Best Books of 2021
This year I rediscovered my love of bookstores. In 2020 almost everything I purchased was online, including groceries. In 2021 I was able to return to places where I could preview my produce before adding it to my cart and try on clothes before taking them home. The kind of shop I most appreciated being able to return to were bookstores. There’s a lovely one in Nashville called Parnassus Books. My daughter and I popped in one day for a look around, which became over an hour of picking up book after book, feeling the different weights of a sturdy hardcover and a handy paperback in our hands. Ogling the covers as if they were candy. Delighting in familiar titles we’d read before and finding so so many books we wanted to read.
New books, new stories to dive into, more things to learn, fresh ways to examine old truths always bring me joy. A trip to a bookstore is therapeutic for my soul, but it is in the actual reading of the books, the turning of the pages, and the processing of the words that the magic happens. I don’t know how many books I read in 2021, because I did a horrible job of noting and reviewing them on my Goodreads account. Oops. But, I know I turned thousands of pages of both fiction and nonfiction. I read the books my kids were reading for school, the books that caught my eye, the books my author friends wrote, the books someone suggested, and books that would help me with my work. I learned and explored and savored them. Below are my favorite reads of 2021. I hope they help you discover a new read for your to-read pile.
The Water Keeper and The Letter Keeper by Charles Martin
These two tied. They are books one and two in the Murphy Shepherd series and I listened to the audio books back to back. Charles Martin has been a favorite of mine for years. His writing is exquisite and soulful. The way he tells hard, meaningful stories and weaves the love of Jesus naturally into the tales always causes me to pause, cry, stop, or pray mid-chapter, and then eagerly return to the story, because I need to know what happens next. If you haven’t read these two yet. Add them to your list. The third one in the series releases in July and I can’t wait to dive in.
Breaking Free from Body Shame by Jess Connolly
I didn’t think I needed this book. I felt okay with my body. I thought. But then several friends mentioned Jess Connolly’s new book had brought them freedom. I’ve been a fan of Jess and her writing for a while, so I got it. And I read it. And I, too, found freedom. Turns out, most of us have some issues with our bodies–whether that’s a scar or a size or a shape or something our bodies did or didn’t do or could or couldn’t do that brought us shame. Jess reminds us of this truth, “Your body is a good body.” She backs up that truth with the fact that God made it. He made my body and your body and all our bodies to move and laugh and make things. And because God made our bodies–they’re good. It’s simple, but I lose sight of it. Most people I know are frustrated with their bodies in some way. This beautiful reframing of all the good our bodies can do, and all the things God allows us to do with them, like hug someone we love or read or listen to a story, is good not just for our bodies, but also for our souls.
Best Kids Book:
The Grumbles by Amy Parker and Tricia Goyer
The Grumbles makes me giggle. It’s all about a family named the Grumbles who, well, grumbles. I see my own family (and my own grumbling) on the beautifully illustrated pages. Then Grandma Grateful steps in to save the day! (Isn’t the grandma always the hero?) She reminds us all to shine love to others, to be thankful for all we have. This darling story encourages us to stop grumbling, and instead be thankful. When we are, our gratitude is contagious! Sure, the book was written for kids, but this book is a great reminder for all of us to shine Christ’s love and grace and toss our grumbling in the garbage.
Your turn. I’d love to hear your favorite reads of the year, so I can add them to my stack for 2022. Happy New Year! May it be filled with wonderful reads and the incredible love of Christ Jesus.
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I’m excited to introduce you to my guest blogger and dear friend, Tamara Bundy. Tammy and I both have four kids (two girls and two boys each), husbands who work at Miami University, a love for coffee, books and Jesus, and a passion to write stories. Tammy’s newest title releases January 14, and in the blog this week she writes about something God taught her while writing Pixie Pushes On and she's giving away a free copy of her book (keep reading for details).
Only God could turn a trip to the hospital into an uplifting trip down memory lane. My dad had been in the hospital with, yet another case of pneumonia caused by his compromised lungs due to his Inclusion Body Myositis. We had gotten used to this rotation of hospital stays–at least as much as one can get used to it. But no matter how used to it you pretend to be, sitting with someone you love in a hospital room, while they are hooked up to beeping machines, looking older than you remember them to be, is hard.
My mom and dad both grew up on farms during the 1940’s, but they moved to the city when they got married. Because I grew up a city-kid, I remember being amazed at the farm stories they told—stories about my dad driving tractors as soon as he could see over the steering wheel. Stories of my mom’s favorite lamb, Buster. When it came time to write my second middle grade novel, I knew I wanted it to take place in that setting –and I knew it would have a lamb named Buster.
As I added the fictional elements to the story –such as my main character’s sister having polio, I wanted to ground it in more realities of my parents’ childhoods. That’s when I realized how poorly I’d been listening all those years. Sure, I’d heard their basic stories –but when you’re growing up, you assume you’ll have your parents (and their stories) your whole life. You imagine you’ll always be able to ask them important (and unimportant) things.
My parents lived in Columbus and my family lived two hours away in Cincinnati. Our moments of being in the same room at the same time were few. That day in the hospital was a moment I knew God put in front of me. And so, on that winter day, with my worried mom stationed beside Dad, who didn’t want the attention on him, I tried to distract them. I told them about the new book I was writing. And then, in that scary hospital room I asked my mom and dad to tell me about when they were children.
I wanted their day-to day details of life on the farm. What did they have for lunch at school? How did they get to school? Did they have bathrooms? Electricity? These were all questions that younger-me never bothered to ask, but older-me not only wanted to take the time, but also desperately wanted to slow it down.
Then, amidst the din of the machines helping my dad breathe, another sound blissfully prevailed. This sound of youthful stories of milking cows, gathering eggs, tending gardens. Mom and Dad were no longer 80-something-year-old’s watching their lives slip away. My mom became, again, the ten-year-old chasing the fuzzy little lamb she bottle-fed. My dad, once more, was in fifth grade having to eat the cold, slimy fried-egg sandwich he didn’t like, but had to eat because, as my grandma told him, “If the chickens are laying eggs, we’re eating eggs.”
My parents remembered. They talked and talked. I swear, they even giggled. If possible, they physically grew younger in front of me. And I wrote down every exquisite detail I could manage through the happy tears gathering in my eyes.
My dad passed away not long after that treasured afternoon.
On January 14, the book I was writing, Pixie Pushes On releases from Nancy Paulsen Books. And yes, I am thrilled to have readers meet Pixie, her Granddaddy, Grandma, Sissy, Daddy –and her lamb named Buster. But most of all, I am filled with joy that if I look closely between the lines of this story, I can see traces of my parents’ childhoods. And within those pages, they will stay young forever.
My dad wouldn’t mind that attention at all. I imagine he would even say, “That’s fine and dandy.”
(click here to listen to the song "Fine and Dandy" written and performed by Tamara's kids a.k.a. The Bundys, in honor of Tamara's dad)
If you are blessed to have older people in your life – ask them about their childhoods, their special memories. You don’t have to be writing a book. You just have to ask. And then listen. Listen as the years melt away. Listen to their stories. Maybe you’ll even decide to write some of the memories down.
It’s never too late. Start today, start now. Ask God to guide you. Afterall, He managed to turn a hospital trip into an uplifting trip down memory lane, leaving me with a precious memory that is, indeed, one for the books.
To win an autographed copy of Tammy’s Pixie Pushes On leave a comment in the comment section below of the blog. One winner will be selected by number randomizer on January 13. Open to continental U.S. residents only.
Tamara Bundy is a children’s book author as well as the author of several non-fiction inspirational books. A former columnist for the Cincinnati Post, she currently teaches English and Creative Writing at Miami University. You can follow her on all social media platforms as well as at www.tamarabundy.com
Saturday night two of the kids had soccer scrimmages. We thought it was a great excuse to grab the grandmas, bring them along for an evening of visiting and watching the kids play. However, the sky had other plans. The clouds thought it was a fantastic night for a thunderstorm. After driving an hour to the location of Game #1, we sat in the car watching the sky flash with electricity and listening to booming thunder for over an hour. Then this game was cancelled altogether.
But you know what? We also ended up having a picnic in the car—if you count hot, salty, rosemary fries and chicken sandwiches smeared with creamy avocado from Smashburger a picnic, and I do. When the storm stopped, the sun came out revealing a spectacular full-arc rainbow. We had thirty minutes while the team warmed up, so we went on a lovely walk around the school grounds. We laughed, got caught up, and had a sweet family evening despite the weather.
What changes in plans have switched your schedule this week? How did you handle them?
Sunday night was date night. I put on lipstick, sprayed perfume, set up our kids with frozen pizzas and a movie, hugged them goodbye, and drove into the sunset with the man of my dreams. We pulled into the empty parking lot of the yummy Italian restaurant we’d planned on dining at to discover a “Closed” sign in their window.
Gratefully, I have a quick-thinking entrepreneurial husband who embraces changes in plans. He calls them “opportunities.” No lie, the man rubbed his hands together as if now that our date night had been hijacked, the world was his oyster. Fifteen minutes later we exited Kroger with a baguette, brie, a bottle of wine, and a couple of crisp apples—all the fixings for an impromptu dinner for two that didn’t involve me cooking, because please, date night. Our kids were surprised to see us. But you know what? We had a romantic evening on our screened-in porch. My husband and I talked for hours while dipping crusty bread in creamy cheese, and bonus, grocery goodies were way less expensive than dinner out would have been.
When your plans get turned upside down, what do you do? Panic? Get angry? Shut down? Start pointing fingers? Or look for opportunities? Figure out how to reallocate your time, look for ways to shuffle the pieces around to make a different picture, double up, juggle, or seize the day?
Here’s the deal. I do so much better when there’s a schedule. We have four kids and life gets crazy, and the only way to get everyone where they need to be when they need to be there and make sure we’re all fed on a daily basis is by planning it all out. I sleep better, breathe deeper, am more relaxed when I know what to expect. But plans change. All the time. The examples I gave are every day occurrences—the flight gets cancelled or an impromptu party breaks out or the meeting gets changed or someone gets sick or they win an award and the ceremony is tonight…and it’s out of our hands, and we have to adjust, cope, slide into Plan B. I’m also aware there are changes in plans that rip the carpet right out from under our feet, leaving us feeling helpless about how to move forward. But God is with us through all of it—the every day and the tragic. Right beside us. Loving us. We need to lean on Him when the changes are too hard to take on our own, and be open to what God has in store. Because He has so very much good for us planned.
I love the song, “Yes I Will,” by Vertical Worship. It starts, “I count on one thing. The same God who never fails, will not fail me now.” Oh gosh, amen! We cannot count on the weather or our health or the calendar or other people all of the time. But we can always count on one thing—God. He’s the one who is in control. He’s the one who will never change, never let us down.
And He is there in all of it. Every single thing.
So we are convinced that every detail of our lives is continually woven together to fit into God’s perfect plan of bringing good into our lives, for we are his lovers who have been called to fulfill his designed purpose. —Romans 8:28
So, when a curve ball comes your way today:
I guarantee sometime this week you will experience a change in plans. No matter how big or small, or exciting or jarring, I promise He is at work, for good. God’s plan is perfect. And He will never fail you.
THE PERSPECTIVE OF A PANSY
In Atlanta we have the luxury of planting pansies in the fall and viewing their curious faces all winter long. That is how my grandma described their blooms -- as faces. If you look into a pansy’s velvet petals you can see its eager expression peeking out at you. It was my grandmother’s love for this flower, which drew me to Viola tricolor hortensis when I was a little girl. My favorites were the white petals with purple centers, or “faces”. They remain my favorite flowers today.
Since pansies are annuals, last years’ flowers had long since died and been pulled from the ground, never to be seen again. I hadn’t taken the time to plant even one flat of pansy seedlings this fall. Actually, I hadn’t found the time to do much of anything but work since September. My job had become especially demanding, due to a project which required me to fly weekly to Washington DC. Between airports, delayed flights, cancellations, taxi cabs, trains and countless hotel rooms, I hadn’t spent enough time with my husband, hadn’t returned phone calls from my parents, hadn’t sent birthday cards to my dearest friends, hadn’t taken the necessary time to come to terms with the death of my grandma, and certainly hadn’t made time to put pansies in the ground.
Perhaps by skipping the whole pansy planting process this autumn, I was putting off facing the reality that Grandma, the only grandparent I had ever known, had died.
My connection between her and the flowers was so strong. I told myself I was too busy for gardening enough times that I convinced myself it was true.
As I drove home from the airport one chilly November evening, I was overwhelmed by an empty pang in my heart. It had begun as a slight ache last Thursday, and had built up to a deep hollow throb after five days straight of deadlines, lists, conference calls and meetings. I hadn’t allowed any time for myself to read, to visit with friends and family or even to pray. I had tried to ignore this vacuous feeling. I had just kept going and going like a robot following programmed commands, forgetting about all of the things in life that gave me deeper meaning. The pain was especially great this particular evening due to a canceled flight, which delayed my getting home until long after my lonely husband was already in bed.
After fighting eight lanes of stop and go traffic for over an hour, caused by what appeared to be a fatal accident, I arrived frazzled and tired in my suburban neighborhood. As I pulled into my driveway, my headlights shone into the empty flowerbeds. By their beams, I glimpsed something white resting on the ground. I parked in the garage and walked around to the front yard to collect what I assumed was a piece of garbage and throw it away. But, I did not find any trash. Instead I found a lone white pansy with a purple face flourishing by itself in a barren bed of pine straw.
The determined flower had fought all odds to spring from a ripped up root, which is not bred for regrowth, and to return this year. It didn’t seem possible, and maybe it wasn’t. Yet, here was a perfect posy grinning at me and asking me from its remarkable face, why I too couldn’t break through the soil and let myself bloom.
If loved ones who have passed away can speak from the dead, I knew this was Grandma’s way of letting me know that although she had left this earth, she wasn’t really gone. Just like the pansy, which had been pulled from the dirt yet was still blossoming, my grandmother’s spirit would always flourish inside my heart.
Grandma would have never put work first. Her family and friends were the priorities in her world. She didn’t know the meaning of timetables or of deadlines. Although her life was simple, she was always happy and saw only the good in others and the beauty in the world around her.
It was time to open my heart and my eyes to the important things around me, to fill the empty hole inside me with the nourishment which only God, family and friends could give me. Work could wait. Life, as the pansy showed me, could not.
Laura L. Smith