Review: Band of Sisters by Lauren Willig

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

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

My Review:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The real SCRU in 1917

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Veterans Day 2020

It was not a given that U.S. soldiers in the field would be able to vote or would be supported in exercising the franchise. Many obstacles were whittled away over the years, including a fear of standing armies being allowed to vote in the first place, logistical difficulties delivering the ballots, poll taxes, a multitude of state regulations, and so forth. Even now in the era of the Federal Voting Assistance Program, much work remains to be done to assure that every U.S. citizen-soldier abroad who wants to can vote.

Many of the obstacles that prevented soldiers from voting were the same obstacles that prevented others from voting. It was never just a matter of getting the ballots out to the field and back.

Voting is and was a right that many soldiers took seriously — including POWs, who in some cases held straw votes even in the face of no expectation that their vote could be counted.

In honor of Veterans Day and the ongoing struggle to truly support U.S. military personnel, here is some reading.

General Grant to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, 27 September 1864:

The exercise of the right of suffrage by the officers and soldiers of armies in the field is a novel thing. It has, I believe, generally been considered dangerous to constitutional liberty and subversive of military discipline. But our circumstances are novel and exceptional. A very large proportion of legal voters of the United States are now either under arms in the field, or in hospitals, or otherwise engaged in the military service of the United States. Most of these men are not regular soldiers in the strict sense of that term; still less are they mercenaries who give their services to the Government simply for its pay, having little understanding of political questions or feeling little or no interest in them. On the contrary, they are American citizens, having still their homes and social and political ties binding them to the States and districts from which they come, and to which they expect to return. They have left their homes temporarily to sustain the cause of their country in the hour of its trial. In performing this sacred duty they should not be deprived of a most precious privilege. They have as much right to demand that their votes shall be counted in the choice of their rulers as those citizens who remain at home. Nay, more, for they have sacrificed more for their country. I state these reasons in full, for the unusual thing of allowing armies in the field to vote, that I may urge on the other hand that nothing more than the fullest exercise of this right should be allowed, for anything not absolutely necessary to this exercise cannot but be dangerous to the liberties of the country. The officers and soldiers have every means of understanding the questions before the country. The newspapers are freely circulated, and so, I believe, are the documents prepared by both parties to set forth the merits and claims of their candidates…

Lt. Harold Norris, stationed in Britain, in a letter to Yank Magazine appearing in its 17 March 1944 issue:

Dear Yank:

Yours is a young, lusty publication that doesn’t pull its punches, and I think the soldier vote is an issue that needs some of your punching. The denial by Congress of the right to vote is an outright contradiction of the Four Freedoms, the Atlantic Charter, our Constitution or any name our war aims go by. Look, Yank, why don’t you say something on this? Secretary Stimson has said that 48 state laws make soldier voting impossible. So if we don’t have the Federal Government or the Army to administrate the voting, we’ll have vote prohibition this war.

You’re pretty sharp, Yank — can’t you see that this representatives of the poll tax and state’s rights are using that prop wash to deny the soldiers the right to vote in the same way they have denied the vote to others? A lot of us look upon this issue as one test of the sincerity of democratic intentions in the war and in the peace. And we would much rather have our right to vote than the mustering-out pay of $300, which we all may pay for through the nose through inflation anyhow. The soldier-voting issue is a morale one. Our morale is high, but there is no limit. Punch a little bit for us on this issue and our moral will hit an even higher ceiling.

Image of the Federal War Ballot used in 1944
Federal War Ballot used by soldiers to vote in 1944.

Further reading and viewing:

Those who seek to restrict the vote are the enemies of democracy.

By the way, are you a servicemember or U.S. citizen abroad who is eligible to vote in Senate runoff in Georgia on 5 January 2020? Check out the FVAP page for Georgia on how to register and request an absentee ballot.

Review: Death in Focus by Anne Perry

Review: Death in Focus by Anne PerryDeath in Focus (Elena Standish #1) by Anne Perry
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss, supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery, World War I, World War II
Series: Elena Standish #1
Pages: 320
Published by Ballantine Books on September 17, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes &

In the start of an all-new mystery series set in pre-World War II Europe, an intrepid young photographer carries her dead lover's final, world-shattering message into the heart of Berlin as Hitler ascends to power.

On vacation from London on the beautiful Italian coast, twenty-eight-year-old Elena Standish and her older sister, Margot, have finally been able to move on from the lasting trauma of the Great War, in which the newly married Margot lost her husband and the sisters their beloved brother. Touring with her camera in hand, Elena has found new inspiration in the striking Italian landscape, and she's met an equally striking man named Ian. When Ian has to leave unexpectedly, Elena--usually the more practical of the sisters--finds she's not ready to part from him, and the two share a spontaneous train trip home to England. But a shocking sequence of events disrupts their itinerary, forcing Elena to personally deliver a message to Berlin on Ian's behalf, one that could change the fate of Europe.

Back home, Elena's diplomat father and her secretive grandfather--once head of MI6, unbeknownst to his family--are involved in their own international machinations. Worried when Elena still hasn't returned from Italy, her grandfather starts to connect the dots between her change in plans and an incident in Berlin, where Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich are on the rise. It seems the message Elena delivered has forced her into a dangerous predicament, and her grandfather's old contacts from MI6 may be the only people who can get her out alive--if Elena can tell the difference between her allies and her enemies.

New York Times bestselling author Anne Perry merges family secrets with suspense on the world stage, as darkness bubbles under the surface of a Europe on the brink of change. In these complicated times, Elena emerges as a strong new heroine who learns quickly that when nothing is certain, she can rely only on herself.

My Review:

Today is Veterans Day in the U.S. and Remembrance Day in the U.K. and other Commonwealth countries. On this day in 1919, “at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month”, the guns of World War I finally went silent.

I don’t usually post a review on this day, but this marvelous book dropped into my lap, and it seemed so perversely relevant to the day that I couldn’t help myself.

Death in Focus does not take place during the Great War, but the war and its aftermath directly influences everything that happens within it. Both because all of the characters are still scarred by the war well over a decade later, but also because the seeds of World War II were sown in the treaty that ended World War I.

But that’s something that is taken as a given now. One of the things that underpins this story is that those seeds were sown on both sides of that first conflict. The punishing reparations inflicted upon Germany as the losing side set up the desperate economic conditions that fueled Hitler’s rise to power.

The brutal death toll on the winning side, particularly in Great Britain, led to the tragic appeasement tactics of the interwar years. Britain had lost an entire generation of young men, and few of the survivors were willing to entertain the possibility that all of those sacrifices might be in vain. Many, including those in government, were willing to tolerate anything, no matter how heinous, in order to preserve the fragile peace.

Not that there weren’t plenty of people in Britain, including Duke of Windsor (the former King Edward VIII) who sympathized with entirely too many of Hitler’s goals, including the concept of the Aryans as the so-called “master race” along with the willingness to eliminate any people who were not part of that “race”. A belief that led to the concentration camps and the gas chambers.

While Death in Focus doesn’t deal directly with the factions in Britain who believed that the concentration camp opened at Dachau in 1933 (when this story takes place) were just a good start, it does give insight into those, both in government and out, who simply could not face the idea of another war because they lost so much in the last war and couldn’t even bear the idea of doing it again.

So, the story of Death in Focus operates on two fronts. One is the story that follows Elena Standish as she finds herself in the midst of Nazi Germany on the run from both the Gestapo and the British Foreign Service, betrayed by her own country and framed for a crime that she did not commit.

Meanwhile, back on the home front, her father and grandfather are at loggerheads, and not just about Elena’s current plight.

Her father is a senior official in the diplomatic service who is certain that his father, a paper pusher during the first war, can’t possibly know what the current situation in Germany – or anywhere else – is really like. That the old man can’t possibly understand why so many, including himself, will do anything to prevent another war. And that both Hitler and Mussolini are actually doing good things for their countries that shouldn’t be interfered with from the outside.

But granddad is actually the retired head of MI6. He knows perfectly well what happened during the first war, and still has his finger on the pulse of current events around the world. He is certain that another war is coming and is beyond worried that his beloved granddaughter seems to have been unwittingly caught up in it.

Escape Rating A: As much as I got completely wrapped up in this story, I have to admit that what grabbed me wasn’t Elena, even though this is the first book in a projected series that will follow her exploits.

Exploits that remind me more than a bit of those of Maisie Dobbs, particularly in Journey to Munich, where Maisie was undercover in Nazi Germany in 1938. Although Maisie’s official cover doesn’t fail quite as badly as the way that Elena gets dumped in the soup.

Instead, the fascination for me with Death in Focus was on the home front, with her grandfather’s internal conflict. He has kept his secrets for so long, to the point where he and his son have become estranged, because he knows the war is coming and his son, in grief over his own wartime losses, needs desperately to stick his head in the sand and believe that the peace will last. Their characters and their dilemma resonated more for me, perhaps because they felt more fully developed as characters. Elena, like Maisie Dobbs in the first book in her series, has a lot of development yet to come.

In spite of his diplomatic service, her father doesn’t see what is going on because he doesn’t want to see. And in his willful blindness we see the same in plenty of others, including the government of Neville Chamberlain. Hindsight is not only 20/20, but it is downright painful.

At the same time, this is a murder mystery. Elena seems to be trailing dead bodies behind her, and she doesn’t know why. She only knows that she herself is not the killer. So there is a traditional mystery to solve, albeit in very nontraditional circumstances.

In the end, many characters discover that things are not quite as they seem. Including everything that Elena believed about her trip to Berlin and what she discovered. And that while revenge is still a dish best served cold, sometimes the chef for that dish misjudges their enemies and finds themselves served instead.

The Sunday Post AKA What’s on my (Mostly Virtual) Nightstand 11-11-18

Sunday Post

On this day, one hundred years ago, at “the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month” of 1918, the guns of the Great War finally went silent. Although it was only an armistice and not an actual peace, the final shots had been fired and the formal peace agreement, the Treaty of Versailles was signed the following year. This day is celebrated as Remembrance Day in the Commonwealth countries and Veterans Day in the United States.

Current Giveaways:

$10 Gift Card or $10 Book in the November of Books Giveaway Hop
Paperback set of the Hidden Legacy series by Ilona Andrews

Winner Announcements:

The winner of Snowfall on Lighthouse Lane by JoAnn Ross is Linda R.

Blog Recap:

B+ Review: Diamond Fire by Ilona Andrews + Giveaway
A- Review: An Easy Death by Charlaine Harris
A Review: Imager by L.E. Modesitt Jr.
B Review: Midsummer Mayhem by Marty Wingate
B Review: Why Not Tonight by Susan Mallery
Stacking the Shelves (313)

Coming This Week:

Apollo to the Moon by Teasel E. Muir-Harmony (blog tour review)
Super Stocking Stuffer Giveaway Hop
Seasons of Sorcery by Amanda Bouchet, Grace Draven, Jennifer Estep and Jeffe Kennedy (review)
Gratitude Giveaway Hop
Pirate’s Passion by Lisa Kessler (blog tour review)

Review: Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War by Mary Roach

Review: Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War by Mary RoachGrunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War by Mary Roach
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: military science, science
Pages: 276
Published by W. W. Norton & Company on June 7th 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes &

Best-selling author Mary Roach explores the science of keeping human beings intact, awake, sane, uninfected, and uninfested in the bizarre and extreme circumstances of war.
Grunt tackles the science behind some of a soldier's most challenging adversaries—panic, exhaustion, heat, noise—and introduces us to the scientists who seek to conquer them. Mary Roach dodges hostile fire with the U.S. Marine Corps Paintball Team as part of a study on hearing loss and survivability in combat. She visits the fashion design studio of U.S. Army Natick Labs and learns why a zipper is a problem for a sniper. She visits a repurposed movie studio where amputee actors help prepare Marine Corps medics for the shock and gore of combat wounds. At Camp Lemmonier, Djibouti, in east Africa, we learn how diarrhea can be a threat to national security. Roach samples caffeinated meat, sniffs an archival sample of a World War II stink bomb, and stays up all night with the crew tending the missiles on the nuclear submarine USS Tennessee. She answers questions not found in any other book on the military: Why is DARPA interested in ducks? How is a wedding gown like a bomb suit? Why are shrimp more dangerous to sailors than sharks? Take a tour of duty with Roach, and you’ll never see our nation’s defenders in the same way again.

My Review:

This review will be posted on Veterans Day 2016. Some years I write something about the holiday and the history behind it. My post for 2012, titled Remembrance Day, – Veterans Day, is still one of the most read items that I have ever posted.

This year I’ve chosen to review a book about the unsung heroes, scientists and researchers, who do the unglamorous and often stinky work that helps more soldiers come back as live veterans instead of dead heroes. It is research that delves into some of the odder corners of science and technology, and comes with not just a necessary dose of gallows humor, but often with a bit of slapstick as well.

Mary Roach’s latest work of nonfiction, Grunt, is all about the crazy ideas that help soldiers survive, whether on the battlefields or off. The problems and conditions that the author investigated are usually not remotely glamorous. They often delve much too deeply into realms that most of us would rather not think or talk about.

Reading the chapter about research into the causes and prevention of diarrhea over dinner was probably a mistake on my part. But she does manage to make the most mundane, and occasionally odoriferous, topics utterly fascinating.

So many of the issues explored in this book, from sleep deprivation among submariners to the potential for loss of life on SEAL teams because one member has dysentery at an inopportune moment all do impact on not just combat readiness but also on combat survivability.

Pilots in World War II were afraid of being shot down into shark-infested waters. Really. There was a lot of research into developing shark repellent – all of which failed fairly miserably. And turned out to be unnecessary. Sharks seem to be interested in prey that won’t fight back. They went after lots of dead pilots and dead or dying shipwreck victims, but healthy pilots swam for hours in shark infested waters with very few casualties. Sharks are capricious – there were a few.

The research on terrible smells was much funnier, but still had a deadly purpose. Trying to determine both which smells would completely distract enemy combatants and developing ways to deliver the stench without getting it on the messenger was hilarious. And often wrong headed in multiple ways. And yet, if an enemy could be so overcome by “Stench Soup” or the hilariously named “U.S. Government Standard Bathroom Malodor” that they can’t manage to draw their weapons, they could be disarmed and captured with much lower loss of life – at least as long as the “good guys” were wearing gas masks.

The scenarios that the author investigated ranged from the nearly sublime, uniform materials that can survive fire but not cook their wearer in the desert – to those ridiculous possibilities of stench warfare. But there is plenty of seriousness here as well, for example as she delves into the problem of making a vehicle that will keep its passengers alive if it drives over an IED. The chapters on genital transplants are medically interesting, psychologically fascinating, heartbreaking and slightly crazy making all at the same time.

But every investigation covered in this book, from the stink to the sharks to the maggots, all serve one goal. Bringing more soldiers back alive, and finding ways for them to return to civilian life with the best quality of life possible.

Reality Reading A-: This is a great read. The chapters are all compelling reading, and generally short and sweet (or stinky). There’s just enough detail not just to whet the reader’s appetite (or occasionally kill it) but also to show why the seemingly mundane is so important and worthy of government funding.

All in all, a fascinating read for the day.

Review: Soldier Girls by Helen Thorpe

soldier girls by helen thorpeFormat read: ebook borrowed from the library
Formats available: ebook, paperback, hardcover, audiobook
Genre: nonfiction
Length: 417 pages
Publisher: Scribner
Date Released: August 5, 2014
Purchasing Info: Author’s Website, Publisher’s Website, Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Book Depository

America has been continuously at war since the fall of 2001. This has been a matter of bitter political debate, of course, but what is uncontestable is that a sizeable percentage of American soldiers sent overseas in this era have been women. The experience in the American military is, it’s safe to say, quite different from that of men. Surrounded and far outnumbered by men, imbedded in a male culture, looked upon as both alien and desirable, women have experiences of special interest.

In Soldier Girls, Helen Thorpe follows the lives of three women over twelve years on their paths to the military, overseas to combat, and back home…and then overseas again for two of them. These women, who are quite different in every way, become friends, and we watch their interaction and also what happens when they are separated. We see their families, their lovers, their spouses, their children. We see them work extremely hard, deal with the attentions of men on base and in war zones, and struggle to stay connected to their families back home. We see some of them drink too much, have illicit affairs, and react to the deaths of fellow soldiers. And we see what happens to one of them when the truck she is driving hits an explosive in the road, blowing it up. She survives, but her life may never be the same again.

My Review:

I picked Soldier Girls as my book to review for Veterans Day because it was incredibly appropriate to the theme of the day. And I heard it was good, which it is. It also surprised me by how much it reminded me of a cross between Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed, and one of Jessica Scott’s military-themed romances that highlight the difficulties of returning home after deployment.

Not that Soldier Girls is either a romance or a book about socio-economic class stratification. But as the story of three women who entered or stayed in the National Guard out of mostly economic or job stratification reasons, and whose service has effects on their civilian relationships, the parallels seem to fit.

The three women in Soldier Girls, Michelle, Desma and Debbie, are all from southern Indiana. They are all part of the same unit, and they all joined before 9/11, which is crucial. Before 9/11, National Guard units did not get deployed into overseas war zones. During the Vietnam Era, the Guard was a lucky and cushy way to sit out the war. None of these women expected to deploy overseas, because that wasn’t the way it worked until the Towers fell. And by then, it was too late for them to get out, even if they wanted to.

Michelle was a college freshman at a tiny branch college campus in a dead-end town. The only jobs available were minimum wage, and it seemed like the only way out was either the military or jail. She already had too many family and friends who had fallen down the slippery slope to drug abuse and alcoholism. Michelle joined the Guard for the college tuition.

Desma was a single-mother who joined on a dare, while drunk. As a single mother in a small town not much better off than Michelle, she stayed for the supplemental income, and the camaraderie.

Debbie was probably the best off economically, but she felt trapped in her pink-collar job as manager of a beauty salon. She wanted to do something with more meaning, and her family had a tradition of military service. So she joined to add purpose to her life. She was the oldest of the group, having joined at age 34, and having served in the Guard for 15 or more years by the time she went to Afghanistan with Michelle and Desma.

From the beginning, their experience of service is different because they are women. Combat positions were not open to women, so there were a limited number of positions available to them. They were also attached and detached to different units, because the specialties they trained in were support positions that were moved around.

Debbie spent a lot of years managing the hot dog wagon at morale events. Desma didn’t receive the proper training that she needed before her second deployment, because the training officer refused to admit she existed or allow any of the men in her unit to even speak with her.

There’s a lot of sexism, and some actual harassment. There is also an extensive use of the buddy system and the whisper network to assist all of them in preventing ever being alone with the worst offenders.

All of them use coping mechanisms for the stress of being deployed that cause major problems when they return home. Michelle and Desma both get into short-term relationships where the other party is married. Debbie copes with lots of booze, but her most emotionally sustaining relationship is with a stray dog. And they all bond with each other and the other women in their unit as a way of sharing this sometimes horrible and yet ultimately life-changing year.

What struck me in their stories was how they each came to the Guard with totally different expectations, and yet only Debbie did it out of love of the military or any actual desire to be a soldier. For all of them, the Guard was a means to an end. But they all found meaning in their friendship, even if (possibly especially if) they didn’t find meaning in the service itself.

Reality Rating A: I was riveted by these stories. The author does a terrific job of showing where each of these women came from, both physically and emotionally, and lets us see why they made the choices they did, and how this one year (or two years for Desma and Debbie) impacts the rest of their lives.

There may also be a lesson in here for recruiters or for whoever is responsible for putting together units for deployment. All the women in this unit created a tight bond that helped sustain them in Afghanistan. They all made it through relatively unscathed. However, breaking the unit up in Iraq had negative consequences both for their preparedness while deployed and for their subsequent re-adjustment back to civilian life.

At the opening, I compared this book to two completely different works, one of fiction and one of non-fiction. Jessica Scott’s series, Coming Home, reflects on the difficulties that soldiers face in returning stateside after deployment in a forward base, the toll that their deployment takes on their families and the good and often bad ways in which they cope. Everything that happens to the women in Soldier Girls was reflected in her fictionalized version. These women experienced so many relationships that foundered or succeeded based on their partners’ ability to deal with what had happened to them. They all make questionable personal choices as they attempt to handle those changes. Debbie’s first grandchild is born, and she can’t be there. Desma, a single-mother, has to deal with making childcare arrangements for her three kids while she is deployed, and then attempting to fix things long distance when her first (and second) attempts fall apart. There are negative consequences of her deployment for all three of her kids that will last throughout their lives, in addition to the disability that Desma brings home from her second deployment.

There is an underlying issue in this book about the nature of the all-volunteer military that is fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, and that’s where the reference to Nickel and Dimed comes in. The military offers financial inducements, like supplementary pay and especially college tuition, that are designed to appeal to people, both men and women, in Michelle’s and Desma’s situations; those who want to get out of a dead-end or need a financial boost to make ends wave at each other. This dovetails with Barbara Ehrenreich’s discovery (whatever you think of the way she did it) that it isn’t possible to live on a minimum wage job and still cover your rent, utilities, food and expenses. If she had performed her experiment in southern Indiana instead of Minneapolis, she could have heard Michelle or Desma discussing their reasons for joining the Guard, especially the financial incentives. It’s a sobering thought.

***FTC Disclaimer: Most books reviewed on this site have been provided free of charge by the publisher, author or publicist. Some books we have purchased with our own money or borrowed from a public library and will be noted as such. Any links to places to purchase books are provided as a convenience, and do not serve as an endorsement by this blog. All reviews are the true and honest opinion of the blogger reviewing the book. The method of acquiring the book does not have a bearing on the content of the review.

The Sunday Post AKA What’s on my (Mostly Virtual) Nightstand 11-9-14

Sunday Post

It’s hard to believe that Thanksgiving is almost upon us, but it is barreling towards us at breakneck speed. Unless you are in Canada and it’s already been and gone.

But starting this coming Saturday I’ll be participating in the 5th Annual Gratitude Giveaways Hop. And I’m very grateful that we found a house in Atlanta on the first day of the search. I’m not looking forward to moving, but I am looking forward to being back. Once it’s all done, that is.

This Thursday, Cass and I are doing a joint review, or possibly joint rant, about a dragon book. (because, Cass). There will be snark. Tune in to see what we thought. Or felt. Or puked over.

Current Giveaways:

The French Executioner by C.C. Humphreys (print, U.S. only)
$50 Gift Card, 2 Gift Baskets, print copy of Not Quite Forever by Catherine Bybee and swag

Winner Announcements:

ancillary sword by ann leckieBlog Recap:

A Review: Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie
B+ Review: Core Punch by Pauline Baird Jones
B+ Review: The French Executioner by C.C. Humphreys
Guest Post by Author C.C. Humphreys + Giveaway
A Guest Review by Cryselle: Manipulation by Eden Winters
B+ Review: Not Quite Forever by Catherine Bybee + Giveaway
Stacking the Shelves (111)

gratitude-2013Coming Next Week:

The Red Book of Primrose House by Marty Wingate (blog tour review)
Soldier Girls by Helen Thorpe (review)
Dirty Laundry by Rhys Ford (review)
Til Dragons Do Us Part by Lorenda Christensen (joint review with Cass)
In the Company of Sherlock Holmes edited by Leslie S. Klinger (review)
Gratitude Giveaways Hop

Review: I’ll Be Home for Christmas by Jessica Scott

ill be home for christmas by jessica scottFormat read: ebook provided by NetGalley
Formats available: ebook
Genre: Military romance, Holiday romance
Series: Coming Home #2.6
Length: 126 pages
Publisher: Forever Yours / Grand Central Publishing
Date Released: November 5, 2013
Purchasing Info: Author’s Website, Publisher’s Website, Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo

There’s nothing in the world Army Sergeant Vic Carponti loves more than his wife and his country. Smart-mouthed and easy tempered, he takes everything as a joke…except his promise to come home to his wife, Nicole, for Christmas. As he prepares to leave for his latest deployment into Iraq, Vic will do everything he can to shield his beautiful, supportive wife from the realities of war…and from his own darkest fears.

As a career army wife, Nicole Carponti knows just what to expect from her husband’s tour of duty: loneliness, relentless worry, and a seemingly endless countdown until the moment Vic walks through the door again. But when the unthinkable happens, Nicole and Vic’s bond is tested like never before and changes everything they believe to be true about the power of love and the simple beauty of being home for the holidays.

My Review:

In this story the author finally takes one of the most interesting (and funny!) characters in her marvelous Coming Home series and lets us get inside of his more than slightly off-kilter head for his version of the events that take place during the story so far.

And it’s fantastic seeing Sergeant Vic Carponti’s extremely askew version of the world from inside his head.

While Vic sees his purpose in life as making people laugh in order to distract them from the often truly bad shit that is going on around them, such as serving in Iraq during “The Surge” of 2007, he is also part of the one stable and happy marriage that readers see during the course of the series.

because of you by jessica scottBut it’s Vic dealing with his career-ending injuries in Because of You, the first book in the series, that helps to make Shane Garrison finally get his head out of his own ass about his. Vic is often the catalyst for the action of others. He makes things happen, sometimes by making them laugh, sometimes by irritating the crap out of them.

Vic’s wife Nicole loves him to pieces. I’ll Be Home for Christmas is their love story, even though they’ve already met, fallen in love, and gotten married. Their marriage, unlike another marriage in the series, is not on the rocks. The Carpontis are quite happily married, and enthusiastic about it into the bargain.

The love story here is about the toll that deployments take on a marriage, and how difficult it is for the spouse that remains behind. How much the worrying weighs on Nikki when Vic is at war, and how difficult it is to keep from thinking that each phone call is going to be the last time they talk.

They try to be strong for each other, because they are each doing the thing they are made to do. It’s not as if Nikki’s job is easy either. She’s an officer in the Army Criminal Investigative Division. But being a cop is not as dangerous as going to war.

Vic fears every time he deploys, that Nikki will come to her senses and realize that she can do better than him. Nikki just fears that he’ll come back in a coffin.

Neither of them has quite prepared for him to mostly come back.

Anything for You book coverEscape Rating A: If you love military romance, I can’t recommend Jessica Scott’s Coming Home series highly enough. Every single book in this series is simply awesome, which is why I picked I’ll Be Home for Christmas to review for Veterans Day. I knew it would be perfect, and it is.

The story takes place in parallel with events in Because of You (review) and Anything for You (review), and it probably works better if you’ve read those first. But read the whole series, they are absolutely made of win.

Part of what makes I’ll Be Home for Christmas special is that we don’t read a lot of love stories where the couple in the story starts out happily married. There’s no breakup drama or misunderstandammit. Vic and Nikki have stress because of his deployment, and they are both concerned because in 2007 the information about The Surge was that there was going to be a lot of pushback. He was absolutely going into harm’s way.

There is tons of stress on military families, and it takes a huge toll. That’s where the drama in this story is. As readers, we know they are going to be okay together, because it’s already happened, but this is the first time we get to see things from Vic’s and Nikki’s points of view.

And since they are fantastic people (and in Vic’s case, sometimes hilariously funny), it’s terrific to have them finally tell their own story.

Be prepared; you’ll need kleenex for this one. And maybe not to be too far from a bathroom. You’ll also laugh very hard!

***FTC Disclaimer: Most books reviewed on this site have been provided free of charge by the publisher, author or publicist. Some books we have purchased with our own money or borrowed from a public library and will be noted as such. Any links to places to purchase books are provided as a convenience, and do not serve as an endorsement by this blog. All reviews are the true and honest opinion of the blogger reviewing the book. The method of acquiring the book does not have a bearing on the content of the review.

SEAL of My Dreams

SEAL of My Dreams is a terrific anthology with a timely theme. Every story in this book features Navy SEALs as protective alpha males who are also tender romantic heroes. Each and every one is rewarded with their own, extra-special happy ever after, just in time for Veterans’ Day.

There are 18 stories in this collection. Some are short. Some are novella-length. Some of the stories stand completely on their own, and some are part of the author’s ongoing series about men in uniform. Of course, I have my favorites.

The two I enjoyed most are about wounded warriors, the women they left behind, and the brave soldier dogs who served with them. And, like so many of the stories in this collection, both mix a little bitter in with the sweet. And one story just gave me the chills.

Baby I’m Back by Stephanie Bond is about a wounded SEAL’s return to his old hometown of Sweetness, Georgia. Seaman Barry Ballantine returns after a long absence to find that the ugly-duckling that he and his high school friends teased has turned into a beautiful swan–and that she is the best physical therapist he has ever met. Which is an excellent thing, because he needs her to help him adjust to the prosthetic lower leg he acquired while on his last assignment. He’s only planning to be in town long enough to perform one last service for a comrade, then leave. But his attraction to that therapist, plus the connivance of his old friends, mean that fate has another plan for him. Did I mention there was a dog?

Dog Heart by Barbara Samuel is one of the short stories in the collection. Marcus Stone brings Staff Sgt. Thor to the best vet and animal therapist that he knows. Sgt. Thor had been a combat dog, attached to a SEAL unit on a top secret mission in Afghanistan that had gone very, very wrong. Thor was one of five SEALs badly injured on that mission, and Marcus was another. Thor’s handler was killed. But the best animal therapist that Marcus knows is also the only woman he ever really loved. The woman who turned away from him when he enlisted in the Navy after college graduation. Can healing Sgt. Thor heal all of their hearts?

Letters to Ellie, by Loreth Anne White, simply haunted me. The story starts with Ellie Winters, a radio host, conducting a call-in show on National POW/MIA Recognition Day. The callers normally remember their loved ones, but the last caller stuns her. Ellie has been waiting for 15 years for word of the man she loved. Max and Flynn were prisoners together, but only Max made it all the way back home. Max brings Ellie closure, and grief. But Flynn and Max spent 15 years as POWs, and the only thing keeping both of them alive was the thought and memory of Ellie. Now that only one of them has come home, can Ellie make a future with a man who remembers loving her, even if he’s not the man she once loved?

Letters to Ellie reminded me a lot of the poem from the Vietnam War. The one by that famous poet Anonymous. It ends like this:

There were lots of things I wanted to make up to you
when you returned from Vietnam.
But you didn’t.

Escape Rating B+: The stories I enjoyed, I liked a lot. The stories that were part of ongoing series were not as much fun because I just wasn’t into those series. But all in all, this is a collection that is well worth reading.

This book was clearly a labor of love. To quote from the foreword: “No one involved in this project will profit except the Veteran’s Research Corporation, a non-profit foundation supporting medical research for veterans.” The design work for the cover was donated, the copyeditor donated her time, even the licensing fee for the cover image was discounted.

I received my review copy of this book, as I do many of my review copies, from NetGalley. But on this particular occasion I’d like to give a special recognition to Bell Bridge Books for making this a “Read Now” title on NetGalley. This made SEAL of My Dreams immediately available to every single reviewer who requested. Thank you!