mathews menOne of the indelible images of World War II is of an explosion at sea – a U-boat attack, a ship in flames and an ocean full of men swimming for their lives through oil and debris. The Mathews Men tells the story of what it was like to be on those ships in an almost unknown epic sea battle that took place just off the coast of America. Its heroes were the men of the U.S. Merchant Marine, celebrated at long last in William Geroux’s unforgettable new book.

Mathews County, Virginia, is a remote outpost on the Chesapeake Bay with little to offer except unspoiled scenery. Its men had gone to sea for generations, but in 1942, Mathews mariners suddenly found themselves in the crosshairs of a lethal fleet of U-boats bearing down across the Atlantic. The Germans were determined to sink every American merchant ship they could, to strangle the flow of fuel, arms, and supplies to the Allies. The U.S. Navy initially lacked the inclination and resources to protect the unarmed vessels, and the carnage was staggering. Ships were sometimes torpedoed before the eyes of tourists on American beaches.

Nearly every family in tiny Mathews had a personal stake in the U-boat war, and none had a greater one than that of Captain Jesse and Henrietta Hodges and their seven sons. The Hodges family would experience the war in all its horrors and triumphs around the world, from the Gulf of Mexico to the Indian Ocean to the Arctic Circle. Drawing on interviews with the last living Mathews mariners, family records, diaries, letters, and official documents, Geroux describes how men survived torpedo explosions, flaming oil slicks, storms, shark attacks, and harrowing lifeboat odysseys – only to ship out again as soon as they’d returned to safety. Merchant mariners often died terrible deaths, and suffered a higher casualty rate than any branch of the U.S. military except the Marines, but were denied veterans benefits for decades.

This is a story of valor without glory, of the men who made sure no Allied invasion force was ever thrown back from a beachhead into the sea for want of supplies or weaponry. Merchant mariners landed at D-Day and delivered the crew of the Enola Gay to the Pacific, and when the war was over, it was Merchant Marine ships that brought the troops home. Geroux evokes in vivid, human detail a war beyond the familiar battlefields and its toll on the families back home. Unrecognized by the government, unheralded in the history books, the achievements and sacrifices of the Merchant Marine have been largely ignored – until now. (description from publisher)

winter fortressFrom the internationally acclaimed, best-selling author of Hunting Eichmann and The Perfect Mile , an epic adventure and spy story about the greatest act of sabotage in all of World War II.

It’s 1942 and the Nazis are racing to be the first to build a weapon unlike any known before. They have the physicists, they have the uranium, and now all their plans depend on amassing a single ingredient: heavy water, which is produced in Norway’s Vemork, the lone plant in all the world that makes this rare substance. Under threat of death, Vemork’s engineers push production into overdrive. For the Allies, the plant must be destroyed. But how would they reach the castle fortress set on a precipitous gorge in one of the coldest, most inhospitable places on Earth?

Based on a trove of top secret documents and never-before-seen diaries and letters of the saboteurs, The Winter Fortress is an arresting chronicle of a brilliant scientist, a band of spies on skis, perilous survival in the wild, sacrifice for one’s country, Gestapo manhunts, soul-crushing setbacks, and a last-minute operation that would end any chance Hitler could obtain the atomic bomb – and alter the course of the war. (description from publisher)

Hello Fellow Readers! It’s hard to believe but it’s the end of April already – how did you do with this month’s Reading Challenge? For me, the hard part was picking which book to read – there are so many excellent books set during World War II. Did you find any gems that you’d like to share with us? Please let us know.

bookthief2I was planning on reading two books, but ended up having time for only one – The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. This is a pretty amazing book. It did take me awhile to learn the rhythm and pace of the book and to accept the narrator, but once I did, it was nearly impossible to stop reading.

Narrated by Death, The Book Thief follows the fortunes of a poor street in a suburb of Munich during the war, especially the story of Liesel Meminger. After her little brother dies and her mother abandons her to foster care, Liesel goes to live with the Hubermann’s. In their own wildly different ways, Hans and Rosa love Liesel and raise her as their own. As the war arrives and hardships mount, they hang on grimly, finding happiness in simple things such as music, a stolen apple and books.

One day Hans fulfills a promise and agrees to hide a young Jewish man in their basement. Max and Liesel become fast friends, sharing stories and bound by their shared pain and nightmares. When it becomes too dangerous and Max must leave, Liesel and the Hubermanns are devastated. The hardships mount – rationing, the growing presence of the Nazi’s and the carpet bombing of Munich and its neighboring towns. Huddled with neighbors in a basement during a bombing, Liesel reads aloud from one of her stolen books, bringing comfort and some calm to the frightened people.

Through it all, Death watches. His voice is wry and even humorous at times, and he is surprisingly compassionate, puzzled by the cruelty and moved by the agony he witnesses. His arrival often means the end of suffering and is welcomed. He narrates Liesel’s story lovingly, even gently – he is impressed by the young girl, not only her will to live, but to find happiness.

The choice of Death as narrator is especially interesting as is the fact that he’s presented as a sympathetic character. His ability to see across history and vast distances brings a unique perspective. His descriptions of gathering the soul’s of the dead and taking them to their eternal rest is often gentle and tender; he always carries the souls of children in his arms. The view of the war from the German home front is also interesting. There is no such thing as simple “good” or “evil” (with the exception of the Nazis) – they are like any human with complex, often conflicting emotions and actions, capable of great cruelty but also great kindness.

This is not a light and happy book, yet it is also not altogether a dark book. The sadness and suffering are very real, but hope for humanity remains. That there is some kindness and that there is an end to the suffering combine to create a book of lasting power. Highly recommended.

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May is nearly here – on Monday we’ll start on the next step on our year long Reading Challenge – graphic novels. Who’s with me?!

ReadingChallengeBWHello Fellow Readers!

How are you getting along with this month’s Reading Challenge? I haven’t gotten very far in my book (The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak) – spring happened (finally) and a lot of my time has been taken up by garden chores. However, I have some great opportunities coming up soon for time to read and look forward to getting caught up.

Have you found a great World War II book to read yet? Or are you still searching? There are so many good ones, maybe you’re having trouble picking just one! If you’re struggling – or just looking to read more World War II fiction, here are a few more suggestions.

The Distant Hours by Kate Morton. A long-lost letter arriving at its destination fifty years after it was sent lures Edie Burchill to crumbling Milderhurst Castle, home of the three elderly Blythe sisters, where Edie’s mother was sent to stay as a teenager during World War II.

The Race for Paris by Meg Clayton. A moving and powerfully dynamic World War II novel about two American journalists and an Englishman, who together race the Allies to OccupiedParis for the scoop of their lives.

China Dolls by Lisa See. A rich portrait of female friendship, as three young women navigate the “Chop Suey Circuit” – America’s extravagant all-Asian revues of the 1930s and ’40s – and endure the attack on Pearl Harbor and the shadow of World War II.

The Postmistress by Sarah Blake. In London covering the Blitz with Edward R. Murrow, Frankie Bard meets a Cape Cod doctor in a shelter and promises that she’ll deliver a letter for him when she finally returns to the United States.

Louise’s War by Sarah Shaber. Louise Pearlie has come to Washington DC to work as a clerk for the legendary OSS, the precursor to the CIA. When she discovers a document concerning a college friend, Louise realizes she may be able to help get her out of Vichy France. But then a colleague whose help Louise has enlisted is murdered, and she realizes she is on her own.

The Rising Tide by Jeff Shaara. As Hitler conquers Poland, Norway, France, and most of Western Europe, England struggles to hold the line. When Germany’s ally Japan launches a stunning attack on Pearl Harbor, America is drawn into the war, fighting to hold back the Japanese conquest of the Pacific, while standing side-by-side with their British ally, the last hope for turning the tide of the war. First of a trilogy.

Language of the Dead by Stephen Kelly. As the shadow of World War II descends over Europe, Detective Inspector Thomas Lamb hunts for an elusive killer behind the veil of a seemingly charming English village.

Pacific Glory by Peter Deutermann. A thrilling, multilayered World War II adventure following two men and an unforgettable woman, from Pearl Harbor through the most dramatic air and sea battles of the war.

Let us know what you’re reading! And good luck with the rest of your April Reading Challenge!

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217th General Hospital posting in Swindon, England, 1944

Hello and welcome to the April Online Reading Challenge! This month’s theme is The Good War – World War II in Fiction. There are lots of amazing titles this month – it’s going to be hard to pick just one!

First off, no war is “good” – terrible things happen during every war. But World War II is sometimes called the “good” war because we (the Allies) were fighting true evil (the Nazis) and the only way to stop them was through force. On the surface, at least, it was a war fought for noble reasons. It’s also a war when ordinary people took on an extraordinary task, fought by a generation (the “greatest generation”) that faced this challenge with the same grim determination that got them through the Great Depression. It is a time period that has been romanticized, but we should always remember that there was great pain and suffering as well.

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Orderlies from the 217th General Hospital unit, Paris France 1945

World War II has long been one of the most popular subjects in the library, both in fiction and non-fiction. While many of the people who actually lived during that time period (1939-1945) are now gone, many of us have heard stories from our parents and grandparents, so it is still vivid in our memories.

There is no shortage of excellent books set during World War II; the problem is narrowing the list to manageable proportions! Here are a few of my favorites to get you started.

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. Set primarily in France and Germany, it moves between two main characters, one a blind French girl living in a small town along the Normandy coast, the other a young German soldier who is recruited into Hitler’s army as the lesser of two evils. These two very different lives are, with the imminent invasion of the Allies, about to intersect in unforeseen ways. I love this book – the beautiful, evocative writing, the examination and contrast of opposite sides, the almost unbearable suspense – come together to create a truly memorable experience.

City of Thieves by David Benioff. Most of the World War II fiction that we see is set in England, France or Germany (I don’t have scientific proof of this, just observation as a librarian) This novel brings focus to the home front in Russia, specifically the siege of Leningrad. A young man jailed for theft and an army officer convicted of deserting are given a choice – find a dozen eggs within the next week, or be executed. In a city where many have been reduced to cannibalism and many more have died of starvation, it is a nearly impossible choice. That these reluctant partners find kindness, friendship and even some joy, elevates this book above the usual war novel. Another excellent book set during this time is The Madonnas of Leningrad by Debra Dean, focusing on the docents and art historians of the Hermitage and their efforts to protect its priceless art.

Other books that shed light on forgotten or little known incidents of World War II include Sarah’s Key by Tiatiana de Rosnay which focuses on the deportment of Jews from Paris, Corelli’s Mandolin about the occupation of the Greek islands, first by the Italians and then by the Germans, and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer about Guernsey Island, the only part of England that was invaded by the Germans during the war. For a look at the war in the Pacific, try A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute or Tales of the South Pacific by James Michner. For a look at a dark period of American history, try Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford, set during and after the internment of Japanese-Americans during the war.

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The Arc ‘d Triumph, Paris, France, May 8, 1945 (VE Day)

My choice for this month is The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak. This has long been on my “to read someday” list. Narrated by Death, it is set in Germany at the start of the war and focuses on ordinary citizens trying to survive day by day. It sounds grim, but also hopeful (which I need!) as one of the main characters finds and shares books as a way of coping. If I have time I may try to read Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein which is about a young woman that has been shot down behind enemy lines. It comes highly recommended.

What about you – what book or books are you planning to read this month? Do you have any favorites set during World War II that you would recommend? Let us know in the comments! And if you haven’t already, don’t forget to stop by the library and pick up a Reading Challenge bookmark!

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symphony for the city of the deadBiographies or any sort of nonfiction relating to the siege of Leningrad that occurred amidst World War II can become depressing to read because of the many, many atrocities committed and the vast number of people who died. Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad by M.T. Anderson is the opposite of the traditional heavy nonfiction. Anderson breaks up his story of Shostakovich and the evolution of Leningrad by dropping in back-and-white historical photographs that allow readers to put a face to a name. This inclusion breaks up the chaos and destruction happening within his descriptions of Stalin’s purges and the eventual siege of Leningrad by bringing in pictures and maps to connect the history presented with an actual physical place and actual people. It may seem easy for people to ignore and write off atrocities committed, but I find that when authors choose to add pictures into their books, the subject matter becomes even more real and life-changing.

Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad really brought to life for me the importance of art and culture to a nation and its citizens, both in a negative and a positive light. Anderson tells readers the story of Stalin and his purges: how he rid the country of top military officials, science experts, and a wide variety of other people and effectively set his country up for more widespread disaster when Hitler invaded and he had no experts to ask for advice. This book focuses on art and culture, specifically music and Dmitri Shostakovich. This Russian composer escaped death at the hands of Stalin and instead found himself navigating the tricky tight-rope of composing the music that Stalin finds appropriate while still staying true to himself. Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony is the one that he writes for Leningrad, “The City of the Dead,” and this book effectively sets the stage for discovering Shostakovaich’s mindset around that time and also the necessary cultural and political framework that he was up against. Highly recommended!

Check out the following fiction and nonfiction books for more information about the siege of Leningrad and related topics!

the madonnas of leningradcity of thievesleningrad siege and symphonyinferno the world at warstalin the court of the red tsarabsolute war

bomb2July 16, 2015 marks the 70th Anniversary of the Trinity Test. What’s the Trinity Test? This was the first successful test of the atom bomb at the Alamogordo Bombing and Gunnery Range in New Mexico. This site was flat and located relatively close to Los Alamos where the bombs were designed and produced. This section of land was given the code-name “Trinity” and thus July 16, 1945 was known as the Trinity Test. (Interesting fact: The Trinity Test Site is open twice a year for visitors, once in April and once in October. This is the article discussing this year’s visits. )

The Manhattan Project was a top-secret research and development project during World War II that produced the first nuclear weapons. President Roosevelt signed the order for the initial research committee in 1942 which eventually went through many iterations to become the core Manhattan Project group. Major General Leslie Groves was put in charge of the project from 1942 to 1946 and was the person who brought on Robert Oppenheimer, a physicist who was the director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, the site that designed the actual bombs.

Secret facilities were popping up all over the country with the express purpose of manufacturing different parts of the bombs, for researching different aspects, and for trying out different methods. Everything was top-secret. Oppenheimer recruited the top scientists in their fields without being able to tell them what exactly they would be working on, except that it had a possibility of helping them end the war.

With so little information to go off of, many scientists packed up their families to move to Los Alamos, where they lived and worked in isolation, not even able to discuss their work within their own families. Everything was kept secret and compartmentalized.


This blog is just an introduction to the Trinity Test and the Manhattan Project. If the description above interested you, check out the resources below.

trinityTrinity: A Graphic History of the First Atomic Bomb by Jonathan Fetter-Vorm gives a detailed history, not just on the Manhattan Project and the Trinity Test, but the very beginning of atom research, in laboratories of nineteenth-century Europe all the way to the Trinity Test.

This graphic novel goes into incredible detail about all the people involved in the history of the atom and its discovery. While most histories of the atomic bomb tend to focus on and use more scientific terms, Fetter-Vorm is able to include pictures and drawings through the graphic novel format that allow for a better conceptual understanding of a nuclear reaction and how atoms split. Readers are transported into the labs and lives of Major General Leslie Groves, Enrico Fermi, J. Robert Oppenheimer, and the other brilliant scientists who brought to life atomic bombs and ushered in a new era of warfare.

After the successful test of the atomic bomb, Fetter-Vorm then goes on to illustrate the decisions behind the dropping of the bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima. This graphic novel is an excellent depiction of what life was like for those directly and indirectly involved in the making of the first atomic bomb.


manhattan season1What initially reminded me of the Trinity Test’s anniversary was when I started watching season one of Manhattan. This television series follows the many scientists as they work to build the world’s first atomic bomb in Los Alamos, New Mexico and the struggles that their families go through moving to the middle of nowhere, being cut off from everyone outside the community, and being kept in the dark about what their family members are doing.

This show really hooked me because in addition to all the science and descriptions of the different models they were building, it also deals with the bureaucracy of this governmental entity, how they have to finagle getting supplies since where they are is only a P.O. Box and not an actual address, and how secrets and gossip run rampant through the entire community, fueling the suspicions that multiple people are spies and that others are committing treason. Tensions run high, both between the individual families and the two different science camps, each competing against the other to have the first successful atomic bomb design and then test.

Check out this television show to gain a better understanding of the complex secrecy of the Manhattan Project and how the segmentation of their lives, in addition to bringing immense tension, in the end allowed work to secretly flourish and bring together an explosive ending.

nightingaleAfter their mother dies and their father virtually abandons them, Vianne and Isabelle must learn to forge their own way. Vianne marries and starts a family in an idyllic country setting outside of Paris while Isabelle becomes rebellious, expelled from one boarding school after another. When the Germans occupy Paris in 1939, Isabelle is sent to live with her sister but the horrifying experiences of escaping with other refugees opens Isabelle’s eyes to the pain and suffering the war will bring.

The changes brought by the Germans are inexorable – the men are sent away to prison camps, food is rationed, soldiers are billeted in private homes, valuables ruthlessly taken, Jews and other “subversives” are persecuted then transferred to prison camps. Vianne, in the countryside, desperately walks a line between loyalty to her friends and neighbors while remaining unseen by the occupying soldiers. Isabelle joins the French Underground and risks her life again and again in an effort to make a difference. Their stories intertwine as they struggle to survive and protect those they love.

There are a lot – a lot – of books about World War II both fiction and non-fiction. It’s one of the most popular subject areas at the library. And while most of us learned the basic facts about the war from school and history books – dates, countries, famous battles – the stories of what it was like to actually live through the war are slowly disappearing as that generation ages and passes away. The Nightingale may be a dramatic, fictional account of living in war torn France, but the messages it sends are very real – remember for those that no longer can. What they did to survive, to change the course of events, whether big or small, mattered. We should not forget.

ghost soldiersA tense, powerful, grand account of one of the most daring exploits of World War II.

On January 28, 1945, 121 hand-selected troops from the elite U.S. Army 6th Ranger Battalion slipped behind enemy lines in the Philippines. Their mission: March thirty miles in an attempt to rescue 513 American and British POWs who had spent three years in a surreally hellish camp near the city of Cabanatuan. The prisoners included the last survivors of the Bataan Death March left in the camp, and their extraordinary will to live might soon count for nothing – elsewhere in the Philippines, the Japanese Army had already executed American prisoners as it retreated from the advancing U.S. Army. As the Rangers stealthily moved through enemy-occupied territory, they learned that Cabanatuan had become a major transshipment point for the Japanese retreat, and instead of facing the few dozen prison guards, they could possibly confront as many as 8,000 battle-hardened enemy troops.

Hampton Sides’s vivid minute-by-minute narration of the raid and his chronicle of the prisoners’ wrenching experiences are masterful. But Ghost Soldiers is far more than a thrilling battle saga. Sides explores the mystery of human behavior under extreme duress – the resilience of the prisoners, who defied the Japanese authorities even as they endured starvation, tropical diseases, and unspeakable tortures; the violent cultural clashes with Japanese guards and soldiers steeped in the warrior ethic of Bushido; the remarkable heroism of the Rangers and Filipino guerrillas; the complex motivations of the U.S. high command, some of whom could justly be charged with abandoning the men of Bataan in 1942; and the nearly suicidal bravado of several spies, including priests and a cabaret owner, who risked their lives to help the prisoners during their long ordeal.

At once a gripping depiction of men at war and a compelling story of redemption, Ghost Soldiers joins such landmark books as Flags of Our Fathers , The Greatest Generation , and The Rape of Nanking in preserving the legacy of World War II for future generations. (description from publisher)

Ghost Soldiers is also available for check out as a free ebook through the RiverShare Digital Library.

wind is not a riverA gripping tale of survival and an epic love story in which a husband and wife – separated by the only battle of World War II to take place on American soil – fight to reunite in Alaska’s starkly beautiful Aleutian Islands.

Following the death of his younger brother in Europe, journalist John Easley is determined to find meaning in his loss, to document some part of the growing war that claimed his own flesh and blood. Leaving behind his beloved wife, Helen, after an argument they both regret, he heads north from Seattle to investigate the Japanese invasion of Alaska’s Aleutian Islands, a story censored by the U.S. government. While John is accompanying a crew on a bombing run, his plane is shot down over the island of Attu. He survives only to find himself exposed to a harsh and unforgiving wilderness, known as “the Birthplace of Winds.” There, John must battle the elements, starvation, and his own remorse while evading discovery by the Japanese.

Alone in their home three thousand miles to the south, Helen struggles with the burden of her husband’s disappearance. Caught in extraordinary circumstances, in this new world of the missing, she is forced to reimagine who she is – and what she is capable of doing. Somehow, she must find John and bring him home, a quest that takes her into the farthest reaches of the war, beyond the safety of everything she knows. A powerful, richly atmospheric story of life and death, commitment and sacrifice, The Wind Is Not a River illuminates the fragility of life and the fierce power of love. (description from publisher)