“The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper” by Halley Rubenhold

We have all heard about Jack the Ripper, the monstrous serial killer who slaughtered women in 1888 in Victorian era London.  But what do we know of those he killed?  Is it important that we know about them?  Hallie Rubenhold thinks so and wrote a book showing them to be the individuals that they were:  women of lesser means trying to survive in an unforgiving world.

From Goodreads.com:

Polly, Annie, Elizabeth, Catherine and Mary-Jane are famous for the same thing, though they never met.  They came from Fleet Street, Knightsbridge, Wolverhampton, Sweden and Wales.  They wrote ballads, ran coffee houses, lived on country estates, they breathed ink-dust from printing presses and escaped people-traffickers. What they had in common was the year of their murders: 1888.  The person responsible was never identified, but the character created by the press to fill that gap has become far more famous than any of these five women.

For more than a century, newspapers have been keen to tell us that ‘the Ripper’ preyed on prostitutes. Not only is this untrue, as historian Hallie Rubenhold has discovered, it has prevented the real stories of these fascinating women from being told.  Now, in this devastating narrative of five lives, Rubenhold finally sets the record straight, revealing a world not just of Dickens and Queen Victoria, but of poverty, homelessness and rampant misogyny.  They died because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time – but their greatest misfortune was to be born a woman.

Hallie Rubenhold uses her historical research skills to track down sources about each of these women and pieces the information together to create a narrative that not only informs, but humanizes, these five.  You come to see them as daughters, sisters, wives, mothers, friends.  They are people trying to make a living in a tough time period, where jobs are few for women and pay is minimal.  They tried to do their best by their families, but fate and relationships and illness got in the way.  They are real people with emotions, strengths, weaknesses, and loves.  They should not have been reduced to the category of “prostitute”, of fallen women perhaps courting their own deaths.  That is not a fair depiction of who these ladies were in life.

Although other similar murders of women occurred during this time frame, these five are considered the “canonical five.”  The police were unable to conclusively determine whether they were the work of “Jack the Ripper”, a killer copycat, or another serial murderer who happened to kill during about the same period of time.  Polly, Annie, Elizabeth, Catherine and Mary-Jane do appear to be the work of the same person, so these are the women that Rubenhold chose for her focus.

We may never know who was truly “Jack the Ripper” or why he was never caught or identified.  We know that he was a deranged soul, victimizing the weak and helpless “fairer” sex.  He is no hero, no titillating personality.  The women he preyed upon never deserved their deaths at his hand.

This is an excellent book, written more like a novel than the non-fiction work that it is.

“Time After Time” by Lisa Grunwald

Lisa Grunwald is the author of six earlier novels, including The Irresistible Henry House, Whatever Makes You Happy, New Year’s Eve, The Theory of Everything, and Summer, and a children’s book titled Now, Soon, Later. With her husband, Reuters Editor-in-Chief Stephen J. Adler, she has edited three anthologies: The Marriage BookLetters of the Century, and Women’s Letters.  Grunwald has been an editor and writer at the magazines EsquireAvenue, and Life, and has freelanced for others.

And now, for “Time After Time” . . .

What would you do if you found the girl of your dreams?  She is young, and beautiful, and somehow out of place.  Her dress seems quite old-fashioned.  She has no coat on in December and she carries no luggage – in Grand Central Station!  She appears to be a damsel in distress and Joe wants to help.  He is totally charmed by her.

Joe Reynolds works a very stressful and demanding job as a railroad man in Grand Central Station.  It is 1937 and he has been working there for close to 15 years. He is 32 years old and looking for something more in his life. 

He goes to work one day and spots Nora, in need of assistance.  They talk and he would love to spend time with her, but work calls.  Joe cannot get her out of his mind.  It is one year before he sees her again.

Nora looks exactly the same.  She is excited to see Joe!  They do spend some time together and Joe begins to think there is a future with her.  He tries to find her again, but he doesn’t know enough about her . . . where does she live?  What does she do?  Why can’t he find her?  He tries to get information about her, and he waits . . . .

The problem is who Nora really is and “when” Nora was, and nothing could prepare Joe for this.  But he falls in love with her nevertheless, and she with him, and they will try to find a way to be together.  Joe wants this future and so does Nora.

This book is so interesting, so intense.  It flips back and forth between Nora’s life and Joe’s, and the one they try to make together.  Will they be able to?  Will love win out?  Will they make the right decisions?  You must read this book to find out!

All I can say is, “Love is timeless.”

“The Personal Librarian” by Marie Benedict

I appreciate that the author, Marie Benedict, delves into the lives of historical women, both well-known and obscured by time.  She brings these ladies to life and puts you in a time and place that are unfamiliar to you.  You learn a lot about the time period, mores of society, constraints on persons of different genders, races and social classes, as well as what life was like for that particular person herself.  She makes them blood and bone, and very much alive to her readers!

In this book, she presents the life of Belle da Costa Greene, a woman who became the personal librarian to one of the most powerful and famous men of her era, J. Pierpont Morgan. That Belle achieves this is amazing, because unbeknownst to the people she works for, works with and socializes with, Belle’s parents are Black.  This is a time when Blacks were kept “in their place”, limited to less than the best in education, profession, and communities that would accept them as residents.  This is a substantial impediment to Belle’s life goals.

Belle is intelligent, hard-working and focused on procuring a career for herself and earning enough money to assist her struggling family after her father deserts them.  You feel her concerns and the care taken to keep her background secret as she develops herself into a knowledgeable, educated, and cultured woman.  She is shown to be driven and very clever in achieving her goals.

“The remarkable, little-known story of Belle da Costa Greene, J. P. Morgan’s personal librarian-who became one of the most powerful women in New York despite the dangerous secret she kept in order to make her dreams come true, from New York Times bestselling author Marie Benedict and acclaimed author Victoria Christopher Murray. In her twenties, Belle da Costa Greene is hired by J. Pierpont Morgan to curate a collection of rare manuscripts, books, and artwork for his newly built Morgan Library. Belle becomes a fixture on the New York society scene and one of the most powerful people in the art and book world, known for her impeccable taste and shrewd negotiating for critical works as she helps build a world-class collection. But Belle has a secret, one she must protect at all costs. She was born not Belle da Costa Greene but Belle Marion Greener. She is the daughter of Richard Greener, the first Black graduate of Harvard and well-known advocate for equality. Belle’s complexion isn’t dark because of her alleged Portuguese heritage that lets her pass as white-her complexion is dark because she is African American. The Personal Librarian tells the story of an extraordinary woman, famous for her intellect, style, and wit, and shares the lengths she must go-for the protection of her family and her legacy-to preserve her carefully crafted white identity in the racist world in which she lives”—(Provided by publisher.)

If you love books, art and the early twentieth century, there is something for you in this book!  Like me, I hope you will read Marie Benedict’s other books and meet some very remarkable women!

“Such a Quiet Place” by Megan Miranda

What if you spend time with your neighbors?  You have picnics and parties together, go on walks, watch out for each others’ children?  What if you keep an eye on your neighbors’ homes for them?  Help out when you can?  And you are sure that you have gotten to know them very well.  Hollow’s Edge is such a calm and caring place to live.

But you have a roommate.  Ruby Fletcher is erratic and makes folks uncomfortable.  Then there is a murder in the neighborhood.  Who among the neighbors could do that?  Who can you trust?  Who can’t you trust?  You thought you knew them but nothing is sure now.  So everything and everyone seems to be a risk.

That is the position that Harper Nash finds herself in.  Her roommate, Ruby, seems so suspicious.  There is a trial, the neighbors, including Harper, all give their testimonies.  Ruby is convicted and sentenced.  But a little over a year and a half later, the conviction is overturned and Ruby returns home to Harper’s house, as if nothing ever happened.  The neighbors cannot understand how this could be and the whole neighborhood tenses up.  The circle of fear and mistrust begins again.

Who killed Brandon and Fiona Truett?  Was it Ruby?  Someone else?  This quiet little neighborhood of “friends”, this “quiet place”, is no longer so.  Residents feel trapped.  The notoriety of the deaths prevents anyone from selling their homes and moving away.  The Truett home sits empty, a dark and daily reminder of the terrible event.

Harper is on the frontline.  She shares her home with Ruby and doesn’t feel she can ask her to leave.  Ruby hasn’t anywhere to go.  But Harper is afraid.  What is Ruby up to and why did she come back?  Then, Harper receives a threatening note.  She must find out what is going on before another person is killed.

Hollow’s Edge is a mirage and Harper goes looking for the truth behind the cozy houses.  Can she find it, before it is too late?  This is a wonderful twisty novel with a surprising ending!

“72 Reasons to Be Vegan: Why Plant-Based. Why Now” by Gene Stone & Kathy Freston

“Better sex, glowing skin, and more money … by going vegan

Did you know that if you adopt a vegan diet you can enjoy better sex? Save money? Have glowing skin? You can ward off Alzheimer’s, Type 2 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, and other metabolic diseases. You can eat delicious burgers. Help save the planet. Join the cool kids, like Gandhi, Tolstoy, Leonardo—and Kyrie Irving, Kat Von D, and Joaquin Phoenix. Oh, and did we mention have better sex? (It’s about blood flow.)

Those are just some of the 72 reasons we should all be vegan, as compiled and persuasively argued by Gene Stone and Kathy Freston, two of the leading voices in the ever-growing movement to eat a plant-based diet. While plenty of books tell you how to go vegan, 72 Reasons to Be Vegan is the book that tells you why. And it does so in a way that emphasizes not what you’d be giving up, but what you’d be gaining.”

What you just read is a summary of the book “72 Reasons to Be Vegan: Why Plant-Based. Why Now” from the website of the publisher.  As someone who has several vegan friends and is always on the lookout for new foods to try and healthier choices to include in my diet, I decided to give the book a try. Unlike other books on the general subjects of diet and nutrition or animals and the environment I found this to be a quick, easy read as well as an informative guide.

The authors approach the subject of veganism from a scientific view … explaining the many benefits of eating a plant-based diet in short, yet informative chapters – 72 in all.  Whether you’re already a vegan and simply want to remind yourself of the great benefits of your diet choices, a person who’s dabbling in going vegan or someone who has never tried a plant-based diet before, this book is for you.  If you’re concerned about the impact of factory farming on the environment, this book is for you.  If you are becoming aware of the plight of animals “living” on these farms, this book is for you.  

Vegan diets are becoming less of a “hippie” thing and are now gaining momentum every day as people become more aware of the trouble our planet is facing, and how important a healthy gut is.  It’s a very positive book in that, yes, it does warn about the things happening to our planet and the many living creatures we share it with but it also gives easy to implement suggestions for how you can help yourself and contribute to the greater good.  The easy to digest, easy to adopt, positive suggestions will help you feel empowered. And you don’t have to feel pressured to go cold turkey all at once.  Every change is a change for the better.  Even if you don’t adopt a totally vegan lifestyle, you’re sure to pick up plenty of pointers along the way.

“The Library of Lost and Found” by Phaedra Patrick

There seem to be many books about libraries and librarians lately.  I wonder why that would be . . . perhaps it is because libraries are such wonderful places and vary widely, as do the librarians who staff them!

This book is a little different. Martha Storm works at a library part-time and has been applying for years for a permanent full-time position there.  Somehow, she is always over-looked.  She is so helpful and kind; people take advantage of her goodness, making unreasonable requests on her time and energy.

She shows up to work for a special library program, only to find it has been canceled and nobody thought to let her know.  But all isn’t lost, as she finds a mysterious package with her name on it.  She is stunned to find a book of tales inside the package, with a dedication from her beloved grandmother – to her!  But the inscription date is a few years after her grandma had died.  How can this be?

This begins a journey of discovery and transformation for Martha.

From our library online catalog:

“Librarian Martha Storm has always found it easier to connect with books than people–though not for lack of trying. She keeps careful lists of how to help others in her superhero-themed notebook. And yet, sometimes it feels like she’s invisible. All of that changes when a book of fairy tales arrives on her doorstep. Inside, Martha finds a dedication written to her by her best friend–her grandmother Zelda–who died under mysterious circumstances years earlier. When Martha discovers a clue within the book that her grandmother may still be alive, she becomes determined to discover the truth. As she delves deeper into Zelda’s past, she unwittingly reveals a family secret that will change her life forever.”

As Martha tries to unravel the mystery behind the origin of the book of tales, she examines her family members and family history to look anew at what she thought was truth about them.  She looks at herself and thinks about how she can become more true to her self.  It is a growth experience for her, and for those she interacts with during her search.

This is a charming book with interesting characters that delves into uncomfortable family relationships and personal development. 

“Sometimes a book comes along at exactly the right moment. The Library of Lost and Found pulled me with a little family mystery, and filled me with warm fuzzies at the end–exactly what I needed. Phaedra Patrick’s characters are vibrant, quirky, and real, and you’ll be cheering for Martha as she discovers who she really is.” –Amy E. Reichert, author of The Coincidence of Coconut Cake and The Optimist’s Guide to Letting Go

I’m with local author, Amy Reichert!  This is a lovely little book to enjoy!

“Leonard and Hungry Paul: A Novel” by Ronan Hession

A co-worker at the library and I recently found ourselves loving the same books, without having suggested them to each other, so it was with great enthusiasm that I checked out one of her favorites, “Leonard and Hungry Paul”.

“What’s it about?”, I asked her, to which she responded that it was basically about two nice, content thirty-something men who live with their parents, are best friends and don’t do much of anything especially exciting (they do love a good game of Scrabble), but go about being decent human beings while facing challenges like the rest of us do.  They are not trying to be super-heroes, they are just living their lives without hurting anyone.  Nice guys.  Since my own life has been quite stressful lately, I decided to give this pleasant-sounding book a try.

Right off the bat, I enjoyed the writer’s style.  We are introduced to Leonard and Hungry Paul as they go about their lives.  Neither one is a super-spy.  Neither one has a “power job”, and they certainly don’t care about climbing the ladder to success for wealth and riches.  Leonard, for instance, is a children’s encyclopedia writer, and he loves it.  He really loves the idea of making history accessible and interesting for others, especially the next generation.  Although his name isn’t published on his books, but rather under the name of the man who he ghost-writes for, he really doesn’t care about the recognition, even when they’re quite successful.  He’s just thrilled that they are valuable reference books that he contributed (a lot!) to.  Leonard grew up without a father, and his mother (who he lived with all of his life) recently passed away.  He is aware that his world is changing.

Hungry Paul lives with his parents, who can best be described as kind people, generous of spirit.  It doesn’t bother him one bit that he is an adult who has never flown the nest. He really seems to have no traditional “ambitions” whatsoever, with the exception of getting to his very part-time, as needed, postal delivery job on time.  Hungry Paul’s older sister, Grace is about to be married.  She is well-liked, kind, and follows what society seems to view as the more traditional path of a young adult…school, career, marriage, etc.  She has always taken care of Hungry Paul, as have his parents, but she’s starting to worry about what will happen to him as her parents age.  Hungry Paul is never labeled with any kind of disorder, he just seems to have a very unique way of looking at life and has always been different.  During one early scene, when we are introduced to Hungry Paul’s home and family, his parents are enjoying their evening with a jigsaw puzzle, listening to and engaging in a television quiz show, and enjoying an early Easter egg treat (in my mind that Easter egg treat is a big chocolate egg!).  Perhaps this beautiful scene of contentment alone is what keeps Hungry Paul from leaving home.  I, myself, lost my parents a long time ago and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had dreams recalling simple moments like this with them and thinking “if only”.

I fell in love with this book during one scene, early on, when Leonard and Hungry Paul are playing Yahtzee, and the conversation turns cosmic.  Leonard and Hungry Paul are both intelligent men who are fascinated by the universe.  The writing that accompanies Leonard’s exit from the house, when it’s time for him to go home, is so simplistic, but so beautiful as the two friends gaze at the night sky.  It’s little touches like these that make this such a charming read.

From an interview with the author, Ronan Hession, (who is a successful Irish musician, by the way, which might explain his gentle spirit):  “Leonard & Hungry Paul is really a novel about gentle people finding their way in the world.  People who are uncertain about themselves, uncertain about the world, and who have spent a portion of their lives trying to stay out of trouble and stay out of engaging with the wider world – but then their lives change.  Leonard is a ghostwriter of children’s encyclopedias and when his mother passes away he has to come to terms with his place in the world.  Hungry Paul is his best friend who is happily part of a nice family but the family is going through change – his parents are getting older and his sister is getting married and that raises all sorts of questions for him”.

Change does come, indeed, but no worries … there are no zombie apocalypse issues to deal with here.  The changes are realistic, human issues that many of us face, and I only wish more of us could deal with them with the intelligence, strength and wisdom of Leonard and Hungry Paul.  As the book drew to a close, I wanted more of those quiet game nights with these two lovely men.  My wish for you is that you can feel the same.

“Jackie and Marie: a Novel of Jackie Kennedy and Maria Callas” by Gill Paul

As a child growing up in the 1960’s, no one seemed to be more fascinating to my mom than Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.  Whether it be her intelligence, her fashion sense, her poise, her tragic story or her strong will to protect herself and her family after the assassination of her husband, I remember frequently seeing books and magazines with this intriguing woman’s face on them covering up my mom’s own face as she dove in.     

It was therefore with great anticipation that I checked out “Jackie and Maria”.  Although I had read extensively about Jackie Kennedy (the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree), I knew very little about Maria Callas, nor her own relationship with Aristotle Onassis.     

This is a novel, one of historical fiction, but at times it certainly felt more like an autobiography or at least a biography.  The author certainly did her research.  Of course the dialogue isn’t quoted, but the author stuck to the actual timelines and events of the day, which made the look back at history all the more appealing.   

“Gill Paul is always meticulous in her historical research for novels, and always brings the characters so vividly to life…This novel is simply stunning.” (Louise Beech, author of Call Me Star Girl and The Mountain in My Shoe)   

We see two very interesting and complicated women with greatly different backgrounds and stories fall for the same man, but for very different reasons.  Our hearts both flutter and break for these women, at different times, and for different reasons, but we feel the emotions nonetheless.  Gill Paul does a great job of letting us into their worlds and riding the roller coaster of life with them.  I must note that when she writes about the historic assassination of President Kennedy, she does so without sensationalizing it one bit.  It’s truly written from the point of a woman who was there, but instead of focusing on the details of the murder, Paul offers us a sensitive view of Jackie’s stunning experience and loss that day, and how it would affect her life forever.  That writing is beautiful.   

“Jackie and Maria is an intriguing behind-the-scenes look at the rivalry between two of the world’s most glamorous women, both of whom snared the attention of Aristotle Onassis, one of the world’s richest and most mesmerizing men. Fans of the Kennedys will love this introduction to Maria Callas!” (Stephanie Thornton, USA Today bestselling author of And They Called It Camelot)     

“Gill Paul weaves together the lives of two fascinating and flawed icons… A dishy and delectable novel, Jackie and Maria, is sure to please readers with its famous cast of characters from John F. Kennedy to Aristotle Onassis, its taut pacing, and a truly absorbing story.” (Heather Webb, USA Today Bestselling Author)     

“Glamorous and highly seductive, this compelling story explores the lives of two complex, powerful women complete with all their talents and flaws. Jackie and Maria is not just about their story; this novel also brings the 20th century to life in vivid, colorful detail. I loved it.” (Dinah Jefferies, #1 Sunday Times bestselling author)  

As Heather Webb wrote in her review, this novel is both dishy and delectable, and I’m happy to say that since I’m not a fan of dishy, I was glad that the scales were amply tipped to the delectable side.  This was an enjoyable read, a ride back into history, and a great peek into what it means to live and love, not only while living in the spotlight, but as a woman and mother in any circumstance.  If you’re looking for an enjoyable read with an intriguing backstory, “Jackie and Maria” just might be the book for you.

“Whistling in the Dark” by Leslie Kagen

While browsing the “Books for Sale” used book room at our library recently, I discovered a treasure.  I didn’t know it at the time, but when I picked up this book and read the back cover, I was intrigued: 

“It was the summer on Vliet Street when we all started locking our doors” …  Sally O’Malley made a promise to her daddy before he died.  She swore she’d look after her sister, Troo.  Keep her safe.  But like her granny always said, actions speak louder than words.  And Sally would have to agree with her.  Because during the summer of 1959, the girls’ mother is hospitalized, their stepfather abandons them for a six-pack, and their big sister, Nell, who was left strict instructions to take care of them, is too busy making out with her boyfriend to notice that Sally and Troo are on the loose.  And so is a murderer and molester.

Highly imaginative Sally is pretty sure of two things.  Who the killer is.  And that she’s next on his list.  If nobody will believe her, she has no choice but to protect herself and Troo as best she can, relying on her own courage and the kindness of her neighbors.

“Funny, wise and uplifting, “Whistling in the Dark” is a story of two tough and endearing little girls … and of a time not so long ago, when life was not as innocent as it appeared.” 

Born and raised in the greater Milwaukee area, the Vliet Street setting instantly caught my attention.  Thinking that there could be several Vliet Streets in our nation, I quickly skimmed through a few of the pages and found other clues that confirmed that this is a story that, indeed, takes place in the streets of Milwaukee during the summer of 1959.  I saw Washington Park mentioned, Samson, the beloved zoo gorilla, the Milwaukee Braves baseball team.  Now, even though I wasn’t born in 1959, I didn’t need to be Sherlock Holmes to realize that I had stumbled onto gold!

My mother moved from a farming community to Milwaukee when she was just a girl.  One of her most harrowing tales from that time was a story she shared with all of her own children, as a warning about “the friendly stranger”.  Back in those days, children were allowed to roam about more freely than they are today, and one day she and her friend went to the old Milwaukee Public Museum.  They were little girls.  They soon became aware of a stranger following them around the museum.  A tall man was lurking behind them, hiding in the shadows.  No matter where they went and how long they stayed there, there he was, hanging back behind them.  The girls were terrified, but true to so many bad decisions we make when we’re young, instead of telling an employee what was happening, they ran out together as fast as they could, fortunately leaving the man behind.  Children were brought up to not speak unless spoken to in those days and they were afraid a museum guard might not believe them.  My mom still got chills when she relayed the story as an adult.

Sally O’Malley faces very similar circumstances in “Whistling in the Dark”.  Although she’s only 10 years old, Sally has a lot of wisdom and a great heart, but she also has what is labeled as an overactive imagination and told by a doctor that she needs to stop “being that way”.  Medical advice was not the same back then!

So when, after a series of events, some heartbreaking, others scary and sad, Sally finds herself being followed by someone, she is afraid to report it.  They’ll say it’s just her wild imagination, which everyone in the neighborhood knows about.  Nevermind that two young girls about her age were found murdered and molested in her neighborhood recently.

This book combines intrigue, suspense, drama and even some humor in an easy to read, page-turning classic.  It’ll make you smile, it will make you angry, it will make you sad as well as sending chills down your spine.  It also challenges the labels we put on each other; Sally is afraid to share what’s happening to her because of her overly-active imagination “affliction”, Wendy has Downs Syndrome, so she’s written off by many in the community, Mary has told some lies and is a schemer, and therefore is never to be believed again.  The author, Lesley Kagen, does a beautiful job of compelling us to look behind the labels and discover some fascinating people.  I literally couldn’t put the book down and read well into the wee hours of the morning.  It should be noted that as of the time of the writing, this talented author was a local gal, living in Mequon, Wisconsin.  Although many times I don’t bother to read the conversation with the author at the end of a book, this time I did and was fascinated to learn about the inspirations behind the story and the characters, as well.

Admittedly for me the tie-in with my mom’s own experience in Milwaukee as a child, the fact that my grandparents lived near this neighborhood, my brothers grew up as huge Braves fans and I personally have fond memories of Samson, the powerful gorilla and his eyes that seemed to penetrate my soul, made this a must read. If you like suspense, and if you have ties to mid-century Milwaukee, this book is for you, too.  Even if you have no ties to Milwaukee, “Whistling in the Dark” is a great read and available in our library system.

“The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz” by Eric Larson

“On Winston Churchill’s first day as prime minister, Hitler invaded Holland and Belgium. Poland and Czechoslovakia had already fallen, and the Dunkirk evacuation was just two weeks away. For the next twelve months, Hitler would wage a relentless bombing campaign, killing 45,000 Britons (30,000 of them Londoners) and destroying two million homes. It was up to Churchill to hold the country together and persuade President Franklin Roosevelt that Britain was a worthy ally–that she was willing to fight to the end.

In The Splendid and the Vile, Erik Larson shows, in cinematic detail, how Churchill taught the British people “the art of being fearless.” It is a story of political brinksmanship but also an intimate domestic drama, set against the backdrop of Churchill’s prime-ministerial country house, Chequers, and his wartime residence, Ditchley, where Churchill and his entourage go when the moon is brightest and the bombing threat is highest. Drawing on a wealth of untapped sources, including recently declassified files, intelligence reports, and personal diaries only now available, Larson provides a new lens on London’s darkest year through the day-to-day experience of Churchill and his family, and the cadre of close advisors who comprised Churchill’s “Secret Circle”.

What you’ve just read is a description of the book, “The Splendid and the Vile” taken from the website of author Eric Larson. If his name rings a bell, it may be because of his #1 New York Times bestselling books “Dead Wake” and “The Devil in the White City”. Though I have read neither of those, after reading The Splendid and the Vile, I’m excited to read “Dead Wake”, the story of the last crossing of the Lusitania next.

Although I’m usually more of a fan of historical fiction than actual history, I found this book fascinating. I do like to watch The History Channel, but most often, no matter how interesting the subject, reading a book full of historical facts and figures is not my thing. This book is different … it draws so much from the actual diaries of the people who were living through these experiences. Not only are you getting the facts and figures (some of which are startling), but the author’s clever approach of combining historical fact with actual personal accounts made this a true page-turner. I never anticipated this when I picked the book up, but I swear I couldn’t put it down!

As the author explains, “Although at times it may appear to be otherwise, this is a work of nonfiction. Anything between quotation marks comes from some form of historical document, be it a diary, letter, memoir, or other artifact; any reference to a gesture, gaze, or smile, or any other facial reaction comes from an account by one who witnessed it.” The book is a plethora of eyewitness accounts from very unique perspectives, and all from real people who lived during these days.

By reading about what was going on in Churchill’s life at the time he was making some of the biggest decisions of his life, one feels a personal connection to historical events. When things aren’t going well for the British at some points during the war, the author’s writing makes one forget that you already know the outcome, and instead you feel the tension in the room. Although I’ve seen a lot of footage about The Blitz, while reading this book I personally found myself cowering in a London bunker, hearing the terrible screams of the bombs falling through the sky. The writing was so clear and specific that I often found myself, after finishing a chapter, pausing to quickly go online to find pictures of exactly where a town is located, photos from the time of war, and what that town looks like today. I was totally immersed. I really felt like I was living in this world, and I wanted to know more. It was fascinating to read about some behind the scenes events during Churchill’s Christmas visit to America, for instance, and then watch a video of the actual event.

My husband was chuckling because I had my nose buried in this huge book (the large print version ends with a single word, “Finis”, on page 831!). His curiosity was piqued when I reported that, for probably the first time in my life, I went on to read the entire “Sources and Acknowledgements” section, which ended on page 925. THAT’S HOW INTERESTING THIS BOOK IS!

Due to the authors brilliant talent for immersing you into life in and around London in that dark year, had I not known the outcome of the war, I honestly don’t know if I could have continued reading this book. The continual tension of the bombs being dropped every day during the blitz had me on edge in the comfort of my home. Erik Larson starts the book with the following Winston Churchill quote, delivered in the eulogy for Neville Chamberlin, November 12, 1940: “It is not given to human beings – happily for them, for otherwise life would be intolerable – to forsee or to predict to any large extent the unfolding course of events.” Winston Churchill certainly had his quirks, but his eloquence and perseverance kept a country together in the most uncertain times. Read this book!

P.S. Due to my new habit of spouting facts about eight thousand pound bombs, aerial mines and such, my husband recommended we watch “Danger UXB”, a British program about the men who were assigned to defuse unexploded bombs dropped by the Germans during the blitz. It is, indeed, a great companion to The Splendid and the Vile and covers the blitz from yet another human perspective. (The 10 hour DVD set is available through our Bridges Library System at www.townhalllibrary.org.)