Best of 2018 (and a GIVEAWAY)

IMG_2375 2Today is all about the books, and boy, did I read some books this year! Here’s my favorites list, broken into categories. I read about 90 books this year, and 86 of them were excellent, so this is the truly the cream of the crop.

Just for the fun of it, on the last day of 2018, I am going to randomly select 3 people and send them the book of their choice from my list. To enter my drawing, leave me a comment – tell me 1 book you loved from 2018, name a book from my list you would like to receive if you win the drawing, and make sure I have a good e-mail address so I can reach out to you if you win!


Circe by Madeline Miller – an epic story, truly spellbinding. Might be my top, top pick of the year.

Lila by Marilynne Robinson – This is a contender with Circe. This is the 3rd book of the Gilead series. Robinson is one of the greatest novelists on the planet. These books will sink into your soul. If you pick this one, let me know if you’ve read Gilead and Home – if not, you’ll get the set.:)

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman – a tender, charming tale, both heartbreaking and hopeful. Honeyman creates a memorable main character.

Leaf By Niggle by J.R.R. Tolkien – a short little gem that stuck with me throughout the year. Thank you to my friend, Len Woods, for recommending. This is my favorite quote: “He was kindhearted, in a way. You know the sort of kind heart: it made him uncomfortable more often than it made him do anything…” Sounds familiar.

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng – This was hard to put down – insightfully drawn cast of characters intricately intertwined by a gripping plot. Culturally relevant without being preachy.


If Women Rose Rooted by Sharon Blackie – poetic, lovely, challenging, encouraging. I read this and listened on Audible (the audiobook was beautifully done). I placed this under memoir, but it is artfully blended with other stories and ancient Celtic mythology.

Educated by Tara Westover – Wow, just wow! What a redemption story.

No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters by Ursula K. Le Guin – a witty and wise commentary on life and aging. I love her use of language. It’s sharp and sparkly, makes me think.

Small Fry by Lisa Brennan-Jobs – Fascinating, needling, funny, sometimes difficult, but impossible to stop reading. I hope she keeps writing her stories.

Find the Good: Unexpected Life Lessons from a Small-Town Obituary Writer by Heather Lende – grounded optimism and encouragement flow through her engaging stories. “Be braver, and do as the poets and saints advise—string a few kind words together, and say them out loud.”


Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith by Barbara Brown Taylor – she is one of my writing heroes. I soak up everything she puts out there. This book was lovely, honest, and deeply helpful.

Learning the Vocabulary of God by Frank Laubach – I read this moving journal and immediately ordered 6 additional copies to give to friends.

A Way Other Than Our Own: Devotions of Lent by Walter Brueggemann – I will read this again during lent in 2019. “Christians in our society are cast between these voices in terms of political and economic power, to see whether we can honor the pain-filled voices of marginality or if we will notice only the tired claims of the old monopolies.”

Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion by Gregory Boyle – Father Boyle is one of the most inspirational storytellers on the planet. The title says it all. Moving, hilarious, heartbreaking, challenging. You will not be the same after you read this.

Breathing Under Water: Spirituality and the Twelve Steps by Richard Rohr – another one of my all-time favorite writers. This is a grace-filled, honest, and merciful look at the cycle of addiction and how we can break out of destructive patterns. “To finally surrender ourselves to healing, we have to have three spaces opened up within us—and all at the same time: our opinionated head, our closed-down heart, and our defensive and defended body.”

The Remarkable Ordinary: How to Stop, Look, and Listen to Life by Frederick Buechner – If you know me, then you are not surprised to see his name on my list. This is a wonderful collection of his writing – much of it was new to me. “So, art is saying Stop. It helps us to stop by putting a frame around something and makes us see it in a way we would never have seen it under the normal circumstances of living, as so many of us do, on sort of automatic pilot, going through the world without really seeing much of anything.” A great quote to lead into the next section.IMG_7701


The older I get, the more I appreciate poetry. Maybe I’m more still and patient? I loved what a I read this year.

Devotions by Mary Oliver – she’s my favorite. She speaks my hidden language.

American Journal: Fifty Poems for Our Time edited by Tracy K. Smith – She is currently the Poet Laureate of the US, traveling the country, teaching and learning. This is a smart collection from lots of amazing poets – a good way to introduce yourself to new voices.

Life on Mars: Poems by Tracy K. Smith – strong, sometimes strange, contemporary, exploring the inner landscape and the broader culture. She is an immense talent.

Oceanic by Aimee Nezhukumatathil – I am trying to learn how to pronounce her name because I want to be able to tell people about her writing. She awakens curiosity and invites us into the deep waters – not easy poetry, but it was well worth my time.

KIDS AND TEENS (and big kids like me)

The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman – This is the first volume of 3 that will be released. He is brilliant. The world is the same as the world from His Dark Materials trilogy, but it stands alone. A delightful adventure!

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas – This book has the highest Amazon star rating of any on my list, and that is well deserved. This is a riveting, gut-wrenching (yet hopeful) story. Highly recommend for everyone 14 and up.

Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai – This brilliant book was inspired by the author’s childhood experience as a refugee from Vietnam, immigrating to Alabama. I read and listened to the audiobook. The audiobook would be a fantastic choice for a family car trip. This tale is gripping, enlightening, and hilarious at times.


These kind of cross between self-help and memoir; all of them were enlightening.

Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant – What to do when Option A is ripped out from under you.

Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression – and the Unexpected Solutions by Johann Hari – a compelling and startling shift in the conversation about depression and how to treat it. Controversial, challenging, and encouraging.

The Great Work of Your Life: A Guide for the Journey to Your True Calling by Stephen Cope – contemplative and inspirational, drawing from the deep wisdom of the Bhagavad Gita and making it accessible to our western minds.

The Enneagram: A Spiritual Perspective by Richard Rohr and Andreas Ebert – The Enneagram has given me a helpful framework, elevating my understanding of and bringing grace to some of the more rascally parts of my personality (and the personalities of my loved ones). This is one of my favorite books on the subject.

Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved by Kate Bowler – A brave, poignant, unflinching conversation about grief and all of its extreme complications. She is brave, knife-wielding, hilarious, holy and profane, curious, angry, graceful, kind, and HUMAN. I’ll revisit this one, no doubt.

That’s it! A reminder about the book giveaway – leave the following in a comment below: a book you loved from 2018, the book you would want from my list, and how to get in touch with you if you are one of the 3 winners from my drawing at the year’s end.




Read More Stories!

Angle of ReposeLast night, I finished Wallace Stegner’s lengthy masterpiece, Angle of Repose. I set it down and contemplated what a privilege it was to have time to read. I read a lot of books, a lot of amazing books.  Because of the sheer length of my booklist, if your book is not well-written, it will be quickly discarded.

I have pages and pages of highlighted quotes, notes, and references from my favorite wise non-fiction writers (Krista Tippett, Parker Palmer, Richard Rohr, Brennan Manning, Frederick Buechner & David Brooks come to mind – all highlights of last year), but there is something different that happens when I read a great novel. While non-fiction works tend to ping around in my brain and sometimes sift their way into the deeper places of my heart, stories just march right in my heart’s front door. What is it about a story?

We are all living stories. God’s story telling confounds me sometimes. Bible stories, especially the most ancient ones, can pull up confusion and even revulsion. But I do believe God is the grand storyteller, and a story weaver in our lives. He created us in his storytelling image – story is quite literally in our DNA.

Written story stands apart from any other form of storytelling. I was staring at a page in a real book – printed on actual paper. The font was small enough to challenge even my 1.75 readers (I love my Kindle). I took off my glasses so I couldn’t make out the words, and I noted that the vast majority of the page was white. All those tiny black letters probably took up 10 percent of the space. And it struck me – that’s what a satisfying novel does – it’s leaves us space to bring our own stories, our personalities, and our circumstances with us into the reading. No one will leave Angle of Repose changed in the same way it changed me, for no one else brings what I do to all that white space.

Characters are filtered through my life’s characters, whether I mean to or not. Their faces, their voices and smiles and joys, the way they move, their successes and failures take on unique forms in my mind based on what I know. So each novel, if it is written well, becomes customized to my soul.

I have a hard time remembering Jesus’s specific theology from his sermon on the mount, but the parables stick – I often think of the lost sheep, the woman desperately hunting her coin, the scene where the prodigal son is at last spotted by his father, the struggling seeds, the grumbling workers – these are the things that inform my spiritual life automatically.

My point is made. We should all read more epic stories. Maybe one day I’ll even write one. Every time I finish a remarkable novel, I wonder why I don’t read more! Here are a few of my favorites from the past few months. Please take a moment to comment and tell me a couple of your favorites. Or connect with me on Goodreads.

Wallace Stegner:  Crossing to Safety and Angle of Repose, Ann Patchett: State of Wonder, Fredrik Backman: A Man Called Ove, Marilynne Robinson: Gilead and Home (these probably top my list), Kristin Hannah: The Nightingale, Adam Johnson: Fortune Smiles, Wm. Paul Young: Eve and Cross Roads, Frederick Buechner: The Storm and Godric, John Steinbeck: Travels with Charley.

Your turn…

An Excellent Reading List

100 or So of my All-Time Favorites

Sorted by genre, in no particular order…

Novels and Stories:

The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

Godric by Frederick Buechner

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett (whole Kingsbridge series)

Fortune Smiles by Adam Johnson

A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck

Hawaii by James A. Michener

The Alchemist  by Paulo Coelho

Life of Pi by Yann Martel

The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

Howards End by E.M. Forster

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (everything by Jane Austen)

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Barrows

Elenor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas


Science Fiction / Fantasy / Mythology:

A Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien

Wrinkle in Time Series by Madeleine L’Engle

Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling

C.S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy

Cross Roads & Eve by William Paul Young

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

His Dark Materials series and Book of Dust series by Philip Pullman

Ender’s Game (whole series) by Orson Scott Card

The Passage by Justin Cronin

Circe by Madeline Miller

In Other Lands by Sarah Rees Brennan

Leaf by Niggle by J.R.R. Tolkien

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster

The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis



A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson

The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean

The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert

The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery

A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking

The Fabric of the Cosmos by Brian Greene

Finding God in the Waves by  Mike McHargue (science and memoir)


Wisdom and Poetry:

Supper of the Lamb by Robert Farrar Capon

Devotions by Mary Oliver

Becoming Wise by Krista Tippett

Being Mortal by Atul Gawande

Daring Greatly by Brené Brown

The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison

Healing the Wounded Heart by Dan Allender

The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron

Teaching a Stone to Talk by Annie Dillard (and Maytrees)

Walking in Wonder by John O’Donohue

Lost Connections by Johann Hari

The Pocket Pema Chodron by Pema Chodron

Rumi: The Big Red Book: The Great Masterpiece Celebrating Mystical Love and Friendship by Coleman Barks

Life on Mars by Tracy K. Smith

Spiritual / Christian:

Abba’s Child by Brennan Manning

Telling Secrets by Frederick Buechner

A Grief Observed, The Great Divorce, and The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis

Love Does by Bob Goff

A Severe Mercy by Sheldon Vanauken

Return of the Prodigal Son by Henri Nouwen (also The Way of the Heart)

Pursuit of God by A.W. Tozer

Everything Belongs by Richard Rohr (also The Divine Dance & Breathing Under Water)

A Hidden Wholeness by Parker J. Palmer

Learning to Walk in the Dark by Barbara Brown Taylor (also Leaving Church)

Acedia and Me by Kathleen Norris

Traveling Mercies by Anne Lamott

Disciplines for the Inner Life by Bob and Michael W. Benson

Orthodoxy by G. K. Chesterton

Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home by Richard Foster

A Way other than Our Own by Walter Brueggemann

How I Found God in Everyone and Everywhere: An Anthology of Spiritual Memoirs edited by Andrew M. David and Philip Clayton

Learning the Vocabulary of God by Frank Charles Laubach

Tattoos on the Heart by Gregory Boyle


History, Biography, Memoir:

A Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Wild by Cheryl Strayed

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

Night by Elie Wiesel

Running with Scissors by Augusten Burroughs

On Writing by Stephen King

All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriot

A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson

Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller

As You Wish by Cary Elwes

Educated by Tara Westover

If Women Rose Rooted by Sharon Blackie


Mystery series authors:

Dorothy Sayers

Agatha Christie

P.D. James

Patricia Cornwell

Scott Pratt

Louise Penny

Nevada Barr

Stephen King

Playlist, Bookshelf, and In the Queue

Songs at the top of my list this week:

Black Sun – Death Cab for Cutie – They continue to amaze.

Lonely Daze – Kate Tempest – A true poet.

Don’t Wanna Fight – Alabama Shakes – Raising their own bar.

The Labyrinth Song – Asaf Avidan – New to me this week.

River – Ibeyi – Twins make it twice as nice.

False Hope – Laura Marling – Love her voice, gets under my skin.


I’m slowly digesting The Empathy Exams: Essays by Leslie Jamison. Insightful does not do this writing justice.  It is bold, razor-sharp, and downright jarring sometimes. This is NOT a Max Lucado book – do some investigating before you pick it up. Here is a taste. “I keep thinking I’ll communicate my pain most effectively by expressing my desire for the things that might dissolve it.”

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When I have a little quiet morning space, I read a chapter of Frederick Buechner’s Secrets in the Dark.  “Power, success, happiness, as the world knows them, are his who will fight for them hard enough; but peace, love, joy are only from God.” That has been bouncing around in my head this week. I’m also about to start his novel, Son of Laughter – his story based on the Jacob narratives from the Old Testament. I have a feeling I’m in for a treat.

In the Queue (I’m a little behind) – Boyhood and Begin Again. I’m also slowly making my way through Doctor Who so I can better keep up with my 15 year old son. Almost through season 3 and pleasantly surprised.

What about your lists?  I would love to know what has your attention and why. I need to read something that is entertaining, preferable fiction and not full of sorrow. Recommendations?