Review: Band of Sisters by Lauren Willig

Review: Band of Sisters by Lauren WilligBand of Sisters by Lauren Willig
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, World War I
Pages: 528
Published by William Morrow on March 2, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

A group of young women from Smith College risk their lives in France at the height of World War I in this sweeping novel based on a true story—a skillful blend of Call the Midwife and The Alice Network—from New York Times bestselling author Lauren Willig.
A scholarship girl from Brooklyn, Kate Moran thought she found a place among Smith’s Mayflower descendants, only to have her illusions dashed the summer after graduation. When charismatic alumna Betsy Rutherford delivers a rousing speech at the Smith College Club in April of 1917, looking for volunteers to help French civilians decimated by the German war machine, Kate is too busy earning her living to even think of taking up the call. But when her former best friend Emmeline Van Alden reaches out and begs her to take the place of a girl who had to drop out, Kate reluctantly agrees to join the new Smith College Relief Unit.
Four months later, Kate and seventeen other Smithies, including two trailblazing female doctors, set sail for France. The volunteers are armed with money, supplies, and good intentions—all of which immediately go astray. The chateau that was to be their headquarters is a half-burnt ruin. The villagers they meet are in desperate straits: women and children huddling in damp cellars, their crops destroyed and their wells poisoned. 
Despite constant shelling from the Germans, French bureaucracy, and the threat of being ousted by the British army, the Smith volunteers bring welcome aid—and hope—to the region. But can they survive their own differences? As they cope with the hardships and terrors of the war, Kate and her colleagues find themselves navigating old rivalries and new betrayals which threaten the very existence of the Unit.
With the Germans threatening to break through the lines, can the Smith Unit pull together and be truly a band of sisters?  

My Review:

On “the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month” of 1918, the guns of World War I finally went silent after four years of a hellish war that was supposed to have ended all wars. Which unfortunately it did not.

This day is now celebrated as Veterans’ Day in the United States, Remembrance Day in the United Kingdom and many Commonwealth countries and Armistice Day in France, where this story takes place. And where the story that inspired it took place in real life..

This is one of those stories, one of those situations, where it’s a good thing that there is historical evidence to back up its main premise, as the idea seems a bit stranger than fiction. But then, fiction has to at least seem plausible, where history just has to have really happened, plausible or not.

The Smith College Relief Unit really happened. A group of Smith College alumnae organized themselves into a self-contained unit of unprepared, under-equipped and overly naïve aid workers who were not nurses – although two were doctors – to go to recently liberated and bombed out villages in war-torn France, in 1917. While the war was still being fought.

The trenches were practically next-door, to the point where they could feel the ground shake during major troop movements even when they couldn’t see or hear the artillery. Not that they didn’t get bombed.

The SCRU reads a bit like the American version of noblesse oblige combined with too much idealism and not nearly enough preparation. The intention was for the women to provide aid and succor along with bootstrapping for a lot of tiny communities that had lost everything; their homes, their families, their livelihoods and their souls. To set up schools for children who had lived under threat for so long that they had not known anything else. To provide seeds and farm machinery and hope in places that hadn’t seen any of the above through all the long years of the German Occupation.

And help they did, even if not always in the way that they had intended, and not nearly as much as they hoped. Some of them managed to rise above their preconceived notions about themselves, each other and the people they came to serve. Some did not.

But the story of this bunch of well-meaning if not always well-doing women was real. This did happen and they did try in spite of the conditions and the dangers and the odds.

This is their story, even if it is a bit fictionalized. Many of the names have been changed. Some of the incidents have been shifted in time, although in the main they really happened. And the letter and diary entries that head each chapter are entirely real, first person accounts of the biggest and most heartbreaking adventure any of them would ever take.

The real SCRU in 1917

Escape Rating A: Today is Veterans Day in the U.S. My posts on this day fall into one of three categories, either I post about the holiday, I post about World War I, or, like today, I post a review of a book about World War I.

Band of Sisters is a marvelous, surprising, sometimes heartwarming and often heartbreaking book about World War I. If it sounds right up your alley, I also recommend Sisters of the Great War by Suzanne Feldman and the story collection Fall of Poppies, featuring a remarkable selection of stories that are set on Armistice Day, as this holiday is known in Britain and the Commonwealth countries.

Band of Sisters is one of those “fiction is the lie that tells the truth” kind of stories, and that’s what makes it so fascinating. Our perspective on the Smith College Relief Unit is through the eyes and words of the women in the unit, but especially through Emmie Van Alden and her college roommate and best friend, Kate Moran.

Emmie is the daughter of just the type of wealthy family that made up the usual run of Smith alumnae. As awkward and inadequate as her family frequently makes Emmie feel, she still wields her extreme privilege so naturally and so casually that she doesn’t notice how much it shapes and wounds her friend Kate.

Because Kate was a charity case, both for Emmie’s family and at Smith. She’s now middle class, she’s Catholic, and once upon a time her mother worked as a cleaner to make ends barely meet for her daughter and her widowed self. Emmie may not think of Kate as an outsider, but the rest of the group does so at every turn – and that casual malice can be brutal.

The same kind of casual malice and well-aimed social weaponry that stripped the founder of the unit of her position and her cause. A weapon that has Kate in its sights from the moment she becomes the new deputy.

But the group also perseveres in something that would now be called the “hearts and minds” plan. The war is still raging, the U.S. is in but Germany is not yet out, and the SCRU is stationed entirely too close to the front lines, trying their kind hearted but not always well-conceived best to bring milk, medicine and hope to people who have known none of the above for entirely too long.

They are not trained. They are not prepared. Still they do their best. It might not be enough, but it is certainly something. And it makes for an absorbing and marvelous read, particularly apropos for this day.

Review: The Glass Ocean by Beatriz Williams, Lauren Willig and Karen White

Review: The Glass Ocean by Beatriz Williams, Lauren Willig and Karen WhiteThe Glass Ocean by Beatriz Williams, Lauren Willig, Karen White
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction
Pages: 408
Published by William Morrow on September 4, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

From the New York Times bestselling authors of The Forgotten Room comes a captivating historical mystery, infused with romance, that links the lives of three women across a century—two deep in the past, one in the present—to the doomed passenger liner, RMS Lusitania.

May 2013Her finances are in dire straits and bestselling author Sarah Blake is struggling to find a big idea for her next book. Desperate, she breaks the one promise she made to her Alzheimer’s-stricken mother and opens an old chest that belonged to her great-grandfather, who died when the RMS Lusitania was sunk by a German U-Boat in 1915. What she discovers there could change history. Sarah embarks on an ambitious journey to England to enlist the help of John Langford, a recently disgraced Member of Parliament whose family archives might contain the only key to the long-ago catastrophe. . . .

April 1915Southern belle Caroline Telfair Hochstetter’s marriage is in crisis. Her formerly attentive industrialist husband, Gilbert, has become remote, pre-occupied with business . . . and something else that she can’t quite put a finger on. She’s hoping a trip to London in Lusitania’s lavish first-class accommodations will help them reconnect—but she can’t ignore the spark she feels for her old friend, Robert Langford, who turns out to be on the same voyage. Feeling restless and longing for a different existence, Caroline is determined to stop being a bystander, and take charge of her own life. . . .

Tessa Fairweather is traveling second-class on the Lusitania, returning home to Devon. Or at least, that’s her story. Tessa has never left the United States and her English accent is a hasty fake. She’s really Tennessee Schaff, the daughter of a roving con man, and she can steal and forge just about anything. But she’s had enough. Her partner has promised that if they can pull off this one last heist aboard the Lusitania, they’ll finally leave the game behind. Tess desperately wants to believe that, but Tess has the uneasy feeling there’s something about this job that isn’t as it seems. . . .

As the Lusitania steams toward its fate, three women work against time to unravel a plot that will change the course of their own lives . . . and history itself.

My Review:

The Glass Ocean is the braided story of three women, separated by time, place, class or all of the above, whose lives are roiled by the wake of the RMS Lusitania, struck by a torpedo from a German U-boat off the coast of Ireland on May 7, 1915.

As with the previous book by the Team W, The Forgotten Room, the story of The Glass Ocean slips from character to character – from woman to woman – as the reader experiences each perspective and follows the treasure hunt as all three of the stories finally come together.

And the truth sets them all free. Freedom from obscurity in the past, and freedom from heartbreak and loss in the present.

In exploring the truth about her great-grandfather, a steward on the RMS Lusitania, Sarah thinks that she’s going to be writing a spy thriller – if not the biography of a man who wrote spy thrillers. But as we follow her on her treasure hunt through the life and archives of Robert Langford, a passenger on the Lusitania and the author of spy thrillers that Sarah thinks were even better than Ian Fleming’s, we also see those pivotal events on board the Lusitania through the eyes of two women who both loved him.

The story that Sarah thinks she’s looking for is not the one she finds. But that’s the one that she writes. And in the writing of it, she brings the lives and accomplishments of two fascinating women back into the light of day.

And rescues herself along the way.

Escape Rating A-: Today, as this review is posted, is the 18th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. This book is an oddly appropriate read for today, as the sinking of the Lusitania and 9/11 were both human-created disasters that were intended to start a war. And both did, after their different fashions.

If you are interested in reading more about the Lusitania, I highly recommend – as does Team W in the afterword of The Glass Ocean, Dead Wake by Erik Larson. Dead Wake is the best kind of narrative nonfiction, in other words, a true story that reads as compellingly as if it were a novel.

But The Glass Ocean, like Dead Wake, confines itself to events that take place aboard the ocean liner, or that occurred to its survivors in the aftermath. The reader can and does speculate about the surrounding politics, but the story is the story of the doomed ship and what happened after.

While Caroline’s and Tess’ stories are part of that fateful voyage, Sarah’s is the story of the aftermath – nearly 100 years in the aftermath. I found Sarah’s story to be the most compelling – but then she’s the one doing the historical research. I always love the treasure hunt aspect of this kind of story, where the clues are revealed, sometimes slowly and carefully, and sometimes by “Eureka!” – and there are plenty of moments of both kinds in Sarah’s search.

Sarah’s story feels “present”, while Caroline’s and Tess’ stories feel almost as though they are leading the reader to the story behind those clues. And I was guessing right along with Sarah, sometimes, but not always correctly.

Part of what makes this so much fun is the way that in both time periods both end up as just the kind of spy thriller that Robert Langford used to write. Someone betrayed the Lusitania to the Germans. Someone smuggled a critical munitions formula on board the ship. Someone wanted to sell it to the Germans. Someone wanted to secure it for the British.

And over 1,000 people died for it.

But when Sarah unearths those secrets, she finds much more than she ever bargained for. Whether or not she’ll be able to keep what she’s found is a journey that is well-worth taking with her.

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Review: The Summer Country by Lauren Willig

Review: The Summer Country by Lauren WilligThe Summer Country by Lauren Willig
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction
Pages: 480
Published by William Morrow on June 4, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The New York Times bestselling historical novelist delivers her biggest, boldest, and most ambitious novel yet—a sweeping, dramatic Victorian epic of lost love, lies, jealousy, and rebellion set in colonial Barbados.

1854. From Bristol to Barbados. . . .

Emily Dawson has always been the poor cousin in a prosperous merchant clan—merely a vicar’s daughter, and a reform-minded vicar’s daughter, at that. Everyone knows that the family’s lucrative shipping business will go to her cousin, Adam, one day. But when her grandfather dies, Emily receives an unexpected inheiritance: Peverills, a sugar plantation in Barbados—a plantation her grandfather never told anyone he owned.

When Emily accompanies her cousin and his new wife to Barbados, she finds Peverills a burnt-out shell, reduced to ruins in 1816, when a rising of enslaved people sent the island up in flames. Rumors swirl around the derelict plantation; people whisper of ghosts.

Why would her practical-minded grandfather leave her a property in ruins? Why are the neighboring plantation owners, the Davenants, so eager to acquire Peverills—so eager that they invite Emily and her cousins to stay with them indefinitely? Emily finds herself bewitched by the beauty of the island even as she’s drawn into the personalities and politics of forty years before: a tangled history of clandestine love, heartbreaking betrayal, and a bold bid for freedom.

When family secrets begin to unravel and the harsh truth of history becomes more and more plain, Emily must challenge everything she thought she knew about her family, their legacy . . . and herself.

My Review:

The first book by Lauren Willig that I read was The Secret History of the Pink Carnation, probably 15 years ago. It got me hooked on her lush historical books, and I dip into one whenever I have a bit of time.

And so we come to The Summer Country, another lush and sumptuous historical by Lauren Willig. Unlike her well-known Pink Carnation series, this story takes place not in late 18th century France, but in mid-19th century Barbados.

However, they are both time slip stories. But the time that is slipped in The Summer Country encompasses considerably fewer centuries. The Pink Carnation series tells its historical story through a 21st century frame. But The Summer Country interweaves the past of Barbados at two periods only a couple of generations apart. Its “past” is in the early 1810s, and its “present” in the mid 1850s.

In other words, more than close enough together that the events of the past directly shape events in the story’s present – whether the protagonists are aware of that shaping or not. Mostly not. The time periods are also more than close enough together that it is within living memory for many people who still have secrets they desperately feel the need to keep.

At any cost. At all the times.

Escape Rating A-: The Summer Country is an example of the kind of epic family saga that they don’t publish much anymore. Because it’s a marvelous example of that kind of sweeping story, it does make the reader wonder why not. It’s lovely and captivating and pulls the reader into its world, much as its Barbados setting pulls in the characters who find themselves navigating the exotic and unfamiliar colony in the wake of their grandfather’s death.

A death that sets the whole story in motion.

This is a story about secrets, the cost of keeping them, and the fear of letting them go. It’s also a story that unspools as lazily as a day in the colonial heat – complete with an overarching sense of menace that coats the skin like sweat – and bites like the local mosquitoes.

It’s not a book to rush through. It begins with Emily Dawson, doing her level best to make her own way in this new world, trying to unravel the mystery that her grandfather has left her with his bequest of the ruined Peverill plantation. We see Emily buck the tide of ALL the men in her life and her orbit who are just certain that a woman couldn’t possibly know her own mind.

And we see the past, when her grandfather was a young man at Peverills, not as the owner, but as the poor bookkeeper. And we see all the people who stood in both their ways – some of whom still do.

It’s enthralling, it’s delicious, it’s decadent and at times it’s downright chilling. This is a book to wallow in – and you’ll be glad you did.

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Review: Fall of Poppies: Stories of Love and the Great War by Heather Webb, Hazel Gaynor, Beatriz Williams, Jennifer Robson, Jessica Brockmole, Kate Kerrigan, Evangeline Holland, Lauren Willig, Marci Jefferson

Review: Fall of Poppies: Stories of Love and the Great War by Heather Webb, Hazel Gaynor, Beatriz Williams, Jennifer Robson, Jessica Brockmole, Kate Kerrigan, Evangeline Holland, Lauren Willig, Marci JeffersonFall of Poppies: Stories of Love and the Great War by Heather Webb, Hazel Gaynor, Beatriz Williams, Jennifer Robson, Jessica Brockmole, Kate Kerrigan, Evangeline Holland, Lauren Willig, Marci Jefferson
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Pages: 368
Published by William Morrow Paperbacks on March 1st 2016
Publisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

On the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month . . .
November 11, 1918. After four long, dark years of fighting, the Great War ends at last, and the world is forever changed. For soldiers, loved ones, and survivors, the years ahead stretch with new promise, even as their hearts are marked by all those who have been lost.
As families come back together, lovers reunite, and strangers take solace in each other, everyone has a story to tell.
In this moving, unforgettable collection, nine top historical fiction authors share stories of love, strength, and renewal as hope takes root in a fall of poppies.
Featuring:
Jessica Brockmole
Hazel Gaynor
Evangeline Holland
Marci Jefferson
Kate Kerrigan
Jennifer Robson
Heather Webb
Beatriz Williams
Lauren Willig

My Review:

There’s something about World War I that seems unbearably sad, even more so than World War II. I think it’s the sense that even though the war itself isn’t as simple or as clear-cut as the next war, there is so much more that died in that fall of poppies. So many different hopes, dreams and expectations. World War I changed the world in so many ways, where World War II seems like a continuation of a process that had already started with that first “World War”.

The stories in this anthology all center around World War I, and particularly around November 11, 1918, that singular moment when the war ended and everyone was left to look at the wreckage left behind and figure out how to pick up the pieces. Or even what pieces to pick up.

All of the stories in this collection are excellent, but there were four that particularly spoke to me, each in a different way.

Something Worth Landing For by Jessica Brockmole is a sweet love story. A young American airman comes to the rescue of a weeping Frenchwoman outside a doctor’s office. He has just been cleared to fly, and she has just discovered that she is pregnant. When the doctor begins berating the young woman about the baby, Wes decides to help her. At first, all his thinking is about getting her away from the doctor’s slightly slimy clutches. But as Wes and Victoire talk, he offers to marry her. He expects to die, a not unreasonable expectation for WWI flyers, and their marriage will leave her with his name and his widow’s pension. He gets someone on the ground who will send him letters, and she gets respectability. But as they write to each other, they discover they have a surprising chance at much more than either of them ever hoped for.

All for the Love of You by Jennifer Robson is also a sweet love story, but it is a story about the enduring power of love, and its ability to overcome all obstacles, even time, distance and injury. It is guaranteed to give you an earworm for the song.

The Record Set Right by Lauren Willig will remind readers of Out of Africa and Circling the Sun, even as its story deals with two wounded survivors looking back at their war, and the lives that followed, 60 years after the Armistice that both brought them together and tore them apart. It’s a story that asks questions about how responsible we are for the lies we tell, and for the lies we believe. Now that the truth is revealed, it is much too late to change the past. But in spite of the betrayal that led them to the lives they had, are they better off dreaming of what might have been? Or were they robbed of the life they should have had together by a lie told by a selfish man who loved them both? They’ll never know and neither will we.

And last but not least for this reader, The Photograph by Kate Kerrigan. The armistice in this book is the same as all the others, November 11, 1918, but the war is not World War I. Instead it is set in Ireland, where the Easter Rising of 1916 has led to outright rebellion. So while Irish troops are fighting as part of the British Army in the trenches, back home in Ireland the British Army is attempting to keep down the Irish Republican Army. This story takes place both in the present day and in 1918, as one family confronts its past and its future. This story is lovely and sad, but ends with hope for the future.

Escape Rating A-: All of the stories in this collection have their moments, and they all serve their theme well, sometimes in surprisingly different ways. As with all collections, not all of them spoke to this reader, but the ones that did echo in my thoughts like the sound of artillery over the trenches.

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