Best Reading of 2021

Time to share some of the books I enjoyed reading the most in 2021. For the first time I consumed some books through Audible, although two were over 20 hours long and I don’t feel that the audio experience suits me as much as reading regular books, so am pausing that adventure for now.

My choices are geographically eclectic, with a writing and theological bias and a quest for excellence across fiction and non-fiction. I took up suggestions and read various book gifts as well as digging into the ever-growing home library. Perhaps because I chose longer books than in 2020, I did not complete quite as many as I hoped, but am still averaging 80 finished books per year, which I am pleased with . According to my rules this may not include pamphlets, magazines, books of the Bible in English, or anything left unfinished. So what were my concluding recommendations? Read on…

Fiction – children

My son (11) and I are working our way through Andrew Peterson’s Wingfeather Saga, a fast-paced fantasy world adventure about three children discovering who they are. The world of Aerwiar (pronounced ‘ere we are’) is full of danger and surprise. Towards the end of 2021 we completed the third book: The Monster in the Hollows and I think the quality of the writing is improving with each new story. We are reading the final book now and I will miss the characters when we do finish the series. The plot teases and unravels gently, the characters are rounded and intriguing and there are plenty of imaginative monsters and locations, as well as familiar animals and ideas to help younger readers. The series is ideal for bedtime story reading and for 8-12 year olds with a sense of curiosity and adventure. These books have a wholesome message without being preachy and the pictures are beautiful. There is also talk of a spin-off television adaptation in the works.

Fiction – adult

Lots of wonderful fiction this year and a theme that runs through these choices is that the telling of each story was masterful and original. These comprise well-known bestsellers as well as some which should be read more widely.

Elizabeth Acevedo’s Clap When You Land tells of two sisters who learn of each other’s existence when their father dies. The narrative is told in free verse alternately by both main characters. I particularly liked the poetic choices (for example the three line and four line stanzas which identify Camino and Yahaira) and the way that the characters kept their individualities while discovering a number of things they had in common. The descriptions of the Dominican Republic were colourful and highly evocative and the twists continue as the narrative develops.

Abi Daré’s proficiency in writing justifies her awards for her first published book, The Girl with the Louding Voice. I was gripped by the character of Adunni, the same age as my own daughter (14). Sold into marriage as a third wife in rural Nigeria, Adunni runs away when disaster strikes and has to work without pay as a housemaid in Lagos, constantly at the mercy of those around her. The narrator’s English is weak, so her first-person telling contains lots of fascinating phrasing, much of which may reflect her Yoruba mother tongue. The plot is rich, the characters more so and the ending satisfying. I look forward to more of Daré’s writing. She writes with a distinct voice of integrity and pitched this perfectly.

James Joyce is the only male writer on this fiction list and his is by far the oldest publication which made my ‘best reads’, but I had wanted to read some of Joyce’s writing for a long while. On visiting Dublin in 2019 and deciding I really didn’t feel ready for his heavier works, I bought Dubliners, a set of short stories detailing the lives of a number of characters of the city. I am glad I knew a little of the geography of the place by the time I read this and felt that Joyce described his people cleverly as they found themselves moving around and taking different trajectories in life. Several stories were quite sad but each story was complete in its own way. A great masterclass in short stories and what works well in this style.

The Beekeeper of Aleppo by Christy Lefteri tells how Nuri and Afra, a married couple, flee Syria and try to reach Britain. It is told entirely in the first person by Nuri, who is (/was) a professional beekeeper. Each chapter has two halves told in the present and then the past tense and linked by a single word. The idea of the past and present weaving together like a marriage is powerful, as are the motifs of sight, bees and death. The couple’s relationship is strained enormously by the tragedies they endure on their journey and although the topic is necessarily political and difficult to engage with at points, it is all the more powerful for it. Beautifully told and utterly moving.

Delia Owens’ Where the Crawdads Sing has split critical opinion: some people love it and others hate it. I found it compelling. Kya has grown up in the marshland of North Carolina, at one with the natural world around her and for the most part shuns people. When a body is found in the marsh, she becomes a key suspect. How this tale of murder mystery and coming of age plays out, with wide shots, flashbacks, twists and intrigue is imaginatively vivid and ripe for translation to cinema (and will in fact be released in June 2022). If reading the book before seeing the film matters to you as much as it does to me, I recommend getting hold of a copy before this summer.

Sue Russell’s book The Healing Knife tells the story of an obsessive surgeon, Rachel, whose life is upended by a grieving and angry parent after a patient of hers dies. It is set in England and France and is carefully observed and clearly well-researched. The main character has to go on a journey of her own and there are no quick fixes. I thought the story read very well and that the dialogue was strong. It is written from a Christian perspective, which means prayer and belief do feature, but only as far as they keep the story moving. I felt that the range of characters was wonderful and was able to lose myself in the story.

Biographical

Three utterly different choices here, which could each be called ‘biographical’.

Hadley Freeman’s House of Glass is a recounting of several generations of Freeman’s family through twentieth century Europe and America. The Jewish family experience segregation and difficulties in Eastern Europe and France (indeed, concentration camps feature), before taking quite different career and life directions. Freeman uses some amazing primary sources and uncovers various interesting tales about her uncles and grandparents. I wouldn’t usually choose to read a book like this, but it was promoted in the Cambridge Literary Festival and I found the premise intriguing.

The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage; The (Mostly) True Story of the First Computer by graphic novelist Sydney Padua is quite unique and despite the cartoons, is really aimed at adults with an interest in history and computing. Padua uses humour and a huge amount of historical research to convey with graphics and many, many footnotes how Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage came to invent the Difference Engine. Along the way we learn of some ridiculous (but true) details as well as some other clever untrue details (which are no less ridiculous). All the great and the good of Victorian society seem to feature (and some of the less great/good). A super gift for that Difficult-to-Buy-For-Engineer in your life.

Tom Wright’s Paul; A Biography was a book I had hoped to read for some time. In fact, my dad’s copy had been sitting on a To Be Read pile for a while here. I was pleased when a local ecumenical theology reading group chose this for their current book and have really enjoyed working through Wright’s retelling of Paul’s life story and mission, with reference to Acts and all the Pauline letters as he understands them. Reading the biblical passages alongside this book was eye-opening and Wright – while at times overly wordy – is nevertheless a humble and diligent scholar who knows how to make a case well.

Reflective/devotional

This unusual book is one I have recommended to many friends and family. The Radical Book for Kids; Exploring the Roots and Shoots of Faith, by Champ Thornton includes dozens of short and colourful chapters in no particular order, detailing elements of the Bible and Christian history and faith. It is easy to dip into, visually exciting and a great introduction for children around 7-11 new to faith or church.

It took a year to read, as there is a short chapter for each week, but God in the Garden; Weekly Bible Reflections for the Gardener’s Year by Philip Eley was a lovely devotional for Monday mornings. I am not a great gardener and have much to learn about plants, but this book combined practical advice with teaching on gardening basics, linking themes to the Bible and giving a chance to reflect and pray.

Andrew Peterson, author of the Wingfeather Saga, is perhaps better known in other circles as a songwriter and collaborator. His apparent boundless creativity means that his own reflections on how to be creative are worth reading in their own right. He has put together his own understanding of all of this in Adorning the Dark, part autobiographical and part wisdom for aspiring creatives. I have already marked a number of places in this book which I need to go back and reflect on.

Non-fiction

This one didn’t fit in any of my other categories, although like some of the others, it is visually arresting and is not afraid to challenge traditional publishing genres. Wonders of the Living World ; Curiosity, Awe and The Meaning of Life by Ruth M. Bancewicz is a splendid overview of how science and Christian faith work beautifully together, including topics like cell development, molecule behaviour, convergent evolution and the ‘snuggle for existence’, with each chapter detailing some of the work of current scientists – all of whom have faith. If you can get hold of a version with images, do. The art is part of what makes this book so good. The science will take a little more head-scratching and it is recommended for those over 16, but the scientists and theologians make a strong case.

It has been another good year for reading and many other books did not make the cut. What books did you read in 2021 which you would recommend? Do leave a comment below!

Top of the Pile

Reading is my escape.

Last year I finished reading more books than the previous year, and I wanted to share some of the highlights and a few recommendations.

Mornings include escape time to centre and regroup before work. This means reading a chapter of something positive and a devotional thought to challenge me. I was encouraged to learn of some black authors I had not already read and these two stood out for me:

More Than Enchanting by Jo Saxton is encouraging, thoughtful and relatable. It was written to empower women – most women in my experience – who face barriers which prevent them achieving their God-given potential.

Still Standing by Tola Doll Fisher, editor of Woman Alive magazine, is a series of 100 ‘thoughts for the day’ on matters as wide-ranging as ‘How to spend a pre-payday weekend’ to ‘Imposter syndrome’ and ‘Why I’m not here for religion’. Tola has a fascinating life-story and uses her experiences, both good and bad, to connect honestly and powerfully.

Other morning books that connected well with me were:

Cathy Madavan’s Irrepressible, which champions resilience and lays out some excellent and timely principles to grow in it and Charlie Mackesy’s The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse, which speaks truth and kindness to readers of all ages and is already a classic in its own right.

Afternoons for me are for working on teaching tasks. As well as writing, I teach Biblical Studies so I try to read a chapter of the Bible in an original language during the day if I can fit it in. I’m working through Old Testament narratives now and finding things I haven’t seen in the English versions. I have found biblehub.com to be a valuable resource here; using an interlinear version is much faster than parsing and remembering every word (especially now that my memory is not what it used to be). It still gives my brain a workout though and I can click on the words for more information on pronunciation, roots, meanings and cross-references.

Evenings are for fiction, beginning with reading to my son when I put him to bed. One of the highlights of last year reading to a 10-year-old was The Murderer’s Ape by Jakob Wegelius.

This story pulls you in to an absurd journey of twists and adventures centred on the wonderful main character, Sally Jones. Gorillas may not always have fared well in fiction, but Sally Jones is a highly intelligent and gentle ship’s engineer and out to prove the innocence of Captain Koskela. Will she succeed? Written originally in Swedish but translated with real fluency and pace, this page-turner leaves the reader curious to explore Portuguese fada music, Indian palaces and even how ships work. Great for adventurers aged 7 and up.

Other books I would recommend to children from my own reading last year:

Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s fantastical The Girl of Ink and Stars has a female protagonist mapmaker searching for answers and evocative writing. The dystopian world comes alive a piece at a time, like a map being unfolded. You never know quite where the adventure will go next.

I love A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh for its wit and warmth. The photo is of the 1931 copy I inherited from my grandpa. A.A. Milne’s writing stands the test of time and the characters are so familiar you miss them when you finish the books. I think I am most like Rabbit myself. Milne has written other great stuff too, but Pooh is timeless and works for all ages. A great mood-lifter: innocent and silly but intelligent with it.

For young adults:

If you have not read anything by Stephen Davies, you are missing out. He has a knack for stories no one else is telling but which are gripping and gutsy. Chessboxer convinced me that a book about chess really could be interesting, with a flawed and feisty main character Leah Baxter, imaginative style and original plot.

Kwame Alexander’s Solo is told in free verse and engages the mind, heart and soul. The story of Blade, the son of a washed-up rock star, takes you in all kinds of directions and riffs on musical themes and ideas. Look out for other books by these authors too; you won’t be disappointed.

For older readers:

These all suit a slightly older readership for different reasons. Fran Hill’s Miss, What Does Incomprehensible Mean? connected with me on various levels but I especially recommend it to anyone who’s taught at secondary level. Built on her own life experiences, this fictional diary contains astute observations on life, literature and loss, told with practised humour and intrigue. I lent out my copy and might need to replace it!

Annie Try’s Red Cabbage Blue tells the story of Adelle Merchant, a girl who only eats blue food and who has an overprotective mother. Her psychologist Mike Lewis is trying to solve the puzzles this raises, but he is also dealing with his own issues and relationships. Annie’s background in clinical psychology means this reads very convincingly – there are other books which feature Mike Lewis but I found this one the most engaging so far. A great story with a satisfying ending.

Manacle by Chris Aslan is arresting and provocative. This is the second of three books of his which tell stories from the Bible from a very different angle. Unlike many biblical retellings, I found this well-researched and well-written and without sugar-coating or preaching. I am eagerly looking forward to his next publication and highly recommend both this and Alabaster which overlaps a few of the characters: the content may be tragic and bittersweet in places but the settings are powerful and create a compelling view of people’s lives in the times they are set.

There are other books I read which don’t fit into any of these categories. They might fit into any time of day and they are generally curious, theological or both, so I might read them whenever I get a moment.

Women’s Lives in Biblical Times by Jennie Ebeling is an academic book (around £20 at the moment), but it is a wonderful resource for anyone wanting to understand more about domestic life in the Old Testament – it is a perfect cross-over for me of my writing and teaching work. Jennie invents a character, Orah, who lives in ancient Israel in the Iron Age and describes her life using narrative, in addition to the non-fictional archaeological and biblical data she presents to make her case.

How Not to Write a Novel (the version by Newman and Mittelmark, not any others of the same title) is a superb read if you aspire to publish a book. By giving many examples of what not to send in to publishers, the authors hope to encourage people to give up their writing, or – failing that – to do a much better job at it. Very funny, frequently rude and full of brilliant parodies, this is one of the better works on how to write, quite possibly because it attacks the topic from an entirely different angle. No recommendations on what to do; just what not to do.

Beard Theology by The Church Mouse is the book you didn’t realise you needed. If you thought that the history of the church had no connection with facial hair, you have much to learn in this clever and very silly book. If there is one thing I’d add, it would be a chapter on the biblical stories on hairiness; but this would actually make an excellent sequel (think Absalom, Esau, Elisha, Samson, etc). Not having one’s own beard is no barrier to enjoying this and the illustrations by Dave Walker are hilarious.

Theology of Home, however, was a book I did not need. At least, not if I wanted a systematic and careful investigation of how faith and decorating a home intersect. I was curious about the concept and ordered a copy from America. The book is filled with large photos of happy and tidy rooms filled with beautiful things but not a lot of reasoning on the questions I actually had, which are along the lines of ‘how can we use our resources most wisely, and how much disposable income should we spend on our homes?’ – I still haven’t found good answers to these questions so am working it out as I go instead. This might lead to more thinking on this another time for me, so not an entirely wasted exercise.

One final book deserves a mention from those I completed last year. Another inherited title, Cornish Recipes Ancient and Modern by the Cornwall WI (1930).

Many of the recipes are not safe, several suggestions for cures are downright dangerous and the ingredients lists (where they exist) are as confusing as they are amusing: why give precise quantities? Written when powdered ammonia was still considered a rising agent and all parts of animals and plants seemed to have a domestic purpose, every page of this collection of concoctions made me smile. It may not be practical today, but it got me thinking and provided several jokes to share, so that counts as a great success.

Where will I escape in 2021? My To Be Read pile grows as fast as it shrinks and this year I am looking forward to some great releases as well as revisiting some classics. I’ve completed five so far, but have a number more on the go and this year I’m also recording when I finish books to see whether they always run in groups. I’m always on the lookout for interesting, amusing and well-written works so let me know in the comments if you have any good recommendations.

Oh, and please don’t try the pies.

Treasure in Dark Places, by Liz Carter: a review

Treasure in Dark Places book on a cosy wooden table with a hot drink.

Maybe, like me, you enjoy a fresh angle on a familiar story. A fresh perspective to help you find a good way forward in life. Maybe you yearn for a way to express your frustration at your pain and want assurance of hope.

Liz Carter has a gift in doing just that in short story and poetry form. Her latest book is called Treasure in Dark Places and I jumped at the chance to read an early copy ahead of its release this weekend. I had found Liz’s Catching Contentment powerfully written and worth spending time in when I read it last year, and she kindly agreed to be interviewed for my blog to talk about this new book and why she wrote it.

If you are not familiar with Liz’s work, take a look at this short clip, featuring one of the poems in the new book:

Lucy: Tell me a little about your health, what lockdown was like for you as a family and the impact shielding had on you.

Liz: I’ve suffered from a rare chronic lung disease all my life, with times of intense pain and infections that render me frequently housebound and in hospital. When I first received the shielding letter I felt the shock like a punch in the gut; the words ‘may become severely ill’ due to Covid-19 hit me hard. I went into shielding thinking I would be okay, used to isolation, but found being separated from my family incredibly challenging, my mental health took a hit I wasn’t expecting. Shielding has ‘paused’ for now, but this year has taken its toll, as it has on most of us.

Lucy: Your poems speak of a God who is powerful and good, relatable yet mysterious. What characteristic of God do you find most comforting at times of deepest darkness?

Liz: There are so many, but I think that one that ministers to me so much within pain is the Holy Spirit as the paraclete – literally the helper, counsellor, comforter. To know that God is within the depths of it all, by my side, the tangible yet intangible Spirit. God with us in the mystery of trinity; Jesus as Immanuel, incarnate and suffering for and with us, God as Father, loving and compassionate, all beautifully expressed in the helper God gave to each one of us. Sometimes I just like to think upon the Spirit as Ruach, the breath of God, the creative force and the rhythm of life, yet here with us, breathing upon us.

Lucy: There is something strangely sacred about the meeting of brokenness and divinity; would you say that the experience of pain and hardship is a necessary part of a close walk with God?

Liz: I love the way you phrase this truth. I have definitely discovered that it’s sometimes in the darkest places I have found the treasure, the depths of God, that suffering can somehow allow the heights of joy. I think that so often Christians have been led to believe that a walk with God should somehow be pain-free, as if God is merely there to bow to our needs and wants, and yet this prosperity story has not stood up against the ravages of suffering – or, indeed, against the truths expressed in scripture. I love how the apostle Paul shared the enticing reality that God’s power is made perfect in weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9). Paul, of course, was hardly an example of someone living a life free of struggle – far from it. I think that when we learn to untether the idea of wholeness with getting all that we want, or even with healing, we stumble into God’s great spacious places even where our spaces seem caged. Maybe it’s not so much that we have to go through great hardship as a necessary part of our faith, as much that the raw experience of hurting can move us closer to the heart of a God who knows what it is to go through the starkest agony.

Lucy: Many of your poems weave in biblical phrases and you note these references at the end of the book. The Bible contains many forms of writing, including lament and praise. Many biblical characters experience crushing lows and disappointments – do you have any characters you identify with closely, or favourite parts of the Bible you turn to when you need God’s comfort?

Liz: So many. I find much resonance in Scripture when it comes to living with any kind of struggle, which gives us a real sense of permission to express our own. I love the lament and yet hope of Psalm 42, and the yearning for home of Psalm 84 always calls to the deep places of my spirit (two of the poems are based around these Psalms.) For me, the words of Paul are always places I go to when I am looking for hope, knowing that he spoke out of some of the greatest darkness. I love how he calls us to ‘overflow with hope’ in Romans 15, even though he has been persecuted and imprisoned and sick and shipwrecked.

Lucy: Two recurring images for me when reading this book are ‘water’ and ‘depth’. In the poem ‘The Skies Proclaim’, which I associate with Psalm 19, you’ve written the following beautiful lines:

Join me,
barefoot in the sand
tiptoe into edges of blue
and the untamed edges of a secret

Deep magic in deeper waters
deep mystery in great oceans
deep soul-rest in turquoise ripples of expansive grandeur.

Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

Although depth might feel like a place of isolation, imprisonment and darkness, you remind us that the deep is a place of wildness, mystery, beauty and healing as well. Is there a particular resonance for you in the redemptive aspects of water and depth? And do you find yourself more in the role of Peter wanting to walk on the surface, the disabled crowds in John 5, or Jonah, terrified in the depths yet crying out to God?

Liz: I think it’s the concepts of the great heights and depths of God that call out to me so; a God who cannot be contained. Scripture is bursting with the deeps of God; Ephesians 3:18 speaks of the width, length, height and depth of God’s love, and Psalm 139 of how there is no depth too deep where God will not find you and hold you. In Psalm 42 the mysterious and alluring phrase ‘deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls’ always resounds somewhere in the depths of me. I want to run into those deeps, to dive into them, to be submerged in them until they close over my head, further down until this love that cannot be described is pressing in upon me. I want to walk on the water and yet plunge the depths all at the same time, much as Hillsong’s song ‘Oceans’ describes so beautifully.

Lucy: This is a book you cannot rush; it needs to be reflected on and is ideal for quiet time study. It also has sections which map out the year, so could be used at any time. How easy is it to get hold of a copy?

Treasure in Dark Places book shown against a background of a treasure map with a compass.

Liz: From this weekend you will be able to buy it on Amazon in paperback or kindle edition, and as an ebook on Kobo. A little later it will be available in other online bookstores such as Waterstones and Barnes & Noble.

Thank you Liz! I’ll be ordering my own paper copy to use in quiet times, and look forward to seeing Caroline Gwilliam’s illustrations. I pray this new book blesses many people, especially those struggling in the dark depths of difficult situations; that God uses your words to speak treasure and hope to people who need it.