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Staff Picks of the Year: What We Loved Reading in 2020

Joe Henegan | December 8th 2020

Perhaps you remember when, early on in the first lockdown, lifestyle blogs started popping up all over the place with tips and suggestions for how to use all our newfound free-time effectively. 

One of those helpful suggestions was to finally get around to reading all those books quietly collecting dust on our bookshelves.

Challenge accepted! Here’s a list of what some of The Good Book Company staff have been reading in 2020...

An Officer and a Spy by Robert Harris

Alison Mitchell, Senior Editor

While clearing out my sister’s home a few months ago, I came across an ebook reader she no longer uses. Most of the contents were magazines or chick lit, but there was also this retelling by Robert Harris of a historical French case where an unjust conviction sent an innocent man to Devil’s Island. The story starts in 1896 in Paris, so there’s lots of fascinating historical detail about life at that time, all woven into an intriguing case that keeps you guessing. But the thing that grabbed me the most was simply how well-written this book is. Robert Harris moulds words into paragraphs into chapters in an engaging and very satisfying way. I didn’t realise just how well he had written this book until I finished it and started a new novel by someone else. I won’t tell you that next author was, but I was quickly aware of just how “thin” their prose seemed in comparison!

Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy by Mark Vroegop

Geoff Dennis, Vice President of Sales, US

Let's face it - much of the Christian community doesn't know how to deal effectively with mourning and lament. It can be very difficult to love and serve those who have deep, long-lasting, unremitting grief, and I found the book to be profoundly helpful in my own struggle with loss. Vroegop's book gave voice to the cries of my heart over the last several years and helped me understand that lament is an important tool in the healing process. Mark defines lament as "the honest cry of a hurting heart wrestling with the paradox of pain and the promise of God’s goodness", something with which we all can identify. Ultimately, every one of us will face pain, loss, sorrow and sadness on this side of heaven and this book helpfully guides us to prayerful lament that leads to a greater trust in our Savior. 

The Wolf Hall Trilogy by Hilary Mantel

Rachel Jones, Editor

I read this for the first time during lockdown, and devoured all three books (Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies and The Mirror and the Light) back to back. I was utterly engrossed. The trilogy follows the rise and fall of Thomas Cromwell, chief minister to King Henry VIII. I loved the way Mantel's writing draws you into another world populated by a host of memorable characters, so that by the end you feel like you've lived through the events yourself. Cromwell himself remains intriguingly ambiguous throughout. He's a character with conflicting motives and morals—and as such, reflects in some way us all.    

All Hell Let Loose: The World at War 1939-1945 by Max Hastings

Tim Thornborough, Founder and Publishing Director

Like most people my age, I was brought up on a diet of Commando war comics and triumphalist movies about how brilliant the British were in WWII. It was only as I listened (on Audible) to this brilliant book I realised what a narrow-minded and episodic view I had of this world-engulfing conflict. The horrors were more horrific than I ever imagined. The agonies and ruthless murder was more ghastly than I thought possible.  Hastings has spent his whole life examining this conflict, and this remarkable book pulls together his wide-ranging knowledge of how the politics, military strategy, public opinion and global geography worked together as a whole. It explained to me the big picture of pain and resentment that still lives with the older generation and still drives the foreign policy of Russia and China. The genius of this book however, lies in the way it moves effortlessly from global issues to the heart-breaking words of ordinary people who lived through it: who lived and cried and fought and died. I listened to this as I was working on Where is God in all the Suffering? and it brought into sharp relief the need for a robust Christian defence of a world in pain.

The Science of Storytelling by Will Stor

Tim Thornborough, Founder and Publishing Director

Storr attempts to bring together the latest research on psychology and neuroscience and apply it with why we humans love to spin and listen to a good yarn. He effortlessly moves between the lowbrow and the highbrow from Teutonic myths to Gone Girl and the computer game Fortnite. He shows how successful stories—whether they are novels, movies or computer games—work on our pleasure/reward systems to give us the feel good buzz. This is an area we Christians need to think deeply about. Our message is, not just any story, or another story, but, we believe the story of all people of all time. And we tell this story in a world filled with competitive (false) narratives about who we are and how we should live. Reflecting on this book side by side with the brilliant Plugged In by Dan Strange has helped me think more deeply about how we speak this Gospel message to our modern world.

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

Katy Morgan, Editor

I love the way Ishiguro writes—at first glance it all seems very simple and plain, but the more you read the more glimpses you catch of the subtleties under the surface. This book is set in a kind of mythical version of Saxon Britain and it follows the journey of an old couple called Beatrice and Axl. It’s all about memory and forgiveness; what it means to have loved another person for a really long time, and whether the past can be redeemed or whether it's best buried. I loved it because it’s so beautifully written, but also because it made me think about the grace of God: the reality of the pain we all cause each other, and the astonishing and humbling gift of being forgiven and loved, again and again and again.

God’s Smuggler by Brother Andrew

Caroline Napper, Proof reader

My Christian book of the year is not a new release, having been published first 40 years ago, nor a hidden gem -10 million copies have been sold. Nonetheless, it was new to me and a very refreshing read in a challenging year. When I’ve been tempted to complain about not being able to meet other Christians in our usual large gatherings, I’ve recalled tales from this book which describe believers meeting in small groups, and secretly at that. Christians behind the Iron Curtain took many risks to follow Jesus and it helped put my temporary sadness at not meeting into perspective. It also pointed my family to the work of organisations like Open Doors (set up by Brother Andrew). We now try to look at the world watch list every week and pray for a different country where Christians are persecuted or enduring hardship. 

Dominion by Tom Holland

Richard Roper, Senior Buyer

Holland shows the all-pervasive and over-archng impact that Christianity has had on the development of western thought and culture. Even enemies are shaped by it.

Holland himself is an atheist but recognises that his moral values are intrinsically Christian ones. It was this self-understanding that formed the inspiration for this book. The book taught me a lot that I didn’t know but should've (the impact of the reforms of Pope Gregory VII for example) and helped me to stitch together a lot that I did know (how the field of science emerged from the Christian faith) into a more coherent narrative.

Gentle and Lowly by Dane Ortlund

Gilly Down, Finance Assistant

I loved this because right from the start of creation Satan has tried to convince us that God is a bit stingy and condeming. As a result I think many of us can go through life thinking that God is a bit disappointed with us as we don't come up to the grade and we can even lack assurance of our salvation.  This book uses scripture to show us just how much God loves us and is for us in spite of our sin. For example we are reminded that Jesus, our High Priest, is able to deal gently with the ignorant and wayward (Heb 5:2) and that he will never cast us out (John 6:37). 

Dear Life, A Doctor's Story of Love and Loss by Rachel Clarke

Nelly Ortiz, Customer Service Manager

I never thought that a book about the experiences of a palliative care doctor could be my best read of the year, but Rachel Clarke writes her story in a tender, funny and clever way.  She was a television journalist and documentary maker before going to medical school.

I don't think it's a book to make you sad!  It made me laugh and made me wonder at the beauty of God's imprint in the human heart, so visible in this atheist doctor, who can display compassion and love to those in her care. Don't be put off either by the topic nor the title. Although it's about death and loss, she presents the idea that a hospice has "more love, more strength, more kindness, more joy, more tenderness, more grace, more compassion than you could ever imagine. The terminally ill know their time is running out, while we live as though we have all the time in the world." 

To the Golden Shore: The Life of Adoniram Judson by Courntey Anderson

Matt Noel, Administrative Assistant

Adoniram's life is such an encouraging example of someone who experienced many unexpected events in his life. Under the sovereignty of God, Adoniram would suffer much in the attempt to take the Gospel to Burma. In the midst of experiencing the death of loved ones, imprisonment and changed travel plans, Adoniram stayed the course. This was one of my favorite missionary biographies I have read. Beautifully written, Courtney really showed how being a missionary is not quite as glamorous (in the worldly sense) as it can so often be portrayed. However, Adoniram's life is an example to all of us that if we will give ourselves fully to the mission of God and His glorious Gospel, then God will use us to bring much glory to His great name

North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell

Bethany McIlrath, Digital Marketing Manager

Clashes between cultures, reflections on prejudice and privilege, struggling to live out everyday faith when worldly ventures and cares are so prominent - all these themes sound like they're straight out of 2020. Yet these are the threads running through this novel from the 1850s. I found this story gripping and timeless. It's not exactly cheery, but it's very real and thought-provoking. I particularly appreciated the way the main character's practical faith is woven into the story. Many of the questions raised in the book result from seeking to live rightly through suffering and times when "the right thing" isn't obvious or widely agreed upon. If you're an Amazon Prime member, you can read the eversion for free as it's labeled an "Amazon Classic." 

Plum Upside Down (A Farm Fresh Romance Book 5) by Valerie Comer. 

Sam Ball, Finance Assistant

The story is about a young Christian woman, Chelsea, who joins a close-knit Christian community and ends up falling for a man, Keanan, who's preparing for ministry. Despite their initial impressions of each other, they can't help but be attracted to one another. This causes tension in the story as they both misjudge the other.

Chelsea lacks spiritual depth and is pretty judgemental. Having grown up in a big city where she attended church with her parents and went to a small private Christian school, she thinks of herself as a good Christian. But, while spending time with the others in this new community, especially Keanan who is kind, generous, and thoughtful, she begins to question the foundation of her faith. She is drawn into a deeper understanding of what Jesus did for her and eventually becomes a true believer.

Sometimes we think we're on the right path, we read the Bible, pray, go to church, but that doesn't mean we actually have a deep and meaningful relationship with the Lord. I found myself questioning my thoughts and actions and whether or not I was like Chelsea. For me, it was like Valerie Comer could see into my mind and hear my thoughts. I really connected with her female lead and reading this story gave me a lot to think and pray about. 

Shackleton: By Endurance We Conquer by Michael Smith

Anton Joubert, Warehouse Assistant

I had previously read only about Shackelton's Endurance Expedition but this book was a comprehensive and detailed biography of Shacklelton himself. As someone who enjoys history and biographies this one ticked both boxes and did it very well. The author has clearly scoured numerous sources for any information or interesting anecdotes which add "flesh" to the legend. It works well with relatively short chapters dealing with aspects of Shackleton's family, career, character, ambitions and the various Antarctic expeditions. It is by no means a hagiography and the 'warts' are included to give you a true picture of the famous explorer. As I read it I found myself eager to get to the main event—the Endurance Expedition itslef—but the detailed stories about his earlier expeditions are just as captivating.

I really enjoyed discovering more about him and those other adventurous men who served on his expeditions and would recommend this book to those interested in this genre or wanting to learn more about Shackleton himself.

Joe Henegan

Joe is our Vice President of Marketing. He lives in South London, UK with his wife and two daughters and is a member at River Church Sutton - part of the Newfrontiers network - where he runs a small group and various outreach activities.