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If you know me, then you’ll have guessed that the “all new” in the title of this post does not, in fact, refer to newly released books. In fact, once I went looking for links online, I realized that almost every single book I wanted to tell you about is out of print.
But don’t let that deter you! Fortunately, the internet makes searching for and purchasing used books very easy. You can follow the amazon links below, or you can search Abe Books or Powells. You could also do what I do: keep a list of authors to look for the next time you visit a used bookstore or thrift store.
So, what do I mean by all new? I mean that these are some of our favorite seasonal books, but I have never mentioned them on the blog before. You can find all of the Advent and Christmas books I have already recommended over here on one handy page.
Why so many books? Who has time for reading during this, one of the busiest months of the year? I love what Sarah Arthur has to say in Light Upon Light:
So the one time of year that we are given to pause and seek the One who seeks us becomes the one time of year that drives us nearly to self-extinction. And it is this season, of any, when we are least likely to pick up a book and read. Who has time for that? But it is a Word that has come to us, and words that tell the story of that Word from generation to generation.
First, lest you imagine that picture books are only for children, I recommend Lisbeth Zwerger’s version of The Nutcracker by E.T.A. Hoffmann.
Zwerger is a prize-winning illustrator from Vienna. Her art is strange but lovely and is the perfect thoughtful foil for the disturbing whimsy and intelligence of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s original Nutcracker tale. While I have shared this long picture book with my older children, I think this book would make a wonderful gift for any adult who appreciates art and literature.
The next book I’ll mention couldn’t be more different than Zwerger’s, but it is a new favorite in our house. Christmas For 10 by Cathryn Falwell is a counting Christmas book featuring multiple generations of an African-American family. My four-year-old loves it because she can count along, my older kids are drawn into it because of the bright cut-paper illustrations, and I love it for its depiction of ordinary Christmas fun like stringing popcorn and filling gift baskets. I am also grateful to have a Christmas book featuring a non-white family. Unfortunately, this is still very rare in Christmas picture books.
The Christmas Party by Adrienne Adams is more than a little unexpected (a Christmas book about a family of Easter egg-painting rabbits??), but it is a thrift store gem. I had never heard of Adrienne Adams before I picked up a used copy of this book, but her illustrations are so appealing.
And though I picked this one up for the pictures, the story is wonderful, too. It’s a bit of a Christmas coming-of-age tale, as the rabbit children turn the tables on their hardworking parents by surprising them with a memorable outdoor Christmas party. Adams’ illustrations of an egg-decorated Christmas tree and rabbit families sledding a snowy hill under a full moon are equally memorable.
Christmas in the Country by Cynthia Rylant is my favorite kind of picture book. It is almost like a picture-book version of a literary memoir: Rylant’s recollection of a country Christmas from her childhood is spare and straightforward, yet the small memories seem to add up to so much more than is at first apparent. I could read this one over and over.
My children, on the other hand, much prefer The Worst Person’s Christmas by James Stevenson. I wasn’t even planning to mention this story of a truly awful Christmas curmudgeon, except that my kids have begged for it every night this week. When I refused to read it one more time, my oldest decided that she would read it out loud instead. Three pages in and my boys were howling.
Fortunately, the horrifying behavior of “the worst person in the world” can’t persist against the unrelenting cheer and kindness of his neighbors. His insults may be horrifying (to me) and hilarious (to my children), but the story has a sweet ending.
If you need a break from the picture books, I’ve been enjoying Christmas at Thompson Hall & Other Christmas Stories by Anthony Trollope. These Victorian short stories offer the best of an old-fashioned British Christmas with the usual concerns of nineteenth-century literature. These are stories of roast beef, plum pudding, property, and humorous misunderstandings neatly resolved by the end of Christmas Day.
I’ve always enjoyed classic British murder mysteries from the 1930s. A Christmas Party: A Seasonal Murder Mystery by Georgette Heyer is wickedly fun and clever. I recommend reading it near a roaring country house fire. However, I found that a small kitchen woodstove will do in a pinch.
Happy reading and blessed Advent.
It has been too windy and cold since Easter for much gardening. Asparagus crowns, strawberry plants, and a net sack of seed potatoes are all waiting, more patiently than I am, to be planted out. If April showers bring May flowers, then I am hoping April hail and snow really do the trick.
While the storms rage, I read up a storm indoors.
You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit is a new release by James K. A. Smith. I don’t tend to pick up books on Christian discipleship and spiritual formation, or, if I do, my attention wanders well before I’ve turned the final page. Though I haven’t quite finished this one, I’ve begun deliberately slowing my pace. I’m already certain I’ll be reading this a second time and passing it on.
Smith’s argument is at once self-evident and astonishing. It brings into sharp focus so many of the dynamics of my own spiritual journey.
Descartes said, “I think, therefore I am,” but most of us know, intuitively, that isn’t so. What we think touches only a small, small part of our lives. Love, desire, and worship are much more powerful forces in our lives, and we will never be transformed if we limit Christian discipleship to what we think about doctrine or articles of faith.
The difficult but ultimately beautiful truth explored in this book is that we do not always love who and what we think we love.
I read the first installment in the Duncan Kinkaid/ Gemma James mystery series, A Share in Death, a long time ago and promptly forgot about it. I enjoyed the story, but I forgot that what I appreciate most in a mystery series is the slow and subtle revelation of the central characters. This means that if I think a series has potential, I should read them in order and read at least the first two or three. I am so glad I recently picked up book two All Shall Be Well.
I don’t like the look of mass market paperbacks (perhaps because they all look the same to me?), but, despite appearances, this is a great series for fans of Louise Penny. Scotland Yard detective Duncan Kinkaid interviews suspects in a London of stewed tea and curry takeaways while Inspector Gamache enjoys tender baguettes in a quaint Quebec village, but I think they have a lot in common. These books are a great way to pass the time until Penny’s newest book comes out in August.
Next week I’ll be participating in the Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College in Michigan. I’ll be speaking on a panel with Preston Yancey (I’ve heard his latest book Out of the House of Bread is wonderful, and I’ll be reading it myself soon), Addie Zierman (I told you how much I enjoyed her latest memoir, Night Driving), and another wonderful writer Sarah Bessey (her latest is Out of Sorts: Making Peace With An Evolving Faith).
I’m looking forward to hearing from some of my favorite writers, including Christian Wiman, Leslie Leyland Fields, Luci Shaw, and George Saunders.
I met blogger Anne Bogel at the last Festival of Faith and Writing. If you are looking for a new book to read, I highly recommend her podcast What Should I Read Next? In each episode, Anne talks with a thoughtful reader about three books they love and one book they hate. Based on those titles, she recommends three books to try. I almost always learn about some new-to-me title, and it was a conversation on this podcast that reminded me I’d abandoned the Duncan Kinkaid/Gemma James series too quickly.
After a brief hiatus, the Roots and Sky book club is back. Laura Brown asks such thoughtful questions. I hope you’ll check it out, either by offering your own comment or “listening” in. As a bonus, you’ll find several audio recordings of me reading from the book.
I recently shared a Roots and Sky-themed installment of “These Farmhouse Bookshelves” on writer Rachel McMillan’s website.
I have a new piece called “Comfort Food For Those Who Mourn” at Grace Table. It includes a recipe for my family’s favorite dessert.
Do you have a favorite comfort food?
There are so many ways to ask the same question.
Beach or mountain?
Rain or sun?
Coffee or tea?
Read or jog?
My answer for each one is the same: cozy. What I mean is that, while I usually choose mountain over beach, if given a choice between climbing a fourteener and sitting in a beach chair with a novel, I will change my answer. Beach, all the way.
When I say that the books I’m recommending today are Beach Reads, I may not mean what you think I mean. They are not all light and fluffy. They are not summer-themed. But if the summer is the one season when we collectively give ourselves permission to read novels during the middle of the day, then here are three great books to feed your summertime fiction obsession.
A God in Ruins: A Novel (Todd Family) is the latest book by Kate Atkinson. Not exactly a sequel, it is the companion novel to her last book Life After Life: A Novel. I wrote about that incredible book here. I do think it makes the most sense to read the books in order, but if the premise of the first is unappealing you can read A God in Ruins on its own. The characters will be new and unfamiliar to you, but Atkinson is a master with her characters. A few sentences is all she needs to reveal the depths of their souls.
And make you laugh out loud. Because Atkinson has a sharp and wicked sense of humor.
Atkinson’s humor is especially surprising given her subject matter. While Life After Life focused on Ursula Todd’s harrowing experience of the Blitz, A God in Ruins narrates the life of her beloved baby brother, Teddy, who was a pilot dropping bombs on Germany during the war.
Given the odds, Teddy should not have survived the war, but Atkinson gives him a fictional life in which we are allowed to discover just how important one life can be. In big ways (flying large bombs) and in small (choosing kindness again and again).
Atkinson’s narrative technique is unorthodox. She moves backward and forward in time. She tells her stories in snatches of thoughts in each character’s head. And the result, incredibly, is a seamless narrative that keeps you turning pages. I honestly don’t know how she does it.
Another master novelist is Kazuo Ishiguro. His books The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go are favorites of mine. His latest book, The Buried Giant: A novel, explores one of the most important questions for our world: how do we achieve peace after war and national trauma?
The book explores this question at the most intimate level as it follows an elderly married couple on a fairy tale-like quest. But it also asks the question in bigger ways as it explores the fractured relationship between two national communities that were only recently at war.
The surprising but very effective way in which Ishiguro tackles these difficult questions is by setting his book in the legendary, far-distant past. The Buried Giant is set in an England where ogres and dragons still roam. An England where Saxon and Briton have achieved a too-fragile accord. An England where the achievements of the late King Arthur are still felt in the land.
How do we mend personal relationships after betrayal and how do we forgive and find peace following national trauma? These are enormous questions and enormously important, but Ishiguro’s story is simple, spare, and elegant. It is slow and measured and beautiful.
It seems to use only the barest bones of our collective storytelling traditions. The characters are ones we have always known (wife, husband, warrior, boy) and the plot is just as familiar (a journey of discovery, a quest to destroy a dragon). But the result is a novel that is fresh and new and very much written for our world today.
Ready for something a little less intense? If you are a mystery lover you will likely already have made the acquaintance of Mrs. Pollifax, the most unexpected CIA agent of all time. Widowed with grown children, Mrs. Pollifax has grown a little bored of her garden club and hospital volunteer work and so takes one last stab at a lifelong dream: she wants to be a spy.
Dorothy Gilman’s Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax is the first in a delightful series. In a few places I almost find these book too delightful, but then Mrs. Pollifax says or thinks something so hilariously understated that I want to write it down and remember it forever.
These books are as light and frothy as any beach read but don’t be deceived. There is more to Mrs. Pollifax than meets the eye, and there is more to these books. These fun, funny, adventurous stories rest on a very well written and well plotted foundation.
Tell me, do you keep a summer reading list? I’d love to hear what you plan to read this summer.
Books have always felt like bread and water to me. Necessary. Daily. Delicious.
I am finding that to be even more true as I round the final bend of book writing. There seems to be an almost exact correlation between words in and words out.
These days, I am reading in order to keep the sounds and rhythms of good writing foremost in my mind. I am reading to jolt new ideas. I am reading to learn. I am reading to rest. It usually takes a book to shut my own book out of my head for a while.
Here is a little bit of what I’ve been reading.
You can find all the book recommendations in my occasional Saturday series right here. These posts contain affiliate links.
I never, ever recommend books I haven’t actually finished, but I’m making an exception for Jean Hersey’s The shape of a year. This book is a vintage gem, and I think I bought my copy for one dollar plus shipping. It’s worth fifty times that.
Hersey was a garden writer, and this book observes the four seasons on her rural Connecticut property with curiosity and joy. This is a book all about the simple pleasures of the seasons. It begins in January, and I have only allowed myself to read through March (because I want to walk through all of this year with this book nearby).
Some might complain that nothing much happens. It’s true that this isn’t a book full of human dramas. But Hersey knows what everyone with eyes to really see the world around them has discovered. There is always something happening.
I am afraid that the lady doth protest too much because I find myself recommending one more book I haven’t quite finished. Perhaps that is the true theme of this post: Books I’ve Partly Read! But the new nonfiction book by the novelist Ann Patchett is another one for savoring. I could sit down and read it in one gulp, but it’s January. Self-control and discipline are in the air this time of year.
This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage is a collection of essays and magazine pieces. Together they explore everything from how and why Patchett became a writer to what it’s like to try out for the Los Angeles police department. There’s a great bit about an RV road trip.
Patchett’s book is funny and fun. It hits all the buttons for me right now. Good writing that prompts new thinking in a collection that makes a restful, distracting escape.
This third book I not only finished but finished quickly. It is that mythical beast known as a page-turner. Fortunately, it is also well written and gives you a great deal to think about. It is Elizabeth Is Missing by Emma Healey.
This is a psychological mystery with a dose of historical fiction, but, mostly, it is a powerful portrait of growing older and of care-giving. I dare anyone to read this book without growing in empathy and compassion for the elderly.
What are you reading these days? And, perhaps more importantly, why?