hold when Tiffany learned the trick of hopping out of her body for a bit and leaving an “open house.”
In the third book, Tiffany confronts the Wintersmith; in the fourth, I Shall Wear Midnight, she has completed her training and has returned home to become the Witch of the Chalk, only to encounter the seeds of great evil taking over the world; and in the final book, The Shepherd’s Crown, she stands with all the witches against the fairy hordes wanting to overrun her land. It’s a great series, enlivened by dark humor, profound pronouncements, a few bad puns, and of course by the little blue men with their equally blue vocabulary.
All you Miyazaki fans out there have probably long since discovered his animé of Howl’s Moving Castle, by Dianna Wynne Jones, but have you ever read the original source material? If not, you are in for a treat; the movie greatly abridged and “adjusted” the plot, which is so delightful that it deserves to be visited or revisited, depending.
It has one of those first lines that I love:
“In the land of Ingary, where such things as seven-league boots and cloaks of invisibility really exist, it is quite a misfortune to be born the eldest of three.”
This misfortune falls to 18-year-old Sophie Hatter, who is turned by the Witch of the Waste into an old woman. In search of a cure, Sophie tracks down and confronts the local wizard, who travels about the countryside in a castle that moves of its own accord, courtesy of its resident fire demon. Sophie has to figure out how to outwit Howl, employ the fire demon, and overcome the Witch of the Waste to regain her youth. But along the way, what an adventure it will be!
Totally original and delightful, this book will appeal to all ages and genders. Don’t be fooled by its allocation into middle school book lists, this is a fantasy for everyone. Castle in the Air and House of Many Ways are the two sequels.
Another writer with a body of work that mostly connects between all books (like those of Ursula K. LeGuin’s from another recent post) is urban fantasy writer Charles de Lint. If you are a fan of books that seem to be set in the contemporary world but have another, parallel world connected through whose gates the faery folk and Native American archetypes slip from time to time, you must check out his Newford books. They number in excess of 20 by now, but although he has numbered them sequentially, you don’t necessarily have to read them in a particular order. While it is true that characters who reappear will be minor in one and the main protagonist of another, you don’t miss much by jumping in wherever you feel like it. Also, a fair number of the books consist of short stories that bring you up to date about individual people and story lines, should you wish to seek them out.
My favorite two books of his are Memory and Dream, and Trader, which are actually #2 and #4. The first book is written partly in the present, partly in the past, and I am reluctant to reveal too much, because the book is specifically designed for you to discover its surprises as you go along. It begins in 1992, with successful but reclusive abstract artist Isabelle Copley having two jarring experiences on the same day: She receives a letter from her best friend, who has been dead for five years, and is then contacted by another friend, a publisher who wants Isabelle to illustrate an anthology of her dead friend’s short stories. But Isabelle has sworn an oath to never again paint realistically…. Then the book jumps back to 1973, when Izzy is living a bohemian lifestyle with her two best friends (the writer and the publisher) in the city of Newford, studying art under the formidable Vincent Rushkin. One of the greatest living painters and know for his eccentricities, he agrees to take Isabelle on as an apprentice…but despite the miraculous painting techniques she is learning from him, Izzy doesn’t know how much longer she can put up with his controlling and abusive behavior….
The book explores a number of ideas, on a variety of levels, from the nature of art to the knowledge of the people in our lives, to what we are willing to put up with in order to learn the things we want to know. It’s dramatic, magical, and beautifully written.
Trader is a somewhat familiar story—a body swap—that is nonetheless fresh and arresting in the hands of fantasist de Lint. Johnny, an unemployed, womanizing, hard-drinking wastrel, falls asleep wishing for a different life, one with money and advantages, in which people appreciate him. His dream, influenced by the Native American artifact he clutches in his hand as he sleeps, intersects with the discontented, weary spirit of Max, whose existence has become about little more than his work, and who has lost his initial joy in his trade as a musician and guitar maker. They wake up in each others’ bodies, and while Johnny gleefully adapts to Max’s comfortable lifestyle, Max is left penniless, homeless, and with enemies seeking him, and has to figure out what has become of the real Max Trader. Their journeys intersect in both worldly and other-worldly ways, abetted and hindered by friends and foes both human and, well, not.
Some other fantasy duos, trilogies, and series that might appeal to you as long and involving reads:
Strange the Dreamer and Muse of Nightmares, by Laini Taylor
The Shades of Magic books, by V. E. Schwab
Seraphina and Shadow Scale, by Rachel Hartman
The Lumatere Chronicles, by Melina Marchetta (three enormous volumes)
Mary Stewart’s Arthurian saga, beginning with The Crystal Cave
If you read any of the books discussed here, I’d love to hear what you thought of them—did you enjoy them, and did they meet your expectations based on these book-talks?
I tried to think of one word to describe the Ruth Galloway series of archaeological mysteries by Elly Griffiths, and there you see it in the title: Uneven.
The series first started with The Crossing Places, and that book was gripping if only because of its novelty: The plot conceit is that the skeleton of a little girl is discovered and the police, represented by Detective Inspector Harry Nelson, call in Ruth Galloway, a 30-something forensic archaeologist who lives near the fens in Norfolk, to inspect the bones and verify whether it is a modern or an ancient murder. Then a contemporary girl goes missing, and Inspector Nelson begins receiving letters—taunting clues that remind him of the unsolved case of a lost girl from a decade before.
Book #11, The Stone Circle, is virtually identical in plot, to the point where I had a real experience of déja vu the entire time I was reading it. Bones are found, then more bones are found, letters are received, then a child is abducted…. Out of the 11 books in the Ruth Galloway series, they pretty much fall into one of two categories—either gripping or dull on an almost every-other-one basis. This one, I’m sad to say, was dull as well as repetitive. In addition to mimicking the formula of a cold case that heats up when a new body is found, it even produces the son of a controversial character from the first book to serve as a mostly irritating red herring. This book almost seemed like a place-holder until Griffiths had a better idea.
I was already waffling over continuing this series: After reading the last book, which was at least original in plot and took us away from the fens to Italy, I was so annoyed by the soap opera of the personal relationships that remained bollixed up that I was ready to give up. People kept doing the same things and expecting different results. This book made that frustration even worse.
It was almost a relief, at the end of this derivative story, to conclude that it was time to quit reading…but then I saw a synopsis of the newest (which will release in July) and finally, something has changed significantly: Ruth has a new job, a new home away from Norfolk, and a new PARTNER. Intriguing. Okay, maybe I will read just one more…
Meanwhile, to those who read #10, The Dark Angel, I would say, get someone who already read #11 to give you the few details on the personal relationships that you need to bring you up to date (you can email me if you want!), but by all means skip reading The Stone Circle and go directly to #12 when it becomes available!
There are those authors such as Louise Penny, Michael Connelly, Robert Crais (mystery writers), or Maggie Stiefvater, Leigh Bardugo, Sarah J. Maas (young adult fantasy) who reliably turn out books in their ongoing series year after year. You can almost set your clock by Penny at this point. I know that every August, I will be reading another book about Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, and I am happier for it.
At the opposite end of the spectrum are authors who start with good intentions but for various reasons fail to deliver, sometimes for years or even decades. If you love their writing, you have to be willing to wait. You can’t hurry them; their process is their process, and it’s not going to go faster because a lot of fans are being petulant and demanding. So you have to love their writing so much that you are willing to re-read what you have, sometimes multiple times, until the next book finally appears.
One that comes to mind is The Queen’s Thief series, by Megan Whelan Turner, in which she wrote the first book (1996), we waited four years for the second, six years for the third, four more years for the fourth, and seven years for the most recent, which came out in 2017. Turner is promising #6 (which may be the final volume) for 2020, but given her track record, I am not holding my breath. But when it arrives, it will be greeted with cries of joy, and I will re-read the series for what, the fourth time? to celebrate its completion, because it is just that good.
Another is the dystopian fantasy known as The Obernewtyn Chronicles, by Australian writer Isobelle Carmody. She started the series while she was in high school. She finished it in 2015. She was 57 years old.
I loved that series so much that when the final book was published in Australia a year before it was due to come out here, I did a trade with a young Aussie friend on Goodreads. She wanted Cornelia Funke‘s third book in the Mirrorworld series, which was not released in Australia (and speaking of which, wondering when there will be a book #4?), and I wanted The Red Queen, so we traded addresses and mailed them to one another.
Finally, there are writers who start a series, go like gangbusters for the first few volumes, and then…nothing. The subject of this blog post is one of these, and it’s not to make any particular point but simply because it’s an amusing anecdote.
In the internet age, it’s a lot easier to make a personal connection with an author, and because of the ease of contact, it’s also more likely they will get back to you. Imagine being able to type a few lines on your computer keyboard instead of hand- or type-writing your response on actual paper, putting it in an envelope, addressing it, scrounging up a stamp…no wonder fan letters didn’t get such frequent responses!
Recently I was moved to make one such contact, due to some extenuating circumstances, and here below are the results.
The email was to Jasper Fforde, author of the series The Last Dragonslayer. Book #1 came out in 2010, book #2 in 2011, book #3 in 2014, and then…nothing. A listing on Goodreads with a potential title and no book cover was the best one could find for the subsequent 5+ years.
TO: Jasper Fforde
FROM: A Fforde reader
Dude. Are you EVER going to write the last book in The Last Dragonslayer series??? Because in addition to needing to oblige this elderly librarian fan, you now have 14 English literature students in CHINA eagerly awaiting results.
One of my former book club kids at the library went on to study languages at Berkeley and then got a job teaching English literature to Chinese students in China. He wasn’t having a lot of luck raising their reading skills, so I told him to dump the classics and give them something to read that they would actually ENJOY, and recommended The Last Dragonslayer by you. I checked in with him today on Facebook and asked him if his students had liked the book. Here is his reply:
my literature students loved the book
they quote it often
and they are in the middle of writing an essay on it
i’m proud of them.
one student now refers to himself as the mighty shandar
As you can see, it is absolutely imperative that you get that one done. International relations depend upon it.
Adjunct professor, UCLA MLIS
Teen librarian (retired)
Two weeks later, he replied:
Dude, yes I am (and thanks for calling me dude).
It’s the book I’m working on now, and will probably be called something like: “Trolls v. Humans, a titanic struggle of good against evil, with ample breaks for tea and cake.”
So panic not.
I wrote him back:
I live in California, where it is required by law that you “dude” someone at least once in the course of an acquaintance. I like to get it out of the way up front.
I am supremely happy to receive this news. I will at once reassure the Chinese that they can expect it forthwith, and I promise a review on my blog of the new book plus the entire quarky series, once Trolls v. Humans lands among us.
Sincerely and with great joy,
Have YOU ever exchanged correspondence with an author? Tell your story in the comments…
Sometimes reading Kate Atkinson’s books make you feel like you’re meeting your cousin for coffee.
She sits down and, before you can pick a topic of conversation, she launches into a long narrative about her friend Janey. Now, you have met Janey a few times, but you don’t know any of the other players, who include Janey’s ex-husband and his exploits with the new wife, her two sons, one of whom has made her proud and the other who has gone AWOL, and her formerly drug-addicted daughter for whom childbirth was transformative and who is now out looking for real estate with her shiny new hubby. As you listen, you think, I know that these intimate details of Janey’s life are interesting to someone, but why would you think they would be interesting to me? Could we address subjects that are applicable to us both, please?
If you have a relationship with your cousin such that you could actually say something like that (instead of just listening interminably and politely), your cousin might then say, Oh, I’m telling you all this with a purpose, I come into the story later, just wait for it. So you wait…and you wait…and you wait. And while you are waiting, you are thinking to yourself, Gee, I hope the eventual point of this story is worth it.
Most of the time, when reading Kate Atkinson, it IS worth it. But sometimes you do feel like Doubting Thomas and just want to poke someone!
Big Sky, which is Jackson Brodie book #5, is the epitome of Brodie’s favorite saying, which is,
“A coincidence is just an explanation waiting to happen.”
Although Jackson himself is involved with a fairly mundane set of clients—a woman whose spouse is cheating on her, an entrapment plan regarding a guy on the internet trying to lure young girls—the stuff going on around him, to which he is largely oblivious until it is thrust under his nose and he has to pay attention, is pretty major. There is a scandal from the past that has resurfaced with the imminent release from prison of one of the perpetrators; there is a current drama that only emerges as its links with the past bring the protagonists to the fore; and there’s a whole lot of interpersonal stuff going on. All of this is positively rife with coincidence.
It’s been 10 years since Atkinson wrote her last Brodie book, and she chose to age everyone to the appropriate point, from Jackson’s son, Nathan, now a sulky teen, and his daughter, Marlee, about to embark on marriage, to various others from his past, including the wonderful Reggie Chase, last encountered at age 16 but now a Detective Constable in Yorkshire.
Reggie and her partner, Ronnie (equally diminutive but fierce), have been tasked with following up on some details from a supposedly closed case, a vast pedophile ring that encompassed businessmen, politicians, and power brokers in its “magic circle” of depravity. But as they poke at the case, with many of the original players long dead, it becomes clear that something else has emerged from that old association, equally as sinister in its own way, run by the hangers-on from back in the day, who are equally adamant about keeping their secrets. Brodie, typically clueless, somehow bumbles into and out of association with most of the people involved, with sometimes tragic and sometimes comedic effect. The best characters to emerge from this scrum, in terms of reader interest, are definitely Crystal Holroyd and her stepson, Harry.
As I read, I thought that the fact that Atkinson had waited 10 years to bring Brodie back, coupled with the reintroduction of so many characters from the previous novels, would surely signify a satisfying ending to this long adventure, but no. Things between Jackson and Louise are still dangling; we don’t know what happened to Tracy and Courtney; and while the details of this particular outing are mostly resolved, there are a few loose ends that could be tidied, should Atkinson choose to do so. I’m thinking there may be another book in Brodie’s future.
If I’m honest, I’m glad there isn’t another one right now, though; I think my next read is going to be something “fluffy,” with a limited number of characters and relationships and a story told all in one perfectly straight line….
For those who appreciate a lengthier read, I have attempted to round up some novels with Christmas themes or settings and, in doing so, not make you doubt my good taste!
For ’tis true, ’tis true that a plethora of Christmas tales exist, but whether you want to read any of them is the question. I have, therefore, found a few I would consider a bit more literary, and a bunch that are connected to some genre series, since much may be forgiven your favorite authors when they sell out, er, decide to delight you with a Christmas-related chapter.
First off, consider two short, sparkling comedies set at Christmas-time by Nancy Mitford, the writer later known for Love in a Cold Climate. Christmas Pudding and Pigeon Pie are Oscar Wilde-ish “great house” stories with a cast of ridiculous upper-crust characters rivaled only by those depicted by E. F. Benson and P. G. Wodehouse.
Next, there’s Wishin’ and Hopin’, a Christmas story by Wally Lamb, which focuses on a feisty parochial school boy named Felix Funicello—a distant cousin of the iconic Annette.
In a similar humorous vein, check out comedian Dave Barry’s The Shepherd, the Angel, and Walter the Christmas Miracle Dog. Or, on a more sympathetic note, Frank McCourt’s Angela and the Baby Jesus, relating the story of when his mother Angela was six years old and felt sorry for the Baby Jesus, out in the cold in the Christmas crib at St. Joseph’s Church….
The Christmas Train, by David Baldacci, is not a book I have read, but it sounds like a perfect storm of circumstances guaranteed to be entertaining, landing a former journalist on a train over the Christmas holidays with his current girlfriend, his former love, and a sneak thief, all headed towards an avalanche in the midst of an historic blizzard.
Skipping Christmas, by John Grisham, follows the fate of Luther and Nora Krank, who decide that, just this once, they will forego the tree-trimming, the annual Christmas Eve bash, and the fruitcakes in favor of a Caribbean cruise.
One of my personal favorites to re-read this time of year is Winter Solstice, by Rosamunde Pilcher. It is sentimental without being mawkish, and brings together an unusual cast of characters in an interesting situation bound to produce results.
Now we enter the realm of franchise genre fare with a nod to Christmas:
The Christmas Scorpion is a Jack Reacher story (e-book only) by Lee Child, in which Jack’s intention to spend the holidays in warm temperatures surrounded by the palm trees of California somehow lands him instead in the midst of a blizzard facing a threat from the world’s deadliest assassin.
There are many in the mystery category, from Agatha Christie to Murder Club to baked goods-filled cozies:
In Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, by Agatha Christie, a curmudgeonly father turns up dead after telling all four of his sons, home for Christmas, that he is cutting off their allowances and changing his will. Poirot suspends his own festivities to solve the murder.
James Patterson has a couple of entries: The 19th Christmas, a Women’s Murder Club book, and Merry Christmas, Alex Cross, starring his popular detective trying to make it back alive for the most sacred of family days.
Charlaine Harris’s unconventional pseudo-cozy series about housekeeper and body builder Lily Bard features Shakespeare’s Christmas, in which Lily solves a four-year-old kidnapping case while at home for her sister’s Christmas wedding.
In a similar manner (though with quite different affect!), Rhys Bowen’s Irish lass Molly Murphy attends an elegant house party at a mansion on the Hudson in The Ghost of Christmas Past, and tries to fathom the reappearance of a girl who disappeared 10 years ago.
Anne Perry, known for her historical fiction featuring the Pitts (Charlotte and Thomas) and the rather darker William Monk, has written 16 Victorian Christmas mysteries to date, the latest being A Christmas Revelation (2018).
Cozy mystery writer and baker Joanne Fluke has written at least four full-length books plus some short stories enticingly evoking Christmas cake, sugar cookies, plum pudding, candy canes, and gingerbread cookies, all with the word “Murder” appended.
And Ellen Byron continues her hijinks in Bayou country with Maggie Crozat in A Cajun Christmas Killing, complete with recipes.
In the Western genre, you can find A Colorado Christmas, by William W. and J. A. Johnstone, in which one family’s Christmas gathering turns into a gunslinging fight for survival, and A Lawman’s Christmas, by Linda Lael Miller, a combination of love story and western set in 1900s Blue River, Texas.
One writer of whom I am fond, in the “relationship fiction” category, is Jenny Colgan, and she has made the most of her Christmas opportunities. The only problem with them is, each and every one is a sequel to one of her other books, so without reading the first, you will be somewhat lost inside the Christmas special. She has written four “Christmas at” or “Christmas on” books to date, set in the previously detailed locales of Rosie Hopkins’ Sweetshop, the Cupcake Café, the Island, and the Little Beach Street Bakery. But if you want some enjoyable, lighthearted fare a step beyond a simple romance, you may want to read the first books and come back for the Christmas ones.
In straightforward and utterly enjoyable chick lit, we have Christmas Shopaholic, by Sophie Kinsella, an ode to shopping with a Christmas theme for her popular heroine, Becky Bloomwood Brandon.
And then we hit the high tower of paperbacks that is the romance genre. I’m not even going to try to name all the books written within the environs of romance series, I’ll just give you a list of authors, and if you see a familiar one, go look her up on Goodreads with the word “Christmas” appended to her name:
Mary Kay Andrews, Jennifer Chiaverini, Janet Dailey, Johanna Lindsey, Debbie Macomber, Fern Michaels, Linda Lael Miller, Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, Nancy Thayer, Sherryl Woods…and so on. There are PAGES of titles.
Finally, if you are a nonfiction kinda person, I’m tagging on a couple for you, too:
In I’m Dreaming of a Black Christmas, comedian Lewis Black says humbug to everything that makes Christmas memorable, in his own engaging, curmudgeonly style.
In their quest to provide mathematical proof for the existence of Santa, the authors of The Indisputable Existence of Santa Claus: The Mathematics of Christmas, by Dr. Hannah Fry and Dr. Thomas Oléron Evans painstakingly analyze every activity, from wrapping presents to cooking a turkey to setting up a mathematically perfect Secret Santa. Lighthearted and diverting, with Christmassy diagrams, sketches and graphs, Markov chains, and matrices.
If you can’t find something to read and enjoy from THIS list, I wish you a slightly exasperated Joyous Yule, and hope to find you something non-holiday-related to read in the New Year! —The Book Adept