Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Best Reads of 2013 – Fiction

This is the last in a series of post about the best books I have read this past year.  This post is definitely the least serious – it is about fiction books.

Fiction is my brain candy.  I read it before I crawl into bed.  It is a way for my mind to unwind.  And, as you see by my list, I am not necessarily reading what I would call Literature with a capital L.  These are fun books, many science fiction and fantasy, with a few others thrown in.

As you will notice, there are no Christian fiction books on this list.  Some of you might think that is shameful for a pastor.  I hate to say this, but there are only a handful of Christian writers – Lawhead, Windle, Rosenberg – that I enjoy.
Here are the best fiction books I read last year: (in no particular order)

Revelation by C. J. Sansom.  I don’t read too many mysteries, but C. J. Sansom’s books find their way into my reading pile regularly.  Revelation is part of the Shardlake mysteries, a series of historical mysteries set during the time of King Henry VIII and the English Reformation.  Great history and a great plot combined. 

A Memory of Light by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson.  This book is here not because it was a great book – it rather good and the ending was satisfying – but because it signals the end of an era.  I started reading the Eye of the World series in college (yep, that long ago….).  14 books later, it has survived the death of the original author Robert Jordan only to see Brandon Sanderson breathe new life into the series.  Although I almost gave them up about book #6 or #7, the later books recaptured some of the magic of book 1.
Mistborn, The Well of Ascension, and  The Hero of Ages by Brandon Sanderson.  Sanderson’s Mistborn Trilogy is a great read.  Fabulous world, great plot, absorbing characters and fun ending.

Elantris by Brandon Sanderson.  Having been impressed by Sanderson’s later work, I dug up his first book from a used book store.  It is a debut worth reading.  Again he has created a unique world filled with great characters, driven by a compelling story.
Legacies by L. E. Modesitt Jr.  Modesitt’s Corean Chronicles, book 1.  I am still reading this series and I am enjoying tremendously.  Legacies introduces you to Alucius, hero of books 1-3.

2nd Tier books (very good, but not great)

Magi’i of Cyador by L. E. Modesitt Jr.  (Magic of Recluse series)
Scion of Cyador by L. E. Modesitt Jr. (sequel to Magi’I of Cyador)
The Chaos Balance by L. E. Modesitt Jr.  (Magic of Recluse series)
Imager by L. E. Modesitt Jr. (Imager Portfolio, book 1)
Odd Thomas by Dean Koontz (Odd Thomas series, book 1, first Koontz book, looking forward to reading the rest of the series)
Darknesses by L. E. Modesitt Jr. (Corean Chronicles, book 2)

3rd Tier books (I finished them, but they were on the disappointing side)

Acorna, the Unicorn Girl by Anne McCaffrey and Margaret Ball.  (I generally love McCaffrey’s stuff, but this one underwhelmed me)
Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card (classic sci-fi, but again I was underwhelmed.  Hopefully the movie is better…)

Best Reads from 2013 – Ministry and Faith-Oriented

This is part 2 of my best reads of 2013 series.  This time up – the best ministry and faith-oriented books I read last year.  I read a lot of good books in this category last year.  The top 7 stand out, but I would recommend almost everything on this list.

As you will note, there are a few repeated authors in this list.  What can I say, there are certain guys whose writing has had a profound impact on me.
Top Ministry and Faith Books of 2013 (in no particular order):

How People Change by Timothy S. Lane and Paul David Tripp.  Lane and Tripp have written a powerful tool to get to the heart of personal change.  It is deeply Scriptural and hugely convicting.  I will be using this in teaching and counseling situations for years.
Every Good Endeavor:  Connecting Your Work to God’s Work by Timothy Keller and Katherine Leary Alsdorf.  This book is a readable theology of work written by one of the best communicators out there right now.  I wish I could get every guy in my church to read this book.  Keller does a great job laying out the God’s plan for work, our problems with work and how the gospel touches the world of work.
Dangerous Calling: Confronting the Unique Challenges of Pastoral Ministry by Paul David Tripp.  This was definitely the most convicting book I read this year.  Pastors, this is a profound call to renew pastoral culture with the gospel.  Parishioners, this is a unique insight into the struggles and temptations your pastor faces.

Gods at War:  Defeating the Idols that Battle for Your Heart by Kyle Idleman.  Idleman’s book is both goofy and powerfully challenging.  Tackling the many idols that vie to dethrone God in our lives, Idleman gives solid biblical teaching on how to put the idols we value in their proper place – as things under the submission of the lordship of Christ.
Sex and Money:  Pleasures that Leave you Empty and Grace that Satisfies by Paul David Tripp.  Tripp confronts the two areas of insanity in our world – our slavery to possessions and our fascination with sex.  It is a book filled with wise, biblical counsel for two areas of our life that are often out of balance.

From Famine to Fullness:  The Gospel According to Ruth by Dean R. Ulrich.  This book is part of a series entitled The Gospel According to the Old Testament.  I read it as part of our sermon preparation for a preaching series on Ruth.  Part commentary and part devotional, Ulrich competently navigates Ruth’s world and consistently brings the reader back to the places where Ruth’s story points to Jesus.
Counsel from the Cross:  Connecting Broken People to the Love of Christ by Elyse M. Fitzpatrick and Dennis E. Johnson.  This is a book I hope to read anew every few years.  If you want to know how to wisely counsel someone in light of the truths of the gospel, this is a great place to start.

2nd Tier Reads (very good, but not great)

The Pastor: A Memoir by Eugene Peterson
Not a Fan:  Becoming a Completely Committed Follower of Jesus by Kyle Idleman
The Grace of God by Andy Stanley
God is Not Fair, He is More Than Fair by Lee E. Pollock
The Resolution for Men by Stephen and Alex Kendrick
Humility:  True Greatness by C. J. Mahaney
Joseph:  A Man of Integrity and Forgiveness by Charles R. Swindoll
A Cry for Justice:  How the Evil of Domestic Abuse Hides in your Church by Jeff Crippen and Anna Wood
Saving Eutychus:  How to Preach God’s Word and Keep People Awake by Gary Millar and Phil Campbell
Lifted:  Experiencing the Resurrection Life by Sam Allberry
Fields of Gold by Andy Stanley
Mistakes Leaders Make by Dave Kraft
Real Marriage:  The Truth about Sex, Friendship and Life Together by Mark and Grace Driscoll
The Treasure Principle by Randy Alcorn
The Invested Life by Joel Rosenberg and T. E. Koshy
A Sweet and Bitter Providence by John Piper
Emotionally Healthy Spirituality by Peter Scazzero
Accidental Pharisees:  Avoiding Pride, Exclusivity and the other Dangers of Overzealous Faith by Larry Osborne

3rd Tier Reads (good, but slightly disappointing) 

Defending Constantine:  The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom by Peter J. Leithart
Joseph: Overcoming Obstacles through Faithfulness by Gene A. Getz
Unleader: Re-Imagining Leadership…and Why We Must by Lance Ford
The Message of 2 Timothy by John R. W. Stott

4th Tier Reads (disappointing)

God Meant it for Good: A Fresh Look at the Life of Joseph by R. T. Kendall (for a sermon series, very over-spiritualized)

Monday, January 6, 2014

Best Reads from 2013 - History and Biography

For the first time in my life, I actually kept track of the books I read in the past year.  Considering how many books I read, it is quite surprising to me that it took me this long to do this.  It has been a good exercise for me – one that I hope to continue in future years.

That said, since I know what I read in the past year (rather than thinking – “I read that book a year ago, or was it two years ago….”), I am qualified to put together a list of my best reads from the past year.  Since I tend to read in three general categories – religious, non-fiction and fiction – I hope to put together three lists of my reads of 2013.

So here is the first – my best non-fiction reads of 2013.  I tend to have some kind of history or biography book going all the time.  Here are the best ones I read this year (in no particular order).

Iron Curtain:  The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-56 by Anne Applebaum.  I read Applebaum’s fascinating and disturbing history of the Russian Gulags a few years back.  When I saw this book, I was eager to get into it.  Applebaum tells the powerful and troubling story of how the Communists gradually crushed resistance in Eastern Europe after World War 2.  The most disturbing parts of the book are how the tactics of the Communists parallel the tactics of the “politically correct tolerance” crowd today.

Hellhound on His Trail:  The Stalking of Martin Luther King Jr. and the International Hunt for his Assassin by Hampton Sides.  Hampton Sides is a great writer and this book is as good, if not better, than his book about Kit Carson from 2007.  The story reads like a novel and his pace and the level of suspense he generates are exceptional, especially as the events he narrates are well-known history.
The Guns at Last Light by Rick Atkinson.  Pulitzer Prize winning writer Atkinson completes his trilogy on the history of the American Army in World War 2 Europe with this book.  It is hard for me to say that a book on the painful history of World War 2 could be lyrical in its writing, but that is the word that comes to mind.  Atkinson does a wonderful job painting this powerful story.
John Quincy Adams by Harlow Giles Unger.  This one surprised me.  I have always been interested in John Quincy Adams and Unger’s book, while likely not the most in-depth account available, was a fascinating read.  Although he was a mediocre President at best, Mr. Adams excelled in everything else (Ambassador, Congressman, Senator, Sec. of State), making him one of the most accomplished Americans in history.

Team of Rivals:  The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin.  I have had this book on my shelf for years, but never got around to reading it until this year.  Stupid me.  Goodwin skillfully weaves Lincoln’s life together with the lives of his Cabinet, a number of whom ran against him for the presidential nomination.  Highly recommended.
Lawrence in Arabia:  War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East by Scott Anderson.  Another surprise.  I was not familiar with the author, although the topic sounded interesting, especially considering the fact that the Middle East makes headlines every day.  While primarily about Lawrence of Arabia, Anderson introduces the reader to a number of other people whose lives and deeds played pivotal roles in the shaping of the Middle East.

Other non-fiction books read in 2013:

2nd Tier Reads – Very good, not great
The Crimean War by Orlando Figes  (lots of military idiots here…)
Terrible Swift Sword:  The Life of General Philip H. Sheridan by Joseph Wheelan (post-Civil War life very interesting)
Killing Lincoln by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard (quick read, but gets the history generally right)
The Last Crusade:  The Epic Voyages of Vasco Da Gama by Nigel Cliff
Killing Kennedy by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard (see Killing Lincoln above)
Go Down Together:  The True, Untold Story of Bonnie and Clyde by Jeff Guinn
The Race for Timbuktu:  In Search of Africa’s City of God by Frank T. Kryza (I love exploration books)
38 Nooses:  Lincoln, Little Crow and the Beginning of the Frontier’s End by Scott W. Berg (we used to live down the road from the site of these events)
Antony and Cleopatra by Adrian Goldsworthy (not up to his usual incredible standards)
Neptune’s Inferno – The US Navy at Guadalcanal by James D. Hornfischer

3rd Tier Reads – books that I finished, but were mildly disappointing.
Jungleland by Christopher S. Stewart (anti-climactic)
Our Supreme Task: How Winston Churchill’s Iron Curtain Speech defined the Cold War Alliance by Philip White
Eisenhower 1956 by David A. Nichols
The Last Gunfight by Jeff Guinn
Death in the Sahara:  the Lords of the Desert and the Timbuktu Railway Expedition Massacre by Michael Asher
The Blood of Lambs by Kamal Saleem
Frozen in Time:  An Epic Story of Survival and a Modern Quest for Lost Heroes of World War 2 by Mitchell Zuckoff
Hershey:  Milton S. Hershey’s Extraordinary Life of Wealth, Empire and Utopian Dreams by Michael D’Antonio 
Unknown Shore:  The Lost History of England’s Arctic Colony by Robert Ruby