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  • C. P. Lesley

Books We Loved, Dec. 2018

Just in time for holiday shopping and reading, we have a bunch of Christmas and winter books to recommend. Treat yourself, treat your friends and family, and don't forget to check out our own selections for literary journeys on our Books page. They also make great gifts!

Sam Hooker, The Winter Riddle (Black Spot Books, 2018)

If you are a moody young woman who likes to wear black, you might well be a witch. Or aspire to be a witch. If you need a tongue-in-cheek guide on how to behave, you could benefit from picking up The Winter Riddle by Sam Hooker.

Quaint, and yet somehow very modern, this is the tale of Volgha the Winter Witch. Volgha, like Greta Garbo, just “vants to be alone,” in her moldering but cozy hut at the North Pole. Unfortunately, not only is she royal by blood, but her depraved, needy sister is the queen. The queen enjoys teasing and tormenting her introverted sister, almost as much as chopping people’s heads off or getting stimulated with the Royal Tickler (a person in the employ of the palace who is always masked). To add to Volgha’s woes, her mind is soon shared by her familiar, a red crow, and her old mentor, which leads to some lively discussions inside her head. And that handsome Santa, with a secret past as a warrior? Volgha tries to push him away, but he doesn’t allow her rebuffs to discomfort him.

There is a plot to all this farce as well. Volgha, who has spent years trying to get away from everything and everyone, is chosen by fate to become the Warden of the North Pole and mediate between nature spirits and the doings of man. With a motley crew of assistants, including the vain and talkative red crow, a terrified elf, and a practical scullery maid, she must set things to rights.—GM

Samantha Silva, Mr. Dickens and His Carol (Flatiron Books, 2018)

Christmas is not looking bright for Charles Dickens. His latest novel has proven a massive flop, and that upstart William Thackeray doesn’t miss an opportunity to crow. Bills are rolling in, every relative in creation has his or her hand out, the kids (number steadily increasing) have their hearts set on expensive toys, and Mrs. Dickens has already started making plans for the most elaborate holiday party yet. Oh yes, and Dickens’ publisher is begging him to write a Christmas book when the spirit of Christmas seems to have packed up and moved to Scotland together with Dickens’ exasperated family.

Determined not to give in, Dickens moves to a cheap hotel, rents a room under the name Ebenezer Scrooge, dons the disguise of an old man, and roams the streets of London in pursuit of a mysterious young woman in a purple cloak. And surprise, by the time December 25 rolls around, Dickens has not only recovered his joie de vivre but penned what may be the world’s most beloved holiday classic, A Christmas Carol.

Like Danielle Teller’s All the Ever Afters, another favorite of mine, this novel takes events we all know from literature and, through the application of a light touch and a gifted imagination, turns them into a novel at once comfortably familiar and delightfully different.

Interview with the author on LitHub and New Books in Historical Fiction.—CPL

Josie Silver, One Day in December (Broadway Books, 2018)

The opening scene is something that few, if anyone, will experience in real life—Laurie, on a bus on her way home one day in December, makes eye contact with a man on a bench. In that moment, she falls in love, but it will be a year before she sees him again. And when she does, her best friend Sarah introduces him as Sarah’s new boyfriend, Jack. Forced to put their own feelings aside for Sarah, who they both love, the book follows Laurie and Jack over the next ten years as they navigate their burgeoning friendship, respective romantic relationships, personal tragedies, and an attraction to each other that never really fades no matter how hard they try.

Fans of Love, Actually will love curling up in front of a crackling fire with a mug of steaming tea in one hand, this book in the other, and of course, a plate of fresh-baked Christmas cookies.—CJH

Lee Zacharias, Across the Great Lake (University of Wisconsin Press, 2018)

“We went to the ice.” So begins this short, intense, lyrical novel told by a woman who has survived many winters—eighty-five, to be precise—as she recalls the trip she took with her father across Lake Michigan the year her mother died.

Five-year-old Fern Halverson sees the Manitou, the rail-transport vessel her father captains, as a great adventure. With a new friend, a stray kitten, and her teddy bear, Fern roams the ship, visits her father in the pilothouse, plays hide-and-seek on the car deck, and ingratiates herself with his crew.

But Lake Michigan poses many hazards for sailors. Its swells, winds, and ice wreck ships by the score, especially during the brutal winter of 1936, and the ghosts they leave behind menace the living. The secret Fern carries away from the Manitou’s encounter with one such ghost will haunt her for the rest of her days.

Interview with the author at New Books in Historical Fiction.—CPL

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