20 Favorite Reads from 2020

In spite of all the craziness of this year, reading never stopped for me and continued to be an escape as well as a part of learning and growing. I had several favorites but wasn’t sure I would list twenty, but why not? These are my favorites from 2020 in no particular order of preference though most were published earlier.

1. The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell (1996).  I started the year reading this first book from Russell and though science fiction is not my usual genre, I did enjoy this one. A listening post in Puerto Rico picks up some music from another planet and a group of scientists and Jesuits set off to find this planet. Only one returns. Why? What happened to the rest of them?

2. Daughter of Fortune by Isabel Allende, translated by Margaret Sayers Peden, (1998). Allende, a Chilean/American, writes historical fiction with a touch of magical realism. In Daughter of Fortune, Eliza Sommers is raised in a British colony in Chile, falls in love with an unsuitable servant, and when the servant leaves for the goldrush of 1849 in California, Eliza manages to secretly follow him. I loved the beautiful writing of this book as well as the descriptions of the historical places and events.

3. The Lost Queen by Signe Pike (2018). Pike read a book which traces the origins of the real Merlin who had a twin sister who became a strong Scottish queen. From that, Pike writes an entertaining and compelling first book of a coming trilogy.

3. The Historian Elizabeth Kostova (2005) This book is long, slow-paced, rich in description, and a bit creepy. A father and his daughter are on a quest to learn more about Vlad the Impaler and what, if anything, he has to do with the legend of Dracula. Again, not my usual genre, (horror) but I enjoyed this one.

4. Fool’s Quest by Robin Hobb (2015)What would my year be like without reading a Robin Hobb book? Hobb is my favorite fantasy writer, and I have spent years following Fitz and his adventures  or  misadventures.

5. Anthony Horowitz The Word is Murder (2018) If you’re looking for a good murder mystery, look no further than Anthony Horowitz. He always delivers and this mystery within a mystery is no exception.

6. The Murmur of Bees by Sofia Segovia; translator Simon Bruni. Historical fiction, magical realism, this tells the story of a family during the Mexican revolution and the influenza of 1918. I loved it!

7. Started Early, Took My Dog Kate Atkinson (2010). This is the fourth of the Jackson Brodie books. I recently reread the first (Case Histories) for a library group meeting next week. I enjoy Atkinson’s rather dark humor and the way she weaves several story lines together.

9. Summer Queen Elizabeth Chadwick (2013).  I’ve been reading Chadwick for years. One of my favorites for historical fiction. This is the first of a trilogy about  Eleanor of Aquitane. She married King Louis of France at the age of 13 in 1137.

10. A Gentleman in Moscow Amor Towles (2019). A count is put under house arrest by the Bolsheviks in Moscow in 1922. Consequently, he spends the rest of his life in a hotel. If this premise doesn’t sound fascinating to you, you’ll just have to trust me (and hundreds of other readers) who found this book full of charming characters, humor, and great descriptions.

11. Big Summer by Jennifer Weiner (2020). “Unforgettable novel about friendship and forgiveness set during a disastrous wedding on picturesque Cape Cod.” Though I did enjoy this (more than I thought I would), unforgettable is a bit of a stretch but maybe that’s just my age. Still, this was a fun read covering some serious issues concerning friendship. 

Audio These are my four top audiobooks. All fiction as I rarely listen to nonfiction.

12. The Mother-in-Law Sally Hepworth (2019). A woman’s complicated relationship with her mother-in-law ends in suicide; or murder? This was so good, going back and forth with the different viewpoints and the ending totally surprised me.

13. The Goldfinch Donna Tartt (2013). This book won the Pulitzer for fiction in 2014. A young boy is with his mother in a museum when a bomb goes off. His mother is killed and he takes a priceless picture away with him. Both of these events haunt him for the rest of his childhood and into adulthood. Parts of this book I loved. The audio was excellent and I became attached to Theo and his friend Boris. Other parts were tiresome (drug use, language, etc.), but overall, a book that kept me entertained for many hours. 

14. The Tidelands Philippa Gregory (2019). In England 1648, Alinor is a woman skilled with herbs and suspected of witchcraft. Her husband is missing and believed to be dead, so Alinor must use her wits and skills to provide for herself and her children. Another long one that kept me enthralled and ready for the next in the series.

15. All We Ever Wanted Emily Giffin (2018)  Set in Nashville and told with three different viewpoints (with different narrators), a girl’s picture is taken at a high school party and spread over the internet. Not only is the girl half clothed, a racial slur has been inserted. One boy is accused but is he guilty? A story of entitlement, family drama, and the dangers of social media. Excellent!

Nonfiction Yes, I do read some nonfiction.

16. Owls of the Eastern Ice Jonathan C. Slaght (2020). Slaght, a field scientist and conservationist, saw his first fish owl in Primorye, Russia. Though they have a wingspan of over six feet and a height of over two feet, they are elusive and little has been known about them. Slaght spent five years with other scientists in the wilds of Russia tracking, capturing, and learning about these fish owls and what they need to survive.

17. Isaiah by the Day Alec Motyer (2014) This is a translation by the Biblical scholar Alec Motyer along with a daily devotional. A friend and I have been studying Isaiah together and this book along with Motyer’s commentary has been a tremendous help and blessing to us. Highly recommended for anyone serious about studying the book of Isaiah.

18. Proverbs Eric Lane (2007). I used this book in a Bible study and though it was listed on my goodreads as the least favorite of my books for 2020 (meaning not many people listed it on goodreads), I found this to be a good study tool with intelligent questions.

19. Pudge: the Biography of Carlton Fisk Doug Wilson (2015). I’ve been a baseball fan since I was a kid, and I found this biography interesting both in telling about the life of Fisk and the history of baseball during the 70’s and 80’s.

20. The Prodigal Prophet and the Mystery of God’s Mercy Timothy Keller (2018). An excellent study on the book of Jonah though I don’t think I’ve read anything by Keller I didn’t enjoy and learn from.

Those are my favorites from 2020. Looking forward to another year of reading. How about you? Any highlights from 2020?

North Carolina Writers

 

One of the reading challenges I have participated in this year is the 2020 #mmdchallenge (The Modern Mrs. Darcy, aka Anne Bogel) which includes twenty-four different challenges. One of these challenges is to read a book by a local author. Bogel, a Kentucky native, posted a list of Kentucky authors a few weeks ago, so I am going to present a list of North Carolina authors. Though not exhaustive (we have quite a few writers to be proud of), here’s a few of my favorites.

The book I intend to read for this challenge is Down the River by John Hart. This will be my first book by Hart though he has written several thrillers set in North Carolina. Born in Durham, Hart is also one of the many lawyers turned writer who are putting out books today. This particular book was a Barry Award nominee and an Edgar Award winner in 2008.

Robert Morgan is a poet and author with many books and awards to his credit. I’ve read Gap Creek twice which won the North Carolina Literature Award as well as the James G. Hanes Poetry Prize. This “story of a marriage” takes place in the mountains at the end of the 19th century. Julie Harmon works hard–“hard as a man” and she needs to in order for the couple to survive. Morgan is a wonderful storyteller, and two other books I can recommend are The Road from Gap Creek and Brave Enemies.

 

Wiley Cash has written several best-sellers and serves as writer-in-residence at UNC-Asheville. I wrote a review of The Last Ballad  https://pmgilmer.com/2018/01/04/wiley-cash-the-last-ballad/  a couple of years ago. The Last Ballad is also a book I’ve read twice–the second time when my library group selected it for that month’s read. The book tells the true story of woman, Ella May Wiggins, who tried to help form unions for the textile industry in 1929. Her courage and determination to help herself, her family, and others like her makes for a gripping read.

A native of Asheville, Sarah Addison Allen writes sweet, romantic family dramas with a bit of magical realism. Her first book, Garden Spells, tells the story of the Waverly women who are guardians of an apple tree that contains strange and magical properties. Drawing on her grandmother’s culinary traditions, Claire has built a successful catering business. When her sister returns home, her young daughter in tow, Claire’s quiet, ordered life is turned around–but in a good way.

I’ve loved the characters and relationships in all of Allen’s books. This quote from First Frost is a good example of their personalities. “Oh, please. Everyone in this town always says that like you have to be born here to understand things. I understand plenty. You’re only as weird as you want to be.”

Charles Frazier is best known for his first novel, Cold Mountain, the story of a Confederate soldier making his way home after the war. That story was based on stories from Frazier’s great-great-great grandfather as well as local stories and legends. It’s been several years since I read this one, but I remember the capitivating narrative told in a beautiful way.

Another book I enjoyed by Frazier was Thirteen Moons. As a “bound” boy, twelve-year old Will Cooper is sent to run an trading post in Cherokee territory. He becomes friends with Bear, a Cherokee chief, and is adopted into his tribe. Frazier writes descriptively of the time period, the scenery, and the growth and adventures of Will.

“What I wanted to do was slap him down a bit with wit and word. Grammar and vocabulary as a weapon. But what kind of world would it be if we all took every opportunity presented to us to assault the weak?”

One more author I will mention–Ron Rash, a poet, short-story writer, and novelist who was born in South Carolina and teaches at Western Carolina University. I’ve read several poems and stories by Rash as well as his novel The Cove though he is better known for his novel, Serena, which was also made into a movie.

The Cove takes place near the town of Mars Hill in the Appalachian mountains of North Carolina during the time of the Great War (or WWI). A young woman, Laurel, lives with her brother, Hank, who has recently returned from fighting in France. Laurel finds a man in the woods nearly dead from yellow jacket stings. Mute, the man carries only a silver flute and a note saying his name is Walter and he is on his way to New York. Walter also carries a secret which may prove a threat to Laurel and Hank as the war in Europe is coming to an end.

As with Frasier and Cash, Rash is able to bring you back in time and to another place and helping you to understand a little part of history.

Any other North Carolina writers you would like to recommend? Or your favorite one from another state?

 

 

Books I’m Reading–August 2020

My book reviews have been sporadic at best. Okay, all my posts have been sporadic. Anyway, I wanted to highlight a few books I’ve read recently in no particular order.

Adorning the Dark by Andrew Peterson, a songwriter and storyteller, is part memoir and part encouragment for all who desire to imitate our Creator with their art for His glory. Peterson uses his personal story of how he persevered to establish himself as a songwriter and more specifically how he came to write the album “Behold the Lamb” to illustrate how we can use our talents and gifts for worship and to encourage the church.

“Since we were made to glorify God, worship happens when someone is doing exactly what he or she was made to do.

 

In Introverts in the Church Adam S. McHugh discusses how introverts can feel out of place in not only our extroverted world, but specifically in the extroverted church. If you’ve ever come late to church to avoid the meet and greet, you know what I’m talking about. Of course, the current pandemic has put a stop to such intrusions but there are other ways introverts can be uncomfortable or never have a chance to speak and share.

Understanding the differences in people–the way they serve and the way they worship–is important for everyone in the church. We should be careful not to think our ways are best and be dismissive of others.

The chapter on “Introverted Evangelism” highlighted several problems I’ve always had with most of the standard ways I’ve been taught on how to evangelize. “My understanding of evangelism shifted dramatically when I began to view my role not as initiating spiritual conversations but rather as responding to the ways that God is already at work in people around me.”

In many evangelical churches, entering the sanctuary is not a time of reflection and awe but more a time of greeting your friends and catching up on the past week’s events. For most introverts, a time of quiet is needed to enter into the heart of worship. “When introverts enter into worship, we are apt to come trembling before a God whose mysterious otherness often reduces us to silent awe. We want to hear God’s voice which comes to us more often in whispers than in triumphant shouts.”

Also recommend Susan Cain’s Quiet:The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking.

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee is a work of historical fiction that takes place in Korea and Japan in the early part of the twentieth century. I first read this a year or so ago, and am rereading on audio for my library book club this month. “Sprawling family dramas” that cover several generations as well as history I’m unfamiliar with make this a book I’m glad to be able to reread. Sunja is a young girl in Korea who falls for a wealthy businessman from Japan. When she refuses to become his mistress, the consequences for herself and her son follow her throughout her life. The history of Korea being occupied by Japan and how difficult it was for the Koreans both before and after the war (WWII) is a part of history I was unfamiliar with and Lee is excellent in painting the atmosphere of the time. Pachinko received several literary awards and was National Book Award Finalist for Fiction in 2017.

 

 

National Poetry Month 2020

Today is the last day of National Poetry Month, and I hope you’ve spent some time reading poetry during this unusually stressful month. I have been dipping into several authors including: Malcolm Guite, Jeanne Murray Walker, Edward Clarke, George Herbert, and Luci Shaw. I have also been reading the book of Isaiah, taking more notice of the poetry in that book and comparing several translations.

From Isaiah 26–The path of the righteous is level; you make level the way of the righteous. In the path of your judgments, O LORD, we wait for you; your name and remembrance are the desire of our soul. My soul yearns for you in the night; my spirit within me earnestly seeks you.

In my reading, I came across a tradition of English poetry known as “the metrical psalms.” Starting during the Renaissance, many English poets began to put certain psalms of the Old Testament in the form of English poetry. These poems usually rhyme and have a way of making the reader see something familiar with a fresh eye. The first one I read was George Herbert’s The Twenty-Third Psalm. Herbert never published in his lifetime, keeping his work “private” because he wrote for God. Fortunately, The Temple (a book which contains most of his more well-known poetry) was published in 1633, the year of his death.

Though our language has changed since 1633, I hope you will enjoy Herbert’s “spin” (as one commentator put it) on psalm 23 and recognize how he, just as David did in the original some thousands of years ago, wrote this as worship and adoration to God.

The Twenty-Third Psalm

The God of Love my shepherd is, And he that doth me feed; While he is mine, and I am his, What can I want or need?

He leads me to the tender grass, Where I both feed and rest; Then to the streams that gently pass; In both I have the best.

Of if I stray, he doth convert And bring my mind in frame; And all this not for my desert, But for his holy name.

Yea, in death’s shady black abode Well may I walk, not fear; For thou art with me, and thy rod To guide, thy staff to bear.

Nay, thou dost make me sit and dine, Even in my enemies’ sight; My head with oil, my cup with wine Runs over day and night.

Surely thy sweet and wondrous love Shall measure all my days; And as it never shall remove, So neither shall my praise.

 

 

Your Story Matters–Leslie Leyland Fields

 

I have often considered writing “my story,” my testimony, something to leave to my children. Several weeks ago, my pastor encouraged us as a congregation to do that very thing. Write down your story. Why? Because it is your testimony of God’s power in your life. No one can argue with your story, discount it, discredit it. It is yours and it is God’s gift to you. Why do we hestitate to share it?

In Your Story Matters, Fields leads you chapter by chapter in how to seek out, put together, and tell your story. Why? “And since the One Who is Running All Things, including galaxies, takes care to notice lost sheep, dying sparrows, and falling hair, we should notice as well. Writing helps us notice what God notices. So write your story because God attends to every moment of your life and you should too.”

Writing your story doesn’t mean writing about your life from birth until the present. It’s not about telling every childhood memory (whether good or bad); it’s not about spilling the beans on your personal or family secrets; and it’s definitely not about a chance for revenge. It should be about a significant moment of your life, a turning point, and–if you’re a Christian–a refining moment between you and God.

“The inner story is not the record of everything that has happened to you; rather, it focuses on a key theme and transformative event in your life.”

You may not believe yourself to be a writer and may have no interest in writing anything else, but this book is for everyone because everyone has a story. At the end of each chapter are writing prompts and assignments with practical steps for discovering and writing your story. I read through the book first, but I now plan to go back and do the assignments and write my own story. I can’t wait to see where God will take me in this adventure.

If you’ve been wanting to share your story, but not sure where to start, I highly recommend reading this book and following the writing exercises.

This book is now available for preorder wherever you buy your books.

*A pdf copy of this book was provided to me for an honest review.

On a previous post, I reviewed Crossing the Waters: Following Jesus Through the Storms, the Fish, the Doubt, and the Seas. https://pmgilmer.com/2017/07/01/crossing-the-waters-by-leslie-leyland-fields/ 

Leap Over A Wall by Eugene H. Peterson–Book Review

Eugene Peterson is best known for his translation of the Bible published in 2002 when Peterson was seventy years old. He spent many years before then as a college professor (teaching Hebrew and Greek), then a small-town pastor but became known all over the world with the publication of “The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language.”

Though long familiar with “The Message,” Leap Over a Wall (1996) was new to me. A picture on instagram of a book labeled “reflections on the life of David” and subtitled: Earthy Spirituality for Everyday Christians quickly caught my interest, and it was well worth my search.

 

Peterson’s mother’s possessed fantastic storytelling abilities, so Peterson grew up being fascinated with the characters of the Bible–not because of their spiritual depth or insights–but because of their stories. “Story is the primary way in which the revelation of God is given to us. The Holy Spirit’s literary genre of choice is story.”

Of all the people in the Bible, David is one with an overwhelming presence and gives us some of the Bible’s greatest stories. Who doesn’t know the story of David and Goliath? David and Bathsheba? God uses his life–in all its sordid details–to teach us about Himself and how we should respond to our Creator. Though we often think of the Bible as being full of doctrine, laws, and theology (and it is), God uses the stories of His people to teach us.

“God reveals himself to us not in a metaphysical formulation or a cosmic fireworks display but in the kind of stories that we use to tell our children who they are and how to grow up as human beings, tell our friends who we are and what it’s like to be human.”

In each chapter, Peterson goes through different areas, specifically relationships, of David’s life and how he responds to God in each one. How did these various relationships in David’s life (Saul, Jonathan, Abigail, Doeg, etc.) help him to see God? To turn to God? To trust in God? Peterson’s own imagination combined with his scholarly knowledge of theology creates a book full of wisdom and insight told in his own “earthy” way. If you’re familar with “The Message,” you won’t be surprised to see a chapter titled “Boneheads–David and the Sons of Zeruiah.”

Peterson explains how in much of David’s story, it’s not how he lives or the decisions he makes that put his story in the Bible. They are there to teach us about God and how He continually works in our lives and in those around us. “God’s salvation, not David’s shoddy morals or clever genius, is the subtext here.”

Though David seems to spend much of his life going from one disaster to another, he ultimately ends up praising and trusting in God as expressed in the title taken from one of David’s more lengthy psalms of praise. “For by you I can run against a troop, and by my God I can leap over a wall.” Psalm 18:29

“The primary concern of the spiritual life isn’t what we do for God, but what God does for us.”

The Confessions of X–Book Review

Winner of Christianity Today’s fiction award in 2017, The Confessions of X by Suzanne M. Wolfe is historical fiction based on the life of an unknown woman loved by Augustine of Hippo, an early church father. Wolfe first heard of this woman when she was only twelve, and when she asked for the woman’s name was told, “No one knows. She is lost to history.” This stayed with Wolfe through the years and with research and beautiful writing, she has brought the unnamed woman to life along with Augustine and their son.

Being of a lower social status than Augustine, he took “X” as his concubine but could not marry her. Lest you think that made her lesser in his eyes, Augustine wrote of her in Confessions: “the woman with whom I had been living was torn from my side as an obstacle to my marriage and this blow crushed my heart to bleeding because I loved her dearly.” As Wolfe explains in her author’s note, “To be labeled a concubine was not a derogatory term in the ancient world and was often inscribed on tombstones as a title to denote the status of the deceased.”

Highly recommended for anyone who enjoys historical fiction with a touch of romance.

How Firm a Foundation

April is National Poetry Month and though I don’t read as much poetry as I would like–between studying the Psalms and some hymns, I have been reading more poetry than usual.

We don’t often think of hymns as poetry, but when we take the time to read  and hear the words, we often find beautiful phrases with some deep theology woven in. Leland Ryken, a literary editor of the ESV Bible and a professor of English at Wheaton College for almost fifty years, writes in 40 Favorite Hymns on the Christian Life: “Much of the beauty that we experience when we sing hymns is the beauty of the music. Experiencing hymns as poems puts the focus on the verbal beauty of the words and phrases. The great hymns of Christian tradition are an untapped source of devotional poetry, just waiting to be made available for the pleasure and edification of Christians.”

In my familarity with hymns, I have too often sung through the words, not appreciating their depth of feeling and theology. I would like to challenge you to read through some of your favorite hymns and consider the words and what the writer may have been going through or trying to convey.

For today, I want to look at the hymn, “How Firm a Foundation.” The opening stanza contains words of comfort and assurance. A reminder that since God has given us His Word to live our lives by, how could we have a more firm foundation?

“How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord, Is laid for your faith in his excellent Word! What more can he say than to you he hath said, To you who for refuge to Jesus have fled?”

What more can He say? Nothing–though, of course, we need to read His Word to know what He has said. The next four stanzas are written as if God were speaking, reminding us of the promises from His Word.

In the second stanza: “Fear not, I am with thee, O be not dismayed. . . . I’ll strengthen thee, help thee, and cause thee to stand.” (Isaiah 41:10)

Third stanza: “When through the deep waters I call thee to go,” I will be with thee. (Isaiah 43:2)

Fourth stanza: “When through fiery trials they pathway shall lie”–His grace is sufficient. (2 Co 12:9; 1 Peter 4:12-13)

Fifth stanza: “The soul that on Jesus hath leaned for repose”–He will never forsake. No, Never! (Deuteronomy 31:6)

Though written in 1787, the words are no less true or relevant for our lives. Enjoy and worship this hymn written with the ancient truths of God’s Word.

 

Favorite Reads of ’18

One of my first reads of 2018, The Snow Child is a lovely retelling of a Russian fairy tale taking place in Alaska.

The Beautiful Mystery is Louise Penny’s eighth Inspector Gamache mystery. The whole book takes place at a secluded monastery in the wilderness of Quebec.

 

 

Rabbit Cake has a ten-year old protagonist whose mother drowned while sleepwalking. Sounds depressing, I know, but this is a delightful book. Favorite quote:

“That was what her rabbit cakes were about, celebrating every small good thing in your life. I know most families don’t celebrate every new moon or every solstice and equinox, but maybe they should. You never know when someone you love will shoot themselves in the middle of their own birthday party, or be found dead in another state, caught in a river dam, so everyone might as well have their cake right now.”

Beartown: About hockey, love, hope, tragedy, friendship, and loyalty in a small town where everyone knows everybody and everyone is affected by another’s hurt. “Everyone has a thousand wishes before a tragedy, but just one afterward.

 

 

 

The Queen of Hearts: Two women who became best friends in medical school are now practicing medicine and raising their families in Charlotte, NC. A doctor from their past comes to Charlotte and secrets better left buried come to surface.

Magpie Murders: A mystery within a mystery by a writer who not only writes spy novels and mysteries but also television dramas such as “Foyle’s War” and “Midsomer Murders.”

Dissolution: First of the Matthew Shardlake historical mysteries. Henry VIII has ordered the dissolution of monasteries. Informers abound and a murder soon takes place. Well-written historical fiction as well as a mystery. Looking forward to continuing this series.

Assassin’s Quest: Third in what was originally called The Farseer Trilogy. Has since grown to several more books but start with the first: Assassin’s Apprentice. Nobody builds fantasy worlds and develops characters better than Hobb.

Sorcerer to the Crown: First in a new fantasy series. Takes place in Victorian England. Zacharias Wythe, a freed slave and the new Sorcerer Royal, must find out why England’s magic is drying up. Bonus: there’s a dragon. Second book coming out in March.

A good year for reading! Looking forward to many more in 2019. How about you? What were your favorites in ’18? Which books are you excited about in 2019?

Happy New Year!

 

Before I Saw You by Amy K. Sorrells: A book review

Drug abuse, opioid epidemic, ash trees dying, abuse in relationships, wildlife rescue, prison, unplanned pregnancy, and adoption. These are the themes covered in Sorrells’s latest book. If you’re one of those who believes Christian fiction shies away from tough topics or sugarcoats their endings, reading fiction by Amy Sorrells should change your mind.

What makes this “Christian fiction”? The grace of God is woven throughout–expressed in relationships, in dealing with forgiveness and trust, and learning to see God’s hand even in the toughest times.

When I first began this book, I had to put it down a couple of times because of the hard life of the teen-age Jaycee and the impossible situation she found herself in. I would rather those bad and hard times come upon a character more gradually, but sometimes life isn’t like that.  Sorrells writes of such a life with appealing characters who are given a glimmer of hope in their darkest hours. Highly recommend.

This was not my first book by Sorrells. I reviewed Then Sings My Soul last year: https://pmgilmer.com/2017/06/

Disclosure: I received the kindle edition of this book from goodreads but am under no obligation to leave a review. Thoughts and comments are all my own.