Shelf Control #159: The Atomic City Girls by Janet Beard

Shelves final

Welcome to Shelf Control — an original feature created and hosted by Bookshelf Fantasies.

Shelf Control is a weekly celebration of the unread books on our shelves. Pick a book you own but haven’t read, write a post about it (suggestions: include what it’s about, why you want to read it, and when you got it), and link up! For more info on what Shelf Control is all about, check out my introductory post, here.

Want to join in? Shelf Control posts go up every Wednesday. See the guidelines at the bottom of the post, and jump on board!

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A little note for 2019: For the next short while, I think I’ll focus specifically on books I’ve picked up at our library’s fabulous annual sales. With all books $3 or less, it’s so hard to resist! And yet, they pile up, year after year, so it’s a good idea to remind myself that these books are living on my shelves.

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Title: The Atomic City Girls
Author: Janet Beard
Published: 2018
Length: 353 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

In the bestselling tradition of Hidden Figures and The Wives of Los Alamos, comes a riveting novel of the everyday women who worked on the Manhattan Project during World War II

“What you see here, what you hear here, what you do here, let it stay here.”

In November 1944, eighteen-year-old June Walker boards an unmarked bus, destined for a city that doesn’t officially exist. Oak Ridge, Tennessee has sprung up in a matter of months—a town of trailers and segregated houses, 24-hour cafeterias, and constant security checks. There, June joins hundreds of other young girls operating massive machines whose purpose is never explained. They know they are helping to win the war, but must ask no questions and reveal nothing to outsiders.

The girls spend their evenings socializing and flirting with soldiers, scientists, and workmen at dances and movies, bowling alleys and canteens. June longs to know more about their top-secret assignment and begins an affair with Sam Cantor, the young Jewish physicist from New York who oversees the lab where she works and understands the end goal only too well, while her beautiful roommate Cici is on her own mission: to find a wealthy husband and escape her sharecropper roots. Across town, African-American construction worker Joe Brewer knows nothing of the government’s plans, only that his new job pays enough to make it worth leaving his family behind, at least for now. But a breach in security will intertwine his fate with June’s search for answers.

When the bombing of Hiroshima brings the truth about Oak Ridge into devastating focus, June must confront her ideals about loyalty, patriotism, and war itself.

How and when I got it:

LIBRARY SALE!

Why I want to read it:

I feel like there have been several fiction and non-fiction books recently which have centered on women doing war work during WWII, not just with the Manhattan Project but with other wartime industry support functions as well. I’m always interested to learn about the roles women played behind the scenes and how their lives were affected, for better and for worse, by the new opportunities that came their way when the country was at war. I’ve heard this book mentioned by other bloggers a few times, and it piqued my interest enough to grab it when I saw it at the book sale.

What do you think? Would you read this book?

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Want to participate in Shelf Control? Here’s how:

  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
  • Add your link in the comments!
  • If you’d be so kind, I’d appreciate a link back from your own post.
  • Check out other posts, and…

Have fun!

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Book Review: The Lieutenant’s Nurse by Sara Ackerman

November, 1941. She’s never even seen the ocean before, but Eva Cassidy has her reasons for making the crossing to Hawaii, and they run a lot deeper than escaping a harsh Michigan winter. Newly enlisted as an Army Corps nurse, Eva is stunned by the splendor she experiences aboard the steamship SS Lurline; even more so by Lt. Clark Spencer, a man to whom she is drawn but who clearly has secrets of his own. Eva’s past—and the future she’s trying to create—means that she’s not free to follow her heart. Clark is a navy intelligence officer, and he warns her that the United States won’t be able to hold off joining the war for long, but nothing can prepare them for the surprise attack that will change the world they know.

In the wake of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Eva and her fellow nurses band together for the immense duty of keeping the American wounded alive. And the danger that finds her threatens everything she holds dear. Amid the chaos and heartbreak, Eva will have to decide whom to trust and how far she will go to protect those she loves.

Set in the vibrant tropical surroundings of the Pacific, The Lieutenant’s Nurse is an evocative, emotional WWII story of love, friendship and the resilient spirit of the heroic nurses of Pearl Harbor.

First, can we take a moment to appreciate the beauty of this book’s cover? Ah, the colors! I needed this book in my life even before reading the synopsis.

Fiction set in and around Pearl Harbor comes with a particular challenge. How do you create a story that can hold readers’ interest when the real-life events are more dramatic than anything made-up could be? The Lieutenant’s Nurse tries very hard to give us an epic love story that complements and is complemented by the historical events, but the love story elements just can’t really hold a candle to the the factual story of Pearl Harbor.

Not that The Lieutenant’s Nurse doesn’t have a lot going for it. Let’s start with our main character, Eva Cassidy. From the first, it’s clear that Eva has secrets. She’s traveling across the Pacific to an army nursing assignment in Hawaii, expecting gorgeous beaches, interesting medicine, and above all, an escape from a traumatic situation back home. The truth comes out in bits and pieces over the course of the novel, but we learn early on that Eva is traveling under an assumed name, that she’s fleeing a hospital scandal that gained her notoriety, and that her long-distance boyfriend has arranged to get her stationed in Honolulu, where’s he’s also stationed with the army.

On the ocean voyage, Eva is immediately drawn to the gorgeous naval officer Clark Spencer, and he seems drawn to her as well. As an intelligence officer, there’s a lot he can’t share, but he does warn her that war may be imminent, and that the Hawaiian islands may not be the peaceful haven she expects.

When the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor takes place, Eva has only just arrived, but rushes to the hospital alongside the other devoted nurses to tend to the horribly wounded men. Meanwhile, she keeps an eye out for Clark, who’s brought in with injuries as well, and has to deal with the boyfriend, Billy, once she realizes that he’s not the man she truly loves.

On top of the love triangle drama, there’s intrigue as we learn that Clark became of aware of the impending attack days ahead of time, but that the report he submitted was blocked and discarded, eliminating the possibility of striking first against the approaching Japanese fleet or at least giving the fleet at Pearl Harbor a chance to prepare. When Clark tries to follow up, both he and Eva receive warnings from a pair of thugs who threaten their lives and also threaten to reveal Eva’s secrets.

While the descriptions of the sea voyage and the Hawaiian islands are lovely, the characters themselves rarely feel like more than cookie cutter figures. Eva is sympathetic, Clark is handsome and mysterious, and the resolution of the love triangle is predictable. Honestly, I’d say the plot didn’t need the extra complication of the spy games and the thugs (who were not all that effective — why didn’t they just shoot Clark when they had the chance rather than letting him off with a warning? As international conspiracies go, it was a little hard to take seriously.)

Still, I found the depictions of the nurses and their dedication to their patients quite moving and inspiring, and the author does a lovely job of giving personalities and individuality to the soldiers and sailors who come to the hospital in the aftermath of the attack. Because we see the events of Pearl Harbor through Eva’s eyes, we don’t move much beyond the hospital confines, so the destruction of the fleet seems to happen at a bit of a remove.

The story of Pearl Harbor is so tragic and dramatic that it’s hard to care about anything else happening at the same time — so yes ,the love story and Eva’s personal background might be engaging, but they seem kind of small in comparison to the historical events unfolding here. The Lieutenant’s Nurse is a quick read with some touching moment, but ultimately the plot — especially the love triangle and the spy business — doesn’t really stand out as truly special.

I’d say this is a solid 3-star read for me.

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The details:

Title: The Lieutenant’s Nurse
Author: Sara Ackerman
Publisher: MIRA
Publication date: March 5, 2019
Length: 352 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Book Review: Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

In the early 1900s, teenaged Sunja, the adored daughter of a crippled fisherman, falls for a wealthy stranger at the seashore near her home in Korea. He promises her the world, but when she discovers she is pregnant–and that her lover is married–she refuses to be bought. Instead, she accepts an offer of marriage from a gentle, sickly minister passing through on his way to Japan. But her decision to abandon her home, and to reject her son’s powerful father, sets off a dramatic saga that will echo down through the generations.

Richly told and profoundly moving, Pachinko is a story of love, sacrifice, ambition, and loyalty. From bustling street markets to the halls of Japan’s finest universities to the pachinko parlors of the criminal underworld, Lee’s complex and passionate characters–strong, stubborn women, devoted sisters and sons, fathers shaken by moral crisis–survive and thrive against the indifferent arc of history.

Pachinko is a multi-generational family saga which starts with Sunja, the teen-aged daughter of two poor but loving parents who instill in Sunja a love of family and the value of hard work and sacrifice for the sake of those you love. Over the course of this 500-page novel, we follow Sunja from Korea to Japan, and then follow her descendants through two more generations, as her children and her grandchildren struggle to find their place living in Japan but never able to shed their otherness as Koreans.

The early sections of the book focus on Sunja herself, as she finds herself pregnant by an older man who offers to set her up with a comfortable life as his Korean wife, despite never being able to marry her since he’s already married in Japan. When Sunja rejects his offer, she faces a life of shame until a kind but ill minister decides to devote himself to her and provide a life for Sunja and the baby in Osaka.

Life in Japan is hard, as the Koreans live in a squalid ghetto-like neighborhood and struggle to survive. As the second World War progresses, the family faces greater and greater dangers, and yet Sunja’s family grows through her two sons as well as the extended family she finds in her brother- and sister-in-law.

Over the years, Sunja’s children grow into young men, and each faces his own set of obstacles and challenges. While post-war Japan offers greater opportunities in some ways, the Korean immigrants and their Japanese-born children are continually treated as inferior, looked upon as dirty and undesirable and criminal. The discrimination, portrayed in this book through the 1980s, is unrelenting and very disturbing.

The plot covers about 50 years, and during these decades the focus shifts away from Sunja and toward the younger generation and their friends, relationships, and their own struggles. While my attention was mostly held throughout, by the last third of the book I started to feel that the story was becoming a little too dispersed. Not only were there chapters about Sunja’s children and grandchildren, but there was also a chapter focused on the wife of Sunja’s son’s best friend and other on the girlfriend of one of her sons. As more and more characters are introduced and given backstories, the main characters tend to slip into the background. Why should Sunja’s story become less interesting as she ages? She’s little more than a supporting character by the final sections of the book, although the final chapters wrap up her story very well and bring the various plot points back together.

Still, there’s plenty to enjoy and discuss in Pachinko. I knew little about Korean history or the status of Koreans living in Japan prior to reading this book, so it was quite eye-opening for me. The intricate relationships and tensions between the characters are informed by the social status of the Koreans and how they view themselves and their roles in Japan, sometimes in really destructive ways.

Pachinko is an ambitious novel that covers a woman’s life from girlhood to old age, showing her loves and commitments and determination, as well as the legacy she leaves for her children. With memorable characters and heart-breaking events, Pachinko would make a great book group choice, as there’s plenty of food for thought and discussion.

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The details:

Title: Pachinko
Author: Min Jin Lee
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Publication date: February 7, 2017
Length: 502 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Purchased