The Last Bookshop in London by Madeline Martin

“Books are what have brought us together. A love of the stories within, the adventures they take us on, their glorious distraction in a time of strife.”

Published just this past April, The Last Bookshop in London by Madeline Martin is a historical fiction novel set during World War II, offering a candid glimpse into life in London during the Blitz. While I have read several excellent novels in this time period before (as I’m sure you have, too!) , I don’t recall one exclusively focusing on the Blitz in London, so this title was a unique perspective I had not yet afforded!

After losing her mother and essentially being disowned by her uncle in a rural town in England, Grace and her best friend, Viv, journey to London to live with her mother’s best friend. While both women had long dreamed of coming to London, neither expected it to happen forcibly, let alone on the brink of a second great war. While Viv quickly finds a job at the glamorous Harrods, Grace is offered a position at a local bookshop which, as someone who didn’t read, was a less-than-ideal assignment. With the intention of working just six months to gain a letter of recommendation to find a better position, Grace begins working in a disheveled, dusty, and dingy bookstore with a seemingly irritable owner who barely tolerates her presence.

As rumblings of the war draw closer to home, however, Grace slowly finds herself becoming more and more committed and interested in her work at the bookshop. This is in no small part due to George Anderson, a particularly attractive and frequent patron who shares his authentic love of reading with Grace before leaving to serve as a Royal Air Force (RAF) pilot. Although initially doubtful about the impact reading would have on her own life, Grace becomes enraptured with The Count of Monte Cristo (one of George’s recommendations) and quickly becomes a voracious reader herself. With her newly found love of reading, Grace naturally begins to develop special relationships with several patrons, as well as with the owner himself, as she works to make the bookshop as accessible as possible. Not long after this, though, London itself becomes suspended in the throes of war, putting everything Grace loves at risk.

All in all, this is a wonderful story about someone who comes to learn the value of reading and eventually helps others in the community not only survive, but thrive in the stories of others during the unbearably difficult circumstances of wartime; it is truly an ode to the power of literature, and there were many lovely and moving quotes that warmed my heart as a librarian. I also really appreciated reading about a female protagonist who not only immerses herself, but thrives in a wartime position typically reserved for men; on top of working at the bookshop, Grace volunteers as an Air Raid Protection (ARP) warden to help those impacted by the daily bombings that would occur overnight. Lastly, I reveled in the obvious research Martin did on the Blitz to portray a captivating account of life in London during this time in history.

While there were some moments toward the conclusion that seemed to tie up a little too conveniently, I would still highly recommend this novel to anyone looking to dip their toes in a new perspective on WWII or just for a new historical fiction read in general! I would also like to note that, while Martin is a well-known historical romance author, this novel was not primarily focused on romantic themes or aspects.

 

Radar Girls by Sara Atkinson

Here is a World War II story with a slightly different point-of-view – that of the women who monitored the radar stations in Hawaii in Sara Atkinson’s Radar Girls.

The Japanese attack Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 shattered the quiet, isolated world of Hawaii in a few, terrifying minutes. Battleships lay in ruins, hundreds were dead and the fears of an imminent second attack were very real. Suddenly, the United States was at war and Hawaii was on the leading edge.

Daisy Wilder and her mother live in a ramshackle house on the beach near Pearl Harbor. The attack turns their lives upside down – her mother leaves for the mainland while Daisy stays behind so that she can join the WARDS, the Woman’s Air Raid Defense System who become known as the Radar Girls.

Daisy, along with dozens of other women recruited into the WARDS, help guide pilots onto blacked out air-strips and track unidentified aircraft across the Pacific. The job requires a lot of skills in mathematics and mapping, as well as the ability to stay calm under pressure, to work quickly in difficult conditions and to work long hours. The women that join the WARDS are a diverse group from many different backgrounds, but despite differences, they come together to form an unbreakable bond.

Against the background of the work the women are doing, there are several other stories – a romance between Daisy and the son of a wealthy rancher which seems doomed from the start, the search for a lost horse, the fear and concern those left on the island have for the men that are fighting. There is a lot of tension and buildup for the battle of Midway, one of the most dangerous and important naval battles of the war.

I really enjoyed the setting of this book, especially the descriptions of Hawaii and it’s people and culture. You can almost see the ocean and feel the breeze on the beach. I also appreciated learning more about another lesser known aspect of the war effort that was actually a key component to eventual victory.

The Paris Library by Janet Skeslien Charles

“Books and ideas are like blood; they need to circulate, and they keep us alive.”

One of my absolute favorite genres to read is historical fiction, but this particular book hits the jackpot because it is also about libraries and the amazing people who work in them! Just published in February, The Paris Library, by Janet Skeslien Charles, weaves together two primary narratives spanning across time and place to create a beautiful and haunting story about the strength of friendship, family, and libraries in the face of betrayal, loss, and war.

This story begins in 1939 France with the narrative of Odile Souchet, a fresh graduate of library school who interviews for a librarianship position at the American Library in Paris (ALP). She quickly finds herself at home in the stacks and among several new friends, including fellow librarians, devoted library subscribers, a volunteer who quickly becomes her best friend, and a police officer who becomes her beloved beau. Before long, however, Odile loses a part of herself as her twin brother, Remy, goes off to war and everything she loves, including the library, is endangered.

The second central narrative takes place in 1980s Montana through the eyes of a young teenager named Lily. After the death of her mother and her father’s eventual remarriage, Lily finds herself both lost and trapped in a small rural town she desperately wishes to escape. She eventually finds a sense of liberation in the friendship she develops with her elderly neighbor, who teaches her French, shares her love of literature and books, and essentially becomes a second mother during some of her darkest moments. Before long, Lily becomes curious about her neighbor’s past, as all she (and the rest of the town) knows is her status as a widowed war bride who left her entire life behind in Paris to come to Montana with her husband after the war. Despite the difference in age and background, these two characters have more in common than meets the eye and share a kinship of love and understanding that truly stands the test of time.

Overall, this novel is a heart-wrenching and tragic, albeit beautiful, story filled with memorable characters who are tested by unimaginable hardships. I reveled in the development of several characters, especially since I felt I was able to connect with their complex and flawed personas. While you learn the fate of many of these individuals, I definitely found myself wanting more information on others! I also really enjoyed Charles’s writing style – in addition to writing beautifully, it is obvious how much research she did in the creation of this book by the way she is able to truly whisk you away to another time and place as you read.

While I definitely loved the fictional aspects of this novel, I was delighted to learn that several librarians in the story, along with their remarkable and heroic actions, were based on real individuals. Despite the dangers and risks war posed to both the people and resources of the library, the ALP stayed open to subscribers, maintained a service in which they delivered around 100,000 books to soldiers fighting overseas, and risked their own lives to deliver books to Jewish subscribers who had been barred from entering the library. Charles first learned about this incredible history upon becoming the programs manager at the ALP and, feeling wholly inspired, decided to delve deeper into the history by writing this book. The result? An ode to the truly incredible and impactful roles libraries will always have in our society.

All in all, I highly, highly recommend this book to anyone who loves libraries and books, remarkable character development, and experiencing the strength and resiliency of the human race, especially through relationships formed with others.

The Rose Code by Kate Quinn

It is fair to say that the top-secret work done at Bletchley Park during World War II shortened the war by as much as two years and may have saved millions of lives. The extent of the achievements of the code breaking that was done there was mostly unknown until the mid-1970s. The Rose Code by Kate Quinn takes us beyond the guarded gates and brings this amazing wartime work out into the open.

The Rose Code begins in 1940 as England prepares for war. Osla, a beautiful socialite who wants to prove there is more to her than a glamorous exterior and Mab, a young woman who has pulled herself up from abject poverty, meet on the train to Bletchley Park on their first day of work. Despite their differences, they become close friends and roommates. Both start working menial tasks, but Osla’s perfect German has her promoted to translating decoded messages. Mab becomes an expert at working the automatic decoding machines which is both physically demanding and intricate work. The friends soon recruit their landlady’s daughter Beth, who is able to understand and translate intricate puzzles. All three flourish in their new jobs.

Even as the women succeed in their work, their personal lives are complicated by the war and the secrets they must keep. Osla is dating Prince Philip (yes, that Prince Philip, the future Duke of Edinburgh) who is serving in the Mediterranean; she knows of the important naval battle his ship will be involved in before he does. (Quinn based Osla on Margaret Osla Henniker-Major who did indeed date Prince Philip during World War II and worked at Bletchley Park). Mab is searching for a “suitable” husband, but falls in love instead and Beth must overcome her crippling shyness and stand up to her mother, all against the backdrop of the war.

The novel jumps between the war years and 1947 when Beth has been falsely accused of a terrible crime and is in grave danger. Her friends from Bletchley Park look past their differences and unite again to work together to try and solve one more secret. As time runs out and the Bletchley Park colleagues encounter multiple obstacles, will they be able to right a terrible wrong?

I’m a big fan of Kate Quinn; her earlier novels The Alice Network and The Huntress are a couple of my all-time favorite books. She ties major events to lesser known historical figures and brings them to life, adding great depth to the repercussions of war and conflict, of the lasting legacies and past bravery. The Rose Code is no different, with fascinating details of the vital work that went on at Bletchley Park, the women (who mostly went unacknowledged) that made so much of the code breaking possible and the great tension of the last few chapters when a new danger threatens, made for another can’t-put-down novel.

Our Darkest Night by Jennifer Robson

Focusing on a part of World War II that is less explored, Jennifer Robson transports us to Italy under German occupation in Our Darkest Night.

Antonina has lived in Venice her whole life; her family have been residents for several generations. Her father is a renowned and well-respected doctor, with people from all over Europe and from all walks of life seeking him out. But none of this matters after the Nazi occupation of Italy. By 1943, daily life for the Jews of Venice has become nearly unbearable and increasingly dangerous.

As the danger looms, Antonina’s father refuses to leave his invalid wife, but insists that Antonina escape, posing as the wife of a man she’s never met, Nico, a former seminary student. Nico takes her to his family farm in the countryside, several days travel from  Venice, in the hopes that she will be safe hiding with a Christian family in a remote location.

Antonina (now known as Nina) finds her new life grueling and lonely, and she misses and fears for her parents desperately.  But even as she finds a place in her new family and falls in love with Nico, the German threat is not far away. Can she and Nico survive the horrors that are to come?

This is a quick read with characters that you will care about. The relentless cruelty of the Nazi’s can be difficult to read, but the strength of the Italian people will give you hope. For more books about Italy during the German occupation in World War II, be sure to check out A Thread of Grace by Mary Doria Russell and Blame the Dead by Ed Ruggero.

Online Reading Challenge – Wrap-Up

Hello Fellow Readers!

How did your “spy reading” go this month? Did you read something that kept your interest during this difficult and confusing time?

I read Code Name Helene by Ariel Lawhon, a fictionalized account about a real person. Well, I meant to read this book this month, but, sadly, it didn’t happen. I blame the pandemic as I found myself constantly distracted. They claim that Shakespeare wrote King Lear while in isolation during the Black Plague, but he didn’t have 24/7 news or social media to block out! Here’s to hoping my reading mojo comes back soon!

I did get started on Code Name Helene and it certainly has potential. So here’s a quick overview of what it’s about and my initial impressions.

Nancy Wake left Australia in the 1930s as a young woman, seeking adventure. She traveled throughout Europe as a journalist and socialite, making contacts with the wealthy and the powerful. She was free-spirited, independent and stubborn, walking into danger without hesitation. As the Nazi’s gain power in Germany, she struggles to raise the alarm but finds that many people, such as her editor, don’t want to hear what she is telling them. Unable to stand aside and do nothing, Nancy becomes a spy for the Allies. Known for her signature red lipstick, ferocious wit and her fearlessness, Nancy eventually becomes one of the most powerful leaders of the French Resistance, frequently putting herself and her loved ones in danger.

The story jumps across timelines, from the late 1930s to the end of World War II and from the point-of-view of several characters. I often enjoy this style of storytelling, feeling that it gives a more complete view of what happened and the results and consequences. However, I was having more trouble keeping track of characters, locations and dates with this book – perhaps it was my pandemic-induced distraction, but I found it hard to really fall into the world of this novel.

Nevertheless, Code Name Helene has great potential as a superior spy novel with it’s brave heroine set during one of the pivotal periods of history.

Now it’s your turn. What did you read this month? Tell us in the comments!

Blame the Dead by Ed Ruggero

August 1943. The Allies have invaded Sicily, the first step in liberating Europe from the Nazi’s. As the US Army advances, the 11th Field Hospital follows about 25 miles behind the front line, ready to treat the wounded at all hours. Soldiers, doctors and nurses must deal with unrelenting heat, malaria, staff shortages, bad food not to mention air strikes from the Germans. During the chaos of one of these airstrikes, a doctor is gunned down not by the enemy, but from someone within his unit in Blame the Dead by Ed Ruggero.

Eddie Harkins, a beat cop from Philadelphia serving in the Army as an MP (Military Police), is assigned the job of finding the murderer. Eddie is not a detective, but no one else is available. He stumbles through the investigation, relying on sheer stubbornness and dogged determination. He’s helped by Kathleen Donnelly, one of the nurses, who he grew up with back home and his driver Colianno who also acts as translator and always seems to find trouble.

Eddie quickly discovers that the victim, Dr Stephenson, had a lot of enemies but he also finds that that the rot goes deeper – nurses have been assualted and abused but their complaints have been ignored by their captain; a German doctor who stayed with the German POWs is given unprecedented privileges and freedom; the unit commander is petty and incompetent and appears to be involved in one or more shady practices. The nurses are angry and mistrustful, making Eddie’s job especially difficult. He is also weighted down with a terrible secret, one that he cannot forgive himself for. Fighting fatigue, time constraints and military protocol, Eddie edges closer and closer to the truth, eventually putting himself directly in danger.

I really enjoyed this book. The setting of wartime Sicily at the beginning of the Italian Campaign is fascinating. I especially enjoyed that the story revolves around a Field Hospital – my Mother was an Army nurse during World War II, stationed in England and France so this glimpse of the work and living conditions that the nurses endured during the war was especially interesting. The various mysteries, complicated and muddied by the chaos of war, are twisty and complex, and there are several white-knuckle, hold-onto-the-edge-of-your-seat action sequences. Through it all, the machine of the war grinds on, with the terrible cost and the real job of these people – helping the wounded – remaining a constant.

Online Reading Challenge – January Finish

Hello Fellow Readers!

We’ve reached the end of January and the finish of our first month of the 2020 Online Reading Challenge. How was your reading month? Were you able to find a good book or watch a movie somehow related to our theme of Casablanca?

I had an very good January, reading the excellent The Last Train to London by Meg Clayton, a remarkable story of courage and determination during the dark times just before and during the early years of World War II.

The book opens in the late 1930s when Hitler’s rise to power is throwing a dark cloud over Europe. The world watches in disbelief as threats against Jews grow but Truss Wijsmuller, a Dutch woman, is not standing by; she begins escorting Jewish children out of Austria to safety at great danger to herself. Most of the children are orphans, but as conditions worsen, parents begin making the heartrending decision to send their children away, desperate to protect them.

At first the Jews of Vienna believe they are safe – after all they have been loyal Austrians for generations and many no longer practice the Jewish faith. Vienna has long been a center of art and sophistication, Mozart and opera – surely nothing bad will happen here. However, within days of Anschluss (the annexation of Austria by Germany), the rights of Jewish citizens have been stripped, their property and businesses seized and families forced from their homes.

The Last Train to London depicts real events, part of the Kindertransport rescue that saved nearly 10,000 children’t from Nazi-occupied Europe. Truus Wijsmuller was a real person, known to the children as Tante Truus, kind and warm-hearted but with the courage and determination to confront Adolf Eichmann (who was the creator of the “Jewish solution” that sent millions to their death) and insist that he allow 600 children to leave and immigrate to England. Clayton personalizes the novel by telling a story of two young adults caught up in the chaos and despair – Stephan, son of a wealthy Jewish businessman and Zofie, the daughter of an anit-Nazi journalist. Their fate becomes entwined with Tante Truus and a nearly impossible dream to escape. This is a white-knuckle, can’t-put-down novel of both the horrors humans are capable of, and of the great kindness and compassion of ordinary people. Highly recommended.

OK, now it’s your turn – what did you read this month? Let us know in the comments!

 

Online Reading Challenge – Mid-Month Check

Hello Challengers!

Just checking in halfway through the month to see how things are going for you. Have you been able to find a book you want to read? There are so many books set during World War II, it can be hard to pick one!

If you’re still looking, be sure to check the displays at each Davenport library location. And don’t forget about e-books – check our collection on the Overdrive or Libby app to see if a title you want to read is available to read on your Kindle or tablet (check with any librarian at the library if you need help getting started!)

Of course, sometimes the culprit is time – too many other obligations and distractions! In that case, maybe a movie would be a better idea. Here’s a few ideas.

Woman in Gold with Helen Mirren and Ryan Reynolds follows the convoluted journey of one of Gustav Klimt’s most famous paintings, from it’s creation, to it’s seizure by the Nazi’s to it’s return to it’s rightful home.

The Courageous Heart of Irene Sendler – Starring Anna Paquin true story of a Polish social worker that was able to smuggle Jewish children out of the Warsaw ghetto.

Dunkirk with Tom Hardy, Harry Styles and Kenneth Branagh recreates the tense and daring rescue of thousands of Allied soldiers stranded on the beaches of Dunkirk, France.

Saving Private Ryan starring Tom Hanks. From the terrifying Allied invasion of Normandy to the dangerous, war-torn villages of France and Germany, eight soldiers are sent to bring home one.

The Imitation Game with Benedict Cumberbatch and Kiera Knightly is the fascinating story behind the Enigma machine and how the English broke the German’s secret code, saving thousands of lives.

Band of Brothers, a ten-part HBO mini-series about ‘Easy Company’ of the US Army who fought in several major battles including D-Day and the Battle of the Bulge and captured Hitler’s Eagles Nest while suffering major casualties.

And, of course, Casablanca. If you’ve never seen this classic, do yourself a favor and watch it now.

That’s just a small sampling. I’ve concentrated (both with movies and books) on the war in Europe, but there are many more set in the Pacific Theater. As always, read what interests you!

Happy reading (or watching!)

Online Reading Challenge 2020 Begins Today!

Hello Challengers!

It’s a New Year and a New Online Reading Challenge! Hurrah! Unlike those pesky New Year’s Resolutions that try to “fix” you and are usually abandoned within a few days, the Online Reading Challenge is all about having fun and trying something new with no pressure. Read as much or as little as you like, whenever you like. And you get to choose what to read from a list of suggestions – no more getting stuck using your precious reading time on a book you really don’t want to read!

Our 2020 theme is “From Film to Book”. We’re going to take iconic films (you’re probably familiar with the basic story even if you’ve never seen the film) and read books that have a similar setting or time period or theme.  At the beginning of each month I’ll talk about the film a bit and then list some suggested titles. There will be displays at each Davenport Library location with more ideas, plus you’ll want to stop in and pick up a Online Reading Challenge book log/bookmark which lists the film for each month and even has room to list the books you read!

OK – time to get started! Our first film is Casablanca with Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman.  Surely everyone is familiar with this film – the love triangle, the bar, the famous song, the final scenes at the airport.  Set in 1942 in Casablanca, a city teeming with refugees desperate to escape Nazi-occupied Europe, it embodies loyalty, sacrifice, friendship, patriotism and love.

There are a couple of different routes you can take when looking for this month’s book. World War II has long been a very popular subject for books and there is no shortage of excellent titles both in fiction and non-fiction. You could also read something set in Morocco (although there aren’t many to choose from), stories about refugees or the French Resistance or any wartime romance. And any book set during World War II will qualify (remember – there are no Library Police!)

I’ve always been interested in World War II and have read a lot set in that time period. A few of my personal favorites include:

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr  (blog post)

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah (blog post)

The Huntress by Kate Quinn (blog post)

City of Thieves by David Benioff (blog post)

Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave (blog post)

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer (blog post)

The Madonnas of Leningrad by Debra Dean (blog post)

A Thread of Grace by Mary Russell (blog post)

Check the displays at each of the Davenport library locations for lots more titles!

I’m planning on reading The Last Train to London by Meg Clayton. It’s fiction based on a true story about a woman in The Netherlands helping Jewish children in Europe escape to England. Can’t wait to get started!

Now, what about you? Will you be joining us in this year’s Reading Challenge? What do you plan to read in January?