This year I read 8 nonfiction and 12 fiction books. I think I’m finding that I just really enjoy escaping through novels, and it’s a good stress reliever for me. Sometimes my brain can’t stop thinking about things at work or other issues I’m facing, so it’s good for me to give my brain a break and get lost in a story.
I’ve heard some people say that they don’t read fiction often because they want to learn something when they read. I’ve thought about that for awhile, and 100% I want to learn things too when I read. But I believe that we can learn just as much—if not, sometimes more—from good fiction books as we can from good nonfiction books. (The key word here is good. To me, one way of determining whether a book is good is if it teaches you something.) Over the past year, from fiction, I’ve learned some history of Australia, Poland, East London, and Galapagos Islands. I’ve learned some cultural perspectives of NYC Chinatown and small marsh town in North Carolina. I learned a little about midwifery in the 1950s, Chinese immigration experience, nonverbal autism tools, survival skills on a mountain, etc. Most of all, each fictional book I’ve read caused me to pause and think critically about the character development and problem solving in each story. I think (hope) this adds to my emotional intelligence. Below are the books I read in 2021, in no particular order.
2. The Things We Cannot Say by Kelly Rimmer
Wow, this novel was really meaningful. I love how the author braided the modern-day storyline of a woman researching her grandmother’s history in Poland with her grandmother’s story of being a teenager when the Nazis invaded Poland. I think the title is brilliant. The main character has a son who has autism and is nonverbal and can’t say the things his family wishes he could communicate. Then her grandmother has had a stroke and can no longer speak, but she can use a device to try to communicate with pictures. The main character has to travel to Poland to figure out what her grandmother wants her to discover from her history.
3. Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok
This novel is not a memoir, but it is based heavily on the author’s firsthand experience of coming to New York City as an immigrant from China. This novel is about a young girl and her widowed mother trying to make a life after her father died. It has been several months since I read it, but I can still feel the cold from her description of living in an apartment in the winter that didn’t have heat. The young girl is exceptionally smart in school and continues to earn scholarships even while having to help her mother work in the factory. The story follows her from late elementary school through high school, and then we even get to see a glimpse of her graduating from medical school. She has four main relationships in the book that we see her get to grow and learn in: with her mother, with her coldhearted aunt, with her richer best friend that she hides her poverty from, and with the boy that she has a crush on for more than a decade. I would definitely recommend this if you like learning about Chinatown in New York.
4. Call the Midwife by Jennifer Worth
I first watched some episodes of the BBC show Call the Midwife on Netflix. I didn’t realize that the show was based on a book, and then I didn’t realize that the book was actually a true story of a woman’s life! While the BBC show can be fun, it is nothing compared to how good this memoir is. I honestly loved the memoir even more than I thought I would. As I listened to the audiobook, I was almost inspired to change careers and become a nurse because of how important she showed it to be. Her memoir is based on her early twenties of going to work as a midwife right after WWII in an impoverished area in London. I love the way she learns from her patients as well as from the other midwives she works with. Even though she herself was not a nun, she actually lived in a convent and worked for nuns. It was beautiful to me that these nuns were midwives for the people in this town who could not afford to go to a doctor or a hospital. It is an example of Christians stepping up to serve their community in a way that meets a critical need. I will give a warning that in a few chapters, she discusses the sexual trauma that some of her patients have experienced. Because of a few particular stories, this would not be appropriate for younger people to read or people who don’t want to be triggered by that.
5. Redeeming Love by Francine Rivers
I read Redeeming Love when I was in high school, but I recently heard the author Francine Rivers in a podcast interview sharing how there is going to be a movie released based on the book. So I decided to listen to the audio book to refresh my memory. Since I now work with survivors of sex trafficking, this fictional story now hit me a different way than it did 15 years ago. The story is set in the mid-1800’s in California and starts with a young girl who is abandoned by her father, and she and her mother are alone with no support system. Her mother dies, and the young girl is then taken into the home of a trafficker who sexually abuses her himself and also traffics her to other men. She gets away from that home, but as young adult, ends up in a brothel. A Christian man senses that God is telling him to reach out to this woman to marry him. The story is based on the biblical storyline from Hosea. It’s a long book, but I decided that’s good because healing is a long journey. It is a love story, but includes so much sacrifice, forgiveness, and the courage to heal and accept love.
6. Chasing Vines by Beth Moore
I started listening/watching bible studies by Beth Moore at least 15 years ago, and coming back to her southern voice every once in awhile makes me happy. I enjoyed this book based on her study on John 15 and her trip to Italy!
7. Sermon on the Mount by Jen Wilkin
I think this is a great bible study to do on your own or with a group of friends. If you are looking for a Bible study that is simple but will go deep and will focus on the Bible passage as opposed to other people’s life experiences, I would highly recommend this one. I love bible studies that also share about the author’s experiences, but sometimes it’s great to have one that doesn’t include that and just facilitates your interaction with and study of the text. This would be a great one to start with because it’s about 3 chapters of Jesus’s teaching. You can also buy or rent videos of Jen Wilkin teaching on each chapter. I think this helps you to tease out questions to answers you may have in the study.
8. A Life Intercepted by Charles Martin
This was the first of four Charles Martin books that I read this year, so you can tell that I have an affection toward this author. I have heard speak in a few podcast interviews, and I just love listening to him. In my opinion, all of his novels that I have read take you on a roller coaster of personal growth and discovering what sacrificial love means. This story was about a man who was drafted to be an NFL quarterback but then got arrested (the whole time you’re trying to figure out if he was falsely accused) and spent 12 years in prison. The story starts when he gets out of prison to rebuild his life and win back his wife. As with all of his novels, when I finish reading them, I feel very deeply that I learned along with the main characters and am inspired in some way.
9. The Mountain Between Us by Charles Martin
This novel was made into a movie, but I do not recommend it because they changed so many important details. The book is a thousand times better. When their flight is canceled due to a storm, two strangers hire a pilot to fly them to another airport so they can get home faster. Their pilot has a heart attack and crashes the plane in the mountains. These two strangers have to work together to try to survive and get off the mountain. There is a surprise at the end of the book that I did not anticipate at all, and I’m sure I started crying, but it was also amazing ending. This book definitely left me feeling inspired.
10. How to Be a Great Boss by Gino Wickman and Rene Boer
This book gave me great tools for my role at my job. I’m so glad I read it, and I will refer back to often! Simple and very helpful.
11. The Water Keeper by Charles Martin
The author actually was inspired to write this book because he encountered a man who was trafficking a young girl at a hotel. This experienced shook him in such a way that he wanted to do research and bring attention to this issue. I listened to this book mostly on my round trip flights to and from Baltimore this summer. I was actually in Baltimore for an intensive training on providing residential care for survivors of sex trafficking. So it was interesting timing to read this novel about a man who hunts down traffickers to try to rescue women. Because I read it probably 6 months ago, I can’t remember all details to remember what I thought was realistic or not. This novel’s storyline is dependent on several miracle-like events (like a woman searching for her daughter who has been trafficked runs into a man who has experience of tracking down traffickers), but isn’t every great novel or movie? I had no prior knowledge of the trafficking that happens by boat (yachts) along Florida’s shores, so this caused me to look into this. More than anything, this book follows the journey of the main character wrestling with the evil of sex trafficking, the constant stress of hunting down traffickers, grieving personal losses (particularly the complex, tragic history with his first wife), and trying to see if he will hope for his future. This book is the first in a trilogy. I recommend it as I would all of Charles Martin’s novels. It’s long and builds slowly at first, but it is very meaningful and inspiring.
12. That Sounds Fun by Annie F. Downs
I often listen to the "That Sounds Fun Podcast” by Annie F. Downs, and I appreciate her joyful approach to life. This nonfiction book by Annie Downs is a great reminder of prioritizing life-giving hobbies and pursuing joyful moments in the midst of our hardships and disappointments in life.
13. What If It’s True? By Charles Martin
This nonfiction book by Charles Martin was extremely heartfelt, deep, and practical look at the gospels. This book helps readers to understand Jesus better and to bring parts of your life to Jesus for surrender.
14. Shipped by Angie Hockman
This book was fun, but it was just okay to me. I have never been on a cruise before, so I enjoyed experiencing this vicariously through the characters as they were on a cruise ship to Galapagos Islands for at least half the novel. I loved learning more about the Galapagos Islands!
15. Buckets: How Business Legends Keep Their Hustlers by Kevin D. Monaghan
I loved how small and simple this book was. But it had great points of how to develop key employees and keep them invested in your organization. It made me ask lots of questions to wise people who have experience in this area!
16. Orphan Train: A Novel by Christina Baker Kline
I listened to this audio book in about 4 days. I enjoy the way Christina Baker researches elements of history that I haven’t heard of before—in this case, it was the train in the 1920s that brought orphans from NYC to places like Kansas and Minnesota to find homes for them. This book’s two main characters are a teenage girl in foster care in present-day Maine and a 91-year-old woman who had been on the orphan train as a child. The two characters meet to work on cleaning out the elderly lady’s attic, and then they share their stories with each other. For anyone who has a heart for children who have been abandoned, this will grip you and make you want to keep reading. It could be a little bit helpful for foster parents to read. As a foster parent myself, I found some big holes in the plot to be unrealistic (like how everyone was so mad at the foster child for stealing a book from the library and threaten to send her to juvenile detention for it…in all my conversations with foster parents, I have never heard anyone get so uptight by such a small offense. Most would be happy the kid wants to read a book! And from my observations, no judge is going to send a teenager to juvenile detention for stealing a library book). So those unrealistic aspects of the story made me roll my eyes, but I still liked the book. The tension between the foster child and her foster mom was also pretty basic, so I would have liked to see the author go deeper than that. But if someone who is considering fostering gets offended by the things that the foster mom in the book gets offended by (the foster child not wanting to eat meat and then throwing the foster care stipend in the parents’ face), then that is something that could help them start conversations on that.
17. This Time Next Year by Sophie Cousens
Aww, this book was a sweet and fun, PG-13 rom com set in London. The two main characters share a birthday (January 1). They meet accidentally on their birthday, and then we see them get to know each other off and on until their next birthday. I appreciated how the novel showed the personal growth and patience of the main characters over a 365-day period.
18. Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
For the last year or so, I had heard this novel mentioned by so many readers. As of March 15, 2021, this novel holds the record for the most weeks at #1 on the New York Times Best Seller list for hardcover fiction. The audiobook was available on my Libby app, so I decided to finally take the time to read (listen to) it. The storyline moved slowly for me for the first quarter of the book, and I think I would have stopped reading it if I hadn’t known of all its awards. But by the middle of the book, I was invested in the main character, Kya, and rooting for her to survive, to be accepted and loved, and to be happy. It’s an interesting mix of tragic child abandonment, murder mystery, and nature discovery of the North Carolina marsh. I give this book 5 stars (not that my opinion matters because it has already won so many awards).
19. Advent 2021: The Everlasting Light by She Reads Truth
This is the first bible study book by She Reads Truth that I’ve read, and I absolutely loved it! It’s all Scripture gathered around the theme of Jesus being the light. And it includes a few fun church history facts and recipes.
20. What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty
I actually read this novel about 7 or 8 years ago, but because I thought it was so good, I decided to listen to the audio book this month. The main character, Alice, has a head injury and loses her memory of the last 10 years. When she wakes up into her life, she is confused why she and her husband are getting a divorce, why she isn’t close with her sister anymore, and the insanely busy, uptight lifestyle she has created as a mom of 3 (she doesn’t even remember her children!). I think this novel can be a powerful tool in helping people consider how they’ve changed over a decade. This would be a great book club book to discuss, particularly for women in their 30s and 40s.
Interestingly enough, I read 20 books in 2020. :) My job called for me to read a handful of business and leadership books, and I enjoyed the insights from them as I try to do the best I can in my position at work. But I also chose to read/listen to more fiction this year as a way to bring some fun into my reading time and my commute to work.
This is my yearly nerdy exercise of sharing my thoughts about books. The books are listed in the order that I read them.
1. Find Your Way: Unleash Your Power and Highest Potential by Carly Fiorina I think Carly Fiorina is worth learning from because she embodies many admirable traits. When I think of her, I think of integrity, strength, courage, realistic yet positive, firm yet kind. From what I know of her, she is a wonderful example of a woman leader. In this book, she shares a few stories of failures she experienced and how she saw them as opportunities to go a new direction. If you have followed her leadership and career at all, then I think you would enjoy this book.
2. Traction: Get a Grip on Your Business by Gino Wickman I believe I’m going to look back in 10 years and say that reading this book and beginning the Entrepreneurial Operating System with our EOS implementer, Dale Cooper, was the best thing we could do for the leadership of the Hope Center (where I work). We have been following the EOS process for about 18 months now, and I’m a firm believer that it can help any organization grow and be more efficient. (Having your executive team meet quarterly with an EOS implementer is key to making it work.)
3. Be the Bridge: Pursuing God’s Heart for Racial Reconciliation by Latasha Morrison I listened to a few podcast interviews with Latasha Morrison, which prompted me to order her book and check out her website. I listened to this on audio, and I’m ready to listen to it again. I love her Biblical view on racial reconciliation and want to keep learning from her and the resources she recommends!
4. In Pursuit of Love: One Woman’s Journey from Trafficked to Triumphant by Rebecca Bender If you have an interest in learning about sex trafficking in America, you need to read this book. This is Rebecca’s story of getting trafficked when her boyfriend convinced her to move to Las Vegas with him. What struck me most about her story was how close she was with the other women that were being trafficked by her pimp. They called themselves sisters, and it was beautiful to me to see how they continued their sisterly relationship after they got out of the situation. It was a privilege to learn from Rebecca of all the different aspects of her life and her experience of being trafficked. This book has a happier ending (Rebecca got married to a great guy and is doing great today—leading her own nonprofit!) than most memoirs about trafficking. She is very discreet in how she describes things, so I highly recommend it for those who are just beginning to read stories about trafficking.
5. The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable by Patrick Lencioni For anyone who is leading a team at work, I highly recommend this book! It’s not a boring business book. It’s written in a fun way to help you learn how to be better at leading a team.
6. Unwilling to Concede: Discovering God’s Redeeming Commitment in a Broken World by Brad Stanley I was able to meet this author at Brandywine Community Church when he and his wife came to speak at a missions banquet. Brad has been a ministry leader for YWAM in Chicago for several years. He wrote this book after his first wife passed away of cancer in 2003. This is the deep work of someone wrestling to find the will to live and serve Jesus after tragedy. I started reading this book in November 2019 (only 5 months after my brother’s death) when I traveled with my sister-in-law Stephanie to Tijuana and San Diego. It took me a few months to get through this because of the depth, but it was a great theological read that comforted me. I underlined a lot of things that helped me in grieving.
7. The Sun Does Shine: How I Found Life and Freedom on Death Row by Anthony Ray Hinton Wow, this book was incredible. This is the memoir of a man who was wrongly accused of murder. He was innocent, but he spent 30 years on death row before attorney Bryan Stevenson appealed his case. (Check out more of his story: https://eji.org/cases/anthony-ray-hinton/). A few of the details of this story that I won’t forget:
9. Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover Lots of people told me to read this book, and as I read the description, it just didn’t grab my attention, so I didn’t read it for awhile. I’m not sure what eventually prompted me to go ahead and read it, but I am so glad that I did. So many times during this book, as I read descriptions of things her extremist Mormon, bipolar father said and did, I think my jaw hung open as I thought, “Are you kidding me?” There is so much on the internet about this book and Tara Westover (all her awards are well deserved!) that I would recommend you check it out yourself. Tara never went to school as a child, but she found a way to get into college, and she went on to earn her PhD from Cambridge University. If you like memoirs, you have to read this book.
10. Rocketfuel: The One Essential Combination That Will Get You More of What You Want from Your Business by Gino Wickman and Mark C. Winters This book shows how a visionary leader and integrator can work together well to lead an organization. Every great organization needs a visionary, and every visionary needs an integrator. :)
11. Call Your Daughter Home by Deb Spera I just love this title. Isn’t it beautiful? This historical novel was not the most gripping of the ones that I read this year, but I did enjoy it and would recommend it if you like fictional stories set after the Civil War in the South. It centered around 3 women from different socioeconomic classes and their relationships with their daughters. I was not expecting the ending, but I decided that I loved it.
12. Kingdom Woman by Tony Evans & Chrystal Hurst If you haven’t read this book, I encourage you to put it on your list to read! Dr. Evans writes, “A kingdom woman may be defined as ‘a woman who positions herself under and operates according to the rule of God over every area of her life.’” I underlined a lot of things in this book and will be referring back to it for years to come! Dr. Evans preaches a message called “The Value of a Kingdom Woman” that is posted to his youtube channel. Even if you don’t want to read the book, check the video out: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Iy70aAmYSaU
13. The Connected Parent: Real-Life Strategies for Building Trust and Attachment by Karyn Purvis, PhD, and Lisa Qualls Lisa Qualls is a treasure. I love her blog and her podcast, and I value the wisdom she shares about being an adoptive mom. And anyone who knows of Dr. Karyn Purvis knows that she is a treasure too. If you have any friends who are adoptive or foster parents, buy this book for them. Then go watch their child or clean their house while they go to a coffee shop to read it.
14. A Woman Is No Man: A Novel by Etaf Rum I give this book 5 stars. I didn’t want to stop reading because of the tension and the mystery of the plot. The ending was incredible because 1) I didn’t see it coming, and 2) I still really liked the ending even though it’s not what I would have originally hoped for. I loved learning the family culture of a Palestinian family who immigrated to Brooklyn. I loved the main characters and at some points just wanted to help them somehow or at least give them a hug.
15. Defying Jihad: The Dramatic True Story of a Woman Who Volunteered to Killed Infidels—and Then Faced Death for Becoming One by Esther Ahmad with Craig Borlese A friend gave me this book for Christmas, and I have to say that it truly was inspirational for my faith. To see the way she craved God’s Word and risked her life to study it spurred me to value it even more. I loved hearing how God worked in her life, answered her prayers, and gave her boldness to follow Christ even when it meant that her own father was trying to kill her for it. I guarantee this book will inspire you.
16. 1 Peter: A Living Hope in Christ by Jen Wilkin This might have been the most important book I bought last year! It’s a bible study on the book of 1 Peter. I liked it so much that I ordered more bible studies by this author. This bible study focused a lot of following the example Christ set while he was being persecuted. This was a very timely word for me, and it help me through many challenges.
17. The Giver of the Stars: A Novel by Jojo Moyes Jojo Moyes—that girl can write. All of her novels suck you in and make you want to keep reading. (Sometimes I choose to stop reading some of her novels because I can tell that they are going to end up being rated R. But this novel is NOT rated R, and it’s a fun read.) This book was actually set in southeastern Kentucky in 1930s. I love that fact because my paternal grandparents would have been growing up in that exact region of Kentucky during that time period! :) It’s about a young woman from England who marries an American man, but when she moves back to live with him, she feels unloved by her inattentive husband and alone in a town of strangers. She has the opportunity to join with a few other women in her town to deliver library books by horseback in the mountains. In the midst of all this, there is an unsolved murder. I ordered it because it was on Holly Furtick’s book club. And I loved it!
18. The Husband’s Secret: A Novel by Liane Moriarty This is the third novel that I have read by Australian author Liane Moriarty, and I will continue to read her other novels because I love the way that she weaves storylines together. (Also, I’ve never read other books that took place in Australia, so I like learning about Australian culture.) This novel follows the lives of 3 women. One of the women is Rachel, a school secretary near retirement who is living with the grief of her daughter’s murder 20 years earlier. Rachel's storyline was probably the most impactful to me because of my experience of grieving for my brother.
19. The Advantage: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else in Business by Patrick Lencioni I listened to this book in my car. Patrick Lencioni is a great leader to listen to. I certainly recommend this book to anyone in a leadership position in their job. Using real stories from his experiences of acting as a consultant with multiple companies, Patrick describes what organizational health should look like and how it matters because it affects everything the company does.
20. Men We Reaped: A Memoir by Jesmyn Ward This book includes a lot of tragedy, and it isn’t normally something that I would want to dive into. I intentionally chose this book to read so that I could learn from the life story of a woman of color. I realized that for the most part, I read a lot of books that are written by authors who look like me and/or come from a similar background as me. So I wanted to try to listen and learn from someone like Jesmyn Ward who grew up poor and black in the South. I also decided on this book because it was set near New Orleans. I visited New Orleans with Gabby and Anna in 2017, and I absolutely loved the history of that city and want to go back sometime. I connect with her story because Jesmyn’s younger brother died, and she is trying to process her grief along with her sisters and parents.
I first want to say that Jesmyn Ward is a brilliant writer who has a beautiful, thoughtful way with words. She is the author of several novels, and I have no doubt that her other books also demonstrate how gifted she is as a writer. In this book—her memoir—she writes about her childhood of growing up in a low-income, black family in Mississippi. Her stories of observing her parents’ hard work, discouragement, divorce, and desires for their children were impactful. I liked how she included sociological facts about that area in Mississippi with her stories. She also writes specifically about 5 young men in her family or close circle of friends who have all died while she was in her twenties. Her brother was killed by a drunk driver, one friend overdosed, her sister’s boyfriend was in a car that was hit by a train, and another friend committed suicide. All of these young men (boys, really…only in their late teens or early twenties) meant so much to their loved ones. Yet this reality of tragedy after tragedy is far too common for those living in impoverished areas with broken families. She wrote about her experiences with each of these young men, about the moments that she heard the news of each of their deaths, about some of their funerals, about how she tried to cope afterwards. One story she told brought me to tears. At one of the funerals, she walked up to the sister of the young man who died. Jesmyn hugged her tightly because she had already lost her own brother. Jesmyn told this girl: “You will always be his sister.” And that still makes me want to cry because it’s what my heart feels too after losing my brother.
Mary is the Associate Director at Hope Center Indy.. She is the author of She Won't Shrink Back: A Story of Building & Believing.