2016 Books

1. The Light Between Oceans by ML Stedman

For a hot second I thought about reading books related to the countries I was visiting at the time. That failed immediately when I began this great story about Australia just as I was arriving in South America. Oh well. Set largely on a remote island, this little book tackles big questions about morality, right and wrong, and how to balance serving others while simultaneously looking out for your own interests. It’s an adventure and a moral conundrum all in one.

2. The Red Tent by Anita Diamant

This came as a recommendation from one of the coolest high schoolers I know – Anna. And wow. What a fascinating read. A fictional story based on the life of Dinah, daughter of Jacob and Leah, The Red Tent explores the lives of women during Bible times. And what made reading this even more interesting was that I was simultaneously re-reading Genesis, getting the biblical narrative alongside Diamant’s (very well researched and often quite accurate) fiction. Such a cool way to reimagine the lives of Bible heroes like Abram, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph – and more importantly, the women that raised them, married them and cared for them.

3. Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert

Oh my goodness, this. Tonight I sat down to dinner with this book beside me. Two and a half hours later, I finally got up from the table, having completed the book from start to finish. And because I’m currently in the midst of my own creative processing and dreaming and scheming and planning, this was exactly what I needed to read. I even highlighted. On a Kindle. Now that is saying something. For anyone in need of a little push toward creativity and curiosity and courage, take a couple hours to read this gem.

4. Breaking Busy by Alli Worthington

I get a lot of my book recommendations from Instagram because when you follow authors you love, they tend to post books from authors they love, which in turn become authors you love. You see how that works? So anyway, through an Instagram tunnel, I found my way to Breaking Busy by Alli Worthington – an entrepreneur, mom of five, etc. etc. Someone who knows about busy and stress and anxiety and all those good things that have always been a part of my life. But you know what I realized most when reading this book? These things don’t apply to me. And that was a CRAZY thing, you guys. My whole life, I’ve identified as the stressed, harried, busy type. But I’m not that person anymore. And honestly, I haven’t been that person for a long time. I realized at age 17 that my stress and busy was going to be the end of me. I made BIG changes. And now I live a full life, to be sure, but not a busy one. It’s not frazzled. It doesn’t break me. It builds me up. And realizing that this book is not for me was the best gift ever.

5. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Every now and then you read a book that is decidedly good for you. A book that makes you uncomfortable and question assumptions and squirm a little bit. And a book that is amazingly well written and compelling. That was this book. Valerie recommended it to me (because she’s awesome) and I’m recommending it to you. The story of a Nigerian living in America and then moving back to Africa, Americanah offers interesting insight into race in America couched in a love story/life story/career story. Good stuff.

6. The Admissions by Meg Mitchell Moore

Ok, I admit it. I love books that I would classify as “beach reads”. Not the most profound things ever, but fun and quick and entertaining. This is all of those things – but also a little bit depressing because it’s about the crazy stress high schoolers face when they are in the upper echelon of talent and success. It’s a world I know from personal experience – and a world that gave me the most stressful and anxious time of my life. So yeah, hits a little close to home (and makes me worry about all my overachiever students), but still – a book you can read on one flight? That’s a good thing sometimes.

7. The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

Any book is made better when you read it neck deep in a swimming pool in paradise. So when you start with an already-amazing read like The Nightingale, you end up with a pretty unbeatable book experience. This came recommended to me by several people, including one of my favorite fellow readers, Julia. And wow. I’m a fan of lots of WWII reads, but this one was so beautiful and inspiring and surprising. And at a time when lots of Americans are comparing our own politicians to Hitler (and sidenote, we should probably stop doing that, I think), reading a story of the horrors of occupied France struck a little too real. There’s a reason this book is getting a lot of buzz – and I’m just going to add to it. Put it on your must-read list.

8. The Color of Grace by Bethany Haley Williams

This is perhaps one of the best books I’ve read in a long time. When I was neck deep in a pool in Langkawi flipping Kindle pages all day, Haley suggested that I read this gem. It is inspiring and heart breaking and amazing and immeasurably sad. Bethany’s story working with child soldiers and young victims of war in some of the hardest parts of the world is a sobering reminder that the world is tragically broken. But her work with Exile International proves that things can get better. Slowly. Painfully. But they do get better. I had unknowingly purchased a ring from Exile last year – I cared about fighting slavery and trafficking – but I didn’t know the organization well. Now, I love that ring even more. This work is good. This work is hard. This book is good. This book is hard. Read it.

9. Notorious RBG by Irin Carmon

I have a new favorite political figure (which is saying something seeing as I’ve never had a favorite political anything) and that woman is Ruth Bader Ginsberg. What a rockstar. Granted, the book is a collection of praise for her so maybe I’m being too easily swayed, but I love her feisty attitude, die-hard determination, and her decades-long fight for women (and men). I love that she’s moderate. Truly, honestly moderate – standing for her values as opposed to her party. And I love even more her insistence that feminism means that women and men both should be thriving. That it’s good for everyone. Because it totally is! This book is so fun and so smart and so awesome. Almost as fun and smart and awesome as RBG herself.

10. Through Painted Deserts by Donald Miller

I have real trouble with the question “what is your favorite book?” The books that I have long-cited on this list are old favorites. Books that I haven’t read in over a decade. Books that I chose as my “favorites” when I was a student, a kid. And in most cases, I haven’t returned to them, despite them being my top reads. So you can imagine my nervousness when I found one of my “favorites” on my parents’ bookshelf in Hong Kong. I picked it up, anxious that it wouldn’t live up to the status I had given it in my mind. I have never been so happy to be disappointed. This book was even more relevant to me now than it had been 10 years ago. It is an underline-all-the-words, love-every-page kind of book and I’m thankful to announce that it remains as one of my favorites.

11. The Life and Death of Sophie Stark by Anna North

I discovered this book on some often-shared internet list of current must-reads recommended by famous actors and celebrities. So obviously a really reputable source. I’m happy to say that it ended up being fun and bizarre and entertaining – all the things I’m looking for in a great airplane book. Told through the voices of a number of narrators, all sharing perspectives on one central character (Sophie), the story takes it shape around how various people interact with one wacky individual. Not surprisingly, there is a twist (which I won’t give away) which drives the ending. And as an added bonus, the writing itself is super solid.

12. The Spiritual Danger of Doing Good by Peter Greer

My friend Lindsey recommended this book to me awhile ago and I put it on the back burner. Partially because of time, but more because I was afraid. I didn’t want to read a book that challenged the way I thought about my faith in light of my action/job/vocation or vice versa. I like working in the field that I do (development), and I’ve spent a lot of the last year talking about how faith and action go together. I didn’t want to rock that boat. But now that I’ve read it, I’m so glad that I did. Peter Greer leads HOPE International, another microfinance organization doing great work around the world. He gets my mindset. He reminds all of us action-oriented people that the most important priority is our relationship with Jesus, and that all of those awesome helping-people works flow out of that relationship. Yes and yes. I need reminding every day.

13. A Reunion of Ghosts by Judith Claire Mitchell

Staying on the bizarre and entertaining train, I picked up this read based on some other list of recommendations. My sister claims I only read depressing things, and I’m beginning to see the truth in that. Books that are morbidly funny and slightly off tend to be some of my favorites. So the premise that this book is a co-written suicide letter from three sisters sparked my interest (yes, weird, I know). It ended up providing a fascinating history about the World Wars, chemistry, physics and current-day NYC. And it’s not nearly as depressing as the concept sounds. It was actually pretty funny!

14. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

Ok, seriously. Weird and entertaining. It’s my genre. This gem was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2014 and centers around (very odd) family drama. With lots of twists and turns and surprises (which I’m not going to give away), it ends up making you think a lot about the development of our personalities. I loved the story (despite it being, again, bizarre) and was seriously impressed by the words themselves. When a good narrative is written in such a way that the language itself is notable, I know I’ve found a winner.

15. #Girlboss by Sophia Amoruso

Predictably, this book celebrates being an awesome girl leader. I’m totally down with that. Sophia founded Nasty Gal – an online vintage store that has grown from a hobby to a huge enterprise. As someone who is thinking in entrepreneurial veins these days, I appreciated Sophia’s enthusiasm and no-nonsense attitude. Definitely not the most profound thing I’ve ever read, but encouraging for sure!

16. One Plus One by JoJo Moyes

Oh my goodness, I love some good chick lit. This story of Jess’s unlikely road trip with her weirdo nerdy kids and rich tech genius Ed was so fun to read! Sometimes you just need to read a good story with some fun characters and not too much weight. These are especially great for airplanes and beaches and the travel life – which is essentially my every day these days.

17. Tattoos on the Heart by Gregory Boyle

Oh. My. Word. Everyone put this book on your must-read list. Father Boyle, a priest in the gang ridden neighborhoods of Los Angeles, shares the incredible stories of the kids he meets in his work. He founded Homeboy Industries, employing people coming out of detention facilities, often giving them their first productive opportunity ever. But unlike traditional books about social endeavors that attempt to make you feel good, this one tells the truth. It is hard to read, but so so so important. Read it.

18. Euphoria by Lily King

I love a good adventure story – a good fiction novel that is full of twists and turns. This one reminded me of Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder, perhaps because of the similar scenario of anthropologists in the jungle. Set among the river tribes in New Guinea, Euphoria tells the complicated story of westerners researching – and getting involved – in the lives of remote tribes of people. Part adventure, part love story – Euphoria was a fun read and perfect for a week on the beach!

19. Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed

I knew Cheryl and her story from reading Wild. What I didn’t know, was that for years, she moonlighted as advice columnist “Sugar” on The Rumpus. This collection of Dear Sugar letters covers a huge variety of (very deep, very personal) topics. I LOVE Cheryl’s writing style, and more than that, I love her attitude. The advice she offers is honest and challenging and in-your-face. It’s the stuff you need to hear even if you don’t want to hear it. Couldn’t put this one down.

20. When Crickets Cry by Charles Martin

You know when you’re watching a Hallmark movie and you realize halfway through that it’s totally a Jesus flick? That was this book. I was getting into the story of a heart surgeon with some deep secrets, when all of a sudden there were a lot more Bible verses and morality than a typical fiction book. Surprise! Luckily, it didn’t go the route of total cheese – it actually managed to hold up a great fiction story among the deeper message. And for that, I’m giving it a big thumbs up. Plus, I really loved the story!

21. The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

As you all know, I am a reader. My best friend, on the other hand, is not. He is many wonderful, creative things, but he and books have had a rocky past at best. So when he recommended a book to me, I knew I should take it seriously. Except the book he recommended had a cover that did NOT speak to me (and if we know one thing, it’s that I most definitely judge books by their covers). It took me years to finally say, ok, regardless of its style, I am going to read this thing. Which is how I found myself emerged in The Name of the Wind. And let me tell you something, friends. I LOVED it. It is so different from my normal style of books (much more fantasy than I typically like), but it was SO FUN! It reminded me a lot of Harry Potter in that magical, other-world-y-ness. (And just so you aren’t surprised the way I was, it’s the first book in a series. And you will definitely want to get your hands on book two when you are done).

22. After You by Jojo Moyes

The sequel to the highly-debated Me Before You, After You follows the story of a woman coping with a major loss. It’s fun, funny, and light – a great summer read and much less depressing than its predecessor. It was the perfect book to read while I was home for a week (and extra bonus, I got it from the library – my favorite place!!). If you want to feel better about the story that Me Before You left, check out this one…it will make you happier, I promise.

23. Cold Tangerines by Shauna Niequist

Something happened in the middle of my trip. And that something was that I stopped at home. Oh my sweet sweet home. There is something just so sure and right about being there, and so it was no surprise that while home, I picked up some (paper) books that also feel sure and right. This is one of those for me. I’ve read it several times – a short collection of stories and moments that mirror both my own writing and my own experiences so closely. More than one person has told me that I write like Shauna, and I take it as a dear and treasured compliment. My choice of picking this gem up again was motivated largely by a chapter on the small group of high schoolers she led as a young adult. And I as I prepared to send my own Small but Mighties off to college, I needed her words to remind me that is still the beginning of us, not the end.

24. Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld 

Confession: I am a big-time female reader who has never gotten into Jane Austen. Boo, I know. But I can’t help it. I’ve tried. But when I saw Eligible, a modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice, making the rounds among some of my favorite readers on Instagram, I was intrigued. And lucky me, it was on the new arrivals shelf at the RF Library during the one week while I was home. I figured it was going to be as good a pool read as any, and I was right. Fun. Light. Funny. Easier to digest than typical Austen, but with the same twisty story lines. Perfect for summer.

25. Harry Potter and Cursed Child, Parts 1 and 2 by JK Rowling, Jack Thorne and John Tiffany

If you’ve followed my reading journey at all pre-blog, you know that I have a complicated past with Harry Potter. The abridged version is something like this: Book 1 came out in 1999. I was 11. I was a reader, even then, so clearly someone brought me the book. I read it and was unimpressed. I didn’t love it. And Harry Potter wasn’t yet a must-read phenomenon. It was simply a briefly-popular kids book heavy on fantasy which wasn’t, and still isn’t, my main reading jam. So I skipped the rest. But over the next decade, Harry Potter shifted from a book to a whole thing. A whole thing that I had missed. At age 25, I was so tired of people saying, “HOW have you not read Harry Potter!? You read so much!” True. So I succumbed to peer pressure and read the entire series during the back-end of 2013. And I’ll admit that finally, during book 4, I got into them and enjoyed the series as a whole. So when Ian brought his newly-purchased, just-released-that-day copy of the HP play on our trip to Mexico, I waited for him to read it during the first few days, then picked it up myself for the last few. And here’s my analysis: it’s fine. It’s fun. It’s not the same as the series, but it doesn’t suck. If you love Harry Potter, it doesn’t matter what I say because I know you’re going to read it anyway.

26. Modern Lovers by Emma Straub

Guys. Big discovery. I finally figured out how to hook up my library card to my Kindle (yes, I know, I’m slow, whatever). This has opened up a whole new world, limited only by the 5-at-a-time (I’m hoping it’s at a time, right?!) limitations of the app. This was another beachy read that I saw making the rounds on Instagram, so with my newfound library freedom, I checked it out. I’m glad I didn’t buy it – it’s definitely library-book-worthy not purchase-worthy. But it’s fun and light and great for a long flight (which is when I read it, hello Africa!). I kept waiting for a big twist, but there wasn’t one. Just a number of cute love stories, complicated in the normal ways you would expect.

27. Present Over Perfect by Shauna Niequist

I have a little bit of an obsession with a certain set of Christian women bloggers/writers who write primarily for moms. I follow them on Instagram and pretend they are my friends and mentors. Whatever. One of them is Shauna Niequist, so when she launched her new book last week, clearly I purchased it. I love the message of this book, and it’s one that I’ve learned for myself so often this year: being busy for busys sake does way more harm than good. Quiet and stillness and just being matter and provide beautiful connection points with God. The book got repetitive at times, but the message was beautiful. One that I need to hear over and over and over due to my always-do-more tendencies.

28. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel 

As a precursor to discussing this book, I feel like I need to say that I tend to get really into YA dystopian future reads (think Hunger Games, Divergent, etc). I know I’m not alone in this, which is why I’m happy to report that we have another winner in that genre on our hands. (But upon further research, I now realize it is not actually YA. Hmm. Well, the parallels still hold.) I sped through it, getting lost in the story (and ignoring the inaccurate geography) of a band of actors and musicians making their way through the ruined midwest. While it’s mainly just a fun adventure story, it does make you think a bit about what would happen if all the things we depend upon suddenly stopped functioning. Things like cars, planes, the internet, phones. Then what? Could we survive? Would we learn to rebuild?

29. Landline by Rainbow Rowell

I’ve had this book on my to-read list for a long time – probably years – and yet somehow I must have never read a description or summary, because when all of a sudden it went from realistic chick-lit to magical, I was confused. Fantasy is not usually my forte, but I went with it and I’m glad I did, because it eventually steers right back to the love story you want and expect. It’s fun and light and silly – a great airplane book and a quick read.

30. Furiously Happy by Jenny Lawson

Something that a lot of people probably don’t know about me is that I have an anxiety disorder that manifests itself in a lot of crazy ways. Panic attacks. Eye blisters. White coat syndrome. Dermatillomania. You know, awesome things. So when I picked up Jenny Lawson’s HILARIOUS book about anxiety and depression (yes, I swear it’s laugh out loud funny, even though the subject matter is a total downer) it was like, “Oh hey! My people!” Her issues are different than mine, but I love how she doesn’t try to hide from them and even has turned them into a way to laugh (when she can). I read a good chunk of this on an airplane and was cracking up. I’m sure my seat-mates thought I was really cool. Anyway, loved this. Made me think more about myself and made me laugh a lot. Win win.

31. A Million Miles in a Thousand Years by Donald Miller

This year has been one of returning to some of my all-time favorite books. I think it partially has to do with seeking something familiar when everything else around me is new and changing and crazy. So that is how I found myself re-reading this gem of a book – one of my favorites and one that I so needed to revisit. Everyone, this book is gold. We are all living a story and it is up to us to decide how that story goes. As Miller writes, “Once you live a good story, you get a taste for a kind of meaning in life, and you can’t go back to being normal; you can’t go back to meaningless scenes stitched together by the forgettable thread of wasted time.” PREACH. It made me even more appreciative to be living the crazy story I am right now.

32. Love Does by Bob Goff

Ok, hi. This is my favorite book ever. And I realize that is a bold statement, but it is one that I think I will read every year for the rest of my life. One that I have bought in bulk to hand out to people. It’s is so good and so important and so resonant of the thoughts that swarm around in my head. I have about one million quotes I could write to show you just how beautiful it is, but really just go read it. But really, just listen to this: “Add your whole life, your loves, your passions, and your interests together with what God said He wants us to be about, and that’s your answer. If you want to know the answer to the bigger question – what’s God’s plan for the whole world? – buckle up: It’s us.” Also, this (which is pretty representative of my whole year): “The strategy we discussed was simple: we’d go make friends and see what happened. Not the typical version of friendship that is often called networking. Instead, we’d be real friends.” Ok, enough quoting. Just read it. Please.

33. The Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss

I already was (randomly) into the Kingkiller Chronicles after JP recommended it to me and I read the first installment earlier this year. And then I discovered that Lin Manuel Miranda is obsessed with the series too. YOU GUYS. This is BIG. My pop-culture hero loves a series of books I love. CRAZY. And I loved the second book as much as the first – adventures and imagination and so much fun. Check it out for a great read.

34. Subversive Jesus by Craig Warren Greenfield 

Sometimes you read a book that gets you thinking allll the thoughts. It messes with your head and makes you reconsider the work you do. It’s scary. Craig and his family have lived in the slums of Cambodia and inner city Vancouver, serving people by actually living with them. I think the message that resonated with me most was the tendency toward a sacrificial, permanent lifestyle as opposed to anything programatic. As someone who has built her life in the programs but believes in the friendship, it rattles me. I don’t know what the answer is, but I do know that this book is worth reading – for anyone who works in poverty alleviation, but also for anyone in general.

35. Love Warrior by Glennon Doyle Melton

Here we are on the mommy blogger train yet again! Whatever. I don’t even care. Glennon fascinates me. This book is deep and HONEST. Wow honest. All I kept thinking was, “What must her kids think when they read this?” But I will say that honesty makes for a remarkably personal and amazing book. Her journey through infidelity and marriage and addiction and struggle isn’t my story at all, but it is an important look at some of life’s biggest challenges. Plus, we all know I love a good memoir. I imagine this would be truly revolutionary if I were a married person, but even as a single one, I loved it and couldn’t stop reading.

36. Here’s to Us by Elin Hilderbrand

It’s snowing outside and I’m reading a beach book about summer on Nantucket. Seems about right. I was reading this at the bagel shop the other day and a family friend walked by and asked what I was reading. “A beach read,” I replied – then looked outside at the big, chunky flakes falling from the sky. Whatever. Because here’s the deal – I LOVE ELIN HILDERBRAND BOOKS. They are light and easy and fun. They are my guilty pleasure reads, except I don’t feel very guilty about it. I could read these gems all the time, but I try really hard to space them out between more challenging stuff. They are like dessert!

37. Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler 

At first, I couldn’t decide how I felt about this book. Set in Manhattan with a young, 20-something, floundering protagonist, it was similar to so many coming-of-age stories. She does dumb stuff, she pays for it. You know, the usual. But then I started really getting into the voice of the story. The words themselves. And I began to really enjoy it. Couple that with the really fascinating behind-the-scenes look at the high-end restaurant industry, and I officially was into this big-time by the end. You don’t exactly root for Tess, but you don’t hate her either. You don’t want her to fall on her face, but sometimes you want to hit her upside the head and set her straight. Probably like most of us at some point in our lives!

38. Hidden Christmas by Tim Keller

I can’t think of a better book to read around Christmas time than one that reflects the true meaning of the season so well. I have loved studying the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew 1, as well as the typical Christmas story told in Luke. It helped inspire my pondering during advent this year – a season that I so often ignore, but I have found to be so important this year. It’s such a season of expectation, and this book helped me get in the spirit and mentality of readiness.