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My Progress:

13 / 30 books. 43% done!

2024 Literary Escapes Challenge

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35 / 51 states. 69% done!

2024 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge

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29 / 50 books. 58% done!

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Booklist Queen's 2024 Reading Challenge

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17 / 26.2 miles (2nd lap). 65% done!

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30 / 100 books. 30% done!

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74 / 104 books. 71% done!

Around the Year in 52 Books Reading Challenge

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50 / 52 books. 96% done!

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84 / 165 books. 51% done!
Thursday, April 28, 2022

Despite Explosive Subject Matter, The Atomic City Girls is a Slow, Lackluster Slog

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

After her fiancé is killed in the war, 18-year-old June Walker is at loose ends. Wanting to do her bit to help her country, she joins her older sister in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where a crowd of young women are descending to work at mysterious jobs they're not allowed to talk about. The bustling town—which has suddenly sprung up out of nowhere—is dominated by secrecy and security. Inside its borders, though, Oak Ridge is lively with people bustling in and out of factories, canteens, bowling alleys, movie theaters, and dance halls. June's job as an operator of a big, boring machine is mind-numbingly dull, but her life is more meaningful now than it's ever been. Even though she's not allowed to ask questions about what she's actually doing, she's convinced her role in Oak Ridge—not just as a worker but also as a morale booster for all the young men stationed there—is important.  

Dr. Sam Cantor, a 30-year-old engineer from New York, is charmed by June's country girl naiveté. Sam is one of the few people in Oak Ridge who knows what The Manhattan Project is. As his frowned-upon relationship with the younger woman blooms, it becomes increasingly difficult to keep the secrets he's promised to protect from leakng out. 

Cici Roberts, June's bombshell roommate, is disgusted by the growing closeness between June and Sam, even though she spends her every waking hour trying to snag a rich husband for herself. Desperate to pass as a sophisticated socialite instead of what she truly is, Cici will do anything to keep her own secrets hidden.

Joe Brewer knows that he and his fellow Negro workers are not treated the same as their white counterparts in Oak Ridge. Still, he needs his wages to send back to his wife and children in Alabama. That requires working hard and keeping his head down, keeping far away from the trouble that's brewing in the colored quarters.  

When Hiroshima is bombed and the shocking truth about the true purpose of Oak Ridge is revealed, everyone in the secret city will be left to grapple with their own morality in the wake of the horrifying destruction they've helped to bring about. The lives of June, Sam, Cici, and Joe will be forever changed because of it. 

I've never read anything about The Manhattan Project, so I thought The Atomic City Girls by Janet Beard would be an interesting read. And it is, at least in the sense that it gives readers an idea of what Oak Ridge, Tennessee, was and what living there must have been like. Enhanced with historical photographs from the the city's heyday, the book's setting definitely comes alive. Beyond that, though, it is...not exciting. The novel has no plot, which makes it an episodic slog that meanders here and there without really going anywhere. Although I like that the author uses different focus characters to show different aspects of life in Oak Ridge, the four Beard has created are either bland or downright unpalatable. June and Joe fall into the first category, with Sam and Cici in the other. June and Joe are both sympathetic and kind, but they're cardboard cutouts with no real personality or depth. Sam is a broody jerk who takes advantage of a vulnerable young woman for his own lustful desires. Cici is a self-centered snob who only cares about tricking a wealthy man into taking care of her. Ugh. I was rooting for June and Joe (even though neither felt at all real to me), but I despised both Sam and Cici. Beard's simplistic, lackluster prose does not help matters, combining with the novel's other problems to make it even less appealing. Considering all this, you may be asking, "So, why on earth did you keep reading The Atomic City Girls?" Honestly, I'm not sure. It fulfilled a few reading challenge prompts and it's a fast, mindless read. In the end, though, I found it almost wholly unsatisfying. It's boring, depressing, and just meh all around. 

(Readalikes: I've heard that The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II by Denise Kiernan is a much better book on the same subject.)


If this were a movie, it would be rated:

 or possibly R
for language (no F-bombs), violence, and sexual content

To the FTC, with love: I bought a copy of The Atomic City Girls with a portion of the millions I make from my lucrative career as a book blogger. Ha ha. 


  1. Oof. Like you, I'm intrigued by the subject, but the characters and writing itself don't inspire as much confidence.

    1. Yeah, both were really disappointing because the book's subject matter really is interesting. It COULD have been a great story.

  2. Boring and depressing, not for me. I find that for historical novels, it really has to be well written in order to hold my attention.

    1. Same. It's not enough to have an intriguing background subject. I want complex characters, a compelling plot, and engaging prose. That's not too much to ask for, is it??

  3. For another look at the same subject, you might like The Green Glass Sea, but skip The Wives of Los Alamos.

    1. Oooh, okay. I've never heard of THE GREEN GLASS SEA, so I'll definitely check that one out. Funny enough, I actually started reading THE WIVES OF LOS ALAMOS at one point, but the story didn't grab me so I put it down. Sounds like that was a good choice. Thanks for the rec, T!

  4. I didn't enjoy this one either. Lackluster is a really good word for it.

    1. Yeah, it was just super bland all around. Ugh.

  5. Yeah, this doesn't sound all that fun or exciting. :( I'm sorry you didn't like it.

    1. No, it really isn't, which is too bad because the story had potential.

  6. I really liked this one, but I listened to the audio, so maybe that helped. Also recommend The Green Glass Sea by Klagas. It’s a YA book.

    1. Interesting. Maybe I should have tried the audio.

      Sounds like THE GREEN GLASS SEA is a winner. I'm going to see if my library has it.

  7. This looks really great, too bad it wasn't as good as could have hoped.

    Ash @ Essentially Ash

    1. Right? It's so sad when a book has lots of potential to be really great and it just...isn't. I hate that!

  8. The elements of this one, taken singly, have so much going for them. Sounds like the recipe was a flop, though. Thanks for the warning because I would have been tempted by this one. Little do I hate more in a novel than cardboard characters with no life to them. Can't identify with them at all if they don't come to life for me.

    1. Exactly. This book had lots of potential, but it didn't live up to it at all. Not for me, anyway.

  9. I liked this one more than you did and just looked at my blog where I gave it a 4.5/5. BUT, I don't remember much about it.

    1. Ha ha. I can't tell you the number of times I've looked at a book and thought, "Hm. Have I read this?" Then, I look it up on my blog and discover not only that I have read it but also that I loved it and gave it a high rating! And then somehow just totally blanked on it.I guess that's what happens when we read so many books. It's just not possible to remember them all. Either that or I am just SUPER old and my memory ain't what it used to be...

      I'm glad you enjoyed THE ATOMIC CITY GIRLS. I really wanted to like it, but I just...didn't. Oh well. Different strokes for different folks and all that.

  10. I read/reviewed this one when it came out. Your "grade" was accurate though I did enjoy it.

    1. I'm glad you enjoyed it, overall. I'm not sure I can say that, but I did finish the book so that's saying something. If I had absolutely hated it, I would have DNF'd it, you know?


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