I thought I read a lot of books in 2018. But last year I blew that out of the water by somehow reading 146 books! Now, 35%, or 52, of those were audiobooks, so it’s not like I sat down and read all of them. Audiobooks mean multitasking, which is a huge bonus. I also never watch TV or movies, so all my story consumption comes from reading. About 63% of the books are nonfiction, but only 13% were not narrative driven (mostly spiritual formation with the occasional investing or time management book thrown in the mix).
I didn’t set a reading goal this year, since I wanted to see how many books I picked up without a numerical finish line in sight. It worked so well, I surprised myself! And of course I’m not setting a goal for 2020 after that stellar reading year. Can I make it to 150? Who knows! I’m not stressing about it.
But reading so much means I read a ton of amazing books. Choosing which books to feature in 2019’s reading recap was agony. If you want to jumpstart your own reading life with top notch books, or have a weird interest in survival stories like I do, boy have I got recommendations for you!
As a heads up, I read a huge variety of books with all kinds of content, and so this is a blanket content warning for any and all books I mention. Please ask if you have any questions about a specific book. (There’s a lot of gruesome death and cannibalism in those survival stories, yo.)
Okay, on to the books!
The Saddest Book:
The Indifferent Stars Above: The Harrowing Saga of a Donner Party Bride by Daniel James Brown
A party of settlers treks across America to California, but disaster strikes, turning their story into the most well-known tragedy of the westward expansion. Full of terrible decisions and devastating loss, the Donner party’s journey drives some people to madness and all to the most terrible decision any starving person makes. Brown tells their story by following one young woman and her family, leading the reader to know them as people, not just names attached to a famous tragedy, and his writing does not shy away from the horrors they experienced. I learned about the Donner party in school, of course, but this book covers the full scope of the tragedy and how a series of poor decisions eventually boxed the settlers into a barren valley in the Sierra Nevada during the middle of one of the worst winters on record. Beware, this book is not for the faint of heart, but I’m fascinated by the decisions people make during unimaginable suffering and how those decisions shape their ultimate fate.
Bonus: In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette by Hampton Sides
In 1879, one daring explorer and his crew attempt to reach the North Pole, but when their ship sinks, they must trek a thousand miles across the ice to Siberia, fighting to survive.
The Best Trilogy:
The Winternight Trilogy: The Bear and the Nightingale, The Girl in the Tower, & The Winter of the Witch by Katherine Arden
A young Russian girl must defy her society and battle dark forces to keep the magical world of Russia – the house spirits, old gods, and mythical creatures – from being destroyed. This trilogy landed on my all-time favorites list before I even finished the first book, and the next two were more incredible than I had dared hope. It reminds me of one of my favorite books of all time, Daughter of the Forest, the highest compliment I can bestow. Vasya has to make hard choices, but she does not play to anyone’s expectations, including the reader’s. A stereotypical YA fantasy heroine she is not. She talks to horses, loves her family, and chooses her own path every time. How could I not love her? The tight prose weaves a fairytale with gorgeous descriptions, fully realized characters, and a heart-rending coming of age story. If you like your fantasy with a historical bent, full of fairytale magic and wonderful characters, this trilogy is for you.
The Best Memoir:
Daring to Drive: A Saudi Woman’s Awakening by Manal al-Sharif
A woman born and raised in Mecca tells her story of awakening from Islamic fundamentalism and finding herself at the center of the Saudi women’s campaign to drive their own cars. A deeply intimate look at a world Westerners literally can never enter, this memoir demonstrates the power of a single woman to make a difference. I was fascinated, disturbed, and awed by the Saudi Arabia Manal introduces me to: a country where women are nearly powerless, where families battle poverty in the geographic heart of Islam while the Saudi rulers hold enormous wealth, and where education truly changes lives. Manal bares raw and personal parts of her life, and inspires and challenges with her sheer courage to drive, against everything her entire culture holds sacred.
The Best Spiritual Book:
Grace for the Good Girl: Letting Go of the Try-Hard Life by Emily P. Freeman
Living as a good girl is deeply exhausting and painful, but Jesus sets us free. Emily P. Freeman’s beautiful, gentle prose provides a path toward that freedom for every woman who doesn’t have a dramatic testimony, a clear before Jesus and after Jesus story. It’s no exaggeration to say this book changed my life; it lifted a weight from my shoulders I didn’t know how to set down by myself. Being a good girl means wearing a mask before other people and before God, but God wants more from us and for us. You won’t find any shame or burdensome lists of what we ought to be doing for God in this book, only the truth that God delights in exactly who we are now, this moment. If you have a young woman in your life who bears the good girl reputation and all that comes with that, Emily also has a book for her that presents the same truths: Graceful.
Bonus: Reaching for the Invisible God by Philip Yancey
Being in relationship with an invisible God is more difficult and incredible than anything else we do in this life and is a profound and painful mystery.
The Most Fun Book:
A Year of Living Prayerfully: How A Curious Traveler Met the Pope, Walked on Coals, Danced with Rabbis, and Revived His Prayer Life by Jared Brock
Two millennials go on a year-long quest to reawaken their prayer lives and explore prayer practices of Christian denominations ranging from ancient Orthodox monasteries to modern name it and claim it preachers. The sheer breadth of the traditions and beliefs Jared Brock explores astonished me. He visits Jerusalem, Rome, and the largest church in the world, located in South Korea. Only in this book will you find bemused commentary on the author’s experience visiting a Hasidic Jewish community as well as acute observations on Catholic saints and their monasteries. I couldn’t put this book down and was captivated by how much I didn’t know about the history of Christian prayer traditions. He even visits Westboro Baptist and lurks outside Billy Graham’s compound trying to snag a visit. After all, he got to meet the pope using a similar strategy!
Bonus: The Long Haul: A Trucker’s Tales of Life on the Road by Finn Murphy
A trucker tells stories about his decades as a mover, giving you the wry behind the scenes look at the moving industry you didn’t know you wanted.
The Most Beautiful Book:
Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion by Greg Boyle
How does love change a life? By showing a gang member he is worthy, loved, and known, then officiating his funeral days later. Father Greg Boyle has spent decades working with the deadliest gangs of Los Angeles through Homeboy Industries, providing jobs and second (and third, fourth, fifth) chances to the young men and women trapped in the cycle of poverty and gang violence. This book captures the beautiful and devastating stories of these men and women in thematic essays on love, redemption, grief, and hope. Sometimes it’s only when the trappings of life fall away that we truly understand what it means to love each other, and Boyle writes about human frailty and compassion with equal frankness. Not only is this book thematically gorgeous, it’s also beautiful, simple writing that goes straight to the bones of what matters.
The Best Thriller:
The Marsh King’s Daughter by Karen Dionne
Set in the Upper Peninsula, this dark suspense novel introduces Helena, the daughter of a kidnap victim and her kidnapper, just as her father escapes from prison. Raised in isolation, without running water or electricity, Helena has built a life for herself beyond her origin, but to protect her daughters and husband, she must face her origin and track down her father, the man who taught her to survive in the marsh. The flashback scenes are as riveting as the present scenes, the psychological intensity building in both past and present until Helena comes face to face with her father again. It’s not often I find books set in Michigan, but this one has a strong sense of place and Michiganders will delight in the author’s attention to detail, with references to the bridge, Marquette and Northern Michigan University, Tahquamenon Falls, Yoopers’ unique culture and challenges, and more. Most thrillers let me down at the end, but this one kept me on the edge of my seat until the very end.
The Book I Learned the Most From:
Somebody’s Daughter: The Hidden Story of America’s Prostituted Children and the Battle to Save Them by Julian Sher
Human trafficking in America isn’t limited to women and girls brought across the borders, and prostitution isn’t limited to adult women living in poverty. The problem of child prostitution is complex and far reaching; Julian Sher follows the stories of several girls as they drift in and out of prostitution and come into contact with different pimps, law enforcement, and social services. He explores the organizations, most founded by former prostitutes, who are fighting for these girls, and he digs into police departments and FBI units who battle the pimps, the attitudes of their colleagues and society, and the desperate circumstances of the girls themselves. His point is clear: child prostitutes are not prostitutes; they are victims of the men who prey on them. This book was hard to read, but it’s vitally important.
Bonus: Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World by Tracy Kidder
Dr. Paul Farmer is fighting to cure the world, one disease at a time, starting with AIDS in Haiti and tuberculosis in countries from Russia to Peru.
The Best Nonfiction:
The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival by John Vaillant
It’s 1997, and a man-eating tiger is terrorizing a village in Russia’s Far East. A perfect kaleidoscope of my favorite topics: Russia, tigers, and survival, this book was basically made for me, but it’s also brilliantly written. John Vaillant takes the reader on a journey through the effect of post-Soviet chaos on the Far East, the history of tigers in the region, the struggles the remote villages faced, and the battle Russian officials waged against poachers and their own government to protect the Amur tiger. He writes the stories of the tigers and the people with elegant detail, and the man-eating tiger’s menace leaps off the page as the hunters track it down. The sheer amount of research he did, including visiting the villages and talking to the people who lived through the terrifying episode, is remarkable. I listened to this book on audio, and immediately decided to buy my own copy, which almost never happens to me.
I could also tell you about the historical fiction set in the Arctic with a supernatural horror element that I read during the Polar Vortex, the enormous literary Western, and the historical non-fiction from freshman year in college that I loved enough to read again. But I’ll stop here.
Reading 146 books this year didn’t put much of a dent in my TBR, though. Trying to decide which books are worthy of my time helped me abandon more books half-finished than I’ve ever dropped before. Here’s to DNF’ing more books in the future!
If you want to see what I’m reading all year round, come find me on Goodreads! I love to make new Goodreads friends so I can
stalk follow your reading life – discovering new books and quirky interests through other people is the best.
I already have my “excited to read next” list drawn up for 2020, which I realize might give you spontaneous folks hives, but makes me feel super pumped to get started. I’ll be trying my first Madeleine L’Engle book since A Wrinkle in Time as a kid, reading a whole bunch more fantasy books and survival stories, finally reading the big habit book of the past couple years, and maybe I’ll get around to the Shakespeare play I didn’t read last year.
Last January my library was closed for carpet replacement, so I stuck to my own books and my roommate’s books for the whole month. This January I have a (large) library fine (darn you, 900-page Peter the Great biography!), so I’m staying clear until my hold comes in, then I’ll pay off my debt. I’ll be reading books a friend lent me, rereading some of my own well-worn copies, and digging through my roommate’s shelves again. Basically, living the bookworm life.
Happy reading, everyone!