In 1942 Enrico Fermi and a team of scientists were working on a top secret project called the Manhattan Project. This was the research on developing the atomic bomb done at Stagg Field, the University of Chicago football stadium. The Accidental Agent by Andrew Rosenheim tells the story of a fictional FBI agent who is asked to determine whether or not a Nazi has managed to infiltrate the research group. Many of the scientists in the group were European immigrants and some of their credentials had been difficult to verify. Is it possible that one of them had been recruited as a spy? Jimmy Nessheim had asked for an extended leave from the FBI to attend law school at the University of Chicago. Since he is in the right place and has the perfect cover story, he is asked by his superiors to resume his Special Agent status to observe the scientists’ work. The novel is filled with shadowy characters, including two ex-girlfriends and thugs from his past. As Jimmy tries to understand just how far the Manhattan Project is progressing and if all the scientists involved are who they say they are, all sorts of complications emerge. The book has interesting and understandable details about the nuclear experiment. It also has the noir feel of 1940’s spycraft.
There have recently been several novels released about the lives of private citizens trying to survive the German occupation of Paris during WWII. Lilac Girls, All the Light We Cannot See, and The House of Dreams have all used real life characters to enhance their stories. Les Parisiennes: How the Women of Paris Lived, Loved, and Died Under the Nazi Occupation by Anne Sebba is the non-fiction story of many of the brave women who either struggled against the Nazi regime or collaborated with the invaders and were then often prosecuted for their actions after the war ended. Some of the names are ones we are familiar with, some are ones that we have never heard about. The fashion designer Chanel was well known for selling to the Germans, then when the Americans arrived in Paris, they were given a free bottle of perfume for their wives or girlfriends. Rose Valland, an employee of an art museum, managed to keep a detailed list of many of the art works that the Germans had removed from France which was useful in getting art works returned to their original owners. Many women’s actions are documented for the duration of the war. My only criticism is that the book is divided into time periods, making it difficult to connect with a particular woman’s entire life story.
Historical fiction can be an effective way for anyone trying to get basic knowledge of a period. When facts are revealed as a story they are easier to understand and remember. A great introduction to the beginning years of Queen Victoria’s reign is the novel Victoria by Daisy Godwin. Victoria inherited the throne when she was only eighteen years old. Although she knew she would be queen, she had been given very little exposure to the politics of reigning. Her widowed mother insisted that she was protecting her by keeping Victoria almost secluded. Victoria’s diaries and court observations are used as sources that show us someone who would now be defined as a rebellious teenager. At the very beginning of her reign she asserted herself by distancing herself from her mother and making her own choice as to the name she wished to be known by. She did commit several political missteps and the author depicted the known facts in a very plausible manner, giving Victoria what would seem like understandable motivations. My occasional dissatisfaction with historical fiction is when an author seems to place contemporary values in a different era and that did not happen in this novel.
The central character in King of Fear by Drew Chapman is Garrett Reilly, a bond trader who had worked for the government on a secret project which made use of his unique ability to work with numbers. He is no longer working for the government and is mourning the death of his mentor who gave him his position on Wall Street. When a woman assassinated the president of the New York City Federal Bank, she claimed she had been directed by Reilly to do the shooting. This is the beginning of an effort to destroy the American economy. With every federal agent in the country searching for Reilly, he managed to reassemble his team to find out who is trying to destroy America and why. This is a very exciting novel that describes the ways that determined hackers can destroy a nation’s infrastructure. The people on Reilly’s team all have interesting character defects, several that make them effective at anti-terrorism. All sorts of tricky ways to get information are revealed.
What if you only had a week to understand the secrets of the past that have left your mother with severe depression and yourself prone to panic attacks? A Week in Paris by Rachel Hore is the story of two young women caught up in the glamour and tragedy of Paris. Kitty Travers left England in 1937 to study piano in Paris. In 1961 her daughter, Fay Knox is playing the violin as part of a week-long symphonic tour of Paris. Fay remembered a trip to Paris as a schoolchild when she had experienced what felt like flashbacks even though her mother told her that she had never been to France. Just before Fay left, her mother told her to talk to Mother Superior Marie at St. Cecelia. The novel alternates between Kitty and Fay as they each fall in love in the romantic city. The book portrays the particular attractions of Paris during each era. The dangers of wartime are a part of the story that Fay needs to understand so she can help her mother heal.
Julia Keller’s novel, Sorrow Road entwines secrets from 1938 with a present day death in an Alzheimer’s care facility. Bell Elkins and Darlene Strayer both grew up in Appalachia and both went to Georgetown Law School. Bell is a county prosecutor in Aker’s Gap, West Virginia while Darlene is a federal prosecutor based in northern Virginia. Although Darlene rarely comes home, she has met with Bell to ask her to investigate her father’s death at the Thornapple Terrace, an Alzheimer’s facility. When Darlene has a fatal car accident going down the mountain after their meeting, Bell is left trying to understand what she needs to investigate. What could possible motivate anyone to murder an Alzheimer’s patient, other than a mercy killing? Bell’s life is further complicated when her adult daughter, Carla returns home. Murder almost always has roots in the past, but this story lets the past motivate the present in several ways. Practically every character is strongly influenced by past choices and actions. The brutal winter weather is so well portrayed that it can be felt as strongly as the actions of the characters. Winter puts particular pressures on small rural towns with dangerous roads that impact the story. The poverty of rural West Virginia is a motivator for several acts of violence. The connections will elude the reader until the end of the novel.
What people are eating is a reflection of their society. A Square Meal: A Culinary History of the Great Depression by Jane Ziegelman and Andrew Coe explores what people were or were not able to eat during the Depression. It also covers various ways that the government attempted to provide relief to its citizens who were often in crisis. I had not realized that before this period, the federal government had no involvement in the nutrition of its citizens. This was also an era of discoveries of how vitamins and minerals worked to promote good health. When US citizens were so desperate for food, some actually dying of starvation, the government was forced to step up. Different methods of relief were tried at different times. When farm crops were abundant, the federal government bought up the surplus and turned it over to various organizations for distribution to the disadvantaged. The Red Cross frequently had a role in this. The Depression was also an era that ushered in the school lunch program. Research was done that showed how poorly children learned when they were hungry. These two food historians have uncovered so much information about how people and government coped with hunger. Recipes are even included.