A capable, readable look at a little-known corner of history.




The war in Europe takes to the skies—on the wings of birds.

Courier pigeons are the stuff of World War I set pieces, but they were still useful two decades later. As BBC security correspondent Corera (Cyberspies: The Secret History of Surveillance, Hacking, and Digital Espionage, 2016, etc.) writes, “in 2011, Chinese state media announced that a special unit of the People’s Liberation Army was training pigeons to conduct ‘special military missions.’" In this lively story, the author focuses closely on a British operation called Operation Columba, which seeded mostly rural areas of occupied Western Europe with more than 16,000 homing pigeons. Some of the birds returned to British hands with accounts of life under Nazi rule, while others brought more substantial news of gun positions, troop movements, and the like. One principal was a chaplain to Belgium’s King Leopold, organizing a cell of pigeon fanciers dubbed Leopold Vindictive that caused the Nazis fits. Corera is a touch too generous with the details of just how the birds did their work; one page he devotes to a pigeon’s transit could be distilled to a couple of sentences. Still, there’s undeniable drama in these pages, not just for the birds, the targets for German snipers’ rifles and hungry hawks alike, but also for the groups of Resistance fighters who took part in Columba and, through the diligence of Belgian collaborators and Nazi officials (among them was a lawyer who “had been instrumental in taking National Socialist ideology and expressing it in the form of laws and decrees”), sometimes paid with their lives. Among the highlights of the narrative are Winston Churchill’s personal intervention in the program and the author’s good-natured, sometimes-wry approach to the material: “If the Nazis came through your door,” he writes, “you might be able to explain away a pigeon but not a radio transmitter." Throughout, he offers reminders of how dangerous the enterprise was and how difficult the odds were: Of those 16,000 birds, only 10 percent survived.

A capable, readable look at a little-known corner of history.

Pub Date: Oct. 16, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-06-266707-6

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Morrow/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: July 31, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2018

Did you like this book?

No Comments Yet

The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the...


Elie Wiesel spent his early years in a small Transylvanian town as one of four children. 

He was the only one of the family to survive what Francois Maurois, in his introduction, calls the "human holocaust" of the persecution of the Jews, which began with the restrictions, the singularization of the yellow star, the enclosure within the ghetto, and went on to the mass deportations to the ovens of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. There are unforgettable and horrifying scenes here in this spare and sombre memoir of this experience of the hanging of a child, of his first farewell with his father who leaves him an inheritance of a knife and a spoon, and of his last goodbye at Buchenwald his father's corpse is already cold let alone the long months of survival under unconscionable conditions. 

The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the sphere of suffering shared, and in this case extended to the death march itself, there is no spiritual or emotional legacy here to offset any reader reluctance.

Pub Date: Jan. 16, 2006

ISBN: 0374500010

Page Count: 120

Publisher: Hill & Wang

Review Posted Online: Oct. 7, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2006

Did you like this book?

No Comments Yet

Bibliophiles will love this fact-filled, bookish journey.


An engaging, casual history of librarians and libraries and a famous one that burned down.

In her latest, New Yorker staff writer Orlean (Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend, 2011, etc.) seeks to “tell about a place I love that doesn’t belong to me but feels like it is mine.” It’s the story of the Los Angeles Public Library, poet Charles Bukowski’s “wondrous place,” and what happened to it on April 29, 1986: It burned down. The fire raged “for more than seven hours and reached temperatures of 2000 degrees…more than one million books were burned or damaged.” Though nobody was killed, 22 people were injured, and it took more than 3 million gallons of water to put it out. One of the firefighters on the scene said, “We thought we were looking at the bowels of hell….It was surreal.” Besides telling the story of the historic library and its destruction, the author recounts the intense arson investigation and provides an in-depth biography of the troubled young man who was arrested for starting it, actor Harry Peak. Orlean reminds us that library fires have been around since the Library of Alexandria; during World War II, “the Nazis alone destroyed an estimated hundred million books.” She continues, “destroying a culture’s books is sentencing it to something worse than death: It is sentencing it to seem as if it never happened.” The author also examines the library’s important role in the city since 1872 and the construction of the historic Goodhue Building in 1926. Orlean visited the current library and talked to many of the librarians, learning about their jobs and responsibilities, how libraries were a “solace in the Depression,” and the ongoing problems librarians face dealing with the homeless. The author speculates about Peak’s guilt but remains “confounded.” Maybe it was just an accident after all.

Bibliophiles will love this fact-filled, bookish journey.

Pub Date: Oct. 16, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-4767-4018-8

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: July 2, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2018

Did you like this book?