On the third, fourth and fifth days of Christmas, we bring you three heart-warming books of holiday cheer, murder and mayhem! I’ve got quite an assortment here: a little something for the romance fans, a Victorian era mystery for history buffs and a Southern Belle mystery for all my fellow cozy readers! Grab yourself a hot toddy and read on for some quality book recommendations selected by my skilled editorial staff CeeCee Honeycutt and Lil Bootz.
A Garland of Bones by Carolyn Haines
The gist: Sara Booth Delaney and all her friends set forth to Columbus, Mississippi to enjoy the holiday festivities—including a parade, a mumming, dive bar karaoke (my fave!) and shopping galore! Just when they start to let their hair down, Clarissa Olson (the Queen Bee of the mean girls swingers club) insists on hiring Sara Booth and her BFF Tinkie (the best PIs south of the Mason/Dixon line!) to investigate who’s behind the string of accidents that are plaguing her nasty clique of husband-stealing frienemies. Personally, I would’ve given this case a hard pass, but money talks!
What I liked: When it comes to prose, character development, dialogue and overall storytelling, Carolyn Haines is the best in the contemporary cozy mystery business. That’s right—I said it! She’s the best. I always feel like I’m visiting with old friends in gator country whenever I pick up a book in this series—and I’m glad it’s still going strong throughout all these decades.
Oh, and you know what else is cool about these mysteries? I didn’t think about this until recently, but this author is ahead of her time. She included a trans-character in the cast long, long before LGBTQ+ inclusion became trendy in the mainstream literary world. This was a really bold move considering the genre’s very white-bread target audience.
What didn’t work: My only gripe is that Jiggy (the resident ghost) needs to calm down about Sara Booth providing heirs to the plantation homestead. Her nagging about “dried up eggs” is getting tiresome.
Favorite character: Sara Booth will always be my No. 1 girl! She is a lover of animals and a kind-hearted soul. I’m just so glad she finally found love with the hunky Sheriff Coleman Peters! I hope they both decide against having children just to spite Jiggy—HA!
Least favorite character: There’s a whole slew of unsavory suspects in this particular mystery, but I will have to go with Clarissa, Sara Booth’s client from hell. She is just pure nastiness with way too many hidden agendas.
Overall: This is, yet again, another quality holiday-themed mystery that I highly recommend to any cozy lover who enjoys a Deep South setting and colorful characters.
The Twelve Dogs of Christmas by Lizzie Shane
The gist: This is some Hallmark channel gooey goodness wrapped up in a book filled with shelter dogs, Northeast Coast small town charm, romance and all the trimmings! The story follows a very tedious push-and-pull romance between a big city girl and a Grinchy small town city councilman who just pulled the plug on funding for Pine Hollow’s dog shelter. LAME! Fresh out of NYC, Ally arrives at her grandparents’ farmhouse/animal shelter to lend a helping hand and figure out what to do with her aimless existence. They’re obviously made for each other but, of course, snap assumptions and constant miscommunication keep them at odds. God, romance stories are tedious.
What I liked: The dogs, of course! I don’t think I could’ve muddled through this thing without wondering how Ally would ever find a way to save the shelter and get those adorable dogs into their forever homes. The author also did a really great job with the Christmassy setting, making me feel like I was right there gazing up at the lights twinkling from the snowy rooftop of the charming Vermont homestead. This book really played out like a Hallmark movie in my mind, which isn’t such a terrible thing when I need some comforting, brainless amusement.
What didn’t work: I was SO over the romance between Ally and Ben (aka the “Grinch”) before it even began. Ben has some serious pathological OCD tendencies that, in my humble opinion, require therapy and some long-term meds. He’s adamant about not taking help from anyone and not getting romantically involved ever to avoid hurting his orphaned niece. It got so irksome that I almost threw my book out the window when he said for the zillionth time, “I have to put Astrid first.” OK, fine, dude! Go be a monk and leave Ally alone! Seriously, she deserves so much better.
Also, why did I have to wait until the last few chapters of the book for Ally to realize she needed to take action to save the shelter??? I get that romance is at the forefront of this book (snore), but I want to know if the shelter is going to make it! Ally kept bringing up some small potatoes money-making ideas to keep it afloat, but what about applying for grants? Why not remove yourself from that shoddy city council and make it a nonprofit? Okay, I know, I know, this is a light-hearted romance with a dash of cute puppies, so I guess I should calm down. My dream is to start my own rescue, and I guess I’m just a tad jealous that Ally has all these opportunities right there for the taking!
Favorite character: Aside from Partridge (the bulldog described as “90% drool), I’d have to say that I was rooting for Ally all the way. I admired her quest to get all twelve dogs into homes before their final deadline. Although, to be honest, it seems unbelievable that so many pure-bred dogs (what we call in the rescue world “desirable breeds”) would have any trouble finding a home or end up in a shelter altogether. I appreciate that there was one pit-bull-mix in the bunch, but I feel like this was a missed opportunity to educate readers about the types of dogs that have the misfortune of dying in kill shelters.
Least favorite character: Ben is absolutely the worst. When he shoved Ally behind a curtain to hide her from his niece, I had enough! AND when she called him out on it, he was confused as to why hiding her like a dirty secret could possibly be upsetting. Ally really needed to swerve, but alas, the heart wants what the heart wants.
Overall: If you’re a romance lover who enjoys a light-hearted holiday read, this one’s for you. You can even let your grandmother borrow it since the hot-and-heavy scenes don’t get any farther than a quick peck under the mistletoe.
A Christmas Carol Murder by Heather Redmond
The gist: This is a fictional tale of the real Charles Dickens who solves a murder mystery that ultimately becomes the genesis of his seminal masterpiece “A Christmas Carol.” What a novel idea—ha! Sorry, couldn’t help myself. Anyhoo, we have three mysteries to solve here: who murdered Jacob Harley (a miserly countinghouse businessman and partner of the equally reprehensible Emmanuel Screws? Clever use of names, eh? Who hid his dead body and why? And why is a strange woman claiming Charles is the father of her sister’s baby? Oh my! Charles Dickens with baby mamma drama? This sounds saucier than a spiked bread pudding!
What I liked: I loved so much about this book, particularly the idea that “A Christmas Carol” was spawned by murder and mayhem! There’s even a dash of spookiness when Jacob Harley’s ghost makes an appearance. This really is genius work, I tell you! Bravo to Ms. Redmond for pulling off this inventive nod to the late, great Charles Dickens!
Might I also add that the author clearly does her research on the mean streets of Victorian London. She really gives readers another perspective of how brutal—and freezing cold—life could be for the “have nots” of London society. It really makes me appreciate all of my blessings in life, and the fact that I’m typing this out on my computer on a cushy chaise lounge in a climate-controlled home. Just reading some of those scenes of Londoners with frost-bitten appendages had me reaching for my puffer jacket. BRRRRR!
What didn’t work: I was very disappointed in Kate, Charles’ fiancé, when she found out about the baby mama drama and didn’t even give him a chance to explain. Nope, instead she shut herself in her room and let her mean ol’ dad fire him from his newspaper job and toss him out into the frozen streets. That’s cold! Literally cold!
Favorite and least favorite character: Primary murder suspect Emmanuel Screws is the most repugnant yet fascinating character in this book. There are just so many layers to this Christmas trifle! It’s hard to find any forgiveness for a man who denied Charles’ father a life-saving loan, leaving him with no other option but to send his son to a workhouse ran by cruel, merciless child abusers. But yet, there’s a possibility of forgiveness that sends home a message that not all hope is lost. Ah, the miracles of Christmas! God bless us, every one!
Overall: Although the pace is a little on the slow side, this mystery is worth reading—especially for historical fiction buffs.