The Splendid and the Vile, by Erik Larson*****

If some of what follows challenges what you have come to believe about Churchill and this era, may I just say that history is a lively abode, full of surprises.”

Erik Larson wrote The Devil in the White City, and so when I saw that he had written a biography of Churchill, I leapt at the chance to read it. Thanks go to Net Galley and Crown Publishing for the review copy. This book is for sale today.

I have spent most of my life dodging stories of the second world war, largely because I had grown bored, as a young woman, hearing my father’s ramblings with friends. No young person wants to hear their parent’s stories unless they involve great fame or heroism, and perhaps not always, even then. And so, when someone older than myself would speak of “the war,” my ears closed at once. Footage of Churchill’s iconic speeches sometimes popped up on the television, but all I heard was “blah blah blah,” and I would either change the channel or leave the room. And so, it is only now—after a career of teaching American history and government to teenagers—that I find myself curious about Churchill.

The book begins when King George asks Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain—who, along with his staff, had been carrying on with ordinary length work days despite the crisis at hand, and who had been contemplating a surrender to Germany—to step down, and then invites Churchill to take his place. Churchill has no intention of surrendering a single centimeter of British soil to Hitler, and soon everyone knows this. The book ends when the United States formally enters the war. By focusing on this brief period, Larson is able to include detail, the meaty anecdotes and quotes that a full length biography would limit. That said, the hard cover version of this book is still over 600 pages in length, if one includes the thorough and excellent endnotes, and if you haven’t the stamina for other books of this length, you probably won’t have the stamina for this one, either.

Since my childhood impression of Churchill was that he was dull and stodgy, I was fascinated to learn how truly unconventional he had been. He often worked 16 hour days and expected his staff to do the same, but he did so on his own terms, breaking for two baths daily (but dictating from the tub to a male secretary that sat tub side, tablet and pencil in hand), and likewise doing business from his bed, not merely over the phone, but with documents, a typist, an immense thermador to hold his two foot long cigars, and his cat, whom he called “darling.” He might be clad in a silk floral dressing gown (in America, this would be a fancy robe) and pom-pom slippers, or he might be buck naked. Today we would refer to the working baths and feet up in bed as a sort of self-care; the fact that he was able to carry it off during much more conventionally straightened times amazes me. He kept a machine gun in the trunk of his car, and he armed his family members, including the women. Invasion was a real possibility, and if it occurred, he and his family would be primary targets. He told them that if they were to be taken, possibly killed, the least they could do would be to take at least one Nazi down with them. And like so many fathers, he climbed onto the roof during Nazi bombing raids to see the action despite the risk, but made his daughter stay far away from London in the countryside lest she find herself in harm’s way.

Larson incorporates a variety of sources, but the two most frequently quoted are from Colville, who was one of his private secretaries, and Mary Churchill, his teenager. I question the amount of ink young Mary receives initially, but at the end, when I see where life took her, my objections fade. Also included are the views of top Nazi officials, primarily Joseph Goebbels, whose diary shows his dissatisfaction with Roosevelt, whose fireside chats inveighed against Fascism and in favor of the British cousins. Goebbels wishes that Hitler would take a hard line against the Americans, reflecting without an ounce of irony that “One must defend oneself sometime, after all.”

Larson’s congenial narrative draws me in almost like narrative nonfiction. Despite the death, the destruction, and the horror, it is—for me, at least—a curiously soothing read in all but one or two of the harshest spots. Perhaps it is because it was long ago and far away, and I know that—this time, at least—the Fascists will lose.

There is only one photograph in my digital review copy, and a note of a map that will be included in the finished version; I wish there were more. I came to my desktop to see images of the infamous Lord Beaverbrook, the Prof, and Pug Ismay, all of whom were Churchill’s key advisers, and I went to YouTube to listen to the Dunkirk speech and others that were so captivating and celebrated. Now that I grasped the context in which they were given, I can understand why they had an electrifying effect upon the British public and won the favor of other English-speaking nations, my own among them.

Is this the best Churchill biography? For those that want all the nitty gritty, there are many others, and Larson refers to them in his introduction, including one that is eight volumes long. For me, though, this is enough. Those that want an approachable yet professional introduction to this subject could do a lot worse; I recommend you get it and read it, and then you can decide if you want to pursue the subject further.

Highly recommended.

The Spies of Shilling Lane, by Jennifer Ryan****

Sometimes what I really need is a feel-good story. Had I ascertained that this was that sort of book, I would have had it read by the publication date. I read the beginning twice, decided it was going to fall into the grim duty category since I had accepted a review copy, and I set it aside. My apologies go to Net Galley, Crown Books, and the author for my lateness; my heartfelt thanks go to Jayne Entwistle, the reader for the audio version of this lovely tale, for rekindling my interest. I procured the audio version from Seattle Bibliocommons and listened to it while I rode my stationary bike and prepared dinner in the evenings. I began listening to it because I owed a review, but soon I found that I preferred this novel to the other good book I had been listening to just for pleasure.

Our story begins with Mrs. Braithwaite feeling injured and put upon. Her husband is divorcing her, and the women in the local charity club have banded together and ousted her from her treasured position of leadership. She is miserable. Betty, her only child, has run off to London, intent upon aiding her country now that the second World War is upon them, and she isn’t answering her calls. Mrs. Braithwaite decides to visit her, but upon arrival, she discovers that Betty is missing. The story flows from her effort to find her daughter and also herself.

Those seeking an espionage thriller won’t find it here; the story is character based, and in this Ryan succeeds richly. Mrs. Braithwaite enlists the reluctant assistance of Mr. Norris, Betty’s milquetoast landlord, and it is these two characters that are wonderfully developed. None of this would have been achieved without the spot-on cultural insights regarding the World War II generation. The shallower pop-cultural references to music are well and good, but Ryan goes deeper. The fact that the character is known only by her formal title, with the salutary “Mrs.” in place of a first name, speaks not only to the protagonist’s dignified, somewhat cold façade, but also to the practices of the time. Use of first names was considered an intimacy among the elders of this time period; women addressed their peers by it unless they were close friends or family members. Even the way that the plot develops is reminiscent of the fiction and movies of that generation. As in most good historical fiction, the setting mingles with the characters to move the plot forward.

I am not much of a cozy mystery fan, but I think this story would please cozy readers. At the same time, I appreciate the careful balance the author uses; the touching moments are deftly handled, never becoming cloying or maudlin. At other times there’s a playful, spoofing quality to it, as Mrs. Braithwaite and Betty search for each other, each fearing the other is in danger and thus placing herself in it.

I recommend this book to cozy readers, fans of historical fiction, and anyone in need of a boost in morale. It’s for sale now.

The Secret Guests, by Benjamin Black****

It’s World War II, and the Blitz has begun. The Royals are torn, wanting to remain with their subjects and share their misery, but not wanting the risk the well beings of their daughters. It’s decided that the girls must be moved, but with the shipping lanes and skies fraught with peril, where can they go and be safe? Ah, a fine idea: they’ll send them to a cousin in Ireland.

My thanks go to Net Galley and Henry Holt for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

As historical fiction goes, this is lightweight material, based on almost no historical event other than the war itself. However, as general fiction goes it’s terrific, immensely entertaining and droll as heck. I figure it’s 3.5 stars for historical fiction, 4.5 stars as general fiction; thus my 4 star rating.

Our protagonist is Garda Strafford-With-An-R, a marginally competent Irish detective who resembles Stan Laurel, tasked with the security the estate where the girls will be housed. Secondary characters are Celia Nashe, a British cop equivalent to a Secret Service agent, who is assigned to serve as personal security for the princesses; an arrogant, sleazy ambassador named Laschelles; and Strafford’s boss Hegarty, who resembles Oliver Hardy. We also have clueless but entitled Sir William, the girls’ host; two bored princesses that get up to things when nobody’s looking; some household servants that know more than they are supposed to; and a few local people that also know too much.

The fact is that I’m entirely burned out on World War II fiction, and that fact nearly prevents me from requesting this galley. But the spin—Ireland, which remained neutral and flirted with taking the side of Germany, what with its enmity toward the British—proves irresistible. The greatest surprise is how much wit is employed and how fast the story moves. I have never read Black’s work before, and this guy is hilarious. He shifts the point of view often, always from the third person omniscient but varying several times within a single chapter, so we get snippets of the person that’s bored, the person that’s nosy, the person that’s confused and so forth. The word smithery is so original and clever that I cannot put my highlighter down. Highlighting is pointless when I highlight close to half of the text, but I can’t help myself. And best of all, the cliched ending that I think I can see a mile away isn’t happening.

Those of us in the States have a three day weekend right around the corner, and the weather will be too miserable to want to go anywhere. This novel might be just the ticket. If you’re lucky enough to be planning a vacation soon, this would also be a fine beach read. But the humor will be a terrific pick-me-up for those stranded indoors with a case of the grumps. I recommend this book to you, and I would read this author’s work again in a heartbeat.

Best Biography of 2019: Madame Fourcade’s Secret War

Best Military History of 2019: Spearhead, by Adam Makos

Honorable mention:

Becoming Dr. Seuss, by Brian Jay Jones*****

Say this name to schoolteachers and children’s librarians and watch our faces light up, our backs grow a trifle straighter, our steps quicken. Dr. Seuss is the closest thing we have to a patron saint, and when I saw this biography, I wanted it as badly as I’ve wanted any galley. Big thanks go to Net Galley and Penguin Dutton, and many apologies for my tardiness. It’s a strange thing but true: when I must write an unfavorable book review, I know just what to say and can do it the same day I finish reading, but for a momentous work such as this one, I need some time for my thoughts to gel. Brian Jay Jones writes biographies of quirky visionaries such as Washington Irving, George Lucas, and Jim Henson, and he doesn’t cut corners. This biography is highly recommended to adult readers, but don’t go handing it off to your precocious fifth grader until you’ve read it yourself. Geisel’s life held some very deep shadows.

Geisel grew up with comfort and privilege as the heir to a family beer making business; the slings and arrows that came his family’s way during Prohibition taught him that small minds can do ugly things. Still, his youth was mostly untroubled; he attended Dartmouth , where he was voted Least Likely to Succeed, and then Oxford, where his studies in Medieval German floundered, his attention drifting to the margins of his notebook, where he drew fanciful creatures and turreted buildings that would later become iconic. It was Helen, his sweetheart, who suggested he follow his heart and pursue art for a living. His early success came in advertising for Flit bug spray.  Once he and his bride became financially stable enough to move out of their low rent neighborhood and into a tonier area, he discovered he had no use at all for pretension, and he wrote:

“Mrs. Van Bleck

Of the Newport Van Blecks

Is so goddamn rich

She has gold-plated sex

Whereas Miggles and Mitzi

And Bitzi and Sue

Have the commonplace thing

And it just has to do.”

He served in the military during World War II with Francis Ford Coppola making propaganda and training films. His pro-intervention cartoons are surprisingly hawkish—I have the collection titled Dr. Seuss Goes to War on my shelves—but he later realized that it was wrongheaded to demand the internment of Japanese Americans, and in some bizarre way, he intended Horton Hears a Who to be his apology for it.

His family was not Jewish, but his surname confused some people, and he received some anti-Semitic shade that inspired him to stand up for the rights of Jewish Americans.  

Jones deserves credit for confronting the anti-Japanese racism and xenophobia in this author’s early years; he doesn’t gloss over it, and he doesn’t turn it into something prurient either. He lays it straight out, along with Ted’s more enlightened thinking in his later years, and it strikes exactly the right tone. This isn’t comfortable material, but then it shouldn’t be.

The most amazing thing is to learn that Seuss—known to family and friends as Ted—wasn’t a successful author until well into middle age. He vacillated between advertising and “brat books” but hit it big when he submitted How the Grinch Stole Christmas to Bennett Cerf at Random House, which would be his second home for many years. Though he and his wife moved to Southern California and much of his work was mailed in, he became known for coming to read his book to the Random House staff in person when it was publication time.  (He was also known for being difficult at times, micromanaging the publication of his work, and this may be part of the reason he wasn’t urged to attend business in person on a more regular basis.)

Ted and Helen were unable to have children, a painful fact that they chose not to share with the public. When asked during publicity tours why a man with such a great heart for children had none himself, Ted deflected it by saying others should have the children and he would write for them.

Helen’s illnesses and Ted’s infidelity were aspects of this author’s life I knew nothing about.  It’s hard to read about, but again, Jones includes these things in the narrative not to shock us, but because they have to be there.

He was widely known and revered for his insistence that books should be fun for children to read and should not preach or moralize, but instead, should respect the readers.  He was a pioneer in this regard, and I owe him a great debt for teaching me to love literature as a preschooler, and for providing such wonderful books for my own children and students later in my life. It is this legacy that remains when the rest falls away, that reading should open new worlds for its young readers; it should not trick or manipulate its audience, but instead should speak to children with respect using language they can understand.

Highly recommended to an adult readership.

Four Hours of Fury, by James M. Fenelon**

I love good military history, and so when I saw this title I requested and received a review copy, thanks to Net Galley and Scribner. It’s for sale now, but I can’t recommend it to you.

One of the first things I do when I read a new author in this genre is to check notes and sources.  A first rate military historian will have multiple sources for each fact cited, and a reasonably good one will have a variety of sources, primary sources being most desirable.

Fenelon doesn’t do this. Much of his information hangs on a single source, and often these are not well integrated. This is the first time I have seen military history published by a major house, that uses Wikipedia as a source. All of the history teachers I know send their students back to do a rewrite if they hinge their citations on Wiki, and if teenagers aren’t allowed to do it, I cannot think why Scribner permitted it.

What drew me to the book is the paratroopers. There seems to be a spate of these coming out right now, and I find it fascinating subject material. There’s also a trend, of which this book is also an example, of embracing the brave German troops against whom American forces fought, and not unnecessarily, either. I could get behind this trend more easily were it more universal, but somehow U.S. historians are quick to recognize the shared humanity of former enemies that are Caucasian, and others, not so much. If I could see one, just ONE WWII history that recounts kind of brave actions on the part of the Japanese during this conflict, I would be a good deal less cranky.

Be that as it may, this book is inadequately researched and inadequately documented. It’s not professionally rendered, so if you want to read it, do so critically and evaluate as you read. Get it free or cheaply; don’t pay full price.

Soldier, Sailor, Frogman, Spy, by Giles Milton**

My attention was riveted on the title. Frogmen! Spies! Thanks go to Net Galley and Henry Holt for the galley, which I expected to love. Though I am disappointed, I would have been more so had I paid the cover price for this fast-and-loose pop history.

The author takes the events surrounding D-Day, the massive attack that turned the tide of World War II, and recounts them from the perspectives of those that were there, both on the Allied side as well as on the Germans’. Though the narrative flows in a congenial tone, it represents a smallish amount of research stretched and padded, and the result is a smattering of important information that’s already been conveyed in a million other sources, most of which he doesn’t cite, and a great deal of trivial information provided by bystanders, which he does.

So there is the research—or mostly, there isn’t. The author draws to some extent upon stories garnered through his German wife’s family, but a lot of it comes across as the sort of long-winded recounting that causes even loving family members to inch toward their coats and make noises about how late it’s getting to be. Long passages of direct quotations pass without a citation, and then later there are citations, but they aren’t well integrated, and almost nothing has more than a single source provided. In other words, it’s sketchy stuff that cannot pass muster.

In all fairness, I have to admit that it’s bad luck on the author’s part to have his work released so soon after Spearhead, which is brilliant and meticulously documented. On the other hand, this is no debut, and though I haven’t read the author’s other work, I can’t imagine that he doesn’t know he’s cut corners here.

Then there’s the other thing, an elephant in the room that isn’t entirely this author’s fault. Why is it that when a war ends and enmities cool, the folks that are invited back into the fold by the UK and USA are always Caucasians? Brits and Americans wax sentimental now alongside Germans, none of whom belonged to families that liked the Fascists, yet the Japanese fighters of World War II never make it back into the family, so to speak. And in this Milton has a vast amount of company, but this is where it is most obvious, so this is where I’ll mention it.  

So there it is. It’s for sale now if you still want it.

Madame Fourcade’s Secret War, by Lynne Olson*****

“The memory of an elephant, the cleverness of a fox, the guile of a serpent, and the fierceness of a panther.”

Marie-Madeleine Fourcaude ran the largest spy network in France during World War II. Charismatic, organized, intelligent and completely fearless, she was possessed of such obvious leadership skills that even very traditional Frenchmen (and a few Brits as well) came to recognize and respect her authority and ability. I had never heard of her before this galley became available; thanks to go Net Galley and Random House. This book is for sale now. 

Fourcade was born into a wealthy family, and this fact almost kept me from reading this biography. Fortunately, others read it first and recommended it, and once I began reading I quickly caught onto the fact that no one without financial resources could have initiated and organized this network. At the outset, there was no government behind them and no funding other than what they could contribute themselves or scrounge up through the kinds of contacts that rich people have. There are a few fawning references to some of her associates—a princess here, a Duke there—that grate on my working class sensibilities, but they are fleeting. 

Fourcade’s organization ultimately would include men and women from all classes, from magnates and royals to small businessmen, train conductors, waitresses, postal clerks and so on. Some were couriers delivering information about Nazi troop placement and movement, U-boats and harbors and so forth, whereas others quietly eavesdropped as they went about their daily routines. Once they were able to network with the British, the organization became better supplied and funded, and it had an enormous impact on the fascist occupiers, which in turn drew more enemy attention to the resistance itself; among the greatest heroes were those that piloted the Lysander planes that delivered supplies and rescued members that were about to be captured. But not everyone was rescued; a great many were tortured, then killed. Fourcade herself was arrested twice, and both times escaped. 

If you had tried to write this woman’s story as fiction, critics would have said it lacked credibility. 

In reading about Fourcade, I learned a great deal more about the Resistance than I had previously known; in other nonfiction reading this aspect of the Allied effort was always on the edges and in the shadows, not unlike the spies themselves. In addition, I also came to understand that France was barely, barely even a member of the Alliance. The British bombed a ship to prevent fascists from seizing it, but they didn’t evacuate it first, and an entire ship full of French sailors were killed, leading a large segment of the French population to hate the British more than the Germans. Then too, there was a sizable chunk of the French government that welcomed the fascists. 

Revisionist histories will have us believe that the Nazis were opposed but that France was powerless to stop them, and for some that was true; yet the ugly truth is that it was the French themselves that incorporated anti-Semitism into their governmental structure before the Germans demanded it. Vichy cops had to take an oath “against Gaullist insurrection and Jewish leprosy.” When planning D-Day, U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt didn’t even want to include the French in the planning or even inform them that the Allies were invading. Let them find out the same way that the Germans would, he suggested to Churchill. But the British insisted on bringing in friendly French within the orbit of De Gaulle, not to mention those around a pompous, difficult general named Henri Gouroud, a hero from World War I who had to be more or less tricked into meeting with the Allies at the Rock of Gibraltar. The guy was a real piece of work, and some of the humorous passages that are included to lighten up an otherwise intense story focus on him.

I have never read Olson’s work before, but the author’s note says that she writes about “unsung heroes—individuals of courage and conscience who helped change their country and the world but who, for various reasons, have slipped into the shadows of history.” Now that I’ve read her work once, I will look for it in the future. 

Highly recommended to historians, feminists, and those that love a good spy story, too.

Spearhead, by Adam Makos*****

I read this historical gem free and early, thanks to Net Galley and Random House Ballantine; it’s among the top ten percent of the military histories I have read, and it’s one of the few that I have recommended to friends and relatives. Makos’s introduction tells us what he has done to lay his groundwork, and it’s impressive:



We traversed the battlefields of the Third Reich—with the men who made history…In 2013. Clarence Smoyer and three other veterans traveled to Germany and allowed us to tag along, to interview them on the grounds where they had once fought. We recorded their stories. We recorded what they remembered saying and hearing others say. Then we verified their accounts with deep research. We drew from four archives in America and one in England. We even traveled to the German Bundesarchiv in the Black Forest in search of answers. And what we found was staggering. Original orders. Rare interviews between our heroes and war reporters, conducted while the battle was raging. Radio logs of our tank commanders’ chatter, allowing us to time their actions to the minute… Is the world ready for a book about tanks? There’s one way to find out. Shut the hatches. Tighten your chin strap. It’s time to roll out.


Spearhead is equal parts memoir and history, and Makos is known for using a “You are there” writing style, though he is new to me. He writes about the most riveting parts of their service there, and though each of these four men starts the war in a different place, at the end they are joined together when they reach Cologne. 

The congenial narrative is enhanced with photographs of the men then and now, along with pictures of other men they served with, some of whom made it out alive as well as many that didn’t, or who survived the war but emerged crippled. There is a great deal of comfort, when reading a tale that must include so much carnage, in knowing from the get-go that Clarence Smoyers, Buck Marsh, Gustav Schaefer, Chuck Miller, and Frank Audifred will survive. There are a lot of names and faces, and here I was grateful to be reading digitally on Kindle, because I could use the “search book” feature to quickly regain the identity of participants I couldn’t recall when they came up again. 

There are some poignant moments; after all, they were really just kids. Sometimes they made it through battle because their commanders made wise decisions; sometimes they lived on in spite of incompetent or negligent commanders; and sometimes they found themselves in command. 

I never knew much about how tanks are operated. I believed that the guy whose head sometimes pokes up out of the hatch was the driver; that’s not so. And I had never given any thought to where the tankers sleep at night, or where they go to the bathroom. And the scandalous lack of safety for the men in Sherman tanks wasn’t clear to me till I read that the British called the Sherman as the “Tommy cooker,” the free Poles named it a “burning grave,” and Americans called it a “crematorium on wheels.” Ultimately this made it into the press when journalist Ann Stringer reprinted the comment that “Our tanks are not worth a drop of water on a hot stove.” The Pershing tank would be a tremendous improvement, and would be largely responsible for keeping our veterans alive to tell about it. 

There are some amazing high-tech photographs and diagrams that were unavailable during this conflict; I went back to them several times as I became more acquainted with the lives of the men inside them. The maps could be better, but then you can’t have everything. 

For those interested in World War II military history, or for those that read war memoirs, Spearhead is hard to beat. You can also visit the author’s website at AdamMakos.com. This book will be available to the public February 12, 2019. Highly recommended.