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.

The Sterling Directive by Tim Standish – A Victorian fantasy of Action, Mystery and Machines

 

A thriller, a fantasy, historical fiction and mystery, this innovative book combines many elements to make a exciting, tense and really enjoyable book. A man emerges from an exile in military service in Canada in Victorian London, but this is a very different world from what could be expected in a normal historical fiction novel. The technology is very different in this carefully constructed world. Airships are ubiquitous, transport far from just horse drawn carriages, but there are also engine computers, with a primitive internet and communication facilities. Thus Charles is launched into a world of slippery identities, instant communication and records of people’s lives called berties. Meeting a new group of people, given a new role, he must pursue a new identity and a directive to investigate the notorious murders attributed to Jack the Ripper. This is an intriguing and exciting book, which contains action scenes and memorable characters, is a tense and engaging read. I was pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this unique book on the edge of fantasy. 

 

The book begins with a duel and a death, as Charles returns to Britain after an exile of some eight years. All is far from well, and he is soon arrested before he can discover the truth of a crime which he struggles to remember. Condemned to a cell without hope, he is suddenly released and introduced to an organisation that he struggles to understand. Meeting new colleagues is one thing; he is also introduced to the mysterious Milady, who sets out his lack of options. Adopting a disguise and a fake fiance, he goes on a tour of parts of London associated with the Ripper, and gets a lead for further investigation. Partnered by the laconic Church, they have to survive more than one attack which are extremely well written. As a technical back up back at base Charles meets Patience, who manages the computer system, discovering people, creating false messages and more. A memorable character in many ways, she provides an extra dimensional to a story with real vibrancy and depth. There are careful descriptions of weapons and technological innovations that are on the edge of reality even now. The presence of innovation combined with an investigation which tests everyone in the service makes for an irresistible read. 

 

At the beginning of this novel it seemed a lot to assimilate, as even a working knowledge of Victorian history did not seem to prepare me for reading this book. I need not have been concerned. It is funny, exciting and gives a real insight into Charles’ motivation as we observe the challenges he faces through his eyes, as he narrates the novel. His resourcefulness comes in part from his military experience on the edge of Empire in Canada, as a Civil war continues across the states of America, and partly through his maverick view of life. This book artfully plays with history, historical technology and humanity to great effect; it is a book which appeals on many levels as being fast moving, thrilling and more. I recommend it to anyone who enjoys a well written novel with a fast pace and depth of story that will entertain and engage.      

Miss Graham’s Cold War Cookbook by Celia Rees – in the aftermath of war, food is the code

 

 

After the Second World War finished, the state of much of mainland Europe was still confused. Refugees or “displaced persons” moved across borders of former countries, Germany was divided into zones between the victorious forces, but squabbles about a new world order were dominating any attempt to rebuild cities. Into this world arrives Edith Graham who has spent the war teaching at a girls’ school, but now wants to do her bit in sorting out schools in the British zone. That would be a sufficient challenge, but her friends want to give her different missions, mainly in terms of discovering those convinced Nazis who are hiding in the ruins of a society. She has her own agenda, looking for her ex lover. While she is given official unofficial contacts, in order to transmit information to a friend she comes up with an unusual idea: a code based on a specific cookery book, hidden in innocent seeming recipes. The book brilliantly describes her feelings on arriving in Germany, her shock at the state of the buildings and plight of the people, and her confusion at who she can truly trust. This is an excellent testament to the spirit of those who wanted to help rebuild a world, but also a strong examination of some of the urge to punish those who did such appalling things in the name of a terrifying ideology and aggressive self interest. I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review such a powerful historical novel of a remarkable time in Germany.

 

Edith is an excellent German speaker who is resentful of her war experience limited to teaching girls and caring for her widowed mother. When she gets the opportunity to go to Germany with the education corp, she is keen to go, if only for a belated chance to make a difference. However, it seems that she is required to do more, to discover the fate of some who disappeared, whether friends or enemies. Not that any of it is straightforward, as she is aware some of those placing these demands have their own agendas. Having begun a second career writing recipes and cooking hints under an assumed name, she decides to use her keen observation of food to convey secrets, impressions and information to a friend, Dori, in letters that may well be censored.  Her arrival in the British zone shows her the inequalities of the British who have too much food, power and influence, in contrast to the surviving victims of a war that has displaced huge numbers of people who struggle to find shelter and scraps of food. Her compassion for others, especially the children, reveals that so many have their own story of terrible suffering, and she tries to change some situations. She discovers secrets, dangers, physical attraction, threats and so much more in cities forever transformed by recent events. She finds friends, allies and suspicious individuals, and it is so difficult to work out who, if anyone she can trust. Meanwhile, she comments on the food, the menus, the terrible and fascinating fare presented to her and others in a place of famine and plenty. 

 

This is an elegantly written book of harsh realities but also genuine understanding of people in extreme circumstances. It conveys a terrific sense of place, of cold, of the ruins in which people scrape a living almost alongside those who live and work in enormous buildings. Rees is so skilled at drawing out characters in extremes of cruelty, passion and other emotions that it is a fascinating book, even with its touching testimonies of outrages. She creates images of such powerful scenes that are haunting and memorable. I recommend this book to all those who are interested in the aftermath of war, the experience of people left to cope, and the physical and mental scars of terrible events. By focusing on Edith, the reader is given a real insight into the nearly impossible to describe situation through the eyes of a sympathetic woman.  

 

I really enjoyed this book, if only because it shows such a human response to terrible situations. Compared with some of the books I read and review on this blog, it is a tough read, but so powerful.

Miss Seeton’s Finest Hour by Hamilton Crane – a story of 1940 and a prequel to a series

Miss Seeton's Finest Hour (Miss Seeton, #0) by Hamilton Crane

Miss Seeton’s Finest Hour – Hamilton Crane

 

Miss Seeton is apparently something of a literary celebrity to those in the know – books about her cosy cases have apparently been appearing since 1968. She appears in most of the books as an older woman who helps in the detection of crime with her imaginative pictures. This book is called a “Prequel”, set in 1940, right at the beginning of the career of Emily Dorothea Seeton, teacher of art and organiser of children in London. Not having read the books set later in the twentieth century, I imagine that this book sets up some of the things that will run throughout the later books, if only the concept of Miss Seeton’s sketches being more than just pictures of reality. In this book she is a young woman of twenty nine, very attached to her widowed mother, living in Hampstead and volunteering for the war effort. She is involved in providing refreshments at London railway stations and more importantly, organising groups of children who are not evacuated to the countryside. 

 

This is the period of the Second World War when a lot was feared by way of bombs, gas and crucially invasion. People expected an invasion attempt at any moment, having seen the way other countries had collapsed before the German forces. People at all levels were desperate to work out what they could do in the case of invasion. They were nervous of fifth columnists, those who may betray defence secrets to the enemy, and were told that “Careless talk costs lives”. It is into this unsettled time that someone found sketches by Miss Seeton which seem more than mere records of the sights of London, that even seem to have suggestions of what was going to happen over the next few days. A secret government department gets involved and she is summoned to the Tower of London. Her conversation with Major Haynes means a change in her life, and she leaves for an assignment in an aircraft factory. At this point the action gets more dramatic,as she encounters a local doctor, a talkative landlady and some of the young women who have been working in the factory. It is when she gets to the secure establishment and meets Mrs Morris that the real challenges begin. 

 

This is a well written novel of wartime mystery and action. There are a lot of the stock phrases of wartime, such as “Don’t you know there’s a war on”.  It is full of the small facts of wartime life, the amount of butter allowed, the problems of making journeys in the blackout, the difficulties of conversation with strangers. Miss Seeton is a carefully described character, how she feels about leaving her mother, how her father’s legacy as a brave soldier encourages when she is nervous. Even the minor characters are carefully described, sometimes with humour and always with care. When it comes to issues of trust in the face of accusations, it was fascinating trying to pick up the clues, and seeing if Miss Seeton was able to do the same. This is a book which really conveys a sense of the time and place, the speech patterns, the language, the little hints of what life was like. Although this particular book is different from others in the series, I would be really keen to read the books in the main series. I recommend this book as a well written story of the early part of the war, and an introduction to a unique character.  

 

I found this book in a bookshop in Spalding, Lincolnshire, which had an excellent and unusual selection of books ( and a discount on the day I visited). I found some really interesting books there, and as it was the first day of holiday I had some money left. Apparently it was called “Bookmark”, and I can thoroughly recommend it ( and the cafe inside the building)

Killing Beauties by Pete Langman – she-spies in Cromwell’s London – dangerous streets and people

 

Spies are fascinating, and spies in an historical period unburdened by difficult hi tech are even more involving. In this book the fact that the spies are very much women adds to its attraction, as both Susan and Diana spend the first part of the book using their unique talents to fool those around them. This book is set in the time of Oliver Cromwell’s ascendancy, in 1655. King Charles I is dead, executed by Cromwell and others who believed that it was the only way to end a series of battles, civil wars that had divided the not only the country but also families and friends. This is a book about a brutal time, when Charles who would be in time acknowledged as king Charles II lives in France, partly at the charity of the French king. Susan and others are maintaining not only the hope that this young man will return to his dangerous kingdom, but also making it possible that his supporters who will welcome him survive and thrive. In a state where a security system is being established, where casual brutality is accepted on the streets of London, where women are not valued for their intelligence or abilities, Susan must survive and act. This is an exciting novel, full of telling detail and vivid descriptions of a dirty and disturbing London, and very memorable characters. I was so pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this excellent and exciting book.

 

This book begins with a powerful man in Cromwell’s service. John Thurloe is busy with a suspect, torturing him while receiving intelligence of the planned arrival of two further agents of the king’s cause. As Cromwell establishes himself as the effective ruler of the kingdom, two women come together in an inn  and receive their orders from Susan Hyde’s brother, the influential Edward Hyde, chief advisor to Charles Stuart in exile. The women, especially Susan, realise that the letter in its intricate packaging contains orders that not only put them at incredible risk, but will also challenge their abilities and reputations.  It is soon obvious that Susan is a woman of quick thinking and resource, as they pull off an impressive stunt which makes them “disappear”. There is a certain grim humour that runs throughout the book, as the women carry out small plots and actions that mislead and confuse the men around them. As Susan now has to plan a campaign that will involve a long term deception on a chief official, she obtains supplies and information that will give her access to the trust of her target. The men who work for Thurloe discover the benefits and challenges of pushing the edge of espionage and gathering knowledge of the supporters of exiled Charles. 

 

This is a sometimes shocking, sometimes surprising and always entertaining book. Susan trades on the fact that many women, lower class and working in the inns and back streets of London, were basically invisible and often fair game for men with a small amount of power and or money. Adopting one of the few roles that allowed women to move around London without suspicion, that of healer and midwife, she manages to gain access to men and places. There is a really special impact to this book, full of evident research which does not overwhelm the fiction, giving insight into the life of the most ordinary of people, whether apprentice, female innkeeper or others. This book is a superb picture of a troubled time in Britain’s history, whether spymaster or nearly invisible woman. Exciting, entertaining and always enjoyable, this is a novel which lifts history off the page, and is historical fiction at its best.