In this historical novel of female friendship set on the home front in England during World War II, three very different women become friends. One night fashion designer Cressida Westcott escapes her flat during a bombing raid, and loses both her home and nearby business in one night. Without a dress to her name, she leaves London for the Westcott manor she hasn’t visited in decades. Cressida is welcomed by her niece Violet and nephew Hugh, who’ve never met her. Violet is a socialite, ready to marry a man from the right sort of background, and reluctant to report for training for war work, even though she will be able to live at home while chauffeuring American officers. Dutiful Grace, daughter of the widowed vicar, visits parishioners and joins committees, and will soon marry another vicar, who likes but doesn’t love her. Her mother’s wedding gown needs repair, and the local sewing circle, now including Cressida, works to repair and alter the dress, which, unexpectedly, was made in Paris. With clothes rationing, women are having trouble even getting a new dress or dress fabric for their wedding, let alone a white gown. With Cressida’s help, the sewing circle begins to collect older wedding gowns, and starts an exchange to help women, especially those in the military, borrow an updated white wedding gown. The three women grow and change tremendously, with Violet making friends of all classes during her training while Grace learns to have fun again, and learns about dress design from Cressida. I enjoyed this engaging, uplifting novel. Readalikes include Ryan’s Chilbury Ladies’ Choir, Dear Mrs. Bird by A.J. Pearce, Until We Meet by Camille Di Maio (which uses the same photo on the book jacket), and The Paris Seamstress by Natasha Lester.
A companion novel to Liardet’s 2019 debut, We Must Be Brave, this covers three different times in vicar James Acton’s life. As a young pilot in the Second World War, he meets his future wife Yvette in Alexandria, Egypt. The war separates them, and then they marry after the war and settle near Liverpool in a poor parish. A pregnancy loss early in their marriage threaten to divide them again, and James doesn’t care where Yvette finds support on her long drives in the country. Later Yvette keeps a diary before her death in the 1960s. In 1974, with son Tom a college student, James moves to a new parish in Upton, where he has a leaky roof, a study full of the last vicar’s papers, and a crisis of faith. Tom and James quarrel over Yvette’s diaries, then James starts meeting people who knew Yvette. Not as sad as We Must Be Brave, with a puppy and Tom providing comic relief, and a stern archbishop providing unexpected support, the plot keeps the reader guessing in this compelling read. The Alexandria setting is unfamiliar and has links to the author’s family. I also enjoyed the English countryside setting and the scenes of daily life of a 1970s English vicar.
In 1942, the Ito family are forced to evacuate from southern California to the Manzanar Internment Camp. In 1943, older daughter Rose is relocated to Chicago. When Aki, 20, and her parents arrive in Chicago in 1944, they learn that Rose has just died. As they grieve for Rose, settle into a tiny apartment, then look for work, Aki is obsessed with learning about Rose’s life in the city. She meets with her former roommates and a friend from California, and reads Rose’s diary. Aki is welcomed by the Japanese American community in Chicago, fortunately finding work at the Newberry Library, and makes a few friends, including Art, who has a welcoming family. But her quest to find the truth behind Rose’s death is dangerous. Life for Japanese Americans in Chicago during World War II is well-researched and richly detailed. Aki is an appealing young sleuth, and I’d enjoy reading more about Aki and her family. Suggested for historical fiction and mystery readers. Readalikes include other mysteries by Hirahara including Grave on Grand Avenue, Tallgrass by Sandra Dallas, Daughter of Moloka’i by Alan Brennert, and When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka.
Kate Rees was raised on an Oregon cattle ranch, and became a crack shot with a rifle. In 1940, she’s testing rifles in a munitions factory in Scotland’s Orkney Islands when she’s recruited for a special mission in Paris, where she studied on scholarship at the Sorbonne. Mourning her husband, Kate agrees, and almost kills Hitler during his three hour tour in Paris. Why she is sent to Paris, after a very brief training that includes tips for quick disguises, and why she fails are just the background for what comes next. Kate wasn’t the only operative parachuting into France that June, and she makes contact with allies, an injured fellow spy, her former tutor at the Sorbonne, and the intriguing Philippe. While Kate is on the run in a beautifully described Paris, Nazi detective Gunter Hoffman is searching for a sniper, and MI6 handler Stepney is scrambling for options to salvage his operations in France. Readalikes include Munich by Robert Harris, Dragonfly by Leila Meacham, Basil’s War by Stephen Hunter, Under Occupation by Alan Furst, and the mid-20th century spy novels by Helen MacInnes. This stunning and suspenseful historical thriller is almost impossible to put down, and great escapist reading.
Fans of Dear Mrs. Bird will cheer Emmy Lake’s return as a young advice columnist in wartime London. A chance meeting on a train with Anne and her two young children lead to Emmy visiting the munitions factory where Anne works for an article on women war workers. While the article is upbeat, Emmy and her friend Bunty learn more about the struggles the women face, especially finding child care when they work long, varied shifts. Emmy has infrequent dates with Charles, now stationed in England, and thoroughly enjoys her work at Woman’s Friend magazine, now managed by supportive editor Guy. Emmy and Bunty do get into a bit of trouble when they agree to be in two different places on a very important day, but it makes for very entertaining reading. Such a wonderful story, very well told. More Emmy and Bunty, please! Sure to please Anglophiles and readers of historical fiction.
This immersive, compelling read features an unlikely trio of friends who work at Bletchley Park during World War II, secretly trying to break the codes used by the Germans and Italians. Debutante Osla Kendall, who reads German fluently, is dating Prince Philip of Greece. On the train from London she meets ambitious Mab, a typist whose height gets her work on the machines at Bletchley Park and who is anxious to evacuate her little sister Lucy from London’s East End. Shy Beth, whose demanding mother rents Mab and Osla a room, finds her skill at crossword puzzles leads to work as a codebreaker. The strain of the work and the demand for complete secrecy affect the women’s relationships, although outlets such as their Mad Hatter book group help somewhat. In 1947 the women are no longer friends, yet Mab and Osla meet for tea in York in response to a desperate plea from Beth, who is trying to discover who framed her as a traitor. This crisis is set during the weeks, days, and hours leading up to the royal wedding of Osla’s Prince Philip and Princess Elizabeth. I loved the focus on the women’s war work and found this book, with its intensifying pace, hard to put down. Only the 624 page count will keep this book from being the top pick of many book groups. Readalikes include Code Girls by Liza Mundy, The Gown by Jennifer Robson, The Secret Lives of Codebreakers by Sinclair McKay, and The Secrets We Kept by Lara Prescott.
While I haven’t been reading many World War II novels lately, I’m a fan of Robert Harris’s novels, including Conclave, Pompeii, Munich, and The Second Sleep, so I started reading V2, and found it a compelling read. In November 1944, Section Officer Kay Caton-Walsh is in the London flat of her boss, Air Commodore Mike Templeton, when the building is hit by a V2 rocket. Kay gets the cold shoulder from Templeton when she’s mistaken for his wife, so she’s happy to take an assignment in Belgium. In Medenham, England, Kay has been analyzing photographs, searching for clues to the launch site of Germany’s V2 rockets. In Belgium, she will calculate the trajectory of the missiles while they’re still in the air, and after they hit London. In this thrilling story about the race to stop the silent, insidious V2s, which threatened Londoners from September 1944 to March 1945, a parallel plot features German engineer Rudi Graf. Graf, who only wanted to work with Wernher von Braun to send rockets into space, helps launch the V2 missiles. How far is Graf willing to go, for Germany, or for his conscience and the future? Another well-researched novel from master storyteller Harris, this is a good readalike for The Secret Lives of Codebreakers by Sinclair McKay, Code Girls by Liza Mundy, Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly, and the Maggie Hope series by Susan Elia MacNeal.
The struggles and triumphs of the wife of Winston Churchill make for an interesting biographical novel, especially the second half of the book, which covers World War II. The first half of the book doesn’t flow as well, as it covers the first thirty years of Clementine and Winston’s marriage. Clementine was always interested in politics, although she didn’t always share Winston’s views. He was moody and rather bombastic, but Clementine would stand up to him, soothe and support him, and they were a good team, at least according to this very well researched novel. Clementine struggled to balance being a supportive wife with being a good mother and running a household on a modest budget during the early years of their marriage, and occasionally took a rest cure to recharge. I really liked the chapters on Clementine’s work on the home front during the war, improving air raid shelters, helping Winston with his speeches, and being recognized internationally for her work with the Red Cross. Other recent books about the Winston and his mother Jennie include Hero of the Empire by Candice Millard and That Churchill Woman by Stephanie Barron. Readalikes include novels by Melanie Benjamin, Paula McLain, and Nancy Horan.
In June, 1940, Ruby Sutton, a young reporter in New York City, accepts an assignment to report on the war from London at Picture Weekly magazine. Ruby, as an American, brings a fresh perspective to stories of home front England and the Blitz, mentored by veteran photographer Mary Buchanan and editor Kaz. Ruby is befriended by Captain Bennett, who has a secret wartime job; a romance seems likely. Over the next few years, Ruby, raised in an orphanage, finds a new family and home in London. A very compelling read, there are naturally some poignant scenes, but this is more heartwarming than many novels set during the war. If you’re in the mood for an excellent historical novel with memorable characters, this is a sure bet. For more about Ruby, Kaz, and Bennett, read The Gown, which we’re discussing Tuesday night at the library. Readalikes include books by Jennifer Ryan, Lissa Evans, Beatriz Williams, and AJ Pearce.
Private investigator Maisie and her friend Priscilla spend a few evenings a week driving an ambulance in London during the blitz. Catherine Saxon, an American reporter, rides along one night, reports what she saw on the radio, and is found dead the next day. Maisie and her assistant Billy investigate, with occasional help from an attractive American agent, Mark Scott. Maisie visits Catherine’s boarding house, and meets with her friends, all while worried about her family in Kent, where she spends weekends. An intriguing puzzle, appealing characters, and a fast-paced story make this a memorable mystery. The first book in the long-running series is Maisie Dobbs.