Wasn’t it just Christmas 2008? How is it possible that it’s already time to haul the decorations out of the garage and begin the season of overeating and overspending again? But the holidays don’t have to be this way. Cozy up with one of these fine Christmas tales to get yourself in the right frame of mind to celebrate the real meaning of the season (or at least to postpone the gift shopping).

Laughing all the way
We might as well call Wally Lamb the man with the golden pen. Known for such classics as She’s Come Undone and I Know This Much Is True, he serves up a treat with this holiday offering, a novella called Wishin’ and Hopin’. It’s the tender, laugh-out-loud funny story of Felix Funicello, an upstanding citizen (“I have an advanced degree in Film Studies, a tenured professorship and an eco-friendly Prius. I vote, volunteer at the soup kitchen, compost, floss.”) who looks back on his fifth-grade year in a 1960s Catholic school.

It was a time of immense social change, and Felix is in flux, too, on the verge of puberty with all the confusion and angst that phase of life brings for a young Catholic (or anyone, really). In one of the funniest scenes, Felix confesses to lusting after his third cousin, Annette Funicello (of Mickey Mouse Club fame), whose poster adorns the wall at the lunch counter the family runs at the local bus depot: “I was thinking, as I recited the prayer, about how my impure thoughts were really more Pop’s fault than mine. He was the one who’d led me into temptation by taping Annette’s poster above the fryolator in the first place . . . Monsignor told me to imitate Jesus and gave me his blessing.”

The book culminates with . . . let’s just say an unorthodox and truly unforgettable Christmas pageant for the ages, one that will leave you laughing and thinking nostalgically about your own school days and holidays past.

Unexpected riches
The Gift is in itself a gift—a perfectly satisfying story of a man who works too much and enjoys life too little. Lou Suffern has always prided himself on his professional success. Being a high-powered Dublin executive is all he knows—that and his well-earned after-work drinks at the pub. His wife and young children barely see him, but Lou doesn’t see that as a problem. After all, he’s providing them with a beautiful home and luxurious life, and that means putting in long hours at the office. “This was what everybody he knew was faced with. Not enough hours of sleep and the inability to get away from work or work-related devices like laptops, BlackBerrys and mobiles: distractions that each of their family members wanted to flush down the toilet.”

One freezing morning, he offers his coffee to a homeless man on the sidewalk, and they strike up a conversation. Intrigued, Lou gets Gabe a job in the mailroom of his company, and soon Gabe becomes inextricably involved in Lou’s life and teaches him some tough lessons about what’s really important.

The daughter of a former Irish prime minister, Ahern wrote the best-selling novel P.S., I Love You, made into a movie with Hilary Swank. The Gift is another first-class offering that will leave you entertained and enchanted.

A spooky season
If a Christmas murder mystery seems a tad macabre, well, it is. But Katherine Hall Page delivers a real treat in The Body in the Sleigh, the latest entry in her Faith Fairchild Mystery series. Faith is a caterer, wife and mother by day, but she’s also an amateur detective who can’t seem to walk three blocks without stumbling over an intriguing whodunit.

The Fairchilds have retreated to their cabin in rural Maine to celebrate the holidays while Faith’s husband, Tom, recovers from a frightening illness. Their plan for rest and relaxation is turned upside down when on Christmas Eve, Faith discovers the body of a local teenager in the town holiday display, dead of an apparent heroin overdose. The next day, Mary Bethany, a local cheese maker and recluse, calls Faith to report that an infant was left in her barn the night before. She asks for Faith’s help tracking down the mother, and Faith finds herself searching for answers and trying to connect the two seemingly unrelated incidents.

Page is adept at mixing charming narrative with page-turning mystery. The Body in the Sleigh is a poignant reminder of the importance of savoring every moment.

A Victorian Christmas
Prolific author Anne Perry writes two Victorian mystery series, a World War II series and a host of holiday mystery novels. Her newest holiday offering, A Christmas Promise, is a wonderful addition to her already impressive oeuvre.

Two young girls from the slums of London meet each other while one of them, Minnie Maude, is looking for her donkey. Or actually, that of her uncle Alf, who was her caretaker until he was murdered and his donkey and cart stolen. Thirteen-year-old Gracie Phipps, out on an errand for her grandmother, runs into eight-year-old Minnie. She finds herself drawn to the sad young girl, and vows to help her find the donkey, the only thing she has left in the world. The pair are pulled into an unexpected adventure in this slim but satisfying novel.

Every wintry detail in this story comes alive, from the girls’ hardscrabble lives to the frosty, cobbled streets of 19th-century London. Longtime Perry readers will recognize Gracie as the maid of Charlotte and Thomas Pitt in her series of the same name (Buckingham Palace Gardens, Long Spoon Lane), but even those new to Perry will enjoy this warm and ultimately redeeming Christmas tale.

Amy Scribner writes from Olympia, Washington.

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