We love to read, and books have been a Christmas gift tradition in our family. If you are looking for some ideas about what to read next, or what book a friend or family member might enjoy, then we hope you will find Ellie’s top reads from this year helpful. Here are 13 books she enjoyed this year – 8 fiction novels and 5 nonfiction books. Have you read any of these?
1. The Dressmaker’s Gift by Fiona Valpy
Claire successfully applies for an internship in Paris in the same building her grandmother worked and lived in during World War 2. As she seeks to discover her family history, she learns more about Paris during the occupation, the impossible choices and brutality that people like her grandmother faced, and the sacrifices made by those who resisted. I love the connections between past and present in the book, the complexity of the characters and their searching, and the sense of serendipity in the story.
2. The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson
This is a very silly story with lots of Scandinavian dark humour. Allan escapes from his nursing home and finds himself on adventure after adventure. In these adventures, he shares his colourful history as an explosives expert and world-traveller. I love the quirkiness of the amusing characters in the story, the tall tales and extraordinary luck in a series of accidents, and the review of history over the last 100 years. And I like that you should never underestimate a centenarian.
3. A Lifetime of Impossible Days by Tabitha Bird
A beautiful story of a woman who discovers a time-slip and plants an ocean portal in her backyard to visit her 8-year-old, 33-year-old, and 93-year-old self. This is a story of healing from domestic abuse, finding peace, and learning to love and care for yourself. I instantly loved Silver Willa (the 93-year-old version) and her obsession with gumboots and jam drops. Tabitha has done an excellent job in writing a compassionate and humorous character struggling with dementia and unable to trust her memory. She does an equally great job of capturing the younger and middle Willas too. I love the science-fiction fantasy nature of the time travel and the idea of being able to visit yourself at various life stages. And I found the characters highly relatable and the story enchanting and full of grace and hope.
4. Thicker than Blood Series by C.J. Darlington
Christy struggles with addiction issues and seeks to free herself from her past. In the midst of this, she finds herself drawn to her estranged sister, who has found faith in Jesus. What I love about this series is that it portrays Christians who are trying to authentically live out God’s command to love others. And they seek to do this while acknowledging the struggle that this can be. The characters are well-written, the narrative captivating, and the stories overall uplifting. Each of the 4 books in the series can be read as a stand-alone.
5. Widows and Orphans (Rachel Flynn Mystery Series) by Susan Meissner
Rachel can’t believe that her younger brother committed the crime that he’s been arrested for, and so she investigates what happened and who he might be trying to protect. I love this series for the way that the characters discover how God has gifted them, and how they use that to defend the innocent. The mystery element of the stories in the series keep their unpredictability and make for compelling reading.
6. The Overstory by Richard Powers
This book won the Pulitzer Prize this year, and I think it is well-deserved. It is a brilliantly written, though sometimes brutal, story. It took me two days to get over the first chapter – it sucked me right in and then spit me out by the end. I had to put the book down and decide if the emotional roller-coaster was worth it. But I couldn’t get the story out of my head. It really is one of the most beautiful and haunting pieces of writing I’ve read for a long time, and I wanted to keep reading because of how fascinating it was. I found it worth the read, and myself moved by each story. The first third of the novel reads like short stories, and develops the narrative around people’s relationship with trees. Then in the middle of the book, some of the characters cross paths and the stories begin to intertwine, much like you can imagine a forest developing entangled roots. As the characters discover the importance of trees to them, the stories reflect the parallel nature of our own lives to the natural world and encourage us to see the forest for the trees. I loved the connection to trees and how amazing and resilient they can be, how some of the characters found healing in the forest, and how some battles are worth fighting even when you lose. I recommend this book for avid and seasoned readers.
7. My Italian Bulldozer by Alexander McCall Smith (and really, anything by Alexander McCall Smith)
This is a light-hearted travel story about Paul, a writer who travels to Italy to write about local cuisine. His adventures in Italy begin with him having to rent a bulldozer as the only vehicle available. As Paul embraces the unexpected, he finds new surprises and fun characters to relate to throughout Tuscany. I love Alexander McCall Smith stories. Nothing too tragic or terrible happens in his stories, and the characters are just delightful. I like that in this story, Paul learns to be flexible and embrace the surprises that come his way. I also like to intersperse some light reading into my heavier reading, and this was just what I needed after some of my heavier reads this year. I also recommend his other series – the latest in the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency Series is beautiful, and his 44 Scotland Street Series cracks me up.
8. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mark Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
I first read this book a couple of years ago, but I’m including it in this year’s list because I ended up reading it 3 times this year as I just love it so much. The book is formatted as a series of letters, which makes me feel like I’m being entrusted with something confidential and privileged. And the humour throughout it is just heart-warming. The story centers around an author who seeks to learn more about the German occupation of Guernsey, one of the British Channel Islands, during World War 2. She discovers a delightful set of characters from the island who found solace in reading and forming a book club in the midst of war. There is movie based on the book too, which I also love, but is of course necessarily different in places from the book.
9. Fire Road by Kim Phuc Phan Thi and Ashley Wiersma
This is the true story of Kim Phuc, the little girl in that iconic photo of the Vietnam War who was fleeing napalm bombs that badly burnt her. Kim Phuc had been left for dead, as most victims of napalm attacks did not survive. But somehow, she survived. And in her pain and recovery, she found faith in Jesus and a healing deeper than she could imagine. This is a hard read in places, but it is so powerful. I loved the grace and forgiveness in this story. Just keep the tissues handy.
10. The Gift of Hard Things by Mark Yaconelli
God allows difficult people, circumstances, and even failure into our lives because there are greater gifts he wishes to give us and greater works he wishes to do in us. This book reframes the hard things in life so that we might consider what God is doing in our midst. I enjoyed reading Mark’s stories and examples, and his insights into how God uses the difficulties of life to bless and shape us in unexpected ways.
11. Falling Upward by Richard Rohr
The Gospel turns everything upside-down – the cross is victory, servanthood makes great, and death is the portal to glory. So we don’t have to have it all together. In fact, Richard argues that only those who realise their weakness can truly rely on God’s strength. As he says, ‘In the divine economy of grace, sin and failure become the base metal and raw material for the redemption experience itself’, and some of the most amazing people we meet are those ‘who have turned their wounds into gifts for society.’ This is a book about coming to terms with the second-half of life and accepting failure as spiritual gain. I have found this book incredibly encouraging as it reorients me to depend on God in deeper ways in this stage of my life.
12. Resilient by Rick Hanson and Forrest Hanson
This is a book about what current research into brain neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to recover and regrow even as we age, has to teach us about becoming more resilient. It is written with an evolutionary bias, so may not be for everyone. It still somehow points me to God’s amazing design for humanity, for he has created us with the capacity for renewal. The authors suggest that we are hard-coded with a negativity bias in order to protect us in times of danger and ensure our survival. Such bias can blind us to the positive that is happening all around us, and when that happens, we become less resilient. It makes me appreciate anew all of the commands in Scripture to ‘give thanks’ and ‘rejoice’ and ‘look up’, because we need to be reminded to do those things. The book includes steps and exercises to help us recognise and be grateful for the good things that we can hold in tension with the negative, let go of unhelpful thoughts and feelings, and incorporate into our lives those things that have been found to strengthen resilience. Those things that have been found to strengthen resilience are remarkably compatible with what the Bible teaches us. I have found this book helpful, especially in my health struggles this year, and the neuroplasticity research causes me to rejoice in our Creator.
13. Genius Foods by Max Lugavere and Paul Grewal
I love nutrition, and so have been enjoying this book about how to optimise our brain function with the foods we eat. The concern of this book is avoiding dementia or delaying it as long as possible. It considers the scientific research into how what we eat impacts the cognitive aging process, and suggests that some alterations to our diet can reverse or halt this if we incorporate certain foods into our lifestyles and eliminate others. I like the evidence-based approach of the book. I don’t necessarily agree with all of the recommendations on what to eliminate. But I agree with the suggestions of incorporating more nutritionally dense foods into our diet. I found the list of genius foods helpful and the ways these can contribute to our health insightful.
What are some of your top reads from this past year?