I did a lot of reading over the holidays, not all of which I’d necessarily recommend, but I did find some good books to share.
If you’re looking for a good Christmas season read that isn’t necessarily a “Christmas” book, take note for next year to look for One Day in December, by Josie Silver. It’s a chick-litty romance that’s kind of like a British When Harry Met Sally in book form. On a December day, a young woman looks out a bus window and makes eye contact with a young man waiting at a bus stop, and there seems to be a moment of instant connection. She has an impulse to get off the bus and go meet him, but the bus moves on before she can act on it. He becomes something of a figure of fantasy for her, but she doesn’t see him again — until the next December when her roommate introduces her new boyfriend to her, and it’s the guy from the bus stop. The story follows this group of friends over the next decade. I’ll admit, I did want to throttle some of the characters some of the time, but they’re probably acting as you’d expect for that age and I’m just being old. On the whole, though, it was the kind of book you end up reading in one or two sittings because you want to know how things will work out and you need to get these characters out of the painful situations they find themselves in, like the dilemma of whether she should tell her roommate that her new boyfriend is the fantasy man they’ve been talking about for a year. Does it count that they’ve never actually spoken and she’s not even sure he remembers or recognizes her? Although the book is quite romantic, I think it’s really more about friendship. The holiday season plays a big role, and most of the major events happen during the holidays, so there’s some nice atmosphere, but it’s not really a “Christmas” book, so it’s good if you want something to kind of fit the mood but Hallmark movies are overkill for you.
After Christmas, I guess I went the exact opposite direction because my next read was an urban fantasy called The Immortals, by Jordanna Max Brodsky. I’m not even entirely sure how I came to pick this up. I think the title of the sequel (which I now don’t recall) caught my eye in the library, then I saw that it was a sequel and looked for the first one. In this series, the Greek gods are still around and have taken roles in the modern day. They’re also gradually losing their powers and immortality as belief in them has faded. Artemis is our main character, and she’s now a private investigator in New York, specializing in protecting women from abusive men. She comes across a grisly murder that looks to her like a sacrifice from an ancient Greek ritual, and since it was a woman who was murdered, she considers it her jurisdiction. Meanwhile, a classics professor who knew the murdered woman has also recognized that it’s not just an ordinary killing, but he can’t convince the police of his theory. The two of them team up to solve the case. I’m not ordinarily fond of “the gods walk among us” stories, but this one worked for me because it was fun seeing how the Greek gods fit into the modern world (Apollo is an indie rock star, because of course) and how they’re coping with their relative weakness and looming mortality. I also like the professor. He’s pretty much my type of character (in the Owen and Lord Henry vein). If you like American Gods and that sort of thing, or if you like paranormal mysteries, this is something to look for. I’ll definitely be picking up more books in the series.
Then I went to something completely different, a book I guess you could look at as the British version of Southern Gothic — the disintegrating family full of secrets. It was The House at Riverton by Kate Morton. It has a lot of parallels with Downton Abbey — same time period, similar look at what’s going on upstairs vs. downstairs. In a framing story, an elderly woman in the 1990s is approached by a filmmaker making a movie about an event that happened in the 20s at the grand manor house nearby. The woman is the only living person who was there for the event and the filmmaker wants to consult her. That sends her down memory lane, recalling how she went to work there as a housemaid as a teenager, just before WWI started, and how she became fascinated with the lord’s grandchildren, who visited often. The story follows them into the 1920s, when the narrator has become lady’s maid to one of the granddaughters. There are layers and layers to the secrets surrounding this family — secret loves, secret ambitions, secret motives — and they all build toward tragedy. It’s not exactly a light, fun read, but it is really juicy and probably something that fans of Downton Abbey will enjoy, with even more drama and scandal than in that show.
It kind of makes me want to write something like that, but with magic involved somehow. I also like the idea of the framing story, of the person in the present tracking down what happened in the past.