Tag Archives: wwii

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

verity Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

Synopsis 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?

First, allow me to address the concerns of those who might shy away from this because it’s technically classified as Young Adult — Code Name Verity reads like an adult novel. The complexity of the story, the caliber of research, and the characterization of both Verity and Maddie are as well done as any adult historical fiction novel you will read this year. Read it. You’ll thank me, I promise.

Code Name Verity is a beautiful story of friendship set against the harrowing background of WWII. It explores two areas that I wasn’t really familiar with: the Air Transport Auxiliary and the Special Operations Executive, a.k.a. the spy unit. I loved learning about the civilian flight organization that ferried planes and spies for various missions, often at considerable risk, and about the intricacies of the SOE. By the end, I wanted to read through the research books that the author cited in her bibliography and learn more about these brave women.

Of course, in covering two of the riskiest branches of the war effort, the stakes would need to be pretty high, and Elizabeth Wein has absolutely no problem with conveying these stakes from the very beginning with Verity’s words: “I have two weeks…You’ll shoot me in the end no matter what I do, because that’s what you do to enemy agents.” Throughout Verity’s interrogation, where I wondered whether each dispatch was going to be her last, and then the later scenes with the Résistance in France, where the fighters were literally lurking in the Nazis’ backyard, my heart was in my throat. The twists and turns and moments where certain plot points became clear were also masterfully done.

But this story would be nothing if not for Verity and Maddie. Their story of friendship in wartime and the respect and strength each gathers from the other’s courage and bravery adds a deeply human element to everything that occurs. There were several times where I wondered if I would have the wherewithal to act as these girls did if I was thrown into their situation, and then realized that they were both younger than me.

Code Name Verity is a gripping and emotional read that will leave you weeping. I highly recommend it.

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Mr. Churchill’s Secretary by Susan Elia MacNeal

Mr. Churchill’s Secretary by Susan Elia MacNeal

Summary from the publisher:
London, 1940. Winston Churchill has just been sworn in, war rages across the Channel, and the threat of a Blitz looms larger by the day. But none of this deters Maggie Hope. She graduated at the top of her college class and possesses all the skills of the finest minds in British intelligence, but her gender qualifies her only to be the newest typist at No. 10 Downing Street. Her indefatigable spirit and remarkable gifts for codebreaking, though, rival those of even the highest men in government, and Maggie finds that working for the prime minister affords her a level of clearance she could never have imagined—and opportunities she will not let pass. In troubled, deadly times, with air-raid sirens sending multitudes underground, access to the War Rooms also exposes Maggie to the machinations of a menacing faction determined to do whatever it takes to change the course of history.

Ensnared in a web of spies, murder, and intrigue, Maggie must work quickly to balance her duty to King and Country with her chances for survival. And when she unravels a mystery that points toward her own family’s hidden secrets, she’ll discover that her quick wits are all that stand between an assassin’s murderous plan and Churchill himself.

I nearly skipped in delight when I found a copy of Mr. Churchill’s Secretary in the lovely gift bag that Random House gave out at the BEA Power Reader breakfast. As a British history student who spent a lot of time studying WWII and Churchill, I was intrigued by a novel narrated from the point of view of his secretary. Someone who was so close to him in the early days of the war was sure to provide very personal insight into what was going on at 10 Downing Street. I also love war stories set on the home front, because those left behind faced an entirely different uncertainty, and it’s incredible to see people band together. And as if all the historical details weren’t enough, there’s the added element of a feisty heroine with a hidden past.

So, with my high expectations, did Mr. Churchill’s Secretary deliver?

Oh, yes. On all scores.

Maggie Hope is a wonderful addition to the “strong women in wartime” cannon. She is whip-smart, brave, and unafraid of voicing her opinions, yet all the while she’s believable and trustworthy, and you want to follow her into her adventures. I loved seeing 10 Downing Street from her perspective and watching her and Churchill gain a mutual respect for one another, and her attempts to understand Churchill’s lingo during her first weeks were particularly hilarious.

This book is so grounded in the period that you can practically hear the air raid sirens and sense the tension in the air as London waits for the Germans to finally drop that first bomb. And that tension exists inside Downing Street as well. So many of my favorite scenes occurred in those halls: Churchill collapsing into his chair with his head in his hands after he dictates the “This was their finest hour” speech to Maggie, Churchill and his aides watching London burn after the very first bombing, the radio broadcasts to boost morale that moved Maggie to tears, the feverish atmosphere in MI-Five as they tried to keep tabs on German sleeper spies and the IRA. Mixed in with the fear, though, are vibrant glimpses of London nightlife, where Maggie and her young friends, most of whom are involved in war work, try to forget, if only for a while.

The most pleasant surprise was the mystery, which unfurled with the occasional misdirections, and just when I thought I had it all figured out, there was one last twist that had my heart racing as I frantically tore through the pages. Really well done!

Mr. Churchill’s Secretary is a strong debut with something for everyone: history, mystery, romance. I look forward to seeing what Maggie gets up to next in Princess Elizabeth’s Spy.

Susan MacNeal, you definitely do not need to buy me that cocktail.

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Prague Winter by Madeleine Albright

Prague Winter by Madeleine Albright

I don’t remember when I first heard about former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s childhood in Prague during World War II. I feel like I read it somewhere or heard my parents discussing it and filed the information away for later. When I spotted her new memoir, Prague Winter, on the take shelf at work (one of the fun perks of a career in publishing), I gave a squeak of excitement and promptly rescued it. Questions immediately flooded my brain: What was her childhood like? Did she or any members of her family live in Prague during the Nazi occupation? What memories did she have of the time? Did she lose anybody in the war? I couldn’t wait to start, even as part of me wondered if the writing would be too dry for me to become fully involved.

I’ll respond to that last bit first: this was, honestly, one of the most compelling works of non-fiction that I’ve read in a long time. Albright has a wonderfully engaging voice that grabs you from the very first page and holds your attention throughout. She presents both the historical aspects and her personal remembrances in a down-to-earth fashion that’s extremely easy to read and absorb. Non-fiction tends to be slower going for me, and I marveled at how quickly I flew through the pages.

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The House at Tyneford by Natasha Solomons

The House at Tyneford by Natasha Solomons

Summary from the publisher:
It’s the spring of 1938 and no longer safe to be a Jew in Vienna. Nineteen-year-old Elise Landau is forced to leave her glittering life of parties and champagne to become a parlor maid in England. She arrives at Tyneford, the great house on the bay, where servants polish silver and serve drinks on the lawn. But war is coming, and the world is changing. When the master of Tyneford’s young son, Kit, returns home, he and Elise strike up an unlikely friendship that will transform Tyneford-and Elise-forever.

I first heard about The House at Tyneford when various publishers started making “If you like Downton Abbey, you’ll like…” lists (here’s the one that made The New York Times, although Tyneford isn’t on it). Like most people, I am obsessed with Downton and, really, anything that addresses the relationship between upstairs and downstairs in grand old English estates, especially when things started breaking down in the early 20th century. The fact that Elise was a Jewish refugee made the book even more appealing.

Ms. Solomons paints a vivid picture of Tyneford House, but things become even more real when you have a strong frame of reference. It was easy to conjure the big house that slowly became more run down as the men left for war and upkeep became more difficult, as well as the frenetic activity of the servants’ hall below stairs. With these visuals in my mind’s eye, I tumbled straight into the world of Elise and the Rivers family.

Elise herself is an interesting heroine. I was fully prepared to hate her at the beginning—she seemed immature and empty headed and almost content to be so. Of course, as she reflects somewhere in the middle of the book, if she’d been allowed to stay in Vienna and go on as she was, she would never grow beyond the girl we met in the first few pages. Instead, she undergoes a journey of love and loss that is alternately traumatic, happy, and sad, and she emerges a transformed and much more likeable character. I sympathized for her as she tried to find her place in a house where she was neither servant nor gentry and as she tried to adapt in a land that was so different from her home, and I truly felt her pain as she desperately tried to learn news of her parents and sister during the war, when they were scattered all over the world.

Elise is supported by an incredible cast of characters, from the villagers who play hooky from church on the first day of trout season, to the elder Mr. Rivers and his reckless son Kit, to Mr. Wrexham who, with his pride in adherence to the old ways, reminded me of Mr. Carson. They enrich life at Tyneford and make the difficult moments easier to bear.

Parts of the plot are a little predictable, particularly where the various romances are concerned, but I enjoyed everything else about the book so much that I was willing to overlook it. Overall, The House at Tyneford is a transporting historical tale that will definitely keep you satisfied until you can get your next fix of Lady Mary and Matthew.

The House at Tyneford was read as part of the What’s in a Name challenge, hosted by Beth Fish Reads.

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