Every year, November and December bring a new assortment of winter holiday stories. Most, but not all, are about Christmas, are usually short, and they are featured in a library display called “Heartwarming Holiday Stories.” If you’re looking for a pleasant holiday read, you’ll find plenty of books to browse. Here are short reviews of three new selections:
Christmas Caramel Murder by Joanne Fluke
In another delicious winter holiday mystery, cookie baker Hannah Swensen is looking back at the previous winter, telling a newcomer to Lake Eden a story about her business partner Lisa. Lisa is worried that her husband Herb is out late “working” every night, and is really upset when she doesn’t get to play Mrs. Claus to Herb’s Santa in a local Christmas show, and the very flirty Phyllis wears a rather revealing costume at the dress rehearsal. Shortly afterwards Hannah and Lisa find a body in a snowbank, near a bag of caramels that Lisa made. Hannah, an experienced amateur sleuth, works with detective Mike to find the killer. I didn’t try any of the dozen recipes included, but they sound delicious. A nice touch is that Hannah dreams of her father as the ghosts in Dickens’ Christmas Carol, and the ghosts give her some helpful hints. Suzanne Torren is an excellent narrator for the audiobook version.
Amish holiday stories are very popular here, and this book features two novellas. In The Midwife’s Christmas Surprise by Marta Perry, young midwife Anna Zook is having trouble getting accepted in her Amish community as more than an assistant midwife. She is stunned when her friend’s son, Benjamin Miller, returns from three years in the “English” world. In A Christmas to Remember by Jo Ann Brown, storekeeper Amos Stoltzfus is led to an injured woman by a little girl who can only tell them their names. Linda has lost her memory and can’t remember where she was taking the little girl. Short and sweet holiday romances make for a quick read.
Twelve Days of Christmas by Debbie Macomber
Julia works at a large department store, volunteers at a Boys and Girls Club playing piano, and needs to develop a popular blog for a chance at a corporate social media job. Julia’s friend encourages her to write about her grumpy neighbor Cain, and do something kind for him every day during the Christmas season. Cain turns down chocolate chip cookies and a free drink at his favorite coffee shop, so the kindness campaign is not starting out well. Then Cain gets sick, Julia meets his grandfather, and her blog takes off. What will happen if Cain finds out that she’s writing about him? This is a fun, heartwarming story with a little romance, and I didn’t mind that it was a bit predictable. Brenda
Iron Lake by William Kent Krueger
This debut mystery is set in northern Minnesota, in the winter. The tone is fittingly very dark. Former sheriff Cork O’Connor, one quarter Ashinaabe, is separated from his wife Jo, a lawyer, and worries about his three children. When the local judge dies suddenly, Cork starts investigating, as the new sheriff is inexperienced and the coroner is incompetent. More deaths occur, possibly accidental. With rumors of the mythic beast Windigo, Cork uncovers corruption, embezzlement, and blackmail, possibly involving his wife’s lover and the local Ojibwe casino. The pace and tension intensify as the book progresses, making it hard to put down, even though a happy ending is increasingly unlikely. This first book in an ongoing series won multiple awards, and reminds me of the mysteries of Dana Stabenow and Nevada Barr.
1222 by Anne Holt
For American readers, this is an exciting place to jump into the Norwegian mystery series featuring police inspector Hanne Wilhelmsen; at 1222 meters, or 4000 feet above sea level, in a snowstorm. Hanne and 267 other passengers are on a train from Oslo to Bergen when it derails near a tunnel entrance. Only the driver is killed, and the passengers are evacuated to a nearby hotel. We quickly learn that Hanne is in a wheelchair, having been shot in the spin 4 years earlier. For a cranky, reclusive woman, Hanne is pretty good company. Injured in the crash, she is treated by Magnus Streng, a charming dwarf physician. Hanne takes angry teen Adrian under her wing, and the various groups from the train settle into the different wings of the hotel until they can be rescued. A death in the night brings Hanne to work with a small group of leaders to make plans and keep the passengers from panicking, especially as the weather worsens, and another death is discovered. Young teen athletes, older youth headed to a concert, a church group, doctors on their way to a conference, and the unknown passengers aboard the train’s extra carriage variously blend, clash, eat, and get impatient. While I would have preferred Hanne to spend less time observing that different passengers could use a shower or clean clothes, I did find this to be a fast-paced and intriguing mystery. As in most Scandinavian mysteries and crime thrillers, it is dark, cold, the detective has personal issues, and much coffee is drunk, Holt makes her own mark on the field with a book that has much in common with traditional English country house mysteries. For readers who prefer to start at the beginning of a series, the first two Hanne Wilhelmsen mysteries have recently been translated into English.