By Kristi Lanier
Wednesday, December 23, 2009; C04
-- Garrison Keillor's A Christmas Blizzard (Viking, $21.95) has clear parallels to Dickens's "A Christmas Carol" -- except it's nuttier. Phobia-ridden tycoon James Sparrow thumbs a big "bah humbug" at Christmas and has one foot out the door to Hawaii even though his holiday-loving wife is prostrate with the flu. But news that his favorite uncle is on his deathbed diverts Sparrow to his North Dakota home town. When a blizzard strands him, Sparrow finds himself overnighting in a fishing shack, entertaining visions and relatives who propel him toward happiness. In this manic lead-up to Christmas Eve, Keillor exhibits his brilliance for drawing spot-on caricatures.
-- A favorite uncle also factors in the plot of Anne Perry's A Christmas Promise (Ballantine, $18). But so does exhaustion. With the seventh novel in her Christmas-themed whodunits, the reliable mystery writer seems tired. Gracie Phipps's compassion entangles her in a mystery when she agrees to help young Minnie Maude search for her dead uncle's donkey. What looks like a simple cart accident and donkey heist turns sinister when news surfaces that Uncle Alf, a rag-and-bone man, picked up a golden box on his route. Despite its engrossing depiction of Victorian England, this Christmas tale gets bogged down by wooden characters and too little surprise.
-- The unflappable English barrister Horace Rumpole tussles with crime in A Rumpole Christmas, a charming collection of previously published stories by John Mortimer, who died earlier this year. Of course, spine-tingling plots were never Mortimer's game; crime-solving is what happens while Rumpole is being Rumpole -- eating, sparring with colleagues and doing the bidding of his wife, Hilda (She Who Must Be Obeyed). Whether he's drinking yak's milk on a health farm and foiling a false accusation or tricking an ex-con into philanthropy, these cases simply melt in the warm glow that is Rumpole.
-- Hans Christian Andersen's haunting "The Little Match Girl" is almost sirenlike. Writers and directors have tried repeatedly to touch its diaphanous sorrow. Gregory Maguire is the latest to succumb with his new little book, Matchless, originally written for NPR. Maguire wraps the girl's story within the tale of Frederik and his mother, who live in a cold northern country where she works as a seamstress and he startles fish from the mouths of seagulls. Unbeknown to his mother, Frederik is building a secret world in the attic from bits of trash. On one scavenging trip, he enters the little match girl's story as the boy who retrieves one of her lost slippers. Maguire's intent is pure as he tries to turn the original story's sadness to a happier ending. But some tales need no embellishment. Frederik and his mother intrude on the transcendent wholeness of "The Little Match Girl," while the match girl distracts from a new fairy tale that could have stood on its own.
-- Narrator Felix Funicello calls Wishin' and Hopin' (Harper, $19.99) his "act of contrition" for schoolboy transgressions. But in the hands of Wally Lamb, what emerges isn't an apology but a celebration of life -- flawed, goofy, wonderful life. Set in a small-town Catholic school in 1964, the tale follows Felix and his fifth-grade classmates as they study each other, their tight-sweatered new teacher and an ebullient Russian transfer student, right up to an outrageous Christmas pageant finale. Throughout, Felix teeters between adolescence and adulthood. Still innocent enough not to understand dirty jokes but old enough to know they're dirty, Felix makes a hilarious guide through a story that whirs right along.
-- Celebrity pastor T.D. Jakes has built an empire on his Bible teachings, and in his latest novel, The Memory Quilt (Atria, $19.99), he stitches the story of the Virgin Mary into a modern-day tale that's inspiring and warmhearted. Widow Lela Edwards considers her plain-spoken style a virtue. But her children aren't coming home for Christmas, and she's spending her days in her deteriorating neighborhood crabbing at the neighbors. When Lela's Bible study group starts on the story of Mary, she begins to see parallels in her own life and feels compelled to resume work on a neglected quilting project. While Jakes tries valiantly to give the quilt significance, it mostly serves as a reason for Lela to sit and listen to Bible CDs. He tosses in a bit of mystery, too. But sharp, sassy Lela is the real draw here. And as she stumbles and rights herself, Jakes achieves his purpose: teaching the Bible, gently.
Lanier is a writer in Seattle.