They say that Christmas is for children, so I begin my recommendations with several very special picture books. In fact two of them will find their way under the tree for my great-niece and great-nephew. (Sh-h-h!)
Sandra Boynton illustrates as well as writes the Christmas Parade with delightfully rhyming narration and downright hilarious renderings of pigs, elephants and other animals in red and white band uniforms on bright, primary-colored backgrounds. (Little Simon, 2011; $16.95)
The little ones will quickly learn which sounds to make when each band member appears. (My apologies if things get a bit noisy, but I think it will be nicer than the electronic beeps and buzzes most toys make these days.)
Next I present Christmas Wombat by Jackie French. What young child (or adult, for that matter) doesn’t love saying "wombat"? The little critter narrates his own tale as he single-mindedly pursues his favorite food — carrots. (Harper Collins, 2011; $16.95)
Fortunately for the wombat, children in his part of the world leave carrots out for Santa’s reindeer. He outsmarts these "strange creatures" and unknowingly hitches a ride on the sleigh. Be sure to look closely at the expressions in the reindeer’s eyes.
The Midnight Circus by Peter Collington for ages 4 to 7 contains no words, but there is no problem understanding the love the young boy feels for the mechanical horse that has always stood on the sidewalk outside the shop. But one day, the boy is devastated to see the horse being replaced.
After crying himself to sleep the child is awakened to find his horse standing ready to take him on a wonderful adventure under the Big Top. On the next morning, the coin-operated pony is back in place, and we wonder what really happened?
The colored pencil story (remember that there are no words) is beautifully detailed by Collington, and if he leaves you yearning for more, he has published several Christmas-themed picture books as well (Knopf Books for Young Readers, 1993; $17)
I have to include Waggit’s Tale by Peter Howe for grades 5 and up (Harper Collins, 2008; $11.98) because I’m a sucker for children’s books with clever titles. (Get it? A dog’s "tale.")
Waggit loses his "people" in Central Park, but with the help of a community of other strays, he learns to fend for himself. But trouble comes in the form of a city ordinance designed to rid the park of its canine inhabitants. For Waggit enthusiasts, there are additional books in the series.
The good news about The Book Thief by Markus Zusak is that it is not about a hardened criminal. Readers ages 12 and up will recognize that Liesel’s passion for books helps her survive the horrors of World War II (Alfred A. Knopf, 2007; $12.99). From her accordion-playing foster father, to the Jew hiding in the basement of their Munich house, to the neighborhood children, everyone benefits from her odd collection of "found" treasures.
My first recommendation for your grown-up gift-buying pleasure is Jeffery Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot (Picador, 2012; $16), which was named the Best Book of the Year by NPR and The New York Times Book Review. In its story, three Brown University students live in an idealistic fog of romance and grand ambitions. There’s Madeleine — "She’d lost faith in the significance of the day and what the day represented." The day is graduation.
Also graduating is the brilliant Leonard whose temperamental nature is both attractive and frustrating. The third student is a religious studies major named Mitchell who is in love with Madeleine, but planning to seek his spiritual answers in India. Will the "plot" end in marriage?
If you are an ardent Jane Austen fan, you might want to skip Death Comes to Pemberley by P.D. James (Knopf, 2011; $25.95). But if you can appreciate a little gentle fun with Austen’s setting and character, then, by all means — enjoy!
As the title states, a body has been found on the grounds of the Darcy estate. Elizabeth and Fitzwilliam are blissfully wed, but Elizabeth feels anxious about fulfilling her responsibilities in the very high society that the Darcys inhabit.
Imagine her difficulty in figuring out how to comport oneself at the scene of a murder! What does one wear, and how the neighbors will gossip!
That being said, it’s refreshing to read a mystery that doesn’t involve horror and death, and that’s why I’m suggesting Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan. It’s a case of sleuthing to find out what’s really going on behind the scenes of the shop named in the title. (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012; $25)
The action opens as the narrator teeters precariously on a ladder, searching the shelves for a particular book — or perhaps peculiar book would be more precise. And peculiar individuals come to the store but never pay. They merely sign out the volumes.
Clay Jannon, the teetering narrator, is extremely appealing, especially to us nerdy book-loving types. And for the more digitally inclined among my readers, there’s a cadre of techie friends; in fact, the mystery is handed over to the entire Google network for one morning’s work.
"It’s the Sandburg verses" are the final words of a dying woman (fictional) lying atop a steep hill near Connemara (the real Carl Sandburg’s home in North Carolina) in The Sandburg Connection by Mark de Castrique. (Poisoned Pen Press, 2011; $14.95)
Sam Blackman and his partner Nakayla Robertson have tracked the woman in hopes of discrediting her in her malpractice suit against a back surgeon. But he arrives too late because his climb up the hill is hampered by the prosthetic leg he has worn since returning from Iraq.
The teasing kind of banter between the partners moves their adventures along. Add the dead woman’s conflicted teenage daughter to the mix, and you have an engaging, multileveled mystery punctuated by humorous encounters with a very pregnant goat.
Christmas may be for children. But books are for everyone.
Palma is an adjunct assistant professor of English at Monroe Community College in Rochester. She has a master of science degree in education from Nazareth College and master of arts in theology from St. Bernard’s Institute.