Sunday, December 30, 2018

Favorite Fiction of 2018

The last few days, I've been sharing my favorite reads of 2018 [top 7, another great 8].

But I don't just read Christian nonfiction books. I also get to read novels, short stories, and other fiction. A lot of what I read is escapist fiction just for fun and relaxation. For that purpose, I especially enjoy murder mysteries and science fiction thrillers. But in the course of a year, I also get to read some really good novels that are good for more than just escaping into another world. For example, I just finished Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin which shouldn't have surprised me at being so good as it was the best-selling American book of the 19th century, but it was a real page turner (and I got to see what was so explosive about it in the lead-up to the Civil War). Speaking of the Civil War, I also read Michael Shaara's The Killer Angels which I couldn't put down. I read it in every free moment over about four days. Shaara tells the story of the battle of Gettsyburg from the perspective of the commanders, and the way he does it--you'd think he had been there inside of their heads. It won a Pulitzer prize for fiction in 1975.

Here my top four newer novels which I had the pleasure of reading and reviewing in 2018:

4. Those Who Hope by Tim Stafford

I'm a big fan of Tim Stafford's writing, so I was interested to see what he would do with a book set in an urban gospel mission among the homeless, hurting, and addicted.

I think I can say that I enjoyed reading Those Who Hope, though I’m not sure that “enjoy” is the right word. Stafford has written a book that is good art–it makes you think and feel meaningful things about the world–but the things it makes you think and feel are uncomfortable, unpeaceful, not pleasurable. The characters in this book experience suffering and are often the cause of their own suffering, their own worst enemies. And Stafford shows how relentless that sin and suffering cycle can be. He captures the very real and very heartbreaking pattern of addiction. Even the most virtuous main character feels always ready to succumb once more.

There is hope in this book, and not just in the title. But the hope is not Pollyanna-ish. It’s a chastened hope. There is no over-realized eschatology where the characters stop being fallen and hurting people and everything is happy-ever-after. That day is still in the future in reality and in this work of art. The recovery (and redemption) is very realistic.

As I said in my fuller review of this self-published novel, Those Who Hope is "recommended for those who appreciate satisfying art about the unsatisfying parts of life."

3. Do We Not Bleed? by Daniel Taylor

I loved Daniel Taylor’s first Jon Mote mystery, especially getting inside the voice-filled head of the main character with all of his seemingly random yet deeply insightful (and completely hilarious!) thoughts vectoring off in all directions and leaving no allusion unturned. I also loved meeting Jon’s special and sweet sister, Judy, who, though limited and hurt in obvious ways, was also more able than most people to see things as they are really are and to trust Jesus no matter what. It wasn’t perfect (the murder mystery plot kind of fizzled), but it was deeply satisfying and thought provoking.

It seemed, however, unrepeatable. Boy, I’m glad I was wrong about that!

Jon Mote is back again. A little more “hinged” this time. A little more “together.” But not all the way there. You feel the whole time like he might be pulled under by the currents in his own mind. This time, there is a murder among the residents of the group home at which Judy lives and Jon works. The setting is perfect for sharp thinking about disability, personhood, dignity, and the image of God. It’s also good for guffaws and belly laughs. Taylor’s mind is very nimble! I disappeared into this book for several hours and came out with a big grin on my face.  [Read the rest of my review here including my disclaimers of who should or shouldn't read Do We Not Bleed?]

2. Virgil Wander by Leif Enger

Leif Enger is one of my top 5 fiction authors of all time. Heather and I come back to his first two novels again and again and love to read them out loud to each other on couch-dates. So I was incredibly excited to learn that he had come out with a new book.

I was not disappointed, though I'm not sure at all how to summarize it in a review. So far all I've been able to say is:

"Fulsome, toothsome, and gentle.

This is my first experience of Virgil Wander, and I hope he’d appreciate these adjectives."

As Peace Like a River and So Brave, Young, and Handsome, Enger's newest book also defies description and categorization. Read it for yourself.

[By the way, treat yourself by listening to this superb lecture by Leif Enger on why we need to read for pleasure.]

1. A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

The playful prose is what hooks you.

But the fascinating cast of characters intertwining their lives of both joy and sorrow in surprising ways is what keeps you reading.

And before you know it, you are carried away in a tide of beautiful storytelling to the gratifying conclusion.

A Gentleman in Moscow was my absolute favorite read of 2018. It was perfectly delightful. The author turns words into gold.

Read my full review which was also one of my favorites to write in 2018.