Twelve books of Christmas: From romance to zombies

December 18, 2012

Aside from the gold rings and maybe the geese and French hens (great for urban farmers), the traditional 12 days of gifts just don’t cut it for the modern Christmas list. Swans bite; 12 drummers would give anybody a migraine in an enclosed space — ditto, the 11 pipers. Eight maids could at least help with the entertaining, but you get the idea: We need a better list. So here, for your “true love,” we offer the 12 Books of Christmas, a dazzling spectrum of publishing ingenuity. There are even holiday zombies, although their ideas of red and green decorations don’t involve tinsel . . . .

1. Father Tom Christmas is not looking forward to a night of bagpipes and haggis at the annual Robert Burns supper in Eleven Pipers Piping (Delacorte, $24). Then, one of the residents of Thornford Regis drops dead after dessert, and town gossips point to the widowed vicar’s housekeeper. In this follow-up to last year’s “Twelve Drummers Drumming,” C.C. Benison uses the claustrophobia of village life to great effect, making the series a psychologically astute pleasure for fans of traditional cozies. (I can’t wait for “Ten Lords A-Leaping” — sky diving is involved.)

2. If your idea of “heartwarming” involves an organ roasting on a stick, I Saw Zombies Eating Santa Claus (Gallery, $14.99), by S. G. Browne, is the perfect holiday tale. This sequel to “Breathers” finds Andy Warner, leader of a failed zombie civil rights movement, breaking out of the Portland, Ore., research facility where he has been experimented on for the past year. After donning a Santa suit to elude detection, Andy decides to help a little girl discover the true meaning of Christmas. It’s “Miracle on 34th Street” meets “Night of the Living Dead” as Andy name-checks actor Edmund Gwenn in between deadpan lines such as: “When your lips are sewn shut, you tend to speak mainly in consonants.” Something to keep in mind the next time you’re singing, “He sees you when you’re sleeping . . . .”

3. Anne Perry dispenses with the snow, the mistletoe, the plum pudding and the tree but still winds up with a terrific British holiday mystery in A Christmas Garland (Ballantine, $18). In 1857, as India seethes with rebellion, a spy escapes a British garrison, leaving a dead guard and more dead soldiers in his wake. Lt. Victor Narraway is charged with defending the accused accomplice, John Tallis, a well-liked medic. There’s no evidence against Tallis, but he’s the only soldier unaccounted for during the escape. Everyone else just wants to convict him and be done, but Narraway is horrified that an innocent man might hang as a traitor.

4. In Nice & Naughty (Harlequin; paperback, $5.25), by Tawny Weber, failed fashion designer Jade Carson finds herself stuck working as a small-town librarian. Public Enemy No. 1 used to be Jade’s cat, who has a penchant for destroying outdoor Christmas decorations. But then the “panty thief” shows up, riffling through the good citizens’ unmentionables and hanging them for all to see. Enter Diego Sandoval, a police detective forced by his sadistic captain to solve this rash of break-ins. Smitten by Jade’s collection of lingerie and four-inch heels (as well as her ability to do upside-down splits), Diego woos her with such immortal lines as: “While I’m on the job nobody’s going to hurt you. Or your underwear. I promise.” Will the hot cop and limber librarian sacrifice career fulfillment and urban living for great sex and all the Christmas cookies they can eat? Does Rudolph’s nose glow?

5. In Train Tracks: Family Stories for the Holidays (Morrow, $21.99), conservative talk show host Michael Savage recalls his childhood growing up in the Bronx, where a house with a dog was a revelation and a homemade pie a thing of wonder. He’s got the knack for evocative detail, and this series of short vignettes features some indelible images, such as the immigrant father who, insisting that nothing be wasted, forced his son to wear dead men’s trousers. (No wonder Savage’s favorite possession was a pair of “electric blue saddle-stitched pants.”) But instead of concentrating on memories he made with his family, Savage’s modern-day pieces consist of screeds about how bad public education is for boys and how difficult it is to flaunt one’s wealth.

6. In The Christmas Kid (Little, Brown, $25.99), a collection of short stories mostly published in the 1980s, Pete Hamill writes of a time “without personal computers, cell phones, tweets, digital cameras, or iPads. A world where ‘friend’ was not yet a verb.” Aside from the opening tale, few of the melancholy stories are set during the holidays, but Hamill has honed his nostalgia for a mid-century Brooklyn populated by immigrants, cops and wiseguys.

7. Debbie Macomber’s Angels at the Table (Ballantine, $18) features the return of Shirley, Goodness and Mercy, plus new apprentice angel Will (Psalm 23 may never recover). On his first trip to Earth, Will inadvertently causes two humans to meet on New Year’s Eve, before their divinely appointed time. (Public safety announcement: Unless you’re the fictional heroine of a romance novel, please do not go off with a complete stranger after midnight.) Celestial high jinks and a rip-off of “An Affair to Remember” ensue. Macomber makes clear that she doesn’t like mean, sarcastic critics, so I’ll just say that there’s a recipe in here for peppermint bark that sounds tasty! But the rest of “Angels at the Table” deserves the Old Fruitcake Award for sugary staleness.

8. In A Christmas Home (Crown, $16), Greg Kincaid’s sequel to “A Dog Named Christmas,” tough financial times mean the Crossing Trails animal shelter is set to be closed after the holidays. (Dogs can’t vote.) If the staff members don’t find homes for all the pets, they’ll have to be put down. Christmas’s owner, a developmentally challenged man named Todd, has thrived at the shelter, and his parents fear that their son may not be able to find another job. The original novel was turned into a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie, and Kincaid doesn’t break any new ground here. But the uncomplicated plot and straightforward writing will appeal to fans, and it would be downright Scrooge-like to root against someone trying to find homes for dogs at Christmas.

9.Downton Abbey’s” Lady Sybil would find a kindred spirit in Lady Elspeth Douglas, who conceals her title to become a nurse during World War I in The Walnut Tree (Morrow, $16.99). The mother-son writing team that goes by the name Charles Todd knows the era cold, but this time the writers leave mysteries behind for an old-fashioned romantic triangle involving Lady Elspeth, a dashing French aristocrat named Alain and Scottish Capt. Peter Gilchrist. When Elspeth stumbles across a smuggling ring, readers may wish Inspector Ian Rutledge could have joined this holiday tale.

10. In Christmas in Cornwall (Thomas Dunne/St. Martin’s, $25.99), the aging nuns of the Chi-Meur convent survive thanks to help from Janna, their lonely young cook, and Clem, their handyman, a widower raising his 5-year-old son. Marcia Willett’s quiet, gently paced novel follows all of them, as well as Clem’s mother and grandparents, through the course of a year.

11. In Shelley Shepard Gray’s Christmas in Sugarcreek (Avon/Inspire; paperback, $12.99), dutiful daughter Judith Graber must work in her family’s store alongside “bad boy” Ben Knox. (It must be said that “bad boy” has a way different meaning in the “inspirational romance” genre.) Ben left town two years ago, trailing clouds of suspicion, but now he’s back to sell his family home and leave the site of his unhappy childhood forever. With a solidly Christian overlay, this one is for those who prefer their romances nice, not naughty.

12. Instead of a fairy godmother, Jennie has Mattie Fisher, a plainspoken paragon of womanhood in Cynthia Keller’s An Amish Gift (Ballantine, $16). When Jennie and Shep and their squabbling teens move in next door, Jennie is awed by the perfect harmony in which Mattie raises her brood. (Even burying a husband can’t crack Mattie’s placid expression.) Inspired by her neighbor, Jennie starts repairing the damage to her family and finances, embracing the virtues of uncomplaining hard work and forgiveness. Keller can’t resist gilding the poinsettia: Alcoholics are miraculously cured overnight, and estranged relatives show up promptly on Christmas Eve.

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

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