I know you are scratching your head a little right now as you consider the date. It’s the middle of 2020 (possibly the strangest year ever), but I’m writing about the books I read in 2019?
Yes. I know. I’m way, way behind. In fact, I almost gave up sharing my reads with you because I was embarrassed about my tardiness. But I’m hoping you’ll be merciful: better late than never.
Let’s just agree that it’s a little daunting to write my impressions of 33 different books, and move on.
(And yes, I’m well aware that I would not do well as a book reviewer. This is why I do not have a book instagram, despite the fact that I could happily talk about books for hours and hours a day.)
And in case you are looking for a good book (or hoping to avoid a bad one) here are my thoughts on everything I read last year! Stay tuned for my reads from the first half of 2020.
Crosstalk by Connie Willis.
How can I even quantify the delight I had in reading this book? Connie Willis does such a great job of poking fun at our technology-and-success-obsessed culture, while also digging into what it really means to connect with another person. I love the way the characters always think they know everything, to the point of refusing to listen well. I love C.B., the awkward yet completely self-assured hero who always saves the day. Yes, the explanations and solutions for telepathy were a bit hasty, but since the point of the book was learning to look past the obvious and learning to invest in relationships, I didn’t mind. I read this book in two days, and I’d love to read it again!
Present over Perfect by Shauna Niequist.
Having had this book recommended to me so many times, I really went in with high expectations…and maybe because of this, I was disappointed. I think slowing down is a really challenging topic to address in a book because everyone’s history is so unique to them (I may look at someone else’s slow and still think it is fast, or I may think their life is completely charmed, etc.)…and because the act of writing about it is a little bit antithetical to taking a soul break. Sometimes the book meandered, and I often found myself distracted from the point—maybe we don’t need to run ourselves ragged in order to be successful, loved, secure people—by tangential aspects of Shauna’s choices, like why she would choose someone from a different faith tradition to be her “spiritual director.” Chapters I did really enjoy include: Stars, Must Be Nice, Throwing Candy, And the Soul Felt Its Worth, and Bring in the Love.
Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved by Kate Bowler.
I adored this memoir, written by prosperity-gospel researcher Kate Bowler following a likely-terminal cancer diagnosis. This book shares a year in her life, a year of treatments and grief and friendship and reckoning with God. She is surprisingly witty, sharing the real deal about the things that helped her feel whole and human and the things people said that were awful. This book made me think about what it means to trust in God no matter what, and what the character of God really is. It also made me contemplate what kind of friend I want to be—namely, the kind that shows up, the kind that listens, the kind that doesn’t try to fix impossibly hard things, but instead offers love even through sorrow.
There’s an Easier Way: 21 Ways to Lovingly Raise Your Children without Regrets by Bonnie Greiner and Kathy McClure.
A short little guide, full of ideas for making life run more smoothly with young kids. These ideas ranged from spiritual and character matters (Cheerful Workers, Building Courage) to very practical needs (Finding Friends, The Twenty-Meal Plan). My favorite, and probably most-needed tip was to look for humor when my children act childish or make mistakes instead of blowing up. Bonnie Greiner believes that we can and should enjoy life and enjoy motherhood…and I took a lot away from this quick little read!
The Coincidence of Coconut Cake by Amy Reichert.
This was a totally predictable story, in which it was a little unbelievable that the two main characters would fall in love and be totally willing to ignore their pasts…but it was sweet all the same! A quick, easy read.
Hudson Taylor by J. Hudson Taylor.
The prose was a little dense (which makes sense, for an autobiography written in the late 19th century), but Hudson Taylor told his story in a fairly quick-moving way, sliding through the different events and challenges of becoming a missionary to China.
Winter Garden by Kristin Hannah. (Audible)
A few years ago I read Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale and I loved it! This book…not so much. To be honest, she never succeeded in making me feel like the characters were real people. I enjoyed the “fairy tale” side of the story, but the modern-day family felt like a farce. Much of the internal dialog/emotions fell flat. I genuinely didn’t care whether any of the characters grew into healthier or happier versions of themselves, and I didn’t care about the mystery the was unfolding. This is not Kristin Hannah’s best work—I think she grew by leaps and bounds as a writer since the time this novel was published. Go read The Nightingale.
My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry by Fredrik Backman.
This book is *THE BEST.* If you haven’t read it, bump it on up the TBR, because it’s absolutely beautiful. The story of Elsa and her grandmother largely unfolds in fairy-tale stories Elsa’s grandmother once told her, and a scavenger hunt designed to connect a community together. I loved every word. That’s high, high praise, friends. This is one of those stories that I wish could go on and on—too bad all great stories must end. I will definitely read this again.
Artemis by Andy Weir. (Audible)
So enjoyable. I especially loved Rosario Dawson’s impeccable narration (with so many accents!). This novel takes place in the future city of Artemis, on the moon, and centers around the black market, corruption, government oversight, and whether it’s possible to look out for number one with any kind of honor. This was a fairly light and fun read, full of actual science (gravity, airlessness, use of EVA suits) but not too bogged down by precise explanations or feasibility.
The Rosie Effect by Graeme Simsion.
A few years ago I read the first book in the Rosie trilogy (The Rosie Project), and I thought it was a sweet, if awkward story. The next installment didn’t quite have the charm of the first, as Don and Rosie embarked on a marriage that felt one-sided and then a pregnancy that threw into sharp contrast their opposite expectations. I did find it interesting to watch Don try to solve their problems in ways that would never have occurred to me (and often felt like completely missing the point), because it reminded me that the way two people see the same events can be completely and totally opposite. All’s well that ends well, but this book didn’t give me the same cozy feeling as the first.
The Rosie Result by Graeme Simsion.
The conclusion of the Rosie trilogy took me by surprise. It turned out to be a fairly thoughtful exploration of what it means to change yourself, what it means to meet someone else’s expectations versus your own, whether the apple can fall far from the tree, and what it might look like to adopt the label of autism spectrum disorder. I enjoyed it, partly because it allowed me to reflect on the experience of my own friends and family who are on the spectrum. Very different than I expected, and almost a left turn from where the series started out, but enjoyable.
The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald.
Barely tolerated ♥
I must admit that I did not understand this story at all. As each new event unfolded, I found myself just wondering…why? (And occasionally, what?…as in what did that mean?…it is clear that the British style of circumlocution is not one of my skills.) I started watching the movie in hopes that things would clear up or I could build affinity with the main character (!!WHAT?? I never do that.) but the film deviated dramatically from the plot of the book, so I gave up. I finally made it to the end of this book by forcing myself to do nothing else, but it still remains shrouded in mystery. Mysterious motivations, unclear events and relationships, opaque purpose.
The Etymologicon: A Circular Stroll Through the Hidden Connections of the English Language by Mark Forsyth.
I loved this book at the beginning. Very humorous, and very informative! I love learning how phrases originated and how they have changed over time. For me, the problem was just that it felt too long. I could have been very pleased with about two-thirds of this book, but the last third was a slog to the end. That said, it was so well argued and definitely amusing, and maybe if I had put it down for a few months and returned to it, I wouldn’t have gotten so weary.
Evvie Drake Starts Over by Linda Holmes.
What a sweet and fun romp. I was looking for a fun read, and this novel grabbed me right from the first page! Love stories are usually predictable, and this was no different in terms of plot, but it was full of very beautiful prose and surprising insights about the nature of relationships. The end also felt realistic, like Linda Holmes thought, what actually happens at the end of a retreat? and strove to treat her readers like intelligent people instead of lovesick idealists. Very enjoyable, and a very quick read!
A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway.
Whew. This collection of memories was published posthumously, so who knows what Hemingway would have intended, but I found the first half much more engaging than the second half. When he started complaining about all of the other artists in Paris, I really struggled to keep my head in the game. However, I loved the mundane, real-life picture he painted of being poor in Paris in the 1920s, of getting by on not much but grit. And, in the version I read, the end offered a glimpse into the self-editing process that Hemingway went through as he was working on an essay, and it was fascinating to see that part of his writing, how things evolved just bit by bit into a form that pleased him.
Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell.
I probably wouldn’t have picked up this book if it hadn’t come highly recommended by my best friend, but I am SO glad I did. Rainbow Rowell has such skill in depicting the internal world of relationships, anxiety, hope, priorities, and fear. The story felt like it flew by effortlessly, and it honestly made me wish I was still a freshman in college, back when I, too, took a creative writing course. In fact, because of this book, I was inspired to dip my toe back into writing fanfiction (which I used to do early in high school for fun. That’s right, I wrote stories about Hanson and the Backstreet Boys…), for the sheer joy of diving off a cliff someone else painted. If you’ve never read a Rainbow Rowell story, you should do so immediately.
Blackout by Connie Willis.
Connie Willis is one of my all-time favorite authors, and her Oxford Time-Travel series is absolutely engrossing. This story is set (mostly) during the London Blitz of 1940, and it was simply stunning. I learned so much, especially about the emotional lives of Londoners during these terrifying months. This story features an ensemble of characters who gradually begin to converge in both time and space, and I grew more deeply invested in them and their safety with each passing page. I cannot recommend this book highly enough (and when you get to the end of this one, you should dive immediately into All Clear which is the second half of this saga).
God’s Smuggler by Brother Andrew.
This story basically astonished me. I am still amazed about the transformation Brother Andrew underwent, from a young, angry man with almost no education and a lot of bitterness in his heart, to a whole-hearted servant of God who was willing to literally go anywhere God asked him. I loved learning about the ways God guided Brother Andrew and protected him, and how the people who received Bibles from him and his team had been so eager for the Word. I know I take God’s word for granted, but this memoir helps me to see its power in a new light.
All Clear by Connie Willis.
Oh, Connie Willis, you pulled everything together so beautifully! I couldn’t wait even an hour after finishing Blackout to start All Clear, that’s how invested I was in these characters. It looked quite bleak for a while, and I was pretty sure that none of the characters would meet a happy end. This was, after all, a time-travel tale set in World War 2. But Willis masterfully crafts her plot with twists I don’t see coming and poignant moments that satisfy my heart. I am still swooning over the way this story concluded.
Loving the Little Years: Motherhood in the Trenches by Rachel Jankovic.
I found this little book so inspirational. The best nugget I received was to stop considering my regular life to be a giant, overwhelming mess, and start accepting it as normal so that I can rise to its challenges mentally. I so appreciate Rachel Jankovic’s candor and encouragement. God has indeed placed me where he intends me to be, and one of the best gifts I can give my kids is the gift of walking through their youngest years in dependence on God, with strength and joy.
Gaeilge: A Radical Revolution by Caoimhín de Barra.
I found this love story to the Irish Gaelic language absolutely fascinating. And like any great love story, it’s not sappy and silly, but a history of change, as well as a hope and plan for the future. It makes me really sad to think that the Irish people are losing their language (and my husband, a third generation American who still considers himself Irish, has asked if we can start learning Gaelic!), and I think it would be naïve to believe that they will pick Gaelic up and drag it into the modern age—honestly, I don’t think that society, collectively, has enough goodwill to follow Caoimhín de Barra’s recommendation. But I wish they would! In fact, this book convinced me that I should be speaking German with my kids (the only language I have had real training in), even though I can’t do so nearly as well as I would like after years of disuse. Very thought provoking and interesting!
Landline by Rainbow Rowell.
This book had almost everything I love in it: it was a love story combined with a little magical thinking and time travel. Not a lot actually changes in the main character’s life during the course of the book, and at the same time, everything changes. Rainbow Rowell once again does a beautiful job of writing the internal world of her characters in a way that feels like she is speaking from inside my own soul. Love it!
Attachments by Rainbow Rowell.
I am loving Rainbow Rowell so much that I have decided to read all her novels! This (like Landline) is a story about adults, and it was set in the late 90s, which produced a lot of nostalgia for me. It almost had a You’ve Got Mail-ish quality: falling in love with someone through their letters but not knowing who they are. It seemed like a magnetic force was drawing the two main characters together, even though a giant secret lay between them. A very fun, quick read.
Everyone Brave Is Forgiven by Chris Cleave.
Lovely story! A little hard to read, at times, because Chris Cleave never shies away from the horrible parts of a story. I liked this WWII novel because it felt very different from the majority of WWII fiction I have read (which, admittedly, might be because I read so many female authors). This was not a story in which two people are being continuously drawn together throughout, but rather a story of completely separate, self-absorbed people who get pulled into a war they don’t feel passionate about. Rather than writing epic heroes whom you love to love, Chris Cleave writes real people who are conflicted and make occasionally foolish choices for no reason. In the end, their connection to each other helps them to feel they have lost less of themselves, but the obvious conclusion of the book was: you can’t go back again.
Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell.
This story of two high school outcasts finding love was both sweet and anxiety-inducing. Rainbow Rowell did an amazing job of portraying the rapidly changing emotions and characteristic self-unawareness of high schoolers, and she built a beautiful story. But I also struggled because Eleanor was in a dangerous situation, and I was so worried for her. In that sense, it’s a great book, but also somewhat less enjoyable—certainly not a light-hearted read like the rest of the Rainbow Rowell novels I read this year!
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. (Audible)
Barely tolerated ♥
Oh Lordy. I have had this book on my TBR for several years, and this year I was determined to cross it off the list. It was a struggle to the finish. Although the prose was lovely, it was so dense that I usually felt like I was making no progress even if I read 30 pages in a sitting. I finally gave up and allowed Maggie Gyllenhaal to read it to me in her husky, precise tones. Let me tell you. When Anna finally died, and I discovered that there were still TWO HOURS left in the Audible narration, I barely crawled out of that pit of despair. (19th century Russian literature is obviously not my wheelhouse.)
Left Neglected by Lisa Genova.
Lisa Genova writes such an interesting genre of fiction: medical dramas about incurable conditions. She somehow always ends on a hopeful note while making the frustration of coping with a chronic condition, such as left neglect, feel realistically hard. I loved this book. The main character, Sarah, experienced a serious and life-altering brain injury due to a car accident (which sounds like my worst nightmare). As time went on in the story, I watched her move through grief, determination, and acceptance of her new capabilities. I think this story shows how strong the human soul is, and that there is a way to find worth and contribute, even when life throws you a gigantic curveball.
Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert. (Audible)
I went into this book with a degree of suspicion solely because of the title. While I do believe some magic happens when I sit in front of a blank page, and it’s true I’m not always sure what’s going to emerge when I start to type, I don’t believe, for example, that ideas have independent will and volition, that they are entities separate from the people who have them. Some of this book differed wildly from my own belief system, but some of it was incredibly valuable to me, such as the idea that I should not hold my creative efforts responsible for supporting me, because that burden will crush me before I get started, and the notion that learning to ask questions and pursue those questions might someday yield creative fruit. An interesting read, and certainly fun to hear in Gilbert’s own voice!
What the Wind Knows by Amy Harmon. (Audible)
I’m always a sucker for time-travel stories, and this one did not disappoint. Very sweet and emotional tale of a woman who finds herself unexpectedly in Ireland at the beginning of the Irish war of independence, who mysteriously looks exactly like a woman who had died a few years before during the Easter Rising. A fun, imaginative romp through a hard time in Irish history.
Rabbit Cake by Annie Hartnett.
This beautiful and challenging coming-of-age story opens on a devastated preteen named Elvis who has just learned that her mother died. A lot of questions surround her death (I thought of Where’d You Go, Bernadette, as Elvis investigates her mother’s last months), and Elvis must help her dysfunctional and emotionally reticent family pick up the pieces. This story made my heart ache, and it sometimes made me laugh, and I found the grief process of a young girl altogether touching and believable. A very compelling read.
Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng. (Audible)
Celeste Ng writes very hard, complex stories in a very elegant way. I was a little hesitant to start this book, knowing that it featured the death of a teenage girl, but getting to know the biracial Lee family was exquisite. The mother (Marilyn) is trying to live out her own dreams through her daughter (Lydia), trying to fix the wrongs in her own history, without realizing what a burden she places on her entire family by doing this. The rest of the family struggles to be seen and heard, to feel valuable, to find a path that can satisfy. This is a story about what it means to be family, and it has certainly challenged me in the ways I think about communicating with those I love.
The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michele Richardson. (Audible)
This story unfolded slowly, but it was very interesting! I learned so much about the mountain people of Kentucky in the early years of the 20th century, and the pack horse library project! I did wonder whether I would have been afraid of someone with blue skin if I had spent my life in a rural community such as the one Cussy Mary lived in, but it warmed my heart each time she emerged from her protective shell and formed a bond with someone who could look past the outside. This story had a lot of very hard edges, but the history was fascinating (even though the timeline was somewhat fictionalized).
Mr. Dickens and His Carol by Samantha Silva.
I wanted to like this book. I love the concept: an author is inspired by real life to write a story that touches generations to come (think: Becoming Jane). Unfortunately, this book lacked any emotional depth or character development. Charles Dickens was portrayed (possibly realistically) as a self-satisfied man who didn’t care about anything except his own success. And then…he met a ghost who somehow inspired him to have a heart. (Does this feel familiar?…) I felt like I knew the ending of the book from the very beginning, and nothing about the way it unfolded excited my heart.
And that’s it for 2019, friends! I’m officially ready for 2020.
What have you been reading? #savoredgracebookclub