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review 2017-04-22 18:53
Review: With Every Letter (Wings of the Nightingale #1) by Sarah Sundin
With Every Letter - Sarah Sundin

This book.

 

*SIGH*

 

*great book noise*

 

Where has this author been all my adult reading life?

 

I ended up creating a draft copy of my end of the year best of list for fiction. It has one book on that list. This book.

 

So I picked this book up from Amazon's bargain/close out section and then it gathered dust on my book shelves for years. I am now kicking myself for not reading this (and the other two books in the trilogy, but I don't have a copy of those yet) sooner.

 

Lt Philomela Blake (Mellie) is an Army nurse working on the experimental Air Evacuation section of the Army-Air Corps. She wants adventure, she wants travel, and she wants to move up in her career. Mellie is a damn fine nurse, and a fine person - but she is lonely because she never could make friends, especially female friends due to her childhood. Mellie is half-Filipino and half-white; she was too Asian for American school kids to like and too American for Asian kids to like. She has been instructed to learn to make friends and get along with the other women in her squadron or she will be removed from the Air Evacuation team and sent back to hospital work. She decides that part of this new "make friends and influence people" plan is to write anonymous letters to a male pen pal in her supervisor's husband's platoon.

 

Lt Tom MacGilliver is the son of an executed killer who just wants to be accepted for himself and be the best engineer the Army needs. He is working with the Airfield Battalion, hopping from location to location to lay down airfields for the Allies in North Africa. He too is lonely, so he answers Mellie's letter, staying anonymous. She goes by "Annie" and he goes by "Ernest".

 

Tom and Mellie form a deep bond through letters, even when Mellie's unit deploys to North Africa. They do meet, neither of them knowing that the other is the pen pal. At the end of the first meeting, Tom gives away a little of his identity and Mellie figures out Tom is her pen pal. She keeps this knowledge to herself, hoping to keep letter writing going. Both are falling in love with each other via letters, but Tom is also starting to fall for Mellie when she comes to his airfields to pick up wounded soldiers. He is very conflicted about his feelings for the "two" women throughout the second half of the book, but in the end he decides on "Annie" over Mellie, because "Annie" knows him deep down while Mellie he is physically attracted to. When he finally (FINALLY!!) figures out that they are actually the same woman, he mows down anyone in his way of him getting his woman.

 

This romance tackles racism, ethnic tensions, sexism, and how to deal with long hair when in the combat theater and you are rationed water supplies. Honestly, the deft hand when dealing with these issues plus the emotional baggage Mellie and Tom bring to their relationship is amazing. The story is rounded out with a variety of characters, some good - some bad - some ugly. But all the characters felt real. And the setting was aptly described; the reader is taken on a tour of North Africa including Casablanca, Oran, Tunis, Algiers, Youks-les-Bains, Constantine, Tabarka, and a few places in Sicily. This is an inspie romance, non-denominational Christianity. However, the religious aspects are really well-woven into the story, with no lecturing or long monologues or selfish praying. 

 

Tom adopts a stray dog early in the book. The dog is still alive at the end of the book and still working and living with Tom's unit.

 

I am definitely making it a point to read the other two books in the series and read the author's backlist (she tends to write in trilogies, all WWII). HIGHLY RECOMMEND!!!

 

 

 

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review 2017-04-20 20:01
For those interested in history from the point of view of the people in the street and a reminder of why this should not happen to any children.
Children in the Second World War: Memories from the Home Front - Amanda Herbert-Davies

Thanks to Pen & Sword Books for offering me a copy of this book that I freely choose to review.

This book is the product of the author’s work in the archival collection of the Home Front at that Second World War Experience Centre in Yorkshire. It is easy to imagine what fascinating material the collection must contain, and how difficult it must be to choose some witness testimonies over others, but this collection offers a unique point of view, that of boys and girls who lived through the war in Britain. As the author explains, over 200 personal accounts have been used in its creation and they offer as many different points of view as children there were.

The book is divided into several chapters by themes. Although some are chronological (like the beginning, the end and the one about the bombing), some are more general and cover the whole period.

 The Beginning talks about the initial thoughts about the war and how life changed (many of the things were surprising to me although I’m sure many people will have heard stories about it. For instance, I knew about the blackouts, but it never occurred to me that the names of train stops would be removed and travelling at night with nothing to help you orient yourself in a city [no lit shop windows, names…] was not only difficult but also dangerous [light coloured cars were forbidden and pedestrians couldn’t be easily seen either]. The chapter ‘Air-Raid Shelters’ shows the steps the government took (steel shelters, Andersons, Morrisons…) and also what individuals themselves did (hide in the cupboard under the stairs, which saved quite a few people, simply ignore the alarms, dig underground trenches [especially soldiers who’d been in WWI], fortify a room, go to the underground in London) to try and keep safe. The pictures that accompany the paperback are an eye-opener to anybody who didn’t live through it. The chapter on evacuation is one of the most heart-wrenching, with a whole range of experiences, from the kids who left the city to face prejudice in rural areas, to those who found a second family and were made feel like royalty. In ‘invasion’ there is discussion of the plans families made in case of invasion (some determined to die rather than be taken prisoner) and also their home-spun anti-spy activities. ‘Shortages’ will probably be familiar to those with relatives who lived through the war, and it is a tribute in particular to mothers’ imagination and inventive when trying to make up for the things that were missing (I loved the mock banana sandwiches made by boiling and mashing up parsnip and mixing up some banana essence). ‘Schools’ emphasises the difficult experiences of those children who missed schooling or had to try and learn in classrooms with neither roofs nor materials, with children of all ages mixed together and hardly any teachers. ‘Entertainment’ shows that children can see opportunities to have fun anywhere. While some children were terrified, many others felt inspired and made use of shrapnel, diffused bombs, ruins of buildings, to role play or to design games and bombs. ‘War Effort’ shares the work older children (some as young as 12) did to help, including running messages, working for the post office bringing the dreaded bad news, girls helping in hospitals, and how many of them moved on to join the armed forces when they grew up. ‘The Bombing of Britain’ will bring memories to many and it covers not only London but many of the other cities, and phenomena such as the families who would leave the cities every night and go back in the morning. The resolution and the population and the way people took everything in their stride come across clear in these accounts. People who survived would dust themselves off and carry on. ‘The End’, talks about the celebrations for those who could celebrate and the sad moments of those who couldn’t.

The book has very funny moments, and sad and hard to read ones too, some inspiring and some not so much. The author is very good at remaining invisible, choosing passages that illustrate different angles of the same theme and letting speak for themselves, without interfering, and the approach increases the power of the accounts. I marked passages and quotes as I went along, but I ended up with so many it was very difficult to choose. But here are a few, to give you a flavour of the book:

Here, talking about taking refuge in cellars:

There was an element of risk sheltering in that cellar with an open fire considering they were ‘within six feet of an operating gas main and visible pipes’, but the general thinking in Charles’s cellar was that it was better to ‘be bombed in comfort’. (17)

Talking about the bombings and the state of disrepair of the houses:

Pamela had her house windows broken, then repaired and covered in sticky tape, and then had the lot of them blown out again. Her mother, being practical, merely commented, ‘Oh well, I will not have to clean them.’

And talking about the VE Day celebrations:

To Irene’s astonishment, one of the elderly church ladies ‘of staid and sober habits’ turned up resplendent in an eye-catching red dress and was later seen leading the conga up the street. (171) It seems the conga was pretty popular.

I am not a big reader of conventional military history (battles, strategy or detailed fight scenes) but I’m always intrigued by what happens back home during any wars and how the world carries on in some fashion for the rest of population while the fighting goes on elsewhere (at least in conventional wars). The memories of those children and their accounts of their experiences at the time might be tinged with nostalgia in some cases, but in others, it reflects the long-term effects of experiences lived so long ago and that have not been forgotten. It is impossible to read this book and not think about those children who, still today, live in a constant state of war and danger, and how disruptive this will be to their lives if they reach adulthood.

I recommend this book to anybody interested in the home front angle of the war (World War II in Britain in particular, but any wars), in stories about children’s subject to extreme situations, and anybody who enjoys history as told not by politicians and big names, but by the people in the street. A great and important book that should be required reading for school-age children.

 

 

 

 

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review 2017-03-25 14:21
Anna and the Swallow Man Book Review
Anna and the Swallow Man - Gavriel Savit

I dunno, this is just not my kind of book. I read it and gave up on it a few months ago then I decided to do it on audio and I did finish it I just don't like the storyline. I found the plot very strange and am still not sure what the point of the book is.

 

Its one of those books that may be well written but is hard to sell, middle schoolers will most likely be bored (though the character is their age) and I think teens won't be interested. I'm 27 and found it confusing. There didn't seem to be a clear ending to it either.

 

That being said, it has very good reviews so you may feel the complete opposite as I do about this one. Its just not my style.

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review 2017-02-28 11:51
A touching reminder of the people behind the history books and a well-deserved memorial
Surviving the Death Railway: A POW's Memoir and Letters from Home - Barry Custance Baker,Hilary Custance Green

Thanks to Hilary Custance Green (who edited part of her family history and that of many others) and to Katie Eaton from Pen & Sword Books Limited  (www.pen-and-sword.co.uk) for sending me a paperback copy of this book that I freely choose to review.

As a reader, when it comes to stories about the war, I’ve always been more interested in the individuals (both in the front and back home) than in the way the battles were fought. I had heard, read, and mostly watched TV programmes and movies about Japanese war camps (I won’t forget Tenko in a hurry).  Probably lots of people have. This book provides the personal experience of a family whose lives were affected and transformed by the war. We get to know Barton (Barry) Custance Baker, born in Malaya, before the war; we later learn of his marriage to Phyllis and then we follow him all the way back to Malaya and read on as he becomes father and prisoner of war. We also read (thanks to the correspondence of the period, some that reached its destination and some that didn’t) about Phyllis’s life, the thoughts of those left back home and the way they tried to hang on to hope.

The book combines letters from Barry to Phyllis about his life in the East, most of the time not sure if any of them would make it to his wife, letters from Phyllis to Barry, trying to keep up his spirits with news about their son, Robin, and his family, and the diary Barry wrote, containing more details about his time abroad, although always trying to emphasise the positive and understate the difficulties. The combination of these narratives creates a complex and complementary testimony of the varied experiences of the war for those on both sides of the conflict, such as the difficulty of being away and separated from those you love for years, missing the early years of a son you hardly know and worrying that you might no longer know your partner when you go back (or when they come back), and contrasting the often mistaken ideas and thoughts about what the other party might be enduring.

Barry’s parents thought he would be bored as a PoW, never imagining he would be building a railway line, the Thailand-Burma railway, appropriately called Death Railway, as it cost so many lives (not only British). That he, as an officer, might be engaged in heavy labouring work, starved and ill did not enter their imagination.

Barry also had little concept of life back home and did not have news of his parents’ move to San Francisco to help with radio transmissions in Malayan or later, of the death of his younger brother, John. He imagines there might be some restrictions and even danger, but not how unsettling the lack of news was.

Barry’s efforts trying to ensure he kept track of his men and that he did all he could to keep them safe were echoed by those made by Phyllis, who tried her hardest to create a network of information to share any news between the relatives and friends of the men in her husband’s unit, sending encouraging letters, and even creating a dossier with as much data as possible about all the men, to facilitate the task of the War Office in identifying and reporting their fate.

The book is extraordinary too because it clearly shows the tireless efforts they all made to try and keep in touch at a time when communication with each other wasn’t only a click away, and when sometimes years might pass without any news of the other person (and in the best case scenario the news might be years old by the time they get it). Forget about 140 characters on Twitter. The rules of their communication kept changing and at some point they could only send 25 words to their loved one, and that included the date. And the best they could hope for was a prewritten card with only a few words added by hand.

If physically the experiences are very different (although not full of gross details, we get a clear sense of the trials and suffering the men had to endure), mentally, the toll of the lack of information, of the separation and the impotence is clear on both sides. And those letters of mothers, girlfriends, uncles, asking for information about their loved ones, sharing the good and bad news, but always trying to encourage the other person, no matter what their lot has been, are impossible to forget. Even the replies to Phyllis request for particulars about the men convey so much more than what is written. It is amazing how a few words to describe somebody can be so full of feeling and be so touching, and how much they say about unspoken emotions.

 

As readers, we can but share in the feelings, and are touched by the hopes, anxieties, and stress of the situation. We are given an extraordinary insight into the lives of people whom we might have known, and who could have been our neighbours, friends, or family. We read about their joy at the impending reunion and their wish to get to know each other (and the worry that they might no longer recognise or like the persons they have become). Barry and Phyllis become our ersatz family and we’re happy to learn they had more children and lived happy and fulfilling lives. I was particularly moved by a moment towards the end of Barry’s life when he’s ill in hospital and for a moment believes he’s back at the camp. When his daughter (Hilary) explains to him what has happened since and he realises he’s ill and dying but has lived a full life he says ‘I’ll settle for that’. I hope we all can say that when our time comes.

Hilary Custance Green, the editor of the book, and Barry and Phyllis’s daughter has found the way of letting the letters and the diary tell the story, with very little explanation or unnecessary interference, other than minimal clarifications or explanations when needed. The material is powerful enough in its own right. She has done a great job and the book is a great memorial not only to her parents but also to all the men and women who went through the experience. At the end of the book, there is a call to anybody who might have information about families of members of the Men of 27 Line Section to get in touch with the editor. Don’t forget to pass the message on if you know anybody connected to the men or with contacts who might have more information.

In summary, this is a fantastic book for those interested in World War II, both from the point of view of war action and of the home front, those interested in stories about PoW, tales of human bravery, valour, endurance and the heroism of extraordinary ‘ordinary’ people. Don’t miss this book and don’t forget to pass it on to anybody who might have known a member of the unit.

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review 2017-02-21 03:46
HIDDEN FIGURES by Margot Lee Shetterly
Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race - Margot Lee Shetterly

Not what I expected but I enjoyed it.  I thought it would only be the story of the women but it was also a cultural/societal history of the times of segregation and integration.  I learned a lot.  I admire these women.  They were geniuses.  I could not have done what they did.  The story was well written although slow in some places.  This is well worth the read.

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