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

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

The Ragged Edge of Night – a review

Thursday_horizons

NaNoWriMo might be my focus for November but I am making time for this Thursday Creation Review as this book seems timely with a strong message.

RaggedEdge

The Ragged Edge of Night

by

Olivia Hawker

For fans of All the Light We Cannot See, Beneath a Scarlet Sky, and The Nightingale comes an emotionally gripping, beautifully written historical novel about extraordinary hope, redemption, and one man’s search for light during the darkest times of World War II.

Germany, 1942. Franciscan friar Anton Starzmann is stripped of his place in the world when his school is seized by the Nazis. He relocates to a small German hamlet to wed Elisabeth Herter, a widow who seeks a marriage—in name only—to a man who can help raise her three children. Anton seeks something too—atonement for failing to protect his young students from the wrath of the Nazis. But neither he nor Elisabeth expects their lives to be shaken once again by the inescapable rumble of war.

As Anton struggles to adapt to the roles of husband and father, he learns of the Red Orchestra, an underground network of resisters plotting to assassinate Hitler. Despite Elisabeth’s reservations, Anton joins this army of shadows. But when the SS discovers his schemes, Anton will embark on a final act of defiance that may cost him his life—even if it means saying goodbye to the family he has come to love more than he ever believed possible.

Review 5 stars

Although the pace was slower than many of my usual reads, the setting of a rural village in World War II Germany made for an underlying threat that drove the story forward. The pace matched the reality portrayed.

The influence of Hitler and his Nazis seeped into the story, although the main protagonist Anton Starzmann was building a new life with Elisabeth Herter, a widow with three children in rural surroundings. His past as a Franciscan friar, whose pupils have been ‘relocated’ by the SS, haunts his gradual attempt to take a stand against the Nazi evil.

Early on he hears a conversation that becomes fundamental:

“Her companion is quick to answer, quick to defend. “It’s only this: I’ve never seen God. Why should I credit Him for a blessing, or leave Him any blame? Men are quite capable of destroying the world on their own, as we can plainly see. They don’t need any help from above.”

Anton observes that he hasn’t met Hitler, but the Fuehrer’s evil exists – and he resists. The musical instruments of his condemned pupils become central to that stand, and not just in their re-use – far better than what the Nazis plan for them.

“I’ve heard the Party are paying good money for brass. The Schutzstaffel want it for casings—ammunition.”

I wondered if music could foil the savage beast and, in a way, it became a means to take a stand. I shared the fear that the resistance within Germany and the village of Unterboihingen, called the Red Orchestra would be exposed and killed.

It didn’t matter that I knew the outcome of WWII as I didn’t know whether anything about that resistance. It’s a sad fact that it became easier for others to see all Germans as evil. Having had a German girlfriend, I know that isn’t true. And this book confirms that there was a lot of good alive, and people trying to survive.

The characters from Anton to minor characters come alive as the story builds and I became invested in their lives.

The village and its surroundings are beautifully described, and the language is so evocative of the hard but special life that Anton and his new family are living. The war rages and the nightly bombing of nearby Stuttgart threaten behind the village life that attempts to continue, using lessons and practises of the past. Barter replaces money – as it did in many countries.

There are highlights to enrich the children’s lives like precious Easter eggs, chocolates and simple handmade gifts.

The end and the impending terror draws closer when a ruthless act forces a final act of defiance.

The story resonated so much with me that I was pleased to discover that it is based on real events. And that makes it relevant to today when Neo-Nazis are on the rise everywhere.

But as the author says:

“We are Widerstand—resistance—you and I. No force can silence us, unless we permit silence. I prefer to roar.”

This book was an Amazon First Reads free with my Prime membership, and even if I’d paid the proper price The Ragged Edge of Night would be a recommended must read.

Story – five stars

Setting/World-building – five stars

Authenticity – five stars

Characters – five stars

Structure – five stars

Readability – five stars

Editing – five stars

Mr Churchill’s Secretary – a review

Thursday_horizons

For today’s Thursday Creation Review, I’m reviewing a historical mystery set in World War II that I read after reading tempting reviews for two books from the ongoing series.

I’m hesitating from getting the next book for reasons stated in the review – and the length of the series so the costs in reading time and my dwindling book funds.

 MaggieHope

Mr Churchill’s Secretary

(Maggie Hope Mystery #1)

by

Susan Elia MacNeal (Goodreads Author)

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.

In this thrilling debut, Susan Elia MacNeal blends meticulous research on the era, psychological insight into Winston Churchill, and the creation of a riveting main character, Maggie Hope, into a beautifully crafted mystery.

Review 3.7 stars

Fortunately, I didn’t read too many reviews of this novel first, so my enjoyment wasn’t tainted by watching out for potholes – historical or linguistic errors. Yes, I spotted some mistakes, but the plot swept me past them. So, I’m not going to nit-pick – and I know first-hand about American editors making changes for their larger market. (I fear my own writing lapses into Americanisms that might cause problems.)

Anyway, I suspended my disbelief and judgemental self to read about a clever young woman attempting to push past the restrictions imposed on women. The heroine, Maggie Hope has the qualifications to be more than just a typist for Winston Churchill, but that is how she starts out at 10, Downing Street. From there, she becomes involved in ‘a web of spies, murder, and intrigue’ earning promotion of sorts.

The plot unfolds through a series of events told from multiple POVs – almost too many by the end, though never a read-block – and the threads are brought together in a series of climactic episodes. Eventually, these lead into the over-long set-up for what has become not just a sequel but a series of books.

Were there plot holes? No, a few coincidences but life is full of them, and these felt explained, especially as some characters were being minimal with what they told Maggie – they have their reasons like there is a war on and “Careless talk costs lives”.

As a Brit ex-pat living in the US, I enjoyed reading about London during the war and recognised places from having lived there (and researched places destroyed in the Blitz). The fashion, music, art and celebrity references made me smile, especially as Maggie was part of a set on the fringes of high-society. Hobnobbing and name-dropping was rife throughout the world I grew up in. There were settings outside London that I recognised, although a few decades after these events – they came alive for me.

The characters, especially Maggie, felt realistic, even though emotions felt restrained in some cases. For instance, when death becomes more personal, there are demonstrations of grief – but not wailing. But even by the time the Blitz arrives, there is a sense of numbness for some – a numbness that shatters, perhaps not as overtly as we might portray it today. Stiff upper lip? And some of the secondary roles felt shallow in passing.

When the Luftwaffe arrived over London, the atmosphere changed, and the plot moved faster for me. Life must continue, including dancing, but the danger was more visible – and the smell pungent. So, characters are asking, ‘Who to trust?’ They become more conscious of Nazi sympathisers and more in their midst. Britain has older enemies and we slowly learn why in dialogue, memories and songs.

I always felt that Susan Elia MacNeal had done her research – for instance, when Frederick Ashton appeared- and despite the few potholes that I read around. Her ‘historical notes’ make it clear that this research was extensive, and she used numerous reputable sources, including her inspiration for Maggie and her fictional exploits in the real-life Churchill secretaries, Marian Holmes and Elizabeth Layton Nel.

This was a fast read, and I recommend this novel. Book 2 will have to wait as I have other historical novels to tackle first – and I need to forget those distracting reviews that I want to disagree with.

3.7 stars upgraded to 4.

Story – four stars

Setting/World-building – four stars

Authenticity – four stars

Characters – three stars

Structure – three stars

Readability – four stars

Editing – four stars