V for Victory by Lissa Evans (Fiction)

Completely heartwarming novel about London in the latter stages of WWII (taking over where Crooked Heart left off). Noel Bostock (15) and his “pretend” Aunt (Vee) are living in the large house Noel inherited from his “pretend” godmother, the famous suffragette Mattie Simpkin. It has become a boarding house where boarders pay rent in both cash and tutoring for Noel. When a room becomes vacant, they search for a boarder with specific knowledge to impart. Noel is the most wonderful character — smart, capable, kind, and curious about absolutely everything. Mr. Reddish teaches him math while quoting his own rather bad poetry; Dr. Parry-Jones teaches science (giving him a dissectible rat for his birthday); the one-eared Mr. Jepson teaches him Latin; and Miss Appleby mixes her French lessons with more personal lessons about the heart (her heart to be precise).

In the odd way different lives seem to come together haphazardly, an American GI drives a lorry on the wrong side of the road, the more fashionable (and obnoxious) twin of an air-raid warden writes a surprising novel about her sister, and Noel’s origin story comes out of hiding.

I really like her writing — some nice quotes below:

“He didn’t have a family tree, he had a Venn diagram, in which none of the circles overlapped.”

“Impossible to explain Vee’s myriad antipathies, her constantly updated list of prejudices and judgements.”

“She had fallen for Romeo and now found herself padlocked to the editor of Modern Homes and Gardens.”

“Since the end, just a year ago, of his own, terrible marriage he found himself studying other couples, like someone conning an aircraft recognition chart — spotting those tics and phrases that signaled contempt or boredom or fear, and when he saw those, he wanted to take one or other of the pair aside, and say, ‘Finish it now.’

“Jepson was present but unlit, so that in the dining room he was more furniture than inhabitant, talked around and over, but never to. But in lessons there were glimmers — he had seized Noel’s first essay and pushed the words around the page like backgammon counters, showing him how to introduce a subject, how to make a neat and satisfying ending, how to prune, and rearrange the content.”

“It was so easy, she thought, as he led her towards the music; he was so easy — a printed postcard, when every other man she’d ever known was a sealed letter filled with blank pages or mystifying codes”

The Paris Library by Janet Skeslien Charles (Historical Fiction)

Writing: 4/5 Plot: 3/5 Characters: 4/5

I’m conflicted about this book — on the one hand a good, engrossing story with an array of interesting characters; but on the other hand I found it utterly depressing (in the last third of the book) and developed a real dislike for the main character (which I don’t think was the author’s goal!).

The story primarily takes place in Paris just before and during the Nazi occupation, with occasional interleaving chapters 40 years later in a small, Montana town. Odile is the young, naive, book loving girl in Paris who gets her dream job at the American Library in Paris with the formidable Miss Reeder. The library is full of wonderful characters — many of them real figures of history (such as Miss Reeder and Boris, the head librarian, in Paris having fled the Russian revolution).

Paris declares itself a “Quiet City” so that the Nazis are allowed to occupy without bloodshed. And as they occupy they plunder libraries (trying to “eradicate the cultures of certain countries, in a methodical confiscation of their works of science, literature, and philosophy”), arrest people for being enemy aliens (e.g. British), and begin the persecution of local Jews. It’s the same old story but this time the Parisians cooperate with the nasty “crow letters” — voluntary letters denouncing their neighbors for rule breaking — all of which the local constabulary is obligated to investigate. Shades of the French revolution, this made me feel sick.

In the Montana timeline, a young girl who loses her mother befriends an older Odile who is able to help Lily not make the same mistakes we slowly find out she made back in Paris. Structurally, the book is well-paced and there are good messages that come out of the story, but it took me (the emotional sponge that I am) a full day to get over feeling utterly depressed by the whole thing.

I will say that I appreciated that the book was not melodramatic — the times were full of drama and the story itself was dramatic enough without embellishment. I thought the book was well-written, and I did like the well-drawn characters — I just don’t feel the need to be this depressed about something I’ve already spent enough time being depressed about.

A few good quotes:
“Of course he knew something was wrong, he was a librarian — part psychologist, bartender, bouncer, and detective.”

“After three months of no rest, Eleanor yawned constantly, no longer a perky parakeet, but a plump pigeon that waddled from the crib to the rocking chair.”

“Books the fresh air breathed in to keep the heart beating, to keep the brain imagining, to keep hope alive.”

“The French language was a nasal bog that she had to wade through in the shops, the hairdressers, and the bakery.”

“The best thing about Paris? It’s a city of readers,” our neighbor said.

The Librarian Spy by Madeline Martin (Historical Fiction)

Writing: 2.5/5 Plot: 4/5 Characters: 3.5/5
The story of two brave women during WWII — Ava Harper, a Library of Congress rare book librarian, recruited to spy in Lisbon, and Helene Belanger, a determined member of the French Resistance in Lyon — conspire to make at least one happy ending in a world that is utterly falling apart.

There were some very interesting aspects of this book: I’m a sucker for stories about books, librarians, and the printed word — and these all figured prominently. The author included a lot of accurate details about the processes (think bureaucracy and visas), technologies (Roneo machines!), and cultural practices of the time and place. The focus on both the French Resistance and “neutral” Portugal covered aspects of WWII that I haven’t read much about previously and were interesting, accurate, and detailed.

On the other hand, this book is really perfect for the kind of person who loves drama and appreciates how well the horror of war is depicted in the suffering of individuals — and I am not that person! The characters definitely draw you in, and I found myself crying frequently throughout because it would be impossible not to. But in truth, I found this book to be overwrought, consistently cliched, and far more melodramatic than I like which is disappointing because I very much liked Martin’s previous novel The Last Bookshop in London. It’s almost as though it were written by another writer.

Some of the writing actually made me cringe — “The Nazis had hovered over Lyon since the occupation, but now their breath whispered hot and fetid at the neck of the Resistance network.” And Ava’s behavior — while exemplary — did not in any way earn the incredible accolades that were awarded to her, giving the book more of an unrealistic Romance kind of feel, rather than historical fiction with a serious theme.

Still — plenty of action and drama, and I’m sure there are those for whom it will be a good reading experience. Bring plenty of Kleenex, and park your sunny disposition in the closet. It won’t be needed.

Thank you to Harlequin Trade Publishing and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book was published on July 26th, 2022.

The Codebreaker’s Secret by Sara Ackerman (Historical Fiction)

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


Very engaging story about Isabel Cooper — a crack codebreaker serving in Hawaii during WWII. While the plot is a little clunky, the writing draws you in, the characters are wonderful, and the descriptions of Hawaii, code breakers, and smart women playing chess were well done and lots of fun. I thought the author did a decent job of portraying intelligent, working women at the time: no heavy handed agenda — just women getting along as well as they could (and that was pretty well!) given their situation. Decent male characters as well. Romance and an a multi-generational mystery thrown in. Very Enjoyable.

Thank you to Harlequin Trade Publishing and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on August 2nd, 2022.

A Fierce Radiance by Lauren Belfer (Historical fiction)

Writing: 5/5 Characters: 5/5 Plot: 4.5/5

How have I never read this book? This will definitely be one of my top reads of 2022. Historical fiction immersed in the drive to commercialize the production of penicillin for the troops. Here’s a shocking statistic — over 50% of the deaths in the Civil War were from infection; over 30% in the “Great War.”

The story opens with Claire Shipley — photojournalist for Life magazine — covering the story of early trials on penicillin for humans. 1941 — just days after Pearl Harbor — a man makes an almost miraculous recovery from near death by the injection of penicillin — only to die days later when researchers literally run out of the drug: it is that difficult to produce. Together the U.S. Government, the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research (a real place — look it up), and reluctantly drafted pharmaceutical companies race to find a process to produce enough of the miracle drug to save the men on the front.

Part love story, part murder mystery, part home front war story, and part industry story, the author does an incredible job of making war-time New York City come to life. New York is a great setting for historical fiction as it is and always has been teeming with people, innovation, and secrets. While the main characters are fictional, the historical characters (e.g. Vannevar Bush, Henry Luce, Claire Booth Luce, Margaret Bourke-White, Margaret Sanger, Jack Reed) are presented realistically (without any fictionalized access to their inner thoughts). Beautiful writing — I highlighted a lot of quotes in the (physical) book but I was too lazy to transcribe them 😦

In addition to the description of the historical setting, what I loved about the book were the characters. Each had his or her own passion, and the author explored the depth of their work, their attraction to it, and the kind of personalities and background that made them so suited to it. The descriptions of Claire and her photos were completely absorbing and beautifully described; Dr. James Staunton leading the research at the Rockefeller Institute; his sister Tia the mycologist, exploring dirt samples from around the world to find other antibacterial “cousins” to penicillin; and Edward Rutherford, one of the very earliest venture capitalists, describing the process of making money from opportunity.

Completely captivating. This was her second novel, published in 2010. Novels 1,3, and 4 are all excellent as well!

The Key to Deceit by Ashley Weaver (Mystery)

A real palette cleanser — light, fun, non-standard characters, the closure of a good mystery, and some historical context. The second in the Electra McDonnell series (I have not yet read the first), the semi-reformed Ellie (her family was happily living on the wrong side of the law) teams up again with the well-bred and straight-laced Major Ramsey to break up a spy ring in London, 1940. Some very likable thieves and forgers, a pleasant clash or classes, and a background mystery concerning Ellie’s own (long deceased) mother all make this a great read in the cacophonous world of today!

Thank you to Minotaur Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on June 21st, 2022.

The Wedding Dress Sewing Circle by Jennifer Ryan (Historical Fiction)

Writing: 4/5 Characters: 5/5 Plot: 4/5
Another upbeat, can-do, WWII based piece of historical fiction from Jennifer Ryan, author of The Kitchen Home Front and The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir. Three women in Aldhurst Village help transmute the local sewing circle into a shining example of community spirit during the deprivations of war — launching a wedding dress sewing circle, transforming old, often moth-eaten wedding dresses into modern beauties available for loan to brides in need. Grace Carlisle — the dutiful vicar’s daughter, soon to marry her father’s curate; Cressida Westcott, renowned fashion designer, returning to the village manor house (from which she was evicted decades before due to non obedience) when her home and business in London are reduced to rubble; and her spoiled niece Violet Westcott, who wants nothing but to marry a title and live the luxurious life to which she is entitled.

There was romance and it is handled well, but the real treats for me were the friendships, the awakening of awareness of opportunities and alternate lifestyles for each of the women, and the well-researched details of life on the home front. Ryan’s tidbits about wartime clothing were fascinating: The rationing (40 coupons per year — about enough for a a couple of dresses), the government Make Do and Mend program, the restriction on bathing to 5 inches of bathwater twice per week to save on fuel, the “paint on stockings” made from gravy — useful if there are no dogs around! — and most interesting, the challenges for designers who had to make do with “less fabric, more synthetic materials, and absolutely no metal fastenings or elastic.” It was just technical enough on the design and sewing aspects to be interesting but not overwhelmingly confusing to a sewing ignormus like myself.

As always, Ryan captures the real community spirit of wartime in Britain — ordinary people “joining forces to overcome the difficulties of war.” While not avoiding the terror and depression of the time, the book manages to focus on the positive and uplifting aspects of people coming together to do what needs to be done.

Thank you to Ballantine Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on May 31st, 2022.

A Sunlit Weapon by Winspear

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

Historical mystery at its best. Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs (a “psychologist and investigator” well connected with both the war office and the local chapter of Scotland Yard) continues to solve complex crimes while the timeline moves from early WWI (the first volume) through 1942 (WWII) in this 17th installment. Unlike many mystery series, these never get repetitive, nor are they replete with filler (as way too many are!). Each story draws from history to lay out a context in which the particular mystery takes place. The series reminds me of Foyle’s War — one of my favorite British television series — which similarly retells history via specific and accurate events.

The plot of A Sunlit Weapon centers around the women pilots who comprise the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA). One crashes near Bromley for no apparent reason, and when a second goes to the area to investigate, she finds an American soldier — a black American soldier — left tied up in a barn with a second (white) soldier missing in action. At the same time Eleanor Roosevelt is heading to Britain, and there is real fear around trying to keep her safe, given that she likes to talk with everyone — particularly those whom others find uninteresting — the workers and the women.

Major themes of racial prejudice pervade — both with the American soldiers (who strive to maintain color segregation in Britain despite the fact that there is no such practice or policy there) and for Maisie’s adopted daughter, whose darker skin tone leads to bullying in the local school. Good writing, appealing characters whose lives also progress from one volume to the next, and a satisfyingly twisted plot. Full of real history — my favorite: the female ATA pilots were the first governmental employees to achieve pay parity with men.

I love this series — hope she keeps going!

Thank you to Harper and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on March 22, 2022.

Under the Golden Sun by Jenny Ashcroft (Historical Fiction)

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

It is 1941 . Rose Hamilton answers an ad to accompany Walter — a young, newly orphaned boy — to his distant family on an Australian cattle station. But Walter is not an ordinary boy, and the cattle station is not what they were led to expect. About a third of this book was a very appealing romance. The rest was fiction that depicted life during wartime — in England, during the months long journey on a not-exactly-elegant ship, and in the remote areas of Australia, a few hours from Brisbane. I learned more than I knew about Australian history — particularly about the White Australia Laws and the Chief Protector of Aborigines (FYI he was not very protective). Plenty of surprises in the plot as past events come to light, and current events continue to unfold.

This was a happy book for me — in truth it was somewhat formulaic but it was executed so beautifully and with such appealing characters and well-researched history that I didn’t mind a bit. I liked the fact that the drama was not overstated, that moral commentary was pervasive but not overwhelming, and that the main characters had far more to them than their tropes (e.g. vulnerable hero) would require.

Thank you to St. Martin’s Press and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on March 15th, 2022.

Facing the Mountain by Daniel James Brown (Non-Fiction History)

The acclaimed author of The Boys in the Boat (which I loved) tackles Japanese Americans in WWII — both those interned in camps following FDRs Executive Order 9066 and those who served in the military’s 442nd Regimental Combat Team — the single Japanese American unit, which also happened the most highly decorated.

While dealing with — let’s face it — some deeply depressing and disturbing topics — Brown makes it clear from the start that this is the story of Victors, not Victims. And that is how the story reads. This is the story of how a diverse group of people (not everyone in a single ethnic group is the same, even as they are treated as the same!) faced adversity and made the best of it. Through extensive research and first person interviews, Brown follows three primary characters who each ended up in the 442nd: Kats Miho from Hawaii, Rudy Tokiwa from Salinas (within California’s Exclusion Zone) and Fred Shiosaki from Hillyard, WA (outside Washington’s Exclusion Zone). An additional thread follows Gordon Hirabayashi as he makes his way through the courts protesting the unconstitutionality of interning American citizens based on their ethnicity. The character set expands to include their families, friends, and comrades-at-arms while the story extends from Pearl Harbor to incarceration to military draft to battle to returns home to legislation (finally) apologizing to the community and paying (some) restitution to survivors.

It is a massive undertaking but Brown’s style makes it appear effortless (like Fred Astaire’s dancing). He gets to the essence of every thought and action. Through personal interviews and letters, we gain access to the actual (not fictionalized) thoughts, discussions, and noticed details of those involved. Often these brought tears to my eyes. Reading first-person accounts is so very different than what I or a novelist imagines in any situation. Facts and figures, as well as historical context, are inserted at just the right moments.

I found the book fascinating from start to finish. While I was aware of the broad strokes of the treatment of Japanese Americans during the war, I was not aware of the many, many, tiny strokes that comprised it. I give this book a strong five star rating and highly recommend but if I were to point out a couple of negatives (which it appears I’m about to do) it would be that he does sometimes descend into hyperbole — for example when describing a situation, such as the conditions initial Japanese immigrants found in the late 1800s, from his own perspective rather an individual’s recollection and report. He also inserts anecdotes — all but one negative — about the treatment of Japanese Americans by neighbors without including any positive anecdotes (there must be some) or giving any kind of statistics on how broad those negative behaviors actually were.

Thank you to Penguin Group Viking and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on May 11th, 2021.