top 10 (plus an arbitrary number of bonus) books of 2021

This was a good reading year. I’m either getting better at picking out books I’ll like, or better at abandoning ones I don’t, or both. I read a lot (for me) of theology this year. Maybe too much? I still struggle every year with how to properly think about and truly learn from everything I read. The debate about whether I’m learning or just consuming always bats around in my mind.

The upside is that I couldn’t narrow my top 10 to 10, so here’s 10, plus four more that could easily have slid into that number 10 spot, plus even more at the end because I’m a cheater.

10. The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge A delightful little fairy tale and purely sentimental pick. This story, about a girl who is orphaned and goes to live in a maybe-enchanted old home with a distant relative and there’s adventure and mystery and super innocent romance, basically tracks my 9-year-old daydreams perfectly. If I had read this then, it would have lit my imagination on fire. It was fun to read something like that now.

9. Christ Plays In Ten Thousand Places by Eugene H. Peterson It took me a long time to read this book, but it’s a rich feast that I’ll dip into again and again. Almost a year after I finished it, I keep thinking about his simple observation that “the Jesus way” is so surprising to us still, and it requires us to be vigilant with our hearts and with our scripture reading, because our sin-twisted selves need that refreshing water of remembrance of what He’s really like again and again and again. Now that I’m awake to it, I’ve found it’s so true. This year has been one of hard and painful looks at my heart, which is indeed so quick to forget that I’m a new creation. (This year, I hope to jump into the next volume in this series, Eat This Book. I’m already awarding that best title of my 2022 reads.)

8. Across Five Aprils by Irene Hunt Another one that reminded me of the books I loved as a pre-teen and teen, and got me hooked on historical fiction. Somehow I missed this Civil War title back then, but it’s on so many booklists, I wanted to tackle it. It was exceptional and so interesting to read coming off of 2020 because there are so many parallels: Family members, all with good intentions, having tough conversations where they disagree about what’s right. Watching the news and trying to interpret what’s actually happening with the understanding that someday this will be more clear in hindsight. Moral dilemmas with no good options. Ugly-cry moments. I’ll read this one again.

7. According to Plan: The Unfolding Revelation of God in the Bible by Graeme Goldsworthy A clear, well-organized introduction of biblical theology that was both enriching to read on its own and began enriching my other Bible study as I progressed through the chapters. One of those books that’s more like setting the charges than it is a mind-blowing experience in itself. Now that I’ve read it, every time I study the Bible or read theology or hear a sermon, there’s a boom of greater understanding.

6. The Tech-Wise Family by Andy Crouch One of the few books (or articles) I’ve read about managing technology’s creep and takeover of our lives that starts with a positive vision: What family is for. It builds from there, gently coaching and teaching how to put tech in its proper place and create a family culture around wisdom and courage. The immediate application Crouch draws is with tech—which he defines widely—but it’s given me a framework for many parts of parenting and our home life. Highly recommend. This is my new baby shower gift.

5. Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers by Dane Ortlund A necessary comfort and course correction for me, a person who believes whole-heartedly in Christ’s love for me and others but who still chafes at all the hard things His love allows. This book is a balm, a deep breath, and a good field guide to some Puritans I should read.

4. Piranesi by Susanna Clarke This isn’t a book you can summarize to someone—and I think it would be best to go in cold, so I’ll just say I have a feeling that as I think about and reread this book (because both are unavoidable), it will become a five-star book for me. It’s one of the most unusual books I’ve read. And I’ve read Clarke’s 1,200 page parallel history about what would happen if “English magic” returned to the land during the Napoleonic wars! (See below.)

3. Found in Him: The Joy of the Incarnation and our Union with Him by Elyse M. Fitzpatrick Jesus Christ is so good. This book covers His incarnation and our unity with Him. I’ve been a believer for as long as I’ve had a consciousness and still I read these truths clearly articulated and my jaw drops. Do I have a few bits to pick with a sentence or idea here or there? Sure. But I’m grateful for this book and will recommend it to many as an easy-to-read, scripture-soaked, worship-inducing outline of who Jesus is and what He’s done for me, for you.

2. All the James Herriot’s As a lover of British literature, I’ve heard about these books before (there are three biggies in the series: All Creatures Great and Small, All Things Bright and Beautiful, and All Things Wise and Wonderful). But I always put them off because, you know, animals. I’m not big on them. I STAND CORRECTED. I love these so much. They are absolutely delightful. So English. So wholesome. And funny! I mean, I was interested in what was happening to cow rectums for almost 500 pages. And that was just the first volume! So he’s good at this. If you, like me, cannot fathom how wildly entertaining stories from a country vet in England in the 1930s can be, start with the PBS Masterpiece series that released last year. It’s charming. I adore it. But don’t skip the books.

1. Delighting in the Trinity: An Introduction to the Christian Faith by Michael Reeves This book’s number one spot will surprise no one who knows me in real life, since I think I’ve said, “I read this book on the trinity, and…” about twice a day since June. I thought I had a grasp on the doctrine of the Trinity (though I fell into the erroneous “it’s a mystery!” camp), but wow. Reeves makes a compelling, winsome, and laugh-out-loud funny case for why the trinity is THE defining doctrine of Christianity and why it should bring us joy. This is my favorite type of theology book: It expands my understanding of the faith, causes me to worship, and has me rushing back to my Bible with fresh eyes to see the riches there. Highly recommend.

+ The Bonus 4

My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok Meaty. So much to think about and discuss here (art’s purpose and interaction with life, faith transmission, Judaism and Christianity, parent and child relationships, calling, limits…). But that doesn’t mean it’s stiff and boring. I grew to love this family.

The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry by John Mark Comer This book surprised me. The first half outlines the problem of hurry (and makes it clear JMC is way cooler than I’ll ever be. I get it). This started to drag, but things picked up in the spiritual disciplines section where he argued we should try to mimic Christ’s way of living (solitude, sabbath, etc.) as His followers. While I’m not sure JMC and I would agree on every theological point, his wisdom and practical examples are helping as I try to deepen my Christian practices.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke Honestly, this probably belongs on the numbered part of the list. I’ve never read any book like this. It’s Dickensian in its detail and range of characters. It’s so satisfying and so precise and full and original. It was delightful and intriguing and sort of astonishing. I laughed, I gasped, I blew through the floppity jillion pages.

What God Has to Say About our Bodies by Sam Allberry I’m not sure there is anyone speaking or writing right now who is as obviously compassionate and shepherd-like as Sam Allberry. He just seems soaked in the goodness of God, the truth of the Scriptures, and a willingness to bring us to that same place. This volume, which is exactly what the title says it is, is solid, dignifying, clear, full of hope, and pastoral.

+ the books and authors my kids (2 and 4) and I enjoyed this year

My 4-year-old boy:
// All of the St. George/Arthurian knights/dragon-slaying medieval or older stories that Margaret Hodges brings to life. (Start with St. George and the Dragon.)
// The BFG by Roald Dahl. I laughed out loud as I read and answered so so many questions about if there are really giants who will come eat us because we are human beans.
// The Paddington series. Just delightful
// Home in the Woods by Eliza Wheeler. A picture book about a family who finds a tar-shack home in the woods during the Depression (or soon thereafter). A beautiful story about how family makes a home and attitude is everything, plus a look at a time in history that isn’t talked about much in children’s books.

My 2-year-old girl:
// Sandra Boynton, always and forever, amen. (She particularly likes The Belly Button Book and What’s Wrong, Little Pookie?)
// Lola Dutch by Kenneth Wright and Sarah Jane Wright. Young girl takes on her everyday life with admirable gusto. Fun to read aloud and beautiful illustrations.
// The Biggest Story ABC by Kevin DeYoung. Lovely illustrations, big letter pages that are fun for pointing out favorites like S and L and M (for Mama, obviously), and a surprisingly thorough introduction to Biblical theology.

Me (the cheating cheater who has about 25 books on my top 10 list):
// The whole 1oo Cupboards series by N.D. Wilson. Just hang in there. The world gets built out more and makes perfect sense by the end. And huge props for letting parents be heroes alongside the youngs.
// Astrid the Unstoppable by Maria Parr. Like a Norwegian Anne of Green Gables if she were athletic. So fun.
// The Emily books by L.M. Montgomery. The older millennial female Internet was right: I did enjoy this lesser-known series with a somewhat more serious bent. (However, I read a biography of L.M. Montgomery that ranks as the most depressing thing I read all year. That woman had an imagination, because there was almost zero love and beauty in her real life.)
// Orbiting Jupiter by Gary D. Schmidt. That feeling that you completely trust an author to deliver a true, good, and beautiful work—I have that trust now in Gary Schmidt. This moving, hard, redemptive book didn’t disappoint. Should be in my top 5 above but I’m cheating in order to fit more books in.
// Everything Sad is Untrue by Daniel Nayeri. I love a book like this that helps me understand things both familiar, like family and the absurd ways we try to belong, and things not at all familiar, like Persian myths and what it feels like to be a refugee in America. The passages on faith predictably made me tear up. I’d read this again (preferably with a book club!) and will start giving it to my nieces and nephews as they hit 15/16.

Previously:
// Top 10 books of 2020
// Top 10 Books of 2019
// Top Ten of 2018
// Top Five for the First Half of 2015
// Top Five for the Second Half of 2015
// Top Ten of 2014
// Best Books of the Summer, 2013
// Top Five for the First Half of 2012
// Top Five for the First Half of 2011
// Top Five for the Second Half of 2011

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