Book Review: War, Spies, and Bobby Sox by Libby Fischer Hellmann

 

War, Spies, and Bobby Sox
Stories About World War II At Home
Libby Fischer Hellmann
The Red Herrings Press, February 2017
ISBN 978-1938733970
Trade Paperback

From the author—

As World War II rages across Europe and the Pacific, its impact ripples through communities in the heartland of America. A farm girl is locked in a dangerous love triangle with two Germans soldiers held in an Illinois POW camp … Another German, a war refugee, is forced to risk her life spying on the developing Manhattan Project in Chicago … And espionage surrounds the disappearance of an actress from the thriving Jewish community of Chicago’s Lawndale. In this trio of tales, acclaimed thriller author Libby Fischer Hellmann beautifully depicts the tumultuous effect of war on the home front and illustrates how the action, terror, and tragedy of World War II was not confined to the front lines.

Libby Fischer Hellmann is one of the few authors who can surprise me nearly every time I pick up one of her books. Here, the surprise comes in her clear understanding of the World War II homefront, almost as though she had lived it herself.

Three tales provide a glimpse of how people, especially women, coped with the hardships, opportunities and moral pitfalls here at home while the main attention was on events overseas. Lena, a young Jewish girl, is sent to America before our involvement and makes her way in the world supported by her aunt Ursula and uncle Reinhard eventually getting a secretarial position in a university physics department. That, in itself, seems innocuous but this is the time when scientists are in the early stages of developing nuclear fission and Lena finds herself in a world of trouble.

Mary-Catherine lives in rural Illinois and helps her mother and siblings keep the farm running. When ten German POW soldiers are assigned to work the harvest, Mary-Catherine can’t help being interested by one in particular, a man who gives her the tiniest of smiles. To her, Reinhard is intriguing; to Reinhard, she is an “Irish mongrel” and, in that moment of meeting, a scheme is born that will change Mary-Catherine’s life while another POW will find a new direction.

Life as a Jewish gangster calls to teenaged Jacob Forman but he doesn’t bargain for what happens to a beautiful actress he admires from afar as she starts walking out with the charming gangster, Skull. When Skull invites Jake and his friend, Barney, to work for him as runners, they think they’ve hit the jackpot but can’t help noticing the sad distance that has grown between Skull and Miriam. Not long after, murder and a local Nazi open Jake’s eyes to a world much grimmer than he ever thought.

Once again, Ms. Hellmann has knocked it out of the park and, if you haven’t tried her mysteries and other work yet, this is a good place to start 😉

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, December 2017.

Book Review: Hidden Like Anne Frank by Marcel Prins and Peter Henk Steenhuis

hidden-like-anne-frankHidden Like Anne Frank
14 True Stories of Survival
Marcel Prins and Peter Henk Steenhuis
Arthur A. Levine Books, March 2014
ISBN: 978-0-545-54362-0
Hardcover

Anne Frank was the most memorable child of the Holocaust, but there were many, many others. In this extremely vivid and moving collection of fourteen personal narratives by survivors of Nazi occupation in the Netherlands, readers will find themselves experiencing a range of emotions.

These survivors were separated from parents, siblings, cousins and other relatives, found themselves moved more times that they could count, experienced despair the day after hope and came out of the experience forever changed. They had to adopt new names, new religions, learn different customs and even undergo eyebrow shaping and a change of hair color. Readers will discover how entire communities were herded like cattle, lost everything they had accumulated, were forced to ignore siblings in public, live under inhumane conditions, endure beatings by people who had supposedly befriended them, go hungry for extended periods of time and often had to remain in unlit cold and cramped places for hours while being terrified that the knock on the door meant exposure and a trip to a concentration camp.

Each story is different, each survivor knew great loss and deprivation, but all endured. What comes across clearly in each story is how the experience forever changed not only the narrator, but their relationships with surviving family members. Each reader will have unique reactions to every story. There are some that inspire admiration, some that evoke pity, sympathy or empathy and even one that might strike one as annoying, but none of us were there to live the terror and fear, so who’s to say how our story might come across under similar circumstances.

This is a book that should be read by as many people as possible, particularly in a time (like now) where ethnocentricity and racial intolerance are once more on the rise. It’s well worth having in any school or public library.

Reviewed by John R. Clark, MLIS, February 2017.

Book Review: Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

Code Name VerityCode Name Verity
Elizabeth Wein
Hyperion, May 2012
ISBN 978-1-4231-5219-4
Hardcover
ISBN 978-1-4231-5325-2
Ebook

From the publisher—

Oct. 11th, 1943—A British spy plane crashes in Nazi-occupied France. Its pilot and passenger are best friends. One of the girls has a chance at survival. The other has lost the game before it’s barely begun.

 

When “Verity” is arrested by the Gestapo, she’s sure she doesn’t stand a chance. As a secret agent captured in enemy territory, she’s living a spy’s worst nightmare. Her Nazi interrogators give her a simple choice: reveal her mission or face a grisly execution.

 

As she intricately weaves her confession, Verity uncovers her past, how she became friends with the pilot Maddie, and why she left Maddie in the wrecked fuselage of their plane. On each new scrap of paper, Verity battles for her life, confronting her views on courage and failure and her desperate hope to make it home. But will trading her secrets be enough to save her from the enemy?

Queenie, daughter of an upper-crust family, is a wireless operator captured as an Allied spy and facing execution if she survives six weeks of medical experimentation in a Nazi camp. In an odd twist of fate, she is being interrogated in Ormaie, France, where she used to visit her grandmother and where her great-aunt still lives and is a part of the French Resistance. Maddie is a pilot in the Air Transport Auxiliary, ferrying planes and pilots but never allowed in a combat zone until the fateful flight that ended in disaster. Maddie is Jewish. In any circumstances other than war, these two women would almost certainly never have known each other and yet they have become the best of friends and trust each other completely. That trust will lead to a moment of devastation and sheer love.

KISS ME , HARDY! Kiss me, QUICK!

To say this is an engrossing story is to put it mildly. Much has been written fictionally about World War II but there is always room for more because we’re so fascinated with that piece of history. Having the horrors and the everyday routines of wartime built into the friendship of two women who find themselves in unbearable circumstances is nearly too much and I literally could not stop reading until I’d finished and then I wished for more.

Ms. Wein tells a great tale and she does so by making the reader feel that these two women are much like most of us, willing to do our part in a bad time but still just ordinary people. Little things make the story come alive, such as the detail of the first successful ballpoint pen, licensed to the RAF in 1943 and manufactured for pilots who needed a way to write at high altitudes where increased pressure frequently caused fountain pens to leak. There are also the women’s lists of top ten fears which, not surprisingly, change as they learn what is really important to them. Above all, this is the story of what one person can mean to another and the sacrifices they’re willing to make for each other. Even Verity’s Nazi interrogator has shades of humanity, something the author didn’t have to do but still a touch that lifts this book above many other World War II novels.

Is the ending of this tale a happy one? Most would say “no” but it’s an appropriate ending, one which will remain with me for a very long time. I’ll be including Code Name Verity in my top 5 books of 2012.

KISS ME , HARDY! Kiss me, QUICK!

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, July 2012.

Book Reviews: The Sentry by Robert Crais, Stettin Station by David Downing and Damage by John Lescroart

The Sentry
Robert Crais
Putnam, January 2011
ISBN: 978-0-399-15707-3
Hardcover

There are many larger-than-life, hard-boiled superheroes, some more believable than others.  Then there is Joe Pike:  A strong, contemplative, quiet, unassuming protagonist.  And his sorrowful and anguished side-kick, PI Elvis Cole, adds a more human touch. Together, they make a great team, and in this, the third thriller in the series with Joe in the lead (Elvis is upfront in 11 others), they come together like ham and swiss or hand in glove.

It all begins when by chance Joe observes two gangbangers beating up a cook in a po’boy sandwich shop in Venice, California.  Killing one ( the other runs off), he meets the cook’s niece and becomes attracted to her, deciding to meet with the gang jefe to prevent further violence in what appears to be a protection racket.  This leads to all sorts of events involving the Mexican drug cartel, Bolivian drug lords, and a psychopathic killer, among others.

Each novel in the series is notable, with this entry among the best. The author has written a solid book, with ironic observations and a plot that swerves back and forth to keep the reader wondering what follows.  He has shown that the series is a long way from running out of steam, and I can’t wait for the next one.

Highly recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, March 2011.

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Stettin Station
David Downing
Soho Press ,April 2011
ISBN: 978-1-56947-919-3
Trade Paperback

The chronicle of journalist John Russell begins in Nazi Berlin a week before Pearl Harbor in this, the third novel in the series [with a fourth, Potsdam Station, just out in hardcover].  The descriptions of Gestapo tactics and the beginnings of the “final solution” are eerily chilling.

Russell is ostensibly a correspondent for a San Francisco newspaper, allowing the author to describe the machinations of the Nazi censors and propaganda machine with vivid detail, while his protagonist acts as a go-between between German and American intelligence agents, carrying messages back and forth.  He even obtains proof that the Gestapo is removing Jews from Berlin and planning to gas them, even though he can hardly publish the story.

As conditions worsen, Russell has to find a way to get out of Germany, hoping to bring his long-time girlfriend with him.  It is a tale of terror with a thrill-a-page pace.  Descriptions of wartime Berlin and the police state remind us of a period many may have forgotten, but of which we, and they, should perhaps be reminded.

Recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, March 2011.

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Damage
John Lescroart
Dutton, January 2011
ISBN: 978-0-525-95176-6
Hardcover

Readers should not expect the author’s trademark court scenes in this novel.  Instead, it is more of a psychological study about a newly elected DA, Wes Farrell, in San Francisco, protagonists also including Chief of Homicide Abe Glitsky, Asst. DA Amanda Jenkins and others. The antagonists include Ro Curtlee, a convicted rapist-murderer released by an appellate court on a technicality after serving nine years of a much longer sentence, and his parents, wealthy owners of one of only two newspapers in town and not hesitant in using their power to influence public officials or opinion.

Soon after Ro’s release pending a new trial, the question of bail arises; Farrell takes no position and the judge grants it for a $10 million bond. And then the chief witness in the first trial is found strangled and her apartment burned.  Obviously, suspicion falls on Ro. Another murder and threatening events soon follow.  The thrust of the plot is to get Ro back in jail, and the machinations of the cops and prosecutors vs. the influence of the Curtlees.

So, instead of a courtroom drama, we have a thriller enhanced by peeks into the conflicts and complexities, including ethics, values and procedures, facing various professionals in their attempts to serve justice.  Written with insight and flowing narrative, the novel is recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, March 2011.

Book Review: Rag and Bone by James R. Benn

Rag and Bone
James R. Benn
Soho Press, 2010
ISBN: 978-1-56947-849-3
Hardcover

A couple of weeks ago, the Russian Parliament acknowledged that country’s responsibility for the slaughter of more than 20,000 Polish officers at the Katyn Forest early on during World War II over the protests of the Communist Party.  Katyn plays a prominent role in this novel, the fifth in the Billy Boyle World War II mysteries.  When a Soviet officer is found murdered on a London street, hands tied behind his back and shot in the back of the head as were those murdered at Katyn, Billy is sent ahead to London from Italy by his Uncle Ike to solve the murder just days before the General and his staff were to arrive to set up Supreme Headquarfters for the invasion of France.

While the Poles in London, especially Billy’s friend Kaz, have proof of the Russian complicity in the massacre, it was not in the interests of the British or American governments to upset the delicate balance in the wartime alliance, which depended on the pressure of the eastern front to offset the German defenses of the west.  Now a first Lieutenant, Billy has to tread a fine line between all elements to find the killer and seek justice, while saving his friend, who is
Scotland Yard’s number one suspect.

As usual, the author uses and depicts history to set the stage for an intriguing murder mystery, with cameo performances by Uncle Dwight D. Eisenhower, FDR and Winston Churchill, among others, carrying forth the series from North Africa to Sicily and Italy to blitzed Britain, just before the Normandy invasion.  Written with a blend of fact and fiction, the novel is a first-class crime novel, transcending the vivid scenes of Luftwaffe bombings, war-time shortages and deprivations, and is recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, December 2010.