Today’s book reviews lean heavily into Christmas. I realize that January is not an ideal time to be sharing Christmas reads, but these reviews follow my reading life in real time (with a slight delay), and I was steeped in Christmas reading this past month! You have my full permission to skip over the Christmas section of this post and come back to it next December when you’re in the mood for a holiday read. And if you’re looking for ideas on what to read right now, there are some other non-seasonal books here that I am happy to recommend. Let’s get to those reviews!
A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens: Can you believe that I had never read this Christmas classic? I’ve seen stage renditions and movie remakes and read retellings and kids’ versions, but somehow I hadn’t made space in my life for Dickens’ original words. That changed this Christmas with the help of this gorgeous illustrated version of the text.
I won’t recap the story, as it’s one you surely know. What a basic summary doesn’t convey is the charming narrative voice and the poignant insights, the witty banter and sense of joviality, the hardship and occasional ominousness and layers of metaphor within exquisite prose. The entire story is quintessential Christmas as we have come to know and love the holiday—because, of course, this one novella has played such a large role in how we see and understand Christmas today! This is an instance of the original being even better than the replicas; my only regret is that it took me so long to read it.
I cannot say enough great things about this particular version (though I also purchased an annotated Kindle version to bridge some of my cultural and linguistic knowledge gaps). The illustrations are lovely and bring the story to life, and the whole text is accompanied by a handful of additional Christmas stories (among them perennial favorite “The Gift of the Magi”), a thoughtful introduction, and a biography of the author. This is a very welcome addition to our Christmas book collection and I look forward to returning to this one year after year.
My Rating: 5 Stars // Book Format: Print
A Christmas Memory, by Richard Paul Evans: Eight-year-old Richard’s world falls apart in 1967 when his brother, Mark, is killed in Vietnam, his father loses his job, his parents separate, and he and his mom move from their home in Southern California for a new life in Utah. There, Richard faces loneliness and bullying from his teachers and classmates alike, and with his mom bedridden due to her depression, Richard has nowhere to turn for help. Richard finds unexpected companionship with his elderly neighbor, Mr. Foster, who chases down Richard’s bullies, invites him into his home for cookies and cocoa, and hires Richard to walk his precious dog. As the holidays approach, Mr. Foster teaches Richard lessons of kindness and wisdom, fortifying the young boy for even more losses to come.
This book, which appears to be largely autobiographical, gives readers a glimpse into a heartbreaking childhood that is all too real. Evans paints the devastating picture of Richard’s bleak youth, setting the stage for hope and redemption that is to come. To that end, this book feels a little bit emotionally manipulative in the way that these sorts of “feel-good” Christmas novels can. But I am an occasional sucker for this type of sentimental story (especially at Christmas time), and I loved this one. It’s short and I was almost halfway through before the story truly grabbed me; but once Mr. Foster entered the picture, I was ready to cozy up to his warm fire and bask in the warmth of his friendship.
This is a lovely Christmas story, but can be enjoyed any time of year. Just be sure to have the tissues handy.
My Rating: 4 Stars // Book Format: Print
The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street, by Karina Yan Glaser: The five Vanderbeeker children do not remember life outside their brownstone on 141st Street. The brownstone basement has seen Isa transform into an accomplished violinist, and the roof is home to her twin sister, Jessie’s, brilliant water wall. The brownstone is where Hyacinth grew into a talented crafter and where little Laney taught her pet rabbit how to do tricks, where their mother baked goodies for the whole neighborhood and their father honed his skills as a maintenance man. Oliver’s scribbled family portrait from six years ago still covers his parents’ bedroom wall.
But then the family receives an unexpected eviction notice just days before Christmas. The five Vanderbeeker children cannot bear to leave their home, so they take it upon themselves to change their disgruntled (and mysterious) landlord’s mind and convince him to let them stay. Their attempts at winning over “The Biederman” range from comical to disastrous, and as eviction day grows closer, the family makes many discoveries about their landlord, their fellow family members, and most of all their appreciation for their cherished home.
This was my second time through this book (this time as a read-aloud with the kids, who all loved it!) and I enjoyed it even more with this reread. The members of this iconic family are so endearing, and their connections with each other, their home, and their neighbors are truly special. The story itself is predictable but sweet and filled with wonderful lessons of family, kindness, and savoring life’s simple pleasures. I enjoyed introducing my kids to this family and look forward to getting to know them more as we read further in the series.
My Rating: 5 stars // Book Format: Print // Charleston’s Rating: 4.5 Stars
Star of Wonder: An Advent Devotional to Illuminate the People, Places, and Purpose of the First Christmas, by Angela Hunt: I enjoy reading through an Advent devotional each Christmas, and was drawn to the lovely cover and unique premise of this one. Across 25 days, Angela Hunt illuminates the people, places, prophecies, and purpose of the first Christmas. Many figures featured here are those we know and love from the traditional Christmas story: we meet the shepherds, Joseph, the magi, Bethlehem, and Mary, though their stories are given historical and cultural context that was entirely new to me (I lost track of my aha! moments in this book). We also spend time exploring some lesser-celebrated aspects of the first Christmas, such as the Maccabees (with a fascinating deep dive into Hanukkah and its relevance to Christmas), Egypt, and Melchizedek. Hunt brings her novelist’s sensibilities to her storytelling, adding color and vibrancy to the narrative and causing the Biblical characters and places to come alive.
This is a devotional for people who love the Bible and have studied it for years, as well as for those who are less familiar with the Biblical account of Jesus’ birth and are seeking insight into the story that started it all. The lovely woodcut illustrations, beautiful cover design, and unique personal application and suggested family activities elevate this devotional from excellent to outstanding. It’s possibly my favorite Advent devotional of the many I’ve read over the years, and I hope to revisit it with the kids once they get a little older.
My Rating: 5 Stars // Book Format: Print
Jotham’s Journey, by Arnold Ytreeide: In addition to reading an Advent devotional on my own, I like to read through one (or two) each year with the kids. This year, in addition to reading the devotional guide that accompanies our Advent Blocks, we read through this Advent storybook that takes the form a fictional chapter book divided into daily readings. The book tells the story of Jotham, a young shepherd boy from Jericho who was separated from his family in the days leading up to Jesus’ birth. Jotham’s quest to find his family brings him into contact with other shepherds, prophets, wise men in search of a king, and ultimately the Messiah himself. Jotham’s journey is tumultuous, marked by danger and excitement but also encounters with kindness, truth-seekers, and individuals who point Jotham not only to the location of Jesus but to the salvation that His birth brings.
This is a clever story that brings the first Christmas to life in a unique and very fun way. The kids and I were all engaged in the story and enjoyed spotting the Biblical Easter eggs scattered throughout Jotham’s journey, and the mini devotionals included at the end of each day’s reading allowed us to touch on deeper realities of Christmas beyond the story printed on the page.
What kept this from being a 5-star read is that, for our family, it didn’t work well for the purpose of our daily Advent readings. Some days we were pressed for time and reading through a long chapter was just too much; other days we were captivated by the story and wanted to keep going, but lost momentum with the abrupt chapter breaks and daily commentary/application. I’m interested in reading more books from the series in the future, but probably won’t use those books as our nightly Advent devotionals. That said, this is a really wonderful way of using literature to point kids back to the meaning of Christmas and I understand why it is beloved by so many families.
My Rating: 4.5 Stars (Rounded to 4 Stars on Goodreads) // Book Format: Print
Hope Springs, by Kim Cash Tate: Grandma Geri’s home in the small southern town of Hope Springs has been the heart of the Sanders Family for as long as everyone can remember. The annual family reunions draw scores of family members to the town each summer, and Grandma Geri’s failing health has led to a makeshift reunion of sorts this Christmas. [Side note: the book does begin at Christmas time, but is not at all a Christmas book, so don’t be discouraged from picking it up outside of the holiday season.] Among those returning home are Janelle Evans, who hasn’t seen her family since becoming a widow two years earlier; Stephanie London, who sees the trip as an opportunity to heed God’s call to move beyond her own selfish desires as she starts to serve others; and Libby Sanders, whose promiscuous lifestyle has made her an outlier within her devout Christian family.
Meanwhile, Becca Anderson—the daughter-in-law of Grandma Geri’s recently deceased next-door neighbor—is finally experiencing growth in her ministry thanks to a recent invitation to speak at a large Christian women’s conference. But when her husband feels called to pastor his late father’s church, Becca worries she will have to put her ministry ambitions on hold. Soon Becca’s world is entwined with that of the Sanders family in ways none of these women or their families had expected.
I have no idea how I stumbled across this book—a 2012 release from an author I knew nothing about—but it ended up being a sleeper hit for me! I was immediately drawn to this town and these big, complicated families made up very (realistically) messy people who are solid in their faith and their pursuit of God’s call on their lives. There is drama, romance, and even scandal within these stories, and not very storyline is tied up with a bow, but I enjoyed watching the characters work through their challenges within the context of their families and community and in ways that align (or don’t) with their faith.
I don’t read a lot of Christian fiction, and this one is VERY Christian with full Bible studies and prayers written into the stories. This may be a turnoff for many readers, but were a selling point for me: I LOVED seeing characters whose faith played into their conversations and decisions, who wrestled with God but ultimately trusted Him, and who were by no means “perfect Christians” but who (in most instances) recognized their sin struggles and sought repentance and reconciliation. The characters’ faith lives, as well as their interpersonal interactions and challenges, felt true to my own experience as a follower of Christ and I liked seeing this represented well here.
One aspect of the book that I loved, but that made it a challenging read, was the sheer number of characters. There are SO MANY names and families and backstories and I struggled to keep them straight. (I finally drew up a family tree for myself, only to discover later that there was one at the start of the book, which I hadn’t originally noticed in my Kindle edition). This was sometimes frustrating and I felt like I was missing a lot (perhaps I would have been less lost if I had read the other books in this series? But this is billed as a standalone and I didn’t realize until later that there are other books set within this world). That said, this huge number of characters added a sense of realism to the book, to the point where I found myself thinking about these characters when not reading, and wondering how they were doing (totally forgetting that their story was fictional).
As I mentioned at the top, this was written in 2012 and parts feel pretty dated (especially the texting and social media components and references to a church being “high tech” for recording messages on CD). Racial disunity is also a core theme (the Evans family is black, and there is a big divide between their church and that of the Andersons, who are white); I’m curious how the author would address these issues a decade later, when racial discord is even more of a hot button issue.
This is a book with great appeal for a very niche audience, and though I wouldn’t have assumed I would be within that audience, I am! I hadn’t realized how much I wanted to read a complicated Christian novel that felt genuine—neither saccharine and sanitized, nor progressive and edgy. I look forward to reading more within this series in the future!
My Rating: 4.25 Stars // Book Format: Kindle
Build the Life You Want: The Art and Science of Getting Happier, by Arthur C. Brooks and Oprah Winfrey: Happiness is a universal goal: we all want to be happy, but some of us seem better at it than others. In this book, Oprah teams up with happiness expert Arthur C. Brooks to show that happiness is more of a choice than something that simply does or doesn’t happen to us, and together the coauthors show us how to take steps in making that choice and following through with it.
The authors begin by defining their terms, telling us what happiness isn’t (a set of feelings, a lack of happiness) and what it is (a combination of enjoyment, satisfaction, and purpose). While they acknowledge that we all have a mix of natural happiness and unhappiness depending on character and circumstances, they explain how positive and negative emotions work together to form a fulfilling life (anyone who has seen Inside Out will understand this!) and they show that taking control of four life pillars—family, friendships, work, and faith—through emotional understanding and management can translate to the happiness we desire.
I’m not particularly an Oprah fan, and I’ve already read a number of books related to this subject, so I wasn’t an obvious candidate to read this one, but after hearing Arthur C. Brooks on a number of podcasts I was intrigued. And I did like this! Oprah’s brief interludes add little and are mostly just distractions, but Brooks is a wise and reasonable guide all on his own. I was familiar with quite a bit of the information but found the specific formulas and tools helpful. I especially appreciated the chapter discussing the Positive and Negative Affect Schedule, a test measuring positive and negative mood (I learned I am a “Mad Scientist” who experiences higher than regular levels of both positive and negative emotions). I also found the metacognitive exercises very useful.
Discussions of happiness can easily get off track, but this one is neither toxically positive nor fatalistic. The authors recognize the challenges and pain in life while illuminating a path forward that is accessible to nearly everyone, regardless of inherent mental state or circumstances. I believe that a healthy infusion of Biblical teaching would greatly enhance the content here (there is discussion of faith, but it doesn’t go beyond one chapter), but as a secular guide this one is pretty solid.
I’ll note that I wouldn’t have benefitted from a book like this in the depths of my depression, so this is probably not an appropriate read for somebody experiencing acute mental health issues; for the rest of us, though, there is a lot to take away.
My Rating: 4 Stars // Book Format: Audiobook
This Day with the Master: 365 Daily Meditations, by Dennis Kinlaw: I like to pick one (or more) annual devotionals to read through each year. Specifically, these devotionals serve as my reading while I brush my teeth each morning, setting the spiritual tone for my day (and keeping me from scrolling my phone at this time). This was my devotional for 2023, and it is an excellent read! Each day begins with a verse or brief passage from Scripture, followed by a page-long devotional that may or may not correlate with the daily Scripture. The readings are theologically rich, pulling insights and application from personal stories and Biblical passages, and Kinlaw’s passion for the Lord and for sharing the Gospel is evident on every page. I enjoyed the diversity of content and Kinlaw’s deep Biblical understanding.
What kept this from being a 5-star read for me was the lack of continuity, organization, or themes; the daily readings are random, and though I appreciated the surprise element that this brought to each day’s reading, I would have liked a more streamlined reading approach. That said, this is a very solid devotional and an excellent choice if you are still looking for a book of this sort to enliven your spiritual life in 2024.
My Rating: 4 Stars // Book Format: Print
So to Speak: 11,000 Expressions That’ll Knock Your Socks Off, by Shirley Kobliner and Harold Kobliner: Whether you’re a sharp cookie or not the brightest crayon in the box, I’d bet dollars to donuts that your language is chock-full of sayings. Idioms are an inescapable part of communication, often lurking in our writing and speech without our notice. In this fun collection, a husband and wife team have compiled thousands of common (and many less common) expressions, divided into more than sixty distinct and very clever categories.
The story behind this book (told in the introduction) is almost as wonderful as the book itself: Shirley and Harold Kobliner were two former educators who dedicated years of their retirement to collecting this list of expressions. Every one of the 11,000 expressions in the book is one they heard or saw or used themselves; they relied on input from friends and family members, but never consulted the internet for their project! Shirley died in 2016, but Harold continued with the project in honor of his wife.
This is not a book about the history or meaning of expressions (though I would love to read that!). Rather, it is intended to be a “launchpad for your lifelong journey to explore the universe of expressions.” The tome, which largely contains straightforward lists, drew my attention to the high volume of expressions in my own vocabulary as I read SO MANY expressions that I knew and/or use; the range and volume of these expressions enhanced my appreciation for language and has me paying more attention to my own writing and speech.
The book is filled with humorous drawings illustrating veracious phrases, as well as ideas for puzzles and games that can be played using this book as a guide. With this game component and attractive cover, it would make a great gift. It also has excellent teaching potential; I had fun discussing some of these with my kids and we could easily make a year-long curriculum out of the content this provides.
My Rating: 4 Stars // Book Format: Print
Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing, by Matthew Perry: Matthew Perry saw every one of his greatest dreams come true, yet even when he was one of Hollywood’s most familiar faces, earning millions for his roles and dating some of the most beautiful women in the world, he could not achieve the one thing he truly desired: sobriety, and the chance to live a life unmarred by the big, terrible thing of addiction. In this intensely raw memoir, Perry divulges the depths of his addiction and the viselike grip it has held on him for most of his life. Beginning in 2018 at a very low point when his colon exploded, then scrolling back to the very beginning, Perry recounts his earliest days as a brokenhearted child being shuffled between two homes; his launch into fame and his time as a lead cast member of Friends; and the countless failed relationships, screen successes (and failures) and of course his lifelong battle with addiction.
Though I’ve seen all of Friends, I wouldn’t call myself a fan, and I’m not familiar with Perry’s other work; still, I was stunned by the news of his recent passing and heartbroken to read many tributes to this man who was widely loved but also, apparently, deeply troubled. I suddenly felt that I MUST read this memoir that had previously held no appeal, and though my timing was unfortunate it also felt inevitable: from the book’s earliest lines, it was obvious that this was written by a man who knew he had little time left on this earth. The book’s tone is foreboding, heavy with the brokenness of Perry’s mind and body, if not his spirit; I got the sense that Perry intended for this to be read once he was already gone.
Those hoping for a lighthearted glimpse into Perry’s life and particularly his time on Friends will not find that here. Perry does share plenty of details about his work and personal life (SO MANY women!), but this is unapologetically an addiction memoir and a very painful read. Perry is frank about his numerous stints in rehab, the excessive lengths he would take to obtain drugs, his years of intoxication and the accompanying deception and isolation. Perry is both candid and self-aware as he divulges the origins of his addictions and its horrific repercussions. Though arrogant, entitled, and inconsiderate at times, he remains unimpressed with his own behavior, offering his mistakes as a powerful cautionary tale.
Between the devastating subject matter, vague references to unnamed girlfriends, and lots of confusing time hopping, this was not an easy book to listen to, but I couldn’t turn away. Even knowing the very tragic ending, I was riveted by Perry’s storytelling, with his trademark acerbic humor and inexplicable knack for helping readers connect to his unreliable life. I can’t imagine the courage it must have taken Perry to share this story that exposes addiction and the downsides to celebrity and success.
I was surprised in reading to learn that Perry was a hopeless romantic and always longed to settle down and have kids. I am sad that he never got to see the fulfillment of that particular dream, but even if his story did not end as any of us would have hoped, I am grateful to him for sharing the story he did have with all of us. His book is a gift to readers wanting to understand the inner workings of an addict, and I came away with this with so much compassion for individuals who, like Perry, are burdened down by their own big terrible thing.
My Rating: 4 Stars // Book Format: Audiobook
How is your 2024 reading going? We’re fresh into this new year, so I hope that your reading goals are still going strong. (The good news is that you have a whole year to make adjustments if needed!) What is the best/worst/most Christmasy book you read this month?