Wednesday, January 3, 2024

An Open Book: December 2023 Reads

Happy New Year! It is so fun to think about the year ahead, but I want to take a quick moment to review the books that helped me finish off 2023. Back in November, I hadn't gotten to many books; between lots of travel, a couple books that I started but put down for different reasons, and lots of activity in our home, I was happy to finish the few books that I did. In December, however, I made up for it. I read a really good mix of fiction and non-fiction, both adult and children's books, and I really loved some of them. I'm linking up with An Open Book; let's dive in! 

An American Immigrant, by Johanna Rojas Vann

This story follows Melanie, a young journalist in Miami who is struggling both to succeed in her career and have a good relationship with her mom. When Melanie sees an opportunity to hopefully strike success as a journalist, she embarks on a trip to Columbia for a story--and winds up unearthing the true story of her heritage as she discovers her mother's diaries. Initially, this book was hard for me to get into, but it was still a beautiful and fun story about a woman's exploration of her heritage, and her grappling with life as a daughter of an immigrant. Parts of the ending felt a little Millennial and unrealistic to me, but overall, I enjoyed reading this book. 

Dumbing us Down (25th Anniversary Edition): The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling, by John Taylor Gatto

John Taylor Gatto was a public-school teacher in New York City for nearly thirty years. He was hailed as a "teacher of the year"--but eventually realized that he could no longer be complicit in the existing educational system. In this short book, he brings together speeches and articles he wrote about the ways that the education system in America does not serve children, how it has been detrimental to communities, and how even if there are incredible teachers, they can only do so much good within such a broken system. I absolutely loved this book and kept running to my husband with cries of "We're not the only crazy ones!" as I read passages where Gatto voiced exact topics that my husband and I have discussed before. I highly recommend this book, and even though it was written in the 90s, it still feels so fresh and relevant (which is honestly kind of terrifying) and brings up a lot of good points that everyone--no matter if they prefer homeschool, public school, or private school--can benefit from considering. 

Imbalance (Avatar: The Last Airbender) by Faith Erin Hicks (Author), Bryan Konietzko (Author), Michael Dante DiMartino (Author), Peter Wartman (Illustrator)

This is the final graphic novel after the Avatar: The Last Airbender show, and this novel leads right up to The Legend of Korra. In this story, Aang and his friends return to Earthen Fire Industries. They discover that a deep tension exists between benders and non-benders there, and they deal with the conflicts that break out and try to find ways to resolve the issues and create a peaceful city. This was an interesting conclusion to the series, and I'm glad I read it, but honestly, it wasn't my favorite Avatar book. The story didn't resonate with me as much as the stories in The Search and The Promise. 

Lost in Darkness, by Michelle Griep

In this Frankenstein-inspired story, Amelia Balfour wants to visit Cairo (she's a travel writer). However, she's weighed down by an obligation, due to her late father's wishes, to care for her disfigured brother as he undergoes a transformative surgery. Amelia finds her life intertwined with that of Graham Lambert, a surgeon who is trying to get established with a practice and grow in his field. With the clock ticking and the medical practices of Regency England being unpredictable, Amelia finds herself swept up in a wild, tragic adventure that is far from what she dreamed of. This book hit all the delightful Gothic notes for me, and I really enjoyed reading it. It also convinced me that I really love living in the 21st century because medical treatments have come a long way, to say the least. I don't often read Inspirational Romance-genre literature anymore, but I'm glad I read this one, and it makes me want to look up more books by this author.

REREAD: The Westing Game, by Ellen Raskin

I hadn't picked this up since middle school, but especially since my firstborn is quickly growing up, I figured it'd be good to reread this in case it would be a good fit for him. This story is about a group of eccentric individuals who all live at an apartment and are all called to gather for the reading of the will of millionaire Sam Westing. They are told to compete in a game to determine who killed Sam Westing and who his heir will be. I wasn't a fan of all the content and disrespect that some of the characters showed to their elders, but this book is a lot of fun and I enjoyed it! 

REREAD: No Turning Back, by Fr. Donald Calloway

In this memoir, Father Calloway walks through his rebellious youth (girls, drugs, he got kicked out of Japan) to reflect on God's extraordinary mercy, and how after years of living in darkness, he finally chose to follow Christ. He then talks about his process of becoming a priest, and how he is still a work-in-progress and continually needs God's mercy. This is an incredible story and a beautiful book, and it is filled with a lot of hope. I'm glad I picked it up again!

The Diamond Eye, by Kate Quinn

This historical fiction novel follows Mila Pavlichenko, a scholar and mother who wishes to be a historian but, when World War II breaks out, becomes a sniper fin Russia's Red Army. As time went on, she became known as "Lady Death." This story was absolutely fascinating and completely riveting. I could have done without the couple of sex scenes, but otherwise I loved this book a lot! I now want to look up more by this author. 

Chris Beat Cancer, by Chris Wark

While he was in his twenties, Wark was unexpectedly diagnosed with cancer. He underwent surgery, but as the date for his chemotherapy treatments drew near, began to feel very uneasy about that process. As he prayed about it, he was given a book about natural treatment options, and stepping out on a limb of faith (informed by lots of scientific research), Wark chose to forego chemo and instead focused on nutrition, exercise, mental health and his spiritual life-and he was amazed to discover the results. In this book, written several years after his diagnosis, Wark tells his story and shares different strategies he used in pursuing healing. I really enjoyed this book and thought it was really eye-opening! Even though he makes a point to say that he's not anti-chemo, he does criticize chemotherapy pretty intensely, so I don't necessarily recommend this book to someone who is walking through chemo treatments (also, parts of the book felt a little Prosperity-Gospel-ish for me). But, for anyone who is curious about alternative cancer treatments and/or nutrition, I recommend this book as a fun, quick read!

Miss Pinkerton, by Mary Roberts Rinehart

I loved this mystery--written in the 1930s--that unpacks the mysterious death of a young man. The story follows a nurse, Hilda Adams, as she visits the Mitchell house to care for the elderly Miss Juliet, whose nephew was discovered dead in his room. Unbeknownst to the majority of the characters, as Hilda goes about her duties, she also observes her surroundings with an ulterior motive: she works with the police force. The Inspector routinely phones Hilda for her insights in the case; when he does so, he calls her "Miss Pinkerton" after the detective agency. Kept in this large, mysterious house, the sleep-deprived Hilda seeks to care for Miss Juliet and help the Inspector solve the mystery: was it a murder? Suicide? Who was involved? Hilda's character is fantastic, and her relationship with the Inspector is subtly sweet and romance-tinged. I really love how Hilda relates the story in the book, using a "had I but known" technique, where she is frequently foreshadowing danger (like: "had I but known that later in the night, tragedy would strike"). This book was a lot of fun, and I recommend it! 

The Hermitage Within, by A Monk (Cistercian Studies Series)

In this book, an anonymous monk reflects on the spiritual life and Scripture, all through the perspective of being a hermit (a monk who lives in solitude and silence). It seemed that the book was a bit of an encouragement to others who are living as monks, but I think any Christian could benefit from reading this. It was neat to see how the monk spent different chapters contemplating the role of various mountains in Scripture and different parts of Christ's life, as well as the significance of the night. This book was incredibly powerful for me to read, and I absolutely loved it (I read the ebook and had probably over fifty highlighted passages)! 

Hatchet, by Gary Paulsen

I somehow had never read this children's novel about a teenage boy named Brian who finds himself fighting for his life in the wilderness of Canada. After Brian's parents divorce, his mom puts him on a bush plane and sends him to spend the summer with his dad. However, the pilot suffers a heart attack and the plane crashes, leaving Brian to fend for himself and grapple with the secret behind his parent's divorce. The writing was a little repetitive in parts but I thought it was beautiful, and I love how the author conveyed tension and drama while not letting the story get too bogged down in gross, gory details. I really enjoyed reading this one! 


The Light of His Eyes, by Mother Iliana 

In this book, Mother Iliana, a nurse who became a Byzantine Catholic nun, reflects on God's fatherhood. She draws from different parts of Scripture and various experiences from her life and retreats she's been on to show how God's fatherhood changes everything. Each of us is a child of God, but not in a generic way--in a very personal, intimate way. Mother Iliana reflects on this incredible reality and emphasizes the importance of remaining in God and letting him love us. She is also an iconographer, so each chapter of the book features a gorgeous icon that she wrote, as well as a poem. This book is beautiful in appearance and in content, and it's one I know I'll be returning to in prayer. 

Code Name Edelweiss, by Stephanie Landsem

Set in Hollywood in 1933, this historical fiction novel follows Liesl, a young single mother who loses her job at MGM and--desperate for work--agrees to work as a spy for Leon Lewis, a Jewish lawyer who fears the growth of anti-Semitism in America. Initially, Liesl takes the job simply for the money-but as she spends time working for the Nazis and spying on her German American neighbors, her eyes are opened to terrible beliefs they espouse. I flew through this book in less than 24 hours, and I loved it! The characters were delightful, the story was vivid, and the setting was awesome. A couple parts concerning a fictional character were not totally believable for me, but I still thoroughly enjoyed this story and I highly recommend it. 

The Blue Zones: 9 Lessons for Living Longer from the people who've lived the longest (2nd Edition), by Dan Buettner

In this book, Buettner journeys to "blue zones," areas where a substantial portion of the population lives to their 90s or 100s, and he learns about the lifestyle, diet, and cultural factors that contribute to their lifespan. He talks with the elderly people themselves, scientists, doctors, and references many studies as he offers a comprehensive look at the lives of people in the "blue zones." Even with all of this research, the author writes in a very engaging way and I was engrossed in this book. One of my favorite parts was how at the end of each section on a culture and place, the author distilled what he learned into a set of actions that each person can take to live a healthier life. At the close of the book, the author then offers 9 lessons that unify the different cultures he visited. This was really fascinating and I enjoyed the book a lot! Not all of the author's views resonated with me (especially his part about "have a belief system, but it doesn't matter what belief system you practice") but I learned a ton. I recommend checking this one out. 

Lilibet Lynn and the Austen Cipher, by Elizabeth Amy Hajek

I actually read this several months ago, prior to the book's release, but I forgot to put it on last month's books so I'm sticking it with December :) Lilibet Lynn is grappling with the effects of her recent time-travelling adventure to the Middle Ages when she is unexpectedly sent on another journey. This time, she finds herself at the childhood home of Jane Austen. Lilibet tries to uncover the mystery behind a coded journal, learn more about time travel's mechanics, and blend in with eighteenth-century life--as she simultaneously tries to stay safe from unfortunate events. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book, and I enjoyed the way that the themes of time travel were explored and deepened. The story took a lot of dramatic twists and turns, while still including plenty of fun, lighthearted moments. Although I enjoyed the first Thimble in Time Adventure, I really loved this one, and I'm excited to share the story with my children!

Thanks so much for joining me this month. If you have any recommendations, please drop them in the comments-I'm excited about the year of reading that is ahead of me! 


  1. Lots of these are piquing my interest! Going to leave the tab up to browse again later and look at our library system!

    1. I hope you enjoy some of these, Laura! It was a fantastic reading month; sometimes it seems like "feast or famine" when it comes to books-I either can't find a book I enjoy or can get into, or I stumble on tons that I really enjoy for various reasons. It keeps life exciting!

  2. I'm glad you enjoyed Lost in Darkness. I don't think I've read a bad novel by Michelle Griep. She's one of my favorites.

    I'm going to look up Miss Pinkerton. It sounds delightful! Thanks for linking to An Open Book!