December Book Reviews

I love reading cozy books in the wintertime. Yes, I live in Texas, so it can still be t-shirt weather in December, but we get our fair share of chilly days too. And a wintry or Christmas-themed book alongside a warm cup of tea or coffee and a fluffy blanket are a perfect way to spend some time inside. I am still in survival mode here as a new mama so I haven't been able to find time to read physical books, so the cozy atmosphere currently involves listening to these books on audiobook format while nursing Elliot, trying to keep my headphones from tangling up in whatever cleaning equipment I am using while I hurriedly mop floors and clean bathrooms during his naps, trying to get him to nap while strolling around the neighborhood park, and driving around town for errands, hoping he'll nap (are you sensing a theme?! haha). Nonetheless, it was a great reading month for the end of 2019!

P.S. If you like reading wintry stories this time of year, HERE are my favorites.

Andy Catlett: Early Travels by Wendell Berry (audiobook) 
A delightful short novel for those who love to return to the fictional rural town of Port William. Andy is a nine year old boy traveling on his own for the first time to visit both sets of grandparents during the winter of 1943. For those who love other Wendell Berry novels, particularly Hannah Coulter (my favorite) and Jayber Crow, you’ll very briefly reconnect with these lovable characters, which was a fun surprise. Berry’s atmospheric writing and deep love for the farm life shines through as always. I would definitely label this as 'literary fiction' where not a lot happens, but the exquisitely crafted sentences and the cozy, nostalgic feeling of visiting family during the holidays makes it worth the read.

Shepherds Abiding (Mitford #8) by Jan Karon
Full of Christmas charm, this eighth book in the prolific series about the idyllic small town of Mitford is a perfect read this time of year. The endearing Father Tim has a secret he’s keeping from his beloved wife. He’s uncharacteristically taken upon himself a rather involved craft project for her Christmas gift: he is restoring an antique nativity set to its former glory. Meanwhile, other residents of the sleepy town are preparing not only for the holidays, but also for big life changes like retirement, business ownership, and adding more babies to a family. Comprised of three short stories, this collection will be a joy for any Mitford fan who wonders what Christmas is like in one of their favorite fictional towns. I have really enjoyed Karon’s Mitford books for both the entertaining (and often humorous) plots but also the Christian themes that never feel preachy or cheesy.

The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes (audiobook) 
A fascinating historical novel about the Pack Horse Librarians of a small town in Kentucky. These were women who traveled dangerous routes to isolated Appalachian families to provide reading material to eager and thankful readers. The chapters alternate between the parallel plots of two of these courageous women who went against conventional societal expectations as well as defended themselves against dangerous men. Ever since I read The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek in August, I wanted to read more about this group of tough women who valued literacy to the degree that they gave up the comforts of home or an office job in exchange for sometimes frigid temperatures, steep hills, and messy river crossings in order to provide books and magazines to impoverished and often overlooked families. Although there has been controversy about a few similarities of these two books with accusations from the author of The Book Woman of plagiarism on Moyes’ part, I feel like the plots were different enough and I enjoyed both. However,  The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek was my favorite of the two because I felt I connected with the protagonist a bit more.

On This Holy Night: The Heart of Christmas
Six well-known pastors and authors contribute lessons and reflections on various themes of the birth of Jesus in fresh, easy-to-follow, and thought-provoking ways. Max Lucado focuses on Joseph and what it may have been like for him to trust God with such an odd command to marry the pregnant Mary. Rick Warren reminds us that Jesus' birth shows how Jesus was able to connect and understand humans as both God and Man. David Jeremiah examines the powerful name of Jesus and its implications to our lives. John Maxwell teaches how we can be seekers of Jesus like the Wise Men. Jack Hayford looks at the admirable character of Mary, while Bill Hybels examines the whole nativity scene from a bird's eye view. This is a short book that can easily be read (or listened to, in my case) with family members during Advent to prepare and anticipate the celebration of Jesus' birth. 

Last Christmas in Paris by Hazel Gaynor and Heather Webb (audiobook) 

An absolutely captivating historical novel surrounding WWI from the British perspective. Evie Elliott writes letters to her brother, William,  and his best friend, Thomas,  upon their departure to the front "somewhere in France", as the return address repeatedly mentions. They all figured they'd win the war within a few weeks, and discuss how they should celebrate Christmas in Paris that year. But as the weeks turn into months that turn into years, devastation, grief, and unimaginable struggles push each of them to make life-altering choices. Written almost entirely in epistolary fashion (letters written between four characters), this is a unique look at a war that definitely does not have as many historical novels surrounding it. I learned a lot about WWI, the "war to end all wars" (if only that could have been true!) as well as the British culture during the early 1900s. Though the title mentions Christmas, this novel can be read any time of year. The audiobook was fantastic, with multiple narrators reading the letters from the different protagonists.

Reminded me of: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

The Characters of Christmas: The Unlikely People Caught Up in the Story of Jesus by Daniel Darling 
Each chapter of this thought-provoking book focuses on a different person surrounding the story of Jesus' birth, from the obvious (Joseph, Mary, Elizabeth and Zechariah, the Wise Men, the angels, the shepherds) to the more obscure (Simeon and Anna) and even "the monster of Christmas", King Herod. Great insight that brought these pivotal characters of Christmas alive to me in fresh ways. Disussion questions at the end of each chapter dig deeper and help to extrapolate even more practical application. This is a great book to read during Advent, especially if you want a fresh understanding on the people who witnessed, either in awe or in fury, the birth of Christ.

Disclaimer: A special thanks to Moody Publishers for a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review

Look Unto Me: The Devotions of Charles Spurgeon by Jim Reimann 
Based on Spurgeon's well-loved Morning by Morning devotional, this updated version has language for today's reader as well as a few paragraphs of reflection and further application from Jim Reimann, who has updated other devotionals, such as My Utmost for His Highest. There is a devotion for each day of the year, many of which were incredibly powerful. Spurgeon was a brilliant preacher and author who dug deep into various Christian doctrines and beliefs in this devotional that can still be followed today. I enjoyed reading this in 2019 and look forward to reading more of his books.

Becoming Mrs. Lewis by Patti Callahan (audiobook) 
I held off on reading this for awhile, unsure how I would feel about a fictionalized account of a love story I was curious about but thought I would first read about in a biography about Joy because I wanted accurate facts, not hyped-up fiction. But after listening to THIS Read-Aloud Revival episode with C.S.Lewis' step-son, Douglas Gresham, and hearing him say he enjoyed the novel about his mother, the late Joy Davidman Lewis, I figured I would give it a try. Told in first-person from Joy's perspective, it dives into her early adulthood as she began writing to C.S. Lewis as a seeker, hungry for truth about God after converting to Christianity from atheism. The woman who slowly etched her way into Lewis' heart and helped edit his later books was intriguing and honestly (and somewhat unabashedly) rough around the edges. She was brash, opinionated, and some say a but manipulative, which may be why some of Lewis' closest friends (such as J.R.R. Tolkien) weren't thrilled about their friendship and eventual marriage. I honestly found her a bit unlikable but at the same time, really enjoyed the fictionalized account of her slow journey towards growing to be more like Jesus. Christianity does not make us all cookie-cutter believers and she is a perfect example that He is able to work through the lives of unconventional Christians who fight long battles with issues like pride, lust, anger, and unforgiveness, often falling and then getting back up again.  For that, I can admire her and enjoy the character development of this novel based on her life. 

The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus by Frank L. Baum (audiobook) 
From the author of The Wizard of Oz comes an equally creative story that includes world-building and just so much charm as you learn about what Baum imagined as the childhood and adulthood of Santa Claus before he became the man, the myth, the legend :) Known to all for his kindness to children, Claus had an unconventional upbringing. Deserted as a baby in the Forest of Burzee and raised by a loving wood nymph, he later relocates to the Laughing Valley of Hohaho since he is not an immortal unlike the rest of the nymphs. There he creates his first toys from wood and clay, eventually giving them to poor children in nearby villages. As years pass, he hears of more children without toys and, well, you know the rest! Baum imagines how certain Christmas traditions, such as stockings, Christmas trees, gift exchanges, and reindeer (though they have different names than the ones we sing of) came to be. This was endearing to me as an adult and I am sure younger readers would adore it as well.

It reminded me of: Letters to Father Christmas by J.R.R Tolkien 

The Adventures of the Christmas Pudding by Agatha Christie (audiobook) 
A short story by the Queen of Mystery, sweetened with holiday charm. Hercules Poirot, the enigmatic and infamous French detective, is asked to spend Christmas in an English home in the snowy countryside to help uncover who stole a priceless ruby from a Middle Eastern royal. A quick and enjoyable read, it doesn’t have the same suspenseful feel of her longer books but still has some surprising twists, which is something I’ve come to expect from Christie.

The Happiest Baby on the Block by Harvey Karp (audiobook) 
A useful resource for new parents, particularly in the first three months. Karp believes the main reason that babies have colic is that they’re overstimulated in this new environment outside of the womb. He refers to the first 3 months of their life as “the fourth trimester”. He explains that re-creating the womb in these months can drastically decrease crying. To do this, parents must activate the “calming reflex” or “off-switch” to crying, most efficiently done through the five S’s: suck (paci, breast, hand), swing (or rock), swaddle, side-lying/stomach (when awake only), and shhh (sound machines and verbally shhhing). He guarantees these methods, when done correctly, can help fussiness decrease and help babies calm down and even sleep better. He leans more towards attachment parenting than other books such as Babywise. I’ve been using most of these methods without reading his book so there wasn’t anything completely new, but there were helpful tips for executing them correctly, such as the sound decibels most effective for sound machines, how to swaddle a baby, how to help babies learn to suck on paci, etc. 

Hercule Poirot's Christmas by Agatha Christie (audiobook) 
A dysfunctional family story with the classic plot twists and wit of other Hercule Poirot novels by Agatha Christie. When a wealthy, mean-spirited patriarch is murdered during a family reunion for Christmas, every single family member is a suspect since he has been a jerk to most of them. They each have reasons to hate him but could any of them have actually murdered him? Poor Poirot can't catch a break, not even at Christmas. The Queen of Mystery keeps the suspense peaking until the end. As always, a super  murder mystery plot without the gore, sexual innuendos, or profanity. Enjoyable and had me guessing as always.

The Clothing of Books by Jhumpa Lahiri  (audiobook) 
Lahiri is a brilliant author of both fiction and nonfiction. She studied Italian as an adult and now writes in Italian though her main language is English. Her Bengali culture is infused in her sweeping novels and she has a lyrical and intelligent way of writing that makes me pause and admire sentences. In this extremely short book that is basically the manuscript from a speech she gave, she explores the value of book covers. This random, seemingly boring topic was fascinating to me, particularly her reflections on the covers to her own books and how authors don’t have much say to the book cover designs. The marketing and psychology behind what sells books (color, design, mentioning previous books by the author and accolades from other authors, for instance, seem to bear a lot of weight for publishers) goes into the end product much more than inspiration from the story.  It was a fun read for my nerdy self. 

I heard about it from: What Should I Read Next podcast

Marilla of Green Gables by Sarah McCoy (audiobook) 
Avid Anne of Green Gable fans will likely enjoy this spinoff that focuses on the early adulthood of the reluctant and curmudgeonly guardian of the lovable Anne. A single, grumpy, older woman living with her brother when Anne meets her, the reader knows this is likely not going to be a story with an enduring love story or classic happy ending. Playing on a very short, easily missed tidbit in Anne of Green Gables about a young romance in Marilla’s earlier life with Gilbert Blythe’s grandpa, this novel explores what could have caused the bitterness and grumpiness that took so long to crumble once Anne entered the scene. The writing style and language aligned well with L.M. Montgomery’s that helped it feel congruous with the Anne books. It was well told but I can’t say I truly enjoyed it since it was a rather depressing story and I kept hoping it would end differently while knowing it wouldn't.

The Dearly Beloved by Cara Wall (audiobook) 
The lives of two couples are interwoven despite vast differences in beliefs and personalities  when the husbands are hired by a NYC church to co-pastor after a tumultuous past with a previous pastor. Charles is a cerebral man who loves to think deeply and encourage others towards from a genuine heart. He falls in love and marries the intelligent but unabashedly brash, opinionated and atheist Lily. James grew up as an angry kid with an alcoholic father. He isn’t sure how much he even believes is true about God but pursues ministry because of his passion for social justice, always finding a cause to assist. He is opinionated, has no problem with stirring up controversy and upsetting the comfortable status of his parishioners, and is a bit impulsive. He falls in love and marries Nan, a southern belle and daughter of a minister who has a positive outlook and seemingly unshakable, cheerful personality . The two men forge a partnership and friendship but their wives have a much harder time getting along. Through decades of intersected lives, which include jealousy, bitterness, grief, anger, and struggles with their faith in God, this eloquently penned novel deals with hard issues such as being married to someone who doesn’t share your beliefs, the deep valleys of sorrow, and raising a child who has disabilities. James and Lily both got under my skin but the character development for all four was so good, that by the end, I felt like I understood their decisions and personalities to the point that I could enjoy and appreciate them even though they are so different than me and originally rubbed me the wrong way.

Reminded me of: Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner 

I heard about this book from: What Should I Read Next podcast

Kid Lit

The Promises of God Storybook Bible 
I always love finding good storybook Bibles and have been blessed to receive several in the past few years from different publishers to review on the blog. This month, B&H/Lifeway generously sent The Promises of God Storybook Bible for free, in exchange for an honest review on my blog. The subtitle reads: The Story of God's Unstoppable Love. Wow, what a powerful concept for young minds to start to grasp, that God's love does not ever stop. There are fifty-two Bible stories, all threaded together through lessons on promises of God to His beloved children. Young hearts can deepen their trust in a faithful God who keeps His promises and loves them with a forever love. The writing is easy to understand for children as young as kindergarten, though I think it would be more age appropriate for grade school kids since the stories are a bit long for very young children. The writing itself is very conversational and interactive, perfectly coupled with discussion questions at the end of each story that focus on both comprehension and application. Beautiful illustrations accompany each story, bringing the well-known stories to life in a fresh way. I am looking forward to the day when Elliot is old enough to listen to these stories.