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

Other Books I Read in September 2020

My blog last Monday was about Code Talker, by Chester Nez. Here’s the link to it: Navajo Code Talker Chester Nez. Today’s post is about the other books I read in September. I hope you’ll find at least one that is of interest to you.


Leaving Time, by Jodi Picoult

Leaving Time, by Jodi Picoult

Jodi Picoult is known for tackling hard issues. Leaving Time is about a young woman’s search for her mother who has been missing for 10 years. Jenna was three years old when her mother disappeared, so she is surprised to learn that her father never filed a missing person’s report. Her father is now in a facility for patients with dementia, so he’s not able to give Jenna any reliable answers.

Jenna’s mother was a well-known elephant expert, so Ms. Picoult deftly weaves into the story facts about elephants’ memories and grieving rituals. After piecing together the death of an unidentified woman coinciding with the time her mother disappeared, Jenna tracks down the former police detective who worked on the case. The case was never solved. The former detective reluctantly agrees to help Jenna.

Jenna eventually seeks the help of a psychic. The psychic is also reluctant to help the 13-year-old Jenna because her gift of “second sight” has waned. It turns out the psychic has her own backstory.

Leaving Time was published in 2014. It is not one of my favorite Jodi Picoult novels. I listened to it on Playaway from the public library while I walked each day. That’s probably not the optimal way to listen to any book, so my mode of listening possibly influenced my less-than-stunning impression of the book.


Last Mission to Tokyo: The Extraordinary Story of the Doolittle Raiders and Their Final Fight for Justice, by Michel Paradis

Last Mission to Tokyo, by Michel Paradis

This book was recommended by John Grisham, and that influenced my decision to read it. I listened to about 25% of it and put it aside. I found it difficult to follow on CD, so then I checked out the e-book. It was much easier to keep up with the various characters, especially the ones with Japanese names.

The early part of the book is quite interesting. It is the story of the Doolittle Raiders in World War II and how Doolittle and his “raiders” worked tirelessly to get the B-25 bombers down to a low enough weight and high enough speed that they could launch off an aircraft carrier with just enough fuel to complete their bombing missions in Japan and get to China where Chiang Kai-shek had promised them a landing strip.

That part of the book really grabbed my interest, but I soon discovered that the bulk of the book was about the trials of the Japanese who tortured the captured Doolittle Raiders. That didn’t interest me as much, although I can see how it would keep an attorney like John Grisham spellbound.

I don’t mean to leave a negative response to this book. It’s merely a matter of interest. It is an extremely well-researched book. There are more than 100 pages of footnotes.

If you’re not familiar with the heroics of the Doolittle Raiders, the early part of the book gives an excellent overview of their training and what they accomplished against all odds.


The Book of Lost Names, by Kristin Harmel

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

Kristin Harmel’s new novel, The Book of Lost Names, was “right down my alley.” It is a beautifully-written historical novel inspired by the unsung heroes in France and Switzerland during World War II who risked their lives to try to smuggle Jewish children and adults out of France and to freedom in Switzerland as Germany was relentless in rounding up Jews for forced labor and the gas chambers.

Ms. Harmel has done extensive research about the World War II era, and this is evident in her writing. In The Book of Lost Names, she weaves a story of intrigue and personal loss through the protagonist, Eva Traube Abrams. I liked Eva from the beginning and pulled for her throughout the book. (As a writer, I strive to create such a protagonist!)

The personal losses Eva endures are huge and every time you think she’s going to find happiness, there is another twist in the story. She inadvertently of falls into the role of forging government documents for herself and other Jews while she and her mother are in hiding.

Eva works tirelessly to perfect her skills. In the process, though, she is driven by the need to leave a record of the children’s real names. Many of them are too young to remember their true identities or the names of their parents.

Eva and her fellow-forger, Remy, develop a code through which to record the children’s names in an old nondescript book on the shelf in the secret church library in which they do their work in a tiny French village hidden in the mountains. Eva and Remy use the Fibonacci sequence to code the names in the pages of the book.

Eva and The Book of Lost Names will stay with me for a long time. I love historical fiction for the way it entertains and educates me.

It was coincidental that I read Code Talker, by Chester Nez and The Book of Lost Names, by Kristin Harmel during the same month.

One by One, by Ruth Ware

One by One, by Ruth Ware

This is the fifth novel I’ve read by Ruth Ware, a British author. She is a modern-day master of suspense. In fact, David Baldacci has called her “The Agatha Christie of our generation.”

In One by One, Ms. Ware gives us a 21st century story of office colleagues going on a weeklong retreat at a French ski resort. There’s a snowstorm. There’s an avalanche. Communications are down, which is ironic because these people work for a tech startup in London.

The relaxing retreat is immediately thrown into chaos when a shareholder proposes a buyout. Tensions grow as rescue grows more and more unlikely. It’s cold. Food is running out. And the retreat participants are knocked off, one by one. Can you figure out who the killer is? #OfficeRetreatGoneBad

I was a little disappointed in this book, but I’ll read Ruth Ware’s next novel anyway. Since I wasn’t enthralled by three of the five books I read in September, perhaps it was my frame of mind and not the quality of the books that is to blame for my less-than-stellar impressions of the books.

Since my last blog post

I’m rounding up the photographs to include in my book of local history newspaper articles, Harrisburg, Did You Know? A couple of pictures and the cover are all that are still to be done to complete this book of historical tidbits from Township One and Harrisburg, North Carolina.

Instead of becoming more accustomed to my new daily schedule due to my dog’s diabetes diagnosis, it felt like all my fatigue caught up with me this past week. To quote a Pennsylvania Dutch saying, “My get up and go got up and went.”

There are many projects vying for my attention, but I am tired and I lack motivation. I think I’ll blame the pandemic. I think most of us have pandemic fatigue. Those of us living in the United States also have political campaign fatigue.

Until my next blog post

I hope you have a good book to read.

If you’re a writer or other artist, I hope you have satisfying creative time this week.

Now that flu season is coming to the northern hemisphere in addition to the on-going Covid-19 pandemic, please wear a mask. Not wearing a mask shouldn’t be a political statement; it merely tells me that you really don’t care about anyone but yourself. I’m probably “preaching to the choir” because the people who refuse to wear a mask because of their political or religious convictions probably don’t read my blog.

Thank you for your time.

Janet

Navajo Code Talker Chester Nez

I read five books in September, but Code Talker, by Chester Nez made such an impression me that I decided to just write about it today. I’ll blog about the other books I read last month in next week’s blog post.

Code Talker, by Chester Nez with Judith Schiess Avila

Code Talker, by Chester Nez with Judith Schiess Avila is a wonderful book! It is a memoir written by one of the original 29 Navajo Code Talkers of World War II. The irony is that a language the US Government tried to eradicate ended up saving the US in World War II.

Navajo “Right Way Balance”

Early on in the book we’re told that Mr. Nez was a staunch believer in the traditional ways and beliefs of the Navajos. In the core of those beliefs is the “Right Way Balance” which calls for a balance between individuals and between the individual and the world.

Even though the United States government tried to take the Navajo culture and language out of him from an early age, his family ingrained in him the language and all aspects of their culture and heritage. Although the United States government and policies inflicted on the Navajos and other native peoples should have made him bitter, after December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, he was eager to join the Marines and fight for his country.

Mr. Nez tells about his childhood. He tells that his mother was one of the Navajo forced to march 350 miles from Fort Defiance to Fort Sumner in New Mexico. That was after they’d been burned out and forced to surrender to Kit Carson and taken to Fort Defiance.

Mr. Nez writes about the Great Livestock Massacre, which he witnessed. That incident alone, should have made him hate the United States government. It was the gruesome slaughter of millions of sheep and cattle belonging to the Navajo.

When he was forced to go off to boarding school, a missionary told the school administrators that his name was Chester Nez. He was no longer allowed to use his clan’s name. He tells about being made to learn English and to speak only that language at school. This was seen as an insult and a punishment at the time; however, without a fluency in both languages, he couldn’t have become a Code Talker. All the Navajo Code Talkers had to be fluent in both languages in order for the project to work.

The Unbreakable Code

There were skeptics, but time after time the Code Talkers proved their inestimable value in the United States’ war effort against Japan. The outcome of the war in the Pacific theatre was very much in question the Navajo Code Talkers arrived on the scene. They went through intensive training in complete secrecy from their fellow Marines and the public. Developing the code was totally up to those 29 men.

The Japanese had been able to break every code the US military had tried. The situation was becoming desperate. The Battle of Savo Island was the worst defeat in the history of the US Navy. The Marines on Guadalcanal figured they were next. They felt like sitting ducks. But the Navajo Code Talkers arrived with the 1st Marine Division and the prospects for the US began to change for the good.

Mr. Nez tells about the old “Shackle” code, which “was written in English, encoded via a coding machine, and sent. Then the receiving end decoded the message, again via machine, and wrote it out in English. It took an hour to transmit and receive the test messages. When the same messages were transmitted and received in Navajo – with the men themselves acting as coding machines – it took only forty seconds for the information to be transmitted accurately.”

The above quote minimizes the complexity of the Navajo Code, but I hope you will read this book and find out the intricacies of how the code was developed. The training for the code talkers was intense. It was astounding how complicated, accurate, and fast the Navajo Code worked. It, no doubt, saved the lives of thousands of American military personnel.

All Over the Pacific

Mr. Nez’s book follows his service on New Caledonia, Guadalcanal, Bougainville, back to Guadalcanal for additional training for the planned assault on Guam, then on to Guam, Peleliu (a battle that General Roy Geiger called the worst battle of the South Pacific), Angaur (where some Navajo Code Talkers were loaned to the Army), then “back to the bloodbath on Peleliu,” and then back to Guadalcanal to train for Iwo Jima.

The description of the maze of underground tunnels filled with Japanese soldiers on Iwo Jima filled Mr. Nez with dread, but the surprise of his life came when his name was called. He was informed that he had “made his points.” Marines were “awarded points for each island invaded and wrested back from the Japanese.” He had earned more than enough points to be sent home.

After the War

Returning to the US was another bit of a culture shock for Mr. Nez. He was a proud Marine and war veteran when he returned to the US in 1945 but, because he was a Native American, he wasn’t granted the right to vote in New Mexico until 1948.

He was sworn to secrecy about what he had done in the war. He was sworn to secrecy about the Navajo Code Talkers. His family would have been so proud of what he had done in the war, but he could not tell them. By the end of World War II, 400 Navajos had served as Code Talkers. Thirteen of them were killed in action.

The last third of the book is about Mr. Nez’s life after World War II, including the nightmares he had about Japanese soldiers and what finally made them stop. The Navajo Code Talkers’ Dictionary is printed in the book’s appendix.

Information about the Navajo Code was declassified in 1968. The military decided they wouldn’t need to use it again. At last, the Code Talkers were free to talk about what they did in World War II.

Since my last blog post

Formatting my Harrisburg, Did You Know? collection of local history newspaper columns was intimidating, but I’ve been surprised at how smoothly it’s going. I’m adding photographs today. I can’t wait to have the e-book ready to publish! Then, I’ll work on the paperback edition!

Until my next blog post

I hope you have a good book to read. I suggest you try to find a copy of Code Talker, by Chester Nez.

If you’re a writer or other artist, I hope you have productive creative time.

Thank you for reading my blog. We all have busy schedules, so I appreciate the time you took today to read this blog post.

Please wear a mask out of respect for others during this Covid-19 pandemic. You could be contagious and not know it.

Janet