The 12 books of Christmas

December 17, 2013

This year’s roundup of new Christmas books offers 12 dozen cookies, 11 sleepy skunks, 10 lords a-leapin’, nine classic authors, eight dozen ducks a-shedding, seven abandoned puppies, six turkey dinners, five holiday mysteries, four Arctic animals, three self-sacrificing heroines, two World War II planes and one Alaskan governor loaded with outrage.

1. The Dogs of Christmas , by W. Bruce Cameron (Forge, $15.99)

Josh Michaels, a broken-hearted web designer in Evergreen, Colo., becomes an involuntary dog owner after his neighbor dumps a pregnant dog named Lucy on him. Then, while he’s at the vet with Lucy, someone leaves a box of newborn pups in the back of his truck. Lucy, fortunately, knows what to do because Josh, bless him, is clueless about everything except computer code. Happily, a pretty shelter worker seems willing to help him with his six furry charges. Cameron mercifully ditches the doggie point of view and the canine reincarnation of his bestselling novel “A Dog’s Purpose” for a sweet-natured outing about a socially inept guy who has gone to the dogs. Plus, it’s got a puppy in a Santa hat on the cover.

2. Spirit of Steamboat , by Craig Johnson (Viking, $20)

Where’s Santa’s sleigh when you need it? It’s Christmas Eve 1988, and Sheriff Walt Longmire is trying to save a little girl who was terribly burned in the accident that killed her family. Her only chance of survival is to make it to a hospital in Denver, but there’s a record-breaking blizzard, and all planes are grounded. The only thing that can get up in the air is a leaky Doolittle Raider, and the only one crazy enough to fly it is an old World War II vet oiled up on bourbon. With the plane needing mid-flight repairs, even MacGyver would have found his powers of ingenuity taxed on this errand of mercy. This isn’t a whodunit so much as a how-they’d-do-it, but fans of Craig Johnson’s Wyoming-set mysteries and the A&E series will find “Steamboat” a welcome holiday treat.

3. Silent Night , by Robert B. Parker with Helen Brann (Putnam, $24.95)

It’s hard to imagine a better Christmas present for fans of the late Robert B. Parker than “Silent Night,” which was unfinished when the author died in 2010. His longtime agent, Helen Brann, completed the holiday story, which finds PI Spenser in a festive mood during a snowy Boston December. That quickly changes after a homeless boy asks for his help for the underground safe house where he lives. Its benefactor has a reputation as “Father Flanagan and Santa Claus and a prince of Boston high society all rolled into one,” but Spenser’s not convinced that Santa Claus has really come to Beantown.

4. A Literary Christmas , from the British Library ($19.95)

For those who like their mistletoe with a cultural pedigree, the British Library has compiled bite-size Christmas excerpts from works of great literature. These range from the predictable (Charles Dickens, Clement C. Moore) to the truly unexpected (D.H Lawrence’s “Sons and Lovers” and George Eliot’s “The Mill on the Floss”). Despite the presence of the always reliable P.G. Wodehouse, Nancy Mitford takes the prize for funniest entry with an excerpt from “Christmas Pudding” involving guests at a country house, a bomb threat and brilliant use of the word “noctambulation.”

5. Ten Lords A-Leaping , by C.C. Benison (Delacorte, $25)

Father Tom Christmas has landed himself on the naughty list. After he sprains his ankle during a charity sky-diving event, the widowed vicar has a one-night stand with an alluring heiress. The next morning — taking a morning hobble on his crutches — Christmas discovers the body of her repellent half-brother in the middle of the estate’s labyrinth. Benison revels in the tropes of the country house murder in his newest “12 Days of Christmas” mystery, complete with a butler, kedgeree and bouts of croquet.

6. The Christmas Wish , by Lori Evert with photographs by Per Breiehagen (Random House, $17.99)

For pure adorableness, it’s hard to beat the photo that graces the cover of “A Christmas Wish”: a little girl in Scandinavian garb offering an apple to a reindeer. Evert, a set and wardrobe stylist, and her husband, Breiehagen, a photographer whose work has appeared in National Geographic, have created a sweet holiday story about a little girl who dreams of being Santa’s helper. It’s illustrated with photos of their daughterriding on horseback and napping with a polar bear.

7. A Christmas Hope , by Anne Perry (Ballantine, $18)

Claudine Burroughs’s life with her distant, social-climbing husband has become intolerable, and she expects few tidings of comfort or joy this Christmas season. At a party, she meets Dai Tregarron, a Welsh poet with a bad reputation, which quickly gets worse after three young gentlemen accuse him of attacking a prostitute at the party. Claudine, however, finds their tale a little too convenient and sets out to uncover the truth. Perry, as always, does an admirable job of pulling back the Christmas tree skirt and showing the darker underside tucked away behind the trappings of a Victorian holiday.

8. Peace , by Shelley Shepard Gray (Avon; paperback, $12.99)

Beth Byler has been a good girl her whole life, taking care of her disabled mother and looking after other people’s children. So this Christmas she gets a tattooed undercover DEA agent in her stocking — or rather, bleeding on the porch — in Gray’s new Amish romance. Before you can say “Witness,” Beth has the endangered agent all bandaged up and hidden safely away. In the secondary plotline, Jacob Schrock has a tall Christmas wish to fulfill: His wife wants him to forgive his father, who not only murdered her brother but was going to let Jacob go to prison for the crime.

9. Christmas from Heaven , read by Tom Brokaw, illustrated by Robert T. Barrett (Shadow Mountain, $21.99)

In 1948, Lt. Gail Halvorsen was part of the Berlin airlift, dropping much-needed supplies over West Berlin. After giving two sticks of gum to some German children, Halvorsen was inspired to take his gum and chocolate rations and “bomb” the city with candy. The idea caught on, and hundreds of airmen donated their rations. Halvorsen, who became known as “The Candy Bomber,” and other pilots would “wiggle” their wings before sending small parachutes laden with goodies floating down. By December, U.S. candymakers had donated tons of candy. The book, which combines illustrations and photographs, comes with a CD read by veteran newsman Tom Brokaw, accompanied by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

10. Duck the Halls , by Donna Andrews (Minotaur, $24.99)

It doesn’t take a Sherlock to detect fowl play in Andrews’s newest mystery. A prankster has unleashed a cage full of cranky skunks on the Baptist church, rendering it unusable right before Christmas. Then a seven-foot-long emerald boa constrictor emerges from the evergreens during a Christmas concert, and hundreds of ducks are set loose in the local Catholic church. Things take a serious turn when a fire breaks out at Trinity Episcopal Church, and the most hated man in the vestry is found murdered. Can amateur sleuth Meg Langslow keep the holiday festivities from going further off the rails? And will this be the year her mother and mother-in-law’s escalating gourmet hostilities render Christmas dinner completely inedible?

11. A Nantucket Christmas , by Nancy Thayer (Ballantine, $18)

Christmas on Nantucket Island sounds delightful — unless you’re Nicole Somerset. The 50-something newlywed is facing a week with her spoiled and very pregnant stepdaughter. Then her husband’s nightmare of an ex-wife shows up on Christmas Eve, and even mainlining fudge is unlikely to help. Fortunately, there’s also a 4-year-old boy being denied refined sugar and a canine companion who needs Nicole’s cuddling. The ending is absurdly full of peace and goodwill to socialites, but on the plus side, an abandoned dog gets a home for the holidays.

12. Good Tidings and Great Joy , by Sarah Palin (Broadside, $22.99)

The former Alaskan governor cries havoc and lets slip the dogs of War on Christmas. (I like to imagine an army of festive canines led by the Grinch’s be-antlered sled pooch.) Palin combines stories about Christmas in Wasilla (she got Todd a gun last year) with anecdotes of crosses and nativity scenes under threat. Are there instances of what Palin calls “angry atheists armed with lawyers” trying to get crèches removed from public parks? Sure. A judge ruled this month that the Mount Soledad cross in California, which honors veterans, will have to come down. (Although, as Palin notes, sometimes Christmas wins in court.) As for whether it counts as religious persecution when a Wal-Mart greeter offers you “Season’s greetings,” consult evangelical author Rachel Held Evans’s handy flowchart: “Did someone threaten your life, safety, civil liberties, or right to worship?” No. “Did someone wish you a happy holidays?” Yes. “You are not being persecuted.”

We now return to our regularly scheduled eggnog.

Zipp regularly reviews books for the Christian Science Monitor and The Washington Post.

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