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

Eight Books I Read in March 2020

Looking back over the list of books I read in March makes me realize how March 1 seems like a lifetime ago. The world has changed so much since then. It’s difficult to even remember what “normal” was. What a blessing it was, though, for me to have books to help me through the last five weeks of this Coronavirus-19 pandemic.

As days and weeks passed, I found it progressively difficult to concentrate. How about you?

Inheritance:  A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love, by Dani Shapiro

This book caught my attention by having “genealogy” in the title. Genealogy is one of my hobbies.

Inheritance
Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love, by Dani Shapiro

As the title indicates, this book is a memoir. Dani Shapiro grew up thinking her father was her father and her mother was her mother, and her half-sister was her half-sister. A DNA test she took at the age of 54 rocked her world. Her biological father was someone other than the Daddy who had loved and raised her.

Although firmly believing or more accurately, knowing, she was Jewish, Ms. Shapiro had throughout her life defended that fact because her fair complexion and blue eyes made her look more Swedish than Jewish.

In this poignant memoir, Dani Shapiro takes you on a rollercoaster ride as she seeks answers to her questions of “Who?”, “Where?”, and “Why?” as she feels like her entire life has been a lie. The DNA test linked her to a man who had a 98% chance of being her first cousin.

Without spoiling the book for you, I’ll close by saying that Ms. Shapiro searched for her biological father’s identity, but she was beyond relieved when the 93-year-old sister of her father (the father who raised her) listened to her story and still embraced her as her niece.

Part III of the book reveals some surprising things about the Farris Institute in Philadelphia where Ms. Shapiro’s parents went for infertility treatments.

Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett

Having read State of Wonder and The Dutch House, by Ann Patchett, and knowing that her 2001 novel,Bel Canto, had received much acclaim, I was eager to check it off my to-be-read list.

Bel Canto
Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett

Based on the 1996 hostage situation at the home of an ambassador in Peru, Bel Canto is a novel with a host of characters. They’re in Peru for a birthday party honoring Katsumi Hosowaka, a prominent Japanese businessman who just happens to be a big fan of opera singer Roxane Coss. Ms. Coss was performing at the party.

Peruvian officials are trying their best to influence Hosowaka to build an electronics factory in their country. It turns out Hosowaka does not intend to build a factory there. He just wants to hear Roxane Coss sing.

The party and concert are going well for a while, but then armed terrorists burst into the banquet hall and demand to speak with the Peruvian president.

The president is home watching soap operas on TV and refuses to talk to the terrorists. Since the terrorists are already in big trouble, they have nothing to lose by staying at the party and holding the attendees hostage.

The story unfolds from there. The Red Cross negotiates the release of the women – except for Ms. Coss. One of her musicians dies from not having insulin.

As happens in many hostage situations, relationships develop between the terrorists – many of whom are teens or younger – and their captives. In fact, a romance develops between Hosowaka and Coss, as well as between Gen. Watanabe and Carmen, a young female terrorist.

A sense of normalcy develops as many of the hostages adjust surprisingly easily to their new daily reality which is radically different from their former lives. (Sounds a lot like our new normal, doesn’t it?)

Does the Peruvian government eventually take control of the situation? I won’t address that, in case you want to read the book.

Ann Patchett was awarded the Orange Prize for Fiction and the PEN/Faulkner Award for fiction for Bel Canto.

Call the Nurse: True Stories of a Country Nurse on a Scottish Isle, by Mary J. MacLeod

I was drawn to this book because it is set in the Scottish Hebrides. Though set on an unidentified island, the stories transported me back to Lewis and Harris, two islands that I visited in the Outer Hebrides in the 1990s.

Call the Nurse, by Mary J. MacLeod
Call the Nurse: True Stories of a Country Nurse on a Scottish Isle, by Mary J. MacLeod

The stories are humorous and sad. They reflect how in many ways people are the same all over the world, yet islanders are by nature and necessity a little different.

The book begins with Ms. MacLeod, her husband, and their two sons vacationing on the island and deciding to sell their home in England and move to the island. The house they managed to purchase (after being approved by the factor and members of this remote community) is beyond rustic.

The native islanders are slow to embrace incomers. Outsiders are eyed with suspicion. Ms. MacLeod gradually gains the confidence of the residents as she serves as nurse. This includes using psychology in some cases as she is thrown into some different situations..

I could picture these people and the stark landscape through Ms. MacLeod’s descriptive writing and my own travel experience.

It brought to mind a Gaelic term used on the Isle of Lewis which translates  to “white settlers” in English. It has nothing to do with races or the color of one’s skin. Any non-Isle of Lewis native who moves to the island is considered a “white settler.” At least, that’s the way it was in the 1990s.

Winter Garden, by Kristin Hannah

After enjoying The Nightingale and The Great Alone, by Kristin Hannah, I expected to like Winter Garden. It turned out not to be what I expected.

The premise of the novel is that the owner of a large orchard is dying. His two adult daughters, who have nothing in common except their parents, meet to try to make some decisions about the future of the family business. Neither of them have ever gotten along with their mother who now displays many signs of mental illness.

I listened to half of this book before throwing in the towel. I’m slightly curious about how things turned out, but not curious enough to listen to six or seven more hours of cussing and arguing. It just wasn’t what I expected from Kristin Hannah. It was published in 2010, a few years before Ms. Hannah found her true writing voice and talent in The Nightingale.

The Litigators, by John Grisham

After deciding to suspend all the physical books I had on request at the public library, due to the fear of bringing COVID-19 germs into the house (and before the public library here closed to the public on March 16, 2020, I  downloaded an MP3 version of The Litigators, by John Grisham. A John Grisham novel has never disappointed me.

John Grisham's novel, The Litigators
The Litigators, by John Grisham

The Litigators is an entertaining novel about two bumbling attorneys who create the “boutique” law firm of Finley & Figg in Chicago. Published in 2011, this legal thriller is hilarious! It was perfect timing for me to read it during these uncertain COVID-19 times.

Finley & Figg think they’ll hit the big time and make a boatload of money handling a class action lawsuit against a cholesterol reduction drug manufacturer.

The Litigators was Grisham’s 25th published novel. In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, he indicated that editors had deleted the humor he’d written in his earlier books. To read that October 28, 2011 newspaper interview, go to https://blogs.wsj.com/speakeasy/2011/10/28/john-grisham-gets-the-last-laugh-on-the-law/.

Long Road to Mercy, by David Baldacci

I read A Minute to Midnight, by David Baldacci in January and wrote about it in my February 3 blog post, https://janetswritingblog.com/2020/02/03/three-books-i-read-in-january-2020/ A Minute to Midnight is Baldacci’s latest book and the second in his Atlee Pine series. I enjoyed A Minute to Midnight and was eager to read Long Road to Mercy in order to get more backstory about Atlee Pine.

Long Road to Mercy, by David Baldacci

The name of the book comes from a traumatic event in Atlee Pine’s childhood when someone broke into the bedroom of Atlee and her sister, Mercy, in the middle of the night and kidnapped and murdered Mercy. Atlee works for the FBI in a small office in Arizona. She has dedicated her life to tracking down Mercy’s killer in order to find out why he did it and why he took Mercy and not Atlee.

It’s great to see a female protagonist in a legal thriller!

The Immoral Majority: Why Evangelicals Chose Political Power over Christian Values, by Ben Howe

I read this book because I wanted to know the answer to that question. I’ll write about it in my blog post next week.

Leapfrog: How to Hold a Civil Conversation in an Uncivil Era, by Janet Givens, M.A.

This is an enlightening book that guides the reader through a systematic way to prepare for and have a conversation with someone with whom he or she disagrees. It’s aimed at those difficult conversations that we don’t know how to have with our friends and relatives whose political views, for instance, are in total conflict with your own views.

It was serendipitous that I read the Ben Howe book referenced above and the Janet Givens book in the same month.

Tune in to my blog post next week to read my thoughts on these two books.

Since my last blog

I continue to make one faux pas after another on my Android tablet. On Wednesday, I put an advertisement for my blog on my church’s Facebook page by mistake. That was embarrassing. It took me a while to figure out how to delete the post.

No doubt, no one at my church was surprised at my Wednesday mistake. A couple of weeks ago I tuned into Facebook Live for the first time. I inadvertently broadcast a live view of my lap and the inside cover of my tablet for 11 seconds. I did eventually figure out how to delete that. A little bit of computer knowledge is a dangerous thing!

On the positive side, I got involved with the Masks for Front Line Heroes Facebook group – a local group that started here in the Harrisburg, North Carolina community. I can’t sew right now, but I raided my stash of 100% cotton fabric and sewing supplies to donate to the people who are making masks for local medical personnel to use when their N95 masks run out. It gave me a good feeling to know I was making a tangible contribution to the fight against the Coronavirus-19 pandemic!

Until my next blog post

I hope you are safe, well, and able to practice social distancing. It looks like we’re in for some rough weeks and months ahead here in the United States.

I hope you have a good book to read. I’m listening to Sycamore Row, by John Grisham. I’m taking the opportunity the pandemic has provided to work on my lengthy to-be-read list.

If you’re a writer or other artist, I hope you’re being creative.

Please stay at home if your job allows that. Follow the rules, if not for yourself, do it for the rest of us. You can do this. I’ve been confined indoors at my house since January 27 except for doctor’s appointments and that February 26 return to the hospital. After being confined for 10 weeks, my advice to others is, “Make the best of it. We’re all in this together.”

Stay safe!

Janet