The Year in Books, 2013

It turns out that a crazy year in life makes for a good year in books.  I spent a week in the hospital, a couple of months on bed rest, sold our house twice (long story), had a baby, packed up and moved two weeks after giving birth, moved again a few weeks after that, went to the beach (twice), celebrated my tenth wedding anniversary, had a very strong year professionally, threw some parties, and read 145 books.  Not bad for 365 days.

The 145 books span lots of genres, but I didn’t count books read out loud to the kids (which would make for a bigger total, but you have to draw the line somewhere).  I also edited four full-length books this year, but didn’t count those since two of them haven’t been published yet and I haven’t read the final published versions of the other two yet.  I don’t set reading goals, for the same reason that I don’t set goals about how often I want to breathe per minute.  Now if only I could get some other good habits to be so easily automated!

Of the 145, a few stood out as superlative.  Links are to my longer reviews, and links to the quarter round-ups are below that in case you want snippets of the whole set.

Best Fiction

  • Wolf Hall* – Completely amazing, award winning historical fiction about the Tudor era.
  • The Distant Hours–This well-structured, well-researched historical/mystery/family drama would be an excellent choice if you only have time for one novel.  I loved the pacing and the way the author combined historical fiction and the theme of mother/daughter/sister relationships with a mystery. 

Most Thought Provoking/Life Changing

  • To Change the World – a UVA professor’s excellent treatise on what it really requires to change a culture, and how to have an impact on the world.
  • Sabbath – Nuanced, deeply thoughtful exploration of the meaning of Sabbath (not superficial rule keeping or indifference, in case you were wondering).  Highly recommended.
  • A Circle of Quiet–This is my new favorite book on life, work/motherhood/life balance, and writing. Highly recommended.
  • Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art–If you’re a Christian and an artist of any kind, especially if you’re a writer, you have to read this book.  Seriously.  Go get it now.  The reflections on taking time to just be are incredibly helpful. 
  • Bittersweet – I’m not sure how to characterize this exceptional book, since it’s about writing but just as much or more about life and difficulty and faith and relationships and parenting and identity and tons of other things.  Quite possibly relevant to everyone, whether or not you’re a writer (or a parent, or a foodie, etc).
  • Imagining the Kingdom* –  An incredible book on how character is formed through stories and liturgy (both secular and religious).  Possibly the best book I’ve read all year.
  • Desiring the Kingdom* – Tied with the book above for best book of 2013, this one technically comes first, and talks about habits and character and liturgies through the lens of understanding how our definitions of the good life impact who we are.  Phenomenal.  Do not miss these two books.

Best Food-Related

Best Education/Parenting

For similarly short reviews of the rest of the books I read in 2013, check out:
The 36 books of the first quarter
The 61 books of the second quarter
The 23 books of the third quarter
The 25 books of the fourth quarter
Thank you so much for reading A Spirited Mind, and to everyone who clicks through to Amazon from my affiliate links.  And thank you for your thoughtful comments, emails, and messages throughout the year.  Here’s to a great year of reading in 2014!

What were the best books you read in 2013?  What’s on your list for next year?

4th Quarter in Books, 2013

I read and reviewed 25 books from October – December this year.  They are categorized below with snippet reviews,  but with links to my longer reviews.  Particularly excellent choices are starred.


  • Off World – Apocalyptic technology fiction that could have included deeper treatment of ideas/philosophies, but still basically entertaining.
  • The House of Mirth – Not much mirth, but incredible pacing and character development.  Well deserving of classic status.
  • Madame Bovary – Glad I read it, but can’t say I enjoyed it.  It’s a classic and all.
  • Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day – A super fun and highly enjoyable story about a lady whose life gets turned upside down.  Loved it.
  • The Giver – Very interesting dystopian YA fiction – much cleaner and better written than most.
  • Gathering Blue – 2nd book in the Giver Quartet, with oblique reference to main character from The Giver, also well done.
  • Messenger – 3rd book in the Giver Quartet, much more ominous and violent, focusing on main characters from the first two books.
  • Son – 4th book in the Giver Quartet, tying up all of the loose ends in a really great story, except that the ending was sort of rushed and slapped on.
  • The Eyre Affair– A funny, silly mystery/crime/time travel book set in an alternate version of the 80s where the Crimean War never ended, dodos are not extinct, and crimes against literature are a matter of national security.  
  • The Historian – An excellently crafted novel about history and travel, also about Dracula albeit in a non-grisly way.
  • Unbroken – Amazing story of the Pacific front and being a prisoner of war in WWII.
  • The Last Days of the Incas – A long but highly readable account of the clash between the Incas and European explorers.  I learned a ton.
  • It’s Not About the Tapas – Technically more of a travel memoir than a history, but containing elements of history, the book chronicles the author’s bike tour of Spain.  She was a little whiny, but it was interesting.
  • Internal Time – This is really more of a science book, but it does take historical information about time and sleep into account.  It’s sort of dry, but tries hard to be readable.  Sadly the book does not get around to offering any insights into how to fix your sleep issues.

Life Balance/Writing

  • Dare, Dream, Do – I hate to say it but this book is basically everything that’s wrong with the self-help genre.  Actual quote: “To make our dreams happen, we sometimes need an eagle.  An eagle who has wings…”
  • Crazy Busy* – Insightful and biblical (yet funny and practical) treatise on how to handle busyness.  Recommended.
  • Wired for Story – A really strong, practical book on writing.


  • Mind in the Making – Fascinating look at neuroscience and child development with an eye toward helping kids develop the skills to succeed in a volatile job market, but also for life in general.  Super relevant for parents and educators or those interested in habits.
  • Duct Tape Parenting – Practical, relevant advice on how to prepare your kids to be confident, independent adults.
  • Beyond the Birds and the Bees – Excellent and thoughtful insights on teaching children of all ages about, well, the birds and the bees.


  • Imagining the Kingdom* –  An incredible book on how character is formed through stories and liturgy (both secular and religious).  Possibly the best book I’ve read all year.
  • Desiring the Kingdom* – Tied with the book above for best book of 2013, this one technically comes first, and talks about habits and character and liturgies through the lens of understanding how our definitions of the good life impact who we are.  Phenomenal.  Do not miss these two books.
  • How to Control Your Emotions So They Don’t Control You – a Biblestudy of the Psalms with applications for parenting, other relationships, workplaces, etc.


  • The Shift – Sort of a memoir of successful weight loss, but sort of more about owning your own responsibility to find solutions to your problems.
  • Trim Healthy Mama – A phone book sized amalgamation of nutrition and fitness ideas, plus some other lifestyle stuff and recipes.  The recipes are not all worthwhile and the diet could be complicated for some, especially if you haven’t previously tried carb cycling.

The Historian

I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about The Historian, given that it’s about Dracula, which isn’t usually my cup of tea.  But a friend recommended it, and it got a lot of critical acclaim, so I tried it and really enjoyed it.  Instead of a pulpy, Hollywoody vampire story, it’s more about travel and history and Eastern Europe, with a historical Dracula (he was a real person, although obviously his undead properties are less than historical) story frame.

I found the book very well written, with an exceptional grasp on multiple storylines and timelines.  The pacing is excellent.  Given the macabre possibilities, I thought Kostova did a great job of not going into lots of gruesome detail.  As I mentioned above, the book gives a feel of being more about the history and settings of Eastern Europe.  Kostova is marvelous at settings–I found myself really wanting to visit Istanbul and Budapest and the fairytale-like countrysides and mountains she describes.

The Historian is a long book in the best way–a full story that you don’t want to put down but that you relish for being long enough to hang out with for a while.


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Wired for Story

I’ve heard writers say that they never read writing books because all writing books are the same, and maybe they are right.  However, I keep picking up books on writing because every time I read one I seem to find interesting tidbits that really help me with whatever issue I’m having with my work.

I write for my job (mostly marketing copy and technical writing) and I also write for fun (this blog and fiction) and I find that when I work on my writing in one area I see improvement in others as well.  When I began reading Wired for Story I was feeling frustrated that my fiction writing wasn’t really going anywhere.  I don’t have much free time in my schedule, so I don’t like to just meander.  This book really helped me to get a handle on some technical problems I was having with the big picture of my fiction efforts, which helped cut down on that feeling of futility.

But I also found specific tips that helped in my professional writing–mostly things I know but hadn’t refreshed my memory on lately.  This is why I think it’s worthwhile to keep reading this sort of book, and why I try to read a writing book once a quarter or so.  If nothing else, I get good reminders.

Wired for Story is premised on the idea that brain science can help you craft a better story.  That’s probably true, but this isn’t really a book about brain science.  There are some brain science tidbits thrown in here and there, but mostly it’s a book about writing.  It’s probably similar to other books about writing (although I feel like this one is more concrete and specific than most, which is helpful for where I am–if you’re looking for more of a vision-y book, look elsewhere) but I found it to be just what I needed right now.

If you’re a writer, what books on writing have you read lately?


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The Eyre Affair

I’ve been a fan of Jane Eyre since second grade, so I had to read The Eyre Affair if only for the title.  The book is several years old so I’m late to the party, but I thought it was great fun.

The novel is a combination mystery/comedy/time travel /crime/alternate past book, following a heroine by the name of Thursday Next who tracks literary crimes for a living.  The mystery and crime aspects of the book revolve around the plot and characters of Jane Eyre, while the alternate past part involves the Crimean War, which, in the novel, has dragged on for over a hundred years.

If you like books and history at all, you’ll probably find this book highly amusing.  It’s light and slapstick and silly (the ineffectual yet sort of maddening boss is named Braxton Hicks, for example) and pleasantly diverting.

There are other novels in the Thursday Next series, but I might stop at The Eyre Affair.  I enjoyed it but wouldn’t want to oversaturate.  If you’ve read it, what did you think?


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Chronotypes, Social Jet Lag, and [Not] Why You’re So Tired

I can’t remember where I heard about Internal Time: Chronotypes, Social Jet Lag, and Why You’re So Tired but with a subtitle like that, I had to read it.

Unfortunately, as I finished it one morning at 4am (whilst not sleeping), I concluded that the book was more descriptive than prescriptive.

Roenneberg presents a fairly readable account of the science behind sleep.  It turns out that people are born with genetic chronotypes making them tend toward being early birds or late owls.  The social story is that people who sleep late are lazy (“the early bird catches the worm!” type sayings are common in most languages) but actually they just respond differently to time and light on a cellular level.  Roenneberg describes some fascinating studies on how this works.

An especially helpful result of reading this book is that it gives enough information to help readers evaluate things in the popular press regarding sleep.  Roenenberg mentions several times how erroneously the press reports on sleep, taking things out of context or blowing things out of proportion.  For example, the frequently reported “fact” that having small lights in your bedroom (like a night light or alarm clock) messes with your serotonin production is false.

I’m not sure why the book never makes the leap to discussing what people can DO about the issues and problems it raises.  What should people do to overcome social jet lag?  How can we manage our chronotypes given that we live in a society that expects us to get to work and school on time?  And please, please, what do I do about being so tired???

Although the book was interesting, I have a hard time recommending it because it so lacked conclusions about how to even begin to address these questions.  If I had more time (or was not so tired) perhaps I could apply some of the experimental findings to attempt to fix sleep for myself.  That would involve things like getting more exposure to daylight, not looking at screens or flourescent lights after twilight, never traveling across time zones except by slow-moving conveyance like ships or bicycles, or perhaps living in an underground bunker without any outside input on when my day begins or ends.

Well, some of those would be easier to implement than others.

If you’re deeply interested in the science of sleep, you might enjoy Internal Time, but if you’re looking for solutions to sleep problems, this is probably not the book for you.


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The Rest of the Giver Quartet

Since I liked The Giver so much, I decided to read the other three books in the quartet.  The nice thing about YA books is that they are not much of a time investment!  But the bad thing about YA books is that they are sometimes lacking in depth where depth would be warranted.

Each of the remaining books (Gathering Blue, Messenger, and Son) had fantastic premises and explored interesting themes, but each suffered from rushed conclusions.  The books built well at first, with good pacing and rising action and high stakes, but then when the final showdown had to happen, it happened so fast that it seemed abrupt.  Maybe it was a length issue because YA books aren’t supposed to too long?  For example, in one book, Evil is defeated (not just a character who is evil, but Evil writ large) for good by telling it a couple of anecdotes about people who didn’t let Evil win in their lives.  That’s a good message on the one hand (that people don’t have to give in to evil) but kind of superficial on the other (really?  Evil can be utterly vanquished forever by telling it a couple of stories?).  It seems like kids would see through that.  I guess I just disagree with it from a worldview standpoint.

I felt like these three books were more intense than the first one, and I’m not sure that they’d be appropriate for all middle schoolers.  There was more violence in these, and the final book, Son, contains reference to incest, which, in my opinion is way too much for a kid to read about even though it was a mention rather than a scene and was portrayed as negative.  I could be off in that assessment–I don’t have a middle school aged kid–and maybe that reference goes over most readers’ heads, but I wanted to mention it so you’d know to be prepared if you give the book to a child.  I don’t know how parents/teachers handle that sort of thing.  Do you discuss it with the child(ren) or wait and see if they ask?

Anyway, I am not panning these books–I think Lowry did a fantastic job with the highly imaginative premises, world-building, the character development, and the overall storytelling and pacing.  I enjoyed Gathering BlueMessenger, and Son even though I found the endings a bit lacking.

Parents/Teachers: I’m interested to know how you handle books that contain difficult material.  Do you talk it over with the kids, or just assume they will figure it out?


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Crazy Busy

“How are you guys doing?” a mama with a baby Eliza’s age asked me in the church nursery.

“Busy” was my automatic reply.

Ack!  I just read a book about the epidemic of busy-ness!  I should not have said “busy” she will think I’m trying to derive meaning from being overwhelmed!

“But good!” I added, “Really good!”

And we are.  Really good, that is.  But truthfully, we’re busy too.  And maybe that’s not all bad.  What I loved about Crazy Busy: A (Mercifully) Short Book about a (Really) Big Problem was that in addition to giving really insightful, biblical guidance on the pace of modern life, and funny practical advice, the author offers realistic reframing of some of our common mindsets about being busy.

Certainly we all suffer from the busy problem.  We could all use more Sabbath, less screen addiction, less freaking out, and more quiet reflection.  But, as Kevin DeYoung points out, “Jesus was busy, but never in a way that made him frantic, anxious, irritable, proud, envious, or distracted by lesser things.”  Some times of life are just busy (parenting small kids being one of them).  In those instances, when God has called us to a busy time, we should simplify where we can, but beyond that we need to reframe the issue.

The book, while short, is packed full of helpful thinking.  Some topics that stood out to me include:

  • A lot of busy-ness comes down to people pleasing, power, perfectionism, and prestige.
  • “We need to stop freaking out about our kids.”
  • Digital independence is becoming harder to attain, so we need to respond with thoughtful and careful attention.
  • We have to be diligent about seeking out rhythm in our lives.  Otherwise we will fall into the general malaise of mindless busy-ness without having clear stops and rests in our lives. “One of the dangers of technology is that work and rest blend together in a confusing mush.”
  • “You cannot cheat sleep indefinitely.”  The connection between sleep and trust in God was an interesting one for me to contemplate.
  • When we fail to establish priorities, get enough rest, and rightly consider what God asks us to do (which, again, sometimes involves being busy), we have a tendency to let every little thing become cause for great panic.

My main take-away from the book is that we can’t (and shouldn’t) always avoid being busy, but we can work at not being crazy busy.  As we head into a new year, and a new semester, with multiple opportunities to fill time (but also to say no), Crazy Busy would be a good book to consider.


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The Giver

I read Lois Lowry’s The Giver without having any background on the story, which I think was an interesting way to approach it (in that the premise gradually dawned on me as I absorbed details in the first few pages, rather than going into it already knowing what was going on).  So I shall attempt not to spoil it for you.

The book is YA dystopian fiction, but an old school version, so it’s not about teenage love affairs and vampires and whatnot.  Rather it’s the dystopian genre at its best–asking readers to think about society and what logical outcomes of our beliefs might be.

I saw the book billed as being for 8-12 year olds, but I question that.  The prose is certainly simple enough–Jack  (6 1/2) could read the words easily–but the concepts might not mean a lot to a younger kid, and certain aspects of the story would likely be confusing or disturbing.

But for a thoughtful middle school kid or older, the book might work if you were going to discuss it with him or her.

I read The Giver for a book club and found it compelling and interesting.  If you’re a fan of the genre, I think you’d find it tamer in some ways than current offerings, but better in some ways too.

If you’ve read The Giver, what age were you when you read it and what did you think?


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Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day

If you’re looking for a fun, light book to read over the holidays, I recommend Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day.  This delightful little book, written in the 1930s and set in London, follows a staid spinster whose life and self-perception is utterly changed over the course of one 24 hour period.

Starting the day as an unemployed and down-at-the-heels governess (who is actually very bad at governessing, hence her unemployment), Miss Pettigrew by chance meets a glamorous actress and, through a series of misunderstandings and scrapes manages to rescue the actress and her friends from a series of tragic mishaps, earning their trust and friendship.  Along the way, Miss Pettigrew’s numerous and previously unchallenged rules and assumptions about life, society, and happiness are upended and the whole thing winds up in a highly satisfactory fashion.

After reading the book I looked up the movie with the intent of watching it, but was aghast to see that the entire plot was distressingly changed so I averred.  I didn’t think I could such a gross mis-rendering of the story, since I enjoyed the book so much.

Having read a number of heavier non-fiction books lately, this fun and amusing book was a great diversion.  I’d recommend it.


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