Book review: A Woman of No Importance by Sonia Purnell

A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II

A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II by Sonia Purnell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


“A Woman of No Importance” is about the life of Virginia Hall, who despite being a woman, an American, and disabled (a prosthetic leg), managed to outwit and outlast the Nazis and organize, arm, and train pockets of the Resistance throughout France during the German occupation. (Oh, and fled over the Pyrenees when the Nazis finally figured out who she was.) She then returned to France to aid the Resistance to prepare for the Allied invasion in Normandy. Upon her return back to the United States, she joined up with the OSS and then the CIA, only to encounter deep-seated discrimination due to her gender.
Virginia Hall was a woman of immense force of personality, charm, and sense of purpose. She survived unimaginable hardships and loss and built a life for herself on her own terms. This is a well-written biography about a fascinating woman and her importance in the Allied victory in World War II.



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Book review: The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter by Theodora Goss

The Strange Case of the Alchemist's Daughter (The Extraordinary Adventures of the Athena Club, #1)

The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter by Theodora Goss

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


The premise of this book is fascinating: Mary Jekyll (daughter of “Jekyll and Hyde” Jekyll) through a fortuitous set of circumstances discovers other “daughters” of infamous men (Diana Hyde, Justine Frankenstein, Beatrice Rappaccini, and Catherine Moreau) and works alongside Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson to solve the mystery of the Whitechapel Murders (theoretically attributed to Jack the Ripper).
I love how the author takes the perspective of the daughters (or “monsters” as they call themselves) as they solve the mystery. In addition, because there are so many main characters, the author has the daughters interject commentary throughout the story, in order to convey more clearly the personality of each character. I loved her use of this technique, although some readers may find it distracting from the main narrative.
My only quibble is that the ending of the book is a bit of an anti-climax, as it is clearly a story to be continued. (The second book of the series comes out next week.) I do think the author could have done a better job making this book a standalone mystery rather than leaving so many loose ends for the next in the series.
That being said, I really enjoyed this book. The premise is original, the author does a very good job of folding in the main characters and giving each of them a back story consistent with the literary fiction about their characters (her take on Justine Frankenstein’s story is especially fascinating), and I look forward to reading the next in the series!



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Book review: The Coddling of the American Mind by Greg Lukianoff & Jonathan Haidt

The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure

The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure by Greg Lukianoff

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


The authors set up the book with 3 Great Untruths that they think are endangering future generations. These Great Untruths are (i) what doesn’t kill you makes you weaker; (ii) always trust your feelings; and (iii) there is a battle of good vs evil (and you and your beliefs are, of course, on the side of good). The book posits these Great Untruths, demonstrates with data how these untruths have spread throughout society, and documents the harm these Great Untruths cause. (Among those harms is a higher incidence of depression and anxiety.)
The authors further propose solutions to combat these Great Untruths, the groupthink that accompanies them, and the institutions that cave into them.
I found this book especially interesting because the direction K-12 schools as well as college and universities have gone is in the direction of the Great Untruths, all from the best of intentions. And I especially think it is important for educational institutions to teach its children that reasonable minds can disagree and disagree with respect and civility. As the authors state, “Having people around us who are willing to disagree with us is a gift.”
Four stars and highly recommended.



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Book review: Footsteps in the Dark by Georgette Heyer

Footsteps in the Dark

Footsteps in the Dark by Georgette Heyer

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


3.5 stars actual rating

I adore Georgette Heyer Regency romances, and I am very fond of her mysteries as well. This particular one is completely representative of Heyer mysteries. There is a large quantity of witty dialogue, acute and funny commentary on British societal biases, a somewhat cursory but adorable romance, and oh, yes, a mystery to solve. (I suspect the priorities of the author were in that exact order.) This book isn’t going to stretch your brain cells or make you think about it much afterwards, but it is an extremely pleasant way to spend a few hours. The book delivers precisely what it promises, which is a frothy and delightful set of characters who happen to stumble upon a mystery to solve and a romance to conduct. For those of you who like light-hearted British cozy-type mysteries, this book is perfect for you.



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Book review: Code Girls: The Untold Story of American Women Code Breakers Who Helped Win World War II by Liza Mundy

Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers Who Helped Win World War II

Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers Who Helped Win World War II by Liza Mundy

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


One of my (achievable) New Year’s resolutions is to read more non-fiction. “Code Girls” was a wonderful place to start. The author paints a detailed and knowledgeable picture of the role women played in World War II breaking both the Japanese and German codes. Despite their obvious intelligence and substantive contributions to the war effort, these women often faced discrimination during their service. And, yet, the vast majority of them persevered, wanting to do their part to support the war effort. Their patriotism and their contributions in breaking the codes of the enemy are an untold and underappreciated part of World War II history.
I found the descriptions of the code-breaking effort and what it entailed fascinating. But even more fascinating was reading about the backgrounds of the various women. Certainly, there were women from elite colleges such as Barnard and Smith that contributed. But many of the most brilliant code-breakers came from less exalted schools or were from rural areas or were schoolteachers or just looking for adventure. And while discrimination certainly existed, there were also senior (male) officers who were supportive and gave credit where credit was due.
Another factor that struck me was what happened to many of the women once the war was over. A few of them stayed in what ultimately became the NSA, but most of the women left government service and started families. They rarely talked about their wartime activities and while many found their lives fulfilling, the excitement and the feeling of making a difference was something that was missing from their subsequent lives.
I highly recommend this book as an excellent resource of a little-known part of the United States war effort.



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Book review: A Conspiracy in Belgravia by Sherry Thomas

A Conspiracy in Belgravia (Lady Sherlock, #2)A Conspiracy in Belgravia by Sherry Thomas
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the second book in Sherry Thomas’s Lady Sherlock series, and I think it is even better than the first. Or, rather, the mystery is even better. The first book suffered (relatively speaking, as it was excellent) from having to set up the characters and the plot to establish the existence of a female Sherlock Holmes, and the mystery component of the book took a back seat as a result. In the second book, with the characters firmly established, the author has the luxury of further developing her characters as well as creating a mystery that is both complex and personal to the characters. The tease of Moriarty’s existence that ended the first book returns in this book, a little more front and center but still a tease.
Historical mysteries have a double burden of creating an interesting mystery and staying authentic to the period. The author has done both here. In addition, what I find so compelling about this series is that Charlotte Holmes’s voice rings so true. The Benedict Cumberbatch line in the “Sherlock” television series about being “a highly functioning sociopath” applies here as well. Charlotte’s intelligence is a relatively easy thing to write about. Charlotte’s thoughts as someone who is on the autism spectrum is not an easy thing to write, and her thoughts come across as genuine and consistent throughout the book. It is masterfully done.
I can’t wait to read the next book in the series, and I am hoping there are more books to come!
The series is best read in order.

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Book review: Devil’s Brood by Sharon Kay Penman

Devil's Brood (Henry II & Eleanor of Aquitaine, #3)Devil’s Brood by Sharon Kay Penman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Sharon Penman is one of my favorite authors (she ranks up there with Jane Austen and J.R.R. Tolkien) and certainly my favorite author of historical fiction. Devil’s Brood describes the internecine warfare and deteriorating family relationships of the sons of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. (The Plantagenets make the Kardashians look like a stable and wholesome family.)
Every good historical fiction author does impeccable research and brings to life real life characters. What this author does that is head and shoulders above the rest is to imbue each character–whether primary, secondary, or tertiary–with a sense of believability and humanity. The characters are accessible, heroic, and flawed. You come away from reading this book knowing this version of events is how history actually unfolded and that truth has emerged from the author’s pen.
For those interested in medieval British history or historical fiction in general, check out Sharon Penman’s works. The Plantagenet saga is best read in order.

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Book review: The Number Devil by Hans Magnus Enzensberger

The Number Devil: A Mathematical AdventureThe Number Devil: A Mathematical Adventure by Hans Magnus Enzensberger
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve been meaning to read this book for a long time, as it came highly recommended by both my kids. After reading it, I can see why. The author has written a loose structure of a novel in order to painlessly and seamlessly teach children some basic math concepts. Along the way, he makes math fun and interesting and accessible. (I actually happen to think math *is* fun and interesting and accessible, but I realize that not everyone does.)
The book is geared towards middle schoolers, but it works well for older children and adults as well. It also works well for both people who love math and its intricacies as well as people who are math-phobic, as it provides explanations and projects for experiential learners, all in a fun and light-hearted way.
I would best characterize the book as a novel about math. If that intrigues you, then read the book!

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Book review: Wicked and the Wallflower by Sarah MacLean

Wicked and the Wallflower (The Bareknuckle Bastards, #1)Wicked and the Wallflower by Sarah MacLean
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As you can tell from my Goodreads shelves, I read a lot of Regency romances. I love them–they are light, frothy, and “spoiler alert” always have a happy ending. :). Occasionally, one comes along that has more depth than normal in this genre of lightheartedness and deserves a special mention. “Wicked and the Wallflower” is one of those books.
To begin with, the heroine is plain (but smart). This is a fairly normal anomaly in a genre where the heroine is usually–but not always–beautiful. But the hero is dark (ethically, not just physically) and climbed out of the gutter through sheer force of will and brains. This is not a “good girl reforms bad boy” plot. This is a “good girl joins bad boy” plot. That’s an unusual anomaly. I adored it.
The backstory has complexity, the banter between the hero and heroine is charming, and the entire book has unsuspected depth. It’s as if a Georgette Heyer Regency romance married a C.S. Harris Sebastian St. Cyr mystery, and they had a child (who was happy).
I can’t wait for the second book in the series!

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Book review: The Political Classroom by Diana Hess & Paula McAvoy

The Political Classroom: Evidence and Ethics in Democratic EducationThe Political Classroom: Evidence and Ethics in Democratic Education by Diana E. Hess
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I sit on the board of a pre-K through 12 school, and this book was recommended to me by a faculty member. I thoroughly enjoyed the book, which uses philosophical thinking and empirical science to frame a discussion on how best to answer the question: “How should we live together?” In an era of increasing political polarization, is there a place and an opportunity for schools to teach and model respect, tolerance, and political equity in the classroom, and what should that teaching look like?
The authors examine several types of schools, communities, teachers, and teaching styles to arrive at an ethical framework with which to analyze the question. They looked at schools across the political spectrum and how teachers dealt with students from differing socioeconomic classes, ethnicity, and political viewpoints to model political engagement in a respectful way and how that might differ from teachers who deal with students from more homogeneous socioeconomic classes, ethnicity and political viewpoints. The result is a thought provoking book on what ways teachers should model ideal behavior, the challenges in doing so, and the obstacles that remain.
This book should be the beginning–not the end–of the discussion of how we should all live together and demonstrates how schools and teachers can assist students to start on the path towards political tolerance, respect, and engagement. I highly recommend this book to teachers, parents, and administrators alike!

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