The Year in Books – RR Staff Reflections

Are you the kind of person who asks, “What have you been reading lately?”  Betsy, Megan, Janie, and Hayley took some time to reflect about some of the outstanding books of the year so soon to be over, and here are our thoughts.  We thought you might be interested, too–and, not incidentally, pick up some good recommendations for your own reading life.

Books That Made Us Cry

Betsy: The first book that really made me cry was Little Women. I cried every single time when I got to a certain part (no spoilers!). Old Yeller was another. But this year, I found myself tearing up at the death of a real person at the end of his biography. I knew that ending was coming. After all, this person lived a couple hundred years ago! William Wilberforce’s life and example in the pages of Amazing Grace by Eric Metaxas moved me mightily this year, and I’m still mulling it over.   (ed.–Watch for a post about this next month!)

Megan: I definitely choked up reading A Long Walk to Water. It was so heartbreaking and yet so hopeful, especially since dear friends of ours left for Africa not only for the sake of digging wells, but also to offer Living Water to thirsty souls.   I also really liked Adrian Simcox Does NOT Have a Horse. Beautifully convincing picture book about loving your neighbor and compassionately seeing through his eyes.  

Janie: I can’t remember the first book that made me cry, even though a select few books in my childhood thrilled my soul.  I’ll give a crying award to Watership Down, which I read in my early thirties.  Everything about it seemed perfect–the voice, the pacing, the character development (no mean feat, when all the characters are rabbits!) and especially the end.  This year, I teared up reading The Book of Boy.  The story has some off-putting elements, namely its reliance on medieval Catholic mythology.  But the tone seemed exactly right, and the main character so winsome and vulnerable I choked up at the big reveal. 

Hayley: I don’t usually cry for books I read to myself (reading aloud is different!), but Nowhere Boy caught me off guard —one moment I was fine, and the next, I was in tears.  Sweep made me cry too, but that was in the afterword.  One Christmas read-aloud favorite that always makes me tear up is The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey. I feel I’d be remiss not to mention one of my favorite books that brings tears, The Railway Children, and the first book I forgave for a sad ending that left me almost in tears, A Tale of Two Cities.  (Not to mention the two times our whole family ended up in tears, after reading the first two books in the Little Britches series!)    

Books That Surprised Us

Betsy: I knew I’d like Sweep by Jonathan Auxier (because I like all his books!), but I was surprised by how much it moved me and stuck with me. Auxier has such a gift for atmosphere and sheer story power.  

Janie: I’m a fan of John Hendrix as an illustrator, so I was very intrigued when I heard about The Faithful Spy, his graphic representation of the life of Deitrich Bonhoeffer.  It’s not standard graphic nonfiction, nor standard biography, but more of a free-flowing narrative enhanced by illustration and word art. What surprised me was Hendrix’s writing gift: over and over, I was gripped by his way with words.  Added to the hand-lettering, use of symbolism and direct quotations, and striking design, I found The Faithful Spy amazing. A bit less amazing, but still surprising, was a dog story called Sled School. The story checks all the boxes for interesting setting, relatable conflict, and great dog characters.  

Hayley: I was enchanted by the cover of The Language of Spells (it has a dragon!) but the story took me by surprise in the best possible way.  It didn’t come together the way I thought it would, but I loved the characters and the way the story spun out.  Speaking of surprising, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed Heartstone by Elle Katherine White.  A friend described it as “Pride and Prejudice with dragons” and, well, I like dragons enough to overcome my prejudice at how the story could possibly work.  Well, it did! 

Books We Reread

Betsy: I’ve thoroughly enjoyed rereading all the books I chose for our Love-Your-Neighbor Book Club. That’s been a good test, actually, for my choices–if they hold up on a re-read. This year, those books include A Long Walk to Water, Tangerine, The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street, Save Me a Seat, El Deafo, Inside Out and Back Again, and Ugly. I enjoyed them immensely, picking up new things in each of them that I’d missed the first time around! I also got to re-live certain favorites with my children as read alouds this year; hands down, Tom Sawyer, Anne of Green Gables, The Penderwicks, The Golden Goblet, and A Wrinkle in Time were our collective favorites. Of course, we’re also gearing up for our annual The Best Christmas Pageant Ever experience. Clearly, we enjoy listening to funny stories and laughing together! 

Megan: After reading Dangerous Journey several years in a row, I decided it was time to introduce the original Pilgrim’s Progress. Having the framework of the story in mind has really helped the boys follow the story, and exposure to the deeper conversations has provided wonderful conversations.  

Janie: There’s probably a lot more than one, but the last one I remember rereading is Philip Reeves’ Mortal Engines, first book in his Hungry Cities series (watch for a repost of the review tomorrow).  The movie comes out this month, and I wanted to refresh my memory to see if I would still give it a starred review.  The answer is a qualified “yes.” I found Reeve’s writing style riveting and his characters–even the minor ones–pop off the page (this is even more true as the series goes on).  The world-building is unsurpassed, but I would add my original caution: the story is violent, though not graphic, and a LOT of characters die. 

Hayley: Recently, I’ve been revisiting (via audiobook) the Chrestomanci series by Diana Wynne Jones, and realizing how much I enjoy her writing style and, in particular, her humor!   And when it comes to humor, I’ve loved introducing my family to P.G. Wodehouse’s incomparable Blandings Castle series this past year.  It’s my second/third/and probably fourth time listening to some of them, and they never get old. (Especially now that we can quote our favorite lines to each other!)  Speaking of introducing and listening multiple times, I loved revisiting Eva Ibbotson’s excellent YA historical fiction and Upstairs/Downstairs drama, The Secret Countess (narrated by Davina Porter) especially when my mom listened to it too, and liked it so much that she promptly listened to it again!  

Books That We Immediately Wanted to Talk About With Someone Else

Betsy: In addition to the Wilberforce biography I mentioned above, I also wanted to talk about My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok, Essentialism by Greg McKeown, and The Grand Escape by Neal Bascomb. Each of those was the kind of book I needed to debrief or discuss to help process! 

Megan: Mine is less impressive: The Awakening of Miss Prim. It was a light read overall, but delightful in recognizing the Redemption in fairy tales and challenging me to read greater classics. Also, we listened to The Secret Garden audiobook and I was surprised by the worldview that I had totally missed as a child. Definitely some family discussion there. Plus, Betsy and I plotted the futures of Colin, Mary and Dickon. 🙂  

Hayley: It’s funny because I think we ended up talking with each other about most of these books!  I know I was almost pestering Betsy with “have you finished Nowhere Boy yet??”  That story was so thought-provoking and outside the type of book I usually enjoy —I wanted to hash it out with someone else! 

Janie: Back to The Faithful Spy–I wanted to throw that one at everybody!  It just seemed to succeed on so many levels.   The book for grownups I was eagerly recommending is The Vanishing American Adult by Ben Sasse.  Every parent of school-age children should read it!  One line that struck me: “Schooling is not education.”  On the subject of education, though, I’ve recommended Susan Wise Bauer’s Rethinking School.  She doesn’t diss any parent’s schooling choice, whether public, private, or home, but encourages all parents to take an active role and rethink their goals.  On the fiction front, I’ve recommended Jason Reynolds’ Sunny to many readers.  The first-person voice is a bit peculiar because of the character’s own idiosyncrasies, but it’s a touching picture of a father-son relationship overcoming–or at least persevering in– difficulties.  

Our Most Popular Posts This Year (we’ll look at the stats for this)

What We’re Most Proud Of:

In the fall of 2017, we discussed how we could best serve our readers during the coming year.  Redeemed Reader Companion CoverWhat about a digest of of our best from the previous years.  We’re growing every month, would love for new readers to have access to some of the good stuff they missed.  Though we missed a few deadlines, The Redeemed Reader’s Companion: Provocative Posts, Top Titles, and Lively Lists from Our First Five Years rolled out in October!  Lord willing, that’s just the beginning

We were also very honored to be able to present a series of previously-unpublished (at least, most of them were) posts from the late Gladys Hunt.  Since we see ourselves as carrying on her legacy, it was a thrill to be able to present these wide-ranging and thought-provoking essays to our readers.  If you missed any of them, click The Hive and  check out the list!

Those are our thoughts.  If you read a book this year that stuck with you, or that you wanted to talk about, or that you reread with even more impact, let us know!

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Janie Cheaney

Janie is the VERY senior staff writer for Redeemed Reader, as well as a long-time contributor to WORLD Magazine and an author of nine books for children. The rest of the time she's long-distance smooching on her four grandchildren (not an easy task). She lives with her equally senior husband of almost-fifty years in the Ozarks of Missouri.

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  1. Deb Watley on December 12, 2018 at 7:08 am

    I also found The Book of Boy to be well-done! It hooked me quickly, and I appreciated the imaginative way the author showed what life was like in the 14th Century. Plus, it’s a great conversation starter on the theme of salvation. Amazing Grace is also one of my favorite biographies.

    • Betsy Farquhar on December 12, 2018 at 9:30 am

      Deb, you sound like a kindred spirit!

      • Deb Watley on December 12, 2018 at 10:31 am

        You might like The Roman Quests series by Caroline Lawrence. These are middle grade historical mysteries set in Roman Britain. Lawrence has an earlier series, The Roman Mysteries, that are also set in Ancient Rome. These are heartwarming mysteries, cover very serious topics in age appropriate ways, and showcase Christian themes (even though the characters come from a variety of religious backgrounds–pagan, Jewish, and Christian).

        • Betsy Farquhar on December 12, 2018 at 11:07 am

          Thanks for the suggestions!

        • Julie Zilkie on December 15, 2018 at 6:53 pm

          I put it on hold at the library! Thank you for the recommendation!!

  2. Julie Zilkie on December 15, 2018 at 6:50 pm

    I would love to inquire more about the Blandings Castle series. How old are your children that you read these to? I have been waiting on these for my children to be a bit older, but not really sure what is a good age to introduce them! I have only read one title myself, but would love to know the names of where to begin in this particular series you are recommending! Thank you for all the good titles to add to the never ending “to read” list!!

  3. Julie Zilkie on December 15, 2018 at 6:53 pm

    I would love to inquire more about the Blanding Castle series you mentioned. How old are the children you are reading to? I have not read Wodehouse myself, and I have been waiting to venture in when my children were a bit older. My oldest is 16 down to one, so I am sure I have a few who would appreciate his humor! And what particular titles do you recommend in this series to begin with? I know there are so many, and I feel a bit lost as to where to begin!
    Thank you!!

    • Hayley Morell on December 17, 2018 at 9:28 am

      Hey Julie,
      That’s a great question! Our family range is 27 down to 11. —And the eleven year old just got into P. G. Wodehouse. I think junior high is the magic age though I was late to the game at 18. Our family likes to listen to the audiobooks narrated by Martin Jarvis (and available on Audible) which are lightly abridged. Usually I disapprove of abridgments, but I think these shine because the humor is distilled —and a perfect introduction to Blandings for all ages. While Blandings has a loose chronological order, you don’t need to follow that. I’d recommend starting with Service with a Smile, Uncle Fred in the Springtime, or Galahad at Blandings. One thing to be aware —as you get into the series— is that Wodehouse is a mixture of slapstick and dry British humor intended for adults. A couple of the primary characters were men about town in their day, the disreputable pig man usually has one (or two, or three . . . ) too many at the pub, and the other characters are usually a motley blend of imposters, heiresses, artists, and aristocrats. The bottom line, this is comedy —and for our family, British comedy at its best, but I know it might not be everyone’s cup of tea. That said, I really hope your family is able to enjoy Blandings Castle together.

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