Review: The Lost Vintage by Ann Mah

Review: The Lost Vintage by Ann MahThe Lost Vintage by Ann Mah
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, family saga, historical fiction, World War II
Pages: 384
Published by William Morrow on June 19, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Sweetbitter meets The Nightingale in this page-turning novel about a woman who returns to her family’s ancestral vineyard in Burgundy and unexpectedly uncovers a lost diary, an unknown relative, and a secret her family has been keeping since World War II

To become one of only a few hundred certified wine experts in the world, Kate must pass the notoriously difficult Master of Wine Examination. She’s failed twice before; her third attempt will be her last. Suddenly finding herself without a job and with the test a few months away, she travels to Burgundy, to spend the fall at the vineyard estate that has belonged to her family for generations. There she can bolster her shaky knowledge of Burgundian vintages and reconnect with her cousin Nico and his wife Heather, who now oversee the grapes’ day-to-day management. The one person Kate hopes to avoid is Jean-Luc, a neighbor vintner and her first love.

At the vineyard house, Kate is eager to help her cousins clean out the enormous basement that is filled with generations of discarded and forgotten belongings. Deep inside the cellar, behind a large armoire, she discovers a hidden room containing a cot, some Resistance pamphlets, and an enormous cache of valuable wine. Piqued by the secret space, Kate begins to dig into her family’s history—a search that takes her back to the dark days of the Second World War and introduces her to a relative she never knew existed, a great half-aunt who was teenager during the Nazi occupation.

As she learns more about her family, the line between Resistance and Collaboration blurs, driving Kate to find the answers to two crucial questions: Who, exactly, did her family aid during the difficult years of the war? And what happened to six valuable bottles of wine that seem to be missing from the cellar’s collection?

My Review:

This book is every bit as delicious as the wines produced by the region that it celebrates. And the history that it uncovers has just as many top notes, undertones and hidden flavors as the wine.

The Lost Vintage combines two different fictional varietals, the contemporary second-chance at love story with a heartfelt exploration of the history of the Burgundy region under the Nazi Occupation, along with the excesses enacted after liberation. And it is a story about one family finally coming to terms with all the beautiful and terrible secrets hidden in its past.

This is Kate’s story. The present we watch is her present, and it is her determination and blind luck that uncovers the hidden past.

Kate’s family are wine growers in the Burgundy region of France. Kate has always planned to have a career in the wine industry, but not as a grower. Her plan was to study, become a sommelier and eventually take the prestigious Master of Wine test.

And that’s where she’s stuck.

She’s failed the test twice, and is preparing herself to tackle the test for the third and final time. (It’s a three-strikes and you’re out kind of test). But Kate has a blind spot that is ruining her chances of achieving her dream. She just can’t seem to taste the wines from the region that her family calls home.

A place that she once, almost, made her life.

So she goes back to confront the family history, and her own. She goes back to help her cousin bring in the harvest, and to avoid as much as possible the man she almost married.

And get to the heart of everything that is holding her back from her dream. In the process, she discovers the secrets that her family has buried for 70 years – along with more than enough wine to recover their fortunes.

But first they have to resurrect the past, and begin to forgive while consciously choosing not to forget. And so does Kate.

Escape Rating A: This is an absolutely marvelous book, whether you love family sagas, wine culture, French history, World War II history or even second chances at love stories, because The Lost Vintage is all of the above.

It’s so easy to fall into this book, and especially to feel for Kate on the horns of her many, many dilemmas. She’s been driven to pursue her dreams, and she’s unconsciously following the example of her mother, a woman who pursued her own dreams at the cost of her family.

At the same time, the history that Kate uncovers eats her up, and consumes her family on multiple levels. The Burgundy region was infamous for its collaborators during the Occupation. The young woman who Kate first discovers through a yellowing high school diploma and a box of old science textbooks seems like a woman Kate would like to have met – until she discovers that her great-aunt was punished as a collaborator after the war. Sickened by the discovery of her family’s history of bigotry, at the same time she uncovers the fruits of their lost labor – a hidden collection of famous pre-war vintages, enough to save the family fortunes several times over.

But the discovery comes at too high a cost, as her Jewish cousin discovers that she has married into a family that sent others just like her to the concentration camps. And as their great-uncle creates rifts in the family by refusing to discuss the history that his own parents made him promise never to reveal.

Kate is caught between her need to learn the truth about her family, her need to learn as much as she can to pass her test, and her desire to avoid at all costs the man she almost married. A man whose family holdings are next door to her own, and whose life is interwoven with those of her cousins in France.

There’s history, mystery and romance woven into this story. We feel both for the characters in the present who desperately need to know, and those in the past who just as desperately need to conceal that knowledge.

Even though I guessed some of the history, I was still surprised by the twist at the end. And pleased to be so surprised.

The Lost Vintage is a story to savor. Preferably with a glass of wine. Or several. And some tissues.

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Review: Warlight by Michael Ondaatje

Review: Warlight by Michael OndaatjeWarlight by Michael Ondaatje
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, literary fiction, World War II
Pages: 304
Published by Knopf Publishing Group on May 8, 2018
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From the internationally acclaimed, best-selling author of The English Patient: a mesmerizing new novel that tells a dramatic story set in the decade after World War II through the lives of a small group of unexpected characters and two teenagers whose lives are indelibly shaped by their unwitting involvement.

In a narrative as beguiling and mysterious as memory itself--shadowed and luminous at once--we read the story of fourteen-year-old Nathaniel, and his older sister, Rachel. In 1945, just after World War II, they stay behind in London when their parents move to Singapore, leaving them in the care of a mysterious figure named The Moth. They suspect he might be a criminal, and they grow both more convinced and less concerned as they come to know his eccentric crew of friends: men and women joined by a shared history of unspecified service during the war, all of whom seem, in some way, determined now to protect, and educate (in rather unusual ways) Rachel and Nathaniel. But are they really what and who they claim to be? And what does it mean when the siblings' mother returns after months of silence without their father, explaining nothing, excusing nothing? A dozen years later, Nathaniel begins to uncover all that he didn't know and understand in that time, and it is this journey--through facts, recollection, and imagination--that he narrates in this masterwork from one of the great writers of our time.

My Review:

I picked this one up because of the World War II angle. It sounded like a combination of coming-of-age and voyage of discovery. At least it sounded like a boy with a murky past grows up and discovers what the murk was all about.

But it isn’t. Or he doesn’t. Perhaps a little bit of both.

The beginning is certainly promising. 14-year-old Nathaniel and his 16-year-old sister Rachel are left in the guardianship of someone who begins as a temporary lodger in their house – at least as far as the children know. It is 1945 and the war is over. But for Nathaniel and Rachel, it seems as if the peace is going to be even more dangerous than the war.

Warlight is the semi-luminous shadowed darkness that existed at night, in Britain, under the blackout of World War II. Things were only seen in shadow, and people acted in that shadow.

In this story, the shadowy deeds conducted in that warlight continue to haunt the post-war period, and it is the warlight of his memory that Nathaniel attempts to navigate.

The first part of the book takes place during that immediate post-war period, when Nathaniel and Rachel are abandoned in the care of a man they nickname ‘The Moth’. They believe he might be a criminal. Certainly the lives that Nathaniel and Rachel lead while under his care are highly irregular, as are the characters that come to inhabit that life.

Those post-war, post-Blitz years are highly chaotic, and so is everything that surrounds them. But our perspective of those years is through Nathaniel’s memories, viewed through the lens of his adulthood in the 1950s, and his work with an unnamed secret agency, probably MI5 or MI6. His job is to sanitize the parts of the war that were conducted in a grey area. Probably in very deep shades of grey. Shades that seemed as if they were conducted ‘for the greater good’ in wartime, but that in peacetime are going to appear pretty damning. If they ever come to light.

It’s part of Nathaniel’s job to see that they don’t.

But his real purpose in the depths of that nameless agency is to hunt for traces of his mother. Because during the war, she was one of those people who operated in that grey. And during the peace, the results of those actions eventually came for her.

Nathaniel wants to learn why. Not just that why, but all the whys. And his search leads him back into his memories – and back into the grey warlight.

Escape Rating B-: I’m not actually sure I escaped anywhere with this one. It’s a weird book. From the description, I expected something more definitive, at least in the part of the book where Nathaniel is an adult and is searching for the past and the truth about that past.

But it doesn’t feel like there are any truly definitive events, at least until the very end when Nathaniel reconstructs what he thinks happened. But even then, he doesn’t really know, he’s only guessing.

And he is a very unreliable narrator. He doesn’t find much in the way of names and dates and places and documentation of any of the above. He finds bits and pieces and suppositions and suggestive blank spaces, both because his mother deliberately tried to erase her past and because the agency she worked for has erased anything murky in its past, and a lot of that murk is wrapped around his mother and her colleagues – many of whom were people that Nathaniel knew and didn’t know, both at the same time.

This is a book that I think people are either going to love or hate, but not much in the middle. It is very much literary fiction, in that it meanders a lot and not a lot clearly happens. But underneath that it says a lot of interesting things about what is condoned in war and condemned in peace, and the lengths that people and governments will go to in order to make sure that certain truths don’t ever see the full light of day.

Review: The Atomic City Girls by Janet Beard

Review: The Atomic City Girls by Janet BeardThe Atomic City Girls by Janet Beard
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, World War II
Pages: 384
Published by William Morrow Paperbacks on February 6th 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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In the bestselling tradition of Hidden Figures and The Wives of Los Alamos, comes a riveting novel of the everyday women who worked on the Manhattan Project during World War II

“What you see here, what you hear here, what you do here, let it stay here.”

In November 1944, eighteen-year-old June Walker boards an unmarked bus, destined for a city that doesn’t officially exist. Oak Ridge, Tennessee has sprung up in a matter of months—a town of trailers and segregated houses, 24-hour cafeterias, and constant security checks. There, June joins hundreds of other young girls operating massive machines whose purpose is never explained. They know they are helping to win the war, but must ask no questions and reveal nothing to outsiders.

The girls spend their evenings socializing and flirting with soldiers, scientists, and workmen at dances and movies, bowling alleys and canteens. June longs to know more about their top-secret assignment and begins an affair with Sam Cantor, the young Jewish physicist from New York who oversees the lab where she works and understands the end goal only too well, while her beautiful roommate Cici is on her own mission: to find a wealthy husband and escape her sharecropper roots. Across town, African-American construction worker Joe Brewer knows nothing of the government’s plans, only that his new job pays enough to make it worth leaving his family behind, at least for now. But a breach in security will intertwine his fate with June’s search for answers.

When the bombing of Hiroshima brings the truth about Oak Ridge into devastating focus, June must confront her ideals about loyalty, patriotism, and war itself.

My Review:

The Atomic City Girls straddles the line between pure historical fiction and a genre perhaps best described as “fictionalized history”. Historical fiction takes known historical events or periods and slides fictional characters into them. World War II is a popular time period, but far from the only one.

Fictionalized history, on the other hand, is sometimes referred to “history with conversation”, where all the characters are real historical figures and the author weaves a story either around parts of their lives and history that were less well illuminated but still fit within what is known, or adds gloss to private moments that were naturally not recorded – going into what they might have felt behind what it is known they did.

The Atomic City Girls sits rather uncomfortable on top of that dividing line, as straddles often do.

The author follows the story of three separate individuals at Oak Ridge Tennessee during its years as the secret manufacturing city for the Manhattan Project in World War II. While the individuals featured did not exist, they are intended as composites of many people who were part of Oak Ridge during those years.

One is a young local woman, barely 18, whose grandfather owned some of the land that was purchased by the U.S. to build Oak Ridge. June Walker comes to Oak Ridge as one of many young women who become factory workers, watching the dials on machines whose purpose she is not intended to know and which it  is not expected she would understand if she did know. And for anyone to tell her what those machines do is a violation of the extremely strict security that surrounds the place.

Sam Cantor, actually Dr. Sam Cantor, is one of the nuclear physicists who is responsible for the development of the process used to extract Uranium 235 from ordinary uranium. He knows exactly what Oak Ridge is all about, both in the scientific sense and in the sense of the war. Sam’s family emigrated to the U.S. from Germany in the 1920s. They are Jews, and have lost touch with any family left behind, fearing, rightfully so, that anyone left in Germany has died in the concentration camps.

Sam is also fully aware of Oak Ridge’s scientific implications in another sense. While he wants to be sure that the U.S. wins the war, and that they develop a nuclear bomb before Hitler, once Germany surrenders he is increasing weighed down by the moral and ethical implications of dropping an atomic bomb on a civilian population – any civilian population – as many of the scientists were. The nuclear genie is one that once let out of its bottle, will have untold consequences for everyone, and they know it.

Last, is Joe Brewer, an African-American construction worker who is treated like a second-class citizen at every turn. But Joe is in his early-40s, and his treatment is the life that he has always known. He also knows it’s wrong, but he is certain that he can’t change it. And that he is earning the best money he has ever made in his life. All he wants is for things to get just better enough that his wife can get a job at Oak Ridge too, and that they can bring their family back together. Part of that second-class treatment means that while white workers are permitted to bring their wives and families to Oak Ridge, black workers are not until very late in the war.

So, although the title is The Atomic City Girls, the story is only partly about June and her part of the work. Instead, we watch as young June and disaffected and often drunk Sam drift into a relationship that at first improves life for both of them, but is, in the end, unsustainable.

Sam never recovers from his experiences at Oak Ridge, while June builds on her chance to escape her restricted upbringing for a better life outside of rural Tennessee and a stellar career as a teacher.

Joe, after the tragedy of seeing the younger black workers suffer for their attempts to create better working conditions for their people, survives and flourishes in Oak Ridge as the post-war years go by. His dreams are for his children, and they come true.

Escape Rating B: Each of the stories was individually interesting, but there were just too many of them. The author is attempting to show life and work in Oak Ridge through the eyes of characters of very different perspectives, but the action switches between them too often and we don’t get to invest as much in any of the stories as we would have if she had followed one (or two in the case of June and Sam) exclusively.

I enjoyed reading the individual stories, but they just didn’t gel into a whole, at least not for me. Joe’s story may be the most fascinating, and it feels like the least known, but it’s also the one we follow the least. The primary focus is on June and Sam, and Joe only intersects with them tangentially, which is not surprising in this context. (Whether or not things should have been different, the historical fact is that they were not).

One of the contrasts that was pivotal was between June and her roommate Cici. In the end, both June and Cici were able to use their experiences in Oak Ridge to leave behind the life they would otherwise have had. Both were from rural Tennessee, from similar tiny towns with similarly proscribed lives to look dubiously forward to. But Cici came to Oak Ridge pretending to be an upper class Nashville belle. She lived a lie, and used that lie to snag a rich husband. In the end, she had the life she dreamed of but was not happy. June, on the other hand, never pretended to be anything she wasn’t, so she was able to build on her experience in a positive way.

Because the story ended up focusing on June’s fateful relationship with Sam, we really don’t get the slice-of-Oak-Ridge life that I was initially expecting. In the end, while I ended up interested enough in each of the individuals to want to know more about their story, The Atomic City Girls didn’t build up to quite what I was hoping for.

For a completely non-fictional but quite readable take on this same period, check out The Girls of Atomic City by Denise Kiernan.

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Review: The Paris Secret by Karen Swan

Review: The Paris Secret by Karen SwanThe Paris Secret by Karen Swan
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, historical fiction, women's fiction, World War II
Pages: 416
Published by William Morrow Paperbacks on November 14th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Somewhere along the cobbled streets of Paris, an apartment lies thick with dust and secrets: full of priceless artworks hidden away for decades.

High-flying Fine Art Agent Flora from London, more comfortable with the tension of a million-pound auction than a cosy candlelit dinner for two, is called in to asses these suddenly discovered treasures. As an expert in her field, she must trace the history of each painting and just who has concealed them for so long.

Thrown in amongst the glamorous Vermeil family as they move between Paris and Antibes, Flora begins to discover that things aren't all that they seem, while back at home her own family is recoiling from a seismic shock. The terse and brooding Xavier Vermeil seems intent on forcing Flora out of his family's affairs - but just what is he hiding?

My Review:

This is not the first book to fictionalize the history of the very real Parisian Time Capsule apartment, or even the first book using this apartment that I have read. That would be Paris Time Capsule by Ella Carey – and the fictionalization of its history hews a bit closer to the actual history than does The Paris Secret.

But in spite of the similarity of their origins, the stories are completely different. And also a bit the same, but not so much the same that The Paris Secret does not stand on its own – because it does.

The real Paris Time Capsule apartment

In this version, the “lost” apartment belongs to the wealthy and philanthropic Vermeil family, and they are as surprised as anyone else when their lawyer informs them that someone has broken into this apartment that they never knew they owned. It’s even more surprising that the apartment turns out to be a virtual treasure-trove of modernist art, including paintings and sketches by Renoir, Picasso and others. These art treasures have not seen the light of day since the apartment was closed up during the dark days of the Nazis occupation of Paris during WW2.

Our heroine, Flora Sykes, is the art history expert who is tasked with cataloging the vast collection and researching its provenance for the Vermeil family. But her involvement with the family gets off to a rocky start, and stays rocky throughout the book. Sometimes because of the family, but mostly because of what Flora discovers about them.

Their present is gossip-worthy enough on its own. The two adult children of the family, Xavier and Natascha. They are at the top of every gossip site – their exploits and tantrums are legendary. And something about Flora seems to rub both of them absolutely the wrong way, to the point where they both act out every time they are around her.

But it’s the past of the family that Flora uncovers, and that is where history comes in. In order to sell the treasure trove, or even to donate it to museums, Flora must determine its provenance, in other words just how all those paintings came to be in that apartment in the first place.

That search takes her back to the war, and unearths a terrible secret that everyone wishes had never come to light. But once it does, there is no going back. Only forwards. Because the whole truth has been buried under layer after layer of lies and deceits, and it is past time for everything to finally be revealed.

Not in black or white, but in terrible shades of gray.

Escape Rating B: It was fascinating to read a book that used the exact same premise as something I’d already read, and see where this author used the inspiration in an entirely different way.

Paris Time Capsule focused more on uncovering the history. The Paris Secret revolves around the art. History gets uncovered, but it uses the art as a focus in a way that made the two stories very different.

The Paris Secret also illuminates one of the murkier (and often nastier) facets of the Nazi occupation of Paris. The ownership of the paintings traces back to an art dealer who was reviled for his cooperation with the Nazis. He was instrumental in the forcing of many Jewish families to sell their precious collections at gunpoint for bargain-basement prices in the families’ belief that they were buying freedom for themselves – when all they received was betrayal while the dealer made a fortune.

The betrayal was even more heinous because the dealer himself was a Jew. If he hadn’t died in 1942, after the war he would certainly have been tried as a collaborateur and ultimately convicted.

But of course this is not the whole story, and the revelation of all the truths involved adds depth to the contemporary parts of the book. Not that there are not plenty of revelations there as well.

Because the more that Flora interacts with the family, the more she sees beneath the surface. The tragic events in Natascha’s own past have bearing both on her present and on the current real-life revelations of the sexual misconduct of prominent figures in the entertainment world today. That resonance is more profound than might even have been intended at the time this book was first published over a year ago in Britain.

Layered on top of the history and the present-day traumas there is a romance between Flora and the Vermeil’s adult son and all-around bad boy, Xavier Vermeil. For this reader, the romance fell just a bit flat, as did Flora’s own family drama. Your mileage, of course, may vary.

There is at least one other book that revolves around the discovery of the real-life apartment, appropriately titled A Paris Apartment by Michelle Gable. And it looks worth checking out too. The story of the lost apartment is just so fascinating that more interpretations seem irresistible!

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Review: The Woman Who Smashed Codes by Jason Fagone

Review: The Woman Who Smashed Codes by Jason FagoneThe Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine who Outwitted America's Enemies by Jason Fagone
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: biography, espionage, history, nonfiction, World War II
Pages: 320
Published by Dey Street Books on September 26th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Joining the ranks of Hidden Figures and In the Garden of Beasts, the incredible true story of the greatest codebreaking duo that ever lived, an American woman and her husband who invented the modern science of cryptology together and used it to confront the evils of their time, solving puzzles that unmasked Nazi spies and helped win World War II

In 1912, at the height of World War I, brilliant Shakespeare expert Elizebeth Smith went to work for an eccentric tycoon on his estate outside Chicago. The tycoon had close ties to the U.S. government, and he soon asked Elizebeth to apply her language skills to an exciting new venture: code-breaking. There she met the man who would become her husband, groundbreaking cryptologist William Friedman. Though she and Friedman are in many ways the "Adam and Eve" of the NSA, Elizebeth's story, incredibly, has never been told

In The Woman Who Smashed Codes, Jason Fagone chronicles the life of this extraordinary woman, who played an integral role in our nation's history for forty years. After World War I, Smith used her talents to catch gangsters and smugglers during Prohibition, then accepted a covert mission to discover and expose Nazi spy rings that were spreading like wildfire across South America, advancing ever closer to the United States. As World War II raged, Elizabeth fought a highly classified battle of wits against Hitler's Reich, cracking multiple versions of the Enigma machine used by German spies. Meanwhile, inside an Army vault in Washington, William worked furiously to break Purple, the Japanese version of Enigma--and eventually succeeded, at a terrible cost to his personal life.Fagone unveils America's code-breaking history through the prism of Smith's life, bringing into focus the unforgettable events and colorful personalities that would help shape modern intelligence.

Blending the lively pace and compelling detail that are the hallmarks of Erik Larson's bestsellers with the atmosphere and intensity of The Imitation Game, The Woman Who Smashed Codes is page-turning popular history at its finest.

My Review:

Once upon a time in the West, a wealthy and charismatic man whisked a young woman off to a luxurious life on his expansive estate.

And even though that sentence is true, this is not that kind of story. Although it is a love story. And a war story. And a spy story.

The man was George Fabyan, a wealthy businessman who had created a kind of scientific and technical utopia on his estate at Riverbank, outside of Geneva Illinois. The town of Geneva still exists, and its location, and its horrible winters, are still exactly as described.

Elizabeth Smith Friedman

The young woman who was carried from the steps of the Newberry Library in Chicago to Riverbank was Elizebeth Smith, later Elizebeth Smith Friedman. Elizebeth’s career took her from Riverbank to Washington, as she became one of the foundational figures of cryptography and cryptanalysis in America.

Elizabeth Smith Friedman is also one of the many women who played pivotal roles in World War II on both sides of the Atlantic, whose contributions were lost to history. In her case, that loss occurred out of a combination of factors. Sexism certainly played a part. Both Elizebeth and her much more famous husband William were the premier cryptographers of their time. But popular beliefs about women’s brains and women’s places caused many to assume that she was the lesser light, supporting his career, even having some career of her own, but never quite equal.

Her biggest contributions, like those of the codebreakers at Bletchley Park in England, were shrouded in top secret classifications for decades after the war ended, and have only been de-classified in the 21st century.

And finally, while Elizebeth (and William) worked in secluded, top secret government offices, J.Edgar Hoover, the powerful director of the FBI, was under no restrictions about what he said and did, or more importantly, what he said that he and his agency had said and especially done. Hoover was more than happy to take the credit and the accolades that the Friedmans’ could not claim for themselves.

(I have yet to read anything that touches on Hoover and written after his death that does not have plenty of nasty things to say. He clearly had a gift for alienating anyone who had to deal with him in person, while capable of doing a splendid job of what we now call “spin doctoring” with the press and the general population)

Like the women in Hidden Figures, Elizabeth Smith Friedman is an important figure in the history of science in particular, and the history of U.S. in general, whose contributions deserve a giant spotlight.

Elizebeth Smith Friedman was the woman who broke the Nazi Enigma machine code during WWII, which allowed the nascent U.S. intelligence forces in South America to prevent Nazi Germany from creating strongholds within easy reach of the U.S. She, with her pencils and paper and absolutely amazing mind, helped to end the war.

She deserves to be remembered, and this account of her life, pulled together from her own archives and collected correspondence, is a fantastic start.

Reality Rating A+: The Woman Who Smashed Codes is nonfiction, It’s all true and it all happened. But the life of Elizebeth Smith Friedman is also the stuff of which great stories are made. And this particular account of her life is so well-written that it reads like the most compelling piece of fiction. But it’s a true story.

The story reaches out and grabs the reader from the first page, when George Fabyan breezes into the Newberry and asks the young Elizebeth if she will come and spend the night at his estate. It does sound a bit like a romance cliche. But it’s not that kind of invitation.

Instead, Fabyan invites her to join a rather strange project. One of the many scientists working at his estate is a woman who was convinced that Francis Bacon wrote Shakespeare’s plays. While she was (and is) not alone in that particular.theory, her application was a bit different. She was convinced, and had convinced Fabyan, that the truth was revealed in code in the typography of the First Folio. Elizebeth was recruited to assist in breaking this code.

While she eventually came to believe that this particular Bacon/Shakespeare theory was a load of bunk, it did teach both Elizebeth and her future husband William the art and science of codebreaking. A science that they spent the rest of their lives building, expanding, cataloging and most importantly, practicing.

Elizabeth Smith Friedman and William F. Friedman

There is a love story here. And what makes the story so interesting, and so relevant, is that the love story between Elizebeth and William is a marriage of equals, and always acknowledged as such by both of them – if not always by the outside world.

And also that the story of Elizebeth’s accomplishments is never overshadowed by that of her husband or her family obligations within the course of this narrative. This is her biography and the tale of her accomplishments and never descends into a family saga. Not that she didn’t also raise two children and often help her husband, but it is refreshing to see a biography of an accomplished woman written in the same manner as that of a similarly accomplished man, with the focus on her career and intellectual achievements.

The story of those achievements is a thrilling ride. She may have fallen accidentally into the field of cryptography, which, after all, did not exist when she began. But once in, she swam strong and swift up the steam, breaking the codes of the organized crime bosses running rum during Prohibition and the Nazis attempting to take over the world in World War II. Her cracking of the Enigma cipher in the U.S. occurred simultaneously and independently of the British crack of the same cipher at Bletchley Park.

She was an amazing woman, and she led an amazing life. She was the founding mother of cryptography in the U.S., and one of the pioneers of all codebreaking in this country, including the creation of the NSA.

The Woman Who Smashed Codes is a marvelously told story of a fascinating life that should be widely read. Anyone who has an interest in the lives of true unsung heroines and/or in the history of cryptography and cryptanalysis in the U.S. will get sucked right into Elizebeth’s story.

I certainly was.

Review: Sons and Soldiers by Bruce Henderson

Review: Sons and Soldiers by Bruce HendersonSons and Soldiers: The Untold Story of the Jews Who Escaped the Nazis and Returned with the U.S. Army to Fight Hitler by Bruce Henderson
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: history, World War II
Pages: 448
Published by William Morrow on July 25th 2017
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Joining the ranks of Unbroken, Band of Brothers, and Boys in the Boat, the little-known saga of young German Jews, dubbed The Ritchie Boys, who fled Nazi Germany in the 1930s, came of age in America, and returned to Europe at enormous personal risk as members of the U.S. Army to play a key role in the Allied victory.
In 1942, the U.S. Army unleashed one of its greatest secret weapons in the battle to defeat Adolf Hitler: training nearly 2,000 German-born Jews in special interrogation techniques and making use of their mastery of the German language, history, and customs. Known as the Ritchie Boys, they were sent in small, elite teams to join every major combat unit in Europe, where they interrogated German POWs and gathered crucial intelligence that saved American lives and helped win the war.
Though they knew what the Nazis would do to them if they were captured, the Ritchie Boys eagerly joined the fight to defeat Hitler. As they did, many of them did not know the fates of their own families left behind in occupied Europe. Taking part in every major campaign in Europe, they collected key tactical intelligence on enemy strength, troop and armored movements, and defensive positions. A postwar Army report found that more than sixty percent of the credible intelligence gathered in Europe came from the Ritchie Boys.
Bruce Henderson draws on personal interviews with many surviving veterans and extensive archival research to bring this never-before-told chapter of the Second World War to light. Sons and Soldiers traces their stories from childhood and their escapes from Nazi Germany, through their feats and sacrifices during the war, to their desperate attempts to find their missing loved ones in war-torn Europe. Sons and Soldiers is an epic story of heroism, courage, and patriotism that will not soon be forgotten.

My Review:

The part of World War II history that is outlined in Sons and Soldiers is history that should be more widely known. But just like the story of the Navajo Code Talkers, has been shrouded in secrecy until relatively recently. Hopefully, Sons and Soldiers will be the first book of many to relate this important and fascinating piece of history, and the story will become as well-known as it ought to be.

Using diaries and interviews from a representative sample of the unsung “Ritchie Boys”, Sons and Soldiers highlights the contributions of a relatively small group of soldiers who had a big impact on the war – just as World War II, its preliminaries and its aftermath had a huge impact on them.

We know what happened in the Holocaust. But one of the things that makes this story so searing is seeing those events from the eyes of those who lived through, not just the camps or the war, but the way that the rise of Nazism broke so many that it touched, even before the concentration camps and mass executions began.

Once a country chooses to dehumanize a part of its citizenry, no atrocity is too terrible to inflict on those people who have been betrayed by that country. While it was certainly scapegoating writ very, very large, powered by a very big lie, the depths of Antisemitism at the root of Hitler’s Nazi Party were always present in Germany and the rest of Europe, just waiting to be plumbed.

The years of the Nazi regime certainly plumbed them to the very depths.

But the stories in Sons and Soldiers, all surprisingly similar, tell a different part of that story. As the tensions ratcheted up, as Germany turned its Jewish citizens into non-persons, many families saw the handwriting on the wall long before Kristallnacht, and certainly after. They tried to get out.

And found that the “Golden Door” beside the Lady with the Lamp in New York Harbor was only open a sliver, at least for them. The U.S. turned the spigot of immigrants to a trickle, particularly Jewish immigrants, making it nearly impossible for families to come to America. The requirements were such that for many families, they could only get one member out in time. And that was usually the oldest son, to carry on the family name and to have the best chance of getting the kind of jobs that would make it possible for them to bring the rest of their families out – if they had enough time. As we know now, and as their parents expected then, they didn’t.

Instead, those boys grew up in the U.S., with a fierce desire to get their families out of Nazi Germany and to strike a blow against the dictator and the policies that caused their heartache – and that threatened the independence of all of Europe and anywhere they could reach. In spite of a U.S. government that initially saw them as “enemy aliens” (how ironic that was), these young men persevered and the newly formed military intelligence units found their skills invaluable.

Sons and Soldiers is the tip of the iceberg of their stories. These men, trained in advanced interrogation techniques and armed with the knowledge of just how their enemies’ minds worked, provided key intelligence breakthroughs that helped end the war sooner and saved countless lives.

Some of them paid the ultimate price. Most of them only found their left-behind families among the names of the dead. These are their stories.

Reality Rating B: So far, this review has been more about the history than about the book of the history. It’s difficult to separate the two, particularly for me. I exist because all my grandparents got out of eastern Europe in the early 20th century, before World War I. They had enough time to do it the way that these boys hoped to get their families out. One person got here, sponsored by a cousin or distant relative or benefactor, worked hard, paid back the benefactor and sponsored the next one. This pattern held for both the boys and the girls. Any family members who didn’t reach the US or Canada before the door closed did not survive the camps.

So the history of this is fascinating to me. I feel like this is a chapter of World War II history that should be much better known, both because it was so heartbreaking and because it turned out to be so crucial to the end of the war in Europe. Classifying something as “military intelligence” has hidden a lot of such developments that should be brought to light – like the Navajo Code Talkers, the codebreakers of Bletchley Park, and even the Manhattan Project.

But as a book, Sons and Soldiers only skims the surface of what feels like a very deep well of history. There are a lot of “origin stories” for the men profiled in the book. And while it feels necessary to the greater narrative that the reader see the decisions and paths that led each of these men to their part in the war, at the same time those stories are at their heart pretty similar. Each story is heartbreaking in its way, but no one stands out. Maybe in history no one particular man did stand out, but for the purposes of the narrative it would have been more engaging for the reader if the story focused on fewer men but told deeper stories about them.

Likewise, while the section of the story that covers their training and simply the fight that each of them had to get training is absolutely fascinating, the chapters that cover their participation in the war itself feel like a recitation of battles rather than getting into the meat of what these men contributed to the theater of war in which they engaged.

All in all, this reader would have preferred a tighter focus on fewer individuals, with a deeper dive into what those particular participants saw and did and accomplished. But I loved this peek into a piece of history that is not widely known, and have high hopes for future books on these undersung heroes.

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Review: The Marriage Bureau by Penrose Halson

Review: The Marriage Bureau by Penrose HalsonThe Marriage Bureau: The True Story of How Two Matchmakers Arranged Love in Wartime London by Penrose Halson
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: history, World War II
Pages: 352
Published by William Morrow Paperbacks on May 2nd 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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A riveting glimpse of life and love during and after World War II—a heart-warming, touching, and thoroughly absorbing true story of a world gone by.
In the spring of 1939, with the Second World War looming, two determined twenty-four-year-olds, Heather Jenner and Mary Oliver, decided to open a marriage bureau. They found a tiny office on London’s Bond Street and set about the delicate business of matchmaking. Drawing on the bureau’s extensive archives, Penrose Halson—who many years later found herself the proprietor of the bureau—tells their story, and those of their clients.
From shop girls to debutantes; widowers to war veterans, clients came in search of security, social acceptance, or simply love. And thanks to the meticulous organization and astute intuition of the Bureau’s matchmakers, most found what they were looking for.
Penrose Halson draws from newspaper and magazine articles, advertisements, and interviews with the proprietors themselves to bring the romance and heartbreak of matchmaking during wartime to vivid, often hilarious, life in this unforgettable story of a most unusual business.

My Review:

Fiction may be the lie that tells the truth, but sometimes that truism runs headlong into another, the one that goes, “The truth is not only stranger than we imagine, it’s stranger than we CAN imagine.” Fiction has to actually feel plausible, or it turns the willing suspension of disbelief into the unwilling, and bounces the reader out of the story. Nonfiction doesn’t have to be plausible, it just has to be true.

The history of The Marriage Bureau is one of those stories that would feel a bit too contrived if it were fiction. But it isn’t. Fictional, that is. It still feels a bit contrived, but because it actually did happen, the reader ends up marveling at human nature in all its sometimes crazy variety (much as the proprietors did) instead of picking apart the characters.

Because if these folks weren’t real, we’d all be sure it was a bit too good or too strange to be true. Mostly strange.

Not bad strange, just, well, people.

In 1939, both Heather Jenner and Mary Oliver had dipped their toes into the marital well, and come out either scalded or completely tepid. Heather was divorced and Mary hadn’t found anyone she wanted to spend the rest of her life with. Or even more than few weeks with.

It was Mary’s Uncle George who suggested the idea that became the Marriage Bureau. Providing a registry for people who were looking for spouses, and using interviews, common sense and intuition to match people up, had the possibility of providing both young women with both an independent income and a purpose in life, allowing them to remain single and independent of their families while providing a much needed service.

A service that was much more needed than either of them anticipated. From their very first day the line for interviews went down the stairs from their rented office and practically out the door of the building, three stories below.

The story in The Marriage Bureau is that of the first ten years of the Bureau, a period that encompasses the end of Empire, the Phoney War, the London Blitz and the years of post-war rationing. Through it all, Londoners and many others crossed the threshold of the Marriage Bureau, hoping that the ladies of the Bureau could do for them what they had not managed to do for themselves, find a congenial and suitable spouse.

One of the fascinating things about the way that the Bureau worked was that, unlike many British institutions, particularly of that era, it was not restricted to class. The fees were modest, and structured so that it was in the agency’s best interest to find each client a spouse who would suit them, not anyone else’s ideas for them.

Yes, most people were looking for someone of their own class, or close to it, but the Bureau had clients of every class and station from working to landed to titled and all the gradations in between. Just as today, those who are too busy making a living or caring for others or a combination of the above are often too busy, too shy or both to put themselves out where they have a chance at finding a life-partner.

And for the women who ran the Bureau over that decade (and beyond) it was a labor of love. And a rousing success.

Reality Rating B: The story in The Marriage Bureau is episodic rather than a continual narrative. The story dips into the lives, loves and ambitions of the people who came the Bureau as clients, rather than delving deeply into the lives of its proprietors and agents. Although the years of the London Blitz are part of the story, we read more of the Blitz’s impact on people’s lives and their desire to marry than we follow any one person’s story.

Being a series of dips rather than a deep dive, the story is not a compelling read. One isn’t riveted, wanting to see what happens next, because the narrative doesn’t follow individuals in the way that compels. However, and it is a very big however in this case, it is both easy to dip into and out of, and the story as a whole is quite charming. Even the more “interesting” and less matchable clients get their due. And while there is a certain amount of shared laughter at some clients’ wilder expectations, every client and their story are treated with respect, sometimes including a direct “talking to” about just how wild their expectations might be. And sometimes they are very wild, whether for self-aggrandizement, out of self-absorption, or, on occasion, out of sympathy and hope.

It isn’t all sweetness and light. There are a few stories where the clients tipped over (or barged over) the line, and got shown the door. There is one haunting story of parental interference in what should have been a happily ever after. And, of course, life happens. The war brings an end to some marriages, and the peace brings an end to a few more. Some merely grieve, but some return in the hopes of striking lucky a second time.

In the end, this is a story of two women and the execution of one great idea. And it’s a story that shows that there is someone out there for everyone, even if we occasionally need a little help with the looking.

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Review: Goodnight from London by Jennifer Robson

Review: Goodnight from London by Jennifer RobsonGoodnight from London by Jennifer Robson
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, World War II
Pages: 400
Published by William Morrow Paperbacks on May 2nd 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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From USA Today bestselling author Jennifer Robson—author of Moonlight Over Paris and Somewhere in France—comes a lush historical novel that tells the fascinating story of Ruby Sutton, an ambitious American journalist who moves to London in 1940 to report on the Second World War, and to start a new life an ocean away from her past.
In the summer of 1940, ambitious young American journalist Ruby Sutton gets her big break: the chance to report on the European war as a staff writer for Picture Weekly newsmagazine in London. She jumps at the chance, for it's an opportunity not only to prove herself, but also to start fresh in a city and country that know nothing of her humble origins. But life in besieged Britain tests Ruby in ways she never imagined.
Although most of Ruby's new colleagues welcome her, a few resent her presence, not only as an American but also as a woman. She is just beginning to find her feet, to feel at home in a country that is so familiar yet so foreign, when the bombs begin to fall.
As the nightly horror of the Blitz stretches unbroken into weeks and months, Ruby must set aside her determination to remain an objective observer. When she loses everything but her life, and must depend upon the kindness of strangers, she learns for the first time the depth and measure of true friendship—and what it is to love a man who is burdened by secrets that aren’t his to share.
Goodnight from London, inspired in part by the wartime experiences of the author’s own grandmother, is a captivating, heartfelt, and historically immersive story that readers are sure to embrace.

My Review:

Reading this book gave me an unending earworm for the song “Wouldn’t it be Loverly” from My Fair Lady. This is a bit odd in multiple directions – the Broadway musical didn’t premiere until 11 years after the end of World War II, and the setting for the musical, Edwardian London, occurs 30+ years before the start of World War II.

But the book was definitely “loverly”. Or at least lovely. It reminded me of all the reasons why I love Jennifer Robson’s work.

Unlike her previous novels, Somewhere in France, After the War is Over and Moonlight Over Paris, this one does not deal directly with the Great War and its aftermath. Unless, of course, one considers World War II as part of the aftermath of World War I. Which it certainly was.

And for readers hoping to start afresh with this marvelous author, Goodnight from London does not follow the other books directly, as they loosely did with each other. Except, again, in so far as WW2 was a fairly direct consequence of WW1.

Instead, Goodnight from London follows the adventures of young American journalist Ruby Sutton, a self-made woman if there ever was one. After a brief but illustrious stint at an American weekly magazine, Ruby receives an unexpected offer that she can’t resist. Everyone knows that war is coming, and the U.S. is hoping to stay well clear of the mess in Europe.

But England will be right in the thick of it, and one of the London weekly papers is looking for a young, female, American reporter who is willing to come to London and write the war. For Ruby it’s a dream job, she’ll get to be where the action is, and she’ll get to learn her craft while having something important to write about. She has no ties in America, no family, almost no life outside her work, so she’s the perfect writer to send to London.

And in the thick of the Blitz, she finds everything she didn’t know she was looking for. Not just the chance to write important stories, but also the opportunity to find a family, a sense of belonging and home, and finally, love.

But more than anything else, Goodnight from London is the story of an intrepid young journalist who finds herself in the middle of the great story of her times, and runs with it. Sometimes she’s down but never out. She never gives up, she never gives in and she never surrenders.. And she always gets the story.

Even, at last, her own.

Escape Rating A-: One of the things that I love about this author’s work is the way that she puts her intrepid heroines in fascinating, real-life circumstances and dangers, and then lets them work. The story here is Ruby’s reporting of the war, both on the homefront and eventually on the front lines. It’s also about her involvement in the real life of London during the war, living through the Blitz, losing all her possessions and becoming part of the fabric of life, while London becomes part of her.

We see her work, we experience her triumphs and her tragedies, we feel her setbacks. But the story is about her experience. While this is a historical novel, it is not historical romance, although Ruby does find love in the end.

It feels like the point of the book is the work, and the happy ever after is her reward. The romance is not the point of the story, and it shouldn’t be. The world was in dire straits. Although life went on, her work was too important to put on hold in the hopes that her prince might come. Or however one wants to put that.

This is a story where it felt more realistic that her career came first, and it is one of the few historic periods where that is realistically true.

It helps a lot that Ruby is a very likable protagonist. She’s both self-made and self-motivated. She’s doing her best (and occasionally her worst) to put her past behind her. The secret almost costs her everything, and that was the one part of the story that didn’t live up to how much I loved the rest. Other readers may feel differently.

But that one “bobble” was not enough to dim my enjoyment of the book. I loved the way that Ruby’s personal story interwove with the history that we know. We got to see World War II London and especially the Blitz through her eyes, and the perspective brought this reader right into her world and to the story.

As I read Goodnight from London, it reminded me a bit of The Race for Paris by Meg Clayton, which is also about female World War II correspondents. I liked The Race for Paris but the soap opera of the protagonists’ trainwreck love triangle took a bit out of the story. Goodnight from London is much, much better.

Goodnight from London is, as I said at the beginning, a very lovely book. Read it and you’ll see.

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Review: The Baker’s Secret by Stephen P Kiernan

Review: The Baker’s Secret by Stephen P KiernanThe Baker's Secret by Stephen P. Kiernan
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, World War II
Pages: 320
Published by William Morrow on May 2nd 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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From the critically acclaimed author of The Hummingbird and The Curiosity comes a dazzling novel of World War II—a shimmering tale of courage, determination, optimism, and the resilience of the human spirit, set in a small Normandy village on the eve of D-Day
On June 5, 1944, as dawn rises over a small town on the Normandy coast of France, Emmanuelle is making the bread that has sustained her fellow villagers in the dark days since the Germans invaded her country.
Only twenty-two, Emma learned to bake at the side of a master, Ezra Kuchen, the village baker since before she was born. Apprenticed to Ezra at thirteen, Emma watched with shame and anger as her kind mentor was forced to wear the six-pointed yellow star on his clothing. She was likewise powerless to help when they pulled Ezra from his shop at gunpoint, the first of many villagers stolen away and never seen again.
But in the years that her sleepy coastal village has suffered under the enemy, Emma has silently, stealthily fought back. Each day, she receives an extra ration of flour to bake a dozen baguettes for the occupying troops. And each day, she mixes that precious flour with ground straw to create enough dough for two extra loaves—contraband bread she shares with the hungry villagers. Under the cold, watchful eyes of armed soldiers, she builds a clandestine network of barter and trade that she and the villagers use to thwart their occupiers.
But her gift to the village is more than these few crusty loaves. Emma gives the people a taste of hope—the faith that one day the Allies will arrive to save them.

My Review:

The Baker’s Secret might have been more descriptively titled as Emma’s War. Or perhaps Resistance is not Futile, or even How to Resist without Joining the Resistance. Or simply, Survival.

Because the story encompasses all of those things, and more.

From first to last, this is Emma’s story. And it is the story of the frog who dies by degrees as his cool pan of water heats up and boils. But unlike that proverbial frog, neither Emma nor her coastal French village actually die during the German Occupation, although they often wish they had. And all too many individual citizens actually do die, whether directly for German atrocities or less directly by being conscripted or simply by being unable or unwilling to drudge through another day.

Emma is the town baker. She has a gift for baking, and that gift is both blessing and curse. It is because of that gift that the occupying Germans discovered her tiny village. And it is that gift which keeps her relatively safe. The Kommandant doesn’t want his baker unduly harassed, or raped, and certainly not killed, without good reason. For admittedly select values of reason.

He wants his morning bread, and for that reason, gives Emma enough of a flour ration to bake a dozen loaves for himself and his officers.

That bread makes Emma the center of a ring of resistance. Not THE Resistance, but a resistance. Emma manages to make those dozen loaves into 14, with just a bit of subterfuge. And with those two extra loaves, she has something to trade. Because everyone wants just a little bit of solace in what are very dark times. So she has her circle of bread for eggs for tobacco for oil for fish for bread. Around and around the village she goes, keeping everyone, if not well fed, at least alive for the duration.

Because Emma brings not only food, but just a tiny bit of hope. Which is ironic, because Emma has none of her own. While everyone around her is certain, to varying degrees of informed certainty, that the Allies will come to rescue them, Emma is not. She hates the occupying army, but also believes that no one will come. Survival is all they have.

Until June 6, 1944, when the Allies storm the nearby beaches. And bring a hell on earth to everyone left in their way.

Escape Rating A-: The Baker’s Secret is a quiet book, and with good reason. For most of the occupation, life goes on, however badly. Emma’s days acquire a dull, unending sameness, only broken by incidents of brutality or audacity, either the Nazis’ brutality or her own audacity. She lives because the village depends on her, and in turn, she helps keep them alive.

We see the village in all its sadness. Too many are gone. Too many have been murdered out of brutality or caprice. And, although it is just a few, too many who have decided, like Emma, that the occupation is forever have also determined that the best way to survive is to capitulate, to cooperate, to collaborate with the enemy.

Emma’s story is about the courage of the small things in the face of the large disaster. She can’t kill all the Nazis, but she can hide a pig from them, getting meat into everyone’s pot for at least a month. She can’t stop baking, but she can stretch the ration by adding straw. It’s a life of tiny but important defiance.

What makes this a hard book is the description of the Nazis’ brutal treatment of the village and its inhabitants. There is no individual evil at work in the village (Hitler may be both individual and evil, but he is not personally present in the village), but there is great evil nevertheless. The way that the Nazis are portrayed in this story feels like a meditation on the saying about power corrupting and absolute power corrupting absolutely. These young men, and they are mostly very young, however kind and gentle they might be to their families or their fellow countrymen, have decided to swallow the big lie that non-Germans are lesser forms of humans, and that some people, notably Jews and other minorities, are not human at all. And have chosen to use that power and that license not merely by following orders, but to seemingly go out of their way to grind every person down and then punish them both for being ground down and for resisting the grinding.

It does not make for easy reading, but it does make the reader think. It seems to have been so easy to reduce these young soldiers to brutal and brutish beasts. All that was necessary was to drum into them that everyone was less human than themselves. Once non-Germans were made into “the other”, any strike against them could be justified.

I want to say that Emma stands tall in the face of adversity, but she doesn’t. Instead, her posture is always bent over and straining forwards, pulling her cart of burdens behind her like a train. She resisted by hiding in plain sight. I also can’t say that she gets a happy ending, because when we leave Emma in June of 1944, the war is still going on, even if the front has moved until her village is behind it on the Allies side.

But chocolate does indeed sometimes taste like hope. And I hope that readers who loved The Chilbury Ladies Choir and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society will make a place in their hearts (and in their TBR stacks) for The Baker’s Secret.

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Review: The Orphan’s Tale by Pam Jenoff

Review: The Orphan’s Tale by Pam JenoffThe Orphan's Tale by Pam Jenoff
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, World War II
Pages: 368
Published by Mira on February 21st 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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A powerful novel of friendship set in a traveling circus during World War II, The Orphan's Tale introduces two extraordinary women and their harrowing stories of sacrifice and survival .
Sixteen-year-old Noa has been cast out in disgrace after becoming pregnant by a Nazi soldier and being forced to give up her baby. She lives above a small rail station, which she cleans in order to earn her keep… When Noa discovers a boxcar containing dozens of Jewish infants bound for a concentration camp, she is reminded of the child that was taken from her. And in a moment that will change the course of her life, she snatches one of the babies and flees into the snowy night.
Noa finds refuge with a German circus, but she must learn the flying trapeze act so she can blend in undetected, spurning the resentment of the lead aerialist, Astrid. At first rivals, Noa and Astrid soon forge a powerful bond. But as the facade that protects them proves increasingly tenuous, Noa and Astrid must decide whether their friendship is enough to save one another—or if the secrets that burn between them will destroy everything.

My Review:

In The Orphan’s Tale, as the season (and the book) winds down to its conclusion, one of the characters prophetically says with a sneer, “Next year? The circus is dying.” In this story of two women who find shelter and redemption in one of the few circuses allowed to limp across Europe under the Nazis, the irony is that they all think of Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey as their well-funded and well-attended competition across the Atlantic. Now in 2017, their circus is dying too.

But the story in The Orphan’s Tale brings together the unsung history of the circuses across Europe under the Nazi regime with a moving tale of sacrifice, friendship and survival about two women who find themselves thrown together in death-defying circumstances. Not just their beautiful but deadly act on the “flying trapeze”, but also their hiding in plain sight from the Nazis.

Astrid is a Jew. Her family used to be the owners of one of the most successful traveling circuses in Europe. But that was before the Nazis took everything, including their lives. Astrid is the last survivor, hiding amongst the performers of a rival circus, doing the only thing that makes her feel alive – flying.

Noa is also rescued by the circus. As a young Dutchwoman who looks like the Aryan ideal, she should have been safe. But her parents threw her out when her brief fling with a Nazi soldier resulted in pregnancy. The “home” for unwed mothers took her baby. She is alone, bereft, and eking out a bare living cleaning the train station, when the Nazis leave a boxcar of infants unattended at the station. Most of the babies have died of exposure, but a despairing Noa finds one little one still alive. A boy, and all too obviously Jewish, telling her everything she needs to know about the dead babies in the boxcar. She rescues him, and runs, seeing in this child his resemblance to her own missing baby.

But to hide in the circus, Noa must have a part of the performance. And the circus needs another aerialist. Against Astrid’s wishes and recommendation, she is stuck with training the tyro to perform, and has barely six weeks to cram a lifetime of training into the very reluctant flyer.

They are not friends. At first they are reluctant teacher and equally reluctant student. At times they are rivals. But the nature of their act means that above all, they must learn to trust each other. Or they will die. Or their secrets will be revealed, and they will die. And the circus will die with them, their fellow performers imprisoned or executed as collaborators.

But as Noa becomes part of the circus, she comes to love the world in which she has found herself. And, against all odds, she has come to see Astrid as the big sister she never had. And just as Astrid has cared for both Noa and the little boy she named Theo, sometimes in spite of herself, so Noa comes to take care of Astrid as her world, and the circus it encompasses, fall apart.

In the end, all they have is each other. And it’s just barely enough.

Escape Rating A-: The Orphan’s Tale is a story within a story. At the very beginning, it is the modern day, as an old woman takes great pains to visit a museum which has put her old circus wagon on display. The story itself is her recounting of her life in that wagon, Astrid and Noa and Theo, and the world of the circus under the Nazis.

We return at the end to that same elderly lady, and discover how it all turned out. In this case, it’s a marvelous way to tell the important bits, while leaving out the more mundane aspects of her post-war survival. When we find out what happened, we understand everything about the lady, the circus, and the world she left behind.

In the author’s postscript, we learn just how much of the story is based on pieces of fact, and it is well-worth reading. As the book proceeds, so much of the background feels true that it is almost a relief to learn that a great deal of it was true. Astrid and Noa did not exist, but the circus at this time was as portrayed. And unfortunately, the boxcar of dead babies is also based on historical fact.

But the story here is the story of women’s friendships, in spite of opposition or enmity, and how those friendships can flourish under the harshest of circumstances. Astrid and Noa do not always like each other, and they begin with very little in common. At the same time, they are both hiding such similar secrets that they must begin to trust each other. The story here is the flowering of that trust.

It is also the story of the circus, both the mundane and back-breaking work of putting it all together, and the uplifting effect of bringing a small taste of not just normality, but of a bit of escape, to people who have otherwise been beaten down into the deepest rut of bare survival. Although the circumstances of time and place are very different, this part of the story has the same feel as Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. The circus goes on, even in this depth of adversity, because survival is insufficient.

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