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As my “10 Books You Should Read in 2019” was a popular post, I thought I would do the same for 2020 especially since, well, there’s not a whole lot to be doing these days but reading. All of the books I’ve featured are on the newer side and available in digital format, so hopefully your local library has them available to borrow through either the Libby or Overdrive apps. Even better, perhaps your local independent bookstore has an online store, so if you have the means consider ordering through there since that will help them in surviving this pandemic nightmare too.
As always, my reading tastes run the gamut from historical fiction to historical non-fiction to mainstream fiction. I will admit, this past year I read a lot of historical fiction about World War II but you’ll notice the three books I included here, obviously all excellent, took place in different locales since every World War II story is different.
And last but not least, a totally shameless self-promotion for my own book, The Tears of Yesteryear. In case you haven’t read it (yet), it’s a work of historical fiction set against the backdrop of the Homestead Steel Works in early 1900s Pittsburgh (United States). If you want to read some reviews of it, check it out on Goodreads. And most importantly, if you want to order it and help in supporting my own creative endeavors, you can get it on Amazon in either Kindle format (remember, if you don’t have a Kindle device but do have an iPad, you can download the Kindle for iPad app for free through the App store) or paperback format.
Resistance Women by Jennifer Chiaverini
I was reading Chiaverini’s epic tome (it’s nearly 700 pages!) during my time in Berlin, Germany at the end of last year and what a book to be swept up by when “on location.” For many people, the events of the Holocaust, the period of Adolf Hitler and his Nazis are strictly tied to the years of World War II, 1939-1945. And yet, for the German people, the nightmare and terror of that period started years earlier, even before Hitler attained power in March of 1933. In Resistance Women Chiaverini tells the story of many real-life figures (mainly Germans, although one woman was an American who moved to Germany in the 1920s with her German husband and it became her adopted homeland) who witnessed the birth and rise of Hitler and the Nazis and ultimately chose to fight against this hellish regime through acts of resistance.
One hears so much about either the complacency or straight out feverish support of the Nazis by the German people during World War II. And yet, Chiaverini dispels those beliefs by showcasing countless heroic figures, many of whom did not survive to see the demise of Hitler and the Nazis. When I visited the Topography of Terror, I was startled to see the portraits of Mildred Harnack and her husband (at the time, I was not aware those two were real people) in an exhibit there on the famous “Red Orchestra.”
Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe
I admit, I knew next to nothing about Northern Ireland’s troubles save for the universal knowledge that the Catholics there want British home rule to end, and the Protestants want to remain part of Great Britain, and of course, for decades the two religious factions have hated each other. I do remember as a kid, reading about the famous Easter peace talks in 1998 known as the Good Friday Agreement, that President Clinton of the United States helped to broker, which effectively ended decades of violence between the two sides. But that’s about it.
So Say Nothing provides the reader with an excellent background on “the Troubles” set against the backdrop of one of the many unsolved murders that took place during this time, the killing of a mother of ten children who was abducted from her Belfast home and never seen again. People knew the IRA (Irish Republican Army) was responsible but no one ever spoke up, no one ever did the right thing by her orphaned children to say what they knew because for the entire time the Troubles were occurring, people worshiped to fear and paranoia. This book will leave you disturbed and heartbroken on many levels to know about the truly heinous acts people can commit against their own fellow citizens.
The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper by Hallie Rubenhold
During my visit to London last June, I stayed in the East End and also did a Jack the Ripper walking tour one night so I was a bit obsessed with all things East End history- related following my return. Let me just say that I truly loved this book. I know it may sound odd to use the word love when talking about the notorious serial killer, but what I loved is that Rubenhold finally gave a voice to the Ripper’s five (known) victims. They were no longer just suspected prostitutes or derelict mothers who abandoned their children. You learn about their lives preceding their brutally murdered bodies being found on the streets of the East End, and the circumstances that brought them there, many of which were tragic and upsetting. And this truly reads like fiction.
The Things We Cannot Say by Kelly Rimmer
Normally I’m not a fan of historical fiction books that feature a modern storyline but in The Things We Cannot Say Rimmer makes it work. She tells the story of Alina, a young woman trying to survive during World War II in Poland, and then also featuring Alina as an elderly woman in Florida through the story of her granddaughter Alice. Their stories finally intersect when Alice travels to Poland for her dying grandmother’s last wishes and uncovers the many things Alina could never tell her family.
I really enjoyed this as there are few World War II novels set in Poland that aren’t told from the Jewish/Holocaust perspective. The Polish people suffered horrifically during the war, and many of them did fight against the Nazis as well.
Unmarriageable by Soniah Kamal
For a lighthearted, quick and easy read, Unmarriageable is it. It’s a retelling of Pride and Prejudice only it’s set in modern-day Pakistan and lets you see just how class-obsessed Pakistani society is. Anyone who loves the story of Pride and Prejudice will be delighted by this and I particularly enjoyed learning about elements of Pakistani culture.
The Women of the Copper Country by Mary Doria Russell
I had never heard of The Women of Copper Country before but as I love books about early 20th century immigrant experiences, I decided to give it a whirl. It’s set in the copper-mining town of Calumet, located in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and tells the story of the famous strike against the largest copper mining company in the world led by America’s Joan of Arc, Annie Clements, a woman who came to America as a child from Slovenia. No matter the locale or the industry they worked in (steel, copper, coal), the plight of the immigrant workers and their families in the United States was unimaginable, especially when you learn just how expendable the “bosses” considered them to be.
A Pledge of Silence by Flora J. Solomon
Ever since I saw the 1997 film Paradise Road which was loosely based on the experiences of British, Australian, and Dutch women and children POWS of the Japanese on the Indonesian island of Sumatra during World War II, I’ve always been interested in this side of World War II history, especially since there isn’t a ton of literature about it. A Pledge of Silence tells the story of a young American nurse who joins the Army Nurse Corps and is delighted to be sent on an overseas assignment, to the Pearl of the Orient, Manila, the Philippines. Life there is quite glamorous until Manila and the rest of the country fall to the Japanese army and she and her fellow nurses become POWs living in horrific conditions.
One of the things I liked most about it was that Solomon didn’t end the book when the POWs were freed, as if everything’s great now, all is well. No, she shows how the POWs struggled with the nightmares of their experiences for many years after, survivor’s guilt as to why they survived when their friends didn’t. I found this to be a much more realistic portrayal.
Becoming Mrs. Lewis: The Improbable Love Story of Joy Davidman and C. S. Lewis by Patti Callahan
Sure, as a kid I read the Narnia books (and as a college student, The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe in Spanish for practice), but I was never a C.S. Lewis junkie like some, nor was I aware of the spiritual journey he took when teaching at Oxford University. But it goes without saying I had never heard of Joy Davidman, the American woman whom Lewis would embark on a most unusual friendship with and then years later, would ultimately marry. This was originally out of convenience but then the union turned to love.
I became a bit more interested in Lewis following my day trip to Oxford from London last year, dining at the famed Eagle and Child pub, and Becoming Mrs. Lewis filled that knowledge void wonderfully. Davidman by all accounts was truly a brilliant and remarkable woman in her own right and a figure very much underappreciated.
D-Day Girls: The Spies Who Armed the Resistance, Sabotaged the Nazis, and Helped Win World War II by Sarah Rose
Too often, the stories behind the heroic actions of ordinary citizens are never known and this was definitely the case for three of World War II’s female heroes until Rose told their stories in D-Day Girls. Recruited by Britain’s elite spy agency, these three women (a street smart Parisian, a bored and unhappy suburban housewife and mother, and an independent woman of her time who truly answered to no one) carried out acts of resistance most of us couldn’t contemplate doing today- destroying train lines, ambushing Nazis, plotting prison breaks, all so that a little known invasion that took place in June of 1944 could be carried out.
The Romanov Empress: A Novel of Tsarina Maria Feodorovna by C.W. Gortner
I have always adored all things having to do with the history of the Russian czars and a novel about Tsarina Maria, mother to the last czar, Nicholas II, was no exception. Gortner wrote a beautiful book that tells the story of Maria beginning with her early years when she was a Danish princess, living a relatively plain and simple life in the Danish capital of Copenhagen (still one of my favorite cities in the world). So much has been written about Nicholas II and his family (and of course his daughter Anastasia) and Catherine the Great, but not so much about other figures. It especially helped me relive the short but lovely day I spent in the beautiful city of St. Petersburg.
And I know I’m probably alone in this, but I liked but by no means loved the very popular Where the Crawdads Sing. I thought it was just okay, not necessarily deserving of the immense praise it’s gotten.
Any books you’ve read recently that you would recommend?