Tag Archives: history

Code Girls

I had just been lamenting that the show Bletchley Circle was so short when Liza Mundy’s Code Girls came out. Code Girls is the untold and largely unknown story of the women who helped break German and Japanese codes during World War II.

Mundy begins by introducing several women whose lives the book will follow, showing how they received secret letters inviting them to secret meetings and were offered positions in code breaking. Many women, bored with teaching and anxious to contribute to the war effort, said yes.

Code breaking was used during World War I, but not to the same extend and to the same success in World War II, though the groundwork was laid for women to be involved, as some of the stars of World War I code breaking we’re female as well.

While not particularly the story of any one woman but a picture of the collective experience, Code Girls was a very interesting read. You really get a feel for the secrecy, for the pressure and importance of the work. Plus you get a little understanding of how code breaking is, and you see how hard it is.

It reminded me a little of Hidden Figures, and I could easily see this as a movie or even tv series.

All in all, it was a good book, and not a challenging read, as far as history books go.

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The Book Thief

I’ll just come right out and say it, The Book Thief is a classic of our era. I don’t know how often I get kids coming in for it as part of their required reading for school.

Having now read it, I understand why. Not only is it an excellent story for exploring Workd War II history, but the writing style gives plenty of content for literary study.

The Book Thief, written by Markus Zusak, is the story of a young girl, Liesel Memminger, and her new life with her foster parents on Himmel Street. Though Germans, Liesel and her family don’t fit the standard mold. With her loyal friend by her side, Liesel finds herself addicted to a thievery, especially of books. Her story is narrated by Death, a mixture of observations from Death and knowledge gathered from Liesel’s own autobiography, which Death managed to obtain.

Liesel’s story revolves around books– the ones she’s given and the ones she takes. Each book is related to a scene or time of her life: her family harboring a Jew in the basement, war-time hardships making themselves known in Liesel’s house, Liesel growing up and forming her own opinions about the Fuhrer’s ideals.

Mixed in with the defining moments are the everyday habits of Liesel’s life, her adventures with Rudy, school, and growing up in general. Together, these form a powerful and heartbreaking narrative.

Zusak uses a unique style to tell Liesel’s story. Death, as could reasonably be expected, idea not always use the English language as humans are accustomed to. This allows for some interesting descriptions that provide a new way at looking at things, from the sunset to a feeling. But for this story, it works, creating a unique and memorable style that would be hard to match.

All in all, the book is worth the read, even if it makes you cry.

John Glenn: A Memoir

I’ll admit, I was interested in this book, not because I knew who John Glenn was, but because I’d looked it up for a customer at work and saw that it was a biography on an astronaut. Sometimes I think that if I could go back, knowing what I know about myself now, I probably would have pursued a career in science, and maybe even my dreams of being an astronaut. But, on to the book review.

The book is an autobiography that explores John Glenn’s life from childhood during the Great Depression, to his joining the military and becoming a fighter pilot during World War II, all the way through his two trips to space–the last when he was 77 years old (maybe it’s not too late for me!).

Glenn writes in a very plain way, unassuming. You get the feeling he is just telling his story, not trying to brag about anything he’s done or reap glory for being an American icon and hero. It feels very much like sitting down and listening to your grandfather regale you with stories from his life. Sometimes you can almost here the laugh that goes along with a funny anecdote.

Glenn’s biography is encouraging and inspiring too, a representation of chasing dreams and making a difference through hard and dedicated work. Not to mention just cool to see how much history this guy lived through.

Overall, it was a fun and pretty fast read, considering it’s more than 500 pages. If you like history, science, airplanes or politics, it’s the read for you.

Last Hope Island

I’ve always been a fan of history, and World War II history in particular. So Lynn Olson’s Last Hope Island was a natural pick for me.

I’ll confess straight off though, I want quite as impressed as I’d expected to be. I was expecting a little more action, more description of battles or escapes.

That said, I still enjoyed the book. It was a close look at Britain and its relationship with several occupied countries via the governments in exile that took up residence in Britain.

It was also a close look at how those nations played key roles in the Allied win.  From spies and resistance fighters to exiled troops and politicians, countries including the Netherlands, Poland, and France, though occupied, made significant contributions that turned the tide of the war.

What I really enjoyed were the few snapshots into the lives of unsung heros, people like Andree De Jongh and Jeannie Rousseau, and other women and men who risked their lives for the cause. I found, as I read, several people that I’m now very interested in researching. Their lives and stories, in addition to just being fascinating, could also fuel some really interesting historical fiction.

Some parts of the book, though, are hard to read. It’s hard to understand the justifications for some actions, and without living it, I’d say impossible to pass any kind of judgment. But you can learn a lot about empathy from reading it.

This book is definitely a must read for history buffs, and I would say an easy enough read for anyone wanting to dip their toes in. It’s not a one-week read, for many people, I think, but it’s certainly worth the read.

Mississippi Blood

I timed my dive into Greg Iles’ trilogy at the perfect time. I wasn’t even half way through Natchez Burning when I got my mitts on an advanced reader copy of Mississippi Blood, the final installment of the trilogy.

In Mississippi Blood, the excitement goes (mostly) from on the streets into the courtroom, where Dr. Tom Cage is tried for the murder of his former nurse, the even that was catalyst to the tragedy and adventures that followed. While you might expect the court room to get a little dull, Iles keeps the excitement up. In the court room, we learn little by little the true events, and all the pieces begin to fall into place.

Additionally, there is plenty of action going on outside the court room. For while many adversaries are out of the picture, some still remain a real and present danger to Natchez Mayor Penn Cage and his family.

Iles also keeps us guessing, because as the trial progresses, we learn of half truths and hidden motives,and the final reveal doesn’t come until the final pages. And when you realize it, I’ll bet that you, like me, never saw it coming.

Iles keeps the final book in this trilogy as exciting and suspenseful as the first books, making it a trilogy that is fun to read all the way through. The only complaint I had was that I got tired of the mayor’s constant angst with his father’s lawyer, despite having been told that he, the mayor, would be privy to exactly none of the defense strategy and information. Without giving it all away, I can sympathize with the mayor, but, at the same time, the rants–to himself and to others–got a little tiresome to read.

All in all, Iles keeps the story moving, and it’s worth all 700 pages.

Throughout the entire series, Iles has dealt with history and race very neatly, tapping in to the past for inspiration, and giving a very possible (and likely very real) representation of race in more rural areas even today. The series definitely isn’t for the faint-hearted–it is full of violence, swearing and, to a lesser degree, sex. But Iles isn’t gratuitous in any of it, instead using it to develop characters and add depth and reality to the story.

So if you enjoy history, thrillers, adventure and good writing, give the Natchez Burning series a try. And look for Mississippi Blood, hitting shelves on March 21.

Of Irish Blood

I know I’ve said it before, but one of the best parts of working at a bookstore is being exposed to all kinds of new authors and new genres.

I snagged a copy of “Of Irish Blood” by Mary Pat Kelly. It follows Honora “Nora” Kelly’s life, beginning as a young 23-year-old Irish-American living in Chicago. Nora makes some less than stellar choices and gets caught up with a bad man. The only way out is to relocate, so Nora finds herself in Paris, wrapped up with Irish loyalists who dream of a free Ireland.

Nora’s story begins in 1903 and the book ends in 1923, so it covers a pretty large time span. I wasn’t necessarily expecting that, but having read it, I think the book wouldn’t have worked as well any other way.

The character voice in this story is very well defined. Written in first person, it’s really easy to get the feel of who Nora is. She’s very chatty, always with a story to tell or linking her family history with someone else’s (though, the way the other characters behave, we’re led to believe that is an Irish trait). She’s a true blue extrovert, that’s for sure. (Interestingly enough, Nora seems like the type of person that I wouldn’t be able to be around for more than a few hours at a time, but in a book, I guess I can handle it.)

But the style makes it a fast read–you read in the way you imagine Nora talking, fast paced, breezing right along. It took me a while to read it only because I had other things demanding more of my time. Otherwise, I know it would have been a few days to finish.

Nora’s story has a little bit of everything–romance, danger, adventure, intrigue. And it certainly makes you curious about Irish history (at least for me, so I guess I know what I’ll be adding to my list of subjects to read up on).

This book is a standalone, but it also is referred to as a sequel. This type of writing style I’ve always been impressed by–a continuing story, but one that makes perfect sense on its own, without constant references or explanations from the other book.

So whether you’re interested in history, Ireland, or just a good adventure saga, “Of Irish Blood” is worth a read.

Hero of the Empire

When I think of Winston Churchill, I think of the former Prime Minister of England, but what I never knew was his history, and how he got there.

In Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, A Daring Escape and the Making of Winston Churchill, Candace Millard looks in-depth at Churchill’s obsession with making a name for himself and his rise to power.

Born to aristocratic parents who made the family name known, Churchill wanted to get out from the shadow of his parents and make himself known by his own acts. Millard’s descriptions of Churchill’s  desire to prove himself paint tinge picture of an obsessive man, and quotes Millard uses from primary documents show a picture of an extremely self-confident man, if not a little arrogant.

Yet, as Millard shows, Churchill had a goal in mind and would stop at nothing to reach it– not death, or even capture could get in his way.

I’ll be honest, I was more interested in the Boer War than I was in the story of Churchill himself (having been quite interested in African history for a while, and especially interested since figures from the Boer War are familiar names from the history of blood diamonds). And yet it certainly was interesting to know more about a man whose name is is known in many households, and not just in England.

Millard’s book was well researched and well written, including a bibliography at the end for further reading and an extensive list of notes (though, being an advanced reading copy, none of the notes were numbered in the text, so it did me little good).

I recently heard someone say, if you want a good picture of what a person was like, read what someone who didn’t like the had to say. Though I’m not sure what Millard’s opinions toward Churchill are, I believe she did well in portraying this part of his life factually. Any subjective words or phrases she used were usually followed up quickly with primary sources using the same or similar phrasing.

Keep an eye out for Hero of the Empire, set for release September 20, 2016.