Favorite Books Read in 2020

A friend recently called and asked me to recommend a good book to her. This is akin to asking someone to name their favorite child. There’s never one definitive answer. My first inclination was to tell her about the last book I read, And the Crows Took Their Eyes, by Vicki Lane; however, I didn’t know her tastes in reading well enough to recommend a book with such a vivid and harsh title.

I looked back over the 50+ books I’ve read this year, and soon came up with quite a list of books to recommend to Kathy. I hoped by adding brief descriptions, she’d be able to choose one or more books she’d enjoy. I half-jokingly told her my list might make it into my blog in a couple of weeks. Here it is, in no particular order, in case you need a recommendation for a good book to read or give a friend.


And the Crows Took Their Eyes, by Vicki Lane – Historical fiction at its best! Based on true Civil War story of neighbor against neighbor in Madison County, NC. Some gory parts, but the story is gripping and the writing is excellent. For a little more about this book, please read my December 7, 2020 blog. Here’s the link: Books Read in November 2020­­­­­.

And the Crows Took Their Eyes, by Vicki Lane

A Time for Mercy, by John Grisham – Grisham’s new legal suspense novel. A teen kills his mother’s abusive boyfriend. Will the teen get the death penalty?

The Book of Lost Names, by Kristin Harmel – First book I’ve read by her, and I was very impressed. Story of children being smuggled into Switzerland to escape the Nazis. A woman develops a way to code their names so they won’t be lost to history.

A coded list of names of Jewish children smuggled out of France.
The Book of Lost Names, by Kristin Harmel

Code Talker, by Chester Nez – Memoir by one of the World War II Navajo Code Talkers. Fascinating story!

Code Talker, by Chester Nez with Judith Schiess Avila

The Butterfly Daughter, by Alice Monroe – This novel weaves the annual journey of the monarch butterflies from Mexico to the US with a young woman who wants to make the trip to the place in Mexico where her grandmother (or was it her mother?) grew up near the place where the butterflies overwinter. Many twists and turns in this story.

The Secrets We Kept, by Lara Prescott – Story of how the CIA tried to fight the Cold War with Russia by using the novel Dr. Zhivago. Trying to win the cold war with literature. Who knew? Dr. Zhivago couldn’t be published in Russia, so the US was determined to smuggle it out.

The CIA and Dr. Zhavago
The Secrets We Kept, by Lara Prescott

We Wear the Mask: 15 True Stories of Passing in America, edited by Brando Skyhorse and Lisa Page – These stories opened my eyes to the many ways people put up a false front they present to the public in order to pass as something they aren’t. Some of these I’d never thought about before.

Mrs. Lincoln’s Sisters, by Jennifer Chiaverini – As the title indicates, it’s about Mary Todd Lincoln’s sisters and their relationships with each other and with her. It goes into more detail than I’d read before about Mary Todd Lincoln’s mental illness and drug abuse.

Shiner, by Amy Jo Burns – Except for the fact that I’m terrified of snakes and the main character’s father is a snake-handling self-proclaimed preacher, I really enjoyed this book. It’s Amy Jo Burns’ first novel, and I can’t wait to see what she gives us next! Very well written and suspenseful.

Debut novel by Amy Jo Burns
Shiner, by Amy Jo Burns

The Splendid and the Vile, by Erik Larson – This is a nonfiction book about Winston Churchill that reads like a novel. I found it interesting to learn about the personal connections he had with some of the wealthy people in America. Last week, Bill Gates named it as one of the five books he recommends from 2020.

#TheSplendidandtheVile #ErikLarson
The Splendid and the Vile, by Erik Larson

The Man from Spirit Creek, by Barbara Kyle – This is a contemporary Canadian western suspense. Takes place in Alberta. Has to do with oil rigs and sabotage. More light-hearted reading, though, than some of the other books I’ve listed.

The Book of Lost Friends, by Lisa Wingate – This is a fascinating novel based on something I knew nothing about from the history of the South after the Civil War. It’s about black families trying to reconnect with relatives and friends they were separated from due to slavery. Notices of “Lost Friends” were put in some newspapers. This book sheds light on a post-slavery topic I’m embarrassed to say I’d never really given much thought to. Shame on me!

#LisaWingate #TheBookOfLostFriends
The Book of Lost Friends, by Lisa Wingate

Big Lies in a Small Town, by Diane Chamberlain – Diane Chamberlain is becoming one of my favorite authors. She lives in NC. This novel takes place in Edenton, NC in 1940 and 2018 and is about race relations and outsiders and jealousy. An intriguing story.

Big Lies in a Small Town, by Diane Chamberlain

Call the Nurse: True Stories of a Country Nurse on a Scottish Isle, by Mary J. MacLeod – Delightful true stories of a nurse whose family moves to a remote island in Scotland and, due to her experience as a nurse, she pretty much becomes the doctor on the island.

The Last Train to London, by Meg Waite Clayton – This novel takes you to Germany in 1938. Through several real people, Ms. Clayton weaves a suspenseful story of the Kindertransport effort through which 10,000 Jewish children were saved from certain death in Nazi Germany. Those 10,000 children were taken by train from Germany to The Netherlands and from there to England. It’s based on the real Vienna Kindertransport effort led by Geertruida Wijsmuller-Meijer of Amsterdam, who had begun rescuing smaller groups of children as early as 1933.

The rescue of Jewish children from Nazi Germany
The Last Train to London, by Meg Waite Clayton

LEAPFROG: How to Hold a Civil Conversation in an Uncivil Era, by Janet Givens – The letters stand for Listen, Empathize, Assess, Paraphrase, Facts, Respect, Observation, and Gratitude. It would be good if every American read this book during these polarized times. Or perhaps that difficult conversation you need to have with a relative or friend isn’t about politics. Maybe it’s about race. No matter what that important conversation is about, this book will give you stable, non-threatening ground to stand on as you approach the other person. Or maybe you tend to come across too forceful in your daily dealings with co-workers and need a little help navigating your workday. Good advice in this book. Easier said than done, though.

LEAPFROG: How to hold a civil conversation in an uncivil era, by Janet Givens, M.A.

Since my last blog post

Thank you, Kathy, for prompting me to make the above list!

I’ve dabbled in genealogy research a little. It’s always vying for my attention. I’ve worked on a couple of historical short stories. It’s fun when I can combine my family history research with my fiction writing!

Until my next blog post

I hope you have a good book to read. I’m reading……

I hope you have rewarding creative time.

I hope you wear a mask in public or otherwise when around people with whom you don’t live. Just think how much better our lives will be this time next year, if we all just do the commonsense things to slow the spread of the Covid-19 virus.

Look back over the books you read in 2020. What were your favorites? I’d like to hear from you.

Janet

Books Read in November 2020

As has become my routine, my first blog of the month is about the books I read the previous month. I read a couple of good books in November, so I’m eager to tell you what I thought about them. As sometimes happens, more than one book with difficult topics presented themselves at the same time. This was a month of unpleasant topics, but the writing was excellent.


And the Crows Took Their Eyes, by Vicki Lane

You must read this book! It is historical fiction at its best.

And the Crows Took Their Eyes, by Vicki Lane

The name of this historical novel might be a turn-off for some people but, if you are a true fan of historical fiction, you must read this book. If you desire to learn more about the American Civil War, you must read this book. Vicki Lane has done a masterful job of weaving the story of the war in the mountains of North Carolina through the voices of five point-of-view characters.

This is a story that the history books rarely mention. If it’s mentioned, it is glossed over and allotted one sentence. I remember reading references in history textbooks such as, “Brother turned against brother” and “Neighbor turned against neighbor.”

Those descriptions of what actually happened in places like Madison County, North Carolina, don’t hold a candle to the depth of hate and evil that took place there. And the Crows Took Their Eyes, by Vicki Lane, puts flesh and bones, horror, heartache, and names on such mundane statements that you’ll find in history books.

Ms. Lane’s novel is based on a true story, and four of her five main characters were real people. It is not pleasant reading, but it is artfully written. The suspense slowly builds until unspeakable evil takes place. And the Crows Took Their Eyes is the perfect title for this tale of hate and revenge.

Oh, how I wish I could write historical fiction like Vicki Lane does!


A Time for Mercy, by John Grisham

I listened to this latest legal thriller by John Grisham. Michael Beck always does an outstanding job reading Mr. Grisham’s novels for the audio editions. He outdid himself on this one with the numerous accents. And Mr. Grisham outdid himself with some gut-wrenching courtroom testimony.

A Time for Mercy gets into some tough subjects. A boy kills his mother’s abusive boyfriend. To give more details here would be revealing too much, and I don’t want to spoil the book for you. It is a gripping story with many layers. I highly recommend it.


Since my last blog post

I finished writing a couple of historical short stories. I now have five stories completed and six others in various stages of planning and researching. Maybe I’ll get a collection of short stories published in 2021.

It has been refreshing to spend more time writing lately. I realized that I am happiest when I’m writing.


Until my next blog post

I hope you have a good book to read. I’m reading Fifty Words for Rain, by Asha Lemmie.

I hope you have quality, imaginative, and satisfying creative time, no matter where your creative interests lie.

Wear your mask and try to stay well until we all get through the Covid-19 pandemic.

Janet

Happy Birthday, Mark Twain!

Today marks the 185th anniversary of the birth of Samuel Longhorn Clemens, who wrote under the pen name Mark Twain.

Mark Twain has been a favorite author of mine since my first introduction to Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn in elementary school. I loved the humor. I loved the honesty. I loved the way he wrote like people talked. Decades later, those are still the things I love about his writing. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court is another favorite novel of his.

A selection of Mark Twain books

Years ago, I enjoyed how actor Hal Holbrook brought Mark Twain alive on the stage and TV. When vacationing in New York a few years ago, I enjoyed visiting Elmira, where Twain lived. There was a live portrayal of him there, which was excellent. I still have those memories and the plastic souvenir cup from my visit.

Perhaps even more than his novels, I like many of Mark Twain’s quotes. It was through his little snippets or sayings that his humor really came through. Here are a few of my favorites:

“It is better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool than to open it and remove all doubt.”

“The secret of getting ahead is getting started.”

“A man who carries a cat by the tail learns something he can learn in no other way.”

“If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.”

“A person who won’t read has no advantage over the person who can’t read.”

“Kindness is the language which the deaf can hear and the blind can see.”

“When your friends begin to flatter you on how young you look, it’s a sure sign you’re getting old.”

Since my last blog post

The Covid-19 pandemic has worsened here in the United States. I’m thankful for all the people who work in healthcare facilities and other essential workers who risk exposure to the virus every day so the rest of us can have the services we need. I’m fortunate that I can stay home most of the time.

I finished reading a splendid new historical novel by Vicki Lane. Get your hands on a copy of And the Crows Took Their Eyes. Don’t let the title scare you off, but be aware that the book is not about a pleasant subject. It is, however, masterfully written. It sheds light on a part of North Carolina history that has received too little attention in the history books. It brings to life the horrors of neighbors taking opposite sides in the American Civil War. I read it slowly and savored the writing. Look for more about this book in my blog post on December 7, 2020.

My sister and I had some productive time one day as we continued to proofread my manuscript for Harrisburg, Did You Know? Stay tuned for progress reports.

My root canal went well last Monday, and I was able to enjoy turkey, dressing, and gravy on Thanksgiving Day.

Until my next blog post

I hope you have a good book to read and a challenging one to write, if you’re a writer.

Be creative. Find what you’re passionate about and make time to do it. Find a way to make a living doing it. I wish I had.

Wear a mask.

Janet

Other Books Read in October and an Election

I blogged last week about two books I read in October. Today’s blog post is about other books I read last month. Overall, it was a strange collection of books. I enjoy a wide range of books, but I’m especially drawn to historical fiction.

I started reading but didn’t finish And the Crows Took Their Eyes, by Vicki Lane and Stones from the River, by Ursula Hegi. I didn’t finish reading Vicki Lane’s book in October because it arrived at the end of the month. I didn’t finish the Ursula Hegi book because I had too many books to read, other distractions, and it had to go back to the library. You’ll have to wait for future blogs to learn what I thought of those and the other books I read in November, but I’ll go ahead and recommend And the Crows Took Their Eyes to anyone who enjoys historical fiction or American Civil War stories.

The Lions of Fifth Avenue, by Fiona Davis

After hearing Fiona Davis interviewed, I was eager to get on the public library’s waitlist for The Lions of Fifth Avenue. It took me a little while to “get into” this book but, once I did, I wanted to read on to see what happened next.

#libraries #NYCPublicLibrary
The Lions of Fifth Avenue, by Fiona Davis

As seems to be the trend in historical fiction today, the plot alternates between one era and another. I don’t like that format. I prefer to read a story in chronological order. I’m not sure what that says about me. The Lions of Fifth Avenue falls into that category. It switches back and forth between 1913-1914 and 1993.

The 1913-1914 story line interested me more than the other one so, after reading the first four chapters, I skipped all the 1993 chapters and read the remaining 1913-1914 chapters until I got to the end of the book; then, I went back to the fifth chapter and read bits and pieces of the 1993 parts of the book. I’m sure this isn’t the way in which the author expected me to read her book, but it worked for me.

In the “Author Note” at the end of the book, I learned that it was completely a fictional story with fictional characters. Ms. Davis explained that the New York City Public Library actually did have a seven-room apartment where the library superintendent’s family lived for several decades. Besides that, the book is fiction. It is a compelling story and I really wanted to get to the end to see who was stealing rare books from the library. Fortunately, that was revealed in the 1913-1914 thread of the book.

Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey, by Kathleen Rooney

I read about this book in an e-mail from Goodreads.com. The e-mail said, “If you loved A Gentleman in Moscow, you’ll loved Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey. Equal parts moving and charming, heartbreaking and funny, it will make you feel closer to humanity. Simply put, it’s a book that stays with you.” With that comparison and endorsement, I couldn’t wait to read the book.

#pigeons #CherAmi #WWI
Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey, by Kathleen Rooney

The story it was based on was new to me. It sounded interesting, so I checked out the e-book from the public library.

The story itself is impressive. Cher Ami was a homing pigeon that was much-celebrated in the 1920s and 1930s for its heroics during World War I. In fact, the bird was taxidermized after death and put on display in the Smithsonian Institution. Cher Ami was shot in the eye and lost a leg on her last mission. Even so, she completed that mission and lived for a couple of weeks afterward.

By finishing her last mission, Cher Ami saved the lives of almost 200 Americans.

Charles Whittlesey was from New York. Not attracted to guns, he nevertheless found himself shipping off for Europe when the United States entered World War I. Being the era that it was, he had to keep his homosexuality a secret. Whittlesey came home a war hero, but he struggled to adjust to life back in New York City. He purchased a one-way ticket on a ship and planned his own “burial at sea.”

The story itself is interesting, and I learned more about homing pigeons from the early chapters of this historical novel than I had before.

The book itself was quite disappointing. Some chapters are written from the pigeon’s point-of-view, while the other chapters are written from Charles Whittlesey’s viewpoint. I read one-third of the book before I started skipping over Cher Ami’s chapters.

Perhaps my mind isn’t creative enough to suspend belief and accept talking pigeons. To me, Cher Ami’s chapters read like a children’s book. I even stopped reading midway through the first chapter to see if I had checked out a Juvenile book by mistake. I hadn’t, so I tried to plow on. I soon concluded that I’d be better served by doing a little research about the story instead of continuing to read the conversations of talking pigeons.

One fact that the author conveyed via Cher Ami was probably more poignantly expressed by the taxidermized pigeon than could have been told by an objective narrator was the way in which the taxidermist chose to display the detail of the pigeon’s missing eye. Oddly enough, the taxidermist selected a glass eye of the wrong color for the bird’s missing eye. The taxidermized Cher Ami cleverly voices her disgust over the sloppy disrespect for detail and points out that it would have made a more accurate and impressive museum display to have presented the pigeon with its empty eye socket. After all, it was preserved with only the one leg that survived the war.

Cher Ami was one of more than 600 homing pigeons used by the US Army Signal Corps in France during World War I. An American battalion was surrounded in the Battle of Argonne Forest. They were under Allied fire and had no way but pigeons to get word out about their situation. On October 4, 1918, after other pigeons had been shot down in the effort, Cher Ami successfully delivered a message that saved almost 200 American lives. As noted above, she was shot twice in the process, but she kept flying to deliver her urgent message.

In that respect, Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey did what I expect historical novels to do: educate me. I appreciate that. I just didn’t enjoy the manner in which that education was delivered. The story enticed me to look for more information, which is something else I expect historical fiction to do.

Anxious People, by Fredrik Backman

Anxious People, by Fredrik Backman

I can’t honestly say I read this novel. I tried listening to it. The beginning held promise of an interesting tale about a bank robbery and a hostage situation. Perhaps it would have been more palatable in printed form. The irritatingly shrill voice of the female hostage real estate salesperson got on my last nerve early on. I tried to persevere but had to raise the white flag on this one. Sorry, Mr. Backman. I loved A Man Called Ove, but I just haven’t been able to stick with any of your other novels I’ve tried.

Since my last blog post

Photo credit: Element5 Digital on Unsplash.com

We’ve had a much-anticipated national, state, and local election since my last blog post. As I write this late on Saturday morning, it has just been announced that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris have been elected US President-elect and US Vice President-elect. What a relief! We have elected a person of empathy as President, and we have finally elected our first woman and first person of color to be Vice President. The proverbial glass ceiling has been broken.

My country is divided. The division demonstrated by the 2016 election continues, but I pray the pendulum has begun to swing toward decency and respect. For more than 200 years, gracious concession speeches have been expected from the candidates not elected in the United States. True to his form and lack of character, our current President vows not to take the results of this election quietly or gracefully. He will, no doubt, continue to sow seeds of discord in our country and world. He has vowed to fight the outcome of this election in the courts. He continues to claim it was a rigged election. He threatened to proclaim that falsehood well in advance of Election Day.

I look forward to having a new US President on January 20, 2021 – a President and a Vice President who will try to heal our nation and lead us back into a position of respect and reliability on the world stage. We can once again be a beacon of hope. It won’t happen overnight, and it won’t be easy. It will take a while for the world to trust us again.

My faith in the American people has been somewhat renewed by the outcome of this election; however, it wasn’t won by a landslide. Nearly half the population voted to continue down the road we were on. It won’t be easy to convince them that those of us who voted for Mr. Biden and Ms. Harris are not the evil people our current President proclaims us to be. They have believed many lies about us and we are exhausted from the rhetoric of hate that has been directed at us from the White House for the last four years.

We are exhausted from four years of vitriol, but we are energized today by the hope of a new era in which we once again have a President who truly believes in God and doesn’t just give faith lip service; who believes in freedom of the press and doesn’t see journalists as enemies of the people; who believes in science and medicine; who is antiracist; who will not put immigrant children who cross the border from Central America in cages and deport their parents; who will strive to enact policies that will preserve our physical environment for ourselves and future generations; who will work for social justice in our country and the world; and who will work to repair our relationships with our long-term friends and allies around the world.

For the hurt and disappointment being felt today by some of my friends and relatives who disagree with me on everything I’ve written in this blog post, now you know how I felt after the 2016 election. You’re still my friends, and you’re still my relatives. I still love you. Please give President-elect Biden a chance to prove he’s not an agent of evil. He’s not going to defund the police. He’s not going to take away your guns. He’s not a socialist. He will be the President of all Americans. He does not see you as his enemy or an enemy of the people. He will not call you ugly names. He will not get on Twitter and go on hate-filled rants. He will not make fun of physically-disabled people. He will not freely make misogynistic statements about women.

It feels good to be able to breathe again.

Until my next blog post

I hope you have a good book to read. I’m reading Vicki Lane’s new historical novel, And the Crows Took Their Eyes. I’m listening to John Grisham’s latest novel, A Time for Mercy.

I hope you have productive creative time.

Please continue to wear a mask out of respect for others until this Covid-19 pandemic is over.

Janet