Goodbye 2020: The books I escaped into while locked in

Enough has been said about that year, that I don’t feel like I need to add any. But in addition to COVID lockdown, we were confined to our home—inside—because of smoke from the West Coast. Enough about that! I found time to escape into books of all sorts.

Some books here are not always “my” genres. Usually that happens when we are setting out on a long drive to visit relatives. My husband doesn’t like most of my novels, so we find something we can both enjoy reading, with enough action to stay awake on the road. So we will call those “driving reads.”

Here’s my rundown.

Fiction:

By David Baldacci: Walk the Wire. This was another book we listened to while on the road. Baldacci turns out myriad thriller and intrigue novels. He’s even ventured into the fantasy genre (look up his Vega Jane novels, the first of which is The Finisher—really excellent). This novel is part of Baldacci’s Memory Man series, about an FBI detective with a photographic memory. Some take place in the desert southwest, which I love. This one was just as good as others of his novels, and if you like Grisham, you should pick up a few of Baldacci’s novels.

By Lee Child: Blue Moon. This is book 24 of 25 Jack Reacher novels, on which two movies are based, with Tom Cruise as the title character. I haven’t read any of the other books; my husband has. This was a “driving read.” Reacher is former military, drifting around the country and meeting up with impossible and dangerous  situations. You’d think that by the end of 25 novels, he would change his habits, if a nomad existence means nearly always meeting death and destruction. Not my cup of tea, but distracting enough!

By Ann Cleeves: Cold Earth, Dead Water, Thin Air and Wild Fire. These are the last books of Cleeves’ Shetland series, on which the British TV show is based. It takes place on the islands north of Scotland: windblown, harsh, and beautiful. Its characters are beautifully described. She takes us into the heads of a few characters in each book and drives the stories through their perspectives. She leaves us wondering, at times, which of these might have been the murderer. I’ve liked her books so much that I began her books that have inspired another TV show, Vera. I have to say that they don’t even begin to feel like her masterful Shetlands books. I put down the first book about halfway through.

By Suzanne Collins: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes. When an author pens a well-told story, or in Collins’ sake a good trilogy, I sometimes cringe to think if another book could possibly work. The author of the Hunger Games books takes her readers to a time before her trilogy takes place. She explores, from his point of view, how President Snow became the ruthless ruler we saw in her books. And I’ll say this works extremely well. I was pleasantly surprised. I even want to read more!

By Andy Green: The Office: The Untold Story of the Greatest Sitcom of the 2000s. The Office is more popular now, I think, than when it first aired. It’s a binge-watchable show with characters you love and characters who make you cringe. This is a behind-the-scenes account as told by many of the cast and crew who took part in the making—the good and the bad. The show always makes me smile, and this book did too.

By John Grisham: The Confession, The Guardians, and A Time for Mercy. I’ve completed reading all of Grisham’s books, except for his collection of short stories. I’ve stayed with him over the years because I enjoy his storytelling, the intrigue, and the characters he creates. Each one of these was just as good as all the ones that have come before. The last one, A Time for Mercy, takes the reader back to the familiar setting and characters that we met in A Time to Kill and Sycamore Row. Well done and riveting as always.

By Gill Hornby: Miss Austen: A Novel. I’ve been burned before by books attempting to feed off of Austen’s genius, so I’m not sure why I picked this up. Pride and Prejudice is one of my top 10 favorites, and I don’t like people messing with it! This one has a different take. It uses all the people in Jane’s adult life and takes a moment in time, after Jane’s death, to visit her dear sister in her own last few weeks. We don’t know much about Jane, except from what her immediate families recorded and what letters she wrote to family and friends. Inexplicably, Jane’s sister burned a whole collection of letters they wrote to one another. This story is a fictional attempt of explaining why. The book was okay but a letdown. Someone stop me from making that mistake again!

By Jennifer Robson: The Gown. In post-World War 2 Britain, Princess Elizabeth marries Philip, in a time of continued rationing and rebuilding. This is a semi-fictional account of two women who worked in the design house making and embroidering her gown. I enjoyed the setting and the characters, but the story was pretty predictable.

By JK Rowling: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and The Ickabog. Every so often, especially while driving, we like to reread the Harry Potter series. Goblet of Fire is probably my favorite, and we both agreed that the movies, while very well done, don’t hold a candle to the books themselves. And The Ickabog is Rowling’s newest book, unrelated to Harry Potter. She bills this as children’s literature, but it holds together very well for adults. The characters come to life, and her impeccable use of language shines forth.

By Brandon Sanderson: Starsight. This is book 2 of Sanderson’s Skyward series. Sanderson is an incredibly prolific writer, putting out several books every year. How does he do that? I have liked some of his series, but not all, so I started Skyward, book 1 of this series, a little skeptically. This is a SciFi fantasy of a people ravaged by war from aliens and who retreat underground for protection from the continued alien bombardment. Meanwhile, some fearless pilots train so they can do battle with these aliens in the skies. We watch a young woman who wants not just to fly and fight, but also to try to understand how her father failed as a fighter-pilot when she was a girl. This is well told, a good read.

Nonfiction:

By Thomas Cahill: Heretics and Heroes: How Renaissance Artists and Reformation Priests Created Our World. I had read another book in this series of what he calls Hinges of History, titled How the Irish Saved Civilization. For a history buff with a biblical worldview, it was surprising and well-done. Heretics, also excellent, was well-researched and meaty. This could be a supplement of the high school or college classics student. I’ll be looking to read another in this series.

By Winston Churchill: A History of the English Speaking Peoples. This is book 2 of Churchill’s survey series, this one covering the 16th and 17th centuries. I was surprised and delighted with how readable these books are, and I look forward to the third one of the series. He wrote these in his retirement years, after he had left the office of Prime Minister in the 1950s.

By Frank Dikotter: How to be a Dictator: The Cult of Personality in the 20th Century. Not surprisingly, the author looks at the lives of four of the most notorious dictators of the last century: Hitler, Stalin, Mao Zedong, and Kim Il Sung. He narrates the rise of each man and the ways in which each one took the reins of power to exact their vicious strategies. I encourage you to read The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels to see what I mean. Surprisingly, each ruler’s methods look fairly similar. Can we learn from them? I certainly hope so.

By Donnie Eichar: Dead Mountain: The Untold Story of the Dyatlov Pass Incident. I have no idea how this topic came up as I searched for good books. Amazon will provide suggestions of how best to use my money on more books, based on my recent book orders. Sometimes I bite, and often I will order a sample of the Kindle book. In this case I was hooked after reading their sample. In the 1950s the members of a university adventurers’ club in the Soviet Union decided to climb a mountain that not many had ever attempted—in the Urals, in below-zero conditions. They disappeared, and searchers later found their bodies, all of them at some distance from their tent and all in some bizarre conditions. Many were partially clothed, some had no shoes, one had a skull bashed in, another had a tongue missing. Yet another had a badly broken leg. What caused them to race out of their tent onto the frozen mountainside? Eichar chronicles their journey and even heads to Dead Mountain himself to see where they died. He provides an interesting hypothesis. Warning: there’s a lot of science here. Not sure why I held onto a book with actual science in it! But it kept me rivetted until the end. You know it’s a good book when something outside your comfort zone holds your attention all the way through. I may have even learned some science! Or maybe it slipped out of my brain as soon as I ended it.

By Nancy Goldstone: Four Queens: The Provencal Sisters Who Ruled Europe. If you like author Alison Weir’s histories, you might also enjoy Goldstone. Very well researched, this is the tale of 13th-century queens Marguerite, Eleanor, Sanchia, and Beatrice of Provence— of France, England, Germany and Sicily, respectively. This was a bit more dry than Alison Weir’s books, but still a good read.

By David Howarth: 1066: The Year of the Conquest. This is a bite-sized look at the year—the principal players, the countries involved, the lifestyles of the common folk, and how they all played a role in William’s Conquest of England. This is short and easy to get through in a few hours. It could be used as a reference source or extra reading for the high school or university student.

By Con Iggulden: Stormbird: Wars of the Roses #1. I love this topic and this time of history. Told in novel form, not boring or dry, the author brings forth the men and women whose lives centered around the upheaval of the throne of England. Looking forward to reading book 2, Margaret of Anjou.

By Sharon Kay Penman: The Land Beyond the Sea. Sometimes that Amazon suggestion of books related to what I like to read will pop up with some very interesting topics. This was one I didn’t know I needed to read! I hardly know anything about Jerusalem during the time of the Crusades. This is the account, told in novel form but faithfully adhering to history, of King Baldwin IV of Jerusalem. He was a child when his father died, and Baldwin learned how to become a king during a time of  great turmoil. When he was diagnosed with leprosy as a boy, he knew his time as king would be short and he would need to both rule this great city and find an heir. Probably one of the best nonfiction books of the year for me.

By Sarah Rose: D-Day Girls: The Spies Who Armed the Resistance, Sabotaged the Nazis, and Helped Win World War 2. While sending men and materiel to the Continent, Churchill needed spies who would live in France and commit all sorts of acts of sabotage in order to prepare France and the Resistance for D-Day. Over 3 dozen women were recruited and trained, and this book looks at just 3 of them. These little-recognized women faced dangers, privations, with astounding strength and bravery–some of whom paid with their lives–and should be recognized and honored for their sacrifices.

By JD Vance: Hillbilly Elegy. I mentioned to one of my sons that my own father was probably a hillbilly, based on where and when he lived, and he suggested that I read this book. Vance grew up right in the area where we lived for 15 years, Cincinnati. He recounts the harsh and brutal lives of people right in our own back yards, right now. Though his life was unimaginably chaotic, he somehow escaped the cycle of poverty, addictions, and abuse to graduate from high school, college, and law school. This was not a book you could say you enjoyed, though it is an important book that demands you be aware of these little-known folks and the harsh lives they live—often right close to you.

By Alison Weir: Queens of the Conquest. Weir thoroughly researches the subjects of every book she writes, all of which concern Medieval and Renaissance Europe, so I know I can expect an excellent and fascinating read. Here she gives a picture of four queens who ruled right around the time of the Conquest of 1066. She depicts these women as strong-willed, intelligent, and loyal to their countries and their families. She shows rather than tells, which makes all the difference.

Biblical Worldview/Theology:

By Robert W. Godfrey: Saving the Reformation: The Pastoral Theology of the Canons of Dort. I love to read about theology and the development of biblical thought throughout history. The canons and confessions of early church fathers can be instructional and enlightening. Other important canons and confessions would be The Westminster Confession of Faith, the Heidelberg Catechism, Luther’s Catechism, and the Book of Concord. Inspirational, informative, and important for the Christian who wants to study theology from early Reformation days. These confessions were written to respond to heresies that arose in the Christian church.  Just like the Apostles and the Nicene Creeds, these statements can be studied, Bible in hand, to know how to be “always prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” (2 Peter 1:12). If you’re really interested, Ligonier Ministries has a Church History series in which Godfrey gives 25-minute lectures of a survey course.

By Abdu Murray: Saving Truth: Finding Meaning and Clarity in a Post-Truth World. Murray claims, and rightly so, I believe, that today can no longer be called Postmodern; instead he calls our age today “Post-Truth.” This is a time in which truth is relative: “You may believe one truth and I can believe in another, and that’s okay.” I may lay out all the facts in an argument, and my opponent (my student, my neighbor, etc.) will acknowledge all those facts but will still decide to believe some other conflicting idea, one that does not comport with the truth. How do you persuade folks who think this way? Read this in order to arm yourself for the Post-Truth age.

What I’ll read next:

I’m currently almost done with Ready Player Two by Ernest Cline. Book 1, Ready Player One, compelled me to race through it–a very good sign of a great book. The sequel also has a thrilling, breathless race to solve a quest, however I got impatient with the long, detailed slogs through 80s movies, songs, and video games. I felt like I was just reading Cline’s geeky infatuation for anything 80’s pop culture.

On my Amazon Wish List, but who knows what other books will cross my path this year?

  • The Age of Revolution by Winston Churchill.
  • The Affectionate Theology of Richard Sibbes (A Long Line of Godly Men Profile) by Mark Dever.
  • Blood Sisters: The Women Behind the Wars of the Roses by Sarah Gristwood.
  • Brooklyn: A Novel by Colm Toibin.
  • The Brothers York by Tomas Penn.
  • The Cottingly Secret by Hazel Gaynor.
  • Hamnet by Maggie O’Ferrell.
  • Henry VIII and the Men Who Made Him by Tracy Borman.
  • The Lady Queen by Nancy Goldstone.
  • Outwitting the Gestapo by Lucie Aubrac and Margaret Collins Weitz.
  • The Queen’s Secret: A Novel of England’s World War II Queen by Karen Harper.
  • The Reformation: A History by Diarmaid MacCulloch
  • She-Wolves: The Women Who Ruled England Before Elizabeth by Helen Castor.
  • Time and Chance by Sharon Kay Penman.
  • The Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmithy
  • The Wars of the Roses: Margaret of Anjou by Conn Iggulden.
  • When We Were Young and Brave by Hazel Gaynor.
  • Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys and Edwidge Canticat.
  • Winter-King: Henry VII and the Dawn of Tudor England by Thomas Penn.
  • The World’s Last Night and Other Essays by CS Lewis.

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