The last two years I summed up my top reads in three fiction and three non-fiction picks. The amount of reading I did took a dip in 2018, and a good portion of it was caught up in re-reading old books. I also find that I’ve become increasingly picky and impatient, so I’m much more comfortable with discontinuing a book that doesn’t hold my attention 1-2 chapters in. As a result, I only read three new non-fiction books, and while they were all good, it seems pointless to do a top three out of three options.
Instead, I just chose my top four overall. Coincidentally, each of them represents a different genre, so perhaps something will pique your interest. Maybe this means I’m reading more broadly (see, Mom? I’m not only reading books about made-up-worlds now), though I need to read more in general. Here’s hoping I stick it through some good, meaty books this year. Please send recommendations!
1. The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah
I wrote about this book briefly in my post on WWII historical fiction. Two sisters fight for their family and country in Nazi-occupied France. Isabelle is the fiery, rebellious one, deadset on joining the Resistance. Vianne begins as a fragile woman, even more helpless after her husband goes off to war. But the war comes to her home too, and she must find the strength to protect the ones she loves. Usually, war stories are about the men on the front. This is a heartbreaking, beautiful story of the women at home, and the quiet battles they had to fight. Kristin Hannah shines a light on humanity at its best and worst through a complex cast of characters.
“Men tell stories. Women get on with it. For us it was a shadow war. There were no parades for us when it was over, no medals or mentions in history books. We did what we had to during the war, and when it was over, we picked up the pieces and started our lives over.”
2. The Absurdity of Unbelief by Jeffrey D. Johnson
This is my one non-fiction pick, and it’s a little-known gem. Johnson sets quite a task for himself – he runs through a series of non-Christian worldview systems (naturalism, evolution, existentialism, postmodernism, non-theistic religions, Islam, Judaism, Unitarianism, and more) and drives home each one’s core fallacies and inconsistencies. He then proceeds to present the case for Christianity, and why it is the only believable, consistent worldview of reality, answering the fundamental questions of, “What is real?” “What is right?” and “What is true?”
Funny enough, last night at Bible Study, we were discussing how no airtight argument can definitively prove God’s existence. Many of them are convincing, but you can still poke a hole somewhere. The reality is, there’s no “neutral” starting ground where we can lay aside our biases and start stacking the evidence on both sides. We all come with our presuppositions. The Bible doesn’t make a case for God by a string of arguments – it begins with the presupposition that God exists, and all creation is loudly declaring that truth.
That said, Johnson’s book is formidable. He employs his God-given gifts of logic, reason and biblical knowledge to make an extremely convincing case for Christianity. It’s not perfect, and some chapters are weaker than others, but it’s a great apologetic primer. And he ends with a call to repent and believe. Read this if you’re a Christian. Read it if you’re a skeptic.
“With this in mind, the biblical worldview offers three basic truths that are necessary to a cohesive system of thought. These truths are logic, moral distinctions, and God. These things are inherent because they are necessary conditions preprogrammed within our thinking so that we can construct meaningful thought and cognitive beliefs as we interact with the external world.”
3. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
I’m late to this bandwagon, and I was very hesitant about climbing on. I hate gratuitous sex, violence, swearing, and darkness. And I warn you, this book has some very disturbing parts of all the aforementioned elements, so I do not recommend this to everyone. I honestly expected to hate this book, or at least, find it way over-hyped. And maybe it is over-hyped, but it’s also chillingly good – in the excellent writing, the way Flynn digs deep into the characters, and in the mother of all plot twists. I haven’t read a ton of thrillers, but my sense is, you don’t usually get the whole package like that.
I won’t bother with a summary, since you probably know what this story is about. Imagine your worst nightmare of a toxic marriage. Then triple the catastrophe. Honestly, I wonder if Gillian Flynn’s husband should be concerned. I’m sure she could be a normal, nice lady, but the fact that she had it in her to write this story so well … well, I’d be worried.
Anyway, it was very well done, but I probably wouldn’t re-read it because it was a gruesome picture of depravity. If you’re sensitive, I repeat, do not attempt.
“I’ve literally seen it all, and the worst thing, the thing that makes me want to blow my brains out, is: The secondhand experience is always better. The image is crisper, the view is keener, the camera angle and the soundtrack manipulate my emotions in a way reality can’t anymore. I don’t know that we are actually human at this point, those of us who are like most of us, who grew up with TV and movies and now the Internet. If we are betrayed, we know the words to say; when a loved one dies, we know the words to say. If we want to play the stud or the smart-ass or the fool, we know the words to say. We are all working from the same dog-eared script. It’s a very difficult era in which to be a person, just a real, actual person, instead of a collection of personality traits selected from an endless Automat of characters.”
4. Grisha Verse Trilogy by Leigh Bardugo
Yes, I cheated, because a trilogy is three books. But it’s really one continuous story, and I can’t pick a favorite out of them. Finally, some YA fiction that takes a step above the heap of mediocrity. I burned through this series in a matter of days while traveling. Alina is a poor girl with nothing but her handsome and more capable best friend, Mal. That is, until she awakens a dormant power within herself that has the potential to save their kingdom from war. She is taken away to train as a Grisha, the magical elite force led by the enigmatic Darkling.
So yes, it has your usual YA tropes, but I have nothing against them if they’re used well. It’s an epic tale of adventure, suspense, intrigue/politics, and romance in an exotic Russian-inspired setting, and Bardugo writes with a vivid, poetic style that’s not overkill. She also pulls off some pretty slick plot twists. While I’m rather indifferent to Alina and Mal (they’re likable enough, but not outstanding), I love the ensemble of characters Bardugo builds over the course of the series. It’s rare to find a good villain in YA lit, but I have to say, hers takes the cake. The story follows the typical fantasy arc in many ways, but does so with heart, high stakes, and a dash of humor: all the things I like best.
“This was his soul made flesh, the truth of him laid bare in the blazing sun, shorn of mystery and shadow. This was the truth behind the handsome face and the miraculous powers, the truth that was the dead and empty space between the stars, a wasteland peopled by frightened monsters.”