Road to Surrender by Evan Thomas (Non-Fiction — History)

Writing: 5/5 Topic Coverage: 5/5 References: 5/5

My favorite kind of non-fiction — all well-referenced facts, with details of people’s thoughts, motivations, and actions as captured at the time through records, diaries, and notes. The book covers the day-to-day (and sometime minute-to-minute) events pertaining to the dropping of two nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki — not the development of the bombs which is well covered elsewhere, but everything to do with the (somewhat chaotic) logistics, strategy, political machinations, and even the evolution of revisionist history to do with the use of the bombs. Drawing heavily from memoirs of several of the key players, including Japanese foreign minister Togo, we are treated to the decision making process with all of the attendant, intermingled motivations and fears of the time.

The writing was superb — clean, clear, and detailed, but never rambling. I don’t tend to read non-fiction unless it’s like this (and very few books are!). The action ranges from March – August 1945, with a well-summarized epilogue that followed some of the main characters (Stimson, Togo, Spaatz) to the end of their lives amidst shifting popular perceptions of the war and the US role in ending it. In many ways, I found this chapter the most interesting — watching the way history gets retold when the stress of an uncontrollable situation is gone and the pontificators get to revise strategy with the benefit of 20-20 hindsight. Towards the end of this period, there is also the scepter of the Russians — allies at the time, but allies who are starting to behave in a not-so-collegial fashion. To trust or not to trust? (I think the answer to this one is now pretty clear).

Of the many character portraits painted, three stood out: Henry Stimson — Secretary of War whose ongoing worry was that “man’s technical capacity to do evil will outrun man’s human capacity to do good;” Carl “Tooey” Spaatz — the Commander of the Strategic Air Forces who insisted on written orders to deploy the bomb(s) and carried the orders around in his pocket; and Shigenori Togo —the only Japanese Cabinet member to oppose the war (and the only one not executed as a War Criminal). I loved the peek into the minds of the men (yes, they were all men) making the decisions — what they worried about, what information they had at their disposal, and how their insights and opinions were informed by their individual backgrounds and levels of idealism and pragmatism.

A significant portion of the book exposed the (wildly different) decision making process in Japan, which resulted in the much delayed surrender. The emperor was largely a prisoner of an increasingly fanatic military and rarely challenged their usually unanimous recommendations. Additionally, the Japanese culture at the time valued consensus and information transmission that is expected to be implicit, rather than explicit, greatly hampering any kind of rapid and rational decision making. Ultimately Emperor Hirohito did issue a proclamation of surrender, but even that was almost quashed through a last minute and desperate coup. Honestly, it reads like absolute insanity, which I’m sure it was.

I honestly couldn’t stop reading. The last paragraph summed it up nicely: “It is hard to imagine the pressure that these men faced in the spring and summer of 1945. The surrender of Japan came at a high cost. Decision makers on both sides engaged in wishful thinking and psychological denial, and peace of mind was hard for the victors to find. But Japan did surrender before hundreds of thousands — possibly millions — more lives were lost. Stimson, Spaatz, and Togo gave mightily of themselves to bring peace, and at last they succeeded.”

Thank you to Random House and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on May 16th, 2023

A Traitor in Whitehall by Julia Kelly (Historical Mystery)

Writing: 3.5/5 Characters: 4/5 Plot: 4.5/5 Enjoyment: 5/5

The start of a new mystery series (and her first stab at the mystery genre, no pun intended) by one of my favorite historical fiction writers — Julia Kelly. WWII – London – 1940. There is a body, there is a mole in Whitehall, and there is a smart, sharp heroine who insists on equal billing with the agent assigned to ferret out the answers. Best of all — the action takes place in the Churchill War Rooms with a detailed and accurate (as far as my two fascinating visits to the place informs) depiction of the environment and activities within. As always, she really brings it all to life! A nice complicated plot, characters with good backstories, and of course, a time period and place that is rife with opportunities for mystery.

Thank you to Random House and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on October 3rd, 2023

Earth’s the Right Place for Love by Elizabeth Berg (Literary Fiction)

Writing: 5/5 Characters: 5/5 Plot: 4/5

A sweet, uplifting story with real depth.  I loved Berg’s previous novel — The Story of Arthur Truluv (see my review here).  This novel is Arthur’s memory of the long courtship of and friendship with his (now deceased) wife. Beginning in 2016 when Arthur is 85 and finds himself “waiting for small things,” we spend most of the book in the 1940s when he first falls in love with Nola McCollum.

The novel deals with the key elements of life — relationships, mortality, family, and nature. Her descriptions of the every day aspects of life often brought tears to my eyes, simply because they touched the essence of tiny details so very well.  There are some wonderful quotes because Berg is a fantastic writer, but I’m not including them as they tend to give away certain aspects of the plot.

Beautifully done.

Thank you to Random House and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on March 21st, 2023