Review: Letters from Skye

Letters from SkyeJessica Brockmole, Letters from Skye

This epistolary novel tells two parallel love stories, each set against the backdrop of a world war. In 1912, Scottish poet Elspeth Dunn receives a fan letter from David Graham, an exuberant young American. Elspeth replies to the letter, and she and Davey soon strike up a regular correspondence. At first they discuss literature and their favorite books, but soon they’re exchanging ideas about everything under the sun, including their most secret dreams. Unsurprisingly, Elspeth and Davey fall in love, but their romance is fraught with complications. When America enters World War I, Davey enlists immediately as an ambulance driver on the battlefields of France. Additionally, Elspeth is already married, so her stolen moments with Davey are as fleeting as they are precious. Meanwhile, in 1940, Elspeth’s daughter Margaret — also involved in a wartime romance — stumbles upon one of Davey’s letters and decides to search for the secrets in her mother’s past.

In theory, I should love this book, since it combines a lot of my favorite things: epistolary novel, WWI and WWII setting, love stories, family secrets. But while I found it an entertaining read, my overall experience was somewhat disappointing. First of all, the story is really about Elspeth and Davey, so the parts about Margaret felt very cursory and not fleshed out at all. I would have liked to know a lot more about her reactions to her mother’s secret, as well as the details of her own romance. Also, the story itself seems very superficial, given the gravity of the WWI backdrop. Even though I enjoy light romances with happy endings, I felt like this book lacked emotional stakes. Elspeth and Davey are likeable characters, and their letters are often very charming, but I was never in any real doubt about the end result of their story. Maybe part of my problem is that this book seems like a copycat of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, only not nearly as good! Overall, this book is a nice, quick read, but it won’t stay with me the way Guernsey has.

Review: The Girl Is Murder

Girl Is Murder, TheKathryn Miller Haines, The Girl Is Murder

Fifteen-year-old Iris Anderson is having a hard time. About a year ago, her Pop returned from Pearl Harbor with a missing leg, which meant he was no longer able to do the active work required by his business as a private investigator. As a result, Pop and Iris have moved from their old affluent neighborhood to a poor area on the Lower East Side, and Iris has to go to public school instead of the elite private school she formerly attended. Hoping to get closer to her only surviving parent (her mother committed suicide shortly after Pop returned from the war), Iris tries to help Pop with his cases, but he forbids her from having anything to do with the PI business. When one of the boys at Iris’ new school goes missing, however, she can’t help but do a little sleuthing. Along the way, she makes a few friends at her new school, including the unpopular Pearl and the glamorous, fast-talking Suze; but as Iris navigates her way through various cliques and social minefields, how will she know whom she can really trust?

If you enjoy Haines’ Rosie Winter mysteries, you’ll feel right at home in the world of this novel, set in the fall of 1942. The book isn’t about World War II, yet the war permeates almost every aspect of Iris’ life, from the slang used by Suze and the other cool girls at school to the disturbing racisim and anti-Semitism espoused by some of the characters. (These attitudes are definitely not condoned by the book, however; they simply mirror the atttitudes of many Americans at that time.) I liked Iris as a protagonist; her problems are specific to her era yet also universal, as she struggles with her own identity, fitting in, and building a relationship with a distant parent. Her voice is occasionally too precocious for a 15-year-old, but I found that flaw forgivable since she’s so entertaining. As a mystery, the book is very weak; Iris doesn’t spend much time investigating anything, and she’s not even the one who solves the case! So I’d recommend this to someone looking for an interesting YA book about World War II, but it’s not a great read for a mystery fan.

Review: The Two Mrs. Abbotts

Two Mrs. Abbotts, TheD.E. Stevenson, The Two Mrs. Abbotts

Warning: SPOILERS for Miss Buncle’s Book and Miss Buncle Married.

This third book in the “Miss Buncle” series jumps forward in time to explore life in an English village during World War II. Barbara Abbott, née Buncle, now lives in Wandlebury with her husband and two adorable children. The war apparently has little effect on her life, except that there is less food available at the market. But Barbara’s niece by marriage, Jerry Abbott, is dealing with the fact that her husband Sam is fighting somewhere in Africa; in the meantime, she has opened her home to soldiers and evacuees. But despite the privations and worries of wartime, there are still plenty of opportunities for gossip and romance! Sullen Lancreste Marvell has fallen in love with an unsuitable woman; famous authoress Janetta Walters is coming to Wandlebury to speak at the village bazaar; and Jerry’s brother Archie finally seems to be ready for marriage. Finding herself in the midst of these entanglements, will Barbara be able to engineer a happy ending?

I’m so happy that Sourcebooks is re-releasing D.E. Stevenson’s books! I really loved the first two “Miss Buncle” books, and this one is also quite fun and charming, though it definitely suffers by comparison. The problem with this book is that it lacks cohesion; there are several little plots going on, but they are largely independent of one another. Some plots also seem to peter out with no resolution; for example, in the beginning of the book, an old friend of Barbara’s comes to visit, and it seems as though she is going to be a big part of the story, but then she vanishes about halfway through the book. Ultimately the biggest story is about Archie’s courtship, which is quite sweet, but it’s not really developed in much depth. I did like reading a World War II novel that isn’t really about the war, but nevertheless the war affects many aspects of the characters’ lives. The happy, wholesome picture of village life in this book was most likely vanishing at the time Stevenson wrote the novel. Overall, I’d recommend this book to people who liked the other “Miss Buncle” books and are looking for a nice comfort read.

Review: Operation Mincemeat

Operation MincemeatBen Macintyre, Operation Mincemeat: How a Dead Man and a Bizarre Plan Fooled the Nazis and Assured an Allied Victory

This book about a World War II intelligence operation proves once again that truth is stranger than fiction. In the spring of 1943, the Allies hoped to invade a Europe that was firmly in control of the Nazis. The obvious target for an invasion was Sicily, but unfortunately, the Germans knew this all too well. So a few creative members of British intelligence came up with a daring plan, codenamed “Operation Mincemeat”: They would float a dead body wearing a British uniform onto a Spanish beach. This corpse would be carrying top-secret — and totally false — documents stating that the Allies were planning to launch a two-pronged attack against Greece and Sardinia; Sicily would only be a “decoy” target. Since neutral Spain had pro-German sympathies, it was hoped that the Spaniards would turn over these documents to the Germans and thus convince the Axis to rearrange their defensive forces. This book tells the story of this extraordinary plan and its even more extraordinary success.

I’m not normally a big reader of nonfiction, but the premise of this book caught my attention right away, and I’m really glad it did! This is an extremely readable and entertaining account of a plan so farfetched, it couldn’t possibly be true — except it is. The book covers every aspect of Operation Mincemeat with meticulous attention to detail, describing everything from the difficulties of acquiring an appropriate body to the creation of a fictitious identity for the corpse to the various personalities who contributed to the formation of the plan. To me, one of the most astonishing things about the operation was how easily everything could have gone wrong. What if the Spanish authorities had returned the documents to the British immediately (as, indeed, some of them tried to do)? What if the Germans had been skeptical of this intelligence instead of eagerly grasping at a welcome piece of news? In short, this is a well-written account of an absolutely fascinating subject. I definitely plan to read more by Ben Macintrye — Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies is already on my wishlist!

Review: The Welsh Girl

The Welsh GirlPeter Ho Davies, The Welsh Girl

Set in North Wales just after D-Day, this novel weaves together the stories of three people who are all struggling with the ways in which the war has made them question their identity. Esther is the eponymous Welsh girl who works as a barmaid but dreams of life outside her tiny village. When an English soldier takes advantage of her, Esther has to face her future and determine what kind of woman she will become. Karsten is a young German soldier who has surrendered to the English and must now live with the shame of being a coward; as he sees the Allies reclaim more and more of Europe, he also questions his belief in German supremacy. Meanwhile, Rotheram is a German man with a Jewish father who fled Germany in the early days of the war. He now works as a translator for the British and interrogates German prisoners, but he is conflicted about where his loyalties truly lie.

Lately I’ve been really interested in books that are set during World War II, so I had high hopes for this novel. Unfortunately, it didn’t live up to my expectations, which is largely the fault of the cover blurb. I thought the book would mostly focus on the relationship between Esther and Karsten and the obstacles they’d have to face being on opposite sides of a war. But while a relationship does grow between them, it doesn’t actually happen until well after the halfway point of the novel. Most of the book is just setting up the conflict, as Esther’s background, the Welsh attitude toward the war, and Karsten’s military career are described in plodding detail. I wouldn’t actually call the book romantic at all — which is not a problem, except that the blurb led me to believe otherwise! I do think that the novel raises some interesting thoughts relating to World War II and war in general, so it was probably worth reading for those insights. (There was also a line near the end of the book about the liberation of Bergen-Belsen that got me right in the gut.) But overall, although I wanted to like this book, it just didn’t do anything for me.

Review: The Winter of Her Discontent

The Winter of Her DiscontentRosie Winter and her best pal Jayne are struggling actresses trying to make it in New York City in the middle of World War II. But between the recent murder of Paulette, a fellow actress who lived in their boardinghouse, and their mobster friend Al’s confession that he did the deed, Rosie and Jayne aren’t exactly focused on chasing their dreams of fame. Rosie is convinced that Al’s innocent, so she gets herself cast in the show that Paulette was starring in before she died. She soon learns that the show seems plagued by bad luck: dancers slip and injure themselves, actresses are hit by cars, and even Rosie’s nemesis Ruby suddenly falls ill. As Rosie investigates Paulette’s murder and tries to find out what’s behind all the “accidents,” she eventually discovers a lot more than she bargained for — all while trying to survive rationing, blackouts, and not knowing whether her ex-boyfriend Jack is dead or alive.

I really liked the first book in this series, The War Against Miss Winter, so I immediately set out to acquire the rest of them! This is book 2, and it largely met my expectations, though I don’t think it’s quite as good as book 1. I enjoy Rosie’s blunt voice, which is littered with 1940s slang, and I think that both she and her best friend Jayne are very interesting characters. The mystery aspect of this book is definitely secondary to the character development and the WWII setting, but I thought it was rather clever. I also liked the showbiz setting of much of the novel, but obviously that won’t be appealing to everyone. At this point, I’m curious to see what’s next for Rosie, especially in her romantic relationships. She’s still carrying a torch for Jack and trying to find out where he is, but it’s a little hard for me to be invested since Jack hasn’t been “on page” yet. I’m also intrigued to follow her career, since it seems she’s bound for the South Pacific with the USO in book 3. I’m looking forward to continuing with Rosie’s adventures!

Review: Blackout / All Clear

Blackout by Connie WillisConnie Willis, Blackout and All Clear

In the year 2060, time travel is not only possible, but it’s the preferred method of historical research. Instead of digging through old records to get a sense of a particular time period, why not just go there in person and see for yourself? Mike, Polly, and Eileen are three such historians who have all been assigned to World War II. Mike is going to Dover, where he’ll pose as a journalist and interview the heroes of the evacuation of Dunkirk. Polly will be a London shopgirl in the midst of the Blitz, and Eileen will be observing evacuees in the English countryside. Soon after they arrive at their assignments, however, things begin to go wrong. Minor discrepancies in the historical record start showing up — which ought to be impossible, because everyone knows that historians can’t affect the outcome of events. Then all three of their “drops” (the portals through which they can return to their own time) mysteriously close, leaving them stranded in World War II. As Mike, Polly, and Eileen try every possible method of reopening the drops, they’re forced to conclude that they might be trapped in the wrong time forever.

All Clear by Connie WillisAlthough Blackout and All Clear were published in two volumes, they’re really just one novel, so I’m reviewing them together. My overall feeling about this book is one of awe. This was obviously a labor of love for Connie Willis, and it is truly epic in scope. The time period is meticulously researched, and I really felt like I was there in World War II, seeing how ordinary people reacted to the war and especially to the Blitz. That said, the book is extremely long (over 1,000 pages if you count both volumes), and it probably could have been trimmed substantially. Additionally, there were several confusing plot threads that jumped between different characters and different time periods. These were all resolved by the end of the book, but it made the reading experience a bit difficult at times. On the other hand, there were so many little diversions that I loved — the allusions to Shakespeare and Agatha Christie, for example, as well as the segment where every character was named after someone in The Importance of Being Earnest. So I have mixed feelings about this novel, but overall I have a lot of respect for what Willis accomplished here. Definitely recommended for people interested in  WWII!