I got reading glasses this year. They make me feel delightfully nerdy and like I’m a genuine bookworm.
I also got goodreads! I thiiiiink I’ve mentioned that before, but in a post all about books it’s worth mentioning again, right? I’m Aberdeen on there, and I’d love to see what you’re up to in the bookish realm.
Normally, I do a big end-of-the-year wrap-up post where I recount what I accomplished in terms of writing, blogging, and reading. However, the only thing I did much of on that list this year was reading. Which of course calls for a big long post about BOOKSES PRECIOUS. Who’s complaining? (That was a rhetorical question. *shoos away all complainers*) I’m going to share my thoughts on my favorite two books in each of these categories: fiction, nonfiction, and fantasy. I’ll also list some honorable mentions because we all know I can’t pick favorites. And of course there will be quotes.
Also, this post is really long because once I start blabbing about books it’s hard to stop. *sheepish grin* Feel free to just jump to the genre that interests you or skim through to see the titles or something. And do tell me what you’ve read this year or what you think of the books I highlighted in the comments.
Okay For Now by Gary D. Schmidt
I don’t know what to say to do this book justice. It’s one of those rare but beautiful books that makes me both laugh out loud and cry real tears. It’s that kind of book I want to write someday. I think I can say that it’s my favorite book of the year. I know, I know, I just did the unthinkable and picked a favorite. It feels kind of scary to do so, but this book is that good. It wasn’t perfect; there were a few plot things that felt off to me but the rest of it was so storming good that they didn’t affect my overall opinion.
This is the story of Doug Swieteck. Another book by Schmidt, The Wednesday Wars, which is also an all-time favorite of mine, introduces him as a jerky bully. In this book, we find out why Doug is such a jerk. But we also find out that he’s more than a jerk. But you can read about the plot in a blurb online. Here’s what this book is really about:
It is about the power of art—how good art can relate to and change your life and how making art yourself can heal you. It is about how are are people are broken but how that isn’t all of their story. It is about family and friendship. It’s about the race to the moon and the Vietnam War and John Audubon’s paintings of birds. It’s about how flat-out astonishing the gift of being able to read is. It’s a book about hope in a deeply messed up world.
I love Doug’s voice. It’s so realistic and yet unique—somehow Schmidt is able to show him maturing without making him way too wise or thoughtful for his age or personality. I’ll never hear the word “terrific” without thinking about Doug. I love how there are so many great adults in his life (which is nice, because there are also a few horrible ones). And can I just say that I love that Doug loves the Yankees. PINSTRIPE PRIDE, PEEPS. Also, alliteration.
Basically, if you read only one of the books on this list, this would be a good choice.
Mrs. Daugherty was keeping my bowl of cream of wheat hot, and she had a special treat with it, she said. It was bananas.
In the whole story of the world, bananas have never once been a special treat.
Mr. Ferris didn’t say anything the whole time. He sat next to me and listened. And when I finished, I looked at him.
He was crying. I’m not lying. He was crying.
I don’t think it was because how hard I hit him.
I know how the Black-Backed Gull feels when he looks up into the sky.
Maybe, somehow, Mr. Ferris does too.
My brother looked at me. I looked at him.
Sometimes- and I know it doesn’t last for anything more than a second- sometimes there can be perfect understanding between two people who can’t stand each other. He smiled, and I smiled, and we put on the Timex watches on, and we watched the seconds flit by.
It was the first watch my brother had ever owned.
It was the first watch I had ever owned.
The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope
I had a really tough time choosing between this one and Howards End by E.M. Forster. If I could assign books to certain personality types, Howards End would be for INFJs. Not that you can’t enjoy it if you have a different personality obviously, but the themes this book explored resonated with me so deeply. It was like it was talking directly to me. Anyway, lest I be accused of cheating by talking about two books in one section, let’s move on.
The Way We Live Now is a huge hunk of a book but I sped through it. I seriously couldn’t put it down, guys. His writing reminded me of Charles Dickens and George Eliot. Basically, if you’re a fan of any 19th-century British literature, you’ll love this. I’m not going to try to lay out the multitude of characters in this book and how they are related, but there is one person you should meet: August Melmotte. Fabulously rich, he arrives in London from France with a murky background that everyone is willing to overlook in hopes of earning some monetary favors. All the various romances and escapades swirl around him, and the varied threads of every character’s life all become wrapped around the question: How did Melmotte get his money? And how will the answer affect them?
There’s something for everyone in this complex and fast-paced novel (yes, classics can be fast-paced). There are politics, relationships, ethics, intrigue, and a fascinating portrayal of the English upper-class in the 1800s. I personally found his descriptions of Americans hilarious and also rather interesting. For most of the book I was facepalming over the characters’ ridiculous choices but I promise, the ending is worth it. Not because everything ends happily but because it makes you think. Each story line has a different lesson to ponder, a different character that surprises you. If you read this book thoughtfully enough, you may begin to see that the way we live now is not so different from how Trollope’s characters live.
As long as there are men to fight for women, it may be well to leave the fighting to the men. But when a woman has no one to help her, is she to bear everything without turning upon those who ill-use her? Shall a women be flayed alive because it is unfeminine in her to fight for her own skin?
A liar has many points to his favor—but he has this against him, that unless he devote more time to the management of his lies than life will generally allow, he cannot make them tally.
Love is like any other luxury. You have no right to it unless you can afford it.
Howards End by E.M. Forster
Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
Wonder by R.J. Palacio
Some of the most impactful nonfiction books I read this year were rereads, so I’m not including them on the list. Never fear, for I also read a lot of great new stuff. Here they are.
The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown
Okay. This book. I’m in love. It’s the kind of book that takes over my world and gets me super excited. It’s the kind of book I can’t stop talking about, as I am sure my family can tell you. Basically it’s the story of an college crew team trying to not only become the team to represent America at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin but to beat the elite German team. Sure, it seems pretty obvious what the result will be since there’s a whole book on it, but Brown’s genius is that you are on the edge of your seat the entire time. It’s incredibly suspenseful. And he’s not making up any of it. The obstacles these boys had to face are staggering. Many times I wanted to go look up this story in a history book because I thought there was no way that this could actually be true.
Brown does something really smart and powerful by following one of the boys, Joe Rantz, for the whole book. Joe’s story is hard and tragic in many places, but the struggles he endured just emphasize the extraordinary character and strength of the boys, as well as the importance of the team and the Olympics to them. The book is compelling because we care about Joe, because we have seen what he has gone through and what crew means to him.
Obviously, the Olympics race is more than just one team against another. It’s two sets of philosophies and ideas pitted against each other. It’s America versus Nazi Germany, and we all know what that means. For Hitler, it’s a chilling foreshadowing of what is to come—although of course he doesn’t see it that way. Brown does a great job describing the political and cultural ramifications of this race without overdramatizing it. He also describes the sport itself clearly so that I could appreciate the events of each race without getting lost in obscure terms.
This is a book about hardship and how it can make you or break you. It is a book about the beauty of struggles, about the heroism of the average, unpolished kid. It is a book about brotherhood and community and how we are stronger together. It’s about freedom versus tyranny and how in the end, the good guys always win.
I listened to the audiobook of this (I need to do a post on audiobooks sometime), so I don’t really have any quotes recorded. My deepest apologies. *formal bow*
Roots and Sky by Christie Purifoy
I think I finished this book on New Year’s Day 2017. Yeah. If I had been a few hours quicker, it wouldn’t be on this list at all. But I’m glad it is, because it deserves a chance in the spotlight. In a lot of ways I can’t relate to Christie. I’m not a mom with young kids, and I’m not refurbishing an old house that will become my permanent home. I’m a teenager who’s moved her whole life. But I can relate to Christie’s heart. Her longing for a belonging place, her desire to find meaning and beauty in the little things, her awareness that she’s living in a story.
Christie takes us through the four seasons of her first year at Maplehurst, an old house in Pennsylvania they want to make into their home. While she does share details about her gardening and renovations and efforts to connect with the neighbors, this isn’t a book about fixing up a house. It’s a book about, well, her thoughts on life. I feel like I’m describing this terribly. It’s not a book that is easy to describe. It’s written in beautiful prose, simple and thoughtful and poetic. Her words remind me of a window at dawn: a clear pane of glass with golden light shining through.
I love how Christie rejoices in the material things about her, like a good meal or fresh soil, while also living with an eternal perspective, interpreting everything through the lens of the hope she has in Jesus. She isn’t preachy; she is real. Her book is soothing and yet deeply moving and inspiring. It came to me when I needed a vision of what my life could be, a promise that I could find meaning in the littlest moments. Thank you, Christie.
For this is no ordinary house. This is no pile of bricks and mortar. This is an outpost of the kingdom of heaven, and a star has risen overhead.
I know myself fairly well. I know that I do not like crowds. I do not feel comfortable strangers. I struggle, mightily, with small talk…. To put it simply, I am afraid. I am lonely, yet I want only to be left alone.
But the kingdom of God is pretty much the opposite of alone. Also, in the kingdom of God, there is this voice saying, “Do not be afraid, do not be afraid, do not be afraid.”
Some might say Maplehurst falls short of the ideal beauty I glimpsed in my dreams. But this allegiance to “ideal” beauty is a form of blindness. It is a refusal to lift the veil of everyday life in order to see the glory of God.
Daring to Hope by Katie Davis Majors
The Reason for God by Timothy Keller
Behold the Lamb of God by Russ Ramsey
In some ways, this was a slim year for fantasy because I didn’t read much of it. But it was actually a great year for fantasy because the stuff I did read was absolutely AMAZING. Like two-new-favorite-series-of-all-time amazing.
Harry Potter by JK Rowling
I honestly can’t believe I read this. More than that, I can’t believe that it’s now on my top-five fantasy series list. I wrote about my Harry Potter journey in this post, but long story short, I wasn’t allowed to read this—or even super interested in reading it—until this year when I realized a) it’s not an evil series and b) it’s actually one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever read.
At the risk of sounding really cliche or obvious, reading these books was magical. I can’t really describe what I felt while reading them; it’s an indistinct rush of thoughts and feelings. It’s the same way I felt when I discovered Lord of the Rings for the first time. Readers live for that kind of experience, the enthralling and all-consuming plunge into another world. When I finished the last book, I ached. I ached for more of the characters, for more of the world, for more of this beautiful story.
Let me just say that Rowling’s world building flabbergasts me with its brilliance. I’ve always considered Brandon Sanderson to be the best world builder, and I still think he’s one of the best. But what Rowling does that is unique and powerful is that her world, although entirely magical and filled with immensely creative details, feels familiar. It feels cozy and real, and most of all, it feels like home. I never expected that from these books about sorcerers and dark lords. And it’s not just that it is set in our world. There are plenty of fantasies set in our world that still feel bizarre and alien. This one is different. You might get your mail by an owl or learn how to cast a patronus in school, but there is still mail and there is still school. Sure, there are magical rules to abide by, but the deeper rules, the rules about life and love and people, those are the same.
Two further notes for the Christians out there who haven’t yet read this series:
- If you’ve never tried Harry Potter because of theological concerns, I would recommend this post by Andrew Peterson. And I would say, at least give it a try. Give it a honest try. In my experience, everyone who condemns it hasn’t read much of it, and those who were skeptical but tried it are never skeptical for long. This isn’t to encourage disobeying your parents if they don’t want you to read it or refusing to listen to your conscience or anything. But before you completely disregard something, make sure you know what it is actually about.
- I do admit that there are still some issues in these books that require discernment. No book is perfect; no one will ever agree perfectly with a single book. Personally, I’m going to wait to handle my kids this series until they’re in middle school just to make sure they have the maturity to distinguish between the sorcery condemned in the Bible and the “sorcery” in Harry Potter (I put it in quotes because it’s really nothing like the sorcery in Scripture).
*agonizes over this for 20 minutes because there are TOO MANY GOOD QUOTES OH MY STORMS*
It was important, Dumbledore said, to fight, and fight again, and keep fighting, for only then could evil be kept at bay…
Of house elves and children’s tales, of love, loyalty, and innocence, Voldemort knows and understands nothing. Nothing. That they all have a power beyond his own, a power beyond the reach of any magic, is a truth he has never grasped.
“But why’s she got to go to the library?”
“Because that’s what Hermione does,” said Ron, shrugging. “When in doubt, go to the library.”
The Queen’s Thief series by Megan Whalen Turner
Um, wow. This series is one of the best things that happened to me this year. I had heard about it a couple of years ago and tried one of the books (which, I have since found out, was actually the fourth book) but just couldn’t get into it. As has happened to me many times with other books, I decided to try the series again and this time, I couldn’t stop reading (might have helped that I started with the first book).
It blew my mind, guys. From what I’ve heard, it has that effect on a lot of people. Seriously though, if you love surprise twists, complicated plots, and mental gymnastics, this is for you. At the end of every single book, Turner fiendishly takes everything you think you know and turns it upside down. And yet, suddenly everything make sense. You know that Sanderson quote, “there is always another secret”? That could sum up these books.
But for me, the real treasure in this series is not the stunning plots, fascinating political machinations, or even the great writing. It’s the characters. I love these characters so. much. Eugenides, also known as Gen, the cleverer-than-Sherlock-Holmes yet surprisingly vulnerable main character, silently but irrevocably stole the place of my favorite male character. I can’t really say more because of spoilers but yeah, all the other characters have captured my heart too (with a few exceptions).
If you don’t like traditional fantasy or anything that feels unrealistic or creepy, you have to try these books. They shouldn’t be labeled fantasy at all. It’s misleading. The world is very similar to ancient Greece but with a few twists—primarily in its technological advancements. There is no magic or elves or strange powers you were born with that destine you to save the world. The only supernatural element is that of the pantheon of gods that rule over the world, but they appear rarely. When they do, they are strongly reminiscent of our world’s Greek and Roman mythology.
Okay, now to find some quotes that aren’t super SPOILERY GOOD GRIEF. But the spoilery ones are so beautiful, it’s killing me. Just please go read this series guys.
“He would have been a better man under different circumstances.”
Gen looked at him. “True enough,” he said. “But does a good man let his circumstances define his character?”
“From shadow queen to puppet queen in one rule,” he whispered. “That’s very impressive. When he rules your country and he tells you he loves you, I hope you believe him.”
She thought of the hardness and the coldness she had cultivated over those years and wondered if they were the mask she wore or if the mask had become her self. If the longing inside her for kindness, for warmth, for compassion, was the last seed of hope for her, she didn’t know how to nurture it or if it could live.
Echo by Pam Muñoz Ryan (there is a magical component woven throughout this whole story but for the majority of the time it feels more like normal historical fiction so I’m not sure if it really belongs in this section?? I think it’s technically magical realism, for whatever that’s worth. Anyway, regardless of the genre, go read this masterpiece.)
Annals of the Western Shore by Ursula K. Le Guin