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 & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
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 & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

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

My Review:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: 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 & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
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 & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
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 & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
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.

Review: A Peculiar Combination by Ashley Weaver

Review: A Peculiar Combination by Ashley WeaverA Peculiar Combination (Electra McDonnell, #1) by Ashley Weaver
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: espionage, historical fiction, historical mystery, World War II, mystery
Series: Electra McDonnell #1
Pages: 296
Published by Minotaur Books on May 25, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The first in the Electra McDonnell series from Edgar-nominated author Ashley Weaver, set in England during World War II, A Peculiar Combination is a delightful mystery filled with spies, murder, romance, and the author's signature wit.
Electra McDonnell has always known that the way she and her family earn their living is slightly outside of the law. Breaking into the homes of the rich and picking the locks on their safes may not be condoned by British law enforcement, but World War II is in full swing, Ellie's cousins Colm and Toby are off fighting against Hitler, and Uncle Mick's more honorable business as a locksmith can't pay the bills any more.
So when Uncle Mick receives a tip about a safe full of jewels in the empty house of a wealthy family, he and Ellie can't resist. All goes as planned--until the pair are caught redhanded. Ellie expects them to be taken straight to prison, but instead they are delivered to a large townhouse, where government official Major Ramsey is waiting with an offer: either Ellie agrees to help him break into a safe and retrieve blueprints that will be critical to the British war effort, before they can be delivered to a German spy, or he turns her over to the police.
Ellie doesn't care for the Major's imperious manner, but she has no choice, and besides, she's eager to do her bit for king and country. She may be a thief, but she's no coward. When she and the Major break into the house in question, they find instead the purported German spy dead on the floor, the safe already open and empty. Soon, Ellie and Major Ramsey are forced to put aside their differences to unmask the double-agent, as they try to stop allied plans falling into German hands.

My Review:

I just got the pun in the title. Electra McDonnell is a safecracker – among all sorts of other thievery. In this WW2 era mystery thriller, Ellie is recruited, just short of press-ganged, by the agency that will be better known as MI6, in order to do what she does. That is, the Secret Intelligence Service requires her to serve her country by cracking a safe containing classified documents that a traitor plans to turn over to the Nazis.

Yes, they could just barge in, blow the safe, and arrest everyone involved, but that’s not going to put misinformation into enemy hands. Cracking the safe, substituting false documents for the real ones, does have that potential. IF they can open the safe without the traitors being the wiser.

That’s where Electra McDonnell and her Uncle Mick, small-time thieves and safecrackers trying to supplement their honest income as locksmiths, come into the picture. They get set up by MI6 and get nabbed by the police, but instead of going to jail, they get an offer they really can’t refuse.

If they do the job, they’ll be placed on the government payroll. If they refuse, they’ll get placed in one of His Majesty’s Prisons instead. All Electra has to do is crack a safe while her Uncle is held as “collateral”.

Sneaking in goes off without a hitch, except for a couple of small problems that are definitely going to turn out to be big ones. When Electra arrives to open the safe – it’s standing wide open and clearly, obviously, unfortunately – quite, quite empty. While the man that MI6 believed was the traitor is lying on the floor – quite, quite dead.

Electra and her uncle could get out at this point. They’ve done the job they were coerced into doing, they’re not obligated for anything more. But knowing that the “Service” will be watching them makes their income supplementing housebreaking even dicier than normal. And they both want to do their bit for king and country – if not exactly in the usual fashion.

Not to mention, Electra just can’t let it go. Eventually the documents will be found, and Electra’s services as a safecracker might still be needed. The ability to keep cool in danger and under pressure that makes her a good housebreaker and safecracker is also excellent training for a covert operative.

If only the handsome Major with the stick up his ass who is in charge of the operation can manage to get his head unwedged from the same location long enough to see just how much of an asset Electra can be.

Escape Rating A-: World War II, the war years, the years immediately before it and its aftermath, provide plenty of fodder for absolutely oodles of stories. The war years are particularly fruitful for stories with female protagonists – the war created thousands of opportunities for women to have a great deal of independent agency in the absence of so many men at the front. There have also been several books that feature civilians getting roped into the secret services, and A Peculiar Combination reminded me more than a bit of several of them, including The London Restoration by Rachel McMillan, Miss Graham’s Cold War Cookbook by Celia Rees and Death in Focus by Anne Perry. So if you liked one of those you’ll probably like this too, and vice versa.

But Ellie McDonnell is a bit different from the usual run of such heroines because she begins the story not exactly operating on the side of the angels. She’s a thief. In fact, her entire family, her uncle and her two cousins, are all housebreakers although only Ellie and her uncle are safecrackers. Breaking and entering is the family business and it’s a business that Ellie seems to have few, if any, moral qualms about.

They’re very careful housebreakers, after all. They only steal from people who can clearly afford it, and they only break in when they are certain no one is at home – or is going to be at home for some time. It’s also not in any way, shape or form remotely glamorous. It’s a living. Not exactly a respectable living, but a living. It’s a job, not an adventure. Ellie and her uncle may get a thrill out of it, but it isn’t about the thrill. It’s about a roof over their heads and food on the table and making sure there’s enough money coming into the household when legitimate jobs are scarce.

Not that both Ellie and Mick don’t get caught up in the thrill of helping Major Ramsey figure out who the traitor is, and the race against time to switch the documents before they’re handed off to the Nazis.

There’s an element of out of the frying pan into the fire as Ellie and Ramsay move one or two steps forward in their hunt for the enemy agent only to discover themselves back where they’ve started because they’ve swallowed a red herring instead of an actual clue. Or because the actual clue led, as it does at the opening, to an actual dead body. The reader finds themselves misdirected every bit as much as they are. The person who is acting against them seems to be at least one step ahead of them throughout the entire chase – and for excellent reasons which the story does an equally excellent job of concealing.

Returning to Major Ramsey, the man with both a stick and his head up his fundament, there is actually a second “peculiar combination” in this story. A romantic triangle – if that’s what it eventually turns out to be as the series progresses. Ramsay may be romantically interested in Ellie – there certainly are hints in that direction. Ellie is at least attracted to Ramsay, as he’s more than handsome enough, but she’s wary of his imperious manner and his upper-crust background. Meanwhile, there’s another man vying for Ellie’s heart, a childhood friend who is, as the saying goes, no better than he ought to be. But then, neither is Ellie. I hope that this conundrum is eventually resolved with as deft a hand as the spy case is wrapped up in this first book in the series, because as much as I’ve loved the adventure and the misdirection so far, I would be even happier with this story without the potentially messy romantic entanglements. YMMV

But I really did love the spy games, and I like Ellie as an unconventional protagonist quite a lot, so I’m looking forward to the second book in this series, The Key to Deceit, coming out in May, 2022.

Review: The Inheritance by JoAnn Ross

Review: The Inheritance by JoAnn RossThe Inheritance by JoAnn Ross
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Chick Lit, contemporary romance, historical fiction, relationship fiction, women's fiction, World War II
Pages: 384
Published by HQN Books on September 7, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

With a dramatic WWII love story woven throughout, JoAnn Ross's women’s fiction debut is a generational saga full of sisterly affection and rivalry, perfect for fans of Susan Wiggs, Mary Alice Monroe and Lisa Wingate.
When conflict photographer Jackson Swann dies, he leaves behind a conflict of his own making when his three daughters, each born to a different mother, discover that they’re now responsible for the family’s Oregon vineyard—and for a family they didn’t ask for.
After a successful career as a child TV star, Tess is, for the first time in her life, suffering from a serious identity crisis, and renewed resentment around losing her father all over again.
Charlotte, brought up to be a proper Southern wife, gave up her own career to support her husband's political ambitions. On the worst day of her life, she discovers her beloved father has died, she has two sisters she never knew about, and her husband has fallen in love with another woman.
Natalie, daughter of Jack’s longtime mistress, has always known about her half sisters. And she can’t help feeling that when Tess and Charlotte find out, they’ll resent her for being the daughter their father kept.
As the sisters reluctantly gather at the Maison de Madeleine to deal with their father's final wishes, they become enchanted by the legacy they've inherited, and by their grandmother’s rich stories of life in WWII France and the wounded American soldier who would ultimately influence all their lives.

My Review:

When Pulitzer Prize winning conflict photographer Jackson Swann died, the most important thing that he left to his three daughters was not the award-winning Oregon winery that had been handed down in his family for generations, but each other.

The problem, the one that he left to his lawyer and his winery manager, was to get them to accept. Not just the winery – although certainly that, too – but mostly each other.

Tess Swann, Charlotte Aldredge and Natalie Seurat are all adults, all have – or have at least the shreds of – artistic careers of their own. But they’ve never met. They haven’t necessarily known that the others even existed.

These three women have been gathered together, not so much to celebrate the life of the man who links them, but rather to pick up the pieces of their own.

Tess, after a successful career as a child actress, a spectacular failure as a pop singer, and another successful career as a best-selling novelist, is looking for a third act in a life that has already seen plenty. She comes to the winery to recharge and search for a story idea that will get her past her writer’s block.

Her career sacrificed to her controlling husband’s political ambitions, her supposedly perfect marriage in tatters, Charlotte comes to the winery in search of respite and a place to call home – because her soon-to-be-ex-husband’s over-gilded and over-decorated faux antebellum McMansion certainly wasn’t it.

While Natalie returns to the winery to mourn the father that she knew best of all the sisters, and to make sure that her beloved, 96-year-old grandmother is doing as well as she can in the wake of her only son’s death.

Whether they will find what they are each looking for, or something more, or merely closure, they have one growing season at the winery to figure it all out together – or to tear themselves apart.

Escape Rating B: Like yesterday’s book (and a fair number of books in the chick lit/women’s fiction/relationship fiction genre), this is a story about three women, all of whom, coincidentally or otherwise, are at a crossroads in their lives or that face a crossroads because of the events of the story that bring them together.

In this case, the death of their larger-than-life father, no matter how much (Natalie) or how little (Tess) he participated in their lives. Jack Swann, who never seemed to quite know what to do with any of them when he could, manipulates them all after his death in a way that could have been horrible, but isn’t.

He provided an opportunity for all of them that he couldn’t have managed in life, for them to meet, be obligated to spend time together, get to know the grandmother that only Natalie was allowed to know about, and discover the legacy of the family they share.

The story of The Inheritance is, in a word, charming. Just as Jack Swann himself was, even if he couldn’t ever manage to stick around. The sisters are different enough from each other to stand as individuals, while at the same time sharing just enough characteristics to seem like they might make their initially tenuous connection work.

Their father turns out not to be the glue that ultimately binds them. That position is reserved for their grandmother Madeleine, who tells them the story of how she met and married their grandfather in France fighting for the Resistance in WW2. A story which inspires Tess’s writing, Charlotte’s realization that the life she has is not the one she wants or needs, and Natalie throwing caution to the winds in order to pursue the man she’s loved all her life.

I was charmed by this story, and thought that the way that the lives of the sisters finally mingled was lovely even if it was a bit contrived in the service of the story. There were a couple of bits that niggled at me.

Tess never met her father. That he didn’t raise her was one thing, but they never seem to have met at all in her conscious memory, and we never do find out why. As many family secrets as get revealed – and there are PLENTY – that omission felt like it just…dangled. Even after his marriage to Charlotte’s mother fell apart he was still a real if occasional presence in her life. But not Tess.

Second, there’s the show/tell repetition of Madeleine’s fascinating story about meeting, falling for and marrying her American pilot, Robert Swann. It’s a lovely and romantic story, and it serves as inspiration to all three sisters even though Tess is the one who plans to turn it into a novel. But we read Madeleine’s account as she remembers it and then it is repeated as she tells it to her granddaughters. While it’s normally better to show instead of tell, by the way the story works the telling feels like the better option. But one or the other would have been sufficient.

So I enjoyed reading The Inheritance, but it didn’t quite hit the spot as well as yesterday’s book. That’s possibly because this one reminded me a bit of Rhys Bowen’s World War II books, particularly In Farleigh Field, one of the subplots in Pardonable Lies, part of  the Maisie Dobbs series and a third book I can’t put my finger on and it’s driving me bananas. It could be just because it’s a bit too similar to yesterday’s book and would have been a better read not quite so close.

But if you’re looking for a charming read that touches on a few dark places but doesn’t go too deeply, includes not one but four happy endings, and tells a lovely story of a surprising sisterhood, The Inheritance is a great way to while away some cozy reading hours.

Review: The Bookseller’s Secret by Michelle Gable

Review: The Bookseller’s Secret by Michelle GableThe Bookseller's Secret by Michelle Gable
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, women's fiction, World War II
Pages: 400
Published by Graydon House on August 17, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The Bookseller's Secret is a delight from start to finish, a literary feast any booklover will savor!”—Kate Quinn, New York Times bestselling author of The Rose Code
ARISTOCRAT, AUTHOR, BOOKSELLER, WWII SPY—A THRILLING NOVEL ABOUT REAL-LIFE LITERARY ICON NANCY MITFORD
In 1942, London, Nancy Mitford is worried about more than air raids and German spies. Still recovering from a devastating loss, the once sparkling Bright Young Thing is estranged from her husband, her allowance has been cut, and she’s given up her writing career. On top of this, her five beautiful but infamous sisters continue making headlines with their controversial politics.
Eager for distraction and desperate for income, Nancy jumps at the chance to manage the Heywood Hill bookshop while the owner is away at war. Between the shop’s brisk business and the literary salons she hosts for her eccentric friends, Nancy’s life seems on the upswing. But when a mysterious French officer insists that she has a story to tell, Nancy must decide if picking up the pen again and revealing all is worth the price she might be forced to pay.
Eighty years later, Heywood Hill is abuzz with the hunt for a lost wartime manuscript written by Nancy Mitford. For one woman desperately in need of a change, the search will reveal not only a new side to Nancy, but an even more surprising link between the past and present…
“With a vivid cast of unforgettable characters, Gable expertly and cleverly delivers wit, humor, and intrigue on every page. What a delightful escape.”—Susan Meissner, bestselling author of 

The Nature of Fragile Things


“A triumphant tale that highlights the magic of bookshops and literature to carry people through even the darkest days of war.”—Kristina McMorris, New York Times bestselling author of Sold on a Monday

My Review:

The secret that the bookseller is keeping forms a link between the lives of two women who are facing the same crisis in the same location – eighty years apart.

When Nancy Mitford and Katharine Cabot each step through the doors of the Heywood Hill Bookshop in London, they are writers who seem to have lost their writing mojo – even if Nancy Mitford wouldn’t have known what that term meant.

Both have had moderate success, along with a couple of books that sank nearly without a trace. In 1942, Mitford was still smarting from the failure of timing that was the publication of Pigeon Pie, a book lampooning the “Phoney War” of 1939. Unfortunately for Mitford, the book was released just as the Sitzkrieg became the Blitzkrieg, making the book not just passe but in very poor taste.

(The sinking of Pigeon Pie got a brief mention in another recent WW2 book set in a bookstore, The Last Bookshop in London, as the unsold copies got summarily returned to the publisher. If you liked that book you’ll probably like this one and vice versa.)

As each of the women crosses the threshold of Heywood Hill they are facing variations of the same crossroad. In the midst of the war, Mitford feels as if she’s lost both the time and the inclination to write. Katie, in the wake of multiple personal losses, isn’t sure she has it in her to write again, and is even less certain that it’s worth trying.

We follow their stories back and forth, from Nancy during the war years working in the bookshop to keep body and soul together in a material sense while worried that she’ll ever find time to write anything ever again. She’s somewhat desperately in search of both a few spare minutes a day to write and a muse to inspire her to write.

It’s that search for inspiration, or rather what she seems to have found to fill it, that links Mitford to Katie. Peter Bailey has scraps of evidence that Mitford was writing an autobiography about her war work with refugees, a story that would feature his own grandmother. He’s searching for the manuscript of that book – if it even exists.

Katie, who wrote her thesis on Mitford, is willing to help him search for that manuscript so she can continue procrastinating over her own empty pages. That Bailey is intelligent, interesting and incredibly handsome doesn’t impact Katie’s desire to help him in the slightest.

Right.

In the past, we follow Mitford during the war years – a period that she did not write about herself – as she uses that attempted autobiography to get out of her slump – even if it never sees the light of day.

In the present Katie uses her search for the manuscript and her flirtation with Bailey to inspire her to pick up her own pen – or in her case open her word processor.

While the current manager of Heywood Hill looks on and hopes that he is doing the right thing. It’s left up to the reader to be the judge of that!

Escape Rating A-: I was a lot more charmed by this than I expected to be, and also a lot less lost than I thought I might be. I have not read Mitford at all, so when I came into this the only background I had were some of the better-known historical bits, that her family was involved in leftist politics before, during and after the war. I did think this might be a bit more like The Last Bookshop in London than it turned out to be, so that reference to Pigeon Pie did link the two a bit.

My lack of background about Mitford wasn’t really an issue as this story is very much a “what if?” kind of story. It’s not biographical because little is known about Mitford’s activities during the war, particularly her work at Heyward Hill. So all of the parts from Mitford’s perspective are meant to look and sound and act like her, but may or may not bear huge resemblance to what she actually did during those years.

Nancy Mitford

Whatever she truly did during the war, it’s clear that Nancy Mitford was a complex individual who mined the triumphs and tragedies of her life – and there were plenty of both – in her fiction. Her best known works, The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate, both published after the end of the war, managed to tell and retell different variations of her life in a way that let her explore her past and possibly expiate it without making relationships with her family any worse or more strained than they already were.

But when this story takes place, those bestselling books weren’t even a gleam in the author’s eye. Her success was still in the future and her present was a bit bleak in more ways than one.

And that’s where Katie’s story comes in. She has one bestselling book under her authorial belt and zero inspiration for a second. She turns to Mitford for both comfort and inspiration, comfort in the re-reading of her favorites and inspiration because Mitford went through a 15-year dry spell and Katie’s isn’t nearly that long yet. What she hopes for but doesn’t expect to find is a way forward for herself in both her life and her art.

Both parts of this story weave the personal with the professional, the difficulty of getting out of a slump, the relentless pressures of time and just plain life in general, and the way that real life intrudes and inspires at the same time. Katie both feels for Mitford and gains perspective from her at the same time.

I think that’s the part that charmed me. Coming into this cold, so to speak, I didn’t have any preconceptions about Mitford so was able to see the ways in which the two women were alike in spite of the difference of nearly a century. Both independent, both sometimes bowed under the weight of other people’s expectations, both having an approach/avoidance conflict about their work and everything else in their lives. They seemed like sisters under the skin and I wanted a happy ending for them both, but on their terms. Mitford seems to have more or less gotten hers, so Katie definitely has a chance!

Because that bookseller kept his secret after all.

Review: Clark and Division by Naomi Hirahara

Review: Clark and Division by Naomi HiraharaClark and Division by Naomi Hirahara
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery, World War II
Pages: 312
Published by Soho Crime on August 3, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Set in 1944 Chicago, Edgar Award-winner Naomi Hirahara’s eye-opening and poignant new mystery, the story of a young woman searching for the truth about her revered older sister’s death, brings to focus the struggles of one Japanese American family released from mass incarceration at Manzanar during World War II.
Twenty-year-old Aki Ito and her parents have just been released from Manzanar, where they have been detained by the US government since the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, together with thousands of other Japanese Americans. The life in California the Itos were forced to leave behind is gone; instead, they are being resettled two thousand miles away in Chicago, where Aki’s older sister, Rose, was sent months earlier and moved to the new Japanese American neighborhood near Clark and Division streets. But on the eve of the Ito family’s reunion, Rose is killed by a subway train.
Aki, who worshipped her sister, is stunned. Officials are ruling Rose’s death a suicide. Aki cannot believe her perfect, polished, and optimistic sister would end her life. Her instinct tells her there is much more to the story, and she knows she is the only person who could ever learn the truth.
Inspired by historical events, Clark and Division infuses an atmospheric and heartbreakingly real crime fiction plot with rich period details and delicately wrought personal stories Naomi Hirahara has gleaned from thirty years of research and archival work in Japanese American history.

My Review:

This story is a reminder that, for all its midwestern friendliness, Chicago is still as Carl Sandburg so famously put it, the “City of the Big Shoulders”, and it can turn a cold, cold heart towards anyone it deems an outsider. It’s why Chicago, to this day, is considered one of the most segregated cities in the U.S., along with the New York City/North Jersey/Long Island metroplex, Milwaukee (which is close to becoming part of greater Chicagoland every day) and Detroit.

The biggest part of this story is about the Japanese-American experience in Chicago during World War II, as seen through the eyes of Aki Ito, a young Nisei woman from California by way of the Manzanar Relocation Center (read as political double-speak for concentration camp) who arrives in Chicago in 1944 with her parents to discover that her older sister Rose died the day before, crushed under the wheels of one of Chicago’s famous “El” trains. Rose’s death is ruled as a suicide, but Aki is determined to prove that her idolized older sister was murdered.

But Clark and Division is not a murder mystery, although it is being promoted that way. And not that there isn’t something to investigate in Rose Ito’s death. But Aki doesn’t so much investigate as obsess and flail around. Rose’s death drives Aki, but the investigation of it does not drive the story.

What does drive this story is Aki’s exploration of and adaptation to a city that does not want either her or her people to become part of it. Except that they are and they have, and Aki’s journey is to discover herself and how she fits into both her own community and this strange and unwelcoming place as she learns to live her life out from under her sister’s long and rather brilliant shadow.

Escape Rating B: It’s hard to figure out where to start with this one, because there were so many interesting parts to this story, but none of them quite gelled into a whole. Or at least not into the whole that I was expecting. Which means I ended up with a ton of mixed feelings about this book, because I wanted to like it and get wrapped up in it way more than I did.

One of the reasons the whole is not greater than the sum of its interesting parts is that there is so much that happens before Aki gets to Chicago, and there’s not enough time or space to go into any of it in nearly enough detail. That the story begins with Aki’s childhood in Tropico, California, where her father is successful and respected is a necessary grounding because it makes the transition to Manzanar and the later move north to Chicago and down the socioeconomic scale all that much more traumatic. But we don’t get enough depth in either of those parts of the story so it compresses the time we have with Aki in Chicago where the mystery is.

Also, the story is told from Aki’s first person perspective and it all feels a bit shallow. Not that she’s shallow – or at least no more shallow than any other woman her age – but rather that we only skim the surface of her thoughts and feelings. Too much of what happens to her in Chicago reads like more of a recitation of what she did than an in-depth exploration of what she thought and felt. Although I certainly enjoyed Aki’s description of working for Chicago’s famous Newberry Library in the 1940s.

The portrait drawn of the Japanese-American community in Chicago during the war years, along with the crimes, both to her sister and to her community, that Aki looks into/flails around at are based on historical events, but the story isn’t enough about those crimes to fit this into the true crime genre, either. Although the parts of the story that wrapped around the history of Chicago were fascinating and I wish the story had gotten into more depth there.

And that may sum up my feelings about this book the best. I wish there had been more depth to the fascinating parts. There are clearly entire libraries of stories that could flesh out this piece of forgotten (willfully forgotten in the case of the “relocation centers”) history. I just wish this had one of them.