Another outing with Bookouture‘s Books-on-tour today, and I’m delighted to be sharing my review of A Letter from Pearl Harbor by Anna Stuart: it’s now available via Amazon for kindle and in paperback, and also via Apple, for Kobo and through Google. It’s also available as an audiobook via Audible in the UK and US – you can listen to a sample here. My thanks to Bookouture for inviting me to join the tour and for my advance reading e-copy (provided via netgalley), and to Sarah Hardy for her ongoing support.
I’m really a bit of a fan of Anna Stuart’s writing. I remember thoroughly enjoying the wonderful Bonnie and Stan (you’ll find my review here), which I had no hesitation in including in my Books of the Year list in 2019. And then there was Four Minutes to Save a Life (review here) – I loved that one too, and yes, another place in my 2020 Books of the Year list. You might already know that Anna has also written many historical novels as Joanna Courtney – and she fairly recently released a lockdown love story, Just the Two of Us, writing as Jo Wilde. But I really love the direction her writing has taken since her move to Bookouture – first with the moving and compelling The Berlin Zookeeper (review here), and then the totally engrossing The Secret Diary (you’ll find my review here). And now we have another – and you’ll know how I can never resist “heartbreaking and unforgettable”…
Ninety-eight-year-old Ginny McAllister’s last wish is for her granddaughter to complete a treasure hunt containing clues to her past. Clues that reveal her life as one of the first female pilots at Pearl Harbor, and a devastating World War Two secret.
1941, Pearl Harbor: On the morning of December 7th, Ginny is flying her little yellow plane above the sparkling seas when she spots an unknown aircraft closing in on her. She recognises the red symbol of the Japanese fighter planes almost too late. Somehow, she manages to land unscathed but the choices she is forced to make in the terrible hours that follow have tragic consequences…
2019, Pearl Harbor: Heartbroken Robyn Harris is reeling from the death of the strong, determined grandmother who raised her. Her only comfort is a letter written in Ginny’s distinctive hand which details a treasure hunt, just like the ones she used to set for her as a little girl. Except this time, the clues are scattered across the beautiful island of Hawaii. Despite her grief, Robyn finds herself intrigued as she follows the trail of letters, revealing the truth about Ginny’s service during the Second World War.
But Robyn’s whole world is turned upside down when she’s faced with a shocking secret which has the power to change the course of her own life…
Inspired by true events, this is a heartbreaking and unforgettable WW2 novel about love, loss and bravery. Perfect for fans of The Alice Network, The Nightingale and Kathryn Hughes.
Anna Stuart is carving herself out something of a niche with these stories set against a vividly drawn wartime background – and, for as long as she does so, I’ll be extremely happy to read them. She tells a wonderful story, basing the imagined lives of her characters against the well-researched facts about the real events, balancing them with a strong and involving present day story – I raced through this one, and must say I enjoyed every moment.
In the present day, Robyn returns from Hawaii to her childhood home in England just before the death of her much loved grandmother Ginny, who still has a story to tell. When she was bringing up Robyn and her sister Ashleigh, she often set up treasure hunts as a distraction from their many squabbles – and she’s left a trail of clues for them to follow after her death to uncover the story of her life and the deep secrets she was unable to tell. It takes them both back to Hawaii, discovering her history through a series of letters hidden in boxes deposited in various locations significant in her wartime experiences – and while their journey allows them to discover some of the difficult truths about her life, it also offers an opportunity to mend their own relationship and to move beyond some of the significant issues that have held them back.
We first come across Ginny in Honolulu at the approach of Christmas in 1941 – dancing and drinking Mai Tais overlooking the beach at Waikiki, the war seems a long way away, and it seems the parties will never end. She’s a talented pilot, part of the civilian pilot training programme, having followed her aviator brother Jack to the islands for the opportunity to use her skills in a way she was unable to at home in Tennessee. The Pearl Harbor attack is something everyone knows about as the event that brought America into the Second World War, but (like Robyn and Ashleigh) I knew shamefully little about the detail – Ginny finds herself right in the middle of it, the whole series of events very vividly described, along with the sheer scale of the tremendous losses, and their deep personal impact.
This was a book where I kept saying “I never knew…” – later, Ginny finds herself in England, flying for the Air Transport Auxiliary, the US having been considerably more reluctant to use the skills of their female pilots. But there are some deeply personal stories too – there’s a gentle love story, but also her friendship and flying partnership with native Hawaiian friend Lili, and the moment of sheer madness that changed both their lives.
The present day story has a strong focus on the issues surrounding disability – its perceived limitations, the associated frustrations, the possibilities that still exist with the courage to grasp them – and that theme is nicely mirrored in both story lines, and particularly sensitively handled. I think I should mention too that there’s a sporting theme to the present day story, which isn’t often a personal favourite – Robyn is an accomplished hurdler, and Ashleigh was an equally driven cyclist before her life saw dramatic changes – but it works very well in the context of the women’s personal stories.
The characters in this book are particularly strong – I really enjoyed Ginny’s voice in the letters she left behind and the memories of her granddaughters, and her strong personality certainly drives the unfolding of the wartime story with a particularly strong emotional touch. The relationship between Robyn and Ashleigh is extremely well-drawn too – at first edgy and uncomfortable, but strengthening as the story progresses. The writing really is quite excellent, and the story-telling particularly compelling – I was entirely transported to the locations and dramatic events of the wartime story, but felt no wrench at all when returning to the lives of the sisters as their quest continued. And, as always, I really enjoyed the notes at the book’s end where the author sets out the detail of her research – quite fascinating, and lots more “I never knew…” moments, particularly the detailed history of female pilots and about the failures of intelligence to predict the approach of the attack.
I really loved this one – the strong women I took to my heart, the treasure hunt itself with its intriguing twists and turns, the locations, the whole historical setting, and a story that I found quite enthralling and so well told. Highly recommended by me.
About the author
Anna Stuart lives in Derbyshire with her campervan-mad husband, two hungry teenagers and a slightly loopy dog. She was hooked on books from the moment she first opened one in her cot, so is thrilled to now have several of her own to her name. Having studied English literature at Cambridge University, she took an enjoyable temporary trip into the ‘real world’ as a factory planner, before returning to her first love and becoming an author. History has also always fascinated her. Living in an old house with a stone fireplace, she often wonders who sat around it before her and is intrigued by how actively the past is woven into the present, something she likes to explore in her novels.
Anna loves the way that writing lets her ‘try on’ so many different lives, but her favourite part of the job is undoubtedly hearing from readers. You can reach her on Facebook or Twitter, and she also has a website.