Radar Girls by Sara Ackerman (Historical Fiction)

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

1941, Oahu: Daisy Wilder — high school drop out, gifted horse trainer, and sole support for her widowed and non-functioning mother — is out diving for supper when the world changes. It’s December 7th and it’s Pearl Harbor. She feels the vibration of hundreds of Japanese planes in the sea.

This book is an ode to female friendship, love, and … learning the intricacies of the then brand new weapon — RADAR. Daisy becomes a newly minted WARD (Women’s Air Raid Defense) and dives into learning everything there is to know to be able to support the war effort in this capacity. While there is romance, what I liked about this book is that it really follows Daisy’s growth and development through multiple facets in her life. Fully half of the book is focused on her war work — what she learns, what she experiences, what gets in her way and how she overcomes obstacles. Often in a romance the heroine has a kind of pretend career with no depth while she goes after her personal hunk. In this book she tackles everything you should be tackling in your twenties — meaningful work, good friends, and a life partner. I was impressed by the (not dull, not dry, not boring) descriptions of the organization and implementation of the war work — using radar to spot planes and ships, vectoring in pilots in trouble, and traffic filtering. Really pretty fascinating and not at all typical women’s fiction fare.

To be honest the writing was OK but not great. There are a lot of cliches, some characters are extremely shallow (the “bad” guys), and some of the action was choppy. However, the story was engrossing, I liked the portrayal of most characters, and I really enjoyed myself while reading it!

Thank you to Harlequin and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on July 27th, 2021.

The Last Garden in England by Julia Kelly (Historical Fiction)

A story you can slide right in to, The Last Garden in England brings to life three generations of women whose lives cross the spectacular gardens at Highbury House in Warwickshire. Mixing their voices in a collection of chapters slotted into each season of a single year, we witness the progression of their lives in the contexts of radically different times and accompanying social mores.

In 1907, Edwardian garden designer Venetia Smith designs the gardens. In 1944, recently widowed Diana Symonds is the Lady of Highbury House, now repurposed as a convalescent hospital; Stella Adderton, head cook, is caring for her orphaned nephew; and Elizabeth Pedley is a Land Girl on the adjacent farm. In 2021, Emma Lovett is trying to restore the gardens, struggling to unearth information on their original state.

The writing and story remind me of Kate Morton (I’m a fan) — deep characters and easily absorbed writing with a plot that that is equally character and story driven. I love the way each character makes her way through the constraints of her time period following the dictates of her own values on vocation, family, love, and internal worth. They were all different! Some were naturally maternal, some not; some were pulled towards a life of great achievement (despite difficulties), some not; some were willing to compromise for love, some not. I loved the lack of stereotypes and the matter-of-fact descriptions of social context for women in each time period and the way they got on with it. Included interesting insight into the process of garden design (both creation and restoration).

A real joy to read with that lovely combination that keeps both the heart and the mind engaged.

Thank you to Gallery Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on January 12th, 2021.

The Consequences of Fear by Jacqueline Winspear

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

Number 16 in the Maisie Dobbs series starts in October, 1941. As Britain is well immersed in WWII, Maisie is working with the War Office to psychologically vet potential recruits for undercover work in Nazi Germany — young, determined men and women who face low survival rates. Simultaneously, Maisie gets involved in a murder witnessed by a young (and disbelieved) boy that ties into high-level espionage with high-level allies.

I like the Maisie Dobbs series because each book moves us forward in time. Starting in the post WWI era, each installment features challenging situations that are set in the specific events of that period of history — it reminds me of one of my favorite British mystery series: Foyle’s War. Maisie is an interesting and ever-evolving character, leading an unusual investigation practice that blends psychology, forensic science, philosophy, and compassion in approaching tangled, often avoided or ignored problem knots. An appealing cast of expanding supporting characters helps set the mood and context.

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 23rd, 2021.

The Kitchen Front by Jennifer Ryan (Historical Fiction / Women’s Fiction)

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

Warm-hearted, home-front WWII story about the way people (in this case mostly women) pull together in times of hardship. Based on the real life “Kitchen Front” radio cookery program which was designed to help its listeners make the most of wartime food rations — this is the tale of a competition to find a new, female, co-presenter for the BBC show. Four women in sleepy Fenley Village take up the challenge: Audrey, widowed mother of three trying to eke by with a home baking business; her estranged sister Gwendoline, married to the Lord of Fenley Hall and possessor of Audrey’s crippling mortgage; Nell, undercook at Fenley Hall and terrified of the outside world; and Zelda, a London chef bombed out of her kitchen and sent to the Fenley Pie refectory to work bringing a surprise with her. Alternating between their four voices we get the backstories, recipes, and current challenges (plenty of drama there!) while we follow their inspiring journey from fierce competitors to best friends using will, determination, and compassion to overcoming terrible adversity.

Definitely an upbeat story along with impressive food and food preparation descriptions (though I am only interested in eating food so I kind of skimmed those bits). This is one of those books where human initiative solves problems with the help of some luck and overly-easy good results, but it’s a nice, buoyant glimpse into a world with some obvious parallels to approaches to the problems of today.

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 February 23rd, 2021.

The Last Bookshop in London by Madeline Martin (Historical Fiction)

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

A heartwarming piece of historically accurate fiction. Grace Bennet — 23 — heads to London just in time for Britain to enter the war and the Blitz to begin. Without any kind of reference, she is lucky to get a job at Primrose Hill Books, complete with the requisite curmudgeonly owner, Mr. Evans.

This is the story of Grace’s growth into a stellar human being and unassuming pillar of the community. We share her experiences as a volunteer ARP (Air Raid Precautions) warden, her discovery of books and reading, and her ability to find ways to bring some light into people’s lives.

While similar stories have been told before, Martin’s depictions of the British spirit and the way the community comes together in the face of terrible adversity were completely inspiring. I was also, of course, enraptured by her transformation into a bonafide Reader of Books.

Thank you to Hanover Square Press and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on April 20th, 2021.

Atomic Love by Jennie Fields (Historical Fiction / Romance)

Writing: 2/5 Plot: 3/5 Characters: 3/5

Historical fiction in the post WWII era — espionage, a love triangle, a strong and imtelligent female lead. The author endorsements are impressive — Ann Patchett, Delia Owens, Rebecca Wells, B.A. Shapiro … I was drawn in because our heroine — Rosalind Porter — is a physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project with Enrico Fermi himself.

In truth, this book is a Romance. The characters are tropes — strong powerful tropes that appeal to a lot of people — but with no fresh insights or depth. A strong, capable, heroine who has doubts about her capabilities because she has been betrayed by the man she loved, torn between the now contrite betrayer and another man who is damaged both physically and emotionally by his war experiences and yet who is capable of a great love that only she can supply. Add in a national emergency and evil Russians. Stir. It’s exciting but not new.

I found the writing to be heavy handed and a little trashy. The male / female stereotypes annoyed me. This is one of those historical fiction novels where the characters — especially the women — have modern sensibilities even while struggling with historical problems. And Rosalind’s constant “love of science” doesn’t actually get a lot of airplay — we don’t hear much about her previous work or what scientific puzzle is appealing to her now.

If you love romantic historical thrillers, this book is for you! If you are looking for in-depth characters and some insightful commentary about strong women who were able to achieve something in a difficult time — meh.

Thank you to Penguin Group and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on August 18th, 2020.

The Last Train to London by Meg Waite Clayton (Historical Fiction)

A beautifully written, meticulously researched, fictionalized history of the Kindertransport effort which managed to rescue 10,000 children from Nazi occupied Europe in the nine months prior to the outbreak of WWII (relocating them to England which temporarily waived immigration requirements for the effort. A similar effort in the U.S. was quickly quashed by FDR himself.)

We follow two narratives that slowly weave together: one follows Geertruida Wijsmuller or “Tante Truus,” — the Dutch woman who drives the Kindertransport effort from the politicking at home to the many, many, individual rescues in Europe. The other follows children and their families in Vienna who will eventually become part of Tante Truus’ transport.

I loved the characters — particularly the Austrian children. Clayton succeeded in making these children so bright and so real, their pain and determination nuanced and completely beyond the brief words I can find to describe them. Stephan Neuman — a 16-year old, budding playwright — and his five-year old brother Walter. Theirs is a highly cultured family, and I loved the immersion in the rich cultural world that Stephan inhabited. Stephan’s friend Žofie-Helene Perger — a mathematical prodigy whose non-Jewish mother is a journalist who speaks out against the Nazis putting herself and her family at great risk. And how can you not love Tante Truus who literally can’t bear to think about a child getting left behind if there were anything at all she could do to prevent it.

The real brilliance of Clayton’s book lies in the meticulous portrayal of the many tiny details that comprise life at that time — the underground tunnels, the linotype machines, and mouthwatering descriptions of the chocolatier’s trade. Hovering like a black cloud over these small details, the progressive hardships and changing attitudes of neighbors and friends, the slow shame that creeps up on children who are suddenly treated as different, the insidious and constant fear, disbelief, and tension that inhabits every moment. At the same time, the macroscopic details of global policies — the committees, the bureaucracy, the movements, and the fear on the part of foreign populations and governments as they slowly turn their backs on what was happening to the Jews (and other undesirables) in Europe as the Nazis plow their way through the continent. The book is utterly gripping.

For me, this is the best of the recent spate of WWII / Holocaust books: it felt incredibly real, and I was surprised to learn new things about a topic in which I’m quite well-read. I appreciated that the ultimately uplifting story was focused on survival and rescue, rather than the horrors and despair of the camps. A surprising extra: enduring the frustration (with our characters) of watching countries closing their borders to such desperate need (even though Jewish societies had offered financial support to ensure that host countries would not bear the costs) gave me a new perspective on the refugee crises facing the world today.

Thank you to HarperCollins Publishers and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on September 10th, 2019.

The American Agent by Jacqueline Winspear (Mystery)

Writing: 3 Plot: 4 Characters: 3.5

The latest in Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs series (#15) finds Maisie investigating the murder of Catherine Saxon — the irrepressible American journalist from a wealthy, politically connected, and a defiantly isolationist family.

This series never feels stale — each volume moves forward in time (the first took place in 1929 and we’re up to 1940 now) and is based on a factual piece of British History. In this case, the Blitz and the effort to get the U.S. to enter the war. Woven into the plot is Joseph Kennedy, the anti-Semitic and somewhat pro-Hitler, then American ambassador to England and the U.S. Organization America First. I’m sure it’s not an accident that she chose this particular topic for this year’s entry.

Always fun to read these — very little “filler,” a twisted plot, and Maisie’s character progresses as well.

When I was Yours by Lizzie Page (historical fiction)

Writing: 3 Plot: 3 Characters: 2.5

I loved the beginning of this book — tight prose, humorous, great writing, and the promise of a story that spanned two world wars (as told in alternating chapter time periods). In 1914, Vivi Mudie-Coates is the young, beautiful, and conventional British woman who wants nothing more than to marry Edmund, the handsome, upper crust friend of her cousin Richard. In 1939, she is indeed married to Edmund, but is anything but happy. When the children begin to be evacuated from London, the childless couple are given Pearl, somewhat against Edmund’s wishes.

The parallel stories wander through all the standard places — nursing on the continent during the Great War, the bombing of Britain in WWII, the evacuation of London children, driving ambulances, friends and relatives killed… There is a theme of casual anti-semitism threaded throughout that becomes more personal to Vivi as the story evolves. This book has all the elements of a great story but it just didn’t work for me. The plot was dragged out, so what started as a tight beginning just went on and on without any of the depth that would make the time spent feel worthwhile. Instead, it veered into pure melodrama with increased bombing deaths, close calls, suicides, and missed opportunities for true love. Even worse (for me), I found the main character to be shallow and kind of stupid. She did not behave in a way that I found at all believable. I never warmed to her, and even towards the end — when she finally started to do the right thing — she did it in a petulant, selfish manner that I found quite off-putting.

This is possibly the first book I’ve reviewed that kept me going to the end because I wanted to know what happened, but that I really disliked. I hate to be so negative — I tend to only review books that I like because I don’t bother finishing the others but …

Thank you to Bookouture and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on April 16th, 2019.

All For Nothing by Walter Kempowski (Historical / Foreign Fiction)

<New word (to me) stichomancy: divination by opening a book at random >

As explained in the prologue, Kemposwki’s mission in life was to ensure that the detailed history of this time and place did not get lost. He compiled an immense archive of the diaries, photos, letters, and other memorabilia from East Prussia during WWII and its aftermath and used it to inform the characters and plot in the novel.

The book centers on an aristocratic family that has retreated to their country villa to wait out the war. The time is January, 1945 (remember that the war in Europe ended in May 1945); the place a small town in East Prussia. Eberhard von Globig is an officer in the German military — stationed in Italy he is assigned to manage supply (he is currently “busily confiscating wine and olive oil from the Italians” for use by German troops; in the past he has been responsible for requisitioning topsoil from the Ukraine for use in Bavaria!). His wife, Katharina, is a seemingly vacuous beauty from Berlin, an unwilling and incapable mistress of the estate. 12-year old Peter, Auntie, the family spinster, and workers Vladimir the Pole and the Ukrainian girls, Vera and Sonia, complete the household.

The Russians are heading their way and there is a constant stream of visitors heading from East to West. The visitors bring news and their own stories, which they often feel compelled to keep repeating as if otherwise they would be lost completely. While multiple people urge the family to leave soon, there seems to be a lassitude with regards to any real action — or perhaps they don’t feel they have agency in this regard. Everything is carefully controlled by the authorities — nothing is allowed without a permit.

The story is meticulously, yet concisely, detailed. There are no long streams of names and dates and actions, but instead the intimate particulars of lives disrupted by war and imminent invasion. Each character has their own perspective — some pepper their commentary with “Heil Hitlers” and mean it, others warn the family to hide any evidence of Naziism before the Russians arrive; some are appalled at seeing books by Jewish writers displayed, others whisper about the strange prisoners in striped shirts at the local brickworks. There is constant refrain — “Where did these things come from? Where would they end up? Who knows what may happen?”

Things don’t end well — it is inconceivable that they would — but the slow unwinding of events, the minutiae of survival, the confusion of authority, and the unremitting examination of life and attitudes in a failing Germany is incomparable. I found it darkly interesting that while everyone is afraid of the Russians coming (and with good reason), most of the bad things that happen are a result of the Germans and their system — there appear to be just as many authorities ensuring obedience and punishing “bad behavior” as there are those out fighting the enemy.

It is told in an unemotional style — while a character might be thinking “I am terrified,” the reader is not exposed to any of the literary tricks that would evoke a sympathetic emotion within them. I’m grateful for that — those are not emotions I want to feel, even briefly.