Band of Sisters by Lauren Willig

Read August 22 2021

Talk about being behind in writing my reviews! I read this at the end of the summer and now it’s November. Fortunately, I liked this book so much, have since recommended it to others, and it made such an impression on me that it will be easy to recall and write about.

This is some solid historical fiction all about the Smith college alumni who formed a group to go aid French villages in WWI. There is an excellent afterword which explains what was true, what was made up, and the research the author did. I did also visit her website to look the historical maps of the area to better visualize what was going on. This was all equally as fascinating as the fictional story.
The story is told from different points of views, including the one girl who has always felt a bit of an imposter, coming from a poorer family. What was especially interesting to me was that these women were no 18 year olds-they’d been graduated for a while. Also, the socialite women who didn’t have paid jobs but worked very hard basically in social services in the tenements, tending to poor immigrants, were total heroes and then used that “overlooked women’s work” when they were in France. It was also interesting just how much hard work they all did. Their job was to go help villages that had been destroyed by the Germans. As a reader in 2021, I kept thinking, “but…but…I know the war isn’t over yet and it’s really too soon to rebuild because I’m pretty sure it’s all going to be destroyed again.” But they don’t know that! And they worked so hard to help everyone plant crops, build shelters, find food, and have services. Despite the sadness that comes with war stories, this managed to not be a depressing story. I thought it was great and filled with historical detail.

Yours Cheerfully by AJ Pearce

[Another big backlog of reviews coming….]

Read 9/15/21

I loved Dear Mrs. Bird so I was very excited to read this sequel to it. I anticipated a warm WWII book and that’s exactly what I got. Perhaps even more so than in the first book, though, I found myself flinching a bit at the historical sexism and the earnest “come on girls we’ll stand up for ourselves, but carefully and not step on anyone’s toes.” Again, it all seemed historically accurate but really so unbelievable and it makes you think “What was wrong with people in the 1940s?!” It also seems wild that the big war effort that was top secret but so important was just propaganda in women’s magazines.

Light fare.

The Rose Code by Kate Quinn

Another book I read 3 months ago and am just now getting to! Well, I gave this 5 stars so it shouldn’t be hard to remember and write about. When I told a friend about it we were laughing because she was saying “Does it have ___?” and I would say Yes. Over and over again. So yeah, it has a lot of elements you might expect in a WWII story featuring 3 women from different backgrounds, each with their own stories, brought together and changed by the war experience at Bletchley Park, where they worked as codebreakers. Honestly, that alone would probably be enough for me to like this. I’m fascinated by Bletchley Park, fascinated by the Official Secrets Act and how many men and women adhered to it for decades, keeping their work (and often, in women’s cases, their intellect) a secret from even their spouses. But I did also really enjoy each of the women’s stories and I liked the setup here-that in the future the women hate each other and one of them is locked up in a mental instution (where it is truly terrible what they did to people) and as the story goes back in time you wonder “what is going to happen to lead to the future being the way it is??” The future time, btw, is two weeks before Prince Philip’s wedding to Elizabeth, and he is introduced as one of the character’s ex-boyfriend. So that right there is fascinating, because when we do go back to the Bletchley days they are dating. I happened to read this the weekend of Prince Philip’s funeral, so it was really interesting to read about him as a dashing young naval man. I think I’m the only WWII fiction fan who hasn’t read Quinn’s other book, The Alice Network, but perhaps I’ll get around to it. I really, really enjoyed this.

Leviathan trilogy by Scott Westerfeld

I first read Leviathan back in 2011 (a decade ago). I loved the trilogy and eaglery awaited each installment. This March it was a treat to be able to read all three right in a row. It was also fun because Paul read them too (his first time) and so it was fun to be able to discuss them with him.
As before I loved the steampunk adventure, the WWI historical details (and was grateful for the end notes to let me know what was real and what wasn’t), and just what a great adventure it was. Here’s a fun thing–for many years (apparently 10!) I had remembered a scene in a book featuring Nikola Tesla but I could never remember what book it was. Imagine my delight when I came across that in this trilogy and was able to scratch that itch of remembering.

HIghly recommended!

(posting, June: read, March 2021)

The Kitchen Front by Jennifer Ryan

I looooooved The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir and the Spies of Schilling Lane, so this has been a highly anticipated book for me–WWII, Jennifer Ryan, and COOOKING?! Sign me up. This was just a wonderful weekend treat of a book.  As with her others there are many well researched details about village life during the war. Despite the black market, this felt overall “lighter” than the other two titles. There are 4 contestants in this cooking contest, each woman is a terrific cook, and each has her own story. Chapters alternate viewpoints. Differences in class are fascinating. Nell is a girl working in the kitchen of a manor house, Gwen is the Lady of the manor and a total snobby gold digging B&*( who has turned her back on her sister, Audrey. Audrey is a widow with three children who married for love and is not struggling to keep it all together and likely to lose her house. The outlier is Zelda, a glamorous Londoner with a scandalous secret. Each of these ladies has her reasons for wanting to win this competition.  I really appreciated just how much cooking was talked about and how central it was to the story, along with the inclusion of many many recipes. And the recipes did not disappoint with their weirdness (whale steak) as the women had to make do with rations and ingenuity. (Sidebar: I follow a British lady on IG who routinely cooks and bakes from WWII recipe pamphlets. It sounds like a really challenging time to live in and I don’t think I would look to recreate those challenges and hardships.)
Was this a bit sentimental and blatantly a heartwarming story of women and friendship? Yes it was and I loved it.

The Enigma Game by Elizabeth Wein

I was sooooo excited when I saw that Wein had another WWII book. Both Code Name Verity and Rose Under Fire are two of the best WWII books I’ve ever read (and will probably not read again because they were so emotionally intense.) This one is set in the same world, but since it’s been so long since I read Code Name Verity I really didn’t remember the characters or quite which details should have me gasping in recognized delight. [It does become clear, especially if you read the author’s note.]

This one is about a squadron in the RAF and the young Scottish pilot in charge of them (brother to main character of CNV), a young girl who is British but grew up in Jamaica and is now orphaned and takes a job as companion to a feisty elderly woman who is gasp! German (but no one knows that), and Ellen, who is in the WAAF and is a Traveller. So that’s three people with backgrounds they’d rather not have everyone know about, though Louisa cannot hide her background due to the color of her skin. All except the pilot are staying in a house/pub. Enter the secret agent Nazi and his Enigma. From title alone I assumed this would be a Bletchley Park novel and it was so interesting that it was not, but involved the Enigma machine and code breaking and how it could aid the RAF.

Of course, going in I steeled myself for characters to die. There’s just no way there wouldn’t be a moderate to high death toll. There was a little too much technical flying information for me (because it literally makes no sense to me), but this was still wonderful and really showcased just how much the men and women faced death daily and matter of factly. Their courage was simply incredible.

A lovely story.

We Dream of Space by Erin Entrada Kelly

What are the chances that there are TWO books for children with a backdrop of a historical space event and a story about children in families with parents fighting and falling apart? Although it’s been a while since I read I Love You, Michael Collins it stuck with me and I couldn’t help but think of it when I read this. Kelly is a Newbery winning author and I have to say, she is a good writer. Like in Hello Universe and You Go First, the story is told from alternating points of view. In this case it alternates between three siblings-Bird, Fitch, and Cash. The year is 1986 and everyone is excited about the Challenger mission. These kids are in middle school and coincidentally I was in 8th grade when the Challenger happened. I remember the day, though I’m relieved I was not one of the students at my school who was watching a live broadcast of it. Bird is passionate about this space mission and longs to someday be the first female commander of a space mission. She is very excited to watch it live. Cash and Fitch, less so. They have their own interests and problems, namely repeating 7th grade and feeling like a dummy who’s no good at anything and having an explosive temper. I felt so bad for these three kids, each with his or her own worries, family, but not really there for each other. Their family being one of the problems they all have in common–their parents fight all the time and they never do anything together (the only meals eaten as a family have been holidays.) All three students have the same science teacher, who is also very excited about the shuttle. In fact, she applied to be the teacher astronaut. The weeks leading up to the mission are spent learning all about it and the people on it.

I just loved how the children’s voices wove together. The 1986 middle school details were accurate (I can fully attest.) I recently read Astronauts: Women on the Final Frontier, which was nonfiction and I learned a lot about exactly what the title is. I believe I recognized some of the names in this story from that. For someone who is not especially scientifically interested in outer space, I sure seem to be reading a lot about it lately. I do understand our desire though to explore the unknown and to understsand our place in the universe. And that is very much a part of We Dream of Space. This was a wonderful story!

The Paris Library by Janet Skeslian Charles

This was so interesting. I don’t think I’ve read a WWII book that took place in Paris itself before and I hadn’t really ever thought about the Nazi occupation of the city. I had also never heard of the American Library, which was of professional interest to me. The afterward was so interesting because it turned out that basically everything in the story about the library, including the people who worked there, was fact. As for the made up story I really liked how it tied Odile, the French librarian during the war to a teenager in 1980s Montana, who has befriended her elderly lonely neighbor, who is Odile. The stories go back and forth and tie together nicely.

Solid historical fiction.

 

Outlander by Diana Gabaldon

I first read Outlander in 1996 or 97 and have, ever since, considered it one of my all time favorite books. A top 10 of all time. And yet, as I read it this weekend, I realized—I had only read it that one time and not since! Outrageous! For a one time read 25 years ago it had to be awfully special for it to have such a high spot in my all time favorite books.
It’s a big book, no doubt-8 or 900 pages. But like the best big books, you get swept into the world. As with any reread, it’s interesting to see what you remembered and what you didn’t. For example, there was even more explicit sex than I remembered. And truthfully, it seemed kind of ludicrous now. There was also a lot more graphic violence that I remembered. And sadism. And a really bizarre scene (combining all of that) that I can’t believe I forgot. Perhaps I happily forgot it because it was just..too…much. But that aside, I still LOVED the story, the history, the characters, the dialogue, and Jamie and Claire. I mean, Jamie is the pinnacle of a sexy Highlander. (and speaking of Highlanders, 25 years later and my historical knowledge is still hazy about all that. I think anything I know of it I know simply from these books.)

I really feel like the first 3 books are a perfect trilogy, so I’ll definitely keep going with my reread, but am going to pause to read some fun stuff I just got, also today is my first trip to the library since early March. I’m beyond excited to get some new stuff!!

The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir by Jennifer Ryan (reread)

I’m running low here on the books I want to read (although the truth is there are still hundreds of books in our house.) I decided to reread The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir and it was a delight all over again. Here’s my first review.

I really loved seeing how the war changes the characters and how some of them can make those changes positive. Mrs. Tilling, in particular, but also Venetia and Kitty.

Solid historical fiction with a good story.