Last-Minute Christmas Books: What a Novel Idea!

7 Stories to Lift Your Spirit During the Holiday Season

(photo: Register Files)

Who doesn't love to get lost in a good story? Whether a mystery, a romance, or a work of historical fiction, I often keep a novel on the bedside table. Today, I'd like to tell you about some of the stories that have caught my attention this year.

Dying for Compassion: The Lady Doc Murders – Book Two, by Barbara Golder (Full Quiver Publishing). If you've read Barbara Golder's first book in the Lady Doc Murders series, Dying for Revenge, then I'll bet you can't wait to get your hands on this second volume. Barbara is uniquely qualified to write about the courtroom and the human condition:  She is both a medical doctor and an attorney. Her protagonist, Telluride Medical Examiner Jane Wallace, benefits from the author's breadth of knowledge and her skillful prose. Catholic author Joseph Pearce said of Barbara's writing: "It is rare indeed to find an author who not only tells a good story but writes with real literary flair. Barbara Golder is such an author. In this latest offering, we find the plot twists and twisted characters that one would expect in a good murder mystery but also the fine character development and deep insight into the human condition which separates the truly great mysteries from the run of the mill." 

Murder in the Vatican: The Church Mysteries of Sherlock Holmes, by Ann Margaret Lewis (Gasogene Books). The book is a collection of what Sherlock Holmes fans call "The Untold Tales" – cases that Watson actually mentions in the original stories but never tells us. Ann Lewis chose three of these that share a common theme of the Church, and reveals what Watson never did.

Eight Whopping Lies and Other Stories of Bruised Grace, by Brian Doyle (Franciscan Media). Back in 2013, I reviewed another of Brian Doyle's books, The Thorny Grace of It. Of that collection of essays, I wrote,

I’ve gotten completely lost in this book. Picked it up, read three pages.  Put it down, turned out the light.  Turned on the light, read just two more pages….  Laughed out loud.  Really, I can’t stop reading, laughing, crying, can’t stop myself from sharing stories with my husband or whoever will listen.

Well, here I go again! Doyle, who died in 2017 at the age of 60, effortlessly connects the everyday with the inexpressible and consistently marries searingly honest prose with interruptions of humor and humanity. Here, from this posthumously published book, a passage on praying for his three children:

I pray for them every day. So does my wife, in the morning, by the bed, on her knees, in her pajamas, with her face pressed down upon the blanket of the bed, abashed before the light of the Lord. I have seen this, though I try to be out of the bedroom so that she can pray in private; and every time I see it I get the happy willies, that she believes with such force and humility. But I pray on my feet, by the coffee pot, while walking, while waiting for eyeglasses, while stirring the risotto, while washing the dishes, while brushing my teeth, while scratching the dog, I pray that they will be happy. I pray that they will find work that is play. I pray that their hearts will not be stomped on overmuch – enough to form resilience, but not enough to crush their spirits....

There's faith and love and wonder on every page. I know you'll love Eight Whopping Lies.

The Vanishing Woman: A Father Gabriel Mystery by Fiorella De Maria (Ignatius Press). Father Gabriel, a blundering but brilliant Benedictine priest, was first introduced in De Maria's earlier mystery, The Sleeping Witness. In The Vanishing Woman, the priest detective has been sent by his Abbot to help at a parish in a small town. He steps in to help when Enid Jennings, a retired headmistress and embittered war widow who is the most hated woman in town, vanishes into thin air. With help from the town's physician, and hostility from the irascible Inspector Applegate, Father Gabriel delves into Enid Jennings' past. In doing so, he digs up the recent past of the whole village during the days of the Phony War, when invaders lay in wait across the Channel and crimes were just a little easier to hide. De Maria is a winner of the National Book Prize of Malta, and has published five novels with Ignatius Press: the two mentioned above, as well as Poor Banished Children, Do No Harm, and We'll Never Tell Them.

A Bloody Habit, by Eleanor Bourg Nicholson (Ignatius Press). It is 1900, the dawn of a new century. Even as the old Queen's health fails, Victorian Britain stands monumental and strong upon a mountain of technological, scientific, and intellectual progress. For John Kemp, a straight-forward, unimaginative London lawyer, life seems reassuringly predictable yet forward-leaning, that is, until a foray into the recently published sensationalist novel Dracula, united with a chance meeting with an eccentric Dominican friar, catapults him into a bizarre, violent, and unsettling series of events.

As London is transfixed with terror at a bloody trail of murder and destruction, Kemp finds himself in its midst, besieged on all sides—in his friendships, as those close to him fall prey to vicious assault by an unknown assassin; in his deep attraction to an unconventional American heiress; and in his own professional respectability, for who can trust a lawyer who sees things which, by all sane reason, cannot exist? Can his mundane, sensible life – and his skeptical mind – withstand vampires? Can this everyday Englishman survive his encounter with perhaps an even more sinister threat – the white-robed Papists who claim to be vampire slayers?

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, by Laura Hillenbrand (Random House Trade Paperbacks). The story of Olympic hero, prisoner of war, and nationally renowned Christian speaker Louie Zamperini was first told in 2010. But then the story was told in two major motion pictures: Unbroken (2014) which recounted Zamperini's near-fatal plane crash in WWII, his harrowing 47 days in a raft with two fellow crewmen, and his capture by the Japanese navy and confinement in a prisoner-of-war camp; and Unbroken: Path to Redemption (2018) which begins where Unbroken ends, sharing the next amazing chapter of Olympian and World War II hero Louis Zamperini's powerful true story of forgiveness, redemption, and amazing grace. As is often the case, following the release of the second film, Hillenbrand's best-selling book has been released in softcover so that a new generation of readers can enjoy her unforgettable testament to the resilience of the human mind, body, and spirit. You may remember Hillenbrand as the best-selling author of Seabiscuit, which became a film in 2003; now, in Unbroken, her compelling prose shines once again.

The Spear: A Novel of the Crucifixion, by Louis de Wohl (Ignatius Press). This panoramic novel of the last days of Christ ranges from the palaces of imperial Rome to the strife-torn hills of Judea-where the conflict of love and betrayal, revenge and redemption, reaches a mighty climax in the drama of the Crucifixion. For this is the full story of the world's most dramatic execution, as it affected one of its least-known participants – Longinus, the man who hurled his spear into Christ on the Cross. Among his many successful historical novels, Louis de Wohl considered The Spear the magnum opus of his literary career.