Bombs Away by John Steinbeck

Written for the U.S. Army Air Corps in the early days of World War II, Bombs Away gives readers insight into the training of individual members of a heavy- bomber (B-17 and B-24) crews and their molding into a functioning team. Throughout the book, Steinbeck emphasizes that, although the pilot may be the most visible person on the crew, each member had a vital job to perform.

Of course, the pilot, navigator and bombardier were all commissioned officers, the rest of the crew NCOs – an important distinction in any hierarchical organization. Those of higher rank were ostensibly treated better as prisoners of war, something the author never alludes to. That’s why there were no privates on a bomb crew.

Steinbeck mentions more than once that the Army Air Corps took “the cream of the crop” from among Army enlistees – following extensive testing; he emphasized that, although one could apply as a pilot, the determination of which job a man was to be trained for was decided by those tests.

I found the section on the training programs for various jobs – pilot, gunner, radio engineer, etc. – fascinating. I didn’t know that bombardiers alone were entrusted with the top-secret Norden bombsight – they took it from the safe in which it was stored when not in use and installed it into the plane, then removed it and returned it to the safe when a run was done. It is little details like that that make Bombs Away so interesting and revealing.

Bombs Away is a quick read and invaluable for anyone who wants to understand the air war in Europe during World War II. But I had to constantly remind myself that this was very much a piece of propaganda and to be read as such.

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Eighty Days by Matthew Goodman

I had, of course, heard the name Nellie Bly and had some vague recollection that she went on an around-the-world trip back in the late 19th Century. I had never heard the name Elizabeth Bisland. But Eighty Days filled in all the blanks.

Although “the race” is the focus of Eighty Days, the author also enlightens readers on the state of journalism, world travel, and women reporters in 1889. I read a review of the book in Columbia Journalism Review that called this “padding,” but I call it “context,” something I always appreciate in a work of history and find positive rather than negative.

I’m not sure anyone could have found more polar opposites than Bly and Bisland, even though they both female, came from modest backgrounds and were roughly the same age. The trip was Nellie’s idea and it took awhile for her editor at the New York World to OK it. And Miss Bisland didn’t get into the race until after Nellie was merrily on her way on an eastern route. The editor of the Cosmopolitan monthly magazine decided that he, too, would have a woman reporter travel round the world – and try to beat the fictional Phileas Fogg’s time of 80 days just as Miss Bly was – and strong-armed Miss Bisland into it in the opposite direction.

It was surprising to me that neither woman was telegraphing stories to their publications from “the road.” I guess they had enough to juggle what with toting bags – and later Miss Bly’s monkey – and trying to make it to the boat or train that would carry them to their next stopping-off point on time. Today such a race (short though hit would be) would be blogged about ad nauseum.

I thought Eighty Days was a wonderful book and that Matthew Goodman did a great job of putting readers into the shoes of the two main characters and take them back in time.

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The Churchills in Love and War by Mary S Lovell

Although I’ve read several books in which Winston Churchill was a prominent character, I’ve never read a biography of him. Not that reading biographies is painful to me, but The Churchills in Love and War has to be the least painful way to read biography. The author says right up front that some readers find the book “gossipy,” that other author have covered in depth various facets of Churchill’s life. She focused on the personal lives of several generations of the Churchill family. And it is “gossipy” in the very best way.

The story starts in the Victorian era. But knowing the intimate lives of the aristocratic men and woman makes readers realize that, although sex was a taboo topic for conversation in that era, it was something that everyone – married and unmarried – spent a lot of time doing. Whew! But what about Winston Churchill? The author figures that he was an exception – that he was always faithful (at least physically) to his wife Clementine and she to him.

I appreciated the author’s including a family tree to refer to … and that, when she referred to a new character, she included information about that person in a footnote. Sourcing information was included in backnotes. In other words, she made reading and making sense of all the convoluted relationships really easy. Fascinating story, a compelling read, and lots of research – who could ask more in a biography? I couldn’t put it down – and it also made me to want to start reading some of the books written by Sir Winston.

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To Marry an English Lord by Gail MacColl and Carol McD Wallace

Subtitle: Tales of Wealth and Marriage, Sex and Snobbery

After reading a book about the Churchill families – including details about the marriage of Winston’s American mother and British father, I picked up this book, which I had bought awhile ago. It was just a perfect follow-up for me – with its short bursts of lively text interspersed with captioned photos and interesting tidbits.

Typically, I’m a more linear reader, not prone to go off on tangents while I’m concentrating on a book. But with To Marry an English Lord, I had to change my approach. I first read all the sidebar stories and photo captions in an entire chapter (there were five chapters plus a sixth that was a directory of the American brides) then go back and take on the text in a large bite.  It was a fun read and quite enlightening.

I especially liked many of the sidebars, including “Their Noble Lordships” (explaining, among other things, the difference between a Duke and the “mere sirs”) and another on the cost of maintaining an old castle/estate (and, therefore, why the Dukes needed infusions of money from their heiress wives). Many of the sidebars were on the social milieu among the 1% in post-Civil-War America.

As a fan of Downton Abbey, I found To Marry an English Lord enlightening, interesting and eminently readable.

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Review: Cronkite by Douglas Brinkley

About 15 years ago, I read Walter Cronkite’s autobiography, A Reporter’s Life, and was extremely disappointed in it. It seemed a superficial and half-hearted attempt at chronicling his life. That may be due to the fact that I read his autobiography about the time I read Personal History by Katharine Graham, an autobiography which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1998. Personal History was an amazing book, meticulously researched and sourced, and insightful. A Reporter’s Life suffered in comparison. When I saw that a real historian was writing a biography of Uncle Walter, I bought it right away. I was NOT disappointed.

While it is not an “authorized” biography, Cronkite’s children were helpful to the author, and wanted a complete story of their father told, warts and all. And there are a few warts. Although I figured there was no love lost between Cronkite and his successor as CBS anchorman, Dan Rather, it appears that Cronkite detested Rather – and was elated when Rather’s career crashed and burned over some very sloppy reporting about President George W. Bush and his not-so-illustrious career in the Texas Air National Guard.

Cronkite is an engaging work of history by an academic who doesn’t write like one. And even with all the “warts” revealed, the book’s subject still comes out looking like a hero. Douglas Brinkley also evokes superbly the times during which Cronkite was a working journalist – World War II, the Kennedy assassination, the Cold War, Viet Nam, the NASA space program — and sheds light on the people Cronkite worked with and reported on.

Cronkite is over 800 pages, heavy enough to serve as a doorstop, but well worth the time it takes to read and absorb it.

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Review: Jana Bibi’s Excellent Fortunes by Betsy Woodman (publishes in July)

Her full name is Janet Louisa Caroline Elizabeth McPherson Laird, but her friends call her Jana. In the first installment of a planned series, she receives an inheritance from her much-loved and long-dead grandfather: a monkey infested old building “Jolly Grant House” in a small town in northern India. It is far distant from where she lives, both geographically and culturally.

Born in India of Scottish parents, thus an Indian citizen, she has come to love the country – and has resisted the pleadings of her son Jack, who would prefer her to live where he does, a drafty old castle in Scotland. Jack thinks Jana is too old to live by herself in India; at age 58, Jana believes he’s wrong. A widow, Jana has had many losses in her life, but she’s still young and sturdy enough to take on an adventure in a new place, and readers get to come along.

Jana Bibi’s Excellent Fortunes is set in the mid 1950s, a time when the author was a child growing up in India.  Ms. Woodman has populated the book with great characters (including a particularly intelligent parrot, Mr. Ganguly), and told a story that is engaging, entertaining – and that leaves this reader (and, I hope, many others) wanting more.

Three of my favorite authors have begun long-lived series with the story of a legacy: Nancy Atherton’s Aunt Dimity’s Death; Dorothy Cannell’s The Thin Woman and Joan Medlicott’s The Ladies of Covington Send Their Love. I’m hoping Jana Bibi’s Excellent Fortunes begins an equally successful series.

Review based on publisher-provided advanced readers’ copy of the book.

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Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

When I finished reading this book, I couldn’t figure out which story was more intriguing: the life of Henrietta Lacks and her cervical cancer cells; Henrietta’s descendants’ saga; or how Rebecca Skloot came to research and write their stories. It’s really a toss-up … and readers benefit from this book’s having so much meat on the bone.

Rebecca was a high-school student with a lackluster academic career when a teacher at Portland (Oregon) Community College mentioned Henrietta Lacks’s name in a biology class Ms. Skloot was taking for high-school credit. Henrietta’s tumor cells were removed in 1951 and cultured in a laboratory near Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins Hospital. From there “HeLa” was distributed to researchers worldwide and has been used to advance medical science and make a few companies millions of dollars. The irony is that while others have made a buck from Henrietta’s cells, her children have struggled to overcome a myriad of health problems, mostly without insurance.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is narrative non-fiction at its best. I read the book for my non-fiction readers group at our public library, and it generated a lively discussion on the many issues it raises. I don’t believe there was a single person in the room who didn’t sing the book’s praises – and this is a large group of inveterate non-fiction readers.

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Review: Bryant & May off the Rails by Christopher Fowler

The Peculiar Crimes Unit is looking for “Mr. Fox,” who killed one of their colleagues while escaping from the unit’s jail in the last book. Plus they have a week to solve a series of seemingly random murders in the London Underground or else the PCU will be disbanded.

Led by the legendary (and elderly) odd couple of John May and Arthur Bryant, the PCU has been around for eons, taking on the most difficult cases, those that involve particularly sensitive, potentially explosive or just plain unusual crimes that have the potential for upsetting the masses and/or the status quo. But the Unit’s old-fashioned ways don’t set right with the advocates of “modern” policing who hold sway today.

Not to worry, however, we know that as long as Christopher Fowler continues to write these books, the PCU will live one in one way or another. I and all the PCU’s fans are hoping that’s a good long time.

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Review: The Walled Flower by Lorraine Bartlett

While tearing down walls for a building rehab, workers find the body of a young woman who went missing more than two decades earlier. But the loss is still fresh for victim Heather Winston’s Aunt Rose, who is a vendor at Artisan’s Alley, a crafters’ mall owned and operated by an amateur detective, the recently widowed Katie Bonner.

But Katie has more to worry about than an old murder. There’s bad blood between two of her vendors and it looks as if the two women are going to come to blows. Plus Katie needs to find a place to live, and soon. Peacemaker, apartment hunter, sleuth … all in a day’s work for our heroine.

The Walled Flower is a light cozy mystery, written by best-selling author Lorraine Bartlett (aka Lorna Barrett, who writes the Booktown mysteries). Ms. Bartlett can be counted on to deliver a fun read, with engaging characters and a tidy plot. The “Victoria Square” mysteries are set in western New York state. The Walled Flower is the second in the series, after A Crafty Killing.

(Three recipes included.)

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Review: Aunt Dimity and the Village Witch by Nancy Atherton (2012)

A new woman arrives in the Cotswold village of Finch and is causing quite a stir. Four single women known a bit cynically as “the handmaidens” are not pleased. It seems that the village’s most eligible bachelor, our heroine Lori Shepherd’s father-in-law, is paying quite a bit of attention to Amelia Thistle — if that’s her real name. Just who is she … and will she bring good things to Finch or disruption? Amelia Thistle’s story, and a parallel story in Finch’s long-ago past come together to show the formidable power of community.

This is the stuff of which the Aunt Dimity stories are created: ordinary happenings in ordinary places, and it what makes these books so popular. Aunt Dimity and the Village Witch came in the mail one afternoon, and I finished reading it that night. I can’t help myself … I just love these books, and they’re among the very few that I collect in hardcover and read over and over again.

I once interviewed Nancy Atherton for the Cozy Library website, asking her about why she thought her books were so popular. Here is her lightly edited response”

“There are a whole lot of people who are sick of filling their heads with violence and vulgarity. They’re sick of psychos, characters they wouldn’t want to be on the same continent with. I don’t really understand why people fill their heads with that.

“My characters are ones you really want to spend time with: go for a walk, have a cup of tea, take a trip — they’re good companions. A lot of people are looking for that. There’s a choice. I always say, people call my books ‘fantasy’ but axe murderers are ‘realistic’? I don’t know about anyone else, but most of the people I know are pretty nice people.”

I agree. And if readers need an antidote to cynicism and divisiveness, an Aunt Dimity story … Aunt Dimity and the Village Witch is #17… is the prescription.

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