History novels, thrillers among best of 2019

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January 8, 2020 - 9:42 AM

As is my wont, my January book column is a look back at my favorites among books I read in 2019. My tastes tend to run to history or — for fiction — thrillers, and this year is no exception.

First up are the history books. “A Woman of No Importance” is the fascinating story of Virginia Hall, an American who ran one of the most successful spy networks in Nazi-occupied and Vichy France during World War II — and with a wooden leg and limp, no less.

A fresh look at the Normandy invasion is given by “Soldier, Sailor, Frogman, Spy” by Giles Milton. Some important facets of the invasion which are rarely included in D-Day accounts are brought out in the book.

“Separate” by Steve Luxenberg is an enlightening account of how we got from the promise of Reconstruction to Jim Crow and the ignominy of the Plessy v. Ferguson “separate but equal” decision. It’s largely told through the tales of key players, such Plessy himself and Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan, a former slaveholder whose ringing (and sole) dissent in the decision still resounds today.

And “Heirs of the Founders” by H.W. Brands effectively tells the interrelated stories of Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun, and Daniel Webster. These three giants of the post-Federal but pre-Civil War period helped shape our country’s history, for better or worse.

Apart from history, one nonfiction book makes my list this year, “The Body” by Bill Bryson. Bryson takes a look at every bodily system, revealing fascinating details about them all.

For thrillers, my favorites begin with “The Whisper Man” by Alex North. A widowed man and his young son are targeted by a serial killer who seems to parallel a two-decades old case where young boys were lured by a man whispering at their windows at night. In “If She Wakes” by Michael Koryta, a victim of a car wreck seems to be in a vegetative state, but in actual fact she has “locked-in syndrome,” in which she can’t move or communicate but is perfectly aware of her surroundings — and the fact that someone is out to kill her. “The Institute” by Stephen King features children with psychic abilities who are collected together by kidnappers and used for nefarious purposes.

There aren’t too many science fiction books these days which I care for, but this year one makes my list, “Vessel” by Lisa Nichols. Six years after NASA lost contact with a deep space expedition, the captain Catherine Wells returns to Earth by herself, with no memory of what happened to her expedition or what catastrophe killed the rest of her crew.

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