Review: Bournville by Jonathan Coe


Title: Bournville

Author: Jonathan Coe

Published: 3rd November 2022, Viking

Status: Read November 2022 courtesy PenguinUK/Netgalley


My Thoughts:


“Past, present and future: that was what she heard….Everything changes, and everything stays the same.”


I’m sure my request for Bournville by Jonathan Coe was inspired by the passing of Queen Elizabeth II. Promising a portrait of Britain as experienced by a middle class family over a period of seventy five years, I felt a tug of nostalgia tied to the end of an era.

After a prologue set in 2020, Coe begins with VE Day in 1945 where the residents of Bournville, a Birmingham village built around the Cadbury chocolate factory, simply known as the Works, are celebrating the end of the war. It’s here that eleven year old Mary lives with her parents Sam and Doll, and over the next seven decades, coinciding with seven memorable events in British history, Coe revisits Mary and her growing family.

The unique structure works well to reflect the national and individual experience of the changes in culture, attitudes, politics, technology and economics. I enjoyed the sojourn through each ‘occasion’ which includes the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953, the World Cup Final between England v. West Germany in 1966, the investiture of Prince Charles in 1969, his wedding to Lady Diana Spencer in 1981, and then the Princess’s tragic death in 1997, ending with 2020, which marks the 75th Anniversary of VE Day, and the start of the CoVid pandemic, but it is the journey of the characters that illustrate their meaning. Coe charts the family’s joys and griefs, triumphs and regrets, gains and losses, creating a history of their own as time marches on.

Written with tenderness, humour, and insight, Bournville evokes life’s ordinary and extraordinary moments. Enjoy with a block of Cadburys chocolate.


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Review: The Sun Walks Down by Fiona McFarlane

Title: The Sun Walks Down

Author: Fiona McFarlane

Published: 5th October 2022, Allen & Unwin

Status: Read October 2022 courtesy Allen & Unwin


My Thoughts:

“This is bloody country for those who aren’t prepared—the weak, the nervous. The true pioneers, true children of the bush, are always masters of themselves.”

After a dust storm passes over the tiny South Australian town of Fairly, six year old Denny Wallace, who was last seen collecting kindling in a dry creek bed behind the family homestead, cannot be found. While Denny’s mother and sisters fret, Denny’s father, Matthew, returns from a long day of sowing turnips in the field, to then set out in to the desert with his hired hand, Billy Rough, to search for his only son. When they fail to find him by first light, word spreads quickly across the region, and the community begins to rally.

Set in 1883, The Sun Walks Down unfolds over a week in September. As each long day passes, McFarlane dips in and out of the lives of those touched, some only peripherally, by Denny’s disappearance exposing anxieties and ambitions, rivalries and friendships, superstitions and secrets, accomplishments and failures. Meanwhile Denny, a sensitive child, wanders across the Flinders Ranges, lost and afraid of the blood red Sun.

Objectively I recognise and appreciate the elements of this story from the evocative imagery, to its thoughtful exploration of themes such as colonisation and dispossession. The characters are portrayed with an unexpected richness given the large cast, and their relationships to one another, and the land, acknowledges the distinctiveness of culture, experience and purpose.

Yet I was unmoved by it all, even the possibilities of poor Denny’s fate. I can’t articulate why I didn’t connect emotionally to the story, because nothing is lacking per se, it just didn’t resonate with me.

Despite my own experience, I do feel The Sun Walks Down has a lot to recommend it so if it appeals, don’t hesitate to pick it up.


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Review: The Manhattan Girls by Gill Paul


Title: The Manhattan Girls: A Novel of Dorothy Parker and her Friends

Author: Gill Paul

Published: 16th August 2022, William Morrow Books

Status: Read August 2022 courtesy William Morrow/Edelweiss



My Thoughts:


“Four things I am wiser to know: idleness, sorrow, a friend and a foe.” -Dorothy Parker

The Manhattan Girls by Gill Paul is based on four well known women of 1920’s New York City; Dorothy Parker, a member of the Algonquin Round Table, a poet and writer known for her sharp wit; Jane Grant, reporter and cofounder of the The New Yorker magazine; broadway actress Winifred Lenihan; and novelist Peggy Leech; and tells the story of the friendship that sustained them during a particular period of their lives.

When the men of the Algonquin Round Table decide to form a Saturday night poker club, Jane Grant suggests some of the women instead meet for Bridge, inviting Dottie, Peggy and Winnie to join her. The game, hosted round robin style, quickly becomes a lifeline for the four women as they exchange confidences, hopes, failures and hardships, and provide each other with encouragement and support when it’s needed.

From what I’m able to tell, Paul draws heavily on public records and other factual sources that inform the characters personality’s and events in the novel. While the line between fact and fiction is blurred, Gill’s portrayal of these women, and their relationships, feels genuine.

Though this is very much a character driven novel as the friends face challenges in their personal and professional lives, Gill touches on several serious issues that affect the women, including sexism, self-harm, domestic violence, sexual assault, abortion, gambling, and alcoholism.

Gill ably conveys the spirit of the Roaring Twenties in New York City, capturing the hedonism among the ‘arts’ crowd, epitomised by the notorious members of the Algonquin Round Table, and the changes in society brought about by the end of WWI, the introduction of Prohibition, and the increasing opportunities for women.

Well-written, I enjoyed The Manhattan Girls as a story that explores friendship, loyalty and ambition, and as a glimpse into the private lives of four women whose influence on the arts lingers a century later.


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Review: Godmersham Park by Gill Hornby


Title: Godmersham Park

Author: Gill Hornby

Published: 23rd June 2022, Century UK

Status: Read July 2022 courtesy Penguin UK/Netgalley


My Thoughts:


The premise of Godmersham Park by Gill Hornby appealed to me in part because of the main character’s connection with Jane Austen. Though little detail is known about their relationship, Anne Sharp and Jane first met during the period that Anne was engaged as a governess at Godmersham Park for Fanny Austen Knight, Jane’s niece, and remained close friends until Jane’s death.

Anne Sharp is 31 years old when she arrives at Godmersham Park, the Kent country estate of Edward and Elizabeth Austen, employed to educate their 12 year old daughter Fanny, the eldest of eight children. Though she has no experience in the position of governess, having until recently been raised in comfort, she is determined to do her best, and serve the Austen family well.

Hornby seamlessly blends history with imagination to tell the story of Anne’s time at Godmersham Park. The people Anne meets, close family and friends of the Austen’s, are real figures, whom the author lists at the beginning of the novel. Many of the events that take place in the story were drawn from Fanny’s preserved childhood diaries or correspondence between family members. The estate itself, said to be the inspiration for Jane Austen’s novel Mansfield Park, still stands today and is depicted on the 2017 Bank of England £10 note.

A refined and intelligent woman, educating Fanny poses no real difficulties for Anne but finding her place within the household proves to be more of a challenge. Anne is often lonely, and though she becomes friendly with regular houseguests Hariott Bridges, the younger sister of Elizabeth, Henry Austen, Edward’s younger brother with whom Anne forms an unwise attachment, and later Jane Austen herself, there is a distance dictated by her position. A sympathetic character given her circumstances and ill-health, I liked Anne well enough, but I didn’t really grow fond of her.

The story moves at a sedate pace as life unfolds at Godmersham Park. It’s a reasonably busy household with so many children, visiting houseguests, and family events, but not a particularly active one, and I felt the story lacked energy. While there are occasional instances of open conflict, most of the drama centres on Anne’s inner emotional turmoil, which I sometimes found overwrought.

Godmersham Park is a pleasant enough novel but I felt the story sacrificed dynamism for historical accuracy. It’s probably best suited for fans interested in its connections to Jane.


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Review: Madwoman by Louise Treger


Title: Madwoman

Author: Louise Treger

Published: 9th June 2022, Bloomsbury Publishing UK

Status: Read June 2022 courtesy Bloomsbury/Netgalley


My Thoughts:

“‘Welcome to Blackwell’s island,’ one of them said. he cleared his throat and spat. ‘once you get in here, you’ll never get out.’”

I fairly leapt at the chance to read Louise Treger’s fictionalised narrative of Elizabeth Cochran who wrote under the pseudonym of Nellie Bly, having always been fascinated by her remarkable story.

Credited as being the world’s first female investigative journalist, in 1887, Nellie had her self committed to the insane asylum on Blackwell’s Island in New York City in order to expose the alleged abuses occurring there.

Treger begins her story in 1870 when Elizabeth is a child living a comfortable life in rural Pennsylvania. The daughter of a judge, ‘Pink’ as she was nicknamed by her family, was encouraged to be curious and learn about a range of subjects, including those generally thought to be unsuitable for women at the time. Inspired by her father  Pink plans to eschew marriage and pursue a career in law, but his untimely death when she is fourteen curtails her ambition.

Sux years later, working in service to help support her family, an editorial in the Pittsburgh Dispatch revives her aspirations, and she convinces the paper to publish a series of articles, adopting the nom de plume, Nellie Bly. The articles are popular but attract controversy from advertisers, and when she is relegated to writing about the arts, Nellie decides to move to New York.

The New York newspapers are uninterested in Nellie’s previous success, women journalists are not welcome on Park Row. Nellie however refuses to accept no for an answer and somewhat recklessly promises Colonel Cockerill, managing editor of The World, an insider’s story on life inside the notorious insane asylum on Blackwell’s Island.

Though I’m quite familiar with Nellie’s stint on Blackwell’s Island, much of Nellie’s past was unknown to me, so I appreciated learning more about her family life and what led her to her career in journalism during a period when women were actively dissuaded from higher education and white collar work. Nellie’s tenacity was admirable, all the more so for the obstacles she faced.

Blackwell’s Island Asylum was a vile institution. While the asylum housed women with genuine mental illnesses, it also served as a convenient way for men to rid themselves of problematic wives, sisters, and mothers.  Once declared insane it was nearly impossible to be declared cured and released. Patients were ill-fed, regularly subjected to torture by the untrained staff, and received very little, if any therapeutic care. Treger ably exposes the cruel treatment and the bleak lives led by the inmates, and the challenges facing Nellie.

Unfortunately, though I find Nellie’s story fascinating and Treger’s details appear accurate, I felt the narrative of Madwoman was simplistic and flat, failing to evoke atmosphere or strong emotion. The third person viewpoint removes the reader from events, I wanted to walk with Nellie, not observing her as a reporter might.

Nellie Bly was a remarkable woman, smart, brave and resourceful, her exposé of Blackwell’s Island Asylum led to important reforms, though the institution was closed seven years later. Madwoman is an avenue to learn more about Nellie Bly and her accomplishments, but lacks Nellie’s passionate spirit.


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Review: Bloomsbury Girls by Natalie Jenner


Title: Bloomsbury Girls (The Jane Austen Society #2)

Author: Natalie Jenner

Published: 17th May 2022, Allison & Busby UK

Status: Read June 2022 courtesy Alison & Busby/Netgalley 


My Thoughts:

Set in a multi-level, century old London bookstore, the charming Bloomsbury Girls features three women, new employee Evelyn Stone (who appeared in The Jane Austen Society), saleswoman Vivien Lowry, and secretary Grace Perkins.

For Evie, a former servant girl and one of the first women to earn a degree from Cambridge, securing a position at Bloomsbury Books is a necessary first step in supporting herself, the second is finding an obscure but valuable title she is sure is languishing somewhere among the stock.

Vivien, still mourning the death of her fiancé in the war, is tired of the manager’s fifty-one rules which dictate how the store is run. and keeps her perpetually subservient to her male colleague, Alec McDonough. An aspiring author, she wants to modernise the store’s rather stale fiction department stock and host regular literary events.

Grace, a mother of two trapped in an unhappy marriage, is supportive of Vivien’s ideas for change, especially as she knows Bloomsbury Books is struggling financially, and she relies on her position to support her family.

There is a strong theme of feminine empowerment through the novel as these three women fight to realise their hopes and ambitions. Chafing at numerous experiences of discrimination and unjust restrictions placed on them simply for being female, they are determined to change things. Vivien is the boldest of the three, sharp and impassioned she openly objects to society’s misogyny. Evie feels just as strongly about being treated unfairly as Vivien, but her rebellion is quieter and more calculated. Grace’s priorities are quite different to those of her single colleagues, but her action to reclaim her agency is arguably the bravest, given the conventions of the time. Each women experiences character growth as the story unfolds and I found all three to be appealing

Despite its strong feminist aspect, romance also has a place in the novel. Evie forms an attachment to Ash Ramaswamy, who manages the store’s science and naturalism floor, which is both awkward and sweet. The relationship that develops between Grace and Bloomsbury Books owner, Jeremy Baskin (the 11th Earl Baskin), is unconventional given the circumstances but also lovely, while Vivien and Alec’s love/hate relationship is quite entertaining.

Jenner touches on other forms of discrimination with incidents relating to class, race, and homosexuality. Ash, for example, is regularly the target of racism which has also affected his career, and the store manager feels the need to hide his long term relationship with the third floor rare book buyer. The author also notes the changing in English society in the wake of WWII.

With Jenner’s descriptive writing, I could easily envision the old-fashioned elegance of Bloomsbury Books. I liked that the chapter headings were drawn from Mr Dutton’s fifty-one store rules. The pace of the novel is quite sedate but the resolution is very satisfying.

I found Bloomsbury Girls to be an engaging historical read, and the cameo’s from noted literary figures such as Daphne Du Maurier, Ellen Doubleday, Peggy Guggenheim, and Noel Coward, are a delightful bonus for booklovers.


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Review: The Surgeon’s Daughter by Audrey Blake


Title: The Surgeons Daughter

Author: Audrey Blake

Published: 10th May 2022, Sourcebooks Landmark

Status: Read June 2022 courtesy Sourcebooks/Netgalley


My Thoughts:

The sequel to The Girl in His Shadow, The Surgeon’s Daughter by Audrey Blake (a nom de plume used by the writing team of Regina Sirius and Jaima Fixsen) follows Eleanora Beady’s move to Italy to study medicine at the University of Bologna, having been refused the opportunity in England.

As the only woman in the class, Nora has few allies among her classmates and professors, but is determined to prove herself in an accelerated program and return to England with her medical license so that she can practice alongside her guardian, Dr Horace Croft, and her paramour, Dr Daniel Gibson. Nora is excited when she finds a mentor in Dr. Magdalena Morenco, whose study of caesarean birth procedures dovetails neatly with Nora’s interest in anaesthesia, though her goal is nearly thwarted by a jealous professor.

Though Nora ultimately returns to London triumphant, she discovers Croft and Gibson are under pressure due to the actions of a vindictive colleague, ill-health, and financial stress. With the viability of their Great Queen Street clinic in question, when Nora is asked by a heavily pregnant Lady Woodbine to perform a caesarean, she is all too aware that failure to save both mother and baby could end not only her own fledgling career, and the careers of those she loves, but also the future of women in medicine.

The Surgeon’s Daughter is a reminder of how primitive surgical treatment was in the mid 19th century, with the survival of patients often due more to good luck than good management. Drawing on medical case studies from the era, Blake offers vivid descriptions of injuries and illnesses, and the often barbaric processes used to treat them. It was difficult to read about children suffocating from Diphtheria, and as someone who gave birth via an emergency caesarean section, the thought of enduring the surgery, and recovery, without anaesthetic and pain management is horrifying, and the only alternatives then available to save mother or child (rarely both), no less so.

Naturally, Blake explores the barriers women faced in pursuit of higher learning in a period when their role in society was very narrowly defined by marriage, and motherhood. Only a handful of European institutions would accept women who wanted to study medicine, and even then they were rarely welcome. Nora’s experience of exclusion, sexism and misogyny was common (and barely improved for a century), and England’s first female doctors all gained their licence to practice from overseas institutions, as they were refused entry in England.

I wanted to understand more about Nora’s student experience though, other than just being a target of misogyny, and perhaps see some character change, or growth. I thought the pace of Nora’s narrative was uneven, and some crucial elements, particularly the period where she was under the tutelage of Moreno, felt underdeveloped. Though I was engaged by the action and tension in Croft and Gibson’s chapters, I also felt that it pulled too much focus from Nora’s story.

As a well researched piece of historical fiction, I found The Surgeon’s Daughter to be interesting and enjoyable.


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Review: The Nurses’ War by Victoria Purman


Title: The Nurses’ War

Author: Victoria Purman

Published: April 2022, HQ Fiction

Status: Read April 2022 courtesy Harlequin Australia



My Thoughts:


Set in the first Australian Auxiliary Hospital established in Britain for the recuperation and rehabilitation for Australian soldiers during WWI, The Nurses’ War by Victoria Purman is an emotional story of service and sacrifice, based on true events.

In 1915, Nurse Cora Barker arrives from South Australia to staff a sixty-bed Australian convalescent hospital at Harefield Park, a country estate offered by Australian heiress and her husband for military use, on the outskirts of London. At age thirty-one Cora is an experienced nurse, eager to serve her country and provide care for the men injured in battle, but nothing has prepared her for the challenges of wartime nursing.

Within days of its opening on June 1st, the hospital was forced to expand its services for soldiers evacuated from the battlefields of Gallipoli, France and Serbia. By mid month the grounds of Harefield Park were home to more than a dozen hastily erected wards to accommodate 360 patients, barely a year later it housed over thousand, while thousands more had passed through its doors, having been discharged from duty due to injury or disease, or recovered and sent back to rejoin the fighting. With sensitivity and compassion, Purman details the daily operation of the hospital as Cora and her fellow nursing staff spend long shifts caring for men, many with gruesome physical injuries and fragile mental health, while contending with their own exhaustion, home sickness, and emotional distress. The determination of the nurses to do everything they can for ‘their boys’ is inspiring, and I loved learning about the ordinary, and extraordinary, work and achievements of the Number 1 AAH and its staff, thanks to Purman’s meticulous research. Three of my four great grandfathers served in the Australian forces during WWI and may well have passed through the hospital. (I’d be interested to know if a patient list exists, I couldn’t find one with a cursory search.)

It’s easy to feel for Cora as the war that was expected to be ‘over by Christmas’ drags on. Though she has support from her fellow nurses, Leonora, Gertie and Fiona, no one could truly be prepared for what was to come, and Purman explores how the Cora was changed by her experiences. It’s a subtle process as Cora gains a clearer understanding of the human costs of war, and lets go of some of the social strictures she was raised with. I really liked Cora’s unexpected relationship with surgeon Captain William Kent, and the support they were able to offer each other.

Introducing the perspective of Jessie Chester allows Purman to explore the effects of the war on the civilians of Britain. A young local seamstress, Jessie is a sweet character who lives with her widowed mother and palsied brother. I thought the development of her character was very well done, as the establishment of the Harefield Hospital brings an unexpected opportunity for romance, and a change of career.

I did feel the pacing was a little off, a casualty in part of the nearly five year timeline I think, and I felt there was some instances of repetition, however these are very minor quibbles that didn’t detract from my satisfaction with the story overall.

I found The Nurses’ War to be a moving, thoughtful and absorbing tribute to the women who served with courage and compassion.


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Review: Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus


Title: Lessons in Chemistry

Author: Bonnie Garmus

Published: 5th April 2022, Doubleday

Status: Read April 2022 courtesy Doubleday/Netgalley UK



My Thoughts:


Elizabeth Zott is a brilliant scientist, but as a woman in the mid 20th century she struggles to be taken seriously. Denied the opportunity for a PhD after stabbing her professor with a pencil, she takes a job as a research assistant at the Hastings Research Institute. Refusing to fetch coffee for her colleagues, or flirt with her boss, Elizabeth finds her career stalled, until an unexpected meeting with the institute’s wonder boy, Calvin Evans.

“When it came to equality, 1952 was a real disappointment.”

Shifting between past and present, Lessons in Chemistry is a lively and thought-provoking story of ambition, love, motherhood, and science, featuring a heroine with an empowering message for women, still relevant today.

“Once a research chemist, Elizabeth Zott was a woman with flawless skin and an unmistakable demeanor of someone who was not average and never would be.”

It’s clear, though never confirmed, that Elizabeth is on the autism spectrum, candid and artless, she’s frustrated by the social conventions that attempt to constrain her both personally and professionally. I found it easy to empathise with her, given the struggle for equality in both spheres lingers, and cheered her refusal to capitulate to expectations.

“Cooking is chemistry….And chemistry is life. Your ability to change everything—including yourself—starts here.”

Though repeatedly thwarted in her career ambitions, largely by men determined to either subjugate or exploit her, Elizabeth will not be denied. Accepting the role as a hostess of an afternoon television cooking show is a rare compromise for the sake of practically, but Elizabeth doesn’t have it in her to adhere to convention, much to the dismay and ire of her immediate boss, and his boss. That her unusual approach strikes a chord with her audience of housewives surprises everyone, except Elizabeth.

“Imagine if all men took women seriously.”

Though Garmus explores a range of serious issues that disproportionately affect women such as workplace harassment, sexual assault, domestic violence, and gender discrimination, her wry humour offsets many of the story’s painful moments. It helps too, that few of the men who treat Elizabeth badly remain unpunished.

“Family is far more than biology.”

I loved the found family Elizabeth attracts. Her relationship with Calvin is a charming surprise, a true connection of soulmates. Elizabeth’s daughter, Madeline, is a delight, as is the equally precocious family dog, Six-Thirty. I quickly warmed to Elizabeth’s across-the-way neighbour, Harriet, her obstetrician and fellow rower, Dr Mason, her stressed out show boss, Walter Pine, and even the disillusioned Reverend Wakely.

“Children, set the table. Your mother needs a moment to herself.”

Lessons in Chemistry is witty, provocative, poignant and uplifting story of a woman who refuses to be anything other than who she is.


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Review: The Diamond Eye by Kate Quinn


Title: The Diamond Eye

Author: Kate Quinn

Published: 29th March 2022, William Morrow

Status: Read April 2022 courtesy William Morrow /Edelweiss



My Thoughts:


Inspired by the remarkable story of World War II Russian sniper known as ‘Lady Death’, The Diamond Eye by Kate Quinn is a fascinating novel of historical fiction.

On the same day that the Germans invade Russia, Mila Pavlichenko (Lyudmila Mikhailovna), a 24 year old PhD student working at the Odessa public library as a senior research assistant enlists in the army. Goaded into completing an Advanced Markmanship course several years earlier by her husband, from whom she’s been separated for several years, she feels compelled to contribute to the protection of her young son, Slavka, who remains in the care of his grandparents. Sent to the Russian front, Mila quickly proves skilled with a rifle, and over the course of the next year, earns the nickname ‘Lady Death’ as a sniper credited with 309 ‘official’ kills of Nazi soldiers.

Unfolding over two timelines, much of the story moves between Mila’s experiences on the frontline, and her time in Washington, 18 months later.

Though The Diamond Eye is a fictionalised account of Mila’s life, in her Author’s Note Quinn explains much of the detail is factual – from Mila’s ‘shotgun’ wedding at age fifteen after being seduced by a much older man, to the friendship she formed with (former) First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt during Mila’s tour of the United States. Drawing from Mila’s official memoir, and other records, Quinn has crafted a rich portrait of the woman that exists beyond the legend of ‘Lady Death’.

I think Quinn ably communicated the chaos and stress of the frontline from Mila’s unique perspective, both as a woman and a sniper. I was engrossed by Mila’s experiences, admiring of her bravery and her commitment to her role, one I could never imagine taking on. There is an extra layer of poignancy too that Quinn did not foresee, given the recent outbreak of war between Russia and Ukraine.

I enjoyed the development of Mila’s relationship with her sniper partner, Kostia, and with the lieutenant, Lyonya, with whom she had an ill-fated romance on the frontlines.   Though Quinn has taken some liberties, both men are based on real people, as are most of the characters she encounters, their names taken from historical record, including her comrades in arms, and her fellow Soviet delegates.

It was after Mila’s fourth near-fatal injury, that she was sent to Washington DC, representing the Soviet Union at an international student conference hosted by (former) First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, tasked with convincing the President to provide assistance to Russia. Despite her reluctance to participate, Mila proved to be a capable, if somewhat controversial, advocate (footage of the real Mila speaking with the US press can be seen on YouTube). It’s in this timeline that Quinn strays most notably from history, concocting an assassin who stalks Mila, planning to frame her for the murder of FDR. To be honest I’m not sure it was necessary, though it does add another level of drama and tension, and speaks to the political landscape of the time.

The Diamond Eye is a compelling narrative, enriched by the blending of fact and fiction, and a reminder of the human face of war.


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