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.



View all my reviews

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.



View all my reviews


Book review: The Battle of Midway by Craig Symonds

The Battle of MidwayThe Battle of Midway by Craig L. Symonds

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Unlike many other books on this battle, which tend to attribute the American victory in this pivotal battle to luck or good fortune, this author’s premise is that the outcome of the Battle of Midway was a direct result of the personalities of the major players and the differences between Japanese and American cultures. The author credits the superiority of American technology, including its code-breaking efforts and the effectiveness of radar, as major factors in the battle. In addition, the author walks through each commander’s personality and preferred battle tactics to explain why certain actions were taken and certain decisions made. He also explains the differences in military culture between the Americans and the Japanese and how they resulted in certain decisions.
I was fascinated by the book, which covers one of my favorite battles of World War II. The author writes well, the book is eminently readable, and even though we know how the battle turns out, the element of suspense is well used throughout the book.
In addition, the author is not afraid to take stands on certain issues. While he thinks the efforts of the individual code-breakers and intelligence officials were not given enough credit, he also thinks that some historians give the overall code-breaking effort too much credit for turning the tide of the battle, while at the same time, not giving the strategic and tactical officers present at the battle enough credit. In addition, he is skeptical of the official reports from the commanding officers of the carrier, the Hornet, and has a very plausible explanation as to why the Hornet’s official reports do not reflect what actually happened during the battle.
I look forward to reading the author’s next book and highly recommend this one!

View all my reviews

Book review: George Washington’s Secret Six by Brian Kilmeade

George Washington's Secret Six: The Spy Ring That Saved the American RevolutionGeorge Washington’s Secret Six: The Spy Ring That Saved the American Revolution by Brian Kilmeade

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was an interesting book in several ways. First, it’s a fascinating look at a little known part of Revolutionary War history. The Culper Spy Ring was instrumental in helping General George Washington by providing him with vital intelligence about British military movements in New York, including information about Benedict Arnold’s attempted and nearly successful treachery. Second, while most of the ring’s identities have been uncovered, the identity of one member–the only woman in the ring–is still unknown and her fate undetermined. The book makes a somewhat convincing case of her probable fate, but it is all conjecture. Third, the book is written in the fashion of a thriller or mystery rather than a non-fiction history. Chapters end with teasers to encourage you to read the next chapter. I’m convinced that more people would read history if more history books were written this way. (Note: the idiosyncrasies of this book does make it come across as a bit amateurish, but if those idiosyncrasies make it an easy read, I have no issues with it.)
This is a very quick and interesting read on an obscure part of the history of the Revolutionary War and the importance of intelligence-gathering during armed conflict. I would give it 3.5 stars if I could, as I think the book could have used more depth. That being said, I definitely recommend it!

View all my reviews

Book review: The Monuments Men by Robert Edsel

The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in HistoryThe Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History by Robert M. Edsel

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book really deserves a bifurcated rating. I give the actual story–the history–5 stars. Recovering and preserving the priceless art that the Nazis looted during their march through Europe is a riveting story that deserves far more publicity than it has received. Unfortunately, the book does not do the actual story justice.
While this is a review of the book and not the movie, I have the same critique about both. That is, I find the actual historical events far more interesting than the book (or the movie). The writing is flat, and the characters–some of whom would be extraordinarily interesting, I think–came across dull and boring.
It is with disappointment that I write this because the actual events and discoveries and personalities are and should be compelling and exciting. Unfortunately, the book does not do the Monuments Men and their accomplishments justice. However, the book does throw light on an undeservedly obscure chapter of World War II and, for that, it should be appreciated. (Not to mention that I’m highly appreciative of the casting of George Clooney in the movie!)

View all my reviews