Review: The Codebreaker’s Secret by Sara Ackerman

Review: The Codebreaker’s Secret by Sara AckermanThe Codebreaker's Secret by Sara Ackerman
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: espionage, historical fiction, World War II
Pages: 384
Published by Mira Books on August 2, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

A brilliant female codebreaker. An “unbreakable” Japanese naval code. A pilot on a top-secret mission that could change the course of WWII. The Codebreaker's Secret is a dazzling story of love and intrigue set during America’s darkest hour.
1943. As war in the Pacific rages on, Isabel Cooper and her codebreaker colleagues huddle in “the dungeon” at Station HYPO in Pearl Harbor, deciphering secrets plucked from the airwaves in a race to bring down the enemy. Isabel has only one wish: to avenge her brother’s death. But she soon finds life has other plans when she meets his best friend, a hotshot pilot with secrets of his own.
1965. Fledgling journalist Lu Freitas comes home to Hawai'i to cover the grand opening of the glamorous Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, Rockefeller's newest and grandest project. When a high-profile guest goes missing, Lu forms an unlikely alliance with an intimidating veteran photographer to unravel the mystery. The two make a shocking discovery that stirs up memories and uncovers an explosive secret from the war days. A secret that only a codebreaker can crack.

My Review:

Like the author’s previous work, The Codebreaker’s Secret is primarily set in the author’s home state, Hawai’i, during World War II. And like her other books, this one mixes a touch of romance with a story about both brave and nefarious wartime deeds on a homefront that experienced the war just a bit differently – and considerably closer to home – than did the mainland.

This one is also a bit different because it has a bit of a timeslip element to it. Not exactly, and not all that far apart in time, but just far enough for that wartime experience to seem both far away in the rearview mirror but still very much relevant – and impactful – on the characters’ present.

We begin in 1942, in Washington DC, with codebreaker Isabel Cooper desperate to get to Hawai’i. Her brother was an Army pilot, who was stationed at Pearl on that “Date which will live in infamy” when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. Walt Cooper went down with his plane. He was his sisters’ big brother, protector and best friend, and her world seems empty without him to share it with.

She’s determined to go to Hawai’i, to meet Walt’s friends, to see what he saw and walk where he walked, so that she can feel closer to him – even though he’s gone. When she manages to break the code of Japan’s complex naval cipher machine, she’s on her way to Pearl, where her adventure truly begins.

In 1965, Luana (call her Lu, please!) Freitas is on her way back to her home in Hawai’i, but not for a visit to her family. She’s a features writer for Sunset Magazine and she’s come to cover the opening of Laurance Rockefeller’s brand new hotel, the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, on the Kohala Coast of the island of Hawai’i. Sunset was, and is, a lifestyle magazine. Lu was supposed to write about the luxurious splendor of the hotel and the parties attended by the rich and famous.

But the first person Lu meets on the way to the hotel is the famous singer Joni Diaz. The second person is the legendary Life Magazine photographer Matteo Russi. When Joni goes missing, the writer and the photographer team up to learn what, and especially who, happened to the singer for her body to wash up on the hotel’s otherwise pristine beach.

What they discover is that the secrets and the enemies that have been hidden since the war still have the power to destroy. But that the wounds left behind by that war can still be healed, and that what was once lost can be found again. Even in the last place that anyone ever expected to look.

Escape Rating A: This is my third book by Sara Ackerman (after Red Sky Over Hawaii and Radar Girls) and so far it’s my favorite. (I’m saying “so far” because there are two earlier books of hers that I have not yet read – and because of course I expect more!)

A huge part of what made this work so well for me was the way that the “timeslip” worked. First we follow Isabel in 1943, then we are with Lu in 1965. There’s no need for any supernatural woo-woo or lost diaries to make the two stories link up, because Matteo Russi becomes a central figure in both time periods.

Which is entirely plausible and even realistic. Think about that whole meme on the interwebs about the foreshortening of time, that in our heads we think of 1980 as being twenty years ago when it’s really 40 years ago and what a mindbend that is.

But in 1965 the men and women who served in World War II (and survived) were mostly in their 40s, and often their early 40s at that. Very much in their primes, with most of their lives still ahead of them. A lot of TV heroes in the mid-1960s had served in either WW2 or Korea, which led to them being cops or private investigators or something else dangerous and sexy. Not that I was thinking that last bit when I watched those shows, I was only eight in 1965.

That Matteo is a young aviator in 1942 and an experienced photographer in 1965 at the top of his game grounds the story. As does Lu’s position of being a young female journalist who feels compelled to beat the men who are certain that she can’t cut it because she’s a woman.

There have been a lot of recent books about women serving as code breakers and other top secret positions during the war – a trend that this author has herself contributed to. This is also something that would have once been believed to be too sensational to be true, but with the war years now mostly declassified, those truths have come out and aren’t they glorious?

One of the things that made this work so much better for me than Red Sky Over Hawaii is that the villain of The Codebreaker’s Secret is entirely realistic and not over-the-top at all. There were plenty of Nazis who were brought to the U.S. after the war, with their records sanitized by the U.S. government, in order to advance the U.S. missile program and give us a leg up against the Soviets in the Cold War arms and space race.

That there were spies and agents working for the Nazi cause during the war is hardly a surprise. It’s been a topic for conspiracy theories and espionage thrillers for decades. And it allows for a disgustingly slimy, smarmy villain who is all-too-realistic and not over-the-top at all.

I’m always fascinated with the history in historical fiction, but what really makes this story sing – and even occasionally dance – are the personalities of its three protagonists, Isabel Cooper, Luana Freitas, and especially Matteo Russi who links the two – although not in the way that you’re probably thinking. And the story is infinitely better for that link not following the usual patterns.

Although their stories take place two decades apart, both Lu and Isabel are in the same place in each of theirs. Not just geographically, but also personally and professionally. They are both in their early 20s, both experiencing their first taste of freedom and responsibility, both driven to excel in professions that are dominated by men. And both willing to put themselves on the line for the truth.

At the same time, Matteo, who is the same human being in both time periods, is radically different. Time, experience and war have changed him from the brash young man who was Isabel’s friend but never her lover, to the womanizing bastard who is at the top of his profession but heading towards the bottom of his life.

He has no idea that mentoring Lu will heal so much of what has ailed him since the war. If only he can open himself up enough to try.

As I said earlier, I loved The Codebreaker’s Secret. I can’t wait for the author’s next book, because I’m highly anticipating more historical fictional goodness set in a captivating place and manages to provide a bit of a fresh perspective on a time period that has been endlessly explored – but not from this marvelous angle. Hopefully this time next year!

Review: Radar Girls by Sara Ackerman

Review: Radar Girls by Sara AckermanRadar Girls: a novel of WWII by Sara Ackerman
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large Print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical romance, women's fiction, World War II
Pages: 368
Published by Mira on July 27, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

An extraordinary story inspired by the real Women’s Air Raid Defense, where an unlikely recruit and her sisters-in-arms forge their place in WWII history.
Daisy Wilder prefers the company of horses to people, bare feet and salt water to high heels and society parties. Then, in the dizzying aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor, Daisy enlists in a top secret program, replacing male soldiers in a war zone for the first time. Under fear of imminent invasion, the WARDs guide pilots into blacked-out airstrips and track unidentified planes across Pacific skies.  
But not everyone thinks the women are up to the job, and the new recruits must rise above their differences and work side by side despite the resistance and heartache they meet along the way. With America’s future on the line, Daisy is determined to prove herself worthy. And with the man she’s falling for out on the front lines, she cannot fail. From radar towers on remote mountaintops to flooded bomb shelters, she’ll need her new team when the stakes are highest. Because the most important battles are fought—and won—together.
This inspiring and uplifting tale of pioneering, unsung heroines vividly transports the reader to wartime Hawaii, where one woman’s call to duty leads her to find courage, strength and sisterhood. 

My Review:

Like the author’s previous books, including last year’s Red Sky Over Hawaii, Radar Girls is a story that talks about World War II on a slightly different homefront from most.

The experience of the war was a bit different in both Hawaii and Alaska, as these two U.S. territories were considerably closer to the front lines than the 48 contiguous states. Alaska was vulnerable because of its large size and relatively small population, making it an easy target – except for the weather. Islands in the Aleutian chain were occupied during the war.

Hawaii, on the other hand, was a small, sparkling, isolated jewel in the middle of the Pacific. It was the perfect location for the U.S. to have a forward base in the Pacific – and provided a tempting target for Japanese forces to use as a stepping stone to the U.S. mainland.

The surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 showed the U.S., and especially the Islands’ residents, just how vulnerable their paradise could be. In the wake of the attack, they were determined not to get caught with their defensive pants down a second time.

The centerpiece of that determination forms the heart of this story, as Hawaii mobilizes its men for war and its women for defense, armed with a new tool in their arsenal – RADAR.

This story of previously unsung heroines is wrapped around three fascinating threads. First, of course, there’s the war. But secondly, there’s the story of the sisterhood of women who were recruited to learn military communication, signal interpretations and vectorology, in spite of all the men who said they couldn’t do it. Daisy Wilder, her friends and her frenemies become the heart and soul of the Women’s Air Raid Defense of the Islands, watching for enemies approaching by air and sea, locating downed American pilots and piloting those in trouble safely home.

Daisy comes into the program as a loner, having been raised around more horses than people in the isolated cabin she and her mother have shared since her father’s death. Daisy has been her little family’s primary breadwinner, and dropped out of school in order to make a living at the stables where her father was once employed.

She doesn’t expect to become part of this group of women – after all, it’s not something she has any experience with. That two of the other women are upper class and look down on her for lack of education, her towering height and her practical, unfeminine wardrobe is what she expects. She expects to fail.

Instead she succeeds. Her supposedly “unfeminine” traits and interests make her a good fit for the WARD, and becomes part of this tight-knit sisterhood in spite of those expectations – and in spite of those frenemies.

So a story of unexpected sisterhood set amidst a story of rising to the occasion in the midst of war. But it wouldn’t be complete without the romance that weaves through it. A romance that might never have happened without the war breaking down the barriers between the son of one of the richest men on the island and the daughter of the man his father accidentally killed.

Escape Rating B+: I picked this up because I enjoyed the author’s previous book, Red Sky Over Hawaii, in spite of one seriously over-the-top villain – as if the ordinary wartime conditions weren’t enough trouble for one woman to be dealing with.

I liked Radar Girls more than Red Sky because it didn’t go over that top and dump ALL the troubles of the world onto the same woman’s shoulders. Not that Daisy and her group of found sisters didn’t have plenty of problems, but they were a bit more evenly shared.

One of their training officers is a creeper, stalker and sexual harasser. One of their husbands is MIA and presumed dead. Another woman’s husband is a gambler who has lost their house. Someone else just has terrible luck with men – or makes terrible choices of men. Or a bit of both. Daisy herself is in love with someone she can’t believe could love her back considering their backgrounds.

And they adopt a kitten, who has kittens providing comfort and comic relief in equal measure. While someone in the neighborhood keeps stealing their lingerie from the clothesline.

And over all of it, the constant tension of interpreting radar signals that might, this time, be a second invasion, knowing that getting it wrong could have potentially dire consequences. It’s a stress that increases with each day and each potential sighting – and that never lets up.

Considering that WARD operated behind the scenes – or underground – this is a story where there aren’t a lot of really BIG events happening onstage. There are lots of radar sightings that have the potential to be a second invasion – but it never happens. The women are, by the top secret nature of the job, in an isolated environment. There are big battles, and they all listen to them on the radio, but the battles don’t come to them.

But in spite of all that, in spite of the big drama happening offstage, the story is captivating from the very first page, with Daisy on a remote beach seeing the Japanese planes screaming overhead. Daisy is a fascinating character who is just different enough for 21st century readers to identify with while still feeling like a part of her own time.

Also, I love a good training story, so the parts of this one where Daisy and her cohort get a crash course in their new duties and master them was a treat. It was easy to imagine oneself being part of that crew and doing one’s own bit to fight their war.

This author seems to be making a specialty of telling captivating stories about the homefront experience of her own home state during World War II. I’m looking forward to more – and I expect them to keep getting better and better!

Review: Red Sky Over Hawaii by Sara Ackerman

Review: Red Sky Over Hawaii by Sara AckermanRed Sky Over Hawaii by Sara Ackerman
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, World War II
Pages: 352
Published by Mira Books on June 9, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Inspired by real places and events of WWII, Red Sky Over Hawaii immerses the reader in a time of American history full of suspicion and peril in this lush and poignant tale about the indisputable power of doing the right thing against all odds.
The attack on Pearl Harbor changes everything for Lana Hitchcock. Arriving home on the Big Island too late to reconcile with her estranged father, she is left alone to untangle the clues of his legacy, which lead to a secret property tucked away in the remote rain forest of Kilauea volcano. When the government starts taking away her neighbors as suspected sympathizers, Lana shelters two young German girls, a Japanese fisherman and his son. As tensions escalate, they are forced into hiding—only to discover the hideaway house is not what they expected.
When a detainment camp is established nearby, Lana struggles to keep the secrets of those in her care. Trust could have dangerous consequences. As their lives weave together, Lana begins to understand the true meaning of family and how the bonds of love carry us through the worst times.

My Review:

The story of Red Sky Over Hawaii is a combination of real places and events, a real dog not contemporaneous with the history, and a plot that feels like it owes perhaps a bit too much to women’s fiction into a look at events in Hawaii for the year that immediately follows the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Both the Alaskan and Hawaiian experiences of the war were different from those on the mainland. Islands in the Aleutian chain, territory of the U.S., were occupied and held by Japanese forces during the war. Hawaii, although it was never held, was directly attacked by Japan on December 7, 1942, the day that FDR claimed would live in infamy. And so it has.

After the attack, the situation on the ground was also a bit different. The internment camps created to house Japanese-Americans, and the quickly passed and racially-motivated laws that saw so many from the West Coast forced to sell or abandon their property as they were shipped to hellish camps for crimes they had neither committed nor even been tried for, including young children, is a crime that is still being paid for.

But the story of Red Sky Over Hawaii shows that the situation was a bit different in Hawaii, and also reminds readers that American citizens from all of the Axis Powers were harassed, detained and imprisoned, although the numbers of German-American and Italian-American detainees were considerably fewer.

As this story begins, in the days before Pearl Harbor, Lana Hitchcock flies from Honolulu to Hilo on a rather scarily small plane in the hopes of seeing her estranged father one last time before he dies. The meeting is not to be, but in the aftermath of the attack, Lana finds herself alone, grieving and looking for a lifeline.

A lifeline that she catches in what could be considered unlikely as well as unfortunate sources, at least for others. Her father’s neighbors, a German-American couple with their two daughters, leave the girls with her when they find themselves detained by the FBI on suspicion of being, basically, German-Americans. Her other neighbors, the elderly Japanese American Mochi and his grandson Benji, are certain that Mochi, at least, will be rounded up and taken away as well.

Lana, in desperation, decides to help her neighbors, or at least their children, by taking as many of them as she can to the remote cottage that her father left her, near the volcano Kilauea. The volcano area is remote and sparsely populated. It should be safe for Lana and her collection of refugees.

But when the nearby Army base is opened as one of several Japanese-American detainment camps on the island, Lana and her charges are in grave danger. And Lana is in danger of losing her heart to one of the soldiers – someone who will never be able to forgive her for all the lies she has told in her attempt to keep everyone safe.

Escape Rating B: Fair warning, this is going to be one of my mixed feelings reviews. Because I have very mixed feelings about this book.

I really, really wanted to love this book. Truly. But I just didn’t. I ended up left with the feeling that it is very well written, well-researched, absolutely has an audience, and that I’m just not quite it.

One of the ways in which the writing really got me, as in it moved me terribly, was in the descriptions of Lana’s grief at her father’s sudden death and her regrets about the time they wasted not really communicating. Because I went through all of that and STILL have a whole lot of regrets and tears almost 30 years later. Some griefs never leave us, so that part of her story resonated so hard I almost couldn’t get through it.

At the same time, I found a lot of Lana’s story read like it belonged in a contemporary women’s fiction story rather than a book that feels like it’s trying to say something about the Hawaiian experience of World War II in the period directly after the attack on Pearl Harbor. And not that I don’t generally enjoy women’s fiction. It’s just that these two great tastes didn’t go great together IMHO.

I think that Lana’s troubles, for me, hit the “one too many” button. Her dad has just died, and that’s both heartbreaking and a necessary part of the story, as it’s her inheritance from him that provides the refuge for the family she gathers around herself. But she’s also separated from her cheating husband, about to get divorced, and her marriage fell apart because she can’t have children. AND there’s a scumbag after her and especially the two girls she’s taking care of. The addition of the scumbag felt over-the-top. It created a bit of a heroine-in-jeopardy plot that wasn’t needed. They were all in enough bloody jeopardy without the scumbag.

I have mixed feelings about the German-American parents being dragged off to detention leaving Lana with their two girls. Not that it wasn’t historically plausible, because it certainly was. But the detention of both German-Americans and Italian-Americans didn’t have the heavy weight of racial animus that the detention of Japanese-Americans certainly did. Although the way that the whole situation bowed to economic necessity was fascinating. Because of the large percentage of Japanese-Americans who were part of the Hawaiian population, the number of people in the internment camps remained relatively small as those people were needed to keep the economy running. Remote places like Hawaii (and Alaska) just don’t have an easy option for bringing large numbers of people in.

I did like the tiny bit of magical realism stuck into the healing properties of the honey made by the bees living in the shadow of the volcano. That part was cool and the touch of it was just right.

So a mixed bag of feelings, and a mixed-feeling kind of review. Your reading mileage may definitely vary.