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Nine books to make the season bright (Christmas round-up)

December 22, 2010

Nine books to make the season bright

Reviewed by Elizabeth Willse

for the Newark Star-Ledger 12/19/2010

Whether you decide to put these seasonal books under the tree for your favorite reader, or curl up with one yourself, the following celebrate the spirit of the holiday season.
With secret spy messages in a plum pudding and a bantering romance that verges on screwball comedy, The Mischief of the Mistletoe (Dutton, 352 pp., $19.95), by Lauren Willig, is a terrific romp, even for newcomers to Willig’s Pink Carnation series of smart historical romances. The central pair isn’t the typical romantic couple. But that’s what makes acerbic and level-headed Arabella Dempsey and earnestly blustering Reginald “Turnip” Fitzhugh so much fun.

The Christmas Cookie Club (Simon and Schuster, 274 pp., $15), by Ann Pearlman, will make you feel like you know Marnie and her friends, who meet to exchange homemade holiday cookies every year. During the cookie exchange they catch up, share memories and deal with some tough midlife issues with candor and humor. Best of all, there are recipes that might inspire you to start a tradition of exchanging holiday treats with your own friends.

Christmas With Tucker (Doubleday, 192 pp., $15.99), by Greg Kincaid, is a warmly nostalgic story about a boy growing up on a farm and the dog who loved him. Twelve-year-old George, still mourning the death of his father, arrives at his grandparents’ farm just before Christmas and one of the worst blizzards anyone can remember. Trying to help keep the farm running and the roads plowed, George is too busy and too cold to think of Christmas spirit. Tucker is a lonely and neglected Irish setter, instantly devoted to George, just when they both most need a friend.

For history buffs, there are two excellent perspectives on Christmas during World War II.

In the Dark Streets Shineth: A 1941 Christmas Story (Shadow Mountain, 56 pp., $19.99), by David McCullough, captures the events of Christmas 1941, days after Pearl Harbor. Richly illustrated with archival photographs, McCullough tells the story of the meeting between Winston Churchill and President Franklin Roosevelt, as well as tracing the origins of now-classic Christmas songs such as “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.”

Christmas 1945: The Greatest Celebration in American History (History Publishing, 220 pp., $24.95), by New Jersey author Matthew Litt, gives detail and context to the story of Christmas 1945, when the troops were starting to come home and people felt like celebrating for the first time since the war began. Litt does a beautiful job of evoking wartime Christmases, with shortages and sacrifices, and adults putting on brave, celebratory faces for the children.

It’s hard to write about a change of heart at Christmas without coming across as overly sentimental. An Amish Christmas, by Cynthia Keller (Ballantine Books, 256 pp., $16), finds a perfect balance between a good story and a good message.
When her husband loses his job and squanders their savings, Meg Hobart and her family have to pack up and leave their gorgeous house and wealthy life behind. Meg’s teen kids are being brats about having to give up their gadgets when a car wreck on a snowy road strands the family on an Amish family farm. The honesty of all the characters, even the whining kids, makes this story work, as the Hobarts adjust to the hard work of a simpler life.

Anyone who was expecting holiday cheer from Augusten Burroughs hasn’t read his earlier essay collection, “Running With Scissors.” You Better Not Cry (Picador, 224 pp., $14) is grouchy, sarcastic and sometimes demented (a drunken one-night stand with a pervy French Santa Claus; you’ve been warned). In spite of Burroughs’ raunchy exploits, some of his stories are awkwardly sweet, even tender. Mystery lovers can choose between a short story anthology and a hilarious satire this season.

Christmas at the Mysterious Bookshop (Vanguard Press, 256 pp., $24.95), edited by Otto Penzler, collects the mystery stories he’s commissioned for his holiday greeting from such bestselling writers as Ed McBain and Lawrence Block.
Each story celebrates New York and the holiday, while telling a thrilling tale.

The Fat Man: A Tale of North Pole Noir (Dutton. 288 pp., $19.95), by Ken Harmon, is a goofy send-up of Christmas lore and hard-boiled detective stories. After Gumdrop the elf gets fired, having been charged with stuffing bad kids’ stockings with lumps of coal, he wants revenge.

But when the parent of a naughty kid winds up dead, Gumdrop knows he was framed. You’ll have as much fun catching references to Yuletide pop culture as you will following Gumdrop’s adventures as he races to unravel the mystery.
Elizabeth Willse is a freelance writer from Manhattan.

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