Bootlegger’s Daughter, by Margaret Maron

Book 69  

The original crime took place in 1972 – young mother and infant daughter disappear.  They are found four days later – mother with a bullet in her head and baby just barely hanging in there.

The action of the story is in 1990.  Deborah Knott is the daughter of a Carolina tobacco farmer (and notorious bootlegger) and an attorney running the office of county judge.  One day the baby – now 18 years old, asks her to investigate the murder again.  Of course, part of the premise is that it is a small town and the murderer is, likely as not, someone they know.

There is a cool scene early on when Deborah goes to visit some people she knows at the State Bureau of Investigation and gets them to tell her the story of the investigation.  Deborah was 16  (and the family babysitter) at the time of the crime.  So the agents talk about all of the suspects – including her – and how they were eliminated as possibilities.  She picks up a couple of clues that she hasn’t heard before, and Maron establishes some friendly professional relationships for her heroine.

Now that I am thinking about it, Maron does a very good job of setting the groundwork for a series (I believe the comic book people call it an “origin” piece) without sacrificing the narrative of the mystery.

The solve is not obvious, but not so terribly convoluted that it made me mad.   The Knott family is so big that I expect funny supporting characters to be coming and going all the time.  And it doesn’t appear (yet) like the inevitable romance is going to be too painful.  So it seems I have a new mystery series to read.

Christmas Mourning, by Margaret Maron

Book 68 of 50 Book Challenge, Book 7 of Christmas Spirit Reading Challenge

My favorite regular customer at the Used Book Store checked this out of the library.  When she returned it the next week, she said that she barely put it down, so I checked it out at the next opportunity.

Among the many reviews I have read on Christmas books, there seems to be a theme – if the book is part of a regular series, it is much less likely to be enjoyed by the average reader looking for holiday reads.  They are mostly books that only true fans love.

I was pleasantly surprised with this one – book 16 in a series about a county judge married to a cop in a rural town with some mysteries to solve.

High school girl runs off the road and is killed in a single car accident that looks more and more suspicious every day.  Then a pair of local hellraisers turn up dead – shot on their front porch.  Set in small town North Carolina..and now cue the Christmas music.

The clues were dropped, the reveal was reasonable, the characters were likable enough and it was an easy read.  So when I returned it, I checked out the first in the series.

A Vampire Christmas Carol, by Sarah Gray

Book 67 of 50 Book Challenge, Book 6 of Christmas Spirit Reading Challenge

Is there a name for this genre yet?  The taking of a classic story and retelling it with a supernatural element?  I actually hadn’t read any of them, unless you count Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter.  But when you put vampires to it..

The premise of A Vampire Christmas Carol is that a prophesy says Scrooge is to be the father of the greatest of all vampire hunters.  So the vampire queen starts screwing with him from the moment of his birth.  Let his mother bleed to death in childbirth so that his father would blame him.  Found him a wet nurse that would slip him a drop of blood every once in a while.  And so on throughout school and his apprenticeship and so on.  The fiancee, Belle, grows to be a leader among the vampire hunters who always knew that Scrooge was surrounded by bad guys and never gave up on him.  It was Belle who called out to the spirits and sent Marley to Scrooge that Christmas Eve.

The spirits show Scrooge all of the familiar scenes, which now include how the vampires were always present and manipulating his life.  Example:  a school boy had planned to ask Scrooge to come home with him for Christmas.  Then the schoolmaster – a total vampire minion – threatened his life.  Scrooge did not get the invitation and the friend did not return to school after that particular vacation.

The ending is tied up a bit too neatly, but that is rather true of the original.

How Mrs. Claus Saved Christmas, by Jeff Guinn

Book 66 of 50 Book Challenge, Book 5 of Christmas Spirit Challenge

I read Guinn’s Autobiography of Santa Claus last year and enjoyed it, but I had no idea this existed.  I stumbled upon it while browsing the audiobooks available for download from my library.

About the first third of the book is a preamble – telling the story of Layla’s life before and with St. Nicholas.  Much of it is familiar from the earlier book.  But around the time the Mayflower sailed, the Santa gang decided that Nicholas really had to sail to the New World so as to establish Christmas traditions before the Puritans snuffed out the holiday spirit for ever and all time.  Layla stayed behind in London, where the Puritans were beginning to have their way with England.

Layla tells the story of how they invented candy canes and the Queen loved them.  Then the Revolution came and Layla’s name was on the hit list so she fled to Canterbury.  The Puritans took power and outlawed Christmas.  Layla and her bud, Arthur (of Camelot) planned a great big Christmas demonstration in protest.

The climax of the story involves the baddies arresting our heroes a few days in advance.  But behold, the demonstration happens anyway and that is How Mrs. Claus Saves Christmas.

I didn’t quite enjoy this story as much as the previous one.  However, Guinn does a fine job of taking pieces of history like the Puritan Revolution and putting them into the fanciful context of Santa Claus.  That makes these books worth reading.

The Spy Who Came for Christmas, by David Morrell

The Spy Who Came for Christmas

Book 65 of 50 Book Challenge, Book 4 of Christmas Spirit Book Challenge

The Russian Mafia kidnaps the infant son of a pacifist who has been gaining popularity in the Middle East.  During the getaway, the American plant in the gang makes off with the kid.  He ends up in the house of a boy and his mother, who had been beaten by her husband earlier in the evening.  After smashing her face, the husband called the host of whatever party they were attend to claim their son was sick.  Then he smashed all of the phones in the house, and took the cell phones and car keys with him.  I mention this to establish that this is the kind of wife-beater that thinks of what happens next and attempts to cover his tracks in a way that suggests this is not a first-time occurrence.  Oh yeah, and it is Christmas Eve.

In flashback, we see how our hero, Paul, came to infiltrate the Russian Mafia.   Why he stuck with the job and why he finally blew his cover.  He convinces the boy and his mother that he is a good guy and they take care of the baby while he starts setting booby traps in the house – he’s pretty sure the bad guys are right outside the door.

There is a big, long stretch where Paul tells The Christmas Story to the boy from the point of view of a spy.  The suggestion is that the magi were really double agents.  Whatever.  I only mention it because this is the only link the book has to the holiday.

The story became really interesting when the husband showed up.  He is a whiny-pants prick, but he figured out that the bad guys are the bad guys.  Eventually.  He helped Paul take one of them out.  After the dust settled, we were left with the understanding that he had redeemed himself with this heroism.

The drunken wife-beater, with the presence of mind to smash the phones and take the keys so that she can neither leave nor call for help nor leave him…I was offended enough for it to have ruined the story for me.

 

The Christmas Gift, by Richard Paul Evans

Book 64 of 50 Book Challenge, Book 3 of the Christmas Spirit Challenge

Evans is the guy that writes the heart-warming holiday novels.  I heard about him through Miss Busy, and saw him interviewed on CBS Sunday morning regarding self-publishing.  The Christmas Gift is a modern-day spin on A Christmas Carol.

James Kier is a real estate mogul in Salt Lake City who wakes up one morning and reads his obituary.  When I first read the back of the book, I thought this was a supernatural thing.  In fact it is just a case of mistaken identity.  Bummer.  However, he goes on to read the web comments and they are blistering.  So that was fun.

Kier asks his long-suffering assistant to make a list of people that he has wronged so that he can make amends.  Hence “The Christmas List”.  The story gets really good as he approaches these people one at a time:  (SPOILERS!)  First guy punches him out.  Second lady is all forgiving, but notes it is far, far too late to make up for what she has lost.  Third guy took the experience and turned into a bastard as big as Kier.  Fourth guy was found to have killed himself in the aftermath of Kier’s betrayal.  Fifth lady has fallen off the grid and can’t be found.

On the down side, Kier’s relationships with those closest to him are hardly explored, except for the schmaltz that dragged on a bit too long at the end.  Also, Kier lacked the overt denial of his situation and the sense of peril that hung over the head of Ebenezer Scrooge – both of which made the story more frightening.  The most frightening thing about this book was that it hit hard on the idea that people such as Kier really do exist, and succeed (financially) in this world.

The Rest of the Aurora Teagarden Series, by Charlaine Harris

Books 58 – 63

I said after A Bone to Pick that I really hoped the series would get better, and it did.  The idea that there were so many, many murders in small town Georgia is laughably improbable, but Harris makes a running joke of it to demonstrate that she is in on it.   It was a shame when the sheriff was killed, as he was the primary  voice of “You, again?” whenever Aurora happened to discover a dead body.

In the third book, we have the realtors getting killed in the houses they are showing.  That was kinda cool.  In the fourth, Aurora and her new husband move into a large house on the outskirts of town that is famous because its occupants disappeared one day about ten years before.  By the end, Aurora was renewing a relationship with the mystery writer from the first novel and her little brother – age 6 in the first novel – was a teenager that had run away from home.  The latter made me wonder if Harris meant to stop there, or if these characters are still brewing in her brain.

Overall, quick, fun reads.

Besides the rest of the vampire novels, there is one more Harris series I haven’t read yet.  Next year, I imagine.