Book Review – Night Witches

  • Title: Night Witches A Novel of World War II
  • Author: Kathryn Lasky
  • Date Reviewed on GoodReads: 08/12/2019

**Spoiler Alert** I ordered Night Witches from Amazon after reading about the all-female Russian combat pilot group that fought in World War II. I didn’t realize before ordering it that it was a Young Adult novel, but that is on me, and it made for a quick read. Valya and her sister, Tatyana, learned how to fly at a young age – their father was an air force flight trainer before he disappeared – a victim of Russia’s internal politics. When Stalingrad is blockaded by the German Nazis, Tatyana joins the Night Witches immediately. Valya wants to join too, but at 16, her mother thinks she is too young. During the siege of Stalingrad, first, her grandmother and then her mother are killed. After her mother’s death, Valya leaves the apartment that has been largely leveled, to join the Night Witches. She receives some help from a Russian sniper that took shelter in her flat the night of her mother’s death.

Valya tries to get out of the city to join the Night Witches at their hidden base camp. It’s not an easy journey and for several months she is forced to join a big gun trench. There she loads the guns with huge shells and helps turn the wheels to lower or raise the gun. Valya proves to be very good at shooting tanks and blowing them up. She eventually tries to get to the river to join a ferry that is trying to escape. She is unable to get on the crowded ferry and thus survives when the ferry sinks.

However, eventually, thanks to her excellent work in the trenches, she is given a pass to join the Night Witches. At the staging area, the higher-ups argue about how to physically get her to the base camp. Valya borrows a plane and flies herself there.

At the camp, Valya is first assigned to the maintenance and turn-around crew. She’s disappointed but makes the best of it. Finding the unorganized running to and fro of the crew to be inefficient, Valya comes up with a better way. Her immediate supervisor dismisses the idea – but another woman recognizes a good idea when she hears it and implements it immediately anyway. The new assembly-line type plan, where women work specific jobs instead of running all over greatly improves efficiency. Valya is promoted to navigator.

Valya flies several missions as a navigator, telling her pilot where to fly and dropping bombs on the Germans. In one mission, her friend and pilot is shot – Valya takes over the plane and lands it, despite the damage – but her friend is dead. Valya is promoted to pilot and becomes close friends with her navigator, Galya. On one mission, Valya turns and sees her close friend, Galya, missing from the plane. Fortunately, though, she is found and rescued by other pilots. Valya and her sister, Tatyana also are rivals, until Tatyana disappears on a mission.

The novel briefly summarizes the real history surrounding the siege of Stalingrad, and after the city is freed, the Night Witches become a more general combat unit, but also drop vital supplies to Russian troops. Valya and Galya are on another mission when they are shot down.

When Valya wakes up, she finds herself in a Ukrainian house, being cared for by a strange woman. This woman tells her that her navigator didn’t make it. Valya gradually starts to figure out the issue with the woman – she’s part of the anti-Russian Ukrainian Resistance. Valya also knows that Stalin has decided that all POWs are traitors and ordered them to be killed as enemies of Russia. Valya is stuck between the devil and the deep blue sea – even if she’s “rescued” she’ll be killed. Eventually, though, she is rescued by Galya and a small taskforce. Her commander arranges a suitable story to keep Valya alive. When the sniper from earlier in the story tells that same commander he’s seen Valya’s sister in a German POW camp the soldiers are about to liberate, the commander comes up with a plan. Valya, Galya, and a small group are able to rescue Tatyana when she is being moved between locations. Again, the helpful commander prevents Tatyana from being killed as a traitor for getting captured.

The war ends and Tatyana and Valya are given medals by Stalin for their accomplishments as Night Witches.

I liked this book a lot. It’s a Young Adult book, so the horrors of war are downplayed, but the author doesn’t downplay the realities of war so much as to make it sound exciting or in any way a “good thing”. It’s horrible – but Valya is doing her part because it’s necessary. Valya is also interested in the sniper she meets the night her mother is killed, but this isn’t a young adult romance. Valya is frankly too busy to think about boys. The night flying scenes are actually a little vague, but the history of World War II, especially all the details of the Siege of Stalingrad are extremely well integrated into the story. The real history impacts the fictional characters. I also liked Valya, even though, upon reflection, she’s a bit of a Mary Sue. Still, while reading the book the impression is more that Valya is lucky and determined, rather than boringly perfect. I highly recommend this book, especially for pre-teen and teenaged girls.

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Book Review – The Man Who Died Laughing

  • Title: The Man Who Died Laughing
  • Author: Tarquin Hall
  • Date Reviewed on GoodReads: 08/10/2019

**Spoiler Alert** Set in post-colonial India, The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing features a private detective named Vish Puri and his friends and employees. One of the things I didn’t like about the book though is Vish’s employees don’t have real names – they have titles based on what they do. For example, his driver is called, “Handbrake”, his tea boy, “Door Stop”, his undercover operative is “Facecream” and his assistant operative is “Tubelight”. I really dislike this kind of laziness on the part of the writer – at least give your characters names. And if the author thought the reader wouldn’t be able to handle the “exotic Indian names” that’s extremely patronizing.

The story begins with Dr. Suresh Jha taking his early morning walk in a private, upper-class New Delhi neighborhood. He reaches the Laughing Club, a semi-spiritual group that practices morning laughter as a way of relaxing and even seeing the lighter side of life. The group is outside. Dr. Jha joins the group. But after a round or two of laughter, there is a flash of smoke, the members seem frozen in their tracks and the Hindu goddess Kali appears. After this remarkable occurrence, Dr. Jhu is found dead on the ground, stabbed.

Vish Puri had been a friend of Dr. Jhu, a famous debunker of spiritualism, and India “magic” and miracles. Although Vish didn’t agree with everything the “logical” Dr. Jhu claimed (Vish was Hindu) they were still friends, so Vish immediately becomes involved in the investigation. Dr. Jhu had been investigating Maharaj Swami a famous spiritualist who ran an ashram on the Ganges in the city of Haridwar. Dr. Jhu was trying to debunk Swami’s levitation act and communication with spirits and other spiritual “miracles”. He was also trying to get someone from the police to investigate the death of a teenaged girl at Swami’s ashram.

Vish Puri and his friends investigate – interviewing the police, friends of Dr. Jhu, and even India magicians to learn more about how tricks are done. Facecream is sent undercover to the ashram, where she is drugged, sees a “vision”, and is brought for a private audience with Swami. She talks with the dead girl’s roommates at the ashram and learns more about the suspicious death. Eventually, she searches the underground tunnels and office of Swami and finds evidence of how the ghostly vision is created on stage (they really do it with mirrors) and evidence of impropriety between Swami and the young women at the ashram. She’s unfortunately caught but then rescued by Tubelight and company.

Meanwhile, Vish eventually figures out that Dr. Jhu had faked his death and was planning on revealing how it was done on national Indian television. He was hoping such a grand gesture would make strides for logic over spiritualism in India. But as Vish goes to the place where Dr. Jhu is hiding out, he hears sounds of a fight and gunshots. By the time he, his crew, and the police get inside both Dr. Jhu and his partner have been murdered – for real this time.

However, the case against Swami – including how he drugged visitors to his ashram, and the sexual improprieties against young women come to light and he is arrested. He is also involved in “creative accounting”.

The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing was a different book – but I found the broken English of the main characters a poor choice. I also didn’t like the job descriptions for names. There’s a great impression of what life in the largest city in India is like. However, the book also has a condescending, patronizing, imperial side to it – as if the British author suggested India wasn’t capable of self-rule after the British left. For the most part, politics are left alone – yet bribes, corruption, and graft are common. One of Vish’s clients even has to pay a bribe to get his children into a good school. Yet, despite their lack of names, the characters are interesting. I liked the short internal case of Vish’s wife and mother-in-law solving, by themselves, the robbery of their “kitty party” (a sort of women’s group with guest speakers and monthly lotto). This book would have been improved greatly if it had been written more from a genuine Indian point of view rather than a condescending British one. Thus I can only give it the so-so rating of 3 out of 5 stars, and not wholeheartedly recommend it. I will say that if you keep in mind the author’s obvious prejudices it’s not completely horrible.