Night Witch – a review

I’m catching up with my book reviews – by not reading but writing. Anyway, I’m still ahead in my 2019 Goodreads Challenge– 22 books read from my target of 35 with a few part-finished books in the read-line. And after this, I’ll only be four book reviews behind – if I ignore the backlog from 2018 and earlier.

So, on to the Thursday Creation Review for today/tomorrow – a novel that continued my interest in Soviet airwomen in World War II. My research is ongoing and there are two more ‘Night Witches’ novels in my reading pile.

Night Witch

by S.J. McCormack

Farm girl to aviator in the heroic WWII Russian flying unit the Germans called the Night Witches… 

JUNE 1941 Nineteen-year old Raisa Tarasova’s peaceful life shatters when Hitler’s forces invade Russia. Her two brothers immediately enlist in the air corps. Despite Raisa’s desire to fly and her many hours of flying time, neither the air corps nor her father would allow such a thing. She is, after all, “just a girl.” 

In September Raisa returns to her engineering studies at the university in Moscow. Once there, she jumps at the opportunity to join a newly formed women’s aviation unit. Wearing men’s uniforms hurriedly cut down to fit, Raisa and 300 other female recruits are loaded into railcars and transported to a training base. 

After six hard months of schooling, Raisa is assigned as a navigator with the all-women Night Bomber Regiment. 
Their aircraft is the PO-2, a biplane made of wood and fabric. Months later, after a night of heavy losses, Raisa is given a field promotion and the new responsibility of pilot. She has no choice but to carry out her orders and face down a most significant enemy…her own fear. 

Courage, an impossible romance, and a daring rescue only a woman would devise become part of Raisa’s new life as a member of the 588th Night Bomber Aviation Regiment, the NIGHT WITCHES.

Review 4.3 stars

This was the second novel I’ve read about a young woman who risks everything to join the legendary Night Witches, an all-female Soviet night bomber regiment that wreaked havoc on the invading Germans in World War II.

Echoing the real friendships forged amid the harsh struggle to survive a gritty and vicious war – the terrible conflict known to the Soviets as the Great Patriotic War – this was a crafted story built around good research.

Nineteen-year old Raisa Tarasova’s peaceful life and engineering studies are shattered when Hitler’s forces invade Russia. But unlike her brothers, she cannot join the air corps despite her many hours of flying time – she’s a girl. However, when a women’s aviation unit is formed, she joins up with 300 other recruits.

After six hard months of schooling, Raisa is assigned as a navigator with the all-women 588th Night Bomber Regiment, which flies the PO-2, a biplane made of wood and fabric. Comrades die, leading to a field promotion to pilot – and a daring rescue at the expense of everything, including a burgeoning romance.

The build-up from peace to war pulls the reader in, giving the ideal amount of backstory. The author paints a clever contrast between everyday normality and the encroaching storm of war. The invasion triggers an increase of pace, although the female recruits are not rushed to the front – unlike men such as Raisa’s brothers.

From the training into the combat, the reader is enveloped in the realism of flying and the social interaction between the young women – and with the male aircrew. There is enough detail to ground the story, but not so much that the pace struggles. Events, especially at the front, are traumatic but some are humorous.

S.J. McCormack did her research, judging from my reading of a newly-published non-fiction book on Soviet airwomen I own. The author lists her sources, and these include ones I’ve heard of.

Only one thing concerned me. SPOILER ALERT

I knew Stalin imposed strict orders that if you surrendered or were captured by the enemy – or even just ended up behind enemy lines – you were a traitor. So, when Raisa is shot down on the German side of the front, I wondered how she could ever return to her regiment safely.

END ALERT.

The resolution the author devised for the climax was ingenious, strengthened the story – and had me diving down research rabbit holes and nodding, grin on my face.

The characters all felt rounded, especially Raisa with all her complexities and central fear. Plus, her pilot-friend who everyone admires, and who inspires Raisa throughout the story is a strong role. Even the secondary characters seemed real, from her love-interest to the girl with the cow.

The settings worked as background to the story and characters, even if nothing came alive either as distinctive or as a distraction. But the locations worked neatly into the whole structure. Although there were no WOW-twists, the inventive ending had me ‘heading home’ with Raisa, nodding in agreement.

An enjoyable read and recommended for anyone who likes entertaining WWII historical fiction.

Story – four stars

Setting/World-building – four stars

Characters – five stars

Authenticity – four stars

Structure – four stars

Readability – five stars

Editing – four stars

Writing Diverse Characters for Fiction, TV or Film – a review

Life has thrown up more diversions – okay, my weak will did. I still intend posting a Thursday Creation Review every week – as originally planned. Well at least until my five outstanding reviews are written – three crime, one historical and one historical-fantasy. I’m hesitating over adding my review of the TV series Good Omens until I’ve read the book.

Anyway, today – a day late – it’s a non-fiction writing guide up for review:

Writing Diverse Characters for Fiction, TV or Film

by Lucy V. Hay

We’re living in a time of unprecedented diversity in produced media content, with more LGBT characters. more characters of color, more disabled characters, and more characters from various religions or classes. These characters also appear in genre pieces, accessible to the mainstream, instead of being hidden away in so-called “worthier” pieces, as in the past. This book discusses issues of race, disability, sexuality and transgender people with specific reference to characterization in movies, TV, and novel writing. Using such examples as the film Mad Max: Fury Road and the novel Gone Girl, the book explores how character role function really works. It discusses such questions as the difference between stereotype and archetype, why “trope” does not mean what Twitter and Tumblr think it means, how the burden of casting affects both box office and audience perception, and why diversity is not about agendas, buzzwords or being “politically correct.” It also goes into what authenticity truly means, and why research is so important; why variety is key in ensuring true diversity in characterization; and what agents, publishers, producers, filmmakers and commissioners are looking for—and why.

 Review 5 stars

This timely and excellent book was everything I’ve needed especially since attempting to write a novel about a queer Welsh detective and her Tamil partner. (There are days when I feel totally out of my experience zone.)

This is essential reading for any serious writer – especially one aware of the value in addressing the ‘diverse issue’. It was full of invaluable advice and information for me – a WASP, albeit one with Latin blood and in a wheelchair.

Lucy Hay has researched the hot issue of ‘diversity’ for many years. She has become a prolific advocate of diverse characters in all areas of fiction as a writer, script editor and blogger who helps writers via her www.bang2write.com consultancy, which I follow. This book builds on her knowledge and suggests how writers can embrace the thorny topic – “as long as they do it justice” with “due diligence”

That ‘due diligence’ means recognising where the debate is going, the mistakes and progress, how to ensure diverse characters function effectively – and not as stereotypes – plus, the potential and the pitfalls. Hay provides a wealth of observations, suggestions and links with which writers can develop their own craft. Many assets are provided to inform those that are serious about ensuring they tread wisely.

These range from a definition of ‘diversity’, and the myths surrounding it, to examples from modern movies and novels to explain aspects of how to handle ‘diversity’ – and how not to. All Hay’s thoughts provide food for further discussion and research.

I’m still learning and researching the best approach to diversifying my plots. This book has great insights that will help me as a writer as I progress into this complex area. Many of my characters are not ‘diverse’ like my leads, but there are techniques that Hay provides which will help them stand out as unique as well.

This book is timely and important so a guide that will be a stalwart on my desk as I now have both Kindle and paperback versions.

Utility – five stars

Content – five stars

Topicality – five stars

Authenticity – five stars

Readability – five stars

Structure – five stars

Editing – five stars

Marred – a review

I’m still behind with my book reviews as my reading continues to be faster than my writing.

Lies, all lies: I keep getting distracted and wasting time with trivial pursuits. I’ve switched off my Kindle and shelved my next physical reads.

So, I’ve forced myself back to proper keyboard work. Maybe the reviews will get written now – and the Audible reads get caught up.

However, I’m ahead in my 2019 Goodreads Challenge– 22 books read from my target of 35. So, I might make that target.

As for the other challenge, this will be my tenth Cloak and Dagger review of 2019; with three more to review. I should end up reading the 5-15 books that earn ‘Amateur sleuth’ title. The next grade matches my Welsh policewoman: 16-25 books – Detective. I have three more mystery/suspense/thriller/crime novels on my desk and more on my Kindle and Audible.

But I have ‘shelved’ books in other genres like historical, fantasy/SF, and alternative history. My other three outstanding reviews are one historical and one historical-fantasy – plus, a non-fiction writing guide.

So, back to the review:

Marred

(Grafton County #1)

By Sue Coletta

When a serial killer breaks into the home of bestselling author, Sage Quintano, she barely escapes with her life. Her husband, Niko, a homicide detective, insists they move to rural New Hampshire, where he accepts a position as Grafton County Sheriff. 

Sage buries secrets from that night—secrets she swears to take to her deathbed.

Three years of anguish and painful memories pass, and a grisly murder case lands on Niko’s desk. A strange caller torments Sage—she can’t outrun the past.

When Sage’s twin sister suddenly goes missing, Sage searches Niko’s case files and discovers similarities to the Boston killer. A sadistic psychopath is preying on innocent
women, marring their bodies in unspeakable ways. And now, he has her sister.

Cryptic clues. Hidden messages. Is the killer hinting at his identity? Or is he trying to lure Sage into a deadly trap to end his reign of terror with a matching set of corpses?

Review 4.4 stars

I was looking forward to reading this novel as I follow the author’s blog on crime. This was my genre and it’s a well-written and crafted novel. But I’m not sure I can take more graphic details though – even with the promise of corvids in the rest of the Grafton County series.

However, there was so much excellent elements that stood out and swept me along – most of the time.

The characters were memorable and complex. At the novel’s heart, bestselling author, Sage Quintano, who is living with the painful memories and secrets from three years earlier when a serial killer broke into her home. A past that drives her to resolve things for herself and to keep things from her husband.

Not easy when her husband, Niko is a homicide detective and Grafton County Sheriff. So, when a strange caller threatens her, she doesn’t tell Niko everything – enough to disturb me as the caller made rules about who to tell. I asked, ‘Will he ignore them too?’

Anyway, with a sadistic psychopath preying on innocent women, Niko has his own concerns – as do his team. The investigation with its clever introduction of forensics explores the evidence and the other officers.

The dynamic between the deputies is realistic, especially as promotion is at stake. I was rooting for Frankie, despite her ability to rub people up the wrong way. She was my kind of detective and I wanted more of her.

But we get more bodies marred in horrific ways instead. And more graphic detail which to me felt excessive. But that’s me and most readers will lap it up. It’s realistic and Sue Coletta’s knowledge of forensics and pathology is outstanding – and why I follow her blog.

It makes for a rollercoaster read, but I get scared on some rides and even in bloody movies. The other extreme from cringe cute cozies.

Back to Niko with all his problems – a sadistic psychopath, competing deputies, and Sage…

Despite his troubles, my reaction was, ‘Why are men so difficult?’ – we struggle to multi-task unlike women. I understood his frustration but wished he could do some lateral thinking.

Unlike Sage who joins the dots between the caller and the psychopath. And now, he has her twin sister, Chloe. Sage gets a clue to Chloe’s location and, as all mystery writers do, follows down the rabbit hole. But why? Distracted Sheriff husband? Her own secrets? The killer’s rules perhaps?

But I hesitated from reading on – like that moment in the horror movie when the teenager wanders off. Who was braver Sage or me? I eventually had to keep reading.

And the plot twists kept coming – in ways I never saw coming. The tension builds. The resolution and revelation of the psychopath are unexpected – and ingenious.

There is so much to look forward to in the ongoing Grafton County series with superb characters to savour. So, I would recommend this novel from an author that researches crime meticulously – even if I felt too swamped to tackle more gore for now.

Story – four stars

Setting/World-building – five stars

Characters – five stars

Authenticity – five stars

Structure – four stars

Readability – four stars

Editing – four stars

The Alice Network – a review

It’s frustrating as I’m still behind with my book reviews as my reading continues to be faster than my writing. However, I’m ahead in my 2019 Goodreads Challenge– 21 books now read from my target of 35.

As for reviews, this follows my review of The Huntress – my belated introduction to the brilliant Kate Quinn. I still have six more outstanding reviews as I finished reading another novel as I wrote that last review.

Oh well, I’m further behind reading emails so can’t panic – yet. So, onto the review.

The Alice Network

By Kate Quinn 

Narrated by: Saskia Maarleveld 

In an enthralling new historical novel from national bestselling author Kate Quinn, two women – a female spy recruited to the real-life Alice Network in France during World War I and an unconventional American socialite searching for her cousin in 1947 – are brought together in a mesmerizing story of courage and redemption. 

1947. In the chaotic aftermath of World War II, American college girl Charlie St. Clair is pregnant, unmarried, and on the verge of being thrown out of her very proper family. She’s also nursing a desperate hope that her beloved cousin Rose, who disappeared in Nazi-occupied France during the war, might still be alive. So when Charlie’s parents banish her to Europe to have her “little problem” taken care of, Charlie breaks free and heads to London, determined to find out what happened to the cousin she loves like a sister.

1915. A year into the Great War, Eve Gardiner burns to join the fight against the Germans and unexpectedly gets her chance when she’s recruited to work as a spy. Sent into enemy-occupied France, she’s trained by the mesmerizing Lili, the “Queen of Spies”, who manages a vast network of secret agents right under the enemy’s nose. 

Thirty years later, haunted by the betrayal that ultimately tore apart the Alice Network, Eve spends her days drunk and secluded in her crumbling London house. Until a young American barges in uttering a name Eve hasn’t heard in decades, and launches them both on a mission to find the truth … no matter where it leads.

Review 5 stars

I bought the Audible version of ‘The Alice Network’ after reading Kate Quinn’s ‘The Huntress’ so knew I had to read more by this talented writer.

I was not disappointed. We weren’t…

My wife and I listened transfixed, not wanting to pause the excellent narration or the flow of crafted words. Kate Quinn at her best and deserving many more stars.

From the tantalising opening in 1947 with pregnant, unmarried, American college girl Charlie St. Clair remembering her beloved cousin Rose, we were pulled into this intricately crafted tale that spans two World Wars. Rose disappeared in Nazi-occupied France during WWII, but the key might be Eve Gardiner, who is haunted by the betrayal that ultimately tore apart the Alice Network of secret agents, thirty years earlier during WWI.

Eve was sent into enemy-occupied France and was trained by the mesmerizing Lili, the “Queen of Spies,” who uses the pseudonym of Alice Dubois – hence the network’s name. Her story and her memories of that period are woven into the ongoing story once Eve and Rose meet – well, a clash of opposites…experiences versus youthful recklessness. A clash that needs to be resolved.

After the betrayal during WWI, Eve escaped into drink, but in1947, Charlie persuades her – mentioning a significant name, René Bordelon – to embark on a mission to find the truth … no matter where it leads. During that journey, we gradually discover more about Charlie’s relationship with Rose, and more about Eve as she recounts her traumatic career as a spy.

Two other characters play vital roles in that ‘present day’ story: Finn Kilgore, the Scotsman and ex-soldier who looks after Eve. The second character proves to be his Lagonda LG6 in which he drives Eve around and then in which he takes Eve and Charlie on their mission of discovery. Finn obsesses about the car, nurses it through its mechanical problems – but he is a mechanic and more. Plus, he is the second Scotsman in Eve’s life – the first, Captain Cameron recruited her as a secret agent.

How Eve’s relationship with Cameron is resolved parallels Charlie’s involvement with Finn. One of many parallels and contrasts between the two women that weave through the book. Not least René Bordelon, the antagonist that ties together all the evils of both wars – even if he attempts to justify himself.

René is as complex as the other main characters. Cultured or at least coveting the trappings he acquires or desires. His favourite poet – he quotes him obsessively – Baudelaire adds a clever twist in what Lili calls her spies. A phrase echoed by Eve.

“Fleurs du mal,” Eve heard herself saying, and shivered.

“What?”

“Baudelaire. We are not flowers to be plucked and shielded, Captain. We are flowers who flourish in evil.”

Lili is another complex character and Eve’s mentor, friend and confidante. Lili, whose real name is revealed as Louise de Bettignies, was an actual person as was her Alice Network. This true-life story is skilfully told from Eve’s point of view and impacts on the unfolding novel, changing lives over time.

On first meeting Eve – through Charlie’s eyes – she doesn’t appear to be anything like the young determined woman who becomes a spy in 1915. In other novels, I would suspect not – and there have been great examples of switched identities. But not here. Kate Quinn shows how and why the young Eve became the embittered drunk – and yet there are plenty of glimmers of the young Eve under the surface.

Thus, I understood her brief appearance in ‘The Huntress’ – although I hadn’t known who she was.

 “She used to do something unbelievably vague in British intelligence, and people like that are rather good at observing things.”

However, I will say no more about such meetings. There are so many tragic twists as the tale unfolds and I won’t spoil them. Just believe me when I say this story is brilliant – great writing and excellent narration.

Narrated by Saskia Maarleveld, this Audible version was an engaging listen. Saskia is able to make every character distinctive – helped by the first-class writing. She brings emotion and pacing to her narration that earns her five stars. Now we’ve finished listening to ‘The Alice Network’, we will listen to the author’s excellent ‘The Huntress’ as they share the same superb narrator.

Five-star recommend doesn’t do ‘The Alice Network’ justice. So, I’m handing the last few sentences to a talented author whose research is meticulous.

“Clearly, women in active fighting zones unsettled their contemporaries, but they still left a legacy behind. Girls of the ’30s and ’40s joined the SOE to train as spies against the Nazis because they had been inspired by books and stories about women like Louise de Bettignies—and they weren’t inspired by her feminine graces. They were inspired by her courage, her toughness, and her unflinching drive, just as I imagined Charlie being inspired by Eve’s. Such women were fleurs du mal indeed—with steel, with endurance, and with flair, they thrived in evil and inspired others in doing so.”


― Kate Quinn talking about The Alice Network

Story – five stars

Setting/World-building – five stars

Characters – five stars

Authenticity – five stars

Structure – five stars

Narration – five stars

Editing – five stars

And if you are interested to read more about The Alice Network: https://www.readinggroupguides.com/reviews/the-alice-network

AND

https://www.bookcompanion.com/the_alice_network_links2.html

And for the real Louise de Bettignies: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Louise_de_Bettignies

The Huntress – a review

I’m still behind with my book reviews as my reading continues to be faster than my writing. However, I’m ahead in my 2019 Goodreads Challenge– 20 books read from my target of 35.

As for reviews, this will be my ninth Cloak and Dagger review of 2019; with two more to review. Plus, four more outstanding reviews outside the genre.

This may not be trad-crime, but this novel did feel like a thriller to me – with war crimes from the opening page.

The Huntress

by Kate Quinn

From the author of the New York Times and USA Today bestselling novel, THE ALICE NETWORK, comes another fascinating historical novel about a battle-haunted English journalist and a Russian female bomber pilot who join forces to track the Huntress, a Nazi war criminal gone to ground in America.

In the aftermath of war, the hunter becomes the hunted… 

Bold and fearless, Nina Markova always dreamed of flying. When the Nazis attack the Soviet Union, she risks everything to join the legendary Night Witches, an all-female night bomber regiment wreaking havoc on the invading Germans. When she is stranded behind enemy lines, Nina becomes the prey of a lethal Nazi murderess known as the Huntress, and only Nina’s bravery and cunning will keep her alive.

Transformed by the horrors he witnessed from Omaha Beach to the Nuremberg Trials, British war correspondent Ian Graham has become a Nazi hunter. Yet one target eludes him: a vicious predator known as the Huntress. To find her, the fierce, disciplined investigator joins forces with the only witness to escape the Huntress alive: the brazen, cocksure Nina. But a shared secret could derail their mission unless Ian and Nina force themselves to confront it.

Growing up in post-war Boston, seventeen-year-old Jordan McBride is determined to become a photographer. When her long-widowed father unexpectedly comes homes with a new fiancée, Jordan is thrilled. But there is something disconcerting about the soft-spoken German widow. Certain that danger is lurking, Jordan begins to delve into her new stepmother’s past—only to discover that there are mysteries buried deep in her family . . . secrets that may threaten all Jordan holds dear.

In this immersive, heart-wrenching story, Kate Quinn illuminates the consequences of war on individual lives, and the price we pay to seek justice and truth.

Review 5 stars

From this novel’s opening with the Huntress deciding to move into the shadows, I was engrossed in the story, the characters, settings, the history and Kate Quinn’s writing.

I was in awe of the writing throughout and discovered another wonderful author to follow. I could see everything unfold as we were introduced to the main players. The novel is told through the senses of three POVs – if you don’t count that brief tempting glimpse into the head of the Huntress in the Prologue.

First, seventeen-year-old Jordan McBride who’s determined to become a photographer post-WWII and is inspired by the likes of Margaret Bourke-White – one of my heroines. She is pleased when her widowed father, who owns a Boston antiques shop, forms a relationship with Austrian widow Annelise Weber – but she is also suspicious. Suspicions that are heightened and dismissed or disproved but stirred up again.

Then, in 1950s West Germany, the reader meets British war correspondent Ian Graham who has become a Nazi hunter, aided by Tony Rodomovky, a ‘Yank’ with Polish-Hungarian blood. But other people want to move on from focusing on Nazi crimes, especially the judges – the focus has shifted onto the ‘Commies’. However, for Ian, finding the elusive Huntress is personal – a reveal not rushed by the author.

Finally, we are in harsh and remote Siberia, where my favourite character, Nina Markova needs to escape her father. Facing tough prospects if she remains, she risks everything to join the legendary Night Witches, an all-female night bomber regiment that wreaked havoc on the invading Germans. Friendships and more are forged amid a terrible struggle to survive a gritty and vicious war.

The research for this character was impressive and I applaud Kate Quinn’s ability to blend fact with an emotional and riveting story. The focus is on the regiment, but Stalin’s cruel regime lurks in the shadows. Nina must manoeuvre between the two despotic forces and carve out a life – with a razor in her oversize boots.

This book, those remarkable aviators, and this character propelled me down a ‘Night Witches rabbit hole’ – and added to my reading list.

The three lives/plotlines gradually weave together, with their different timelines merging. The author doesn’t rush this process but crafts it with domino-events that build. I loved the use of drip reveals. Especially as to how Nina encounters Ian and Tony. Only one of those men is a Russian speaker, and that is a tasty device – one that had me re-reading parts of the book with a grin while writing this review.

The novel uses its various settings from Siberia to Massachusetts to enhance the action and the characters. For instance, lakes play a central role for all three main characters. And to the Huntress whose haven was Lake Rusalka in Poland.

But which of the well-portrayed characters will prove to be the rusalka – a lethal, malevolent water spirit? They are all intricate in their traits and their backstories, yet there are no road-hump info dumps.

The detail was balanced, whether about the main or supporting cast. There was even a brief appearance by a character from ‘The Alice Network’ – although I hadn’t read Kate Quinn’s previous novel at the time. But I nodded when I met her again.

Anyway, the plotlines in ‘The Huntress’ merge, building towards a confrontation that could go different ways – depending on how the complexity of the personalities impacts on events. Revenge can depend on experiences, on abilities. As can justice. So, what can happen and will it? A memorable ending is set up with care. Maybe, there was a dip before that point, and I wanted a faster resolution. Or was I sharing the frustration of being a Nazi hunter? Or do characters need spaces to build their futures?

In summary, I enjoyed the clever plotlines, the complex characters, significant settings, excellent research and writing style so much I want more

A book that’s hard to forget – not that I want to. In fact, I look forward to listening to the Audible version – now I’ve finished listening to the author’s equally engrossing ‘The Alice Network’ and they share a superb narrator.

Story – five stars

Setting/World-building – five stars

Characters – five stars

Authenticity – five stars

Structure – five stars

Readability – five stars

Editing – five stars

Black Dove, White Raven – a review

After choosing Elizabeth Wein’s Code Name Verity as my top read in 2018, I have read – well, listened to two more of her novels on Audible. I was not disappointed.

After listening to The Pearl Thief, I moved on to another Elizabeth Wein novel – historical but not a mystery in the strict sense. I’m also reading her non-fiction account of Russian airwomen in WWII – A Thousand Sisters.

But let’s head to Ethiopia.

Black Dove, White Raven

By Elizabeth E. Wein

A story of survival, subterfuge, espionage, and identity.

Emilia and Teo’s lives changed in a fiery, terrifying instant when a bird strike brought down the plane their stunt pilot mothers were flying. Teo’s mother died immediately, but Em’s survived, determined to raise Teo according to his late mother’s wishes—in a place where he won’t be discriminated against because of the color of his skin. But in 1930s America, a white woman raising a black adoptive son alongside a white daughter is too often seen as a threat.

Seeking a home where her children won’t be held back by ethnicity or gender, Rhoda brings Em and Teo to Ethiopia, and all three fall in love with the beautiful, peaceful country. But that peace is shattered by the threat of war with Italy, and teenage Em and Teo are drawn into the conflict. Will their devotion to their country, its culture and people, and each other be their downfall or their salvation?

In the tradition of her award-winning and bestselling Code Name Verity, Elizabeth Wein brings us another thrilling and deeply affecting novel that explores the bonds of friendship, the resilience of young pilots, and the strength of the human spirit.

Review 4.4 stars

After I was bowled over by the brilliance of Elizabeth Wein’s Code Name Verity, I had to read another of Wein’s novels – and was not disappointed. Black Dove, White Raven was another enjoyable tale, sympathetically narrated by Lauren Saunders and Maanuv Thiara.

Flying is a major thread to the novel and the author captures that – not surprising for a writer with a private pilot’s licence; and I’m already engrossed in her non-fiction book about Soviet airwomen in WWII.

However, at the heart of the story is the unfolding lives of best friends, Em and Teo brought up together after Teo’s mother Delia dies when the plane their stunt pilot mothers – Black Dove & White Raven – were flying crashes. Em’s mother Rhoda survives and takes the children to Ethiopia away from the prejudice of 1930s America. Delia dreamt of going to the country as Teo’s late father was from there.

Weing vividly portrays the attitudes towards a white woman with her own white daughter and an adopted black son in the USA and in Ethiopia. The latter might seem more accepting but has other issues being addressed – an added challenge for Rhoda and Em’s Quaker upbringing – and the reader is confronted with these through the eyes of the kids as they become teens.

The children adopt their mother’s stunt names for the characters in the stories they create. These fantasy tales become the basis of their diaries which form the structure of the novel, alternating from Em to Teo and back. When they start to fly as passengers then pilots, the POVs take on the form of flight logs as well as diary entries. But they are never dry, instead each adds to the characterisation of the siblings.

Wein cleverly weaves other details into these accounts, so the reader/listener learns about Ethiopia as Rhoda and her family do. I knew a bit about the country and its history, but this novel added to my knowledge – the author does comprehensive research for her novels.

Alongside Em and Teo, the reader is given a complex portrait of Rhoda, who must adapt to raising her late friend’s son alongside her daughter in a new country with fresh challenges. Rhoda is forced to juggle everything to keep the family together and safe. The supporting characters, from the Ethiopians on the coffee farm and in the towns to the Italians like Em’s father, are well portrayed.

While Em discovers her background early in her life, she doesn’t meet her Italian father until she is older. Teo is also confronted with his Ethiopian parentage as the family unravels the mystery of the country – and the ties to the man his uncle works for. This discovery adds tension and intrigue that keeps the tale moving. Although Teo finds some resolution, the ending left me wanting more answered.

But this is the brink of the Second World War, so everything is becoming uncertain. Perhaps there will be a sequel with Em and Teo.

Ethiopia was one of the tragic prequels to WWII. Everyone is becoming aware of the Italian military on the borders. Mussolini has ambitions. Fascism is on the rise and war seems inevitable. This impacts on the lives of Rhoda, the teens and the people around them.

Which side will Rhoda choose? Has she a choice? Can the under-dogs soar above the war? The author paints a contrast between the relative idylls of the early years in Ethiopia and the country and lives torn about by the conflict. However, relative idylls as there are hints and future tensions in those quieter years.

Black Dove, White Raven was not up there with Code Name Verity as there are moments where the tension dips, and the tale drags. In part perhaps because of the diary approach, in part from having two calendars – the Gregorian and the Ethiopian one – for every chapter, and from the extended timeline – linear and tied to real events. And the ending left unanswered questions.

But still this earns four stars and was a good listen. On to another engrossing Wein book.

Story – four stars

Setting/World-building – five stars

Characters – four stars

Authenticity – five stars

Structure – four stars

Narration – five stars

Editing – four stars