David Baldacci, . . Warner, $19.95 (272pp) ISBN 978-0-446-52573-2

Recently, Baldacci has ventured with success beyond the thrillers that made his reputation, first in 2000 with the historical melodrama Wish You Well, then earlier this year with the SF mystery novella The Mighty Johns. Here's another stretch, one that he performs with good spirit, a lot of humor and only a bit of strain—a Christmas charmer set aboard a cross-country train. Tom Langdon's life hasn't been the same since his all-time love, Eleanor Carter, left him years ago while the two were hotshot journalists, and since he's quit serious reporting for writing fluff. Banned from flying for a year because of an air rage incident, he's decided to write about riding the rails over the Christmas holidays, planning to link up with his erstwhile girlfriend, a Hollywood star, in L.A. Aboard the Capitol Limited, running from D.C. to Chicago, Tom meets a host of unusual fellow travelers, including rambunctious train personnel, lonely wanderers and a pair of elopers; he also runs into Eleanor, now a screenwriter for a legendary film director who's on board researching a possible film about trains. Matters complicate further aboard the Southwest Chief, running from Chicago to L.A., as Tom's Tinseltown girlfriend shows up and proposes marriage just as Tom and Eleanor are working their way back together; a sneak thief nabs valuables; and an avalanche traps the train in the midst of a historic blizzard. The narrative is loaded with cool train lore (Baldacci dedicates the book to "everyone who loves trains and holidays") and plenty of romance and good cheer, though suspense is low—who can doubt how things will work out?—and the author gets a bit preachy about the advantages of train travel and the lessons of Christmas. This is a more warmhearted and enjoyable novel than Grisham's comparable holiday offering last year, Skipping Christmas, and Baldacci's fans will snap it up as the Yuletide treat it is. Expect this to stuff plenty of stockings on December 25; all aboard! Simultaneous Time Warner Audio and Large Print edition. (One-day laydown Nov. 5)