20 Favorite Reads from 2020

In spite of all the craziness of this year, reading never stopped for me and continued to be an escape as well as a part of learning and growing. I had several favorites but wasn’t sure I would list twenty, but why not? These are my favorites from 2020 in no particular order of preference though most were published earlier.

1. The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell (1996).  I started the year reading this first book from Russell and though science fiction is not my usual genre, I did enjoy this one. A listening post in Puerto Rico picks up some music from another planet and a group of scientists and Jesuits set off to find this planet. Only one returns. Why? What happened to the rest of them?

2. Daughter of Fortune by Isabel Allende, translated by Margaret Sayers Peden, (1998). Allende, a Chilean/American, writes historical fiction with a touch of magical realism. In Daughter of Fortune, Eliza Sommers is raised in a British colony in Chile, falls in love with an unsuitable servant, and when the servant leaves for the goldrush of 1849 in California, Eliza manages to secretly follow him. I loved the beautiful writing of this book as well as the descriptions of the historical places and events.

3. The Lost Queen by Signe Pike (2018). Pike read a book which traces the origins of the real Merlin who had a twin sister who became a strong Scottish queen. From that, Pike writes an entertaining and compelling first book of a coming trilogy.

3. The Historian Elizabeth Kostova (2005) This book is long, slow-paced, rich in description, and a bit creepy. A father and his daughter are on a quest to learn more about Vlad the Impaler and what, if anything, he has to do with the legend of Dracula. Again, not my usual genre, (horror) but I enjoyed this one.

4. Fool’s Quest by Robin Hobb (2015)What would my year be like without reading a Robin Hobb book? Hobb is my favorite fantasy writer, and I have spent years following Fitz and his adventures  or  misadventures.

5. Anthony Horowitz The Word is Murder (2018) If you’re looking for a good murder mystery, look no further than Anthony Horowitz. He always delivers and this mystery within a mystery is no exception.

6. The Murmur of Bees by Sofia Segovia; translator Simon Bruni. Historical fiction, magical realism, this tells the story of a family during the Mexican revolution and the influenza of 1918. I loved it!

7. Started Early, Took My Dog Kate Atkinson (2010). This is the fourth of the Jackson Brodie books. I recently reread the first (Case Histories) for a library group meeting next week. I enjoy Atkinson’s rather dark humor and the way she weaves several story lines together.

9. Summer Queen Elizabeth Chadwick (2013).  I’ve been reading Chadwick for years. One of my favorites for historical fiction. This is the first of a trilogy about  Eleanor of Aquitane. She married King Louis of France at the age of 13 in 1137.

10. A Gentleman in Moscow Amor Towles (2019). A count is put under house arrest by the Bolsheviks in Moscow in 1922. Consequently, he spends the rest of his life in a hotel. If this premise doesn’t sound fascinating to you, you’ll just have to trust me (and hundreds of other readers) who found this book full of charming characters, humor, and great descriptions.

11. Big Summer by Jennifer Weiner (2020). “Unforgettable novel about friendship and forgiveness set during a disastrous wedding on picturesque Cape Cod.” Though I did enjoy this (more than I thought I would), unforgettable is a bit of a stretch but maybe that’s just my age. Still, this was a fun read covering some serious issues concerning friendship. 

Audio These are my four top audiobooks. All fiction as I rarely listen to nonfiction.

12. The Mother-in-Law Sally Hepworth (2019). A woman’s complicated relationship with her mother-in-law ends in suicide; or murder? This was so good, going back and forth with the different viewpoints and the ending totally surprised me.

13. The Goldfinch Donna Tartt (2013). This book won the Pulitzer for fiction in 2014. A young boy is with his mother in a museum when a bomb goes off. His mother is killed and he takes a priceless picture away with him. Both of these events haunt him for the rest of his childhood and into adulthood. Parts of this book I loved. The audio was excellent and I became attached to Theo and his friend Boris. Other parts were tiresome (drug use, language, etc.), but overall, a book that kept me entertained for many hours. 

14. The Tidelands Philippa Gregory (2019). In England 1648, Alinor is a woman skilled with herbs and suspected of witchcraft. Her husband is missing and believed to be dead, so Alinor must use her wits and skills to provide for herself and her children. Another long one that kept me enthralled and ready for the next in the series.

15. All We Ever Wanted Emily Giffin (2018)  Set in Nashville and told with three different viewpoints (with different narrators), a girl’s picture is taken at a high school party and spread over the internet. Not only is the girl half clothed, a racial slur has been inserted. One boy is accused but is he guilty? A story of entitlement, family drama, and the dangers of social media. Excellent!

Nonfiction Yes, I do read some nonfiction.

16. Owls of the Eastern Ice Jonathan C. Slaght (2020). Slaght, a field scientist and conservationist, saw his first fish owl in Primorye, Russia. Though they have a wingspan of over six feet and a height of over two feet, they are elusive and little has been known about them. Slaght spent five years with other scientists in the wilds of Russia tracking, capturing, and learning about these fish owls and what they need to survive.

17. Isaiah by the Day Alec Motyer (2014) This is a translation by the Biblical scholar Alec Motyer along with a daily devotional. A friend and I have been studying Isaiah together and this book along with Motyer’s commentary has been a tremendous help and blessing to us. Highly recommended for anyone serious about studying the book of Isaiah.

18. Proverbs Eric Lane (2007). I used this book in a Bible study and though it was listed on my goodreads as the least favorite of my books for 2020 (meaning not many people listed it on goodreads), I found this to be a good study tool with intelligent questions.

19. Pudge: the Biography of Carlton Fisk Doug Wilson (2015). I’ve been a baseball fan since I was a kid, and I found this biography interesting both in telling about the life of Fisk and the history of baseball during the 70’s and 80’s.

20. The Prodigal Prophet and the Mystery of God’s Mercy Timothy Keller (2018). An excellent study on the book of Jonah though I don’t think I’ve read anything by Keller I didn’t enjoy and learn from.

Those are my favorites from 2020. Looking forward to another year of reading. How about you? Any highlights from 2020?

North Carolina Writers

 

One of the reading challenges I have participated in this year is the 2020 #mmdchallenge (The Modern Mrs. Darcy, aka Anne Bogel) which includes twenty-four different challenges. One of these challenges is to read a book by a local author. Bogel, a Kentucky native, posted a list of Kentucky authors a few weeks ago, so I am going to present a list of North Carolina authors. Though not exhaustive (we have quite a few writers to be proud of), here’s a few of my favorites.

The book I intend to read for this challenge is Down the River by John Hart. This will be my first book by Hart though he has written several thrillers set in North Carolina. Born in Durham, Hart is also one of the many lawyers turned writer who are putting out books today. This particular book was a Barry Award nominee and an Edgar Award winner in 2008.

Robert Morgan is a poet and author with many books and awards to his credit. I’ve read Gap Creek twice which won the North Carolina Literature Award as well as the James G. Hanes Poetry Prize. This “story of a marriage” takes place in the mountains at the end of the 19th century. Julie Harmon works hard–“hard as a man” and she needs to in order for the couple to survive. Morgan is a wonderful storyteller, and two other books I can recommend are The Road from Gap Creek and Brave Enemies.

 

Wiley Cash has written several best-sellers and serves as writer-in-residence at UNC-Asheville. I wrote a review of The Last Ballad  https://pmgilmer.com/2018/01/04/wiley-cash-the-last-ballad/  a couple of years ago. The Last Ballad is also a book I’ve read twice–the second time when my library group selected it for that month’s read. The book tells the true story of woman, Ella May Wiggins, who tried to help form unions for the textile industry in 1929. Her courage and determination to help herself, her family, and others like her makes for a gripping read.

A native of Asheville, Sarah Addison Allen writes sweet, romantic family dramas with a bit of magical realism. Her first book, Garden Spells, tells the story of the Waverly women who are guardians of an apple tree that contains strange and magical properties. Drawing on her grandmother’s culinary traditions, Claire has built a successful catering business. When her sister returns home, her young daughter in tow, Claire’s quiet, ordered life is turned around–but in a good way.

I’ve loved the characters and relationships in all of Allen’s books. This quote from First Frost is a good example of their personalities. “Oh, please. Everyone in this town always says that like you have to be born here to understand things. I understand plenty. You’re only as weird as you want to be.”

Charles Frazier is best known for his first novel, Cold Mountain, the story of a Confederate soldier making his way home after the war. That story was based on stories from Frazier’s great-great-great grandfather as well as local stories and legends. It’s been several years since I read this one, but I remember the capitivating narrative told in a beautiful way.

Another book I enjoyed by Frazier was Thirteen Moons. As a “bound” boy, twelve-year old Will Cooper is sent to run an trading post in Cherokee territory. He becomes friends with Bear, a Cherokee chief, and is adopted into his tribe. Frazier writes descriptively of the time period, the scenery, and the growth and adventures of Will.

“What I wanted to do was slap him down a bit with wit and word. Grammar and vocabulary as a weapon. But what kind of world would it be if we all took every opportunity presented to us to assault the weak?”

One more author I will mention–Ron Rash, a poet, short-story writer, and novelist who was born in South Carolina and teaches at Western Carolina University. I’ve read several poems and stories by Rash as well as his novel The Cove though he is better known for his novel, Serena, which was also made into a movie.

The Cove takes place near the town of Mars Hill in the Appalachian mountains of North Carolina during the time of the Great War (or WWI). A young woman, Laurel, lives with her brother, Hank, who has recently returned from fighting in France. Laurel finds a man in the woods nearly dead from yellow jacket stings. Mute, the man carries only a silver flute and a note saying his name is Walter and he is on his way to New York. Walter also carries a secret which may prove a threat to Laurel and Hank as the war in Europe is coming to an end.

As with Frasier and Cash, Rash is able to bring you back in time and to another place and helping you to understand a little part of history.

Any other North Carolina writers you would like to recommend? Or your favorite one from another state?

 

 

Sixteen of My Favorite Books from 2016

I probably should have worked on this post last week, but better late than never. I did take a few days away from writing during the holidays, but I spent the last few days of 2016 trying to start my next book which I suppose I should call “The Continuing Saga of Solomon”. Well, it’s just a working title.

So, I’ve been reading blog posts on everyone’s favorite books of 2016, so thought I would go to goodreads and find out what were my favorite books this past year. All of the books I’m going to mention were either four or five star for me but that does not mean there weren’t a few others that hit that mark. Trying to keep it down to sixteen was a challenge. Sometimes, though, I think I’m too generous with my stars (especially if I’m struggling with my own writing and feel that any writer who actually finished writing a book should receive at least two stars for that accomplishment alone), but, regardless, I will only mention books today that were either my top favorites or were by a new author for me.

For my top fiction, one of the first books I read in 2016 was Kate Morton’s The Lake the-lake-houseHouse. I loved it and wonder why I still haven’t read more of her books. But I will.

Looking over the fiction books I read, I noticed I read several books which are the first in a mystery series. This makes these books even more special as it means there are more books by these authors that can I look forward to in 2017. (And I actually have already read the second in a few of these series). These books (in no certain order): What Angels Fear by C.S. Harris; The Anatomist’s Wife by Anna Lee Huber; Raven Black by Ann Cleeves; The Merchant’s House by Kate Ellis; and The Lewis Man by Peter May. I also read two by Tana French (the second and third in her series). I don’t think you can go wrong with her. Looking forward to reading the next in her series soon.what-angels-fear-240h

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I’m doing a reread of Robin Hobb’s Farseer series. I read both Assassin’s Apprentice and Royal Assassin in 2016. She is an amazing writer and though her books are fantasy, I feel can learn a lot about writing historical fiction from her writings. She is great at both setting and characters.

Other favorites in fiction: The Marriage of elephant-whisperer Opposites by Alice Hoffman; The Architect’s Apprentice by Elif Shafak; Plainsong by Kent Haruf; and Beneath a Golden Veil by Melanie Dobson.

Not counting the two by Tana French, that’s twelve. Since the Robin Hobb books are rereads, maybe I shouldn’t count those, but didn’t want to leave her out.

Obviously, I can easily mention more than sixteen, but I will round this out with my top four non-fiction: None Like Him by Jen Wilkin; An Editor’s Advice by Betty Lerner; The Elephant Whisperer by Lawrence Anthony; and A Woman of Contentment by Dee Brestin.

How about you? Any books that stood out for you in 2016? Have you set any reading forest for the treesgoals for 2017 yet?

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Book Riot Read Harder Challenge

kingdom of ice 2It’s a new year and goals and challenges are being discussed. Resolutions are still made, but usually with a sheepish grin. We want to change, but, being honest, we know how long, or how short, most of these will last. So, you can lose your weight, eat healthier, and exercise more, but being a reader, I am more interested in what other readers are doing and how I can challenge myself to read or to “read harder” as Book Riot has put it. I’m not really looking to read more, and will continue to read for pure pleasure and enjoyment, but adding a challenge to my reading will broaden my reading horizons. I have already decided I will read more non-fiction this year, and have started by beginning to read Hampton Sides In the Kingdom of Ice. 

Book Riot has issued their “Read Harder” Challenge which you can read here: http://ow.ly/FZLwd To read harder, you must choose a book that will fit within the 24 different categories they have presented. These categories include reading a book written by an author under the age of 25, reading a science fiction book, a romance book, a book written by an author from Africa, and a microhistory.

Am I going to try and do all 24? No. For a couple of reasons. One, I have books I want to read just because I want to read them, and others I will be reading for various book groups, and I’m not going to put them aside just to participate in this. Two, I want a challenge, but not something that will take the fun and enjoyment out of reading.

But, I am going to pick a few selections and make an effort to read those and join in with the group on goodreads. The first challenge is to read a book written by an author under the age of 25. I have a copy of Carson McCullers’ The Heart is a Lonely Hunter which has been languishing on my bookshelves for years. In fact, I had to do a bit of digging to find it. McCullers was 23 when she wrote this book, so I am choosing it to take on the first task.

Another task (number 3) is to read a selection of short stories. Another book I’ve had for awhile is The Best American Short Stories of the Century, edited by John Updike. Though I’ve read a story from it here and there over the years, I’ve never read it all the way through. Though I may take most of the year to get through it, I will begin to read it, keeping track of the stories as I read them (since I probably won’t read them in order).

SS & Carson McCullers

Some of the tasks I will be able to check off fairly easily as I go about my regular reading. This may seem like cheating, but, hey, it counts! For example, I have a hold on Overdrive for Nicholas Sparks’ The Longest Ride on audio. Once I get that and listen to it, I will have completed task 16 (audiobook), task 6 (written by a gender different than myself; i.e. a man), and task 13 (romance).

What about you? Have you given yourself any reading challenges? Taking on any of the tasks from Book Riot? Or do you have a recommendation for a book from Indie Press? (That would help me with both tasks 4 & 18).