The Wedding Dress Sewing Circle, by Jennifer Ryan***

Jennifer Ryan has created a niche for herself as a novelist that writes stories for and about women during World War II, set in England. In this one, a group of villagers form a club for the purpose of recycling and reusing wedding gowns, which are otherwise impossible to procure due to war rationing. We have three main characters and a manageable number of side characters. My thanks go to Net Galley and Random House Ballantine for the invitation to read and review. This book is for sale now.

I experienced an odd mix of reactions to this novel, at various points. At the outset, it’s an information dump tied together by story components. That’s okay; I’ve seen it before. We get it over with so that we can go forward knowing the relevant facts.

Our main characters are Cressida Wescott, a London fashion designer driven back to the manse of her birth when both her home and business are struck by Nazi bombs; Grace Carlisle, an underconfident vicar’s daughter who’s about to enter a marriage of convenience to a much older man of the cloth; and Violet Wescott, niece of Cressida, who is desperately in search of an appropriate Royal peer to marry, because she deserves nothing less. Through circumstances, the three become close friends. Using Cressida’s professional experience and the generous donations of women in the village, and eventually beyond it, they are able to create lovely dresses for themselves and others, with the understanding that each dress must be passed on to another bride once the first user’s nuptials are over.

By the 40% mark, my notes say that although this story is becoming a bit predictable, I am so in love with these three women that I don’t mind at all. There are some bumps along the way, to be sure. For example, Violet is aghast when she is called up by the British government to serve her time doing war work. On the one hand, I had never known that (many) British women were drafted during this conflict to serve in noncombatant roles, so this is interesting; on the other hand, it takes about ten pages for Violet to transition from the world’s most obnoxious snob, to a positively egalitarian one-of-the-girls. There’s no process, no development; it’s as if Houdini has appeared suddenly, drawn his cape over her, whisked it away, and presto, she’s a different person. At this stage, however, I make a note to myself and then resolve to enjoy the rest of the story.

At the same time, I am becoming uncomfortably aware, having read three of Ryan’s four novels, that these books follow the same formula: different women are thrown together during the war in order to solve a problem of some sort; we have a character from the lower income bracket; another character is a wealthy woman; and there’s a complete brat that will nevertheless be transformed and redeemed by the story’s end. Group hug.

There’s another concern here, too; Violet is assigned to drive a brash American officer around London. Every time she does so, the guy hits on her, and not subtly, either. He stalks her, he harasses her, and so she falls for him. Better make her a dress.

Have we not progressed beyond this hazardous trope?

The story has a hurried quality to it. At first, as I note that every time someone is happy, they grin—never smiling, smirking, chuckling, guffawing, or giggling, they grin, grin, and grin some more—I chastise myself for picking at a perfectly lovely story and I move on. But it gets worse, and by the end, I run a quick search, thanks to my digital galley and my reading app’s features—and discover the word has been used 51 times.

Editor?

By the time we reach the conclusion, everything seems so obvious that I wonder if someone’s AI did most of the work here. And yes, of course that is hyperbole, but it’s also a disappointment.

Those that haven’t read anything by this author and that love historical romances may enjoy this book, but by the merciful end, I confess that I no longer did.

The Kitchen Front, by Jennifer Ryan****

I enjoyed Ryan’s historical novel, The Spies of Shilling Lane, and so I was thrilled when Ballantine Books and Net Galley offered me a review copy for this one. It’s for sale now.

The story is set in rural England during World War II. We have four protagonists, all of them women. Audrey Landon is a widow; her husband died in the war, leaving her with two boys to raise on her own. The old family home, which she inherited from her parents, is falling apart, and she has no means to repair it. In some places, the roof has caved in.

The second is Audrey’s sister, “Lady” Gwendoline. Gwen puts herself first at all times, since nobody else ever has. She married for wealth and convenience, and she lords her affluence over her sister and everyone else. But her husband is a cruel man, and her existence is a lonely one despite its material comfort.

Zelda was a top chef in London, but once her pregnancy became visible, she had to get gone. Her landlord calls her a “trollop,” and she knows she can’t stay there now, so she applies for wartime housing. The volunteer in charge of placing her is Lady Gwendoline, who snickers with amusement as she assigns her to live in Audrey’s house.

Nell is a chef’s assistant at Fenley Hall, the prestigious old pile where Lady Gwendoline and Sir Strickland hold court. The chef, Mrs. Quince, has taught her nearly everything she knows, and it’s a good thing, too; the old lady isn’t getting any younger.

All four women enter a cooking contest held by the Ministry of Food, a “wartime cooking challenge” to showcase recipes that use ordinary ingredients and work around rationing.  The winner will be the new announcer for The Kitchen Front, a wartime radio program—and this program existed in real life.

As in the last story, Ryan develops her four characters in a way I believe; the most benevolent have flaws, and the most unsympathetic, Lady Gwendoline, is complex and capable of change. It is Gwendoline that is most developed at the end, but all four are dynamic characters.

For a brief while, I use the audio version of this book, which I obtain from my local library. Jasmine Blackborow does a fine job as reader in most regards, but there is a side character that turns up in a couple of emotionally charged scenes, an Italian prisoner of war, and when she voices him, he sounds like Dracula, which ruins the magic. For this reason, I recommend sticking to the printed version.

The first half of this story is almost unputdownable, and for a time I nearly forget my other books. But as the climax approaches, things become predictable, almost formulaic, and the ending is a bit too tidy for my tastes. The scenes toward the end with Mrs. Quince are overwrought.  It’s not terrible, but because I am so far in love with the first half, I am disappointed by the denouement. Also, if recipes must be included, as apparently they must, the author should give them character by using the substituted ingredients in the instructions; the more desirable ingredients can be footnoted.

Ultimately I rate The Kitchen Front four stars; five for the first half, three for the second.

Florence Adler Swims Forever*****

It’s hard to believe that Florence Adler Swims Forever is a debut novel. Rachel Beanland has stormed our literary beaches, and I hope she does it forever. Big thanks go to Net Galley and Simon and Schuster for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

The title character dies almost immediately, which is a bit unusual all by itself. The central storyline centers on Fannie, Florence’s sister, who is in the midst of a dangerous pregnancy. She’s already had one premature baby that died at 3 weeks, and so this one Is being closely monitored. Because of this, the family closes rank in order to prevent Fannie from knowing that Florence has died until after the baby’s birth, lest she miscarry. However, Fannie isn’t the main character; the point of view shifts between the present and the past, from one family member to another, eight all told, in fairly even fashion.

My first reaction to this premise—keeping her sister’s death from Fannie for what, two months—is that it’s far-fetched to think such a plan could succeed. But as the story unfolds, I realize that information was not a constant presence during the late 1930s, as it is now. There was no television yet; a radio was desirable, but not everyone had one. Fannie asks for a radio for her hospital room, but she’s told they’re all in use. Too bad, hon. Newspapers and magazines were explicitly forbidden for visitors to bring in; the lack of news is explained in general terms as “doctor’s orders,” and back then, doctors were like little gods. If “Doctor” said to jump, everyone, the patient most of all, leapt without question. And then I see the author’s note at the end, that this story is based on an actual event from her family’s history! It blows me away.

Besides Fannie and Florence, we have the parents, Joseph and Esther, who have a meaty, complicated relationship; Fannie’s husband Isaac, who is an asshole; Fannie and Isaac’s daughter, Gussie, who is seven; Florence’s swim coach, Stuart; and Anna, a German houseguest whose presence creates all sorts of conflict among the other characters. Anna’s urgent need to help her parents immigrate before terrible things happen to them is the story’s main link to the war. All characters except Stuart are Jewish.

Because I missed the publication date but was eager to dive into this galley, I supplemented my digital copy with an audiobook from Seattle Bibliocommons. This is a wonderful way to read, because when something seems unclear to me, I can switch versions, and in the end, I feel well grounded. The audio version is read by eight different performers, and the result is magnificent.

Read it in print, or listen to the audio; you really can’t go wrong. The main thing is that you have to read this book. As for me, I’ll have a finger to the wind, because I can’t wait to see what Beanland writes next.

To Wake the Giant, by Jeff Shaara*****

“It’s the admirals, sir, playing with us like this is their own big-assed bathtub and we’re just toys.”

Jeff Shaara has written some of the best war stories ever published, and he’s done so for almost 25 years. I have read every last one of them. When I was invited to read and review his new novel about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor by Random House Ballantine and Net Galley, I was delighted, but also slightly apprehensive, because even after all these years, the subject remains an incendiary one; I needn’t have worried. This may be Shaara’s best book, and that’s saying a lot.

I’ll share a brief note about my own biases going in. My father was among the last men called to serve during World War II; he never left the U.S., however, where he was tasked with training new recruits to the still-new U.S. Air Force. But I grew up hearing about Japanese atrocities, and many of the bizarre stereotypes and misconceptions based on pseudoscience were told to me as fact. When as an adult I announced that I was about to marry a Japanese citizen, I sounded the waters with my family to see if there was resistance. I was told that my parents “still remember Pearl Harbor.” Meanwhile, my husband’s father also served during World War II—in the Japanese army. The topic was never raised by his parents around me, or at all as far as I know; but I asked my spouse a few questions to help me understand the Japanese perspective about this horrific conflict, and then I understood exactly how erroneous most of what I’d been raised to believe actually was.

So I was primed to read this book, and also a little afraid of what I might find. My internal map of Pearl Harbor was studded with emotional landmines, and at the book’s conclusion, none of them had been tripped.

Shaara tells this story primarily through the eyes of three people: Cordell Hull, U.S. Secretary of State under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt; Admiral Yamamoto, the Japanese architect of the invasion; and Tommy Biggs, a 19-year-old naval recruit from an impoverished Caucasian family in rural Florida.

Shaara faithfully incorporates a character from the rank and file in every story; he does this even if there is nobody on record that he can report on, and so often, he is forced to create a fictional character based on experiences and characteristics from several people. When I saw no such disclaimer in any of his notes, I grew curious and wrote and asked him whether this is the case with Biggs. He replied that this time there is a Tommy Biggs (though the name is not the same), but that he did add the experiences of others in order to flesh him out. So this time, each of the three chief characters is based on an historical figure.

I learned a great deal. Though it’s well known that this attack profoundly crippled the U.S. Navy, sinking or badly damaging most of the fleet, I had never considered it from the Japanese perspective. Looked at in that way, it was not only audacious, it was immaculately planned and wildly successful. I also had never considered what a blunder it was on the part of the U.S. military to leave its equipment, ships, planes, and more so unguarded. In the fallout after the attack, we learn that the Navy considered security to be the job of the U.S. Army and vice-versa. What a colossal bungle.

Japan had emerged victorious from the Russo-Japanese War, and its leadership was suffused with overwhelming confidence. Japanese racial superiority would lead to Japanese dominance throughout the China, Indochina, and across all of Asia, they claimed, because they were meant to dominate their portion of the globe. Japanese leaders were convinced that the U.S. would not seek retribution following an attack on its soil because American isolationist sentiment was so strong. They genuinely hoped that this attack would result in an end of the U.S. embargo that crippled Japan, and which existed in order to halt Japanese expansion and force Japan to withdraw from its alliance with the Axis powers. Americans, the Japanese brass told one another, were too big, too slow, too lazy to retaliate. There were voices of dissent, however:

“For any of you who believe the Americans are not worthy of a fight, that they do not have the stomach for blood, perhaps you are familiar with the American Civil War? In the 1860s, they divided and fought each other in the bloodiest war in their history. They did not require any enemy to inspire them. They fought each other. Are you familiar with football?”

Meanwhile the U.S. military, press and popular culture treated the Japanese as a bad joke. One myth dressed up as science suggested that Japan would never be able to build an air force because of an inherent defect in the inner ear of all Japanese. It was physically impossible for them to become pilots! The condescension was rife, everywhere one turned. Hollywood depicted the Japanese as ridiculous, rodent-like creatures with minds that didn’t function properly. The Chicago Tribune stated that for Japan to attack the U.S. was “a military impossibility.” Japanese were said to be too myopic to be effective against a military target. And it goes on.

There’s all sorts of blame to spread around. Nobody in Washington, D.C. had told the top brass at Pearl Harbor, Admiral Kimmel and Lieutenant General Short, about the project named Magic, which intercepted and broke Japanese code. They had no idea that Japan was rattling its sabers to such a degree.  And these two men appear to have been lazy, bureaucratic fools that ignored what little intelligence came their way. For example, shortly before the attack, the man on watch sees a Japanese sub in the water. Kimmel immediately assumes that the guard has seen a whale, and he goes back to bed.

There are three aspects of this novel that keep the pages turning for me. The first, of course, is my interest in military history. Shaara’s research is meticulous. The book is historical fiction at its best, which is when the contours of the story, even fairly detailed aspects of it, are correct, but the fictional genre is chosen so that dialogue and inner monologue can be added. Second is Shaara’s perceptive nature, and it’s this that permits him to choose the best details to include and cut what is inessential so that pacing never flags. And finally, his capacity to develop a character so that we feel we know him is matchless; in particular I bond to poor Tommy Biggs, a guy that can’t catch a break, until he can.

Nothing I can say will serve as well as what Shaara says himself. Get this book, even if you have to pony up full cover price. This is hands down the best fictional representation of Pearl Harbor on sale today. Believe it.

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:

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.