What’s in Santa’s Book Bag? Twenty-six Christmas Titles To Get Readers in a Festive Mood

This Yuletide season brings a sleigh full of Christmas cozies, from Elizabethan England to present-day Nantucket, MA, tempered by a few darker mysteries courtesy of Ann Cleeves and L.J. Oliver. Of course, there’s plenty of romance and family drama for the holidays, too, so settle in with a hot beverage and enjoy.

Berenson, Laurien. The Bark Before Christmas: A Melanie Travis Canine Mystery. Kensington. Oct. 2015. 304p. ISBN 9780758284587. $25; ebk. ISBN 9780758284600. m

Melanie Travis makes her 18th appearance in this popular canine-themed mystery series (Death of a Dog Whisperer). In addition to wrangling two young sons and a pack of poodles, Melanie returns to work at Howard Academy, a Greenwich, CT, private school. It’s almost Christmas, and the school is gearing up for its annual fundraiser, the Christmas Bazaar. When the bazaar chair elopes to Mexico, the principal asks Melanie to take over. The event is going well until Santa turns up dead and a valuable show dog disappears. Feeling responsible, Melanie tries to track down the dog and the murderer so everyone can have a merry Christmas. VERDICT Cozy mystery fans and dog lovers will lap this one up.

awayinamanger100915Bowen, Rhys. Away in a Manger: A Molly Murphy Mystery. Minotaur: St. Martin’s. Nov. 2015. 272p. ISBN 9781250052032. $24.99; ebk. ISBN 9781466853362. M

The 15th entry in this best-selling historical series (Edge of Dreams) takes place at Christmastime in 1905 New York City. Molly Murphy Sullivan is looking forward to an uneventful holiday season with her husband, baby, and her ward Bridie. She and Bridie are out shopping when they hear a beggar girl with an angelic voice singing “Away in a Manger.” They’re drawn to helping the girl and then her brother, but it soon becomes apparent that these children are victims of a larger scheme involving the scions of Gotham society. Molly will have to tread carefully as she seeks the truth and tries to find the children’s family. VERDICT Full of historical details and holiday spirit, this makes an excellent Yuletide read. [See Prepub Alert, 6/1/15.]

Brown, Alexandra. The Great Christmas Knit-Off. Morrow. Oct. 2015. 400p. ISBN 9780062389800. pap. $14.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062389817. F

Brown, known for her “Carrington’s” books (Ice Creams at Carrington’s), launches a new series set in a fictional English village. Facing a lonely Christmas after being left at the altar by her fiancé and the possibility of losing her job, Sybil flees London and heads to Tindledale, where her friends run a pub in the picturesque little community. There, she encounters the hot town doctor, Ben, and a host of quirky residents. Soon Sybs is rallying the villagers in a giant knitting project in an effort to save Hettie’s House of Haberdashery from closing. ­VERDICT Fans of British chick lit will adore this story whether or not they enjoy knitting, although knitters will also appreciate the included pattern for a lovely little Christmas pudding decoration.

redstarCarmack, Amanda. Murder at Whitehall: An Elizabethan Mystery. NAL. Dec. 2015. 304p. ISBN 9780451475695. pap. $7.99; ebk. ISBN 9780698196568. m

The fourth series outing (after Murder in the Queen’s Garden) finds Kate Haywood, Queen Elizabeth’s personal musician, busy writing music and organizing a masque at Whitehall Palace since the queen wishes to celebrate the Christmas season with traditional revels. Surrounded by court intrigue and scandal as European delegates arrive with gifts and plots, Kate keeps a wary eye on those who might seek to harm the monarch. When the queen receives mysterious threats and then one of the Spanish delegates is murdered, Kate stealthily investigates. VERDICT Carmack infuses this Christmas cozy with rich historical detail and irresistible machinations. Readers will be drawn into this depiction of the Tudor court and root for its talented amateur sleuth.

Chiaverini, Jennifer. Christmas Bells. Dutton. Oct. 2015. 304p. ISBN 9780525955245. $25.95; ebk. ISBN 9780698407091. F

Inspired by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “Christmas Bells,” Chiaverini (Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker) intersperses the story of how Longfellow came to write the poem with the stories of several people connected to St. Margaret’s, a church in contemporary Boston. In the early 1860s, Longfellow is mourning the death of his wife and worrying about his son on the Civil War battlefields while in the present a music teacher faces the loss of her job, a family worries about their missing father in Afghanistan, and brothers clash. With a little help from Sister Winifred, however, those at St. ­Margaret’s find the hope and joy of the season as they sing a hymn inspired by ­Longfellow’s words. VERDICT ­Chiaverini writes a heartfelt story of Christmases past and present. [See Prepub Alert, 4/6/15.]

redstarCleeves, Ann. Harbour Street: A Vera Stanhope Mystery. Minotaur: St. Martin’s. Dec. 2015. 384p. ISBN 9781250070661. $25.99; ebk. ISBN 9781466881051. M

The sixth in Cleeves’s series (The Glass Room), which is the basis for the hit public television series Vera starring Brenda Blethyn, finds DI Vera Stanhope and Det. Joe Ashworth chasing a murderer shortly before Christmas. Joe’s daughter, Jessie, discovers the fatally stabbed Margaret ­Krukowski on the Metro. By all appearances Margaret was a kind and elegant lady, so who would want to kill her? It’s not long before Margaret’s friend is also found murdered. As a fresh blanket of snow covers the town, Joe and Vera try to unearth the many dark secrets of Harbour Street’s residents. VERDICT Cleeves offers up evocative settings and flawed characters with depth, making her mysteries wonderfully addictive. Her latest is no exception. [See Prepub Alert, 6/8/15.]

Cleland, Jane K. Ornaments of Death: A Josie Prescott Antiques Mystery. Minotaur: St. Martin’s. Dec. 2015. 304p. ISBN 9781250074539. $25.99; ebk. ISBN 9781466886247. m

In her tenth appearance (after Blood Rubies) Josie Prescott, antiques appraiser and amateur sleuth, is thrilled when Ian ­Bennington, a newly discovered distant relative from England, wants to visit her in New Hampshire. She invites him to her annual holiday party, and Ian thoroughly charms Josie and her guests. When Ian goes missing, Josie immediately tries to track him down, but she soon uncovers some troubling clues that indicate a deception and possible murder. Josie needs to discover the truth before the killer silences her permanently. VERDICT Readers will be happy to catch up with Josie and the residents of the cozy coastal town of Rocky Point during the holidays. Bits of interesting antique appraisals are interspersed with the mystery, complementing the satisfying story.


Defrise, Kate.
Christmas Chocolat. Kensington. 2015. 288p. ISBN 9781496700230. pap. $15; ebk. ISBN 9781496700247. F

christmaschocolat100915This debut novel is women’s fiction with a Belgian twist, and includes tempting classic Belgian recipes. The Arnaud siblings—Magali (nickname Maggie), Colette, Jacqueline, and Art—are scattered across the world, living separate lives, until their father summons them to his home in Pennsylvania for Christmas. Busy dealing with the challenges of careers, spouses, children, or the lack of offspring, they reluctantly agree, but they’ll have to overcome past hurts and sibling rivalries before finding any joy this Yuletide. VERDICT Defrise’s characters are dealing with real and relatable issues, but they occasionally veer into being annoyingly self-absorbed and whiny. Readers will still want to see how the story plays out, though, and the heavenly descriptions of food, cooking, and Belgian culture give the novel extra appeal.

Delany, Vicki. Rest Ye Murdered Gentlemen: A Year-Round Christmas Mystery. Berkley. Nov. 2015. 304p. ISBN 9780425280805. pap. $7.99; ebk. ISBN 9780698192843. M

Delany (Under Cold Stone) launches a new series set in Rudolph, NY, a little Upstate town where it’s Christmas year-round. Merry Wilkinson has returned home to open up a shop called Mrs. Claus’s Treasures, which sells quality, artisan-crafted gifts. December is Rudolph’s busiest season, but someone seems to be trying to sabotage the holiday for everyone. When Nigel Pearce, a journalist writing about “America’s Christmas town,” is found dead, the community is thrown into turmoil and potential ruin as tourists cancel reservations and avoid shopping there. With her best friend under suspicion and her livelihood at risk, Merry is determined to find the grinch who is destroying their Christmas. ­VERDICT A fun Yuletide-themed cozy with an appealing amateur sleuth.

Evans, Richard Paul. The Mistletoe Inn. S. & S. Nov. 2015. 272p. ISBN 9781501119798. $19.99; ebk. ISBN 9781501119804. F

In the second holiday love story of Evans’s “Mistletoe Collection” (The Mistletoe Promise), Kim Rossi is recently divorced and working as a finance officer at a car dealership. When Kim hears about a romance-writing retreat at the Mistletoe Inn, she decides it may be time to pursue her dream of becoming an author and attend the retreat. Upon arrival, she is unexpectedly swept up in a whirlwind romance with another conference attendee, Zeke. When he critiques her work, though, Kim can’t handle the constructive criticism and ends the relationship. Disappointed, she heads home to spend the holiday with her dad, but she’s in for a happy surprise on Christmas day. VERDICT Best-selling Evans’s modern fairy-tale romance is another story of love and forgiveness. [See Prepub Alert, 5/11/15.]

Goldenbaum, Sally. Trimmed with Murder: A Seaside Knitters Mystery. NAL. Nov. 2015. 336p. ISBN 9780451471628. $24.95; ebk. ISBN 9780698172050. M

The residents of Sea Harbor, MA, are celebrating the holiday season and looking forward to the tree-trimming contest in this tenth series installment (after Finely Knit Murder). When Charlie, Izzy’s younger brother, unexpectedly shows up in town after years away, they’re all surprised. More surprises are in store, though, as another mysterious visitor ends up murdered. With the police looking hard at Charlie’s relationship with the victim, Izzy and the other seaside knitters need to find the real killer. As the group knits their Christmas ornaments and traces the victim’s final steps, they uncover dangerous secrets. VERDICT Series fans will want to catch up with the seaside knitters in this well-executed cozy, which includes a sailboat ornament knitting pattern and a recipe.

Hamilton, Victoria. White Colander Crime: A Vintage Kitchen Mystery. Berkley. Nov. 2015. 304p. ISBN 9780425271407. pap. $7.99; ebk. ISBN 9780698139312. m

Jaymie Leighton, food columnist and vintage cookware collector, is back in the fifth series outing (after No Mallets Intended). As Christmas approaches, she’s preparing for the opening of the Queensville Historic Manor and Dickens Days in the small village of Queensville, MI. Jaymie is looking forward to giving baking demonstrations in the vintage kitchen at the manor and spending time with handsome junk store owner Jakob. Her plans are interrupted, though, after she discovers Shelby Fretter badly beaten in a storeroom. When Shelby dies of her injuries and the son of Jaymie’s editor is the main suspect, Jaymie is soon roped into investigating. VERDICT A captivating cozy, which includes Jaymie’s “Vintage Eats” food column featuring a recipe for no-bake fruitcake.

Hay, Mavis Doriel. The Santa Klaus Murder. Poisoned Pen. (British Library Crime Classics). Oct. 2015. 252p. ISBN 9781464204951. pap. $12.95; ebk. ISBN 9781464204968. M

The Melbury family Christmas gatherings at country residence Flaxmere are dreaded by all except for the patriarch, Sir Osmond Melbury. Not willing to risk their inheritance, members dutifully obey the holiday summons, but this Christmas arrives with a terrible surprise when Santa Klaus finds Sir Osmond shot in his study. With so many at the house, who would benefit from Sir Osmond’s death? It won’t be easy for the chief constable to determine the culprit. VERDICT Hay’s 1936 country-house mystery joins a series of classic titles rediscovered by the British Library. While Hay is not as well known as Agatha Christie or Dorothy L. Sayers, her golden age mystery holds up well and will appeal to mystery lovers of this era.

Hilderbrand, Elin. Winter Stroll. Little, Brown. Oct. 2015. 272p. ISBN 9780316261135. $25; ebk. ISBN 9780316261128. F

The Quinn family returns in this sequel to the best-selling winterstroll100915Winter Street. Their inn on the lovely island of Nantucket, MA, is flourishing again, and the family has mostly recovered from the drama of last Christmas. However, the holiday season seems to be a magnet for former spouses and lovers, whose reappearances cause all kinds of strife and uncertainty among the Quinn clan. As the family gathers to celebrate the baptism of Kevin and Isabelle’s baby, Kelly’s ex-wife Mitzi (who ran off with Santa last year) pays a return visit. Also threatening to ruin the holidays are Kevin’s former wife and Ava’s ex-boyfriend. VERDICT Fans of the first book will clamor to read this follow-up and will also be pleased that the conclusion indicates another installment. [See Prepub Alert, 4/6/15.]

Hill, Melissa. The Gift of a Charm. Griffin: St. Martin’s. Oct. 2015. 300p. ISBN 9781250077141. pap. $15.99; ebk. ISBN 9781466888999. F

The charms on Holly O’Neill’s precious bracelet mark important moments in her life. When she finds a similar piece of jewelry in a jacket that was anonymously donated to the vintage resale store where she works, she’s determined to reunite the bracelet with its owner. Holly follows the clues of the charms across New York City, despite trying to make ends meet as a single mom while still creating a special Christmas for her young son. However, the charms lead her to both unexpected places and exactly where she needs to be. VERDICT Irish author Hill (A Gift from Tiffany’s) weaves the stories of Holly and those touched by the missing bracelet into a magical tale of love and family, perfect for the Christmas season.

Hughes, Dean. Home and Away: A World War II Christmas Story. Shadow Mountain. Oct. 2015. 176p. ISBN 9781629720937. $16.99; ebk. ISBN 9781629733890. F

It’s 1944, and teenager Dennis Hayes longs to join his older brother Glen, who is fighting in Europe. In the meantime, he works after school to earn enough money to buy a new suit so he can bring his date to a dance and also get presents for his parents and little sisters. When his family receives word that Glen has been wounded, Dennis realizes that going to war is not so glamorous. Christmas isn’t the same without Glen, but the Hayes family members hope and pray that they’ll be reunited soon. ­VERDICT Hughes’s (“Children of the Promise” series) faith-filled, old-fashioned story feels like it could have been written during the period in which it takes place.

Husom, Christine. The Iced Princess: A Snow Globe Shop Mystery. Berkley Prime Crime. Dec. 2015. 304p. ISBN 9780425270813. pap. $7.99; ebk. ISBN 9780698137011. M

In the follow-up to Snow Way Out, ­Camryn and best friend Pinky prepare for the Christmas rush at their adjoining coffee and curio shops in Brooks Landing, MN. They hire seasonal help, but on their first day Cami discovers one of the new employees, Molly, dead in the bathroom, apparently poisoned by a cyanide-laced cup of coffee. Hoping to appease Molly’s ghost and more than a little worried that she was actually the intended victim, Cami sets out to identify the killer. VERDICT A small-town cozy for readers who can tolerate protagonists who say “holy moly” and “golly” throughout the story. Snow-globe-making projects included.

Johnstone, William W. with J.A. Johnstone. A Texas Hill Country Christmas. Pinnacle: Kensington. Nov. 2015. 334p. ISBN 9780786035892. pap. $7.50; ebk. ISBN 9780786035908. F

The Johnstones (A Frontier Christmas) reunite several members of the Jensen family for a memorable Christmas. Ace and Chance get roped into helping a stranger chase after the woman he loves; bounty hunter Luke is on the trail of an outlaw; Smoke and Sally are on a stagecoach headed for Texas; and Matt is scouting for the army and hunting down renegade Indians. Meanwhile, an outlaw-turned-preacher is hiding from his former partner and trying to start anew, but it’s not so easy to leave that old life behind. The threads of these stories all come together in a spectacular shoot-out in the Texas hill country. VERDICT This rollicking Western is full of gunfights, outlaws, and an unforgettable holiday.

Lee, Ashton. A Cherry Cola Christmas. Kensington. (Cherry Cola Book Club, Bk. 4). 2015. 304p. ISBN 9781617733437. pap. $15; ebk. ISBN 9781617733444. F

Librarian Maura Beth has just returned from her honeymoon in the fourth series (The Wedding Circle) entry. Christmas is approaching, and the residents of Cherico, MS, are having a hard time finding some holiday cheer in a struggling economy. Local shops are closing, money was stolen from the beloved Miz Periwinkle’s restaurant, and a cowboy boot manufacturer has pulled out of building a factory in the town. Maura decides to host a special meeting of the Cherry Cola Book Club and have members share uplifting stories. Between the inspiring tales and a visit from a famous country music star, there’s encouragement for this tight-knit community yet. VERDICT A Christmas tale full of cozy Southern flair. It includes two recipes and a reading group guide.

Lovett, Charlie. The Further Adventures of Ebenezer Scrooge. Viking. Oct. 2015. 128p. ISBN 9780525429104. $19.95; ebk. ISBN 9780698195745. F

Lovett (First Impressions) has written a delightful sequel to Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. Twenty years after Scrooge’s infamous change of heart, he can be found relentlessly spreading holiday cheer and giving away his money throughout London even on a sweltering summer day. When the ghost of his old friend Jacob Marley reappears and despairs of ever sloughing off the chains he’s forced to carry around, Scrooge concocts a plan to lighten his friend’s load. He enlists the spirits who visited him long ago to call on his creditors, his nephew, and Bob Cratchit, now his business partner, and inspire them to follow in his now generous footsteps. VERDICT Told in the style of Dickens with a sly wit, this is an excellent companion to the original Christmas classic. [See Prepub Alert, 4/6/15.]

dashingthroughsnow100915Macomber, Debbie. Dashing Through the Snow: A Christmas Novel. Ballantine. Oct. 2015. 256p. ISBN 9780553391695. $18; ebk. ISBN 9780553391701. F

Graduate student Ashley decides to fly home to Seattle for Christmas and surprise her mother. Desperate to find a last-minute flight from San Francisco, Ashley is frustrated when she can’t get a ticket. Her only option is to share a ride with Kevin, who is headed to Seattle for a job interview. The two clash from the beginning, but you know they’ll be feeling differently by the end of their eventful road trip. VERDICT Featuring an over-the-top plot line and a few characters who will have you laughing out loud, including a mechanic with a space alien wife and an overzealous FBI agent, this Christmas romance from best-selling author Macomber (Mr. Miracle) is both sweet and sincere. [See Prepub Alert, 4/6/15.]

Mahon, Annette. Slay Bells: A St. Rose Quilting Bee Mystery. Five Star: Gale Cengage. Nov. 2015. 262p. ISBN 9781432831301. $25.95. M

The sixth series outing (Bright Hopes) finds the quilters of St. Roses’ Senior Guild called on once again to put their gossiping skills to use when Kathy Romelli and her son are found murdered. Maggie and the other quilters try to focus on making their presents for the Secret Santa gift exchange, but the murders and then a rash of robberies dominate the conversations at the guild. Maggie dutifully passes on nuggets of information to her police officer son. As Christmas nears, the guild begins to wonder if their town of Scottsdale, AZ, will ever be safe again. VERDICT A gentle mystery that seniors will appreciate.

Oliver, L.J. The Humbug Murders: An Ebenezer Scrooge Mystery. Pocket: Gallery. Oct. 2015. 400p. ISBN 9781476792347. pap. $7.99; ebk. ISBN 9781476792392. M

One night shortly before Christmas, 30-year-old Ebenezer Scrooge receives a visit from the ghost of his former employer, Fezziwig, who desperately imparts a cryptic warning about three more deaths, including Scrooge’s, if he doesn’t find Fezziwig’s killer. Wanting to save himself, Scrooge enlists his spunky new clerk, Adelaide Owen, and reporter Charles Dickens to assist him in identifying the culprit; their quest will lead them to both London’s high society and its seamy underbelly. VERDICT This series launch from Oliver, the pen name for E.A.A. Wilson and the late Scott Ciencin, is a gritty period mystery that features clever appearances by Dickens and several of his characters. Still, it will appeal more to fans of Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White than A Christmas Carol.

Perry, Anne. A Christmas Escape. Ballantine. Nov. 2015. 176p. ISBN 9780553391411. $18; ebk. ISBN 9780553391428. M

Perry’s 13th seasonal mystery (A New York Christmas) christmasescape100915features James Latterly, Hester Monk’s brother. Latterly travels to the Italian island of Stromboli to escape the grief and desolation he’s felt since his wife’s death. On this beautiful, volcanic island he finds himself in the company of an eclectic group of fellow Britons. As the volcano’s gentle rumbles turn into a dangerous spewing of rocks and lava, the travelers prepare to flee to the sea, but a killer seems to be taking advantage of the chaos. Charged with the safekeeping of a precocious 14-year-old girl, Latterly tries to determine who the killer is while navigating the dangerous descent. VERDICT With barely a mention of Christmas, read this one for Perry’s skillful rendering of Stromboli and the inhabitants unfortunate enough to be there during a volcanic eruption. [See Prepub Alert, 6/1/15.]

Silent Nights: Christmas Mysteries. Poisoned Pen. (British Library Crime Classics). Nov. 2015. 298p. ed. by Martin Edwards. ISBN 9781464204999. pap. $12.99; ebk. ISBN 9781464205002. m

Editor Edwards (The Golden Age of Murder) assembles 15 classic Christmas detective stories that include contributions by Arthur Conan Doyle, G.K. Chesterton, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Margery Allingham, and that feature favorite characters Sherlock Holmes, Father Brown, and Lord Peter Wimsey. Interspersed are more obscure but still thoroughly enjoyable golden age mysteries such as Leo Bruce’s “Beef for Christmas,” starring the inimitable Sergeant Beef, and Ralph Plummer’s “Parlour Tricks.” VERDICT Follow Edwards’s advice to curl up with these good mysteries, as they’re much better for the digestion than another helping of plum pudding. A delectable treat for fans of classic crime fiction.

Thompson, Victoria. Murder on St. Nicholas Avenue: A Gaslight Mystery. Berkley. Nov. 2015. 320p. ISBN 9780425278970. $25.95; ebk. ISBN 9780698184879. M

Thompson (Murder on Amsterdam Avenue) rewards fans of her long-running 19th-century–set series with an “extra” Christmas story filled with some of the secondary characters. Since Frank and Sarah Malloy are away on their honeymoon in Europe, nanny Maeve offers to aid Mrs. O’Neill, who shows up at the Malloy residence seeking help for her daughter Una, who has been arrested for killing her husband. With some assistance from policeman Gino and Sarah’s parents, Maeve investigates the murder and soon unearths more of the victim’s secrets. VERDICT This is a fantastic historical with a wonderfully plucky amateur female sleuth. Fans of Rhys Bowen’s “Molly ­Murphy” mysteries and Anne Perry’s “Thomas Pitt” books will especially enjoy.

Melissa DeWild is Director, BookOps, Brooklyn Public Library and New York Public Library. She is a 2014 LJ Mover & Shaker

This article was published in Library Journal's October 15, 2015 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

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Comments

  1. Judith Harper says:

    Please make this wonderful, extremely helpful feature a yearly tradition!

    • Wilda Williams Wilda Williams says:

      Hi Judith, We have been running this holiday fiction roundup for the past four years and we plan to continue running annual installments. Cheers1