After much delay (time spent reading books and honestly, researching books for my kids), I’ve arrived at my top 10 books read last year. You know, that year that was almost six months ago by now? That one.
Over last Christmas, my Dad grabbed a book out of one of his many book piles and handed it to me. “Have you read this? I need to read it this year.” I stared at it, then paged through it, then three minutes later remembered, YES. I read it and actually really liked it—like, five stars liked it. But somehow couldn’t remember it at all. Yeesh. (It was Deeper by Dane Ortlund, and it’s worth reading and remembering.)
So I guess the bar these 10 books had to clear was: Do I remember you? These ones I did.
10. Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy by Gary D. Schmidt
I read this and What Came From the Stars by Schmidt this year. Both moving, imaginative stories that feel so deeply real and true I didn’t even blink that the second one is kind of an alien invasion story. (It’s so good!) Lizzie Bright squeaks out the win here because of the humor, they way Schmidt writes about the ocean and the wind, and all the complex thoughts around faith, The Origin of the Species, and survival of the fittest. To say more would spoil it.
9. The Wolf Age by Tore Skeie and Beowulf: A Hero’s Tale Retold by James Rumford
This is the year I got super into Vikings. I’m teaching literature to a group of homeschooled teens this year and I assigned Beowulf for January. I’ve never read it, so I pre-gamed with this picture book and followed it with a history chaser. The Anglo-Saxon/Viking world has always felt like fantasy to me, but The Wolf Age placed it squarely in the real world. Did you know Norwegian Vikings were the personal bodyguards of the Byzantine Emperor? The Norsemen TRAVELED. And did a lot of other interesting but mostly brutal things. With the distance of time, it’s a fun read. And all of it was essential context as I dove into Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf. (Which is ALSO excellent and may feature on my 2023 list. This early reveal makes up for this whole list being late, right?)
8. Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ by Thomas F. Torrance
Not a fast read (it took me four months of determined, consistent sessions) but an essential one. The entire book points again and again to this sweet, salvific truth: “He will not let the sinner go.” (255) How He loves us! One note if you want to dive in: This was compiled and edited by Torrance’s nephew after Torrance had a stroke, so parts of it read as polished writing, parts read as…something compiled and edited by another person. Persevere! It’s rich and, as a whole, draws a beautiful landscape of this precious doctrine.
7. Little Women/Good Wives by Louisa May Alcott
Ok, ok. I know it’s sort of the thing now to caveat any love of this story with “I know it’s a sentimental novel. I know it’s moralizing. I know it’s not actually good…” But listen. If generation after generation of women read this book and see a true depiction of girlhood, and an inspiring call to a good living out of that girlhood, I’m not ashamed to say this is a good book. Reading it as an adult was eye-opening. First of all, I spent my childhood wanting to be Jo, but knowing I was probably a Meg. This time, my reading confirmed in ways that were actually profound for me: I am a Meg. Some of the similarities (like her foibles and missteps) were painful to read because reader, it me. And I LIKED Amy! But mostly I just adored this story of sisterhood and virtue and growing up and figuring it all out.
6. Persuasion by Jane Austen
Another book I re-read last year to compare my take as a young adult to mine now. This books gets better and better as I get older. It’s deeply sad, but deeply romantic. It’s also funny. It also contains the best love letter ever written. It has vaulted Captain Wentworth to the second spot on my list of Favorite Austen Heroes. (Nobody can dethrone Mr. Knightley, my long-time ideal.) I read and discussed this with a friend, and that experience was a highlight of my year.
5. Crow Lake by Mary Lawson
A new-to-me author! I don’t remember how I found this title, but I’m glad I did. It’s family drama so nuanced and real, I ached. The plot follows Canadian siblings recovering from tragedy. You get the Before, the Just After, and the Much Later. It just grabbed me. The nature writing was lovely, too. This is the next book I’m going to universally recommend to everyone who asks for a good read. (I read two other titles by her and thought they were just fine, however.)
4. The Common Rule: Habits of Purpose for an Age of Distraction by Justin Whitmel Earley
Spiritual disciplines, liturgy, minimalism, following the church calendar, and habits…I’ve been mulling these ideas and reading about them for a few years and wondering how to incorporate them into my life in a way that wasn’t legalistic or pointless. This book helped with that last part. It’s straightforward: Four daily habits, four weekly habits, designed to both embrace what we should embrace and resist what we should resist, all for the sake of love of God and love of neighbor. This quote is one of many that recalibrated my thinking: “But remember that resistance has a purpose: love. The habits of resistance [fasting, scripture before phone, phone off one hour a day, curate media to four hours a week] aren’t supposed to shield you from the world, but to turn you toward it. They aren’t so you can feel good about you’ve done for you. They exist so you can feel peace about what God has done for you.” I recommend this one to anyone who is diving into all the spiritual practice/recapturing wonder/eliminating hurry waters. (And I’m predicting it now: His newer book, Habits of the Household, will be on my 2023 list.)
3. Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbit
The books you talk about are the books you wind up loving. This was my first assigned book for the high school lit class I teach. I read it twice in one month to prepare and loved it even more the second (actually third—I read it as a girl) time around. There is so much to praise: the structure, character development, similes; but the emotion of it is what vaults it to the top for me. In last year’s readings, I was anxious about the ending for the exact opposite reason as I was when I was a kid. I love a book that grows with you–and this one does.
2. Sweep: The Story of a Girl and Her Monster by Jonathan Auxier
I’ve recommended this to virtually every reader I know by saying, “It’s Dickens but for tweens.” I stand by that. This fairy-tale-ish story follows a young Victorian chimney sweep. She meets a golem (it’s a magical protective creature) and boy, does she need him. They need each other, really. This one made me smile, cry, and take big gulps of air as the redemptive plot played itself out.
1. The Queen’s Thief series by Megan Whalen Turner
My Persuasion friend handed me the first in this young adult fantasy series, The Thief, and I was immediately hooked on the Greek-ish mythology meets adventure meets political intrigue meets extremely complicated but never cheesy or gross romance. And Turner is the master of the unexpected twist. Even as I got farther into the series (I’ve read the first four and they’re all extremely solid) and knew something was coming, the twists surprised me.
Honorable Mentions also worth reading:
The Horse and His Boy by C.S. Lewis (Officially my favorite.)
War & Peace by Leo Tolstoy (Yes, again! Just read it already!)
The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame (Top-notch read-aloud.)
The New Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards (FASCINATING.)
Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals by Oliver Burkeman (A 250-page reality check.)
12 Ways Your Phone is Changing You by Tony Reinke (Tech-positive theology of how to be a person.)
The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother by James McBride (An anti-tribal take on race and America.)
On the Horizon by Lois Lowry (Moving and astounding.)
// Top 10 plus an arbitrary number of bonus books for 2021
// 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