This year our family turned a curious corner, one I can describe with a single scene. We were fresh back from the library with two bags of books, which the girls promptly upended before taking one each to the couch or to that green velvet wingback rocker that is essentially a deep, furry nest. And I walked into the living room, feeling charitable, with a few minutes to spare before I had to start making dinner, and asked the two younger girls, “Do you want me to read you a book?”
They didn’t even glance up from what they were reading—both chapter books, I noticed suddenly.
“No,” my third grader said.
“We can read them now,” my first grader said. “It’s okay.”
I had mixed feelings about this, obviously. I was delighted (Oh! Okay, I’ll just go read my book then) with a hefty sigh on the side—I wasn’t quite ready to be demoted to Understudy Reader. I know our days reading picture books together are not gone forever—my first grader does still need help reading, and my third grader will still ask me to read her a picture book from time to time. But the leaves are turning on this season for sure.
My own reading life, on the other hand, was oddly personal this year—until I made this list, I hadn’t realized how many of these books were written by people I know or about places I love. Or they were lifelong favorites, deeply entwined with nearly every season of my life. It’s as though I spent the year connecting with the world through good books—even as “connecting with my family through good books” began to look different. Namely, like me curled up next to the girls on the couch, each of us with a cup of tea and a book in hand.
I think I’m going to like this next season, too.
As always, choosing what makes this list (and what doesn’t) is tough. I read plenty of wonderful books this year that have or will make an appearance on this blog. But I love using this space to share books that I wouldn’t typically review. And I especially love hearing your favorite books from the year as well! Please feel free to chime in and share yours—I hope you discovered lots of delightful books this year too.
Sabriel, by Garth Nix
Truthfully, this book might fit better on a list of “Best Books I’ve Read Ever” or “Books I’ve Read So Many Times I’ve Lost Count.” And thus, it deserves a slightly longer introduction. So, let me tell you how I first met Sabriel: I was maybe seventeen and home sick one day when my mom handed me this book and then (as I recall) left for work. I spent the day there on the couch with my saltines, my ginger ale, and that paperback copy of Sabriel—which I tore through in a few hours before turning back to page 1 and beginning again.
I had always read hungrily anything that crossed my path, but I hadn’t encountered any stories like Sabriel—this book opened a door for me into this other world that was so absorbing, so compelling, so real. Garth Nix is a vivid, sensory-rich writer, and he’s at his best in Sabriel.
But why, you wonder, am I only mentioning this book now, nearly ten years after this blog’s beginning? Well, Sabriel is pretty dark. It has a lot to do, for example, with necromancy. And so, while good is clearly good in this story and evil is clearly a corruption of good, Sabriel may not be to everyone’s taste. But good gravy, I love it! So much. And if you’re not troubled by a few reanimated corpses, I think you’ll love it too.
Note: If you do pick up this book, you’ll notice that there are a half-dozen or so other books in the series. Should you read them all? Well, if you love Sabriel and can’t get enough of the Old Kingdom, yes! At least read the first three and maybe also Across the Wall and Goldenhand. But know that some are definitely better than others and I don’t necessarily recommend them all with the same fervor with which I recommend Sabriel.
Rembrandt is in the Wind, by Russ Ramsey
Last spring it seemed I couldn’t turn around without encountering a glowing review of this book, so when my mother-in-law gave it to me for my birthday, I dropped everything and read it. And wow: Russ Ramsey looks at a different artist in each chapter, drawing out powerful theological connections from their art and biographies. I learned things I didn’t know I didn’t know from this book, and I loved reading it.
The Green Earth, by Luci Shaw
I live in the same town as Luci Shaw—and in the neighborhood where it’s rumored she attends church. So it’s embarrassing that it’s taken me so long to read a full volume of her poetry. But! The Green Earth was worth the wait. Shaw’s poems are luminous, full of detail about the natural world as well as insights about the One who made it. I can tell already that her books shall henceforth be in regular rotation around here.
You Are Not Your Own, by Alan Noble
Alan Noble diagnoses one of the root ailments plaguing us as a culture and as people: we think we belong to ourselves, but we do not. This book cuts through the messages we’re surrounded with daily and reminds us that we are not actually responsible for crafting our own identities or becoming “the best version” of ourselves. Instead, we are to rest in the knowledge that we are created beings, loved and atoned for, and to do good works as an overflow of that love. This book is reassuring and invigorating, sobering and refreshing.
Letters from the Mountain, by Ben Palpant
Written as a series of letters from a father to his young adult daughter, Letters from the Mountain focuses largely on writing and the creative life of a Christian. But it’s also full of wisdom from a father whose children are nearly grown. This is a truly beautiful book—one to read and savor.
The Deep, Deep Love of Jesus, by Nate Walker
In fifty brief chapters, Nate Walker works through different ways the cross of Jesus applies to our life here on earth. He has a gift for seeing both sides of a thing at once and articulating both beautifully, and as he does he illuminates for us, fifty persuasive times, Jesus’s many-faceted love. This is a short book that I read as a devotional, but it could also serve as a great introduction to the gospel for new believers. (It is also worth noting that Nate is my pastor, so: bias confirmed. But even accounting for that, this book is brilliant.)
What Cannot Be Lost, by Melissa Zaldivar
Here is a family tradition that has only recently lifted of the ground: at thirteen, I take each of the girls somewhere they want to go; at eighteen, my husband will take them somewhere else they’d like to go. So, when our eldest daughter turned thirteen last year, she cast her vote for Orchard House—the home of Louisa May Alcott, author of one of our all-time favorite novels. That summer, the two of us flew from one corner of the country to another and spent five days exploring Concord, Massachusetts.
Our family has a lot of people in it, all living off a single income, so we don’t get to do things like this often. And it was glorious. All that time with my daughter—just us!—tromping around Sleepy Hollow Cemetery and drifting reverently through the Alcotts’ home? Those days were five of the best days I’ve had, ever.
So! Imagine my delight when I discovered that Melissa Zaldivar’s new memoir features Louisa’s story as well as stories from Zaldivar’s time as a tour guide at Orchard House. She braids these two strands together with a third: the loss of one of her closest friends and the grief she’s been walking through since. This slender book is a beauty, one that feels as though it truly cost the author something valuable—walking back through her grief couldn’t have been easy. But I’m grateful she shared it with us as generously as Louisa did her own grief over losing a sister.
A Swim in the Pond in the Rain, by George Saunders
George Saunders took a full course on writing fiction and turned it into a book—one I loved from beginning to end. A Swim in the Pond in the Rain looks at seven short stories (all written by celebrated Russian authors)—how they work and which lessons writers might glean from them. And he does this all in a way that is hilarious and approachable and illuminating, all at once. I’ll be rereading this one for sure.
Dracula, by Bram Stoker
Well! I guess this is a year for dark fiction. First reanimated corpses and now . . . Un-Dead reanimated corpses! But. Have you read Dracula? I had, but after reading an essay on it in Ordinary Saints (more on that another time!), I broke out my copy and gave it a re-read. And holy moly, it’s still amazing.
To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
This year, I’m teaching a creative writing class at my eldest daughter’s (small) high school, and one of the books we’re discussing is To Kill a Mockingbird. So I pulled out my copy (acquired when I myself was in high school) and reread it and was struck anew by how moving, troubling, and gorgeously-written this book is.
Also: I read Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy this year as well, and reading these two almost consecutively (accidentally) was incredibly powerful. And so heart-breaking.
Bonus! That Sounds So Good, by Carla Lalli Music
Every so often my brother buys us matching cookbooks, and we cook our way through them together. This summer he gave me That Sounds So Good, which is delightful on its own but a whole lot more fun when you set the pre-cooking mood with a glass of wine and one of Carla Lalli Music’s recipe videos. This lady is incredibly knowledgeable, adept at all manner of kitchen skillz, and a whole lot of fun to watch at work in her kitchen. In fact, she’s become such a part of our family’s dinner process that “Is this a Carla recipe?” is the highest praise my daughters can offer.