#AudioBookReview: Every Time We Say Goodbye by Natalie Jenner

#AudioBookReview: Every Time We Say Goodbye by Natalie JennerEvery Time We Say Goodbye (Jane Austen Society, #3) by Natalie Jenner
Narrator: Juliet Aubrey
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, World War II
Series: Jane Austen Society #3
Pages: 336
Length: 10 hours and 37 minutes
Published by Macmillan Audio, St. Martin's Press on May 14, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

The bestselling author of The Jane Austen Society and Bloomsbury Girls returns with a brilliant novel of love and art, of grief and memory, of confronting the past and facing the future.
In 1955, Vivien Lowry is facing the greatest challenge of her life. Her latest play, the only female-authored play on the London stage that season, has opened in the West End to rapturous applause from the audience. The reviewers, however, are not as impressed as the playgoers and their savage notices not only shut down the play but ruin Lowry's last chance for a dramatic career. With her future in London not looking bright, at the suggestion of her friend, Peggy Guggenheim, Vivien takes a job in as a script doctor on a major film shooting in Rome’s Cinecitta Studios. There she finds a vibrant movie making scene filled with rising stars, acclaimed directors, and famous actors in a country that is torn between its past and its potentially bright future, between the liberation of the post-war cinema and the restrictions of the Catholic Church that permeates the very soul of Italy.
As Vivien tries to forge a new future for herself, she also must face the long-buried truth of the recent World War and the mystery of what really happened to her deceased fiancé. Every Time We Say Goodbye is a brilliant exploration of trauma and tragedy, hope and renewal, filled with dazzling characters both real and imaginary, from the incomparable author who charmed the world with her novels The Jane Austen Society and Bloomsbury Girls.

My Review:

I picked this up because I loved the author’s earlier book, The Jane Austen Society, and hoped for more of the same. Which I got in a couple of surprising ways. First, part of my love for that first book was in the audiobook narrator, Richard Armitage (yes, Thorin Oakenshield from The Hobbit movies). Second, that this book is loosely connected to both that book and to her second book, Bloomsbury Girls, but it’s a loose connection and you absolutely do not need to have read either of the others to get into this one.

The first goodbye in Every Time We Say Goodbye takes place in 1943, in Occupied Italy during the midst of World War II. It’s the final goodbye between the infamous ‘La Scolaretta’, AKA the ‘Schoolgirl Assassin’, and her lover after she has committed the assassination that both ensures her immediate death and her eternal ‘life’ as a martyr to the cause..

The rest of the story spirals out from that first/last goodbye – and moves forward to 1955 even as it circles back to Rome, the scene of La Scolaretta’s last and most dangerous assignment. It’s a world that is doing its best to move on and forget – even as entirely too many people’s lives seem to be frozen in that moment – or in moments much too much like it.

On the surface of this story, there’s glitz and glamour, the escape of the movie industry and the films it produces – along with the kind of frenetic partying that drove the Jazz Age of the 1920s – another post-war era.

Vivien Lowry has brought herself and her heavy emotional baggage from London to Rome, to escape the failure of her latest play on the London stage by taking a job as a ‘script doctor’ to American ex-pats filming in Italy to escape the political witch hunts back home.

She is also in Italy to say her own final goodbyes – if she can find a place to actually do that. Her fiance was presumed killed in action in the war, but late news has reached her that he was transported to Italy as a POW and died in a POW camp or escaping from it and not on the battlefield as was originally supposed. Or maybe he didn’t.

Vivien is tracking down the shattered remnants of her heart, so she can bury them along with the hopes and dreams of the future that they represent. Along the way, she meets the glitterati of the heyday of Italian movie making, while dropping a whole lot of very real names of the rich and famous.

And she falls in love. Or maybe she doesn’t. She certainly gets caught up in a relationship that is going absolutely nowhere – only to discover that her lover isn’t the man he pretended to be. Then again, she pretended that her heart was open, when it’s still buried in a past that never was – and never will be again, now matter how hard she chases after it.

But it just might manage to catch up with her if she stops running long enough to let it.

Escape Rating B: Before I get to the story of the book, I absolutely need to say something about the audiobook. Specifically, that the audiobook is excellent. The reader, Juliet Aubrey, was a perfect choice and she made the whole thing better and carried me through even at points where I wondered how the parts of the story connected to each other because she was just awesome.

Which circles back to the story itself, which sometimes felt as if it, well, didn’t exactly circle back and connect up. So the TL;DR version of this review is that, as a story, its reach very much exceeded its grasp.

There is, of course, a much longer version of that, because there is a tremendous amount going on in this story with a corresponding large cast of characters.

There are two timelines, and the reader keeps wondering how they’re going to come together in the end – only for this reader, at least, to wish they hadn’t.

Yes, I know my flailing is getting worse. But it fits.

The through story, the one we’re following, takes place in Rome in 1955 at what may have been the height of the Italian film industry. The story that they, the characters in the story, are following is the 1943 story about the famous and/or infamous guerilla fighter, La Scolaretta – the schoolgirl assassin.

The characters in 1955 are living their current lives following that story because they are writing it, filming it, still affected by it, still suffering from it, still mourning it, unable to get past it and/or absolutely all of the above.

La Scolaretta’s last target, and her subsequent capture, torture and execution, is a fixed point in time that no one can walk past or turn away from. Both for itself and as a symbol of the war and the acts that people were driven to during it.

As a consequence, the story has a LOT to say about war in general, World War II in particular, the evils that humans generally and specifically did as a result of both of them, as well as guilt, grief, escape, survival, life, death and how all of those things are impacted by survival.

It’s a lot of weight for one story to carry, and these characters, especially Vivien Lowry as the point-of-view character, have a lot to say about all of them, which leads to a lot of justified angst and downright philosophizing on her part that suffuses the whole story.

But the philosophizing also got in the way of the story – possibly as intended because Vivien, as a writer herself, doesn’t so much experience her own emotions as she does explain them or distance them through her writing.

(In addition to Vivien’s personal angsting and philosophizing, the story also had a TON of things to say about the conflict between the need of certain institutions to rug-sweep their activities during the war, the desire of governments and individuals to put the war behind them as quickly as possible, the human desire to leave the tragedy behind vs the need to record and remember everything that happened in the hopes of staving the tragedy off earlier the next time around, AND, on top of all that, foreshadowing the cultural upheavals of the 1960s. It was a LOT and the story was already a LOT and we’re back to the reach exceeding the grasp again. All of the issues the story touched on were important but maybe they didn’t need to all be in the same book. Or the book needed to be an actual trilogy – at least.)

So as much as I felt compelled to finish the story (and I was absolutely riveted most of the way through) to see if the past directly connected to their present – or if it just exposed it or talked around it. Which it didn’t quite in either direction. But it did seem like it came to a kind of a satisfactory conclusion even if Vivien’s happy ever after came a bit out of the blue. She still found closure for as much of her past as was possible.

But we didn’t. The conclusion we thought we had got pulled out from under the reader in the end – and I was left wishing it hadn’t. OTOH, war doesn’t really have any neat and tidy endings either, and perhaps that was the point after all.

.

 

Review: Women of the Post by Joshunda Sanders

Review: Women of the Post by Joshunda SandersWomen of the Post by Joshunda Sanders
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, World War II
Pages: 368
Published by Park Row Books on July 18, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
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An emotional story, based on true events, about the all-Black battalion of the Women's Army Corps who found purpose, solidarity and lifelong friendship in their mission of sorting over one million pieces of mail for the US Army.
1944, New York City. Judy Washington is tired of working from dawn til dusk in the Bronx Slave Market, cleaning white women’s houses and barely making a dime. Her husband is fighting overseas, so it's up to Judy and her mother to make enough money for rent and food. When the chance arises for Judy to join the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) and the ability to bring home a steady paycheck, she jumps at the opportunity.
Immediately upon arrival, Judy undergoes grueling military drills and inspections led by Second Officer Charity Adams, one of the only Black officers in the WAC. Judy becomes fast friends with the other women in her unit—Stacy, Bernadette and Mary Alyce—who only discovered she was Black after joining the army. Under Charity Adams’s direction, they are transferred to Birmingham, England, as part of the 6888th Central Postal Battalion—the only unit of Black women to serve overseas in WWII. Here, they must sort a backlog of over one million pieces of mail.
The women work tirelessly, knowing that they're reuniting soldiers to their loved ones through the letters they write. However, their work becomes personal when Mary Alyce discovers a backlogged letter addressed to Judy that will upend her personal life. Told through the alternating perspectives of Judy, Charity and Mary Alyce, Women of the Post is an unforgettable story of perseverance, female friendship, romance and self-discovery.

My Review:

American women had many and various reasons for signing up for the Women’s Army Corps in World War II, from the Corps’ beginning as the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps in 1942 through its transition to the WAC in 1943 – and all the way through its eventual disbanding in 1978.

For the three African-American women portrayed in Women of the Post, the reasons were every bit as varied, but underlying those reasons was that their options for highly paid civilian war work were practically non-existent because of the color of their skin. They all wanted to make a difference – not just for themselves but in how women of color were treated both during and after the war.

And it was the best job they thought they were ever likely to have.

The story of the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion is told through the experience of three characters, one based directly on a real historical figure, and two who are composites of the real women who served in the 6888th.

Through Major Charity Adams’ eyes we see the perspective of the first African-American female officer in the WACs. She knows that the future rides on the shoulders of her unit, and that they will all have to be three times as good with less than half the training and equipment in order to stay the course they’ve set for themselves. A course that few in the Army or outside it believe that women like them are capable of.

From the point of view of Judy Washington we experience the way that the world looks and especially works from someone who is closed out of every opportunity except for poorly paid domestic work conducted under the thumbs of privileged white women who can steal the meager coins from their purses and pay it back to them as ‘wages’. That the work is solicited through an institution named the Bronx Slave Market is bitter icing on a terrible cake. (But another facet of U.S. history that needs more exposure)

But Judy wants more from her life and her world. She wants a decent wage for a day’s work. She wants to see a broader horizon than her mother does or expects her to settle for. And she wants to see if she can catch word of her husband, himself in uniform, who she hasn’t heard from in months.

Mary Alyce Dixon is the character who gives readers the clearest picture of what life is like for an African-American woman in the WAC’s, because it’s not the life she ever expected to have. Her long-deceased father was ‘colored’, but her mother never told her. When the Army receives her birth certificate, her world shifts under her feet. She doesn’t know how to be the person she has just learned that she is, and her education in living on the other side of the color line is sometimes harsh but always an eye-opener for readers who have not lived her experience.

That this unit comprised entirely of women of color, from its officers on down, forms into a band of sisters is not a surprise, but is a delight. That they exceed every goal set for them in clearing the seemingly years’ worth of backlogged mail to and from U.S. troops stationed in Europe is a boost to morale on both the front lines AND the homefront.

And the story of these unsung heroines is one that absolutely cried out to be told.

Escape Rating B+: I ended up with some mixed feelings about this story, a bit of a conflict between what I thought of the true history that inspired it vs. what I felt about the fictionalized version presented between these pages.

Women of the Post is a story of ‘hidden figures’, very much like the book of that title. It’s one of those stories that isn’t widely known, but truly should be. However, that the story is not as well-known as it should be allows this fictionalization of it to rise above the overcrowded field of World War II fiction.

I loved seeing this important and inspiring story brought to such vivid life.

The Six-Triple-Eight really existed, and they performed the work outlined in the book. They were the only unit of African-American women to serve overseas during the war. The ONLY unit. Think about what that says about racism and bigotry in the U.S. during the war.

The story also feels true to life in its depiction of the pervasive racism, sexism and all the other heinous bigotries that these women, and in fact ALL women of color, faced not just during their military service, but also before and after it.

Those prejudices provide a harsh, driving drumbeat that persists throughout the narrative. As it did in real life. It can make for a hard read but a necessary one. It has to have been, and still be in too many ways, even more difficult to live.

But that drumbeat does have an effect on the story as it’s told, because it’s always there and confronts the characters around pretty much every corner.

The story being told, however, creates its dramatic tension out of the interactions of the characters, and from the war that is being waged all around their postings. From a certain perspective, not a lot happens – although plenty is happening all around them. For a story that takes place in the midst of war, the pace can seem a bit leisurely even as it pulls the reader along. It’s more of a slice of life in wartime story than a big drama.

What makes it work are the three characters we follow, Major (later Lieutenant Colonel) Charity Adams, Judy Washington, and Mary Alyce Dixon. While Major Adams is the real-life heroine of this story, it’s through Mary Alyce’s learning curve that the reader gets the sharpest picture of what life is really like for the Women of the Post, before, during and after their wartime service.

Review: The White Lady by Jacqueline Winspear

Review: The White Lady by Jacqueline WinspearThe White Lady by Jacqueline Winspear
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery, mystery, World War I, World War II
Pages: 352
Published by Harper on March 21, 2023
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The White Lady introduces yet another extraordinary heroine/sleuth from Jacqueline Winspear, creator of the best-selling Maisie Dobbs series. This heart-stopping adventure follows the coming of age and maturity of former wartime operative Elinor White—veteran of two wars, trained killer, protective of her anonymity—when she is drawn back into the world of violence she has been desperate to leave behind.
A reluctant ex-spy with demons of her own, Elinor finds herself facing down one of the most dangerous organized crime gangs in London, and exposing corruption from Scotland Yard to the highest levels of government.
Post-World War II Britain, 1947. Forty-one-year-old “Miss White," as Elinor is known, lives in a village in Kent, England, so quietly and privately as to seem an enigma to her fellow villagers. Well she might, as Elinor occupies a "grace and favor" property, a rare privilege offered to faithful servants of the Crown for services to the nation. But the residents of Shacklehurst have no way of knowing how dangerous Elinor's war work had been, or how deeply their mysterious neighbor continues to be haunted by her past.
It will take the child of Jim Mackie, a young farmworker and his wife, Rose, to break through Miss White's icy demeanor—but Jim has something in common with Elinor. He, too, is desperate to escape his past. When the powerful Mackie crime family demands a return of their prodigal son for an important job, Elinor assumes the task of protecting her neighbors, especially the bright-eyed Susie, who reminds her of the darkest day of her life.
Elinor’s wartime training and instincts serve her well, but as she endeavors to neutralize the threat to Jim, Rose and Susie Mackie, she is rapidly led along a tunnel of smoke and mirrors in which former wartime colleagues – who know the truth about what happened in 1944, and the terrible event that led to her wartime suicide attempt – are compromised by more powerful influences.
Ultimately, Elinor will hold a gun to the head of a Mackie crime lord to uncover the truth behind the family's pursuit of Jim, and in doing so, reveal the far-reaching tentacles of their power—along with the truth that will free Elinor from her past.

My Review:

For the past several years of her cases (since The Mapping of Love and Death) March has been the month of Maisie. Maisie Dobbs, that is.

Which means that all of Maisie’s fans and friends are pretty much primed for a book every March  filled with Maisie’s inimitable style of detection and the combination of found and birth family that she has gathered around herself to help her both solve her cases and live a life that combines danger and intrigue with a intense insight into the human nature that has created the situations in which she regularly finds herself.

Maisie seems to have taken a vacation this March, and in her place we have Elinor White, who both is and is not the ‘White Lady’ of the title.

Elinor’s story is told in two timeframes, both her present in 1947 and the past that led her there, from her childhood in occupied Belgium through her wartime service in the top-secret Special Operations Executive to the point where her past meets her present after the war.

We first meet 1947 Elinor, a middle-aged spinster living in a ‘grace and favor’ cottage in Kent. That cottage was granted to her for her lifetime for services rendered to the crown in both wars, and it’s what those services consisted of that makes up the past we have to see, and the lessons Elinor has to learn, before the person we met in 1947 comes fully into focus.

And then shatters when she learns that what she believed was the worst crime she ever committed was nothing that she did at all. The crime was committed by someone she believed was a friend and an ally. Although she is certainly the one who paid for it then, and very nearly does again.

It’s only after the smoke clears, quite literally, that Elinor White may be able to step forward into a future that holds more than waiting for fate to catch up to her and make her pay for all the wrongs she committed in the name of a greater purpose.

If she can set aside the necessary cautions that come from having survived not one but two wars as a spy and saboteur.

Escape Rating B: I ended this book with a LOT more mixed feelings than I expected going into it. I enjoy the Maisie Dobbs series because I find the history interesting, Maisie’s perspective fascinating, and the story as a whole absorbing. I like the characters and more importantly I CARE about them every bit as much as I care about seeing the solution of the mystery.

It’s the care that was missing in my reading of The White Lady. The history was every bit as fascinating as I was expecting from this author. While Britain’s Special Operations Executive and the women who served as agents in it have appeared in an increasing number of stories lately – as have the women of Bletchley Park – Elinor’s experiences as an agent of La Dame Blanche – the Belgian resistance in World War I funded by Britain – were new to me. Her experiences in the Belgian Occupation, when she was just barely into her teens, were searing and absorbing.

But something about those experiences feels like it set Elinor herself just a shade apart from real life – or at least from her own real life. She seems so used to keeping herself utterly guarded – a necessity during the war that kept her alive – that she remains just a touch removed from the life we read about in this story. It makes it difficult to know her well enough to care about her character.

I didn’t feel invested in her journey and it kept me from being absorbed in the story.

Which doesn’t mean that parts of it were not fascinating, because her surprising – to herself most of all – foray into a police investigation of the criminal gangs controlling vast swaths of London had the potential for chills and thrills – and delivered them as well as a bit of schadenfreude that the men who thought they knew everything – both among the police and among the criminals – discovered they were wrong, wrong, wrong. And still weren’t convinced they’d been hoodwinked by a gang of women. Or that a woman figured out the real crime being planned while all the experienced detectives dismissed her at every turn.

In the end, I liked The White Lady but didn’t love her. I’m glad I read this one but not disappointed that it appears to be a standalone title and not the start of a new series. I hope we see Maisie again next March – or whenever her next adventure appears.

Review: The Wedding Dress Sewing Circle by Jennifer Ryan

Review: The Wedding Dress Sewing Circle by Jennifer RyanThe Wedding Dress Sewing Circle by Jennifer Ryan
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical romance, World War II
Pages: 411
Published by Ballantine Books on May 31, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

Three plucky women lift the spirits of home-front brides in wartime Britain, where clothes rationing leaves little opportunity for pomp or celebration—even at weddings—in this heartwarming novel based on true events, from the bestselling author of The Chilbury Ladies' Choir.After renowned fashion designer Cressida Westcott loses both her home and her design house in the London Blitz, she has nowhere to go but the family manor house she fled decades ago. Praying that her niece and nephew will be more hospitable than her brother had been, she arrives with nothing but the clothes she stands in, at a loss as to how to rebuild her business while staying in a quaint country village.
Her niece, Violet Westcott, is thrilled that her famous aunt is coming to stay—the village has been interminably dull with all the men off fighting. But just as Cressida arrives, so does Violet's conscription letter. It couldn't have come at a worse time; how will she ever find a suitably aristocratic husband if she has to spend her days wearing a frumpy uniform and doing war work?
Meanwhile, the local vicar's daughter, Grace Carlisle, is trying in vain to repair her mother's gown, her only chance of a white wedding. When Cressida Westcott appears at the local Sewing Circle meeting, Grace asks for her help—but Cressida has much more to teach the ladies than just simple sewing skills.
Before long, Cressida's spirit and ambition galvanizes the village group into action, and they find themselves mending wedding dresses not only for local brides, but for brides across the country. And as the women dedicate themselves to helping others celebrate love, they might even manage to find it for themselves.

My Review:

Eustace Westcott was dead, to begin with. And it seems to be a relief for all concerned, especially his family. His deceased presence turns out to be a bigger blight on the lives of everyone who knew him than the war. Even the local pub still boasts “a certain ditty written in the men’s lavatory” proclaiming that “Eustace Westcott should stick his precious checkbook up a certain part of his anatomy.”

His estranged sister, the famous – or infamous in the late Eustace’s mind – fashion designer Cressida Westcott would certainly agree. She only attended his funeral to make absolutely certain the blighter was dead.

But speaking of that war, when the London Blitz takes out both her house and her design house in the same night, Cressida’s not sure where to go or what to do. She’s lost everything except the clothes on her back, the designs in her head, and a reputation in the fashion industry that she’s spent the last 20 years building. Those will see her through – but first she needs a place to live and regroup.

She never thought she’d go back home to Aldhurst. In fact, she’d sworn she wouldn’t. But Eustace is dead and she can at least hope that his two children, now adults themselves, haven’t turned into carbon copies of their not-so-dear old dad. Or that there’s still time for her to help them become functional human beings now that his oppressive influence over their lives has been removed.

What she finds in the old family pile is a second chance. A chance to get to know the village and its people – and become one of them. A chance to find family again by helping her niece and nephew see that their father’s ideas and influence are holding them back from living their own lives instead of repeating all the restrictions of his.

All the restrictions he tried to impose on Cressida and utterly failed at.

Cressida has a chance to explore a bit of the road not taken and let herself have as much of it all as could ever be possible – not in spite of the war but because of it.

Escape Rating A: I was looking for, not exactly a comfort read as most of my comfort reads start with murder, but rather a comfortable read for the end of this week. It’s kind of surprising that led me to World War II, not exactly a comfortable time for ANYONE, but this actually fit the bill quite nicely. I adored one of the author’s previous books, The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir, and was expecting more of the same – interesting characters who grow and change in a heartwarming story of the British homefront during World War II. And I was expecting a female-centric story because, well, the war.

And all of that is exactly what I got. With bells on!

The story revolves around three women, Cressida Westcott, her niece Violet Westcott, and the woman Cressida mentors in Aldhurst, Grace Carlisle. All of their lives have been knocked off their original courses by World War II, but the war also gives each of them a chance to change a course that they thought was set. Hopefully for the better.

Cressida’s change is a driving force in what happens, which is fitting because Cressida herself has always been a driving force in her own life. While her return to Aldhurst allows her to see the place with fresh eyes, her trip back home doesn’t change who she has become in all the years between.

She’s still a driven woman, determined to be in the top echelon of fashion design – and succeeding on her own terms. What her return to Aldhurst allows her to do is to open herself up to new experiences and new friendships. She is still who she has always been, but becoming part of the village – something she was not allowed to do when she was growing up – reminds her that in addition to making a living she also needs to make a life.

Violet and Grace are both in their 20s, and each has planned a certain life for themselves based on what they’ve been taught, what they’ve been told, what they’ve always believed in the “right thing to do.” Violet is honestly a selfish, self-involved little bitch, an upper class twit who believes that marrying a title is her due and that she’s entitled to all the privileges that come with her family’s wealth and status without ever working for them.

Grace is her opposite, the daughter of the local vicar, selflessly devoting herself to the village and parish work, never asking a thing for herself. She’s been shouldering much of her father’s caretaking of the village in the years since her mother died, and everyone else’s need for her has become her life. To the point that she’s planning to marry a clergyman herself, believing that it’s her best chance of recreating the happy family that raised her before her mother’s death.

Violet just needs to grow up – and for that to happen she needs to break out of a role that is designed to keep her childlike and uneducated. Conscription into war work forced Violet to see herself and the world around her with her own eyes, and it’s the making of her.

But it’s Grace’s transformation from colorless drudge to fashion design apprentice that gives the story its heart and its heartbreak. Her involvement with Cressida begins with her engagement, and her desire to wear her mother’s rather moth-eaten wedding gown on her own ‘special’ day.

It’s not just a wish out of love and nostalgia, it’s a necessity. Under wartime clothing rationing, there is no material available for new wedding dresses. There’s little available for repairing old ones, either. But with Cressida’s vast design experience and Grace’s eye for the best ways of ‘making mend and making do’ there’s a chance to make it happen.

Even though the process of design and exploration finally makes Grace wake up and realize that it shouldn’t happen for her – or at least it shouldn’t happen for her with the man she’s currently engaged to marry.

Whether Grace gets to wear the dress herself or not, out of her mother’s old dress both a new dress and a grand idea, The Wedding Dress Sewing Circle of the title, are born. The dress that Violet’s mother gave to Grace’s mother eventually becomes THE dress for many young women of Aldhurst and beyond, in an act of sisterhood that is carried not just around the country, but all the way back home to where it began.

The dress is beautiful on every woman who wears it. And the story of how it came to be is every single bit as lovely.

Review: The Last of the Seven by Steven Hartov

Review: The Last of the Seven by Steven HartovThe Last of the Seven: A Novel of World War II by Steven Hartov
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, World War II
Pages: 368
Published by Hanover Square Press on August 9, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

A spellbinding novel of World War II based on the little-known history of the X Troopa team of European Jews who escaped the Continent only to join the British Army and return home to exact their revenge on Hitlers military.
A lone soldier wearing a German uniform stumbles into a British military camp in the North African desert with an incredible story to tell. He is the only survivor of an undercover operation meant to infiltrate a Nazi base, trading on the soldiers’ perfect fluency in German. However, this man is not British-born but instead a German Jew seeking revenge for the deaths of his family back home in Berlin.
As the Allies advance into Europe, the young lieutenant is brought to recover in Sicily. There he is recruited by a British major to join the newly formed X Troop, a commando unit composed of German and Austrian Jews training for a top secret mission at a nearby camp in the Sicilian hills. They are all “lost boys,” driven not by patriotism but by vengeance.
Drawing on meticulous research into this unique group of soldiers, The Last of the Seven is a lyrical, propulsive historical novel perfect for readers of Mark Sullivan, Robert Harris and Alan Furst.

My Review:

As this story opens, the scene is so dramatic that the reader could be excused for thinking that the book is already teasing the ending and is going to go back to the beginning of the story to explain how that lone soldier found himself at the literal end of his pretty damn much everything except determination, trudging miles across the Sahara alone, with two bullet wounds, no supplies and what seemed to be no hope of survival.

Only for that survival to appear and very nearly turn to disaster. And that’s the point where we meet young Lieutenant Bernard Froelich, the last survivor of the seven Jewish commandos sent by the British Army to infiltrate Nazi-held Tobruk ahead of a planned British invasion.

Which failed. Catastrophically.

Resulting, eventually, after an astonishing tea with Rommel and a daring nighttime escape from a POW camp, in Froelich staggering into a British Army camp in the tattered remains of a stolen Nazi uniform months later.

Froelich has already had more than enough wartime adventures to satisfy any book or, for that matter, any war. But this isn’t the end of either the soldier, the war, or the book. It’s only the beginning.

Froelich is “the last of the seven”, the last of the seven Jewish commandos who participated in that failed assault on Tobruk. But Froelich still has plenty of payback to deliver to the Nazis who killed his family, his friends, his fellow Jews and everyone who didn’t fit their “Aryan ideals”.

So the story follows Froelich’s war after his initial exploit. The one that was so final for the rest of his squad. Because he’s recruited – or perhaps that should be ordered – to take the skills he learned in that first infiltration to train a new group of Jewish commandos, orphans and lost boys just like himself, to tackle another infiltration with an even more important goal.

It’s up to Froelich and the “Filthy Jewish dozen” as his rabidly anti-Semitic superior officer calls them, to drop well behind enemy lines and slip into a little German base as part of a very big operation. Their “top secret” task is to infiltrate the Nazi research center at Peenemünde and steal a scientist. Admittedly one who wants to be stolen.

It’s the commandos’ job to prevent the Nazis from sticking nuclear warheads – however primitive – on the front of their V-2 rockets by getting the lead scientist for the project out of Peenemünde and safely into Allied hands. Even if they have to sacrifice themselves in the process.

Escape Rating A-: Part of what makes this story so compelling is just how many wild and crazy things happened along Froelich’s way. He has some of the worst good luck, or best bad luck, that ever graced a war story.

What’s even more fascinating is that nearly all of the major events in this story actually happened. They just didn’t all happen to the same person. Which is something I had to look up halfway through because that did stretch my reader’s willing suspension of disbelief a tiny bit. War is hell, luck is unfair in all directions, but that the same individual managed to be both this unlucky and this lucky at the same time stretched things a tad. But it certainly does keep the story exciting!

I also kept having reading flashbacks that I’d read something very like this, at least when it comes to the events at Peenemunde, some time ago. Eventually I figured out that it must have been Moonglow by Michael Chabon, although Sons and Soldiers by Bruce Henderson also has some similar bits. This is a hint that if you liked either of those you might like this and vice versa.

In spite of those quibbles, the story itself is riveting. It’s also the kind of war story that we don’t see quite as much of anymore. There is a LOT of the nitty gritty that makes war such hell, combined with the bleakness of World War II in general. The commando units are all made up of what Froelich calls “lost boys” like himself. They’ve all lost the families, their friends, the future they thought they’d have and the life they thought they knew. They all want revenge, payback against the Nazis – and it’s impossible to blame any of them for that.

(The casual anti-Semitism of the British can be hard to take for contemporary readers, but it is very much a part of the period. Whatever one thinks of Arab-Israeli relations in the 21st century, at that point it was all still to come. The Jews were a minority in Palestine and were desperate for a place to call home after fleeing Nazi Germany. That the British foresaw trouble in the future for their empire was realistic even if the rhetoric behind it was pretty awful – those fears were realistic and pragmatic. That the days of empire were ending and they didn’t want to recognize the fact, is not exactly surprising either.)

But the story in The Last of the Seven focuses on Froelich. It follows him through part of his war, and that war is hell. Not just the fighting, but what comes before and after it. His recovery in aid stations and hospitals is every bit as harrowing as his trek across the desert. His brief moments of happiness are snatched away by the war as well.

And then there’s the training and gearing up for the mission to Peenemünde, which is, at points, even more brutal than the fight yet to come. Because war is hell and this soldier’s journey just exposes one slice of that hell all the way down to the bone.

Review: Signal Moon by Kate Quinn + Giveaway

Review: Signal Moon by Kate Quinn + GiveawaySignal Moon: A Short Story by Kate Quinn
Narrator: Saskia Maarleveld, Andrew Gibson
Format: audiobook
Source: publisher
Formats available: ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, timeslip fiction, World War II
Pages: 57
Length: 1 hour and 22 minutes
Published by Amazon Original Stories, Audible Audio on August 1, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazon
Goodreads

From the New York Times bestselling author of The Diamond Eye comes a riveting short story about an impossible connection across two centuries that could make the difference between peace or war.

Yorkshire, 1943. Lily Baines, a bright young debutante increasingly ground down by an endless war, has traded in her white gloves for a set of headphones. It’s her job to intercept enemy naval communications and send them to Bletchley Park for decryption.

One night, she picks up a transmission that isn’t code at all—it’s a cry for help.

An American ship is taking heavy fire in the North Atlantic—but no one else has reported an attack, and the information relayed by the young US officer, Matt Jackson, seems all wrong. The contact that Lily has made on the other end of the radio channel says it’s…2023.

Across an eighty-year gap, Lily and Matt must find a way to help each other: Matt to convince her that the war she’s fighting can still be won, and Lily to help him stave off the war to come. As their connection grows stronger, they both know there’s no telling when time will run out on their inexplicable link.

My Review:

This story was so beautiful it just about broke me. It was gorgeous and glorious and heartbreaking all at the same time, and I was in tears at the end.

I want to say this is a timeslip story but that isn’t quite right. It’s more of a time-merging story, or a bit of technological SF sleight of hand story. It’s best to just say that it works. It all works marvelously, and let the how and why of it remain a bit nebulous.

After all, our two principals don’t completely understand the why of it themselves. They just know that it happened. And that it saved them both.

Lily Baines is a signal tech in Yorkshire in 1943, spending her days and nights with a Bakelite headset wrapped around her “bat-like” ears, listening for German signals. She’s a Petty Officer in the WRENS (Women’s Royal Naval Service), doing her bit for in a war that she’s entirely too afraid is being lost.

Late one shift, she picks up a signal from an American ship, broadcast in English, in the “clear”, detailing an attack on the ship by “Vampires”. An attack that results in the ship sinking with all hands after 42 minutes of harrowing transmission by the U.S. Naval signal tech, ST Matt Jackson, who gives the date as 2023.

While her superiors are certain that Lily has just been working too many days in a row without a break, Lily feels like she owes it to her fellow signal tech, the man she just heard narrate his own death, to try to help him. So she sends him a letter, a 1943-era radio, extra batteries, and a list of frequencies that she promises to listen on at a specific time every day.

There’s no science fiction involved in her package to the future. Her uncle is a solicitor and she contracts with his office to deliver the package to a certain room in a certain hotel in York on the day Matt said he checked in. Law offices do this all the time, just not necessarily for quite 80 years.

When Matt gets the radio, he’s sure it’s a prank, but he dials the frequency anyway. Even when Lily starts talking, he STILL thinks it’s a prank – at least until that night, when an event that she predicted comes true.

They have less than 24 hours to analyze the transmission that Matt hasn’t sent yet, in the hopes of figuring out what is about to go wrong so that he can prevent it. Or save his ship. Whatever it takes to prevent yet another war.

What they get is more than either of them ever bargained for. It’s enough – and it’s not nearly enough at all.

Escape Rating A++: Signal Moon is short and absolutely perfect in its length. It represents a very brief moment in time and needed to reflect that brevity. Also, it’s just so damn bittersweet – and appropriate in that bitter sweetness, that more would be just too much to take.

It’s that good.

But because of that short length, I was able to sit down with the audiobook and finish in one utterly absorbing and in the end completely heartbreaking listen. (If you have Amazon Prime you can get both the ebook and the audio as part of your Prime membership, and it’s so worth it to listen to the audio if you have a mere 82 minutes to occupy your hands while your mind wanders back to 1943 – and forward to OMG next year.)

The strength of this story is in the characters. The author sketches us a complete picture of Lily and her wartime service with just a bit of description and a whole lot of Lily’s internal monologue as she goes through her day pretending that everything is going to be alright even though she’s scared right down to her not-nearly-warm-enough fingertips that all is already lost.

While Matt’s more frank and frequently profane dialog, along with the desperation of his own internal monologue, gives the reader or listener a clear portrait of who he is and what drove him to become the person – and the officer – that he is on the brink of what could be – briefly – his very own war.

In the audiobook, the two characters are brilliantly voiced by their own narrators, Saskia Maarleveld for Lily and Andrew Gibson for Matt and they embody their characters beautifully. The audio would not have worked half so well with a single narrator. (Saskia Maarleveld is also the narrator for several of the author’s novels, including this year’s The Diamond Eye, which just moved up the towering TBR pile as a result.)

The ending of this story is inevitable. There’s just no other way this one works. But it’s easy to get so involved in their story that you just want it to have a different ending anyway. And that’s what broke me in the end. I knew what the end would be, but this was just one of those times where I really wanted a deus ex machina to step in and make that difference happen – even knowing how much I usually hate those kinds of endings. But it wasn’t, and it shouldn’t have been, meant to be.

Dammit.

~~~~~~ TOURWIDE GIVEAWAY ~~~~~~

Kate Quinn and Amazon Publishing are giving away a $50 Amazon Gift Card to one very lucky entrant on this tour!
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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 & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
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: The Unkept Woman by Allison Montclair

Review: The Unkept Woman by Allison MontclairThe Unkept Woman (Sparks & Bainbridge, #4) by Allison Montclair
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery, World War II
Series: Sparks & Bainbridge #4
Pages: 320
Published by Minotaur Books on July 26, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

Allison Montclair returns with the fourth Sparks & Bainbridge mystery, The Unkept Woman: London, 1946, Miss Iris Sparks--currently co-proprietor of the Right Sort Marriage Bureau--has to deal with aspects of her past exploits during the recent war that have come back around to haunt her.
The Right Sort Marriage Bureau was founded in 1946 by two disparate individuals - Mrs. Gwendolyn Bainbridge (whose husband was killed in the recent World War) and Miss Iris Sparks who worked as an intelligence agent during the recent conflict, though this is not discussed. While the agency flourishes in the post-war climate, both founders have to deal with some of the fallout that conflict created in their personal lives. Miss Sparks finds herself followed, then approached, by a young woman who has a very personal connection to a former paramour of Sparks. But something is amiss and it seems that Iris's past may well cause something far more deadly than mere disruption in her personal life. Meanwhile, Gwendolyn is struggling to regain full legal control of her life, her finances, and her son - a legal path strewn with traps and pitfalls.
Together these indomitable two are determined and capable and not just of making the perfect marriage match.

My Review:

The title of this one, just like the previous book in the series, A Rogue’s Company, is a bit of a pun. Because neither Iris nor Gwen are “kept women” in the traditional sense that phrase is usually meant.

But they both have been, in rather nontraditional meanings of the phrase. And the circumstances under which each of them placed themselves under some man’s thumb have come back to bite them in this fourth entry in the Sparks & Bainbridge series.

Gwen Bainbridge is currently under the thumb of her father-in-law, Lord Harold Bainbridge. When her husband was killed late in the war, Gwen attempted suicide. Twice. And Harold had her declared a lunatic and committed to a sanatorium. She’s been out for quite some time now, she and Iris started their business together, and Gwen is ready to take back the reins of her own life – only to realize that those reins are something she has never really had.

And that the doctors and lawyers who will help her present her case that she is no longer a lunatic are all telling her that getting kidnapped and solving murders is not going to make the Lunacy Court look kindly on her pleas.

Meanwhile, Iris’ ex-lover, the spy who rented her apartment for her under one of his many false names, has barged back into her life and left a corpse in her apartment. The police believe that Iris is the killer, and are not taking kindly to the way that Iris continues to dodge both their questions and the plain-clothes detectives they send to tail her.

All the things that Iris can’t say are wrapped up in her own spy work during the war – and are covered by the Official Secrets Act. She’s damned if she does and damned if she doesn’t. If she tells the cops what she knows, she’ll be killed for violating those official secrets. And if she doesn’t talk – and can’t find out what really happened – there’s all too likely a chance that she’ll be convicted of a capital crime with the resulting capital sentence.

In order to solve the murder and get herself out from under the cops’ accusing eyes, Iris will need all the help she can get. It’s too bad for her that her old spymaster has cut her off, her gangster boyfriend has decided she’s too hot to handle – and not in a fun way, and that her best friend and partner Gwen is too worried about her chances in the courts to take a chance on helping Iris.

Or is she?

Escape Rating A: This entry in the series isn’t really about the marriage bureau at all. This one is all about the two women who own it, and their separate but parallel determination to stand on their own two feet (four feet altogether) without expecting to be helped or rescued or taken care of by anyone except, when the occasion requires it, each other.

It’s a story about letting the past go, for Iris to stop paying penance for the things she didn’t do during the war, and for Gwen to fight her corner and take care of herself for the first time in her life – making the best decisions for herself and her son.

The sense of the historical setting is particularly strong in this one. The war is over, but the recovery has just barely begun. The old war may be over, but another war, a cold war of spies and intelligence gathering, has taken its place. And neither Sparks’ nor Bainbridge’s war has really been dealt with. Iris is still punishing herself for her actions – or rather for her inactions – while Gwen has been so caught up in fighting her in-laws that she’s just now realizing that she hasn’t determined what form her independence will take – because she’s never really had any in her life.

So one side of this story is very much a spy thriller, as Iris has to use all of her old tradecraft to hunt down who really done it and why. Meanwhile, Gwen is demonstrating that she’s learned more from Iris than even she expected, and that she’s more than capable of fighting any corner she has to – even if she has to assault the police to get them to listen to her.

The Unkept Woman is a terrific combination of history, mystery and women’s friendship. I’m really glad I was introduced to Sparks and Bainbridge back in The Right Sort of Man. But dammit we still don’t know exactly what Sparks did during the war – although we sure do learn a lot more about it in this entry in the series. She’s still talking around what she did but the circle around that truth is getting a lot closer. Hopefully we will find out more in the next book in the series – whenever it comes.

Review: A Sunlit Weapon by Jacqueline Winspear

Review: A Sunlit Weapon by Jacqueline WinspearA Sunlit Weapon (Maisie Dobbs #17) by Jacqueline Winspear
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery, World War II
Series: Maisie Dobbs #17
Pages: 358
Published by Harper on March 22, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

In the latest installment of the New York Times bestselling series, a series of possible attacks on British pilots leads Jacqueline Winspear's beloved heroine Maisie Dobbs into a mystery involving First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.
October 1942. Jo Hardy, a 22-year-old ferry pilot, is delivering a Supermarine Spitfire--the fastest fighter aircraft in the world--to Biggin Hill Aerodrome, when she realizes someone is shooting at her aircraft from the ground. Returning to the location on foot, she finds an American serviceman in a barn, bound and gagged. She rescues the man, who is handed over to the American military police; it quickly emerges that he is considered a suspect in the disappearance of a fellow soldier who is missing.
Tragedy strikes two days later, when another ferry pilot crashes in the same area where Jo's plane was attacked. At the suggestion of one of her colleagues, Jo seeks the help of psychologist and investigator Maisie Dobbs. Meanwhile, Maisie's husband, a high-ranking political attach� based at the American embassy, is in the thick of ensuring security is tight for the first lady of the United States, Eleanor Roosevelt, during her visit to the Britain. There's already evidence that German agents have been circling: the wife of a president represents a high value target. Mrs. Roosevelt is clearly in danger, and there may well be a direct connection to the death of the woman ferry pilot and the recent activities of two American servicemen.
To guarantee the safety of the First Lady--and of the soldier being held in police custody--Maisie must uncover that connection. At the same time, she faces difficulties of an entirely different nature with her young daughter, Anna, who is experiencing wartime struggles of her own.

My Review:

I love the Maisie Dobbs series, so I had been saving this book for a time when I needed a reading treat. As yesterday was Memorial Day, I was looking for a book about war and what comes after. Considering the origins of Memorial Day, I probably should have been looking for a book set during the U.S. Civil War, but I remembered I’d been saving this one and today seemed like a perfect time. So here we are.

Part of what makes this series so compelling is the way that Maisie Dobbs as an investigator turns some of the mystery conventions on their pointy little heads. A lot of fictional detectives don’t believe in coincidence, so when there are multiple crimes it usually turns out that there’s a single cause or perpetrator at their roots.

Maisie, as trained by the late and often lamented Maurice Blanche, sees coincidences as guideposts – not necessarily to the crime she’s investigating, but to something in her own life that needs looking into. Which means that in addition to the usual questioning of witnesses and suspects, Maisie is quite often questioning herself. Not that she doubts herself, but that she’s always looking for the lesson that the universe is trying to teach her.

The cases and incidents that she undertakes to resolve in A Sunlit Weapon have huge, potentially world-shattering consequences. They will also change the life of one little girl. And all the aspects of that tangled investigation are wrapped around war. Not just this war, but also the one before. And not just the fighting, but the grief that inevitably follows in its wake.

Maisie begins with one case. A young aviatrix, a member of the Air Transport Auxiliary tasked with repositioning planes from one airbase to another, is nearly shot down over Kent by someone on the ground. When Jo Hardy goes back to check out the scene on the ground, she finds, not the shooter, but Mattias Crittenden, a young black American soldier bound and gagged in a deserted barn. She is determined to make sure that the black GI gets justice and not a lynching, so she turns to Maisie for help.

Maisie also has a much more personal case of her own. Her adopted daughter Anna is being bullied at school because Anna is slightly darker skinned than the typical “English Rose” complexion. The children at her school have suddenly started harassing her and referring to her as an enemy Italian, when in fact she’s English. (Her father was a Maltese sailor. Malta became part of the British Empire in 1814.)

What has Maisie perplexed is that Anna was happy in school and eager to learn – up until the past few weeks. Something at the school has changed – and not for the better.

These two “cases” shouldn’t have anything to do with each other. Or to the third case that falls into Maisie’s lap. Her new husband, Mark Scott, is an American attached to the U.S. Embassy. His current task is to handle security for Eleanor Roosevelt’s imminent visit to Britain. Scott has learned that there are plans to assassinate the First Lady while she’s in Britain.

Maisie’s search of the barn where Private Crittenden was discovered turned up two items. The dog tags of Crittenden’s friend Private Stone, who is missing – and coded plans that reference the First Lady’s codename while she’s traveling.

Somehow, Jo Hardy’s mysterious ground shooter and the plot to assassinate Mrs. Roosevelt are linked – even if Maisie doesn’t yet know how. And all of it, along with the mystery at little Anna’s school, may not all be part of the same series of crimes, but are all part of the same thing – the terrible consequences of war.

Escape Rating A-: We’ve followed Maisie from her childhood apprenticeship with Maurice Blanche through her nursing service in WW1, through her grief at the loss of her fiancé, her eventual wedding and subsequent tragic widowhood, her recovery and now her second marriage to the American Mark Scott who she met in a previous book in this series, The American Agent. What we haven’t seen until now is Maisie as a married woman, as the period in her life when she was married happened between Leaving Everything Most Loved and A Dangerous Place. So for those of us who have followed Maisie through her career, this is the first time we’ve seen her in the position where she’s going to have to negotiate how to balance her work life and personal life in a way that she hasn’t had to before.

Because being an investigator is very much core to who Maisie is as a person. It wasn’t easy giving it up to marry the first time around, but she was younger and less well established. At this point in her life she knows she can’t give up being who she is to become a traditional wife and mother – something that the Headmistress of her daughter’s school throws in her face in their first confrontation.

At the same time, a part of the undercurrent of this story is that Maisie’s job is dangerous, and that no matter what she promises she’s not going to stop doing it. And that her new husband hates the danger she throws herself into – even though that kind of danger is the reason they met in the first place.

But the case, or rather cases, that Maisie looks into exemplify the way that Maisie works. She pulls on one thread because it’s part of her initial remit from her client. The more she pulls, the more she investigates, the more complicated and interwoven the threads seem to be – until they send out branches and tentacles into people and places she never thought they’d go.

It’s not a quick process, so Maisie’s stories aren’t page-turners in a thriller sense. And yet they’re compelling because Maisie makes them so. She’s intelligent and complicated, and the way she works through her cases is the same – no matter where they lead her.

In this case they lead her from a black GI accused of killing his white friend even though no corpse has been found. It’s all too clear that this is a rush to judgment or that he’s a convenient scapegoat because of the color of his skin. There is no part of the way that the US military treats its black soldiers, particularly in the persons of its MPs, that does not grate – not just on 21st century readers but on the British public at large at the time. Because racial segregation doesn’t make sense and that’s all too easy to see through the eyes of people who don’t employ it. (That’s not to say that Britain didn’t and doesn’t have plenty of its own problems in regards to class separation, elitism, etc., just that it didn’t run that way at the time.)

But in doing her best to ensure that Pvt. Crittenden isn’t rushed to a hangman’s noose or the electric chair for the murder of a man who might not even be dead Maisie opens up more cans of worms. As she does.

And in the middle of investigating how Crittenden got to be in that barn – no matter how many roadblocks, literal and figurative, get thrown in her way – Maisie links the barn to the shooting, the shooting to a damaged young man, and the young man all the way back to the Headmistress of her daughter’s school. Not because they have the same beliefs or commit any of the same actions, but because they were all, every single one, damaged by the war that was supposed to have ended all wars.

Not because it didn’t, but because war is hell – both for the ones who fight it and the ones who wait behind.

I am already looking forward to Maisie’s next adventure, and not just because I’m wondering how hard (or if) she’s going to have to hit her husband with a clue-by-four to get it through his head that she’s never going to turn away from doing the right thing no matter how dangerous it might be. As this book took place in the autumn of 1943, I expect the next book to cover some of 1944. If Maisie ends up being involved in the planning of or the misdirection wrapped around D-Day I will not be at all surprised. Riveted, but not surprised. And I can’t wait to read it!

Review: Woman on Fire by Lisa Barr

Review: Woman on Fire by Lisa BarrWoman on Fire by Lisa Barr
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: espionage, historical fiction, mystery, thriller, World War II
Pages: 416
Published by Harper Paperbacks on March 1, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

From the author of the award-winning Fugitive Colors and The Unbreakables, a gripping tale of a young, ambitious journalist embroiled in an international art art scandal centered around a Nazi-looted masterpiece--forcing the ultimate showdown between passion and possession, lovers and liars, history and truth. NOW A NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER! Actress Sharon Stone set to produce and star in the film adaptation of WOMAN ON FIRE.
After talking her way into a job with Dan Mansfield, the leading investigative reporter in Chicago, rising young journalist Jules Roth is given an unusual--and very secret--assignment. Dan needs her to locate a painting stolen by the Nazis more than 75 years earlier: legendary Expressionist artist Ernst Engel's most famous work, Woman on Fire. World-renowned shoe designer Ellis Baum wants this portrait of a beautiful, mysterious woman for deeply personal reasons, and has enlisted Dan's help to find it. But Jules doesn't have much time; the famous designer is dying.
Meanwhile, in Europe, provocative and powerful Margaux de Laurent also searches for the painting. Heir to her art collector family's millions, Margaux is a cunning gallerist who gets everything she wants. The only thing standing in her way is Jules. Yet the passionate and determined Jules has unexpected resources of her own, including Adam Baum, Ellis's grandson. A recovering addict and brilliant artist in his own right, Adam was once in Margaux's clutches. He knows how ruthless she is, and he'll do anything to help Jules locate the painting before Margaux gets to it first.
A thrilling tale of secrets, love, and sacrifice that illuminates the destructive cruelty of war and greed and the triumphant power of beauty and love, Woman on Fire tells the story of a remarkable woman and an exquisite work of art that burns bright, moving through hands, hearts, and history.

My Review:

Every single woman in this story is surrounded by flame, from Anika Baum, the model for the iconic painting, to Jules Roth, the woman charged with tracking her down and bringing her home. While along the way, Margaux de Laurent is determined to possess the painting at any and all costs, no matter how many people she has to burn along the way.

Including herself.

If the women are fire, the men are ash – the ash left in the wake of those flames. Ellis Baum, Anika’s son, still haunted by his mother’s death; Dan Mansfield, determined to do his old friend one final favor, and Adam Chase, Ellis’ grandson, an artist burned in the web between Margaux and Jules.

Like all the best heist and caper stories – because that’s a big part of what Woman on Fire is, after all – this story starts at what seems like the end. An end where it looks like everything has gone totally pear-shaped.

And then we rewind back to the beginning. The beginning of the caper, at least. It takes a bit of recap to learn how the players of this high stakes game ended up in the positions they were in before we are able to understand why we need to go all the way back to Nazi Germany and the creation of this avant-garde masterpiece, Woman on Fire.

Ellis Baum, the premier shoe designer in the world, is dying. Before he dies, he wants to see his mother one last time. A task that should be impossible and might still be. But Baum has nothing left to lose. His last sight of his mother was of the Nazis humiliating her and then taking her away. Her crimes were falling in love with a Jewish man and bearing his child and serving as a model for the avant-garde painter Ernst Engel. Both crimes were punishable by death.

Somehow, among all the art the Nazis looted, the painting that she posed for, Woman on Fire, survived the decades. Ellis asks his friend, newspaper editor and investigative reporter Dan Mansfield, to help him get it back.

Margaux de Laurent has an equally personal desire to possess the painting. It was one of her beloved grandfather’s favorite paintings. Gallery owner Charles de Laurent owned the painting briefly in the early years of the war, before the Nazis confiscated it from him. Margaux wants it back in his memory, with the hope of finding enough other looted art to save her family’s art gallery from bankruptcy.

Margaux and Ellis may have equally personal motives for acquiring the painting, but Margaux is considerably more ruthless and considerably less ethical. While both bring all the resources that they and their associates can muster to the task of bringing the painting out of the shadows, Margaux doesn’t care who she has to ruin or kill to get what she believes is rightfully hers.

She’s done it before. It’s easy to stay one step ahead of people who believe they are one step ahead of you. If you’re willing to kill every single one of them to get your way.

Escape Rating A: This is a story that started twisting me up from the very first page. I wanted so badly for them to succeed, even with just a few pages of getting into the action. And it was such a horrible let-down of a cliffie when it almost instantly looked like they failed. I knew that couldn’t be the end, but I was pretty desperate to figure out how they got there and how they got out.

Not that all of them do – but more than enough to make this a VERY satisfying read with just the right touch of bittersweet melancholy and righteous resolution.

I also have to admit that although the painting and the artist are not historical figures, I was so riveted and involved in the story that I had to look them up to be certain. It’s that good and it felt that real.

Going into this, I was expecting the early history about the Nazis systematic looting of the great art museums and private collections of Europe, but that initial theft – and theft – and re-theft was horrible and sad but not exactly unknown. What kept me turning pages were the twin searches for the painting, the painstaking research to find its trail from Ernst Engel’s studio through the de Laurent Gallery to its final resting place – and the manipulation and espionage of both parties to find the painting first and freeze out the other side. Each thinks they’re cheating the other and both are determined to win. Each thinks they know the truth about the other, but neither truly does.

And that race to a finish that they each see completely differently is what keeps the reader – or at least kept this reader – frantically turning pages to the very satisfying end.