Best Reads of 2020

der bucherwurm-Carl_SpitzwegEach year I keep a list of the books I read all the way through, typically with brief notes, as a way of tracking my thoughts and a way to look back on each year and see some of what influenced me. So, in this post I have drawn from that list some of the best books I read this year with slightly edited versions of the notes I jotted down after reading them.

I selected a Top 10 from the books I read this year. These 10 aren’t listed in a particular order, and they made this list for various reasons ranging from sheer enjoyment to level of impact on me. Following the Top 10 are some more books I enjoyed reading this year (in no particular order) as well as some disappointing ones.

For whatever reason my history reading this year focused largely on WWII. I think that grew out of my fascination with Ben Macintyre’ books. Having started his Cold War books last year, I went on to listen to everything of his I could find (and enjoying them so much I found hard copies as well).

Top 10

  1. Greek New Testament- This was my Bible reading plan this year. It is sad that this is the first time I read this straight through, but it was wonderful. The UBS Readers GNT was very helpful. Extremely enlightening, seeing many texts afresh, noting differences among authors, etc. For devotional reading it was a challenge in portions that were difficult but very worthwhile
  2. Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers, Dane Ortlund- This was probably the best book, outside of Scripture,  I read this year. Excellent, very helpful, soul nourishing.
  3. Heaven Taken by Storm, Thomas Watson- Excellent! I read a portion each morning along with my bible reading and was profited greatly. Very good on exerting effort to fight sin and grow in holiness. The modern editing helped significantly.
  4. The God Who Acts in History: The Significance of Sinai,  Craig Bartholomew- very significant book on the philosophical underpinnings of modern biblical studies. Eye opening for me in various places, particularly the survey of philosophers and how their ideas have shaped biblical studies
  5. Not Forgotten: Inspiring Missionary Pioneers, David J Brady- great collection of powerful missionary stories. It is clear that the title represents the author’s goal, not the current situation. These missionaries are largely forgotten but he writes to change that, and we are indebted to him for it.
  6. Between the Swastika and the Sickle: The Life, Disappearance, and Execution of Ernst Lohmeyer,  James R. Edwards- Fascinating, challenging, convicting account of this German NT scholars life in opposition to the Nazis and then the Communists. Also fascinating is the story of how Edwards became interested in Lohmeyer’s hidden story and then worked to unearth it.
  7. Operation Mincemeat: How a Dead Man and a Bizarre Plan Fooled the Nazis and Assured an Allied Victory, Ben Macintyre- I thought this was the most engaging of Macintyre’s books I’ve read so far. This is the story of a wild plan that helped to deceive the Nazis’ about the location of the D-Day landings which saved untold numbers of lives and made the successful landing possible. Macintyre is a master of stories of intrigue and does a wonderful job here.
  8. The Duel: The Eighty-Day Struggle Between Churchill and Hitler, John Lukacs- I greatly enjoy history written by journalists as they tend to know how to tell the story well. But when I started this book, it was immediately apparent that I had entered another realm with a historian and master of the history of ideas, who could also tell the story well. The style and profundity of Lukacs was riveting in itself. Then there are so many lesson here for leadership and perseverance. We tend, today, to overlook how tenuous the situation was at the beginning of the 80 days discussed here.  I also read his Five Days in London: May 1940, which covers some similar ground but is very worthwhile on its own. These two books have sent me looking for other books by Lukacs.
  9. Live Not by Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents, Rod Dreher- Very well written. Reminds me of much of my early discipleship focused on the dangers of communism and stories of the suffering of believers under totalitarian regimes. It all seems even more relevant today. We need this call to rebuke our spiritual softness, immaturity, and self-centeredness.
  10. Witchwood, John Buchan- I didn’t realize I’d never read this one before. It isn’t the same kind of thriller as most of Buchan’s others. However, the main character is a pastor who in the end wishes he was the adventurer/soldier in Buchan’s other stories. That said, it is a thoughtful, significant critique of the church when it settles for outward conformity and is too connected to politics. Great analysis of the all too common problem of people happy to sit and listen to you preach and then carrying on with their wickedness covered over with church language. I read this for a class on pastoral ministry in novels that I taught over the summer in which I also had the opportunity to re-read these great books: Gilead: A Novel, Marilynne Robinson; Cry, the Beloved Country, Alan Paton; The Year of the Warrior, Lars Walker.


Bible/Theology/Christian Living

  1. They Call Him Pastor: The Life and Ministry of R. Paul Caudill, Netta Sue Caudill McKnight- I received this book from a lady at church who had been pastored by Caudill. I knew about Caudill from second hand books I picked up in Memphis which showed me he had been pastor of FBC Memphis, and that he had combined serious attention to the text (Greek exegesis) with very effective preaching. This is not a critical bio but a work by his daughter which pulled together pieces of an autobiography he had worked on. Still it gives a glimpse into his life and ministry- encouraging and challenging for pastoral ministry today. He was serious about study, loved and wrote poetry, dedicated to visiting all his people, devoted to prison ministry, reaching the “least of these”, foreign missions.
  2. Made for the Journey: One Missionaries First Year in the Jungles of Ecuador, Elisabeth Elliot- I did not know of this book before. It previously went under the title, These Strange Ashes. It is a good, honest look at the challenges of life when God does not work as you expected as you seek to serve Him.
  3. The Art of Bible Translation, Robert Alter- While I differ with Alter in many areas, this is helpful look at the work of translating and a critique of many ideas common today
  4. Preaching the Word with John Chrysostom, Gerald Bray- accessible, brief intro to Chrysostom, particularly to his message.
  5. Engaging God’s World: A Christian Vision of Faith, Learning, and Living, Cornelius Plantinga- A nice overview of the Christian worldview
  6. A Biblical Theology of Blamelessness: Paul’s Development of a Jewish Concept, Mark Baker- This is a currently unpublished dissertation which contributes nicely to the academic discussion. Baker critiques the New Perspective on Paul, following J. Barclay (The Gift), and helpfully discusses how works matter in the Christian life while not being salvific.


  1. Rogue Heroes: The History of the SAS, Britain’s Secret Special Forces Unit That Sabotaged the Nazis and Changed the Nature of War, Ben Macintyre- very engaging. I’ve enjoyed all of Macintyre’s books but this one did not have the slow parts that some of the others did. Very human- looking into what it was like for the men involved. Compelling stories of bravery, sacrifice, comradeship, yet does not glorify war. Rather it shows the deep scars it left on these heroes. Also humorous, great stories of various sorts. In ways it does a great job of showing the weirdness of war- joy, laughter, humor, friendship right up against slaughter, cruelty, suffering, inhumanity.

Reading about the N Africa campaign, I thought, “This sounds like the Rat Patrol series.”  Sure enough the concept of the show was based on the SAS, though beyond the concept the show did now worry about historical accuracy.

  1. Agent Zigzag: A True Story of Nazi Espionage, Love, and Betrayal, Ben Macintyre- Classic Macintyre. This one follows a spy who seemed to go back and forth between allegiances.
  2. Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies, Ben Macintyre- This one goes well with Operation Mincemeat as it tells the overall story of British spies who posed as Nazi spies helping to set up D-Day. Again it helps us to see how precarious the entire enterprise was. As one of the leaders of this effort said, “We were not very far from failure just before our period of greatest success.”
  3. Lucky 666: The Impossible Mission That Changed the War in the Pacific, Bob Drury & Tom Clavin- Drury and Clavin have also become favorites of mine (you’ll see another of their books below). This is a compelling story of friendship, bravery, and sacrifice.
  4. No Surrender: A Father, a Son, and an Extraordinary Act of Heroism That Continues to Live on Today, Christopher Edmonds & Douglas Century- This is fascinating story. I was set for it to be overdone or cheesy, but it is a powerful story well told. The father suffered much and acted heroically in WWII but never talked about it later. After the father’s death, the son pursued the bits and pieces he had of a story and pieced it together.
  5. Hal Moore on Leadership: Winning when Outgunned and Outmanned, Harold G. Moore & Maike Guardia – Engaging, but very repetitive. This may arise from it being an uncompleted work that another author took and completed. It states mostly basic ideas, which I think you’d see elsewhere. The primary interest is Moore himself and the connection of these ideas to him. I find the book beneficial, but if talking to others about it they would need to know the limitations.
  6. C. S. Lewis’ Letters to Children, ed. Lyle Dorsett & Marjorie Lamp Mead- very fun and enlightening. It is not always clear why these letters were chosen or edited the way they were, but it is fun to see how Lewis engaged the children who wrote him, deferential, open about his health and feelings, willing to give gentle criticism of their writing. It is also fun to see his explanations of things in Narnia and comments about his other books.
  7. Embattled Rebel: Jefferson Davis and the Confederate Civil War, James M. McPherson- Good book by a leading Civil War expert. It can be viewed as a valuable study in leadership, as McPherson walks through the various events and their challenges.
  8. So Great a Cloud of Witnesses: Union University 1823-2000, James Alex Baggett- I had read portions of this before but finally rad it straight through. Many fascinating episodes in Union’s history.
  9. Rescue at Los Baños: The Most Daring Prison Camp Raid of World War II,  Bruce Henderson- Not as great as Drury and Clavin or Macintyre, but this was an interesting story from the Pacific theater of WWII.
  10. The Kirk in Scotland, John Buchan (with extra chapter by R D Kernohan)- very interesting to see Buchan’s take on the Church of Scotland. Fits what I’ve read from him elsewhere. He’s not for the technicalities of theological debate, which I get given some of what has gone on in Scotland. A lot of good here.
  11. Last Men Out: The True Story of America’s Heroic Final Hours in Vietnam, Bob Drury and Tom Clavin- I really like these two authors. They tell the story carefully but in an engaging way. The failure in procedure, policy and execution by US political leaders is clear, but this is a great story about the courage and perseverance of the Marines.


  1. The Age of Entitlement: America Since the Sixties, Christopher Caldwell- Wow. Hard-hitting analysis that doesn’t spare any party or side. Argues that civil rights legislation no matter how well-intended subverted the written constitution with a new one that privileged certain groups over others. He traces the sense of entitlement taken up by different groups including eventually poor whites as this led to the rise of Trump.
  2. Fortitude: American Resilience in the Era of Outrage Dan Crenshaw- Excellent challenge to the outrage culture and victim mentality of today. I bought a copy for all my adult sons.
  3. All It Takes Is Guts: A Minority View, Walter E. Williams- I began listening to this book because I got it for free. I had no idea I’d finish this book shortly before the author died. A lot of wisdom here.
  4. Stalling for Time: My Life as an FBI Hostage Negotiator, Gary Noesner- I got this book because I enjoyed watching the Waco miniseries which was partially based on this book. There is a lot here that is applicable to leadership.
  5. Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On It, Chris Voss and Tahl Raz- Some good insights but marred by coming across as arrogant. The voice of the one reading may have made this worse.
  6. That Hideous Strength: A Deeper Look at How the West Was Lost, Melvin Tinker- strong critique of cultural Marxism. Kind of sloppy in writing in places, but strong on key points. Similar in many respects to Dreher’s book (above) but more theological


  1. I, James Blunt, H V Morton- fascinating. Written in 1942 to stir up Britain to resist Germany, commissioned by the Ministry of Information due to the concern that many would rather sue for peace than continue the war alone after French defeat. Describes what it would be like under German rule drawing on atrocities that had happened under Germans elsewhere. I expect it was very effective. George Orwell described it as “a good flesh creeper, founded on the justified assumption that the mass of the English people haven’t heard of fascism.” Very similar to later things I have read/seen like “Red Dawn”.
  2. The Order (Gabriel Allon Series), Daniel Silva- I tried a new author based on the recommendation of a friend. Though I’m typically skeptical of modern thrillers, Silva won me over. Very interesting and smart, good action and intrigue. Particularly fun because of its interest in Bible and biblical history, even though Silva accepts the more critical, disbelieving scholarship. Hard on Catholic church, deservedly often, but he prefers a move to liberation theology and “updating” away from tradition. Because I enjoyed this one, I also read House of Spies: A Novel (Gabriel Allon, Book 17). It was fun but not as good as the previous one. I think I will look for the books where he intertwines biblical history.
  3. Bulldog Drummond (The Bulldog Drummond Book 1) by McNeile, H. C.- Fun story, similar to Buchan’s Hannay stories, though not quite to that level. Like the Buchan’s Hannay series this begins post WWI. A fun romp, with a standard British take on the world from that time. Some are bothered by that, but it is a great view of the culture at the time. It was fun to see the terms of affection, the guy calling his girl- “Old thing,” or “little girl,” and the girl calling him “boy.” Striking that this book, like Buchan’s, foresees the rise of a demagogue post WWI to try to take over the world. Strong sentiment against communist uprising. Prodemocracy. I enjoyed this enough to go on to the second in the series, The Black Gang(Bulldog Drummond, Book 2). This one is even better than the first. Here you get to see the hero better. He is a masked hero in the night who acts the part of a well-to-do fop during the day, similar to Batman. The well to do adventurer though seems common to the genre. He plays dumb, but has a sharp mind (though not a genius like Batman). Zorro similarities as well. Also he has been trained in the past by an Asian master in hand to hand combat and this serves him well.
  4. The Rescue (Ryan Decker), The Raid (Ryan Decker Book 2),The Mountain (Ryan Decker Book 3), Steven Konkoly- Having read a couple of Konkoly books last year, I picked him back up and ended up reading 10 more this year. This series was the best of the ones I read this year. The hero here is a former CIA operative now working to rescue children caught in the slave trafficking. Good adventure with nobility and courage. Good story, some language but otherwise clean. Good banter between men.

Since I found myself in the midst of a pandemic, why not listen to some apocalyptic books about pandemics! Konkoly’s Zulu Virus Chronicles (HOT ZONE: A Post-Apocalyptic Conspiracy Thriller,

KILL BOX, andFIRE STORM ) and Alex Fletcher series (THE JAKARTA PANDEMIC: A Modern Pandemic Thriller, THE PERSEID COLLAPSE, EVENT HORIZON, and POINT OF CRISIS)  were entertaining though intense.

  1. The Resistance, Douglas Bond- A nice story about British pilots encountering the French resistance. Bond incorporates the C S Lewis radio broadcasts which is a neat and original idea. He seems to suggest the Lewis’s broadcasts contained code for the French Resistance to pick up.
  2. Sick Heart River, John Buchan- This was Buchan’s last novel, written after his move to Canada and published posthumously. His hero is facing death which is striking since it seems Buchan did not know at the time that he was actually facing death as well. This is a deeply spiritual book with the main character renouncing his almost deistic view of God and explicitly returning to a Christian understanding of God.
  3. The Richard Hannay series, John Buchan- I decided to re-read (listen this time) to the entire Hannay series (The Thirty-Nine Steps, Greenmantle, Mr. Standfast, The Three Hostages, The Courts of the Morning andThe Island of Sheep). The remain stimulating and entertaining. Some debate whether or not The Courts of the Morning should be included in the Hannay stories but of course it should. Sandy is the key character, but he really is in some of the other stories. Hannay only provides the introduction, but it is part of the same universe and introduces Sandy’s marriage and the woman he marries. This is then picked up in the next Hannay story, The Island of Sheep.
  4. The Thirty-One Kings: A Richard Hannay Thriller (Richard Hannay Returns), Robert J Harris- It was fun to discover that someone had taken up the Hannay narrative bringing it into WWII. Harris does a decent job, knows Buchan’s material and is respectful of the source material (although killing off Sandy was a bold move, perhaps an overreach). It’s not Buchan though. It reads like an imitator, so a fan like me notices the nods to the past and appreciates the love of the material but it is a lesser product.
  5. The First Fowler: A Green Ember Story, S. D. Smith- We have loved the Green Ember stories, but this one is not as compelling as the others. Since we are fans, it was worthwhile but a bit of a letdown. It would be good if he provided an overview of the story so you can remember where this other pieces fit and perhaps an annotated list of characters


  1. The Quiet American, Graeme Greene- What a lousy excuse for a novel. The main character, who is the narrator, is a despicable person for whom I had no empathy. I get his antipathy to Pyle, but neither character gained any traction with me. Why would someone want to read about someone moping through life, whimpering, whining and complaining? In the end his critique of American intrigue in Viet Nam lands, but that could have been said in a paragraph, and the storyline does not add punch to the bare statement.
  2. The Third Man, Graham Greene- I tried again, because people tell me Greene is good, but this one was another disappointment. Decent story but I just don’t see it as great writing. It’s just fair, nothing particularly great. I see it is a critique of post-war Vienna, corruption as we tried to win the peace, American naiveté, etc. Fine. But as a story it’s not all that.
  3. Jesus: A Biography from a Believer, Paul Johnson- Catholic, conservative, so Bible is reliable but so are all the Catholic traditions. And those traditions are assumed. Less than careful in deductions. Very negative toward Judaism. Jesus comes to move things away from Judaism and more towards the rationality of the Greeks, thus Paul continues this trend and Thomas Aquinas’s work is a crowning achievement in this realm. Yikes.
  4. Notes from Underground, Roger Scruton- I really appreciate Scruton, but in the end, I did not think this book was very good. Plot seemed to jump at the end in a way that I think was supposed to make sense but did not at all to me. Quite often I was not sure I was following the point or was making the deductions I was supposed to. Perhaps that is due to my dullness rather than opaqueness of the writing.

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