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Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Top 15 Books of 2019

Happy New Year! Once again it’s time for my list of most impacting reads of the year. I always enjoy making this list and sharing the books that have made a deep impression on me. In both subtle and apparent ways, books influence our thinking and change our lives, and that’s why it’s so satisfying to look back on them.


Far from the Madding Crowd

by Thomas Hardy

I actually gave this book only 3.5 stars, but let me explain: Hardy is a powerful writer, but his stories tend to be depressing. And when one reads powerful but depressing stories, one is conflicted about one’s feelings for them. Far from the Madding Crowd was published in 1874 and is one of Hardy’s most popular works. Bathsheba Everdene is a fascinating heroine who inherits a farm and runs it herself, against all typical customs in Victorian England. In the course of the novel, three men fall in love with her, the most decent one being steady, loyal Gabriel Oak. One never can tell how a Hardy novel will conclude since he’s not committed to happy endings, so I was apprehensive. I can definitely say that this book’s ending is one of the most unforgettable I’ve ever read, and it helped land Far from the Madding Crowd on this list. Read my full review HERE.

Journey to the Center of the Earth

by Jules Verne

This had been on my to-read list for years because the 1959 film with James Mason and Pat Boone was one of mine and my brother’s favorites growing up. When my friend Sarah and I read it as part of our monthly classic buddy reads, I enjoyed it a lot! Admittedly, I like the movie more, but it’s hard to compare them because the stories are quite different. In its own right, however, Jules Verne’s pioneering science fiction novel, published in 1864, is an imaginative, page-turning adventure. German professor Otto Liedenbrock, his nephew Axel (also the narrator), and their guide Hans make a great team as they penetrate an Icelandic volcano in search of the earth’s core. Read my full review HERE.

The Enchanted April

by Elizabeth von Arnim

This lovely little book from 1922 is an atmospheric delight. Four British women desperate for a change in their tedious lives rent a castle in Italy for the month of April. Wonderful things begin to happen, but is it enough to transform their lives beyond their Italian respite? I enjoyed getting to know each of the ladies and watching their thoughts as revelations unfold while the castle works its magic on them. Read my full review HERE.

Island Magic

by Elizabeth Goudge

I’m almost positive any Elizabeth Goudge novel that I read is going to end up on a list of reading highlights. Island Magic was Goudge’s first novel, published in 1934. It features her beautiful, descriptive writing and a heart-warming story of a family on one of the Channel Islands (between England and France) going through hard times. When they take in a stranger, will he help them pull together or fall further apart? Two of the many things I love about Goudge’s novels are that every character is important and equally well-developed, and every detail of life, even small things, has rich meaning. Island Magic is no exception. Read my full review HERE.

The Treasure of the City of Ladies

by Christine de Pizan

This book was a complete surprise to me. I didn’t know it existed until I saw it in a used bookstore (yay for brick-and-mortar bookstores!). I’m interested in pretty much anything that women in the far past have written, and being published in 1405, Treasure is probably the oldest complete book I’ve read by a female author. Christine de Pizan earned a living with her books of advice for women. It was inspiring to see how she emphasized love and devotion for God and tangible kindness to the poor. Even though this book is primarily a valuable snapshot of history, I gleaned a few timeless life lessons from it. Read my full review HERE.



by Robert Louis Stevenson

I really like Stevenson’s writing, and Kidnapped is my favorite novel of his. This was a reread (one of several this year; I’m doing better at rereading favorites!), but I’d forgotten so much of it that it was almost like experiencing it for the first time. Sarah and I enjoyed it a lot! Published in 1886, this is a story set during the 1750s, when Scotland (at least parts of it) was fighting for independence from England. I love the interplay between David Balfour and Alan Breck Stewart, and how they become best friends despite being total opposites in personality and political allegiance. I love the journey across Scotland. And I love how this isn’t just an adventure novel but explores difficult questions of right and wrong. Stevenson at his best!



by Henry David Thoreau

I’m not entirely sure how to classify Walden. A book of philosophical essays, perhaps? But philosophical essays inspired by the author’s year of roughing it in the Massachusetts woods, in close communion with nature. He built his house, raised and gathered his food, and tried to live the simple life and leave behind the hectic world of 1854. Thoreau encouraged his readers to ponder what’s truly important in our short lifetimes and to live with intent. I also came away with an enhanced appreciation for God’s creation and how spending time in the natural world can be transforming. See my full review HERE.


Agnes Grey

by Anne Brontë

Two years ago, Brontë’s second novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, was on my top 15 list, and this year, her first novel is as well. How sad that she wrote only two. Although Agnes Grey (published 1847) is short (way shorter than your average Victorian novel), it packs an emotional punch. It’s a pretty simple storyline about a new governess, Agnes Grey, who starts out on her path with bright hopes, but instead has to fight the slow crushing of her spirits that her employment produces. Anne Brontë was a governess herself, so she was able to depict a realistic and haunting portrait of the lonely life of a governess. Yet this novel was not depressing because Agnes places her faith and hope in God. See my full review HERE.


Least of All Saints

by Grace Irwin

Another reread on my list, and one I read with Sarah, this book, published in 1955, is one of my top favorite novels. It begins with a unique premise: What if an atheist becomes a minister of the most prestigious church in Toronto? I love how this book examines the nature of belief and unbelief and how knowing the facts of the Bible and the Christian life is no substitute for actually loving and knowing God. Irwin is a skilled author and weaves an engaging, powerful story with a variety of well-drawn characters, most important of whom is scholarly yet quietly charismatic Andrew Connington. Although set in the 1920s, the issues that Least of All Saints deals with are relevant for any decade. See my full review HERE.


Mansfield Park

by Jane Austen

Like Goudge, if I read a Jane Austen during the year, it’s going on this list. Mansfield Park (published 1814) may be Austen’s deepest emotional and psychological work. Sarah and I enjoyed it immensely. Fanny Price has been raised by her wealthy aunt, uncle, and cousins from the age of 11, and now she is 18. She possesses unrequited love for her cousin Edmund Bertram, but when the vivacious Crawford siblings come to the neighborhood, everything becomes even more complicated and troubling. This was my third time to read Mansfield Park, and with each reading, I uncover more depth and view characters and situations slightly differently. Jane Austen is such a satisfying author!

by George Eliot
Middlemarch, published 1871-72, is the longest book I read this year. Wow, there are about two or three novels within this work! Deep characterization, philosophical ponderings, and detailed depictions of 1830s England make this a heavy-hitter. Dorothea Brooke is the star of the book, however. She’s an intelligent young woman who longs to devote her life to a meaningful, world-changing cause. She marries Mr. Casaubon, a minister and scholar, so she can help him with his life’s work, which she believes to be groundbreaking. But her marriage doesn’t turn out the way she expected. There is so much more to this novel that a synopsis would take up a page, so I’ll end by saying it was powerful and moving and a work that I’ll definitely be rereading. See my full review HERE.


Peace Like a River

by Leif Enger

Admittedly, many of my most favorite authors are long gone from this earth. But I’m always happy to find a contemporary author whose writing I can savor. That’s Leif Enger. He’s written only three novels so far, and I’ve now read two. Peace Like a River is his first. It’s a coming-of-age novel about a boy, Reuben Land, whose older brother is wanted for murder. Reuben and his dad and sister try to follow him after he flees. As I said, Enger’s writing is beautiful, even poetic. You can experience the setting of this novel, rural Minnesota and North Dakota in the 1960s. Every character is memorable. Jeremiah Land, Reuben’s dad, is one of my favorite fathers in literature. This novel drew my tears and laughter, and it explores the question of how God moves in our lives. See my full review HERE.


Jane Eyre

by Charlotte Brontë

Published in 1847 around the same time as Anne Brontë’s Agnes Grey, this is one of my all-time favorite novels, and I was thrilled to reread it this year. The story is narrated by Jane Eyre herself. I love Jane—she’s quiet and thoughtful and possesses a deep well of principle and conviction that she will not abandon. She’s whimsical yet practical. She’s a loner and learns to stand on her own, but her desire for love and family is something we can all relate to. Her Christian character growth is inspiring. Charlotte Brontë’s vivid writing brings Jane Eyre’s world on the moors of northern England to life. Other incredible characters populate this novel—most important of whom is the conflicted Edward Rochester, Jane’s love interest. The air of mystery around him and his house, where Jane is a governess, adds even more brilliance to this deep work. But most impacting of all is the way we get to know Jane herself as she reveals every bit of her heart. It was unparalleled back then for literary protagonists, and it’s rare even today.



by Saint Augustine of Hippo

This is the oldest book I’ve read this year (aside from the Bible), published in 397 CE. It took Sarah and me some time to finish, but it’s best read slowly and savored, almost like a devotional. In essence, Confessions is Augustine’s autobiography. He was a North African Christian, nominal before he had a spiritual encounter with God that turned his life around. What makes it so beautiful as an autobiography is that Augustine wrote as if he were talking to God, pouring out praise and love for his Lord. It’s also a poignant theological work; many of the passages are reflections on God’s love, the nature of God and of man, how we can have a relationship with Him, and the errors of certain heresies. It’s powerful and influential even today. See my full review HERE.


Calm My Anxious Heart

by Linda Dillow

I read most of this book on Yom Kippur, a day I set aside to fast, pray, and focus on what God is teaching me. This book provided a profound and refreshing perspective on worry, anxiety, fear, and discontentment, presented exactly the way I needed to hear it. It helped me deal with the roots of what causes me to worry. I haven’t stopped worrying by any means, and unfortunately I will worry in the future because I’m human, but now I have an arsenal of encouraging examples and practical advice that have already helped me to worry less. I long for the day when my faith is so strong that anxiety is impossible, and Calm My Anxious Heart has proved to be a significantly helpful step!

What impacting books did you read in 2019?