December Book Reviews

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson (audiobook) 
This hilarious short story would make a fun read-aloud with elementary to middle-grade kids. It's all about the horrible Herdmans, a brood of kids that have Trouble written all over them. Their hijinks, pranks, and overall meanness is known not only at school, but throughout the community. So when they show up at church and demand the leading roles in the yearly Christmas pageant, everyone thinks it will be the worst year yet. But the church congregation is in for a surprise when the Herdmans re-enact the Nativity story in a way that no one will soon forget. 
Rating: G

The Greatest Gift: A Christmas Tale by Philip Van Doren Stern (audiobook) 
A short story that later inspired the Christmas classic, It's A Wonderful Life. It has a lot less details than the movie, but it still retains its charm and was fun to read the original story since I love watching the film every December with my in-laws. I especially enjoyed the Afterward, which was written and narrated by the author's daughter, in which she shares how her dad sent out the story to friends and family in their family Christmas card after multiple publishing houses denied him. His self-published story somehow found its way in the hands of a movie producer ... and the rest is history. 
Rating: G

The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Anderson (audiobook) 
I heard that Disney's Frozen was based on this classic tale, but after reading it, I would say it is a very loose inspiration. Really, the only similarity is the frigid atmosphere. I saw more similarity with the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis. When young Gerda's best friend, Kai, goes missing, she embarks on a journey to find him and bring him back home. She meets many magical creatures along the way. But can she save Kai from the clutches of the Snow Queen before its too late? From talking crows and flowers to a princess in search of a prince to a little robber girl to old women living deep in the forests, there is so much creativity and charm to this tale. I also like that it is the girl saving the boy in this fairy tale, rather than the other way around :)
Rating: G

Dolly Parton, Songteller: My Life in Lyrics by Dolly Parton and Robert K. Oermann (audiobook) 
I've been waiting for a few months for this book to be published and it did not disappoint! Written in a casual interview style (which made it feel more like a podcast than a book), Dolly and Robert look back at the many songs that made Dolly the beloved and well-known woman she has become over six decades. From classics like "9 to 5", "Jolene", and "I Will Always Love You" to lesser known songs that have roots in her Appalachian childhood, Dolly looks back at the lyrics as well as the memories of writing these songs. The audiobook is a treat since you can hear Dolly's unmistakable voice and you get a three-second clip of the song before it is talked about. But the ebook (and I'm sure physical copy as well) is great because there are ton of photos as well as the full lyrics for the song discussed in each chapter. This is a fun book for anyone interested in learning more about Dolly or those who already know her and want to go down memory lane. 
Rating: PG (mild language)

The Deal of a Lifetime by Fredrik Backman (audiobook) 
A short novella about a father who is writing to his son about his life and a deal he is considering making that will change the course of his life while saving another life. It is a bit like a reverse It's A Wonderful Life, which seemed a bit quirky and depressing, but was creative, touching, and gave me food for thought (how much would I be willing to give up to help someone?). I wish it could have been longer, though. I have a hard time loving short stories, because I always feel like they're left unfinished and characters aren't fully fleshed out. I love Backman's stories and find him to be a fantastic author. It's pretty awesome that the proceeds from this novella are being donated to cancer research.  
Rating: PG (mild language) 

A Christmas Story by Jean Shepherd (audiobook) 
 I love the movie based on this book, so I wanted to read the book and compare. They are both hilarious and very similar, though the book has a different order of events. If you aren't familiar with this classic Christmas movie and book, do yourself a favor and read and watch both! It's almost Christmas in Depression-era Indiana and a kid named Ralphie is desperately (and very comically) plotting to convince his parents to buy his the coveted Red Ryder air rifle, to which his mom repeatedly contradicts with "You'll shoot your eye out".  
Rating: PG to PG-13 (language) 

The Day Christ Was Born by Jim Bishop 
Using the Biblical account along with historical research on Jewish customs during that time period, Bishop explored what it was like for Mary and Joseph from the time Mary became pregnant to their escape from King Herod to Egypt. It gave me a lot to think about, such as whether birth was as painful for Mary as other moms (she didn't have any superpowers and was a normal girl, so I would assume so, but Bishop's perspective was that God helped her with the pain so that it wasn't very uncomfortable). The part about King Herod ordering all the babies to be killed really gutted me now that I have a toddler under two, but also because of the vivid description. I never thought about the possibility that the soldiers who were ordered to do the murdering were ordered to also murder each other's infant sons as well. Written in 1959 by Bishop, an American journalist and author (who also wrote The Day Christ Died, The Day Lincoln Was Shot,  and The Day Kennedy Was Shot), it was very readable and easy to follow. It could be a good book to read with middle-grade and teen kids and discuss what life could have been like during the long, dusty, bumpy journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, what Joseph must have been thinking when he found out Mary was pregnant, and what the shepherd felt when they saw a chorus of angels proclaiming the birth of a king. 
(This is my 14th classic for my Classic Club challenge.  See the list of classics HERE.)
Rating: G

A Redbird Christmas by Fannie Flagg (audiobook) 
A sweet, Hallmark-ready story about a man given a second chance at life. When Oswald Campbell is told he has months to live due to failing health, he is encouraged to move from Chicago to a small town in Alabama for some fresh air and possible health benefits. There he meets a community of friendly people who change his life, mainly a little girl with a big heart but crippled leg. This was a fun read, but nothing too memorable or earth-shattering. It's a comfort read for the holidays, especially with the small town vibe. 
Rating: PG (mild language)

In the Company of Others (Mitford #11) by Jan Karon (audiobook) 
Father Tim, the beloved retired Episcopalian priest of this prolific series, and his wife, Cynthia, finally take their long-planned trip to Ireland to research his ancestry. But when Cynthia injures her ankle and is ordered to stay at their rustic inn, they end up befriending the owners and employees, witness a burglary, and get sucked into a long-standing family feud. As usual, people flock to Father Tim with their problems, and they are plentiful problems in this novel, which is a bit more brooding than the other novels in the large series. Of the eleven books, this one and the previous book (where Father Tim is visiting his family home in Mississippi) were hardest to connect with, mainly because I just adore all of the secondary characters in the series, all of whom live in the fictitious town of Mitford, and who were consequently missing in action in both of these novels. I am looking forward to continuing the series, which will return to Mitford. 
Rating: PG

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout (audiobook) 
Maybe it's because I read this in December, but I kept thinking of Olive as a female version of Grinch + Scrooge. She is a curmudgeon, but she sure can be witty too, so I couldn't hate her even if I was really annoyed with how mean she was to her husband for most of the book. This is a compilation of short stories of different residents of a little beach town called Crosby, Maine. All of the stories include Olive in some way, sometimes as a title character, other times as a supporting character, and a few times she got barely a mention (as the high school teacher everyone was afraid of). It was a downer of a book with sad, seemingly unresolved endings to the stories. I almost stopped a few times because of how negative Olive and other characters were, but I pushed through. I appreciate quiet stories about people going through mundane events that still mean a lot to them, which in this case included parents who grieve a son who moved cross-country and is avoiding their calls,  a musician who never really reached her potential and is wallowing in regret while playing for tips at a hotel bar, and a pastor's daughter who just stole a magazine from her doctor's office. I didn't love it, but I am willing to eventually read the recently published sequel, Olive, Again, since I have heard readers prefer it to this one. 
Rating: PG-13 (lots of language, mild sexual content)

A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett (audiobook and print) 
I grew up loving the film adaptation, but never actually read the book. I am so glad I corrected that blunder because I absolutely adored this classic. Burnett (1849-1924) is the author of another of my favorite children's classics (The Secret Garden), so I had a feeling I would enjoy it. She was born in England, but lived in America for most of her childhood and early adulthood, and then traveled between the two for her later years when her writing became popular. Originally titled, A Little Princess: Being the Whole Story of Sara Crewe Now Being Told for the First Time, it was published in 1905 after first being serialized in 1887 in a magazine as a short story called "Sara Crewe: or, What Happened at Miss Minchin's". Her publishers wanted her to expand it to a full-length novel after she composed a play based on the short story in 1902. It has been a beloved classic ever since, landing on many Top 100 lists.  The novel is all about the kind, imaginative, and humble Sara Crewe, who grew up in India and moves into a boarding school in London, while her father continues business abroad. Her life is soon turned upside down, from wealthy child to penniless orphan, so she moves from the largest room in the school to the dingy attack and becomes a servant. But her generosity, kindness, and overall positive outlook withstand all kinds of hardships as she brings joy to the lives of many others. The writing was so endearing and creative. Sara's love for creative stories brought such a colorful dimension to the story. I enjoyed it on audiobook as well as my beautiful Rifle Paper Co. edition! 

Favorite quotes: 
“Whatever comes," she said, "cannot alter one thing. If I am a princess in rags and tatters, I can be a princess inside. It would be easy to be a princess if I were dressed in cloth of gold, but it is a great deal more of a triumph to be one all the time when no one knows it.”

“When you will not fly into a passion people know you are stronger than they are, because you are strong enough to hold in your rage, and they are not, and they say stupid things they wish they hadn't said afterward. There's nothing so strong as rage, except what makes you hold it in--that's stronger. It's a good thing not to answer your enemies.” 

“Never did she find anything so difficult as to keep herself from losing her temper when she was suddenly disturbed while absorbed in a book. People who are fond of books know the feeling of irritation which sweeps over them at such a moment. The temptation to be unreasonable and snappish is one not easy to manage.

“I pretend I am a princess,so that I can try and behave like one.” 

“I don't like it, papa," she said. "But then I dare say soldiers - even brave ones - don't really like going into battle.” 

“Are you learning me by heart, little Sara?" he said, stroking her hair.
"No," she answered. "I know you by heart. You are inside my heart.” 

(This is my 15th classic for my Classic Club challenge.  See the list of classics HERE.)
Rated: G 

The Characters of Christmas: The Unlikely People Caught Up in the Story of Jesus by Daniel Darling (audiobook and print)
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. Discussion 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.
Rated: G

Reading Stats for December:
Total Books Read: 12
Fiction: 10
Nonfiction: 2

Books off my bookshelf (Goal= 2/mo): 1 in December;  total for 2020 = 24)
Total books read in 2020 so far:  151 (Goal: 120)
Classics Club: 15 of 75 books read so far 

My Star Ratings
★ =  I LOVED it! 
☆ = I enjoyed it 
☆ = It was good overall 
☆ = Wasn't a fan
☆ = Disliked it a lot