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.
Mary is the Associate Director at Hope Center Indy.. She is the author of She Won't Shrink Back: A Story of Building & Believing.