Wednesday, December 29, 2021

Top Books of 2021

This was a bit of a crazy year. First of all, I want to announce the impressive but pathetic news that I broke my own personal record. I read 197 books this year. I am both proud and ashamed.

Because of that, I've actually already set a stupid New Year's goal for 2022 that I will not read more than 100 books. It's actually dumb that I have to cap myself, but that's where we are.

I ended up reading a TON of non-fiction (like double what I've read in any other year since I started tracking in 2014; thank you, Holy Post podcast), so I decided I needed a top 10 fiction list AND a top 10 non-fiction list. You're welcome.

Fiction (This isn't my best fiction list. I read a ton of YA which surprises exactly no one, and then I went on a total Christian thriller tangent again and read series after series by Christy Barritt and Susan Sleeman, which are good, but maybe not good enough for a top ten list):

10- Restart by Gordon Korman
Is there a chance this book is only on the list so that I have something for boys? Maybe. But also, I really liked it. It's about a middle school boy who gets amnesia and discovers that he wasn't a nice guy before his head injury, but he's not sure if it's too late to change things.

9- The Inheritance Games by Jennifer Lynn Barnes
This was a duology, actually, and it's YA mystery. I like all things YA, mystery, and puzzles, so this was right up my alley. Think Westing Game meets Truly Devious.

8- I'm Not Dying With You Tonight by Kimberly Jones and Gilly Segal
This was kind of fascinating. It's told from two points of view, a white girl's and a Black girl's, and it's all set in one night when their paths cross during a racial riot. 

7- On a Summer Tide by Suzanne Woods Fisher
Did I stumble upon this trilogy after a bout of Amish books? Yes. (It's not an Amish trilogy.) Did I include it in my list to prove I read more than just YA this year? Also maybe yes. Plus I'm a sucker for feel-good chick lit books, especially on islands in Maine.

6- 10 Blind Dates by Ashley Elston
I won't lie. I will always try to include YA books that are clean because they are so dang rare! But this was fun, and it was part of a duology about this big, amazing family and they way they all love each other. Plus, you know. Teen romance.

5- Opposite of Always by Justin A. Reynolds
Jack meets Kate at a party and they have a whirlwind romance, until she dies. But when she dies, he gets thrown back to the day they met, and he relives their romance over and over. Less annoying than Groundhog Day, Jack has to decide what choices he can live with as he moves forward (and backward).

4- Kisses and Croissants by Anne-Sophie Jouhanneau
A teenage girl gets a dance scholarship to a ballet company in Paris and experiences all the magic of the city, like kisses and croissants! Super light. Super fluffy. Super fun. Super clean. All the best of YA chick lit.

3- The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah
Did this make my list because I loved it or because it just stayed with me for so long? I can't decide. (But hey, it's an adult novel!) Hannah is a great writer, but her books are hard, man. They are haunting. This one is about surviving in Alaska in the 70s, but there are themes of abuse that run throughout, too.

2- Framed! by James Ponti
This is a middle-grades trilogy about a boy who has a somewhat photographic memory and is tapped by DC to help solve crimes. Plausible? No. Fun? Yes. Similar to Mr. Lemoncello's Library in mood but with a better mystery and characters vibe.

1- The Way You Make Me Feel by Maureen Goo
I didn't read any fiction this year that made me go, "THAT'S MY NUMBER ONE!" But this one climbed to the top simply because I got on a Goo kick and tore through all her books. They're YA Korean lit, which isn't my typical genre, and I ended up loving them. I could have put any of her titles here, but this was the most recent one I read and remembered.

Non-Fiction (I won't lie. These are my true top ten for the whole year. Maybe I need to set more non-fiction goals in my life.):

10- You Got Anything Stronger? by Gabrielle Union
I read a few memoirs by actors this year, but Gabrielle's made it because 1. Who doesn't love Bring It On with a cult-like passion? 2. She blends funny stories with her heartwrenching journey of infertility and surrogacy and parenting and 3. She really speaks out about matters of justice in such a loving, truth-telling way. She likes her language, though. 

9- It's Not Your Turn by Heather Thompson Day
I didn't just include this because I got to interview her for our podcast; I actually reached out to interview her because I read and liked this book. She talks about how to let seasons of waiting shape us into the people God has called us to be.

8- The Woman They Could Not Silence by Kate Moore
Okay, technically this is a somewhat fictionalized account of a true story. But it's not exactly a novel, either. So I made the executive decision to include it in my non-fiction list. This chronicles the journey of Elizabeth Packard who was thrown into an asylum (here in Illinois) by her husband simply for disagreeing with him about his practice of religion. But Packard goes on to write her way out (after years) and even effect asylum laws throughout the country. Moore also wrote Radium Girls, which was on my list a few years ago. If she keeps writing about these lesser-known women who rose to change the world despite enduring horrific abuses, I'm all in.

7- The Gospel For Individualists by Tyler Zach
Tyler is my Instagram friend; he runs an enneagram account like mine. He also writes devotionals for each number. I've only read this one (for Fours), but I've purchased several other numbers for friends. Of all the enneagram devotionals I've read, this was my favorite by far. I think he's release the devotionals for Threes, Fours, Sixes, and Nines so far.

6- Big Friendship: How We Keep Each Other Close by Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman
Can we just assume that numbers 6-2 are completely arbitrary and interchangeable? All of these books were so amazing. I wrote a whole long thing on instagram about this one. Sow and Friedman chronicle their relationship, putting a name to something that is more than friendship but platonic and vibrant. They don't hold back how difficult it is to prioritize their relationship, either, but the central message is that it's worth showing up for, over and over.

5- Untamed by Glennon Doyle
I'll admit it. I wrote Doyle off a few years ago when our social/political/theological beliefs seemed to branch away from each other. But on a whim, I picked up this book, and her writing speaks to me. Do I have to agree with every single belief she has or point she makes to appreciate her writing and the way she empowers women? No, I don't. I choose to believe that the Lord can speak through all truth, and like it or not, we are all imperfect vessels.

4- The Liturgy of Politics by Kaitlyn Schiess
Meeting Kaitlyn Schiess was one of my favorite parts of 2021! What a bright spot in a weird year. I first heard her on the Holy Post podcast, but she was kind enough to be a guest on my podcast, and she's exactly as smart and sweet as she seems. I could listen to her connect political and theological concepts all day long. Her mind is brilliant!

3- The Wisdom of Your Body by Hillary McBride
Ahhh. This book (and Dr. McBride) got me through much of the fall as I learned about embodiment practices and how connecting with our bodies is central to being an integrated, whole person as we were created to be. 

2- The Making of Biblical Womanhood by Beth Allison Barr
If you believe women can be pastors, read this book. If you don't believe women can be pastors, read this book. Barr isn't a pastor or theologian; she's a historian who specializes in medieval history. She unpacks the history of women in all societies and how women's roles have changed over time. She also dives into the ESV translation of the Bible and compares it to other translations, and I promise you will learn things you've never heard before. This is a powerful argument about how our current society shapes our every belief, and until we know the waters we are swimming in, we will remain unaware even as it slowly poisons us. 

1- Atlas of the Heart by Brené Brown
Oh hey. Maybe you've heard of this one? I mean, Deedra and I have only talked about on the last five or six podcast episodes. But that's because IT IS SO GOOD. It's a reference book for 87 emotions and experiences, and it gives us language and a map to all of it. Just the chapter titles alone were enough to geek me out, but then when I read about how she set up her research on it, stop it. I was gone forever. Take me away, Dr. Brown. 

Bonus- Called to War by Dawn Amsden Stark
I technically read this book in 2020, but it released in 2021, so I'm including it in this year's list. Also, since I led the launch team, it felt unfair to rank the book, so I'm adding it as a bonus and a must-read for you all! If you don't know what this is about yet, I can't help you. You should follow me more. 

So there ya have it. My longest list there will ever be. Next year's will be back to a combined top ten list because of my self-imposed cap of 100 total. Au revoir, personal record. It's been fun.

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Top Books of 2020

This dumpster fire of a year is ending with 140 books read (probably. I say that because I’m almost finished with 139, and I can’t imagine I won’t read another book in the next day and a half. I can’t help it.).
This was a year of just getting through from one day to the next. Even though I had a lot more time at home, I also had less time alone since my kids were here all. the. time. for like five straight months (and I’m not even complaining because I know plenty others had their children home for much, much longer). Plus, I discovered The West Wing Weekly podcast and listened to all seven seasons of that while re-watching all seven seasons of The West Wing, and it gave me life through September and October.

I mostly read Christian thrillers and YA fiction this year for no other reason than easy and familiar felt better than thick and heavy. (So what if I re-read my favorite series all again this year? Hogwarts is my therapy.)

So. From 10 to 1, here are my picks for this year. And yes, my overall list was slim pickings, but these top 10 would hold their own in any year. They’re that good. (I'll include a link to past years' lists in the comments.)

10. Pivot Point (duology) by Kasie West
Kasie West is one of my favorite YA authors, and I’ve probably mentioned her on past lists. She writes clean, relatable, funny YA books. The reason I added Pivot Point specifically is that this duology is a bit of a stretch for her; it’s a little futuristic and dystopian but holds the same hallmarks of West that I’ve always enjoyed.

9. Backfield Boys by John Feinstein
There’s a chance I’m including this one so that it doesn’t look like all I read are girl books, but whatever. I’ll be transparent about my reading selection. Feinstein writes mostly sports journalism mysteries (the Last Shot series is my absolute favorite), but I enjoyed this standalone because it encounters some racial issues in the world of private school sports. Great read for tweens and teens.

8. The War Outside by Monica Hesse
I read a few Hesse books this year; they’re breathtaking. The ones I’ve read deal with different aspects of WWII. The War Outside takes place in an American internment camp and tells the story of two unlikely friends—a Japanese girl and a German girl who both find themselves locked away from their lives. This book does deal with some mature themes in terms of their relationship with each other, just so you know.

7. How the Light Gets In by Jolina Petersheim
I already talked about this book last spring when I read it, but man, oh man. I loved it. I hated it. I couldn’t get around the ending. It’s not often that a book can catch me that off guard (hello, We Were Liars), but this one sure did. It’s an Amish story about a woman whose husband dies and who is forced to move back to his hometown and figure out how to live within the Plain community. I’d say more, but I can’t without spoiling it.

6. A Good Kind of Trouble by Lisa Moore Ramee
I tried to get Jorie to read this, but she was grounded from her iPad too long and I had to return the digital book to the library. It’s a story of a 7th grade Black girl who is trying to figure out what being Black means in junior high, especially when her best friends aren’t. She encounters protests and Black Lives Matter for the first time, and the story is told beautifully from the perspective of a young girl.

5. Born Again This Way by Rachel Gilson
I really hesitated to include this because I fear I could unintentionally make a lot of people mad with this addition. But I have to include books that impact me, and Gilson’s memoir sure did. (Also, I wanted to prove I read at least one non-fiction book this year.) Gilson was a lesbian who encountered Jesus and now spends her life trying to bridge the Church and the LGBTQ community. I know that that sentence has already angered people, but I don’t believe that Gilson or her story is any way judgmental, condemning, or hateful. It might be the best balance of love and truth and compassion and kindness I’ve ever read.

4. The Suicide Tree by Shayla Raquel
I might be biased because Shayla is a friend, but this debut novel of hers is fantastic. I was privileged to read it as a beta reader, and her final published version took an already great YA mystery and upped its excellence. It involves a mysterious vaccine, international travel, and young romance, so basically everything I love in YA.

3. Winterborne Home for Vengeance and Valor by Ally Carter
This is the first of a duology (I think), but the second book won’t be released until spring. I’m so confident in its worth, though, that I’m including it before I even know how it ends. That’s because Ally Carter might be my second favorite YA author of all time. (I just re-read her Gallagher Girls series for the umpteenth time this week just to close out the year on a high note.) This is similar to her style of espionage, heists, mysteries, and young heroes/heroines making the world a better place through sometimes questionable methods. This particular book has younger characters than more of her series, which will hit a younger demographic. I can’t wait to let Jorie read this one!

2. Watch Us Rise by Renee Watson & Ellen Hagan
I discovered Watson’s books this year and quickly tore through them. My favorite by far was this one, written with Hagan. Each author voiced one of the characters, and it tells the story of two high school girls who encounter both sexism and racism in their school and community and the way they choose to raise their voices and be heard both in spite of and because of it.

1. The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins
I am so, so sorry. I never meant to put a popular prequel or such a well-known author as number one. But you guys, I can’t help it. The Hunger Games still remains one of the best-written trilogies of all time, and this prequel about President Snow’s early life is no exception. Collins builds this early world of the arenas and the Games brilliantly. It’s actually frightening that I found compassion for Snow through this, and as soon as I finished, I had to re-read the trilogy again. It literally makes EVERYTHING MAKE SENSE.

Saturday, December 28, 2019

Top Books of 2019

In 2019, I (will have) read 136 books. That's actually my second lowest amount since I first started tracking it all back in 2014. But I didn't watch Grey's Anatomy twice through this year, so I managed to rack up a decent number. 

Compiling this list often feels like a chore, but there are some books on my list I think everyone should read, so I will continue to release this each year. I'll add the caveat that I re-read a LOT of books this year and I glommed onto a lot of new authors and series, so the variety of my overall list isn't great. But my top 10 books come from different genres.

10. Hope and Other Punchlines by Julie Buxbaum
This is a fictional YA account of a 9/11 survivor, Baby Hope, whose picture became immortalized as a symbol of hope and perseverance after the Twin Towers fell. But now that Baby Hope is a teenager, can she live up to everyone's expectations? Her story intersects with Noah, whose father appears in the background of the Baby Hope picture, and he's been searching his whole life to find out what happened. This was a fairly interesting read because of the 9/11 and human interest twist, even if a slightly formulaic YA novel. 

9. Because of Mr. Terupt by Rob Buyea
I'm such a sucker for stories about inspirational teachers who impact the lives of their students. This is the first book of the Mr. Terupt trilogy. Jorie's class read this in 5th grade, and she asked me to read it, too. I only read the first two books (because the third isn't on my digital library yet), but I enjoyed them. They're written for a middle-grades crowd, and they're a book I would recommend if I were still teaching (unlike most YA lit these days). I believe the second and third books explore some slightly more mature themes (nothing crazy, but a little hormonal stuff that may have been slightly beyond what I expected). 

8. The Geography of You and Me by Jennifer E. Smith
I read all of Smith's YA books all in a row, and I probably could have picked any of them for this list. I enjoyed her characterization and the different locations that she used. I thought her relationships were honest, and the books were fairly clean for YA. 

7. The Rest of the Story by Sarah Dessen
I'll throw all my YA at the end of this year's list. Does that mean my tastes are finally maturing? Or is it just because YA has become so trashy and steered towards shock value that I didn't have many I could even include? Maybe some of both. I have read a lot of Dessen, and most of her books are just okay. But this novel was pretty entertaining. I loved the concept of the main character, Emma Saylor, finding herself in this big family that she'd never really known before and learning how the story of her past shapes the story of her future.

6. Montana Rescue series by Susan May Warren
Okay, I've been devouring Susan May Warren the last couple months. I swore off YA novels back in October because so many just aren't good, and I discovered these Christian search and rescue books. I started by reading her Christiansen Family series, then read the Deep Haven books, then the Montana Rescue, and now I'm tearing through Team Hope. Montana Rescue was my favorite, and I've learned about search and rescue, backcountry snowboarding, smokejumping, and so many other things that I would never intentionally read. But it's all so fascinating!

5. The Road Back to You by Ian Morgan Cron and Suzanne Stabile
There was no way I could let my 2019 book list slip by without urging you to read a book on the enneagram. This actually isn't my favorite book on it, and I have more on my list that I'm dying to read, but this is the enneagram starter kit book. This book gives the best overall description of the structure of the enneagram, the point of it all, and on each of the nine types. If you've been at all curious, start here. It's a quick and easy read, and Cron and Stabile share enough stories to keep it entertaining. And you may learn something about yourself and those around you! If you DO read it for the first time, please, please reach out and tell me what number you are!

4. Born a Crime by Trevor Noah
This book is comedian Trevor Noah's memoir about growing up in South Africa shortly after Apartheid. It was sort of marketed as a book for teens, but I don't have any idea why. I was fascinated by this story. It is a good show of his humor, but it also had very painful and difficult parts. Noah's life was not easy, and I had very little knowledge of Apartheid and South Africa in general before reading this. I highly recommend. 

3. The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris
You know what I did have a lot of knowledge of? The Holocaust. But this novel, based on the true life story of the real tattooist of Auschwitz and Birkenau, was still haunting and amazing to read. It wasn't an easy read emotionally, but there was enough hope and redemption to keep me going until the end. 

2. Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate
I read this immediately after The Tattooist of Auschwitz and I do NOT recommend doing that. This is another equally heavy book. In fact, it was much harder for me to read because I think we've all somewhat detached ourselves from Holocaust books because it's become just a part of "history." But this fictional account of what happened during the 1930s-50s right here in America is horrific. Why didn't we know about this? Why was it allowed to persist for so long? And tiny spoiler alert: there is enough redemption at the end of this to make it bearable. 

1. If You Only Knew by Jamie Ivey
I had to end with this because it was the book that spoke most directly to my heart this year. Ivey is a pastor's wife and speaker from Austin, TX. Her heart is to help others, especially women, find healing in their stories, which echoes the desires of my own heart. This is her raw and honest story of journeying through growing up Christian, choosing her own way, and finding her way back to the wholeness that can only be found in Jesus. It reads like a story and isn't preachy. 

Have you read any of these? Are you adding any to your list? Let me know!

Top Books of 2018

I only read 75 books in 2018 (blame Grey’s), so I feel ill-equipped to make my normal top 10 list. However, I have five of them I want to share because these are some really important and amazing books everyone should read.

5. All We Have Left by Wendy Mills

Fictional account of several 9/11 interwoven stories.

4. The Radium Girls by Kate Moore

Non-fiction but reads like a story about the watch painters during WWI who suffered radium poisoning and fought for safety laws in factories.

3. No One Ever Asked by Katie Ganshert

Fictional account of what happened when an inner-city high school was rerouted into an affluent suburban high school.

2. I’m Still Here by Austin Channing Brown

Memoir of a black woman’s life in a white man’s world.

1. Just Mercy by Bryan Stephenson

The most gripping tale of race I have ever read— this is a real-life To Kill a Mockingbird story.

You may sense a theme of diversity and social justice. I read a LOT of books like that this year, and I could include some more (Dear Martin; The Hate U Give) but these are definitely my top 5. Ask me about any! I’m glad to share what I loved.

For past years’ top 10 lists, check out my older entries.

Monday, January 1, 2018

Top 10 Books of 2017

It's that time again. I'm starting to dread New Year's Day!

Just kidding. Sorta.

I read 159 books this year. I meant to surpass my 2016 number of 161, but I discovered Grey's Anatomy over Christmas Break and now I forget how to read.

I also fasted reading (who is told to fast reading? Most people have reading as part of their resolutions) for a part of September and October. Because let's be honest--my original goal was 200. And that would probably have been excessive.

10. Talking as Fast as I Can by Lauren Graham

Who doesn't love Lauren Graham? (Look up her interviews on Ellen. She's hysterical!) I loved reading this memoir of her life that included a lot of inside look at Gilmore Girls.

9. The Voice in the Wind (trilogy) by Francine Rivers

To be fair, this wasn't a new read. I read it in college. But it had been so long that I literally remembered zero plot or characters, so it felt like a new read. And like every Rivers book, this was a graphic, intense read! It's set in first century Rome and is about Christian martyrs and Roman hedonism.

8. How to Disappear by Sharon Huss Roat

I read a ton of YA lit this year. I have to say, I don't care for much of it anymore. It's getting edgy for the sake of edgy, and there's almost no redemption. This one, though, struck me differently. I can't remember if there was language, so be careful before you hand it to your teenager. It's a novel that explores the lure of social media and the emotional impact it can have (bad and good) for today's average teen.

7. Cape Refuge (series) by Terri Blackstock

I liked this four-book series. It started me on a wave of Christian murder mysteries (which seems like a strange genre). Though that genre is fairly formulaic, this series had characters I cared about and plots that kept me interested.

6. First Light by Rebecca Stead

Rebecca Stead writes middle-grade novels. One of her books has made a list of mine previously; I almost threw another she wrote (Goodbye Stranger) into this top 10. First Light is more fantasy in nature, though it's realistic enough to be believable. Stead creates an under-ice world and contrasts it to the aboveground reality in a beautiful way.

5. The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware

If only this book hadn't had the F bomb, I would have been truly captivated. It had twists and turns, colorful characters, and suspense that made me fly through. It wasn't scary, exactly, but I didn't want to read it at night alone!

4. Making Bombs for Hitler by Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch

This had all the makings to be one of my favorite reads from the start. Middle-grade novel? Check. Set in World War II? Check. This book explored one of the littler-known populations of WWII, the non-Jewish Polish children who were forced into labor for the Germans. Captivating!

3. The Sound of Gravel by Ruth Wariner

Last year, I had The Polygamist's Daughter by Anna LeBaron on my list. This book is a memoir written by LeBaron's cousin. Wariner grew up under similar conditions to LeBaron, but the way her life unfolded is very different. If anything, Wariner's story is more difficult to read. Her childhood was full of tragedy, and yet somehow, there was always love.

2. The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid

I'm almost embarrassed to have this on my list. But it was SO well-written! I honestly didn't see ahead of time how it would all play out. It was a fascinating look on old-time Hollywood, as well. I read several of Reid's novels this year, and most of them would have ended up on this list were it not for my strict one-book-per-author rule.

1. Idol Lies by Dee Brestin

Only the second non-fiction book on the list, and it was good enough to claim the number one spot. Brestin explores the underlying motives we all use to walk through our worlds, and she lays out the biblical truth about each one. If you're looking to grow spiritually this year, I can't recommend this book enough.

Shameless Plug Bonus: Catch Somewhere by Megan Hall

GUYS. My first novel was published this year. I DON'T EVEN CARE THAT I WROTE IT. IT IS GOING ON MY LIST. So there. (Don't search Amazon for Megan Hall. Let's just say there's another author with my name and we write VERY different books.)

Catch Somewhere is a Christian YA novel about Kinsley, who struggles with her self-worth, identity, and addiction before finding redemption in Christ. Probably you should read it. And buy it. Whatever it doesn't matter to me oh wait HERE'S THE LINK.

What was the best book YOU read this year?

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Megan's Top 10 Books of 2016

I read 161 books this year. I can't tell you about all of them, though if you follow me on Pinterest, I do keep track of them all. But I always narrow down the best new reads. Without further adieu...

10. The Embassy Row trilogy by Ally Carter

Ally Carter is one of my favorite YA (young adult) authors, and I've managed to make most of my middle school girls fall in love with her Gallagher Girls and Heist Society series. Embassy Row is her latest series, and the first book is called All Fall Down. I'll admit, the first book wasn't my favorite, but the second and third more than made up for it. I am a sucker for books about secret societies, international politics and mysteries, and whodunnits.

9. The List by Robert Whitlow

I tore through all of Whitlow's Christian crime novels this year. I loved a few, liked some more, and felt indifferent towards several. But this one was my favorite of all of them. That's probably because this is also about a secret society. However, this is an overtly Christian novel, and I love seeing spiritual warfare played out on the pages of a fictional book.

8. Free to Fall by Lauren Miller

Miller's YA novel could probably have been a fantastic trilogy. Instead, it's a pretty good novel. I say that because she packed a lot of plot and action into a book where she could have developed it more and spread it among three. I'm pigeonholing myself, and I didn't even realize it until I began summarizing my list, but this book is a dystopian novel where the main character unlocks the mysteries guessed it... a secret society. Unlike the Carter trilogy, this book is set in a technological future where citizens are guided through their days by a device that reminded me eerily of Siri. But what happens when we dismiss our consciences and rely only on what can be proven?

7. Dishonor: One Soldier's Journey from Desertion to Redemption by David Mike

I have the privilege of calling David Mike my friend, and I was able to watch his story unfold on his blog before he published this beautiful memoir this year. Mike spent several years in the 90s as an inmate in Fort Leavenworth after a severe drug addition and deserting the Army. Mike recounts those years in this deeply personal account. You'll be amazed at the journey he takes through these pages. And if you could meet him now, like I've been able to do, you'll see how deeply changed he is from the troubled young man in these memories.

6. After Ever After by Jordan Sonnenblick

I first read a Sonnenblick novel a decade ago with some of my middle school students. The narration is funny and fast-paced, and unlike most YA literature, it's usually told from a male perspective. After Ever After is the sequel to that first novel, Drums, Girls, and Dangerous Pie, but this could easily read as a standalone because it occurs so many years later. Like all Sonnenblick's books, his happy ending doesn't tie up all nice and perfect, but there's always redemptive hope.

5. The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

People had been telling me to read this book for years, but it took me until this past year to finally pick it up. I was blown away. I won't lie; it was a heavy read. The book centers in a small French village during World War II. Deaths, abuses, starvation...this book will tug on every emotion. But I didn't choose it because it made me have happy feels; I chose it because it painted a picture of the side of WWII I never knew. And it was captivating.

4. The Polygamist's Daughter by Anna LeBaron

I have fiercely talented friends, and Anna LeBaron is another. In this memoir, LeBaron recounts her childhood living under the oppression of a polygamist cult. As the daughter of the cult leader and one of 50 children, LeBaron shares how growing up in poverty, hunger, and confusion shaped who she was. This redemptive story also explains her escape and the freedom and healing she found later in life. Scenes from LeBaron's life are painted in riveting detail. I read this book in one sitting; I couldn't put it down. This book doesn't release until March, but it's available for pre-order!

3. The Night Circus by Erin Morganstern

I'm not sure there are words in the English language to begin to explain or describe this book. It's a novel about a magical circus and two young illusionists who are pitted against each other by their teachers. Elements of this book reminded me of the movies The Prestige and The Illusionist but with less creepy and more whimsy. It was a magical, enchanting, surreal read.

2. Unashamed: Drop the Baggage, Pick up Your Freedom, Fulfill Your Destiny by Christine Caine

This was the book that spoke my soul this year. Caine explores shame in a Brene Brown-esque way but adds the necessary ingredients of the blood of Jesus and the love of the Father to find healing from the pain and shame of the past. I think I highlighted more in this book than in anything I've ever read, and I frequently look back at those passages for worship and reflection. Also, it looks like the Kindle version is only $2.99 right now! Snap it up quickly!

1. The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd

This was the first book I've ever read that helped shape and shift an entire mindset and social view. Not only is this historical novel loosely based on real-life sisters Angelina and Sarah Grimke in the American Civil War era, but it's a rich and captivating narrative that explores racism, sexism, and destiny in a powerful way. I can't recommend this book enough. It's also a heavy read, but hope soars throughout, especially when you finish the final page and begin to research all that the Grimke sisters accomplished in America.

Bonus: Walking Dauntlessly: The Search for a Meaningful Story  by, well, me. And Deedra Mager.

Yes, this is a shameless plug. But can I really write a top 10 list of books the year I publish a book without at least mentioning it? It's short. It's a quick read. But it's extremely precious to me. It's my story; it's her story; and it's our story of how God heals in community. If you haven't read it yet, you probably should. And then write a review because as long as I'm shamelessly plugging...well, can't hurt.

Have you read any of these?
What are your thoughts?
What was the best book you read this year?

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

The Siren, Rewritten and Re-released

I’m sure you’ve heard about this (because I can’t shut up about it), but one of my favorite YA authors, Kiera Cass, released a rewrite of her first novel, The Siren. This is a pretty big deal for her. She self-published The Siren six years ago, and since then, she’s had a ton of success with her series, The Selection. It completely makes sense that she should re-release The Siren with her publisher. It even makes a little sense why it might undergo a bit of editing or revising.

What doesn’t make sense is why she changed everything so that it’s barely recognizable.

I’ve read a couple reviews (and an interview with Cass) that say you simply have to treat it as a separate novel. I have two problems with that. First, if that were true, she should have changed the characters’ names and the title of the novel. Second, I’m infatuated with the first novel, so I cannot objectively read it without first filtering it through that lens. I recognize my bias, and I accept it. However, in order to try to maintain a facade of objectivity, I will not list anything as “good” or “bad”; I will simply explain what was kept and what was lost as a result of the rewrite.

What we kept

  • The characters’ names. Kahlen and Akinli are still there, as well as Ben, Julie, Aisling, Miaka, and Elizabeth. 
  • Most of the characters’ backstories. We actually gain more of Kahlen’s backstory. I didn’t mind seeing how her journey as a siren began, although the way it happened was definitely different. Miaka’s story is still there, and Ifama’s is told in memory, not as if we were witnessing it with Kahlen. Same with Marilyn. She’s never actually in the book, just mentioned as a memory. 
  • Kahlen and Akinli’s love for each other. It felt underdeveloped this time around, but you could still see how deeply their hearts were knit together. 
  • The sirens’ job description. Their role in serving the Ocean didn’t change. 
What we gained
  • A new siren. Padma is a brand-new character with her own backstory, and her story drives part of the plot. 
  • Akinli’s man bun. I can’t help you process this. 
  • A more concise novel. There was more action and few lapses with mere description. This was both a good and a bad thing. But I cannot deny that it was pared down. 
  • A completely different ending. The climax and resolution are based around an event that never went down in the first book. 
  • The Ocean’s own words. She never speaks in the first book; we only know her thoughts by what Kahlen relays. It was interesting to read her own dialogue. 
What we lost
  • The central relationship of the story. In the original, the love between Kahlen and the Ocean was the driving force behind every decision. In the rewrite, the Ocean comes across as clueless at best and vengeful at worst. We never see why the Ocean has a special affection for Kahlen, and we miss out on the years Kahlen spent at the Ocean’s side alone. 
  • Aisling’s sacrifice. The secret of Aisling’s past is revealed immediately in the rewrite. There is no climax where she is able to step in and save Kahlen. 
  • Character development. Miaka and Elizabeth seem hard and unfriendly in the rewrite. There is no time to know them and understand why Kahlen loves them. Likewise, we have almost no time with Julie and Ben. 
  • Akinli’s past relationship. I’m okay with this loss. I don’t think knowing about his past relationship in the original helped the story. 
  • Jillian and Kahlen's work as a teacher for the deaf. It was perhaps extraneous in the original novel, but this relationship and plot point helped us understand Kahlen's depths of feelings more, but it was left out because it wasn't needed to drive Kahlen to Akinli.
  • The Giving Tree. In the acknowledgements of the original novel, Cass writes, “Thanks to Shel Silverstein for writing a book that made me decide to become best friends with a tree in the first grade.” This explained so much about befriending the Ocean, but this book has no mention in the rewrite. 
  • The decision between judgment and mercy. Like I said earlier, the climax is completely different. There is no battle to see grace given or judgment doled out. 
  • The beautiful descriptions in writing. The first novel is so filled with amazing words that I have copious pages highlighted in my nook. For example, Cass describes the Ocean as “a shade of blue I’d never encountered. It was the color of ice and honey and sky and rain mixed together into a sheet of flawless glass with broken frothy edges that tickled my feet at the shoreline.” 
I first read The Siren in a time when I felt far from God. It wasn’t that I didn’t love Him; I did, and I was faithfully following Him. But I struggled to depend on Him alone. I couldn’t imagine that He could love me as much as the Bible said He did.

And then I read this book. Kahlen’s words so mirrored my own. She hated being alone, and she ached to be loved. When she finally gives herself over to the Ocean, she realizes the depths of Her love, and she says, “I sat then and wept openly in Her arms. She let Her waves rush over me, and for the first time they didn’t feel like chains. It truly felt like an embrace.”

I read that, and I cried out to God to feel that way with Him. I had my earbuds in, and the first song that came up on iTunes radio was a new song I had never heard before called “Oceans” by Hillsong. I blogged about that night soon after. 

The original cover

You see why this book felt so special to me. My daughter Kaelyn was so named because of this Kahlen. I wanted her name to have a special meaning of one who “trusts without borders” like Kahlen learned how to do in The Siren.

The original book isn’t readily available. It’s going for lots of money on ebay, it seems. I only have a digital copy, and I’m kicking myself for that now. But I’ll continue to read it, year after year, and lose myself in Kahlen’s world.

The rewrite? I’m going to pretend it never happened.