“She read books as one would breathe air, to fill up and live.”
I was intentionally quiet in 2016, reading more than writing while I waited for God to give me something new to say. Truth be told, after the beat down that was 2015 for our family, I needed some time to sit back and watch the dust go clear. As I did, I kept words close, starting more than 60 books and finishing 54.
Of those, these 16 filled my breath most as I caught it. I hope they can do the same for you in the year ahead.
Brown Girl Dreaming by Jaqueline Woodson
“What is bad won’t be bad forever, and what is good can sometimes last a long, long time.”
About the Book: “Raised in South Carolina and New York, Woodson always felt halfway home in each place. In vivid poems, she shares what it was like to grow up as an African American in the 1960s and 1970s, living with the remnants of Jim Crow and her growing awareness of the Civil Rights movement. Touching and powerful, each poem is both accessible and emotionally charged, each line a glimpse into a child’s soul as she searches for her place in the world.”
What I Thought of It: I put off reading this for forever because I was afraid of it. It’s written in free verse and, having never been a huge fan of poetry, it just seemed above me. Then I read it and cursed myself for waiting so long. It’s easily the most beautiful memoir I’ve ever read. Every page is a gift and marvel. Truly.
Most Interesting Structure
All the Missing Girls by Megan Miranda
“We were a town full of fear, searching for answers. But we were also a town full of liars.”
About the Book: “A nail-biting, breathtaking story about the disappearances of two young women—a decade apart—told in reverse.”
What I Thought of It: I don’t stay up late for anything, but I burned the midnight oil to finish this twisty nailbiter. I loved the structure, evocative setting and the fact that it was just the right amount of creepy.
Best Fuel for the Creative Life
Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert
“Creativity is sacred, and it is not sacred. What we make matters enormously, and it doesn’t matter at all. We toil alone, and we are accompanied by spirits. We are terrified, and we are brave. Art is a crushing chore and a wonderful privilege.”
About the Book: “With profound empathy and radiant generosity, Gilbert offers potent insights into the mysterious nature of inspiration. She asks us to embrace our curiosity and let go of needless suffering. She shows us how to tackle what we most love, and how to face down what we most fear. She discusses the attitudes, approaches, and habits we need in order to live our most creative lives.“
What I Thought of It: If you need someone to drill sergeant you into actually doing something with your creativity this year, give the job to Gilbert. I underlined more sound advice in this book than any other in recent memory. It was the first book I read in 2016, and it did not disappoint. If you know going into it that it’s part”whoo-whoo,” part light-a-fire-under-your-rear, you’ll love it.
Most Fun to Read
Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
“I created the OASIS because I never felt at home in the real world. I didn’t know how to connect with the people there. I was afraid, for all of my life, right up until I knew it was ending. That was when I realized, as terrifying and painful as reality can be, it’s also the only place where you can find true happiness. Because reality is real.”
About the Book: “Wade’s devoted his life to studying the puzzles hidden within this world’s digital confines, puzzles that are based on their creator’s obsession with the pop culture of decades past and that promise massive power and fortune to whoever can unlock them. When Wade stumbles upon the first clue, he finds himself beset by players willing to kill to take this ultimate prize. The race is on, and if Wade’s going to survive, he’ll have to win—and confront the real world he’s always been so desperate to escape.”
What I Thought of It: This dystopian novel is flat-out FUN. It’s 2044 and the world has gone to crap (shocker). Like just about everyone else, Wade spends his waking hours alone, logged into a virtual reality game, racing through a computerized scavenger hunt in which his success depends on his knowledge of obscure ‘80s pop culture references. Did I mention the part about it being fun? Whether you give a rip or not about video games and John Hughes movies, I promise you will have a blast reading this fantastic book.
Wonder by R.J. Palacio
“If every person in this room made it a rule that wherever you are, whenever you can, you will try to act a little kinder than is necessary – the world really would be a better place. And if you do this, if you act just a little kinder than is necessary, someone else, somewhere, someday, may recognize in you, in every single one of you, the face of God.”
About the Book: “August Pullman was born with a facial difference that, up until now, has prevented him from going to a mainstream school. Starting 5th grade at Beecher Prep, he wants nothing more than to be treated as an ordinary kid—but his new classmates can’t get past Auggie’s extraordinary face. Wonder begins from Auggie’s point of view, but soon switches to include his classmates, his sister, her boyfriend, and others. These perspectives converge in a portrait of one community’s struggle with empathy, compassion, and acceptance. ”
What I Thought of It: We listened to this on audio over the summer, and the engaging, multiple-character narration commanded the attention of my 11, 10 and 8-year olds every time we got in the car. A call to compassion and unbridled kindness, Wonder is a master class in realistic middle-grade fiction that every family can enjoy.
“You tried. You leaped. You took a chance. You risked. You paid attention to your deep waters, and you came to the conviction that trying this is where life is, and so you did it. That is not failure. That is how you create a life.”
About the Book: “Each of us was created for something great—we just need to figure out what it is and find the courage to do it. Whether it’s writing the next great American novel, starting a business, or joining a band, Rob Bell wants to help us make those dreams become reality. Our path is ours and ours alone to pursue, he reminds us, and in doing so, we derive great joy because we are living our passions.”
What I Thought of It: Rob Bell reminded me that I have work to do in the world, that it matters, and that it’s needed. He gave me permission to risk and fail and risk again at a time when I needed it most. A quick, readable guide to leaning boldly into a life a worth living.
Worth Every Tear
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
“This was the life he was given, and this is what he made of it.”
About the Book: “Dr. Paul Kalanithi died in March 2015, while working on this book, yet his words live on as a guide and a gift to us all. An unforgettable, life-affirming reflection on the challenge of facing death and on the relationship between doctor and patient, from a brilliant writer who became both.”
What I Thought of It: All I can say is that this one gave me chills and pause. And the epilogue by his wife? Unforgettable.
The Lake House by Kate Morton
“We are all victims of our human experience, apt to view the present through the lens of our own past.”
About the Book: “Alice Edevane is a bright, inquisitive, and precociously talented sixteen-year-old who loves to write stories. One midsummer’s eve, after a beautiful party drawing hundreds of guests to the estate has ended, the Edevanes discover that their youngest child has vanished without a trace. He is never found, and the family is torn apart, the house abandoned. Decades later, Alice is living in London, having enjoyed a long successful career as a novelist. Miles away, Sadie Sparrow, a young detective in the London police force, is staying at her grandfather’s house in Cornwall. While out walking one day, she stumbles upon the old Edevane estate—now crumbling and covered with vines. Her curiosity is sparked, setting off a series of events that will bring her and Alice together and reveal shocking truths about a past long gone…yet more present than ever.”
What I Thought of It: I cannot remember the last time I enjoyed a novel this much. This engrossing mystery is split between 1930s Cromwell, England where a young child disappears without a trace and 2004 London, where young detective stumbles upon the cold case and discovers its ties to one of England’s most celebrated mystery writers. At the heart of it sits a stunning/eerie English mansion that is a character in and of itself. My only complaint is that after spending more than 500 pages with Kate’s characters, I could not bring myself to start another novel for a full 48 hours. I was that invested.
Best Young Adult
Everything I Never Told You by Celest Ng
“Before that she hadn’t realized how fragile happiness was, how if you were careless, you could knock it over and shatter it.”
About the Book: “‘Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.’ So begins this exquisite novel about a Chinese American family living in 1970s small-town Ohio. Lydia is the favorite child of Marilyn and James Lee, and her parents are determined that she will fulfill the dreams they were unable to pursue. But when Lydia’s body is found in the local lake, the delicate balancing act that has been keeping the Lee family together is destroyed, tumbling them into chaos.”
What I Thought of It: This tenderly rendered novel reminded me of two things: 1) Even in the wake of shimmering legacies left by people like Martin Luther King Jr., we still have a long, long way to go in learning to value, understand and appreciate each other and 2) It’s a fool’s errand to try bending our children to be the people we wish we had become.
Most Helpful Parenting Perspective
The Gift of Failure by Jessica Lahey
“Our job is not to protect them from their failures along the way, but to help them cope with setbacks as they occur, because when they move out of their childhood home and begin to forge their own path, they are going to need all the resources and tools we can give them. The road ahead is theirs, not ours, and as tempted as we may be to pave the way for them so that we can live vicariously through their successes, it’s time we let them live their own lives.”
About the Book: “This groundbreaking manifesto focuses on the critical school years when parents must learn to allow their children to experience the disappointment and frustration that occur from life’s inevitable problems so that they can grow up to be successful, resilient, and self-reliant adults.”
What I Thought of It: My husband and I have never shied away from being parents who step back and let our kids learn to cope with the ups and downs of life, and this book gives words (and weight) to why this is so important. Lahey’s experience as a middle school teacher and mother enables her to give targeted advice for handling everything from chores and responsibilities at home to homework, report cards, social dynamics, and sports. A must-read for all parents, but especially for those with school-aged kids.
Best Performed Audiobook
“They were now representatives of something much larger than themselves – a way of life, a shared set of values. Liberty was perhaps the most fundamental of those values. But the things that held them together – trust in each other, mutual respsect, humility, fair play, watching out for one another – those were also part of what America meant to all of them.”
About the Book: “Out of the depths of the Depression comes an irresistible story about beating the odds and finding hope in the most desperate of times—the improbable, intimate account of how nine working-class boys from the American West showed the world at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin what true grit really meant.”
What I Thought of It: This book created a monster. After listening to it on Audible, I fell hard and fast for audiobooks this year (so much so that I had to switch to Overdrive to save money) and never looked back. Herrmann’s narration is steady, clear and authoritative as he reads this inspiring true underdog story about how far determination, commitment and optimism can push the human spirit. If you have a tween or teen who enjoys history and sports, pick up the version adapted for young readers. My 12-year old cannot say enough good things about it.
Hatching Twitter by Nick Bilton
“Some people are destined for greatness; others fall up a hill to get there.”
About the Book: “Despite all the coverage of Twitter’s rise, Nick Bilton of The New York Times is the first journalist to tell the full story—a gripping drama of betrayed friendships and highstakes power struggles. The four founders—Evan Williams, Biz Stone, Jack Dorsey, and Noah Glass—made a dizzyingly fast transition from ordinary engineers to wealthy celebrities. They fought each other bitterly for money, influence, publicity, and control as Twitter grew larger and more powerful. Ultimately they all lost their grip on it.”
What I Thought of It: Think you have drama in your life? Think again. I can’t even believe this story of Twitter’s founders is real. It’s crazy and sad with a side of, “Oh, no he didn’t!” Highly recommended (so long as you can overlook a couple of typos the editor didn’t catch).
Best Historical Fiction
Glory Over Everything by Kathleen Grissom
“‘Henry will always be your father. He was a brave and good man, and my hope would be that one day you will be just like him.’ ‘But you are living white. How can you have a black chil’?’ ‘I don’t know yet, but we’ll manage,’ I said. ‘How you gonna do that?’ Pan asked. ‘By overcoming one obstacle at a time.’”
About the Book: “Jamie Pyke, son of both a slave and master of Tall Oakes, has a deadly secret that compels him to take a treacherous journey through the Underground Railroad.”
What I Thought of It: This impeccably-written historical novel is certainly made richer by having read The Kitchen House first, but it’s lovely and engrossing as a stand alone, too. Grissom’s characters jump off the page, opening our eyes to a shameful period in our nation’s history (pre-civil war slavery in the South) and the bravery, sacrifice and compassion that quietly triumphed in the hearts of slaves and the people who helped them.
Breathing Room: Letting Go So You Can Fully Live by Leeana Tankersley
“Stress, chaos, urgency, and panic don’t have to be what controls our lives. We actually have a say. We can allow ourselves the dignity of responding to our circumstances, even changing our circumstances, instead of just resigning to them.”
About the Book: “An honest conversation that helps women transform their feelings of failure and shame into a grace-filled life of self-care and self-compassion.”
What I Thought of It: I underlined something on every page of this book. It’s beautifully, vulnerably written. If you’ve ever wondered why you’re coming apart at the seams, even when your life is good, then this book is for you. Tankersley does a tremendous job of showing women how beauty and struggle can coexist in lives that are both hard and good. Her personal stories resonated with me far more than Shuana Niequist’s did in Present Over Perfect, showing me that kindness to myself will never return void.
This Is Where You Belong by Melody Warnick
“Wherever you are, experience joy. Milk your city for all it’s worth, for as long as you’re there. Whether or not I stay in Blackburg forever, I can reap all the emotional, psychological, and physical benefits of place attachment while I’m here. I can soak up every last drop of pleasure to be had in my town. I can choose to make myself belong.”
About the Book: “Warnick’s journey to find out what makes us love our towns and cities, and why it matters, is at the heart of This Is Where You Belong. She dives into the body of research around place attachment—the deep sense of connection that residents sometimes feel with their towns—and travels to towns across America to see it in action.”
What I Thought of It: I’ve lived in a lot of cities, and every move has come with a choice: Will I choose to love it here or not? In This Is Where You Belong, Warnick offers 10 strategies for increasing a sense of “rootedness” – ranging from shopping locally to traveling by bike or foot and getting involved in the community – no matter how short or how long you are there. This book makes you think differently about how you participate in your city, what you can find to love about it, and how you can up your game to love it more. A great gift for the movers in your life, especially if the rolling stone happens to be you.
The Nightingale by Melody Warnick
“If I have learned anything in this long life of mine, it is this: in love we find out who we want to be; in war we find out who we are.”
About the Book: “The Nightingale tells the stories of two sisters, separated by years and experience, by ideals, passion and circumstance, each embarking on her own dangerous path toward survival, love, and freedom in German-occupied, war-torn France–a heartbreakingly beautiful novel that celebrates the resilience of the human spirit and the durability of women.”
What I Thought of It: My default is to pick up books that send me to London during WWII. This one dropped me in France, and the journey was surprisingly remarkable. Kristin’s impeccable writing and beautifully drawn characters made me want to braver in love and in life. The Nightingale is historical fiction at its finest.
To keep tabs on what I’m reading in 2017, follow my bookish Instagram where I’ll be sharing what I love, what I loath and everything in between.
Until then, Happy New Year and happy reading, everyone!