Special Holiday Recommended Reading List 2021
I started the Holiday Recommended Reading List when I realized that I point out all the great holiday stories in January, after the season has passed. I am always a month behind in reporting what I read. So I wanted you to find the great stories that I’ve enjoyed over the years.
I love holiday stories of all kinds. I save up the stories to read during the season, and I find that I enjoy them more when I do this.
I also love to write holiday stories. I’ve published three collections of them under my Rusch name, and have a series of three novellas as Kristine Grayson. You can get all of the Grayson novellas in a single bundle if you like by clicking here.
I also edited something WMG is calling the WMG Holiday Spectacular. It started up yesterday, giving subscribers 38 holiday stories, one per day, from now until New Year’s Day. Since I edited this, it has the same sensibilities as the stories below. So if you’ve enjoyed the stories and novels off this list, you’ll like the stories in the Holiday Spectacular. You can still sign up and get your stories.
If you want to enjoy the Holiday Spectacular from last year or the year before, you can do so in two compilations, which include the letters and the stories. Or you can buy all six anthologies, plus my collection, Stories for the Cold of Winter.
This list below is a compilation of all of the stories I’ve recommended since I started posting the Recommended Reading List. The list is growing quite long, which pleases me. I have left the descriptions as they were in the original Recommended Reading list, so some of them mention that it’s not Christmas time or something else that’s going on while I was reading. Eh. Just go with it.
Not all of the stories are easily available any more. I tried to fix all of the links as well. (Some had expired.) But I’m keeping the listings here in case you want to search for them. I had a lot of fun revisiting the list this year. I had forgotten how much I enjoyed many of these stories. I suspect you’ll enjoy them as well.
Happy holiday reading!
HOLIDAY RECOMMENDED READING LIST
Allyn, Doug, “The Snow Angel,” Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, January, 2014. (Also in The Best American Mysteries 2015) Detective Dylan LaCrosse gets called to a crime scene outside a beautiful home. A dead girl, dressed as if she were going to prom, dies in the snow. She had waved her arms and legs before dying, and she looked like a perfect snow angel.
Somehow, Doug, who is one of our best writers, imho, manages to throw a novel’s worth of twists and turns into this fantastic story. I thought it might be simply a good Doug Allyn story (and you know you’re in the hands of a great writer when good is exactly what we expect, and we hope for more) until the last section. And that section made the story absolutely perfect. Read this one. It is a holiday crime story, but you can enjoy it year round.
Arnold, Jeremy, Christmas in the Movies, Running Press, 2018. This pretty little book provided a lot of entertainment for me in this dark year. I found some movies I hadn’t seen, so I watched them. I remembered ones I loved, and thought about watching them (which was enough). There were some delightful facts in here, and some lovely photos as well. And yes, that means I recommend you pick up the hardcover…
Baum, L. Frank, “A Kidnapped Santa Claus,” Short Stories For Christmas, Saland Publishing audiobook, 2013. I believe this story was read by Bart Wolffe, but I’m not certain, and the book listing doesn’t say which stories he read. The story itself was a revelation for me. Yes, this is L. Frank Baum, the man who wrote The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and published it in 1900. I had no idea he wrote Santa stories, but he did, and this one, at least, is surprisingly modern. I mentioned it to Dean, and he had known about Baum’s Christmas stories. They were a surprise to me.
Some things aren’t the same, of course. Santa lives in the Laughing Valley, not the North Pole, and the elves and such are very different creatures than the ones we’re used to. But the sleigh, Santa’s midnight ride, all of that is quite modern. In this, Santa gets kidnapped on Christmas Eve and can’t make his ride. Very tense, and quite exciting. I have no idea how the story would be to read, but I found the audiobook marvelous, and worth recommending. I haven’t listened to all of the stories in the collection, but I plan to eventually.
Balogh, Mary, Someone To Trust, Jove, 2018. To be honest, I wasn’t ready to read anything at all romantic. I wanted murder and mayhem. But my favorite mystery writers disappointed me last month, so I picked up Balogh, whose work I adore.
I was worried as I started this one. It is part of a series that I’m greatly enjoying, but this book seemed very peripheral at first. The opening is set at Christmas, with a wedding from the previous book. I wouldn’t call this a holiday novel, though, although it is appropriate to read at the holidays.
Then the book switched up. Balogh usually doesn’t have villains in her novels. If someone is truly dastardly, they’re dastardly and dead. In fact, the effects of one horrible man launched this entire series. But this novel has a true villain. She’s a narcissist who showed up in previous novels, but not in a starring role. She is as believable as Balogh’s other characters, which is to say, very believable. Chilling. By the middle of the novel, I could not see how our protagonists were going to deal with her while keeping this a romance novel. (If it had been a mystery, she would have been a corpse or the murderer by the middle of the novel.)
Needless to say, Balogh pulled it off. I devoured the last part of this book, worried for our characters, and reassured, as romance novels do. A nice read for a dark time of year.
Baxter, John, Immoveable Feast: A Paris Christmas, Harper Perennial, 2008. A wonderful little erudite book about an ex-patriate Australian cooking Christmas dinner for his wife’s family in France. No pressure there.
This is beautifully written, with lots and lots and lots of great descriptions of setting and food and food and setting. Lots of history of certain customs and traditions. It even has a bit of suspense: will he get the piglet he wants for the centerpiece of the dinner, will it (or any piglet) fit in the oven in the old farmhouse, and will the family eat the finished product, made with “unusual” (read: Not French) spices? By the time I got to the piglet section, I actually cared about all of those things.
A lovely little Christmas book, and one that can be read outside of the holiday season, if you’re so inclined. The clash of cultures stuff is particularly nice.
Burton, Jaci, All She Wants For Christmas, Carina Press, 2010. I read this book at night while I was trying to read a graphically violent book. I didn’t want to read that book before bed, and this one—with a country music singer heroine—spoke to me, even though it’s not Christmas time. (I think it shows how desperate I was to get away from that book that I went not only to a romance, but a Christmas romance.)
This is the first book I’ve read by Burton. I liked it. It was heartwarming, just like it should have been. I ordered the other two books in the series the moment I finished it, which tells you she did well. In fact, she did so well, she’s the one who convinced me I didn’t need to torture myself with that other book any longer. So I didn’t. I’m reading romances again instead. 🙂
Burton, Mary, “Christmas Past,” anthology with Fern Michaels, JoAnn Ross, and Judy Duarte, Kensington Reissue 2017. I’ve clearly been in the mood for holiday mysteries and I was happy to find this one. I’d read half of this book two years ago, and finished it this year. This story is about a woman who fled (and survived) an abusive husband. He’s dead, but manages to torture her from the grave. (His plans are fiendish, and fascinating.) Well written and intriguing, this story made me look for more of her work. I wondered why I hadn’t bought any of it, since it all sounded like things I’d be interested in. And then I saw the covers. They were/are appropriate for the genre, but not to my taste. They actually sent me away from her books. I’ll see how the novels are, but this story is great. Perfect if you’re in a holiday mystery mood.
Cach, Lisa, “A Midnight Clear,” Mistletoe’d, Kindle Edition, 2011. A lovely holiday novella, set in New York at the end of the 19th century. The period details are fun—I had no idea that was when the Christmas card habit started—and the characters are great. Catherine has spent years being wined and dined by her rich aunt, going to London, Paris, and on what was once called the Grand Tour. Catherine has met European royalty and American royalty. She wears fine clothes, and she has an eye for beauty. Sort of. Because Catherine is terribly near-sighted and too vain to wear glasses.
She comes home for Christmas, to her family’s not insubstantial house in a relatively small town, and one of her wealthy suitors follows her. But she also meets a man whom she has no idea is wealthy—William, the owner of the general store. She’s not attracted to him at first because she can’t see him, literally. Then someone (William?) buys her a pair of spectacles and has them anonymously delivered, and suddenly she can see everything much clearer.
A great deal more happens here, including a magical wish by an innocent young girl (is that where the spectacles come from?), and some proper comeuppance for a very bad person. The story is lovely, the details good, and all of it will put you in a wonderful holiday mood. Enjoy!
Cach, Lisa, “Puddings, Pastries, and Thou,” Wish List, Leisure, 2003 (also in Mistletoe’d). I have no idea where I got this anthology, which also features Lisa Kleypas, Claudia Dain, and Lynsay Sands, but I read it for two reasons: First, I’m still puttering through my Kleypas binge, and second, I always read a Christmas romance anthology over the holidays.
I have to say, though, that I really hated the design of this book. It doesn’t do what romance anthologies (heck, all anthologies) should, which is point you to the authors’ other work. In fact, the stories themselves have no byline. You have to look at the table of contents to see who wrote what.
The Cach story was a nice surprise. I’ve probably read two dozen such anthologies over the years and the stories are often sweet but predictable. This one wasn’t predictable. I’ve discovered Mary Balogh through such an anthology, and now I’ll seek out other work by Cach.
This is a witty story of a down-and-out woman whose immediate family was dead and who depends on the kindness of her distant relations. Only they stuck her with an elderly woman who had either dementia or Alzeheimers (of course, the story doesn’t say since it’s set in Regency England). She was the 24/7 caretaker, and she barely had time for herself. She also barely got enough to eat.
When the story begins, our heroine Vivian has just moved in with another set of distant relatives, and must contend with a jealous 17-year-old who is about to debut. I’m all set for a Mean Girls story—the 17-year-old doesn’t want to share her glory days with a lesser cousin—but the story doesn’t work that way.
The 17-year-old does set Vivian up with a seemingly undesirably hero, who is a bad influence not because he’s a rake or an alcoholic, but because…well, let me simply say that it has to do with morals that no longer exist. He had done something honorable in our world, but dishonorable in theirs.
The entire story centers around the feasts over the holiday, and Cach delineates them with loving care. It’s pretty clear that Vivian will go from being a bony distant relation to a fat lord’s wife, and we’re cheering for her the whole way.
And the story made me hungry for pastries. Enough said.
Dermatis, Dayle A., “Desperate Housewitches,” Uncollected Anthology: Winter Witches, Soul’s Road Press, 2014. I’m behind on some of my Uncollected Anthology reading from the previous group (including Dayle’s story), but I couldn’t pass this one up, just based on the title.
Trust Dayle to write a winter holiday story about the solstice and magic. She manages to combine the claustrophobia of a suburban neighborhood with the competitiveness that women sometimes engage in with holiday ritual. Only the holiday ritual here isn’t decorating a Christmas tree or singing carols (although there is a discussion of carolers that made me chuckle). Nope. This one is about pagan rituals. The story’s wonderful, funny, and a do-not-miss.
Dubé, Marcelle, McKell’s Christmas, Falcon Ridge Publishing, Kindle edition. 2013. McKell, a cop in Manitoba, finally gets a Christmas Eve off. He has dinner with his girlfriend’s friends. One friend brings a new boyfriend, and tensions rise—just not in the way you’d expect. The Canadian setting is real, the mystery is fascinating, and the characters excellent. Pick this one up.
Dubé, Marcelle, Running Away From Christmas, Falcon Ridge Publishing, Kindle edition, 2012. I read this one after the holiday because I simply couldn’t wait until next year. Faith can’t take another Christmas alone, so she runs away to Vancouver B.C., where…well, I’d like to say the holiday stalks her, but it’s not quite like that. It’s sweeter. A wonderful story, no matter the time of year.
Fry, Hannah and Evans, Thomas Oléron, The Indisputable Existence of Santa Claus: The Mathematics of Christmas, The Overlook Press, 2016. A dense but fun little book that uses math to prove all kinds of things like Santa exists. Maybe. Kinda. Not in the way you’d expect. And how to wrap gifts properly. and how to divide dessert, and win at Monopoly, and many other fun things associated with the holidays. The book is pretty too, so I’d suggest the tiny hardcover edition.
Green, John, “A Cheertastic Christmas Miracle,” Let It Snow, Speak, 2009. Okay, I get it now. This is the first story I’ve read of megaseller John Green’s, and it’s a lot of fun. This is one of three linked holiday romances in the Let It Snow volume, and is perhaps the liveliest one.
Set in the middle of a Christmas blizzard, three friends get called by another friend to get to the Waffle House ASAP because a trainload of cheerleaders (literally) are stranded there. The adventure is the journey to the Waffle House, and all the character arcs, etc., punctuated by reports from the Waffle House itself. Extremely fun, extremely memorable story.
Hallinan, Timothy, “Chalee’s Nativity,” The Usual Santas, no editor listed, Soho Crime, 2017. Amazing story about two orphans on the streets of Bangkok. Apparently, Chalee has appeared in Hallinan’s work before. Well written, heartbreaking in a good way. Worth the price of admission.
Herron, Mick, “The Usual Santas,” The Usual Santas, no editor listed, Soho Crime, 2017. The title story of this wonderful collection is a title story for a reason. A group of Santas working at a disreputable mall discover a problem among them. When Dean and I teach, we talk about writer stages—Stage One Writers are learning grammar, etc. Stage Four writers have learned their craft and have added some tools to the bargain. Stage Four Writers break lots of rules because they know how.
Herron is Stage Four, and this story shows why. With the exception of one minor character named Joe, everyone else in the story is named Santa. And they have dialogue with each other attributed to Santa. And it all works beautifully. I love this story. I wish I had written this story. I wish I could read it for the first time all over again. Wonderful and worth the price of admission.
Hockensmith, Steve, “Fruitcake,” Naughty: Nine Tales of Christmas Crime, Kindle edition, 2010. I love Steve Hockensmith’s short stories, partly because they’re so memorable. I couldn’t get fruitcake out of my mind for days—much as I wanted to. I’m not fond of fruitcake. Many others aren’t either which is the impetus for this story of regifting and murder.
Hockensmith, Steve “Naughty,” Naughty: Nine Tales of Christmas Crime, Kindle edition, 2010. Funny story about a down-on-her-luck woman, Christmas “elves,” a department store, and a rather unexpected crime. Fun and memorable.
Hockensmith, Steve, Naughty: Nine Tales of Christmas Crime, Kindle edition, 2010. I have no idea how many of Steve Hockensmith’s short stories I’ve read in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine or in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine over the years. Quite a few, judging by the ones I remembered and reread in this collection. It’s a collection of Steve’s Christmas stories, all of which I liked, many of which I loved. Even the copyright page is funny. My only quibble with the volume? In it, Steve mentions he’s too busy to write short fiction these days. So I say, Stop sleeping, Steve! Write your books, but write short stories too. Whatever it takes. Maybe it takes y’all to buy this book to get him to write more short stories. So do it.
Hunter, Madeline, “A Christmas Abduction,” Seduction on a Snowy Evening, Kensington Books, 2019. This comes from another of those anthologies that weirdly does not give the editor credit. Oh, I hate that.
The anthology has three novellas, along with excerpts from upcoming novels, which I mostly skipped. I bought the anthology because of a different author, but this is the story that I found memorable. I’d heard a lot about Madeline Hunter, but I’ve never read her work before (that I remember). She managed to set up a heartbreaking scenario for our heroine, one that our hero understands without her telling him about it, because he already knew bits and pieces of the story. He just put it all together for her.
Novellas a tricky, particularly a romance novella with villains, which this one has. Hunter pulled off the villain in a way that I had expected only because I’m a writer, and because I realized about 20 pages from the end there’s only one person who could be the villain. But she did the work delicately and in a delightful manner.
If you like holiday novellas, you’ll like this one. It’s like no other that I’ve read.
James, P.D., The Mistletoe Murder And Other Stories, Knopf, 2016. This tiny little book pleased me in a thousand ways, and made me sad. First, the pleasing part(s): the stories, the design, the way it felt in my hands. I loved the attention to detail here.
The part that made me sad? P.D. James died in 2014, and will not be writing any new books. I suspect the estate might approve more things like this, and I’ll read it all, but it won’t be the same. After I finished this, I thought that I might reread some of her books. Can’t decide if I will or not. I remember them so vividly…
My one complaint with the volume is that there is no copyright page that lists where the stories were first published. 🙁 I love that kind of information and am sad to see that Knopf left it out.
Anyway, this volume is wonderful and worth reading. I’m going to highlight a couple of the stories that I loved below. Surprisingly, to me anyway, the stories without her usual main character Adam Dalgliesh were the ones I preferred. Maybe because those were atypical cozies. I dunno.
James, P.D., “The Mistletoe Murder,” The Mistletoe Murder And Other Stories, Knopf, 2016. The title story of this collection is the title story for a reason. This is a very strong mystery, filled with honest misdirection (meaning it was all there in plain sight, but still hard to see) and great characters. A long-time mystery writer reflects on a strange family Christmas she attended in 1940. I love the discussion of mysteries versus real life murders, and all kinds of tiny details. If I say much more, I’ll ruin it.
James, P.D., Sleep No More, , Knopf, 2017. I have no idea who is handling P.D. James’s estate, but kudos to whomever is. This is the second year that the estate has released a group of previously uncollected short stories in a beautiful edition just in time for the holiday season. None of the stories struck me as spectacular James, but regular James is still better than most writers out there. The opening story, “The Yo-Yo,” stopped me right at the beginning and made me check when it was first published. Not because it was dated, but because the observation at the beginning—that a simple item, found after death, might seem to have sentimental value, and that value might be completely misconstrued. That’s an observation someone older has, not someone young. And sure enough, she wrote that story in her 70s. Some of the stories here are Christmas stories, a few are not. All are worth reading.
Johnson, Craig, “In The Land of The Blind,” The Best American Mystery Stories 2017, edited by John Sanford, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017. I haven’t read any of Johnson’s Longmire series, until I read this short story. A short holiday tale without the usual holiday sappiness. In fact, a drug addict takes some people hostage in a church on Christmas Eve. The way that the hostage situation gets resolved is one of the most logical things I’ve seen. Well done.
Johnson, Maureen, “The Jubilee Express,” Let It Snow, Speak, 2009. Jubilee’s parents get arrested in a brawl at a collectibles store the day before Christmas, so they send her to spend the holiday with her grandparents. She has to take a train, which stalls in the middle of a blizzard in a small town. She doesn’t want to sit in the cold train for hours (and maybe days) so she hikes in the snow to the Waffle House, followed by a gaggle of cheerleaders. I thought I had the story figured out twice, and I was wrong both times. Loads and loads of fun, with great characters and lots of heart.
Kaaberbøl, Lene, and Friis, Agnete, “When The Time Came,” translated by Mark Kline, The Usual Santas, no editor listed, Soho Crime, 2017. A dark and brooding story featuring the duo’s main character, Nina Borg. Thieves break into what they believe to be an empty building during the holidays, only to discover someone in extreme distress. If I say much more I ruin it. But suffice to say I had no idea how this would end up, and loved the way that it resolved.
Kleypas, Lisa, Christmas Eve at Friday Harbor, St. Martin’s Paperback, 2011. I saved this one for my holiday reading. In fact, I bought it in October when it first came out—and honestly, I could’ve read it then, despite the title. Because this isn’t a Christmas story; it’s a fall holidays story. Halloween makes a major appearance and Thanksgiving is hilarious, even though the book itself isn’t funny, but heartwarming.
Holly’s mother died in April, leaving Holly’s uncle Mark as her guardian. Mark has never been around children, doesn’t know what to do, but he enlists his brother Sam, and together they try to make a home for this poor little girl who has given up speaking since her mother’s sudden death. Six months later—in September—Holly writes a letter to Santa: she wants a mom for Christmas. Not that Mark wants to marry or anything. You get the rest of the plot, of course.
But the book is set on the San Juan Islands in Washington State, and it’s clear that Kleypas lives in the Northwest because the details are great. The characters are even better, from Holly to Mark to Maggie, the young widow who has just started a toy store. Realistic, sensitive, and touching. You can read this one at any season of the year (but fall would be best).
Kroupa, Susan, “Walter’s Christmas-Night Musik,” Laurel Fork Press, Kindle Edition, 2010. A wonderful story about Christmas Night visitors. Unlike the previous Christmas night visitor stories you’ve read, these visitors are a surprise. I’d like to be visited by these folks. I found myself thinking about this story long after I finished reading it.
Let It Snow, Speak, 2009. I normally label books by author, but I have no idea how to label this one, because it’s listed in three different ways on the three different websites I went to. So I gave up and did this.
Let It Snow is a series of linked holiday romances written for young adults, but really, who cares who the target market is? The stories work. All three of them are good, but the first two are so good that I found myself a bit disappointed with the third. Had I read it as a standalone, I probably would have loved it.
The sense of teenagers at loose ends on the night before Christmas in a blizzard comes through all of the stories. The romances are believable, the stories powerful, and the settings wonderfully done. If you need some holiday reading, pick up this book.
Levine, Laura, “The Dangers of Candy Canes,” Candy Cane Murder, Kensington, 2007. I love Laura Levine’s voice. I wasn’t in the mood for saccharine stories in 2020, and while this story is a cozy, the voice takes it out of the sweetly simpering. I started the story on Christmas Eve Day at breakfast and tore through the entire thing, often chuckling out loud.
Levine, Laura, “Nightmare on Elf Street,” Secret Santa, Zebra, 2013. The voice in this piece caught me from the very beginning. In fact, I read it before I read anything else in the volume and, as a stickler for reading anthologies in order, that’s truly saying something.
A freelance ad writer thinks she’s going to get an advertising account; instead, through mishaps, she gets hired as a Santa’s Elf at Toyland. She doesn’t correct the mistake because she needs the money. The story’s a typical cozy—a rather bloodless (deserved) murder, lots of suspects, and a goodly amount of humor.
I laughed, fell in love with the cat, and enjoyed the situation. I’ll be looking for Levine’s other books, which is exactly what novellas like this should make me do.
Lovesey, Peter, “The Haunted Crescent,” The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries, Vintage Crime, 2013. A delightful Christmas ghost story with a twist that I never saw coming. I shall say no more, except to remind you to go and read this one.
Lyons, Kay, The Crash Before Christmas, Kindred Spirits Publishing, Kindle edition, 2011. A delightful Christmas romance. I figured out what was going on at the end of chapter three, but most readers won’t. This novel, about a bush pilot who crashes in a blizzard and is rescued by a mysterious woman, is occasionally creepy, and very suspenseful. It’s a great holiday read; I suspect you’ll enjoy it year-round.
Macomber, Debbie, Twelve Days of Christmas, Ballantine Books, 2017. I have no idea how I’ve never read a Debbie Macomber book before. I’m not even sure I’ve read one of her Christmas books, and she’s the queen of Christmas romance. I have a hunch I thought I wouldn’t like the novels, because they’d be overly religious and dealing with people I didn’t want to read about.
This one caught my eye in the grocery store, of all places. I read the back cover blurb, and immediately picked up the book. Julia has troubles with her grumpy (and gorgeous) neighbor. She decides to kill him with kindness and blog about it for twelve days. Of course, this is fraught with issues. The blog’s witty, the characters are real, the situation is uncomfortable. I read the book in an evening, and found the novel charming. I’m not going to run out and buy all the back Christmas books of Debbie’s, but I’ll read a few when I find them. This was a lovely way to start my holiday season. The book is worth your time.
MacDonald, John D., “Dead on Christmas Street,” The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries, edited by Otto Penzler, Vintage Crime, 2013. This story, first published in 1952, feels surprisingly contemporary. A woman dives out of a seventeen-story window. The death gets investigated, of course. The forensic details are accurate for the time, and the entire attitude expressed here feels like something someone could have written now. MacDonald was/is a master, and stories like this prove why.
McBain, Ed, “All Through The House,” The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries, edited by Otto Penzler, Vintage Crime, 2013. This is an 87th Precinct story of McBain’s that I hadn’t read before. It’s Christmas Eve, and Carella is alone in the precinct. People continue to show up, seemingly re-enacting the Nativity. But it’s McBain, so emphasis on “seemingly.” I loved this story. You will too.
McPherson, Catriona, “Mrs. Tilling’s Match,” Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, November/December, 2020. “Mrs. Tilling’s Match” is part of the Dandy series that McPherson writes. I’ve never read the series, but this story stood alone just fine. (I have a hunch I might have missed a thing or two, but still…) The story is set at Christmas 1934, and deals with a note that the cook of the family receives. It’s emotional and creepy, in a good way, and the tension was quite surprising. Looks like I’ll have to investigate some of her books.
Morgan, Sarah, Miracle on 5th Avenue, HQN, 2016. Eva’s upbeat grandmother taught her to be the sunshine in every dark room. So when her grandmother dies, Eva doesn’t know how to grieve. She’s going to spend the holidays house-sitting (and decorating) a penthouse apartment on 5th Avenue.
Said apartment belongs to Lucas, a thriller writer, whose wife died suddenly. Lucas hasn’t told anyone that he failed to take the scheduled trip out of town, so when Eva shows up–in the middle of a blizzard, natch–she encounters the Big Bad Crime Writer.
Funny, wry, charming, with tons of insights about writing and the perils of falling for a writer. Don’t know how I missed Sarah Morgan, but I have a lot of reading to catch up on.
Nordeen, Juliet, New Year’s Shenanigans, 2019. The first full length book in the Modesta Quinn series finds our heroine investigating a break-in at a legal pot-growing facility in the rainy New Year up in Washington State. Modesta Quinn made her first appearance in our Holiday Spectacular, solving a crime around Christmas. I loved that story, and had high hopes for the novel. It more than lived up to my expectations. Lots of great procedures, marvelous descriptions, a good plot with some surprising twists, and excellent characters. I hope Juliet continues with this series, because I’ll continue to read it.
Page, Norvell, “Crime’s Christmas Carol,” The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries, Vintage Crime, 2013. I’m sure Dean had heard of Norvell Page, but I never had. Page was a prolific writer for the pulps in the 1930s. This story was first published in 1939, and was a riff on O Henry’s “Gift of the Magi,” only with a heck of a criminal twist. Yet somehow Page managed to pull off a happy ending. The story becomes more poignant when you remember that it was written and published during the Depression.
Patterson, Irette Y., “Worth,” Saturday Evening Post, December 19, 2014. A lovely short Christmas piece by Irette. I read it on Christmas Eve, and it really added to an already special day. A short story about money, holidays, and love. This one’s good any time of year.
Patterson, Kent, “The Wereyam,” A Fantastic Holiday Season, edited by Kevin J. Anderson, WordFire Press, 2013. Kevin put together a holiday anthology of the stories that the writers who used to gather for our Christmas holiday parties wrote and read to each other for those gatherings. Kent’s “The Wereyam” is one of my favorites, so when the book arrived, I sat down and reread this story immediately. It not only holds up, it’s better than I remember.
We lost Kent in 1995, and while it was hard on all of us personally, I think of the loss to writing, and I mourn. He was just getting started in what would have been a fantastic career, and he died suddenly. I’m so glad that this story has been reprinted. Take a look. See if you don’t love it too.
Penzler, Otto, The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries, Vintage Crime, 2013. It took me four holiday seasons to finish this book, not because it was a slog to read, but because there were so many stories. And they were mostly to my taste. I think I skipped maybe three of them completely. The book is nearly 700 pages long, and the pages are in columns, so it probably would have been 1400 to 1500 pages long if the design was different.
Usually I complain about how the best American series is laid out, and Otto is the series editor for the mystery volume. But he has no say in the editorial layout: that’s clearly mandated by the publisher. All of Otto’s other anthologies have narrative flow.
This one has a great editorial conceit. The book is divided into sections. For example, the book starts with the section “A Cozy Little Christmas” and ends with “A Classic Little Christmas.” As is appropriate for a book that covers the entire genre, the book starts with an Agatha Christie story (Peroit) and ends with another (Marple). In the middle of the book there are a wide variety of other sections, from “A Scary Little Christmas” to “A Modern Little Christmas.” My tastes veer away from cozy and classic, so my favorite parts of the book were in the middle.
I was disappointed to come to the end of the book. I had been at reading it for so long that it had become a holiday tradition for me. Unfortunately, I have a great memory for stories, and I rarely read any twice. Otherwise, I would start all over again next year. Great volume. Lots of fun. Pick it up.
Peters, Ellis, “The Trinity Cat,” The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries, edited by Otto Penzler, Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, 2013. This particular story, originally published in 1976, the story is about a real cat acting in a real cat way. Set on Christmas Eve in a small English village, the story features an older woman’s murder, a tight cast of characters, and some wry observations. It’s a cozy, but not a light or funny one. I enjoyed it a great deal.
Reed, Annie, “The Case of the Missing Elf,” Thunder Valley Press, Kindle Edition, 2010. One of the nice things about the revolution in e-publishing is that you can buy a single short story of an author’s work just as a sample. I already knew that I liked Annie Reed’s stories, but I also know she’s not a household name. I hope that changes.
This is one of her Dee and Diz fantasy detective stories. Diz is an elf, although not a traditional one, and Dee is a woman with an added gift. There’s a bit of romantic tension involved, but that’s not at the heart of this story. Like so many stories on this month’s list, this is a Christmas tale. And the missing elf is not the Jolly Old One, but his occasional impersonator, Norman. Fun, and thought-provoking, in a Christmasy kinda way. It’s a nice introduction to Annie’s work.
Reed, Annie, “Essy and The Christmas Kitten,” Kindle edition, Thunder Valley Press, 2011. This story is not as sweet as the title implies. Instead, it is a bit dark and moody, so much so that I read with one eye half closed, worried that something would go wrong. But it is a Christmas story in the best way, and quite memorable. One of my best Christmas reads this year.
Reed, Annie, “Roger’s Christmas Wish,” Kindle Edition, Thunder Valley Press, 2010. Somehow I missed this in last year’s Christmas reading. Young Roger’s grandmother moved in with him, taking his room. His parents are unhappy, and so is Roger. All he wants for Santa to do is make his grandmother leave. The story is sweet, with unexpected twists. It’s also a nicely done e-book. I read it in the Kindle app on my iPad and it felt like I was reading a real book. Nicely done.
Reed, Annie, The New Year That Almost Wasn’t, A Diz & Dee Mystery, Thunder Valley Press, 2013. I love Diz & Dee so much that I bought one of the stories for Fiction River: Unnatural Worlds. So, imagine my surprise when I discovered that about a year ago, Annie had written one and I had missed it! I ordered it immediately, read it immediately, and enjoyed immensely.
The woman pregnant with the New Year’s baby goes missing. Not the first baby born in the year, but the baby who will become the ancient guy by December 31. Great concept, and it becomes even greater when we find out what happens to the ancient guy when his job is done. I’m not going to spoil it. Read this one.
Ross, Barbara, “Logged On,” Yule Log Murder, anthology with Leslie Meier, and Lee Hollis, Kensington, 2018. Surprisingly tense story about baking, of all things. Julia Snowden wants to make a french dessert called Bûche de Noël, but she can’t pull it off. Then her mother reminds her that an elderly neighbor used to make it for Christmases past, and it was good. Thing is, as Julia learns to bake with her neighbor, she also learns that a lot of people the neighbor knows have died of gastric issues around the holidays. Is the cranky elderly woman a serial poisoner? Or is something else going on?
I did not see the ending coming, which is lovely and surprising and fun for me. And the writing is excellent, and just thinking about the story makes me hungry. One of my favorite reads of December.
Ross, JoAnn, “Dear Santa,” Silver Bells anthology with Fern Michaels, Mary Burton, and Judy Duarte, Kensington Reissue 2017. I found this volume in a discount store. Originally, the book came out in 2008, but apparently, it’s been reissued. I was getting pretty burned out on Christmas stories by the time I picked this up. The only reason I started JoAnn’s story is because I like her work and because it was about a mystery writer. The writer’s name is Holly Berry, and there’s an actual reason for that. Not a funny reason. A sad and heartwarming one.
Anyway, Holly gets caught in a snow storm in the mountains and sees a reindeer cross her path (Blitzen?). Then she crashes her SUV. Of course, she’s rescued by a hunk of a man who also happens to have the world’s cutest daughter. He’s mayor of the most Christmassy town in the United States, and owns an inn. And in the context of the story, all of this is believable. And wonderful. And charming.
And…and…I cried at the end. Not a delicate little tear running down the side of my face, no. A gasp-y sobby kind of crying that only a few authors have achieved for me in the past—at least with something sweet. So pick up a copy of this book. The paperback is super cheap right now, so if you prefer that format, it’s cheaper than the ebook.
Runyon, Damon, “Dancing Dan’s Christmas,” The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries, edited by Otto Penzler, Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, 2013. Every time I read a Damon Runyon story, I realize how much I enjoy his work. I just never seem to seek him out. I’m not sure why. I loved this one as well. First published in Collier’s in 1932, this story is firmly set in its era. It begins in a speakeasy, involves a drunken pact, and…works. Somehow. I loved it.
Seabrook, John, Jingle Bell Pop, Narrated by Erin Moon, Audible Studios, 2018. I don’t recommend audiobooks often, because I spend half my listening time on podcasts. But a friend recommended this, and I do have an Audible membership, so I downloaded it.
Jingle Bell Pop was one of the free selections for December 2018. I assume it’ll still be available after that.
It’s a behind-the-scenes of the business of Christmas carols. I knew a lot of the stories, but the modern ones, I did not know. The author interviewed songwriters, and calls Christmas pop hits “an annuity.” Yep. If the contracts were good, the writers earned and earned and still earn. Writers should listen to this one, just to see how copyright can be your friend. The book is an hour and 14 minutes long. Well worth listening to.
Shalvis, Jill, “Bah, Handsome!” Merry and Bright, Kensington, 2019. An early Jill Shalvis holiday novella that has most of what I love about her writing. (Not enough goofy animals, though.) Hope runs a B&B, and the lawyer for her mean-as-sin brother who loaned her money arrives to collect. In the middle of a snowstorm. During the holidays. Yes, yes, you know how it will end, but there sure is a lot of tension and how-will-this-resolve? in the journey. Lots of fun.
Shalvis, Jill, Hot Winter Nights, Avon, 2018. I really have no idea how Shalvis makes her characters so winning, but she does. Molly Malone, the office manager for other characters in this series, wants to take an active part in investigations. Everyone else tries to thwart her. But she has two elderly elves who claim that something’s fishy at Santa’s Village, and she’s going to investigate. Lucas Knight doesn’t want her to, but knowing she won’t stop, he decides to help.
Some of the scenes in here are laugh-out-loud funny, especially as the elderly elves speak their minds. But there’s a lot of tension too, when it becomes clear that those elves were on to something. One of the most fun things I read all month.
Shalvis, Jill, The Trouble With Mistletoe, Avon, 2016. I bought this book last year and pulled it off my TBR shelf this year, after finishing something particularly bad and particularly dark. The book was the perfect antidote to that awful, dark novel. Shalvis has an incredible voice, and she creates spectacular characters, including the four-footed ones.
Willa owns South Bark, a pet shop that specializes in grooming and pet care. She’s covered in “puppies and poo” when who should walk in but Keane, the guy who stood her up on the only date she tried to have in high school. To make matters worse, he doesn’t remember her. His great-aunt dumped her tempermental cat on him because the aunt was having a health crisis and had no one else to turn to. He needs to board the cat, at least while he’s at work, because the cat—named Petunia by the aunt, rechristened PITA by Keane (Pain in the ass)—tends to show her displeasure by ruining anything she touches when she’s alone.
The meet-cute is so cute, I read it to Dean. Beneath the fun plot are serious issues, from abandonment to loveless middle class households to building your own family. I was halfway done with the book when I ordered the rest in the Heartbreaker Bay series. I had to refrain from ordering everything she wrote, because she’s written a lot. I’ve already worked my way through this book and a novella (which is fun and too slight to recommend), and I’m starting into another tonight. So, yeah. Read this. Everyone is great. Including PITA.
Smith, Dean Wesley, “Jukebox Gifts,” WMG Publishing, Kindle edition, 2010. I love Dean’s jukebox stories. The conceit is this: for the duration of a single song, played on a jukebox, the person who chose the story can time travel to their strongest memory of that song—and maybe change the past. “Jukebox Gifts” is set at Christmas and is both heartwarming and heartwrenching.
Tursten, Helen, “An Elderly Lady Seeks Peace at Christmastime,” translated by Marlaine Delargy,” The Usual Santas, no editor listed, Soho Crime, 2017. Delightful story about a regular character of Tursten’s named Maud. Maud is an octogenarian who uses people’s prejudices to change the world around her. She just wants a quiet Christmas, and she’ll resort to anything to get it. I’m definitely looking for more of Tursten’s work (preferably translated by Delargy, who found a perfectly wry voice for Maud).
The Usual Santas, no editor listed, Soho Crime, 2017. I loved this book and gave it to a number of Christmas-story loving friends. It’s beautifully designed, with lots of great extras inside. Visual extras. And there’s no editor listed, which pisses me off because clearly, someone edited this book, and put a lot of thought into it. The someone divided the stories by type (“acts of kindness”; “the darkest of holiday noir”) and put together a pleasing order of wonderful authors. This is a spectacular little book, worth every moment you spend with it.
Westlake, Donald, “The Burglar and The Whatsis,” The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries, edited by Otto Penzler, Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, 2013. First published in Playboy in 1966, this story is as much sf as it is mystery. If I say much more about the story, I’ll spoil it. It’s very short, it has a couple of twists, and it made me laugh. In fact, it’s my favorite story in the volume so far (which isn’t saying a great deal, since I only managed about 100 pages of this massive tome before I stopped to save the rest for next holiday season).
Westlake, Donald, “Give Till It Hurts” Christmas at The Mysterious Bookshop, edited by Otto Penzler, Vangard Press, 2010. Losing Westlake was a tragedy. I love his Dortmunder stories and this one, written for the customers of Otto Penzler’s Mysterious Bookshop, is marvelous. Laugh out loud funny, as most Dortmunder stories are.
White, Ethel Lina, “Waxworks,” The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries, Vintage Crime, 2013. Ethel Lina White wrote seventeen novels, two of which became classic films, The Lady Vanishes and The Spiral Staircase. I hadn’t heard of her until I encountered this story, but it soon became clear why Hitchcock felt her to be a kindred spirit.
Sonia, a young reporter, has decided to make her reputation by spending New Year’s Eve in the Waxworks, ostensibly to catch the haunt or whatever it is that was causing all the spooky noises. She describes herself as “not timid” and “fairly perceptive” and believes she can solve this mystery.
Only things get a little more mysterious as time goes on. Someone dies, and some really spooky occurrences happen, and Sonia…well, read this. You’ll soon forget, as I did, that it was written in 1930. I actually pictured a waxworks I’d been to recently as I read it. Probably the most memorable story of the volume for me so far.
Willis, Connie, “All About Emily,” Asimov’s, December, 2011. (Also in A Lot Like Christmas) For years, Connie Willis’s holiday stories, published in Asimov’s, were part of my Christmas traditions. Then, she got deeply involved in her excellent novels, All Clear and Blackout (which I recommended earlier), and she stopped writing any short fiction at all. Which is, I think, a crime. I love Connie’s novels, but I adore her short work.
“All About Emily” riffs on the movie All About Eve, and explains the film for those of you who missed that marvelous classic. The story is set in New York at Christmas, and our heroine is the aging actress who might be threatened by a new up-and-comer, Emily. And yet, something about that girl….
It’s a fun story, especially if you love old movies, Broadway, theater, and New York at Christmas time. And it manages to be good science fiction as well. It’s nice to have you back, Connie. Please continue writing short fiction while doing your novels.
Willis, Connie, “Take A Look At The Five And Ten,” Asimov’s Science Fiction, November/December, 2020. The arrival of a new Connie Willis tale is always great news. This is one of her holiday novellas. It’s good, but not great, Willis. Good Willis is still five times better than what anyone else is doing. Well worth your time. I have included a link to the Subterranean edition, which looks pretty.
Yi, Melissa, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine“Blue Christmas,” , January/February, 2019. Melissa Yi, a doctor, writes a good series about Hope Sze, also a doctor. In this story, Hope goes to Christmas party, and observes things the rest of us never would. Lots of misdirection here, very well done, and some marvelous character building, with a lot of tension. And the meaning of blue…well, you’ll see.