2018 Reading Recap: Reaching for the Goal

Creating 2017’s reading recap was so fun that I’ve done it again for 2018! Once more I put myself through the difficult process of choosing books to highlight from my reading life last year, which is also a highly enjoyable process. I met my goal of reading 80 books, although I’ll admit I had to knock out two shorter ones on December 31st, and so many of those books forced me stay up late for just one more chapter.

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Three books in my current pile…

While my To Be Read list grows faster than I can finish books, I don’t want to forget the best ones I read in 2018, so I’m sharing them to convince other readers that these are books worth devoting time to.

Remember, I read a wide variety of genres with varying content, so I’m issuing a blanket content warning for any and all books I mention online. Use your own discretion for your comfort level, and feel free to ask me about the books I’ve read.

Do you want to read more but don’t know what books to pick up? You aren’t alone; lots of people struggle with that. There are tons of ways to find good books, but finding the right book for you can be a different story.

I recommend Modern Mrs. Darcy and the podcast What Should I Read Next, or you can ask the readers in your life if they have any recommendations for you. Don’t be afraid to put a book down unfinished if it’s not for you – there are too many good books in this world to waste precious reading time on a book that you don’t like. (I need to take my own advice!)

Let’s do this!

his majesty's dragonThe Book I Finally Read: 

His Majesty’s Dragon by Naomi Novik

In the middle of the Napoleonic Wars, a young naval officer accidentally bonds a dragon hatchling and his entire life changes. I love a good fantasy where the worldbuilding is so matter of fact that no one blinks at the wild and unusual places the author’s imagination goes, and this book has that in spades. Nineteenth century Europe with dragon, aerial corps fighting in some of the biggest battles between Napoleon and the rest of Europe, all narrated in Regency prose. This book has been on my TBR for ten years, ever since I saw a 4-H friend reading it before bed on a club trip to the Rolex Kentucky. My friend was killed in a car accident three years later, as a college sophomore, and I’m so glad I finally read the book, with her in mind.

what's so amazing about grace

The Best Spiritual Book: 

What’s So Amazing About Grace? by Phillip Yancey

An exploration of grace at the levels of ordinary life and overarching church culture, this book is remarkably relevant for being twenty years old. I was challenged, inspired, and humbled by Yancey’s words. It’s filled with true stories and simple prose, and Yancey shares some of his own journey toward grace. Our world is full of anger, bitterness, and hatred, but this book challenges us to take a hard look at ourselves and ask if we are truly ambassadors of God’s grace to the world, or if we are doling it out only to the ones we think deserve it. I think it says a lot that we as a church are struggling to give grace to the same people we struggled with twenty years ago, and I think this book offers powerful thoughts to consider.

unbrokenThe Book I learned the Most From:

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand

An Olympic runner joins the Army Air Forces, is stranded at sea, becomes a Japanese POW, and somehow survives to tell the story. Not only is Louis Zamperini’s story an incredible tale of grit and bravery, with an amazing twist toward the end, but I learned so much about the Pacific front of the war that I was completely unaware of. From the thousands of POWs, the terrible accident rate of the planes and their crews, and the sheer enormity of the war, Hillenbrand provides mountains of detail without ever losing her narrative. If you never read another book about the Pacific front, read this one – she’s a powerful storyteller and you won’t be disappointed.

the secret horses of briar hillThe Most Fun Book: 

The Secret Horses of Briar Hill by Megan Shepherd

A young girl, living in a hospital with other children in the English countryside, finds that one of the winged horses she sees in the mirrors every day has entered her world. An absolute delight, this book would have been one of my favorites if it had existed when I was a child (although it’s high on the list for me even now). Not only does the girl have a special bond with a winged horse, she has to protect the horse by collecting objects of specific hues of color while also living with the realities of life during WWII in an English hospital. Whimsical while dealing with serious themes, strongly influenced by The Chronicles of Narnia, I highly recommend this book for younger readers.

nothing to envy

The Saddest Book:

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick

A journalist traces the stories of six North Koreans over fifteen years, through the death of Kim Il-sung, the rise of Kim Jong-il, and the devastating famine that killed millions of people. For me, North Korea has always been a vaguely menacing, partially absurd Communist dictatorship on the other side of the world that I knew little about. Now I know quite a bit, and it’s all heartbreaking. Demick vividly sketches the country’s slow grind toward industrial death, economic collapse, and starvation, and the wide gulf between south and north becomes ever more stark and terrible, depicted on a personal level by the six North Koreans and their stories. This book was written prior to Kim Jong-il’s death and his son assuming control of the country, and I would love to find an update detailing the changes – if any – that a new regime and the immense shaping of the world by the internet has brought to a country so isolated.

Bonus Book: Another Place at the Table by Kathy Harrison

A foster mom tells the stories of just a few of the dozens of children she has fostered, and I cried at several points (which I rarely do for books). Yet somehow, the book also fosters hope.

the glass castleThe Best Nonfiction Book: 

The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls

A family’s story is never simple, particularly a story that begins with charismatic parents chasing wonder and nonconformity on a nomadic trip across the country, stops in a poor mining town where the children must employ all their grit to carve out a life from intense neglect, and reaches New York City, where the children build lives as empowered adults and their parents choose homelessness. The beautiful, clear prose is nothing compared to Walls’ ability to present her family’s story as she saw it unfolding with no hindsight, no bias, and no filters. Her childhood was both magical and terrible, sometimes simultaneously, and I recommend this book as an incredible memoir.

the golem and the jinni

The Most Evocative Fantasy: 

The Golem and the Jinni by Helen Wecker

A golem and a jinni find themselves in New York City at the turn of the century, meeting by chance, and their opposite natures bring them together yet push them apart as they seek to create lives for themselves in the shifting chaos of the city. With the magic of folktales and literature, Yiddish and Middle Eastern culture, history and fantasy all woven together in one story, this book is compulsively readable. It brought me back to my middle school days of devouring fairytales by the dozens (although this book is not intended for youngsters). The prose is clear and elegant, but the characters really shine. Chava and Ahmad come to life (literally, in Chava’s case) through their emotional journeys, and although the book doesn’t end quite where I wanted it to, I was delighted to discover that a sequel is in the works.

You may have noticed that I mostly chose books for the same categories as last year, but that I replaced the favorite category. This year I read a lot of books that I loved, so I couldn’t bring myself to pick just one favorite. Last year was an anomaly!

I could share dozens more fantastic books, such as the two Guy Gavriel Kay titles I loved, the multiple memoirs and nonfiction narratives that taught me so much about other peoples’ lives and worlds, or the quiet dystopian novel that surprised me with its power, but I won’t overwhelm your TBR list.

If you want to keep up with what I’m reading all year, I post on Goodreads regularly, so come friend me! I do confess that I want you to friend me so that I can stalk follow your reading life – my TBR list is always ready for more titles.

In 2018, I read Jane Eyre, the final Harry Potter book, and a Shakespeare play (Titus Andronicus), just as I intended to, and in 2019, my priority list includes PersuasionThe Merchant of Venice, and The Martian.

This year, I’m not setting a goal for my reading life. I originally set goals to help kickstart my reading habit again after graduating from college, but now I want to see how many books I tear through without the numeric finish line taunting me. Also, I want to reread some old favorites, and I’m not inclined to do that with a goal, for whatever reason.

Right now I’m going to go finish a thriller with characters that are pretty boring (so maybe I should actually just put it down for good…). My library is closed for carpet replacement for most of January (so sad!), so I’m currently limited to books from my own shelves, with a few thrown in from my roommate’s collection. Time for those rereads!

Happy reading, everyone!

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2017 Reading Recap: Books, Books, and More Books

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Library books for the win! I still haven’t read The Golem and the Jinni

This year was a really good year for my reading life. Two days ago I finished reading my 75th book of the year and achieved my goal, which was especially exciting because the last 2 years I was too busy reading fanfiction to read enough books to meet my goal. Oops.

I read a lot of great books this year, and quite a few books that made me say, “Meh.” But because I want to share the book love, I’m going to share some of the most memorable books I read this year.

Two notes before I dig in:

First, if you like reading or want to get back into the habit, set a reading goal for yourself! Find books you think you’ll really love, not books you think you ought to read. Don’t compare your reading goal to anyone else’s, either. I read 75 books, and am aiming for more next year, but I am a literal speed reader. People who read at normal speed can’t keep up with me, and that’s okay. Don’t let comparison keep you from enjoying some fantastic books in 2018.

Second, I read books of many genres and varieties, so I’m issuing a blanket potential content warning for all the books I tell you about. Use your own judgment and feel free to ask me about any book I have read.

Here we go!

The Book I Finally ReadHarry_Potter_and_the_Sorcerer's_Stone

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling

A boy discovers he’s a wizard and gets to attend magic school while an evil wizard tries repeatedly to kill him. I missed out on the Harry Potter books as a kid, and in college thought I was too old for the series, but in January I decided this would be the year I finally read Harry Potter. And wow, was I missing out! These books are just so much fun, and there’s so much packed into the story that anyone can find something to love. I read books 1-6 this year, but didn’t quite make it to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. If you like fantasy, children’s literature and YA, or just want to finally be in the know, you should definitely give the first book a try.

The Best Spiritual BookGray Matter

Gray Matter: A Neurosurgeon Discovers the Power of Prayer… One Patient at a Time by David I. Levy

A neurosurgeon begins asking patients if he can pray with them before surgery, and the results are incredible and fascinating. I read quite a few books this year about missionaries, incredible conversion stories, and persecution of Christians that were all moving and important, but this book stands alone for me. I often make prayer a complicated thing in my head, but this surgeon’s simple and quiet prayers with people facing intense medical situations strips away any eloquence or trappings, and I found myself convicted of the power of prayer, quite unrelated to the words I use or the length of the prayer I pray.

The Book I Learned the Most FromSlave My True Story

Slave: My True Story by Mende Nazer

A twelve-year-old Sudanese girl is kidnapped and sold into slavery to an Arab family in Khartoum, Sudan, before finally escaping seven years later, thousands of miles away from home in London, England. I still don’t know much about modern slavery or its victims, let alone the terrible conflicts raging through Sudan in the past several decades, but Mende’s story gave me a glimpse into a world far removed from anything I have ever experienced. Her courage despite her enslavement and abuse humbles me. Bonus book: Tears of the Desert: A Memoir of Survival in Darfur by Halima Bashir presents the story of a female Sudanese doctor who grew up and worked in the middle of the conflict, before fleeing to England for safety.

The Most Fun BookNo Biking

No Biking in the House Without a Helmet by Melissa Faye Green

An American family decides that four kids is not enough, and adopts five more from Bulgaria and Ethiopia, leading to the hilarious, poignant stories Melissa shares about the trials and joys of international adoption and her big, crazy family. With nine kids, including four teenage boys, nothing is ever quiet for long around this house. This book touches a lot of serious topics, but the humor and joy Melissa writes with make it a delight to read. I haven’t read many memoirs yet, but I think this one will stay at the top of my list for a long time to come.

The Saddest BookNight

Night by Elie Wiesel

The horrific autobiographical account of one teenager’s survival in a Nazi death camp, and how he lost everything. It’s a very difficult book to read because of the absolute horrors Elie Wiesel endured and witnessed. I was unaware this was a classic Holocaust account until I read it, but the author’s spare and haunting prose makes it unforgettable. How could humans do such monstrous things to each other? The death camps cannot be allowed to vanish into the murk of history.

The Best Nonfiction BookEvidence

Evidence Not Seen: A Woman’s Miraculous Faith in the Jungles of World War II by Darlene Deibler Rose

The story of a young missionary’s survival and faith in the jungles of New Guinea and through four years in a Japanese prison camp. I was humbled by Darlene’s faith in the middle of terror, abuse, and isolation. She lost her husband and her health during those four years, but she never lost her trust in the Lord. She and the other Christians she was imprisoned with spread the gospel and served their fellow prisoners without ceasing. This book is an incredible testimony!

 

My Favorite BookGoblin

 

The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison

 

The half-goblin youngest son of the emperor is recalled from exile when his father and older brothers are killed, and is thrust into a court of danger, prejudice, and intrigue as the last surviving heir to a throne he has no idea what to do with. I read a lot of awesome fantasy books this year, but I adored this book above all others. Maia, the new emperor, is completely unprepared for the complexity and turmoil of his new court, and struggles to deal with the psychological damage of his father abandoning him to exile and his mother’s death while learning to be a ruler. Yet he is one of the kindest fantasy protagonist I have ever met, and ultimately it is that kindness which allows him to survive and thrive as emperor. The worldbuilding, lovely prose, and fascinating use of pronouns only add to the sheer delight I experienced while reading this book.

 

I could tell you about so many more books I read this year alone, including the 1200 page epic fantasy novel that was book 75, or the fascinating story of a nineteen-year-old Alaskan schoolteacher, but that would require writing a novel of a blog post.

 

So instead, check out my Goodreads account! You’ll find all the books I read in 2017 as well as previous years, and my enormous TBR list. I’m so excited for all the books I’ll read in 2018, and I’d love to hear what you’re going to read! My 2018 list includes Jane Eyre, the final Harry Potter, more books by Guy Gavriel Kay, because he’s amazing, and a Shakespeare play that I have yet to choose. But first I have to finish the books due back at the library in just a few days…

Happy reading!

Good Book, Bad Book

I read a lot.Owl read

Advice from a best-selling author:

“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.” -Stephen King

Okay, I’m not so good about writing a lot. My inner editor and perfectionistic streak get in the way, and I make excuses to myself why I don’t have time to write, or why I should organize my pens or do my laundry instead.

But by golly do I read a lot. Not enough, I feel. I don’t think I’ll ever read enough to satisfy myself. I have a big list of books to read, and those are just the ones I know the titles of. Thousands more await me, full of characters I haven’t yet met, full of facts I haven’t yet learned, full of stories and words that will make me shiver in delight.

It’s a funny thing, when you’re a writer. Suddenly, a book I might have enjoyed five years ago bothers me so much I put it down and can’t pick it up again. (If it’s really bad, I have the urge to chuck it across the room. I rarely give in to the urge.) The story is too illogical, full of plot holes, or the characters are all the same, just wearing different cliches. The descriptions are mundane, the vocabulary boring–I find myself thinking, “I could write that. I’d do it much better.”

And then there are the books that I whiz through, inhaling with every page turn, taking a quick gasp at the bottom of the page, and repeating for 300 or more pages. These books haunt my dreams, because I long to write with as much skill as these authors. When I reach the end, I put the book down and spend a long moment revelling in the quiet, replaying the most gorgeous bits in my mind. Then the despair tries to grip me, as I stare at my own notebook full of words and wonder why I bother, because I will never rise to the excellence of these authors.

Well, I may never write a book that lands in the classics section of the library in one hundred years or so, but I can still learn from reading books both good and bad.

From the bad books, I learn how not to write. If I didn’t know already, I discover that certain characters are overused, certain plots are far from original, and cliches are never ever an option. They’re also confidence boosters, because if this terrible writing is published, there’s hope for me.

From the good books, I absorb how to create a character arc and weave main plots and subplots together without dropping any threads. The vocabulary and phrasing and uniqueness of these books sink into my brain, and presumably influence me for the better. We shall see how well I learn from those who go before me.

Because I am a writer, I can never read books the same way I once did. (Well, I do have an English degree, so that did me in too.)

I don’t think I want to.