I read more fiction this year than in previous years--a nice mix of juvenile and adult, old and new. And I loved almost all of it. My rating system:
***** Loved it, would definitely read again
**** Liked it, would recommend
*** It was OK
** Didn't like it
* Hated it
Favorite novels this year:
The Help – Kathryn Stockett*****
This book also goes on my all-time favorites list. One of those that you can't put down, and then when you finish, you feel sort of sad because it's over and you don't get to read it anymore. I just absolutely loved it.
The Harry Potter series - J.K. Rowling*****
I am eating a big helping of crow this year and admitting that I've been sucked in. I rolled my eyes at the Harry Potter craze for over a decade--and then I gave it a chance, and what do you know? By the end of book three, I had a sense for the huge scope of this story and had fallen in love with the world of Hogwarts. I adore Harry and Hermione and the Weasleys and Dumbledore; I love to hate Malfoy and Snape and Lord Voldemort. It's a good thing I'm listening instead of reading, so that I'm not so tempted by the "can't put it down, just read one more chapter" phenomenon. Unfortunately, because I am about a decade behind with this craze, I am very afraid of inadvertently reading spoilers somewhere! PLEASE don't tell me how it all ends!
Other fiction read:
Tess of the d'Urbervilles – Thomas Hardy****
Tragic. It somehow doesn't seem appropriate to say I *enjoyed* this one, but I found it very absorbing and read it quickly. It was also while reading this that I had this realization of, “You know, I'm starting to understand more and more why the classics are classic.” Just a timelessness and depth to the story. I found the portrayal of God, religion, etc., disheartening...but provocative all the same.
A Tale of Two Cities – Charles Dickens****/*****
The first half of this book was torture. I was barely able to force myself to plod through it. A friend urged me to press on, so I did—and she was right, the last third of the book was worth it. I don't know why the setup had to be so long and arduous, but after I finished I almost started over to better appreciate the first half, the end was that good. So really, the first half would get two stars and the last part would get at least five!
Hinds' Feet on High Places – Hannah Hurnard****
Same idea as The Pilgrim's Progress—except I liked this version much, much better. The protagonist, a female, starts out as “Much-Afraid” (instead of simply “Christian”) and as she journeys with the Shepherd, she is gradually changed into “Grace and Glory.”
The Magician's Nephew – C.S. Lewis (audiobook) *****
I can't believe it took me so long to get to the first book in the Narnia series. Wonderful Lewis, as expected. Several profound quotes I had to copy down. I look forward to revisiting these as read-alouds with the boys.
On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness
North! Or Be Eaten
The Monster in the Hollows – Andrew Peterson*****
I read the first two Wingfeather Saga books in 2009, and decided to reread them before starting #3, which came out last spring. The third book in this series was as delightful as the first two and better. Surprising, stirring, deeper and more brilliant than a simple children's book...Peterson is an astoundingly gifted storyteller, along the lines of C.S. Lewis. He writes for children but not down to them, and thus adults find themselves captivated by his words. I can't wait until my boys are old enough for these as read-alouds. And I hate having to wait for the fourth and final book!
Uncle Tom's Cabin – Harriet Beecher Stowe*****
I absolutely loved this classic! It was so fascinating to get a glimpse of slavery not just in the abstract, but in terms of real people. And the Christian overtones were beautiful and moving.
The Poisonwood Bible – Barbara Kingsolver*****
Spectacular storytelling. Depressing and heartbreaking in its portrayal of an ugly pseudo-gospel preached by ethnocentric, pseudo-Christian missionaries—but really masterfully told from the perspective of five different narrators. Though it was fiction, it made me intrigued to know more of the history of Africa.
Handle with Care – Jodi Picoult****
After finishing this novel in less than a week, I concluded that I should probably not read Picoult's novels while I have little boys at home to care for. She can spin such a compelling tale that I have a hard time prioritizing. This one was heartbreaking, and I definitely didn't agree with her portrayal of some of the morals and ethics, but undeniably she always makes you think hard about that stuff—and I couldn't stop reading because I really wanted to know what happened to the characters.
The Red Tent – Anita Diamant**
I picked up this retelling of the story of Dinah (Jacob's daughter) expecting it to be like the other biblical-historical fiction I have loved (the Thoenes' A.D. Chronicles series; John Piper's Advent poems). It totally wasn't. Rather than adding dimension to the characters and imagining details that *could* be true, Diamant took the angle of “here's the REAL story,” flat-out contradicting the biblical account. This wasn't a story that edified me and glorified God; this was a story that, while interesting, revolved around false gods, sex, and celebrating women. The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob was barely a minor character. Disappointing.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone – J.K. Rowling**** (audiobook)
I had absolutely no interest in all the Harry Potter hype until a few months ago when I read Andrew Peterson’s article “Harry Potter, Jesus and Me” about how wonderful the books are. Having loved his Wingfeather Saga books, my interest was sufficiently piqued, so I finally checked out the audio version from the library—and very much enjoyed it.
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets – J.K. Rowling (audiobook)*****
In Andrew Peterson’s recommendation, he said that an author gets better with every book she writes, and I’d agree that I enjoyed the second Harry Potter book even more than the first. I find myself looking forward to long car rides so that I can listen to these books—Jim Dale, the man who performs them, is quite excellent.
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer - Mark Twain***
Eh. I started this one and then abandoned it in favor of other more pressing books, and only came back to it out of a desire to finish, not because I really cared so much about what happened.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban - J.K. Rowling (audiobook)*****
After finishing this one in the car late one night, I walked into the house and immediately sat down to admit on Facebook that I am officially hooked. You know it's a good book when it makes you *eager* for long car rides and when it elicits physical reactions: at various times I laughed out loud, my eyes widened, I gasped, and at the end of the book I broke into several delighted, satisfied grins. I love this series so much more than I thought I would.
Mudbound - Hillary Jordan****
From a purely literary perspective, I thought this book was excellent. The voices of six different narrators (three white, three black) and their 1940s Mississippi landscape came to life in a vivid and gripping way. Jordan explores the same era and subject matter as The Help, but this novel is darker and more complex--and ultimately, from a Christian perspective, I am hesitant to recommend it. It is gritty and real (painfully so), and while I'm comfortable with that, I'm not so comfortable with the characters' defiant attitudes toward a God of absolutes who would judge their unrepentant sins. The realism is without redemption, and that left me squirming in the end. So while I found it a terrifically well done story in one sense, I don't think I personally can really endorse it.
Your turn to weigh in: What novels did you enjoy in 2011 (or what are some all-time favorites)? What should I add to my list this year?