It’s taken a while, but by popular demand, here at last is a review of the books that I read in 2018. Rather than a review of each book, I’ll start with some summary observations, and then divide into categories with a few thoughts in each. I’ve given a vague “*” star-rating, and highlighted those with 5 stars in bold. Do get in touch if you’d like any more input on how I found reading in 2018!
I’ve read a lot of fiction in 2018. A lot. That’s because I enjoy reading, and I like to have a variety of things on the go at any time. I’ve also found my appetite for reading increased since I finish each day with a few minutes of reading – where it is easier to visit Narnia than delve into deep theological topics.
I’ve also chosen not to finish some books. I’m normally someone who cannot bring himself to stop reading a book if I’ve started it – but I made some headway into Artemis (by Andy Weir, author of “The Martian”) before deciding the plot was so repulsive I could not continue. Reservoir 13 (John McGregor) was just too confusing to me – despite being wildly popular with many others in my book group!
I also re-read several books that I’ve read before – about a third of the books I read through the year were visits into prose I’d enjoyed in the past, but wanted to experience again. The great danger of publicly announcing my reading progress (e.g. on Goodreads) is that, competitive as I am, I want to increase my lifetime score of ‘books read’ – a foolish pursuit when there are books I can enjoy as much as I did my return visit to the Karla Trilogy!
- Isaiah by the Day (Alec Motyer) ****
- Exodus (Alec Motyer) ***
- Living the Cross-Centred Life (C. J. Mahaney) ****
- Tumbling Sky (Matt Seales) *****
- 1 Samuel – Looking on the heart (Dale Ralph Davis) ****
- The Passion of the Christ (John Piper) **** aka “50 reasons why Jesus came to die” – free ebook here
- Seeing and Savouring Jesus Christ (John Piper) ****
Some of these books were used in devotional time at the beginning of the day; others were subsumed within my ‘general reading’. All of it was chosen to grow my love of Jesus. Tony Reinke’s “Lit” gave a theology of reading, and while encouraging a varied literary diet, challenge the tendency of Christians to read topical/ethical books at the expense of books that grow our love of our Saviour. It’s been a while since I read “Lit”, but the lesson has haunted me and I tried to rectify that in 2018.
Devotional books often make interesting observations without necessarily considering ‘authors’ purpose’ – and these are no exception. Sometimes I can find myself resisting the ‘blessed thoughts’ I’m delivered, until I consider that these ideas are still true and good for my soul. Far more important to gaze upon Christ in reality than gain exegetical clarity without devotion. Here are seven books that, to varying degrees, helped me to do so.
A particular shout-out for “Tumbling Sky” – short devotions, carefully thought through, and a particularly good gift for those who are finding opening their Bible especially hard.
- God and the Transgender Debate (Andrew Walker) ****
- Do you pray? (J. C. Ryle) *****
- The Prodigal God (Timothy Keller) ***
- Knowing our Times (John Stevens) ***
- Brothers, we are not professionals (John Piper) **** and Still not Professionals (free ebook) (John Piper, ed.) ****
- The Porn Problem (Vaughan Roberts) ****
- From Creation to New Creation (Tim Chester) ****
- Same Sex Relationships (John Stott) ****
- C.T. Studd – Cricketer & Pioneer (Norman Grubb) ***
- Memoirs of an ordinary pastor (D.A. Carson) *****
- The Biggest Story (Kevin DeYoung) ****
Not much that’s especially ‘high-brow’ in this list – it was all fairly straightforward to read – and I realised that my reading habits have been heavily affected by books that are cheap/free. Beware the ‘freebie smoothie’ that gets in the way of solid food! That’s not to decry all value in free books, but when I look at this list I realise the books I was most grateful to read were the longer ones for which I paid good money.
Having said that, “Memoirs of an ordinary pastor” – whose PDF has been freely available for several years – is one of my favourite books of all time, bringing me to tears each of the times I have read it; it’s strongly recommended, especially if you’re in set-apart ministry. J.C. Ryle is also always worth reading – get hold of “Do you pray?” if you possibly can, along with anything else that has his name on it! “Brothers, we are not professionals” and its free ebook successor won’t be to everyone’s taste, but I was grateful for the nudge in various areas even where my ecclesiology differs in some places from Piper. Walker’s “God and the Transgender debate” is a helpful introduction to the topic.
I read two ‘easy-access’ Bible overviews over the year. Tim Chester’s “From Creation to New Creation” is a good alternative to Vaughan Robert’s “God’s Big Picture”, though slightly less easy to read. “The Biggest Story” is, admittedly, a kids book – so expect a very, very light touch – but it’s a nice integration of the sweeping story of the Bible.
“Book Club” Fiction
- The Death of Grass (John Christopher) ***
- The Drowned World (J.G. Ballard) **
- Annihilation (Jeff Vandermeer) *
- Ecotopia (Ernest Callenbach) *
- The Word for World is Forest (Ursula K. Le Guin) **
- Solar (Ian McEwan) ***
- The End We Start From (Megan Hunter) **
I managed to read 7 of the books for the literary fiction book club of which I’m a part. If I’m honest, I didn’t enjoy many of them. “The Death of Grass” was an interesting dystopian vision which I enjoyed for its engaging plot; Ian McEwan always interests me because I studied some of his books at A-level, but Solar probably isn’t one of his best. Annihilation is only very loosely connected to the Netflix film of the same name, and oddly difficult to read – which makes me reluctant to wade through the rest of the “Southern Reach trilogy” that it introduces.
All in all, not the best bunch of books. Whereas the fiction I chose to read on my own…
- The Girl on the Train (Paula Hawkins) ***
- Angels and Demons (Dan Brown) ***
- Prince Caspian (C.S. Lewis) *****
- The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (C.S. Lewis) *****
- All the Light We Cannot See (Anthony Doerr) ****
- The Accidental Further Adventures of the Hundred-Year-Old Man (Jonas Jonasson) ****
- The Hobbit (J.R.R. Tolkien) ****
- Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (John Le Carré) *****
- The Honourable Schoolboy (John Le Carré) ****
- Smiley’s People (John Le Carré) *****
- The Little Drummer Girl (John Le Carré) ***
Is it any surprise to anyone that four of these were written by John Le Carré and two of those get 5 stars? Or indeed that C.S. Lewis should receive 5 stars for both of his contributions to 2018’s list?
I’m a huge fan of thrillers, and the quality of John Le Carré’s writing is always compelling – I’ve enjoyed working through his Smiley series, and re-reading the Karla Trilogy enabled me to appreciate his prose even more. “The Honourable Schoolboy” was, on first-reading, a great challenge to get through (it is, after all, over 600 pages long!) but re-reading it this year was extremely enjoyable – I was baffled that I struggled so much first time around.
Dan Brown gets a lot of stick – for good reason. I read this extremely good send-up of his writing long before I first read any of his text, and it probably prejudiced me against his books. Nonetheless, he writes a good plot – so I was willing to forgive the weaknesses and simply enter into the spirit of the thing.
“All the Light We Cannot See” was captivating – but just a little too long for my liking. “The Accidental Further Adventures…” was much like Jonasson’s other work – not as good as his first two (“The Hundred-Year-Old Man who jumped out of the window and disappeared” and “The Girl who saved the King of Sweden”), but not as blasphemous as his third (“Hitman Anders…”).
Looking for something easy to read? (Re-)Visit Narnia! A thrilling read with high quality prose? John Le Carré is always worth a read, and Tinker Tailor is amongst his best – but it’s book 5 in a series of 9. You don’t need to read the others before you start (it was, after all, the first one I read), but you may as well!
Book of the Year
And so, my book of the year? Well, in spite of the fact that I’d read them before, the crown is shared by “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” by John Le Carré, and “Memoirs of an Ordinary Pastor” by D.A. Carson.
What about you? What was the best thing you read in 2018?
And if you’re impatient to know what I’m reading in 2019, you can follow my progress on Goodreads here.