City of Spies by Mara Timon – a young woman in a wartime city balancing on the edge of neutrality

 

Realistically exciting and a thriller which maintains a breathless pace, this is an adventure in wartime Europe which expands on the already fascinating stories of female Special Operations Executive heroines. Elisabeth de Mornay is a woman with an obscure past, a perilous present, and an uncertain future. Operating on several levels Elisabeth herself is trying to work out which identity is most effective in a country which is balancing its alliances between German forces, the allies headed by British interests, and the disparate interests of Russians, Spanish and other nationalities all jostling for space and influence as seen in the large number of refugees in a small country. Elisabeth has discovered the high cost of being an agent in France over some time, as the danger of getting close to people as well as the danger of betrayal has left her determined to survive in any way. This is a brilliantly researched novel which revels in the details of a setting intimately described, the clothes that much of rationed Europe could only dream of, and the food and drink that seems to be little affected by shortages. Going under various guises she must work out who, if anyone, she can trust, when no one is completely as they seem.  This is a well written book which I was so pleased to have the opportunity to read and review. 

 

The book opens with Cecile recalling her time in France as a “pianist” or radio operative. Partly lucky, partly because she is brave and resourceful, she has survived thus far, but one more betrayal has propelled her to seek sanctuary with an older woman even though her very presence is a threat. Her training means that she knows when she is being followed, and what to do in hand to hand combat. She has an incredibly strong need to survive, which keeps her going even when under fire. A chance encounter leads to a whole new set of problems, and means that she turns up in Lisbon in June 1943. Her new setting means a new role with an old contact in a new context, an encounter which exposes several facts about her background. Slipping into the  role of a mysterious French widow who has recently arrived in Lisbon as a refugee from occupied France, she has the house, clothes and identity fabricated for her, but her own preparations means that she goes further to create other disguises in case of need. As she begins to blend in with a society of refugees and transitory residents of a country balancing on the edge of neutrality, the gossip, jealousies and dangers of a confusing place mean that she must constantly adjust her assumptions about those around her.

 

This is a book that is virtually impossible to put down when engaged with the adventures of a remarkable woman. I enjoyed Elisabeth’s story in France as she takes on huge challenges, but it is in Lisbon among a community of potential spies and military from Germany and other enemies that the narrative really comes alive as she must try to double guess everyone who she meets. The setting is beautifully described; the cafes, the parties, the streets and the countryside all come alive in glorious detail. The character of Elisabeth is a wonderful one, as she uses her intelligence and cunning to prepare as much as possible for threats and attempts on her life. A fast moving and enjoyable story with a warmth of personality which is memorable, I thoroughly recommend this remarkable novel. 

I feel really proud to be starting the blog tour for this wonderful book. In the back of the book there is an historical note about the elements of the story as researched by the author, and a question and answer section which gives more details about the writing of the novel. These additional sections are fascinating and well worth a read in their own right.

Madam, Will You Talk? by Mary Stewart – a classic read of fast cars and deceptions from the past

Madam, Will You Talk? : Mary Stewart : 9781444711202

 

A thriller with car chases, people who are not who they seem, and the scenery of southern France dominate this 1955 thriller narrated in the voice of Charity Selbourne. From a hotel in a small town to the streets of a big city, this fast moving and tense classic features a lot of elements that make for an exciting novel. There are questions to be answered amid the ruins and tourist sites which Charity has come to visit, and the descriptions of the settings are so vivid as to make an unknown area truly come alive. Like Stewart’s other classic thrillers which involve murder and mystery, this is a book where the setting, with vivid descriptions of roads, hotels, even rooms, help bring to life a well plotted story. The characters, from a bright and frightened boy to a sophisticated woman are established quickly and effectively. I also enjoy the dialogue, whether full of menace or gently amusing, which is so helpful in establishing the personality of the characters as well as the progress of the story. As always with a Mary Stewart story it is easy to become involved with a well written novel and engaged with a brilliant paced story.

 

“The whole affair began so very quietly” The book opens with two friends, Charity and Louise, arriving and getting established in a small French hotel. Louise is a school teacher, and keen to sit and sketch, whereas Charity is a young widow, enthusiastic about visiting all the tourist spots. She is also the sort of person who enjoys people watching, guessing at nationalities, ways of behaving and so forth. She observes a boy in the courtyard of the hotel, struggling with his dog Rommel, which he has tied on a piece of string. It soon emerges that he is called David, English and apparently troubled. He is bright and articulate, but seems uneasy, especially when she suggests the name Byron when he mentions that his surname is Shelly. His apparent mother is expensively attractive, but disinterested in the boy. The humour of the book emerges in exchanges with Louise, when Charity offers to go to see the Pont du Gard, Louise answers “My dear, I’ve seen the Holborn Viaduct, life can hold no more…” Accordingly she goes alone to the city of Avignon, mindful of the story of a boy whose father was arrested for hitting him and murdering a friend. When she spots David en route she offers to take him and his dog to Avignon. The boy suddenly becomes extremely frightened, and it is when Charity is alone she has an encounter which leaves her bruised and shaken. She chooses to visit a town famous for its ruins, and while there she has a terrifying encounter, which triggers off a chase which covers many miles and discoveries. 

 

This is a book which is full of surprises and plot twists, as secrets from the past clash with deceptions of the present. It is a book which is extremely well plotted, which maintains the reader’s involvement in the small details and the large themes. I found it a great read, which kept my interest right until the very entertaining end. I recommend it as another engaging novel from a superb writer.  

 

I spent an entertaining hour or so sorting out books with my daughter today, as she gathered more of her stuff. She discovered that I had a lot of duplicates of Georgette Heyer books, and I tried to explain that as she published something like fifty novels I may have acquired mote than one copy of some. I am obviously going to have to work out some sort of checklist from Fantastic Fiction or similar if I am going to have to check the missing books! Similarly I am going to have to do something with my Mary Stewart collection – there are eighteen novels in addition to the Arthurian series. I am certainly enjoying discovering and rediscovering both authors’s books – at least until I run out of them!     

Wildfire at Midnight by Mary Stewart – a classic murder mystery thriller set on the Isle of Skye

Wildfire at Midnight by Mary Stewart

 

A thriller and a murder mystery with a strong sense of place; Mary Stewart certainly knew how to plot and pick up the pace into an exciting story as in this novel. Set on the Isle of Skye, with a few geographical changes, the mountains, river side and other features almost become another character in this tautly written story. The weather, with drenching rain and dense mist among other conditions, means that the action is shaped by a lack of visibility or similar difficulties.  Originally published in 1956, this book deals with a mysterious murder in a small community centred around a hotel. Back in London excitement is increasing for the Coronation in 1953, but a group of people have gathered in this distant island for various reasons. The story is narrated by Gianetta, a model from London, who has travelled there after struggling with the long term effects of her divorce from Nicholas. Her arrival provokes discussion of a murder of a young woman some weeks before which was puzzling and seemingly without explanation. As the various guests at the hotel are described, Gianetta wonders just who is guilty, and how to cope with her ex husband’s presence.

 

Gianetta has an exotic ancestor, a notorious mistress and model for artists, for whom she was named. She met and married an older man, Nicholas, but their relationship floundered on his bad behaviour and frequent trips for his writing. Despite the fact that it has been some years since their divorce, her parents are unwilling to accept their separation. As she gets increasingly sad, they suggest that she retreats to the hotel on Skye for a break. When she arrives there, she learns that there is a mystery surrounding Blaven, one of the various local mountains. At the hotel, there is an interesting collection of people, including two couples where the attraction of the place is fishing, various men there for the climbing, and a writer. Two teachers are staying for walking and some climbing. Someone who is not interested in such activities is Marcia Marling, an actress between husbands who is also there for a rest with her chauffeur. She is a deeply unsettling presence for at least one of the wives, and when she seems interested in Nicholas, who has mysteriously turned up, Gianetta is also slightly surprised by her own reaction. When two of the guests go missing, everyone is mobilised to search, and it seems a tragic outcome is probable in Gianetta’s mind.  It seems that  a murderer is among them, and various incidents mean that there is a huge amount of mutual suspicion. Gianetta is not a suspect, but as various potential guilty parties emerge, she feels the oppression of suspicion around her and threatening her own life.

 

This is a brilliantly written thriller with much to recommend it to those who enjoy a good plot, a sense of place, and a closed community murder mystery. The mountains and landscape are so well described that it is almost possible to visualise the cliffs, climbs, bogs and rivers. The cold and wet overrides the fact that it is June, although the fact that it stays light late into the evening is a factor. Gianetta is a vibrant narrator, and the last part of the book is definitely page turning with suspense. I recommend this as a classic mystery thriller written by a writer at the height of her powers, and is still a dramatic classic read today. 

 

It is fascinating to see how this murder mystery is handled by a woman writer in the 1950s. It is not an intellectual puzzle, but a very active detection story.  It maintained my interest!

 

My daughter is still improving with pain killers and rest. We actually managed to get a supermarket delivery slot, so a couple of hours were spent fighting with a list and registration. We await the outcome with interest!

Singapore Killer by Murray Bailey – An Ash Carter thriller set in the country in the 1950s

Singapore Killer by Murray Bailey

 

A thriller in an exotic setting, Ash Carter is the central character in this fast paced and terrifically exciting book of murder and more. As the number of unexplained bodies mounts up, he must try to find out if they are linked, and if they are, what the chilling motive for the deaths are in a time of military activity. The 1950s is a time of unrest, suspicion of military personnel,and of memories of occupation. This is not a time of high tech operations, rather a time of investigating the random incidences of crime affecting small tradesmen though with potentially larger links to bigger time crime. Ash Carter, for those who have not encountered him in previous novels from Murray Bailey, is an ex officer in the Special Investigations Branch of the military police. He has now established himself as an independent investigator dealing with matters brought to his small office. However, he is also brought in unofficially to deal with matters connected with the military presence in the area, contacting those he knew in various units. This is therefore a book of men trying to work out where the best position may be for them, and the petty issues of military life abroad. There are larger issues to consider as well, as potentially lucrative schemes emerge that endanger not only civil order, but also the lives of all those involved. I found this an intriguing and complex read, and was interested to have the opportunity to read and review this book.

 

The book begins with the deliberate crashing of a helicopter. A mysterious man is chained to another man, but manages to bring the aircraft down, before ensuring death and destruction. When Ash and his ex colleague Captain Robshaw begin to investigate the scene, they discover that the modified craft was not just involved in a tragic accident, but that there is evidence of deliberate killing, even the pilot being shot. This is in an area of jungle, and there is uncertainty about what the helicopter was doing there, even who the occupants were.There seems to be more questions to answer, especially when other bodies appear, and the person responsible seems to revel in setting up obscure clues to his identity as “Blackjack”.

 

Alongside this dangerous and potentially explosive trail of death, Ash also deals with requests for help that come to his small office, run efficiently by Madam Chau -receptionist, translator and much more. He has established his small business following some dubious involvement in previous investigations and cases. He keeps his contacts going as he realises that the small cases of suspicious spouses and even lost dogs requires his special knowledge of not only local individuals, but also their links with the military personnel in the area. He knows that a large secret society in the country operating beyond the law will also have an impact on seemingly small disputes. He is drawn further into personal danger by attempting to support a former colleague, when he must go undercover to investigate disappearances.

 

This is a vividly written book which reveals enormous knowledge of a situation beyond ordinary legal and social structures. Written in the voice of Ash, he frequently faces physical danger and discomfort in the pursuit of truth rather than money. There are convincing descriptions of the landscape, roads and much else in the countryside; the author is certainly skilled in conveying a real sense of place as well as suspense. This book operates as a standalone novel in a series, and it is easy to be quickly drawn into a different world of adventure and tension. A sometimes brutal but always honest read, this is a thriller to find much to interest the reader.   

Inceptio by Alison Morton – a thriller fantasy offering a chilling alternative view of life and history

Tough, articulate and determined; human, bewildered and sometimes anxious; Carina Mitelia is a present day hero in an alternative setting. Creating a slightly different world is one thing, staying very firmly this side of fantasy is another achievement. As Karen Brown becomes Carina Mitela, she slips from being advertising executive and volunteer park ranger into a fighter who must survive in her new role, new identity and new country. Full of physical action and subtle cultural hints, this is a novel which creates a new world order in which women rule and have to fix situations, while watching their backs for political tricks. A fascinating tale of the Roman way of life recreated for the twenty first century, this is an adventurously plotted novel in which there are mobile phones and sophisticated surveillance methods, yet the language is Latin. Self confessed “Roman nut” Alison Morton has created this novel as part of a series which pushes the boundaries of expectation, but which essentially revolves around a battle for survival. I soon became immersed in the world of Roma Nova, and I was grateful to be sent a copy of this novel to read and review, the first in the series.

Karen Brown leads a life in New York which is filled partly by her volunteer role as a patrol officer in Kew Park. When she defends an elderly man, an Indigenous, from some teenagers by some clever manoeuvres, she finds herself in trouble. As she briefly mentions in her narrative an alternative history of the United States in which the War of Independence did not happen and the British only left in 1867, the reader begins to appreciate that the subtle differences  in the world order means that the orphaned young woman has a link with Roma Nova. This is a state which is made up of the ruling party of the original Roman Empire, which has survived over many centuries to retain their power via women, who are the hereditary rulers of the successful and now peaceful country. Karen is contacted by Conrad who explains that she has family links in the country, and so begins a tense period where the diplomatic and legal possibilities run alongside brutal attempts on her life. As she battles to survive, she discovers that choices are forced upon her which will mean that she accepts a whole new identity, but that she must still be on guard, and indeed take the offensive if she is to fulfil her new role.

This book for me represents the best sort of fantasy, near enough to real life to be understandable, but offering a new element of a world view to expand and allow new adventures. There is a fair amount of physical violence, and there are times when I wondered if Karen/Carina has nine lives, as she is forced to do battle to survive so many times. This is a firmly female led thriller, and though Karen is more of a victim having to be rescued to begin with, as the book proceeds she becomes her true self as she takes control. A fighter in all senses, the Carina Mitela novels and indeed their predecessors, The Aurelia Mitela adventures, feature strong women in familiar yet challenging circumstances, and I would love to read more of them.

 

This book features the main protagonist learning Latin as a contemporary language, which reminds me of my couple of attempts to at least learn enough to translate the words of choral pieces and similar texts. Maybe when I have written a paper for a conference and submitted a dissertation and such like, I could think of having another go!

Dead Pretty by Candy Denman – a powerful story of crime, medicine and tension

A doctor’s life can be challenging, and this woman faces more challenges than most. For fans of forensic crime investigations, this is a novel which vibrates with the grimness of daily life and the fear of sudden death in a community where the police and medical professionals mainly represented by Dr. Jocasta Hughes make some difficult discoveries. This is a book about a woman who finds the limitations of her ability to cope with the unbearable lives of some of those around her, and meets them with her thoughtful contributions and personal optimism. Hastings is a town of contrast in this novel which is very much of the present day, where the well off move in different circles from those who live on the edge of the law of poverty, crime and fear. The realism of this novel can be sometimes overwhelming, as women who are without hope suffer and even die, and a killer lurks in the shadows. This is a fascinating book, and I was grateful to receive a copy to read and review.

Dr Jo, or Jocasta, Hughes, is a young woman who works as a part time G.P. in a mixed practice where the patients reflect the variety of many urban communities. She is an extremely able doctor, though lives a somewhat lonely single life. She also works as a police surgeon, and as such is called into the police station to deal with those who turn up there with a variety of back stories. Her most challenging role is to arrive first on the scene when a body is discovered, and assess the death for suspicious circumstances. She does not perform all the forensic procedures and unlike television pathologists she does not officially become involved in the detection of crime, despite the fact that she continually encounters the same police officers who she clinically observes. As sudden death seems to be a pattern among young women, especially prostitutes, she begins to fear that the squalid deaths show planning, but finds it difficult to persuade the police that she has possibly gained more understanding of the desperate women who are seemingly being targeted.  She continues with her life of seeking a real relationship, sorting out her domestic life, and spending time with her outrageous friend Kate while coping with her complicated parents.

This is a grim book which spares no details of violent death and the squalid vulnerable nature of some women’s lives. The character of Jo transforms this novel into a very readable book, infusing it with movement and purpose, some humour and style. She has the same hesitations and concerns as many women, and the gritty nature of her work is in contrast with a lifestyle of financial security. It is not a depressing book, but there is a sense of risk or even danger as Jo carefully pushes to find out what is truly going on in this town as she encounters so many people. Denman is an extremely capable writer, constructing a plot full of tension while keeping a consistent view of people in all their variety. I found it a powerful view of contemporary life, vibrant and realistic, a strong novel full of promise.

 

 

Today I have been working on my M.A. dissertation proposal for a tutorial tomorrow. I can never decide if fifteen thousand words sound daunting because it is so much to produce, or a bit of a limitation on a huge subject. I am probably going to focus on some of the heritage sites associated with famous writers; on Friday we got to the Charles Dickens Museum in London. The volunteers were tremendously welcoming, especially as we coped with a temperamental lift which eventually allowed me to see most of this fascinating house. I would recommend a visit if you are in London.

Into the Silent Sea by Claire Stibbe – An American thriller with an Unreliable Narrator

This is a book of obsession. Told in the first person this is the story of a woman who is an unreliable narrator of her own story. She is a hunter, a thinker, a commentator on her own situation in all its gory detail. This is a story that pulls no punches in describing the minute details of her progress; as the tale proceeds the reader is caught up in a campaign of observation, full of the underlying threat of murder. A woman scorned is indeed a dangerous thing, and this is a book full of dark hints that it is only a matter of time before murder is done. This is an intriguing book to review for a blog tour, so I am grateful to receive a copy.

“Clo”, a shortened form of a name which is difficult to find the truth of, discovers that her husband is a having an affair. Moreover, he returns to their home and demands a divorce, with physical violence to emphasise his point. Using her skills as a police forensic photographer and her knowledge of murder investigations, she plans to get her revenge against her husband’ mistress. As this is contemporary America, she has a gun which she knows how to use, and she visits The Hamptons, the beautiful houses which look out onto a stunning beach, to find out how to gain access to her target. She carefully swops cars, parks out of sight, adopts a disguise and views the beach, house and lifestyle of the amazing Marion. While she has carefully worked out all the angles, the use of drugs to calm her excessive anxiety, a lot of caffeine and some alcohol begin to make her more unreliable as a narrator, especially as she is increasingly anxious about her husband and her own welfare. Chillingly, she dyes her hair and has been dieting to make her appearance similar to Marion’s; this is a woman with full knowledge of what she wants to do, but uncertain the best way to do it. She is hampered by a colleague who is intrigued by her situation, and things begin to swirl out of her control as the unexpected and terrifying begin to close in on her.

This is a thriller set in two very different communities in contemporary America, where advanced technology contributes to the oppressive tension of a woman on a mission. Clo’s actions swing from the precise to the inexplicable, as she becomes increasingly desperate and events crowd in on her. I found this book unsettling and sometimes confusing, as the author seemed to find it necessary to repeat certain feelings and actions by the protagonist, though this was probably a device to illustrate her confusion and fear. This is not an easy book to read on many levels, with an uncertain time line, changing characters and a degree of brutality which can be off putting. It does succeed in creating an atmosphere, a sense of place, and a voice for a woman pushed over the edge. This is a frightening book because it is so intense, so vocal in terms of what could and will happen, fearsome because Clo becomes so embroiled in her plans. Undoubtedly a strong book, this is a female led thriller which lingers in the mind.

Yesterday we went to see something very different from the above – the film “Mary Poppins Returns”. Having many happy memories of the original 60s film, and the more recent “Saving Mr Banks”, we were keen to  find out what this new film was like, and we were not disappointed. The acting was superb, the photography very special, and the score quite wonderful. I did feel it was a little long, especially for a younger audience, but it is certainly a worthy sequel to the first film, and i would love to see it again.