Mini-Reviews #5: Summer Reading

All right, time to post some mini-reviews of books I read way back in July! Will I ever catch up with all my reviews? Only time will tell, so stay tuned! 🙂

Death of an AirmanSong for Summer, A

Christopher St. John Sprigg, Death of an Airman — In this mystery centered around an English aviation club, one of its best flyers perishes in a tragic plane crash. Most people assume it’s an accident, but the victim was a first-class pilot, and the inquest revealed nothing wrong with the plane. A few of the club members suggest suicide, but a visiting Australian bishop suspects murder. When the police get involved, they realize the victim’s death may be connected to a much larger criminal organization. I liked this mystery well enough, but I think the strength was definitely in the plot rather than in the characters. For example, for the first several chapters, it looks like the Australian bishop is going to be the sleuth, but suddenly everything switches to the police inspector’s point of view. Still, this was a fun variation on the “impossible crime” mystery with a truly ingenious solution.

Eva Ibbotson, A Song for Summer — Ibbotson’s novels are the ultimate comfort reads! I’d never reread this one before, and I think it’s because the plot moves a bit more slowly than in Ibbotson’s other novels, and the atmosphere is bleaker. It’s still a lovely book, but I definitely find myself returning to A Countess Below Stairs and The Morning Gift much more often.

It Happened One WeddingSpear of Summer Grass, ACrown's Game, The

Julie James, It Happened One Wedding — Julie James was my first contemporary romance author, and she pretty much single-handedly convinced me that not all romance novels are poorly written trash. This is another fun, banter-filled romance between hedge fund manager (?) Sidney and FBI agent Vaughn. They initially dislike each other but are forced to play nice when her sister and his brother get engaged. I think we all know where this is going.

Deanna Raybourn, A Spear of Summer Grass — After scandalizing English society with her outrageous behavior, Delilah Drummond is packed off to British East Africa so she won’t further damage her family’s reputation. Although Delilah is the consummate city girl, with her fashionable dresses and daring bob, she soon falls in love with the African landscape. She also encounters various dangers, from marauding lions to outright murder — and possibly finds love as well. I didn’t particularly like this book, and I’m not sure why. I didn’t dislike it either…I just felt indifferent to it. Delilah reminded me a lot of Phryne Fisher, but while I love Phryne, I didn’t have the same enthusiasm for Delilah. Maybe she was too similar (since I encountered Phryne first)? The romance also made me roll my eyes a bit; the hero is very much an alpha-male caveman type, and he just seemed like a stereotype to me. Overall, a “meh” read.

Evelyn Skye, The Crown’s Game — In an alternate Imperial Russia where magic exists but only a few have the power to wield it, Vika knows she is destined to become the Imperial Enchanter and take her place at the emperor’s side. But then she learns that there is another powerful enchanter in Russia — and that she must defeat him in the Crown’s Game, a magical duel in which the winner becomes Imperial Enchanter and the loser is condemned to death. Little does she know that the other enchanter is Nikolai, whose magic (and handsome face) intrigues her. As Vika and Nikolai get to know each other, they realize they don’t want the Crown’s Game to end in death. But will they be able to find a better solution? I have to admit, this book sort of lost me early on, when Vika is described as having wild red hair with a black streak down the middle. I immediately had a knee-jerk Mary Sue reaction, and I never quite warmed to Vika after that. I did end up somewhat liking the book, particularly for the Russian setting and the lovely descriptions of the magic. I also liked the fact that the stakes are real, and not everybody gets a happy ending. I’ll probably look for the sequel when it comes out. Nevertheless, I was definitely underwhelmed by this one, especially given the amount of hype I’d seen about it.

Mini-Reviews #3: June Books, Part 1

Still making my way through my review backlog, so here are some more short ones:

Lilac GirlsUnexpected Everything, The

Martha Hall Kelly, Lilac Girls — For the past few years, I’ve really gravitated toward books set during World War II, especially those dealing with the “home front” experience rather than the actual fighting. So I think I wanted to like this book more than I did. I found the story of Kasia, a Polish girl imprisoned in RavensbrĂĽck, to be the most compelling. I especially liked how the book follows her (and the other characters) long after the war is over and shows the psychological scars that still remain. But I didn’t like Caroline’s story at all; I found her the least interesting character, and the romance between her and Paul didn’t do anything for me. The book is worth reading if you like the time period, but I’d recommend Elizabeth Wein’s Rose Under Fire for a better book on RavensbrĂĽck.

Morgan Matson, The Unexpected Everything — I’ve said it before, but it’s true: Morgan Matson writes the perfect summer reads! I really enjoyed this one, which centers around politician’s daughter Andie and a summer that doesn’t go quite according to plan. One of my favorite aspects of the book is that Andie has a really close group of girlfriends, and those relationships are just as important as her newfound romance. I’d definitely recommend this book as an adorable summer read, especially for those who enjoy YA.

Summer Before the War, TheDarker Shade of Magic, ACocaine Blues

Helen Simonson, The Summer Before the War — I really enjoyed this quiet, character-driven novel, although I wouldn’t recommend it to those who love lots of action and unpredictable twists. The plot (such as it is) centers around a young woman who moves to a rural English village to become the new Latin teacher. As one might expect, she meets with some resistance from the locals because of her youth and gender, but she also wins over some key players, including the unconventional Agatha Kent and her two nephews. Most of the book involves the resulting social politics, although the titular war (World War I) does intrude near the end.

V.E. Schwab, A Darker Shade of Magic — This book hooked me from the first line: “Kell wore a very peculiar coat. It had neither one side, which would be conventional, nor two, which would be unexpected, but several, which was, of course, impossible.” The novel is an exciting blend of fantasy and sci fi, combining magical artifacts with parallel universes. The hero is a conflicted, magic-wielding prince, and the heroine is a scrappy thief and would-be pirate. In short, I loved it and have already purchased book 2, A Gathering of Shadows!

Kerry Greenwood, Cocaine Blues — After watching and LOVING “Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries,” I decided to pick up the first book in the series. Phryne is a wonderfully entertaining character: intelligent, rich, attractive, and determined to get the most out of life. I also really enjoyed the setting of 1920s Melbourne, where Phryne rubs elbows with all sorts of people, from wealthy blue bloods to socialist cab drivers to feisty maidservants. I did miss Inspector Jack Robinson, who apparently has a much smaller role in the books than he does in the TV series. I also didn’t care too much about the mystery, but I still liked the book for its setting and protagonist.

Review: Salt to the Sea

Salt to the SeaRuta Sepetys, Salt to the Sea

“World War II is drawing to a close in East Prussia and thousands of refugees are on a desperate trek toward freedom, many with something to hide. Among them are Joana, Emilia, and Florian, whose paths converge en route to the ship that promises salvation, the Wilhelm Gustloff. Forced by circumstance to unite, the three find their strength, courage, and trust in each other tested with each step closer to safety. Just when it seems freedom is within their grasp, tragedy strikes. Not country, nor culture, nor status matter as all ten thousand people — adults and children alike — aboard must fight for the same thing: survival.” (Summary from Amazon.)

I’m a sucker for a good World War II story, and this one approaches the conflict from a unique (to me) perspective: it focuses on three Eastern European teenagers who are caught between Nazi Germany and the advancing Red Army. My favorite character was Florian, who is carrying out a secret mission while trying very hard not to fall in love with Joana. But I honestly enjoyed all three main characters’ stories, especially after they meet up and continue their westward journey together. There are definitely some heartbreaking events in this book, which is to be expected, but the overall message is one of hope. I’d definitely recommend this book to fans of historical fiction, especially those who don’t mind a narrative geared toward a younger audience.

Review: Coventry

CoventryHelen Humphreys, Coventry

On the evening of November 14, 1940, Harriet Marsh stands on the roof of the historic Coventry cathedral and marvels at the frost glittering beneath a full moon. But it is a bomber’s moon, and the Luftwaffe is coming to unleash destruction on the city. For Harriet; for the young fire watcher, Jeremy, standing beside her; and for his artist mother, Maeve, hiding in a cellar, this single night of horror will resonate for the rest of their lives. Coventry is a testament to the power of the human spirit, an honest and ultimately uplifting account of heartache transformed into compassion and love. (Summary from Amazon.com.)

Many World War II novels are sprawling epics that reflect the enormity of the tragedy, death, and suffering caused by the war. By contrast, this is a lovely little book that focuses on one specific event, the bombing of Coventry in 1940, and on three people whom the bombing affects in various ways. Harriet is the most fleshed-out (and therefore most sympathetic) character, but I was interested in all three stories and how they intersect. The novel is very understated in its description of the fear and pain the characters experience, which makes these emotions seem all the more vivid and raw. I was reminded of a quote by a musician I like: “Sometimes a sketch says more than a mural” (Grant-Lee Phillips on his album Ladies’ Love Oracle). This book is a sketch, but an effective one. I’d definitely recommend it to fans of World War II novels or historical fiction in general.

Some thoughts on World War II

So I haven’t been around here in a while, and I’m not really sure why. I’m still reading a lot, and they’re mostly good books that I want to recommend to people! But I’m about 15 reviews behind now, and the thought of trying to catch up is daunting. Nevertheless, I wanted to post today because it’s the 70th anniversary of VE Day, and I want to talk a little bit about my interest in World War II history and literature, and then recommend some of my favorite WWII books.

ww2 - anne frankww2 - number the starsww2 - nightww2 - verity

Growing up, I had no particular interest in World War II or in literature set during the period. I read The Diary of Anne Frank like everyone else, but I don’t think it made a particularly big impact on me at the time. I do remember reading and loving Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars, however! When I got older, I started to get really excited about a few historical periods, but they were primarily the Regency era (thanks to Jane Austen) and the Middle Ages (probably thanks to my Catholicism, but I’ll give Ellis Peters and Sharon Kay Penman some credit too!). So I’m not really sure what prompted me to start reading more about World War II. Maybe it was the 2001 movie “Enigma,” which dealt with breaking the German submarine codes. (It’s a good movie, and I definitely recommend it to fans of the period!)

But regardless of what initially sparked my interest, I’ve become fascinated with World War II and especially with fiction set during the period. I must admit, though, that my interest is heavily skewed towards the British experience. That’s partly an issue of language, I’m guessing, and partly an issue of simple geography. Although America was attacked at Pearl Harbor, the war never really came to us the way it did to England. We didn’t live through the Blitzkrieg. We didn’t have to evacuate our children or plan for an imminent invasion. So for me, WWII novels set in England have much more tension and immediacy than those set in the U.S.

But of course, there were many other countries involved in the war, and I must admit that I haven’t read so much about them. I don’t think I’ve read anything at all set in the Pacific theater, which is especially shameful because my grandfather actually fought there! And as for Holocaust literature…well. Obviously it is incredibly important and valuable and necessary. I think everyone in the world should read Elie Wiesel’s Night, even though it will break your heart. But for me, reading descriptions of what happened in the concentration camps is just too much. Thinking about it for any length of time is just too horrible. So instead, I gravitate to WWII books set in Britain, which generally have plenty of gravity and pathos without being unspeakably horrific.

ww2 - blackoutww2 - all clearww2 - guernsey literaryww2 - operation mincemeat

So, without further ado, here are some of my favorite books about World War II:

Elizabeth Wein, Code Name Verity — This book is about two young women and their extraordinary friendship. One is a pilot for the Air Transport Auxiliary. One is a spy who has just been captured by the Germans. The spy begins the story, stating that she is writing her confession, but her narrative is much more complex than meets the eye. I cannot recommend this novel highly enough. It’s suspenseful, fascinating, and utterly heartbreaking. My review is here.

Connie Willis, Blackout / All Clear — This novel is an extremely detailed account of the experience of Londoners during the war, particularly during the Blitz. I can’t explain the spirit of this book any better than by quoting the dedication to All Clear:

To all the ambulance drivers, firewatchers, air-raid wardens, nurses, canteen workers, airplane spotters, rescue workers, mathematicians, vicars, vergers, shopgirls, chorus girls, librarians, debutantes, spinsters, fishermen, retired sailors, servants, evacuees, Shakespearean actors, and mystery novelists who won the war.

The books are a bit long-winded, but they are so, so worth it. My review is here.

Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society — This book is quite a bit more light-hearted than the previous two, even though it deals with the fairly serious subject of German occupation of the Channel Islands. It starts with a thank-you note from a Guernsey man to a London woman who had donated some books to the occupied islands. The two characters strike up a correspondence, and eventually the woman, who is a journalist, travels to Guernsey to write about the experiences of the people there. The war almost takes a backseat to the various personal stories and relationships that emerge. But it’s one of my very favorite books, so I have to include it on this list! 🙂 My review is here.

Ben Macintyre, Operation Mincemeat — A nonfiction work that reads like a novel, this book tells the story of an absolutely outrageous Allied plan to feed misinformation to the Germans — and how that plan, against all odds, succeeded! Espionage is another longstanding interest of mine (although that’s another post, haha), so I was fascinated to read this account! Now that a lot of information about WWII intelligence operations has been/is being declassified, it’s a great time to learn more about the actual history behind the fiction. My review of the book is here.

If you’re also a fan of books set in World War II, what do you think of this list? What books should I add? What is the most fascinating aspect of WWII for you?

Review: All the Light We Cannot See

All the Light We Cannot SeeAnthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See

This sprawling novel tells the stories of two children growing up on opposite sides of World War II. Marie-Laure lives in Paris with her father, who is a locksmith working for the Museum of Natural History. She has been blind since the age of six, so her father has built a tiny replica of the city for her to memorize. But Marie-Laure is uprooted from these familiar surroundings when the Germans invade Paris and she has to flee to her great-uncle’s house on Saint-Malo. Meanwhile, Werner is a German orphan whose knack for fixing radios changes the course of his life. Instead of being doomed to a life of coal mining, he is chosen to attend a school where he will be trained as a Hitler Youth. Werner soon learns that the school is grueling and brutal, a place where weakness is mercilessly punished. But his desire to become a scientist, combined with fear for his own safety, keeps him silent. Werner’s story eventually converges with Marie-Laure’s in 1944, when the Germans are trying to hold Saint-Malo against an Allied invasion.

I was eager to read this novel after seeing several rave reviews, but unfortunately I have mixed feelings about it. I didn’t particularly like the novel’s structure, which constantly moves between Werner’s story and Marie-Laure’s, as well as jumping back and forth in time. Every time I got invested in one storyline, the book would jump to something else, which was frustrating. Also, there’s not a whole lot of plot in the book; it’s more a very detailed depiction of everyday life on both sides of WWII. That’s interesting in its own right, but I often became impatient with the meticulous descriptive language, especially when it came at the expense of the story. On the other hand, I’m very impressed with the character of Werner in this book. It’s easy (and justifiably so) to paint the Nazis as pure villains, but Werner manages to be a complex character whose motives are usually better than his actions. It helps that both he and Marie-Laure are children throughout most of the book, which makes them more sympathetic. Overall, I do think the novel is worth reading, but I’m glad I got it from the library rather than buying it.

Review: The Beauty Chorus

Beauty Chorus, TheKate Lord Brown, The Beauty Chorus

This novel centers around three female pilots who join the Air Transport Auxiliary, ferrying planes back and forth between Allied bases during World War II. Evie Chase is a headstrong young debutante who enjoys her life of privilege but wants to “do her bit” for the war effort — and escape from her odious stepmother. Stella Grainger is struggling with being separated from her baby boy, whom she’s sent to her husband’s parents in Ireland. And Megan Jones, a 17-year-old Welsh girl, wants nothing more than to keep her family’s farm running and to marry her sweetheart, Bill. These three young women couldn’t be more different, but when they join the ATA and become roommates, they form an extremely close bond. Together they deal with the challenges of flying different aircraft, the discrimination they face for being women in a man’s world, and the joys and sorrows of wartime love affairs. But despite their strength and determination, they can never quite escape the brutal realities of war.

This is a book I really wanted to love. The story has so much going for it — WWII, female pilots, romance, and even a little espionage! — but unfortunately, I was disappointed. The biggest problem for me was the clunky writing style; for example, on one occasion, the author drops a character name into the story before introducing that character. I had to flip backward to make sure I hadn’t somehow missed his entrance, but in fact, it was just a confusing way to introduce the new character. There’s also a lot of head-hopping in the book; not only does the point of view shift between the three girls (which would be understandable), but there are random paragraphs from the perspectives of their suitors and various other minor characters. Finally, while I liked the main characters in theory, they never really rose above clichĂ©s. For example, Evie is a typical HF heroine: incredibly beautiful, naturally talented as a flyer, and implausibly far ahead of her time. Overall, while the book certainly wasn’t a slog, I can’t say I’d recommend it either.

Review: Farthing

FarthingJo Walton, Farthing

This novel is a murder mystery with a twist: what if a fascist English government had made a separate peace with Hitler? In the world of this book, it’s 1949, and war still rages between the Third Reich (which now encompasses all of Europe) and the Soviet Union, but England has managed to remain at peace. The “Farthing set,” who engineered the treaty with Hitler, have congregated at an English country estate, where Lucy (the daughter of the house) and her husband David are staying. Because David is Jewish, they both endure various snubs and cruelties from the other guests. Then a notable member of the Farthing set is murdered, and his corpse is decorated with Jewish symbols. Lucy is convinced that her husband has been framed, and Inspector Carmichael of Scotland Yard agrees. But as the English government becomes more totalitarian and anti-Semitic, both Lucy and Carmichael must make devastating choices that could allow the murderer to go free.

This book was unsettling, to say the least, and I have very conflicting feelings about it. Part of the story is told from Lucy’s perspective, and I really enjoyed her character and her narrative voice. I also think the book very skillfully depicts a nation’s slow slide into despotism; one of the most heartbreaking and effective parts of the book, for me, was David’s strong faith in England. Despite the hardships he endures, he is convinced that Jews will never be persecuted in England the way they are in the Reich…but of course, events in the book ultimately prove him wrong. On the negative side, the “mystery” element of the book is very underdeveloped. I also became irritated by the sheer number of secret, illicit, and/or adulterous relationships in the book; it seemed like EVERY character was involved, which strained my credulity. (Also, everyone seems to have really good “gaydar,” if you’ll pardon the expression!) Overall, I’m not sure the positives outweighed the negatives for me, and I’m still undecided about continuing with the series.

Review: Double Cross

Double CrossBen Macintyre, Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies

Seventy years ago, the Allies stormed the beaches of Normandy and began the campaign to liberate Nazi-occupied Europe. Many circumstances contributed to the success of the D-Day invasion, but one of the most important factors was the campaign of disinformation being fed to the Germans by a network of double agents whose sole purpose was to convince the Abwehr that the Allies would be landing at Calais rather than Normandy. Had these agents failed, the Germans would have concentrated their forces at Normandy, most likely stopping the Allied invasion in its tracks. This book tells the stories of the individual double agents involved in this task, including Serbian playboy Dusko Popov (“Tricycle”), Peruvian socialite Elvira Chaudoir (“Bronx”), and Polish nationalist Roman Czerniawski (“Valentine”). Ultimately, Macintyre makes a convincing case for the proposition that the Allies would never have won the war on the battlefields had they not already won the intelligence war.

This book gives a wealth of fascinating detail about the six men and women who acted as double agents in Britain, allegedly spying for Germany but really working for the Allies. I was shocked to learn that British intelligence had actually discovered and turned every German agent in Britain at the time! Because of this, the Allies were able to present a unified message to the Germans, subtlely directing their attention away from Normandy and toward other possible invasion sites. Some of the specific stories in the book prove once again that truth is stranger than fiction: for example, Dusko Popov thrived on creating networks of sub-agents that were entirely fictional, yet he retained the Abwehr’s complete trust. I also loved the fact that these double agents were handled in Britain by the Twenty Committee, so named because the Roman numeral for 20 is XX, or “double cross.” In short, if you’re interested in true stories of WWII-era espionage, Ben Macintyre is your man!

Review: Rose Under Fire

Rose Under FireElizabeth Wein, Rose Under Fire

Rose Justice is an American pilot who has just come to England to help with the war effort. Though women aren’t allowed to fly planes in combat, she is able to get a job with the Women’s Air Transport Auxiliary ferrying planes back and forth within Allied territory. At first Rose sees her work as a grand adventure, a fascinating change from her sheltered upbringing. But her life is instantly, horribly changed when she is captured by the Germans in the middle of a routine flight from France to England. She is immediately arrested and transported to the women’s concentration camp at RavensbrĂĽck. There Rose confronts the hideous realities of this war for the first time, including the brutal scientific experiments performed on a group of young women known as “rabbits.” But depsite the horrific treatment Rose endures, she forges close bonds with a small group of fellow prisoners and somehow manages to hold onto hope.

This companion novel to Code Name Verity is equally powerful and moving, although it struck me in a very different way. I loved CNV for its suspense, its elements of espionage, and its intense portrayal of friendship. This book is not as suspenseful; we know from the start of Rose’s narrative about RavensbrĂĽck that she is remembering her experiences after she has escaped. It’s also not as personal (if that’s the word I want) because while Rose forms incredibly close bonds with her fellow prisoners, the emphasis is less on individual relationships and more on the experience of RavensbrĂĽck as a whole. Neverthless, this book did strike me on a very deep personal level. It’s easy to become a little desensitized to the atrocities committed by the Nazis, simply because we’ve heard about them so many times, but this book certainly made them vivid for me. The most horrifying thing is that similar atrocities are still occurring in parts of the world today. So this is not an easy read, but I think it’s a very important one.