Welcome to our weekly un-paywalled Books Digest where we round-up the new books you should, and shouldn’t, be reading. This week features Women in the War by Lucy Fisher, Generations by Bobby Duffy and Wonderworks by Angus Fletcher.

For more books take a look through our Books Digest Archive.

Women in the War by Lucy Fisher (HarperCollins), £20.

Mark Fox

We are all familiar with the films, many of them established and enduring favourites. Our heroes are storming/evacuating from a beach head in the face of hail and gunfire, dropping an improbable bomb on a vital damn, combatting the sea at its cruellest whilst tracking a u-boat at its stealthiest. Often these great battles are given to us in black and white, occasionally in colour. Britain is battled over, the River Plate is the scene of the first British success of the war, and we travel the road to Arnhem undecided whether it was just one bridge too far or a visionary strategic ambition. 

Richard Todd, Jack Hawkins, John Gregson, Richard Burton, Michael Caine, Edward Fox, and many others give performances that stir the heart and tingle our pride in the service and sacrifice of that Greatest Generation. This version of the history of that time is predominantly male. Lucy Fisher, in her new book Women In The War, prompts us to broaden our view.

I grew up knowing all four of my grandparents well. Both grandmothers played their parts actively in war work, one supporting the Royal Navy, the other helping with fire watching on the London Docks, so I have always been aware that there were more stories to be told in addition to the ones we know so well. Lucy Fisher tells the story of ten women, still living, who played a full part in Britain’s great Second World War effort.

Women had fulfilled vital roles in the First World War, so it should be no surprise that they played an even greater role in the war effort the second time around. 

The roles chronicled here are varied and critical: From nursing, land work, secretary work, radar and wireless operation, to pilot, plotter and code breaker. Fisher presents us with a rounded portrait of each person. It is clear she has established a relationship of trust and respect for each of her subjects, and the result is a series of interesting and profoundly moving individual accounts. These accounts are enriched with the personal reflections given on how their experiences shaped their personal and professional lives. It could be said that nearly eighty years after the end of the war, these stories are long overdue to be told, and this is true, but the perspective that the passage of time provides add a valuable additional aspect to these stories.

For every one of the accounts told here, there will be thousands of women whose stories will never be heard. This book stands as an enduring and worthy representation of and tribute to these largely unsung heroes.

Generations: Does When You’re Born Shape Who You Are? by Bobby Duffy (Atlantic Books), £20.

Alice Crossley

“Baby Boomers are selfish sociopaths, while Millennials are narcissistic snowflakes,” this is a judgement we have heard repeated endlessly in newspaper headlines and culture war debates. “But is any of it true?” asks Professor Bobby Duffy in his new book Generations: Does When You’re Born Shape Who You Are?. Duffy uses meticulously researched data to defy the stereotypes around the significance of generational grouping. 

Instead, he looks at three key explanations for changes in attitudes, beliefs and behaviours; period effects (society-wide after a major event e.g. a pandemic), lifecycle effects (changing as you age or after a significant life event, e.g. having children) and cohort effects (what we commonly understand as generational views – caused by being socialised in different conditions). Change in belief and behaviours can almost always be due to one – or a combination – of these effects, rendering assumptions on thoughts or behaviour based on generations alone is fairly unhelpful.

Duffy uses over fifty graphs to break down common misconceptions and emphasises that “country before cohort” is more often than not true; where you are born often remains more critical than when. The book covers housing, happiness, health, sex, education, marriage, reproduction, climate change and more, with the more sobering part of the book, for a millennial reader, focusing on the housing crisis. 

“Over 1 million more young adults were living at home in the UK in 2019 than in 1999,” Duffy explains, but this is not, as so many have suggested, due to our generational spending impulses on coffee and avocados, but the “interaction between these policies and changing economic circumstances. “It would have taken an average family headed by a 27 to 30-year-old just three years to save for an average-size deposit in the 1980s,” he writes, “by 2016, this has ballooned to 19 years, partly the result of increased house prices but also stricter lending rules.” I would hardly say this is a problem solvable by cutting down on guacamole.

Wonderworks: Literary invention and the science of stories by Angus Fletcher (Swift Press), £20.

Lily Pagano

What is brought to mind by the word “literature”? Grand and echoing library halls, dusty books filled to the brim with tongue-tying text or perhaps a childish feeling of dread at the thought of an English class. Not for Angus Fletcher. The author presents us with a unique and radical take on storytelling, introducing us to the social roots of literature and the concept of storytelling as a technology. Pulling inspiration from opposite ends of the historical spectrum, Fletcher reaches deep into the social history of literature and modern neuroscience – weaving a unique fabric between the two. 

We venture down neural pathways, from one pocket of the brain to the next, learning about the therapeutic role of literature and its use for comforting the “curious minds” of humanity as we attempt to navigate our world. Literature is presented as an ongoing experiment, a technological feat of engineering as much as a projection of the human heart and psyche. Wonderworks offers a reframing of our “ancestors’ blueprints” and shows us why those dusty library books really do matter.