2020 Reading Challenge List and Recommendations

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Well friends, if there is one positive thing we can say about 2020, it’s that it was a good year for reading! This year’s list was longer than expected, largely due to ALL THAT EXTRA FREE TIME… but I’m not complaining! I am always grateful for more time to read! 

If you are new to my blog, I do a reading challenge every year to help direct and track my reading. I started a few years ago as a way to stretch myself, both in the quantity and quality of books I was reading, and the tradition stuck. I use http://www.goodreads.com to save books I want to read, track my progress, and write reviews (well, sometimes… most of my reviews end up here on my blog!). 

There is no right or wrong way to do a reading challenge—just do whatever works best for you! I try to balance fiction and non-fiction, maybe a few biographies, throw in some books written for younger readers and young adults (YA Dystopian/Fantasy is my jam!), and suddenly, I have a list! If we are travelling (you know, that thing we used to do back before COVID), I might choose books with our destination as the setting. I have read books by local authors, books set in my home state, books with one word titles… there are tons of ways to keep it interesting! And the majority of my recommendations come from many of you, so thanks for sharing!

Enough about that, though. Here is my 2020 Reading Challenge List, along with some brief reviews and recommendations. I definitely recommend all the ** books. If you just want my top picks for 2020, scroll down to the bottom!

Non-fiction (Spiritual/Devotional)

  • **The Armor of God for Teens (Priscilla Shirer)
  • **Be Still My Soul (Elisabeth Elliot)
  • **Celebration of Discipline (Richard Foster)
  • Choosing a Life that Matters (Dennis Rainey)
  • The Gospel According to Satan: Eight lies about God that Sound Like the Truth (Jared C. Wilson)
  • **Guy’s Guide to God, Girls, and the Phone in Your Pocket: 101 Real World Tips for Teenage Guys (Jonathan McKee)
  • **Intimate Moments with the Savior (Ken Gire)
  • A Lamp Unto My Feet (Elisabeth Elliot)
  • **Living Prayer (Robert Benson)
  • Love Does (Bob Goff)
  • **Made to Move Mountains: How God Uses Our Dreams and Disasters to Accomplish the Impossible (Kristen Welsch)
  • **Mansions of the Heart: Exploring the Seven Stages of Spiritual Growth (Thomas Ashbrook)
  • **Mirror for the Soul: A Christian Guide to the Enneagram (Alice Fryling)
  • Monks and Mystics, Volume 2: Chronicles of the Medieval Church (Mindy & Brandon Withrow)
  • **The Next Right Thing (Emily P. Freeman)
  • **None Like Him (Jen Wilkin)
  • **One Woman Can Change the World (Ronne Rock)
  • Present Over Perfect (Shauni Feldham?)
  • **Secure in the everlasting Arms (Elisabeth Elliot)
  • **Something Needs to Change (David Platt)
  • **The Road Back to You (Ian Morgan Krohn)

Non-fiction (Business/Writing)

  • **Creativity, Inc. (Ed Catmull)
  • Debt-Free Degree (Anthony O’neal)
  • **The Entitlement Cure (John Townsend)
  • On Writing (Stephen King)
  • **On Writing Well (William Zinsser)
  • **Start With Your People (Brian J. Dixon)
  • **Storyworthy: Engage, Teach, Persuade, and Change Your Life through the Power of Storytelling (Matthew Dicks)

Non-fiction (parenting)

  • **Experiencing God at Home (Tom and Richard Blackaby)
  • **Parenting: 14 Gospel Principles that can Radically Change Your Family (Paul David Tripp)
  • 10 Gifts of Wisdom: What Every Child Should Know Before They Leave Home (Sally Clarkson)

Fiction

  • **The Cowboy’s Twin Surprise (Stephanie Dees)
  • Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine (Gail Honeyman)
  • Memories of Glass (Melanie Dobson)
  • **Persuasion (Jane Austen)
  • **The Poisonwood Bible (Barbara Kingsolver)
  • **The Tattooist of Aushwitz (Heather Morris)
  • The Wedding Dress (Rachel Hauck)
  • When All is Said (Anne Griffin)
  • **Where the Crawdads Sing (Delia Owens)

YA Fiction/Fantasy

  • **The Cage Series (3 books, Megan Shepherd)
  • **Four Dead Queens (Astrid Scholte)
  • **Divergent Series (4 books- Veronica Roth)
  • **The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes (Suzanne Collins)
  • False Memory Series (3 books, Dan Krokos)
  • The Raft (S. A. Bodeen)
  • **A Sky Beyond the Storm (An Ember in the Ashes Series) (Sabaa Tahir)
  • **Keeper of the Lost Cities: Unlocked (Book 8.5) (Shannon Messenger)

Middle Grade Fiction/Fantasy

  • **The Mysterious Benedict Society (Trenton Lee Stewart)
  • **The Prince Warrior Series (3 books, Priscilla Shirer)
  • **The Winter War (Prince Warrior Series Sequel, Priscilla Shirer)
  • **Dream Traveler’s Quest series (4 books, Ted & Kara Dekker)

(Auto/)Biographies

  • **I am Malala (Malala Yousafzai)
  • **Becoming Elisabeth Elliot (Ellen Vaughn)
(Most of my top picks… just missing the Armor of God Study for Teens)

My Top 10 Picks of 2020:

(In no particular order… )

Something Needs to Change (David Platt)

If you need a reminder of what our calling is as followers of Jesus, read this book. The quality of writing is not exceptional; it is written more as journal entries detailing the events of David’s trip to ________________.  The content, however, is riveting, convicting, and inspiring. It is good to be reminded that there is still great suffering and persecution in the world, far beyond what we experience or can even imagine in the United States. Perhaps we are here for such a time as this!

Living Prayer (Robert Benson)

If your spiritual life feels a little dry and your devotional time has become more habit than heartfelt, this book might be just what you need. Robert has a folksy writing style that I find endearing, and his words have a way of opening my soul to Jesus. This book left me wanting more— more of his writing, but more importantly, more of Jesus.

Mansions of the Heart (Thomas Ashbrook)

Not everyone is interested in the process of spiritual formation, but if you are, this is an extremely interesting read. It is a modern take on classic writings from Saint Teresa of Avilla and Saint John of the Cross, and does a great job of describing the non-linear process of spiritual growth in different areas. I was especially intrigued by the later stages, as most churches and Christian circles never teach past the first few stages, and so many Christians are then left feeling like, “Is this all there is?” It does drift into some mysticism towards the end, but since God is so much greater than we can comprehend, it makes sense that deeper formation will be less concrete and more of the spirit. That said, if any element of mysticism bothers you, you will not like this book. And if you are a new Christian, this book will likely be more overwhelming than helpful for you. But if you have walked with Jesus for a long time, are consistent in spiritual disciplines, and wonder if you’re missing it, this might give you a glimpse of a roadmap for what lies before you.

Parenting: 14 Gospel Principles that Can Radically Change Your Family (Paul David Tripp)

Most of us appreciate parenting books that are practical in nature. We read them because we are struggling in certain areas of our parenting and we need someone to tell us what to do! This book is more philosophical than practical, but it actually may be my new favorite parenting book. Each of Tripp’s principles are Biblical in nature, and they will directly affect your parenting. More likely, though, God will use them to reveal areas in you that require growth. And when you surrender these areas to Him, He will transform your thinking and change the way you parent. I have found almost all of these principles to be true in my own life, and to impact the way I have parented our children, whether they were itty-bitty or about to fly the coop. I will be re-reading it in 2021, and recommend you do the same!

Guy’s Guide to God, Girls, and the Phone in Your Pocket (Jonathan McKee)

This book is set up in one-to-two page chapters, making it perfect for teen guys to use as a daily devotional. Each chapter includes questions to think about which help the guys apply what they are reading to their daily life. It would be easy for a leader to pull some of these questions out and use this as a guide for a small group or accountability group. The topics are super relevant, and McKee’s approach is both Biblical and authentic. He comes off like a big brother or older friend, giving guidance on subjects such as technology use, friendship, dating, prayer, and making wise choices. I recommend this easily for high school boys and with discretion for younger middle-school boys. (There are a few chapters on girls/sex-related themes that younger teens may or may not be ready for.) Otherwise, keep this in mind for the teen boys in your life!

The Armor of God Study for Teens (Priscilla Shirer)

I cannot say enough about this study! So often I find curriculum written for teens to be cheesy, un-relatable, or unhelpful. This study, however, is well-written, extremely relevant, and will get teens in the Word while teaching them about spiritual warfare and the armor of God. 

Where the Crawdads Sing (Delia Owens)

I loved this book! This is the story of Kya, a young girl who is abandoned by her mother and older siblings and eventually by her abusive, alcoholic father, left to fend for herself in the North Carolina marsh. It is a coming of age tale, a beautiful story of abandonment, love, trust, betrayal, and friendship. Oh yeah, and then there’s a murder mystery, just for kicks! Seriously, the world building, character development, and storyline of this book are all top-notch, and the writing itself drew me in from the beginning. This was easily my favorite fiction book of the year.

Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins

In this prequel to the original book, Collins takes us back to when President Snow is a teenager, living in the Capitol, struggling to survive after losing both parents in the war. He is chosen to be a mentor in the 10th annual Hunger Games and is assigned—you guessed it—the girl from District 12. Y’all, I loved this book! I don’t want to give any spoilers, so I’ll stop there, but Collins does a great job of weaving in so many elements from the original series, which made it an extremely fun read. The climax at the end felt just a little bit rushed (kind of like the end of Mockingjay, IMO), but overall, I definitely recommend it to Hunger Games fans!

(*Honorable Mention goes to A Sky Beyond the Storm because I love the entire Ember in the Ashes series, and to The Cowboy’s Twin Surprise because it is such a sweet story written by my friend, Stephanie Dees!)

The Prince Warrior Series by Priscilla Shirer

This series was not on my reading list for this year. However, our youngest son was given the first book for his birthday, and he enjoyed it so much, I ordered the next two for his Easter gift. They fall in the Christian fiction/fantasy genre for middle readers, and are great for upper elementary through middle school. The story follows a group of middle school boys and girls (and one younger brother) on their journey through a portal into the unseen world of Ahoratos. There they claim their titles as Prince/Princess Warriors and earn various pieces of armor while listening to their Guide and fighting the enemy. These books are full of action and adventure, and will be loved by both boys and girls alike. Priscilla Shirer also has a children’s Bible Study, “Unseen: The Armor of God for Kids,” and a 365 day Unseen devotional, which make great companions to this series.

Becoming Elisabeth Elliot by Ellen Vaughn

You can probably tell from my reading list that I am an Elisabeth Elliot fan. Someone gave me Passion and Puritywhen I graduated from college, and her words have been speaking into my life and shaping my faith ever since. I am always shocked when I realize how many people have never read her books or even heard her story. This biography, written by Ellen Vaughn, covers the growing up years, which shaped her faith and personality, through the end of her missionary journey in the jungles of Ecuador. There will be a second volume detailing her later years of life and ministry. 

What I love most about this book is how the author captures Elisabeth as a young adult, totally committed to Jesus but without the spiritual maturity she’s known for from the majority of her writings. It is easy to project the faith of her older years onto the twenty-something widow, but most of the wisdom she shares in her books was gained through her years of suffering. It never occurred to me that someone who lived such a surrendered, inspiring life could feel like she had failed in her mission because she did not accomplish what she thought she was sent for. So what if she and her young daughter were instrumental in sharing the gospel with the tribe of Indians who murdered her husband? She had gone to Ecuador with the intent of translating the Bible for unwritten languages, and was thwarted in all her attempts to do so. In addition, we catch a glimpse of not just her unwavering trust in God’s faithfulness, but the depth of her grief in losing Jim so early in their marriage (and after such a long-awaited union!). While her faith and devotion is clearly inspiring, she became more human to me through this book. 

If I could only recommend one book for the year, it would be this one. There is much for us to glean from her life, faith, and example. This generation needs an everyday hero like Elisabeth Elliot!

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Well, that’s it! Whew! For more info on any of the books on my list, search the title or “book stacks” in the blog search bar for my reviews.

What were your top reads in 2020? I’m always looking for new books, so feel free to add suggestions in the comments.

Thanks for reading!

My 2019 Reading Challenge List, Reviews, and Recommendations

As the New Year begins, I find myself tying up loose ends from 2019. I shared in a recent post how I use an Annual Reading Challenge to keep me reading and broaden my choice of books (you can read about that HERE).  Over the past few days, I have spent several hours wrapping up my 2019 reading list and preparing my list for the coming year. 

I just typed and then deleted a whole bunch of stuff because, truth be told, if you are reading this, you probably just want to know which books I read and whether or not I like them. So, I will get to right to it!

Here are my 2019 Reading List, Reviews (or random thoughts), and Recommendations.

Disclaimer: This was not a stellar year of quality book choices for me. There were a few that I loved, a few that I liked, and the rest were fine but not earth-shattering. I had a lot of really good books left on my list at year’s end that I am looking forward to reading this year!

2019 Reading List:

Non-fiction:

  • Finish: Give Yourself the Gift of Done (John Acuff)
  • Meeting Rich: A Litergy. A Legacy. A Man with a Guitar in my Living Room (Caleb J. Cruse)
  • Same Kind of Different As Me (Ron Hall)
  • The BIGS: The Secrets Nobody Tells Students and Young Professionals about How to Find a Great Job, Do a Great Job, Be a Leader, Start a Business, Stay out of Trouble, and Live a Happy Life (Ben Carpenter)
  • Hearts of Fire: Eight Women in the Underground Church and Their Stories of Costly Faith (Voice of the Martyrs)
  • Compassion Without Compromise: How the Gospel Frees Us to Love our Gay Friends Without Losing the Truth (Adam Barr)
  • Ana’s Story: A Journey of Hope (Jenna Bush)
  • *The Screwtape Letters (C.S. Lewis)
  • Dancing on the Head of a Pen: The Practice of a Writing Life (Robert Benson)
  • The Art of Work (Jeff Goins)
  • Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (Anne Lamott)

Non-Fiction (Parenting):

  • Say Goodbye to Whining, Complaining, and Bad Attitudes in You and Your Kids (Scott Turansky)
  • One Million Arrows: Raising Your Children to Change the World (Julie Ferwerda)
  • Your Boy: Raising a Godly Son in an Ungodly World (Vicki Courtney)

Fiction:

  • A Man Called Ove (Fredrik Backman)
  • The Snow Child (Eowyn Ivey)
  • Austenland (Shannon Hale)
  • In the Heart of the Canyon (Elisabeth Hyde)
  • Becoming Mrs. Lewis (Patti Callahan)
  • Necessary Lies (Diane Chamberlain)
  • Winter Garden (Kristin Hannah)
  • The Women in the Castle (Jessica Shattuck)
  • The Housemaid’s Daughter (Barbara Mutch)

YA Fiction:

  • *Hunger Games series: Hunger Games, Catching Fire, Mockingjay (Suzanne Collins)
  • Speak (Laurie Halse Anderson)
  • Uglies Series- Uglies, Pretties, Specials, Extras (Scott Westerfield)
  • Code Name Verity (Elizabeth Wein)
  • Impossible (Nancy Werlin)
  • The Truth About Forever (Sarah Dressen)
  • Lorien Legacies (I am Number Four) series: I Am Number Four, Power of Six, The Rise of Nine, The Fall of Five, The Revenge of Seven, The Fate of Ten, United as One (Pittacus Lore)
  • The Program series: The Program, The Treatment, The Remedy (Suzanne Young)
  • *Flashback (Keeper of the Lost Cities #7)- Shannon Messenger
  • Legacy (KOTLC #8)- Shannon Messenger

REVIEWS & RECOMMENDATIONS

Didn’t Love:

Of all these books, the only one I didn’t actually finish was The BIGS (and the rest of its really, really long title). tried, I really did! If you are all about making it big in business, no matter what, then this book might be for you. I can usually pull something out of a book that is helpful or applicable, but I had a hard time finding anything relevant in this one.  Also, the author’s voice came off a bit arrogant to me, for whatever reason. So if your reading tastes or life passions are at all similar to mine, skip this one.

Overall Favorite Non-Fiction Books:

The Art of Work by Jeff Goins was the second to last book I read in 2019, and if I had to pick a favorite, this would be it. It is an easy read, fairly short, and super inspiring.  It is a terrific book for college-age students who are searching for their life’s calling and profession, as well as for all those who find themselves longing to do some sort of significant work with their life. Finish is another book in a similar category, which is worth reading if you are good at starting things (like me) but not so good at finishing them (also like me).

Same Kind of Different as Me is a true story, written in novel form, and I loved it. It is the story of two men from very different walks of life who are brought together by God and eventually grow to become family. The perspectives shared and the lessons learned by both men are pertinent to all of us and very inspiring.

Compassion Without Compromise was another favorite. It is co-written by two pastors; one who experiences same-sex attraction and another who has spent many years counseling others who do. It is an honest, insightful, approach to an issue many Christians struggle knowing how to respond to. To me, the authors do a wonderful job of speaking both grace and truth. They give a lot of insight into the true spiritual questions underneath what most people focus on (which applies not just to homosexuality but every other sin!). If you are looking for answers on how to address specific situations, you will not find them here. While they do answer some FAQ’s, most of their answers direct people to pray for God’s guidance in their specific situation and relationship, which I find extremely wise. This is a great book for Christians who love ALL people, but wrestle with how to respond in grace without compromising the truth and authority of Scripture.

Non-Fiction (Parenting):

I liked all of them! The first one (Say Goodbye to Whining, etc…) is one of my all-time favorite parenting books. I have read it multiple times and it never gets old! The last one, Your Boy, has fantastic content, but the edition I have is a bit outdated as so much has changed in recent years, with smart phones and social media. Even so, it is worth reading if you have a pre-teen or teenage son!

Fiction:

If you enjoy historical fiction, there are several books here you should add to your list. Becoming Mrs. Lewis is a delightful, engaging back story of C.S. Lewis’ future wife and their developing friendship turned romance. Necessary Lies is set in the 1960’s on a small town in rural North Carolina. It is an insightful story of compassion, unlikely friendship, and horrors of eugenics.  Winter Garden and The Women in the Castle both stood out in this category as well. My favorite, though, was The Handmaid’s Daughter. Set during a civil war in Africa that was completely unfamiliar to me, this tale of class structure, hidden secrets, friendship, and survival was difficult for me to put down. 

The Snow Child is a sweet retelling of classic Russian fairytale. It was a perfect book to read sitting by the fire on a snowy day, with a mug of hot chocolate! 

And then there is A Man Called Ove. I’ll be honest- this one took a little while to grow on me. The main character’s grumpy, negative attitude was difficult for me at first. But after a few chapters, the old curmudgeon began to grow on me, and I was so glad I didn’t put it down. 

YA Fiction/Fantasy:

I read a lot in this genre during the summer, and usually pull out a few old favorites to re-read, which is how Hunger Games made the list. I won’t highlight it here, but obviously I like it.  I especially enjoy reading series, as it keeps me in the created world a bit longer. I Am Number Four (Lorien Legacies) was surprisingly my favorite YA series this year. It has some sci-fi elements, which I don’t usually love, but which totally worked in this book. The characters were well developed and the story drew me in- I think I read all 7 books in a week and a half! It is a great series for teen boys, which can sometimes be hard to find. 

The Program series was a unique twist on dystopian, centered around Big Money/the government trying to “fix” the depression and suicide epidemic among teenagers. The middle book in the trilogy was weak, but the other two were fun to read. The Uglies series was also enjoyable. Honestly, I think I shied away from it for years because of the name, so I am glad I finally read it. It is typical teen dystopian and somewhat predictable, but that never stops me from being sucked in, and this series was no exception! 

Keeper of the Lost Cities has been a favorite series in our home since the first book came up several years ago. We always pre-order the next release, and then my oldest daughter and I fight over who gets to read it first (she won this year). Legacy was as enjoyable as the others. Several of the scenes were a little too long and wordy, but I’ve gotten used to getting more info than is really necessary in these books- I just chalk it up to good character development! If you follow this series at all, you won’t want to miss this book, as we finally get some answers to a few long-awaited questions.

As stand alone books, both Speak and Code Name Verity were definitely worth reading. They are completely opposite in topic, and I would recommend both books for older teens, due to mature content (Speak addresses date rape) and quite a bit of language. Both authors use a unique writing style, and handle their topics extremely well. Some of my more conservative friends might want to avoid these two. 

TOP FIVE PICKS OF 2019:

So, if I had to pick my top 5 from this year, they would be:

  • The Art of Work
  • Same Kind of Different as Me
  • The Handmaid’s Daughter
  • Becoming Mrs. Lewis
  • Compassion Without Compromise

And there you have it! I already have some fantastic books on my 2020 Reading Challenge list, many that I didn’t get around to reading this past year. I will post that list soon for those who are interested. But if you have some suggestions, I would love to hear them!