The Fun of Books at Christmas
By Jennie Hansen
*Note: All book images are click to buy.
Christmas is coming! It's barely over a month away and that means it's time to start thinking about all the things that make the season special. For some it's pageants, for some it's choral recitals, some it's being reunited with family, for some it's shopping and gift giving, some find that special Christmas spirit by supporting a favorite charity, for others it's the lights and decorating, and for many it's reading the new selection of Christmas stories and re-reading old favorites. This Christmas season there is a wide selection of Christmas books available. Most are small and would make lovely gifts for neighbors or for home teaching or visiting teaching families. They're also just right for capturing a peaceful moment of private reflection on the many facets of the season and the celebration of Christ's birth.
The Santa Letters by Stacy Gooch-Anderson is the story of a widowed mother and her children who seem to have every reason to dread Christmas. The husband and father died the previous Christmas Eve, the victim of a hit-and-run car accident. Emma has little money to spend on anything but necessities and sinks deeper into depression as Christmas approaches. She drifts away from friends and family, especially her husband's family because she can barely cope with her own pain and has no strength left to show compassion for their loss. Only six-year-old McKenna is looking forward to the holiday. Her older brothers know there's no money for presents and they share their mother's grief associated with the season. Then mysterious letters begin appearing on their doorstep from Santa, attached to unusual gifts.
The Santa Letters is touching without wallowing in maudlin sentimentality. It's a story that invites the reader to identify with the realistic characters, and leaves the reader wondering how he/she would react to such a tragedy or what might be done to help someone in similar circumstances. It caries a subtle message of the bonds of friendship and serves as a reminder that death doesn't sever family relationships. Even the children in the story, who are endearing, are still children who do childish things appropriate for their ages and while growing and learning important truths.
This would be a great book for the whole family to share in Family Home Evenings, to give as a gift, or to read alone as a simple reminder that family is a key component of Christmas.
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There are too many new Christmas books to review them all, but I'll mention as many as I can. They provide delightful choices. Gale Sears has a new Christmas book called Christmas for a Dollar, a story based on a true depression era experience of a young family struggling with the loss of the family's mother, and a father with only a dollar in small change to spend on Christmas. The Spirit of Christmas by Jennie Hansen, Betsy Brannon Green, and Michele Bell is three separate short stories portraying very different Christmases, but each with a message concerning the true spirit of Christmas. Grace by Richard Paul Evans takes us back to a glimpse of an old favorite, The Little Match Girl, seen from a fresh perspective. It's also a reminder that even at Christmas not all children receive the love and respect that should be theirs. By the Light of a Star is a collection of true stories about ordinary people whose lives have been touched in extraordinary ways. Authors are Anita Stansfield, Gale Sears, Joni Hilton, Kerry Blair, Lynn C. Jaynes, and Marilynne Todd Linford.
In addition to Christmas books, there are several small booklets available at bookstores. These come with envelopes and can double as Christmas cards for someone special. They each tell a brief, touching Christmas story. The art work on two that I recently received is especially nice; Bethlehem's Star by Bevan Olsen and Three Angels for Christmas by Lori Nawyn.
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Books also make welcome Christmas gifts. A fictionalized account of the The Woman at the Well written by Emily Freeman and illustrated with paintings by Simon Dewey is bound to be a great favorite. Filled with hope and love, the story is simple and direct and it doesn't stray far from the biblical account. The artwork is stunning.
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I've reviewed some outstanding fiction throughout this year that would make memorable Christmas gifts for fortunate recipients. A few more titles to add to the list include Poisoned Pedigree by G.G. Vandagriff who mixes genealogy and mystery as her heroines Alex and Briggie use clues from a murder that occurred a century and a half ago to solve a modern mystery. Their client is a famous singer who wishes to marry and start a family, but she is haunted by a rumor of "bad blood" in her family and wishes to know if there is a real basis for her fears. When the local "rural" Keeper who has maintained a record of her family is suddenly murdered and her cottage burned, it becomes clear there's more than superstition involved. A love story fraught with psychological issues left over from a miserable childhood, add another dimension to the story. Mystery fans and genealogy buffs will particularly enjoy this one.
Taking Chances is a departure for Shannon Guymon from her usual light-hearted romances. Guymon has developed a solid reputation for love stories that border on chic lit and have just enough bite to help her readers identify in a real way with her heroines. This story is more than fun and entertainment. It takes on the serious issue of child abuse and its lasting affect on not just the victim, but those associated with the crime through family or community connections.
Maggie Tierney at age twenty-four is already a well-known and well-paid artist. She's also out-spoken and a little flamboyant. She could live anywhere, but when a great-grandmother she knew nothing about dies and leaves her a house in Alpine, Utah , she decides to go there for six months to learn more about her father's family. Her maternal grandmother lives in Alpine too, but Maggie wants nothing to do with her because of the pain the woman inflicted on her daughter, Maggie's mother. Her next door neighbor turns out to be a banker who is a little too handsome and popular with the ladies and who seems to think she's some Bohemian nutcase, nevertheless something draws the two together.
The romance is fun, but underlying the humor is the more serious theme. The story is fast-paced and action oriented. We see Maggie grow and change, but there isn't a lot of character development given to other characters. Guymon has done an excellent job of researching the psychological problems associated with child abuse and presents those facts in story format rather than as an information dump which strengthens her story. This book will appeal primarily to adult women and teens and is one I highly recommend.
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Eyes of a Stranger is Rachel Ann Nunes's latest novel. Nunes can always be depended on to deliver a warm, compelling story that explores some facet of the human experience. This story is that of a restless young woman, Tawnia McKnight, who seems unable to settle down or to form lasting relationships. She is to begin a new job in Portland , Oregon , and arrives at her new home shaken by a fortunate error that had her crossing the wrong bridge just as the bridge she should have been on collapsed, killing or injuring the many people on that bridge.
Tawnia is soon confronted with several problems, a man at her new job who steals her ideas, a man who broke her heart and is the reason she left Arizona , and a strange, eccentric young woman, Autumn Rain, who looks just like her. With the discoveries that Autumn's father died in the bridge collapse, Autumn's rescuer's insistence on continuing to look out for her, and that the collapse was no accident, the story takes several exciting twists and turns.
Romance fans will love this one, but so will women fiction readers who like some action and social commentary in the mix.
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I've looked forward to Isabelle Webb, Legend of the Jewel ever since I learned that N.C. Allen was writing again. Following her popular Civil War series, she went back to teaching for a few years and found that with her young family she couldn't both teach and write for awhile. One character from that earlier series continued to linger in her mind until she wrote Isabelle's story.
The war is over and Pinkerton spy Isabelle Webb and her young ward, Sally Rhodes, embark on an extended vacation to someplace exotic to enjoy themselves and recover from the emotional and physical wounds they each suffered during the war. India is their destination.
They arrive in England for a short stay before boarding a different vessel for India . There their adventure begins when they take note of a loud, brash woman behaving strangely and Isabelle is rescued from a drunk's attentions by James Ashby, even though she is quite certain his interference is unnecessary. Both of these people show up on the ship bound for India . A wary friendship begins between Isabelle and James and Isabelle's detective skills are aroused when she learns of James's search for his brother who ran off with a man of questionable character in search of a jewel rumored to possess magical qualities. The woman disappears before they reach their destination.
Their arrival in India is filled with a mixture of intrigue, danger, and customs unlike anything they've experienced before. The historical elements of the story are fascinating and show a great deal of careful research. I found myself completely engrossed in the action portion of the story, which is the greater part of the book, but I found the slowly developing love story deeply satisfying as well. Most books have elements of romance, but this one is different as the two lead characters discover not only the loveable qualities of each other, but become aware of the other's flaws, weaknesses, and emotional hang-ups. Their relationship develops slowly, with hesitation, and a binding kind of trust and respect. Allen does a superb job of never blatantly pushing the love story to the forefront, thus keeping a sense of mystery and depth to the pair's growing feelings for each other. Both men and women of all ages will enjoy this book and find it difficult to put down from beginning to end, though some people, like me, will be both intrigued and slightly annoyed to find a subtle hint that the mystery isn't really resolved in the conclusion and that a sequel will follow.
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Two young adult books will also be welcomed on many Christmas shopping lists. Reunion by Allyson Braithwaite Condie is the story of young adults leaving high school, beginning college, and embarking on missions. It's a tangle of discovering who and what is important, falling in love, and making decisions. It's written in a warm contemporary style that explores many of the child-to-adult turning point issues. Chapters are written from the point of view of several different characters, but the major ones are high school and snowboarding friends Sam Choi and Addie Sherman. It is the final book in the Yearbook Trilogy.
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After an extensive Internet book tour, there probably aren't many teens or fantasy fans left who haven't heard of Far World Water Keep by J. Scott Savage. Though this book is not specifically LDS and is intended for the general market, Savage is best known as an LDS fiction writer with his popular Shandra Covington Mystery series, his mystery fans will be anxious to read this new series even though it is being marketed to a younger crowd. There's enough magic and strange creatures populating the book to please the most avid fantasy reader, but there's an added dimension of mystery and philosophy that marks this fantasy as a cut above many fantasies currently being marketed to young adults. Savage is to be commended for maintaining his high personal standards in an era where this genre has too often adopted a great deal of crude language, occult worship, and moral decay---and he's done it while writing an action-packed, intense, highly entertaining adventure.
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THE SANTA LETTERS by Stacy Gooch-Anderson, published by Sweetwater Books (Cedar Fort), hardcover, 190 pages, $16.99
THE SPIRIT OF CHRISTMAS by Jennie Hansen, Betsy Brannon Green, and Michele Ashman Bell, published by Covenant Communications, softcover, 140 pages, $7.95
THE WOMAN AT THE WELL by Emily Freeman with paintings by Simon Dewey, published by Deseret Book, hardcover, $19.95
POISONED PEDIGREE by G.G. Vandagriff, published by Deseret Book, softcover, 261 pages, $17.95
EYES OF A STRANGER by Rachel Ann Nunes, published by Shadow Mountain, soft cover, 348 pages, $18.95
ISABELLE WEBB, LEGEND OF THE JEWEL by N.C. Allen, published by Covenant Communications, soft cover, 245 pages, $15.95
REUNION by Allyson Braithwaite Condie, published by Deseret Book, softcover, 215 pages, $15.95
FAR WORLD, WATER KEEP by J. Scott Savage, published by Shadow Mountain, soft cover, 413 pages, $17.95