Continuing with WWII fiction in honor of the 75th anniversary of D-Day, we’ll focus on stories that illumine some fascinating but lesser-known people and events in the war, most based in historical fact.
We begin with THE ONLY WOMAN IN THE ROOM by Marie Benedict. In pre-WWII Austria, beautiful—Jewish–actress Hedwig Keistler catches the eye of the wealthiest man in Austria, arms dealer Fritz Mandl. Knowing that marriage to the powerful Mandl may keep her and her family safe from the rising tide of anti-Semitism, after a short courtship, Hedwig weds him. Certain his glamorous wife doesn’t care about or understand the weapons he develops and sells, Mandl discusses them freely around her with his business partners. But Hedwig is brilliant as well as beautiful, with a life-long interest in science nurtured by her father.
When Mendl becomes ever more abusive and controlling, Hedwig flees from him, first to London and then to America—where she becomes film star Hedy Lamarr. But she also carried with her the plans for the Nazi’s weapons systems—and an invention of her own that will pave the way for secure communications and cellphone technology. A look behind the glamorous façade, Benedict’s book reveals a woman as inventive as she was alluring.
Homefront England is the setting for our next story, THE LONG FLIGHT HOME by Alan Hlad. Susan Shepherd studied biology before the cataclysm of war sent her back to help her grandfather Bertie tend their homing pigeons. As they watch Luftwaffe fighters battle Spitfires and German bombers pound the nearby airfield on their way to pulverize London, they are pulled into a secret project, Operation Columbae, in which homing pigeons will be dropped into occupied France for Resistance fighters to send back with messages about German troop movements.
An orphaned crop duster with strong British ties, Canadian Ollie Evans is on the train to report for pilot training when he punches an RAF officer who is harassing a young woman—Susan. Grateful for his help protecting his granddaughter, Bertie gets Ollie released from prison and enlists him in helping with the pigeon project. Full of fascinating bird lore and based on the actual secret project, Hlad’s story shows a wartime mission—and love story—from a most unusual viewpoint.
Another lesser-known WWII operation forms the underlying fabric of Judithe Little’s WICKWYTHE HALL. The story begins in 1940 with the Nazi invasion of France that sends about-to-be nun Annie LeMaire fleeing her homeland. Wealthy American Mabry Springs invites her to take refuge at Wickwythe Hall and promises to help her locate her missing brothers. At this sumptuous country estate, her life entwines with that of the mysterious Reid Carr, whose ties with visiting houseguest Churchill and members of his Cabinet suggest he may be more than he seems.
Based on historical fact, including the sheltering of evacuated children from London, work behind enemy lines in France, and the top-secret Operation Catapult, in which the British Navy destroyed a French fleet just transferred to Nazi control, Little weaves these fascinating details into a story of love, loss, courage, endurance and redemption.
Julia Kelly’s THE LIGHT OVER LONDON employs the popular plot device of contemporary-woman-discovering-old-diary to connect the story of modern-day Cara, working to find herself after a failed marriage, and World War II Louise, who leaves her Cornish village for London after falling for an RAF pilot. Driven to “do more,” Louise becomes one of the “Gunner Girls,” a member of a special branch of the British Army that used young women as antiaircraft gunners firing on the German bombers that arrive nightly to flatten and terrorize the British capital. The novel weaves together these separate stories of love and loss, hope and redemption, bravery and the power of family in times of crisis.
Finally, we switch locales to what might have been thought a backwater to the events happening in Europe—but which was anything but. THE GOLDEN HOUR by Beatriz Williams takes us to Nassau and the intrigues surrounded the wartime governor and his wife, one of the most infamous couples of that era, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.
American reporter Lulu Randolph comes to the Bahamas to write a feature on the former king and his glamorous American wife. But as she penetrates deeper into the upper crust of Bahamian society, she encounters a scandalous mix of spies, intrigue, financial improprieties, ugly racial tension—and brilliant, enigmatic scientist Benedict Thorpe. A murder, a royal cover-up, and Thorpe’s disappearance send Lulu to London to search for the truth—about the man she fell in love with, the wartime intrigue of the Windsors, and a family tragedy from the previous generation that shapes the current one.
Ready to continue the summer’s salute to the heroes and heroines of World War II? This month’s selections present a wide variety of settings and stories to tempt you. So settle into a comfy chair with a cool drink and immerse yourself in the fascination of the past!
ABOUT THE BOOKS MENTIONED IN THIS ARTICLE:
She possessed a stunning beauty. She also possessed a stunning mind. Could the world handle both?
Her beauty almost certainly saved her from the rising Nazi party and led to marriage with an Austrian arms dealer. Underestimated in everything else, she overheard the Third Reich’s plans while at her husband’s side, understanding more than anyone would guess. She devised a plan to flee in disguise from their castle, and the whirlwind escape landed her in Hollywood. She became Hedy Lamarr, screen star.
But she kept a secret more shocking than her heritage or her marriage: she was a scientist. And she knew a few secrets about the enemy. She had an idea that might help the country fight the Nazis…if anyone would listen to her.
A powerful novel based on the incredible true story of the glamour icon and scientist whose groundbreaking invention revolutionized modern communication, The Only Woman in the Room is a masterpiece.
Women’s Fiction Historical [Sourcebooks, On Sale: January 15, 2019, Hardcover / e-Book, ISBN: 9781492666868 / ]
Set during the London Blitz and “Operation Columba,” when British Services enlisted the aid of over 200,000 homing pigeons to carry coded messages across enemy lines and into Nazi-occupied Europe, THE LONG FLIGHT HOME is based on little-known, though deeply moving historical events. It’s an almost-love story between two orphans brought together, and then driven apart by war; a testament to the heroism of animals; a bittersweet tale of love, sacrifice, and the tragedy of war inspired by actual events…
from a time when hope truly was the thing with feathers…
It is September 1940—a year into the war—and as German bombs fall on Britain, fears grow of an impending invasion. Enemy fighter planes blacken the sky around the Epping Forest home of Susan Shepherd and her grandfather, Bertie. After losing her parents to influenza as a child, Susan found comfort in raising homing pigeons with Bertie. All her birds are extraordinary to Susan—loyal, intelligent, beautiful—but none more so than Duchess. Hatched from an egg that Susan incubated in a bowl under her grandfather’s desk lamp, Duchess shares a special bond with Susan and an unusual curiosity about the human world.
Thousands of miles away in Buxton, Maine, a young crop-duster pilot named Ollie Evans has decided to travel to Britain to join the Royal Air Force. His quest brings him to Epping and to the National Pigeon Service, where Susan is involved in a new, covert assignment. Codenamed Source Columba, the mission aims to air-drop hundreds of homing pigeons in German-occupied France. Many will not survive. Those that do make the journey home to England can convey crucial information on German troop movements—and help reclaim the skies from the Luftwaffe.
The friendship between Ollie and Susan deepens as the mission date draws near. When Ollie’s plane is downed behind enemy lines, both know how remote the chances of reunion must be. Yet Duchess’s devotion and her singular sense of duty will become an unexpected lifeline, relaying messages between Susan and Ollie as war rages on—and proving, at last, that hope is never truly lost.
Winner, Historical Fiction, 2018 Next Generation Indie Book Awards
2018 IPPY Award Winner for Best Regional Fiction (Europe)
2018 Reader Views Readers Choice Award For Historical Fiction
Foreword INDIES 2017 Book of the Year Awards Winner: Honorable Mention (War & Military)
Tyler R. Tichelaar Award For Best Historical Fiction 2018
Official selection of the Pulpwood Queens Book Club and Bonus Book for August 2018
“A riveting and enlightening mix of history and fiction that puts a human face on the costs of war.” Foreword Reviews
Part Downton Abbey, part Darkest Hour, Wickwythe Hall was inspired by an actual confrontation between the British and French navies in July 1940. A story of love, loyalty, and heartrending choices, Reader Views calls Wickwythe Hall a “whirlwind novel” that “will no doubt leave an imprint on your heart long after you finish reading.”
“…it had substance with endearing characters and solemn subjects. It is based on the true events of WWII Operation Catapult, when Churchill made the decision to bomb the French naval fleet at Mers el-Kebir to prevent their battle ships being handed over to Germany. Little’s characterization of Churchill is so well done. She makes his personality and presence so real. Mabry was a character to be admired for her decisions and actions. A good read with a satisfying ending.” Historical Novels Review
“If you love history, beautifully rendered characters, and stories that will tug at your heart, add Wickwythe Hall to your list. ” Book Perfume
Reminiscent of Martha Hall Kelly’s LILAC GIRLS and Kristin Hannah’s THE NIGHTINGALE, this sweeping, entrancing story is a must-read for fans of remarkable women rising to challenges they could never have predicted.
It’s always been easier for Cara Hargraves to bury herself in the past than confront the present, which is why working with a gruff but brilliant antiques dealer is perfect. While clearing out an estate, she pries open an old tin that holds the relics of a lost relationship: among the treasures, a World War II-era diary and a photograph of a young woman in uniform. Eager to find the author of the hauntingly beautiful, unfinished diary, Cara digs into this soldier’s life, but soon realizes she may not have been ready for the stark reality of wartime London she finds within the pages.
In 1941, nineteen-year-old Louise Keene’s life had been decided for her—she’ll wait at home in her Cornish village until her wealthy suitor returns from war to ask for her hand. But when Louise unexpectedly meets Flight Lieutenant Paul Bolton, a dashing RAF pilot stationed at a local base, everything changes. And changes again when Paul’s unit is deployed without warning.
Desperate for a larger life, Louise joins the women’s branch of the British Army in the anti-aircraft gun unit as a Gunner Girl. As bombs fall on London, she and the other Gunner Girls relish in their duties to be exact in their calculations, and quick in their identification of enemy planes during air raids. The only thing that gets Louise through those dark, bullet-filled nights is knowing she and Paul will be together when the war is over. But when a bundle of her letters to him are returned unanswered, she learns that wartime romance can have a much darker side.
Illuminating the story of these two women separated by generations and experience, Julia Kelly transports us to World War II London in this heartbreakingly beautiful novel through forgotten antique treasures, remembered triumphs, and fierce family ties.
Historical [Gallery, On Sale: January 15, 2019, Hardcover / e-Book, ISBN: 9781501196416 / eISBN: 9781501172922]
The New York Times bestselling author of The Summer Wives and A Certain Age creates a dazzling epic of World War II-era Nassau—a hotbed of spies, traitors, and the most infamous couple of the age, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.
The Bahamas, 1941. Newly-widowed Leonora “Lulu” Randolph arrives in the Bahamas to investigate the Governor and his wife for a New York society magazine. After all, American readers have an insatiable appetite for news of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, that glamorous couple whose love affair nearly brought the British monarchy to its knees five years earlier. What more intriguing backdrop for their romance than a wartime Caribbean paradise, a colonial playground for kingpins of ill-gotten empires?
Or so Lulu imagines. But as she infiltrates the Duke and Duchess’s social circle, and the powerful cabal that controls the islands’ political and financial affairs, she uncovers evidence that beneath the glister of Wallis and Edward’s marriage lies an ugly—and even treasonous—reality. In fact, Windsor-era Nassau seethes with spies, financial swindles, and racial tension, and in the middle of it all stands Benedict Thorpe: a scientist of tremendous charm and murky national loyalties. Inevitably, the willful and wounded Lulu falls in love.
Then Nassau’s wealthiest man is murdered in one of the most notorious cases of the century, and the resulting coverup reeks of royal privilege. Benedict Thorpe disappears without a trace, and Lulu embarks on a journey to London and beyond to unpick Thorpe’s complicated family history: a fateful love affair, a wartime tragedy, and a mother from whom all joy is stolen.
The stories of two unforgettable women thread together in this extraordinary epic of espionage, sacrifice, human love, and human courage, set against a shocking true crime . . . and the rise and fall of a legendary royal couple.
Suspense Historical [William Morrow, On Sale: July 9, 2019, Hardcover / e-Book, ISBN: 9780062834751 / eISBN: 9780062834775]
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About Julia Justiss
Real, intense, passionate historical romance
After twelve years as a vagabond Navy wife, an adventure that took her from Virginia Beach, VA, to Monterrey, CA, to Tunis, Tunisia to Oslo, Norway and back, Julia Justiss followed her husband to his family’s East Texas homeland. On a hill above a pond with a view of pasture land, they built an English Georgian-style home. Sitting at her desk there, if she ignores the summer heat, she can almost imagine herself in Jane Austen’s Regency England.
In between teaching high school French and making jaunts to visit her three children (a Seabee in Gulfport, MS, a clothing buyer in Houston and a mechanical engineer in Austin, TX) she pursues her first love—writing historical fiction.