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!

*******************

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 April Book Stack

I really thought I would have a huge book stack to show you for April with all this time on my hands, but as often happens, much of that time has been filled in other ways. On top of that, our library has been closed due to COVID restrictions, which means my reading options have been limited to what I have on hand…

So, friends, here is what I’ve been reading this month and some thoughts about each book!

Creativity, Inc. by Ed Catmull, was recommended to me awhile back by my friend, Will, who thought I would love it. He was right! Ed Catmull is the co-founder and retired President of Pixar animation (creators of Toy Story, Incredibles, Up, and more), and his book is filled with tremendous wisdom. While I found myself getting lost in the tech talk at times, the struggle was worth it. This book is especially beneficial to those in the creative arts field, but should be read by CEO’s and moms alike- anyone who manages or is part of a team. His insights on creating an environment conducive to creativity and open discussion, expecting (and even celebrating) failure, and watching for weak areas are just a few of the many takeaways in this book. I highly recommend it!

The Prince Warrior Series by Priscilla Shirer 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. I have been reading them ahead of him so we can talk about them, and they are great books! 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. 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.

Four Dead Queens by Astrid Scholte. I just happened to pick this YA fantasy book up from the Library right before it closed, and it was an enjoyable read. The murder mystery plot and intriguing characters drew me in quickly, and the unexpected twist at the end, while a little underdeveloped, was still interesting. The world-building was reminiscent of Divergent, which was kind of fun. As with most YA novels these days, there was a semi-prominent LGBTQ theme, just FYI. Overall, it was a good book, but not one I would necessarily recommend or read again.

Be Still My Soul by Elisabeth Elliot. For those of you who don’t know, Elisabeth Elliot is my all time favorite author. She has mentored and discipled me through her writing since my college days, and her books strongly influence my faith and my writing. This was not my first time reading Be Still My Soul, but it was still just as impactful. This book is about suffering well (she defines suffering simply as “having what you don’t want or wanting what you don’t have”), about accepting our circumstances as within the will of the Father, and allowing them to shape us more and more into His likeness. If you are pursuing a life lived in full surrender to Jesus, this book (and any of Elisabeth Elliot’s books, really) need to be on your nightstand.

Well, that’s what I’ve been reading this month. I’m going to have to order some books if the library doesn’t open back up soon, so let me know if you have any suggestions! What’s on your nightstand?

My March Book Stack

Well friends, one of the good things about being at home indefinitely is that it frees up my evenings for reading!

I entered the month of March with several of my February books unfinished, so I wasn’t sure how this month was going to go. Fortunately, I have had plenty of time to catch up! I was even able to sneak in a quick trip to the library before everything shut down, so I grabbed a few YA fiction books (my guilty pleasure!) to get me through this month. I just found out our local used bookstore is offering call-in purchases with curb-side service, so I plan to utilize that in April!

I lightened up my list a little this month with some fun books, and I even read one authored by a longtime friend of mine! So exciting! Here are some quick reviews for those of you looking for books to add to your reading list.

Made to Move Mountains: How God Uses Our Dreams and Disasters to Accomplish the Impossible by Kristen Welch. I so enjoyed reading this book! Kristen Welch has a gift for communicating her heart in a very authentic manner, and Made to Move Mountains is no exception. I love that she doesn’t try to wrap her stories up in shiny packaging and pretty bows, because how often in life is that really the case? No, one mountain often leads to another, and we rarely have time to recover before we are forced to start climbing again.

And yet, we don’t climb alone. Kristen continually points our eyes to Jesus and His faithfulness, reminding us of His invitation to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Him. Kristen’s books always challenge me to live beyond complacency, and this one is no exception! Reading it on the heals of David Platt’s book, Something Needs to Change, made it even more impactful!

The Cage Series (which includes The Cage, The Hunt, and The Gauntlet) by Megan Shepherd is a trilogy in the YA Fiction/Fantasty/SciFi genre. The first book drew me in quickly with likable, well-developed characters and great world-building, and the plot carried well throughout all three books. I found myself especially drawn in by the action in the third book! Overall, the characters and writing were engaging enough to keep me reading, which is exactly what I look for in this genre!

The Cowboy’s Twin Surprise is a romance novel written by my dear friend and amazing author, Stephanie Dees. I do not typically read romance novels, but I have wanted to read Stephanie’s work for a long time and finally got around to ordering one of her books. It did not disappoint! This was a sweet, well-written story with many layers beyond just romance. Reading it felt like watching a Hallmark movie! Stephanie did a great job tackling some tough, real-life issues with compassion and hope. If you like romance novels, you definitely need some Stephanie Dees books in your life!

And finally, Living Prayer by Robert Benson. This is another book that has been on my list for awhile, and I am so glad I finally ordered it! It is, in essence, Benson’s journey into the world of liturgical prayer and what he has learned about faith and God Himself through the rhythm of the Ancient prayers. I’ll be honest… I wasn’t sure I was going to like this book. But it is rare that I am unable to find something redeeming in a book, especially when I like the author, so I kept reading.

Y’all. There is so much good stuff in it, I don’t even know where to begin! My prayer journal is filled with quotes and passages that have been speaking to me as I read, and I have been reminded of experiences along my own journey which have paved the way to my understanding of prayer. I have one chapter left- I have been reading a chapter a day during my God Time- and I am actually sad to finish it; it’s that good. Benson kind of has a folksy flair to his writing (and life), so if that style irritates you, then maybe you should skip it. Otherwise, I highly recommend it!

And that’s what I’ve been reading this month! What’s in your book stack? Any books you recommend? Feel free to share in the comments!

My January Book Stack

Well friends, I am off to a slow start on writing this year. Thanks for being patient with me! Now that my 30-day writing challenge is over, it has been more difficult for me to stay motivated and disciplined, especially with Jeff traveling so much and the craziness that comes with four kids. But I have been reading a lot, so maybe I can start there!

I still need to add a few more books to my 2020 Reading Challenge list; I will post it once I have it organized. For now, I will share my current book stack with you.

I am kicking off the year with these six books solely because they are the ones I have access to right now. I already own four of them, and I was on the waiting list at the library for the two writing books while I was doing my writing challenge. I don’t usually read more than one book at a time, so this stack is a little deceiving. I do, however, like to have a devotional (or Christian non-fiction) book that I read during my prayer time, as well as another book to read in my free time.

The Armor of God for Teens book is actually a Bible study that I am doing with my Senior small group girls. It is fantastic- one of the best studies I have ever done with teen girls- so I am excited about finishing it!

None Like Him focuses on different attributes of God, and it was my first devotional book this year. The author, Jen Wilkins, is one of my favorite writers of Women’s Bible studies because she is so committed to accurate Scriptural context and interpretation. I find that many popular authors and speakers today gain a following based on little more than their personality, and too many women are being led into a false or twisted understanding of Scripture simply because the authors are so likable. Jen Wilkins is both relatable and solid in her teaching, and I highly recommend her books. I read In His Image last year and loved it.

Parenting: 14 Gospel Principles that Can Radically Change Your Family– I bought this book several months ago after reading some of Paul David Tripp’s other material.  It is more of a philosophical book than a how-to manual, so I am interested to see what insights he has to share. I started it this morning- I will let you know what I think!

Stephen King’s, On Writing, is part memoir and part instruction. I enjoyed reading about his childhood and pathway to becoming an author. His instructions on writing are geared towards fiction writers, as that is obviously his area of expertise. Since I don’t write fiction, that wasn’t very helpful to me, but there were still plenty of tips I hope to apply to my writing, and overall it was enjoyable.

The Tattooist of Aushwitz  is a true account of a young Jewish man who found himself tattooing numbers into the arms of those who arrived at Aushwitz and how that job enabled him (and others) to stay alive amidst the horrors surrounding them. It is also a love story, sharing how he fell in love with a young woman at the camp, and their struggle to survive in hopes of a future together. It reads like historical fiction, but is even more impactful since it is a true story. 

Finally, I just finished On Writing Well by William Zinsser.  Much of the material is similar to what I already read in King’s book, so I found myself skimming quite a bit. This book is geared towards non-fiction writers, thus it was more applicable to my writing than King’s book. While I am glad I read it, I was also glad to finish it! I doubt I will ever read it again. 

And that’s it! Those are my January books. Hopefully I can squeeze in one or two more before the end of the month.

What about you? What books are currently on your nightstand?